With the spring semester starting to wind down, I have found my attention starting to wander toward the classes I’ll be teaching this fall. Two of the classes have a somewhat prescribed range of topics simply by the virtue of being variations on first-year courses for students, but the third is my version of an upper-division Greek History survey—the first course that I ever taught as the instructor of record and the course other than general education US history surveys that I have taught more than any other. All of which is to say that I have well-established materials for this course.
And yet, I also tinker with the course every time I teach it.
“Tinkering” in this context can mean a lot of things, from assignments, to readings, to the order of topics, to drawing current events into the course. Already for the fall semester I am going to be using several new books as core readings and more clearly signpost the phases of the course to complete the metamorphosis the course has undergone since the first iteration as an inexperienced teacher. But I have also been debating whether a more fundamental tweak might prove fruitful.
It is a shibboleth of teaching history, and something codified in many of our learning objectives, that the job of the teacher includes helping the students make meaningful connections to the contemporary world. That is, the past has value inasmuch as it has contemporary relevance.
How this target is reached can happen in a lot of different ways. In some classes they happen almost subconsciously because the importance of, say, the US Civil War, for someone living in the United States are impossible to miss. For other topics, though, such connections are less intuitive, and the further back in time one goes, the more alien things might seem. This is not to say that the task is impossible or even worthless, and discussion about the origin of systems or concepts (e.g. democracy) that people in the modern world take for granted can create these productive connections. In the case of my Ancient Persia class, for instance, we have spent a lot of time talking about how Greco-Roman sources distort our understanding of Persia using tropes that have continued to inform how Europeans talk about people in West Asia.
In a very non-scientific study, I have observed that one of the most common techniques is to suggest that the ancients are just like us. Indeed, I have been guilty of this in the past, though I prefer to do this by pointing out that our own world is much weirder and more alien than we typically assume.
I thought about this juxtaposition again last week when I read Carlos Noreña’s essay on Paul Veyne. Noreña writes:
One comes away from his many publications with a deeper appreciation for the sheer distance of Mediterranean antiquity from the present: past worlds, past lives, past experiences and past epistemologies that now, in the wake of his scholarship, look profoundly alien.What is more, it suggests that our intimacy with that world might be a false one. It forces us, as a result, to look at past and present anew.
Perhaps my favorite thing about ancient Greece is that it is fabulously complex in a way that defies simple description. While this is true of all times and places, I find that something about the political fragmentation of Greece and how that overlaps with the development of a more-or-less common literary canon that is also in conversation with West Asia is particularly fascinating. In fact, I recently came across an eighteenth century complaint that the history of Greece defied an easy narrative, like the one that the growth of imperium provided for Rome.
I was already thinking about whether it might be productive to embrace the alienness of ancient Greece in class when the hollow husk of Twitter started buzzing with “defenders” of Classical learning demanding that people emulate Odysseus and accusing Homeric scholars of harboring a leftist agenda because they dared use the text of the Odyssey to point out why Odysseus might not be a great model. The irony, of course, being that the uncritical veneration of the Homeric stories comes from a thoroughly modern understanding of heroism and superficial understanding of the ancient world where you find both critiques of the central heroic characters already in the epics and a rich discourse critiquing everything from individual heroes to the very nature of epic poetry.
Simplifying these complexities at least to some extent can lower barriers to entry, but I also think that it can do the material a disservice. These classics contain a depth to these that warrants reading and rereading precisely because they developed in the complex cultural milieu that was ancient Greece. I find a lot of these complexities deeply human, but I also wonder if preserving some of the alienness might force us to engage with the complexity and thus prevent antiquity from being simplified and reduced to culture war tropes.
This post is a revised and expanded version of a Twitter thread posted on April 23, 2023.