Writing Greco-Roman Lives: Ancient Biography from Alexander to Jesus and beyond (HUMA 3106; 2022-23)

General Information:

Course description:  Why do ancient people write about the lives of others? What were ancient people doing when they wrote about themselves? This course explores biographical and autobiographical writing in the ancient Mediterranean among Greeks, Romans, and minoritized populations (including Jews and Christians) not as straightfoward and narrow descriptions of heroic figures, but as rhetorical productions and windows into cultural values and assumptions. We will consider the aims and functions of various forms of life-writing, including depictions of philosophers, politicians, and religious leaders, and we will treat early Christian biographies of Jesus (“gospels”) as part of this literary landscape. What ethnic, social and political concerns emerge in these texts (ca. 400 BCE-300 CE)? In the process of analysis, we will explore the blurry lines between “fact” and “fiction” in ancient writing generally.

Required books and readings

  • Linked readings in the course outline below.  Please read and study all materials beforehand and bring them to meetings for discussion
  • The links in the outline also draw on chapters from two e-books in the York library:
    • Tomas Hägg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012) – ebook link.
    • B. C McGing, Judith Mossman, and Ewen Bowie, eds., The Limits of Ancient Biography (Swansea, Wales: Classical Press of Wales, 2006) – ebook link.

Evaluation (see full assignment descriptions at the end of the course outline)

  • Attendance at meetings, participation in discussions: 15%
  • Quizzes x about 20 (always at the beginning of meetings at 11:30am): 20%
  • Fishbowl team discussion for 15 minutes x 3 (students are marked individually): 20%
  • Essay 1 (historical analysis of primary source), 5 pages, due FALL WEEK 6: 20%
    • Academic integrity tutorial and test: http://www.yorku.ca/tutorial/quizzes/ai/nologin/ai.quiz.  All students must go through the tutorial and complete the test before the first assignment, achieving a 10/10 (100%) and submitting a hardcopy print-out of the results of their test. Assignment 1 will not be accepted without a completed academic integrity test attached (due before or with assignment 1
  • Essay 2 (historical analysis of primary source), 8 pages, due WINTER WEEK 6: 25%

 Important things to know:

  • Readings and participation: Read and study materials BEFORE meetings.
  • Penalties for lateness: Assignments are due at the beginning of class (if in person, hardcopy; if remotely, by email attachment). Late submissions will be penalized by one full grade (e.g. from a B to a C) and a further grade for each additional day beyond the due date.
  • Academic honesty and plagiarism policies: Absolutely no form of plagiarism will be tolerated. Study York’s policies here and here.
  • Cell-phones, laptops, and other devices: All phones and devices must be completely turned off and remain unused during class. Laptops or computers are permitted for note-taking only, not for browsing or messaging.
  • Password-protected files for the course, which are used under fair dealing provisions for the purpose of education, are for course use only and should not be redistributed in any form.


Discussion outline

Unit 1: Orientation, roots of biographical writing and the emergence of the “Life” (bios)

Week 1 (Sept ): Intro – Problems of “genre” and the presence of biographical discourses across genres; Purposes of biographical writing; Greek methods of persuasion (rhetoric) and speeches as a foundation

  • Discussion of distributed readings:
    • Plutarch, Alexander and Julius Caesar, prologue (link)
    • Plutarch, Demetrius and Antony, prologue (link)
    • Aristotle, On Rhetoric, chapter 3 on the three types of rhetoric (link)
    • Rhetoric for Alexander, sections on demonstrative and judicial rhetoric (link)

Week 2 (Sept ): Greek precedents for biographical and autobiographical discourses (praising and defensive rhetoric) – Isocrates’ Euagoras and praising speeches (ca. 370 BCE)

  • Readings
    • Carefully study Aristotle, On Rhetoric (link) and Rhetoric for Alexander (link) again, in order to understand the types and social contexts of rhetoric or persuasion
    • Isocrates, Evagoras (link)
    • Poulakos, “The Educational Ends of the ‘First’ Biography in Classical Greece” (link)

Week 3 (Sept ): Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, the ideal ruler, and ethnographic writing (ca. 360s BCE) / The emergence of Lives in the late fourth century

  • Readings:
    • Xenophon, “The Boyhood of Cyrus from The Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia), book 1 up to 1.6.18, partway through the dialogue with Cyrus’ dad (link)
    • Hägg, “In the Beginning was Xenophon,” pages 10-19, 41-66 (link).

Week 4 (Oct ): Biographical and autobiographical tendencies in Near Eastern and Hellenistic inscriptions

  • Readings:
    • The “Cyrus cylinder,” sixth century BCE (link); Hellenistic Royal Inscriptions with biographical or autobiographical elements, from 311 BCE and on (link)
    • Bearzot, “Autobiographical Inscriptions” (link)

Unit 2: Roman and Greek “Lives” of Leaders or Rulers

Week 5 (Oct ):  Cornelius Nepos – Model Generals and Friends (30s BCE)

  • Readings:
    • Cornelius Nepos, Excellent Generals of Foreign Nations, preface and Miltiades (link);  Nepos, Life of Atticus (link)
    • Hägg, “Political biography at Rome: A new start,” pages 187-204 (link)
  • Fishbowl team (four-five people who begin our discussion for the first 15 minutes of class):

*Reading week with no classes*

Week 6 (Oct 22): Plutarch’s pragmatic and moralizing Parallel Lives (ca. 110 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Plutarch, Demosthenes (link) and Cicero (link)
    • Hägg, “Plutarch and his Parallel Lives: Ethical biography,” pages 239-244, 268-281 (link)

Week 7 (Oct 29): Suetonius’ Lives of Caesars (ca. 127 CE) – Virtues and vices of the emperors and physiognomy

  • Readings:
    • Suetonius, “Nero” from Lives of Caesars (link)
    • Wallace-Hadrill, “Virtues and Vices [in Suetonius]”, 142-158, 174 (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 8 (Nov 5): Legends about, and Lives of, Alexander the Great – Novelistic features of biographical writing

  • Readings
    • Alexander Romance, recension A, especially books 1 and 3 (link)
    • Hägg, “Popular heroes: The slave, the king, the poet,” 99-101, 117-134 (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Unit 3: Lives of philosophers and Lives of experts on the gods

Week 9 (Nov 12): Lucian (ca. 160-180 CE) on ideal philosophers – Demonax

  • Readings:
    • Lucian, Demonax (link)
    • Beck, “Lucian’s Life of Demonax” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 10 (Nov 19): Lucian on “phoney” philosophers – Peregrinus

  • Readings:
    • Lucian, On the Passing of Peregrinus (link)
    • König, “The Cynic and Christian Lives of Lucian’s Peregrinus” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 11 (Nov 26): Diogenes Laertius (ca. 220s CE) on Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher

  • Readings:
    • Diogenes Laertius, “Diogenes” the Cynic (link), from Lives of Eminent Philosophers
    • Hägg, “Ways of life: Philosophers and holy men,” pages 282-284, 305-318 (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 12 (Dec 3): Porphyry (ca. 300 CE) on Pythagoras

  • Readings:
    • Porphyry, “Life of Pythagoras” (link)
    • Hägg, “Ways of life: Philosophers and holy men,” pages 352-368 (link)


Unit 4: Minorities write Lives of leaders or Lives of experts on the god (first century CE on)

Week 1 (Jan 14): The Judean Philo’s Life of Moses (ca. 20s-30s CE)

  • Readings:
    • Philo, Life of Moses, excerpts from books 1 and 2 regarding Moses as ideal king, legislator, high priest and prophet (link)   (For the overall structure, please study McGing’s appendix at the end of his article.)
    • McGing, “Philo’s Adaptation of the Bible in his Life of Moses” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 2 (): Gospel of Mark’s Life of Jesus as miracle-worker, authoritative teacher, and “son of god” (ca. 70s CE)

  • Readings:
    • The so-called “Gospel of Mark” (link)
    • Helen K. Bond, “Mark’s Gospel as the First Biography of Jesus – and 10 reasons why it matters” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 3 (): Gospel of Matthew’s life of Jesus as the new Moses (ca. 90 CE)

  • Readings:
    • The so-called “Gospel of Matthew” (link), with careful attention to the birth narrative, sermon on the mount, and transfiguration story in relation to Exodus; Exodus 1-2 and 19-20 (link); Deuteronomy 18:14-22 (link)
    • Allison, “The New Moses in Matthew,” excerpts (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 4 (): Gospel of Luke’s life of Jesus as ideal prophet and new Elijah (ca. 90 CE)

  • Readings:
    • The so-called “Gospel of Luke” (link), with careful attention to Luke 1:5-25; 4:14-30; 7-10
    • Biblical passages relating to Elijah and a future prophet: 1 Kings 17-19 (link); 2 Kings 1-2 (link); Malachi 4 (link);  Deuteronomy 18:14-22 (link)
    • Smith and Kostopoulos, “Biography, History, and the Genre of Luke-Acts” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 5 (Feb 4): Expanding Jesus’ early life (ca. 150-180 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Infancy Gospel of Thomas (link)
    • Burke, “Completing the Gospel” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Unit 5: Autobiographical or memoir-like discourses and stances

Week 6 (): Hindrances to Greek autobiography and some work-arounds – Defensive rhetoric and tales of hardship or mistreatment

  • Readings:
    • Isocrates, Exchange (Antidosis), ca. 350 BCE, especially sections 1-101 and 310-323 (link); Plutarch, On Praising Oneself Unoffensively (link)
    • Most, “The Stranger’s Strategem”, section on “Tales of Woe,” pages 120-127 only (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

**Reading Week with no classes**

Week 7 (): Josephus’ Life as the earliest surviving Roman (and of course Judean) autobiography (ca. 93-94 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Josephus, Life, omitting paragraphs 38-52, 71-73 (link)
    • Mason, “Introduction to the Life of Josephus,” excerpts only (link)

Week 8 (): Autobiographical discourses in inscriptions

  • Readings:
    • Apollonios’ “autobiographical” story about the foundation of a sanctuary of Sarapis from IG XI,4 1299 = AGRW 221, ca. 200 BCE (link); “The Achievements of the Deified Augustus (Res Gestae Divi Augusti)” inscription from Ankyra (link); “Some ‘Autobiographical’ Funerary Inscriptions in the First Person” (link)
    • Ridley, “Augustus: Emperor Writes His Own Account” excerpts (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 9 (): Thessalos, Clement, and others – Autobiographical stories about the pursuit of wisdom

  • Readings:
    • Thessalos’ autobiographical letter / preface (translated in Harland’s article); Clement’s Family Story (link)
    • Harland, “Journeys in Pursuit of Divine Wisdom: Thessalos and Other Seekers” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 10 (): Aristides’ Sacred Tales – Autobiographical discourses, aretalogies, and healing

  • Readings:
    • Aelius Aristides, Orations 48-49, also known as the Sacred Tales (link)
    • Petsalis-Diomidis, “Sacred Writing, Sacred Reading” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 11 (): Martyrdom of Perpetua (ca. 203 CE) – A Woman’s “autobiographical” story

  • Readings:
    • The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (link)
    • Formisano, “Perpetua’s Alibi” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :

Week 12 (April 8): First person tales of a donkey – Autobiographical elements in other novelistic literature

  • Readings:
    • Pseudo-Lucian, The Ass (link)
    • Whitmarsh, “An I for an I: Reading Fictional Autobiography” (link)
  • Fishbowl team :


Key questions for analysis and discussion:

  • What is the occasion and purpose of this ancient biographical writing?  What is the author’s argument and how does the author build it up?  In other words, what is the author trying to convince the ancient reader of?
  • What methods and styles does the author use to demonstrate the character of the subject?   What type or sort of person or character does the author portray (e.g. military leader, civic leader or legislator, philosopher or wise man, expert on the gods or prophet, friend, etc)?  What role do anecdotes and seemingly trivial incidents or details – in contrast to “great” events – play in the characterization?  Does the character develop over time or is there some degree of consistency?  In what ways does the author use stories and virtues or vices from the earlier stages of life to foreshadow the essence of the adult character?  What are the attributes of this character or portrait?
  • What types of rhetoric (from the three main types we learn about at the beginning of the course) are employed by the ancient author to portray the character?  How does the author engage in categorization of people as good or bad, innocent or guilty, praiseworthy or blameworthy?  What other literary features and structures do we find in this biographical writing?  How is it organized and what is taken as most important in that organization?
  • In what ways does the author moralize or present his subject as a model for behaviour?  What lessons does the ancient author hope his ancient readers will take from the life of the character?  What types of moral or other judgements does the author make in narrating the life?  How does the author use the character to make his own points about various other subjects or topics?
  • How does this writing demonstrate the overlaps or blurry relations between different types or genres of ancient writing (e.g. ethnography, history-writing, novelistic writing, speech writing, life writing)?  What signs are there of the blurry lines between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, in ancient writings generally?
  • What signs are there of sources of information or what claims are made about sources of information?
  • In what ways do issues of ethnicity appear in this writing?  How does an author from one ethnic group characterize, stereotype or label those of other ethnic groups?  What does this tell us about ancient ethnographic writing?  In what ways is telling a Life an attempt to put forward one’s own ethnic identification?
  • In what ways does this ancient writing or Life provide a glimpse into the social and cultural  worlds in which the author lives?  How is this writing a window into the author’s world and a glimpse into key cultural principles, assumptions, and values at work in the author’s social group or society?  In other words, what does the author value that is expressed through the portrait?
  • How does this writing relate to other writings we have considered in terms of style and approach?  What direct or indirect relationships are there, if any, between different authors or their writings?
  • In what ways can we use this writing as a source of information for the history of the subject?



Discussion question generation

All students are required to analyze the readings every week and come to zoom or in-class meetings prepared to participate in discussions.  However, each week four students will have an opportunity to put even more effort into the readings by generating two substantial questions each that they believe would facilitate student discussions of important issues.  Each student will do this twice during the course (once in Fall and once in Winter).  You will hand in (by email, if remote) the two questions to me by 3pm the day before our class meeting.  As prof, I will then call upon the current week’s students for discussion questions at appropriate points.  We may or may not use all your questions, but hopefully at least one per student.  (Note: Your three reading responses per term need to be chosen from a different week than your question generation).

Reading responses during remote delivery (marked on a pass or fail basis)

A reading response is a short essay which you will write that demonstrates your careful consideration of the ancient sources and scholarly resources for a particular week’s readings.  There are many options on how you can approach this, so long as you demonstrate careful consideration of the materials from an historical or literary perspective.  These will be “pass” (you have clearly demonstrated careful consideration of the materials) or “fail” (you have not shown sufficient work or understanding).  There will not be substantial feedback on these assignments beyond the pass or fail result.

There are two main options for reading responses, (1) synchronous (preferred for your learning experience), which involves your attendance and participation in zoom meetings during our designated class time; and, (2) asynchonous in cases where a student lives in a different time zone or other situation which makes attendance at zoom meetings impossible.  At the beginning of the course, you will need to indicate if you require the asynchronous option, and you will need to explain why this is absolutely necessary.

  • (1) Synchronous with regular attendance at zoom meetings:  Students who regularly attend and participate in our weekly meetings will be responsible for writing 2-page (double-spaced) responses 3 times per term (3 in the Fall and 3 in the Winter).  You must choose to do responses on weeks that you are not responsible for generating discussion questions.
  • (2) Asynchronous (in cases of living in a different time zone or other difficult circumstances): Students who are unable to attend zoom meetings due to time differences or difficult circumstances will be responsible for writing 4-page (double-spaced) responses 7 times per term (while the class is delivered in remote form).  This will help to ensure that you are fully engaging the material.  You must choose to do responses on weeks that you are not responsible for generating discussion questions.  You are required to take your turns generating discussion questions regardless of synchronous or asynchronous conditions.

In essence, your responses will engage and explain important aspects of the readings in a thoughtful way and in your own words without merely quoting or summarizing them (in fact, you are only allowed one short, one-sentence quotation per response).  Please see “Key questions for analysis and discussion” (above) which will provide you with plenty of ideas that may serve as a basis for writing your responses (though you may also address other historical and literary questions or issues.

Essay 1: Analysis of primary source – Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (5 pages double-spaced)

Preparation: Focus your attention on Plutarch’s aims or purposes in writing Lives (biographies).  Re-read the prologues of the Lives of Alexander and Julius Caesar (link) and the Lives of Demetrius and Antony (link).  Then carefully read and study Plutarch’s parallel lives of Demosthenes (link) and Cicero (link).

Paper assignment:  In the opening to his Lives of Alexander and Julius Caesar, Plutarch explains his anecdotal approach to writing Lives, emphasizing that he is engaging in the equivalent of painting a portrait of the character (ēthos) of the person in question and that he is after “signs of the soul” in terms of both virtues (to imitate) and vices (to avoid).  Using the parallel lives of Demosthenes and Cicero as a case study, provide evidence of Plutarch’s methods and aims in writing Lives as outlined above with respect to engaging the reader in moral decision-making.  In the process, be sure to explain what form of rhetoric is most prevalent when he focusses on positive and negative models of behaviour.

Essay 2: Analysis of primary source – Josephus’ Life (8 pages double spaced)

Preparation:  Carefully read and study Josephus’ autobiographical Life (link).  Also read Mason’s introductory article for some background (but without becoming overly dependent on that article).

Paper assignment:  Often, ancient autobiographical discourses reflect Greek and Roman techniques of persuasion (rhetoric) found in two main social settings: (1) the court (judicial rhetoric: defence or prosecution) and (2) the festival or funerary gathering (demonstrative: encomium highlighting virtues or invective highlighting vices).   Write an essay in which you explain how Josephus employs both defensive strategies and the language of praise or blame in order to paint a portrait of his own moral character (as one among the “leading men”) in relation to the characters of other opponents (e.g. “brigands” or revolutionaries, Justus of Tiberias, John of Gischala, Jesus son of Sapphias, TIberians, Tarichaeaians).  In the process, you will want to pay special attention to virtues (e.g. nobility or prestige, courage, self-control or restraint, clemency or leniency, liberality or generosity, justice, wisdom, truthfulness, piety, loyalty to people and ancestral traditions, lack of luxury, lack of greed, etc) which Josephus attributes to himself and vices (opposites of those virtues) which he attributes to his rivals.


Notes to self:

  • Basic structure of each week’s discussion:
    • 1) Social, political, and cultural context of the author and the production of the writing
    • 2) Analysis of the writing in terms of nature of biographical discourses and the history of biographical writing
      • Some background on the subject of the biography
    • 3) Scholarly themes around the writing
    • 4) What can we know (historically) about the subject of the biography



Tacitus’ Agricola (ca. 98 CE) – Writing the Life of an elite relative in comparison with a tyrant

  • Readings:
    • Tacitus, On the Life of Agricola (link)
    • Hägg, “Political biography at Rome: A new start,” pages 204-214 (e-book)
    • Responsible for question generation:
  • Additional topics: Encomium / eulogy and the rhetoric of praise and blame (Sailor)

Philostratos’ Life of Apollonios of Tyana and the “memoirs” of Damis (ca. 200 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Philostratos, Life of Apollonios of Tyana, books 1-3 (link)
    • Hägg, “Ways of life: Philosophers and holy men,” pages 318-341 (e-book)
    • Responsible for question generation:

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