Classics at Oxford

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"Classics is more varied and interdisciplinary than most other subjects; it is the study of the civilisations of ancient Greece and Rome, their literature and languages, their history and thought, their art and their culture. The elements of the course range from interpretation of literary texts, including epic, drama, satire, historical writing and much else, to linguistics, literary theory, archaeology and historical reconstruction of ancient cities, values and ways of life. The course also involves study of philosophy, which need not be restricted to ancient philosophy.There has been study of the ancient world at Oxford for over 900 years and... as the largest faculty of Classics in the world Oxford can offer an unparalleled range of undergraduate and graduate courses, catering for a huge range of interests."

The Oxford classics course is divided into two parts that last five terms and seven terms respectively, the whole lasting four years in total, which is one year more than most first degree courses at Oxford and other English universities. The course is normally taken as a first degree and leads to a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) qualification. Throughout the course there is a strong emphasis on first hand study of primary sources in the original Greek or Latin.The Course


In the first part (Honour Moderations or Mods) students concentrate on Latin and/or Greek language; in the second part students choose eight papers from the varied disciplines of Classical Literature, Greek and Roman History, Philosophy, Archaeology, and Linguistics. The teaching style is very traditional and consists of weekly tutorials in each subject, supplemented by a wide variety of lectures. Consisting until recently of 11 or 12 three-hour papers set across seven consecutive days, the examinations for Honour Moderations at the end of the fifth term were notoriously intensive; as of 2006 this is no longer the case due to the wide-ranging redesign of the way Classics is taught at Oxford, necessitated by the omission of Latin and Greek from the British National Curriculum when it was introduced in 1988. Students now face a "mere" 10 or 11 three-hour papers incorporating language, literature, philosophy and, potentially, history, philology or archaeology. The papers are set across seven or eight days, and candidates for Classics Mods still face a much larger number of exams than undergraduates reading for other degrees at Oxford sit for their Mods, Prelims or even, in many cases, Finals.

The Mods course runs for the first five terms of the whole course. The traditional aim was for students to develop their ability to read fluently in Latin (especially the Aeneid of Virgil) and Greek (the Iliad and the Odyssey); this remains the case today, but the course has changed to reflect the continuing decline in the numbers of applicants who have had the opportunity to study Greek and Latin at school.

Since the early 1970s it has been possible to learn Greek from scratch during Mods. More recently options have been added for those without Latin either.

There are now five alternative paths through Mods.

  • Students with both Latin and Greek at A-level take the traditional route, Mods IA.
  • Those with only one language do Mods IB (Latin plus beginners' Greek) or Mods IC (Greek plus beginners' Latin).
  • Those with an aptitude for languages but who have not had the opportunity to do Latin or Greek can take either Mods IIA (beginners' Latin only) or Mods IIB (beginners' Greek only).

Language tuition is now organised centrally by the Faculty of Classics; this leaves the colleges free to concentrate on teaching classical literature, history, and philosophy.

Course I

Language and literature:

  • Homer, Virgil
  • Texts and Contexts, integrating literary, historical and archaeological material and approaches

Philosophy and special subjects:

  • One special subject in Philosophy (ancient or modern)
  • One classical special subject (literary/historical, archaeological, philological)

Course IIA

  • Virgil’s Aeneid
  • Special subjects and Texts and Contexts as Course I

Course IIB

  • Homer’s Iliad
  • Special subjects and Texts and Contexts as Course I

All students who successfully pass Mods then go on to study the full Greats course in their remaining seven terms. Those doing a Course II version of the course are expected to read as many of their Finals texts in the original of their chosen language as those on Course I; there is, moreover, the option of studying the second Classical language as two papers at Finals.


As of 2004 the full Lit. Hum. course has been revised; students (who will be first examined in 2008) now choose eight papers from a wide range of subject areas:

  • Ancient history — "period" papers ranging from the pre-history of Greece to the first Flavian emperors in Rome; or "topic" papers, on such subjects as Gender and Sexuality in the

Ancient World or Athenian democracy.

  • Philosophy — from Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics to more modern philosophers, such as Kant and Wittgenstein
  • Ancient literature — including "core" papers on mainstream Greek and Latin texts, plus various individual authors and other topics
  • Philology (classical linguistics) — including such papers as 'Greek from Linear B to the Koine', 'Oscan & Umbrian ' and 'General Linguistics and Comparative Philology'
  • Classical art and archaeology from vases to buildings
  • Second classical language — for those who only offered one language at Mods
  • Optional special thesis as a ninth paper; theses can be offered within each of the first five options

The regulations governing the combinations of papers are moderately simple: students must take at least four papers based on the study of ancient texts in the original Latin or Greek; otherwise they can choose what they want, provided only that if they offer literature papers, they must offer the appropriate "core" papers too, and if they choose to offer "period" papers in history then they must offer one of the approved combinations.

The main teaching mechanism remains the weekly essay, one on each of the two main chosen subjects, typically written to be read out at a one-to-one tutorial; this affords all students plenty of practice at writing short, clear, and well-researched papers.

Despite the changes, there is still a strong emphasis on study of the original texts in Latin and Greek, which are examined by prepared translation and by gobbet. In a typical "text" paper candidates will be expected first to translate into English three or four long passages selected by the examiners from the set books; and secondly to comment on each of an extended set of short paragraphs or sentences from the same set texts; marks are awarded for recognising the context and the significance of each excerpt.

In the past it was compulsory also to offer papers in unprepared translation from Latin and Greek into English; these papers counted "below the line" — candidates were required to pass them, but they did not otherwise affect the overall class of the degree. This requirement has now been dropped, and it is possible to pass Greats without offering any unprepared translation papers. The formerly optional prose and verse composition papers (English into Latin and Greek) have been removed from the Greats syllabus entirely.

[Edit: I asked the Faculty about this and they told me: That is certainly not true. Prose composition (English to Latin/Greek) is still a very important component of the course.]


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