Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module CLAS2871: Theatre & Spectacle in Ancient Rome

Department: Classics and Ancient History

CLAS2871: Theatre & Spectacle in Ancient Rome

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap None. Location Durham


  • CLAS1301


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To examine the development of popular entertainment in Rome from the 3rd century B.C. to the 2nd century A.D.
  • To analyse Roman theatrical practices according to a full range of evidence: literary; historical; visual; material; archaeological.
  • To examine the performance conditions of ancient Roman drama
  • To consider how and to what extent Roman theatre differs from Greek models
  • To investigate the political and cultural connotations of theatre and spectacle in ancient Rome


  • This module offers a synoptic view of popular entertainment in ancient Rome, ranging from blood sports to pantomime, from solemn tragedy to slapstick farce. Particular attention will be paid to the way in which Roman theatre developed from a fusion of native Italian and imported Greek traditions, and how these eventually transformed into large-scale public spectacle. We shall read (in English translation) selected comedies from Plautus and Terence, several tragedies by Seneca, and one historical drama: the Octavia. In addition, we shall we shall examine the architecture of Roman theatres, actors' costumes and masks, and the material evidence relevant to gladiators, mimes, and pantomimes. Two central themes unite these diverse materials: 1) the role that theatre and spectacle played in Roman politics; and 2) why and how the Roman dramatic tradition differs from the Greek. The module comprises a balance of literary and historical analysis.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Broad and sophisticated knowledge of dramatic/spectacle entertainment in ancient Rome, its evolution and key characteristics
  • Critical awareness of the relationship between dramatic script and performance
  • Critical awareness of the benefits and limitations involved in using diverse forms of evidence (e.g. texts versus material culture) to study Roman theatre/spectacle
  • Understanding of the major issues and debates pertaining to this topic in current scholarship.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • The ability to analyse and synthesize a wide range of primary material, including play texts and visual representations of performances.
  • The ability to situate and assess Roman theatrical practices in their social, political, and historical context
  • The ability to evaluate and engage critically with modern scholarship on Roman theatre/spectacle, and to appreciate how it fits within the wider scholarly landscape.
Key Skills:
  • The capacity to produce tight, well-evidenced and clearly expressed arguments both in oral and in written form.
  • The ability to compare and evaluate a range of different scholarly views and methodologies
  • The ability to formulate one's own approach by building upon earlier research
  • The capacity to conduct independent research
  • An appreciation for and intellectual accommodation of radical cultural differences

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

  • Lectures provide an overview of the main events, texts, topics, and evidence encompassed by this module
  • 4 seminars, each on a specific topic, allow students to air their own views, develop their ideas/arguments, and explore collectively the module's major themes.
  • 2 tutorials, one at the end of Michaelmas and one at the end of Epiphany, give students the opportunity to discuss feedback on their formative and summative essay work.
  • The formative essay allows students to exercise and improve their analytical skills through written argumentation and evaluation of published research.
  • Group presentations encourage students to hone their oral presentation skills, to engage in collaborative work, and to familiarise themselves with the professional use of multimedia equipment (e.g. PowerPoint; Prezi)
  • The summative essay tests students' ability to assemble, organise, and convey in writing the knowledge and arguments relevant to the question posed. The examination will assess the breadth and depth of students' knowledge of the topic, as well as their ability to produce well-reasoned, sophisticated analysis.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 20 1 per week 1 hour 20
Tutorials 2 1 in Michaelmas term, 1 in Epiphany term 1 hour 2
Seminars 4 2 in Michaelmas term, 2 in Epiphany term 1 hour 4
Preparation and reading 174
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Examination Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Written examination 2 hours 100% Yes
Component: Essay Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Summative essay 2500 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