Detail of the Gigantomachy, Great Altar of Zeus, Pergamon, 2nd century BC, from an original photo by Ealdgyth, used under CC-BY-SA 3.0 license

Classics and joint schools

Classics is a hugely diverse and exciting subject. It ranges impressively widely across time and space, embracing literature, history, Greek and Latin language, comparative philology, philosophy, art and archaeology. It also engages with the presence and transformation of classical antiquity across more recent eras.

Key information
Average intake at Merton:

Four for Classics and one or two for joint schools.

Teaching team

Professor Rhiannon Ash teaches Classical languages and literature (with particular interests in Tacitus and Roman Historiography); Professor Jonathan Prag teaches Ancient History (with particular interests in the evolution of Sicily, the Roman Republic, epigraphy, and digital humanities); and Professor Irene Lemos teaches Classical Archaeology and specialises in the archaeology of Early Greece, as well as running first year core classes for Classical Archaeology and Ancient History students. Dr Mar Rodda teaches Greek Literature, with a particular interest in disability and gender in Greek Literature while Roman Historian Dr Lewis Webb teaches a variety of papers spanning both Greek and Roman texts and contexts.  We also have the support of two superb college lecturers Dr Mary Whitby (Greek) and Sam Eidinow (Latin) and Dr Henry Tang .


Course structure

Classics is a stimulating subject in its own right, but its diversity also makes it the ideal partner for various related sister subjects. If you study Classics or Classics and joint schools at Merton, you will be choosing a challenging and enjoyable degree subject which will equip you with a whole range of skills on which you will continue to draw long, long after you have graduated.

Our students at Merton will gain a rich knowledge of the field as a whole, as well as choosing to specialise in particular areas which captivate them and reflect their own interests. There are distinctive aspects of the Oxford Classics course which facilitate this ability to specialise, including for example the tailor-made undergraduate thesis, where students formulate a topic of their own choosing and are supervised by a faculty member with expertise in the field, or the individual 'museum report' carried out by Classical Archaeology and Ancient History students.

There are different degree programmes available, depending on your individual interests within the Classical world. At Merton, we admit undergraduates to read Classics both for Course 1, where candidates have either Greek or Latin (or both) to A-level or equivalent, and Course 2, where candidates with no previous experience of Greek or Latin pick one language and begin learning it from scratch.

Joint school courses

In addition to single honours Classics we also admit students to read:

Classics and Modern Languages: where we welcome applicants for both the four-year and the five-year version of the degree and those wishing to partner Greek or Latin, or both, with any of the following modern languages: French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian or Spanish. This degree in Classics and Modern Languages is an ideal combination for those who enjoy both ancient and modern languages, and wish to reap the intellectual rewards of studying both. It provides ample opportunity to examine how classical literature and culture have shaped their modern counterparts, through extensive study of literary texts, alongside training in linguistic skills. The compulsory Year Abroad offers a wonderful opportunity for students to immerse themselves in other cultures, enhancing their studies and experiences. 

Classical Archaeology and Ancient History: these subjects complement and enhance each other extremely well, supported by highly connected teaching, when you may well find both an Archaeology tutor and an Ancient History tutor in the same room, guiding you through their related topics together. The integrated nature of this degree makes it really special, whilst still allowing students to pursue their individual interests. This develops a very thorough understanding of the classical world, with study of the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome at its heart. The archaeological element may particularly appeal to those seeking a more practical approach to the study of Classics, with this course’s emphasis on bringing the material and visual world to bare, in addition to textual analysis, as well as some required fieldwork. Differentiating this degree from single honours Classics, our Classical Archaeology and Ancient History degree doesn’t have a compulsory language element in it, but this is still an option for those who do wish to include linguistic modules. 

History (Ancient and Modern): with a large Modern History team, dedicated in-house Ancient History teaching, and a strong Classics school, Merton is an excellent place to study the Ancient and Modern History degree and develop the comparative insights the course provides. This degree permits study of the entire continuum of human history, allowing students to truly develop and follow their own interests, and to explore how things have changed over time, and/or how aspects of modern society may in fact have their origins in ancient civilization. The comparative dimension of the degree highlights the diversity of historical experience. The study of languages is optional in this course, it will likely include at least some archaeological and material culture elements, but the core focus throughout is on textual analysis and the study of literature. Our students come from diverse backgrounds and originate both from the UK and overseas.

Benefits of studying Classics at Merton
  • Classics is a lively and substantial component of the Merton community, with 20-25 undergraduates and 10-15 graduates working on classical subjects at any one time, together with a group of fellows and lecturers all actively engaged in carrying out teaching and research on the classical world.
  • Students at Merton studying Classics and related degrees will be assigned an individual Director of Studies responsible for guiding their academic progress throughout their degree. Our students will experience a caring, fun, and supportive learning environment, and they will get to know their tutors well, both through the tutorials and small classes which they will share and through regular social events in college. They will also get to know the community of Merton Classics graduates, whether through working with them in the context of our graduate mentor scheme, or attending subject-based events.
  • We are lucky to have a dynamic and supportive 'subject family' within college, which means that undergraduates can count on plenty of help and guidance (from both their student peers and their dedicated Directors of Studies amongst the Fellows). Last but not least, the college is also able to help our students in various other ways by providing book grants, travel grants, and prizes for excellent work (whether on course or in exams), by ordering books requested by individuals for the college library, and by providing vacation residence to help those preparing for exams.
  • The College is well placed in central Oxford for those studying Classics. The main Bodleian Library (with unparalleled open-shelf collections in classical literature) is 5 minutes' walk away, and the Examination Schools where most undergraduate lectures in classics take place are just around the corner. The Sackler Library and the Classics Faculty are about 10 minutes' walk from Merton.
  • The College's own library is well-stocked with all the core texts for Oxford Classics undergraduates. Internet access in the library and college accommodation (including wifi across the College), means that the growing number of digital resources for classics are all readily accessible on-site.
  • The College holds special funds to support travel by undergraduates in the Classical World through the Thomas Braun Classical World Travel Fund. Undergraduates from Merton regularly attend the summer schools held at the British Schools for Archaeology in Rome and Athens, with college support. 
  • The undergraduates maintain a student society called The Chalcenterics, which meets at least termly for social events, as well as hosting visiting speakers.

Classics and related joint degrees equip students with a wide range of skills, including the ability to analyse complex problems and to formulate appropriate solutions, the aptitude to learn other languages quickly, the facility to use English clearly and concisely, and the capacity to think on one’s feet. Oxford Classics is a genuinely multi-disciplinary subject, and students learn to work not just with language and text, but with visual and material evidence as well (such as coins, vase-paintings, sculpture, inscriptions, archaeological remains), with the option to take papers in languages, literature, history, history of art, archaeology, philosophy, and archaeology.

As a result, our Oxford Classics graduates leave Merton to enter an extraordinary array of different careers, including teaching, the law, the film industry, drama, music, accountancy, viticulture, journalism, the army, the arts, computing and IT. Many also go on to graduate research whether in the UK or abroad, and not just in Classical subjects but in topics as diverse as environmental science and international relations. Acquiring a Classics degree equips students with the sort of transferable skills which allow them to do almost anything – a fact which is widely recognised by employers.

Student profiles

"Merton is a phenomenal place to study. Not only were the Classics teaching team deeply knowledgeable, but they also took a great interest in my personal development - fitting extra classes into their busy schedule when I struggled and supporting me as I switched from Classics to Classical Archaeology and Ancient History. They proved that one of the oldest courses can be dynamic, flexible and forward thinking and can even provide an invaluable basis for a career in an industry as young as video games."
Joshua Baldwin (2009), Lead Designer at Coldwood Interactive

Luke Bateman
Luke Bateman

Year: 1

Where are you from?: Blackpool, Lancashire

Why Merton?
When I first visited Merton, there was a strange feeling in the air that, at first, baffled me. It took a wander around the beautiful gardens, an awe-filled gasp in the chapel and chatting with all the purple-shirted, friendly-faced students to put my finger on it: Merton feels like home.

Best thing about your course?
The best part of A&MH is getting to watch an idea form in Republican Rome and continuously crop up, reinvented, reinterpreted and repurposed, all the way to the modern day. For all our differences, we have a lot in common with people two-and-a-half millennia ago and I love hearing all the stories between.

Most important thing you’ve learnt?
The value of listening. When I started, I was afraid that everyone was much more knowledgeable than I was. In truth, it’s just that everyone has new areas of knowledge separate from your own. I came to realise that getting to listen to passionate, knowledgable people—whether they’re tutors or friends!—is the best thing in the world.

What were you worried about before you arrived?
I’d heard rumours that historians had virtually no contact time other than a weekly tutorial. Whilst it’s true we don’t have much contact, it’s a lot less intimidating than it sounds. I rapidly developed a sense of initiative and self-reliance, and now genuinely love the freedom to explore independently.

What new opportunities have you had?
Every opportunity at Oxford has felt like a new opportunity! Black-tie dinners, poetry workshops, access to some of the most incredible libraries in the world… every day at Merton brings something new and unexpected. It’s a joyous place to live.

What’s the work like?
I find it exhilarating. For A&MH, the work mostly consists of working through a reading list to produce an essay on a given topic. Due to the size of each reading list, it’s possible to really tailor your investigations to subjects that fascinate you, before discussion with a world expert in a tutorial. I love it.

What do you do when you’re not working?
As of this term, I’ve taken over as the President of Merton’s Poetry Society, so I spend some of my free time organising our Poem of the Week email or our termly student poetry pamphlet, as well as a range of great free events! I also relish the chance to cook with my friends; long hours in the library can be quite isolated so getting together to make something delicious is always fun.

Favourite spot to relax?
The cosiest place on earth is one of the huge armchairs in the Economics Room at Merton’s OWL library at about 10 o’clock at night. Curled up with a good book as Merton Street is dark but for the gold of the street lamps… paradise!

Sarah Bennett
Sarah Bennett

Year: 3

Where are you from?: Teesside

Why Merton?
When I looked round on the open days, I was really impressed with the friendly and welcoming atmosphere of the college and the student helpers; combined with the beautiful buildings and gardens, it felt like somewhere I could call home. The cheap food and accommodation are added bonuses!

Best thing about Merton?
The people! From friendly and like-minded students, to the brilliant welfare team, the supportive and engaging tutors, and the fantastic porters, hall staff and other members of the college, you feel like you’re a part of an extended family. I love that I can go to college lunch and make friends with whoever I sit down next to.

Best thing about your course?
I’ve really enjoyed the flexibility of the Classics course at Oxford; for finals we are given a choice of over 80 papers ranging from classical literature to ancient history, philosophy and archaeology to philology. The freedom to pursue areas of individual interest combined with a healthy encouragement to try something completely new means that the degree is whatever you want to make of it. Before coming to Oxford I didn’t know what philology was, and the idea of studying philosophy was intimidating; now, as a finalist, I’ve taken options in both!

What were you worried about before you arrived?
As excited as I was to come to Merton, I worried that because I wasn’t “posh” or a genius I wouldn’t fit in. The truth is that everyone here is different; you will always manage to find someone like yourself. Equally you will meet people who are from completely different backgrounds but just as friendly and understanding. Open-mindedness when coming to university is key, and as understandable as these preconceptions are, they are not representative of what Oxford is actually like.

How do you cope with the workload?
The workload here can seem daunting, especially at the beginning. It’s always worth remembering that the course is designed to stretch you and that no one finds it easy- even after 3 years of studying here! It’s important to do your best and remember that you are not expected to produce perfect work, that’s why tutorials and constructive feedback from tutors are so helpful! I cope by trying to remind myself of all of this, being unafraid to ask for help from my tutors when I need it, making sure I’m looking after myself as much as possible, and taking frequent trips to Ben’s Cookies for that much needed sugar rush to get me to the end of my essay!

What are tutorials like?
Not as scary as they sound! I was very intimidated when I first arrived at the idea of having one to one discussion with leading academics, but tutorials are both immensely rewarding academically and also a lot of fun! Tutors are always willing to listen and engage with your opinions, and value the contributions you make, so don’t be afraid to speak up.

Cristina Chui
Cristina Chui

Year: 2

Where are you from?: Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Best thing about Merton?
My friends and tutors! They have made all the difference to my university experience. I found it really hard to move away from home, but my friends helped me when I struggled, and I can always rely on them for support.

Most important thing you’ve learnt?
To speak up and use my voice – I think that it is very common for people to be afraid of getting things wrong and end up not saying what they think. But, over a year and a half, I have learnt to state my opinions and ask questions to constantly learn and improve.

What were you worried about before you arrived?
Before I arrived, I thought a lot about what people I would meet and how I would fit in socially and academically. When I spoke about my experiences of the first term especially, many people related to how I felt, so everyone is really in the same boat!

What does your typical week look like?
A typical week for me involves one tutorial on my subject for that term (one tutor and 1-3 students) and I would spend a few days reading and writing my essay for that tutorial. I would also have a Greek/Latin language tutorial in college, and around one lecture every day. I also do a lot of volunteering, and spend a lot of time with my friends throughout the week too.

A student's perspective

Hi, I’m Rachel and I’m a first year studying Classics at Merton.

The Classics degree course at Oxford varies depending on the experience you start university with. I’m doing Course 1A because I studied both Latin and Greek at school, but there are many options available to choose and you can find out more about each one in the Classics section of the university website. The course is very broad, which is something I really like about Classics at Oxford. You can explore a whole range of areas of Classics in the first two years to find what interests you most. Alongside literature and language, there’s a choice to study either Ancient History, Archaeology or Philology, as well as a module in Philosophy, ancient or modern. I’m studying Archaeology this year and I’m really excited to start learning about Greek Vases. This choice gives the opportunity to open Classics up beyond just Latin and Greek language and shows all the things that fall under the umbrella of this degree. Philosophy is something I’m particularly interested in and I really thought about when applying so I’m glad there’s so much of it on offer in the course.

Although an important part of Classics is studying the languages, there’s no need to worry if you haven’t done one or either of them before; the Classics department and the colleges provide a lot of support in starting a new language and it won’t stop you diving head-first into the ancient world. There’s also a good blend of learning in colleges and in the department; in first year, we have weekly language classes at the Classics department, which is a great opportunity to meet people from other colleges studying the same subject. The other time the Classics students come together is for lectures, which I find really interesting. Since a degree in Classics is so broad, there will pretty much always be a lecture series on that takes your fancy. Last term, I went to lectures on Gender and Sexuality in Greece & Rome which, although I didn’t need them for any of my papers, really enhanced my understanding of Classics as a whole. That’s the beauty of a subject that encompasses so much!

One thing I like about Classics, especially at Oxford, is its accessibility. You do not need to have prior experience to study it and be passionate about it. The foundational texts of the ancient world, the Iliad and Aeneid, are just as fascinating in translation. They make up a large portion of the beginning of the course and every student studies at least one of them, regardless of how much they have done before. It is quite easy to learn more in Classics and explore new things that come up in tutorials or lectures because there are so many avenues to go down in this subject. Trust me, you will find your niche! It can, however, be difficult at first to get a hold on the different areas of Classics because it is so broad, and the choice may be a little overwhelming, but the tutors are always ready to help. I struggled with Greek when I started at Merton this year, but I spoke to my tutor about it and he drew up a revision timetable for me with textbook chapters for me to work through gradually. It has really boosted my confidence! There is also more time to learn in the Classics course than it may first appear since the first lot of exams, called ‘Mods’, are in second year.

If you’re thinking of applying to study Classics at Oxford (which I would really recommend!), I’d suggest thinking about what makes you want to. For me, I wanted to study Classics, particularly at Oxford, because the course here is a blend of all my favourite subjects from school: English, Languages and Philosophy. It’s also a very dramatic subject to study, looking at the two ancient cultures that have most heavily shaped the West and all the stories they have produced. When I was little, I was fascinated by the assassination of Julius Caesar and that interest has stayed with me. If you are passionate about anything to do with Classics, I think you’d love to do it as a degree because that passion will only get stronger.

I would also recommend kindling that passion through reading. My main recommendation is to find your niche, the thing that excites you most about the ancient world and read all you can about it. That way, you can think about what direction you may want to take your studying in. When I was in Sixth Form, I mostly read Greek Tragedy because that is what I like most about Classics and I always wanted to know more about it. It also helped that the plays are quite short! It can also be really helpful to mix classical works with modern books about Classics as a whole, such as A Very Short Introduction to Classics’, Confronting the Classics and even Women & Power, all by Mary Beard (sorry, my bookshelf is quite Beard-heavy!). You could also mix it up with some Classics-inspired fiction like Madeline Miller’s Circe and The Song of Achilles, Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls or Donna Tartt’s The Secret History (this last book was the one that sealed my love of Greek Tragedy, I couldn’t recommend it enough). Lastly, I’d suggest dipping into some of the most important Classical texts, namely Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Virgil’s Aeneid, which will give you an understanding of the kind of literature studied in a Classics degree. These works are all really compelling in translation; if you’d like to read the Odyssey, I recommend Emily Wilson’s translation, which is not only the most recent but also the first done by a woman.

Best of luck if you’re applying for the degree in Classics and I hope this has been helpful!

Rachel Jung is a first-year Classics undergraduate

Video: Classical Archaeology and Ancient History at Oxford University
Video: Classics and Modern Languages at Oxford University