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This paper will describe the workings of the Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives program, a National Endowment for the Humanities national initiative that is programming classics-based public programming in 100 American public cultural institutions including libraries, arts centers, museums, galleries and theatres. The aim of this program is to create a national conversation on the relevance of the classics in American life via classics scholar-led reading groups, public lectures, workshops and professionally staged dramatic readings with a particular focus on reaching different ethnic groups, culturally deprived areas and forging links between veterans, their families and the American public. Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives received an unprecedented $800,000 Chairman’s Special Award from the NEH, the first of its kind for a public program and significantly it represents a major groundbreaking grant to a program based around classical material and scholarship. At a time when the NEH, NEA and PBS are once again under serious threat, Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives has become far more that a innovative model for national public programming and stands as an example of how government supported humanities programs are a vital and necessary part of the American experience.

In this paper I will focus specifically on the program’s work with veterans and their families and describe several of the events that took place in Mississippi, South Carolina, New York, Ohio and California that engaged with this community. In these places classical material in the form of live readings of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Ajax, Euripides’ Heraklesand Homer’s Odyssey was presented followed by a public discussion led by a classical scholar. These discussions were frequently remarkable and very moving and touched on highly pertinent themes in contemporary American culture such as political leadership, the function of war, the role of the draft, the effects of war on the family, the homecoming of the warrior, physical injuries and combat trauma.

The effects of combat trauma were well articulated in the corpus of Greek traditional stories: the madness of Herakles; the rage of Achilles; the suicide of Ajax; the isolation of Philoctetes and of course, the tribulations of Odysseus. When experiencing these stories in performance veteran participants were often shocked that ancient Greek drama so aptly reflects their own thoughts and feelings. Certainly, war, violence and their aftereffects are a prevailing theme in many Athenian plays of the fifth century, but what is it about these works that provokes such a strong response from veterans? One of the most frequent comments heard at these events is that veterans were seeking “restoration”: though they have physically returned home, they are spiritually still fighting their wars and dealing with disconcerting feelings such as survivor guilt, isolation, frustration, anger, and despair.

Salvatore Settis wrote, “The ‘classical’ may have an entitlement to become once again the object of attention and study, and it would make perfect sense to reintroduce it no longer as the static and privileged jargon of the elites, but as an effective key for accessing the multiplicity of cultures in the modern world and for the help it can give us in understanding the way in which these cultures are penetrating each other.” It is in this spirit that Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives was conceived - as a program that seeks to energize a national conversation between seemingly disparate groups on difficult and frequently misunderstood topics in American culture – a conversation enabled by the classics.

Bibliography: Settis, Salvatore, The Future of the ‘Classical’ translated by Allan Cameron, Cambridge and Malden, MA. 2006.

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