21H.132 | Spring 2017 | Undergraduate

The Ancient World: Rome


There are FOUR required writing assignments for this subject, which account for 60% of the final course grade. 

For suggested topics for Papers #1, #2, and #3, click on the designated links.

Also see Criteria & Guidelines for Papers.

Paper #1 (1,500 words) Session 6 10%
Paper #2 (1,500 words) Session 12 15%

Revision of Paper #1 or Paper #2 (1,500 + 500 words)

In order to catch any early problems as well as to allow time for thoughtful revision, you will be required to revise and resubmit the first or second paper. As part of the revision process, all students will meet with the writing instructor for this course, at which meeting you will have the opportunity to discuss strategies for revising the paper in question.

Session 18 15%
Paper #3 (1,500 words) Session 24 20%

Papers receiving high grades will excel in each of the following:

Argument and Structure

Your paper should seek to convince its reader of an argument, a thesis, offered in answer to one of the questions set. The thesis should be clearly stated in the introduction to the paper. The body of the paper should seek to support your thesis by marshalling an abundance of evidence from the ancient sources in a clearly structured and coherent argument. Finally, a conclusion should remind your reader of the thesis you have been supporting and show how that thesis is relevant to a wider historical context. Remember throughout that your paper should be a work of critical analysis.

Knowledge and Understanding

Your paper should display a close knowledge of the ancient source(s) on which your argument rests: knowledge both of the details of relevant passages as well as of the work as a whole. Your ability to subject the sources to critical analysis and to come to your own understanding of their significance should also emerge clearly from your paper.

Quality of Writing

Your argument should be expressed in clear, concise, and readable English. There should be no errors of grammar, syntax, or spelling. Precision and elegance of expression will be rewarded.

Referencing and Bibliography

You must always acknowledge your sources. Please note: Every time you quote directly from a source, or paraphrase a source, or even simply refer to a source, you must provide a full citation.

Since your papers are intended to be written largely on the basis of your reading of the ancient sources, your references will most frequently be to the likes of Livy or Plutarch. It is conventional in the field of ancient history to cite ancient authors either in the text of an essay (so, for example: “Livy here suggests…….(Livy 1.4)” or “Plutarch records that…….(Plut., Sull. 20)”) or in footnotes, like so.1 It is also conventional to refer to ancient sources by their book, chapter, and/or section numbers and not by the page number of your modern translation into English. Since your paper should include an abundance of ancient evidence in support of your argument, there should be many such citations along the way. Should you choose to consult modern sources in addition to ancient, you must be sure to provide full references here also. Such references should be provided in footnotes: for example, a reference to content on page 54 of the Romans textbook would appear like so.2

1 Livy 1.4; Plut., Sull. 20.

2 Boatwright et al. (2012) 54.

Formal Presentation

  • All papers must comply with the following presentational guidelines:
  • Papers must be 1,500 words (approx. 6 pages) in length.
  • Papers must be typed in 12-point font, with double spacing.
  • Standard margins (1.25” left and right, 1” top and bottom) must be used.
  • Your paper must include an original title but need not include a title page.
  • Your paper must include page numbers.

The Writing and Communication Center

The Writing and Communication Center (WCC) offers MIT students free one-on-one professional advice from communication experts (MIT lecturers who have advanced degrees and who are all published writers). The WCC works with undergraduate and graduate students and with post-docs and faculty. The WCC helps you strategize about all types of academic and professional writing, as well as all aspects of oral presentations. No matter what department or discipline you are in, we help you think your way more deeply into your topic, help you see new implications in your data, research and ideas.

Policy on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—the use of another’s intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense.

It is the policy of the History Faculty that MIT students who plagiarize will be liable to receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Office of Student Conduct. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted and in all oral presentations, including images or texts in other media as well as materials collected online. All ideas, arguments, and direct phrasings taken from someone else’s work must be identified and properly footnoted. Quotations from other sources must be clearly marked as distinct from the student’s own work. For further guidance on the proper forms of attribution, consult the style guides available in the Writing and Communication Center, and Academic Integrity at MIT: A Handbook for Students.

Using the Internet

There is much of use to the ancient historian on the internet. There is also a lot of nonsense. Feel free to use the internet (although you should not have much reason to do so for the writing assignments in this subject); but be aware that you are responsible for being critical of the material you encounter there and will be penalized for making use of sites that spout nonsense. As with any source, you must provide full references to material you consult on the internet, including the title and author of the page in question, the date on which it was written or last updated, the URL, and the date on which you accessed the site.

Topics for Paper #1

  • The Foundation of the Republic: Livy’s account of the foundation of the Republic includes several of the most famous of Roman stories: the rape and suicide of Lucretia; the transformation of Lucius Junius Brutus from a pretend fool into the noble founder of the republic; and the fledgling republic’s defense of Rome against Lars Porsenna, complete with acts of individual bravery by Horatius Cocles, Gaius Mucius Scaevola, and Cloelia. Taken together, these stories amount to a foundation myth for the republic of which the Romans of later generations were so proud. As such, the stories might not provide a reliable reconstruction of actual events surrounding the birth of the republic; but they do tell us much about how later Romans chose to see themselves and their republican community. Given what he chose to include and how he chose to tell the stories in question, what do you think Livy was trying to teach his readers about what it meant to be Roman?
  • The Battle of the Allia and the Sack of Rome: The Romans’ defeat at the Battle of the Allia in 390 BC and the subsequent sack of the city of Rome by the Gauls were remembered by Romans of later generations as the city-state’s moment of greatest weakness and humiliation. Given his didactic and moralizing propensities, it is no surprise that Livy’s account of this moment is not a simple narrative of events but is rather a carefully crafted interpretive analysis of what caused the Romans to be subjected to such a disaster. According to Livy, what did the Romans get so wrong in 390 BC?
  • Livy’s Camillus: Marcus Furius Camillus is clearly the star of Livy’s Book 5, with the fate of Rome, in Livy’s telling, closely linked to Camillus’s own personal rise, fall, and rise again. If his is an example of behavior to be emulated, what is it about Camillus’s conduct as depicted in Book 5 that Livy seems to be saying Romans ought to imitate?
  • A topic of your choice, to be approved by Prof. Broadhead, by Recitation 2. 

Paper #1 is due during Session 5.

Topics for Paper #2

  • Polybius on the Rise of Rome: The concepts of fortune or chance on the one hand and reason or calculation on the other are prominent in Polybius’s explanation of the rise of Rome. How does his reliance on those concepts operate in the selections we looked at together: i.e. his analyses of the causes of the Punic Wars, the nature of the Roman constitution, and the culmination of the Second Punic War? If his history is meant to offer pragmatic advice to the statesman, what is it that Polybius thinks the rise of Rome should teach his reader about the role of fortune and reason?
  • The Deaths of the Gracchi: According to P. Cornelius Scipio Nasica, Tiberius Gracchus had become a tyrant and a threat to the republic, and so had to be removed. L. Opimius and his senatorial colleagues claimed the same was true of Gaius Gracchus. Can that argument be justified? Or were the assassinations of Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus just extreme examples of selfishly-motivated aristocratic competition? Or something else?

A strong essay on this topic will be based on a close reading of Plutarch’s biography of the Gracchi (taking account of Plutarch’s preoccupations as an author) and on the relevant sections of the Romans textbook.

  • A topic of your choice, to be approved by Prof. Broadhead by Session 11.

Paper #2 is due by Session 12.

Topics for Paper #3

  • Pater Patriae: Of all the achievements he chose to include in his Res Gestae, Augustus gave pride of place to his receipt of the honorific title Pater Patriae (Father of the Fatherland). Why?

A good paper on this topic will look not only at the Res Gestae itself but also at Suetonius’s Life of the Deified Augustus, Tacitus’s Annals, and the Romans textbook for further commentary on the nature of the Augustan Principate.

  • Tacitus and the imperial villainess: Tacitus’s account of the reigns of Augustus and Nero in the Annals contains vivid and thoroughly hostile portrayals of three (in)famous women of the imperial court: Livia, Agrippina, and Poppaea. How do you account for the way in which Tacitus portrays these three historical figures? What does his portrayal tell us about the role of women in the imperial family and about Tacitus’s views on the Principate?

A good paper on this topic will acknowledge that ‘misogyny’ is an insufficient explanation of Tacitus’s motivation. A deeper analysis of the impact of these influential women on the public life of the state, as Tacitus tells it, and of Roman expectations of elite behavior more generally is called for. You should feel free to focus on one of the three women or on features common to Tacitus’s portrayals of all three.

  • Imperial virtues and vices in Suetonius: Suetonius’s biographies of Augustus and Nero are replete with detailed examples of imperial virtues and imperial vices. What do those details tell us about the expectations the political elite had of their emperors in the early Imperial period? Put another way, what was the most important virtue for an ideal emperor to possess?

The challenge in answering this question will be to avoid producing a simple list of good things emperors were expected to do, and instead to distill the multiple specifics into one core virtue that encompasses as many of those specifics as possible.

Paper #3 is due by Session 24.

Course Info

As Taught In
Spring 2017
Learning Resource Types
Written Assignments
Lecture Notes