Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Course Description

As we read broadly from throughout the vast chronological period that is "Homer to Dante," we will pepper our readings of individual ancient and medieval texts with broader questions like: what images, themes, and philosophical questions recur through the period; are there distinctly "classical" or "medieval" ways of depicting or addressing them; and what do terms like "Antiquity" or "the Middle Ages" even mean? (What are the Middle Ages in the "middle" of, for example?) Our texts will include adventure tales of travel and self-discovery (Homer's Odyssey and Dante's Inferno); courtroom dramas of vengeance and reconciliation (Aeschylus's Oresteia and the Icelandic Njáls saga); short poems of love and transformation (Ovid's Metamorphoses and the Lais of Marie de France); and epics of war, nation-construction, and empire (Homer's Iliad, Virgil's Aeneid, and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf).

Course Requirements


You may miss one class, no questions asked. After that, unexcused absences will lower your Participation grade (see below) at the rate of one "tick" (A- to B+, C to C-) per day. Excused absences are for serious illness, family emergencies, and the like.

Written Assignments

You will complete three forms of written assignments during the term.

  1. Three short (two-page) plot summaries of one of texts (or a portion thereof) that we have read in class. 15% of total grade.
  2. One short (four-page) exercise designed to teach you the basics of what "close reading" is, and how to make it the foundation of arguments about literary texts. First draft, 5%; second draft, 10% of total grade.
  3. One substantial (eight-page) literary essay that makes a detailed, textually based argument about one of the many ways in which Virgil's Aeneid enlarges upon, revises, or suggestively ignores prominent themes, images or characters from either or both of Homer's epic poems. First draft, 10%; second draft, 20% of total grade.

Open-Book, Open-Note Final Exam

Because we are covering a great deal of material (of necessity; it's a very long historical period), I want to give you the opportunity to demonstrate synthetic understanding and appreciation of the many texts that you will not have the opportunity to write about in depth. The exam will consist of a number of short essays, covering the entire term but focusing on the texts read after the Aeneid. 20% of total grade.


Because the Communication requirement is designed to encourage oral as well as written forms of expression, and in order to give everyone a stake in fostering engaged class discussions, the final 20% of your grade will be determined by the quality of your engagement with me and your fellow students in class. This will involve not simply "talking in class" (in which category I will value quality over quantity), but also, in teams of two, taking responsibility for helping to lead class discussion for one day. Early in the semester I will pass around a sign-up sheet with available dates and give more detailed suggestions on how to prepare for this element of the course. (I will be more lenient in my assessment of the teams' discussion-management based on how early in the semester they perform, since it is always easier to have models of what does and doesn't work, an advantage that later teams will necessarily have.)


Grades will be assigned in accordance with MIT's definitions, which I reprint below (bold-faced adjectives have been thus emphasized by the Institute):

A – Exceptionally good performance, demonstrating a superior understanding of the subject matter, a foundation of extensive knowledge, and a skillful use of concepts and/or materials.

B – Good performance, demonstrating capacity to use the appropriate concepts, a good understanding of the subject matter, and an ability to handle the problems and materials encountered in the subject.

C – Adequate performance, demonstrating an adequate understanding of the subject matter, an ability to handle relatively simple problems, and adequate preparation for moving on to more advanced work in the field.

D – Minimally acceptable performance, demonstrating at least partial familiarity with the subject matter and some capacity to deal with relatively simple problems, but also demonstrating deficiencies serious enough to make it inadvisable to proceed further in the field without additional work.

F – Unsatisfactory performance.

As the above makes clear, MIT defines a B as an actively good grade, and reserves the A to recognize truly "exceptional" performance. I take these definitions seriously, and you should expect to receive grades in accordance with them.

Important Information

Please read the following carefully and consult me or one of the resources listed below if you have questions.

MIT Literature Statement on Plagiarism

Plagiarism—use of another's intellectual work without acknowledgement—is a serious offense. It is the policy of the Literature Faculty that students who plagiarize will receive an F in the subject, and that the instructor will forward the case to the Committee on Discipline. Full acknowledgement for all information obtained from sources outside the classroom must be clearly stated in all written work submitted. 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 at the Writing and Communication Center and the MIT Web site on Plagiarism.


1 Course introduction  
2 Iliad, books 1-6 First summary due 1 day later
3 Iliad, books 7-12 Close reading exercise due 2 days later
4 Iliad, books 13-18  
5 Iliad, books 19-24 First summary revision due 4 days later
6 Odyssey, books 1-6  
7 Odyssey, books 7-12 Close reading exercise revision due 2 days later
8 Odyssey, books 1-12 (discussion)  
9 Odyssey, books 13-18  
10 Odyssey, books 19-24  
11 Aeneid, books 1-4 Second summary due 2 days later
12 Aeneid, books 5-8  
13 Aeneid, books 9-12  
14 Inferno, cantos 1-12 Mandatory essay conferences due 2 days later
15 Inferno, cantos 13-23  
16 Inferno, cantos 24-34 Third summary due 2 days later
17 Aeschylus, Agamemnon  
18 Aeschylus, Libation Bearers Homer/Virgil essay due 2 days later
19 Aeschylus, Eumenides  
20 Njáls saga, chapters 1-77  
21 Njáls saga, chapters 78-133  
22 Njáls saga, chapters 134-end  
23 Beowulf, lines 1-1650  
24 Beowulf, lines 1651-end Revised Homer/Virgil essay due 2 days later
25 de France, Marie. Lais, pp. 28-125  
26 Lais, pp. 126-233 Class party 2 days later