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Seminar Greek: Scandalous Arts in Ancient Greece and the Modern World


Admission requirements

This course is open to MA and research MA students in Classics and Ancient Civilizations (specialization Classics). Admission requirements for other students: a BA degree in Classics obtained from a university in the Netherlands, or a comparable qualification obtained from a university outside the Netherlands. Moreover, students with an international degree have to contact the coordinator of studies to check admissibility.


Some time near the beginning of the fifth cent. BCE, the Presocratic philosopher, Heraclitus, wrote that ‘Homer deserves to be expelled from the competition and beaten with a staff – and Archilochus too!’. These two poets were considered by most people even at that time to be ‘classic’ authors, full of aesthetic delight and for some, even repositories of moral and technical wisdom. Plato himself, a century later, revered these poets. And yet he too complained on several famous occasions that some of their work was unsuitable for public consumption.
Clearly a debate very familiar to us was already swirling in ancient Greece: What is the appropriate relationship between arts and society? What effect does art have on individuals and communities? What criteria do we apply in deciding whether art is socially ‘acceptable’ or if it has positive value for society? The arts that clash most directly with tastes and mores, of course, are the ones that force citizens to articulate philosophically not only the role of art in society, but also the nature of aesthetics, and the conflict between the cultivation of the self and social responsibility. Such ‘transgressive’ or ‘scandalous’ arts put any democratic ideology to the supreme test. We may endorse in the abstract freedom of expression, for example, but should the people, the ‘demos’, ever impose limitations on such freedom, and if so, in the name of what?

This course studies cultural and philosophical notions of scandal and transgression in the arts of Ancient Greece, and, comparatively, in our own time. The comparative approach will help us understand why some communities turn certain texts and objects into ‘classics’, while others repudiate them. The course will address questions of literary and visual aesthetics, psychology, anthropology, education, politics and religion, within the historical and cultural contexts of the authors and works studied.
Ancient authors will include: Archilochus, Hipponax, Plato, Aristophanes, Euripides, Aristotle, Philodemus, and the Roman satirists. Later authors will include Edgar Allan Peo, Vladimir Nabokov, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, various hip hop and punk-rock artists, contemporary visual artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, and various American comedians.

Course objectives

  • Knowledge of a range of texts relating to the theme of the class. Competence to read these texts and understand them within their cultural context.

  • Knowledge of cultural-critical and literary-critical apparatus enabling the student to analyze the material studied in this class.

  • Critical assessment of secondary literature.

  • Advanced research skills: independent formulation of complex research question, collecting materials (both primary texts and results of earlier research). Analysing results, constructing arguments, formulating conclusions.

  • Oral presentation: presenting clearly and on the basis of arguments the results of the student’s research.

  • Effective use of hand-out, illustrations or multi-media techniques.

  • Written presentation: effectively, clearly and in a well-structured manner setting out of research results.

  • Active participation and preparation: the student demonstrates involvement in the topic by asking well-informed and constructive questions and making contributions to the collective progress.


Please consult the timetable on the Classics and Ancient Civilizations website.

Mode of instruction


Assessment method

Note that Research MA students will be held to higher standards of originality and research skills in assessment.

When taken for 10 ec:

  • Active class participation and preparation (including in-class translation quizzes from Greek into English): (3 quizzes @10%=) 30%.

  • Two shorter oral assignments (e.g., short reports on select secondary litertature): (@15%=) 30%

  • Final research paper: 40%.

When taken for 5 ec:

  • Active class participation and preparation (including in-class translation quizzes from Greek into English): (3 quizzes: 2 15% 1 10% = 40%).

  • Three shorter oral assignments (e.g., short reports on select secondary literature) (@20% = 60%).


In this course we make use of Blackboard.

Reading list

To be announced at first session.


Students are required to register for this course via uSis, the course registration system of Leiden University. General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch.

In addition to the registration in uSis, students are also expected to self-enroll in Blackboard a few weeks before the course starts.


Professor Ralph Rosen or professor Ineke Sluiter.


Professor Rosen is a Visiting Spinoza Researcher in Ineke Sluiter’s Spinoza program.