Life in ancient Greece — resurrected

Classical Studies
August 11, 2016

In keeping with the idea that “you don’t know a person until you’ve walked in his shoes,” in the spring of 2016 Rebecca Kennedy’s Ancient Greece class put on their figurative Greek sandals to learn about the life and culture of Athens in 403 B.C.

In an experiential role-playing exercise called “The Threshold of Democracy,” students learn through concrete experience. This is part of a larger program, “Reacting to the Past,” which began at Barnard College, and has now spread to over 300 colleges and universities.

After spending the first eight weeks of the semester learning about Greece by more conventional means, Kennedy’s students received their character assignments in week nine. Some, like Socrates and Thucydides, were actual historical figures. Others were given more generalized roles: a war veteran, a baker, a blacksmith who was secretly a woman in disguise. Many of the characters also fell into factions: oligarchs, radical democrats, Socratics.

At the beginning of the game, everyone wrote a paper explaining what their character’s goals were and how they would achieve them. Once they got started, though, it soon became clear just how difficult it would be to get things done in such a polarized democracy. “It never works out exactly as you map it out,” Kennedy explained. Trent Maghielse ’18 felt that his agenda was going pretty well: “While my goals have not panned out exactly as I had hoped, they have not been completely crushed either.”

After those first expressions of their goals, students began devising their own ways to get into character. Many read ancient texts that might help them better understand their positions. The baker brought in cookies and donuts. Grace Martin ’18, who played an old aristocrat with a distaste for foreigners, began wearing a fake moustache to class every day.

Even people who weren’t enrolled in the course wandered into this ancient world. Students often brought curious friends to class as their “slaves.” A prospective student who sat in during a visit day was sacrificed as a pig.

“It keeps us on our toes,” says Breonna Grant ’18, “Because we never know what’s going to happen.” One day, students arrived in class and learned that plague had struck and some of them were going to die.

With everyone so invested in the game, “It gets really heated, really fast,” Martin said. “Everyone yells at each other or praises each other and we all really get into it.” Maghielse added, “If you were to walk by the room you would hear a lot of yelling and accusations.”

It could sometimes puzzle unsuspecting onlookers. One fine spring day, the class paraded across campus carrying phalluses made of whatever craft supplies they had on hand (clay, paper, etc.) in order to celebrate the Great Dionysia. Once they settled in near the steps from A-Quad to South Quad, bemused Denisonians who just wanted to eat lunch at the picnic tables were treated to an elaborate festival featuring libations (of water), sacrifices (of friends pretending to be cattle), and a tragic performance (in which the chorus sang all of its lines to the tune of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).

Although some of the class’s activities were specific to ancient Greek history, students agreed that all of their public speaking, debating, and creativity have other uses as well.

Kiki Yewer ‘16, a psychology major who took the course because she needed an oral communication credit, found many of the skills necessary in the Athenian assembly surprisingly relevant to the rest of her life. “You have to be able to put yourself in someone else's position if you want to be successful in convincing people of your argument,” she explained, “which is extremely applicable to any job and life in general.”

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