Civilizations of the Ancient World

HIS 246 – Fall 2017



“History is philosophy teaching by examples.”

Course Details

Civilizations of the Ancient World
HIS 246, section 01W
Course code 55066
Blackboard page
Fall 2017
Tue/Thu 9:30 – 10:45 a.m.
Room: CA-209

 Printable Syllabus


Our entire lives are conditioned by concepts like civilization and society, yet we seldom stop to think about how they shape our behaviors and expectations. By traveling back to the very emergence of civilization, we can experience both the revolution in how humans related to each other and the proliferation of new kinds of societies—each with their own distinct ideas about communities and individuals, communication, trade, protection, gender, mortality, and the strange, unbounded realms of the gods. All of this forms not just the background but the substance of the modern world: how we think, and what others think of us. The everyday hubbub of ancient worlds vibrates in the bones of our own societies.

Course Aims

In this course we will explore the Mediterranean world, beginning with the first humans and tracing the development of civilization from Mesopotamia and Egypt to the ancient Greek city-states and the rise and fall of Rome. Our plan will be to compare the principles and practices of these societies, toward a stronger understanding of human society in general.

Specific Learning Objectives

In this course we’ll be pursuing a number of goals, including:

  • Exploration of the emergence of civilization and its implications for humanity
  • Exposure to the cultures and beliefs of a wide array of diverse Mediterranean civilizations
  • Exploration of evolutionary changes in the realms of politics; economics; military techniques; religious beliefs; social norms; writing and literature practices; artistic expression; and science and philosophy
  • Examination of how the many interactions and transformations of ancient civilizations developed into a Western identity, part of the origin of the modern Western world
  • Development of skills associated with study of history, including interpretation of primary sources and other evidence.

Course Grade Components

Your grade for the course will be determined from the following:

  • Quizzes
  • Interpretive Essays (3)
  • Midterm
  • Final Exam
  • 15%
  • 30%
  • 20%
  • 35%


We’ll have short quizzes at the start of most some meetings. These are to help gauge our relationship with the material in the readings. Quizzes are scheduled roughly every other class.

The quizzes are based on the material you’ve prepared for that class, including:

  • the textbook assignment for that meeting as listed in the Schedule, and
  • the two ancient readings (Gilgamesh and Clouds), when they’re assigned.

If you did your reading for the class and watched the videos, you should be prepared for the quiz. Quizzes are always based on the materials assigned for that class meeting, even if I am slightly behind the syllabus in class. Make sure to always do the assigned readings and videos.

Missed quizzes are not made up. If you come late to class and miss a quiz, you’ll get a zero for that quiz. Therefore, please make sure you come to class on time and prepared.

Interpretive Essays

You’ll write three interpretive essays:

  • One on the portrayal of society or religion in The Epic of Gilgamesh;
  • One on Clouds and its relationship with actual events in classical Athens; and
  • A response to your choice of nonwritten artistic depictions of the ancient world, including sculpture, painting, performance, or film, comparing the history that’s come down to us with how it has been represented.

We’ll talk in class about what’s expected. The specific assignments are given in the Writing Assignments tab.

Optional Draft. You can submit a draft of the paper to me up to a week before it’s due; I’ll give you some general feedback (but not a grade). Because I accept drafts, I do not allow students to submit revised versions of their final paper after the due date.


The midterm exam will cover the course up to that point. We’ll discuss the content and structure the previous week, and a review sheet will be provided. The exam take place during our regular class meeting on the day indicated on the schedule.

The final exam will cover from the midterm onward—except for the essay portion, which will cover themes from the entire course. We’ll discuss the content and structure the week before the final, and a review sheet will be provided. The final exam lasts two hours and will take place on the day designated by the registrar’s office.

Course Readings

The following three books are required:

Ancient Med - Mathisen

Mathisen, Ralph W.
Ancient Mediterranean Civilizations, 2d Edition.
Oxford University Press, 2014.
978-0-199-38445-7. $55.80
Amazon link

  • Make sure you get the right edition, especially if you’re buying a used copy. The second edition is significantly different, and page numbers will not match up with earlier editions.
  • There’s a copy on reserve at the college library.
Epic of Gilgamesh

George, Andrew R.
The Epic of Gilgamesh.
London: Penguin Books, 2003.
978-0-140-44919-8. $13.00
Amazon link

  • I strongly recommend the Andrew George edition because he translated directly from the source. It also has a very useful introduction. If you get another edition, make sure it is based on the Standard Version of the epic.
  • There is not a good version of the epic online. You’re best off with the Penguin.
Four Texts on Socrates

West, Thomas G.
Four Texts on Socrates.
Ithaca: Cornell Press, 1998.
978-0-801-48574-9. $12.30
Amazon link

  • This has Aristophanes’s comedy Clouds, which we’ll be reading in class, but the other works may help your interpretation of the play, and also your essay.
  • There are versions of Clouds online. But the intro and notes will be vital to your appreciation of the play, so you should use this book, or another print edition.

All three books are available from Lehman College Bookstore, either in person or online. (The website URL for the Lehman College bookstore is

All three are also available from Amazon and other online retailers. If you order online, make sure you do so enough in advance that you’ll receive the books in time for the assignments.

Writing Assignments

Remember that, as always, I am looking for your opinion and how well you support it with evidence; these essays are less about “right answers” than they are about well-supported ideas.

For each essay your conclusion should address the following: How, specifically, does the source material, as you have interpreted it, reflect what the creators are trying to say about their society?

You may, but are not required to, use secondary sources to add perspective to your analysis. Make sure both your primary source and any secondary sources are correctly cited.

Essay #1: The Epic of Gilgamesh

Write a 3–4 page essay taking a position on ONE of the following topics:

  1. The mortal and the divine. Choose any of the mortal characters from The Epic of Gilgamesh and discuss his or her relationship with the gods. (Your best bets are either Gilgamesh or Enkidu; Uta-napishtim is also a possibility.)
     Give three examples of your character interacting with or contemplating the gods and discuss what these episodes reveal about (a) the character and about (b) his or her society’s attitudes toward religion and toward what it means to be human. Consider physical, emotional, economic, religious, and other relevant factors.
  2. Gender in Sumerian society. Choose any of the female characters from The Epic of Gilgamesh and discuss her relationship with the other characters and Sumerian society. (Your best bet is Shamhat; Ninsun and Ishtar are also possibilities.) Give three examples and examine what these episodes reveal about (a) the character and (b) her femininity as conceived by the creators of the epic. What do this character’s actions tell us about the roles played by women in Sumerian culture? Consider physical, emotional, economic, religious, and other relevant factors.
  3. Life and death. Mortality is one of the major themes of The Epic of Gilgamesh, but what is the epic saying about it? Choose three scenes in The Epic of Gilgamesh that involve death or mortality, and discuss analytically what these scenes tell us about Sumerian ideas of death and legacy.

NOTE: While it is not required, you should seriously consider reviewing the tablets that were not assigned for class to see if they contain scenes that will help you by providing additional examples and evidence.

Essay #2: Clouds

Write a 3–4 page essay taking a position on ONE of the following topics:

  1. Right and wrong in Clouds. Some say that Clouds, by emphasizing traditional values throughout the play and then ending with violence, offers an inconsistent message on morality. Make an argument for the consistency of the moral argument of Clouds by comparing it with a tragedy from the Greek classical period in which morality is a key issue. (Options include Medea by Euripides; Elektra by Euripides or Sophocles; and Antigone by Sophocles; but there are other possibilities as well.)
     Build your case using three key incidents from Clouds, comparing each one in turn with a relevant incident in the tragedy. Where do both plays stand with regard to the Athenian debate on relative morality (nomos vs. physis)?
  2. Aristophanes’s agenda. The surviving plays of Aristophanes range over a long and turbulent period of Athenian history. Compare Clouds to another play by Aristophanes. (Popular choices include Frogs, mounted in 405 BCE, 11 years after the revised version of Clouds; Birds (414); and Wealth (388); but any of the 11 surviving plays is fair game.)
     Compare three moments in Clouds with moments from the other play that represent similar or contrasting ideas. What themes and ideas are present in both plays? Is his approach, methodology, or agenda different in the other play? What conclusions can you draw about Aristophanes’s approach to writing, and the evolution of his overall philosophy?
  3. Socrates vs. Socrates. Compare the “Socrates” found in Aristophanes’s Clouds with the one depicted in works by Socrates’s student, Plato. (Possibilities for the work from Plato include: Phaedo, which has Socrates discussing life and afterlife on the brink of his execution; Apology, a version of Socrates’s self-defense against charges of irreligion; or any of the other dialogs that focus on how Plato wanted to show Socrates’s methods and beliefs.)
     What’s important to remember is that both Aristophanes and Plato had an agenda with respect to how they wanted to show Socrates. That means that both authors offered a distored picture of Socrates that separates us from the real-life man.
     What characteristics of Socrates and his philosophy were most exaggerated by the two authors (either in ridicule or praise), and why? On the basis of these depictions, using importabt moments from both sources, make a detailed argument for why exactly some Athenians feared Socrates so greatly.

Essay #3: Representations and Images

Write a 3 page essay based on ONE of the two following topics.

R&I Essay – Option 1

Visit any museum exhibition or collection of art, architecture, or other artifacts of the ancient world. Choose two or three comparable artworks from different eras, from different places, or both and discuss the artists’ intent regarding what he or she wanted to emphasize about his or her culture and values.

Your question is this: If art is an expression of cultural values, what do the differences between these works tell you about the respective cultures they come from? What do their similarities tell you about what these ancient societies have in common?

  • Make sure to look for items with the similar subjects, but that come from different times or from different places. For example: a Greek statue of a young man and a Roman statue of a young man, or a decorated vase from the Greek Archaic period and one from the Classical or Hellenistic period.
  • Describe in detail how what you see leads you to concrete conclusions about these ancient peoples. Be bold, be provocative, and be specific.
  • Important: On a separate “Works Discussed” page after your essay, list the title of each work, the artist, the approximate date it was created, and the name of the museum gallery where the work can be found.
  • Also on the “Works Discussed” page, paste in photographs of the items. If it’s permitted at the museum, take a picture of the items while you’re there. If it’s not, find pictures of those specific items on the museum’s web site or via a Google Images search.

Possible venues for the artifacts comparison option include:

You are, of course, not limited to these venues, and you are not limited to New York.

R&I Essay – Option 2

Watch any feature-length film that seriously depicts the ancient world and compare it with a primary source—ancient written evidence about that society or those events.

Use at least two specific events or characters to compare the filmmakers’ intent and message with the intent and message of the writers of the source material. What do they want you to believe? What conclusions can you draw about how these stories were being used to shape the audience’s perception of that culture and society?

  • Important: On a separate “Works Discussed” page after your essay, list the title of film, year, director, stars and studio. Then list the book or books you drew your written evidence from, using standard citation style.
  • You may also employ secondary sources to help you interpret the film, the primary source, or both.

It’s absolutely crucial to remember that the ancient source material is not “fact” or “what really happened”. Both the movie AND the written source are artistic interpretations of an event. The writer of the source material wanted to shape the reader’s understanding, and had opinions about the events and about the cutural values at play in those events that he or she urgently wanted to impose on the readers or listeners to his tale.

In other words, both the film and the ancient source material are distortions of what really happened. Both were designed to use those events to drive home a message about the filmmakers’ or writer’s deeply held beliefs about the cultures and societies involved. Your job is to expose the agendas of the filmmakers and of the ancient writers, and talk about what their intent reveals to us about what these events meant to those that were affected by them.

Whichever option you choose, the purpose of this essay is NOT to describe the works in question, but to interpret the creators’ agendas and discuss analytically what they tell us about how and why different kinds of artists and creators represent ancient peoples and their world. For some suggested possibilities for both options, see below.

Some possibilities for the film and sources option include (this list is not exhaustive; I can give you specifics on where to look in the primary sources on request):

300 (2007) or The 300 Spartans (1962) Herodotus, The Histories book 7
Abraham (1993 Mini-Series) Old Testament, Genesis books 11–25
Agora (2009) Socrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History, 7.15; John of Nikiû, Chronicle 84.87-103; The Suda, Life of Hypatia
Alexander (2004, 1956) Plutarch, Alexander; or Arrian, Anabasis
Barefoot in Athens (1966) Plato, Phaedo, Apology
Boudica (2003) Tacitus, Annals 14.29–39, Agricola; Cassius Dio, Roman History 62
Caligula (1980) [warning: explicit sex] Suetonius, Caligula; Cassius Dio, Roman History 59
The Centurion (1961) Polybius, The Histories book 38
Clash of the Titans (1981, 2010) Plutarch, Theseus; Ps.-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca; Ovid, Metamorphoses
Cleopatra (1963) Plutarch, Caesar and Antony
Coriolanus (1963) Plutarch, Coriolanus; Livy 2.33–2.40
The Eagle (2011) Tacitus, Agricola
Electra (1963) Euripides, Elektra; Sophocles, Elektra
Empire (2005 Mini-Series) Suetonius, Augustus; Nicolas of Damascus, Life of Augustus; Cassius Dio, 45–56
Gladiator (2000) Cassius Dio 73; Herodian 1.15; Historia Augusta, “Commodus”
Helen of Troy (1956) Homer, Iliad 3, Odyssey 4, 23; Euripides, Helen; Ovid, Heroides 16; Isocrates, Helen
I, Claudius (1976) [1-2 episodes] Tacitus, Annals 11–12; Suetonius, Claudius
Intolerance (1916) [Part 1 only] Herodotus, Histories 1.70–144; Josephus, Antiquities 10–11
Iphigenia (1977) Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis
Jason and the Argonauts (1963) Ovid, Metamorphoses; Apollonius Rhodius, Argonautica
Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (1999) Old Testament, Genesis 37–50
Julius Caesar (1953 or 1979) Plutarch, Caesar; Suetonius, The Divine Julius (Julius Caesar)
Masada (1981 Mini-Series) Josephus, The Jewish War book 1
The Odyssey (1997) or Ulysses (1955) Homer, Odyssey
One Night with the King (2006) Old Testament, Esther
The Passion of the Christ (2004) New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John
Pompeii: The Last Day (2003) [or other Pompeii films] Pliny the Younger’s letters to Tacitus, #65 and #66
The Prince of Egypt (1998) Old Testament, Exodus
Quo Vadis? (1951) Tacitus, Annals 13–16; Suetonius, Nero; Cassius Dio 61–63
Rome (2005–2007) [use 1-2 episodes] Various (see me)
Fellini Satyricon (1969) Petronius, Satyricon
Solomon and Sheba (1959) Old Testament, Kings or Chronicles; Josephus, Antiquities book 8
Spartacus (1960) or Spartacus: Blood and Sand (2010) Appian, Roman History 116–120; Plutarch, Crassus 8–11
The Ten Commandments (1956) Old Testament, Exodus
The Trojan Women (1971) Euripides, The Trojan Women
Troy (2004) Homer, Iliad

Links to many of these primary sources are available here on the ancient texts page.