Diss Diaries – Ollie Burns, Ancient History Graduate

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‘How justified is Domitian’s historical reputation as a ‘bad’ Emperor?’

Fortunately for me, coming up with a topic for my dissertation was never something I particularly struggled with. From the age of 15 or 16, I knew I wanted to go to University and study Ancient History, and write my dissertation on one of Rome’s most infamous emperors. In the end, I chose Domitian, an emperor remembered by history for being a tyrant who bled the economy dry, killed on a whim and insisted on being called ‘Master and God’ by all: the aim of my diss was to challenge and evaluate how fair this reputation was (spoiler alert, it wasn’t). Simply put, I essentially just thought about what period of history interested me most, and narrowed it  down from there to choose my topic – I knew I wanted to do something about Rome, I knew I liked Roman emperors, and I knew I found the bad ones particularly interesting.

Ollie with a rare bust of Domitian in the Louvre, Paris.

For me, research consisted of a lot of reading, of both primary sources and secondary literature. The biggest challenge I faced whilst researching was finding enough sources. In terms of ancient writing, a lot of the histories written about Domitian are now lost, and he’s also not the most popular emperor among modern historians. I was able to find some myself, but my supervisor was also really helpful and gave me a huge reading list to make my way through, which ultimately really helped me and bulked out my bibliography massively. Once I’d done enough reading to formulate some arguments, and decided on what my chapters were going to be, I went through absolutely all of the notes I had made, and organised them all into separate word documents for each chapter. Doing this saved me a lot of time when the time to start writing came, because everything I needed for each chapter was all in one place and I didn’t have to trawl through a fifty-page word document every time I needed to find information.

With my supervisor, I came up with deadlines for each chapter.  I had four at 2,500 words each, and would write a draft of one, have a meeting to get some feedback on them a couple of weeks after handing it in, and then start on the next chapter after getting the feedback. After all four chapters were written and I’d got feedback, I went through them all and made any amendments that had been suggested. I found working to a deadline really helpful, and I think without them to remind me when each piece of work needed to be finished by, I would have quite quickly found myself overwhelmed, and putting it off would have been a lot more tempting.

If I had any tips for students when it comes to both the planning and writing of their dissertation, the most important one would be to not panic too much. It’s obviously very daunting, but you have a supervisor to support and help you, and the more you’re able to keep on top of it, the less stressful it will ultimately be.

Ollie graduated in 2020 and is preparing to join the East Midlands Police Force in the near future.