Oxford University shocks classics students as it proposes to drop two key texts by Homer and Virgil


Oxford University proposes dropping Homer’s Iliad and Virgil’s Aeneid from Classics syllabus in bid to modernise and attract more state school pupils

  • Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad may be made optional on the classics course
  • But Oxford undergraduates say the works are vital to understanding the subject
  • Classics professor Jonathan Prag said no decision has yet been taken on books
  • Number of Classicists at GCSE and A-Level has dropped significantly in 30 years

Oxford University has shocked classics students by proposing to drop two of the most important texts from its syllabus.

Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad may be made optional in an attempt to modernise the degree course, amid a drop in schools teaching Latin and Greek.

But undergraduates say the works are vital to understanding the subject. Jan Preiss, a second-year at New College and president of the Oxford Latinitas Project, has started a petition to keep the texts.

‘Removing Homer and Virgil would be a terrible and fatal mistake,’ he said.

Oxford University has shocked classics students by proposing to drop Virgil's Aeneid and Homer's Iliad from its syllabus. Pictured is a battle scene from the Iliad, c300 BC

Oxford University has shocked classics students by proposing to drop Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad from its syllabus. Pictured is a battle scene from the Iliad, c300 BC

‘The proposal would mean that Oxford would be producing classicists who have never read Homer and never read Virgil, who are the central authors of the classical tradition and most of classical literature.

‘Removing it would be a shame because Homer has been the foundation of the classical tradition since antiquity and it is impossible to understand what comes after him without studying him first.’  

Who has studied classics at Oxford? 

Boris Johnson

The Prime Minister studied the subject at Balliol College.

Oscar Wilde

The poet studied the well respected subject at Magdalen College, Oxford. 

C. S. Lewis

The author graduated with a focus on literature and classic philosophy and went on to teach at Magdalen College.

J. R. R. Tolkien

The author studied Classics, but later changed to English Language and Literature. 

Classics professor Jonathan Prag said no decision had yet been taken on the proposal, which would see the texts – dating from between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago – reduced to a second-year option in a bid to help students who had not previously studied Latin and Greek.

He said the course is designed to be ‘equally stimulating and engaging for all types of applicant’, adding: ‘The process of review has involved extensive analysis of course data and discussions across the Faculty, and has been underway for almost a year. 

‘A survey has already been conducted of Faculty members, and a survey of undergraduate members is likely to follow; and in that context we welcome all contributions to the ongoing discussions.’  

Dr Daisy Dunn, a historian and author who read Classics at Oxford, said axing the texts was ‘a terrible idea’.

She added that the move would be like ‘cutting the Bible from Theology’, reports The Telegraph.

Students who study classics at Oxford call the first two years of their lessons Mods while the two final years of the degree are known as the Greats. 

Homer and Virgil are part of exams taken at the end of the Mods and if the plans are approved, the great writers could still be studied in students later years. 

A scene from the Illiad captioned Neptune Rising From The Sea is seen in a line engraving from 1805

A scene from the Illiad captioned Neptune Rising From The Sea is seen in a line engraving from 1805

Reducing the texts to a second-year option would be in a bid to help students who had not previously studied Latin and Greek (pictured is a publication of the Iliad from 1743)

Reducing the texts to a second-year option would be in a bid to help students who had not previously studied Latin and Greek (pictured is a publication of the Iliad from 1743)

Students would still get to study the works towards the end of their degree under the proposed change (stock picture of The Meadow Building at Oxford)

Students would still get to study the works towards the end of their degree under the proposed change (stock picture of The Meadow Building at Oxford)

The number of Classicists at GCSE and A-Level has dropped significantly in the last 30 years, according to the department.

The Classics course, also known as literae humaniores, is the oldest at the university and has undergone a number of reforms since the institution’s foundation. 

A faculty source told the Telegraph that professors have previously argued that people arriving without Latin or Greek A-Levels struggle with the texts.  

However they said: ‘There are plenty of students who pick up the languages when they get here and get very good marks.

‘And there are lots of posh boys from Eton who arrive with the A-levels and still get really bad marks.’

WHO WERE HOMER AND VIRGIL AND WHAT WERE THEIR GREAT WORKS?

Nobody knows for sure who Homer was but some scholars believe he was blind

Nobody knows for sure who Homer was but some scholars believe he was blind

There is very little known about exactly who or what Homer was, but is believed by the ancient Greeks to have been the first great epic poet.

He is credited as being the first to write down The Illiad and The Odyssey.

It is believed he was born some time between the 12th and 8th centuries BC.

Some suggest that he compiled existing oral stories and then recited them from memory. He is seen more as a balladeer as opposed to a traditional poet.

Many believe Homer was blind and he is often interpreted with thick curly hair, a beard and sightless eyes.

Homer’s Iliad is often considered to be the oldest surviving work of Western literature

The poem is set during the Trojan War and tells the story of warrior Achilles who refuses to fight after being humiliated by his leader Agamemnon.

However he takes revenge after his friend is killed, knowing he will likely also die on the battlefield.

Homer also wrote The Odyssey which describes the aftermath of the Trojan Wars and Odysseus journey home after battle.

While Virgil was thought of by the Romans as their greatest poet. Some of his earliest work are the poems inside the Eclogues.

His Aeneid tells the story of Rome’s founder and proclaims the Roman mission to civilize the world under divine guidance.

Virgil’s influence has been great, with the Aeneid being the model for John Milton’s Paradise Lost.



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