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Seminar Greek: Friendship in the Greek World: forms of relationality, from Homer to Aristotle


Admission requirements

This class can be taken in fulfilment of the requirements of both the MA and the Research MA program in Classics and Ancient Civilizations (track Classics), with differential requirements.
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.

If you are interested in taking this course, but are not sure whether you fulfill the entry requirements, please, contact the instructor.


“Friends have everything incommon”, “You have to help your friends and harm your enemies”, “A friends is another self”, “A worthy friend is a physician to your pain”, “Friends have a price”.
Greek literature abounds in maxims, aphorisms and moral guidelines about friendship. Friendship was high on the philosophical agenda, discussed in Socratic dialogues by both Xenophon and Plato, and the topic of substantial parts of Aristotle’s ethical work. In everyday conversation, friendship ranked alongside one’s relationships with the gods, a matter one consulted oracles about. Literary works offer moving portrayals of the loyalty and comradeship between Achilles and Patroclus, bitter reproaches and complaints about friendships turned sour, and chilling horror scenarios of betrayal and “murder among friends”. Friendships are contested in court and used in politics and diplomacy.
This prominent place of friendship in our ancient Greek sources can mean two things: (1) friendship is of central importance in social life and its moral value is beyond doubt; (2) friendship is a problem and its function, value and meaning are contested. In this seminar we will see how both statements can be true at the same time.

In this seminar we will read in the original Greek some of the key texts from Archaic and Classical Greece that portray, thematize, dramatize and problematize friendship: Homer, Theognis, Attic tragedy, Attic comedy, Attic orators, Xenophon and Aristotle. We will acquire an understanding of the various “forms of relationality” that structure ancient social life: philia, xenia, hetaireia, erotic interactions; “ascribed” relationships (bonds that one is born into) vs. “achieved” relationships (bonds that one acquires, e.g. on the basis of choice)—and we will learn to articulate the similarity and difference between these forms of relationality and the forms that we, 21st-century Europeans, live by. We will analyze key conceptual issues: autonomy and choice, reciprocity (what is the difference between friendship and commerce?), sexuality (what is the difference between a friend and “a friend with benefits”?), bribery and corruption (when is friendship reprehensible?), patronage (how important is equality in friendship?) and education and philosophy (why is friendship on the philosophical agenda at all?). In analyzing these sociocultural themes, we will use a variety of methods and theoretical frameworks ranging from philology, linguistics and literary analysis to conceptual archaeology and comparative anthropology; and we will contextualize these themes in the broader landscape of Archaic and Classical Greek cultural, social and political history. We will reflect on the merits and dangers of historical and cross-cultural comparison, and on the meaning and place of friendship in our present-day life.

Research-based teaching and learning: this seminar connects to and builds on recent research by Dr. T.A. van Berkel (see the monograph: The Economics of Friendship. Conceptions of Reciprocity in Classical Greece (forthcoming)).

Course objectives

Knowledge and insight:

  • A thorough knowledge of a selection of key texts from Archaic and Classical literature (Homer, Theognis, tragedy, comedy, oratory, Xenophon, Aristotle) in ancient Greek and the ability to explain the grammar, syntax and discourse features of those passages and the semantics of the lexemes involved.

  • A thorough knowledge of the historical, literary and philosophical aspects of a selection of key texts.

  • A firm understanding of the various “forms of relationality”, their historical development and their conceptualisations, relevant to the ancient Greek world.

  • An understanding of the semantics of various lexemes expressive of relationality (philia, xenia, hetaireia, eros; philein, agapan, stergein, eran; charis) and the scholarly debates surrounding these terms.

  • A firm understanding of central concepts and issues (e.g. “choice”, “reciprocity”, “frankness”, “virtue”) in ancient Greek thinking about friendship.

  • A firm grasp of the genre-specific themes and issues (e.g. tragic “helping friends, harming enemies”, symposiastic aristocratic values, oratorical bias against xenia) relevant for Greek thinking about friendship.

  • A basic grasp of various methods and theoretical approaches from the social sciences.

  • An advanced grasp of various paradigms of linguistic, rhetorical and literary analysis.

  • The ability to understand, synthesize, compare and critique advanced secondary scholarly works about friendship in different cultural contexts.

  • A basic understanding of some key issues in the history of ideas, social history, political history and cultural history of Archaic and Classical Greece.


(for differentiation between MA and ResMA, see below under Assessment Methods)

  • Research: formulation of a complex research question, collecting materials, analyzing results, constructing arguments, formulating conclusions.

  • Methodology and reflection: application of a variety of methods from the humanities; application of theoretical frameworks from the humanities and the social sciences; ability to reflect on the relative value of different approaches, on the merits and dangers of comparative methods and on issues of consilience.

  • Reading skills: oral translation of Greek text into idiomatic English (during oral presentation, and for international students also during oral exam) or Dutch (for Dutch students during oral exam); ability to discuss the semantics of lexemes and the grammatical and discourse linguistic features of a text; ability to reflect on implications of textcritical issues.

  • Critical assessment of secondary literature according to the standards of academic debate.

  • Oral presentation: will give a clear and well-argued interpretation of a specific text passage, making effective use of a handout (mandatory) and, optionally, with other presentation devices.

  • Written presentation: the paper will offer a clear and well-structured presentation of original research.

  • The student must demonstrate his or her grasp of critical issues in recent scholarship, and assess recent scholarly contributions by confronting them with the original source material.

  • This course aims at 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, on the basis of antecedent independent preparation.

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

Total course load 10 ec x 28 hours = 280 hours:

  • seminar hours 14 x 2 = 28 hours

  • tutoring = 2 hours

  • reading Greek text = 80 hours

  • secondary literature = 60 hours

  • preparation oral presentation = 20 hours

  • oral exam: 1 hour

  • preparation oral examination = 9 hours

  • written assignment(s) = 80 hours

Assessment method


  • participation (10%)

  • oral presentation (20%)

  • oral examination on the Greek text, secondary literature and topics discussed in class (30%)

  • written assignment(s) (40%)

The requirements for MA and ResMA students are differentiated: ResMA students are expected to come up with their own original research topic, find literature, and write a scholarly report; MA students may expect more help in choosing their topic and their papers may consist of an assessment of the status quaestionis on a given topic.


The final mark of the course is established by determining the weighted average.


If the overall mark is unsatisfactory, the student can either revise the paper or retake the oral examination (after consultation with the teacher). There is no resit for the oral presentation and participation. If the final mark is sufficient, the examination and paper cannot be retaken.

Inspection and feedback

Students will be invited to discuss their oral presentation and paper individually with the teacher as soon as the results have been published.


Blackboard will be used for:

  • distribution of study material;

  • announcement of assignments;

  • publication of assignments and handouts;

  • discussion platform.

Reading list

Students are expected to have their own copy of:

An additional reading list of primary and secondary sources, with titles to be found in the Leiden University library, will be made available before the start of the tutorial. A selection of relevant books will be made available on a special bookshelf at the University Library.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.


Dr. T.A van Berkel