Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module CLAS3791: The History of Writing in the Ancient Mediterranean

Department: Classics and Ancient History

CLAS3791: The History of Writing in the Ancient Mediterranean

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


  • At least one CLAS module at level 1 or 2 or ARCH 2091 or ARCH 2161 or ARCH 2141


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To learn more about the development and use of writing systems in the ancient world.
  • To develop a deeper understanding of ancient material culture and social history.
  • To explore the history of the ancient Mediterranean – and particularly its lesser-known voices – through detailed analysis of epigraphic sources.


  • So much of our knowledge of the ancient world comes to us through writing – but how much do we know about writing itself? This module explores the technology of writing in the ancient Mediterranean, from the earliest syllabic and ideographic systems through to the Greek and Latin alphabets. Students will learn about how Greek and Latin writing first developed, and how they changed over time. Students will also learn about the sounds of these languages and how we can describe and analyse their phonology. We will also introduce the principles behind other writing systems of the ancient world, which may include examples such as Linear B, the Cypriot syllabary, Punic, Palmyrene, Syriac, hieroglyphic Egyptian, Old Persian and Etruscan. While we explore these writing systems, we will delve into the social history of writing, discussing questions such as: how we define ‘writing’; whether the alphabet is ‘better’ than other forms of writing; how writing expresses and creates political power; how literacy interacts with social class and gender; how people learned to read and write; whether there was a ‘standard’ way of spelling Greek or Latin; how language contact and bilingualism affect writing; and how language death occurs.

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Broad knowledge of writing in the ancient Mediterranean, including a range of writing systems and how they change over time.
  • Understanding of the role of writing in the ancient world and the sources that ancient epigraphy provides for social and cultural history.
  • Awareness of modern debates about ancient writing and literacy.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Developing an understanding of the ancient world through its material and epigraphic evidence.
  • Developing critical approaches to ancient source material, including issues relating to the limitations of the available evidence.
Key Skills:
  • Developing skills in critical analysis of source material.
  • Demonstrating the ability to read, assess and organize diverse information to form a coherent argument.
  • Conducting independent research, including library and online research.
  • Presenting material effectively in an oral presentation.

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

  • Lectures will introduce students to the development of writing as a technology and the range of writing systems used to write Latin, Greek and other languages of the ancient Mediterranean. Lectures will also draw out wider thematic links and areas for discussion. Seminars will focus on thematic topics designed to complement the lecture series, allowing students to explore their own ideas. Each seminar will bring together a range of ancient sources and secondary literature for detailed discussion and debate. The formative assessment will help students to gain practice in analysing epigraphic sources. Two summatives will develop students’ research and presentation skills. The presentation (which may be live or recorded) will help students to enhance their ability to communicate complex material effectively to an audience. The long essay will allow students to conduct research into a topic within the module, and to present their argument successfully in written form.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 20 1 per week in Michaelmas and Epiphany Terms 1 hour 20
Seminars 6 3 in Michaelmas Term, 3 in Epiphany Term 1 hour 6
Preparation and Reading 174
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Summative Assessment Component Weighting: 100%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Oral Presentation 10-15 minutes 30% Yes
Summative Essay 3500 words 70% Yes

Formative Assessment:

One formative exercise in Michaelmas term.

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