Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module HIST30O3: The Last Romans: sixth-century Italy and the end of late antiquity

Department: History

HIST30O3: The Last Romans: sixth-century Italy and the end of late antiquity

Type Open Level 3 Credits 60 Availability Not available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • •A pass mark in at least TWO level two modules in History.


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To introduce students to the complexities of the transformation from late antiquity to the early Middle Ages in sixth-century Italy
  • To enable students to develop detailed knowledge and understanding of a range of sources (written, material, visual) which shed light on a significant moment in European history
  • To enable students to engage with the methodological and source-critical problems raised by the study of continuity and change in the distant past


  • Towards the close of the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great warned that the world was nearly at an end. During this century, Italian society had experienced wars, invasions, floods and plague; simultaneously, and more subtly, the ancient world slipped away and a new era began. Through the course of the module we will investigate the nature and extent of Italy’s sixth-century transformation, considering how and why these changes took place, and exploring their effects. We will examine topics such as empire, ethnicity (Goths, Romans, Lombards, Greeks), cities and their hinterlands, art and architecture, learning and education, politics and power, war and invasion, religion and heresy, miracles and the supernatural, statecraft, health and medicine, apocalypticism, modernity, society and daily life. Our guides will be two individuals who embody the changes seen in Italy during the sixth century, and who have been called the ‘Last Romans’. Cassiodorus Senator (c.485-585) was a learned statesman who served in Ravenna under Theoderic the Great (King of the Ostrogoths and ruler of Italy); Gregory the Great (c.540-604) transformed the papacy in ways which shaped it throughout the early Middle Ages. Both Cassiodorus and Gregory looked back towards the ancient world, and forward towards what, for them, was modernity: they also both left a substantial quantity of written material which allows us to look at the world through their eyes, and to see the cities and landscapes in which they lived, the societies which they inhabited, and the mental worlds of politics, religion, culture and learning which surrounded them. Alongside these we will look both at the large quantity of written sources from other authors (such as the salacious Secret History of Procopius) and at the significant quantity of surviving material and visual culture, particularly from Rome and Ravenna. Through the rich and fascinating evidence which survives from sixth-century Italy and the Mediterranean world, we can peek into an extraordinary moment of historical transformation, and explore the lives and times of the ‘Last Romans’. (Students should be aware that this module will contain violence, sex, bad language and dragons.)

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • Students will gain subject-specific knowledge relating to Italy and the Mediterranean in the sixth century, during the transition between the late ancient world and the early Middle Ages
  • Students will develop their knowledge and understanding of the ways that historians construct, rather than record, the past
  • Students will gain experience of examining, analysing and using different types of evidence (written, material, visual), with reference to current historiographical debates
Subject-specific Skills:
  • Subject specific skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/History/ugrads/ModuleProformaMap/
Key Skills:
  • Key skills for this module can be viewed at: http://www.dur.ac.uk/History/ugrads/ModuleProformaMap/

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

  • Student learning is facilitated by a combination of the following teaching methods:
  • seminars to allow students to present and critically reflect upon the acquired subject-specific knowledge, methodologies and theories, and to identify and debate a range of issues and differing opinions. The seminar is the forum in which students are given the opportunity to communicate ideas, jointly exploring themes and arguments. Seminars are structured to develop understanding and designed to maximise student participation related to prior independent preparation. Seminars give students the opportunity to develop oral communication skills, encourage critical and tolerant approaches to reasoned argument and historical discussion, build the students' ability to marshal historical evidence, and facilitate the development of the ability to summarise historical arguments, think in a rapidly changing environment and communicate in a persuasive and articulate manner, whilst recognising the value of working with others and, occasionally, towards shared goals;
  • tutorials either individually or in groups to discuss topics arising from prepared work, allowing students the opportunity to reflect upon their personal learning with the tutor.
  • Assessment:
  • Examinations test students' ability to work under pressure under timed conditions, to prepare for examinations and direct their own programme of revision and learning, and develop key time management skills. The unseen examination gives students the opportunity to develop relevant life skills such as the ability to produce coherent, reasoned and supported arguments under pressure. Students will be examined on subject specific knowledge;
  • Summative essays remain a central component of assessment in history, due to the integrative high-order skills they develop. Essays allow students the opportunity to recognise, represent and critically reflect upon ideas, concepts and problems; students can demonstrate awareness of, and the ability to use and evaluate, a diverse range of resources and identify, represent and debate a range of subject-specific issues and opinions. Through the essay, students can synthesise information, adopt critical appraisals and develop reasoned argument based on individual research; they should be able to communicate ideas in writing, with clarity and coherence; and to show the ability to integrate and critically assess material from a wide range of sources;
  • Assessment of Primary Source Handling Students are assessed on their understanding of original primary sources, usually in print, their character varying according to the nature of the subject, and the students' ability to bring that knowledge to bear on 'cutting edge' research-based monographs and articles. Students are given the opportunity to discuss and articulate an understanding of changing interpretations and approaches to historical problems, drawing evidence from a body of primary source materials. Students are required to demonstrate skills associated with the evaluation of a variety of primary source materials, using documentary analysis for a critical assessment of existing historical interpretations.

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Seminars 22 Weekly Terms 1 & 2 3 hours 66
Revision Sessions 1 Revision 2 hours 2
Preparation and Reading 532
Total 600

Summative Assessment

Component: Coursework Component Weighting: 60%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Essay 1 maximum of 3000 words, not including scholarly apparatus 34%
Essay 2 maximum of 3000 words, not including scholarly apparatus 34%
Source Analyses maximum of 3000 words, not including scholarly apparatus 32%
Component: Examination Component Weighting: 40%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Seen open book examination 3 hours 100%

Formative Assessment:

One formative essay of not more than 2500 words (not including footnotes and bibliography); preparation to participate in seminar and tutorials; at least one oral presentation, and practice source/gobbet work.

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