Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module CLAS2731: Ancient Epistolography

Department: Classics and Ancient History

CLAS2731: Ancient Epistolography

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Not available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • CLAS1601 or CLAS1301 or CLAS1731


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • to build on Level 1 knowledge of classical literature by providing an introduction to the literary genre of epistolography and its different forms
  • to develop further skills of literary analysis acquired at Level 1 through a deeper and closer exploration of particular texts
  • to deepen students' understanding of culture at large by exploring the political and social functions of ancient epistolography.


  • The texts to be used in this module may vary from year to year (in part to ensure appropriate fit with texts encountered in earlier levels of study). Typically they will be drawn from the following:
  • ancient theories of letter-writing: e.g. Demetrius (Peri Hermeneias 223-235), Seneca (Epist. 38, 40, 67 and 75), Gregory of Nazianzus (Epist. 51), Iulius Victor (Rhetorica 27), Pseudo-Demetrius and Pseudo-Libanius
  • later theories of letter-writing: e.g. Erasmus of Rotterdam (De conscribendis epistulis) and Christian Fürchtegott Gellert (Praktische Abhandlung von dem guten Geschmacke in Briefen, 1751), more recent approaches (20th/21st centuries)
  • prose letters: e.g. Cicero, Seneca, Pliny the Younger, Fronto and Marcus Aurelius, authors from the Second Sophistic (esp. Aelian, Alciphron and Philostratus), St. Jerome
  • poetic letters: e.g. Ovid (Tristia and Epistulae ex Ponto, Heroides), letters in drama
  • non-literary (documentary) letters on papyri and other materials

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • knowledge of some major examples of ancient epistolography and its different forms
  • familiarity with the notion of literary genre and an understanding of genre-boundaries
  • knowledge of the political and social contexts relevant to understanding ancient epistolography.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • an ability to make intelligent use of the notion of genre in the analysis of literature
  • an ability to make use of the socio-cultural and historical context in the assessment of literary texts
  • a broader ability to draw on diverse theoretical approaches in literary analysis.
Key Skills:
  • an ability to engage in an informed and sophisticated way with diverse and challenging texts;
  • an ability to compare and assess different interpretative approaches and methodologies;
  • a capacity to sustain a clear, well-structured and well-defended argument in written form.

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

  • Classes focus on the main texts and topics covered in the course and enable students to discuss and develop their ideas in an interactive environment.
  • Student presentations (ideally in smaller groups) provide an impulse for further discussions.
  • The summative essay will assess the students' familiarity with the evidence and the sophistication of their analyses. It will test student's ability to focus on relevant issues and organise knowledge and argument appropriate to questions raised.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Classes 14 1 per week (7 in Michaelmas Term and 7 in Epiphany Term) 2 hours 28
Preparation and reading 172
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Essay Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Summative essay 4,000-5,000 words 100% Yes

Formative Assessment:

One formative exercise

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