Hi, I’m Rachel and I’m a first year studying Classics at Merton.
The Classics 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 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 Classics and I hope this has been helpful!
Rachel Jung is a first-year Classics undergraduate