The Ancient Greeks: Reflections on a Course-week 1

by Paul Mathers


There is an online resource called Coursera in which, if I understand it correctly, one can take university level courses for free. I say “if I understand it correctly” because this is limited to my knowledge and experience. I have no idea if they are all free. I am taking a free course from Wesleyan University on The Ancient Greeks taught by Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak. Needless to say, were it not for this technology, I would never be able to do this and I am delighted to have the opportunity.

I assume this has come to be as a way for universities to explore the changing face of technology, as a means to explore the potential of higher education as technologies snowball. What I am finding is fascinating on a number of levels and I wanted to blog my way through the course so as to preserve some of what I’ve gleaned. So often I have found that writing about what I’ve learned helps me to retain what I’ve learned.

First of all, the level of engagement of the students is remarkable. My email inbox is flooded with updates from various forums relating to the class. I think the last time I heard, enrollment in this class is hovering around 30,000 people worldwide. Imagine the size of the classroom! And there are people of all ages and from all walks engaging in the course. The professor drops in on occasion to answer specific questions in great detail (also a luxury that is increasingly rare in college courses). In essence, you can dig as deep as you like in this soil. And the quality of the lectures are excellent. I have learned a great deal about the most ancient of Ancient Greece in this past week.

Our first week covered Prehistory to Homer. We begin with simple logistics, the quality of the soil and terrain, the primary Mediterranean produce/diet (olives, grapes, and grain), the importance of the sea, and so forth. Professor Szegedy-Maszak gives a quick flyover of archeology to explain how we learn about many ancient civilizations (especially those before an abundance of preserved texts) through durable goods like pots and knives. We are left to interpret the narrative. I liked how he preserves our sense of shifting understandings throughout the course by bringing in once-accepted now-debunked theories. He says, “The Classics are like the sky, always the same, but always changing.”

The Peer Polity Model is the form of the early days, what is known as the Minoan Era. That is to say no central government, small areas with communities structured along similar lines, but which were competitive and rivalrous. Due to proximity, they shared many symbols and entertainment and exchanged goods. In those early days they had redistributive economies in which the people would bring the resources to the ruling classes to have them redistribute them in exchange for their favor or protection.

Sir Arthur Evans excavated Knossos, which was a great Bronze Age civilization.


He associated it with King Minos, the first Greek king to establish a navy, also he who confined the minotaur to the labyrinth (note the complexity of the layout). Evans reconstructed the place. In their decorative motifs, we see a great deal of sailing. The bull is also a recurring image. Here is the famous “bull-leaper” fresco:


You might be thinking “My goodness, that is remarkably well preserved.” Actually, a great deal of “restoration” went on with Evans. Of the three ladies fresco at the top of this post, my role model, Evelyn Waugh said, “They would be at home on the cover of Vogue magazine.”

Linear A and Linear B are early forms of written Greek, predating the Greek alphabet by centuries. These are preserved in clay tablets of storehouse records which were “baked” in a great fire (not intentionally. I mean that a fire broke out and baked the tablets) and thereby preserved them for our time.

Knossos is contrasted with Mycenae, excavated by Heinrich Schliemann who seems to have been less reliable of an archeologist. He had earlier discovered what he called “Troy.” Mycenae was built on a hill:

Mycenae_aerial view

which made it easy to defend (perhaps not coincidentally, their artwork is notably more violent and hawkish). Some say that Schliemann faked the famous gold mask of Agamemnon:


by having it made to include in the excavation as a showpiece. We don’t know, but Professor Szegedy-Maszak does state that Schliemann’s reputation is, in some circles, anywhere “from sketchy to nefarious.” But there are truly wonderful discoveries here, including the Tholos tomb, which was a massive tomb in the side of a hill with a domed interior which would be uncovered and recovered for each interment. There was a sudden and massive collapse of this culture around 1200 to 1150 BCE with signs of burning, pillaging, destruction, and the dispersion of citizens. The professor states that when less developed people invade a more developed people, they don’t tend to leave much in the way of evidence aside from destruction (meaning, they don’t leave cultural artifacts or calling cards).

This occasions a Dark Age. The agricultural terraces erode, the population drops (which we see in the dramatic increase in tombstones), trade networks collapse, as does literacy and architecture. However, in this time, oral storytelling gains a strong foothold. More on that in a moment. But we also see a shift from the Bronze Age to the Iron Age. At the end of the Dark Age lecture, Professor Szegedy-Maszak tells us about an amazing, massive tomb discovered in 1981 which was 150 feet long, 40 feet wide, and contained the body of a woman, the body of a man, and the bodies of four horses.

Returning to the oral storytelling tradition, the final two lectures focused on Homer. Homer was the key figure in Greek poetry. He wrote in dactylic hexameter. At one point, the professor reads a section of The Iliad in its original Greek. What a beautiful language! What a loss to civilization that the classical languages are no longer ubiquitous in education! I am resolved, after I finish the Harvard Classics, to learn Greek. Laurie is learning it right now. I am learning Latin. I want to spend the rest of my life learning these two languages.

Ancient Greek heroes are not like our concept of “heroic.” Hero was more of a role, given through heredity, height and looks, as well as proving one’s self.

These latter two lectures introduce some terms. One that struck me was “aristeia” which is a state of being at one’s best, as in the moment in battle when a warrior is unstoppable. There is such an active meditative feel to this concept that I really loved. Another of my favorite key terms in this section was “xenia” which is a ritualistic hospitality. Both of these struck me as having a rather Eastern feel to them.

I always forget how much I love Achilles as well. In The Iliad and his appearance in The Odyssey, his worldview adds a dash of existentialism.

The Odyssey, vastly different in tone, is thought by many to be a later piece. I’ve written about The Odyssey in recent memory, so I’ll be brief in closing this week’s class notes.

The professor closes with the observation that the lives of the gods are less serious in these pieces than the lives of humans. They really only differ from humans in one way. They don’t die.

So there are some points from this week’s classes that I should like to remember. I think writing about the class like this each weekend for the next seven weeks will be good for me. Hopefully someone out there might gain something from this as well. At the very least, let me encourage anyone reading this to continue their education indefinitely. There are great riches out there for the taking!

More soon.