Thucydides’ The History of the Peloponnesian War
This is the principal text for this class. It is entertaining, readable, & eminently suited to familiarizing the student with conditions in classical Greece, as the was marked the apex and end of the golden Age. It followed on the heels of the Persian War, and lead to the Macedonian takeover of the Imperium in the Mediterranean basin. Thucydides’ tells the story both from a particular perspective (telling the story of Athenian hubris, culminating in the disastrous Sicilian expedition), but follows very objective methods of gathering data and facts (he was an exile who met people from both sides, involved in various stages of the war).
Socrates on Trial
This text analyzes, in journalistic fashion, why the Athenians found it desirable to condemn Socrates. We use this text as an introduction to the question of political democracy. A companion volume is an excerpt of writings of Xenophon & Aristotle on the same question. Democracy was the great innovation of the Greek city-states, as they transitioned to something beyond tribal society, and it has not really been resolved satisfactorily down to the present day, as the history of democracy in America vividly illustrates.
Foulanges’ History of the Ancient City
This is a scholarly, traditional analysis of the common outlook shared by Roman and Greeks alike. It covers household religions, city-states, and ancient practices such as auguries and sacrifice. What it illuminates is the religious dimension behind the Classical World, which often gets either glossed over or elided in standard treatments of this era.
Caesar’s Gallic Wars
The history of Caesar’s subdual of Gaul marks a milestone in the advancement of the Roman Imperium. When Caesar looked across the Alps, he made the conscious decision to advance the Roman presence and power to the periphery of the Empire, theoretically protecting the core, which had suffered from Celtic invasions and predations throughout its history. We take Roman Britain and Gaul for granted, but the affair was a close run thing, and lead to the creation of the office of Caesar, imperator. Caesar’s actions guaranteed that Europe would emerge as a unity during the Medieval Era.
No omnibus on the Ancient World can leave out Homer. The Iliad may be more entertaining, but the Odyssey is the story of Troy, which became a symbol for the chivalry of Europe after the Dark Ages. Odysseus’ long-suffering voyage back to this desecrated home, the bloodbath saga of his revenge, formed an irrevocable part of the mental furniture of Golden Age of Greece, and beyond, down to our own day. Or, as Keats put it:
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-browed Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific — and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise —
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
Virgil’s worldview marks the transition from the ancient world of city-states, out of dying Troy (a victim of Greek piracy and feuding), by God’s Providence brought through many dangers like Odysseus to found the eternal city, Rome. The move of the Mediterranean basin into Roman Imperium sets the backdrop for the “fullness of time” into which the Christ child would come. Additionally, it’s just a good adventure story.
Macauley’s Lays of Ancient Rome
There was once a time not so long ago that no British school child could graduate without having read this text. Here is a famous passage that was recently the center point of the plot of Oblivion:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
The Captain of the Gate:
“To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods.
There is not a set time line as we work through these books – we may spend more time on one, than another. Typically, I give a weekly quiz to see if the students are doing their reading, and then we discuss as much as we are able, whatever interests us in the text. At the end of the class, the students will send an essay on a book of their choice, whichever appealed most to them, and which resonates most strongly in their consciousness. If we have time, we will read selections of either Plato’s dialogues, or perhaps Herodotus, the predecessor of Thucydides in the writing of history.