Segal, who came to Harvard in 1990 and held the Klein professorship of the classics, taught an undergraduate survey of Greek literature, as well as upper-level and graduate seminars on Homer and Virgil.
Segal specialized in Greek tragedy, especially the plays of Sophocles, but he also studied the mythological works of Ovid, the epics of Virgil and Greek lyric and pastoral poetry. He maintained interests in both Greek and Latin texts and kept up active scholarship in both fields.
“It is a life’s work to achieve mastery of either one of them,” said Gregory Nagy, Jones professor of classical Greek literature and a longtime colleague of Segal’s. “He did both.”
Born in Boston on March 19, 1936, Segal was raised in Dorchester and attended the Boston Latin School, where he received a thorough, traditional education in the Greek and Latin classics. In his day, many students from Boston Latin came to Harvard with anextensive classical background, although, like many of them, Segal wasn’t decided on the classics as his field of study. But his college years developed Segal’s interest in ancient literature.
“He was very learned, very bright, he seemed intellectually old age for his age,” said Zeph Stewart, now Mellon professor of humanities emeritus, who was one of the readers for Segal’s senior thesis. “He was very serious, more seriously interested in academic work than most people.”
Stewart remembered once running across Segal in Harvard Square and asking casually how things were going.
With a very serious expression, Segal responded that he had just solved a “crux” in Thucydides, meaning a textual problem that had baffled generations of scholars.
“All I could say was, that’s wonderful,” Stewart recalled. “It’s so funny because he was this little boy taking one of the problems that had been [around] for centuries, and he said he solved it. I never did find out what it was.”
He graduated from the College summa cum laude in Classics in 1957 having received a half-dozen prizes in Greek and Latin and having been inducted into the Phi Beta Kappa society. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard four years later.
Segal taught at the University of Pennsylvania, then at Brown University for 18 years and briefly at Princeton University before returning to Harvard in 1990.
He spent many years studying in Europe, including early education at the American School of Classical Study in Athens and two years at the American Academy in Rome. His years abroad instilled in Segal a love for the land and people of Greece and Italy and led him to develop close ties with many European colleagues, said his wife, Nancy Jones.
“It wasn’t just book knowledge,” she said. “He knew these countries.”
Segal often adopted methods of literary criticism that were widely used in English departments but not yet practiced by classics scholars. In particular, Segal welcomed the “new criticism” of the 1940s and 1950s that read literature outside of its historical context, as well as later “structuralist” interpretations that stressed how authors developed their own internal structures within pieces of literature.
Segal was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1992 and served as president of the American Philological Association, the national society of classical scholars, in 1994. When the Philological Association gathered for its annual meeting last week, the group’s president began his opening address with a eulogy for Segal.
Last spring, after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the Classics department honored Segal and read from his work at a bittersweet 65th birthday party which Segal attended.
A campus memorial service is planned for the coming weeks.
Segal is survived by his wife, Nancy Jones, and their daughter, Cora, as well as two sons by a previous marriage, Joshua and Thaddeus, and two grandsons.