Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Postgraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2020-2021 (archived)

Module CLAS44430: Edessa: The Athens of the East

Department: Classics and Ancient History

CLAS44430: Edessa: The Athens of the East

Type Open Level 4 Credits 30 Availability Available in 2020/21 Module Cap None.
Tied to


  • None.


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • To introduce students to the history of Edessa and to the emergence of Syriac literature and culture in the context of the Roman Near East.
  • To provide students with the academic tools necessary to access Syriac epigraphic, documentary, archaeological, and literary sources for their own research in fields such as Roman history, literature, philosophy, science, religion, magic, etc.
  • To develop an awareness of the diversity of the Greco-Roman world and of its lively cultural contacts with neighbouring societies.
  • To enable students to recognise and assess in critical fashion the impact of Greco-Roman civilisation on neighbouring societies.
  • To initiate a conversation on the origins of literature and its significance from a socio-cultural viewpoint.


  • The module explores the history of the city of Edessa and the emergence of its unique civilisation, art, and literature in the context of the Roman Near East. A Seleucid foundation, Edessa prospered during the Roman imperial period, when the encounter with Greco-Roman civilisation made it the crucible of new, and extraordinary, cultural developments. The culture of Edessa and its surrounding region thrived through contact with Rome and continued to flourish after its incorporation into the Roman provincial system, as is attested by a rich archaeological record that includes inscriptions, mosaics, and papyri in both Greek and Edessa’s own vernacular language, a dialect of Aramaic later known as Syriac. By far the most surprising development, however, was the appearance and burgeoning of a vernacular literature in Syriac, which, particularly in its earliest phase, found models in existing Greek literature. Syriac literature soon became notable for its poetry, its historiography, and its philosophical and theological writings, but also for the large amount of secular translations of Greek secular texts that it produced over the centuries.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Detailed knowledge of a selection of Greek, Latin, and Syriac primary sources (in translation) on the history of Edessa, Osrhoene, and the Roman Near East.
  • Knowledge of a range of current scholarship on the history and culture of the Roman Near East and on Syriac Studies.
  • A critical understanding of the cultural and historical significance of the impact of Greco-Roman civilisation on neighbouring societies.
  • Awareness of academic conversations on issues pertaining to postcolonialism, subalternity, bilingualism, and translation studies.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • An ability to access and to make an informed use of Syriac sources for independent research in diverse fields.
  • An ability to use, in critical fashion, a diverse range of primary sources, including archaeological, documentary, epigraphic, numismatic, historiographical, and literary material pertaining to the Roman Near East.
  • An ability to use and to engage with scholarship on the Roman Near East and Syriac Studies.
  • An ability to engage with relevant academic conversations in fields such as postcolonialism, subalternity, bilingualism and translation studies.
Key Skills:
  • The ability to assess and make use of a range of ancient sources of diverse nature and in different languages.
  • The ability to collaborate with your peers in seminar presentations and discussions.
  • The capacity to produce tight, well-evidenced, clearly expressed, and original arguments in both oral and in written form.
  • The capacity to produce independent and convincing interpretations of a diverse body of ancient sources and informed by modern academic scholarship.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Teaching takes place by fortnightly seminars organised around specific research questions and sources.
  • The fortnightly seminars are two-hour long sessions to allow and encourage significant preparation and detailed discussion.
  • Formative assessment consists of a short essay submitted at the end of Michaelmas term (2,000 words) and a presentation on a topic of each student’s own choosing.
  • Summative assessment consists of a max. 5,000-word essay on a topic of each student’s own choosing, which should be different from the formative essay.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 8 4 in Michaelmas term and 4 in Epiphany term 2 hours 16
Preparation and Reading 284
Total 300

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay Max 5,000 words 100% Essay

Formative Assessment:

1 essay (2,500 words) and 1 oral presentation

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University