Ancient Greece Up Close

How did our world get its start? Long before modern society evolved, another civilization forged a transformative and lasting path: Ancient Greece.

Through a far-reaching FOCUS course, “Exploring Ancient Greek Language and Culture,” Upper School students have the opportunity to investigate this endlessly fascinating and influential society, which thrived during the 5th and 6th centuries B.C. and helped shape our understandings of philosophy, medicine, cartography, drama, art, architecture, sports and other disciplines.

The class is taught by Classics Teacher Christopher Barnes, who organized the curriculum through the lens of “epic problems.” After initial lessons that centered on early modes of communication, including systems of writing and an introduction to the Greek alphabet, the students were ready to delve deeper.

To demonstrate their growing knowledge, they were tasked with researching a monumental issue affecting ancient Greeks and then creating a succinct oral presentation, 5-10 minutes long, to share with the class.

The students were free to choose any topic that piqued their curiosity as long as they used at least one ancient source and one modern scholarly work to support their endeavor. Some possibilities included the environment, famine, transportation, politics, and disasters, both natural and man-made.

Examples of ancient sources, Dr. Barnes noted, were epic pieces by Homer; tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; comedy by Aristophanes; historical writing by Herodotus and Thucydides; philosophy by Plato, Aristotle and Pre-Socratics; oratory by Lysias and Demosthenes; and lyric poetry by Sappho, Alcaeus, Archilochus and Simonides.

Assembled in Room 402, the students buzzed with excitement as they prepared to illuminate a monumental component of Ancient Greek society. To decide the order of speakers, the students selected numbered slips of paper from a box. “Who’s the first person to be thrown to the sharks?” joked Dr. Barnes, setting the tone for the comfortable and illuminating class.

Before the students began, Dr. Barnes reviewed pointers for a successful presentation: “Try not to read off your screen. You don’t want to read; you want to present.” Also, he added, “make eye contact and be confident.”

With these words of encouragement, the student who picked number one walked to the front of the classroom and gave a carefully examined presentation about drought in ancient Greece, clicking through an attractive slideshow. The class learned that while wheat and barley were common crops, the unpredictable rainfall gravely affected the food supply, so much so that the wheat harvest failed approximately once every four years.

In subsequent presentations, students elaborated on ancient Greek cuisine and ways in which different social classes prepared, served and celebrated food; the impact of diseases and plagues – like typhus, Ebola, toxic shock syndrome, and the Plague of Athens – on survival and livelihood; and consequences of war in ancient Greece through major conflicts including the Trojan, Peloponnesian, Corinthian, and Persian Wars, among other topics.

Following their teacher’s advice, the students spoke with conviction and expertise. After each presentation, the audience was invited to ask a question or give constructive feedback.

Through the strength of the presentations and the thoughtfulness of the questions and comments, it was evident that these Upper Schoolers were able to draw connections between the obstacles ancient Greeks endured and today’s daunting challenges, from climate change to the pandemic.

“Thanks, everybody,” said Dr. Barnes as his students put away their notebooks and laptops and geared up for their next activity, clearly energized by this absorbing lesson.