Herakles statue.jpg

Terracotta column-krater, c. 360-350 BCE (The Met). An artist paints a statue of Herakles. The skin color of the statue is not represented as reflecting the skin color of the living figures.

By Hilary Lehmann.

The other day I was listening to an episode of the NPR podcast “Code Switch” covering the historical and political contexts of Charlottesville. The hosts, Shereen Marisol Miraji and Gene Demby, brought on a Republican operative, Alex Conant, who claimed that the president’s refusal to come down firmly against white supremacy could cause irrevocable damage to the Republican party. I listened to this with incredulity, particularly when Conant claimed that he had worked for “a lot of Republicans” and had “never heard any sort of racist sentiment at all.” But when he added that most Republicans “bemoan the fact that we underperform with minority voters,” I was shaken, despite having heard this sentiment from Republicans countless times before. Having just returned from a productive and invigorating workshop focusing on promoting the study of Classics, I had, even more than usual, the exact same concern on my mind.

The overwhelming whiteness of Classics, both faculty and majors, as well as the necessity of disrupting this racial disparity, has been well documented (and now, Denise McCoskey’s excellent essay). With regards to the Republicans, the reason why few people of color vote for them is laughably obvious. When Demby asked why the Republicans had such a hard time obtaining the support of minorities, Conant responded “well, obviously, episodes like this weekend [the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville] do not help with the Republican brand.” Republican policy and messaging is overtly, intentionally racist: it’s pro-police, anti-refugee, pro-gun, anti-welfare, and anti-immigrant. As much as Republican operatives like Conant like to cry ignorance, the fact that 90% of Republican voters are white is not an accident or a mystery. White supremacy is essential to the Republican ethos.

So if, in the case of Republicans, the answer to their diversity problem is obvious, could the same be said about Classics? When we wring our hands and bemoan the scarcity of minorities in our classes and conferences, is there an open secret that we are keeping from ourselves? Is Classics intentionally, explicitly excluding people of color, keeping our towers ivory? I know that some will find this association between the field of Classics and the Republican party hurtful, since most of the Classicists I’ve studied and worked with have been liberal, and I do not mean to call anyone out specifically. Nevertheless, within the discipline, I perceive a sense of complacency with, or perhaps resignation to, the status quo. We know it’s a problem, but I don’t see us making a real, concerted effort to change it.

I find this quote from Mathura Umachandran’s essay extremely telling:

“unless you can credibly defend the idea that black and brown people are either not interested or not smart enough to study ancient Greece and Rome, then structural oppression and discrimination have to be a plausible part of any account for this fact.”

I’ve heard my colleagues wonder, mystified, why Black students don’t want to take their classes, as if the problem lay with the students rather than the professors. Nobody is telling students of color that they’re not interested in taking Greek and Latin, that they don’t want to major in Classics (notwithstanding the convenient myth that minority students are only interested in the STEM fields) – nobody except us. Classics has the advantage of historical perspective; by its nature, Classics is incredibly chronologically, geographically, and ethnographically diverse. Our transhistorical perspective makes the artificiality of the East-West separation obvious: we study authors from modern Turkey, Syria, Libya, and Egypt, as well as modern Greece and Italy. As Classicists, we know that the capital of the Roman Empire was located in modern Istanbul for a thousand years. We know that the works of Plato, Aristotle, Galen, Hippocrates, and Euclid were translated and studied for centuries by Islamic scholars, without whom much of the Greek philosophical, mathematical, and medical thought upon which the myth of Western Civilization is based would have been lost. When we don’t talk about the inherent diversity of Classics more, when we go on and on about the “foundations of Western tradition” instead of pointing out that our field necessarily destabilizes the myth of the west, we are performing an act of active erasure, of intentional whitewashing. When we rewrite the history of Classics to exclude Asia and Africa, when we continue to propagate the narrative of a Western tradition rooted in the Greco-Roman past, we are the ones telling non-white students that Classics is not for them.

In my classes, I make a big deal about the historical construction of racial categories and try to impress upon my students that the Greeks and Romans were not white and should not be considered as belonging to the same racial or ethnic category as white Americans, because modern American whiteness is a construct of our unique, racist, historical circumstances. This message is a response not only to neo-Nazi agitators and political strategists who have appropriated classical imagery and thought, claiming to be the rightful heirs of the Greco-Roman traditions, but also to Bernard Knox’s description of the ancient Greeks as the “oldest dead white European males.” Knox attributes this epithet to “modern multicultural and radical feminist criticism” as a mark of the irrelevance of Classics, but doubles down in support of this characterization with the strange assertion that “they were undoubtedly white or, to be exact, a sort of Mediterranean olive color” (26). What could reveal the situatedness of race more strikingly than the assumption that white and olive are the same color?

Maybe I’m just arguing with a straw man – Knox’s book was published in 1993 and my students are unlikely either to have heard of it or to have encountered the white nationalists of the internet shouting about European heritage. But it is generally true that if my students have heard of Classics at all, it’s been indelibly linked in their minds with whiteness, whether because of images of austere temples and statues or because our society assumes everything old (even imaginarily old) is white. And so I lay out the evidence, every class I teach, for the diversity of the Greek world (Asia Minor was always a part of it! In the Hellenistic period it included North Africa and vast stretches of Asia! The Greeks were certainly xenophobic but not because of skin color!). I teach about how people of color and white women strove to enter academia when it excluded all but upper class white men, how their efforts gradually opened higher education to all people. They found something of themselves in the study of Classics.

But at the same time as I’ve been proselytizing the historical diversity of Classics and Classicists, I am aware that I’ve intentionally elided the equally real historical use of classical precedents to promote slavery, racial profiling, and sexism. In a way, to claim that Classics is, by nature, egalitarian is disingenuous – the discipline’s very name is a testament to its exclusivity. Classics is predicated on the notion of hierarchy, that some things are just better than others. The striving of people of color and white women to gain access to the study of Classics has as its obvious corollary the fact that it was their exclusion that made Classics an elite discipline, a desirable object of study. They were told they weren’t good enough for Classics, and that’s what made them work so hard to be included. The narrative of the Western Tradition is both untrue and true. It’s untrue because there’s never been an unbroken line of descent between Greco-Roman antiquity and modern Anglo-European identity, but also true because over the last several centuries, Classicists have manufactured and sold the world on their idea of Western Tradition, an inheritance they made up from the best and worst parts of the past. This myth-made-real isn’t going anywhere unless we confront it and the damages it has caused.

Talking to our students about the dark side of Classics’ whiteness is much harder and less pleasant than championing its diversity, but I think it’s necessary to be frank about the ways in which the elitism of Classics has been used to exclude and oppress. Perhaps we won’t be able to convince everyone – I don’t think we’re going to be able to “well, actually” the white supremacists; as Mary Beard’s constant Sisyphean battles with racist trolls demonstrate, the acolytes of a monochromatic classical past do not respond well to expertise or to evidence that falls outside of their carefully curated set of talking points. But what we can do is be upfront with our students about the dark history of Classics and our intentional goal of emphasizing the diversity rather than the elitism ancient Greek and Roman cultures. And to get to that place, we need to make sure that we, as educators, are all on the same page. We need to have these conversations with each other

Of course, it’s hard for those of us who are white to talk about race. Growing up in America, we’re taught that it’s racist to talk about race, that we should be colorblind. A lot of Classicists are socially awkward, anyway, and have perhaps internalized a kind of gentility that renders talking about worldly matters like race too gauche. I noticed this when I was on the job market the last two years, struggling over the Diversity Statement, wondering why it was so hard to just articulate that we need more people of color in this field or we risk collapsing into an echo chamber. There’s a lot of frustration surrounding the Diversity Statement – nobody seems to know what it’s for, either on the part of the applicants or sometimes even the hiring committees. Before we even talk to our students, we need to have a conversation among ourselves about why the Diversity Statement is required – we need to see it as more than just an HR requirement, to get to a place where the schools that are hiring, and the candidates they’re considering, are truly, deeply, from the heart committed to decolonizing Classics.


CFP — Diversity and the Study of the Ancient World, Roehampton University, October 11, 2017

Diversity and the Study of the Ancient World
Roehampton University
One-day workshop: Oct. 11, 2017, 1-5 p.m.

Sponsored by the Education Committee of the Council of University Classical Departments and the Classics and Social Justice Committee of the Society for Classical Studies.

Recently we have heard questions about the value of the humanities in terms of “value added” and the “cost benefit analysis.” On the other hand, historically the hypervaluation of Classics arguably had a role in establishing elites, making it seem potentially racist as a field of study. How can we counter these two contradictory discourses?

We anticipate a day of discussion of the ways in which the study of antiquity can enrich the lives of diverse populations; by reaching out to new populations, we can also enrich the study of antiquity with their contributions. This workshop will show the relevance of Classics to learners from the most marginalized social strata (i.e. the incarcerated, those suffering from mental illness).

We invite proposals for brief papers (15-20 minutes) addressing specific ways in which the study of antiquity either has been or might be deployed to challenge these negative views of Classics and to interest members of marginalized groups in our diverse field of study. Papers will be circulated among the participations so that our discussions may be as fruitful as possible.

Papers may be considered for inclusion in an edited volume.

Modest travel grants will be available to support graduate students’ attendance.

Send abstracts of no more than 300 words to Fiona McHardy, f.mchardy@roehampton.ac.uk by August 1, 2017.

Write-up: Ethical Engagement and the Study of Antiquity (April 20th & 21st 2017)

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Introductory write-up by Jess Wright, Matt Chaldekas, Hannah Čulík-Baird. Photography by Zoie Petrakis.

Across the humanities, the need for scholars to reach outside of their disciplinary and institutional contexts has grown critical. During this period of economic contraction, political turmoil, and environmental transformation and destruction, those of us in the humanities especially must work to demonstrate the value of our work and its contribution to the wider community. Classicists are in a particular bind: we must argue for the salience of antiquity to a modern world preoccupied with the effects of European imperialism, and we must do so without resorting to the imperialist argument that the Classics are the foundation of humanistic endeavour.

At USC, we proposed an event that sought to tackle this dilemma directly, by asking what it means for Classicists to be ethically and socially engaged. Our interest lay not only in how we explain the value of our subject for a non-expert audience, but also, and more importantly, in how we make our subject valuable for our communities. How does our study of antiquity inform us as ethical subjects? How does our pedagogical approach to antiquity shape our students? Through what strategies and initiatives might we render “Classics” a term that evokes social and ethical engagement, rather than elitist isolation and the ivory tower?

The event was held over two days. On Thursday 20th April, we held a roundtable on the question “How does (the study of) antiquity shape us as ethical subjects?” On Friday 21st April, we held a workshop on the question “What are the institutional and departmental conditions that foster ethical engagement in our local and national communities?”

Both events drew significant support and attendance from students and faculty across a range of fields at USC, as well as from further afield (in particular, UCSB and Occidental College). Conversation was vibrant and opinions were diverse. Presentations ranged from how to teach Asian classics in a North American classroom to the logistics of running a Latin-speaking podcast in collaboration with high school teachers and students outside of the university environment.

The speakers at the roundtable on Thursday 20th April were Nancy Rabinowitz, Debby Sneed, and Stephanie Balkwill — their presentations can be read below, alongside the closing statement by Matthew Chaldekas. At the workshop on Friday 21st April, the presenters were Hannah Čulík-Baird, Scholarly Engagement and Social Media (respondent: Hannah Mason), Emma Dyson, A Latin Podcast (respondent: Emilio Capettini), Elke Nash, Sieving Water, or, Strategies for Academic Inclusivity (respondent: Kristi Upson-Saia), and Beau Henson, Ethical Engagement and Accessibility in Classics (respondent: Christian Lehmann). Hannah Čulík-Baird and Elke Nash have both made the slides of their presentations available online.

A particular highlight of the event was the blending of theory and action. Several of our presentations focused explicitly on how Classicists can engage ethically with virtual communities. Hannah Čulík-Baird, for example, made the powerful argument that the internet is where we keep our information these days; as epistemological labourers, therefore, it is vital that scholars find their voices in online spaces. As a corollary to this, Čulík-Baird organized the event hashtag (#ethicsantiquity), through which she and others live-tweeted the event. Elke Nash, speaking about how women scholars can be represented in academic contexts (such as syllabi), drew attention to the fact that social media create a space where representation of underrepresented voices can be discussed and problematized. Nash brought up the example of the hashtag #FollowWomenWednesday, invented by Megan Kate Nelson, which garnered initial success but did not become as popular as #ScholarSunday. Emma Dyson, who introduced her idea to begin a podcast in Latin, which would teach its listeners Latin via short conversation pieces written and performed by undergraduates, talked about the power of podcasting to reach multiple publics, and to tap into an already preexisting online culture of podcasting on classical themes.

Both the roundtable and the workshop were far too short for all that the participants wanted to discuss, and both spilled over into meals (formal and informal), where conversation could continue. This was indeed the intent behind the open-endedness of our question: “How does (the study of) antiquity shape us as ethical subjects?” Both the round-table and the workshop were intended as something more like a yeast starter than an artisan loaf, an opportunity for a diverse group of people to come together around a question that is rarely central to academic discussion, and to raise further questions and proposals that we as organizers could never have anticipated. The organizers would like to thank the USC Classics department, the Levan Institute, and the Society of Fellows for their generous support.

Nancy Rabinowitz

Thanks to Jessica for organizing and inviting me. The questions she raises are significant. I will try to address all of them though not necessarily in order; in addition, I will be asking how our ethical subjectivity shapes our study of antiquity! All in ten or so minutes.

Jess has already mentioned the problematic history of classics, but I want to make the point that the really old-timers would hardly recognize the field. It has changed as a result of a whole generation of scholars. In the early days, feminist criticism was avowedly activist—the personal was the political and the intellectual, and we changed the APA, now SCS. In fact I know Jessica through classics and social justice work—in particular roundtables and organizing we have done at SCS. We now have a standing committee on Classics and Social Justice, which you are welcome to join.

I was not sure how to take the topic as Jess outlined it to me originally. I didn’t think that classics shaped my ethical engagement, but rather the other way around

My commitment to social justice was part of the air I breathed growing up, but that was not particularly related to my love for classical subjects. Family and friends were all progressive, though I didn’t have that word then. Classics was had more to do with individual teachers (my high school Latin teacher, Mr. Kizner, and my senior thesis on the Oresteia ).

When I started seriously working in classics I started to feel guilty—and uncomfortable. The elitist history that Jess has already alluded to was something of a problem for me. I certainly did not feel like a real classicist–given the history of Classics as a gate keeper, a force to construct an elite (although earlier generations used it to serve radical purposes as well, especially in sexuality studies.).

Challenge from feminism

I struggled to bring the two parts of my identity together: how to act ethically and still study this material I had come to love. The challenge from feminism really hit me, but at the same time feminist criticism gave me a point of entry. Feminist activists of the 1980s energetically addressed the question of rape and its relationship to pornography. This all might have seemed irrelevant to students of the classics in my generation, where courses did not focus on content, much less rape.

We soon recognized that forced sex or rape is pervasive in the texts and art from antiquity (Richlin 2014, 130-1), for example, in Ovid. Richlin raised these questions: “how we are to read texts, like those of Ovid, that take pleasure in violence. . . .” (2014: 134) and “what happens when texts like these are presented to students as canonical.”  (2014). Madeleine Kahn reports that her students asked her why she was teaching “a handbook on rape,” meaning Ovid’s Metamorphoses (2006: 1). At the time, she simply considered it as “classic literature that transmit[s] some of the enduring values of Western culture.” My decision in the case of Euripides was to look at the tragedies as an object lesson in how to oppress women—I argued that because it sets out gender hierarchies so clearly, the genre was useful to us. I’ve been doing feminist criticism of tragedy ever since.

In those days the WCC was working actively to make changes in the profession. The important thing was that we did it together.

Challenges from the perspective of minority studies, for instance, also formed my teaching of classics. Why read these old white male-authored texts, we have been and still are asked.

One answer is that performing classics is part of a decolonization effort, especially the tragedies. Rita Dove, Wole Soyinka, Luis Alfaro see something in the myths; Rhodessa Jones used ancient myth in five performance pieces that she developed with incarcerated women, and I’d be happy to talk further about Jones’s work.

In my teaching of tragedy I pair ancient plays with modern versions that explicitly bring up ethnicity and gender. Student comments reflect that they see the importance of studying the older works; they are sources of current attitudes. At times, they have found the Greek plays more radical than their modern versions.

I use tragedy to raise difficult questions, not to avoid them. I warn my students ahead of time that they are going to encounter some thorny ethical and political questions in these plays (in fact in all of tragedy! Try revenge. Matricide. Infanticide. Incest!). And that is just the point of reading them: tragedy puts it all out there for us to chew on. I believe strongly in situated knowledges, not throwing out the older literature; but in class I point out that there are important or “universal” issues that benefit when we approach the plays from our different positions. To the extent that pedagogy can transform students, it is political and can make Classics a progressive force and be part of our ethical engagement.

The ethical subject

The common idea about the canon is that it is inherently valuable because it articulates the best that has been thought and written or some such. This notion of values is both a stumbling block and a powerful entryway. For instance, is “the unexamined life not worth living” irrevocably damaged as an ideal because of its elite original context? Or should we aspire to democratize the concept through education?

I also use classics for ethical purposes in my other teaching: I am part of a project offering college-level book discussions at a local medium security men’s prison, where I often teach tragedy or The Apology. My students at an upstate correctional facility where I teach certainly aspired to Socrates’ statement and thought they achieved it in prison! Very different from teaching at Hamilton where I fought hard to de-naturalize the statement and to make clear its class bias!

Teaching tragedy in the prison is very instructive. The men typically find different things important than my Hamilton students do, the watchman for instance. Also see the problem of what will be waiting for them at home. Also understand vengeance.


The Classics and literary study in general have a role to play by strengthening our capacity for empathy and mind reading. First, scientists have increasingly recognized the importance of literature in teaching med students, because literature teaches us how to “walk in someone else’s shoes.” We can begin to see how it feels to be “them.”

Second, cognitive scientists have established through their studies that human beings practice something they call “Mindreading.” Humans have a tendency to ascribe a certain mental state to others on the basis of their observable actions (6). Scientists call this an evolutionary adaptation. These skills have great survival value in real life. For instance, in writer Ta-nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, he discusses the threats he faced growing up in a gang-dominated neighborhood which required him to learn how to read “another language consisting of a basic complement of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks” [23]. According to Lisa Zunshine, “fiction tests those adaptations that have evolved to deal with real people” (16).

Perhaps theory of mind can also help us with one set of problems in campus relations: the belief that the intention behind a speech was racist or, increasingly, transphobic (for instance, using person of color vs colored person, or transsexual/vestite/gender). After all, microaggressions are defined as being unintentional. Can discussion of (misreading) in literature help? If reading complex texts literature can help us get better at mind reading, by exercising the skill (like going to the gym), then it can prepare students for interactions in their social lives.

Classics then does not differ in some ways from any literary or imaginative study, though I would maintain that drama does explicitly address some of the most complex and challenging ethical ideas. If we can teach mind reading, or how to interpret what another is thinking, then perhaps it can help solve ethical problems we face. The first step is to seek to clarify what the speaker was thinking. We don’t have direct access to the other whose mind we are reading in a conversation, but we can ask questions. Of course we can only double check our assumptions if we feel safe or comfortable in doing so: can you ask someone what they meant? What are we and they so afraid of?

Let me return to prison teaching in closing:

Safety prison/Hamilton

When I asked the men in my prison class what they thought about these issues on college campuses, in their context. One of them said that he found prisoners to be pretty openminded; another strongly disagreed with him saying the whole place is a tinderbox. In the prison context—when men are watching such events on the news—the wrong word can cause the place to blow up. The danger is very real and very physical: if they use the wrong word and offend another man, they are likely to be physically hurt; if they cut in line for a drink of water, they can be stabbed. Neither has much sympathy with the students who are complaining about what seem to them like minor things when black youth are getting shot in the streets, and white cops are getting away with it. Are they just spoiled?


What we do in the classroom, and our research, and in our social justice outreach are all ways of engaging as ethical subjects. The ancient texts offer a fertile field to work on, and by talking to one another in settings such as this one, or in our national meetings, we can encourage the further use of the past to shape the future.

Select Bibliography
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel and Grau, 2015.
Kahn, Madeleine. Why Are We Reading a Handbook on Rape: Teaching and Learning at a Women’s College? Routledge 2006.
Richlin, Amy. Arguments with Silence: The History of Roman Women. Michigan, 2014.
Zunshine, Lisa. Why We Read Fiction: Theory of Mind and the Novel. Ohio 2006.

Debby Sneed

As academics, we’re vaguely aware that our work has the potential to influence modern discourse, but we aren’t actively engaged in that potential. Unless we write textbooks or popular books, we assume that our work will be read by a relatively small group of similarly interested academics, and most of the time, we’re right. But that’s not always the case. I’m going to talk about one example in which a Classicist’s work has been dangerously influential outside of academia and then I’ll talk about what I see as two goals that we should strive to achieve in order to be responsible teachers and researchers. As a note, I’ll be talking about two sensitive issues, abortion and infanticide.

In 1943, a well-regarded medical historian named Ludwig Edelstein published a book about the Hippocratic Oath, something familiar to many by the phrase, “Do no harm” (which is actually from a different Hippocratic text). Edelstein argued that the Oath did not represent a widely-held code of ethics, but one that belonged only to a small sect of thinkers, the Pythagoreans. Most ancient physicians, he said, did not abide by its rules. Edelstein’s argument has been criticized and contradicted, with some even suggesting the opposite, that the Oath actually was a mainstream ethical code, one that most ancient physicians adhered to.

Edelstein’s work is a good example of something that doesn’t get wide circulation even within the already limited world of Classics. It’s the kind of thing that a fair number of Classicists are aware of, but few have actually read. But even while it’s not relevant to Classicists who don’t study medicine or philosophy, the Oath and Edelstein’s arguments about it have found their way into several extra-academic places, including the landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade. Roe was decided in 1973, thirty years after Edelstein’s book was published and eight years after Edelstein himself had died. The author of the Court’s majority opinion, Harry Blackmun, emphasized historical precedent in his decision and therefore dedicated four paragraphs of the decision to the Oath, which Blackmun said “represents the apex of the development of strict ethical concepts in medicine, and its influence endures to this day” (Roe v. Wade 410 U.S. 113, 131).

Now, the Oath specifically and explicitly prohibits physicians from prescribing drugs that induce abortion. If Blackmun found historical precedent significant in his opinion, how did he reconcile the Oath’s prohibition of physician-assisted abortion with the Court’s decision to allow women to obtain abortions from physicians? It worked because Blackmun read Edelstein’s book, the one which argues that the Oath represented “only a small segment of Greek opinion, and that it certainly was not accepted by all physicians” (ibid. at 132). Blackmun did not take the Oath at face value, but accepted a Classicist’s controversial interpretation of it.

Edelstein cannot have known that his work on the Oath would directly affect the lives of literally millions of people. But here’s the thing: you can’t study any aspect of what many consider to be the foundation of modern Western society and ignore that your work is potentially relevant in modern discourse, even if you are limited in your ability to understand how. Classicists are ethically and socially engaged, whether we acknowledge it or not, and because we’re all engaged in this way, we have at least two tasks. (Note: we are not limited to these two tasks. These are just two I’m emphasizing in this forum.)

The first task is to attempt to dissuade modern consumers of our work from using the ancient world as direct precedent for modern legislation, for good or for ill. It matters a lot for women in the United States that Blackmun read Edelstein’s book and didn’t take the Oath’s prohibition on abortion at face value. But whether Blackmun took the Oath as-is, was convinced by Edelstein, or accepted any of the other arguments about the text, is the Oath even relevant as a basis for modern legislation? There is a big difference, I think, between understanding and appreciating the historical development of issues like abortion or gender or democracy and thinking that moral or ethical codes formulated 2,500 years ago should be directly imported into modern society. As much as we are the “same” as the ancients, we really aren’t, and neither is our society, and as teachers and scholars we need to emphasize that gap.

Our second task is to recognize that people are going to use our work however they want to regardless of what we say and therefore to be responsible in our research. I don’t mean that we should avoid publishing interpretations that contradict modern progressive liberal values: much of our work demonstrates that the ancient world wouldn’t exactly be considered politically correct by modern standards, and that’s OK because our job is not to build the ancient world according to our own values, but to appreciate the ancient world in its full complexity. In order to be responsible in our research, we need to work to recognize opportunities for things like unconscious biases to color our work. Some people accused Edelstein of doing this with his interpretation of the Oath, saying that he imported his own ideas about abortion into his study. I can’t speak to that, but I can give you an example from my own research on disability in ancient Greece.

The first chapter of my dissertation addresses the practice of infanticide and infant exposure: did the ancient Greeks kill deformed infants? If you read an undergraduate textbook, the Oxford Classical Dictionary, Wikipedia, or the foundational articles on the subject, the answer is yes, a deformed infant was always, or almost always, killed at birth. This argument is based largely on three documents: Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus, Plato’s Republic, and Aristotle’s Politics. And, indeed, these three texts, taken at face value, support that conclusion. Plutarch reports that Lycurgus, the semi-mythical Spartan lawgiver, instituted a law that deformed infants were killed and Plato and Aristotle say that deformed infants should be either “hidden away” or simply not reared. This satisfies us: while we admit that it’s unfortunate, we accept it as fact, without argument.

The problem is, few Classicists anymore would contend that you can use Plutarch’s Life of Lycurgus as definitive evidence for anything that the Spartans “really” did or didn’t do. And in their two texts, Plato and Aristotle outline utopian societies and many scholars point out that if the philosophers feel compelled to argue for certain practices, that, actually, their contemporaries probably weren’t doing those things. It is not terribly controversial to say that these three texts can’t be considered faithfully descriptive of ancient society. So why do we ignore that caveat when it comes to the issue of killing deformed infants? We do it because, unconsciously, the conclusion makes a lot of sense based on our internalized understandings and evaluations of disability. We think about how progressive we are, and imagine hitting rewind 2,500 years and surely the ancients weren’t as progressive, and life was harder back then, and the disabled aren’t as economically productive as able-bodied adults so of course parents would decide not to rear deformed infants who wouldn’t be able to assist them on the farm or in their craft. After all, if parents might kill or expose a baby girl in order to avoid dowry payments later on, why wouldn’t they make similarly economic judgments based on deformity?

When we accept this kind of argument, we make a lot of assumptions; I’ll name just a few. We assume that ancient Greeks regarded others only in terms of their economic potential and productivity. We assume that the disabled objectively have less or no economic potential and are less productive. We assume that there are no roles in ancient society that someone with a disability could fulfill that would be considered worthwhile to his or her able-bodied contemporaries. And we assume that the ancients agreed with all of this.

I don’t mean to suggest that any of us are intentionally ableist, but a lot of us, myself included until I started this work, accepted the conclusion about deformed infants without question, and a lot of us taught this same “fact” despite being very aware of the problems with the evidence, and our students then accept it as uncontroversial because it seems reasonable to them, too.

I won’t tell you right now whether I think ancient Greeks killed deformed infants, because it doesn’t matter for my point: what matters is that we can’t say one way or the other based on what Plutarch, Plato, and Aristotle have to tell us, and we know that. Being responsible doesn’t mean ignoring these authors’ statements. It means talking about the function of infanticide in Plutarch’s construction of the “Spartan mirage” and keeping Plato’s and Aristotle’s comments in their appropriate contexts, too. Being responsible means incorporating and being critical in our use of all available and appropriate evidence, especially when we’re talking about something like the value of a human life, because, like Edelstein, we cannot know whether or how our work will affect others’ lives.

We are socially and ethically engaged whether we like it or not, and we can’t guarantee that our readers or listeners will be sensitive to the problems inherent in various kinds of evidence and argumentation. We have to emphasize that Greece and Rome may represent the foundation of Western society, but they are not the same thing as modern Western society and we cannot import their lessons directly and uncritically into the present. We know that we can’t impose modern values on the past, so let’s not impose past values on the present. We must then make sure that what we say and write is based on self-critical research, that we try to be conscious of how our identities, our unconscious biases, and our experiences shape our interpretations, whether our interpretations comport with or run counter to modern values. 

Select Bibliography
Edelstein, Ludwig. 1943. The Hippocratic Oath: Text, Translation and Interpretation. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press.

Stephanie Balkwill

First, a hearty thank-you to Jessica Wright for including me in this conversation. As somebody who works on antiquity but in a non-Western context, I have always been jealous of classics departments who do things like this. To do what I do, one has to be in Religious Studies or Asian Languages and Cultures, and that is very much a loss for our field. So I hope that what I have put together here—in my first attempt to dialogue with the classicists—makes some sense.

So first let me tell you a bit about who I am, what I do, and how I got here. I am from a uniquely non-religious household in prairie Canada where not even my grandparents went to church. Yet, I have always been drawn to religious practice and to the archives of art, literature, architecture, thought, and music that these ancient traditions hold. I have forever been fascinated by what I call the “religious imagination:” for me, a term denoting the religiously-based drive to create something in this world for the sake of a world that one cannot see.

And yet, I will be first to admit—if I examine myself critically—that this fascination has not been evenly distributed. As a teenager and as a younger scholar, I was very critical of western religious traditions. Growing up in a province of Canada in which the last remaining residential school finally closed its doors when I was 16, where I worked at an inner city daycare that serviced the poorest and most marginal sector of our society—the First Nations community—and being myself partly First Nations, I was and remain critical of the Christian church and the cultural genocide that it participated in in the building of Canada. And so, with this deep-seated mistrust of my own western cultural heritage and with my fascination with the human products of religion, I did what seemed sensible: I went to Asia. Since I was 20 years old, my scholarly interests have always looked to the ancient civilizations of Asia—South, Central, and East.

And so, with my time here today, I want to tell you what I have learned in my own push to push away the culture of colonial Canada through my confessedly naive rejection of western religion and, then, career path in Eastern religions. Hopefully I can then speak to two of the aims of this workshop: 1) the question of the ethical accountability of the study and discipline of Classics from the perspective of engagement with non-Western antiquity; and 2) what I would call an activist mandate in my teaching where I would like to create ethical readers of the East.

My career in so-called “Asian Religions” has seen me engage in questions of how the university can combat the unsatisfying, un-rigorous, and unsavory ways in which the East continues to be read in the West. There are of course the structural limitations to working on non-Western antiquity in the Western academy: your field of research not being taken seriously, departmental resources not often being tipped in your direction, the fact that almost all of my mentors are men with Asian wives, and the inability to apply for jobs in classics or philosophy departments, but those are frustrations that arise only elite levels of privilege in the academy. What I want to talk about here is much more pedestrian: how do my students read the East and how can I teach them to be ethical readers of Asia?

I have come to realize that my students and I are very much alike: we all look outside of western civilization for ways of living that seem different from those we have come to dislike in our own culture. We find the East attractive, compelling—we like to look at it. It satisfies our urge for a non-Western authenticity. In my students, and probably even in my 20-year old self, that looking looks something like this:

I teach and Study Chinese religions, the most popular topic being Buddhism, and the set of expectations that students enter my classroom with really does look something like this billboard on Fairfax Ave. nearby the Grove. Some of my students really and truly believe that Buddhism—usually Zen—promotes the use of recreational drugs, and also that that racist Asian face on the billboard somehow resembles the Buddha.

Now, on the other hand, some of my students come to my classroom having vigorously critiqued the image perpetuated by this billboard—pointed out the racism and the superficiality. But to many of these students, the problem, then, is that the East is untouchable: that the use of something like a non-Western mythic sacred in marketing or lifestyle enhancement constitutes an unforgivable act of cultural appropriation: Oberlin Students Take Cultural War to the Dining HallYoga class cancelled at University of Ottawa over ‘cultural issues’. For these students, the East is off limits because it sacred—indeed an abstraction from the vicissitudes of history. They see Buddhism, in particular, as a philosophy—as a tradition without institution—hence reading their own distrust of institutions along with their very Protestant notions of the primacy of the Self on to the Buddhist “other”. These students normally challenge me when I make such assertions in the classroom as “Buddhism has, since the 6th century, been the biggest, wealthiest, and most influential social institution in East Asia outside of the court”—which is something I like to say.

The problem is compounded by the fact that scholars are themselves guilty of the same fetishism of Asia as are my students. For example, a long history of Buddhist studies looks something like this: Traditions of Meditation in Chinese Buddhism (ed. Peter Gregory); Zen Buddhism and Psychoanalysis (Eric Fromm, D. T. Suzuki, Richard DeMartino); The Secrets of Tantric Buddhism: Understanding the Ecstasy of Enlightenment (Thomas Cleary); An Introduction to Zen Buddhism (D. T. Suzuki, Carl Jung). Such books promote the idea that meditation and self-discipline are the cornerstones of Buddhist practice even though, as scholars, we know this is really untrue. What is worse is that such books often argue that meditation constitutes a “true Buddhism” over and against the cultural and historical practices of the tradition that have endured across Asia for more than 2000 years.

And then we have books like this: Every Step a Lotus: Shoes for Bound Feet, Dorothy Ko. Published by a University Press by a respected scholar, this is a coffee-table book which works to normalize and beautify the bound foot—a project that, to me, smacks of the very same fetishism that saw women binding their daughter’s feet for almost 1000 years, forever disabling them for fashion. I find it distasteful that such a history is displayed in rich images in a luxuriously-printed volume with just enough historical detail to make the reader feel like an expert.

So the question that I bring here today is one of: how I can shape my students into good, responsible, and ethical readers of the East when they are surrounded by a cultural practices that do not encourage that type of endeavour? And does it matter? How?

This brings me to the questions of my own advocacy in the classroom. What to teach? How to teach it? Why? The tendency for teaching materials in religious studies anyways, has been toward the writing of narrative histories: the history of Buddhism in East Asia, the history of Chinese Religions, etc. Such histories make a neat line through a very messy history and they almost all end off with the teleological meeting of China with the West in the nineteenth century, forgetting entirely that China has always known the West, just that they have gone west to get there, not east. I don’t use any such volumes. I feel that the neat packaging of an entire cultural history into 250 pages or so does more harm than good for my students. I do not want my students leaving my classroom feeling that the “get China” or that they “understand it” after only 15 weeks of discussion.

What I want is my students to leave my classroom thinking, “well that was complex!” or “I didn’t understand a thing, but it was so interesting.” And so, I normally teach my classes thematically, pulling out small bits of primary text on themes of historical import which force my students to encounter things about the East which they never had dreamed happened there: misogyny, slavery, rebellion, millenarianism, but also social change, literary development, sanctuary for multicultural contact, and technological innovation. I don’t care very much if my students leave my classroom knowing when such things happened exactly or even all the ins and outs of why they happened, what I care about is that they know that the East is a complex and multivalent collection of diverse peoples and states that has been living and breathing in all its human imperfection for as long as we can talk about civilization for.

But does it matter? I often ask myself if it matters or not that my students can appreciate the complexities of another culture, of Asia. If a business major takes my class out of some mild interest in “Buddhism” or maybe because they know that mindfulness is a new business buzz word, why should I bring such complexity to the classroom for them. What does it matter if they witness to the real, lived complexities of other cultures? Does it better their life? Does it help them become more ethical beings?

I think it does. The obvious answer is, of course, that knowing each other makes life better, makes society more inspired, more open, and makes us more aware of our own cultural biases. But let me tell you a story from one of Chinese literature’s most loved texts, the Zhuangzi, for this story, above all, has the profound effect on my students and I hope helps them to be more thoughtful persons in society. The story is about the ideal of the usefulness of being useless, and it talks about a great tree that has grown to be the oldest and tallest tree in the world but which is twisted and bent and covered in knots so that a carpenter cannot set a measure to any of its branches. The author encourages the reader to be like the tree: to grow and old and majestic by not making ourselves available to other’s uses and by not making ourselves into the models of efficiency and usefulness that modern life and the modern university encourages us to do. What’s more fun to do with my students is to read this text in tandem with the Confucian texts to which it is written against: to show my students that such ideas are not abstract but are rooted in time in space—that people in China, some 500 years before the Common Era—were concerned with something that seems very modern: carving out a meaningful life when society would like us to adopt a more expedient version of our selves. This message is always a huge hit with my students and the class is always the highlight of the semester. I like to think that they leave the class working to become better people—more thoughtful people who can see the merit in cultures outside of their own in ways that are not abstract, but that are personal.

So that’s where I think I will leave this, with the idea that Asian classics have a unique role to play in the modern university: studying non-Western classics provides us the opportunity to engage on our own culture through another, and hopefully thus helping us to become better persons in society through this knowing. But before I leave you completely, let me end with this final observation that might take conversation in completely different directions: apparently Steve Bannon once had a teacher like me: his favorite book is apparently the Hindu classic Bhagavad Gita, a text which, when read historically, is essentially a celebration of war.

Response: Matthew Chaldekas

I’d like to thank our speakers today for their wonderful talks. I’m going to offer a few concluding remarks, but I will be brief so that we can have more time for questions and discussion.

Today’s speakers warned us to question the assumptions we make about our discipline. Nancy reminded us of a time when the academic climate was much worse. Although we have come far, we must continue to fight to make it more inclusive. Debby’s talk warned us to beware of our own presumptions when we read and teach basic facts about antiquity, and Stephanie shows that interrogating our perspective and assumptions is also a big part of what we can teach and model for our students. I was relieved when Debby debunked a nagging fear that has haunted me and perhaps others in this room: the fear that our work doesn’t matter to the larger world. She compellingly refutes this opinion, and I’d like to give another example. Here at USC, President Nikias just released his annual summer reading list and the first book on the list is an academic study of Xenophon’s Cyropaedia. Perhaps someone who reads that book will refer back to it later in life, maybe even in a Supreme Court brief. Only time will tell. We cannot be sure when and where our work might turn up. But it might serve a greater purpose than we realized when we were writing it.

When we first started planning this event, Jessica and I talked a lot about the questions we wanted to ask. I sometimes found myself making that most common of college writing errors: turning an open question into a yes or no question. Instead of asking “how do we actually do Classics in an ethical way or use the study of antiquity to reach out to communities that need it?” I found myself wondering, “Can we do it?” Is the answer just, “No we can’t?” Studies have shown that scientific scholarship tends to avoids negative results and to overvalue positive results. If the answer really is “no,” maybe we just have to accept our place in the ivory tower? Our speakers today, and those scheduled for tomorrow, show that this fear is unfounded. They also show that the questions we ask are as important as the answers we find for them. As Nancy reminded us, there was a time not long ago when a monograph on a topic such as gender or sexuality in antiquity would have been scorned with derisiveness. Today, there is a significant and growing field of scholars interested in these questions. One reason for this change is that a small number of dedicated scholars refused to stop asking their questions. The methodology of Classics and other Humanities fields is rigorous, we know how to read texts and objects carefully both as historical sources and as living cultural artifacts. If we keep trying to answer the question “How can antiquity reshape our world?” eventually we will find satisfying answers. We may not find all the answers right away, but in research, as in life, what matters is asking the right questions.

Still, this is a difficult endeavor. It’s one that we have to approach with care, and in doing so, we risk abandoning our rigor, as Stephanie points out. Part of our baggage as scholars is to refuse to ask or answer a question if we can’t say something definitive. This is not a bad rule when we are speaking to our small scholarly circles, but the problem changes when we turn to more general audiences. As both Nancy and Stephanie note, some people can benefit greatly from general insights about antiquity, even if these insights seem less significant or comprehensive to us as scholars. Everyone has to start from somewhere, and if we want to make the world a more ethical place, the first step is to teach the basics to as many people as will listen. We need to address difficult topics with care, but most importantly, we need to address them. In Classics we have recently gained a handbook on how to address these issues: From Abortion to Pederasty: Addressing Difficult Topics in the Classroom. Teaching is such a shifting terrain that this book doesn’t offer the final word on the topic, but it is a life vest for anyone feeling overwhelmed with the task of teaching these topics. The lessons of this book, I think, extend outside of the classroom as well and provide the tools to maintain both the rigorous methodology that has made our field of study so attractive and the sensitivity to talk about issues with real modern analogues: such as death, rape, slavery, homophobia, infanticide, etc.

I want to end with a little reflection on this word: sensitivity. There is a battle raging around this word. We have seen the endless think-pieces and op-eds about over-sensitive millennials and their needy attempts to avoid certain texts and topics. It probably won’t surprise you to hear that I disagree heartily with this position. And I do so for philological reasons. Every time I read one of these articles, I find that the word “sensitive” and its derivatives appear frequently, so frequently that this seems to be a key term for their argument. But these articles always frame sensitivity as if it is a bad thing. As if sensitivity and empathy are the opposite of rigor and depth. As if sensitivity is always “oversensitivity.” As if “sensitive” is the opposite of “sensible.” But etymologically these two words are basically synonyms. The root word is the same, and the suffixes “-ible” and “-itive” both just show that someone is capable of perception or feeling. When did perception and feeling become so bad? What’s so wrong about being sensitive? For me, sensitivity is hard, and it is scary. It’s easier to avoid the issues instead of trying to address them in a way that is inclusive, sensitive, and open. But teaching isn’t easy. We should not only be teaching with sensitivity, but also must teach sensitivity itself. Thank you.

Reading Communities and Re-Entry


Thetis gives her son Achilles his weapons, detail of an Attic black figure hydria, mid 6th c. BCE.

Roberta Stewart. This piece was originally read as a paper at the 2017 annual meeting of the Society for Classical Studies in Toronto.

We have been reading Homer in small groups (strictly combat veteran, co-ed) as a way to explore modern veteran experience and return from war. The groups provide a venue for a form of teaching as community outreach that facilitates individual engagement with a text as a basis for self-authored narratives about personal experience. The work is premised on the dialogical relationship of reader and text, validating equally male and female, academic and non-academic readers as authoritative interpreters of Homer. While war can silence language, literature can break the silence and give words to those coming to terms with their experience. War stories are cultural artifacts by which societies have processed the experience of war in order to create a usable past. Communal discourses aid personal narrative construction and identity formation. We are all narratives in process. The Homeric text provides a salutary distancing and deflection that allows homecomings to emerge as historical problems of the human condition. That has been the work of the past nine years (see Amphora 2015).

This past year Dartmouth collaborated with NH Humanities on an NEH grant proposal that represented two crucial advances in the Homer book group program: to scale up the programs and to develop veterans’ roles in programming. First, we proposed to train teams of facilitators for book groups throughout NH. I made the case for the program, Kathy Mathis (NH Humanities) made the case for the needs of NH veterans (8.6% of the population). The training sessions paired academics, mental health clinicians, and veterans, to create teams of facilitators. We practiced not teaching Homer: to make the text not us the subject, to ask volunteers to read passages aloud (and so build community), to use open-ended questions (“what’s going on…”) that lead to implications (“how does this relate to you…does Homer get it right?”), not questions that have right answers that require expertise or special knowledge. We developed strategies to encourage engagement, to allow their reading to take priority, to remain ourselves teachable. Three participants of these new groups, two vets and one academic, were interviewed on NHPR in November 2016 and the program became one of the top ten of the year. We brought civilians and military together into dialogue around a book and helped to bridge the military/civilian divide.

The Hanover groups regularly combine veterans ranging from the Korean war to the current conflicts, include all service branches and both officer and enlisted. The 14-week program of 1.5 hour sessions allows for a diverse group of veterans to create a community of respectful engagement and interaction. The Portsmouth facilitator reported similar dynamics among a similarly diverse group:

The common denominator of all having deployed to combat zones as part of their military service trumps all other differences.  Veterans are telling their stories and listening to the stories of others with genuine interest and respect. 

A former collaborator now runs book groups in Maine and has reported similar experiences of community formation. He emphasized the importance of time spent on task: veterans have complained that a six-week program reading Aeschylus Oresteia was insufficient time together, both to develop familiarity with the language and to feel comfortable enough with each other to discuss frankly the text and their reactions to it.  The book groups provide a mechanism for community building around the shared experience of a book, and the text provides a mechanism for self reflection and narrative construction about personal experience.

More important, the second innovation: Veterans, particularly members of Dartmouth Undergraduate Veterans Associations, served as collaborators and consultants for the development of the training program. We made veterans authoritative voices in an academic discussion about the development of curriculum designed for veterans. Veterans were thus not consumers of programming but authors of it. To prepare for the workshops five DUVA veterans, one local veteran, and I read and reviewed a substantial list. Three of the veterans had seen multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan; two had seen service in the 90’s, and one in Vietnam.  The criteria for selecting readings, as defined by the group: literature “that really touched on the struggles of reentry … of reviving one’s previous self and place in society.” Truthfulness mattered, and the absence of cliché. Homer won out, because he represented the salient issues of re-entry and offered a salutary distancing to avoid triggering. The distancing enabled communication. Remarque’s The Road Back took second place. One DUVA vet remarked, “This is exactly how I felt when I came home.” Veterans wrote the reading questions for the training workshops and we partnered in leading the discussions. Each selected a passage, read it aloud, explained why it resonated with his experience, and opened up the discussion for comment. Most of the modern war literature was rejected as exaggerated or inadequately reflecting the reality of combat/homecoming or triggering or focusing on problems (“feeding the public perception of veterans as “triggered” to commit violence“). Nevertheless the vets taught the literature that they objected to and explained why it offended. Each was challenged to identify a piece of modern literature that did reflect their experience respectfully and truthfully. The final list: “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” (Eric Bogle, 1971), Tim O’Brien, The Things That They Carried; “The Naming of Parts” by Henry Reed (a poem about the care of a military rifle, framed as a garden in springtime).

The result: a multi level and directional discourse among military and non-military about war experience. Veterans collaborated in identifying modern literary war stories to complement the Homeric narratives and gained control of the discourse about war and veteran’s experience.

The results have been what we would all wish for, mutual understanding, or, as one veteran remarked, “I felt respected.”

Anyone interested in advice on starting a group should contact Roberta.Stewart@Dartmouth.edu.

Working with Refugees at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens

The following piece initially appeared on the American School of Classical Studies at Athens (ASCSA)’s website. It is reposted here with Moira Lavelle’s kind permission. Follow the ASCSA on twitter (@ASCSAthens).

Moira Lavelle

Senior Associate Member Dr. Stephanie Larson has spent much of this past year aiding the needs of the 5th Lyceum School refugee housing and a redistribution center in Exarchia, Athens. Larson got involved with the 5th school when it opened this past spring as the movement of refugees into Greece was at its peak. “It was one of the first shelters set up after the borders closed in central Athens, and it’s close to the School. And I thought that this was something that I could do outside of my academic work and taking care of my family,” explained Larson. “So I just started going down with a group of ex-pat ladies and we were doing art with the kids there, and they were working out some of their experiences in the art. But then I thought: I have a lot of friends that have enough money, we all have enough money, and I should do something more than playing.”

Larson posted a status on her Facebook asking for help, and donations began pouring in. She joined forces with friend and fellow ex-pat Alicia Stallings, a poet and writer who lives in Athens. Together they pool funds given by their friends, family, and the local St Andrews Episcopalian Church in Larson’s home in Lewisburg, PA. “With whatever money I have I buy food usually,” said Larson. “Sometimes I buy formula, diapers. Heaters are now being requested because it’s getting cold out.” The needs of the shelter change week to week: sometimes Larson is asked to bring tea bags, olive oil, and lentils, and the next week the needs have shifted to salt and milk.

With her own personal funds Larson has also adopted a family she met at the 5th school. They had been selected to move a charity apartment in a suburb of Athens, because of mother was pregnant with their sixth child. About once every week or ten days, Larson brings this family fresh vegetables and fruits from the local markets and lately baby items, including a “baby box,” given for free by Allied Aid. I also try to spoil them every once in a while” admitted Larson, “I bring them candy, I bring them chocolate. And I bring my kids every now and then and we play soccer.”

Larson Rogers donations

Dr. Stephanie Larson and Dr. Dylan Rogers with the results of the 2016 donation drive for the 5th Lyceum School refugee housing and redistribution center. 

“I think about it this way—you can provide a little bit for some people. And that’s great and everyone should do that. But you can also provide more for one, or more for five. And to me that’s worth it.” Larson said, “And how do you pick? You don’t really pick, it just happens. I think if I were in that situation I would kind of want one person to just take care of me too.”

The family had been waiting in Athens for their sixth child to be born before their relocation to France could take effect. In the interim they could not work, and the children could not attend school. But the baby was born on November 28th, and the family is likely to be relocated in the coming weeks.  “I had the pleasure of visiting the hospital where the mother gave birth to the baby. I was very lucky to have been there on that day, since the hospital decided that they needed the bed for someone else, and so I was able to help the family with the (appropriately Byzantine) paperwork and I was also able to buy the mother the vitamin drops for the baby requested by the hospital.” Larson commented, “Having had my own children in the luxurious Danville Geisinger medical center and in my own room with my own private bathroom, I was shocked by the idea of sharing a maternity room with 10 other women. The conditions were not great.  The floors were relatively dirty, and although I was there visiting for two hours before we learned that she was being forced to leave, no nurse checked on her a single time.”

refugee art .jpg

“I just started going down with a group of ex-pat ladies and we were doing art with the kids there, and they were working out some of their experiences in the art.”

Larson also helps address ad hoc issues with other volunteers when needs arise for emergency housing or food. This takes many forms: one day Larson helped one woman living in the Orange House shelter sell her handmade jewelry at American Community Schools Holiday Bazaar, another she helped a single mother with four children find emergency housing. “I do those kinds of problem solving when I can,” explained Larson. “And it takes a lot of time as I’m trying to do scholarship and take care of my family, it takes a lot more time than I thought.”

This holiday season, with the help of Assistant Director Dylan Rogers and Research Archivist Leda Costaki, Larson was able to run a food and money drive for refugee aid here at the ASCSA. With the support of our members last week she was able to deliver 262 diapers, 984 baby wipes, 844 tissues, 4.3 k of baby formula, 9.5 k of condensed milk, 3 k of tuna fish, and €1.070 to the 5th school.

“At the end of the year we move back to the U.S., and then our lives will change,” stated Larson. “But I will keep raising money and sending it over, I think that’s the most useful thing I can do.”
If you would like to donate to Dr. Larson’s efforts email her at slarson@bucknell.edu.

Also, our Social Media Manager, Moira Lavelle, is working with LBGTQI+ Refugees Welcome, which is raising funds through their website to help LGBTQI+ refugees here in Athens. All funds donated go directly towards food, clothing, and legal documents. You can contact Moira directly with any questions (Moira.Lavelle@ascsa.edu.gr).

Event: Ethical Engagement and the Study of Antiquity, University of Southern California April 20th-21st 2017

On April 20th and 21st we’re holding an event on Ethical Engagement and the Study of Antiquity at the University of Southern California. At the roundtable (4/20) the speakers will be Nancy Rabinowitz (Hamilton College), Stephanie Balkwill (USC Society of Fellows), Debby Sneed (UCLA). For the workshop (4/21), we’re looking for short papers (5 mins) and/or respondents on topics of ethical engagement. To submit a paper for the workshop, contact Jessica Wright (j.wright@usc.edu). Both the roundtable and the workshop will be live-tweeted @classics_sj. For more information on the Ethical Engagement & the Study of Antiquity event, see the website: http://dornsife.usc.edu/conferences/ethics-antiquity/

Ethics poster


American Veterans for the National Endowment for the Humanities

Author: Peter Meineck (@PeterMeineck).

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We have all heard that the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts are both facing extinction by the new Trump administration. Although, we know nothing concrete yet it seems as if the White House has been heavily influenced by a 2016 report from the Heritage Foundation, that states:

Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for plays, paintings, pageants, and scholarly journals, regardless of the works’ attraction or merit. In the words of Citizens Against Government Waste, “actors, artists, and academics are no more deserving of subsidies than their counterparts in other fields; the federal government should refrain from funding all of them.”

This is truly alarming and mischaracterizes the essential work that both agencies undertake nationally throughout all 50 states. With this in mind, on Saturday February 25th the Society of Artistic Veterans along with Aquila Theatre’s Warrior Chorus program (which is funded by the NEH – http://www.warriorchorus.org/ ) held a public event in Battery Park, New York City to bring awareness to the NEH’s role in funding Veteran’s programs. Called American Veterans for the National Endowment for the Humanities this event gathered 16 former and serving members of the Marines, Army, Air Force and Navy to perform a simple yet powerful act – public readings on the theme of democracy.

The readings included several from classical literature, including excerpts from Herodotus, Thucydides, Sophocles; Oedipus Tyrannus, Euripides’ Suppliant Women, and Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians, alongside readings from de Tocqueville, Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt, Eisenhower, Booker T. Washington and Robert F. Kennedy.

The setting was more than appropriate as Battery Park is a storied location in American history: it was the last place the British held before leaving their former colony after the American War of Independence, and Castle Clinton, which stood opposite the event, was the entry point for millions of immigrants entering the United States for the first time. The park also looks over Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty, with the World Trade Center close by. These symbols have taken on a powerful new resonance over the past few weeks and hearing this diverse group of American veterans reading literature and rhetoric on the meaning of democracy was indeed a powerful experience, especially in this age of incendiary discourse generated by 140 characters, hateful slogans, and double-speak sound bites.

The Vets read their scenes three times from 1pm to 4pm and attracted an enthusiastic crowd of supporters as well as many passers-by. Some 500 flyers were distributed and the event was widely circulated on social media. We are now planning another such event in Washington DC and encouraging the Warrior Chorus groups in Texas and California to stage similar gatherings. The readings will be posted on-line at – http://www.warriorchorus.org/ so that others may download and use them in their own local areas.

Veterans occupy a unique position in American society at the moment in that they are perhaps among the few groups that can bridge the enormous gulf between the Left and Right in American culture. Having served their country and been deployed in war zones, many of them feel very strongly about their oath to protect and preserve the constitution, civil rights, diversity, and free-speech. Arming them with classical literature and the American rhetoric and hearing them recite it live and in public makes for a very powerful statement about the need to defend democratic institutions. The sign of one member of the crowd captured this perfectly by quoting John Jays: “Knowledge is essential for the survival of the republic.”

Two moments to highlight: Vietnam Veteran, former Marine and well-known actor Dan Lauria (the father on The Wonder Years) made a powerful comment about what may lurk beneath the move to shut down the NEA and NEH, namely the removal of the tax deduction given to donations to arts and humanities organizations. Lauria compared this to nothing less than “Nazi book burning” in that it would devastate the Arts and public humanities. The second was one of many spine tingling moments when the words spoken by the Vets took on a specific resonance. James Stanton, a former Air Combat Command B-52 Squadron Commander, part of the so called “Nuclear Triad”, read the speech that RFK gave in Indianapolis on April 4th 1968, the night MLK was murdered. After quoting Aeschylus, the speech closes with these words:

And let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago: to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.

This project also intersects with Aquila Theatre’s next production Our Trojan War, which restages scenes from Homer and ancient drama alongside the original works of veterans to ask fundamental questions about democracy, inclusiveness, leadership and the treatment of others. This will be presented on a short national tour in March 2017 and then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in April 19-23, 2017.

If you have Vets in your classroom/communities, encourage them to speak about their feelings about democracy and what they fought for. Use classical texts as a means of framing productive and informed dialogue about important themes – leadership, ethics, diversity, refugees, nationalism, federalism, division, war, diplomacy, bigotry, free speech, and knowledge. This is a time when classicists can provide depth, context, exemplars and meaning and above all start to shift the public discourse away from the slogan and back towards knowledge, nuance, complexity and compromise.

Peter Meineck
Professor of Classics in the Modern World, New York University
Founding Director, Aquila Theatre.

LGBT History Project North East – Public Talks day

Author: Chris Mowat (@chrismologos)


Drew Dalton (@DrewDalton1980) of the LGBT History project (@LGBTHistoryNE) addresses the audience.

This weekend, the LGBT History Project North East team put on a day of public talks at Newcastle Civic Centre (UK). There was a diverse range of presentation by both academics and non-academics on the history – as well as the present and the future – of LGBT+ and minority sexualities.

The Project makes its aims very clear from its tagline: “No longer edited, covered up or erased”. Gender and sexually diverse people have always been on the margins of history, passed over for a focus on the mainstream. This was particularly evident from Liz Rees’ discussion of Jennie Gray, born in Gateshead as Robert Coulthard in 1887. Through archive work, Rees was able to pull moments of Gray/Coulthard’s life, mostly newspapers talking of “his” arrest for “loitering in women’s clothing”. It is unfortunate, however, that it was only these moments of public “unmasking” that we are able to glimpse their life. Other talks took a more intimate nature, with people sharing their personal histories, and engagement with the LGBT+ community. You can find a storify of some of the live-tweets from the day here.

One thing that I am taking away from the event – beyond the knowledge directly shared – is the importance of validation. A few of the talks discussed representation and its importance for bringing understanding and acceptance for LGBT people (which, as keynote Lisa Power MBE put it, “I can’t believe I’m still protesting this sh*t”). But this is something that goes both ways, too: validation is something that makes us feel more confident in ourselves and who we are. It is perhaps easy to forget, when we are discussing the deep detail of whether Greek and Roman societies were “before sexuality” – and what that even means – that history and the classics can bring that validation. When an overview of bisexuality in history (briefly) mentioned that “even Achilles had a boyfriend”, the room was fascinated to hear an aspect of Homer’s poetry that is clearly less seen by the public eye. In academia, we can argue the precise status (and perhaps ambiguity) of Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship, but we should not forget that that the very basis of that discussion can bring a sense of normalcy to someone who might otherwise feel alone, different or unaccepted by society.

The Classics can be brought to the public, at any level, to help them find themselves. That chance to see someone like yourself in the history books should not be underestimated. The LGBT+ community has come a long way in the past couple of decades, but now as much as ever its position of acceptance is precarious. History and the Classics can bring a strength to that community, another voice validating identities past and present: we’re here, we’re queer and we always have been.

I am not disabled.

Author: Debby Sneed

Louvre CA.jpg

A man, leaning on a crutch or cane, converses with a nude dwarf on an early 5th century aryballos by the Clinic Painter (Paris, Louvre CA 2183).

I am not disabled.

I have never before had to “out” myself, for anything. But since I began researching disability in ancient Greece, I have become self-conscious about my able-bodiedness. Through my research I know and appreciate that modern identity is different from ancient identity, that there is no way to trace a continuity of identity from past to present, and that modern identity categories, with their attendant attitudes, expectations, and experiences, cannot be transported into the past. If my modern identity is technically irrelevant to the past identities that I’m studying, why do I feel like it matters?

It seems like every book or article by a disability studies scholar starts with an explicit statement of the author’s identity, establishing why they are enfranchised in the debate. It makes me doubt that I can say something meaningful if I am not disabled and am not close with anyone who is, or that I should even try. A lot of my colleagues who study identity or historically marginalized societies are sensitive to the kinds of issues I myself am having, but it’s difficult to articulate why.

My most recent discomfort can be traced to two problems. One is easier to articulate and is ethical in nature. I’ve been applying for a lot of fellowships and grants lately and I’m worried that people will assume that I’m disabled. Here is an actual paragraph from a recent application I submitted for a fellowship:

Research into ancient perspectives on disability can also help broaden the modern academic field of view. Two significant corollaries of identity studies are, first, that the identities of modern researchers affect the questions they ask and the interpretations they accept and, second, that researchers tend to study those aspects of the past that they themselves are familiar with in the present. By these tokens, the diversity of modern researchers is critical for progress. This is as true of archaeology as of any other discipline, but because archaeology is such a physically and emotionally demanding field of study, it is not considered accessible to or by students with mental and/or physical disabilities. This stereotype prevents people with disabilities from pursuing archaeology and the lack of the physical presence of disability in classrooms, on excavations, and in academia generally means that research agendas do not typically integrate questions about disability, its material correlates, and its lived experience in the past. My project not only incorporates disabled members of ancient Greek populations into broader considerations of ancient history, but also has the potential to highlight the intellectual space available for disabled students within Classics and archaeology.

Please ignore that it’s long-winded and consider how much it could sound like I am disabled and I want to increase the visibility of people like me in academia. With every application I twist myself into knots trying to find a way to make it clear that I’m not disabled. I struggle with the possibility that someone might read my application and give me additional consideration or even award me a fellowship because they think they’re giving it to someone who’s disabled. I want to be woke to the issues that disabled academics face without pulling a Rachel Dolezal and benefitting from a minority identity that I do not have. But how do you say “I am not disabled” in a non-weird way? (Seriously, how do you? I’m open to suggestions.)

The second problem is more difficult to explain. As someone who is not disabled, I cannot understand what it means to be disabled, most especially in terms of the barriers that disabled people face as they attempt to exist in an able-bodied world. I can imagine problems, such as how stairs would be prohibitive to people who use wheelchairs, but I cannot really understand what it means to live every day with a visible or invisible disability. And no matter how many books and articles I read by disabled people, I will never understand it, not really.

This is a problem for me as a researcher because it means that I am more limited in what kinds of questions I can ask and interpretations I can come up with. Let me give you an example. Right now I am working on a conference paper in which I argue that ancient Greek architects took account of mobility-impaired visitors to religious sanctuaries when they constructed a building’s entrance with either stairs or a ramp. Ramps in general have not received serious scholarly attention and, in fact, sometimes architectural plans of ancient temples leave off the ramps altogether, as if they are not an integral feature of the structure. I attribute this gap in scholarship to the able-bodiedness of the field: most of us have never actively thought about how we get in and out of buildings and, because we don’t think about it for ourselves, we don’t often think about it for the ancients. My research into disability studies makes me more aware of disability issues than the average scholar and it wasn’t a big step for me to consider access when I looked at ancient Greek architecture. But my ability to think about what would or would not have been relevant for disabled ancient Greeks is limited to what I can read about, which is further limited to what folks in disability studies write about.

These problems are not surmountable, and there are surely more than two anyway, but these are two I have encountered recently.

I don’t have answers, but I am confident about a few things:

  • I can say something about disability in ancient Greece that is not just valid, but also meaningful, as long as I am sensitive and diligent about incorporating appropriate theories and methodologies.
  • I don’t have to identify as disabled in order to do justice to disability in the past. With disability comes a concept of normalcy, and everyone has a stake in that, just like everyone has a stake in gender.
  • I am not responsible for the assumption that the only people who study disability in the past are themselves disabled. Still, I am aware that it exists and that I must be careful not to imply that I am something that I am not.

A disabled scholar would write a different dissertation, but it’s not just because of their disability, it’s because of their myriad life experiences that I didn’t have. Given the politics of identity, though, I think it’s important to be upfront and also self-reflexive, to think about the problems of your own identity and how it affects your research program.   

The HistoryMakers (Part II): Classics, Social Justice, and Oral Histories

Author: Zach Elliott (@zbradleyelliott). This is the second in a two part piece on a project to study African American views of Classical education from testimonies archived by The HistoryMakers, which contains thousands of hours of narrative from African Americans in all fields. Part I was written by Joel Christensen (@sentantiq), and can be read here.


A video and transcript result from The HistoryMakers database

When I was first approached to work on a project studying oral histories of African American experience in Classics, I saw it as an opportunity not only to perform research that might aid in addressing the endemic lack of diversity in the field, but also to give back to the movement that allowed me to pursue graduate study. I chose to attend my undergraduate college primarily because of the financial aid package, and my ability to attend Brandeis University as a graduate student depends on being in the first cohort to receive the Diversity, Excellence, and Inclusion Scholarship (DEIS). The DEIS program aims to provide students with a non-traditional background for academia (e.g. those from underrepresented minority groups and first generation college students) access to Master’s programs so that they can later pursue doctoral study when they otherwise might have lacked that opportunity. To put it directly, without active attempts to provide access to higher education for people in situations like mine, I would not have been able to work in a field where I believe I can make meaningful contributions.

The research we have conducted using The HistoryMakers archive profoundly undermines the narrative that Classics lacks diversity because it is an inherently “white field.” Many of those interviewed reference ancient works of literature. Many tell stories about how classical education contributed to their personal and intellectual growth. Many point to teachers and professors of ancient languages and Classics as mentors and role models. These oral histories suggest that the issues surrounding diversity in Classics arise not due to the content but rather access and presentation.

Randolph Michael McLaughlin, a civil rights lawyer and former director of the Social Justice Center at Pace University Law School, addresses the perceived whiteness of Classics directly when describes his time at Columbia University and the value of his classical education:

“I mean, positively, I hated Columbia as a student, but, now, looking back on it, that was a classical education that I got.  That was a great education because I can converse with anybody about practically anything and you have knowledge. That says–I say I was classically trained.  You have a base of knowledge about a lot of different–that if you just became a political science and that was the track you were on, you wouldn’t have that base.  It was liberal arts education in the highest form.  I know there’s been a lot of opposition to that method of education–you know, they call it studying dead white men.  Well, you know, sometimes they got something to teach us and you gotta study everybody.”


Shirley Ann Jackson, President of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, draws attention to the lack of opportunity and the intersectional issues in the ability to pursue Classics and academia more broadly:

“And they were women who, if they had lived in my time, would have been classics professors or could have been if they wished to, instead of Latin teachers. A Latin teacher could have been a mathematician as opposed to a math teacher, an economics professor as opposed to an economics teacher and so it goes.  And now, and so that’s who my teachers were.  I had a few men, but mainly women.”


Shirley Ann Jackson ©The HistoryMakers


Callie Crossley, an award-winning broadcast journalist, expresses her issues with classical education:

Crossley: “And a very strong liberal arts institution. More to the point, I feel very strongly about liberal arts education, and it was–it’s one of the best you can get.”

Interviewer: “–It’s almost a classical education?”

 Crossley: “Not classical, classical in the sense of, you know, Homer or nothing, you know, (laughs) it was–it was much broader than that, but it definitely emphasized the variety and an openness, remember I came from a house with emphasis on openness, about all of the things that one could learn and the ways in which one could learn and analytical reasoning and all of that, and it was a big emphasizer. Wellesley [College, Massachusetts] is huge on writing.”


Callie Crossley ©The HistoryMakers

These three examples are indicative of the sentiments expressed in many of the oral histories and provide a framework to rethink the way Classicists approach diversity. Classics, when made accessible and presented as one, non-exclusive avenue toward liberal arts education, holds value for all groups. The study of Greco-Roman antiquity is not owned by the monolithically white, imagined community of the “Western world.” To adapt Thucydides, Classics is not just a possession for all time, but also for all people.

For more on the project, see my other blog posts with the links below. When new material is posted from the project, you can find it on Joel Christensen’s website, his twitter feed, and my twitter feed.


Randolph Michael McLaughlin (The HistoryMakers A2005.130), interview by Shawn Wilson, 06/08/2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Randolph Michael McLaughlin describes his interest in pursuing a law career. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=321244

Shirley Ann Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2006.102), interview by Julieanna Richardson, 09/22/2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Shirley Ann Jackson discusses the racial composition of the segregated and integrated schools including Barnard Elementary School. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=29402

Callie Crossley (The HistoryMakers A2013.118), interview by Larry Crowe, 04/23/2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Callie Crossley talks about her positive experience at Wellesley College, Massachusetts. http://brandeis.thehistorymakers.com/iCoreClient.html#/&i=64692