You are here

Imagining Ancient Texts through Material Culture and the Spatial Environment

John Gruber-Miller

Cornell College

Ever since the manuscripts of imperial Rome and late antiquity, editors of classical texts have provided assistance to readers through glosses, grammatical notes, historical background, mythological parallels, and cultural references (e.g., the Venetus A manuscript of the Iliad).  Designing a commentary for the 21st century should include these same features, but also take advantage of advances in second language acquisition, the availability of new media, and geographical interfaces to help intermediate Greek students visualize the stories, monuments, and events described in the text (cf. Anderson).  This paper reports on a project, Imagining Ancient Corinth: An Introduction to Greek Literature and Culture, that envisions a new sort of commentary—a born digital textbook—that probes the intersection of spatial humanities, online commentaries, material culture, and second language acquisition.

In studies of what distinguishes a proficient reader from a weaker one, Bernhardt (2005, 2011) and Melby-Lervåg and Lervåg (2014) have argued that foreign language skills, such as vocabulary size, foreign language writing, dictation skill, and the ability to segment a text into meaningful, syntactic units, accounted for 30% of variance between weak and proficient readers.  As a result, Imagining Ancient Corinth offers the intermediate student core vocabulary lists, grammar review activities, and segmentation exercises to promote deeper knowledge of Greek linguistic knowledge.  Moreover, by beginning the textbook with selections from Apollodorus’ Library, whose mythological stories are less syntactically complex, students can be introduced to a more straightforward account of Theseus’ six labors, Ino’s and Melicertes’ leap into the sea, or Bellerophon taming Pegasus before tackling them in Pausanias’ Description of Greece.

Yet Bernhardt proposes that up to 50% of variation in reading ability is currently unexplained.  Likely candidates include comprehension strategies, cultural knowledge, and motivation.  Certainly, one of the greatest challenges facing readers of classical texts is being able to visualize the ancient world and to establish a cultural context that allows readers to interpret what they read.  What does a temple look like, how does it function?  What architectural and hydraulic features does a fountain house exhibit, who draws water from it, and when?   With the advent of websites such as the Corinth Computer Project and the American School of Classical Studies digital image collections, students can now see multiple images of the temples in the Roman forum at Corinth, the Peirene fountain, and the stoas and shops that line the forum.  In addition to viewing the archaeological remains at Corinth, mythological stories are illustrated with images from Greek vases or paintings from Roman houses. 

In a world with Google Earth and GPS on every phone, it is no longer optional whether students should begin to comprehend the spatial dynamics of the ancient world.  Imagining Ancient Corinth offers students an interactive map interface that helps them see Pausanias’ route, the relationship of one place to another, and links to images of the terrain or monuments at each location.  The same map is keyed to the texts that describe or refer to each place, so that as students read a new passage, they can see at a glance where a new geographical reference is located.  In short, Imagining Ancient Corinth offers a new model for an intermediate commentary that provides a linguistic, cultural, and spatial environment that offers a multilayered understanding a prominent Greek polis, Corinth, and prepares intermediate students for reading and understanding subsequent Greek texts.

Session/Panel Title

The Future of Teaching Ancient Greek

Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy