Building Ships, Feeding Minds: Reflections on Teaching in Latin and Greek

Today I teach the final classes of the semester, closing out a decade since I earned my PhD. For the first time in that span, I am not eager to have the semester end. So, here are some random Greek and Latin passages reflecting on teaching.

Teaching is of no minor import

Plato, Laws 803

“We should speak next about the teaching and communication of these subjects: how to do so, who should do it, and when it is right to apply each of them. In the same way that a shipwright anticipates the outline of his creation at the beginning in laying out the keel, I seem to be outlining the whole, trying to imagine the shape of lives based on the habits of their minds and in actuality then laying out their keels, by seeking out precisely through what method and with what habits we might best navigate through this journey of life.”

τούτων δὲ αὐτῶν διδασκαλία καὶ παράδοσις λεγέσθω τὸ μετὰ τοῦτο, τίνα τρόπον χρὴ καὶ οἷστισι καὶ πότε πράττειν ἕκαστα αὐτῶν· οἷον δή τις ναυπηγὸς τὴν τῆς ναυπηγίας ἀρχὴν καταβαλλόμενος τὰ τροπιδεῖα ὑπογράφεται <τὰ> τῶν πλοίων σχήματα, ταὐτὸν δή μοι κἀγὼ φαίνομαι ἐμαυτῷ δρᾷν τὰ τῶν βίων πειρώμενος σχήματα διαστήσασθαι κατὰ τρόπους τοὺς τῶν ψυχῶν, ὄντως αὐτῶν τὰ τροπιδεῖα καταβάλλεσθαι, ποίᾳ μηχανῇ καὶ τίσι ποτὲ τρόποις ξυνόντες τὸν βίον ἄριστα διὰ τοῦ πλοῦ τούτου τῆς ζωῆς διακομισθησόμεθα, τοῦτο σκοπῶν ὀρθῶς.

How does it balance with innate skills and character? It’s complicated.

Quintilian, 2.19

“In sum, nature is education’s raw material: the latter shapes, the former is shaped. There is no art without substance; material has a worth apart from art; and yet, the highest art is superior to the best material.”

Denique natura materia doctrinae est: haec fingit, illa fingitur. Nihil ars sine materia, materiae etiam sine arte pretium est; ars summa materia optima melior.

How important is education?

Plutarch, Can Virtue Be Taught 439f

“ ‘If people are not made better through education, their teacher’s pay is wasted’  The teachers are the first to guide children after they leave their mother and, just as nurses help shape the body with hands, teachers shape their character: with their habits they put children on the first step toward excellence. This is why the Spartan, when asked what he accomplished through teaching, said ‘I make noble things appealing to children.’ ”

“εἰ μὴ γίνονται μαθήσει βελτίονες ἄνθρωποι, παραπόλλυται ὁ μισθὸς τῶν παιδαγωγῶν”; πρῶτοι γὰρ οὗτοι παραλαμβάνοντες ἐκ γάλακτος, ὥσπερ αἱ τίτθαι ταῖς χερσὶ τὸ σῶμα πλάττουσιν, οὕτω τὸ ἦθος ῥυθμίζουσι τοῖς ἔθεσιν, εἰς ἴχνος τι πρῶτον ἀρετῆς καθιστάντες. καὶ ὁ Λάκων ἐρωτηθεὶς τί παρέχει παιδαγωγῶν, “τὰ καλά,” ἔφη, “τοῖς παισὶν ἡδέα ποιῶ.”

,Image result for Ancient Greek teaching vase

Hmmm, how do you do this?

Suetonius, On Grammarians 37

“Marcus Verrius flaccus, a freedman, became especially famous through his manner of teaching. For he was in the habit of matching students with their equals in order to encourage learning. He would not merely specify the subjects they would write about, but he would offer a prize which the winner would earn. This prize was some pretty or rare old book. For this reason, Augustus chose him as tutor to his grandsons….”

Verrius Flaccus libertinus docendi genere maxime claruit. Namque ad exercitanda discentium ingenia aequales inter se committere solebat, proposita non solum materia quam scriberent, sed et praemio quod victor auferret. Id erat liber aliquis antiquus pulcher aut rarior. Quare ab Augusto quoque nepotibus eius praeceptor electus

No course of learning is without some regrets….

Letters of Cicero, Fragments. (Suet. Gram. 26)

On Lucius Plotius Gallus,

“I still have a memory from my childhood when a certain Plotius began to teach in Latin for the first time. When crowds circled him and everyone was eager to study with him, I was upset because it was forbidden to me. I was restricted by the advice of the most educated men who used to believe that minds were better fed by training in Greek.”

Plotius Gallus. de hoc Cicero in epistula ad M. Titinium sic refert: equidem memoria teneo pueris nobis primum Latine docere coepisse Plotium quendam. ad quem cum fieret concursus et studiosissimus quisque apud eum exerceretur, dolebam mihi idem non licere; continebar autem doctissimorum hominum auctoritate, qui existimabant Graecis exercitationibus ali melius ingenia posse. (Suet.Gram. 26)

How Education is Similar to Pottery

Stobaeus 2.31 88

“Diogenes used to say that educating children was similar to potters’ sculpting because they take clay that is tender and shape it and decorate it how they wish.  But once it has been fired, it can’t be shaped any longer.  This is the way it is for those who were not educated when they were children: once they are grown, they have been hardened to change.”

Διογένης ἔλεγε τὴν τῶν παίδων ἀγωγὴν ἐοικέναι τοῖς τῶν κεραμέων πλάσμασιν· ὡς γὰρ ἐκεῖνοι ἁπαλὸν μὲν τὸν πηλὸν ὄντα ὅπως θέλουσι σχηματίζουσι καὶ ῥυθμίζουσιν, ὀπτηθέντα δὲ οὐκέτι δύνανται πλάσσειν, οὕτω καὶ τοὺς ἐν νεότητι μὴ διὰ πόνων παιδαγωγηθέντας, τελείους γενομένους ἀμεταπλάστους γίνεσθαι.


Also attributed to Diogenes (2.31.92)

“Education is similar to a golden crown: for it has both honor and value.”

῾Η παιδεία ὁμοία ἐστὶ χρυσῷ στεφάνῳ· καὶ γὰρ τιμὴν ἔχει καὶ πολυτέλειαν.



“Diogenes used to say that “the other dogs bit their enemies, but I bite my friends, to save them.”

῾Ο Διογένης ἔλεγεν, ὅτι οἱ μὲν ἄλλοι κύνες τοὺς ἐχθροὺς δάκνουσιν, ἐγὼ δὲ τοὺς φίλους, ἵνα σώσω.


Attributed to Pythagoras (2.23.96)

“A lack of education is the mother of all suffering”

᾿Απαιδευσία πάντων τῶν παθῶν μήτηρ


4.32a 19

“Diogenes used to say that poverty was self-taught virtue.”

Διογένης τὴν πενίαν ἔλεγεν αὐτοδίδακτον εἶναι ἀρετήν.

Consumerist Approaches to Education in the Ancient World

Some inspirational anecdotes in time for the new semester.

Aulus Gellius, Attic Nights 1.9.8-9

“After our friend Taurus said these things about Pythagoras, he added, “Today, these people who turn to philosophy on whim and without washed feet [i.e. without preparation for the study], for them it isn’t enough that they are “completely without logic, without education, and without mathematical training”; no, they give the orders about how they should learn philosophy. One says “teach me this first”; another says “I’d like to learn this, but not that.” One is burning to start with Plato’s Symposium because of the appearance of Alcibiades; a different one wants the Phaedrus because of Lysias’ oration. By Jupiter! One even asks to read Plato not for the sake of improving his life, but only to decorate his speech and oratory—not so that it may be more appropriate, but in order to make it fancier.”

Haec eadem super Pythagora noster Taurus cum dixisset: “nunc autem” inquit “isti, qui repente pedibus inlotis ad philosophos devertunt, non est hoc satis, quod sunt omnino ἀθεώτεροι, ἄμουσοι, ἀγεωμέτρητοι, sed legem etiam dant, qua philosophari discant. 9 Alius ait “hoc me primum doce”, item alius “hoc volo” inquit “discere, istud nolo”; hic a symposio Platonis incipere gestit propter Alcibiadae comisationem, ille a Phaedro propter Lysiae orationem. 10 Est etiam,” inquit “pro Iuppiter! qui Platonem legere postulet non vitae ornandae, sed linguae orationisque comendae gratia, nec ut modestior fiat, sed ut lepidior.”


Augustine, Confessions 5.12

“I then started to pursue the work for which I traveled there, to teach the art of Rhetoric at Rome. Soon, certain men gathered at my home among whom and through whom I became well known. But look: I learned that some things happened in Rome which I would not have endured in Africa. For, in truth, the destruction caused by wasted youths which I saw there would not have happened in Africa. They said to me: “Suddenly, in order not to pay their teacher, many young men will conspire and move on to another—they abandon their promises: because of their love of money, justice is cheap.” My heart hated those bastards, but not with a complete hatred: surely, I hated more what I would suffer because of them than the wrongs they committed against others.”

sedulo ergo agere coeperam, propter quod veneram, ut docerem Romae artem rhetoricam, et prius domi congregare aliquos quibus et per quos innotescere coeperam. et ecce cognosco alia Romae fieri, quae non patiebar in Africa. nam re vera illas eversiones a perditis adulescentibus ibi non fieri manifestatum est mihi: ‘sed subito,’ inquiunt, ‘ne mercedem magistro reddant, conspirant multi adulescentes et transferunt se ad alium, desertores fidei et quibus prae pecuniae caritate iustitia vilis est.’ oderat etiam istos cor meum, quamvis non perfecto odio. quod enim ab eis passurus eram magis oderam fortasse quam eo quod cuilibet inlicita faciebant.

Teaching Leadership In/With Ancient Greece and Rome–Looking for Comment and Collaboration

“Men rise up against no one more readily than those they believe are trying to rule them. When we reflected on these facts, we began to conclude that for a human, because of his nature, it is easier to rule all the other animals than [to rule] other people.”

ἄνθρωποι δὲ ἐπ’ οὐδένας μᾶλλον συνίστανται ἢ ἐπὶ τούτους οὓς ἂν αἴσθωνται ἄρχειν αὑτῶν ἐπιχειροῦντας. ὅτε μὲν δὴ ταῦτα ἐνεθυμούμεθα, οὕτως ἐγιγνώσκομεν περὶ αὐτῶν, ὡς ἀνθρώπῳ πεφυκότι πάντων τῶν ἄλλων ῥᾷον εἴη ζῴων ἢ ἀνθρώπων ἄρχειν

-Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.3

Who Leads the Collective Charge?
Who Leads the Collective Charge?

A year ago, I participated in teaching a course using texts from the ancient world to think about leadership with a former student (Eli Embleton) who had developed a syllabus on the topic as part of his senior thesis before starting a MBA program. The course went well, so we decided to try to write it up in article form (it is coming out this Spring in The Classical Journal, but a draft is available online).

Along the way, we were inspired in part by the work of Norman Sandridge on Xenophon and Leadership.  Norman has been running some pretty amazing courses on Leadership in the Ancient World for some time at Howard University. Near the end of running the course, we got in touch with Norman and, before we knew it, our common interest had become a common cause—developing ideas about teaching leadership in and through the ancient world further.

We are running a round table discussion at this year’s SCS/AIA annual meeting in San Francisco with the following goals:

This discussion will focus on the development of materials and multiform syllabi on leadership in the ancient world, a course similar in scope to introductory courses in myth, etymology, or sex and gender. Participants would provide perspectives on all aspects of syllabus-creation, including: pitching the course to students, departments, and administrators; guiding questions and subjects; effective assignments and assessments; and curricula-integration. Though focused on course-creation, the discussion may also address how the humanities already trains leaders and how we can do this more effectively. We hope to use this opportunity to develop a network of collaborators for future projects.

We are also running a collaborative course on Leadership in the Ancient World through Synoikisis in the Fall of 2016. We are excited to hear more ideas and concerns about developing and offering similar courses; we are even more psyched to find people who want to help design and create material for the cooperative Synoikisis course.

So, check out the article on the course, take a glance at Norman’s syllabus, and consider dropping in during the discussion in San Francisco or asking to hear more about the course next fall.

38 Students at Public University are Registered for Ancient Greek–Why?

I have tweeted more than once about my surprise at having many more students registered for Ancient Greek than usual (my previous record was 26; 41 were registered last evening; 39 are registered now). I have joked that it was because of this poster:

Greek Poster 2015

But this is not very scientific. I feared that many students might be there by accident–it just seemed so contrary to my experience that so many students would sign up. (Hint: it isn’t due to the posters!)

So, I started the class today with a questionnaire. Below are the questions and a tally of the common answers. I think most of them are here to stay!

How did you learn about this class?

The current instructor (previous students x3)
From a friend
Need for credit/requirement for major (x3)
The university
Advisor (x12)
Core Curriculum options list (x6)
It still had room (x2)
Other Classics Classes
No reason
Another professor

Why do you want to learn ancient Greek?

To translate ancient Greek texts some for seminary (x3)
Love the Classics/Greece/Latin/Mythology (X13)
Because it is different/interesting/new (x8)
Good preparation for medicine/science major (x2)

Do you have any concerns before starting the course?

“Will this go too slowly?” (x2)
Language learning is difficult (x3)
How different are ancient and modern Greek?
None (x4)
It seems difficult (x3)
When do we need the books?

What would you like to accomplish?

Learn a language other than English
To learn to read Greek (x9)
Rudimentary understanding (x7)
To hold a conversation in Ancient Greek (x3 !)
To be able to speak fluently
To do my best (!)

So, general interest is important, but this year it seems the advisors have been critical–which is a big change. (I will be sending some thank-you emails shortly). Also note the importance of Greek 1 being in the University’s core curriculum.

The final desire expressed above by one student, that she wanted to her her best, made me think of Peleus’ advice to Achilles, which will now be my motto for this ‘epic’ course.

Iliad, 11.783-784

“Old Peleus ordered his son Achilles
Always to be the best and stand out from all the rest.”

Πηλεὺς μὲν ᾧ παιδὶ γέρων ἐπέτελλ’ ᾿Αχιλῆϊ
αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων·

Upon Entering A Classroom: Unsolicited Reflections on Teaching

[This is a revision of an earlier post]

Next week, I start my 18th semester of teaching at my institution. This also means I am well into my second decade of teaching. At the same time, my collaborator and co-conspirator Palaiophron is starting a new position as a Latin teacher in a local high school.

As is my custom, the coming semester fills me with excitement, anxiety and just a little bit of dread. But then again, I started on my teaching journey in the same way. So, before many of us throughout the country (and the world) prepare to return to classrooms, I need to review my thoughts about teaching. (In part to ready myself for an Ancient Greek classroom of over 35 students!).

We all know that technology, politics, and money are changing the way we think, talk and approach the classroom. In applications for positions and awards, the ‘statement of teaching philosophy’ is all the rage; but most of us who practice as teachers, I suspect, operate from a mixture of experience and precept, observation and reaction. Whatever happens outside, we know that teaching is about human beings learning from each other.

So, below, I have gathered my basic precepts, some classical topoi they resonate with, and some very basic explanations. This is unsolicited and probably unneeded, but I write it as much to remind myself as anything else.

“Men become good more from practice than nature.”
ἐκ μελέτης πλείους ἢ φύσεως ἀγαθοί (Critias, fr. 9)

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Modeling Alexander’s Victories with Risk Pieces: Using Games to Teach Ancient Military History

I have long been a fan of Classics and classical history, and though I ply my trade as a Homerist, I have been fascinated with ancient battles and military tactics. In teaching courses on Ancient Greek history, however, I have found many students confused by the issues that attend evaluating narrative descriptions of battles and even less prepared to critique either the presentation of the battles or the tactics themselves.

Battle Of Granicus
Battle Of Granicus

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