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Literary Evidence for Ancient History - 10 credits (HS3325)

Staff: Louis Rawlings (coordinator), Kate Gilliver, Stephen Lambert, Laurence Totelin, Shaun Tougher

How does an ancient historian deal with a literary text? Critical analysis of texts (including all ancient histories) is an essential aspect of the study of the ancient world. Students taking this module will deepen their understanding of the purposes of historical writing, and of the wide variety of forms of literature (including biography, poetry, letters, geography and ethnography) which the ancient historian must place in context and use as evidence.

Core module for: BA Ancient History, Year 2
Optional for: all other Ancient History degrees, normally in Year 2
Availability: autumn semester every year
Teaching: 10 lectures and 2 seminars
Assessment: two short source criticism exercises (50%) and a comparison of sources (50%)

Syllabus content

The module comprises a survey of ancient literature, by genre, focussing on the interpretation of texts as historical sources. The issues are first put in context, with a consideration of method and purpose in ancient historical writing, leading to a discussion of themes in ancient historiography, including rhetoric, fiction, presentation of character and moral didacticism. The course will then examine parahistorical and other literary texts, illustrating the critical approaches and contextualised analysis necessary to the historian. Seminars will focus on textual case-studies, in order to develop students' critical skills.


  • To give students a thorough grounding in the use of literary texts, historical and non-historical, as evidence for ancient history.
  • To discuss the major genres of ancient writing.
  • To illustrate the way in which literary texts should be approached and analysed.

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module, the student will demonstrate:

  • a knowledge of the genres of ancient historiography.
  • a knowledge of the methods used by ancient writers in gathering and presenting their material, and an appreciation of the repercussions of this for the modern historian.
  • an ability to analyse and appreciate the nature of ancient literary texts.
  • an ability to discuss these issues and show evidence of these abilities in written coursework with coherent and logical arguments, clearly and correctly expressed.

Preliminary reading

There is no central text to read over the vacation; instead you should read the ancient historical sources you have to hand (Herodotus, undoubtedly, possibly also Polybius, Livy, Thucydides or Ammianus Marcellinus), and consider what and how they write. What is the purpose of their history? For whom was it written? What style do they choose to write in? What do they think of their fellow historians?

Secondary works
C. Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (1983)
M. I. Finley, The Use and Abuse of History (1975)
M. I. Finley, Ancient History: Evidence and Models (1985)
M. Crawford (ed.), Sources for Ancient History (1983)
A. Cameron (ed.), History as Text: the Writing of Ancient History (1989)
N. Morley, Writing Ancient History (1999)
K. Jenkins, On ‘What is History?’ (1995)
A. Marwick, The Nature of History (1970)
E. H. Carr, What is History? (second edition, 1961)

Related modules

Prerequisite modules: HS3101 Introduction to Ancient Greek History or HS3102 Introduction to Roman History

Other modules to consider taking in conjunction with this one:

All Ancient History modules