Walter Emil Kaegi Jr., a University of Chicago and Oriental Institute historian known for his scholarship on the the Byzantine Empire as well as the Ancient Romans and early Islam, died on Feb. 24 of natural causes in Chicago. He was 84.
He was born on Nov. 8, 1937, in New Albany, Indiana, to Walter Sr. and Ruth Kaegi, and spent much of his childhood in Louisville, Kentucky. He was a childhood friend and schoolmate of Hunter S. Thompson, who would go on to become a famous countercultural journalist. The two worked as boys on a self-published newspaper, The Southern Star, and shared a lively correspondence about military history into adulthood.
Kaegi was inventing historical games with Thompson at an early age. By elementary school, he knew he wanted to be a historian, and by the end of high school, he had decided he wanted to focus on the Byzantine Empire. He received a bachelor's degree from Haverford College, outside of Philadelphia, and a doctorate from Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and joined the U. of C. history faculty in 1965.
His early career focused on the Roman and Byzantine empires and how they responded to the early challenges of decline; Dr. Emilio Kouri, chair of the U. of C.’s History Department, called him a “preeminently a military historian” in an appraisal after his death, who “focused on the determination of the eastern Romans to sustain their might against threats in the east … as well as their long desire to recapture Italy.”
After learning Arabic in his early 40s, Kaegi applied new insights from Arabic language sources that led him in a new scholarly direction, and he focused the latter part of his career on the expansion of early Islam, especially into North Africa at the Byzantine Empire’s expense. He and similarly minded scholars said that they were in the “polis-to-madinah” group, concerned with cities’ transition from Greek to Islamic.
Kaegi's academic work is known for integrating a wide range of courses across cultural and scholarly specializations, from military, religious, visual arts, numismatic and other perspectives. Beyond Arabic and English, he could speak Armenian, French, German, Greek and Latin, and he had reading knowledge of several Slavic languages.
He co-authored or edited 28 books, including “Byzantium and the Decline of Rome” (1968) , “Byzantine Military Unrest” (1981), “Army, Society, and Religion in Byzantium” (1982), “Byzantium and the Early Islamic Conquests” (1992), “Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium” (2003), and “Muslim Expansion and Byzantine Collapse in North Africa” (2010), and wrote more than 100 articles spanning a wide range of topics.
“These histories were distinguished by an exceptionally detailed knowledge of geography, to which Walter's travels through nearly the entirety of the late Roman and Byzantine worlds contributed immensely,” Kouri wrote. “These and other monographic studies of warfare and strategy were supported by a remarkable array of detailed studies on the literary sources that furnish the primary evidence for military action, and above all on logistics and supply. This slow, patient labor on the history of state infrastructure was a distinguishing feature of his work, alongside the years of study he devoted to languages, to enable himself to read the major sources of antiquity on every side of imperial conflict.”
He co-founded the Byzantine Studies Conference, edited the journal Byzantinische Forschungen, was president of the U.S. National Committee for Byzantine Studies, was a voting member of the Oriental Institute, 1155 E. 58th St., and taught and mentored three generations of historians. In 2017, the year he retired from the U. of C., his students and fellow scholars collaborated on a book celebrating Kaegi’s work, “Radical Traditionalism: The Influence of Walter Kaegi in Late Antique, Byzantine, and Medieval Studies.”
Kaegi had a longtime relationship with Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks Research Institute, a Byzantine and pre-Columbian research center in Washington, where he had been a fellow in the early 1960s, and several U. of C. students followed him there. His Late Antique and Byzantine workshops brought faculty and graduate students from six U. of C. schools and departments together. Kouri called him “a crucial linchpin between Classics, History, and Near Eastern Studies within the degree-awarding Program in the Ancient Mediterranean World.”
“Under Walter’s guidance and stewardship, the University of Chicago came to be regarded as a significant center for research and instruction in the late- and post-antique Mediterranean and Near East,” he said. “In addition, he oversaw the renewal of Chicago’s program in ancient history and was a regular instructional contributor to the Ancient Mediterranean World core sequence. Beyond these services to the communities of ancient and medieval studies, Walter served as a dedicated and supportive advisor to graduate students working far outside his fields of research, for whom he was an example of rigor but also warm humanity.”
Last year, Gov. Andy Beshear commissioned him a Kentucky colonel.
Kaegi was proud of his aforementioned travel, having visited all of the Roman Empire’s more than 100 provinces, finishing with Benghazi, Libya, during an interval of peace in 2013. He lived for extended periods in every Middle Eastern country west of the Persian Gulf states, with lengthy scholarly stays in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Syria and Tunisia, plus Iraq. He and his family lived in Paris from 1978-79. Late in his career, he developed an interest in China, and he taught at the Fu Jen Catholic University in Taiwan.
Kaegi married his wife, Louise, in 1969; she had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Tunisia, and they met through their shared interest in the Middle East. They lived for two sabbatical years in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. She preceded him in death, as did two brother, Richard and George.
Survivors include a sister, Karen Kaegi Dean, and her husband, Tom, of Indianapolis; two sons, Chris, of Hyde Park, and Fritz, the Cook County assessor, and his wife, Rebecca, of Oak Park; and three grandchildren.
A memorial will be held on March 26 at 10 a.m. at St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church. 5472 S. Kimbark Ave. Arrangements are being handled by Cage Memorial in South Shore, 773-721-8900. A private interment is planned in Louisville.