Comparative Literature | Literature and Ideas: Imperial Literature
C347 | 27300 | Prof. Jeff Johnson


Department of Comparative Literature, Fall 2008

MW 11:15-12:30
fulfills A&H and CS requirements


Everybody is talking about empires! Hollywood can’t stop dramatizing
the clash of empires and the lives of emperors (Gladiator, 300, HBO’s
Rome). Historians and political pundits debate whether the US is an
empire. Modern architects and city planners steal designs from the
great empires of the past. This course examines the representation of
empires in literature in a variety of genres: tragedy, epic, how-to
poetry, the modern novel, and court biography. Ancient Persia, ancient
Rome, medieval Greece, Renaissance England and Portugal, and one
empire without a name are the imperial civilizations represented in
our readings. We will examine how literature brings together history,
politics, religion, anthropology, and the literary arts to explore the
origins, growth, and decay of empires. We will see poets question the
values of their own imperial cultures, celebrate the victories of
heroes, scrutinize the personalities of powerful emperors, and
decipher their place in the framework of the cosmos. Although most of
our texts are from pre-modern periods, we will be exploring
contemporary issues like colonialism, racial stereotyping, wartime
propaganda, the burden of history versus hopes for the future, the
conflict between invaders and indigenous peoples, and the impact of
warfare upon civilians and the principles of justice. Our texts are
Aeschylus’ Persians, Vergil’s Georgics, The Chronographia of Michael
Psellus, The Lusíads of Luiz Vaz de Camões, Christopher Marlowe’s
Tamburlaine, and J. M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. The
subject of this course welcomes students interested in literature,
history, political science, religious studies, sociology,
anthropology, philosophy and ethics, and international law. Workload
includes two analytical essays, one exam, and one short writing
assignment for each text. For more information: jwjohnso@indiana.edu