Prof. Emeritus Walter Kaegi visited every province that had constituted the Roman Empire. He spoke Arabic, Armenian, French, German, Greek and Latin, and had a reading knowledge of several Slavic languages. He was the author, co-author or editor of about 30 books, and wrote more than 100 articles on a wide range of topics.
Kaegi died Feb. 24 at the age of 84. A teacher and mentor for three generations of historians, the University of Chicago scholar is remembered as a great collector of knowledge and perhaps an even greater distributor of what he knew.
“My most prominent memories of him will always be as a mentor, a guide and a raconteur,” said his former student Ari Bryen, AM’03, PhD’08, now an associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University.
As a historian at the University of Chicago and Oriental Institute, Kaegi was noted for his scholarship on the Byzantine and Roman Empires, along with early Islam. Over half a century, his work notably integrated a wide variety of sources, and referenced various cultural and scholarly specializations.
He drew on insights from military, religious, visual arts, numismatic, and other cultural perspectives. Kaegi was known not only for his voracious exploration of scholarly concepts, but of the world itself.
“Possibly exaggerated rumors that Walter worked for the CIA were only fanned by the numerous chance encounters that colleagues and students reported with him at various locations around the globe,” said Jonathan M. Hall, a professor in the Departments of History and Classics. “Mine was—if I remember correctly—at Schiphol Airport, Amsterdam, when my frantic dash from one part of the terminal to the other was stopped dead in its tracks when I heard a familiar, ‘Hello, colleague,’ from behind me.”
Kaegi was born in New Albany, Indiana, and spent most of his childhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was drawn to history at an early age and even invented historical games with his grade-school friend Hunter S. Thompson, who later gained fame as a gonzo journalist. As boys, the two self-published a newspaper, The Southern Star, and shared correspondence about military history into adulthood.
Kaegi knew that he wanted to be a historian and decided—by the end of high school—that he would focus on the Byzantine Empire. He received his undergraduate degree from Haverford College and his Ph.D. from Harvard University.
Kaegi joined UChicago’s history faculty in 1965, teaching at the school for 52 years before retiring in 2017. Through his stewardship, UChicago came to be regarded as a leading center for research and instruction in the late- and post-antique Mediterranean and Near East.
A military historian of the early Byzantine world, Kaegi’s early career focused on the Byzantine and Roman Empires, and how they coped with decline. He learned Arabic in his early 40s, leading him to gain new insights from Arabic language sources and redirecting his scholarly focus. The latter part of his career settled on the expansion of early Islam, especially into North Africa at the expense of the Byzantine Empire.
Kaegi’s research was distinguished by his detailed knowledge of geography, thanks to his extensive travel to the regions in question. He drew on literary sources as the primary evidence for military action and carefully studied state infrastructure.
Through workshops and other venues, Kaegi helped bring together faculty and graduate students from a variety of disciplines and departments. He was a voting member of the Oriental Institute, and oversaw the renewal of Chicago’s program in ancient history. In 2021, he was even commissioned a Kentucky Colonel by Gov. Andy Beshear.