Classics

Classics course offerings at Sarah Lawrence College include Greek (Ancient) and Latin at the beginning, intermediate, and advanced levels, as well as literature courses in translation. Beginning language students acquire the fundamentals of Greek (Ancient) or Latin in one year and begin reading authentic texts. Intermediate and advanced students refine their language skills while analyzing specific ancient authors, genres, or periods.

Ancient Greek and Roman insights and discoveries originated Western culture and continue to shape the modern world. Ancient artists and writers still inspire today’s great artists and writers. Greek and Roman ideas about politics, drama, history, and philosophy (to name just a few) broaden 21st-century perspectives and challenge 21st-century assumptions. Classical languages and literature encourage thoughtful, substantive participation in a global, multicultural conversation and cultivate skills necessary for coping with both failure and success. Because it is multidisciplinary, classical literature adapts easily to students’ interests and rewards interdisciplinary study. Classics courses contribute directly to the College’s unique integration of the liberal arts and creative arts, as developing writers and artists fuel their own creative energies by encountering the work of ingenious and enduring predecessors. The study of the classics develops analytical reading and writing skills and imaginative abilities that are crucial to individual growth and essential for citizens in any functioning society.

2018-2019 Courses

First-Year Studies: Gods, Heroes, and Kings: Art and Myth in the Ancient World

Open , FYS—Year

In modern terms, myth has come to be commonly understood as the antithesis of history. Whereas history is taken as a reasoned, factual account of the past and how things came to be, myth appears to operate in the realm of fiction or fantasy. Myths may have the claim of venerable tradition, but they are no longer accepted as an accurate record of events. The ancient world, however, made no such black-and-white distinctions. In antiquity, myth was accepted as early history. Its heroes were real, and their actions were thought to exemplify essential paradigms of political order and morality. Consequently, this course will apply a different approach in which myth is distinguished from history not by a truth test but, rather, by virtue of its function as a means of cultural self-representation. We shall examine the myths of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome—both in their literary form and in various media of visual art. Throughout, our goal will be to understand the potency of these narratives as vehicles of social or cultural values and as tools of power legitimizing and justifying closely entwined notions of religious and political authority. The course will close by considering how, in Late Antiquity, Christian narratives and ideologies in the literary and visual arts developed from the mythic traditions that preceded them.

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East vs. West: Europe, the Mediterranean, and Western Asia From Antiquity to the Modern Age

Open , Lecture—Year

Historically, competition or conflict between the European or Mediterranean West and the regions of the Middle East has been seen as a struggle between Christian and Muslim worlds with roots in the era of the Crusades, whose precedent and implications reach into the present time. While this course will focus extensively on the medieval period, it seeks to do so by situating the relations between Christian Europe and the Muslim world within a larger context as the result of geopolitical patterns that long antedated the emergence of Christianity or Islam. In the fall, the course will begin with the Greek invasion of the Near East under Alexander as a war of retribution for the Persian invasion of Greece more than a century earlier. We will consider how the political structure and culture of the multiethnic Hellenistic Greek kingdoms emerged from the wreckage of the Persian Empire and how Rome subsequently built on Hellenistic Greek experience and conflict with the Near East in establishing its empire. We will examine the emergence of Christianity as an example of a Roman or Western response to an originally Eastern religion and, conversely, the emergence of the Islamic faith and its new empire as an Eastern challenge to the Christianized Roman Empire of Late Antiquity. In the spring, we will see how this approach affords a very different view of the Crusades and the battle for the Holy Land as the outgrowth of longstanding cultural and political interactions or competitions that transcend religious faith and doctrine. The course will look at Christian and Muslim cultural relations in Spain and then close by examining the rise of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which originated as a Muslim regime in Eastern Europe and became a major power in Asia only after it had conquered the remaining symbol of the old Christian Roman Empire, Constantinople, in 1453. We will consider primary historical and literary sources, as well as major artistic monuments.

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“A Talent for Every Noble Thing”: Art, Architecture in Italy, 1300-1600

Open , Seminar—Year

This course involves an in-depth survey of the major monuments of Italian art and architecture from 1300 to 1600. Equal emphasis will be given to the histories and societies of major city-states such as Pisa, Siena, Florence, Venice, and Rome; the canon of art works by artists such as Giotto, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Michelangelo; readings of major critics and historians of Italian art; and the broader intellectual trends, social realities, and movements that provide a context for our understanding of the artists’ and, to a lesser extent, the critics’ creations. Thus, unified Italian church designs will be juxtaposed with gender-segregated social practice, theories of genius with concepts of handicraft, pagan ideals with Christian rituals, creative expression with religious orthodoxy, and popes with monks, dukes, financiers, and “humanist” intellectuals. The first semester will focus on a close reading of texts surrounding the first polemical “humanist” pamphlets about art in early modern history—Alberti’s On Painting and On Architecture—and will include works by Erwin Panofsky, Ernst Gombrich, and Michael Baxandall. The second semester will engage the development of the “High” Renaissance and the intellectual and aesthetic debates surrounding Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael as philosophers, naturalists, geniuses, models, and marginalized outcasts. Class papers will deal with developing a vocabulary for compositional analysis, critical issues in Italian intellectual and social history (particularly, gender studies), and varied interpretive strategies applied to works of visual art and culture. Conference projects may involve selected topics in religion, history, and philosophy of the Italian Renaissance and art and architecture in Europe and the “New World” from 1300 to the present.

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Beginning Greek

Open , Seminar—Year

This course provides an intensive introduction to Ancient Greek grammar, syntax, and vocabulary, with the aim of reading authentic excerpts of Ancient Greek poetry and prose as soon as possible. Students will also read and discuss several dialogues of Plato in English. During the spring semester, while continuing to refine their grammar and reading skills, students will read extended selections of Plato’s Apology in the original Greek. Conference projects may also include science and linguistics.

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Intermediate/Advanced Greek: Defeating Despotism: Essential Strategies From Ancient Greek and Roman Epic Poetry

Intermediate/Advanced , Seminar—Fall

Permission of the instructor is required.

Fearing tyranny, the framers of the US Constitution in the 18th century drew vital lessons from ancient Athenian democracy (508-322 BCE) and the Roman Republic (509-27 BCE). Before and during the Greeks’ and Romans’ radical and unprecedented experiments in broader political participation, Ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry shaped cultural attitudes regarding the use and abuse of power. As the modern world drifts backward in the 21st century toward various forms of dictatorship and authoritarian populism, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid can help arm us against the tyrants we might serve and the tyrants we might become. Students will read all three epics in their entirety in English translation. Greek conferences will meet twice each week either individually or in small groups to suit each student’s needs/abilities. In conference, students will develop their comprehension of ancient Greek by close reading of selected texts.

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Beginning Latin

Open , Seminar—Year

This course provides an intensive introduction to Latin grammar, syntax, and vocabulary—with a view toward reading the language as soon as possible. Close reading of Vergil’s Aeneid in English will accompany intensive language study in the fall. By midsemester, students will be translating authentic excerpts of Latin poetry and prose. During the spring semester, while continuing to develop and refine their knowledge of Latin grammar and vocabulary, students will read selections of the Aeneid in Latin.

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Intermediate Latin

Intermediate , Seminar—Year

Permission of the instructor is required.

This course has two aims: 1) to develop the student’s ability to read Latin intelligently and fluently, and 2) to give the student a general understanding of Roman history and Latin literature. The course should prove particularly useful as background to students contemplating graduate study in any branch of Western literature. The authors to be read will be determined at the time of registration.

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Advanced Latin

Advanced , Seminar—Year

Permission of the instructor is required.

This course has two aims: 1) to extend the student’s ability to read classical Latin, and 2) to deepen the student’s appreciation of the literary traditions of the Romans. The authors to be read will be determined at the time of registration.

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First-Year Studies: Fops, Coquettes, and the Masquerade: Fashioning Gender and Courtship From Shakespeare to Austen

Open , FYS—Year

This section of first-year studies traces the representation of gender difference and romantic attachment on the page and stage from 1590 to 1820, a crucial period in the consolidation of modern assumptions about sexuality, marriage, and gendered behavior. The emphasis will be on drama and prose fiction; but we will also sample a range of other expressive forms, including lyric and narrative poetry, visual satire and portraiture, conduct literature, and life-writing. Along the way, students will be introduced to some of the most compelling figures in European literature, all of whom share an interest in the conventions of courtship and the performance of gender: John Milton, the foremost epic poet in the language (we will read Paradise Lost in its entirety); Aphra Behn, England’s first professional female author; bawdy comic playwrights like George Etherege and William Wycherley; the innovative early novelists Eliza Haywood, Daniel Defoe, and Samuel Richardson; the masterful verse satirist Alexander Pope; the pioneering periodical writers Joseph Addison and Richard Steele; the cross-dressing memoirist Charlotte Charke; and Mary Wollstonecraft, the founder of modern feminism. Bracketing the yearlong course will be extended coverage of the two most influential authors of courtship narratives in English, William Shakespeare and Jane Austen. Additional attention will be paid to earlier writers on sex and marriage, such as Ovid and St. Paul, as well as to contemporary work in queer theory and gender studies. We will also consider select films that reflect the legacy of early modern fictions of gender by directors like Frank Capra and Alfred Hitchcock. Please note that this course will necessarily include candid discussions of sensitive subject matter, including sexual violence.

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The Bible and Literature

Open , Lecture—Year

The Bible: the story of all things, an epic of human liberation and imaginative inspiration; a riven and riveting family saga that tops all others in its depiction of romance, intrigue, deception, seduction, betrayal, existential dread, love, reconciliation, and redemption; an account, as one commentator described it, of God’s ongoing “lover’s quarrel” with humanity; a primary source book for major literature across the planet, still powerful in its influence on the style and subject matter of both prose and poetry. In the first term, this course will provide close readings of major biblical narratives and poetry in Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Lectures will explore and interpret a number of patterns and literary types: the major historical narratives of both scriptures; the poetics and speech acts of creation, blessing, promise, covenant, curse, and redemption; the visionary prophetic tradition from Moses to John, the writer of the Apocalypse; the self-reflective theological interpretations of history by Hebrew chroniclers and the New Testament letters of Paul; the sublime poetry of the Psalms, the Song of Songs, and the Apocalypse of John; and the dark wisdom of the Book of Job and of Ecclesiastes. The second term will study the work of major writers who have grounded their own work in biblical themes, narrative patterns, characters, and images and who have so transformed their biblical sources as to challenge their readers to rethink what scripture is and how it works. Selections will be drawn from the work of Dante Alighieri, John Milton, John Bunyan, William Blake, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Sigmund Freud, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, and Toni Morrison. If there is enough interest in the class, there will be a “Bible Blockbusters” film series on Sunday evenings during the spring term.

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Literary Visions From Antiquity to the Middle Ages

Open , Seminar—Year

In dream books and visionary narratives from antiquity to the Middle Ages, characters travel through imaginative alternate worlds that test the boundaries of ordinary human experience and provide insights into their own realities. Such narratives of mental adventure and wonder inspired elaborate dream theories and attributed great authority to the poet’s subjectivity. This course will examine the tradition of literary visions, from Cicero’s Dream of Scipio to the late medieval poem Pearl, using an interdisciplinary method that situates texts within their historical, theological, and manuscript contexts. Our study will highlight the formal conventions of the vision genre but also will reveal how many authors resisted a circumscribed form to explore various contentious political, social, and religious ideas.

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17th-Century British Literature

Open , Seminar—Year

Prerequisite: At least one year of a college-level class in the humanities or a strong AP course in literature.

In England during the 17th century, the great ordering coherences of medieval and earlier Renaissance thinking seemed to disintegrate under the warring impulses of individualism and authority, empiricism and faith, and revolutionary transformation and reinforcement of tradition. Yet, even as monarchy and established church were challenged and torn apart, the 17th century produced an extraordinary flowering of drama, poetry, and prose that expressed the contradictory energies of the period. This course will study English writing of the 17th century in a roughly chronological sequence. The first semester will explore the aesthetics and ideology of the Stuart court and the robust and bawdy urban center of London through a reading of masques and plays by Jonson and Shakespeare and their contemporaries; dramatic and meditative experiments in “metaphysical” and moral verse by John Donne, Ben Jonson, Aemilia Lanyer, George Herbert, and other poets; various developments in scientific, philosophical, and meditative prose by Francis Bacon, Richard Burton, and Thomas Browne; and the early poetry of John Milton. The second semester will study major writing in the period of the English Revolution and Restoration. Our focus will be on Milton, but we will also study the poetry of the Cavaliers, Katherine Philips, Andrew Marvell, and John Dryden and the prose of Thomas Hobbes, John Bunyan, Aphra Behn, and Margaret Cavendish.

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Defeating Despotism: Essential Strategies From Ancient Greek and Roman Epic Poetry

Open , Seminar—Fall

With the permission of the instructor, qualified students may opt to take this course as Intermediate or Advanced Greek and will do conference work in Greek at the appropriate level. Greek conferences will meet twice each week either individually or in small groups to suit each student’s needs/abilities. In conference, students will develop their comprehension of ancient Greek by close reading of selected texts.

Fearing tyranny, the framers of the US Constitution in the 18th century drew vital lessons from Ancient Greek democracy (508-322 BCE) and the Roman Republic (509-27 BCE). Before and during the Greeks’ and Romans’ radical and unprecedented experiments in broader political participation, Ancient Greek and Roman epic poetry shaped cultural attitudes regarding the use and abuse of power. As the modern world drifts backward in the 21st century toward various forms of dictatorship and authoritarian populism, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid can help arm us against the tyrants we might serve and the tyrants we might become. Students will read all three epics in their entirety in English translation.

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Eight American Poets (Whitman to Ashbery)

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

American poetry has multiple origins and a vast array of modes and variations. In this course, we will focus our attention on the trajectories of eight major American poetic careers. We will begin with Whitman and Dickinson, the fountainheads of a visionary strain in the American poetic tradition, before turning to Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T. S. Eliot, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop, and John Ashbery. Some of the poems that we will be reading are accessible on a superficial level and present challenges to interpretation only on closer inspection; other poems—most notably, the poems of Dickinson, Stevens, Eliot, and Crane—present significant challenges at the most basic level of interpretation. The major prerequisite for this course is, therefore, a willingness to grapple with literary difficulty with passages of poetry that are, at times, wholly baffling or highly resistant to paraphrase. We will seek to paraphrase them anyway or account, as best we can, for the meanings that they create out of the meanings that they evade. Our central task will be to appreciate and articulate the unique strengths of each of the poems (and poets) that we encounter through close, imaginative reading and informed speculation.

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Translation Studies: Poetics, Politics, Theory, and Practice

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

Linguistic proficiency in a foreign language is strongly recommended.

Translation is the process by which meanings are conveyed within the same language, as well as across different languages, cultures, forms, genres, and modes. The point of departure for this course is that all interpretive acts are acts of translation, that the very medium that makes translation possible—language itself—is already a translation. Because difference, “otherness,” or foreignness is a property of language, of every language, perhaps some of the most interesting problems that we will address revolve around the notion of “the untranslatable.” What is it that escapes, resists, or gets inevitably lost in translation? And what is gained? Does linguistic equivalence exist? How do we understand the distinction between literal and figurative, formal and vernacular, expression? And what underlies our assumptions about the authenticity of the original text or utterance and its subsequent versions or adaptations? Although translation is certainly poetics, it is also the imperfect—and yet necessary—basis for all cultural exchange. As subjects in a multicultural, multilingual, and intertextual universe, all of us “live in translation”; but we occupy that space differently, depending on the status of our language(s) in changing historical, political, and geographic contexts. How has the history of translation theory and practice been inflected by colonialism and postcolonialism? How are translation and power linked in the global literary marketplace? Our readings will alternate between the work of theorists and critics who have shaped what we call translation studies and literary texts that thematize or enact the process of translation, beginning with Genesis and the Tower of Babel. In addition, a workshop component to this course, involving visiting members of the foreign-language faculty and other practitioners of translation, will engage students directly in the challenges of translating.

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The Philosophy of Tragedy

Open , Lecture—Fall

Greek tragedy has been performed, read, imitated, and interpreted for 2,500 years. From the very beginning, it was thought to be philosophically significant—somehow pointing to the truth of human life as a whole. (The phrase "tragedy of life" first appears in Plato.) As a literary form, Greek tragedy is thought to be especially revealing, philosophically, by Aristotle, Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger, to name only a few. Among others, Seneca, Corneille, Racine, Voltaire, Goethe, Shelley, O’Neill, and Sartre wrote versions of Greek tragedies. And, of course, there is Freud. Greek tragedy examines fundamental things in a fundamental way. Justice, family, guilt, law, autonomy, sexuality, political life, the divine—these are its issues. For class, we will read three plays by each of the great Athenian tragedians—Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides—with a view toward understanding how they deal with these issues and with the question of the importance and nature of tragedy itself. For conference, we will read perhaps the greatest philosophical treatment of tragedy: Aristotle’s On Poetics.

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Ancient Philosophy (Plato)

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

This course will be devoted to a careful reading of one text. The goal of the course is twofold. It is first designed to acquaint students with perhaps the seminal figure in the philosophical tradition in more than a superficial way. (The 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once remarked that the “safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”) This will force us to slow our usual pace of reading, to read almost painfully carefully, with a view toward understanding Plato as he wrote and as he understood himself and not as a stage in a historical development. The second part of the goal of the course is to introduce and encourage this kind of careful reading. The text for spring 2019 will be Plato’s Protagoras.

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Our World, Other Worlds

Open , Seminar—Year

This course explores prose writing, with an emphasis on the creation of a world. The writing can be fiction or nonfiction and can take place in this world, another, or several. We will explore ideas about this world and writing about this world and others and work on our writing to make it livelier and more real no matter how imaginary our world is. This course runs in two parts, one semester each. You can take one or both parts. One part will involve writing episodes to build a world that, revised, will become a conference project; the other part will work on craft and content exercises of all kinds, with the conference project distinct from the exercises. Readings include folk tales, religious writing, philosophy, fiction, and newspaper items.

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