What makes the Cambridge Classics course so special?

Cambridge Classics not only involves the study of two of the most influential and fascinating ancient cultures: Greece and Rome, but also brings you face to face with what’s important in the twenty-first century. What makes a good leader? Is censorship a bad thing? Is it ever right to invade another country? Why are we afraid of death? All of these questions, and many more, are at the heart of Cambridge Classics. 

Cambridge has been a leading centre for the study of the ancient world for 800 years. Many of the greatest Classicists have been here, from Moses Finley to Jane Harrison, Erasmus to Rupert Brooke. This is a hard act to follow, but Cambridge has gone from strength to strength. Today it is one of the very best places in the world to be a Classics undergraduate and combines the best of a traditional education with the latest advances in teaching and research. For more information, please see the University website: 

Why choose Newnham for Classics?

Newnham is one of the very best – and liveliest – places to study Classics in Cambridge. We are a large community with healthy numbers of undergraduates and postgraduates. It’s hard to know how to choose a College, but the Classics ‘presence’ in a College and its commitment to caring for its undergraduates is probably what will make the biggest difference to your quality of life here. Our students do very well, both in their examinations and beyond. 

Like most Colleges, we offer wonderful resources, a programme of classical social events from lectures to parties (often jointly with other Colleges), supportive teachers and a marvellous College library (though ours is more marvellous than most as it was built up in the not too far distant days when women were not allowed to use the University Library and so needed a decent one of their own!). But we offer some things that are distinctively Newnham. First, we recognise that the intellectual transition from school to university can be tough, even for the brightest students, and so we organise a special programme of academic support in the first term, starting with an induction day in the summer before you come up – to help you prepare for university work. Second, we have our eyes firmly outside as well as inside Cambridge. We use some of our generous funds to take our students to museum exhibitions, to the theatre, and to work on archaeological digs. In the past we have taken students to the Opera House in Covent Garden and, thanks to a generous donation, to the Louvre in Paris – all part of the Newnham Classics experience. 

We get some students, especially those currently at all-girls schools, who are worried that being at a women’s College will be like being at an all-girls school – it isn’t! Any sceptics are encouraged to visit us and talk to our undergraduates. 

How many students take Classics at Newnham and what options do they choose?

On average we aim to admit six students a year. 

The Faculty offers two undergraduate degrees, the three-year course for those with an A-level or equivalent in Latin and/or Greek, and the four-year course for those who have not had the opportunity to study the languages beyond GCSE or, in some cases, at all. All students, no matter which College they belong to, get the same basic teaching, with lectures and some language classes in the Classics Faculty. (Newnham has an advantage here – it’s the College closest to the Classics Faculty, so you can oversleep and still make that 9am language class…). 

Both degree courses start out with an intensive training in language and literature, as well as an introduction to subjects new to many like linguistics and philosophy, and then become increasingly flexible, allowing students to specialise within a particular field, or keep a broader perspective as they wish. In the final year choice is everything and students take four papers (one of which can be writing a thesis instead of an examination). One student might take four archaeology papers, another might choose papers on the Odyssey, on Rome, the Very Idea, on Plato and on Horace. Or perhaps the Tragedy paper from the English Tripos (there are a range of papers from other subjects available as part of the Classics degree). Or a thesis on elephants in classical myth … 

How will I be taught at Newnham?

In addition to the lectures and classes in the Faculty, every College provides ‘supervisions’ (individual or small group tuition). The emphasis at Newnham is on making sure you get the best teaching available for each subject. Many supervisions will be taught ‘in-house’, others by experts in other colleges. In an average week, a first year student on the three-year course and attending ‘Intensive Greek’ classes will go to around ten lectures and five hours of language classes in the Faculty, plus two hours of College language supervision and one essay supervision. A supervision gives you the opportunity to discuss your essay work in some detail and to enjoy really getting to grips with a subject. Your Director of Studies will ensure that the supervisions are tailored to your needs. You might wish to start, or continue, with prose composition (translating from English into Greek and Latin) – you have the option to do so at Newnham, but it is not compulsory. It is this attention to individual needs that makes the Cambridge system, and Newnham within it, so special. 

Can you tell me more about the senior Classicists?

Newnham has been at the forefront of Classical research since it was founded. One of the first Fellows was Jane Ellen Harrison, who was a revolutionary scholar of Greek religion and culture. Nicknamed ‘Bloody Jane’, she argued that ancient Greece was a much more thrilling, gory, and disgusting place than its cool white marble image suggests. Virginia Woolf claimed to have seen her ghost in the College gardens. Haunted or not, we follow in her footsteps … 

For information on the current teaching staff and Fellows for Classics, please visit our teaching webpages.

What jobs do Newnham Classics students go on to do?

Recently, Newnham Classicists have gone on to become lawyers, journalists, and academics. Others work in the City, in politics, in advertising, and in company management. We’ve had an actress who went from playing Creon in the Cambridge Greek Play to training with Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Another ex-student is now an environmental lobbyist. Classics is not a narrow vocational subject but employers prize the rigorous analytical training that a Classics degree entails. The Newnham Associates (successful women in a variety of fields who support the College) take an active part in giving career advice and helping our students get work experience and a jump up the career ladder. 

Are there any A-level subjects that are particularly useful?

For the three-year course A-level Latin is normally essential. Over half the students in the Classics Faculty start learning Greek as undergraduates (the ‘Intensive Greek’ course), but we do welcome candidates with A-level Greek. For the four-year course it will help to have Latin or a modern language GCSE, but it’s not essential. Students who intend to apply for the four-year course, and any students with an unconventional academic history (for example A-level Greek instead of Latin) might find it useful, in any case, to contact the Director of Studies (via the Admissions Office) for advice before applying. 

Can I take a gap year?

Of course. We neither encourage nor discourage students from doing this – everyone’s circumstances are different. If you do take a gap year, be sure to keep up with your languages – it’s amazing how quickly some people forget them! 

How should I prepare for interview at Newnham?

We’re looking for highly intelligent applicants with a passion for learning about other cultures. There’s no specific preparation for interviews and we don’t expect you to have any knowledge of the interests of the Classics Fellows at Newnham.  We want to see your enthusiasm and aptitude for Classics more broadly – just be yourself.    

If you apply to take a modern language as well, you will also have an interview by a specialist in the language.

As part of your application, you will need to submit two pieces of written schoolwork.  We recommend that you keep copies of this work and re-read them along with your personal statement as they may be referred to at interview.  More information regarding written work requirements can be found at: 

Is there an Admissions Assessment for Classics?

For the 2024 admissions cycle, applicants for the four-year course will be given a language aptitude interview if they are called for interview. Applicants for the three-year course will also be given an assessment at interview. More details of this assessment will be published in July 2023.

Where can I find out more?

Please don’t hesitate to email the Newnham Admissions Office and they will pass on your query to whichever senior member is most appropriate. We’ll also be happy to arrange to see you and take you around Newnham and the Faculty should you wish.

Recommended reading?

Beard, Mary (2008) Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town

Beard, Mary (2016) SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. 

Morales, Helen (2007) Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction. 

Morales, Helen (2020) Antigone Rising: The Subversive Power of the Ancient Myths

Vout, Caroline (2013) Sex on Show: Seeing the Erotic in Greece and Rome. 

Vout, Caroline (2018) Classical Art: A Life History from Antiquity to the Present. 

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