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Fields of Study

Both Ph.D. and M.A. students of Classics specialize in literature, history, archaeology, or philosophy and the history of science; their training combines core skills and methods with innovative and theoretically informed approaches.  Applicants indicate their desired fields of study on their application and are required to complete coursework unique to their field in the program.

Ancient History

The historical study of the ancient world has a disciplinary history that itself merits study. In the eighteenth century, Europe began to dominate the globe. Asking themselves why this was, European intellectuals came up with a radical new theory: European superiority came not from Christianity, but from a cultural tradition that began in ancient Greece. The Greeks invented freedom and rationality; Rome then spread these gifts across Europe. This was why only Europe had a Scientific Revolution and an Enlightenment; and why Europe was now colonizing the other continents. Anyone who wanted to understand the world had to begin with the history, literature, and art of Greece and Rome. For 200 years this premise made close reading of Thucydides, Tacitus, and other texts meaningful and important. Greek and Roman history were institutionalized in European and American schools and universities. But as the World Wars, decolonization, and the rise of Asian economic power shook confidence in Euro-American superiority, the value of careful study of Greek and Roman history seemed less obvious. Since the 1960s many people have concluded that these fields are irrelevant; and in the 1980s some multicultural critics even called them Eurocentric charter myths.

Three Approaches to Ancient History

At Stanford, we believe that the intellectual upheavals of recent decades have renewed the most fundamental question: what is the significance of the ancient Mediterranean in world history? Answering this, we think, should be ancient historians' main task. As we see it, the question implies three sub-questions, interlinked but calling for different approaches and methods:

  • What exactly happened in the ancient Mediterranean world? Much remains obscure, even in the best-trodden fields of political history; and we have barely scratched the surface of questions about economics, society, and culture. We need to continue developing traditional philological skills, and to combine them with new evidence from material culture, new methods from the social sciences and humanities, and new interests.
  • How much does it matter? Any claim about historical significance is implicitly comparative: significant relative to what? Asking just how unusual Greek and Roman developments were requires that we look at other societies, and sometimes these comparisons show that pairing Greece and Rome between c. 700 BC and AD 500 obscures more than it reveals. Some of the processes at work make most sense when we study them in Egypt, Persia, or Carthage as well; or when we look at a longer time span, going back into prehistory or forward into the Middle Ages; or when we put the ancient Mediterranean into the larger set of all pre-industrial societies. Most of the time, the answers to these questions show that assuming a priori that ancient history is self-evidently important or that it is irrelevant are equally wrong.
  • How have we interpreted it? Reinterpreting the ancient Mediterranean forces us to ask why so many fine scholars, across 200 years, so often came to different conclusions. The only way to answer this is through self-critical intellectual history, understanding the evidence available to earlier scholars, their ideological and intellectual formation, and the audiences and institutions they worked within. Only then can we understand where the questions that ancient historians ask came from, why some are still valuable, and why others should change.

Answering our core question about the significance of the ancient Mediterranean for world history will inevitably be a collaborative effort over many years. Most research and teaching will address sub-question (a), but its importance depends on thinking about questions (b) and (c), and engaging with scholars in other fields.

Ancient History at Stanford

We suggest that ancient history is not a distinct discipline: it is an area of research that can contribute to many different disciplines, from literary criticism to economics. Ancient history at Stanford is based in the Classics department.  Faculty collaborate regularly with colleagues in the departments of Anthropology, Economics, History, Philosophy, Political Science, and Sociology; the Stanford Archaeology Center; and the Schools of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences and Law, and the Hoover Institution. A broad range of research and teaching goes on at Stanford, but we are particularly strong in ancient economic and social history and social science methods.

Students Studying Ancient History at Stanford

Ancient history is changing faster than at any time since the late nineteenth century, when modern research universities took shape. We have found that asking new questions, using new methods, and proposing new answers energize the field. At Stanford the numbers of undergraduates taking ancient history classes and of graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and faculty focusing on this field have grown rapidly since the mid-90s. Only US history survey courses draw more students than the ancient history surveys. Our primary goals are to help students learn how to ask good new questions, and to teach them the skills they will need to answer them. As the types of questions ancient historians ask multiply, so too do the methods they might use. Graduate programs therefore walk a fine line between leaving students without the skills they need to do serious work and burdening them with so many requirements that they take many years to finish their coursework.

In our Graduate program, we try to resolve this by focusing on four issues:

  1. Seminars. These classes address major debates in ancient history and related fields. The readings focus on recent contributions, and students make presentations and write research papers. The classes emphasize the formation of questions and how historians argue. The goal is to help students learn how to identify and frame good questions. All students also take History 304, "Approaches to History," the History department's introductory graduate course.
  2. Sources proseminars. These come in two types. (1) A two-year survey of classical literature, focusing on Greek and Latin material in alternate years. (2) All ancient historians need to know how to use non-literary sources. We offer four classes on inscriptions, coins, papyri, and archaeology. At least one class is offered each year, on a four-year rotation. Students choose the two types of non-literary source that are most useful for their research. In both categories of source proseminars, the goals are to become familiar with the material and with the central problems in its interpretation.
  3. Skills classes. Ancient historians draw on a wider range of skills than ever before. Some require advanced training in Greek or Latin semantics, style, and syntax; others need further ancient languages, like Egyptian or Hebrew; others still need techniques drawn from fields like archaeology, demography, palaeography, or literary theory. Each student chooses the 3 skills classes that will contribute most to his or her research, drawn from any department at Stanford or the other universities in the Bay Area. Some students may choose to enlarge their skill set by taking a Ph.D. Minor in a related department, if funding is available.
  4. Narrative history. The basics of chronology and narrative political history remain fundamental to all serious research. All graduate students will take advanced surveys of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman history, unless they place out of these classes in a diagnostic exam at the beginning of their first year, and will serve as Teaching Assistants in the undergraduate surveys of ancient history.

These classes provide the foundations for writing a dissertation, a monograph-length original contribution to research in ancient history. The dissertation is the most important part of graduate school, and qualifies the student as a professional ancient historian. Dissertations normally serve as the basis for a first book or for a series of major articles. (The Stanford Bulletin provides a full description of the requirements for the Ph.D. in Ancient History.) 

Stanford's ancient history program is small and highly selective. Students work closely with faculty in a very dynamic intellectual environment, with constant interactions with the larger Classics program, the History department, the Archaeology Center, and other groups at Stanford. There are weekly research workshops featuring papers from visiting speakers and Stanford faculty, postdoctoral fellows, and advanced graduate students. The program has generous funding to support travel to conferences, study in the Mediterranean, and archaeological fieldwork.

Language and Literature

Because ancient texts are indivisibly social and aesthetic, because ancient texts are both forms of communication and formal objects, we read them with the help of a number of approaches. At Stanford, these range from traditional philology (including the rigorous analysis of manuscript and papyrus sources, language, meter, rhetoric and style) to performance and reception studies, translation theory and practice, social anthropology and folkloristics, and a wide range of contemporary literary theories. Equally, history, art and archaeology, epigraphy, and ancient philosophy--long-standing strengths in the Stanford program--are integral to our literary study, in mutually illuminating ways.

No single approach predominates; a commitment to deep and shared understanding unites us. It's not unusual for discussion in a single seminar session on epic to range from the significance of a Greek verb tense and the violations of Hermann's Bridge to Bakhtin's ideas on genre or analogues from the study of pop culture. A seminar on Athenian culture of the classical period would be open to discussing Periclean building programs, the archaeology of cult, the utility of Geertz's analysis of culture, and the economics of theatrical production, as well as literary analysis of Euripidean choral odes and the Platonic view of tragic mimesis. Such a course might even be team-taught, by a historian and philologist or philosopher, as are an increasing number of our seminars. 

A course on Catullus might involve discussion of Roman sexuality as illuminated by his poems; the idea of lyric in, before, and after Catullus; the process of transmission of the physical text from antiquity through the advent of printing to the present day; the tensions between Catullus' embeddedness in the discourse of elite life at Rome and his unprecedented assertion of a personal and private world; the connections with contemporary philosophical views on the emotions; the question of whether Catullus' Lesbia is to be identified with the Clodia attacked by Cicero; and the tyranny of the canon in deciding which poems of Catullus represent the "real" Catullus: how can this love poet have authored those crude and obscene poems attacking such politicians as Julius Caesar?

The close reading of texts in the original languages is complemented by a wide range of departmental courses in translation, placing literature in the broader study of ancient Mediterranean and even contemporary cultures. The various options for undergraduate majors and minors provide flexibility for students who wish to combine an in-depth study of literature with other fields. At the graduate level, the departmental reading lists for translation and Ph.D. qualifying exams reflect our belief that Classicists must master a substantial core of Greek and Latin prose and poetry. We also encourage students to explore non-canonical, neglected or obscure texts, often in a comparative mode, working with faculty in a tutorial setting. Passionate, informed, and innovative interpretation is what we teach and expect.

Classical Archaeology

The later twentieth century saw a fundamental move away from Classical Archaeology's traditional focus on the excavation of city centers, the architectural analysis of major monuments, the typological classification of artifacts, and the aesthetic or purely descriptive analysis of visual imagery.  The material record of the past can no longer be subsumed to evolutionary historical narratives or an essentialist view of cultures.  Several archaeologists who played a leading role in this paradigm shift joined Stanford's faculty in the 1990's (including Michael Shanks and Ian Morris in Classics, and Ian Hodder in Anthropology) and became founding members of a new Archaeology program at Stanford.  Classical Archaeology at Stanford grew from there; we are committed to developing and exploring cutting-edge theoretical and methodological approaches to the material culture of the ancient Mediterranean. 

There are five core teaching faculty in the graduate program: Ian Morris (archaeology and history of Iron Age Greece, Big History, modern outcomes of ancient history), Michael Shanks (archaeology of ancient Greece, archaeological theory, metamedia, performance archaeology, archaeologies of design), Jennifer Trimble (visual and material culture of the Roman Empire; portraits and replication; urbanism and the city of Rome; ancient mapping and social-spatial analysis), Giovanna Ceserani (intellectual history of classical archaeology and historiography; Hellenism and modernity; the modern study of Magna Graecia) and Justin Leidwanger (Mediterranean maritime networks, Roman trade and exchange, ceramics and pottery analysis, architecture of the Roman Empire). In addition, students work closely with faculty in Classics (including Walter Scheidel and Josh Ober in ancient history; Richard Martin, Alessandro Barchiesi, Natasha Peponi in literature; Reviel Netz and Andrea Nightingale in history of science and philosophy, among others) and in Anthropology (including Ian Hodder, Lynn Meskell, Barb Voss, Ian Robertson among others).  The PhD requirements are designed to provide students with the ability to generate innovative and theoretically-informed questions about the ancient Mediterranean, and to answer them through the rigorous application of archaeological evidence, methods, and analytical frameworks.

Three major areas are currently receiving a great deal of attention in both faculty research and graduate seminars. One is the connection to recent developments in ancient history.  Answering questions about what happened in the ancient Mediterranean, how people lived, and why that matters requires the ability to handle textual as well as material evidence, and to work with historical models and methods as well as archaeological theories and techniques.  Shared research areas here include ancient economies, quality of life, ancient colonialism, comparative imperialism, and others.  A current strength of our PhD program is developing archaeologists with strong historical training, and historians who handle material evidence as fully as they do textual sources.  Second is the connection to ongoing theoretical developments in Archaeology.  All faculty and graduate students in Classical Archaeology are members of the Stanford Archaeology Center, which brings together archaeologists from departments all over campus to share research and cross-cultural perspectives.  Current research themes include urbanism, heritage, historical archaeology, and cultural memory.  Graduate students in Classical Archaeology are required to take two of their core seminars at the Center (Methods, Theory), and are strongly encouraged to take additional seminars on theoretical and/or comparative themes relevant to their research.  Third is the exploration of changing modern relationships to the material past.  This includes research into the current landscape of archaeological looting, the antiquities trade and issues of ownership and repatriation; it includes explorations of the intellectual history of archaeological research, including antiquarianism and modernity; it includes work on the full range of modern relationships to the material past, i.e. heritage.

PhD students in Classical Archaeology are encouraged to develop their own fieldwork projects, as relevant to their developing research interests.  Students have been closely involved in faculty projects at Monte Polizzo (Sicily), the Roman Forum (Rome), and Binchester (northern England).  Graduate students who became co-directors of field projects during their time at Stanford include Trinity Jackman (Monte Polizzo, Sicily), Lidewijde de Jong (Tell Sheikh Hassan, Syria) and Danielle Steen (Tall Dhiban, Jordan).  The department has extensive funding to help support student research and fieldwork in the Mediterranean.

Have Questions Along the Way?

Contact the team at classics [at] (classics[at]stanford[dot]edu) 

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