Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module CLAS3781: The Origins of Civilisation

Department: Classics and Ancient History

CLAS3781: The Origins of Civilisation

Type Open Level 3 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap None. Location Durham


  • One module on or related to ancient philosophy (CLAS 2761, 1101) OR one Classical reception module (CLAS 2811, 2891) OR one early modern philosophy module (PHIL2031).


  • None.

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None.


  • To develop and enrich students' understanding of ancient political philosophy and ethical theory.
  • To develop a better understanding of the role of cultural history in ancient intellectual history, and a greater appreciation of forms of argument (e.g. thought experiments).
  • To see how ancient philosophical ideas were received and modified in the Renaissance and early modern period, especially in reference to European efforts to make sense of—or misunderstand—New World societies.
  • To introduce students to less familiar texts and authors, while engaging critically and with focus on texts explored in other modules.


  • The 'state of nature,' a theoretical or (purportedly) historical time before the advent of organised human society, has proven to be a fertile source of inspiration for political philosophers and their attempts to articulate their respective visions of the ideal form of government. Appeals to the state of nature have been made famous by early modern thinkers such as Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau; what is less well known is that these imaginative reconstructions of early human society were inspired by a rich and diverse tradition of anthropological speculation in Antiquity.
  • This course will examine a range of these ancient prehistories and explore how different thinkers used them to justify very different conclusions about human nature and good government. Readings will focus on philosophers, including Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Lucretius, and the Stoics; but we will also consider the ideas of other ancient authors, such as the historian Polybius and the poets Hesiod and Vergil.
  • The course will end with a reading of Rousseau's Discourse on the Origin of Inequality and selections from other modern works as case studies of the reception of ancient ideas in later foundational works of political philosophy.
  • We will also spend several weeks exploring Native American philosophy and its views on the course themes (with a special focus on the Aztec Empire).
  • We will also spend several weeks exploring Meso-American societies, their achievements, and attempts by Europeans to understand them through Classical models.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Previous encounters with ancient ethical and political theory will be enriched through close and focused analysis of ancient cultural histories. The inclusion of more recondite material will enrich level 1 and 2 modules' coverage of ˜canonical' texts.
  • An appreciation of how theories about human nature and development influenced ancient historians, poets, and other writers.
  • Awareness of how ancient ideas were used in the Renaissance and early modern period, e.g. to make sense of European encounters with Native Americans or debates over slavery.
  • Awareness of how ideas change and develop over time: from acorn-eating cave dwellers to indigenous peoples in the new world to theorising about the state of nature to Rawls' abstract ˜original position' argument.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • A deeper critical awareness of argumentative strategies (i.e. thought experiments and cultural history) used by ancient philosophers and their early modern successors.
  • An ability to understand, and engage with, diverse cultural approaches to the ancient world.
  • Critical skills in the close reading and analysis of ancient texts, including the ability to synthesise, interpret and evaluate a wide range of primary and secondary source material.
  • Greater competence in conducting self-directed primary research.
  • Awareness of the reception of ancient prehistories.
Key Skills:
  • An ability to construct a lucid and sophisticated argument in written form.
  • The capacity for critical thinking and independent judgement.
  • Encouraging students to engage in robust intellectual discussion and debate, with figures from Antiquity and with other students.

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

  • Each class will include a lecture and a discussion component. The lecture will offer an overview of historical, cultural, literary, and philosophical issues, and will also introduce future readings by giving important contextual information about authors, genres, etc.
  • The discussion period offers the chance, through small group and/or general discussion (depending on class size), to ask questions and debate various issues presented in the lectures and the assigned readings.
  • Seminars will afford an opportunity for close reading and extended discussion of key primary texts or critical secondary works.
  • Tutorials will provide an opportunity for students to get detailed feedback, and discuss more closely, their assessments.
  • Assessment will take place through essays, enabling students to develop their own areas of interest within the course through self-directed research, engaging closely both with primary sources and with broader questions of reception.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 20 1 per week 1 hour 20
Seminars 6 6 1 hour 6
Preparation and Reading 174
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Summative Essay 1 Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Summative Essay 1 2,500 words 100% Yes
Component: Summative Essay 2 Component Weighting: 50%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Summative Essay 2 2,500 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