W. Kendrick Pritchett, distinguished historian and epigraphist, passes away

May 30, 2007

William Kendrick Pritchett, Emeritus Professor of Greek in the University of California, Berkeley, died quietly in his Berkeley home after a fall on May 29, 2007. He was 98 and one of the oldest living retired members of the faculty. During his tenure as Professor of Greek in the Department of Classics and continuing well on into his retirement, Pritchett built an impressive international reputation as one of the most prolific and innovative scholars in his field. He was the author of more than thirty books and over one hundred articles on a wide range of topics including ancient Greek grammar and syntax, literature and historiography, topography and the arts of war, religion and political institutions, chronography and the study of inscriptions carved on marble. He was also a revered teacher at all levels of instruction. Remarkably, in view of his senior status, he insisted on continuing to teach Elementary Greek to beginning students as often as he could. In recognition of his devotion to teaching at this level, the Department of Classics established the Pritchett Prize in Greek, awarded annually to the most promising student completing Elementary Greek.

Pritchett was born in Atlanta, Georgia on April 14, 1909 and retained his Southern manners and accent for the rest of his life. He attended a public high school in Atlanta—“four years of Latin and three of Greek”—where his closest friend was Dean Rusk, who was later to become Secretary of State. He graduated with the A.B. from Davidson College in 1929 and an A.M. from Duke University in 1930 before entering The Johns Hopkins University where he was awarded the Ph.D. in 1942. His Ph.D. thesis, The Five Attic Tribes after Kleisthenes, was published in Baltimore in 1943. From 1936 to 1942 he held a research post in the School of Historical Studies of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton as assistant to the distinguished Greek epigraphist Benjamin D. Meritt, with whom he collaborated in publishing his first book, The Chronology of Hellenistic Athens (Cambridge, MA 1940). It was at this time also that Pritchett began to publish several recently discovered Greek inscriptions from the excavations of the American School of Classical Studies in the Athenian Agora and to make his mark as a first-rate epigraphist.

Soon after Pearl Harbor, after being rejected by the Marines because he was too small, Pritchett enlisted in the Army Air Force, where he served with distinction from 1942 to 1945, rising from private to the rank of Captain. He was stationed first in the South Pacific and later in Germany, where he participated in the collection and presentation of evidence for the Nuremberg Trials of the Nazi war-criminals. As a future expert on ancient Greek warfare, Pritchett often echoed Edward Gibbon’s wry observation that his service as “ the Captain of the Hampshire Grenediers…has not been useless to the historian of the Roman empire.”

He passed up a promising career in the military to return, after the Second World War, to the Institute in Princeton for one more year, 1947, before taking up a teaching post at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania. In 1948 Pritchett accepted an appointment as Associate Professor of Greek in the Berkeley Classics Department, where he remained for the rest of his career, holding the rank of Full Professor from 1954 until his retirement in 1976. He was twice Annual Professor at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens and served on its Managing Committee 1960-1976. Pritchett held a Fulbright Research Fellowship to Greece in 1951/2 and was awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1951 and 1955. Upon his retirement he received The Berkeley Citation, the highest award the campus grants to one of its own members. He was an Honorary Member of the Royal Irish Academy and a Corresponding Fellow of both the German Archaeological Institute and the British Academy. His alma mater, Davidson College, awarded him an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters in 1987  and instituted a student W. Kendrick Pritchett Prize. Duke University recently established a similar prize in his honor.

Pritchett served as Chairman of the Classics Department in the formative years 1966 to 1970, years considered especially formative for the department’s modern shape and distinction. He set high personal standards for the combination of teaching and research, while fostering a spirit of collegiality and building a team of devoted younger scholars, rather than attempting to bring in academic “stars” from outside. Among his lasting contributions at this time were the foundation of the Graduate Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology in 1968, which has won international recognition as the premier interdisciplinary program of graduate study in the field, while still maintaining rigorous requirements in at least two ancient languages. With his friend, August Frugé, Director of the University of California Press, he was the moving force in establishing the periodical California Studies in Classical Antiquity, which has now grown into the semiannual journal Classical Antiquity. It was also under Pritchett’s chairmanship that the officials of the Main Library on the Berkeley campus recognized the eminence of the Classics Department by expanding and upgrading its facilities into a world-class research and teaching unit within the Library.

Through his numerous publications and innovative approaches, Pritchett became one of the most highly regarded authorities in the fields of Greek topography, military science and practice, and the intricacies of the Athenian calendar and time-reckoning. His Studies in Ancient Greek Topography in eight parts (1965-1992), the fruit of numerous trips to Greece and intense field-work, set new standards for thoroughness and accuracy, leading often to the confirmation of the veracity of historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Polybios, in the face of attacks on their reliability from armchair pundits. Many of these excursions in Greece were in the company of Eugene Vanderpool and, later, John Camp, current Director of the Agora Excavations. To visit an ancient battlefield or site with Pritchett was like being accompanied by a library, for he had mastered in advance the texts of all the ancient authors, the accounts of the travelers of the eighteenth and nineteenth century, and all contemporary scholarship. The emphasis fell on making new discoveries.

Pritchett’s magisterial The Greek State at War, 5 volumes (Berkeley 1971-1991) explores all aspects of military engagement including battle strategy and tactics, provisioning, soldiers’ pay, pre- and post-battle religious observances, the distribution of booty and a host of other topics. In addition to becoming the classic work of reference in its field, this book, in the words, of Moses Finley, then Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge, “amounts to a reexamination of the Greek city-state of the fourth century B.C. with a shattering critique of several received views.” In 1976 the second volume of this great work received the Charles J. Goodwin Award of Merit of the American Philological Association.

Kendrick Pritchett was a combative scholar who flourished in the rough and tumble of scholarly debate. While still at Princeton, before he was forty, he published Calendars of Athens (Cambridge, MA 1947) with Otto Neugebauer, a leading historian of ancient science at Brown University. Renouncing published views he earlier shared with his mentor and collaborator, B. D. Meritt, Pritchett mounted a spirited defence of  a lunar-observed calendar in ancient Athens and of the organization of the year of the Council of Five Hundred  as described by Aristotle in his Constitution of the Athenians. Meritt adopted a more flexible constitutional system and relied more heavily on the evidence for the calendar in Athenian inscriptions. Hence was born  a long and often bitter controversy between the two leading scholars in America on Attic time-reckoning and inscriptions. It was to continue until Meritt’s death in 1989. Discussion of the details of the Athenian calendar became in their hands so abstruse that for decades few other scholars have ventured into the jungle. This episode in the study of ancient Athens awaits its impartial historian.

Among his many contributions to the field of Greek inscriptions, in which he broke new ground by involving geologists and pioneering novel methods, is his meticulous investigation and publication of a series of at least ten marble slabs carrying the record of a public auction of the confiscated properties of Alcibiades and his associates, convicted of treason in Athens in 414 B.C. Preserved are minute details about their slaves, land, furniture, even their pottery, all listed separately with the sales tax added: The Attic Stelai in Hesperia (1953-1961).

Upon his retirement in 1976, Pritchett embarked on a virtual second career. Free of teaching and administrative duties, he devoted himself almost exclusively to research and publication, maintaining a rigorous daily schedule of five hours of study in the early morning, followed by a hike on the steep trails of nearby Tilden Park, and then five more hours in the late afternoon and evening. He followed this regimen seven days a week, including all holidays, for almost three decades. Pritchett continued to drive to campus twice daily until well into his nineties. The Classics seminar room in the Main Library where he worked has been named in his honor. 

To celebrate his 90th birthday the Classics Department and the Ancient History Group sponsored a symposium, Genethlia, on May 1, 1999 in Berkeley attended by many of Pritchett’s former students and friends. His contributions to the Group are also memorialized by an annual Pritchett Lecture at Berkeley and by the Pritchett graduate fellowship.

As a connoisseur of fine wines, Pritchett amassed an impressive cellar in his Berkeley home and was often called in for special tasting by wine-merchants in Berkeley and San Francisco.

Pritchett was married in 1942 to Elizabeth Dow, who died in 2000. She was the sister of the distinguished Harvard historian and epigraphist, Sterling Dow. They had one daughter, Katherine, who died at a tragically early age. Pritchett is survived by his two  grandchildren, Elizabeth Seavey Grajeda and Timothy Seavey.

A campus memorial event will take place Sunday, September 30, at 2 pm in Alumni House.

(compiled by Ronald S. Stroud)