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Classical Literature

"Shmoop awesomus est." – Julius Caesar

Shmoop's Classical Literature course has been granted a-g certification, which means it has met the rigorous iNACOL Standards for Quality Online Courses and will now be honored as part of the requirements for admission into the University of California system.

Heroes. Tyrants. Orators. Sassy librarians. Feuding poets. Ancient Greece and Rome were chock-full of interesting characters, so it's no surprise that these powerful civilizations left us a ton of awesome stories. Where else are you going to find a philosopher put to death for trolling people?

In this Common Core-aligned course (also aligned to Florida standards), we'll take a whirlwind tour of the best bits of Greek and Roman literature. Organized according to genre, the course will introduce you to Greek and Roman epic, historiography, oratory, drama, philosophy, and lyric poetry.

Besides walking you through the highlights of classical literature, the course contains readings, activities, and projects that

  • familiarize you with the culture and history of the classical era.
  • explore the literature's important themes and issues.
  • focus on critical reading and writing skills.
  • ponder what the Greeks and Romans can tell us about our own world.
  • entertain you. Herodotus, Suetonius, Homer, and Martial all wrote some great stuff. Oh, and Catullus, Euripides, Sappho, Vergil, Gorgias, Plato, and...okay, we'll stop.

Course Breakdown

Unit 1. Blockbusters of Ancient Epic

This unit covers the #1 big-hitter of the ancient world: epic. We'll dip our toes into The Odyssey, The Iliad, and The Aeneid and figure out what gives these epics their staying power.

Unit 2. Ancient History: Strange But Sorta True

First: the birth of history writing with Herodotus; next: Thucydides, Livy, Nepos, and Suetonius. War, scandal, heroism, origin stories—this unit's got it all.

Unit 3. A Day in the Ancient Life

Surprise! Greeks and Romans weren't all war heroes. In this unit, we'll look at daily life, including letters from Cicero, Pliny, and some regular dudes, and oratory from Lysias and Cicero.

Unit 4. So Much Drama

In this unit, we'll brush elbows with the stars as we learn all about Greek and Roman drama. We'll spend some time with Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Plautus, and everyone's favorite critic, Aristotle.

Unit 5. Gotta Love Wisdom

This unit is all about the big thinkers of the classical world: philosophers. We'll cover the biggies like Plato and Aristotle, but also the indie philosophers like Zeno, Democritus, and Marcus Aurelius.

Unit 6. Do You Know the Lyrics?

In this unit, we'll examine the Greek and Roman lyric poets. Sappho, Archilochus, Alcaeus, Catullus, Horace, Ovid: they'll all get their 15 minutes of fame.

Sample Lesson - Introduction

Lesson 2: Deep Thoughts with Aeschylus

An eagle about to drop a turtle on an unsuspecting Aeschylus' head
Bombs away!

Now that you have a rough idea of what you're dealing with, let's get to the tragedies!

The earliest Greek tragedies were written by Aeschylus, who lived from some time in the 520s or 510s to 455-ish BCE—at that point in Greek literature, people weren't even writing real history books yet, so you can bet they weren't writing down their real birthdays for us.

So, what do you need to know about Aeschylus, other than the story that he died because an eagle dropped a tortoise on his head?

First, here's what tragedy was like before Aeschylus: the main attraction was the chorus, a group of at least 12 dudes who sang and chanted together as one voice. There was also a single actor who spoke some lines and then boogied with the chorus.

Aeschylus expanded the whole production: in addition to a chorus and an actor, Aeschylus added a second actor, and he may have started the tradition of painting backgrounds and designing more elaborate costumes.

In other words, before Aeschylus, Greek tragedy was just a chorus walking around and singing about the gods, with another dude in a mask backing them up. Aeschylus made everything more dramatic and more like the dramatic plays we recognize today: the action was shifting away from religious chanting and toward actors having a dialogue with each other and telling a story.

But not so fast: even though he was an innovator and a rebel, Aeschylus' tragedies are still deeply, deeply weird for modern folks like us. His choral songs are mystical and mysterious, and both the choruses and the actors say intense things that can scramble your brain. For example:

There drips in sleep upon our hearts
the pain of bad memories, and to those who
wish it least comes wisdom.


Hope you're ready for spiritual mumbo-jumbo because you're about to get a good helping of it.

  • Course Length: 18 weeks
  • Grade Levels: 11, 12
  • Course Type: Basic
  • Category:
    • English
    • Literature
    • High School

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