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Natural Disasters in Antiquity


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. Students from within the specialization the course belongs to have right of way. It is not accessible for BA students.


Earthquakes, tsunamis and plagues, forest fires and tornadoes: Natural catastrophes are part of the life experience of many people. In the Netherlands – a country geographically prone to natural disasters – every year people become more and more afraid of natural catastrophes (as do people in other countries too, even those that are less directly threatened by natural hazards; in Austria, for instance, a survey conducted in 2013 showed that over 73 percent of the population felt threatened by natural catastrophes). In antiquity, natural disasters were also a major concern. Many Greek and Roman authors portray the devastating effects of natural disasters on ancient societies.

In this research seminar we will explore some of the most significant natural catastrophes that shaped the ancient world. Using a combination of literary texts, epigraphic sources and archaeological material, we will analyze different types of disasters, their ancient interpretations and explanations, as well as the ancient “disaster management”, i.e. ways of preventing, preparing for and responding to disasters. In general, we will be interested in determining how ancient societies dealt with natural hazards and their potentially disastrous outcomes.

Students will be asked to write a research paper on any aspect of the topic and will be free to choose both the geographical and temporal focus (from archaic Greece through the Roman Empire to Late Antiquity) of their research work.

In order to participate in this course, students need to pass an entry test in the form of a 1000 words essay providing a well-rounded academically sound reflection on how studying past disasters can offer a lens through which to understand the social, economic and political functioning of past societies. For the entry test, students will read the following book: Bas van Bavel et al., Disasters and History: The Vulnerability and Resilience of Past Societies. Cambridge 2020.

Precise instructions will be published on Brightspace; deadline for the entry test will be 48 hours before the first class.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;

  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;

  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;

  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;

  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;

  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;

  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;

  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;

  10. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations as well as of the historiography of the specialisation Ancient History, focusing particularly on the unification processes in the Graeco-Roman World, 400 BC – 400 AD; insight into the recent large-scale debates in the field with respect to both the history of mentality and socio-economic history.

  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation or subspecialisation in question, with a particular focus on the following:

-in the specialisation Ancient History: the comparative method; application of socio-scientific methods; specialized source knowledge, in particular of documentary sources, and more specifically epigraphy.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. is able to link different ancient interpretations and explanations of natural disasters to their socio-cultural settings;

  2. is able to understand and analyze different types of disasters within a specific ancient context;

  3. is able to assess the impact of natural catastrophes on ancient societies;

  4. is able to analyze the transformation of the social perception of natural risks and the disaster management in the ancient world on the basis of primary sources;

  5. (ResMA only – is able to situate scholarly assessments of ancient natural disasters in their intellectual and historical context)


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)

This means that students must attend every session of the course. If a student is not able to attend, he is required to notify the lecturer beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the lecturer will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, the student will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6,500-7,500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)

*measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-16 (ResMA also: 17)

  • Entry test

*measured learning objectives: 1-8, 11-12, 14

  • Oral presentation

*measured learning objectives: 3-7, 11-16

  • Literature review + research proposal

*measured learning objectives: 1-3, 11-12, 14-16 (ResMA also: 17)


  • Written paper: 65 %

  • Entry test: 10%

  • Oral presentation: 15%

  • Literature review + research proposal: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised. 

Reading list

A full overview of relevant literature will be published on Brightspace.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.

General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.


  • For course related questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.