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History writing in and on the Achaemenid Empire


Admission requirements

This course is open to (Res)MA students of Classics and Ancient Civilizations (all specializations). Knowledge of primary languages is not required. Students from other MA tracks who are interested in taking the course but who are not sure whether they possess the necessary background information are welcome to contact the instructor.


By the first millennium BC, the inhabitants of the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world had long told stories about their past. Most of these stories – as far as they are preserved – focused on the particular history of the people that told them: Egyptian stories were about Egyptian kings, Babylonian stories were about Babylonian kings, etc. However, during the first millennium BC, a succession of ever-expanding empires changed the political as well as the cultural landscape of antiquity. An increasing number of communities – now forcefully unified, moved around and intermixed by the state – began to share a sense of history. And by the time of the Achaemenid Empire (539 – 330 BC), tales told on the banks of the Euphrates were also told on the banks of the Nile. (Hi)stories in this period began to intersect, merge, and overlap – a situation which lay the groundwork for the writing of “universal histories,” of which The Histories by Herodotus (fifth century BC) was the first real example.

The present course will introduce students to this crucial phase in the history of history writing. We will dive into Mesopotamian libraries, Egyptian tombs and Dead Sea caves to study how the past was remembered and recorded by the people in (and just before and after) the Achaemenid Empire. We will read a variety of stories (in translation), analyze their specific contexts, and study the emergence of Greek history writing against this background. Throughout the course, questions about what “history” was (as a genre), what kind of influence the Achaemenid Empire had on its development, and how the Empire itself was portrayed in the tales that were told during and after its existence, will be of prime importance.

Sources that will be treated during this course include (but are certainly not limited to): a selection of Babylonian Chronicles; the demotic Petition of Petiese; the story of Ahiqar; the biblical book of Daniel; The Histories of Herodotus; the tale of two brothers in Pap. Amherst 63; and the Aegyptiaka and Babyloniaka by Manetho and Berossus respectively.

Course objectives

Students will:

  • gain broad familiarity with historical texts from and on the Achaemenid Empire, the circumstances in which they were written, and the purposes they served;

  • gain insight into the cosmopolitanism of the age, and the cross-fertilization of different narrative traditions;

  • learn to assess and contextualize the available source material and become familiar with the methodological problems involved in their interpretation;

  • enhance their ability to give a clear (oral and written) presentation of a given topic;

  • enhance their ability to formulate a research question and to conduct independent research about a topic related to the course.

This research seminar contributes to the achievement of learning outcomes 4a and 4c (to give and write a clear and well-argued oral and written presentation on a research topic in accordance with academic standards) of the study programme Classics and Ancient Civilizations.


The timetable is available on the MA Classics and Ancient Civilizations website and the Research MA Classics and Ancient Civilizations website.

Mode of instruction


Course Load

The total course load is 10 EC x 28 hours = 280 hours, of which:

  • Contact hours: 26h (13x2h);

  • Required reading for classes: 72h (12x6h);

  • Preparing written and oral assignments: 182h.

Assessment method


The final mark for this course consists of the following elements:

  • Class participation (5%)

  • Written assignments (25%)

  • Oral presentation (20%)

  • Research paper (50%)


The final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average. Students pass the course when a) the final mark is sufficient; and b) the mark for the research paper is sufficient.


If the overall mark is insufficient, the research paper may be revised following consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

Students will be invited to discuss their grades with the instructor upon publication of the results.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • Communication

  • Course materials

Reading list

Required readings will be announced on Blackboard.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.

General information about uSis is available on the website.


Uzume Z. Wijnsma MA


Not applicable