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Badian was one of the great historians of Greece and Rome of the 20th century. He was born in Vienna in 1925. In 1938, in view of the growing persecution of Jews in Austria and Germany, he moved with his parents to New Zealand. There he attended Canterbury University College, New Zealand, receiving a B.A. in 1945 and an M.A. the following year. He then went to University College, Oxford, studying under George Cawkwell and getting a B.A. (First Class in Litt. Hum.) in 1950, an M.A. in 1954, and D. Phil. in 1956. In addition, he took a Litt. D. from New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington in 1962.
After teaching in the universities of Sheffield, Durham, and Leeds in Britain, and at the State University of New York, Buffalo, he was appointed to Harvard’s Department of History in 1971, and was cross-appointed to the Department of the Classics in 1973. He became John Moors Cabot Professor of History Emeritus in 1998.
Badian was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1974. An active promoter of classical studies in the United States, he helped found The American Journal of Ancient History (1976), the Association of Ancient Historians (1974), and the New England Ancient History Colloquium.
In 1999 Austria awarded him the Cross of Honor for Science and Art (Österreichische Ehrenkreuz für Wissenschaft und Kunst).
Badian died at the age of 85 after a fall in his Massachusetts home. He was survived by his widow Nathlie, his children Hugh and Rosemary and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
At the 2012 meeting of the Association of Ancient Historians in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, ancient historians T. Corey Brennan and Jerzy Linderski delivered papers reflecting on the historical methodologies employed by Badian.
- Foreign Clientelae 264–70 B.C. (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1958)
- Studies in Greek and Roman History (Blackwell, Oxford, 1964)
- Roman Imperialism in the Late Republic, 2nd ed. (1st commercial ed.) (Blackwell, Oxford/Cornell University Press, 1968)
- Publicans and Sinners (Blackwell, Oxford/Cornell University Press, 1972, reprinted, with corrections and critical bibliography, Cornell University Press, 1983)
- From Plataea to Potidaea (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993)
- Zöllner und Sünder (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt, 1997)
- Ancient Society and Institutions. Studies Presented to Victor Ehrenberg (Blackwell, Oxford, 1966)
- Polybius. Selected passages in translation (Washington Square Press, NY, 1966)
- Sir Ronald Syme, Roman Papers (vols. 1 & 2) (Oxford University Press, 1979)
- Translated Documents of Greek and Rome, vols. 1, 2, 3, edited jointly with Robert K. Sherk (Johns Hopkins University Press, then Cambridge University Press)
- Gloria Negri,Gloria Negri, (May 23, 2011). "Ernst Badian, 85, noted scholar on ancient Rome". Boston Globe. Boston.com. Retrieved April 3, 2012.
- "Book of Members, 1780-2010: Chapter B". American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Retrieved 5 May 2011.
- The Ernst Badian Collection of Roman Republican Coins, Rutgers University, USA.