Classical Literature And Civilisation (Q820): Selected Module Descriptions (years 2 and 3)

Year 2

Roman Republican Literature in Context and Augustan Literature in Context

This module contains material central to an understanding of Roman literature. The first semester deals with the literature of the late Republic, while the second semester explores the literature produced in the period of Augustus. Both combine the study of individual authors with an emphasis upon the cultural developments taking place during this period. Lectures will explore the intellectual background and the key themes, as well as providing guidance in the reading of texts.

Year 3

Athenian Drama and Idea of the Polis

This module contains material central to an understanding of Greek literature, thought and culture, and to the content of all departmental syllabuses. The first part focuses on 5th-century Athenian drama: tragedy, comedy and satyr-plays. Plays are investigated not as closed texts but as what they are: scripts for performance. Lectures situate plays in the context of the development of their genres; explore evidence for Athenian theatrical practice; and introduce key critical approaches, as well as some modern recreations of Greek plays. Workshops allow in-depth discussion of the verbal and visual meanings of individual plays or scenes; some will include discussion of performances seen on video. The core of the module, however, consists of practical enactment of scenes by groups of students. By acting, and by evaluating other students’ enactments, students discover for themselves the plays' visual and oral possibilities (and difficulties), and gain an understanding of the processes whereby the significance of the verbal text is realised, augmented or varied in performance.

The second part of this module places drama in a larger context by exploring the other genres in which conflicting models of the polis were articulated and the ideal of democracy was formed, reformed or rejected. Students explore the complex relationships between the various ‘theatres’ of Athenian civic life - the assembly, the courts, the agora, the private reading or debate, and of course the theatre itself; and between the ‘imaginary’ and the ‘real’ - the overlapping domains of political theory, political rhetoric and ideology, and political practice. Lectures provide a historical framework and introduce the various genres as well as key concepts and methodologies; workshops are an opportunity to investigate particular texts, and relationships between texts, in greater detail.

Years 2 and 3

Option – Greek and Roman Comedy

In this option you will study selected plays by the four greatest and most influential ancient comic playwrights of antiquity: the Athenians Aristophanes (c. 450-c. 380) and Menander (342/1-291/0), and the Romans Plautus (c. 250-c. 180) and Terence (c. 190-c. 160). We begin with Aristophanes, whose crazy, scurrilous, obscene and extravagant fantasy dramas shed colourful and scintillating light on Athenian politics, society and intellectual culture during and immediately after the Peloponnesian War.

After a brief glance at early 4th century Middle Comedy, known to us from scanty but tantalising fragments, we move on to the very different world of Athens in the late 4th  century, still an intellectual and cultural powerhouse but now politically dominated by the Alexander the Great and his successors. This was the cosmopolitan, louche and sentimentally-inclined milieu that produced New Comedy: the ancestor of the European comic tradition, from Italian Commedia dell’ Arte via Shakespeare, Molière, French farce and Ealing comedy to the modern Hollywood rom-com and TV sitcom.

Menander drew his comic situations from the intrigues and vicissitudes of family life: fathers and sons, husbands, wives, and mistresses, masters and slaves, and, above all, lovesick young men and their girlfriends. It’s about deception, crossed purposes, mistaken identities, cunning plans which go wrong, interventions of Chance or Fate, and – usually – happy endings in which boy and girl are united against the odds. Unlike Aristophanes, whose works became school textbook, Menander’s plays were the ancient equivalent of the airport novel; they survived – in fragments – not because they were copied by medieval monks but because they have turned up on papyrus leaves in rubbish-dumps, mostly in Egypt.

Greek New Comedy was exported to the Greek cities of southern Italy and there gave birth to the first comedies in Latin. The star playwrights were Plautus, from Sarsina in Umbria (N. Italy), and Terence, probably from North Africa. Their comic world could veer between a Greek/ Athenian fantasyland and the Roman here-and-now, creating a fusion of escapism and social satire not a million miles from The Simpsons, South Park  or Family Guy.

There will be a mixture of lectures by me, student presentations, and workshop/ seminar activities. The two guiding strands will be ancient contexts and modern comparisons. On the one hand, how did these plays work in a particular place and time, against the backdrop of the Peloponnesian War, the bourgeois Athenian polis under Macedonian rule, or the emerging Roman imperium, and what can they tell us about the societies which produced them? On the other hand, how can we understand them better as comedy by comparing them with modern comic works – in whatever genre – which use recognisably similar techniques?

You will not be made to act – and you certainly don’t need any skill or experience as an actor – but it will be an advantage if you are willing to get involved and not too worried about looking silly in a room where other people – including the lecturer – are looking silly too.

Option – Matrons and Monsters: Roman Women

This module will examine the portrayal of Roman women, in contexts such as marriage, family, public life, religion, etc, in texts ranging from late republican to late imperial Rome. Sources will include Roman letters, historiography, epic, satire and elegy, as well as epigraphic material. Representation of historical characters such as Clodia Metelli, or Cornelia, the mother of the Gracchi, will be studied alongside fictional creations such as the Italian queen Amata in the Aeneid, or Propertius’ mistress “Cynthia”.

Option – Greece and Rome in Film and Television

This option introduces students to receptions of classical antiquity in film, television, and other contemporary popular media.

Semester 1 focuses on ancient Greece, as represented in the 1990s ‘cult’ television series, Xena: Warrior Princess. Students will meet a range of appropriate methodologies for the study of popular cultural materials, with particular emphasis on cultural, media, subculture and fan studies. The module includes study of controversial receptions of antiquity by minority-identified constituencies (e.g. the Black Athena debate), additionally enabling students to reflect critically on the formation and procedures of their own academic disciplines.

Semester 2 concentrates mainly on representations of Rome in Hollywood and in avant-garde cinema, studying films such as Spartacus, The Fall of the Roman Empire, Gladiator, and Fellini’s Satyricon and Roma. Students will learn to deploy methodologies appropriate to the study of the reception of the ancient world, as well as some introductory knowledge of the various theories of film as an art form.

Option – Pompeii and Campania

The focus of this module will be on the Italian cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, destroyed during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, and their region. It will examine the society, culture and religion of the cities through a range of literary, inscription and archaeological evidence. Students will be introduced to the problems that each of these types of material poses for the historian. The module will address many different aspects of life within the cities including public and private display; the demonstration of loyalty to the emperor and empire; elite patronage; religious cult; work at the cities; public entertainment including gladiators and public deviance; elections and governance. Additionally the module will consider the heritage management of the material remains at the sites and will address perceptions of Pompeii in popular culture (including for instance painting, film and TV, and popular novels). Comparisons will be drawn between the cities and their importance as examples of Roman urbanism more generally will be analysed. Relevant comparisons to other Italian cities will also be made. Finally, the module will consider what the cities can teach us about urban change during the Roman empire.

Seminar – Catullus and his World

In this seminar, students have the opportunity to study Catullus’ entire oeuvre in depth. We will read the short poems (elegies and epigrams) in the first semester, and devote the second semester to the long poems (including the wedding hymns, the Attis poem, and the mini-epic 64). The poetry will be read in its late republican context, and we will explore, for instance, how the attitudes and vocabulary presented by Catullus relate to the wider context of works such as Cicero’s de Oratore and de Officiis. We will also explore the evidence for the practices involved in reading, writing, performance and publication in the late republic. We will, of course, also look into the representation of the relationship with Lesbia and explore the implications of this for our understanding of the role of women in the late republic.

Seminar – Herodotus

The Histories of Herodotus is considered one of the seminal works of history in Western literature. The Histories serves as a record of the ancient traditions, politics, geography, and clashes of various cultures that were known around the Mediterranean and Western Asia at that time. It is not an impartial record but it remains one of the West's most important sources regarding these affairs. Moreover, the author Herodotus thereby invented ‘history’ as a field of study.

Seminar – The Iliad and the Mahābhārata

The Mahābhārata (muh-HAA-BAA-ruh-tuh) is the nearest thing in Indian literature to Homer. Composed in Sanskrit (the Indian equivalent of Latin), its kernel dates back to a century or two before Homer, but it has been colossally expanded since then. It tells of five brothers, the Pandavas, who win a wife, spend time in exile, learn religious and moral truths, interact with good, evil and often inscrutable characters – gods and heroes (in Greek terms), and win the great final battle that brings this heroic age to an end (just as the Trojan War does). Yudhishthira, the leading Pandava, then rules for 36 years, till – bearing a dog – he enters heaven. If Homer is the bible of the Greeks, then the Mahābhārata enshrines an infinity of learning – it even includes the celebrated Bhagavad Gītā.

This seminar is for pioneers and those interested in other cultures.  I do not claim to be an expert in the material, but I do think that we can find our way together through it and learn a lot more about Homer too in the process.

I anticipate that students taking this seminar will have a reasonablish knowledge of Homer (Odyssey too), one way or another, and will be keen to spot the similarities and differences.  We will use an abridgement of the Mahābhārata (not a ‘re-telling’!), given its huge length (8 times the Homeric epics combined) and the absence of a complete translation in modern English, even if it were affordable.  There is a complete English translation on line (1883-96) and we will occasionally turn to it.  Mostly we will go book by book through the Mahābhārata and pick up the Homeric resonances as we go along.  The format of seminar and oral presentations is nicely suited to this exploration. We may also look at excerpts from DVD productions.

Seminar – Sex, Lies, and Violence: Rome and Athens

This module will investigate the representation of sexual, moral and political corruption in Athens and Rome. It will proceed through a range of case studies on the darker side of the Roman and Athenian elites as portrayed by a range of authors from the Graeco-Roman world. It will examine the rhetoric of moral corruption, the ways that it was used by authors to make political and social points and the ‘othering’ of social groups. In semester 1 we will examine classic Republican and Imperial exemplars of corruption including Mark Antony, Caligula and Elagabalus. In semester 2 we will focus on a range of characters and characterisations including: Theseus, Harmodius and Aristogeiton (the tyrannicides), Pericles and his concubine Aspasia, and Demetrius Poliorcetes filling the Parthenon with his prostitutes.