Preliminary Examination: 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 four papers in the Preliminary Examination:

Paper 1: A Period of General History

For further information about the options available, please see the History Faculty website.

Paper 2: A Period of Greek or Roman History

Either Greek History c.650-479 BC or Roman History 241-146 BC

Paper 3

One of the following:

Paper 4

One of the following:

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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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 evidence of archaeology. 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 centered 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 charm of the two main literary sources for it, Herodotus and the early Lyric poets.

From the end of 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. It might be said also to have marked the end of liberty for Greece and much of the rest of the Mediterranean world: the ‘freedom of the Greeks’ was proclaimed by a Roman general in 196 BC, but in 146 BC both Corinth and Carthage were sacked and destroyed. Rome itself and Italy prospered, but wealth and empire brought tensions both within and between these.

This is also a time that produced one of the greatest historians of antiquity, Polybius of Megalopolis, whose subject was the establishment of Roman dominion and the effects of this 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. Inquiry is aided by an increasing number of surviving inscriptions and an increasingly detailed archaeological record.

Rome is “the Eternal City“, because throughout European history she has played a central role. This subject looks at the city of Rome and its culture at its highest point and at its crucial period of transition. Augustus, the first emperor, sought to renew the institutions of an ancient city state to fit it to its status as ruler of the Mediterranean world. The governing class, the senate, was purged and prepared for the transition from political élite to imperial bureaucracy; the other orders and the people were depoliticized. Of the monumental centre, Augustus said ‘I found a city of brick and left a city of marble’; great complexes of public buildings were created, and a network of civic amenities was established. The religious institutions were revived according to a conscious programme. Patronage of literature created the first “Augustan Age”, and an independent canon for Latin literature. In art, Rome was the centre of public and private patronage. Beyond Rome lay Italy, and the ideal of a country life based on a revived agriculture.

But there were many tensions: Civil war was not easy to forget, the loss of political liberty was resented among the traditional leaders and the changes in the countryside reflected widespread confiscations. The new moral standards were the product of an ethical conservatism widely resented by the literary and social élite.

Archaeology, art history and literary criticism are relevant to this subject, as well as traditional historical techniques. The texts have been chosen to reflect the various official and unofficial views of the period, to allow the study of its greatest literature within an historical context, and finally to introduce the historian of culture to those classical works which have been the basis of European cultural history from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century – notably Virgil, Ovid, Horace and Vitruvius. 

This subject covers the epic poems of Homer and the didactic poetry of Hesiod which are our main literary evidence from early Greece before the city-states or the art of writing became widespread. Although neither poet is a straightforward source of historical evidence, their poems do convey a range of institutions and social and religious attitudes which are too specific or coherent to be dismissed as uncontrolled literary fiction. To study them is not only to enter into the delicate relationship between social history and the imagination: it is also to appreciate values which these great poems made central to the upbringing, religion and self-consciousness of the educated Greek-speaking public for more than a thousand years. Knowledge of Homer helps us to go on to understand aspects of the work of the first historian, Herodotus, and the great Athenian dramatists. It also helps us share the culture of many of the great men of ancient history, whether Alexander the Great or the pagan Emperor Julian.

The poems have been keenly discussed by recent historians and sociologists, who have thrown new light on the poems’ marriage-customs, ideas of justice and gift-giving, the notions of honour and a shame-culture, kinship and social relations and the distinction between fledgling ‘proto-states’ and ‘semi-states’. This world is central to the subject, giving scope for criticism of particular social theories (the world of Odysseus), insights from social anthropology, comparative studies of ‘heroic ages’ in other literatures and cultures and of the poems as oral poetry, illumined by its place in other societies.

Both poets also describe a material culture which has been widely compared with the known archaeology of particular periods. Nobles and palaces, death and burial, trading and travelling, warfare and weaponry are among the topics with which a growing body of archaeological evidence connects. No one date for the Homeric epics will be presupposed between c.1000-700 B.C., but candidates will become aware of the merits of the various theories, perhaps even reaching a reasoned preference of their own.

The central part of Herodotus’ Histories studied in this paper analyses the causes and course of the Ionian Revolt and the first Persian invasion of Greece, which ended in defeat at the hands of the Athenians and Plataeans on the plain of Marathon in 490 BC. Included in Herodotus’ account of these events, however, is also his account of the circumstances in which Kleisthenes got the constitutional reforms which created democracy passed at Athens, a long speech on tyranny at Corinth, and much discussion of internal politics at Sparta and of Spartan foreign policy during the reign of King Kleomenes (c.520-c.490).

Herodotus’ text is our major source for all these events, and our understanding of them depends upon an understanding of Herodotus’ sources and his historical methods. By close study of the way in which Herodotus tells his story, making comparison where possible with evidence contemporary with the events described and with other later accounts, it is possible to understand both what Greeks of the middle of the fifth century had come to regard as the foundations of their current political arrangements, and also to assess the reliability of the traditions which Herodotus exploits. Problems concerning the nature of Athenian and Spartan politics in these years, as well as of the state of relations between Persia and Greece, for which there is also some Persian evidence, are the central historical concerns. But understanding Herodotus is important not only for our comprehension of the events of the period but for our understanding of the development of western historiography at whose head Herodotus stands.

The text studied in Sallust’s Jugurtha is his account of Rome’s war against an African chieftain in the last decade of the second century BC. The war itself presented a serious threat to Rome’s interests in Africa which had been intense since the destruction of Carthage in 146 BC at the end of the Third Punic War. Sallust’s pamphlet gives a military and political history of the conflict in which the Roman army was at first commanded by the general Metellus; he was superseded by Gauis Marius, the first of the military dynasts of the late Republic, who defeated Jugurtha and brought the war to a successful conclusion.

Sallust’s account is of interest for more than the factual details of the war. It is one of the most important historiographical documents of the late Roman Republic, written as it was in the 40s BC, when its author had experienced personal success and failure in a political career conducted in the death-throes of the Republican system of government. Sallust comments both explicitly and implicitly on the corruption of the senatorial governing class and charts, in the rise of Gaius Marius, the growing personal power of a general and politician who was the first of the series of the leaders, which later included Pompey and Caesar, who were to bring the Republic to an end.

Ancient Greek and Latin languages are available for study at three levels (Beginners’, Intermediate and Advanced), 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.