Writing Greco-Roman Lives: Ancient Biography (HUMA 3106; 2020-21)

General Information: Instructor: Philip Harland.  Meetings: Thursdays 11:30-2:20 (ROOM).  Office hour (in Vanier 248): TBA.

Course description: This course explores the importance of biographical and autobiographical writing in the ancient Mediterranean among Greeks, Romans, and minority populations (e.g. Judeans and Jesus adherents), focusing less on the subjects of each Life and more on literary, ethnic, social, cultural (including “religious”) and political contexts and themes reflected in these “Lives” (ca. 400 BCE-300 CE).  These writings can be used as a window into culture and society.  We will consider the aims and functions of biographical or autobiographical writing and the rhetorical techniques that authors employed. We want to understand what ancient authors thought they were doing in writing such biographical materials.  We will also want to consider the ways in which people wrote Lives in a way that intersected with a variety of ancient literary options, discursive forms or genres (e.g. “historiography”).  Particularly important will be the relation between ancient forms of rhetoric or persuasion and biographical discourses (e.g. judicial and demonstrative speeches).  Furthermore, we will need to be especially attentive to the blurry lines between “fact” and “fiction” in ancient writing generally.

Required books and readings

  • Tomas Hägg, The Art of Biography in Antiquity (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012), available as e-book at York’s library (system limits pdf download to 100 pages per time, so gradually download chapters up to 100 pages each time and print the required pages).
  • Linked readings in the course outline below (please print all pdfs, read and study them, and bring them to class or zoom meeting for discussion)

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

  • Attendance (whether in person or by zoom), question generation, and active participation in discussions (15%)
    • Question generation:  All students are required to analyze the readings every week and come prepared to participate in discussions.  However, each week four students will have an opportunity to put even more effort into the readings by generating four substantial questions that they believe would facilitate student discussions.  Each student will do this twice during the course (once in Fall and once in Winter).  You will hand in an email attachment and hardcopy of the four questions to me before class begins.  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, if remote, need to be chosen from a different week than your question generation).
  • Quizzes or, if remote, reading responses (2 pages double-spaced): three per term (15%)
  • Academic integrity tutorial and test: link. Students must send record of perfect test results to prof by email attachment (jpeg or pdf) before the first essay assignment (by WEEK 6)
  • Essay 1 (historical analysis of primary source), 5 pages, due FALL WEEK 6 (15%)
  • Essay 2 (historical analysis of primary source), 8 pages, due WINTER WEEK 6 (15%)
  • Test 1 (FALL WEEK 12) (15%)
  • Test 2 (WINTER WEEK 11) (15%)

 Important things to know:

  • Readings and participation: Read and study materials BEFORE class meetings (whether remote or in person).
  • Penalties for lateness: All assignments are due at the beginning of class (if in person, hardcopy; if remotely do to corona, 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 our policies at: http://www.yorku.ca/secretariat/policies/document.php?document=69 and  http://www.yorku.ca/tutorial/academic_integrity/.
  • Cell-phones, laptops, and other devices: All cell-phones and other hand-held devices must be completely turned off and remain unused during class (whether remotely or in person). Laptops are permitted for note-taking only, not for browsing or messaging.
  • Password protected files for the course, which are used under fair use provisions for the purpose of education, are for course use only and should not be redistributed in any form.


  • 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
    • 3) Scholarly themes around the writing

Discussion outline

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

Week 1 (Sept 10): 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 17): Greek precedents for biographical and autobiographical discourses (praising and defensive rhetoric) – The case of Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus (ca. 370 BCE)

  • Readings:
    • Xenophon, “The Boyhood of Cyrus from The Education of Cyrus (Cyropaedia), book 1 (link)
    • Studying Aristotle, On Rhetoric (link) and Rhetoric for Alexander (link) again
    • Hägg, “In the beginning was Xenophon,” pages 10-19, 51-66 (e-book).
    • Responsible for question generation (four students):

Week 3 (Sept 24): Emergence of the “Life” (ca. 350-300 BCE)

  • Readings:
    • Fragments of fourth century biographies (translated in Hägg’s chapter); “Hellenistic Royal inscriptions with biographical or autobiographical elements” (link);
    • Hägg, “Hellenistic theory and practice,” pages 67-84, 93-98 (e-book)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Unit 2: Roman and Greek “Lives” of Aristocrats and Rulers

Week 4 (Oct 1): Cornelius Nepos’ Lives (30s BCE)

  • Readings:
    • Cornelius Nepos, Excellent Generals of Foreign Nations, preface and Miltiades (link);  Nepos, Lives of Cato and Atticus (link)
    • Hägg, “Political biography at Rome: A new start,” pages 187-204 (e-book)
    • Responsible for question generation:
  • Scholarly themes: Nepos’ central concerns and the late republic context (Dionisotti)

Week 5 (Oct 8): Writing the Life of an elite relative in comparison with a tyrant – Tacitus’ Agricola (ca. 98 CE)

  • 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:
  • Scholarly themes: Encomium / eulogy and the rhetoric of praise and blame (Sailor)

*October 10-16: Reading week with no classes*

Week 6 (Oct 22):  Suetonius’ Lives of Caesars (ca. 121 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Suetonius, “Nero” from Lives of Caesars (link)
    • Wallace-Hadrill, “The Scholarly Biographer” (link)
    • Responsible for question generation:

*Essay 1 due*

Week 7 (Oct 29): 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 (e-book)
    • Responsible for question generation:
  • Scholarly themes: Characterization in Plutarch (Pelling / Gill)

*Assignment 1 due at the beginning of class*

Week 8 (Nov 5): Legends about – and Lives of – Alexander the Great

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

Unit 3: Lives of philosophers and holy men

Week 9 (Nov 12): Lucian on philosophers and “phoneys” (ca. 150-180 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Lucian, Demonax (link); Lucian, On the Passing of Peregrinus (link)
    • Hägg, “Ways of life: Philosophers and holy men,” pages 282-304 (e-book)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Week 10 (Nov 19): Diogenes on Socrates, Pythagoras and other philosophers (ca. 200-250 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Diogenes Laertius, “Socrates” (link) and “Pythagoras” (link), from Lives of Eminent Philosophers
    • Hägg, “Ways of life: Philosophers and holy men,” pages 305-318 (e-book)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Week 11 (Nov 26): 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:

Week 12 (Dec 3): *Test 1* (in class or, if necessary, remotely from home during class time)


Unit 4: Minorities write Lives of leaders or holy men (first century CE on)

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

  • Readings:
    • Philo, Life of Moses, book 1 (link)
    • Feldman, “General Considerations [on Philo’s Life of Moses]” (link)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Week 2 (Jan 21): 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,” 137-190, 243-248 (link??)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Week 3 (Jan 28): 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; 7:11-17; and, 9-10
    • 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)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Week 4 (Feb 4): Narratives about Jesus childhood (ca. 150-180 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Infancy Gospel of Thomas (link)
    • Burke, “Completing the Gospel” (link)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Unit 5: Autobiographical or memoir-like discourses and stances

Week 5 (Feb 11): Hindrances to Greek autobiography and some work-arounds – Defensive rhetoric and tales of hardship or mistreatment

  • Readings:
    • Isokrates, Exchange (Antidosis), 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)

**Reading Week Feb. 13-19 – no classes**

Week 6 (Feb 25): 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); “Acts of Augustus” inscription from Ankyra (link); “Some ‘Autobiographical’ Funerary Inscriptions in the First Person” (link)
    • Ridley, “Augustus: Emperor Writes His Own Account” excerpts (link)
    • Responsible for question generation:

*Essay 2 due at the beginning of class*

Week 7 (March 4): Josephus’ Life (ca. 95 CE)

  • Readings:
    • Josephus, Life (link)
    • Mason, “Introduction to the Life of Josephus,” excerpts only (link)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Week 8 (March 11): Autobiographical stories about the pursuit of wisdom – Thessalos, Clement, and others

  • Readings:
    • Thessalos’ autobiographical letter / preface (in Harland); Clement’s Family Story (link)
    • Harland, “Journeys in Pursuit of Divine Wisdom: Thessalos and Other Seekers” (link)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Week 9 (March 18): Autobiographical discourses, aretalogies, and healing

  • Readings:
    • Aristides, Orations 48-49, also known as the Sacred Tales (link)
    • Alexia Petsalis-Diomidis, “Sacred Writing, Sacred Reading: The Function of Aelius Aristides’ Self-Presentation as Author in the Sacred Tales” (link)

Week 10 (March 25): A Woman’s “autobiographical” story – Perpetua’s Martyrdom (ca. 203 CE)

  • Readings:
    • The Passion of Saints Perpetua and Felicity (link)
    • Formisano, “Perpetua’s Alibi” (link)
    • Responsible for question generation:

Week 11 (April 1): *Test 2* (in class or, if necessary, remotely from home during class time)

Week 12 (April 8): Autobiographical elements in other novelistic literature

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



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.  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’ Life (link).  Also carefully review your readings and notes regarding Y and Mason….

Paper assignment:  There is a close affinity between methods of persuasion used in court speeches and autobiographical discourses in the ancient Mediterranean world.   Explain this statement using the case of Josephus’ Life.

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