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Paper 9: Classical Art and Archaeology

Aims and objectives

  1. To introduce the range and variety of Greek and Roman archaeology and art, and the types of evidence available, expanding the knowledge acquired in 1A.
  2. To introduce the general principles of archaeology, as applied to the Greek and Roman worlds.
  3. To explore the ways in which iconography in the ancient world has been studied in modern times, and how this integrates with other archaeological approaches to ancient societies.


Scope and structure of the examination paper 2020–21

The syllabus is based around the following topics: (i) Us and Them; (ii) Visual narratives; (iii) From Palaces to the Polis; (iv) Surveying Ancient Landscapes; (v) Mycenae (taught in ET20).

Candidates must answer three questions, including Question 1. Question 1 will contain a choice of four pairs of images for comment, one pair corresponding to each of the topics taught in the year (including ET21); candidates must answer on three images, no more than one image per pair. There will also be two essay questions corresponding to each of the topics taught in the year (including ET21). All questions carry equal weight.


Course descriptions


(8 L: Michaelmas)

The wondrous achievements of Roman architecture and the lavish expenditure in works of art that came along with it still lie before our very eyes. When one considers, however, that atmospheric pollution levels at the height of the Roman Empire could rival those of the early Industrial Revolution, that Roman trade extended far across the Indian Ocean and that the city of Rome harboured a population of a million people, it becomes clear that this must have been the result of quite a unique combination of specific conditions. Indeed archaeology suggests that similar patterns had not occurred before and – most importantly – were in fact not to be seen again for more than a thousand years afterwards. This awareness cannot but raise very important questions about the relationship between ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’. Acknowledging the significance and extent of actual similarities makes it even more important to properly define and explain the nature of the differences: what – if anything – made them different from us?

The aim of this course is to explore this intriguing question by critically reviewing the varied array of available evidence about the structure and performance of the Roman economy – moving dialectically between aspects of economic theory, material culture and art history. As such it will look at technological development and manufacture patterns, it will place artistic and architectural practice in its broader social-economic context, it will explore the extent of trade and supply, and it will address the issue of economic growth and relevant cultural attitudes. This journey will eventually lead us to discuss to what extent and in precisely what terms the insights we derive about the modern economy can be effectively used to illuminate the Roman one… and vice-versa.

Preliminary readings: K. Greene (1986), The Archaeology of the Roman Economy (London); W. Harris (2015), Prolegomena to a study of the economics of Roman Art, in American Journal of Archaeology 119.3: 395-417; C. Marcone (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Art and Architecture (Oxford) [107-414]; B. Russell (2013), The Economics of the Roman Stone Trade (Cambridge); W. Scheidel, I. Morris and R. Saller (eds.) (2007), The Cambridge Economic History of the Greco-Roman World (Cambridge) [1-171, 485-768]; W. Scheidel (ed.) (2012), The Cambridge Companion to the Roman Economy (Cambridge); A. Wilson (2006), The economic impact of technological advances in the Roman construction industry, in E. Lo Cascio (ed.), Innovazione Tecnica e Progresso Economico nel Mondo Romano (Bari), 225-236.



(8 L: Lent)

Story-telling is coventionally associated with words, in oral and written communication. Yet today stories are mostly relayed by images, or image-dominated media. Was this also true in antiquity? Beginning with an introductory survey of narrative art in societies with zero or restricted literacy, and (for those who need it) a brief immersion in the depths of narrative theory, this course traces a ‘story’ of visual story-telling from Geometric Greece to the Antonine period of the Roman empire. The order of lectures is chronological, with certain general questions addressed alongside a series of case-studies. Is the ‘naturalism’ of Classical art due to the graphically descriptive style of Homeric epic? Should ‘art’ and ‘text’ be considered as (rival) siblings, or as occupying ‘parallel worlds’? Must every story have a beginning, middle and end? Does the Hollywood formula (Joseph Campbell et al.) arise from Classical codification – or cross-cultural practice?

Students intending to follow the course should prepare themselves by looking at Aristotle’s Poetics, and some primer of ‘narratology’, e.g. D. Herman, Basic Elements of Narrative (Wiley-Blackwell 2009) or M-L. Ryan ed., Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling (Nebraska 2004). For the sort of case-studies we will be addressing, see R. Brilliant, Visual Narratives (Cornell 1986), and P.J. Holliday ed., Narrative and Event in Ancient Art (Cambridge 1993).



(8 L: Lent)

This course looks at the decline and fall of the Mycenaean palaces and what comes next. Is it really a Dark Age? How do people cope with the collapse of a complex hierarchical society, and what new ways of living in the shadow of the palaces emerge? Finally, how when and why do new complex societies emerge in the shape of the polis? We will look at a wide variety of evidence  (archaeological, visual material and texts such as the Homeric epic) in an attempt to shed light on this period: a period which is so important for understanding emergence of Classical Greece.

Initial reading: A.M. Snodgrass The Dark Age of Greece (1971); R. Osborne Greece in the Making 1200-479 BC (1996); J. Whitley The Archaeology of Ancient Greece (2001).



(8 L: Easter)

Conventional views of archaeology see excavation as the way in which new information is obtained – and indeed excavation remains key to the discipline. However, new evidence is increasingly obtained through a variety of forms of survey – methods that collect information from the surface without digging. This course will introduce these methods of study illustrating their contribution through a series of examples. These range from the collection of surface artefacts (field-walking), through aerial photography (using light aircraft, drones and satellite imagery), to archaeological geophysics (“seeing beneath the soil”). Case studies discussed with include examples of the Greek and Roman countryside, cities and the port complex of Ostia and Portus at the mouth of the Tiber. As well as introducing and explaining the methods – and showing some spectacular results, the course will also explore the potential and limitations of the evidence obtained.

Preliminary reading: C. Renfrew and P. Bahn (2016) Archaeology: theories, methods and practice (Where? Survey and Excavation of Sites and Features); C. Gaffney and J. Gater (2003) Revealing the Buried Past: Geophysics for Archaeologists; K. Brophy and D. Cowley (eds.) (2005) From the air: understanding aerial archaeology.


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