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Ethopoeia and “Reacting to the Past” in the Latin classroom (and beyond)

Bret Mulligan

“Reacting to the Past” is a pedagogical method that uses immersive role-playing games set in discrete historical moments to motivate efficacious engagement with primary sources.  In this paper, I outline the potential benefits of the Reacting method for Classics courses and how “Reacting” — with its roots in the progymnasmata — allows Classicists to incorporate an ancient method of instruction into their contemporary classrooms.  I will also introduce Coniuratio, a new “Reacting” game that is set during the Catilinarian criris of 63bce.  Designed to be played over only a few class sessions, Coniuratio (and learning games like it) can motivate students to undertake purposeful research on ancient history and culture, while honing their skills in written and oral communication.

In Coniuratio!, students are assigned a historical character (e.g. Cicero, Crassus, Paetus, Claudius Pulcher) that they will play during the senatorial debates over how to react to the revelation of Catiline’s conspiracy in 63bce.  To deliver effective, historically informed speeches, students must first determine the motivations of their characters and what course of action would be most beneficial for them.  This requires students to delve into the gritty details and context of the conspiracy, as well as gain a deep understanding of the life of a first-century Roman, including his family history and status, his relationships with other senators, his own immediate and long-term goals, and how these shape his political allegiances and behavior in (and outside of) the Senate.  Students “win” by persuading the Senate to adopt a sententia consistent with the personal goals of their characters — either through the force of their arguments and politicking, or by less scrupulous means.  As with long-form “Reacting” games, the goal of Coniuratio! is not to recreate history as it happened, but for students to immerse themselves within the full complexities of a historical crisis whose outcome they can influence through strategy and persuasive speech.

I conclude by reviewing the roots of the “Reacting” method in the ancient educational practice of ethopoeia and discussing the strengths of “Reacting to the Past” for teaching Roman culture and how games of this type can be used to promote the Communication, Culture, Connections, and Comparisons goals articulated in the Standards for Classical Language Learning, along with examples of preparatory activities that lay the foundation for a successful game experience, and how the concept of the “mini-Reacting game” can be adapted to other historical moments and in other types of courses.

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Homo Ludens: Teaching the Ancient World via Games

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