Special Topics in Classical Culture

Myth and History

The Greeks had an uncanny facility to move easily from the sacred sphere to the political to the domestic... it makes me mourn the loss of that totality of experience in our own culture. Back then, kings consulted religious Oracles on matters of State, athletes at Panhellenic Games sought glory for their home cities from the dedicatory Olympic god,  and the God Dionysus himself - in the figure of his cult statue - presided over theatrical competitions in fifth century Athens. Is Attic theater an artistic invention? A political tool? A religious event? All of the above. How can we define "philosopher"? The cosmologist Pythagoras attracts a religious following; Socrates becomes a political subversive; Aristotle invents literary theory. This course will examine this curious intersection of myth, history, science and literature, all flavored by Greek religion, as Greece moves from the Archaic Age into a new century. We will examine Athenian institutions such as The Panathenaic Procession (honoring Athena), the Eleusinian Mysteries (honoring Demeter and central to Athenian public religion), the Greater and Lesser Dionysia (theatrical competitions honoring Dionysus), and the development of a written law code, as well as the monumental architecture from the Archaic and Classical Ages dedicated to the pantheon of gods.
Approach to Teaching: We will very heavily depend on primary texts (in translation) of various genres for ancient references to the events and locations under scrutiny (texts will include Pausanias' Travels in Greece, Aeschylus' Oresteia, Pindar's Odes, and the anonymous Hymn to Demeter.) The class will meet in a room equipped for internet access so that we will be able to use the rich variety of resources (especially virtual tours and interactive on-line games) available for reference and research, including but not limited to my own extensive webpages on this subject. Because of the wealth of information on this subject, I expect my students to participate wholly in the pursuit of knowledge - for the betterment of us all. Lots of discussion, much excitement, wonder, and joy. It's the best stuff on earth.
Evaluation: I will provide the superstructure with background lectures for each topic, but there will be regular class presentations by students throughout the semester. One long term paper will be required, based on a special topic chosen by each student. A midterm and a final, along with peridiodic quizzes, will round out the grade. Class participation is vital and I look forward to lively exchanges.
Spring Break Trip: After studying this material in a classroom in Philadelphia, we will go experience the reality of these places in Greece. We will begin our tour in Athens, where we will discuss classical theater while sitting in the Theater of Dionysus, on the south slope of the Acropolis, where the Oresteia won first prize in the Greater Dionysia in 458 B.C. We will follow the Sacred Way through the nearby Keramikos and Agora right up the steep slope of the Acropolis, where we will see Pericles' "imperishable monuments": the Parthenon, the Propylaia, the Temple of Athena Nike and the Erechtheum. We will then gather atop the Areopagus (mythic site of the first law court) to read aloud passages from Aeschylus' Oresteia, especially from the Eumenides, in which the torch of justice is passed from the gods to mortal men.

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Theater of Dionysus Priest Throne Acropolis Parthenon Areopagus

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A trip north to Delphi will reveal the treacherous topography of ancient Greece, and bring new understanding to many of the historical, literary and political realities of that land. We will see for ourselves why Delphi was considered the most sacred site in all of Greece until it was closed by Pope Theodosius in the fourth century A.D. in his quest to eradicate all things pagan: a great, unnameable magnificence still inspires awe in all who visit. We will perch ourselves upon the cliffs of Parnassos, only meters away from where the lyric poet Pindar sat and wrote his famous odes. On site and in the museum, we shall see evidence of Delphi as the sacred shrine of city-states: each vied to offer the best, the most expensive, the most impressive votive offerings in thanks to the god for auspicious political oracles.

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Theater Omphalos Temple of Apollo Stadium Corycian Cave

Side trips from Athens will include visits to sites such as Eleusis (source of the Sacred Way, route of the Panatheniac procession), Sounion, and Marathon, all of which figure prominently in both the religious and political history of classical Greece.

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Eleusis Sounion Marathon

About the instructor: Janice Siegel holds an M.A. from Washington University and Ph.D. from Rutgers in Comparative Literature and Classics. She spent the summer of 1994 studying Ovid on the Greek island of Spetses, and she attended the American School for Classical Studies at Athens as a Fulbright scholar in the summer of 1995. In her alter-ego of Dr. J, she has written an extensive network of webpages devoted to classical Greece. Dr. Siegel was awarded the Violet B.Ketels Award for Excellence in Teaching and Extraordinary Service to the Intellectual Heritage Program in the spring of 1999. Dr. Siegel IH support groups dot the dorm landscape. Every little bit helps.

All photographs on this page and on this website are copyrighted by Janice Siegel and may not be reproduced or copied onto other websites without permission.