Words are Weapons: Insults in Classical Literature - CL358

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Module delivery information

Location Term Level1 Credits (ECTS)2 Current Convenor3 2020 to 2021
Spring 4 15 (7.5) DR D Lowe checkmark-circle


Whether cruel or funny, hostile speech has a pervasive presence in the wealth of textual evidence from classical antiquity. Insulting communications, both formal and informal, reveal social values in an unusually succinct way, while their dependence on situation and context presents complex interpretative challenges.

In this module, insults form the basis for a wide-ranging investigation of classical literature inviting comparison of their literary treatment in different works and/or genres. The module is designed to accommodate various selections of material, which may include Greek literature, Roman literature, or a combination of both. It provides a variety of examples of invective to show the diversity of classical literature and, through the analysis of these examples, raise current debates in classical literary studies. So, for example, the insults found in Catullus may be used to explore the issue of authorial persona and 'sincerity'. Topics covered may include obscenity, debate and competition, laws governing slander and treason, the aesthetics of beauty and ugliness, construction of social categorisations (gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and status), and the conventions of specific genres.


This module appears in the following module collections.

Contact hours

Total Contact Hours: 20

Method of assessment

Critical Summary (1,200 words) – 40%
Essay (2,500 words) – 60%

Indicative reading

Indicative Reading List:

Aloni, A., Barchiesi, A., & Cavarzere, A. (2002). Iambic Ideas: Essays on a Poetic Tradition from Archaic Greece to the Late Roman Empire. Lanham, Md, Rowman & Littlefield.
Bremmer, J. N., (2000). 'Verbal Insulting in Ancient Greek Culture', Acta Antiqua Hungarica 40.
Conley, T., (2010). Toward a Rhetoric of Insult. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press.
Richlin, Amy, (1984). 'Invective against Women in Roman Satire', Arethusa 17.
Rotstein, Andrea, (2010). The Idea of Iambos. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Worman, Nancy, (2014). ‘Oedipus Abuser: Insult and Embodied Aesthetics in Sophocles’, Cahiers "Mondes Anciens" 5.

See the library reading list for this module (Canterbury)

Learning outcomes

On successful completion of the module students will be able to:

Show a broad understanding of the importance of invective and other forms of confrontational speech in classical culture;
Critically evaluate the role of insults in a range of written sources from antiquity;
Employ academic skills fundamental to their future learning – including the evaluation of ancient evidence, modern representations, and the evaluation of modern scholarship;
Locate the ancient material studied in the context of European intellectual, cultural and historical traditions;
Understand the opportunities and challenges involved in using literary sources as documents of ancient societies;
Show increased ability in thinking critically and communicating about invective and related forms of communication in classical literature;
Recognise that debates often arise in academic scholarship, and be able to take an individual standpoint.


  1. Credit level 4. Certificate level module usually taken in the first stage of an undergraduate degree.
  2. ECTS credits are recognised throughout the EU and allow you to transfer credit easily from one university to another.
  3. The named convenor is the convenor for the current academic session.
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