Thursday, October 28, 2010

Are the Greeks and Romans Just More Popular?

In my History 111 class we just finished Robert Harris' Imperium, a novel dealing with the life of Cicero. It proved to be a tremendous success. Harris deserves a lot of credit for crafting a suspenseful novel and making Cicero something more than just a giver of moralistic speeches. For the next book the class voted on The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece by Paul Cartledge. The Spartans ran over my other suggestions by an overwhelming majority. (The fact that a large percentage of the class has seen the movie 300 probably did not hurt.)

The book that I chose at the beginning of the quarter, Bart Ehrman's Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, received a respectful if unenthusiastic response. Students, though, were very enthusiastic about Cicero and ancient Rome and now there is a lot of interest in ancient Greece. So, as someone who specializes in medieval and early modern history, I raise the question: is Greco-Roman civilization really so much popular than anything else in Western History? Now do not get me wrong here. I have nothing against classical history. I try to interest students in history any way I can. If the Greeks and Romans intrigue students then I will teach an entire course about the Greeks and Romans.

Perhaps Greco-Roman history is more popular because of a perception that pagan Greeks and Romans were naughtier than medieval Christians. I am reminded of a political science teacher I once had who assured us that if we were offended by Aristophanes making jokes about farting gnats in The Clouds then we should wait till we get to the Church Fathers and the rate of such sophomoric humor will drop precipitously. As I see it, Christians are more interesting because they get to misbehave, feel guilty and be scared of going to hell all at the same time. Maybe the Greeks and Romans manage to avoid being controversial? It is possible that my Christian students do not want to do a class on Christianity out of a concern that I might start bashing their religion and secular students would just rather not hear about Christianity in the first place. Thus doing the Greeks and Romans avoids the problem for everyone.

So I put the question to my readers: in your experience is there a particular interest in Greece and Rome in our society above and beyond other areas of pre-modern history and if so what do you think is the reason for this?

1 comment:

Larry Lennhoff said...

The other biggie is Byzantium. but it is a distant 3rd to ancient Greece and Rome. My suspicion is that a lot of their popularity is due to the fact that most elementary schools include a section on Greek and Roman mythology.

The general (incorrect) consensus is that nothing happened during the Dark Ages, that the Renaissance was all about art and that nothing ever happened in Africa and Asia. So why study any of those?