Harvard Summer Program in Greece


Please note: The course information is from 2014. Information for 2015 will be posted soon.

Comparative empires in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eurasia

Faculty: Gregory Nagy, Emma Dench, Michael Puett, Sahar Bazzaz, Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, and Anna Stavrakopoulou

“It’s been great, Greece. The most wonderful five weeks I've ever spent and far far better than anything I’d ever imagined before leaving the US. I’ll be back!”

– Olympia Summer School 2013 student

Located at an important Mediterranean crossroad between the East and West, the summer program in Greece examines comparatively the historical and cultural phenomenon of empire in the Eastern Mediterranean and Eurasia. For most of history, most people lived in empires—and in today’s world of nation states and multinational corporations, the effects of empire are still with us. Greece is an ideal location from which to contemplate ancient empires and their successors in the region, especially the Byzantine and Ottoman empires, as well as their interactions with both Europe and Asia. Since antiquity, the East in particular has seen the rise and fall of empires that are remarkable for their duration, influence, and the distinctive political and cultural formations that they generated. The program, therefore, innovates by shifting the focus away from the Atlantic to those empires of the Eastern Mediterranean and Eurasia that are both significant within a global historical context and relatively unfamiliar to students. Studying these empires comparatively enables us to address historical and still pressing issues of power, identity, and cross-cultural contact from a stimulating new angle. It also expands and enriches our understanding of the classical legacy and its modes of transmission and reinterpretation through the centuries. The program’s shift in focus away from the Atlantic is likely to become one of the hallmarks of the world of the twenty-first century.

Due to its location and the wealth of the historical, artistic, and archaeological record, Greece enables an exceptionally fruitful study of the different imperial layers and legacies in the region, and their interactions. The program takes place in the symbolic historical sites of Olympia, the ancient center of cult and athletic competition, and Nafplio, the first capital of Greece. Through focused and interrelated seminars by an interdisciplinary team of scholars who have conducted collaborative research and publication in the region, and a rich program of field trips and museum visits, students are introduced to the comparative study of empires—ancient, medieval, and modern—that dominated Greece for more than two millennia. What can we learn about the ideology, representation, and exercise of power in the Empire in question? What kind of identities were available? What was their political significance? What kinds of interactions marked the cultures of the people? What was the role of territoriality and geography, both imagined and physical? How did the imperial core relate to the periphery? How did the empire in question relate to the outside world? What kinds of literary and cultural productions were characteristic of the period, and what was their significance?

Now in its thirteenth year, the five-week course consists of eight interrelated seminars. Each week-long seminar meets daily (Monday through Thursday), for a total of four two-hour periods. Seminars run in pairs over the first four weeks of the course; students write two short response papers (two pages) per week. The fifth week is devoted to the writing of the final ten-page paper. Students are contacted about book purchases and preparatory reading in late spring; other material is available online and through access to Harvard digital resources. Seminar topics are listed below.

“I believe I echo a unanimous sentiment when I say that each of us took away something from Olympia that was unique and intensely personal and enriching, be it an appreciation for the classics or Greek sculpture and poetry, a better understanding of the Balkans or of the imperial and urban encounter, or just a compendium of Greek swear words, pet rocks, sand, and Mediterranean salt. It was fabulous.”

– Olympia Summer School 2007 student

Watch a video of students enjoying their time abroad in Greece.

Course of study

For this course and its seminars, there are no prerequisites required. All seminars are in English, and students are always surrounded by proficient users of the English language. Students do have the opportunity to pick up some Greek, if they wish, during meetings with the coordinators and through their interactions with Greek students and faculty and the immersion in the towns and experiences of Olympia, Nafplio, and the various other places we visit across Greece.

COMP S-107 Study Abroad in Greece: Cross-Cultural Contact between East and West from Ancient Times to the Present (33279)

Gregory Nagy
Sahar Bazzaz
Emma Dench
Anna Stavrakopoulou
Michael Puett
Ilham Khuri-Makdisi
(8 credits: UN, GR) Limited enrollment.

Focusing on the eastern Mediterranean, this course undertakes a diachronic examination of models of empire (Athenian, Byzantine, Ottoman), concluding with questions of nineteenth-century European and modern colonialism and postcolonialism. Particular emphasis is paid to legacies of Hellenism, and to the challenges and possibilities of cross-cultural interaction. The aim is to expose students to historical, philosophical, literary, and political models for studying this interaction.

Now in its thirteenth year, the five-week course consists of seven interrelated seminars. Each week-long seminar meets daily (Monday through Thursday), for a total of four two-hour periods. Seminars run in pairs over the first four weeks of the course; students write two short response papers (two pages) per week. The fifth week is devoted to the writing of the final ten-page paper. Students are contacted about book purchases and preparatory reading in late spring; other material is available online and through access to Harvard digital resources. Seminar topics are listed below.

Prerequisite: none.

1. Archeology, Empire and Modernization in the Ottoman Empire (Sahar Bazzaz)

In the nineteenth century, the collection and study of ancient objects and the decipherment of writing systems associated with the empires/societies/peoples of the ancient Near East enabled European advocates of empire, Ottoman modernizing bureaucrats, and Middle Eastern nationalists alike to evoke the modern values of ‘archaeological preservation’ and the ‘scientific study of the past’ in support of their respective political and social visions during this period of rapid political and intellectual transformation in the region. In this course, we will consider these competing claims and appropriations of the antique past in terms of three major phenomenon that defined the eastern Mediterranean lands during the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; these are first, the Ottoman Tanzimat, a series of state-guided reforms intended to modernize and strengthen the Ottoman empire in light of the changing balance of power between itself and its European neighbors; second, the extension of French and British imperialism in the Ottoman lands of the eastern Mediterranean; and third, the development within the Ottoman realms of local forms of nationalism that, in some cases (such as Greece) directly challenged and in others enhanced (such as Egypt) Ottoman/Muslim imperial identity. The course also considers how three empires active in the eastern Mediterranean during the nineteenth century—the Ottoman, French and British—competed for control over the narration of the region’s history.

2. “Our Greece”

The course begins with Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage,” whose main text and accompanying notes examine the symbolic and artistic legacy of classical Greece within the context of British and Ottoman imperial politics. At the cusp of Romantic aesthetics and realpolitik, “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” sheds light on the way the neo-classical movement of the late-eighteenth century and its Romantic reaction become aligned with imperial ambitions as these are played out on the territory and antiquities of what is to become the Greek state. Staying within the European imaginary of cosmopolitanism and imperial past, Thomas Mann’s controversial 1912 novella Death in Venice examines twentieth-century reception of Venice’s aesthetic and erotic significance as these are filtered through the prism of ancient canonical texts about pederasty—the Phaedrus and the Symposium—and the haunting threat, biological as well as moral, of disease and contamination emanating from an elusive yet compelling eastern colony “where tigers crouch.” The theme of center and periphery is further examined in the short detective story of Georgios Vizyenos, “Who Was My Brother’s Killer,” as the fates of a rural Greek family and of an urban Turkish family converge over the question of state justice and revenge killing. The story brings to the foreground the primacy of family obligations and religious convergence against the inadequacies of imperial law and modernity’s rationalism. Continuing with the theme of center and periphery, we turn to an Alexandrian poet, C. P. Cavafy, and to his fascination with alternative centers of Hellenism during the post-Classical period; the course returns to both Lord Byron and Thomas Mann by focusing on the constitution and inhibition of identity in the multicultural world of late Antiquity and the way its imperial past becomes a platform on which Cavafy constructs a modern model of sexual identity that is coextensive with Greek imperial and cultural domination.

3. Athenian empire, in the light of earlier empires (Samian, Persian, “Mycenaean,” “Minoan”) (Gregory Nagy)

The focus of my seminar is on the Athenian empire, as analyzed in two books of mine, Homer the Classic and Homer the Preclassic, the publication dates for which are respectively 2008/2009 (online version via chs.harvard.edu, printed version via Harvard University Press) and 2009/2010 (online version via chs.harvard.edu, printed version via University of California Press). The ideologies of this empire, I argue, were derived from earlier models of imperial power, such as (1) the Samian thalassocracy of Polycrates, (2) the multi-ethnic rule of the Persian Achaemenid Dynasty, and, going much further back in time, (3) the so-called Mycenaean and Minoan empires. A unifying theme in the seminar is represented by the mythologized figure of Homer, thought to be the “author” of the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Homeric Hymn to Apollo, who was once viewed as a poetic spokesman for the Athenian empire, much as Virgil was viewed later as a poetic spokesman for the Roman empire. The relevant readings in this seminar focus on about twenty paragraph-size texts in Greek and Latin (all translated into English) that are extracted from larger continuous texts and that are assigned for the purpose of practicing how to do “close reading.” Also assigned are a few continuous (but not overly lengthy) stretches of primary text: (a) the verses about the Shield of Achilles in Iliad XVIII, (b) the verses about the Shield of Aeneas in Virgil’s Aeneid 8, (c) the speeches of Pericles as dramatized by Thucydides, (d) the pseudo-Herodotean Life of Homer, (e) the anonymous Contest of Homer and Hesiod. We also do a close “reading” of the “flotilla scene,” which is a vital part of the pictorial narrative of the Theran Frescoes, dating from the mid-second millennium BCE.

4. Empire and Geography between Greece and the Near East

In this course we examine how three ancient imperial systems represented and attempted to naturalize their dominance over the physical world and the peoples who inhabited it. Beginning with the Assyrian and Achaemenid kingdoms, we explore how these continental empires conceptualized and treated their distant peripheries, using both court-produced visual and textual evidence and selected passages from Herodotus' Histories. Moving to the very different space of the Greek Aegean, we will see how fifth-century, democratic Athens attempted to give an ideological coherence to the scattered islands and coastlines of its maritime empire. Finally, we explore how these two imperial thought-worlds were creatively combined or manipulated in the Hellenistic age by Alexander and the Seleucid dynasty, when an Aegean-based power transformed itself into a Near Eastern empire.

5. Rome and China (Emma Dench and Michael Puett)

The Roman and Han empires were almost exact contemporaries, but were connected only via intermediaries and had very little knowledge of one another. Each empire constructed a narrative of its own history, relationship with past regimes, and position within the world, without reference to the other. The Roman and Han empires, as paradigms of respectively ‘western’ and ‘eastern’ empire, have been scrutinized with growing intensity as the balance of power in the modern world shifts and there is a big question mark over its future. Bringing the Roman and Han empires into dialogue with each other provides an extraordinary opportunity to test some of the hypotheses about empire that you have been considering so far over the course of the seminar. In our first session, we focus on real, historical connections (such as they were) between the Han and Roman empires as well as evidence of the ways in which each perceived the other. We use evidence of these connections and mutual perceptions to compare the character of interactions, the understanding and management of space, and the articulation of identity in each empire. In our second session, we focus on comparing the ideology, representation and exercise of power across the two empires, exploring in particular the self-image of the emperor. 

6. The Byzantine Empire and its neighbors from Constantine to the Fall of Constantinople: Continuity, Innovation, Transformation

This course offers four case studies representing major periods in the history of the Byzantine Empire, which encompassed and extended beyond the Eastern Mediterranean, and survived for over a thousand years (more or less from 330 to 1453 CE). Class sessions explore the complex means by which an empire of this magnitude was able to negotiate its survival over the course of a millennium that saw massive changes in society, culture, religion, and the geography and ideology of empire.  Accordingly, we focus on how the Byzantine élite—imperial, ecclesiastical, and intellectual—promulgated and maintained a unique ideology of empire that was paradoxically able to project an image of timelessness and unchanging order, while at the same time accomplishing transformation and innovation that allowed Byzantium to compete with and relate to its neighbors to the East and West at key moments in its long history.  Our course therefore explores the following topics: first, the dynasty of Constantine the Great (306-363), which oversaw the creation of a Christian Roman Empire; second, the Byzantine Empire as it struggled to maintain its cultural and geographical integrity during the Arab invasions in the seventh and eighth centuries; third, Byzantium both as an ally and as a prize of conquest for the Latin kingdoms during the Crusades; and finally, Byzantium during the Ottoman conquest, culminating in the Fall of Constantinople in May, 1453. Class sessions combine lectures on each topic with in-depth discussion of primary texts, to be prepared in advance, and focus on visual and literary material in order to provide a holistic introduction to Eastern Mediterranean history and culture in the Byzantine period.

7. “Ibsen: the family as a crumbling empire” (Anna Stavrakopoulou)

Ibsen’s dysfunctional households are reflexions of the European bourgeois fin de siècle malaise. While all his plots are set in Norway, a northern outpost of Europe, the Lutheran mentality that prevailed in this society had its equivalents in other European countries, south of Scandinavia. From the core and periphery perspective, we will dwell on the fact that Ibsen wrote his plays about the periphery, while in self-exile in (the core European countries of) Germany and Italy. Given the daring and often shocking content of his plays, their significance came to be appreciated mostly in the 20th century. Furthermore, our analysis includes the social and historical causes of family disintegration, putting this seminar in direct dialogue with other nineteenth-century imperial and colonial phenomena studied in the summer session.

Couples and families are at the core of all of Ibsen’s plays, in several iterations and variants. In all of them, the concept of happy, well-functioning family is undermined mostly by hereditary and financial reasons. In our four meetings, we will examine closely four Ibsen plays, A Doll’s House, The Wild Duck, Hedda Gabbler and John Gabriel Borkman, which span roughly twenty years (1879-1896) of the playwright’s realist period. Respectively, the main topics we address will be the rise of feminism, the life-lie as a tool of survival, as well as money and social status and their impact on marital choices. At the same time, we will read and discuss the reception of these plays then and now, by nationally varied audiences.

8. The Last Generation of Ottomans: Between Empire and Nation-States, 1870-1925 (Ilham Khuri-Makdisi)

This course examines the various and polyvalent meanings of Ottoman citizenship and identity in the late decades of the Ottoman Empire, and their subsequent transformation after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire following World War One. Using a combination of primary and secondary sources, we begin by focusing on the Ottoman state’s construction of Ottomanism (or Ottoman patriotism) and its projection of Imperial power through policies and cultural patronage. We pay particular attention to the civilizational discourse emanating from Istanbul, as well as to what certain historians have qualified of Ottoman Orientalism. The course then examines the view from the provinces, with special attention paid to the three most important port-cities of the empire: Salonica, Izmir and Beirut. What did elites and commoners in the provinces and the periphery understand by Ottoman citizenship and how did they view the Ottoman reforms of the nineteenth century, as well as watershed moments, such as the Young Turk Revolution and the Balkan Wars? What kinds of pasts and what kinds of future did they imagine for their empire? More so, what was the meaning of coexistence between members of different religious and ethnic communities, and what were its limitations, especially in a context of emerging nationalisms and continuous European encroachments? From state and society we will turn to individual voices. We do a close reading and comparison of published (and translated) memoirs of three women from various parts of the empire who ended up belonging to different nation-states after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Writing after the end of the empire and the population exchange between Turkey and Greece, how did they choose to remember the Ottoman Empire, and how did this compare with their newly forged national identities—as Greek, Turk, or Arab? Finally, the last generation of Ottomans witnessed mass violence, displacement and dispossession at a hitherto unprecedented scale, and a very high number became refugees. How were they integrated into the existing polity, and how did their presence shape emerging national identities? Readings for this course include selections from Selim Deringil’s The Well-Protected Domains, Mark Mazower’s Salonica City of Ghosts, and Dawn Chatty’s Displacement and Dispossession in the Modern Middle East. The primary sources we use include the memoirs of Halide Edib and Anbara Salam, as well as visual material such as Abdulhamid II’s photographic albums of the Ottoman Empire.

Course credit

See Study Abroad Credit Information.


Gregory Nagy, Francis Jones Professor of Classical Greek Literature in the Department of the Classics and Professor of Comparative Literature, Harvard University; Director, Harvard University Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington, DC

Senior Fellows

Sahar Bazzaz (History, Middle East and North Africa), Associate Professor of History, College of the Holy Cross

Emma Dench, Professor of the Classics and of History, Harvard University

Michael Puett, Walter C. Klein Professor of Chinese History and Chair of the Committee on the Study of Religion, Harvard University

Ilham Khuri-Makdisi, Associate in Comparative Cultural Studies, Harvard University

Anna Stavrakopoulou (Theater Studies and Modern Greek Literature), Assistant Professor of Theater Studies, Aristotle University, Thessaloniki, Greece


Before applying, review the Admission and Policies and FAQs pages.

All students, wherever they study—in the United States or abroad—can apply. In the past, participants have been undergraduates, graduate students, or independent scholars. Please note: Students must be at least 18 years old, have completed at least one year of college or be a first-year student, and be in good standing to apply.

The application materials, outlined below, are due January 29, 2015:

  • A completed online application that includes:
    • A $50 nonrefundable application fee
    • A statement of interest in the program, including information on relevant coursework and travel experience abroad (previous travel is not a prerequisite)
    • Letter(s) of recommendation from a current or most recent teacher or advisor, mailed to the Study Abroad Office (Study Abroad Office, Room 525, 51 Brattle Street, Cambridge, MA 02138) or e-mailed as a PDF directly from the recommender to summergreece@chs.harvard.edu:
      • Harvard College applicants: submit one recommendation
      • Non-Harvard applicants: submit two letters of recommendation so program staff can learn about the applicant’s academic background and preparation for this program
    • Transcripts (student record accepted for Harvard students)

Interviews may be requested.

Students will be notified of admission decisions by mid-February.


There is a nonrefundable $50 application fee. The cost of the program includes the following:

  • Tuition
  • Room, breakfast, and dinner
  • All scheduled excursions and extracurricular activities

In addition to the program fee, students are responsible for:

  • A health insurance fee (waived if students have US insurance that provides coverage outside the United States)
  • Transportation to Olympia and Nafplio (if not joining the courtesy bus trips to Olympia and from Nafplio offered by the program)
  • The cost of passports and visas (if the latter is needed)
  • Any immunizations

How to pay and funding options

See Payment and Funding for payment deadlines, deposit amounts, and more information, including funding options for Harvard College students.


In Olympia, accommodations are provided at Hotel Europa. Classes take place in a fully equipped seminar room—including video projector, printer, computer, and Internet access—within the hotel. Students share double-occupancy rooms and eat buffet breakfasts and dinners at the hotel; they make their own arrangements for lunch. Dinner is usually eaten outside in the garden. The hotel provides a free wireless Internet connection in every room and a swimming pool.

In Nafplio, we stay at Park Hotel. Classes take place at the state-of-the-art facilities of the Harvard Center for Hellenic Studies (greece.chs.harvard.edu), located on the Nafplion waterfront, whose Greek branch was recently inaugurated.

“This summer in Greece was an amazing, truly enriching experience for all of us! In me, it inspired a whole new horizon of thoughts on my own subject, the classics, but also on a huge range of other issues, such as the Ottoman and Byzantine Empires, modern imperialism, and Mediterranean mentality. Most of all, though, I learned about this wonderful, richly historical country, Greece, and built up a really personal connection to it. The many wonderful individuals I got to meet and know really well in the course of the program—such as my fantastic Greek roommate—left a lasting impression on me too, and I will certainly keep cherishing the many memories we share. I know I will look back to this summer in Greece countless times with joy and infinite gratitude. Thank you so much to the faculty and organizers for allowing me to take part in this wonderful program!”

– Olympia Summer School 2008 student

Additional information

See the Greece summer program website or contact one of the individuals listed below.

Below is a video of students enjoying their time abroad and reveling in the culture.

Program inquiries:

Contact summergreece@chs.harvard.edu.

Academic and administrative coordinators:

Sahar Bazzaz, Department of History, College of the Holy Cross, sbazzaz@holycross.edu

Students with disabilities

Students should contact the disability services coordinator as soon as possible. See Students with Disabilities for more information.