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.

Classics 2022-2023 Courses

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

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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The Ancient Mediterranean

Open, Seminar—Year

Although the Romans come to mind most immediately as the people who absorbed and passed on the achievements of Greek civilization to the Western world, the transmission of Greek culture to Western posterity was a far more complex process involving various other peoples. Already during the late second millennium BC, Greek culture began to interact with that of its neighbors in the Near East and Egypt to produce a common, “international,” Eastern Mediterranean cultural zone. Later, after a period of collapse and regression in the early first millennium BC, renewed contact with the East would revitalize and revolutionize Greek culture which, in due course, came to dominate the entire Mediterranean region—even among Near Eastern peoples like the Phoenicians, who had formerly been the teachers of the Greeks. But it was especially among the peoples of Italy—above all, the Etruscans and early Romans—that Greek artistic and literary culture took root. No other region was ever able to absorb Greek ideas so thoroughly and consistently while also managing to preserve a unique cultural identity. In the end, it would be the Romans rather than the Greeks themselves who would spread and administer an advanced stage of Hellenism from western Asia to Britain. The course will explore these issues for the entire year. The fall portion, The Early Greeks and Their Neighbors, will first examine the beginnings of Greek civilization in the Late Bronze Age—its relation to Minoan Crete and Egypt, as well as connections with the Hittites, Phoenicians, and Assyrians to the east. Then, we will consider the so-called “Orientalizing” process in which the Greeks adapted Phoenician and Egyptian culture to produce a distinctive new civilization in the seventh and sixth centuries BC. The spring half of the course, Ancient Italy and the Hellenization of the West, will focus on how the Greeks affected Italic peoples like the Etruscans and, above all, the Romans—who emerged as the dominant political force in Italy and then across the Mediterranean and southern Europe. The course will apply a varied approach, concentrating largely on material culture, art, and architecture but also on literary and historical data in order to achieve a larger cultural perspective.

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Readings in Intermediate Greek

Intermediate, Seminar—Fall

Qualified students will read selected passages of Homer and Herodotus in Greek. The class will meet twice each week.

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Intermediate Greek: Poetry and Prose

Intermediate, Small seminar—Spring

In this course, students of Ancient Greek will choose two texts, one by a prose author and one by a poet, for close reading over the semester. Examples of texts might be: Herodotus’ Histories and the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, or the poems of Sappho and Plato’s Symposium. Our goal will be to investigate poetic and prosaic literary constructs, review grammar, and to read different types of Ancient Greek texts.

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First-Year Studies: Reality Check: Homer, Herodotus, and the Invention of History

FYS—Year

Reality is currently under siege. Millions of people today believe, to their core, things that are demonstrably not true. Are we “each entitled to our own reality,” as some would argue? The ancient Greeks thought otherwise. Some 2,500 years ago, the Greeks began to distinguish muthos (origin of the English word “myth”)—an unverified, unverifiable story—from historiē (origin of the English word “history”), an inquiry into the facts for the purpose of making a rational assessment. Simultaneously, the Ancient Greeks began to reject tyranny and introduce democratic political ideals and institutions. Tyrants, however, require obedient subjects unwilling or unable to fact-check even their most preposterous lies. Today’s autocrats and would-be autocrats bombard us with fictions, even contradictory fictions, so as to eradicate the very concept of objective fact. As individuals, we are losing the ability to assess facts on their merits. We’re losing the ability to learn not only from history but even from our own experience. Succumbing to authoritative speakers, many of us prefer virtue-signaling to real-world problem solving. We’re abandoning verbal persuasion in favor of violence and intimidation. Can democratic ideals and institutions survive if we can no longer distinguish myth from history, fiction from fact? What is the value of evidence-based, logical reasoning? How can we learn from fiction without being deceived by it? Reading and discussing Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (c. 8th cent. BCE) and Herodotus’s Histories (c. 440s, 430s BCE), we will examine these and other questions that are as vital to human survival and success today as they were centuries ago. This course is designed for students who welcome open-minded critical inquiry and are eager to read texts that are challenging both intellectually and emotionally. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences. In the spring, we will meet weekly or every other week, depending on students’ needs and the progress of their conference projects.

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First-Year Studies: Text and Theatre

FYS—Year

This course explores the relation between the play as written text and the play as a staged event. More than any other literary form, drama depends upon a specific place and time—a theatre and its audience—for its realization. The words of a play are the fossils of a cultural experience; they provide the decipherable means by which we can reconstruct approximations of the living past. With this goal in mind, we will read and examine texts from Ancient Greece to contemporary New York (with many stops in between) in an attempt to understand the range of dramatic possibility and the human challenge of making theatre. This course will have weekly conferences for the first six weeks and biweekly conferences thereafter.

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The Poetry of Earth: Imagination and Environment in English Renaissance Drama

Open, Small Lecture—Spring

One of John Keats’s sonnets begins, “The poetry of earth is never dead.” This interactive small lecture will step back from Keats—to the writing of several of his great predecessors in the English Renaissance—to reflect on how imagination shaped environment and how environment shaped imagination in the early modern period. Late 16th- and 17th-century was a time of transition between traditional, feudal society—with its hierarchical ideas of order, of humanity, and of nature—and emerging modernity—with its secularizing humanism, its centralization of political and economic power, its development of increasingly dense and complex urban centers, and its commitments to the study and potential mastery of nature through empirical science. With early modernity came all of the challenges to natural environment and its resources with which we are so familiar with and by which we are challenged: urban sprawl and environmental degradation, privatization of land, air and water pollution, deforestation and exhaustion of other resources, and diminishment of local species populations. We will study how several major writers register and responded to these tensions and these changes in what we might call their environmental vision, their imagination of nature: as wilderness, the "other” to civilization and its values; as chaos and threat; as liminal space of transformation; as pastoral retreat; and as cultivatable human habitation and home. Class reading will include two early plays of Shakespeare—A Midsummer Night's Dream and As You LIke It; Edmund Spenser's The Faerie Queene; John Milton's environmental epic, Paradise Lost, and poems leading up to it; Andrew Marvell's lyric poetry; and Margaret Cavendish's The Blazing World. Conference work will entail more extended work in any of these writers and literary modes and will provide opportunities to explore other writers of the early modern period who are engaged in theorizing and imagining nature—including studies in history, philosophy, geography, politics, or theory.

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Tradition and Transformation: 17th-Century British Literature

Open, Seminar—Year

In the 17th century in England, the great ordering coherences of medieval and earlier Renaissance thinking seemed to disintegrate under the warring impulses of individualism and authority, empiricism and faith, revolutionary transformation and reinforcement of tradition. Yet, even as monarchy and the 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. We 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 courts and the robust and bawdy urban century of London through a reading of masques and plays by Jonson and Shakespeare and their contemporaries; dramatic experiments in “metaphysical” and moral verse by Donne, Jonson, Herbert, and other poets; various developments in scientific, philosophical, and meditative prose by Bacon, Burton, and Browne; and the early poetry of Milton. The second semester will be devoted to major writers during the periods of the English Revolution and the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Our primary attention will be on the radical politics and the visionary poetics of Milton, particularly Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes; but we will also study the work of the cavalier and libertine court poets, as well as Andrew Marvell, Katherine Phillips, Aphra Behn, and John Dryden. John Bunyan’s spiritual allegory Pilgrim’s Progress and Behn’s colonial romance novel, Oroonoko, will provide a retrospect of the imagined and the social worlds that we have traversed and a prospect of the worlds to come.

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Metaphysical Poetry

Open, Seminar—Fall

The best lyric poets of 17th-century England have been loosely characterized as “metaphysical poets” because of their “wit”; their intellectual range, rigor, and inventiveness; the versatility and trickery of their poetic strategies; and their remarkable fusion of thought and passion. Masters of paradox, these poets stage and analyze their expressive intensities with technical precision. They eroticize religious devotion and sanctify bodily desire with fearless and searching bravado. They stretch their linguistic tightropes across a historical arena of tremendous political and religious turmoil, in response to which they forge what some critics consider to be early evidences of the ironic self-consciousness of modernity, poetic dramatizations of the Cartesian ego. We will test these claims, as well as the sufficiency of the category “metaphysical,” against the evidence of the poems themselves. We will closely read significant poems of Donne, Jonson, Herbert, Phillips, Herrick, Vaughan, Crashaw, Milton, Marvell, and Behn. We will attend primarily to how they work as poems, looking at argument, structure, diction, syntax, tone, image, and figure. We will also consider their religious, cultural, and psychological implications. Students will prepare three papers based on class readings. Conference work is recommended in correlative topics: the English Bible, Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, Shakespearean and Jacobean drama, or influences on and comparisons to Romantic or Modern English poetry.

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First-Year Studies: Literature and Philosophy: Enthusiasm, Fanaticism, Superstition

FYS—Year

We live at a time when fanaticism, religious and otherwise, has become a subject of great concern. This is not a new problem: Western literature and philosophy have been concerned with fanaticism since the beginning, and we cannot understand the way the problem of fanaticism appears to us now without going back to the earlier discussions and transformations of that question. The reading list, which may be modified, is Euripides, Bacchae; Plato, Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedrus, Lucretius, On the Nature of Things; St. Paul, Epistle to the Romans; Montaigne, “On Presumption”; Shaftesbury, Characteristics; Swift, Gulliver’s Travels; Hume, “The Natural History of Religion,” “Of Superstition and Enthusiasm,” “Of Parties,” History of England, Vol. 5, an excerpt on the New Model Army; Kant, Dreams of a Spirit-Seer; Lessing, Nathan the Wise; Bentham, “Anarchistical Fallacies”; Orwell, Animal Farm, 1984. During the fall semester, students will meet with the instructor weekly for individual conferences with some opportunities for small-group meetings; in the spring, we will normally meet every other week.

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Gender and Sexuality in Greek Literature and Philosophy

Open, Seminar—Fall

Modern discussions of gender and sexuality have a predecessor in the literature and philosophy of ancient Greece, which have informed recent thought on the topic. Of the Greek discussions, we shall focus on just a few. We shall begin with poetry by Sappho, Sophocles’ Antigone, and Euripides’ Bacchae. We shall go on to Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, and Book Five of Plato’s Republic.

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Relativism

Open, Seminar—Spring

Is there truth over and above the point of view of the individual or group? This topic received considerable discussion in the philosophy of Plato, whose treatment of the topic remains indispensable for grappling with it. We shall read the Euthyphro, on piety; The Apology, in which Socrates defends himself against the charge of subverting the religion of Athens; and selections from The Republic, in which Socrates considers whether justice is just a matter of convention. We shall then go on to the Theaetetus, on knowledge, and the Sophist, on falsehood.

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Introduction to Ancient Greek Religion and Society

Open, Seminar—Fall

Few people dispute the enormous impact that the Ancient Greeks have had on Western culture and even on the modern world in general. This seminar will introduce the interested student to this culture mainly through reading salient primary texts in English translation. Our interest will range broadly. Along with some background reading, we will be discussing mythology (Hesiod), epic hymns and poetry (Homer), history (Herodotus), politics, religion, and philosophy. By the end of the seminar, students should have a basic understanding of the cultural contribution of the Ancient Greeks, as well as a basic timeline of their history through the Hellenistic age.

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Writing About the Arts

Open, Seminar—Fall

This class will examine and produce a range of work from the journalistic to the critical, from the practical to the mystical, in the vast landscape of arts writing. We will write liner notes, catalogue copy for gallery shows, short reviews, long reviews, critical essays, and deep and subjective interior meditations on our experience of artists and their work. We will read broadly across time—possibly including, but not limited to, Samuel Johnson on Richard Savage, Wordsworth and Coleridge on themselves, Nietzsche on Wagner, Adorno (via Thomas Mann) on Opus 111, V. S. Naipaul on Flaubert, Amiri Baraka on Billie Holiday, Virginia Woolf on Thomas Hardy, Thomas De Quincey on Shakespeare, James Baldwin on Richard Wright, Glenn Gould on Barbra Streisand, Mark Strand on Edward Hopper, Jean-Luc Godard on Nicholas Ray, Pauline Kael on Sam Peckinpah. Students should feel confident in their familiarity with one or two art forms, broadly understood, and should expect, along with the reading, to write several small and two larger (7-12 pages) pieces. Conference work will comprise research projects on those artists or works of art, or both, that class members, in consultation with the instructor, decide are their special province.

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