The sweet release of spring break beckons, but the day is dreary. How dreary? Perfectly dreary. The very definition of dreariness. The ideal, ultimate expression, the Platonic Form, of dreariness.

Some undergraduates—pulled together as a discussion section of a ninety-student course—escape all that as they duck into Gross Hall, a one-time fortress of chemistry instruction. Now repurposed, Gross is the setting for a kind of classical revival, with “Democracy: Ancient and Modern,” taught through the department of classical studies. Perhaps fueled by the doughnut holes sent around by Jed Atkins, their jeans-clad instructor, the students show the super-attentiveness that accompanies impending midterms.

In that Gross lecture hall, the ancient and modern worlds are colliding. There’s a periodic table of elements, a giant-size tribute to modern atomic theory. But the idea that all matter is made of atoms originated with the ancient Greek philosophers, and the word “atom” comes from the Greek word atomos, or “indivisible.” Then there’s the question for class discussion. It’s a question firmly rooted in the realm of political theory. It also smashes across the spectrum of time: Is American democracy more immune from despotism and tyranny than Athenian democracy?

Atkins, an associate professor of classical studies, divides the discussion section into even smaller groups; when they report back, the students show classic ambiguity around the comparative look at democracies.

Well, suggests one group, the U.S. populace is better-educated than their ancient counterparts. Sure, responds Atkins, but the ancient Athenians considered the responsibilities of citizenship—including familiarity with the policies of the city-state—a serious matter. A thought from a second group: There’s the checks-and-balances feature of American democracy. Atkins points out that for ancient thinkers, the goodness of the political system hinged on the goodness of the leader. From a third group: If there’s a factor fueling America’s political conversation, maybe it’s anger. From Atkins: The Athenians had their own reasons for anger, but they also had a more direct form of democracy. They had their Athenian assembly, through which all (male) citizens could vent their concerns and join in passing legislation, appointing officials, and declaring war.

Half-jokingly, Atkins declares himself a fan of ostracism as a democratic tool. (“Bring it back!”) That refers to the practice of banishing a citizen, an opportunity that presented itself in Athens every year. The threat of ostracism, then, could be seen both as an outlet for citizen anger and as a way to tame an individual leader’s excessive rhetoric.

It could also lead to the anti-democratic muzzling of someone for his views. Building on that concern, Atkins ends the class with a nod to James Madison, who, in The Federalist Papers—some of which are included in the course readings—wrote about the pernicious influence of political factions. The cure for factionalism, Madison acknowledged, could be to destroy liberty, to enforce the same opinions and passions on every citizen. The cure for a factions-ridden democracy could be worse than the disease.

For generations classical studies, as represented in the academy, reveled in its status—call it hubris—as the unshakable foundation for the study of Western civilization. Then, in recent decades, with the opening up of the canon, the fraught associations sometimes accompanying “Western civilization,” and the rethinking of curricular requirements, it recognized itself as under threat. These days, classical studies faces declining enrollments and, at some colleges, even oblivion, with departmental downsizing in the humanities. A survey conducted two years ago found that the majority of classical scholars believe the discipline to be in crisis.

Last spring, in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Stanley Fish, the academic gadfly and one-time chair of Duke’s English department, wrote an essay under the fatalistic title “Stop Trying to Sell the Humanities.” It’s hard to make a defense “when the rest of the world is preaching instrumentalism, assessment, outcomes, employment statistics, and metrics,” he wrote. His argument was that there’s essentially no argument for studying the humanities—except that it may be satisfying for its own sake, not for any larger purpose.

But at Duke, at least, classical studies is showing a burst of intellectual energy, healthy enrollments, and the self-confidence that comes from the power to subject the fraught present to insights gleaned from the ancient past. It’s fair to say that for faculty devoted to the humanities, “relevance” is hardly a measure of worthiness. But the ancient world seems to matter—a lot.

That’s one of the premises of Classics, the Culture Wars, and Beyond, whose author is Eric Adler Ph.D. ’05, an associate professor of classics at the University of Maryland. His book is the source of the anxiety-revealing survey of classical scholars. In his view, teachers of classics should more avidly promote classical knowledge as foundational for an educated person; after all, the liberal-arts tradition itself has origins in Rome. And, as he writes, they “should advertise the prominent role of classical antiquity in shaping the modern world”—particularly at a time when STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields seem to dominate the academy.

Even in his days as a Duke graduate student, Adler says, the department stretched its curriculum in unexpected directions. His mentor, Mary T. Boatwright, professor of classical studies, maintains strong interests in both ancient and modern historiography. Others he studied with similarly modeled intellectual breadth: They were devoted to Latin love elegy and contemporary literary theory alike, or to classical and modern Caribbean works, or to poetry along with philosophy. In crafting courses that speak to the concerns of the present, they and their colleagues, as he puts it, “answer the most important question about the study of classical antiquity today: Why should someone learn about the classical world?”

In his own book, Roman Political Thought, published last year, Atkins takes on a series of themes that bounce between the ancient and the current-day. One of those themes is political rhetoric; Roman texts acknowledged that rhetoric can lead to flattery, manipulation, and deep political division, but also that rhetoric can contribute to the common ethos necessary for shared, and hence politically sensitive, judgments.

Atkins writes that he is “strongly convinced of the relevance of Roman political thought for contemporary liberal-democratic readers.” Relevance, he points out, doesn’t mean that comparisons are always neat and clean. “I think that we must work hard to highlight the familiar concepts in Roman political thought, especially given the historical myopia of our own age. However, relevance may be found in what from our perspective is strange, jarring, or distasteful, as well as in those aspects that strike a more familiar or comfortable chord.”

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, he writes, “Americans across the political spectrum were concerned with the deep divisions within their polity revealed by an ugly and contentious campaign.” How should we respond when the sense of civic wholeness seems to have dissipated? It’s helpful to look back to the Roman concept of corruption, “which directs us to ask questions about the overall health of the body politic”— questions, that is, about civic virtue. The more familiar liberal idea of corruption, “which focuses more narrowly on politicians’ use of their authority for personal material gain,” hardly gets us to the heart of the matter.

In the very same week of the Atkins class, Duke offered three outside speakers who proclaimed, in various forms, a retreat from the democratic tradition that has its origin in ancient Athens. Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, charted, among other trends, the slide of the U.S. on a democracy spectrum. Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera, former president of Costa Rica, told his audience: “We should not take democracies for granted. It’s becoming more and more common to see how they can fail.” Madeleine Albright, former secretary of state, recalled her (immigrant) father’s observation that Americans don’t understand that democracy is a fragile concept.

The chair of classical studies at Duke, William Johnson, notes that the ancient world has always had something to say to, or about, the modern world. His own background shows a veering between the ancient and the modern: He was an undergraduate double-major in English and Latin, earned a master’s in ancient Greek, worked as a senior-level computer programmer, and then returned to graduate school for his Ph.D. in classics.

His department’s website highlights the fact that several nations, much of Western Europe and the U.S. among them, explicitly leaned on the model of Athens. But Athens was a democracy only if a democratic state is one in which a narrow slice of the population—certified as citizens—is eligible either to debate or vote on civic matters. Athens ruled by the One Percenters? How alien is that to our idea of democracy? As for Rome, the biggest slave state in history: Romans thought slaves so untrustworthy that courts only admitted their testimony if obtained under torture. Yet, Rome granted freed slaves full citizenship status, a step Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1863, failed to take.

From the moment she stepped on campus as dean of arts and sciences, about four years ago, Valerie Ashby “has been pushing the departments to consider the experiences of first- and second-year students,” Johnson says. Classical studies “kind of led the charge on that.” As he talks about the department’s curriculum, the word that comes up a lot is “intentionality.” So the department “makes sure we have enough richness of subject material in our curriculum so that anybody can look at classics and find something interesting.” That means “having some courses that are really accessible for neophytes who may not even think they’re particularly interested in antiquity,” he says.

Among those spring-semester courses is Johnson’s own “Birth of the West.” Johnson has the students looking at the ancient Greek origins of Western civilization—theater production and writing systems, philosophy and historiography. In one class, students are discussing the meaning of freedom, then and now. The freedom, for example, to speak your mind, to practice your religion, to expect personal privacy, to plan out your own life. Or the freedom to disobey social norms, which Socrates pressed beyond the limits.

Back in his office, where the jammed bookshelves include his own The Essential Herodotus, Johnson says, “We don’t actually sit around as faculty and ask ourselves, ‘How can we design our courses so that we cleverly drag in current events?’ One of the reasons we study antiquity is to see some continuities—as well as differences—in the human condition. It’s pretty hard not to have some attachment to what’s happening now; it’s low-hanging fruit.” Recalling his lecture on Periclean Athens, an era that had its own encounters with executive overreach, he adds, “I don’t want to be teaching a political agenda. On the other hand, for everything that we’re talking about in class, there’s such a rich set of examples that relate to recent U.S. presidencies.”

The links across time extend beyond leadership attributes. When Johnson teaches The Iliad, Homer’s Trojan War epic, his students zero in on traits and travails that somehow feel contemporary. One example: the questioning of gender roles. Hector, stripped of his armor and so vulnerable to his fierce foe Achilles, is portrayed, dismissively, as acting—and even talking—like a woman. Is the hero always going to be hyper-masculine? “That gets us into all sorts of interesting explorations of this thing we park under the term ‘masculinity,’ ” Johnson says.

That relevance factor is a draw for students like Rise Miller, a rising junior majoring in public policy and history. He says a Greek history course taught by Joshua Sosin Ph.D. ’00, associate professor of classical studies, influenced his world view. The class spent a lot of time covering Thucydides and the issues the ancient historian raises about war, law, and politics. Those issues came to a head with the Melian Dialogue, a template for cold and calculated reasoning: In rationalizing their cruel conquest of the island of Melos, the Athenians declared that, in essence, the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. Thucydides also provides an enduring, if not entirely fair portrait of Pericles’ successor in Athens, Cleon; he portrays Cleon as a demagogue, a bully, and a figure driven to take down his political enemies.

Miller resists drawing direct parallels. But, he adds, “we are still trying to find the balance between democratic principles and the need for expediency in wartime, we are still trying to find the line between democracy and demagoguery, and we are still trying to figure out if there is an alternative to the realpolitik of the Melian Dialogue.”

The appeal of war may be an aspect of the human condition, ancient and modern alike. So is the appeal of spectacle (a not-unrelated phenomenon). “Roman Spectacle” is among the spring-semester offerings in classical studies; the seminar is taught by Alicia Jiménez, assistant professor of classical studies. The syllabus refers to “the most popular forms of public entertainment in the Roman world,” including gladiatorial games, wild-beast hunts, chariot-racing, and elaborately staged executions of condemned criminals.

As class begins in the Allen Building, Jiménez enlists the students to adjust the arrangement of the room’s tables-on-wheels, a move meant to allow for a friendlier seminar layout. In the process, one wheel comes off, prompting a few wry comparisons to Roman chariot races. One of the dozen or so students is wearing a “Disney’s Hercules” T-shirt, complete with the mythological hero attacking a purplish, serpent-like, big-fanged monster. The student explains he wore it specifically for the class.

Among the readings for the day is an article called “The Lure of the Arena.” Toggling between the Roman era and our own, the article looks at violence in the Roman arena as “in no small measure packaged for its audience,“ and, in its own way, “as stylized and staged to meet their expectations as modern movie violence or professional wrestling is to meet ours.” There’s not much of a gulf, it seems, between the Roman arena spectator and the consumer of modern violent entertainment.

Much of the class discussion rides with that theme. Students offer thoughts on spectacles then and now. The power of images to excite the public imagination. The symbolic significance of staged battles: Did the stadium spectacle of man versus beast represent Roman valor quashing a barbarian threat? The links between military victory and national glory. The puzzling juxtaposition of a society committed to notions of justice and that, at the same time, delights in crass entertainment—the fighting gladiators of the Colosseum, the fighting protagonists of reality TV.

The gladiators have a place in another course, “Roman History: Power Plays,” taught by Boatwright, the classical studies professor and Society for Classical Studies president. Boatwright doesn’t hesitate to link the past and the present, in rather public fashion: A few years ago, she wrote an opinion column for a local newspaper, “What Ancient Romans Can Teach Us About Confederate Monuments.” The Romans understood that negative lessons out of history were as significant as positive ones, she observed. “The Romans also developed a way to designate monuments as negative exemplars, so as to remember, through pseudo-obliteration, individuals deemed notorious. Often dubbed damnatio memoriae, this official practice could erase a name from an inscription or chisel away a portrait on a bas-relief while carefully leaving traces of the letters or a void in the depiction to demonstrate that something had been removed.”

For one class meeting of “Roman History,” a jackhammering crew roams just outside, and for the left-handed student searching for a chair with the appropriate writing surface—well, good luck with that heroic quest. Still the class shows a good bit of interaction. The readings reveal themes that straddle the ages. For example, social inequality (How did the economically disadvantaged fare as power became concentrated?), the relationship between justice and power (What were the implications once public officials were granted immunity from prosecution?), and the standing of a particular leader (How are we to process the picture of a leader who is strong and charismatic but also untruthful and cruel?). Boatwright wants her students to become familiar with Roman leaders and leadership, as she notes on the syllabus, while being able “to draw connections between Roman leaders and those in later eras, including our own.”

Boatwright finds lots of avenues into those connections. She has the students read about the flexible Roman concepts of physical borders, Roman forms of political propaganda, and— via an essay by Robert Harris, a popular writer of historical fiction— Roman responses to a terrorist attack on its very heart, after Rome’s port of Ostia was set on fire and the slow erosion of civil liberties ensued. There’s also reading from Caesar’s own memoirs; Boatwright notes wryly that in his own telling, everybody loved Caesar, everybody looked to him as the champion of the people, and everybody was okay with his breaking the rules of the day. That would include a step symbolizing the point of no return: his defying the Roman Senate and, with his army, crossing the rather puny Rubicon River, then the northeastern boundary of Italy.

When Boatwright started at Duke, in 1980, the classical-studies curriculum, outside the study of Greek and Latin, was largely built on courses that followed a familiar chronology: the Aegean Bronze Age, Greek history, the Age of Pericles, Alexander the Great, Roman history. By the early 2000s, the curriculum had started to open up, and Boatwright was teaching “Women in the Ancient World.

As a researcher, Boatwright has scoured ancient historians, coins, inscriptions, papyri, and museum holdings for evidence of the contributions of women. Over time, she’s been bringing that scholarship into her teaching. (She chose not to work on women in antiquity until she earned tenure. At the time, she says, such an interest might have been considered marginal in the context of ancient civilization.)

In her teaching, she’s also moved beyond the traditional emphasis on the text—another nod to what seems relevant today. “Roman History,” like many of the department’s courses, includes encounters with material culture, along with its digital representation: The first goal of the course, according to the syllabus, is “to access, understand, and interpret ancient material, including Roman historical texts and objects in Duke’s Nasher Museum.” She sends her students online as well; they analyze Roman coins, a key cultural marker, through various specialized websites.

Just after spring break, Boatwright lectures in “Roman History” about women’s ambiguous place in Roman society. Women were supposed to be out of the public eye, meaning they were officially removed from the realms of the military and politics. They were, instead, expected to produce lots of children, since one in two children would die before reaching the age of ten. Women did, though, participate in the political power plays of the elite—think Cleopatra, who was part of the extended Roman world. And among the non-elite, women did vital work, even if some of the work was low in social status (actresses, for example, were seen as akin to prostitutes.) Some 80 percent of the population of the Roman world lived outside the city. For women and men alike, that meant endless agricultural work.

The ancient world also produced endless athletic contests— bread and circuses and all that. One class day in early April, students in “Ancient Athletes” fill a lecture hall. (An “Aging Athletes” course would have its own wellspring of material.) The students clearly buy into the broad athletics theme: Their T-shirts, baseball caps, and book bags are branded with the New York Yankees, the Chicago Bears, Devine’s Restaurant and Sports Bar, and, naturally, the Blue Devils.

Kyle Jazwa, an instructor of classical studies who leads the course, asks the students to compare their recent sports-spectating experiences with what they’ve learned about Greek and Roman games. They talk about how glory and honor are reinforced, the relationships between competition and ritual, and the architecture of stadiums.

It’s registration season for the next semester, and Jazwa advertises future classical-studies offerings. One of his own courses set for the fall is “Ancient Science and Technology.” A cool feature of the course is the chance to build a replica of ancient technology. He flashes on the screen the image of a replicated catapult, a machine meant to hurl rocks or arrows.

Jazwa doesn’t mention a notorious case from two years ago: Border Patrol agents in Arizona discovered and dismantled a catapult that would sling bundles of marijuana from Mexico into the U.S. That episode from recent history provides another reminder that at least one border—between the ancient and modern worlds—is permeable.

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