"Shmoop awesomus est." – Julius Caesar
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.
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
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.
Sample Lesson - Reading
Reading 4.2: Bath Time
Aeschylus' most famous tragedy is actually a trilogy of tragic plays called The Oresteia. Why "Oresteia?" Because it tells the story of Orestes.
Orestes was the son of Agamemnon, head honcho of the Greeks who left to fight the Trojan War—you remember the Trojan War, right? Achilles and Hector and all that hacking and slashing?
Before he left for Troy, Agamemnon learned that in order for his fleet to continue on, he had to make a human sacrifice to Artemis, which ended up being his virgin daughter, Iphigenia. Needless to say, his wife Clytemnestra was not so keen about it. (She also may have still been mad at him for killing her first husband, Tantalus, and kidnapping her, but that's another story.)
In the aftermath of the war, there was more bad news for Agamemnon: his wife Clytemnestra was smooching another man while he was gone. When Agamemnon finally came home after ten years of fighting, the first thing he wanted was a bath, but Clytemnestra and her boy toy had other plans.
While he was enjoying his suds and his rubber ducky, Clytemnestra chopped him up with an axe. Ouch.
That's basically all that happens in Agamemnon, the first play of The Oresteia. Check out a Shmoopy summary of Agamemnon here.
Below you'll find a link to a recent translation of Agamemnon. In the passages we want you to read, you'll hear from a messenger awaiting Agamemnon's arrival home, and then the chorus will drop some seriously mystical language on you.
Aeschylus ain't easy, so here's a quick summary of the passage—trust us, you'll need it:
A watchman is sitting on the roof of Agamemnon's castle, waiting for a sign that good ol' Aggie is on his way home from Troy. Hey, look! A light! He's coming!
Heeeeeeeeere's the chorus: "It's been 10 years since Agamemnon and his bro Menelaus led the Greeks to Troy. They wanted to rescue Helen. The gods punish transgressions, didn't you know? You can't appease their holy fury.
We, the chorus, were too old to go. What's up, Clytemnestra? What's with all the hustle and sacrifice? We remember the prophecy that Agamemnon and Menelaus would be successful—and do you remember that awesome omen of two eagles eating a pregnant rabbit? That was sweet.
The prophet Calchas had an intense interpretation of that omen, though: he said that Artemis wanted another sacrifice, a human child, in order to raise the winds and move the fleet toward Troy. Ouch. That doesn't sound like something that'll go unpunished.
Look to Zeus, because he's the big boss man. He's got the power, and he gives us wisdom through suffering.
Agamemnon hates it, but he knows what he has to do: he needs to kill his virgin daughter, Iphigenia, and offer her as a sacrifice to Artemis.
Iphigenia was a nice girl. It was hard to lead her forward to the altar, bound and gagged. She looked everyone in the eye, begging for mercy. She used to sing for us, didn't she?
Well, she's dead now. The scales of justice are on the move.
Here's the original text.
You don't have to read the whole thing, just the first 300 lines. (Use the line numbers that aren't surrounded by brackets.)
Sample Lesson - Activity
Activity 4.2: Say What?
You made it! We're glad.
Unfortunately, your work's not over yet. Before we read more excerpts from The Oresteia, we want to look at the chorus' metaphors in a little more detail.
You guys know metaphors, right? "A metaphor is figurative language that compares one thing to something else." For example, from today's reading:
…two eagles overwhelmed by grief,
crying for their young—wings beating
like oars, they wheel aloft,
high above their home, distressed
because they've lost their work—
their fledglings in the nest are gone! (60-65)
The chorus is comparing Agamemnon and Menelaus—brothers and the leaders of the Greek army at Troy; Menelaus is Helen's lawful hubby—to two eagles. But why?
That's what we want to know.
For today's activity, we'd like you to analyze this metaphor and one other from the chorus' song. Like young kittens abandoned by their mother, who was distracted by a laser pointer, you'll have to find that other metaphor on your own.
All we need to know is what the metaphor means—in other words, what's it doing there in the text? Why did Aeschylus use that metaphor in particular? How does it reflect on the characters or things it's describing?
- Course Length: 18 weeks
- Grade Levels: 11, 12
- Course Type: Basic
- High School
Just what the heck is a Shmoop Online Course?
Common Core Standards
The following Common Core Standards are covered in this course:CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.1.1