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

Greek and Latin Literature

Greek Literature of the 5th Century BC (‘Greek Core’)
This course (examined by a three-hour paper of commentaries and essays and a one-and-ahalf
hour paper of translation) sets out to interrelate all kinds of literature of the fifth century,
and to set that literature in its cultural context. It includes set texts and involves compulsory
translation and comment on those texts, but candidates are also expected to have some
knowledge of the period more generally. There are lecture courses which provide essential
context and background, and tutors also seek to place the texts in a context: for instance,
Euripides and Aristophanes need to be set in the world of the sophists and other intellectual
activities of the time. Knowledge of other relevant works can be usefully deployed: for
instance, candidates should be ready to bring in material as appropriate from their other
options (historical, archaeological etc. as well as literary).

Latin Literature of the 1st Century BC (‘Latin Core’)
Latin Literature of the First Century BC is the study of a period of literature, and questions
may span two or more of the prescribed books, or may be addressed to the period more
generally. In lectures the subject will be studied through interesting and important topics. The
kind of topics regarded as important in the lecture courses are: the influence of preceding
Greek literature, the place of women in society and texts, questions of politics, patronage and
power, and the relation between Latin literature and philosophy and religion. The ‘book’ both
as a technological and artistic fact is an important area of interest in the period. These key
authors also of course provoke study of more purely literary matters: questions of style,
imagery, symbolism, allegory, convention, originality and so on.

Greek and Roman historical writers offer us a remarkable collection of narratives, rich and
exciting not just in their subject-matter, but engaging also for the expressive style and
dramatic manner in which they were written. This option focuses on particularly rewarding
sections from some of the best-known historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon,
Caesar, Sallust, Livy, and Tacitus), offering an overview of the development of one of the
most important genres in antiquity. Some of these authors were writing about their own
times, even about events in which they took a leading role themselves; but even when they
were constructing a narrative of the distant past, they often had their eye on their own
contemporary world and opened up suggestive parallels between past and present. The
option will be taught both through lectures (proceeding on an author-by-author basis) and
through classes that will consider a wide variety of over-arching thematic issues. These
include thinking about the creative authorial techniques in shaping and presenting conspiracy
narratives; the methods used to enliven accounts of battles and sieges for a sophisticated
audience (including how much overlap there might be with other genres such as epic); the
impact of speeches on the characterisation of individuals; the development of the
biographical character sketch within historiography; the use (and abuse) of geography and
ethnography (whether embedded in the main narrative or marked off in a formal digression);
the theory and practice of historiography (and how far they match up); the role played by
religious issues and the depiction of the gods (and whether such features hamper historical
analysis of causation); and the attitudes of these authors to important political questions
(whether about the best constitution, the nature of imperialism, or the use of rhetoric).

Lyric Poetry
(This subject may not be combined with III.3 Historiography, 7 Comedy or 15 (d) Reception
of Classical Literature. It is examined by pre-submitted essay and 1.5 hour translation paper
[see Introduction to this Greek & Latin Literature section].)
The development of lyric poetry is one of the most striking in ancient literary history, and the
‘genre’ presents some of the most attractive and rewarding smaller-scale poems in Greek
and Latin. Lyric poetry – poetry in stanzas, not couplets or repeated lines – starts as one of
the chief types of archaic poetry. It embraces a huge diversity of scale, performance, metre,
dialect, as part of localised cultures: Alcman’s choral songs, Sappho’s ‘personal’ poems, etc.
International poets emerge, working across the Greek world: the richly complex poems of
Pindar form a climax. After late fifth-century experimentation comes Hellenistic recreation of
archaic lyric; Latin lyric recreates Hellenistic lyric (Catullus) and, through the Hellenistic
recreations, archaic lyric (Horace). Horace’s work aims both at conquering the whole classic
territory and at producing a highly individual version of lyric, ironically based on limitations.
His endlessly subtle Odes restore lyric to literary centrality. The subject combines immense
range with much scope for the close analysis of poems.

Early Greek Hexameter Poetry
The selection includes most of what is worth reading in this field. The Odyssey is the perfect
counterpoint to the Iliad, blending fantasy and realism in a broader view of the heroic world,
and building up to the dramatic climax of Odysseus's revenge against the suitors of
Penelope. Hesiod's Theogony describes how the Olympian order of things under Zeus's rule
came into being. His Works and Days makes a powerful moral statement about the justice of
the gods, combining this with practical advice on how to live. Hesiod's theology was a major
influence on later Greek thought, and his Works and Days helped to inspire Virgil's Georgics.
The Homeric Hymns praise the Olympian gods in shorter narrative poems, which chart their
birth and exploits, and their impact on human society in myth and cult. Their style is a
delightful blend of gravity and charm. The fragments of the Epic Cycle fill in the background
to Homer and Hesiod, giving us a wider view of the early epic tradition. Major themes of this
poetry are the moral and religious framework of the world, crime and punishment, the nature
of the gods and man's relationship to them, and the limits of human achievement.

Greek Tragedy
Tragedy stands as the supreme poetic achievement of fifth-century Athenian culture. Indeed,
one could argue that no ancient literary form has had a more profound effect on Western
culture as a whole. This option gives the opportunity to study a range of works from the three
greatest exponents of the genre, ranging from Aeschylus' Oresteia of 458 BC, the only
surviving tragic trilogy, to Sophocles' Oedipus Tyrannus, the most famous Greek tragedy of
all, and Euripides’ so-called tragi-comedies Ion and Helen. Combining speech, song, and
dance, tragedy embodies and animates the gods and heroes of myth as never before, and
recreates their stories for a (largely) Athenian audience. The option should appeal to all
students of Greek literature and culture.

This subject enables you to read works by all the surviving comic writers of antiquity, and to
survey the development of this genre from the exuberant comic fantasy of ‘Old’ Comedy, as
composed in the fifth century by Aristophanes, through the elegant sophistication of the
‘New’ comedy of Menander at the end of the fourth, to the Latin plays of his imitators, Plautus
and Terence (c.210-160 BC). The plays of Aristophanes on the syllabus display the variety of
his output, and show him pointing the way towards later developments in one of his last
surviving plays, Ekklesiazousai. The plays of Menander had been lost since late antiquity,
but during the twentieth century substantial portions of several plays by Menander were
rediscovered (including one complete play, Dyskolos, first published in 1959). We can now
see why he was so admired in antiquity for the ‘realism’ of his drama, with its concentration
on family relationships and love. Plautus and Terence adapted plays by Menander and his
contemporaries; theirs are the earliest complete works of Latin literature that survive. Widely
read and imitated for many centuries, they have played a key role in the history of European
culture, above all in the history of the theatre. They were much more than translators, and it
is now possible to see more clearly their relation to their Greek models, and their own
originality. The texts are studied in much the same way as any other dramatic texts;
questions discussed include techniques of humour (irony, surprise, slapstick, jokes, puns,
parody etc.), stagecraft, characterisation, use of stock characters, language, plot
construction, the relationship of comedy to tragedy, the role of moralising and of philosophy,
and the relationship of the theatre to society. The distinctive qualities of each author are

Hellenistic Poetry
The third century BC introduces a new political era (Greek monarchies extend over the Near
East), but also a new set of intellectual and literary emphases. The scholars (above all in
Alexandria) collect, edit and explain the Greek literary inheritance; the poets (often scholars
themselves) rework and recreate that inheritance to produce a poetry of small-scale forms,
refined diction and complex allusive textures. There is new-style epic (Apollonius Rhodius),
and a new genre of pocket-epic, which diversifies by digression (Moschus, Europa) and
domesticates the heroic (Callimachus, Hecale). There are new hymns, literary rather than
ritual in function; a new civilised invective (Callimachus, Iambi) and a new pseudo-realism
(Herodas); a new fashion in personal poetry, which transposes the old lyric into the brilliant
miniature of the epigram. Greek roots grew in tradition as well as in literature: so
Callimachus' Aetia traces the origins of festivals and rituals with ironised erudition. Theocritus
spans the whole scene: myth, mime, pastiche, panegyric and the genre he made his own,
the pastoral, in which the rustic frame sets off simply the eclectic elegance of the content.

This option gives the opportunity to study a wide range of Cicero’s speeches, varied in date
(from the youthful extravagances of the Pro Roscio Amerino to the hectic atmosphere of the
Philippics), in background (from the 'free' Republic to Caesar’s dictatorship and beyond), in
type (forensic, deliberative, quasi-panegyric), and tone (from the invective of the In Pisonem
to the polite insinuations of the Pro Marcello). The beta texts also include parts of the
anonymous treatise Ad Herennium, which codifies the rhetorical precepts on which Cicero
was trained, and his own De Oratore, which throws light on his attitude to rhetorical theory
and practice. The topic may well particularly appeal to those studying the Republican period
in Ancient History, but non-historians need not feel shy.

After spending some years in the critics' bad books, Ovid is now a poet firmly back in fashion.
His wit and humour are well-known and appealing aspects of his poetry, but there is plenty
there too for a reader who likes to dig beneath the surface, whether in search of complex
literary references, or political allusions, or even reflections on the human condition. The
syllabus offers a selection of works from the whole range of Ovid's poetic output: from the
Amores and Ars Amatoria, products of his younger years when love and love elegy were
foremost in his thoughts, to the grander undertakings of the Fasti (a poetic version of the
Roman calendar which takes its cue from the great Callimachus) and the Metamorphoses (a
challenging mythological epic fascinated by change, time and genre), on to the doleful coda
of the Tristia, elegiac letters from exile in which the poet reflects on his life, work and
banishment by Augustus.

Latin Didactic
The aim of this paper is to explore the three major didactic poems of the late Republic / early
Empire, Lucretius’ De rerum natura, Virgil’s Georgics and Ovid’s Ars Amatoria, in relation to
each other and against the background of the didactic tradition. What is it that these poems
‘teach’? What themes and preoccupations are shared by these apparently very different
didactics, and how does each react to its predecessor? How does all this relate to our view of
Roman culture and politics at the moment of transition from Republic to Empire? And how
can technical or quasi-technical material make poetry?

Neronian Literature
The literary culture of Neronian Rome is remarkable. This course covers some of its most
distinctive products across a range of genres: epic, tragedy, the novel, satire, philosophical
prose, and pastoral. The literature of this period is markedly free from decorum and charm,
and its hallmark is grotesque violence of thought and action, profound pessimism, and an
often desolate hilarity. The Annaei are the most important literary circle in this period, and
students will engage with the works of the philosopher and tragedian Seneca as well as with
those of his nephew, the epic poet Lucan. Stoicism is another dominant influence, whether it
be in Seneca's prose letters and dialogues or in the dysfunctional Stoic universe of the same
writer's tragedies and Lucan's epic of the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. Other
highlights include the mockery of the dead Claudius in Seneca's Menippean satire, the
Apocolocyntosis; the wandering littérateurs who populate Petronius' Satyricon; and the
explosive assault on literary declamation in the first satire of Persius. For those convinced
that there must be something else in Latin beyond the canonical texts of the Golden Age, this
is it.

Euripides, Orestes: papyri, manuscripts, text
This paper uses both your eyes and your mind. You study a text in real detail, delving much
deeper into primary questions of text and interpretation than other options allow. You also
study how texts have been transmitted from Euripides’ time on, and learn how to read Greek
papyri and Greek medieval manuscripts. The teaching will make use of Oxford’s outstanding
collection of medieval manuscripts and its unrivalled collection of papyri. The practical and
visual experience makes textual criticism much more tangible. Detailed work on the text
gives you a much fuller grasp of metre, poetic language, and dramatic convention and form.
The Orestes is Euripides’ most experimental and challenging reconfiguration of the basics of
tragedy. New lyrical and musical forms, contemporary politics and mythological invention,
disconcerting movements between pathos and near-burlesque, morality and amorality make
this a rewarding play to study closely. It was particularly popular: so it is richly represented by
papyri (one with music) and manuscripts; and there are numerous problems of interpolation.
The papyrological and palaeographical part of the teaching is designed to help with work on
the papyri and manuscripts of Orestes itself. Only a relatively modest stage need be
reached. This is tested in the exam by transcription from a (relatively easy) papyrus of Greek
poetry and of a medieval manuscript of the Orestes. The classes on the text will discuss the
problems in detail, and enable you to build up what is virtually your own commentary on the
800-odd lines of the play prescribed for special study. This subject is not abstruse but
exciting; it will change your approach to reading classical literature.

Seneca, Medea
The main witnesses are an 11th‐century manuscript (E) and a group of 13th‐ and 15th‐ century manuscripts all going back to one lost 12th‐century manuscript (A). The course will use images of Senecan MSS, and some original MSS in the Bodleian. Seneca’s Medea is both an exploration of the psychopathology of the wronged, isolated but powerful heroine, and a reflection on classic earlier versions of the myth (Euripides, Ennius, Ovid); it explores the nature of anger, evil, and identity. The basic nature of the work is uncertain (was it staged? is it dramatized philosophy?). The specifically textual problems are made particularly interesting by Seneca’s pithy and potent writing, the diverging readings and characteristics of E and A, and the ideas and work of critics in the 20th century and before. It is a great text to study closely, and makes an excellent climax to an undergraduate’s reading of ancient literature.

Catullus: manuscripts, texts, interpretation
Catullus. 1-14, 27-39, 44-51, 65-7, 69-76, 95-101. 114-116. Despite the small extent of his
corpus Catullus is perhaps the most varied Latin poet. Besides his love poems, both heteroand
homosexual, he produced wedding songs, scurrilous epigrams, translations of Sappho
and of Callimachus, attacks on the politically important and the self-important, reflections of
friendship displayed and betrayed, on departure and homecoming, on bereavement. He uses
a considerable range of metres, and mixes direct diction with learning in a unique fashion.
His poetry was very influential on subsequent generations, providing a vital impetus to the
development of love elegy in particular. The selection chosen for this paper covers a broad
range (but not the mini-epic 64 or the epithalamia). This is thus an excellent subject for
anyone who wants to study Latin poetry in depth.
The text is badly transmitted, none of the three independently authoritative mss being older
than c.1370 (the oldest [O] is in the Bodleian; there are facsimiles of this and G). The
technical side of the course will consider scribal corruption, problems of poem division,
scansion and the use of metrical arguments, and above all what would make the best sense
compatible with Catullus’s style.

The Conversion of Augustine
The central theme is the conversion, first to Neoplatonism and then to Christian asceticism, of a late-Roman teacher of rhetoric at Milan in 386. This is described in intimate detail by Augustine in his Confessions, the most brilliant intellectual autobiography to survive from the ancient world. Other texts are studied to create a context for Augustine, the intellectual life of the western Roman empire in the 380s, in which he played a major role. They include texts of the controversy over the abolition of a major symbol of residual paganism, the Altar of Victory,and of Jerome's advocacy of a rigorist Christian asceticism. Knowledge of Latin is necessary, but not of Greek. An interest in philosophy or theology is helpful, but not at all necessary. The approach is primarily historical.

Byzantine Literature
The world of Byzantium, or the East Roman Empire, centred on Constantinople, offers a rich
variety of writings in prose and verse. Some of these are cast in forms that will be familiar to
classicists, like the histories of Procopius or Niketas Choniates. Others, like the kontakia (a
type of hymn) of Romanos, will seem rather strange. In its more than a thousand years of
existence Byzantium drew on its heritage from the classical world of Greece and Rome,
blended it with the developing Christian tradition, and produced a unique culture to which this
course is intended to be an introduction. The texts chosen for study come, for the most part,
from those written in the learned form of the language, which corresponds very closely to
Ancient Greek. Particular attention will be paid to the sixth century and the Age of Justinian,
and to the late eleventh and the twelfth centuries and the Age of the Komnenoi, both of which
were periods of exciting literary activity. Prose authors who will be studied include the
historians Procopius and Agathias from the sixth century and Anna Komnene and Niketas
Choniates from the twelfth. Verse to be studied covers a wide range of styles from the hymns
of Romanos and the epigrams of Agathias to the court poetry of the versatile Theodore
Prodromos and the enigmatic epic of Digenis Akritis.

Modern Greek Poetry
The aim of this course is to introduce students of Classics to Modern Greek Language and
Literature through the detailed study of two of the most important poets of the 20th Century,
C. P. Cavafy and George Seferis. Both poets famously used ancient Greek myth and history
as a main source of inspiration. Using their work as a key example, the course will also
discuss the complex dialogue Modern Greek Literature has established with the classical

The Reception of Classical Literature in Poetry in English since 1900
Poetry in English since 1900 has had a vital and continuing engagement with classical
models. In the first half of the twentieth century, this constituted reaction to and against
culturally central texts such as Homer, Virgil and Greek tragedy; from the last third of the
century, classical texts have been taken up again by poets who established themselves in
other modes (Hughes and Heaney), as well as being a central thread in a career (Harrison,
Carson), and the revival of Greek drama in major versions and of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in
poetic treatments have been particular features. The reception of classical texts has also
been a framework for treating the fall-out of colonialism (Walcott) or the politics of Northern
Ireland (Heaney, Longley). This subject looks at this continuing and vital afterlife of classical
literature in our own times.
Authors who are likely to feature include Hardy, Yeats, Frost, Eliot, Pound, H.D., Auden,
MacNeice, Lowell, Hughes, Walcott, Carson, Harrison, Longley and Heaney in English, and
Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Virgil, Horace and Ovid in Classics.

Thesis in Literature
Any candidate may offer a thesis in classical Greek and Latin literature or their reception; in
the latter case the thesis should include a substantial consideration of the ancient aspects of
the topic. This subject may not be combined with any of : a thesis in
Greek and Roman History, Philosophy, Greek and Roman Archaeology, or Philology and