Introducing the Classical world
Introducing the Classical world

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Introducing the Classical world

2 How to explore the Classical world

2.1 Introducing Classical studies

It's time to get a little closer to our topic: the Classical world. We will start off with an activity in the format used throughout the course A219 Exploring the Classical World, from which this course is derived.

Although some of what is noted in the attached video footage is only dealt with in detail within the original course, viewing it should prepare you for your work in this course. It should also whet your appetite for further studies in this fascinating area!

Activity 1

Watch the video clips below.

Click below to view part 1 of the course introduction.

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Transcript: Course Introduction - Part 1

Paula James voice-over
The Classical world is a world of the past. But in numerous ways it's still present today. Exploring the Classical World is a course about the past of Greece and Rome, and how we can study it on the basis of what survives. This video offers a first impression of the Classical world, and introduces some members of the course team.
Felix Budelmann
Starting with some visual evidence brings out I think two questions that are crucial to this course and more generally to studying the Classical world, I would say. First, there is the question of what do we actually have left by way of evidence? But secondly, how do we get from what we have left to some sort of sense of what the Classical world has actually been like such a long time ago. So for instance, we have plenty of ruins of ancient temples that we can look at, but the question of course is, what was it like for the people there sacrificing to the gods, praying to the gods? What were their beliefs, what were their practices and so on? Or we have written texts of ancient plays, of historians and so on, but how do we get from a written text to a sense of the performance in an open-air theatre filled with 15,000 people? It’s those sorts of questions that this course is about, and that I think any study of the Classical world is about.
Paula James voice-over
The Classical world is immensely varied, and it would make little sense trying to take in a bit of everything. So the course concentrates on four particularly rich periods and places. Among the earliest things to survive from Greek civilisation are two massive poems, the Odyssey and Iliad. These are a unique combination of traditional, orally transmitted tales and subtle studies of outstanding individuals, their trials and relationships.
Chris Emlyn-Jones
The first perception we have of the Greeks were men of enormous power and charisma called Odysseus and Achilles, and they were involved in a war against a citadel called Troy. We know about them through poems which were orally transmitted through the centuries until they reached their final form under the name of a supreme poet we call Homer. The events of Troy that we know about in the poems occurred in about the twelfth century BC and we think that Homer’s poems date to about the end of the eighth century.
Paula James voice-over
One of the main themes of the Odyssey is that of social displacement, wandering, and the attempt of the absent (presumed dead) hero Odysseus to return home. The Greeks called that quest nostos. The other major poem that survives, the Iliad, tells the story of the war at Troy and the clash between exceptional heroes, such as Achilles and Agamemnon.
Chris Emlyn-Jones
The poems are primarily about fighting and action, but beside all this there’s a very strong feeling of the interaction between characters, their psychology, their humour, their friendships, their hates, and these were qualities which the later Greeks appreciated and developed very much in their culture.
Paula James voice-over
Compared with these poems, what survives on the ground is scanty, but we look in particular at some remarkable decorated pots designed as funeral objects. These and other artefacts found in a cemetery at Athens suggest a society in which, as the poems demonstrate, the prestige of individuals and the display of that prestige are paramount. At the same time, artistic designs on pottery are beginning to reflect Greek myths and legends and the enormous influence these had on later Greek culture. From Homer’s world, we move a couple of hundred years forward in time to our second period of study, Athens in the fifth century BCE – ‘Classical’ Athens as it is often called. Many of the things we associate today with Ancient Greece stem from here.
First, there’s theatre. The vast majority of Greek plays that we have today were first performed in fifth-century Athens. They were staged in this theatre, dedicated to the god Dionysus, on the slopes of the Acropolis. In the course you study two plays, Persians, a tragedy, and Lysistrata, a comedy, and you are prompted to think not just about how they may have been performed in the Theatre of Dionysus, but also about how they are performed today.
From the slopes of the Acropolis, we move up to the Acropolis, or citadel, itself. At the beginning of the century, the Persians devastated Athens, including the Acropolis. It was then rebuilt in the course of the fifth century.
You look at the site, its buildings and in particular at the most famous product of the fifth-century building programme, the Parthenon, a temple in honour of the goddess Athena.
James Robson
I guess that the Parthenon is one of the best-known, if not the best-known, monuments from Classical Athens. But the fact that it has this status as something of an icon for us brings certain consequences. I think because it’s part of our world we think that we know it and understand it somehow. Whereas if we want to appreciate its significance for fifth-century Athenians we need to look at it with fresh eyes and to think about its relation to the world in which it was built.
It’s true I think that the Parthenon is a remarkable building, and deserves a lot of the attention which it attracts. It’s beautifully proportioned and its sculptures are exquisite and extraordinarily detailed. At the time it was built it was the largest temple in Greece and in its design and execution shows an amazing mixture of traditional elements, but also innovation.
Paula James voice-over
Perhaps the most famous and certainly the most controversial part of the Parthenon is the long frieze that ran all the way around the temple.
James Robson
Large sections of it still survive, and I think it’s easy to forget when we look at it close-up in museums or in books that it would originally have sat high up on the temple underneath the roof. The frieze is so famous nowadays that it’s odd to think that there are no ancient sources that tell us what it depicted, and so one of the questions which scholars ask is just what was going on and how we are to interpret it.
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Paula James voice-over
Finally, fifth-century Athens gives us the first surviving ancient prose texts. One of the most substantial of them is the history of the war between Athens and its rival Sparta as narrated by the general Thucydides. You study one of the key passages of his account, a speech he gives to the Athenian leader Pericles, seemingly extolling the virtues of Athens. But we ask whether it’s really that straightforward.
Leaving Athens and the Greeks we move on to the Romans. During the last four centuries BCE, Rome grew from being a local power in central Italy into a city that dominated the Mediterranean world. This was achieved by a strong political system, a competitive élite and military strength. But in the space of sixty years it all went wrong in Rome. The political system collapsed into bloody civil war and the old order of a political class sharing power was replaced by one man – the emperor Augustus – monopolising power and politics. In Block 3 you study the history of Republican Rome. How the republic was organised politically; how political rivalry turned into civil war; and also how culture and the arts flourished alongside the civil discord. Cities were built across Italy, spreading Roman ways of living as Rome conquered its Italian and Greek neighbours.
Phil Perkins
The city of Paestum is a good example of how people interacted over the Mediterranean. You can look at city and visit it, and see clearly Greek things, but then you can also see things that derive more from local Italian influences, and you can study how they combined together to produce something that is different and new. The Greek settlers there made a wonderful city, but they weren’t politically strong enough to maintain it. As the Roman Republic expanded, the armies of Rome were so powerful that they conquered the whole of southern Italy, including the city of Paestum. Settlers came from Rome, and brought with them their gods, their ways of life, their religion, their connections, their ways of doing things, and the result was a completely new way of living, a Roman way of living.
Paula James voice-over
Rome itself grew into a showcase of architecture with new buildings paid for by the conquests of Rome’s generals. The city centre became a monument to Roman achievements and history. The writing of history was for Greeks and Romans a branch of the arts. Poetry as well as prose could explain, justify and even question the past and present deeds of Rome.
Phil Perkins
The city of Rome has been continuously occupied for over three thousand years, with each generation building on top of the remains of previous generations. In some cases, previous earlier buildings are completely removed; in other cases bits are taken and redeveloped, and so as time progresses some fragments survive and others don’t. So if we’re going back some two thousand five hundred years to the Roman Republic there is very little that remains intact just as it was made, and the challenge that we face is trying to sort them out and find out where the Roman Republic actually remains.
Paula James voice-over
Within all of this cultural, political and historical change you meet individuals, some famous, some unheard of. Some like Julius Caesar changed their world, others like the Etruscan noblewoman Seianti, whose sarcophagus can today tell us so much about her life, reflect the world they lived in.
Block 4 stays with the Romans and studies Roman social history. Who lived in the city of Rome and how did the different social groups interact? In this part of the course you explore topics such as slavery, patronage and the family, and consider where people lived and the public spaces such as theatres, amphitheatres and the baths where they interacted. The available evidence is rich and varied – literature in all its forms, inscriptions, epitaphs, buildings, mosaics, frescos, tombs and coins. All types of evidence have the potential to reveal something about Roman social relationships.
Valerie Hope
Epitaphs and gravestones of the Roman period are a particularly fascinating source for the Roman social historian, because they give us insights into groups of people such as women, freed slaves, slaves and the poor that other sources just don’t give us. But I think one of the challenges of working with this particular type of evidence is to think about the context in which these things were made and put up; we need to think about the conventions involved and the ideals that were portrayed through this particular medium.
Some of the fundamental questions we need to ask involve date: when was a tombstone set up? We also need to think about where it was placed: what was the original environment like? What memorials would have been placed adjacent to this particular monument or tombstone? We also need to think about how the person commemorated is described: what type of language is used? Were there any images or pictures cut into the stone?
Paula James voice-over
We always need to be aware of the nature and limitations of the evidence. One of the great challenges in studying Roman social history is getting past the inherent biases present in the sources. The written texts in particular tend to represent the voices of educated wealthy men. Can we recreate the experiences and perspectives of women, children and slaves? Only by studying a variety of evidence and by carefully evaluating its context can we begin to recreate and explore differing perspectives.
This block, like the course as a whole, is about posing questions, finding ways of investigating these questions and evaluating the extent to which we can answer them, and thus in the process expanding our knowledge of life in the city of Rome.
At the end of the course, there is a short fifth block which looks back at the whole course, ties up some loose ends and helps you prepare for the exam. I hope you look forward to your explorations.
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The video introduction should have spoken for itself, but it's worth drawing out a couple of general points that have come up (both relating to the theme of the past in the present):

  1. The video brings out what you were probably already aware of: the remains of the Classical world are substantial and varied. They are to be found in different parts of the modern world. The remains also come from a range of periods, spanning well over a thousand years. Evidence from the Classical world takes many different forms: stones, bones, words, images and ideas, to name just a few. We are rather fortunate in this respect; anyone wishing to explore the Classical world is almost spoilt for choice. This variety will be discussed further in the next section.

  2. Then there is the challenge of moving from the present day to what the Classical world may have been like back then. The Parthenon has survived up to the present day, but it is partly in ruins now, and is a tourist attraction rather than a place of worship. How do we get from there to the society that built it? This move from the Classical world that endures today, to the Classical world that once was, is one you will have to make throughout this course. Section 2.3 will lay the foundations by discussing the sources of evidence for the Classical world that we have at our disposal.


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