Dr. Angeliki E. Laiou; Harvard professor was scholar of Byzantine empire; at 67

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / December 21, 2008
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With formidable intelligence and European elegance, Angeliki E. Laiou commanded attention simply by arriving to teach a class.

"She'd walk into a room and instantly fill it with her presence," said Rowan Dorin, a doctoral student in history at Harvard University who also studied with Dr. Laiou as an undergraduate.

"She'd walk into an enormous lecture hall at Harvard and everybody instantly knew she was there, and she would start casting her spells."

A renowned scholar of the history of the Byzantine empire, her reach extended far beyond classrooms in Cambridge to her native Greece, where she served in the parliament for two years at the beginning of this decade while on leave from Harvard and also was deputy secretary of foreign affairs.

Dr. Laiou, who edited and wrote eight chapters of "Economic History of Byzantium," a comprehensive work published in 2002, died Dec. 11 in Massachusetts General Hospital of anaplastic carcinoma of the thyroid. She was 67 and lived in Cambridge.

"There's no question that the peak of her career was the extraordinary three volumes on Byzantium's economic history," said Michael McCormick, a Harvard colleague who is the Goelet professor of medieval history.

"It's just going to be the benchmark of all future work," he said of "Economic History of Byzantium," which can be viewed online at

Blazing trails not only with her scholarship, Dr. Laiou was for a time the only senior, tenured member of Harvard's history department, which she joined in 1981.

"She was the first woman to be chairman of the department, and she was particularly proud of that," said John Womack, a history professor whose office was next to Dr. Laiou's.

"And she wanted to be called chairman. Somebody once wondered if she wanted to be called chairwoman or chair, and she said, 'No, the name of the office is chairman.' "

McCormick noted that there was "a whole series of new departures" in Dr. Laiou's work. She did demographic studies of peasant households in the late Byzantine empire, which "led her to the topics that she will be forever remembered for: sex, marriage, and the status of women in Byzantine society, and the results of her studies were pioneering," McCormick said.

Such work required mastery of ancient Medieval languages, and while her writing included 14 monographs and edited books, and scores of published articles, Dr. Laiou also developed a deeply loyal following among students.

"She dedicated hours to the training of her students, quite literally sitting next to us during quiet afternoons in her office, reading and analyzing history, word by word, and discussing historical processes and their implications for problems of the present," said Alexander Medico More, one of Dr. Laiou's doctoral students.

Ece Turnator, another of her students, wrote in an e-mail that "the depth of her knowledge, her mentorship, and her wisdom are . . . extremely rare and unique. All of her students whom I know, and of course myself, are ever grateful to Professor Laiou and consider ourselves lucky for having had the chance to work with her."

Born in Athens, Dr. Laiou began her studies at the University of Athens before moving to the United States and attending Brandeis University, from which she graduated with a bachelor's degree in 1961. She received her doctorate at Harvard five years later.

Dr. Laiou taught briefly at the University of Louisiana in New Orleans, then returned to Harvard as an instructor and assistant professor before switching to Brandeis, where she was a distinguished professor. In 1981, Dr. Laiou went back to stay at Harvard, where she was the Dumbarton Oaks professor of Byzantine history.

"What I always admired about her is that she had a piercing intellectual curiosity," said her son, Vassili Thomadakis of Cambridge. "She could grasp concepts in various fields that were not of her expertise and be both intellectually curious and cut to the heart of the matter immediately."

Nevertheless, he added, "there was a bit of a dichotomy with her. She had an imposing presence and serious demeanor, but on the other side of that, it always amazed me how children and dogs were always attracted to her. There was something in her that was so warm."

Dr. Laiou, friends say, was the kind of person who would discreetly go out of her way regularly to visit a hospitalized building superintendent, even though she professed a discomfort with being in medical facilities.

Her academic associations, meanwhile, were nearly as extensive as her list of publications, and included being a fellow of the Medieval Academy of America and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Dr. Laiou also was a member of Academia Europea and the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In 1998, she was the second woman to be named a permanent member of the Academy of Athens since the organization was founded in 1926, and she also was decorated as a commander of the order of honor of the Hellenic Republic in Greece.

"As an adviser, she was especially good at crystallizing your ideas into clear arguments," More said. "As a person, she had a rare appreciation of beauty and art and culture and nature. It certainly showed in her impeccable taste and unmatched elegance that everybody who knew her and saw her, even just once, would immediately notice."

Said Dorin: "She was effortlessly witty, staggeringly so. I read through all the e-mails she sent me, and they just sparkle with her wit. She was impossibly urbane. Academics are not really known for their glamour and style, and she was a force of nature in that regard. She would sweeten a room."

Dorin added that he accompanied Dr. Laiou to Venice two summers ago, "and she would give these three-hour lectures with almost no notes. At the end, everyone was exhausted, but still riveted. She had a ferociously magnetic presence."

Dr. Laiou's marriage to Stavros Thomadakis ended in divorce. Her son, Vassili, said a memorial service will be announced.

"I'm feeling a void at the moment because it's such a sad and unexpected loss, and a hole we will never be able to fill," More said.

"I feel that the sum of the world amounts to less because she is not around. It's not often you can say that when someone passes away."

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