Classics > Courses > Undergraduate > Classics I > Finals paper descriptions history

Greek and Roman History

The Early Greek World and Herodotus' Histories: 650 to 479 BC

Our knowledge of Greek History down to the great war with Persia is based on historical
allusions in the works of archaic poets, traditions handed down largely by oral transmission
and preserved in Herodotus or later writers, and on the archaeological record (on which
Greats paper IV.1, The Greeks and the Mediterranean World, concentrates more). This
paper emphasizes the literary evidence and in particular the oral and written traditions
preserved in Herodotus and the evidence of earlier texts and attitudes to earlier history
preserved in the Aristotelian Constitution of the Athenians.
This was a crucial period in the development of Greek culture. The great phase of Greek
expansion overseas (‘colonisation’) continued during it. But in the sixth century the Greeks
themselves came under pressure from their eastern neighbours, first the Lydians and then
the great new power of Persia. The city-state established itself firmly as the dominant form of
social organisation. Lawgivers wrote comprehensive codes – or so later Greeks believed. In
many places the leisured classes developed a luxurious life-style centred on the symposium,
though Sparta went the other way in the direction of austerity. Exploitation took new forms,
with chattel-slavery apparently growing greatly in importance. Many cities were under the
rule of ‘tyrants’ (not necessarily the hate-figures they later became), but by the end of the
period democracy had been established in Athens by Cleisthenes, and the first tragedies
were being performed. The delight of studying the period is greatly increased by the charm of
two of the main literary sources for it, Herodotus and the early lyric poets.

Thucydides and the Greek World: 479 BC to 403 BC
Victory over Persia led to the rise of the Athenian Empire, conflict between Athens and
Sparta and Sparta’s eventual victory in the Peloponnesian War. These years cover the
transition from archaic to classical Greece, the Periclean age of Athens, the masterpieces of
art, architecture and literature which are the supreme legacies of the Greek world, the
contrasting lifestyles of Sparta and democratic Athens, and the careers of Alcibiades,
Socrates and their famous contemporaries. They are studied through the History of
Thucydides, antiquity’s most masterly analysis of empire, inter-state relations and war, which
Thucydides claimed to have written, justifiably, as "a possession for all times". The issues of
Thucydides’ own bias and viewpoint and his shaping of his History remain among the storm
centres of the study of antiquity and are of far-reaching significance for our understanding of
the moral, intellectual and political changes in the Greek world. The period is also studied
through inscriptions, whose context and content are a fascinating challenge to modern
historians.

The End of the Peloponnesian War to the Death of Philip II of Macedon: 403 BC to 336 BC
Greek History in the years immediately after the Peloponnesian War is no longer dominated
by the two super-powers, Athens and Sparta. Cities which in the fifth century had been
constrained by them acquired independence; groups of small cities, such as Arcadia and
Boiotia, co-ordinated their actions to become significant players in inter-city politics. Areas in
which the city was not highly developed, and particularly Thessaly and then Macedon, were
sufficiently united by energetic rulers to play a major role in the politics of mainland Greece,
and the manipulation of relations with Persia preoccupied much of Greek diplomacy. This
society gave rise to the political theorising of Plato and Aristotle.
The absence of dominant cities in the fourth-century is paralleled by the absence of a single
dominant source. Students of this period have at their disposal two works which imitate
Thucydides, Xenophon’s Hellenica and the Hellenica Oxyrhynchia, pamphlets and speeches
by Isocrates and Demosthenes aimed at influencing Athenian politics, specialist studies of
military matters, such as Aeneas’ Poliorcemata, and of particular cities, such as Xenophon’s
account of the Spartan Constitution, and an abundance of epigraphic material. The
compilations of later historians and biographers, such as Diodorus and Plutarch, who worked
from earlier texts now lost to us, provide further information: through these later works we
have access to contemporary accounts of high quality that illuminate the history of such
places as Thebes and Syracuse. The wealth of varied information, the multiplication of
sources, and the need to weave together the stories of many different cities, present a
challenge quite distinct from that offered by earlier periods of Greek history. The importance
of the events of the period for our understanding of Plato and Aristotle, on the one hand, and
of the history of Greek art, on the other, ensures that the complexities of the study bring
ample rewards.

Polybius, Rome and the Mediterranean: 241 BC to 146 BC
From the end of the cataclysmic first Punic war to the year of Rome’s final obliteration of her
old enemy Carthage and the great Greek city Corinth, this period saw the Roman conquest
of Greece and much of the Hellenistic east, and indeed the development of Rome into an
imperial state exercising dominion throughout the Mediterranean world. It saw also the
developing effects of this process, upon the Romans and, not least, upon those with whom
they dealt, in Italy itself and overseas. This time marked the beginning of the Roman Empire
and the beginning of the end of the Roman Republic. The ‘freedom of the Greeks’ was
proclaimed by a Roman general in 196 BC, but in fact these years marked the end of liberty
for Greece and much of the rest of the Mediterranean world. Rome and its allies in Italy all
prospered, but wealth and empire brought rapid social and economic change and mounting
political tensions.
This period shaped the views of one of the greatest historians of antiquity, Polybius of
Megalopolis, who made his subject precisely the ambition of the Romans for universal
conquest and the effects this had upon the lives of all the peoples involved. A contemporary
of the events, and detained in Rome in the 160s and 150s, he enables (and enlivens)
productive study of this period, which saw, amongst so much else, the beginnings of Roman
history writing, some of the early development of which there will be opportunity to trace.
Inquiry is aided by an increasing number of surviving inscriptions and an increasingly
detailed archaeological record.

Republic in Crisis: 146 BC to 46 BC
In 146 the Romans destroyed Carthage and Corinth. In 133 a popular tribune was beaten to
death in front of the Capitol by a mob led by the High Priest. At the other end of the period, in
49 Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, and in 46 crushed his enemies at the battle of
Thapsus, celebrating his victory with an unprecedented quadruple triumph.
Despite repeated deeply threatening crises, Rome survived – capital of an increasingly large
and organised Mediterranean-wide empire, its constantly growing populace more and more
diverse, its richest citizens vastly wealthier, its cityscape more and more monumental. But
the tradition of the ancestors, the rule of the aristocracy, the armies and their recruitment, the
sources of wealth, the cultural horizons of the literate, the government of allies and subjects,
the idea of a Roman citizen, the landscape of Italy, and Roman identity itself had all changed
for ever.
For the earlier years, from the Gracchi to the Social War, we mainly have to rely on the
writings of later historians and on contemporary inscriptions, although Sallust and Cicero
offer some near-contemporary illumination. But for the latter part of this period our knowledge
is of a different quality from that of almost any other period of Roman history thanks to the
intimate light shed by the correspondence, speeches and other works of Cicero, with strong
backing from Caesar’s Gallic War and the surviving works of Sallust.

Rome, Italy and Empire from Caesar to Claudius: 46 BC to AD 54
Beginning this period in 46 BC immediately presents us with issues of uneasy adjustment
and faltering responses to shattering social and political change. The Civil War, fought from
one end of the Mediterranean to another, raised problems about the character of Urbs and
Orbis, city and world, and their relations. Caesar drew his own solutions from the widest
cultural range. The first years of the period set the scene for the developing drama of the
transformation of every aspect of the societies of the Mediterranean world ruled from Rome,
and of the identity of Rome itself, as experiment, setback and new accommodation
succeeded each other in the hands of the generals of the continuing war-years, and finally,
after Actium, of Augustus and his advisors. The central problems of this subject concern the
dynasty, charisma and authority of the Roman Emperor, the institutions of the Roman
provincial empire, and the most intensely creative age of Roman art and Latin literature, and
how these were related. The sequel addresses three very different rulers, Tiberius, Gaius
Caligula and Claudius, whose reigns did much to shape the idea of an imperial system and
its historiography, which we sample through Tacitus and the biographies of Suetonius, and
the virulent satirical sketch by Seneca of Claudius’ death and deification. The subject invites
consideration of the changing relations of Greek and Roman, and the increasing unity of the
Mediterranean world; and also of the social and economic foundations of the Roman state in
the city of Rome and in the towns and countryside of the Italy of the Georgics and Eclogues.
Within Roman society, political change was accompanied by upward social mobility and by
changes in the cultural representations of status, gender and power which pose complex and
rich questions for the historian.

Athenian Democracy in the Classical Age
Athenian Democracy is much praised but little understood. How did the largest city in the
classical Greek world manage to govern itself on the basis of meetings, held less often than
once a week, of those Athenian-born men aged over 18 who wanted to come? How did a
heterogeneous society whose size rendered many residents effectively anonymous maintain
law and order without a police force or lawyers? This topic looks at the institutions of
Athenian democracy, at the practice of democracy, at democratic ideology, and at Athenian
theories about government. It analyses the make-up of Athenian society and tries to
understand the contribution that groups without political rights, women, slaves and resident
foreigners, made to Athenian democracy and the extent to which democracy determined the
way in which these excluded groups were treated. Although details of Athenian military
history and of Athenian imperial activity are not at issue, the topic does attempt to explain the
sources and the effects of Athenian wealth and power. The literary and artistic achievements
of classical Athens are here examined both as phenomena that need to be explained – why
was it that it was at Athens that the most significant monuments in drama, architecture,
painting and sculpture were created? – and in themselves as sources of insight into Athenian
attitudes and pre-occupations.

Alexander the Great and his early Successors (336 BC-302 BC)
Aged twenty-five, Alexander the Great defeated the collected might of the Persian Empire
and became the richest ruler in the world. As the self-proclaimed rival of Achilles, he led an
army which grew to be bigger than any known again in antiquity and reached India in his
ambition to march to the edge of the world. When he died, aged thirty-two, he left his
generals with conquests from India to Egypt, no designated heir and an uncertain tradition of
his plans.
This subject explores the controversial personality and resources of the conqueror, the
impact of his conquests on Asia, the nature and importance of Macedonian tradition and the
image and achievements of his early Successors. The relationship and authority of the
surviving sources pose large questions of interpretation on which depend our judgement of
the major figures’ abilities and achievements. The career which changed the scope of Greek
history is still a matter of dispute both for its immediate legacy and for the evidence on which
it rests.

The Hellenistic World: societies and cultures, ca. 300 BC-100 BC
An explosion of ideas, horizons, communications, power-structures at the end of the fourth
century tripled the size of the world to be studied by the ancient historian. We now have to
make sense of what was happening from what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan all the way
to the Strait of Gibraltar. Persian, Macedonian, and Greek were blended with a host of more
local cultures and societies across the world experienced by those who travelled with the
armies of the end of the classical period. The result of these changes was a new version of
Greek culture, conventionally known as Hellenistic, which exhibits fascinating patterns of
artistic, economic, institutional and social change which can be compared and contrasted in
extremely diverse settings. Inscriptions and archaeological discoveries illuminate the farthest
east reaches of the new culture, in the valleys of the Hindu Kush; a wide range of material
and textual evidence shows the different accommodations of local culture with Hellenism on
the Iranian plateau, in the plains of Mesopotamia, in Anatolia, Syria and Palestine, or in the
Nile valley and at the archetypal Hellenistic city of Alexandria, capital of the Ptolemies. The
explosion of the classical world also transformed the Aegean heartland of the Greeks, and
their interactions with their neighbours to the west, including Carthage and Rome. The scope
of the paper is thus very wide, and its historical problems challenging, but this is an area of
scholarship in rapid transition, and there is a constant supply of important new evidence,
especially from archaeology. This is therefore a particularly good subject for those seeking to
combine historical and archaeological techniques.

Cicero: Politics and Thought in the Late Republic
Cicero is the crucial figure for understanding the political, cultural and intellectual life of the
Late Republic. Not only did he publish his speeches and write essays on rhetorical theory
and on all the branches of philosophy, he also corresponded with the most important and
cultivated men of his time. In fact the collection of his letters includes replies from such
famous historical figures as Pompey, Brutus, Cassius and Cato.
This topic explores Cicero’s political and private life, his education and training as an orator;
his political and moral philosophy; his views, and those of other contemporaries, on religion
and imperialism; the attitudes and lifestyle of his friend Atticus; the ethics of the Roman lawcourts.
The texts (set in translation) include speeches, essays and letters by Cicero, letters
from his contemporaries, and works by his younger contemporaries Sallust and Cornelius
Nepos, who provide an external view of Cicero and his friend Atticus and offer a contrast with
Cicero’s style and attitudes.

Politics, Society and Culture from Nero to Hadrian
The subject begins with the accession of Nero, the ill-starred emperor who was the last
representative of the Julio-Claudian dynasty established by Augustus. Following his fall, and
the military and political convulsions of the ‘year of the four emperors’ (AD 69), Vespasian
emerged triumphant and established the Flavian dynasty which came to an end with the
assassination of Domitian in AD 96. The last part of the period covers the reigns of Trajan
and Hadrian, the former an emperor with military and expansionist ideals, the latter a man of
literary and aesthetic interests who was bent on consolidation of the empire and its frontiers.
Despite some serious disturbances and wars, including revolts in Judaea and warfare in
Dacia and the east, this was a period in which the stability of the ‘Roman peace’ extended
over virtually the whole of the Mediterranean world and enabled the empire to reach, in the
second century, its highest point of social, economic and cultural development. At the same
time the established institutions of Graeco-Roman paganism were beginning to undergo
profound change under the impact of the growth of Christianity. The evidence of literary and
historical writers, documents (inscriptions and papyri), coins and archaeology combines to
offer not merely a detailed account of individual emperors, political events and governmental
institutions, but also a rich and multi-faceted picture of the impact of Roman rule on the
Mediterranean world. This is therefore a particularly good subject for those seeking to
combine historical and archaeological techniques.

Religions in the Greek and Roman World (c. 31 BC to AD 312)
During the Roman imperial period, notions of the divine and the human and the relationship
between them, and of the framework of those relationships, changed dramatically in many
different ways. As Greek and Roman cultures altered, as the Roman empire promoted
contact, mobility and social change, as attitudes to time and space, history, ethics, and
community shifted, an extraordinary variety of new ways of religious thinking and behaving
came into being. These changes include profound transformations in thinking about the
divine in philosophy and literature; the role of religion in displaced and diaspora communities,
and especially in Jewish ones; the religious order of the Roman state; the formation of new
religious allegiances out of old; and new types of religious competition, conflict and selfdefinition.
The evidence for these changes in literature, art, papyri, inscriptions and material
culture is rich, diverse and fascinating, and the issues among the most important in ancient
history. How do we model cultural change? What part does psychology play in history? Does
the social anthropology of religion offer important insights to the historian? How can the
historian use visual representations, artefacts, and the study of space? How do we link the
history of ideas to other forms of historical narrative? Mithraic cave, curse-tablet, synagogue,
and sacred spring – who used them and why? Isis, Jesus, Jupiter and Taranis – who
worshipped them and how? The subject takes you from Augustus praying to the Greek Fates
at the Secular Games, and Ovid on Anna Perenna, through the fall of the Second Temple
and the martyrdom of Felicity and Perpetua, to Aurelian's temple of the Unconquered Sun
and Constantine’s vision at the Milvian Bridge.

Sexuality and Gender in Greece and Rome
How many sexes were there in the ancient world? How many genders? What is the
difference? When is a man not a man or a woman not a woman? What can we know about
the lives of women in antiquity, and what is the relationship between the way women lived
and the way men wrote about them, painted them, sculpted them or legislated for them? This
paper tackles the fundamental historical question of the implications, in any particular time
and place, of being gendered. From the archaic Greek world to the later Roman Empire, it
looks at how sex, sexuality and gender affected everyday life, what was and was not
acceptable sexual behaviour, and how writers and artists expressed, joked about, subverted
or reinvented the views of those around them. Relatively well-known evidence from literature
and art is put side by side with medical writings, magic, laws and graffiti. The subject ends
with the rise of Christianity and asks whether this new religion brought women emancipation
from men, or both sexes emancipation from sex, or altered the meaning of gender
completely. Texts are set in translation, though it is, as always, desirable to read them in the
original where possible. Scholarship in this area of Classics has been developing apace in
recent years, and you will also read some of the cutting-edge literature on gender and
sexuality by contemporary non-Classicist theorists.

 

Thesis in Ancient History
The thesis should be equivalent in student work-load to an entire subject in Ancient History,
and it should demonstrate expertise in a comparable body of evidence and understanding of
a comparable range of conceptual and interpretative problems.
There is no formal requirement for those offering an Ancient History thesis to do any other
subject or subjects in Ancient History. It is possible in a thesis to demonstrate an understanding of a body of evidence and a set of problems equivalent in scale and complexity to the periods and the options in Ancient History, and to learn the necessary historical skills while researching and composing such a thesis, and your Ancient History tutor will advise you as to how this may be achieved with the subject you have in mind.