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Bread and Circuses: How an Ancient Historian Put the Classics Back into the Gen. Ed.

Cheryl Golden

The aim of my presentation for the History in Classics/Classics in History panel is to describe the possibilities and challenges that accompany the development and teaching of an interdisciplinary course featuring Classics and Ancient History methodologies for the non-major, general student population at a Liberal Arts University.

Like my Grandma always used to say ‘there’s nothing new under the sun!’  This pleasant observation belongs to Gabriel Lippincott, a so-called “non-traditional” student.  We were working through Rhodes and Osborne’s translation of RO no. 73, an inscription from 4th c. BCE Eretria, detailing the preparations for the celebration of the Artemisia.  Gabriel’s own background includes organizing the regional Junior Olympics in the state as well as concert promotion for our city.  He has significant experience in the financial and logistical components of community events.  Pursuing a degree in social work, Gabriel’s background did not include the Classics or Ancient History.  Still, as we struggled with the inscription and its details of the planning group for the religious festival at Eretria, he was particularly pleased to note that 4th c. participating vendors would be given a tax break by the city, something he was unable to negotiate for his own events in the 21st century.

Gabriel was one of a dozen students in a pilot course for our new general education curriculum at my university.  The aim of the general education curriculum is not only to introduce students to a Liberal Arts Education but also to incorporate a series of upper division, interdisciplinary capstone courses aimed at integrating the basic ideals, skills and content gained in lower division courses. My capstone course is NSP Bread & Circuses: Civic Space, the Arts & Entertainments.  Creating and teaching my NSP Bread and Circuses presented challenges and opportunities in the use of literary criticism, epigraphy, topography, and archaeology in a historical study of the relationship between the city and public expressions of art and entertainments.  The course explores Greek drama, Roman satire, epigraphic evidence for religious festivals, graffiti regaling gladiators, as well as the role of public space in the ancient city-state. 

For the sake of brevity, I plan to limit my examples in my presentation to the interdisciplinary use of Greek drama and Latin graffiti. These two examples have the benefit of being most recognizable to non-classics and non- history majors.  The Greek theatre was a city-state funded institution, while graffiti reflects a popular, spontaneous use of city space.  Both examples offer opportunities to use the methods of the historian and the classicist; both help students make connections to their own times and their own educational goals.  While the subject matter and the approach can produce “Aha!” moments for our students like Gabriel, there are also caveats to bear in mind.  By engaging in an interdisciplinary approach to graffiti in Pompeii and Rome do we “water down” the approach to epigraphy and Roman history for the sake of accessibility?  Do we run the risk of trivializing the ancient past when we compare that evidence to the graffiti movement of the 1970s in New York, for example?

Through my contribution to this panel, I hope to demonstrate that the interdisciplinary approach that combines ancient history and the classics occupies a unique position in the general education curriculum of higher education.   After all, Gabriel confirmed his grandmother’s wisdom that “there is nothing new under the sun” while engaged in the methods of analysis employed by classicists and ancient historians.  That was my “Aha!” moment. 

Session/Panel Title

History in Classics / Classics in History

Session/Paper Number

71.2

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