It’s 403 BC and an Athenian herald commences the democratic assembly with the customary prayer to the goddess Athena. She then sacrifices a pig and spreads its blood around the assembly. In this 2017 reenactment in Matthew Notarian’s 3-Week Classics course, history major Alyssa Osborne plays the part of the herald, Notarian doubles as Athena and a plush toy animal, with stuffing spilling out of its freshly cut lining, stands in for the pig.
A preview of what could be in store for students interested in the College’s new minor in Classical and Medieval Studies (which begins next fall), the course is built upon a teaching methodology called Reacting to the Past, says Dr. Notarian, visiting professor of Classics.
“Instead of just reading important primary texts from ancient Greece – in this case, the philosopher Plato and the historians Thucydides and Xenophon – our class is a complex role-playing game,” explains Notarian. “In this course, history is yet to be determined, and events could turn out differently than they did in ancient Greece. Last Friday, Socrates was tried and found innocent.”
A detailed backstory for each historical figure sets students, many dressed for their parts to gain extra votes, into action during their class-time reenactments. On game days, the class is entirely student-led. Impassioned speeches by those the “president of the assembly” calls upon fill Notarian’s classroom with spirited debates. Various factions scheme and plot in secret. These and other classroom reenactments provide a good representation of Classics and Hiram’s commitment to hands-on learning in an unexpected fashion, according to Notarian.
“It’s a fantastic way to get students excited about history and to dig deep into historical texts to achieve their characters’ goals and win the game,” says Notarian, describing class sessions such as an ancient Greek festival complete with reenactments of Greek myths, recitations of Greek drama and an athletic contest or two.
“This is the first time I’ve used this teaching methodology, but I’m already impressed by the results,” says Notarian who joined Hiram two years ago to reinvigorate its Classics program. “It’s not every day that your students are yelling at each other over whether or not resident foreigners should be given voting rights in ancient Athens. It really helps them understand the forces that drive historical processes and make connections to similar contemporary topics.”