HST6084: Writing Late Antique Lives

HST6084 Image - Relieftafel Szenen aus dem Leben Christi

15 credits

Module Leader: Professor Julia Hillner

Module Summary

'In his Confessions, the first autobiography in European history (c. 400 AD), Augustine of Hippo wrote: ‘...I was born into this life which leads to death—or should I say: this death which leads to life?” (1.6). Late Antiquity was a vibrant period for obsessions about the meaning of the individual human life-cycle, giving birth to new genres of life-writing that combined classical and Christian forms of biography (such as Suetonius, Plutarch and the Gospels). In this module, we’ll explore this rich evidence, alongside other documents including letters, speeches and portraits, to understand whether, how and why we, as historians, should use this material to recover the lives, experiences and feelings of late antique men and women.' Dr Julia Hillner

Recent years have seen publication of several biographies examining the lives of prominent figures experiencing the end of the Roman empire. The empress Galla Placidia (d. 450) alone was the subject of two major studies appearing, respectively, in 2011 and 2015. This attention by late antique historians to the personal and the specific is remarkable for a field that, since the appearance of Peter Brown’s seminal The World of Late Antiquity in 1971, values the study of large political, social, and religious transformations and dynamics over the study of individual agency. It is, among others, a sign that academic publishers appreciate biography as an accessible window into this period for a wider readership.

This module will explore the possibilities and challenges of life-writing as a form of late antique historiography. The main focus of the module will be on human life, but it will also consider the application of the biographical method to other subjects with a 'life-cycle', e.g. objects. We will discuss methods of how modern biographers may deal with the fragmentary or polemical nature of late antique sources (written and non-written), as well as with the frequent absence of 'ego-documents' (documents produced by the subject of study themselves) characteristic for this period. You will also explore how modern biographers may understand and hence use late antique biographical genres, such as hagiography (saints' lives). The module will further invite you to reflect on the potentially exclusionary nature of the biographical genre for the study of some aspects of late antiquity, and how considerations of social attributes such as gender, social status and ethnicity can be integrated into this form of history-writing. Finally, the module will examine – in a hands-on fashion – how such methodological approaches and requirements of analytical rigour can be balanced with an accessible, immediate or even narrative style often expected of biographical writing.

Module aims

This module aims to:

  1. Introduce you to the genre of late antique biography and underpinning primary source types (in translation);
  2. Introduce you to the practice of biography-writing as a form of late antique historiography, encouraging in the process reflection on historical method and its relationship to knowledge and writing style;
  3. Develop your capacity to establish links between the personal or anecdotal and broader trends in late antique history, using categories of historical analysis including age, gender, class, religion and ethnicity;
  4. Develop your fluency of expression in speech and writing.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the module, you should be able to:

  1. Identify with confidence suitable late antique subjects of biographical study, based on a critical reflection about the primary source context (Aims 1, 2, 3);
  2. Demonstrate awareness of the possibilities and challenges of writing a biography on late antique subjects based on engagement with and critique of primary evidence and the existing historiography (A2, 3);
  3. Apply appropriate methods of biographical research and show an awareness of the strength and limits of each (A2, 3);
  4. Demonstrate confidence in expressing ideas verbally (A4);
  5. Express and defend source-based ideas through clear, perceptive and engaging prose (A4).


Learning hours
Seminar hours Tutorial hours Independent Learning
10 1 139

The module will be taught in five, two hour classes. The first class will present an introduction to the aims of the course and a review of existing forms of modern biographies of late antique subjects (or group of subjects; not limited to human beings). If possible, you may choose at this point a subject of biographical study that can form the basis of discussions and presentations in subsequent classes, although you will also be given the opportunity to review your choice in later classes (Learning Outcome 1). Subsequent seminars will provide you with an opportunity to discuss suitable primary sources, methodological issues and biographical styles related to the subject of your study, while you will also be exploring wider historiographical debates surrounding the role of individuals in late antique sources and in modern historiography of the period (LO2, 3, 4). You will be expected to participate in class discussion and undertake independent research on your subjects, which you will be asked to share through informal discussion and formal presentations (LO4). Some time in seminars will be given over to considering how to turn the issues explored into strong written work (LO5). You will, in addition, have individual tutorial contact with the module leader to discuss your written work for this module.

Draft seminar schedule:

  1. Subjects of late antique biography
  2. Late antique sources of 'auto-biography' and 'biography'
  3. How to reconstruct a late antique life: Using the sources or filling in the gaps?
  4. Forms of exclusion and methods of inclusion in biographical writing
  5. Biographical styles and formats



Assessment methods
Assessment % of final mark Length
Coursework 100% 3000 words

You will prepare a 3000 word paper exploring, depending on the subject, the life or an aspect of the life of a late antique subject in the form of an academic biography. The paper will be expected to involve scholarly analysis of primary sources, application of biographical methods and styles appropriate to the subject studied, and critical consideration of relevant historiographical debates (LOs 2, 3, 4, 5).


Selected reading

  • P. Cox, Biography in Late Antiquity. A Quest for the Holy Man, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983.
  • T. Hagg, Greek Biography and Panegyric in Late Antiquity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
  • T. Hagg, 'Recent Work on Ancient Biography: A Review Article', Symbolae Osloenses 76 (2001), 191-200.
  • H. Lee, Body Parts. Essays on Life-Writing, London: Chatto & Windus, 2005.
  • J. Nelson, 'Writing Early Medieval Biography', History Workshop Journal 50 (2000), 129-136.
  • A. Yoshiko-Reed, “Two New Books on Epiphanius: Biography and Its Limits for Late Antiquity”, Ancient Jew Review (15 February 2017):



*The content of our courses is reviewed annually to make sure it's up-to-date and relevant. Individual modules are occasionally updated or withdrawn. This is in response to discoveries through our world-leading research; funding changes; professional accreditation requirements; student or employer feedback; outcomes of reviews; and variations in staff or student numbers. In the event of any change we'll consult and inform students in good time and take reasonable steps to minimise disruption.