Joint Classics-History PhD Program in Ancient History

The Ph.D. program in ancient history at Brown is an interdisciplinary program established jointly by the departments of Classics and History to train ancient historians to meet the needs and goals outlined in the following paragraphs.

Background and Goals

A great legacy of the Greco-Roman period is the extraordinarily rich supply of important literary texts (“the classics”). Consequently, from its modern beginning in the 19th Century, the historical study of antiquity has been dominated by philology. From nearly that same beginning, however, a few scholars have approached the study of ancient history through methodologies of the social sciences (e.g., Max Weber) or ancillary fields such as archaeology, epigraphy, and numismatics (e.g., Theodore Mommsen, Michael Rostovtzeff). Inevitably, historians schooled in one area have tended to emphasize that approach over the others, producing a natural bias that still divides the discipline. Ancient historians trained in classics departments are often perceived as too philological and unfamiliar with methodologies used in history and other social sciences. Those trained in history departments, on the other hand, are often suspected of being deficient in the classical languages and thus unable to appreciate the nuances of ancient textual sources and culture. Whatever the foundations of such judgments, they discourage desirable syntheses and keep young ancient historians from fully exploiting available career opportunities. After two centuries, therefore, it seems appropriate to combine the three approaches of philology, historical methodologies, and ancillary disciplines into a single program of training in ancient history. 

A graduate program that embraces these goals must be capable of helping its students achieve a high level of competence in the ancient languages and philology; it must enable them to acquire expertise in the historiographical methodologies used in the fields of history and the related social sciences (e.g. demography, statistics, GIS); it must familiarize them with the ancillary disciplines of ancient history (epigraphy, numismatics, archaeology, and papyrology); and it must introduce them to other fields that contribute toward a fully comprehensive historical view of antiquity (e.g. religious studies, Egyptology, anthropology, art history). Most of all, such a program must emphasize the intellectual challenge and excitement of moving among various fields, of interdisciplinary interaction and collaboration, and of developing the larger and broader conceptions that can be fostered through comparative history. Students trained as historians and classicists may be expected to be attractive to both types of departments and thus to have broader prospects for a productive career in either.


At present, “ancient history” comprises primarily classical Greek and Roman history, including the history of late antiquity. In the future, the program will be expanded (for example, to include the history of the ancient Near East or of the Byzantine empire) as resources (especially faculty positions) allow.  Students interested in the comparative history of the ancient world can pursue coursework and guided research through the Program in Early Cultures.


The program is operated and supervised by a Director of Graduate Studies (currently Professor Graham Oliver, Classics and History) in consultation with an Executive Committee comprised of other Brown faculty in Ancient History, currently Professors Graham Oliver, Ken Sacks (History and Classics),  and Adele Scafuro (Classics); Associate Professor Jonathan Conant (History and Classics). 

Contributing Faculty

Tenured faculty contributing to the program, in addition to the ancient historians mentioned previously, are drawn from the departments of Classics: Susan Alcock and John Cherry (Greek and Roman archaeology), Stratis Papaioannou (Byzantine world); History: Amy Remensnyder (European Middle Ages); Egyptology and Ancient West Asian Studies: James Allen (Egyptology) and John Steele (Exact Sciences, Mesopotamia); Religious Studies: Michael Satlow (Hellenistic and Roman Judaism), Ross Kraemer (Ancient Judaism), Susan Harvey, and Stan Stowers (early Christianity).

Untenured Participating Faculty

 In Classics: Johanna Hanink (Greek cultural history); in Art History: Rebecca Molholt (ancient art); in Religious Studies: Nancy Khalek (early Islam).


Candidates are admitted into the program by either the Classics or the History Department. The admitting department assumes financial responsibility for all candidates it admits to the program. Applicants may apply directly to either department and should make clear that they are applying to the joint PhD program in ancient history.

Criteria for Admission

Candidates are admitted according to the criteria valid in the department to which they apply and in competition with all other applicants to these departments. At the very least, they have to meet the following criteria: advanced level in Latin or Greek; at least intermediate level in the other ancient language; reading knowledge in one of four modern foreign languages (German, French, Italian, and Spanish) that are most important for research in ancient history. Applicants to the program will be screened according to these criteria by the program’s faculty before the departments make their decision. Students are strongly encouraged to attain these levels before applying (if necessary, for example, by attending a post-baccalaureate program).

Duration and Funding

The program is designed to take five to six years.  Students are funded by the sponsoring programs and, when available, through fellowships designated for advanced students in the program.

Course Work

Students will take courses that are tailored to their specific needs. Apart from courses in the ancient languages and histories, they will take at least one graduate seminar each semester (until the preliminary exam is passed), including at least one history research seminar outside of ancient history and one classics seminar on a nonhistorical author or topic. In addition, they will take, at appropriate times, in the Department of History, the graduate colloquium on historical methodologies and (if available) a course on theory and/or philosophy of history, and, in the Department of Classics, the proseminar on methodologies and ancillary disciplines.

Mandatory MA

There are six basic requirements for the MA in Ancient History:  two sight translation exams, in Greek and Latin literature, based on the reading list; two extensive research papers; and two modern language exams. The student must complete three of the four major assignments (ancient language exams and extensive research papers) by the start of the fifth semester, and the other by the start of the seventh semester. If all four major assignments and both modern language exams are not passed by the beginning of the seventh semester, a terminal MA will be awarded.

Additional Requirements

Students in the program are expected to demonstrate, through successful completion of an appropriate course or a written exam, competence in (a) one ancillary field (normally epigraphy or archeology; exceptionally numismatics, papyrology, or art history) and (b) two literature/author Classics courses (including one poetry course or survey)

Minor Fields

Written and oral exams will be taken in two minor fields: Greco-Roman literature and a historical field outside of Greco-Roman history.

Reading List

The sight reading lists, focusing on historical authors, is designed to give students guidance as to which authors and works they should read in the original languages. The prelim reading lists will comprise standard works of secondary literature with which students should be familiar by the time they take their preliminary exam.

Preliminary Exam

Students are expected to take the preliminary exam by the start of the eighth semester.   This exam will consist of a three hour oral examination in two major fields:  Greek history (from the archaic to the end of the Hellenistic period) and Roman history (from the beginning to Justinian).  There will be one examiner in each field and one presider; the other members of the Ancient History faculty are invited to attend.

Ph.D. Thesis

After passing the preliminary exam, students will choose a dissertation topic in ancient history. The dissertation committee will consist of three faculty who are best able to advise the student on the chosen topic; at least two of these must be among the program’s contributing faculty. Subsequent to the Preliminary Exam and passed by the beginning of the ninth semester, students will present the dissertation prospectus:  a substantial essay setting forth the problematique, a plan of research, and the bibliography to be read and defended in front of the prospective dissertation committee.  The grading will be fail, pass, high pass.  When completed, the dissertation will be defended in an event that is open to all faculty in the sponsoring departments and to students in the program.

Prospective students are encourage to visit the Classics website as well.