Department of Greek & Latin


Life in the Ancient World

Classics outreach summer school


Department of Greek and Latin, University College London
26, 27 and 28 July 2021 (online via Zoom; registration deadline 18 July 2021)

Roman School relief Trier c. 180 CE

This online summer school is being offered for senior-cycle school pupils (Years 11-13) who are interested in the ancient cultures of Greece, Rome, and the Mediterranean, and who may be thinking of studying Classics or the Ancient World at university. Eight sessions will be offered under the general heading of ‘Life in the Ancient World’, allowing pupils to sample a mixture of ancient history, literature, and broader culture.

Monday 26 July 2021

910.30                    Transgender antiquity (Mairéad McAuley)

11.0012.30             Marcus Tullius Cicero – politician and orator (Gesine Manuwald)

2–3.30                      Papyrology and education (Nick Gonis)

3.40–4.00                 Roundup (Fiachra Mac Góráin)


Tuesday 27 July 2021

910.30                    Tacitus’ Agricola – a man for all seasons? (Liz McKnight)

11.0012.30             The real king of Persia: up for grabs (Mateen Arghandehpour)

2–3.30                      Greek lyric and the symposion (Peter Agócs)

3.40–4.00                 Roundup (Fiachra Mac Góráin)


Wednesday 28 July 2021

910.30                    Where did the alphabet come from? (Stephen Colvin)

11.0012.30             Beauty standards in Classical Greece (Amélie von Kuhlberg)

12.40–13.00             Closing remarks (Fiachra Mac Góráin)

All are welcome, and there is no registration fee. Advance preparation is not required, but you may find it helpful to ponder the topic descriptions below to get the most out of the sessions. A brief daily roundup will give participants an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned.

Transgender antiquity

Mairéad McAuley

Please note: This lecture deals with ancient myths of gender transformation; some of which may contain content that will be distressing to some. We ask that attendees engage with sensitivity and mutual respect during the discussions.  

The history and mythologies of ancient Greece and Rome contain several stories of gender variance, gender non-conformity and gender transformation. Indeed, recent theories of gender as fluid and on a spectrum, and the controversial idea that male or female are identities that can be assigned to us by culture or society or that we assume ourselves, rather than fixed, biological or natural, emerged in part from the study of famous classical myths and practices. These often involved powerful gods or heroes, such as Hercules, Dionysus, Achilles, Athena, or Tiresias, all of whom switch between gender roles in a variety of ways.  The Roman poet Ovid also gives us some of the most famous stories of gender metamorphosis, such as that of Hermaphroditus, fusing both male and female in the same body. Religious rituals such as the cross-dressing in the Saturnalia, or the ritual castrations of the Galli, priests of the goddess Cybele, also featured elements of gender non-conformity and transformation.  In this session I will explore some historical examples and mythical narratives of gender variance and gender transformation in classical art and literature. We’ll look at what the Greeks and Romans might be using these stories and images of gender variance for, as they depicted them in different forms – sculpture, painting, poetry – and at different times in their history. What did gender mean for them? Was it biological, social or a bit of both? Did their ideas change over time? Was it dangerous to be gender non-conforming in antiquity, outside of the ‘safe spaces’ of legends and myths? What was at stake for the ancient Greeks and Romans when they thought about a woman becoming a man or a man becoming a woman?

Marcus Tullius Cicero  politician and orator

Gesine Manuwald

Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BCE) was a prolific writer in a variety of areas and also an active politician in the Roman Republican period. In the latter capacity, he delivered a lot of speeches to the Senate (the deliberative body in Rome) and assemblies of the People. On those occasions he employed a range of rhetorical strategies to make audiences agree to the policies favoured by him. In this session we will look at some examples and extracts from Cicero’s speeches to explore the techniques he uses to present his point of view as the preferable or the only appropriate one. Looking at an ancient politician’s approach to oratory will then provide us with a basis for assessing speeches of present-day politicians. 

Papyrology and education

Nick Gonis

Tacitus’ Agricola – a man for all seasons?

The Roman historian Tacitus wrote a biography of his father-in-law, Gnaeus Iulius Agricola, who had achieved high military and political office under the emperor Domitian.  Tacitus’ biography appears to commend Agricola for having achieved success in his career under a cruel and oppressive emperor, without being corrupted in the process.  But Tacitus also appears to express misgivings about aspects of Agricola’s career.  We will look, in particular, at the tensions in Tacitus’ account of Agricola’s life, and what it tells us about the life of those who pursued a life of public service in the Roman empire.

The real king of Persia: up for grabs

Mateen Arghandehpour

This session aims to encourage students to engage with several sources relating to a specific episode of Persian history. These sources approach the topic from different perspectives and provide somewhat contradictory accounts. A critical reading of these sources alongside each other can reveal interesting and exciting possibilities!

The first half of the session will be dedicated to group reading and annotation of the texts and then the students will be put in groups for about ten minutes to discuss a conclusion, which we will talk about in the final ten to fifteen minutes of class.

I have limited the sources to a small excerpt of Herodotus, some of the Bisutun epigraphic relief, and Justin. You can find the scene summarised below. After the death of Kyros the great, king of Persia and pioneer of the largest empire of his time, his empire was split between his two sons: Kambyses and Bardiya. The elder brother, Kambyses, was crowned king of the empire. However, Kambyses died mysteriously and the throne passed to his brother Bardiya. Then, a Persian noble called Darius claimed that Bardiya was a fraud. Darius assassinated Bardiya and took over, becoming king of Persia. He ruled for twenty years and is remembered as one of the greatest kings in Persian history.

Greek lyric and the symposion

Peter Agócs 

The symposion, or mens' drinkiing party, was a major focus of everyday life in Athens and other Greek cities. It was also an important context for singing. In this talk, we will examine several texts by lyric poets connected to the culture of the symposium focusing above all on several important fragments of Sappho.

Where did the alphabet come from? 

Stephen Colvin

A look at the history of the Roman alphabet, and its descent from Etruscan, Greek and Phoenician writing systems. We shall also take a look at a couple of graffiti from Pompeii to get a sense of how non-elite people may have used literacy in the Roman period. 

Beauty standards in Classical Greece

Amélie von Kuhlberg

Modern beauty standards celebrated on platforms like Instagram or in fashion magazines may not make life particularly easy for us, but that is not to say there ever was some ‘golden age’ where these things did not matter. Classical Greece (roughly fifth to fourth century BCE) is a great case study to illustrate this. Conceptions of beauty varied considerably at that time: On the whole, men could achieve nobility of character through their physical beauty, whereas women’s physical beauty would be viewed with suspicion, and adornment was seen as the most important way to become more beautiful. However, attitudes differed among city states: While in Athens women were not allowed to go to the gym, in Sparta they were expected to keep fit. The perception of female beauty affected women’s lives significantly, but they were not the only ones to be influenced by societal expectations and constraints. If you have ever seen a Greek statue or depictions of heroes such as Achilles, you will know that the Greeks were very serious about perfecting the male form. In practice, that required getting to the gym early in the morning every day, and even then it was impossible to achieve the body ratios presented on statues. In short, this session will discuss beauty standards for men and women and consider some examples of variation among the city states for which we have the most evidence: Athens and Sparta. To help us gain an insight into this ancient civilisation, we will look at textual and visual sources from mainly Classical Greece, including statues and plays, but also from epic poetry (which, although it was composed several hundred years before the Classical period, still had a great impact on the mindsets of people living in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE).

Contextual Offer Scheme

The Department of Greek and Latin runs a 'contextual offer' scheme for Widening Participation students, under the terms of the Access UCL scheme. UCAS applicants in this category who attend the summer school and complete an essay to a satisfactory standard will receive a lower-tariff offer (ABB) for our undergraduate degree programmes (Classics and Ancient World). WP applicants need to complete this essay in the summer before their final year of school to avail themselves of the contextual offer scheme. Further information about this year's essay titles can be found on the essay competition page.

Please contact the Admissions Tutor Fiachra Mac Góráin for further information.

Key Contact information

Fiachra Mac Góráin

 Register here