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Germs and the city: hygiene, illness and mortality in the Roman metropolis


Admission requirements



In 1986 Alex Scobie published an article on the living conditions in the city of Rome under the High Empire in which he argued that Rome was an extremely unhealthy place to live: houses were crowded, sanitary conditions were bad, and even the famous bathhouses did little more than facilitate the spread of diseases. Scobie’s article quickly became highly influential. It was used to support arguments for high mortality and urban graveyard models, in which the city was regarded as an urban sink. Over the past decade, however, criticism has been mounting, both on theoretical grounds and in a re-evaluation of the evidence. The question has been asked against which yardstick Rome should be measured. Recent archaeological work has not always corroborated Scobie’s findings. However, other scholars have defended Scobie’s arguments fiercely and have argued that most of the evidence we have fully supports Scobie’s model. Are we back at square one, or has progress been made in the debate?

In this course we analyse the debate and try to formulate an agenda for future research. We’ll discuss issues of method: how ‘hard’ are our data? what can we infer from satirical texts? We look at new types of research, of human diet, of skeletal evidence for ill health. We will discuss the question how the evidence, textual and material, can (or cannot) be used by historians, and how the two types of sources might relate to each other.

Course objectives

Students will acquire or increase their knowledge of:

  • the social history of the city of Rome

  • living conditions in the Roman world

Abilities and knowledge:

  • The ability to analyse a major debate in Roman history on the basis of a number of key publications

  • The ability to track and use publications from related disciplines (in particular from archaeology)

  • The ability to independently identify and select sources

  • The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question

  • The ability to analyze and evaluate literature and sources for the purpose of producing an original scholarly argument

  • The ability to interpret a corpus of sources

  • insight into the recent large-scale debates in the field with respect to socio-economic history;

  • Knowledge and comprehension of theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of Ancient History, in particular the comparative method; application of socio-scientific methods; specialised source knowledge, in particular of documentary sources, and more specifically epigraphy.

Extra course objective for Res Ma students:

  • The ability to interpret a potentially complex corpus of sources

  • The ability to identify new approaches within existing academic debates

  • Knowledge of the interdisciplinary aspects of the specialisation


View Timetable History

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

Total: 280 hours

  • Seminars: 26 hours

  • Study of compulsory literature, 71 hours

  • Writing introductory essay (1500 words): 8 hours

  • Research and writing Paper (incl. related assignments): 175 hours

Assessment method

  • Introductory essay (10%)

  • Introduction & bibliography (10%)

  • Oral presentation & first chapter (10%)

  • Final paper (60%)

  • In addition, a grade will be given for participation,
    including giving feedback to other student’s presentations and papers (10%)

Research Ma students are expected to give extra attention to theoretical and methodological problems in all their work and in particular in their final paper.

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average. The grade for the final paper should be satisfactory.


Blackboard is used for this course:

  • Literature list

  • Student works

Reading list

Before the start of the course, students should have studied the following literature:

  • A. Scobie, ‘Slums, Sanitation, and Mortality in the Roman World’, Klio 68 (1986) 399-433.

  • Laurence, Ray. “Writing the Roman metropolis’, in: H.M. Parkins (ed.), Roman urbanism: beyond the consumer city (Londen – New York 1997) 1-20.

  • W. Scheidel, ‘Germs for Rome’, in: C. Edwards en G. Woolf (eds.), Rome the Cosmopolis (Cambridge 2003) 158-176.

  • Morley, N., ‘The salubriousness of the Roman city’, in: H. King (ed.), Health in antiquity (Londen en New York 2005) 192-204.

48 hours before the first session, students should hand in a 1500 words essay on the basis of the literature, addressing the following question: How unhealthy was the city of Rome, and how can we know?

Literature for the following sessions will be listed on blackboard. Literature that is not electronically available will be made available in xeroxed form.


via uSis


dhr. Dr. M. Flohr
dhr. Dr. L.E. Tacoma