Duke University | Classical Studies:


There are a variety of paths to undergraduate research in the Department of Classical Studies. The Capstone Seminar, which is required of all majors but open to any junior or senior, is offered every spring and provides an excellent opportunity to engage in collaborative or solo research projects. Students can pursue research topics in one- or two-semester long independent studies. Finally, many of our majors elect to pursue the two-semester option, writing a Senior Thesis with a view to Graduation with Distinction (for more on this, see the link to information on Graduation with Distinction in the lefthand menu). Writing a thesis in Classics is a good way (1) to develop a deep intellectual relationship with a faculty mentor, (2) to engage with the wonderfully alien world of Greek and Roman antiquity in greater depth and breadth than you might have done in a traditional class, (3) to learn firsthand the methods of humanistic and scientific enquiry that propel the field, and (4) to challenge yourself to think and write about an aspect of antiquity so as to advance an idea that you can claim as your own!

Students who have written senior theses in Classical Studies have gone on to careers in diplomacy, finance, law, medicine, secondary teaching, as well as graduate programs in archaeology, classical studies, history, or medieval Latin. You do not need to be headed to grad school to write a thesis. Recent topics have included credit crises in ancient Rome, Greek and Roman religious tolerance, rhetorical strategies in the Greek medical author Soranus, Roman military training, tourism in the Roman Empire, vengeance in the Athenian legal system, Vergilian allusion in the fourth-century Christian poet Juvencus, and a wide range of other topics.

Every year, the David Taggart Clark Prize in Classical Studies is awarded to the senior major in classical civilization or classical languages who is judged to have written the best honors thesis of the year.  The prize consists of an important book or books in the field of classics.  Support for this award derives from income earned on the generous bequest (1956) of Professor David Taggart Clark, classicist and economist.

Please see the for further information.

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Faculty-mentored undergraduate research best exemplifies the value of a liberal-arts education.  In Classical Studies, we teach students both what to learn and how to learn—how to frame questions and to determine the evidence needed for answers; how to find the patterns within that evidence and frame an argument based on them.  And then, how to write it all up, clearly and persuasively.

In short, Classical Studies is a specialized form of dentistry.  Our students come to us with immense appetites for knowledge.  We give them better teeth.  But with a senior thesis, you get out the really big drills. And this is what our students bit off in 2014:

Jennifer Goodrick’s project focused upon one of Rome’s most notorious emperors—or rather, upon the man who sought to make the emperor’s future less blood-red.  Her thesis sifted Seneca’s essay on Mercy, addressed to the young Nero. Superficially, De Clementia appears a work of pure panegyric—craven flattery to a man who had the power of life and death over his subjects.  But under the direction of Professor Jed Atkins, Jennifer has elucidated two distinct conversations within the work.  Seneca’s most audible voice urges Nero as emperor to use sparingly his power to scourge.  But the philosopher’s other voice is a tragic whisper lamenting his—and all Rome’s—slavery to one man.

Of course, in submitting to an emperor, Rome simply embodied the calumny with which it and ancient Greece had long smeared the East.  Anticipating Hegel, the Greeks viewed their democracy as granting all citizens freedom, whereas Eastern monarchy made only one man free. Rhyne King learned Old Persian and Old Elamite to prove them wrong.  Not content with that, he crossed an ocean to consult the British Museum’s holdings in Elamite and Persian inscriptions.  Thus armed, he  ruthlessly interrogated the Greeks’ self-serving fictions about Persia. His senior thesis balanced Hellenistic versions of the Achaemenid Empire’s history with the Persians’ accounts of themselves.  His probing reveals surprises.  For example: the Cyrus Cylinder (pictured above) proves that the “tyrannical” Persian emperor tolerated religious diversity more gracefully than the Greeks, who put Socrates to death for “introducing strange gods.”

John Broadbent was fascinated by the beginnings of Roman autocracy—specifically, in the struggle between Julius Caesar and Pompey Magnus.  The poet Lucan makes Rome’s two most famous generals a study in mercurial ambition vs. ponderous gravitas.  Suspiciously, though, that same too-easy binary of personalities has oversimplified other conflicts: Athens vs. Sparta in the Peloponnesian War; the United States vs. the Soviet Union in the Cold War; Apple vs. PC.  John was not interested in stereotypes, but in probing rationally why Caesar ultimately defeated Pompey both politically and militarily.  John assessed what we knew about each man as leader, and calibrated these data against modern research into effective leadership styles.  Professor Tolly Boatwright guided John’s search for answers that would not reduce Caesar’s victory, or Pompey’s defeat, to pat formulae.

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