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Tutorial Greek: Writing about writing. Images of speaking and writing in the Greek 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 admissibility.


Few technological innovations are as fundamental as the invention of writing. Historians, anthropologists and philosophers have often credited literacy with radical changes in social organization, politics, literature, scientific analysis and rational thought. But how did the ancient Greeks themselves conceptualize writing and the invention of the alphabet? Did they see writing as a tool that enhances memory, social trust and knowledge? Or did they rather associate writing with distrust and deceit? Does writing in the ancient imagination stimulate democratization? Or is writing a communication tool that favors tyrannical rule or conspiring oligarchs? Was writing seen as a superior to flawed oral communication or merely as an additional talismanic force giving greater solemnity to the contents of oral oaths, curses, prayers and oracles?

In this tutorial we will explore images of writing in early Greek literature, from Bellerophon’s “baneful signs” to tattoos and coins in Herodotus, from the role of written laws in tragedy and oratory to Plato’s utter distrust of writing as a poison that weakens memory. We will analyze these cultural images of writing with respect to their epistemological, social and political implications, and we will interpret these often conflicting images in their social and cultural contexts.

Course Objectives

  • Knowledge of primary texts relating to the theme of images of writing. Competence to read these texts and understand them within their cultural context.

  • Knowledge of culture-critical and literary-critical apparatus enabling the student to analyse the matieral studied in this class

  • Some familiarity with anthropological, historical and philosophical perspectives on writing

  • Critical assessment of secondary literature

  • Advanced research skills: independent formulation of complex research question, collecting materials (both primary texts and results of earlier research). Analyzing 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: setting out of research results effectively, clearly and in a well-structured manner;

  • 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.

Notice that the tasks set to Research MA students and MA students will be differentiated (although it is open to any MA student to work to Research MA standards): MA students may ask the instructor to provide them with a topic and some more bibliography. Research MA students must define their topic independently (although in consultation with the instructor).


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

Mode of instruction

Tutorial: individualized implementation of the course with some sessions in seminar form, individual study and research, and feedback sessions. Depending on number of participants, the organization of the tutorial will be adapted and finalized after first organizational meeting of class.

Course Load

Course load for 10 EC (= 280 hours):

  • Attending lectures and seminars: 4 × 7 = 28 hours

  • Greek pensum: 84 hours

  • Prepare oral presentation (including reading/research): 84 hours

  • Prepare paper (including reading/research): 84 hours

Course load for 5 EC (= 140 hours):

  • Attending lectures and seminars: 4 × 7 = 28 hours

  • Greek pensum: 56 hours

  • Prepare oral presentation (including reading/research): 56 hours

Assessment method

When taken for 10 EC the requirements are:

  • Active participation and preparation, including a prepared response to another student’s presentation (10%);

  • An oral presentation (30%)

  • A written or oral exam on the pensum (30%)

  • A research paper (30%)

When this class is taken for 5 EC the requirements are:

  • Active participation and preparation, including a prepared response to another student’s presentation (20%);

  • An oral presentation (40%);

  • A written or oral exam on the pensum (40%)

Final grade for the entire course is the weighted average of the required tests as stated above.


Powerpoint presentations, bibliographical material, additional course material and practical information will be posted in Blackboard.

Reading list

A final reading list will be determined in consultation with the students. The Greek pensum will include a selection from Homer, Herodotus, Archaic lyrical poetry, Attic drama, rhetoric and oratory, Thucydides, Xenophon, Plato and Aristotle.

Initial bibliography will be made available at the first session and through Blackboard; it is expected that the students will actively search out more material relevant to the topics they have selected. Some literature is made permanently available in the Classics reading room. Secondary literature will at least include:

  • D. T. Steiner, The tyrant’s writ: myth and images of writing in ancient Greece, Princeton 1994

  • R. Thomas, Literacy and orality in Ancient Greece, Cambridge 1992


Students are required to register for this course via uSis, the course registration system of Leiden University.

Exchange and Study Abroad students, please see the Study in Leiden website for information on how to apply.


Dr. T.A. van Berkel


The course will be taught in Dutch or English, depending on the first language of participating students.