NORMAN — Jesse Rufus Fears, 67, of Norman, died Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, in Oklahoma City. He was born on March 7, 1945, in Atlanta, Ga., to Emory Binford Fears and Hazel Davis Fears.
Rufus was a historian of ancient Greece and Rome. He earned his BA, summa cum laude, in history and classics at Emory University in 1966, where he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa. He earned his MA and Ph.D in classics at Harvard University, where he wrote a dissertation on the religious aspects of Roman imperial ideology. Published as a book in 1977, his study questioned then-current accounts of Roman history, which focused on material interests and networks of power, by demonstrating the fundamental importance of ideas as a source of political legitimacy. The book marked the beginning of a brilliant career in academic research, which would bring him some of the highest honors academia offers, such as a Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Humboldt Fellowship and an ACLS Fellowship.
His contributions as a scholar lie principally in two areas: First, he revived interest in ideology as a motive force in Roman politics, and second, he explored various conceptions of liberty from a historical perspective. He published numerous books and dozens of articles, including three monographs on Roman ideology in the prestigious Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt. He also edited the writings of Lord Acton, a major figure in 19th century British liberal thought. A gifted communicator in every medium, Rufus was an elegant writer. (In this regard, as in others, he was also an admirer of Winston Churchill.) Rufus’ many interests converged in perhaps his finest scholarly essay, “Roman Liberty: An Essay in Protean Political Metaphor,” which brought to life the meaning of freedom at different moments in Roman history.
Rufus earned tenure in the Department of History at Indiana University in 1975 and became a full professor in 1980. He then joined the faculty in the Department of Classical Studies at Boston University, where he served as chair. In 1990, he came to the University of Oklahoma, where he spent the rest of his career. From 1990-92 he was dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1992, he became the G.T. and Libby Blankenship chair in the History of Liberty and director of the Center for the History of Liberty, in which role he would serve for the rest of his life. In 2004, he was honored with the additional title of David Ross Boyd Professor of Classics.