Sir Fergus Millar obituary

Classicist whose work transformed the study of ancient history

In 1977 the historian Fergus Millar, who has died aged 84, published a massive book, The Emperor in the Roman World, that got to grips in an entirely original way with the institutional character of the empire and the role of its head of state. Based in large part on an encyclopedic knowledge of Roman law, Millar’s analysis showed in detail how a great empire actually functioned, with effective leadership and multifarious modes of communication.

Its assertion that “the emperor was what the emperor did”, presaged in a 1965 article, Emperors at Work, prompted considerable controversy in the world of ancient history. One reviewer, Keith Hopkins, objected that the emperor was also how he was thought about, imagined, represented, worshipped and so on. Mary Beard, a Cambridge graduate student at the time, recalled how a head-to-head debate between the two both energised the subject and demonstrated how such differences of view could coexist in a friendly manner.

The Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II, the subject of a study by Fergus Millar.
The Eastern Roman emperor Theodosius II, the subject of a study by Fergus Millar. Photograph: Peter Horree/Alamy

The Crowd in Rome in the Late Republic (1998) argued that the democratic and particularly the electoral processes of the second and first centuries BC were much more critical and effective than had traditionally been thought. It stimulated discussion, as also did lectures delivered at the University of California, Berkeley (2002-03), published as A Greek Roman Empire: Power and Belief Under Theodosius II, 408-450 (2006). Here Millar combined the codification of Roman law and the acts of the Church councils in the fifth century into a compelling and entirely original account of the character and the functioning of the later eastern empire, a century after its formal separation from the west.

Millar’s work transformed the study of ancient history. For him, Rome’s empire was a vast and complex world, ultimately stretching from Newcastle upon Tyne to the Euphrates, with shifting borders, both defensible and permeable, and a rich tapestry of social and linguistic variety.

He dissected that world through the racy scenarios of small-town politics and daily life in north Africa and Greece. He depicted the mosaic of Jewish internal struggles and rebellions against Rome in first- and second-century Judaea that culminated in the reduction of Jerusalem to the status of a Roman colony and the renaming of the province as “Syria Palaestina”. Through detailed study of a series of massive inscriptional monuments, he portrayed the grandeur and self-importance of a local family of civic benefactors in Asia Minor with crucial links to the centre of empire.

The seeds of his distinctive, multicultural approach to Roman imperial society can be found in an early publication of 1969, one of a number of articles in which a handful of historians including Peter Brown examined the evidence for the survival of local languages and cultures in the Roman empire. Millar focused on Syria and this theme was to burgeon into another book, The Roman Near East, 31 BC-AD 337 (1993), based on lectures delivered in Harvard in 1987.

Although this book, like all Millar’s publications, was rooted in constant reading and research in libraries, his understanding of the variety of the late Roman and early Christian landscape in Syria and Jordan had been transformed by a tour of major ancient sites including Palmyra, Petra and Jerash (the Greco-Roman Gerasa), a few years before the Harvard lectures. He was fortunate to have done this before it became impossible. His work on Jewish history was also informed by frequent contact with Israeli scholars and visits to archaeological excavations in the field.

Palmyra, in modern Syria, was one of the sites that Fergus Millar visited in order to explore the linguistic and cultural variety of the eastern Roman empire.
Palmyra, in modern Syria, was one of the sites that Fergus Millar visited in order to explore the linguistic and cultural variety of the eastern Roman empire. Photograph: Alan Bowman

Born in Edinburgh, Fergus was the son of JSL Millar, a solicitor, and his wife, Jean (nee Taylor). After attending Edinburgh academy and Loretto school, and national service (which he mostly spent learning Russian, with great pleasure), he studied ancient history and philosophy at Trinity College, Oxford (1955-58). A prize fellowship at All Souls College enabled him to undertake his doctorate on the historian Cassius Dio. He then became fellow and tutor at Queen’s College (where I was one his first students); professor at University College London (1976-84); and professor at Oxford (1984-2002).

He served as president of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies and chairman of the council of the British School at Rome. He was elected fellow of the British Academy in 1976 and knighted in 2010.

During his time at Oxford he took pride and pleasure in creating a real community of postgraduate students (in both Roman and Greek history), by organising seminars, hosting coffee sessions and taking a genuine and constructive interest in their diverse subjects of study. Though he did not shy away from intellectual controversy, intellectual differences and disagreements were never obstacles to friendship or collegial relations.

Nonetheless, he became increasingly disenchanted with bureaucratic overload in the universities, encroachments on academic autonomy and reductions in financial support for long-term research programmes. These views were often expressed in irascible letters (even to friends and close colleagues) and one Oxford vice-chancellor remarked that he felt his day had not started properly unless his mailbag contained at least one grumpy letter from him. But the regard in which he was held by classicists and historians never wavered.

In 1959 he married Susanna Friedmann, an academic psychologist. She survives him, as do his children, Sarah, Andrew and Jonathan, and seven grandchildren.

• Fergus Graham Burtholme Millar, scholar of ancient history, born 5 July 1935; died 15 July 2019


Alan Bowman

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Miriam Griffin obituary
Oxford classical scholar and expert on Seneca who offered new insights into the torrid world of Roman imperial politics

Catharine Edwards

19, Jun, 2018 @4:37 PM

Article image
Peter Mackridge obituary
Pioneer of Modern Greek studies in British universities fascinated by questions of language and identity

Roderick Beaton

11, Jul, 2022 @3:08 PM

Article image
Jasper Griffin obituary
Influential Oxford classicist who brought new insights to the study of the Iliad and the Odyssey

Philomen Probert

07, Jan, 2020 @6:16 PM

Article image
Joyce Reynolds obituary
Classicist and academic who transformed our understanding of Roman imperial history

Tessa Dunlop

29, Sep, 2022 @4:10 PM

Article image
Alistair Elliot obituary
Poet and translator whose work was inspired by the classical world

Sean O'Brien

14, Nov, 2018 @6:04 PM

Article image
Myles Burnyeat obituary
Scholar whose detailed analysis of classical texts sustained his sense of wonder in philosophy

Angie Hobbs

08, Oct, 2019 @4:23 PM

Article image
David Lowenthal obituary
Scholar who established heritage studies as an academic discipline in its own right

Hugh Clout

27, Sep, 2018 @12:56 PM

Article image
Jerome Ch’en obituary
Historian of modern China, cut off from his roots, who rued the rise of the military and the Communist conquest

Diana Lary

18, Jul, 2019 @4:31 PM

Article image
Percy Allum obituary
Academic whose bold analysis of Neapolitan politics and the Camorra sent shock waves through the city

John Foot

13, May, 2022 @4:04 PM

Article image
Paul Ginsborg obituary
Historian, author and leftwing activist who was professor of contemporary European history at the University of Florence

John Foot

03, Jun, 2022 @4:36 PM