Final Examination: Honour School of Ancient and Modern History

Colosseo and Venus temple columns from Roman forum, Italy. (Image credit: Shutterstock).

Colosseo and Venus temple columns from Roman forum, Italy. (Image credit: Shutterstock).

All AMH students take six papers in the final examination: 

I. A period of Greek or Roman history

II. A period of modern history

Please see https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/history-british-isles-fhs and https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/general-history for details.

III. A further subject in modern history, ancient history or archaeology

Please see https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/further-subject for details of the further subjects available in modern history.

IV. A special subject, chosen from the following:

  • a special subject in modern history (see https://www.history.ox.ac.uk/special-subject)
  • Alexander the Great and his early successors
  • Cicero: politics and thought in the late Republic
  • The Greek city in the Roman world from Dio Chrysostom to John Chrysostom

V. Disciplines of history

VI. Thesis

You may also offer an optional additional thesis, and/or a language paper in Ancient Greek or Latin.

For comprehensive details of the papers available, and the rules on which combinations of papers students may take, please refer to the Examination Regulations. Detailed descriptions of the papers on offer, and information about teaching provision, can be found in the course handbook on the History Faculty website.

Please note that changes may be made to course syllabuses from year to year, and that not all papers may be available in any given year.

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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 predominantly 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 issue 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.

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 Isokrates 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.

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 organized Mediterranean-wide empire, its constantly growing populace more and more diverse, its richest citizens vastly wealthier, and 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 forever. This subject studies how.

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.

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 nature 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 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.

The following ancient history further subjects are available to AMH students:

  • Athenian democracy in the Classical Age
  • Politics, society and culture from Nero to Hadrian
  • Religions in the Greek and Roman World, c.31 BC – AD 312

For further information, please see the paper descriptions on the Honour School of Literae Humaniores course page.

The following archaeology subjects are available to AMH students:

  • The Greeks and the Mediterranean World c.950-500 BC
  • Hellenistic Art and Archaeology, 330-30 BC
  • Art under the Roman Empire, AD 14-337

For further information, please see the paper descriptions on the Honour School of Literae Humaniores course page.

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.

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 law‐courts. 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.

This subject will allow you to consider continuities and changes in the development of the Greek city from the mid‐first to the fourth century AD and to explore a broad range of questions relating to politics, society, culture and economy in the Greek‐speaking provinces of the Roman Empire (excluding Egypt). You will gain lively insight into the civic life of several important urban centres (e.g. Athens, Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Nicaea, Nicomedia, Prusa, Aphrodisias, Antioch) by studying a unique variety of sources. These include orations of Dio Chrysostom, Aelius Aristides and Libanius, letters of Pliny the Younger, biographies of sophists and philosophers by Philostratus and Eunapius, sermons of John Chrysostom and early martyr acts, imperial letters and other public inscriptions, selected texts from the Digest of Justinian and the Codex Theodosianus, as well as provincial coins. You will explore topics such as the mechanisms of Roman provincial administration, the functioning of the civic institutions (esp. councils and assemblies), the ‘Romanization’ of the local elites, issues of identity formation under Roman rule, the intense rivalries between the cities, the politics of euergetism, the booming festive culture, the rise of Christianity and intellectual trends such as the ‘Second Sophistic’.  

Ancient Greek and Latin languages are available for study at intermediate and advanced levels, depending on your previous experience of studying the languages. Teaching in small classes is arranged by the Faculty of Classics. For further information about the syllabuses for the language papers, please see the course handbook.

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