Fulbright Scholar Professor Ellen Millender on her Book and Time in the U.K.

By Asta Rossi

Ellen Millender, the Omar and Althea Hoskins professor of Greek, Latin, and Ancient Mediterranean Studies received a 2023-2024 Fulbright Scholarship award at the University of Nottingham this year. She is currently spending her sabbatical year in the UK to continue working on her book, tentatively titled The Strangest of the Greeks: The Spartans in the Athenian Imagination while also lecturing and attending conferences. “What makes the Fulbright really interesting is it’s not just about doing research, it’s also about having cultural exchange,” said Millender in an interview with the Quest

Millender specializes in Spartan history and explained how the University of Nottingham has the Center for Spartan and Hellenization Studies. “I am going into several classrooms of colleagues of mine both at Nottingham and elsewhere. When they’re teaching about Sparta, I’m going in and teaching along with them,” explained Millender. “And I’m also very likely going to be giving a couple of lectures to English elementary and high schools who are working on the ancient world. So it’s not just about being an academic or doing my research. I mean, that’s the bulk of what I’m doing there. I’m also supposed to be here, in a sense, forging relationships so people can ask me about stuff in the US and I asked him about things in the UK.”

While Millender has about eight publication pieces coming this year, her main focus in Nottingham is to work on her book and catch up in the scholarship of her field. “Now I have time, you know, I have time to sit down and actually read,” said Millender. “But a lot of what’s out there is not going into my book. I don’t have to do any new reading on [Spartan kingship] because I am the woman. I am the master in the world now on Spartan. I mean, honest to god, for Spartan kingship, I am the go-to expert.”

Her book focuses on the Athenian perspective of Sparta, which brings up an essential issue when studying ancient history: lack of sources. “Imagine, if about 1000 years from now someone wanted to understand the Cold War, and you wanted to learn about the former Soviet Union,” Millender explained. “Imagine that the only sources they have are coming out of the US. Well, you understand what problem we have. So a lot of our information is coming out of Athens, and that doesn’t mean it’s all propaganda or all lies, right? So, one of the things that I tend to do is to make it clear actually what is safe for us to take away from these sources. So the big question, I suppose, people always ask me is ‘Can we get a real Sparta?’”

“What I’m really interested in is the idea of Sparta kind of the kind of intellectual work that Sparta was doing in the second half of the fifth century,” Millender elaborated. “And it’s not monolithic, right? I don’t want you to think that there’s some kind of Athenian party line, because it’s not the case. We had Athenians, who we call Laconizers, who loved Sparta. They’re very attracted to Sparta as an alternative model to democracy, and then you had people who absolutely vilified Sparta. And, so, what I tend to do is focus on the kinds of aspects of Spartan society that the Athenians are most fascinated by.” This includes Spartan women and kingship, both important chapters in her book. 

In the aforementioned book, Millender argues that after the Persian war, “the Athenians sort of developed this vocabulary of talking about otherness, and the other as particularly barbaric, Persian otherness. What the Athenians do is, when the new enemy or the Spartans [come], they transfer a good amount of that kind of cultural vocabulary in order to make sense of Sparta for themselves.” 

“Most scholars, until very recently, would say that Sparta was some kind of strange, anomalous city, and it’s a stupid term to use because every Greek city was different, right? So when I really talk about anomalous cities, remember—and Athens is highly unusual, and weird—to be careful about using normal or abnormal, those aren’t useful terms. So what I’m just interested in is unpacking what the Athenians have told us about Athens,” continued Millender.

Millender expressed her appreciation for this experience as a Fulbright scholar being able to study her passion. “Every once in a while I always pinch myself and I say, God, people are paying me,” commented Millender. “And here I have people paying me extra and sending me to the UK to study Spartans, you know, which is pretty, pretty incredible.”

While she says she will miss her family and friends in Portland, Millender enjoys meeting new people, especially newcomers to her field. “I love to lecture. I love lecturing and I also love just meeting with younger colleagues because you know — I know it’s hard to believe I used to be one of the youngins — and now I’m a γέρων [gérōn, ancient Greek for an elder, particularly an advisory one].”

“Listen, if I really wanted to get my work done as quickly and as easily as possible, I would have stayed at Reed: I had my office,” continued Millender. “And trust me, even trying to get a friggin library card here was, like, unbelievably difficult. So, coming here has not been the easiest thing in the world. But it’s also just talking to the younger people and hearing about what they’re working on and sharing bibliographies. That to me, I tell you, when I’m in a conference setting, and I’m with other scholars in my field, I feel like I’m in a candy store.”

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