Lessons from Ancient Greece
History of Ancient Greece provides insights on modern democracy
History of Ancient Greece traces the history of Ancient Greece from 3000 to 323 BCE, covering the rise of the Greek city-state and the simultaneous development of the Athenian empire and its domestic democracy. In addition, the course explores the longevity of the Spartan military state, the nature of the Greek family, and the conquest of Greece by the Macedonians.
“In taking this course, I hope that students realize that modern European and American democracies have their origins in the ancient Athenian democracy,” says Associate Professor Monessa Cummins. “These origins are far removed in culture and ideology from modern conceptions of democracy. I have always stressed that the short experiment in Athenian democracy demonstrates that democracy, in all times and places, is fragile and not to be taken for granted. This lesson has had poignancy in the last decade or so.”
The curriculum provides historical context for students who wish to study classics — Greek and Roman literature, art, archaeology, and philosophy — and for students who study political science or later periods of history. More broadly, it provides an in-depth study of the ancient Greeks’ conception of human nature and motivation. Many previous students of this course have gone on to law school, medical school, or to careers in social work, teaching, and computer science, among other ventures.
“Personally, I learned Greek history from a professor of ancient history who stressed reading the ancient sources,” Cummins says. “I also emphasize study of the ancient sources, but I put much more explicit emphasis on critical reading and discussion of these sources, and on analysis of them to identify theses, biases, and ancient methods of writing history.”
The close analysis of texts is the foundation for oral reports and written papers in the course, in which students present and defend their own arguments about the significance of the texts. This analytical work echoes the activity of Socrates, who questioned assumptions and tested premises more than two millennia ago.
“Students comment again and again on how much stronger they become as analytical thinkers, speakers, and writers in this course,” says Cummins. “Today, students find the practice of thinking analytically and arguing from evidence as something new and exciting, even liberating.”