Ernst Badian, 85, noted scholar on ancient Rome

By Gloria Negri
Globe Staff / May 23, 2011

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The two future history scholars met as boys at school in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 1940. It would become a lifelong friendship between Ernst Badian, an Austrian refugee from Nazi Germany’s roundup of Jews, and New Zealander Edwin Judge.

“I first met Ernst at the Boys High School when I was 12,’’ Judge, emeritus professor of history at Macquarie University in Australia, said in a phone interview from Sydney. “Ernst already seemed a dangerous figure, since it was alleged he knew more than our teachers. Once, I held back when getting off the tram to school to avoid the risk of contact. But he stopped and offered me a sweet.’’

Dr. Badian never changed, colleagues said. He could be intimidating when judging the work of others but was very generous with his time and help.

“People whom he didn’t even know could send him their articles with the polite request for criticism, and normally they would receive two or three pages of detailed observations in return,’’ said Mortimer Chambers, an emeritus professor at UCLA.

Dr. Badian, who taught history at Harvard for 27 years, died Feb. 1 at Tufts University Medical Center from injuries sustained in a fall the day before at his longtime Quincy home, said his wife, Nathlie. He was 85.

Dr. Badian taught at Harvard from 1971 until retiring in 1998. His wife said he had continued to work professionally, reviewing for the New York Review of Books and working on a book about Alexander the Great.

Accolades, honorary doctorates, and other awards were many and his books and articles were well received. “Ernst was the greatest Roman historian of the second half of the 20th century,’’ Judge said.

“Beyond any doubt, Ernst was the leading ancient historian of our generation,’’ Chambers said. “He cared immensely about his students, and they cared about him.’’

Alexander the Great of Macedon, the celebrated warrior born in 356 BC, did not escape Dr. Badian’s sharp eye. “Ernst was the first person to show that Alexander was not all that really great as he was idolized,’’ Judge said.

In a study first presented in New Zealand in 1961, “Ernst addressed ‘Alexander and the loneliness of power.’ He called him a ‘perfect illustration of the man who conquered the world, only to lose his soul. He found himself at last on a lonely pinnacle over an abyss, with no use for his power, and security unattainable.’ He believed that Alexander’s genius was such that he ended an epoch and began another — but one of unceasing war and misery,’’ Judge said.

In 1999, the Austrian ambassador to the United States awarded Dr. Badian the country’s Cross of Honor for Science and Art.

Recently, Judith P. Hallett, professor of classics at the University of Maryland, presented a lecture in his memory in his native Vienna. “We should also celebrate how he leavened his life of prodigious intellectual labor with a finely honed and unique sense of humor, sense of beauty, and, above all, sense of play,’’ Hallett said.

At Harvard, Dr. Badian’s students never forgot him, though some once may have sought his opinion of their work with trepidation.

Alfonso Moreno, a classics professor at Oxford University in England, was among Dr. Badian’s students from 1993 to 1995 and wrote a thesis under him that developed into a book.

“He was without a doubt the world’s expert on Alexander the Great, as well as having a transformative influence on Roman history through his work on imperialism, prosopography, and clientelae,’’ Moreno e-mailed. “I think many would rank him as one of the top five most important and influential ancient historians of the 20th century.’’

Echoing others, Moreno described Dr. Badian as “notoriously exacting and intellectually terrifying to many of his colleagues and graduate students’’ while “extremely fond of, and kind to, the young, including children and undergraduates.’’

Dr. Badian was born in Vienna of Jewish heritage. During the Nazi occupation, his father was sent to Dachau, Judge said, adding: “In Christchurch, the emigre philosopher Karl Popper nominated his father for a migration visa. By 1939, the whole family was settled in New Zealand.’’

Dr. Badian went on to what was then Canterbury College, University of New Zealand in Christchurch, where he received his bachelor’s degree with first-class honors in 1945 and his master’s degree the following year, both in Latin and French.

In 1948, Dr. Badian taught classics for a year at Victoria College in Wellington, New Zealand, where he later received a doctorate in literature.

With a scholarship, he moved to University College at Oxford University in England, where he received another bachelor’s degree with first-class honors and the Chancellor’s Prize in Latin Prose, and a master’s degree the following year.

While at Canterbury, he met Nathlie, a student of the classics. They married in 1950.

The couple spent the next two years in Rome, where he studied the classics at the British School and quickly learned Italian, his wife said.

He earned his doctor of philosophy degree from Oxford in 1956. “His doctoral dissertation formed the basis of his first book,’’ according to the Harvard Gazette, and it remains his magnum opus. The 1958 book “Foreign Clientelae,’’ a “fundamental study of Roman imperialism in a period of crucial growth and transformation, is still an unreplaced classic,’’ the Gazette said.

Dr. Badian loved Oxford, and friends said he visited often, doing important work, walking long distances, and bird-watching. His love for birds was lifelong. Six parrots at his home seem to be awaiting his return, his wife said.

Harvard classics professor Kathleen Coleman first met Dr. Badian when she was an undergraduate at University of Cape Town in South Africa in 1973 and he came to lecture. “Ernst and Nathlie were interested in everything, and in all of us,’’ she recalled. “He was a superb Latinist,’’ she said, “with a historian’s prodigious memory.’’

In the 1970s, when he was researching Alexander the Great, Dr. Badian retraced Alexander’s footsteps in Iran. On a second trip through Iran and Afghanistan, his daughter, Rosemary, of Tucson, accompanied him.

Both Rosemary and her brother Hugh, of Baltimore, recalled how their father urged them to attend MIT, and they fulfilled his wish. “He taught us there was a lot to be learned from history,’’ Hugh said. He recalled meeting up in Greece with his father, who was fluent in French, German, and Italian.

In addition to his wife, son, and daughter, Dr. Badian leaves seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Judge came to Boston to attend a service for his boyhood friend at the end of March.

“There was never, in all of Ernst’s life, any resentment about what had happened to him’’ as a child in Austria, Judge said.

Judge long remembered feeling intimidated by his friend’s brilliance. When he learned from Nathlie Badian “after all these years’’ how deeply her husband had cared for his friends and that he had a photo of him and his late wife on the wall, Judge said, “I felt liberated.’’

Gloria Negri can be reached at