Department of Greek & Latin


Essay Competition

UCL Greek & Latin run an essay competition for secondary school students

To inspire students to explore the ancient world, the UCL Department of Greek and Latin is advertising an essay competition, for the 2020/21 academic year, with two categories:

  • school students in years 10 and 11 in the UK (or equivalent)
  • school students in years 12 and 13 in the UK (or equivalent)

Engaging with the essay topics and the suggested bibliography is a great way for students to get a taste of university-level research and to challenge their understanding of the ancient world.

The word limit is 2,000 words, including any footnotes, but not the bibliography. Each student can choose one of the five essay titles, posted below.

The essay competition is open to all school students in the respective years of study, and it does not require previous knowledge of the subject. Students from under-represented backgrounds are particularly encouraged to apply, and we invite students to let us know if they are applying from a 'Widening Participation' background as defined by the Access UCL scheme.

The winning students in each category will receive a prize of £50 and a year's membership subscription to a museum of their choice. Two runners-up in each category will receive a prize of £30. All participants will receive a certificate of achievement from the UCL Department of Greek and Latin.

Students in their penultimate year of school who attend the outreach summer school and complete an essay to a satisfactory standard will be eligible for a lower-tariff contextual offer (ABB) for admission to our undergraduate degree programmes (Ancient World, Classics) under the terms of the Access UCL scheme.

Essay workshop – 1–2.30 pm on 29 July 2021

A special free workshop, with useful advice about researching and writing your essay, will be held on July 29th at 1-2.30pm on Zoom. Please register here if you would like to attend. 


Students wishing to enter the competition can submit their essay as an attachment (in Word or PDF format) to classics.office@ucl.ac.uk by 4.30 pm on Monday 30 August 2021. Please include the completed coversheet as the first page of your submission. If students have any questions about the essay competition, they should contact Dr. Peter Agócs.

Essay Questions and Bibliography

Research and resources

Some bibliographical references can be found in the questions below. You can also rely on the resources of your local and school libraries. A lot of information can be found online: the website JSTOR in particular, which contains articles published in academic journals, gives you the right to download 100 items for free per month if you register.   You will also be able to ask your teachers for help with the research. (JSTOR has a useful introduction to basic research skills that you may find interesting. Websites containing texts and translations of classical sources are suggested below and there is a very useful list of Classical online resources from John Cabot University. The UCL Library webpage is always available and you may also find encyclopaedias like the Oxford Classical Dictionary useful; in fact, Wikipedia often has very useful reading lists.

Essay 1: Why do Plato and Aristotle consider Homer a great tragedian?

The Poetics of Aristotle represents the first systematic philosophical theory of literature and drama and their genres in the history of Western culture, and it has profoundly influenced literary criticism and theory, especially from the Renaissance onward. For Aristotle, literary or ‘poetic’ genres constitute a system, which the philosopher justifies and explains with a psychology and an anthropology based around the central concept of mimesis or ‘imitation’. In fourth-century BCE Greece, you cannot construct a theory of poetry without reckoning with the seismic influence and authority of Homer’s epics, which for Classical Greeks formed one of the stable foundations of their culture. Aristotle’s theories are in many ways foreshadowed in the writings of the philosopher’s master, Plato, particularly in those famous passages of the Republic, Ion and Laws where he considers the power of mimetic poetry as a medium of social communication before, at least in principle, banishing it from the City. This essay topic calls on you to read some of the primary texts of early Greek aesthetic theory and to think about the relation, in particular, of tragic drama to Homeric epic: a relationship which, for both Plato and Aristotle, is rooted in central cultural facts about the making and consumption of poetry in ancient Greek society.

Primary sources (any translation; or, if you can, in Greek):  Plato’s Republic (books 2-3 and 10) and Ion; Aristotle’s Poetics.  Texts can easily be found online if you lack access to a library: I particularly recommend the Perseus Digital Library website (http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/), which is easy to use and very rich.

Secondary sources:

1) Bibliographies: http://www.bunpeiris.org/greek-literature/ancient-literary-criticism/ and https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-aesthetics/ (on Plato) and https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/aristotle/ and https://iep.utm.edu/aris-poe/.

2) Some selected reading:

Ford, A. The origins of criticism: Literary culture and poetic theory in classical Greece (Princeton, NJ, 2002).

Grube, G. M. A. 1965. The Greek and Roman critics. Toronto

E. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: 1963): https://monoskop.org/images/0/0d/Havelock_Eric_A_Preface_to_Plato.pdf

M. Heath, Greek Philosophical Poetics (Cambridge, 2012).

R. Hunter, ‘Homer and Greek Literature’, in R. Fowler, ed. Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge, 2004): 235-53.

Kennedy, G. A., ed. 1989. The Cambridge history of literary criticism. Vol. 1, Classical criticism (Cambridge, 2000).


Essay 2: Discuss the roles of orality and literacy in ancient culture.

Over the last half-century, Classical scholarship has begun to recognise that the ancient world was in many ways nothing like the world in which we live today. If ours is what we can call a ‘literate civilisation’, in which ideas of truth, authority and law are centred on written texts, the society of ancient Greece and Rome was in many ways an ‘oral civilisation’. According to one influential estimate, in the democratic Athens of the fifth century BCE, perhaps only 10% of the total population could actually read; and the proportion may have been lower in the Roman Empire. In early Greece, poetry was ‘song’, and the vast majority of people interacted with it and with other forms of literature in performance, and since the fieldwork of Milman Parry and Albert Lord, who compared the songs of Homer to the living South Slavic Muslim tradition of oral epic song in the former Yugoslavia, it has been clear that the texts of ancient Greek epic poets, including Homer, originated in oral compositions that were later written down and transmitted in manuscript.

We recommend that you tackle this question in one of two ways: 1) you can evaluate the evidence for the Homeric songs as oral compositions; or 2) you can analyze what you think the effects of literacy were on ancient culture and society.

Primary sources: Homer, Iliad or Odyssey (any translation).

Secondary sources:

1) Bibliographies: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orality; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral_tradition; https://journal.oraltradition.org/.

2) Some selected readings:

K. Barber, The Anthropology of Texts, Persons and Publics (Cambridge, 2007).

R. Finnegan Oral Poetry (Cambridge, 1977).

J. Miles Foley, How to Read an Oral Poem (Urbana and Chicago: 2002).

E. Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: 1963): https://monoskop.org/images/0/0d/Havelock_Eric_A_Preface_to_Plato.pdf

A.B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: 1960): https://chs.harvard.edu/book/lord-albert-bates-the-singer-of-tales/

W.J. Ong, S.J. Orality and Literacy (New York, 1982): https://monoskop.org/images/d/db/Ong_Walter_J_Orality_and_Literacy_2nd_e....

R. Thomas, Literacy and Orality in Ancient Greece (Cambridge, 1993).

Essay 3: How are Persia and Persians represented in ancient Greek sources?

The Achaemenid Persian Empire, with its polyglot, multicultural state presided over by a Great King with almost godlike power and sway, was for the Greeks – from the late 6th century onwards – the ultimate opposite, against which they could define their own emerging political and cultural identity as Hellenes; and a model of empire that they could compare with their own city-state culture. Their defeat of the second Persian invasion of Greece under Xerxes I in 480-479 BCE was a crucial stage in this process of cultural self-definition, by which the Greeks, until that time essentially a Western offshoot of the older, more sophisticated cultures of the Ancient Near East, defined themselves as Western and European. In the Greek poetry and prose literature of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE, we find an increasing focus on what constitutes ‘Hellenism’ or ‘Panhellenism’ in opposition to an East defined increasingly by Persia. The Orientalising stereotypes (to use a term pioneered by the Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said) which emerged in the course of this process of exclusionary self-definition still exercise a harmful influence in the world today, as the basis of the theory according to which a unified ‘West’ faces non-Western cultures in a potentially-violent ‘clash of civilisations’. Of course, the ancient Achaemenid world was the cultural basis both of the Zoroastrian religion and the culture of modern Iran. In Persians (472 BCE), a rare example of an Attic tragedy on a real historical event, the Athenian playwright Aeschylus (525/4-456 BCE), who fought in the Battle of Marathon, presents a view of the disastrous Persian invasion of Greece from the Persian side, in a way that both emphasises the Hellenes’ courage in defence of their country and what they saw as its liberty, and shows a very deep understanding of the underlying common humanity and tragic loss that links them to their enemies. The Ionian Greek historian Herodotus (484-425 BCE), born more or less around the time of Xerxes I’s war in Greece in the Persian-dominated areas of the Anatolian coast, presents a complex and fascinating anthropological portrait of the Persians, which both makes them the Hellenes’ opposites in almost everything, but at the same time emphasises the common ground of civilised, urban culture shared between them that distinguishes both cultures, as cultures of the Mediterranean ‘centre’, from the more peripheral, nomadic cultures to the East, North and South. Writing in the fourth century BCE, Socrates’ Athenian pupil Xenophon (c. 430-354 BCE), an adventurer, soldier and political theorist of strikingly anti-democratic opinions, used his Cyropaedia, a fictionalised biography of the founder-king of the Persian Empire that is in many ways the first prose novel in the Western tradition, presents an idealised view of Persian culture and empire, as a kind of fictional textbook for the education and training of rulers. Finally, writing in the late first/early 2nd century CE, Plutarch (46-119 CE), a scholar and antiquarian writing from the perspective of the Hellenised and then Romanised oikoumene which emerged in the aftermath of Alexander III of Macedon’s conquest of the Achaemenid Empire in the late fourth century BCE, presents a highly prejudiced account of the life and actions of the Persian King Artaxerxes II, producing one of Western culture’s great standard go-to anatomies of Oriental luxury, softness and despotism which influenced modern colonial powers’ interactions with the peoples of what we have learned to call the Middle East. In this assignment, you are asked to take one of these four sources, read it with whatever commentary or scholarship you can find online or in your available libraries, and analyse what the author’s view of Persian culture is and why and how he represents that attitude. The bibliography below is intended to give you a few basic and interesting readings on the reality, as opposed to the representation, of Achaemenid Persia.

Primary Sources: Aeschylus’ Persians, or Herodotus, Histories (esp. Books 1, 3 and 9), or Xenophon’s Cyropaedia, or Plutarch’s Life of Artaxerxes.

Secondary sources:

1) Bibliography:


2) Some selected readings:

P. Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander: A History of the Persian Empire (University Park, PA, 2003).

M. Brosius, The Persians: An Introduction (London, 2007).

E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian (Oxford, 1989).

T. Harrison. ‘Herodotus’ Conception of Foreign Languages’, in Histos 2 (1998): 1-45.

T. Harrison, Writing Ancient Persia. Classical Essays (London and New York, 2011).


A. KuhrtThe Persian Empire: A Corpus of Sources from the Achaemenid Period (Routledge, 2013). 

C. Lenfant, ‘Ctesias and His Eunuchs: A Challenge for Modern Historians’, in Histos 6 (2012): 257-97 (https://histos.org/documents/2012A12LenfantCtesiasandhisEunuchs.pdf).

C. Pelling, ‘East is East and West is West – Or Are They? National Stereotypes in Herodotus’, in Histos 1 (1997): 51-66 (https://histos.org/documents/1997.04PellingEastIsEast5166.pdf).

J Curtis and St. John Simpson, eds. The World of Achaemenid Persia. History, Art and Society in Iran and the Ancient Near East(Bloomsbury, 2021).

M. Waters, Ancient Persia. A Concise History of the Achaemenid Empire, 550-330 BCE (Cambridge and New York, 2014).

Podcast: https://historyofpersiapodcast.com/bibliography/

Essay 4: What do standards of beauty tell us about ancient cultures?

The perception of the ‘Body Beautiful’ in Western/Euro-American society is in many ways bound up with Classicist aesthetics and with the ways in which ancient canons of beauty, particularly as mediated through Greek and Roman sculpture, were perceived as models for artists and as standards for living women and men. Only over the past century, and – with the rise of feminism – particularly in recent decades, has it become completely clear for most people just how much these standards of beauty and body-image, like our very notions of humanity and civilisation, are culturally-constructed, and how dangerous and destructive these constructions can sometimes be. This essay asks you to think about Classical sculptures in these terms, historically and in relation to their cultural context and use, examining how they have influenced the modern beauty-ideal and where that ideal misinterprets them.

Primary sources: Greek sculpture collection in the British Museum (see the website: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection); https://www.theacropolismuseum.gr/en; other Museum websites and Perseus website.

Secondary sources:

1) Bibliographies: ‘Beauty’ (article on philosophical theories of beauty from the online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauty; on Greek sculpture: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ancient_Greek_sculpture.

2) Some selected reading:

I. Jenkins, Defining Beauty: The Body in Ancient Greek Art (London, 2015).

R. Neer, The Emergence of the Classical Style In Greek Sculpture (Chicago, 2010).

J.J. Pollitt, The Ancient View of Greek Art: Criticism, History, and Terminology (New Haven, 1974).

N.J. Spivey, Understanding Greek Sculpture: Ancient Meanings, Modern Readings (New York, 1996).

Stewart, Andrew F. Greek Sculpture: An Exploration (New Haven, 1990).

Wolf, Naomi, The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women (New York, 1990). 

Podcast: Melvyn Bragg on Beauty: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p003k9hf; Ian Jenkins on ‘The Human Body in Ancient Greek Thought and Society (filmed lecture): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfWd9QZfils.

Essay 5: Discuss the meaning of a particular ancient myth and how it has changed over time.

You can compare ancient and modern works, or discuss one reception or use of a particular mythical figure or story, whether in a literary text, a work of art, a drama, a film or any other genre.

The assignment here is to investigate a myth of your choice, examining its ancient sources or its modern receptions. You are completely free to choose the subject of your analysis, and your methods and research question. You can focus on the scholarship, on a particular work, or on your own impressions of a mythical figure and why s/he was or is important. The resources below are intended to provide some general background; brief specific reading suggestions on three topics (Medea, Heracles and Iphigeneia) are given below.

Some recommended topics: Medea, Heracles, Iphigeneia.

Some resources to help your research:

Beazley Archive (Oxford University Classical Art Resource Centre’s searchable database of ancient painted vases and art, with special focus on Archaic and Classical Athenian pottery): https://www.beazley.ox.ac.uk/index.htm British Museum website (searchable index of the collection: https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection). National Gallery website (for a searchable index of the collection, go to ‘Search’ and click ‘Paintings’): https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/. The Perseus website: good for texts and images alike: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/ The Oxford Classical Dictionary and Wikipedia will give you good bibliographies on particular myths and mythical figures.


3) Iphigeneia:

K. Dowden, Death and the Maiden: Girls' Initiation Rites in Greek Mythology (Routledge: London and New York, 1989). 

E. Hall, Adventures with Iphigenia in Tauris: A Cultural History of Euripides' Black Sea Tragedy (Onassis Series in Hellenic Culture: I.B. Tauris, 2012).

N. Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman (Harvard University Press: Cambridge MA and London, 1987).


Some useful titles on myth and mythology:

J.Bremmer, ed. Interpretations of Greek Mythology (London, 1987)

W. Burkert, Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth (Berkeley, 1983)

---, Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual (Berkeley, 1979)

---, Greek Religion (Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA and London, 1985)

T.H. Carpenter, Art and Myth in Ancient Greece (London, 1991)

E. Csapo, Theories of Mythology (Malden, 2003).

L. E. Doherty, Gender and the Interpretation of Classical Myth. (London, 2001)

K. Dowden and N. Livingstone, eds. A Companion to Greek Mythology (Wiley-Blackwell: Oxford, 2011).

L. Edmunds, Approaches to Greek Myth. Baltimore (1990)

T. Gantz, Early Greek Myth. (Baltimore, 1993

F. Graf, Greek Mythology: An Introduction (Baltimore, 1993).

K. Kerényi, The Gods of the Greeks. (London, 1958)

---,  The Heroes of the Greeks. London (1959)

S. Price and E. Kearns, The Oxford Dictionary of Classical Myth and Religion (Oxford: 2003).

K. Schefold, Myth and Legend in Early Greek Art (London, 1966)

---, Gods and Heroes in Late Archaic Greek Art (Cambridge: 1992).

A. Snodgrass, Homer and the Artists (Cambridge, 1998)

H.A. Shapiro, Myth into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece (London, 1994)

J-P. Vernant., Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (Brighton, 1980)

---, Myth and Thought among the Greeks (London, 1983)

J-P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, Myth and tragedy in Ancient Greece (New York, 1988)

P. Veyne, Did the Greeks Believe their Myths? (Chicago, 1988)

P. Vidal-Naquet, The Black Hunter: Forms of Thought and Forms of Society in the Greek World (Baltimore, 1986)

R. D. Woodard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Mythology (Cambridge, 2007)

S. Woodford, Images of Myths in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, 2003)



Specific recommended readings:


1) Medea:

J.J. Clauss and S. I. Johnston (eds), Medea: Essays on Medea in Myth, Literature, Philosophy and Art. (Princeton University Press: Princeton, 1997). 

E. Griffiths, Medea (Routledge: London and New York, 2006.

J. Mossman, Medea: Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Aris & Phillips, Warminster 2011)


2) Heracles:

W. Burkert, "Heracles and the Master of Animals." In Structure and History in Greek Mythology and Ritual, 78–98. Sather Classical Lectures 47 (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1982).

M.W. Padilla, The Myths of Herakles in Ancient Greece: Survey and Profile (University Press of America: Lanham MA, 1998).

E. Stafford, Herakles. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World (Routledge, New York, 2011).



Winners 2021

First Prize
Tasneem Jodiyawalla (Yr 12-13)
Simon Rózsa (Yr 10-11)

Second Prize
Eleanor McNeill (Yr 12-13)
Beth Lee (Yr 10-11)

Honorary mentions
Madeline Wainwright (Yr 12-13)
Katie Cottrell (Yr 10-11)