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Additional Tributes to Mort Chambers

Statement from Mark Lawall, Chair of the Managing Committee of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

Dear Colleagues,

The world of Ancient History lost a true giant on December 14, 2020 with the death of Mortimer Chambers. His career took him from Saginaw, Michigan to Harvard (A.B. 1947-49), to Oxford (1949-1952 as a Rhodes Scholar), back to Harvard for his PhD in 1954, and then on to teaching posts at Harvard, Chicago, and then UCLA. He also taught at the University of British Columbia, SUNY Buffalo, Freiburg, and Vassar. The American School of Classical Studies was most fortunate to host him as a Visiting Professor in 1979-1980 when he taught a seminar on the Athenian Constitution. He served as a UCLA representative to the Managing Committee from 1975 on. Although he was never a student at the School, his connection to people who would become part of the School community can be traced back to the late 1940s when he and Alan Boegehold were both stationed in Ann Arbor thanks to an Army program to study engineering. 

His scholarship included works of great breadth (The Western Experience); fundamental studies, translations and commentaries on the major works of ancient history (Thucydides, Athenaion Politeia, Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, Polybius, among others); and the most devilish detail: the letter phi on the Athens-Egesta decree. The decree, with its frequent use of three-bar sigmas and the presumed archon’s name of Habron, was dated to 458/7 BC. But as part of Harold Mattingly’s grand campaign to down-date decrees from the Athenian Empire, an alternate reading of the Antiphon (418/17) was proposed. Chambers, Gallucci and Spanos published “laser-generated photographs” to prove the existence of the phi and hence Antiphon. Greek epigraphy had a ‘great debate’, and even non-specialists sat up and took notice. He was also a dedicated historian of historians with studies of Georg Busolt, Felix Jacoby, Edward Gibbon and many others.

As a teacher, his lectures combined great clarity with vivid action and humor. He may well hold the record for tallest student taught by a member of the Managing Committee: Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul Jabbar), who went on to be an influential author in his own right.

Mortimer Chambers spoke at the memorial service for Alan Boegehold in 2016 and closed by noting that their decades’ long friendship experienced “…never a cross word”. The observation speaks volumes about both wonderful men.

To his wife Catherine, his colleagues at UCLA and across the world, and the thousands of students who probably still smile at the memory of his lectures, I offer deepest sympathies.

Most sincerely,


Message from Robert Perry

Ron Mellor’s obituary of my brother-in-law Mort is both sympathetic and true. Although no classicist, I was privileged to be at the “Mortfest”, where Professor Ernst Badian (no less) described Mort as “the greatest Western scholar of the 5th century BC”. As a scientist, I was riveted by the unfolding of Mort’s game-changing work on the three-barred sigma. As a person, I was lucky enough to enjoy his company and some outstanding wines from his cellar.


Message from Darel Tai Engen

Mort Chambers was my teacher, mentor, and friend. I had the privilege of taking his undergraduate courses on ancient Greek history at UCLA and then also to have him as my doctoral advisor. With infinite patience and unwavering support he guided me through to my PhD and prepared me well to undertake my own career as a university professor. Mort inspired countless students like me through the high standards he set for his own work as a scholar and through his incredible enthusiasm as a teacher. I had no intention of becoming a professor of ancient Greek history when I first took his undergraduate course—I wasn’t even a history major—but he got me hooked, and I owe my career and the fulfillment it has given me to him. As he used to say, “find a job you like, and you’ll never have to work a day in your life.” It’s because of Mort that I did find a job I like, and it really doesn’t feel like work most of the time. Beyond having him as a teacher and mentor, however, I was even more privileged to have Mort as a friend. I got to know him and his wonderful wife Catherine well through five years of working together on a UCLA Summer Sessions study-abroad course in Greece. Long conversations on bus rides and cruise ships and over lunches and dinners as we traveled through Greece revealed to me what a thoughtful, interesting, and fundamentally decent person Mort was. His wide-ranging interests, desire for knowledge, and commitment to do good in the world made him well suited for his career in academia. He used to say that to be a university professor was to live in the “world of ideas” and that his job was a “fountain of youth,” and I know that Mort would have taught forever if he could have. My best memory of Mort is when we were doing the Greece program together and he was around 73 years old. We were in Athens, and it was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit the day we were taking the students on a tour of the Acropolis. As Mort was leading the way up the hill, the students and I (who was 37 at the time) were lagging behind, weighed down by the oppressive heat. Mort looked back and called out, “You’re young—you can do this!” and continued marching up the hill. Inspired by his example (and a little ashamed of ourselves) we summoned the energy to make our way up to the top and were rewarded with the unforgettable experience of standing before the Parthenon in all its glory. That was Mort, and so many people’s lives were enriched by having known him.


Message from Eric Bates

Occasionally I look up what my favorite professor, Dr. Mortimer Chambers, is up to and was saddened to find out today that he passed away. Dr. Chambers is the reason that I decided to declare History as my major. He truly was an incredible human being. Years after I attended U.C.L.A., I got in touch with him to see how he was doing and to thank him for his brilliance and ability to make the subject matter come alive and ultimately convince me that studying History was the path that I should take in pursuing my degree. Dr. Chambers was classic Dr. Chambers- he replied with something along the lines that he was merely putting wind in my sail toward my studies of the subject matter of History. Dr. Chambers was truly an incredible human being and I will always be grateful for his showing me that the subject matter of history was something that I should pursue, major in, and ultimately receive my Bachelor's degree in. I just wanted to say all of that to someone in the history department as a way of saying thank you to all of you that make the subject matter come alive as Dr. Chambers did.