Things I learned from Fergus Millar

I’m weeping at my desk this morning.  Big belly sobs.  Not pretty sentimental choked up tears.   Where the tears roll down and a kind of grunting sound comes from my throat reminding me how angry I am at death.   Here in no particular order are the ways Fergus touched my life and left me a better scholar, a better teacher, and a better human.  Things I wish I’d put into words for him, but was just too self conscious to do so.

1) Everyone feels like an outsider.  His stories of coming to Oxford from Scotland encompassed the loneliness of early academic life and hope that it need not be that way.  He did everything in his power to welcome newcomers.

2) Always introduce people.  He never assumed people necessarily knew each other and even once introduced long married husband and wife in an elevator.  Funny, yes.  But his radical commitment to introductions involves the risk of insult through a failure to remember.  It risked the discomfort of all those present, a little social awkwardness.  He prioritizes building connections and making people feel welcome over all else.

3) When in power, take the fall for vulnerable students.  My relationship with my beloved masters supervisor was not going to be a happy or healthy one for my doctorate.  Fergus as my college advisor gave me one of the greatest gifts of my career by allowing my former supervisor to blame him, not me for my shift.  I got to keep everyone as a mentor and ally.

4) Finish the book.  This was a hard, unpleasant lesson.  It involved regular reminders of the negative career consequences of not finishing.  It certainly was not pleasant for those who did not finish or finished in their own time.  For me, the object lesson meant that I landed on the job market with a book in contract, awaiting proofs and my new institution put me up for promotion nearly immediately.  The moral pressure he exerted ensured that I got that first book out even while on an unrelated post doc and also teaching nearly full time (i.e. working two full time jobs).  I have no idea how I worked so hard those years, but much of it was to live up to his expectations.

5) Just because someone has looked at the question before doesn’t mean you can’t do it better.  When I was feeling terrible about needing to switch supervisors and was contemplating thesis topics, he pulled books off his shelf on possible ancient authors and carefully critiqued the works of senior scholars (respectfully, of course, always respectfully) and then told me there was still work to be done and that he believed I could do it.

6) Think big and never loose track of the fine grained details.  He welcomed the wide view of history, not just for himself but in his students.  He encouraged broad, creative thinking with an emphasis on interconnecting phenomena and theories.  Yet his ability to close read pieces of evidence was astounding.  His undergraduate lecture, really an exegesis, on the Polla stone took one inscription, concentrated on each element of the text and its materiality, and then spiraled out to encompass nearly the whole of Rome’s relationship with Italy.  He insisted that the big views be tested against the fine grain of our evidence.

7) Value families. He took great joy in his marriage and his children and he wanted everyone to have that joy.  Academic life for him was not in tension with family life.  His parties for graduate students in College always had children present.  He wanted to know not just what I’d published but was I happy and whole.  I am.  It was easier to take the time I needed build my family because I knew that one of the mentors I admired most valued that time and commitment as much as I did and that it wasn’t contrary to my life and career as a scholar.

8) Start by just reading.  Even though it seemed my doctorate was to be an extension of my masters thesis, Fergus believed in making space to just read at the beginning of a project.  He’d started his own doctoral studies (if memory serves) by reading all of Livy.  He’d invited Katherine to read all Jacoby.  I didn’t know what Cicero held for my project on Greek historiography, but spending a term doing nothing else but close reading his letters and other writings, has enriched nearly everything I’ve ever written since.  I still go back to that file of notes.  To read deeply and to reflect on a text without a fixed goal is a great freedom.  Questions percolate up.  Ideas invite exploration.  Interconnections start to build.  Now when I need to refresh my mind, I pick up an ancient text and just read.  It is never wasted time.

There will be more to add, but for now this is enough.

God bless you, Fergus.  You have been a blessing in our lives and will continue to be so.


OI, July 8, 2019
OI, July 8, 2019

9) And, Polybius was right.  Never forget that.

Update 7.17.19.  This post is getting a lot of traffic.  Far more than is typical of this personal note-taking, though-holding academic blog.  If you’re looking for more of my writing on professional matters, advice and the state of classics, you can find a list of this type of post on my draft index page.


2 thoughts on “Things I learned from Fergus Millar”

  1. Liv, thanks for sharing this. All are great lessons, some of which I needed reminding of just now. I only got to visit with Fergus once, at Penn, but it was a lovely experience; and his scholarly work (as you must know) has had a tremendous influence on my own since I started my dissertation way back when… Thanks again! EJK

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