If you are interested in human nature and curious about how people lived and what they thought about thousands of years ago, a study of ancient Greece and Rome is a good place to start. So says language teacher Mitchell Towne, who is leading nine juniors and seniors through a chronological survey of major periods in the history of these two civilizations in the yearlong elective “Ancient History.”
“Of all ancient societies, the reality is that we probably know the most about Greece and Rome,” said Mr. Towne, who holds a bachelor’s degree in classics from Williams College. “Many texts and artifacts have survived to the present day, allowing us to paint a good picture of what the world was like for Greek and Roman citizens.”
What’s more, he added, it is worthwhile to study ancient Greece and Rome today because of the tremendous influence these civilizations have on the modern world, particularly in America. “From architecture to language to food, ancient Greece and Rome affect us in ways we often do not even realize. It’s no accident that the eagle, the symbol of America, was also the animal that adorned the standards of the Roman legions,” he observed. “Many ideas and even phrases we consider cliché today were first expressed by the ancient Romans and Greeks. Whether we like them or not, we cannot escape their influence.”
One of Mr. Towne’s main goals for the course—besides teaching students the facts of ancient history—is to expose them to primary sources so that they better understand the mindset of the ancients. Thus, class members tackled parts of The Iliad last fall and are currently delving into The Aeneid, along with selections from a variety of historians, including Herodotus, Livy and Plutarch. Lectures help them place the readings in context, but students spend the large majority of class time discussing the themes in the work at hand, as they share impressions and findings.
“Students are drinking knowledge directly from the springs (ad fontes!) by reading these texts, but they are engaging with them on a more personal level by forming and presenting arguments and opinions to their peers,” Mr. Towne said. “The process is not just improving their knowledge of the material but also their ability to think clearly and hold their own in a debate.”
Domonic Mata ’20 is enjoying thought-provoking exchanges with his classmates as much as he is reading the classical works that captivated his interest several years ago. “Ever since reading Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series when I was young, I have been fascinated by the fantastic myths and heroic tales of ancient times,” he said. “When I chose this course, I was excited to finally have a reason to read The Aeneid and The Iliad, and I’ve gained a deeper appreciation and understanding of the ancient world through its most famous stories. I’d highly recommend this course to anyone interested in Greek and Roman mythology or the ancient world.”
Mr. Towne is leading a trip to Greece in June, during which he, Timken Library Director Ann Williams, and a group of Blair students will visit 14 cities and towns following an itinerary that integrates history, literature, language and cultural immersion. Blair has partnered with the Paideia Institute for Humanistic Study for this adventure, an organization for which Mr. Towne worked for three years leading classics-oriented tours around Italy, Greece and Sicily before joining Blair’s faculty in 2019. Although most of the students on this year’s trip are not currently enrolled in his ancient history course, Mr. Towne would “love for them all to come,” and he hopes to connect the class to a trip in the future.