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MA Seminar Greek: Ancient Greek Utopian thinking


Admission requirements

This class can be taken in fulfilment of the requirements of both the MA and the Research MA program in Classics and Ancient Civilizations (track Classics), with differential requirements.

Admission requirements: a BA degree in Classics, obtained from a university in the Netherlands, or a comparable qualification obtained from a university outside the Netherlands. Moreover, students with an international degree have to contact the coordinator of studies to check admissibility.

If you are interested in taking this course, but are not sure whether you fulfill the entry requirements, please, contact the instructor.


“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at… Progress is the realization of Utopia.” (Oscar Wilde)
Ever since Thomas More coined the neologism “utopia” in 1516, the term came to refer both to imaginary paradisiacal places and to a particular kind of narrative. Both phenomena are firmly rooted in the ancient Greek literary tradition where we find many descriptions of alternative realities and imaginary societies: ranging from the Phaeacians in Homer’s Odyssey and Hesiod’s Golden Age, to Aristophanes’ Acharnians, Birds, Wealth, Plato’s City of Pigs, Callipolis and Atlantis, the communist blueprints of the Cynics and Stoics, the fictitious travel literature of Iambulus and Lucian.
In this seminar, we will read in the original Greek some of the key examples of ancient Greek utopian and dystopian texts. We will explore in what ways these imagined societies represent conceptions of what is desirable: what social, economic and political ideas and ideals are expressed in utopian texts and what are the anthropologies (theories on human nature and the human condition) presupposed and produced by these texts? And how are such ideals related to the real world, the historical contexts that produced these texts? We will analyze the literary forms into which utopian imagination was crystallized: how does utopian narrative work? What literary means are used to bridge the leap between the here and the no wand the imagined reality? And we will reflect on the function of utopias: what are utopias for? Do they serve as analytical tools, as thought experiments? Are they diagnostic, serving purposes of social criticism or satire? Do they help us explore how our values are configured? Are they vehicles of nostalgia, blueprints for a future that is realizable, literary topoi or foils that help us articulate the human condition?

Research-based teaching and learning: this seminar connects to and builds on an ongoing NWO research project of T.A. van Berkel (From Homo Economicus to Political Animal: Human self-understanding in ancient Greek economic reflection).

Course objectives

Knowledge and insight:

  • A thorough knowledge of a selection of key texts and sources from Archaic, Classical, Hellenistic and Imperial literature (Homer, Hesiod, Aristophanes, Plato, Lucian; fragments of Cratinus, Eupolis; sources on Pythagoreanism, Stoicism, Cynicism; sources on Theopompus, Euhemerus, Hecataeus, Iambulus) in ancient Greek and the ability to explain the grammar, syntax and discourse features of those passages.

  • A thorough knowledge of the historical, literary, philological and philosophical aspects of a selection of key texts.

  • A firm understanding of various concepts (“utopia”, “utopianism”, “dystopia”, “Golden Age”, “utopias of reconstruction”, “utopias of escape”), their historical development and their conceptual flexibility.

  • An advanced grasp of various paradigms of linguistic, rhetorical and literary analysis.

  • The ability to understand, synthesize, compare and critique advanced secondary scholarly works about utopianism in different cultural contexts.

  • A basic understanding of some key issues in the history of economic thinking, social criticism and political thinking.


(for differentiation between MA and ResMA, see below under Assessment Methods)

  • Research: formulation of a complex research question, collecting materials, analyzing results, constructing arguments, formulating conclusions.

  • Methodology and reflection: application of a variety of methods from the humanities; application of theoretical frameworks from the humanities and the social sciences; ability to reflect on the relative value of different approaches, on the merits and dangers of comparative methods and on issues of consilience.

  • Reading skills: oral translation of Greek text into idiomatic English (during oral presentation, and for international students also during oral exam) or Dutch (for Dutch students during oral exam); ability to discuss the semantics of lexemes and the grammatical and discourse linguistic features of a text; ability to reflect on implications of textcritical issues.

  • Critical assessment of secondary literature according to the standards of academic debate.

  • Written presentation: the pre-circulated conference paper will offer a clear and well-structured presentation of original research.

  • Oral presentation: will give a clear and well-argued interpretation of a specific text passage, making effective use of a handout (mandatory) and, optionally, with other presentation devices, in a conference setting.

  • The student must demonstrate his or her grasp of critical issues in recent scholarship, and assess recent scholarly contributions by confronting them with the original source material.

  • Cooperation: students will co-organize a MA-conference with invited keynote speakers; they will chair sessions and do wrap-ups.

  • This course aims at active participation and preparation: the student demonstrates involvement in the topic by asking well-informed and constructive questions and making contributions to the collective progress, on the basis of antecedent independent preparation.
    This research seminar contributes to the achievement of learning outcomes 4a and 4c (to give and write a clear and well-argued oral and written presentation on a research topic in accordance with academic standards) of the study programme Classics and Ancient Civilizations.


The timetables are available through My Timetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

  • Lecture

Assessment method


  • participation: 20%

  • oral presentations (work-in-progress, presenting conference paper): 20%

  • written examination: 20%

  • written assignment (abstract, conference paper): 40%

The requirements for MA and ResMA students are differentiated: ResMA students are expected to come up with their own original research topic, find literature, and write a scholarly report; MA students may expect more help in choosing their topic and their papers may consist of an assessment of the status questions on a given topic.


The final mark of the course is established by (i) determination of the weighted average combined with the (ii) additional requirement that both the oral exam and the paper be sufficient.


If the additional requirements have not been met, the student can revise/retake the component.
If the overall mark is unsatisfactory, the student can either revise the paper or retake the written examination (after consultation with the teacher). There is no resit for the oral presentations and the participation. If the final mark is sufficient and if the additional requirements have been met, the examination and paper cannot be retaken.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

A reading list of primary and secondary sources, with titles to be found in the Leiden University library, will be made available before the start of the tutorial. A selection of relevant books will be made available on a special bookshelf at the University Library.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.


  • For substantive questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Arsenaal


Not applicable.