Classical Archaeology and Ancient History

A letter from your tutor

Dr Georgy Kantor, Official Fellow in Ancient History

Congratulations on your offer of a place to read Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at St John’s College! Although October may seem a long way off, there are various issues that I would like you to start thinking about in preparation for the autumn.

Let me say a word first about the language options. We have devised a set of language papers specifically for students of Classical Archaeology and Ancient History. While by no means compulsory, these are intended to provide gradual but rigorous language-learning with a view to equipping you to use ancient evidence in the original languages, as well as for its own sake! For those with some Latin or Greek already, more advanced language options are also available.

For beginning and intermediate languages, courses will be taught by Faculty classes, for three hours per week during Michaelmas and Hilary Terms; advanced languages will be taught by a combination of college and faculty resources. I attach to this letter a fuller description of the language papers. If you wish to take one of the language papers, you need to take prompt action now, as you start considering your options for the first two terms, in order that teaching arrangements can be put in place. The person responsible for the organisation of these classes is the Grocyn Lecturer, Ms Juliane Kerkhecker (, and you should contact her directly as soon as possible if you are interested in taking a language option. Please also let me know via the Admissions Office.

It might help you in decision-making to know how the first year of CAAH maps out. In the first term you will take a Greek core class (‘Aristocracy and Democracy in the Greek World, ca. 550-450 BC’), which is centrally taught in the Faculty of Classics, by a joint team of archaeologists and historians. In the second term you will take an equivalent Roman core class (Roman history 50 BC to 50 AD). But running alongside these two core classes and also in the third term, you choose two other papers – one historical, one archaeological (or one of these can be replaced by a language paper, as above). The historical and archaeological options are as follows:

  1. Aristophanes Political Comedy
  2. Thucydides and the West
  3.  Cicero and Catiline
  4.  Tacitus and Tiberius
  1. Homeric Archaeology           
  2.  Greek Vases
  3.  Greek Sculpture
  4.  Roman Architecture

Secondly, you would be well-advised to embark upon some advance reading for your Greek Core class in order to make the most of the opportunities the course will offer in your first term. I shall circulate the updated suggestions for advance reading from the class tutors in due course, but I attach their reading list from the last year in the meanwhile: it is unlikely to change very considerably. Start with Herodotus, who is not only the key source for this paper but also a life-enhancing and highly entertaining read. All of the primary texts (in the recommended translations with notes) and secondary literature on this list will be easily available on Amazon, via Blackwell’s (Oxford’s main academic bookseller, who also trade online), or similar. Once you join the college, you will have access to a very generous academic grant system, which you can use for book purchases, and will be able to buy books at a discount at Blackwell’s. You may want to delay any more expensive purchases till then, but you will be able to reclaim the cost of book purchases made for the preparatory reading against your academic grant retrospectively. A very useful free-of-charge resource for classical texts in translations is the Perseus Digital Library (be warned, though, that translations there are out-of-copyright and so often in rather outdated English).

I hope that you will enjoy making a start on your university work, and that you will let me know if you would like any further advice about any aspect of the course or college, or about how best to go about your preparatory reading. We very much look forward to having you at St John’s for the next three years.

I hope that you will enjoy making a start on your university work, and that you will let me know if you would like any further advice about any aspect of the course or college, or about how best to go about your preparatory reading in the current difficult circumstances. We very much look forward to having you at St John’s for the next three years, and I hope you and your family keep well and safe in the coming months.

Greek Core subject: Aristocracy and Democracy ca. 550 – 450 B.C.

Introductory Reading

During the summer we would like you to become familiar with the general outline for Greek history for the years 550 to 450, and with some of the more important ancient sources for the period. Some of these are set texts for the paper on which exam questions are set at the end of the first year.

1. Herodotus.  We would prefer you to use the Oxford World’s Classics ed. translated by Waterfield, but you may use instead the Penguin ed. translated by Selincourt and updated by Marincola, or the Landmark Herodotus translated by A.L. Purvis (with helpful appendices, illustrations, maps, dates).  Aim to read all of the passages in the prescription, but knowledge of the whole text will be useful (and it’s a good read).

2. The Athenian Constitution Written in the School of Aristotle (a work associated with Aristotle, but not necessarily written by him).  Read chapters 13 to 26.  If possible, use the Aris & Phillips edition with introduction & notes by P.J. Rhodes, but the older Penguin ed. translated by P.J. Rhodes will also do.  This is a dense but very short work.

3. Plutarch Cimon (or Kimon).  This is a short and lively ‘biography’ of a leading Athenian statesman.  Use Penguin ed. translated by I. Scott-Kilvert in the volume titled The Rise and Fall of Athens.  If you enjoy this work then you might also like to read (and will find helpful) the lives of Themistocles, Aristeides and Pericles from the same volume, though these are not set texts.

4. [Xenophon] The Spartan Constitution (also known as the Lakedaimonion Politeia or as Spartan Society).  Use Penguin ed. translated by R. Talbert in the volume titled Plutarch on Sparta.  The same volume includes Plutarch’s life of Lycurgus which you may also like to read (the Lycurgus is not a set text but you will find helpful for the week on Sparta).

5. For an overview of the period ca. 550 to 450, and for a broad conspectus of Greek history in general that will orientate this period in longer-term processes and serve you well throughout your course see: Rhodes, P.J., 2014, A Short History of Ancient Greece, I.B. Tauris, esp. chs 1 to 6.

6. Start to build up and learn a list of key dates: you will find these extremely helpful.

Optional further reading

A. Read the remaining items from the list of set texts (below).

B. For a general introduction to the archaeology and history of the archaic Greek World, start with: Hall, J., 2013, A History of the Archaic Greek World ca. 1200-479 BCE, second edition, Blackwell, Oxford: chapters 1, 2, and 6 to 12.

C. For a more archaeologically focused approach see also Whitley, J., 2001, The Archaeology of Ancient Greece, Cambridge University Press: chapters 1 to 4 and 8 and 9.

D. For a more comprehensive account of the period 550-479 see also Osborne, R.G., 1996 or 2ed. 2009, Greece in the Making, Routledge, London, esp. chs 6-9.

Set texts

Herodotus: translated by R. Waterfield for Oxford University Press
Book I chapters 1-94 (proem etc, story of Kroisos)
            141-176 (Ionia)
II.        151-182 (Egypt under Saite Dynasty)
III.       39-60 (Polykratean Samos)
            80-97 (Persian matters incl. ‘Constit. Debate’, Satrapies, Tribute)
            120-149 (Samos again)
            160 (Zopyros)
V.-IX. in entirety.

[Aristotle] The Athenian Constitution Written in the School of Aristotle (also known as the Athenaion Politeia) translated by P.J. Rhodes for Aris & Phillips: chapters 13-26.

[Xenophon] The Spartan Constitution (also known as the Lakedaimonion Politeia or as Spartan Society) translated by R.J.A. Talbert for Penguin.

Plutarch Cimon: translated by I. Scott-Kilvert for Penguin.

Theognis:translated by D.E. Gerber, Greek Elegiac Poetry, 1999 for Loeb.

Thucydides: translated by M. Hammond for Oxford University Press
Book I chapters 89-117 (Pentekontaetia)
            chapters 126-138 (The end of Themistokles and Pausanias)

The set texts include several short inscriptions which we shall not expect you to read before the start of the term.

Key selected passages for Weeks I & II

Freshers Week and the beginning of term make up one of the busiest parts of the academic year. If you would like to get ahead then as well as covering the following passages in the introductory reading you may wish to note them in more detail:

“Hdt”  = Herodotus
“AP” = [Aristotle] The Athenian Constitution

I. Polykrates and Samos
3.39-60 (the main narrative)
3.120-126 (death – add 126-128 for death of Oroites)
3.128, 131, 132 (minor references)
3.139-149 (incl. 140, 142 on Polykrates): after Polykrates: the Persian conquest of Samos
4.151-152: Kolaios of Samos
3.139-149: after Polykrates: Maiandrios and Syloson
4.138: Aiakes, son of Syloson / nephew of Polykrates, tyrant of Samos
5.112: free Samian success off Cyprus
6.13-14, 25: Samians turn traitor & Aiakes reinstated
8.85: Theomestor made tyrant of Samos in return for services to Persians at Salamis
8.130: Samos used as base
9.90-92, 99, 103: Samos liberated from Persian control

II. Peisistratos, the Peisistratids and Athens
Hdt I.59-64
AP 13-17

Study skills for incoming undergraduates

As an Oxford student, you have many great opportunities ahead, but studying here can also be very challenging. To help you prepare for this, we have put together some resources that will help you develop your study skills before you start at Oxford, no matter your subject.

Starting at Oxford

Starting a course at Oxford can be very daunting, but there are many resources out there to help you succeed! Here are some useful guides from across the University that you might want to check out:

  • Study skills and training: Here you can find advice on academic good practice including avoiding plagiarism, managing your time, reading, note taking, referencing and revision.
  • Student life: It’s not all about academics at Oxford; here you can find out about the range of other opportunities available to you as a student, as well as tips on how to navigate student life with your workload. If you prefer podcasts, much of this information is available in that form here!
  • Managing the cost: Undergraduate students Helena, Joe and Dan, have teamed up with the University’s Undergraduate Admissions team to discuss the financial support available to students and how they manage the cost of studying at Oxford.

Useful contacts

If you have any questions that aren’t answered on this page, you can get in touch with the following people:

ContactQuestions they can answer
Admissions Office: Sarah JonesAnything to do with offers, visas, UCAS issues, reading lists and preparatory materials
Accommodation OfficeAccommodation, what to bring, insurance, electoral roll issues  
BursaryAll things financial
College OfficePractical arrangements, bank letters, etc.
Disability enquiries: Elaine EastgateAny issues relating to disability or special requirements