Preliminary Examination: Classical Archaeology and Ancient History

Detail of a statue in the Ashmolean Museum. (Image credit: Richard Watts)

Detail of a statue in the Ashmolean Museum. (Image credit: Richard Watts)

The first year of the degree is spent working towards the Preliminary Examination. In Prelims you take four papers. The first two are core papers on relatively short but revolutionary periods, one Greek and one Roman, that integrate history and archaeology and introduce you to different approaches to the subject and to the different kinds of evidence and the questions that they can answer. In addition, you take two Special Subjects, one archaeological and one historical, chosen from lists of options. In place of one of the Special Subjects you may take a language paper in either Ancient Greek or Latin.

Below are descriptions of the papers currently available at Prelims. 

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 in our virtual learning environment, Canvas.

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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Exciting changes transformed the Greek world during the late archaic period. The most well‐ known of these, narrated by Herodotus, is that during the second half of the sixth century B.C. Persia emerged as a young, vigorous empire and clashed with the Greeks of the Aegean. This interaction had a profound impact on Greek politics and art, but there were other internal dynamics and changes taking place too with equally momentous results, especially in the articulation and renegotiation of power between different groups. The central theme of the paper is to bring out the different perspectives that may be gained on the period by using the archaeological and written evidence in isolation and in combination.

Topics covered during the course typically include:

  • All for One and One for Oneself: Archaic Tyrants and the case of Samos under Polykrates
  • Aristocrats & Peisistratid Athens
  • The power of drink: the Symposion
  • Traditional power: Sparta
  • Coining Power: Coinage & Trade
  • Power and the divine: Sanctuaries
  • Power to the people?  Kleisthenic Democracy
  • Power struggles: Encountering the Mede.

The course studies the impact of the first emperors on the history and archaeology of Rome and its subject states in the period of revolution and transition from Late Republic to Early Empire. Some themes and topics are: Roman political culture in crisis, Republican war‐lords to Augustan princeps; emperor, senate, and the evolving administration; the Julio‐Claudian dynasty and court culture; the city of Rome, imperial building, and imperial representation; villas and villa culture – wall painting, marbles, gardens and suburban parks; municipal culture ‐ houses, amenities, tombs, and freedman art; land‐use and the countryside – estates, vici, and centuriated settlement; manufacture, trade, and natural resources – coins, amphorae, and quarries; the archaeology of the frontier armies; traditional religion and emperor cult.

Topics covered during the course typically include:

  • Augustan Political Culture
  • The Army and the Frontiers
  • Municipal Culture
  • Villas
  • Julio‐Claudian Self‐Representation
  • Manufacture, Commerce and Trade
  • Romanisation and Colonisation
  • Imperial Cult.

This subject comprises the archaeological history of the last centuries of the Minoan and Mycenaean world, and the first of the Greek Iron Age, the setting in which the Homeric poems were formed and which they reflect in various ways. This is where classical Greek culture and literature begin. The course covers the full range of material evidence and artefacts surviving from this period of which there is an excellent representative collection in the Ashmolean Museum.  An overall knowledge will be required of the archaeological evidence for the Late Bronze Age and Early Iron Age of the Aegean from 1550 BC to 700 BC.

Painted vases give the fullest visual account of life and mythology in ancient Greece and provide important archaeological data for refining and adding to our knowledge of various aspects of ancient culture. The course looks at the techniques and functions of painted ceramics as well as their subjects and styles, from the eighth to the fourth centuries BC. The Ashmolean Museum has a fine collection of painted pottery of the period covered by the course, and examples from the collection are used in classes and lectures.  

Greek statues and reliefs in marble and bronze retain today a strong visual impact, and our knowledge of the subject is being constantly improved and revised by dramatic new discoveries, from excavation and shipwrecks. The course studies the emergence and uses of large marble statues in the archaic period, the development of bronze as a large‐scale medium, and the revolution in seeing and representing that brought in the new visual system that we know as 'classical', in the fifth and fourth centuries. The Cast Gallery, located in the Ashmolean, has an excellent collection of plaster casts of major sculptures from this period. Practical classes are given in the Cast Gallery using the casts to illustrate ways of assessing and interpreting ancient statues and reliefs.  

Architecture was the Roman art par excellence, and Roman buildings provide some of the most impressive and best preserved monuments from the ancient world. The course studies the materials, technology, and functions of the buildings as well as their appearance and effect, from the Republic to the Tetrarchy, in Italy and the provinces as well as in Rome itself.

The course studies the history of the Greek cities of Sicily and South Italy and their relations with mainland Greek states in the 5th century BC through the lens of Thucydides' penetrating account of the Athenian expedition to Sicily in 415 BC. Topics include: the earlier diplomatic and military involvement of Athens in the west; Syracuse and Syracusan politics; the background in Athenian politics and religion and the affairs of the Herms and the Mysteries; and Thucydides' presentation of individuals, especially Nicias and Alcibiades, compared with their presentation in Plutarch.

The course studies Athenian politics and culture in the later fifth century BC as represented in the comedies of Aristophanes. Its subject is Old Comedy as a distorting mirror of the major events and currents of the day – the new‐style politicians (Cleon and others), the new intellectuals (the 'sophists'), strains in traditional religion, the roles of women, the Peloponnesian War, and social conflict in the city and countryside. The prescribed plays are Knights, Wasps and Lysistrata.

The course studies Catiline's conspiracy against the Roman state in 63 BC and Cicero's controversial role in its suppression. Topics covered include the following: the social and economic problems in Italy, particularly from the period of Sulla onwards, that contributed towards support for the conspiracy; the political and ideological background, particularly the Sullan constitutional reforms and subsequent struggles over them; the more immediate political background, notably the careers of Pompey, Caesar, Crassus, and Catiline himself; the events of early 63; the relation of the revolutionary leaders to each other; the problem of the senatus consultum ultimum and the debate on the fate of the conspirators. The texts relating to the conspiracy are abundant and detailed but also biased and sometimes contradictory. Students learn the ways of Roman political and historical rhetoric.

Why did Tacitus, writing a century after the events he was describing, choose to begin his history of early imperial Rome with a long and jaundiced account of the grim Tiberius, rather than with the reign of the much‐admired Augustus? The course studies Tacitus' representation of Tiberius against the background of surviving contemporary evidence, and particular emphasis will be given to recently discovered inscriptions on bronze – the Tabula Siarensis, the Senatus Consultum de Cn. Pisone patre, and the Senatus Consultum from Larinum. Topics include the attitudes of both the Senate and Roman people towards Tiberius and to the imperial family as a whole

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 most recent edition of the course handbook.