By the Students: What Everyone Should Know about Ancient Greece

Last week ended the first semester of Ancient History and Literature. The students assembled a Titanic list of events, people, and principles that twenty-first-century Americans ought to know about Greece from 1200 to 399 BC.

Key events and people included the Trojan War, the Persian Wars, the Peloponnesian Wars, Pericles’ Funeral Oration, Homer and his two amazing poems, Plato, Solon, and the Olympics.

Students were careful to note people whose actions were particularly worthy of remembrance: Brasidas’ good leadership and care for civilians during the Peloponnesian War; Socrates’ belief that a wise man is one who knows that he does not know, and his willingness to freely teach anyone who would listen; Thucydides’ concern to write an impeccably-accurate history, and his and Herodotus’ determination to preserve the deeds of the past for the readers of the future; Theseus’ courage in joining the sacrificial voyage to Crete; and Athens’ hotly-debated display of mercy to Mitylene.

However, the students’ list of key principles gleaned from their study of Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides shows most clearly that, although we enjoy advantages the Greeks never imagined, we still have much in common with the ancient Greeks, and there is much we can learn from them.

All of the students emphasized the Greeks’ concern to fear the gods and the laws: freedom requires respect for the laws, one wrote; fear is a safeguard because it teaches us to obey the laws, said another; in the Odyssey and Thucydides, several people did not fear leaders, gods, or laws, and hurt themselves or sometimes the whole country, added a third.

Below is the remainder of the students’ list of key principles:

  • We study Ancient Greece to learn about people and their past mistakes in hopes to better ourselves.
  • Herodotus and Thucydides wrote about history so we could understand what was happening.
  • People make bad choices and blame those bad choices on their rulers. We need to remember to take responsibility for our actions.
  • All men are alike because everyone is a sinner in need of the free gift of God.
  • Do not trust appearances.
  • The gods do care about your actions.
  • It is important to observe different types of laws.
  • Be hospitable to strangers above your own comfort.
  • Be humble.
  • Do not attack a city if you don’t know how big it is.
  • Do not kidnap women – it causes huge fights.
  • Dogs are amazing and have been loyal forever!

Image: Porch of the Caryatids, the Erechtheum, Athens, Greece