Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus

Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus


by Katherine Blouin

Since I arrived at the UofT’s Scarborough campus more than a decade ago, I’ve taught a few times a 1st-year undergraduate course entitled “The Ancient Mediterranean”. The course provides an aerial survey of the history of the Mediterranean-at-large (including the Near East), from the development of agriculture to the Umayyad caliphate. The idea is to allow students in Classics and History (the course is double-numbered) to be able to contextualize the “Greco-Roman” world within the broader historical, geographical and cultural worlds they belonged to, and to also have a general sense of how ancient history’s connections to later periods are multifaceted and profound. In other words, the course aims to de-Eurocentrize ancient Mediterranean history.

Most students who take the course come straight from high school, and so have very little (or no) background in history, let alone in ancient history. The group is a mix of students enrolled in a CLA or HIS program and of students taking the course as an elective. The classroom size is of 150-200 students and the group is very diverse.

In the light of conversations with colleagues, I thought it might be handy to share the latest version of my syllabus’ calendar and reading list.

Some preliminary cues:

1. One of my main aims was to tone down the “Mediterranean Antiquity = Greco-Roman” paradigm. As I like to say, the so-called “Classical” world did come emerge out of the blue. Far from it.

2. Accordingly, I’ve made sure to distribute the material in a way that allows a maximum of seats at the table. So contrary to all available textbooks on the topic, the Greek and Roman worlds do not take up most of the term lectures.

3. I’ve paired up Empires (Roman-Carthaginian, Achaemenid-Hellenistic, Roman Dominate-Sassanian) that are usually not taught with equal emphasis

4. The weekly calendar is meant to convey to students the importance of challenging historiographical myths such as the “Fall” of the Roman Empire (and thus the biological model of “civilizations“) and the idea whereby the Arab conquests brought about a complete socio-cultural rupture.

5. Online (blog) articles, podcasts and TedEd videos proved to be very useful pedagogical tools, especially when introductory readings on a particular topic are rare on unsatisfactory for the needs of the course.

Feel free to take on whatever you deem useful from what follows, and if you do, let me know how your students responded to the material.

Required Material and Readings

  • Podany, A.H. 2014. The Ancient Near East: A Very Short History. Oxford, OUP.
  • Shaw, I. 2004. Ancient Egypt: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP.
  • de Blois, L. and R.J. van der Spek 2008. An Introduction to the Ancient World. NYC, Routlege.
  • A selection of episodes from BBC 4’s In Our Time
  • A selection of podcasts from BBC 4’s A History of the World in 100 Objects (AHOW in weekly calendar)
  • A few other readings/videos (references provided in the weekly calendar)

Weekly Calendar

Week 1 Course Presentation


– Appiah, K.A. 2016. “There is no such thing as western civilisation“, The Guardian

– Blouin, K. 2018. “Civilization: What’s Up with That?“, Everyday Orientalism

– Futo Kennedy, R 2017. “We condone it by our silence: Confronting Classics’ Complicity in White Supremacy”, Eidolon

Week 2  Ancient Mesopotamia, from Uruk to the dynasty of Ur

Readings: Podany 2014, ch.1-5

Podcast : AHOW 012 and 015

Week 3 The Ancient Near East, from the Old Assyrian Empire to Cyrus’ conquest

Readings: Podany 2014, ch.6-10

Podcast : AHOW 016 and 21

Video: The rise and fall of the Assyrian Empire“, TedEd

 Week 4 Ancient Egypt 1

Readings: Shaw 2004, ch.1-4

Podcast : AHOW 011 and 017

Video: “A day in the life of an ancient Egyptian doctor”, TedEd

Week 5 Ancient Egypt 2

Readings: Shaw 2004, ch.5-8

Podcast : 020 and 025

Video: The pharaoh that wouldn’t be forgotten“, TedEd

Week 6  Reading week = No class

Week 7 Midterm

Week 8 The Aegean and ancient Greek World

Readings: De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.8-10

Podcast : AHOW 018 and 027


– “Why is Aristophanes called “The father of Comedy”?“, TedEd

– “The myth of Arachne“, TedEd

Week 9 The Achaemenid and Hellenistic Worlds


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.11

– Llewellyn-Jones, L. 2017. “The Achaemenid Empire“, T. Daryaee ed. King of the Seven Climes.

– Zuckerberg, D. 2017. “Don’t Quote me on That“, Eidolon

Podcast : AHOW 031 and 032


– “Why is Herodotus called “The father of history”?“, TedEd

Did the Amazons really exist?, TedEd

Week 10 Rome and Carthage: From Cities to Empires


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.12-13

– Futo Kennedy, R. 2017. “Colorlines in Classical North Africa“, Classics at the Intersections

Podcast : In Our Time, “The Phoenicians” and “Carthage’s Destruction

Video:Who were the Vestals virgins“, TedEd

Week 11 The Roman World, from the Late Republic to the Dominate


– De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.14-15

– Padilla, D. 2015. “Barbarians Inside the Gate, Part I: Fear of Immigration in Ancient Rome and Today“, Eidolon

Podcast : AHOW 035 and 040


-“Why would you read Virgil’s “Aeneid”?“, TedEd

-“A glimpse of teenage life in ancient Rome“, TedEd

Week 12 The Late Antique Roman and Sassanian Empires


De Blois and van der Spek 2008, ch.16

– Daryaee, T. and K. Rezakhani 2017. “The Sasanian Empire”, T. Daryaee ed. King of the Seven Climes. https://www.academia.edu/32690732/T._Daryaee_and_Kh._Rezakhani_The_Sasanian_Empire_KING_OF_THE_SEVEN_CLIMES_ed._T._Daryaee_Jordan_Center_for_Persian_Studies_2017_pp._155-197

Podcast :

– AHOW 043 and 044

– In Our Time, “The Sassanid Empire

Video: The rise and fall of the Byzantine Empire“, TedEd

Week 13 Early Islam and the Arab Conquests


“Arabs” and “Muhammad” in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History

Sarris, P. 2015. “Byzantium and Islam”, Byzantium: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, OUP.

Podcast :

– AHOW 045 and 046

– In Our Time, “The Arab Conquests


In addition to a midterm and a final, the students had to write a “podcast manuscript”:

A History of Ancient Women in 180 ROM Objects 30%

Students are asked to visit the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) and, on that occasion, to select one of the many objects from the Ancient Mediterranean world that is related to girls/women (including goddesses) on display there.

Then, in the fashion of BBC’s AHOW series, they shall write the manuscript of a podcast in which they offer a historical analysis of the object in question.

The 4 to 5-page manuscript (1.5 spaced) shall be structured as follows :

  1. Introduction
  2. Primary evidence analysis
  3. Conclusion

In 2014, I assigned a similar paper for my 2nd-year Roman History and Culture course, with the Roman world as the general theme. The ROM generously partnered up with me and turned 5 of the best papers into videos starring the students. The selection was made via a long list established by myself and my GA. Then, students whose papers made it to the long list and who were interested to participate had their paper sent to a small jury made of ROM curators and associate researchers. The 5 winners can be seen on the ROM’s Youtube page.

4 thoughts on “Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean beyond the Classics: A Syllabus

  1. Thanks for sharing your syllabus for a course that in my own teaching I’m far from satisfied with. I’m terrible at finding media resources so it’s especially helpful to see what you use from the BBC. My class size is much smaller so we do a lot more primary source readings (especially from Coogan’s reader, ignoring its purpose as background for the OT), but your syllabus has me wondering if visual sources should be more emphasized. Not sure if you’ve seen David Wengrow’s What Makes Civilization but I’ve found this useful as well for deconstructing the notion of Civilization (and “Near East”). I’m glad to see someone else acknowledge the inadequacy of current textbooks. My solution has been not to use one, so I’m curious as to whether the one you use (which I’m not familiar with) pushes against a Greco-Roman centric narrative or, if not, how you counter its tendencies.


  2. Could you suggest textbooks or other resources that could be used at a secondary school level for this topic? I have the joy of teaching a year-long ancient and medieval history elective class and can’t seem to find a text at a secondary level focused on those periods.


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