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 click here.

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 (including wireless internet access), 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, every year the finalists make a day trip 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 have 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 9 o’clock lecture …).

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 Being Human, on Roman Britain 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 will go to around twelve lectures and a couple of hours of language classes in the Faculty, plus two hours of college 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. Details of Newnham’s Classics Fellows, who include Professor Mary Beard, can be found on our Teaching List.

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. A-level Greek is desirable, but we are aware that many schools do not offer it, and over half the students in the Classics Faculty start learning Greek when they are here (the ‘Intensive Greek’ course). For the four-year course it will help to have Latin 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, we’ll help you map out some work to do over the year (it’s amazing how quickly some people forget their languages!).

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 the interviews – just be yourself. You will also be required to take a written assessment: for further details about this, see the University website.

Where can I find out more?

Please don’t hesitate to e-mail 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.

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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