skip to content

Aims and objectives

  1. To introduce the material, cultural and political history of Greece and Rome from (roughly) 1000 BC to AD 400.
  2. To develop the practice of historical interpretation through close reading of documentary and literary texts.
  3. To introduce students to the variety of critical approaches possible in the study of Greek and Roman history and to current trends in modern historiography.
  4. To understand and explain change and diversity, political, social, economic and cultural, across the two major ancient civilisations which form the basis of Western culture.


Scope and structure of the examination paper 2021–22

The syllabus is based around the following topics: The Early History of Rome and Greece; Ruling the Roman Empire: from Augustus to the Severans; and Sparta.

The examination paper will consist of ten questions. Question 1, which is compulsory, will consist of nine images or passages of ancient text, given with translation, three relating to each of the topics above; candidates must comment on any three. Questions 2–10 will consist of essay-questions divided into three sections, each section containing three questions relating to one of the three topics listed above. In addition to Question 1, candidates will be required to answer two essay questions, each taken from a different section. Candidates will thus need to be familiar with at least two of the three topics.


Course descriptions



(12 L : Michaelmas, weeks 1-6)

Sparta poses significant challenges to the historian. After the archaic poets Alkman and Tyrtaios we have no Spartan authors. After a rich production of bronzework, painted pottery, ivories and other fine craftsmanship during the archaic period, Classical Sparta is materially impoverished. Yet Classical Sparta not only led the other Greeks to victory over the Persians in the Persian Wars but constituted the main resistance to imperial Athens, turning the Peloponnesian league into the basis for a Spartan empire following the defeat of Athens in 403. But Spartan imperial power was short-lived, and after the 360s Sparta was little more than a minor power. How far was this a product of Sparta’s political structure, and what relationship did that political structure have with an exceptional social structure where agricultural production rested with a subordinated population of helots, and craft production to communities of free perioikoi  dependent on Sparta? Understanding both Sparta’s strength and why that strength was so ephemeral must be achieved on the basis of the partial and distorted views offered by other Greeks.

This course is concerned with how we can put together a picture of archaic and classical Sparta and how we can understand the remarkable trajectory of Spartan history. The twelve sessions will deal with:

1          Lykourgos and the problems of the ‘Spartan mirage’

2          The archaeology of archaic Sparta

3          The world of Tyrtaios and Alkman

4          Sparta, the Peloponnese and the wider world to 525.

5          Kleomenes

6          Sparta’s economy and Spartan society: helots and perioikoi

7          Sparta and the Persian Wars

8          Sparta and Athens 478–432

9          The Peloponnesian War

10        Women and wealth in Sparta

11        The Spartan empire

12        Why did Sparta collapse?

Specified texts: Alkman Louvre Partheneion, Tyrtaios frgs. 4, 5, 10–12; Herodotos 1.65–8, 5.49–51; 6.56–7, 61–6, 74–8, 9.28–9, 35; Thucydides 1.79–87, 95, 101–3, 130–34, 4.80, 5.64–75; Xenophon Constitution of the Lakedaimonians; Hellenika 3.3.4–11, 5.4.24–33; Aristotle Politics 2.1269a29–1271b19; Diodoros 11.50; Plutarch Lykourgos 1, 5–18, 21–2, 26–31.

Recommended reading: M. Whitby (ed.) Sparta (Edinburgh 2002); M. Cooley ed. Sparta (LACTOR 21) (London, 2017).



(12 L: Lent)

The Roman Empire covered a vast and diverse territory, stretching from Hadrian’s Wall to the Arabian deserts, from the Atlas Mountains to the shores of the Black Sea by the second century AD. This course explores how Rome ruled those domains—looking at the system of provincial administration developed under Augustus, the role of the army, and the crucial involvement of local elites in the imperial project—and asks what kind of an empire was produced as a result. How did the imperial centre keep control of these far-flung lands? Were the same methods employed in the Eastern and Western parts of the Empire? What impact did Roman power have on the society, religion and culture of these diverse regions and what impact did these regions have on Rome? How flexible was Roman rule, was it able to adapt to changing geo-political circumstances, especially to increasing military threats from the north and east in the early third century?  

This course will draw on a range of sources to explore this topic, writings and artefacts, buildings and inscriptions from both rulers and ruled, from the imperial centre and the provinces. The lectures follow a roughly chronological trajectory, focusing on specific themes and topics as they go. 

Specified texts: Cassius Dio, Histories 53.13-15; Plutarch, Precepts of statecraft 17-19; Josephus, Jewish War 2.266-292; Pliny, Letters 10.15-40, 79-80; Tacitus, Agricola 14-40; Aelius Aristides, Roman Oration 59-64.

Sacred Law of Gytheion for the Imperial Cult; Claudius, Letter to the Alexandrians; Favours to the City of Volubilis; Tax Law of Palmyra (Sherk, The Roman Empire: Augustus to Hadrian nos 32, 44, 50, and 158); PSI 446 (order of the prefect of Egypt); P.Giss 40 (Constitutio Antoniniana).

Claudius, Letter to the Alexandrians; Favours to the City of Volubilis; Tax Law of Palmyra (Sherk, The Roman Empire: Augustus to Hadrian 44, 50, and 158); Irrigation Decree from Spain 3a-c (JRS 96: 2006).

Introductory Reading: Emma Dench, Empire and Political Cultures in the Roman World (Cambridge, 2018); Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller, The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture, 2nd edn. (Berkeley, 2015); J.E. Lendon, Empire of Honour: The Art of Government in the Roman World (Oxford, 1997); Greg Woolf, Becoming Roman: The Origins of Provincial Civilisation in Gaul (Cambridge, 1998).



(12 L: Easter, weeks 1-6)

Although conventionally we tell the story of Greek and Roman history as if Rome had no history before it became embroiled in Greek affairs at the end of the third century, in fact the early history of Rome and the early history of Greece are contemporary. Not only that but writing early Greek history and writing early Roman history poses very similar problems – in both cases we have strong later traditions that relate only speculatively to the evidence surviving from the period. In this course we look at what we can know from contemporary evidence, both literary and archaeological, about what was happening in Greece and at Rome from the eighth century into the fifth century, and at what later tradition claimed and why it made such claims. The course exploits both the evidence of Greek and Roman epic that is being studied in the literary papers and a range of other poetry and prose and just a little archaeology. It serves as a background not only, in different ways, to Greek and Roman epic poetry but also to the constructions of the past in classical Greek and late Republican and Augustan Roman literature.

Preliminary reading: R. Osborne Greece in the Making c.1200–479 (2nd edn. London 2009); T. J. Cornell The Beginnings of Rome: Italy and Rome from the Bronze Age to the Punic Wars (London, 1995); M. Beard, SPQR (2015), chaps 2-4.

Passages for comment in the examination will be drawn from the following texts, but candidates will also be expected to use knowledge drawn from the texts set for the epic module of the literature papers.

Iliad 2.211–277 (Thersites), 18.478–608 (shield of Achilles)

Odyssey 2.1–223 (assembly on Ithaca); 4.589–620 (Menelaus’ gifts to Telemachus); 24. 412–66 (assembly on Ithaca).

Hesiod Works and Days 27–41, 225–47, 618–62 (trans. Most, Loeb)

Archilochos 196a (Cologne epode; trans. Gerber, Loeb)

Semonides 7 (trans. Gerber, Loeb)

Sappho 22, 23, 27, 98 (trans. Campbell, Loeb); New brothers poem, trans. Obbink ZPE 189 (2014) 39–40.

Alkman frg. 1 (Louvre Partheneion) (trans. Campbell, Loeb)

Herodotos 5.66–9 (Cleisthenes and Cleisthenes of Sicyon); 5.92 (Cypselos and Periander) (trans. Godley, Loeb).

Meiggs and Lewis Greek Historical Inscriptions no.s 2 (Dreros), 5 (Cyrene), 8 (Chios) (trans. Fornara Translated Documents of Greece and Rome Vol. 1 From Archaic times to the end of the Peloponnesian War no.s 11, 18, 19).

Cicero De Republica II. 17-22; 25-30; 32-37.

Dionysius of Halicarnassus 3.46 – 3.49.1

Livy I.1-7.3; I.56-60; II.28-29,  31.7-33.3, 41; III.30-34; III.50-54; IV. 13-16; 20

Vergil Aeneid VI. 756-853; VIII.313-369

Ovid Met. XIV.581-622 & 772-851

Plutarch Life of Romulus 1-13



(3 C: Easter, weeks 1-3)

Three revision classes, each focusing on one of the three topics specified for Part 1B this year: The Early History of Rome and Greece; Sparta; and Ruling the Roman Empire: from Augustus to the Severans.

There will be a particular focus on how to tackle the text passages in the compulsory Question 1.

Latest news

Corbett Lecture 2021, “Sympathy and the Problem of Nature”

6 October 2021

Professor Brooke Holmes, Princeton University, will deliver this year’s Corbett Lecture in G19 on Thursday October 21 at 5.00 p.m.

Collaboration between the Faculty of Classics and the University of Ghana

20 October 2021

We are proud to announce that the Faculty of Classics has established a collaborative link with the University of Ghana, generously funded by the Cambridge-Africa ALBORADA Research fund. Developing new connections with Ghana promises to open up new possibilities for research and teaching, which will be beneficial for both...


19 October 2021

The podcast for Aldborough Roman Town , written and presented by Dr Rose Ferraby, is now available. See the project page for more information .

Onassis Foundation endowing a fellowship for the creation of a new post in Classics

12 October 2021

A new University post linked to Newnham will continue a College tradition of teaching, research, and taking Classics out into the wider world that goes back more than a century to Jane Harrison. Newnham College, Cambridge is launching the Onassis Classics Fellowship in order to secure a permanent position for the teaching...