Sex, Gender, and their Social Contexts in Late Antiquity and Early Byzantium

Course Description: 

The present course intends to provide both a general introduction to the problems of sex and gender in the social and historical context of the Later Roman Empire and a concrete illustration of several representative topics within this field. The course will cover about three centuries of later Roman and early Byzantine history (ca. 300-600 CE), a crucial period in the development of a specific Christian totalizing discourse on the body and its social, cultural, and religious inscription. The course will address, first of all, methodological issues such as the possibility of reconstructing pre-modern sexualities, the possible ways to read and contextualize relevant ancient sources, as well as the pitfalls of using modern terminology and hermeneutic categories. These methodological guidelines will then serve as a framework for exploring topics such as definitions of femininity/masculinity, public roles and gender expectations, and the relationship between social power and the techniques of the self. Special attention will be paid to the emergence of asceticism (of various stamps, i.e., Christian—both mainstream and “alternative,” philosophical, Manichaean, etc.) as a defining feature of the late antique spiritual landscape. We will also look at various types of problematizing same-sex relationships and at virginity and ascetic patronage as two specific avenues which developed during this period for female social assertion.

Learning Outcomes: 

-the ability to reason logically within the framework of history of sexuality as an academic discipline as illustrated by the ability to structure the argument of an academic paper on a topic relevant to the issue of interpreting sex and gender in pre-modern societies
-the ability to form an informed, reasoned judgement
-the ability to formulate a research question
-the ability to apply research methodology rigorously
-the ability to take part in a group discussion
-multicultural understanding as reflected in awareness of and respect for points of view deriving from other national, social, or cultural backgrounds
-the ability to recognize the policy relevance of the history of pre-modern sexualities and of various methodologies of research it employs as manifested in the capability to analyze a range of contemporary social problems (such as gender and/or sexual identity based discrimination) using theoretical perspectives and design policies informed by this research.


– Formative assessment: on-going evaluation of students' active participation in the discussions of relevant readings scheduled throughout the semester (10 % of the final grade). Attendance in class (min. 80%) is required so as to make such evaluation possible.
– Formative assessment: short oral presentation of the topic selected by the students for their final essay, outlining interpretive strategies and main points, as well as presenting a basic bibliography, to be followed by instructor's feedback (20 % of the final grade).
– Summative assessment: final essay (minimum 8 pages) based on one or more text(s) selected from the anthology compiled by the instructor; this essay should identify information contained in the text(s) that is relevant for one of the topics addressed by the course and propose a critical interpretation of this information using any of the methods discussed during the meetings as well as the recommended bibliography and suggesting the possible implications of the methodology used and the interpretations proposed to today’s concerns (70 % of the final grade).


Some knowledge of Greek and Latin is helpful, but not indispensable; all primary sources will be made available in English translation as well as in the original language.