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.