Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Introducing the Classical world
Introducing the Classical world

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.


Various texts survive from the ancient world that don’t fit into any of the categories above. Most of them are categorised as ‘documentary’. These can be parts of archives, or public commemorations such as tombstones, or inventories, or even shopping lists. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of such material is now lost (after all, even today, a shopping list and many company and government records have a lower hope of long-term survival than a novel). Nonetheless, some of them have survived, mostly in one of two ways.

They were either recorded in inscriptions on stone which didn’t need as much care as paper to be preserved; or they were recorded on papyrus in a very dry place, usually Egypt, and came down to us even though they were thrown onto a (very dry) rubbish heap. Such documentary inscriptions and papyri add a further dimension to our exploration of the Classical world, as they show us aspects that literature, philosophy or art don't care so much about: the more profane and humdrum sort of things. Moreover, they may often be less biased in their evidence than what a historian or a philosopher has to say (how much room is there for bias on a shopping list?). Nonetheless, they too need careful evaluation. If you find a shopping list in the sands of Egypt, you can immediately draw conclusions about the sorts of things people bought in Egypt, but you will find yourself immediately wanting to know who these people were: rich or poor, natives or foreign, and so on. Not even documentary sources are completely straightforward.

A further, more general, issue relating to written sources follows on from these considerations about survival. Greek or Latin texts have been translated into many other languages, and all the texts you study here will be translated into English. But as critical scholars we should ask about the nature of the Greek or Latin text that was translated into English (or indeed texts in any of the other languages used in the ancient world). In the case of an inscription, the text may well have survived on stone in an easily legible form, perhaps stored in a museum or still in its original position (in situ) on an archaeological site. In this ideal case, the establishment of the text should be relatively straightforward, and all that is required is an accurate copying of the texts and its publication in a collection of inscriptions. For example, it might contain some abbreviations of names or titles; we imagine that a scholar publishing their original reading of an inscription might be able to come up with a suitable ‘expansion’ of the abbreviation, and so produce an authoritative text readable in the original language and translated as required.

Unfortunately, reality is rarely that simple. Often an inscription may be incomplete because the stone upon which it was inscribed is broken and part of the original text is missing. In such cases it may be possible to reconstruct the missing letters or words by comparison with other surviving inscriptions or lexicons of words used on inscriptions, but obviously the more that is missing, the less certain the reconstruction will be. Resolving such problems forms the basis of many academic debates, and ideally a consensus can be reached; reconstructed passages of ancient texts are almost always indicated as such, usually with the reconstructed sections contained in square parentheses.

Problems of this type occur on stone, but even more so on fragile materials. Ancient documents written on papyrus and other fragile materials do survive in their original form, but they are often fragmentary and the handwriting and language can be extremely challenging to read. Ancient texts such as Homer or Herodotus do occasionally survive as papyri, but more often they have survived as manuscripts through a process of repeated copying in antiquity, during the Middle Ages and later. The copying ensured their survival, but also created the possibility of errors during copying being incorporated, as well as providing an opportunity for copyists to ‘correct’ or clarify passages they either could not read or could not understand. As a result, many ancient texts have survived in several different versions and one task of Classical scholarship is to collate various manuscripts in order to produce a reliable text that can be published and form the foundation for further study (either in the original language or in translation). Such publications of texts are often called ‘editions’, and in matters of hair-splitting detail it might be necessary to state which edition of an ancient text is being referred to.

Finally, there is the issue of translation itself. In most introductory courses, you should read all sources in translation. In this course, we just want to make three general points:

  1. Don’t forget that what you're reading are translations. In particular, the more you try to come to terms with details of phrasing, the more you need to ask to what degree the phrasing is an aspect of the translation rather than the original Greek or Latin text.

  2. However, we suggest that you see this as an opportunity as much as a drawback. The most obvious thing to do is to compare different translations. This allows you to counteract the risk of being misled by a translator. More than that, though, it will almost certainly show you things about the text that you might have missed had you simply read it in the original. Comparing translations will allow you to see how the tone, mood and vocabulary of a text have been interpreted by different scholars – something to which we don’t normally have access when we read a text in its original language.

  3. Lastly, it is inevitable that courses on the Classical world, including this course itself and A219, will introduce you to a number of key terms in Greek and Latin. Every language and culture has terms that we find particularly difficult to translate into other languages and cultures. Often these terms have a lot to say about the culture in question. As you progress in your studies on the Classical world, you should be familiar with several such terms.

To round off this section, and before moving on to modern scholarship, we'll highlight a couple of general points applying to all the different ancient sources in different ways:

  • All sources have contexts. These contexts can be physical, social, historical, stylistic, literary, political, performative and many other things. The contexts will shape both the way the source was produced – written, built, drawn, buried and so on – and the way it was perceived. Moreover, all sources still have contexts today. The Colosseum (now a half-ruin) is in the middle of a modern city; Sophocles' Antigone is performed in modern theatres; while arrowheads unearthed on a battle site are locked up in a store room. The modern contexts will inevitably influence your perceptions, just as the ancient contexts will have shaped ancient perceptions. One of the most crucial things in working with ancient sources is to get into the habit of asking yourself routinely what the ancient and modern contexts of a source are, and to start your interpretation of the source from there. And it is equally crucial to look for more than just one context. Take a scene in Antigone. One ancient context is the Athenian outdoor theatre in which the play was performed; another is Athenian concepts of justice; and yet another is simply the context within the play itself, and so on. There will almost always be more than one context to take into account. Judging which contexts are more or less important can be one of the major challenges of studying ancient material.

  • Different kinds of sources are available for different issues, regions and periods. Sometimes the most difficult thing about sources isn't interpreting the sources that you have, but the sources that you don't have. This sounds paradoxical, but is quite simple and fairly important. It is inevitable that we concentrate on areas where we have rich sources. So, for instance, we will talk more about Athens than any other Greek city, and more about Rome than any other Roman city. The risk is that for you, Classical Greece becomes just Athens. Similarly, more men than women are covered in studies of the Classical world, because the sources are so much richer about men than about women. Or we may concentrate too much on the social and political elite because their words and deeds survive in the sources. Whatever you study, try to remind yourself that the evidence we have today will hardly ever be balanced. Rather it is that which happens to have survived 1,500–3,000 years later.