Literae humaniores

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Literae humaniores, nicknamed classics, is an undergraduate course focused on classics (Ancient Rome, Ancient Greece, Latin, ancient Greek, and philosophy) at the University of Oxford and some other universities. The Latin name means literally "more human literature" and was in contrast to the other main field of study when the university began, i.e. res divinae (or literae divine, lit. div.), also known as theology. Lit. hum, is concerned with human learning, and lit. div. with learning treating of God. In its early days, it encompassed mathematics and natural sciences as well. It is an archetypal humanities course.


The University of Oxford's classics course, also known as greats, is divided into two parts, lasting five terms and seven terms respectively, the whole lasting four years in total, which is one year more than most arts degrees at Oxford and other English universities.

The course of studies leads to a Bachelor of Arts degree. Throughout, there is a strong emphasis on first hand study of primary sources in the original Greek or Latin.

In the first part (honour moderations or mods) students concentrate on Latin and/or Greek language; in the second part students choose eight papers from the disciplines of classical literature, Greek and Roman history, Philosophy, Archaeology, and Linguistics. The teaching style is very traditional and consists of weekly tutorials in each of the two main subjects chosen, supplemented by a wide variety of lectures. The main teaching mechanism remains the weekly essay, one on each of the two main chosen subjects, typically written to be read out at a one-to-one tutorial; this affords all students plenty of practice at writing short, clear, and well-researched papers.

Changed in the late 20th century, a strong emphasis remains on study of original texts in Latin and Greek, assessed by prepared translation and by gobbet (a short commentary on an assigned primary source).[1] In a typical "text" paper candidates will be expected first to translate into English three or four long passages selected by the examiners from the set books; and secondly to comment on each of an extended set of short paragraphs or sentences from the same set texts; marks are awarded for recognising the context and the significance of each excerpt.


The mods (moderations – exams conducted by moderators) course runs for the first five terms of the course. The traditional aim was for students to develop their ability to read fluently in Latin and Greek. The works of Virgil and the two Homeric epics were compulsory, and other works had to be chosen from a given list. There were also unseen translations from both languages, and compulsory translation into prose, and voluntary into verse, in both languages. The course has now changed to reflect the continuing decline in the numbers of applicants who have had the opportunity to study Greek and Latin at school.

Since the early 1970s, it has been possible to begin learning Greek during the preparation for mods (an option originally called mods-B, the brainchild of John G. Griffiths of Jesus). More recently, due to the omission of Latin and Greek from the National Curriculum since 1988, options have been added for those also without Latin.

There are now five alternative paths through mods.

  • Students with both Latin and Greek at A-level or equivalent take the traditional route, Mods IA.
  • Those with one such language do mods IB (Latin plus beginners' Greek) or mods IC (Greek plus beginners' Latin).
  • Students with a strong aptitude for languages who have not learned Latin or Greek can take either mods IIA (beginners' Latin only) or mods IIB (beginners' Greek only).

Language tuition is now organized centrally within the university by the Faculty of Classics; this leaves the colleges free to concentrate on teaching classical literature/rhetoric, history and philosophy.

The mods examination has a reputation as something of an ordeal: it evolved in the 21st century from 11 or 12 three-hour papers across seven consecutive days into 10 or 11 three-hour papers across seven or eight days. Candidates for classical mods thus still face a much larger number of exams than undergraduates reading for most other degrees at Oxford sit for their mods, prelims or even, in many cases, finals.

Students who successfully pass mods may then go on to study the full greats course in their remaining seven terms. Those choosing the 'Course II' version are expected to read as many of their finals texts in the original of their chosen language as those on Course I; there is, moreover, the option of studying the second classical language as two papers at finals.


The traditional greats course consisted of Greek and Roman history on the one hand, and philosophy on the other. The philosophy included Plato and Aristotle, and also modern philosophy, both logic and ethics, with a critical reading of standard texts. In 1968 an elective 'Latin and Greek Literature' was added; students chose two of the three.

Since then, various combined courses have also been developed including:

  • Classics and modern languages;
  • Ancient and modern history (AMH); and
  • Classical archaeology and ancient history (CAAH).

In 2004 the full lit. hum. course was revised; students examined since 2008 now choose eight papers from a wide range of subject areas:

The regulations governing the combinations of papers are moderately simple: students must take at least four papers based on the study of ancient texts in the original Latin or Greek; otherwise they can choose what they want, provided only that if they offer literature papers, they must offer the appropriate "core" papers too, and if they choose to offer "period" papers in history then they must offer one of the approved combinations.

In the past it was compulsory also to offer papers in unprepared translation from Latin and Greek into English; these papers counted "below the line" — candidates were required to pass them, but they did not otherwise affect the overall class of the degree. This requirement has now been dropped, and it is possible to pass greats without offering any unprepared translation papers. The formerly optional prose and verse composition papers (English into Latin and Greek) have been removed from the greats syllabus entirely.[citation needed]

Notable graduates[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Standen, Naomi. "HIS 1023 Encounters: What is a gobbet?". Retrieved 14 July 2018.

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