Fiddling While Libya Burns?

Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan chief of state, at...

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Watching the events in Libya this week, it’s kind of interesting how journalists et al seemed to be searching for an appropriate ‘crazy imperator’ label to fit Qaddafi with. Shortly after his strange speech on Tuesday, Arab News picked the obvious:

Watching his TV speech to the Libyan people and the world on Tuesday night, no one could accuse Muammar Qaddafi of mere delusion. This was a bravura performance of insanity — and evil insanity at that. This was Qaddafi as the Roman Emperor Caligula or the Fatimid Caliph Hakim — even Adolf Hitler or Pol Pot.

At about the same time, Press TV (out of Iran … hmmmm) took the ‘other’ obvious choice:

The similarities between the recent actions of the Libyan dictator with Nero in the Great Fire of Rome suggest that the Libyan dictator is suffering from Caesar madness.

Nero Claudius Caesar, the fifth emperor of ancient Rome, burned down the city of Rome in the year 64 AD out of sheer madness; he finally committed suicide in the year 68 AD.

Currently, the people of Libya are faced with a complicated figure like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi who has brutally bombed public places and killed hundreds of his own countrymen.

Today, we read one of his own generals making the comparison a bit more ‘official’ in the National:

Colonel Muammar Qaddafi will resort to any means to remain in power, including the destruction of his own country, a general who defected from the Libyan army said Friday.

“Muammar Qaddafi is like Nero, who burnt down Rome. He will burn down his own country,” Major Gen Suleiman Mahmoud said in this opposition-held eastern city, where preparations were underway for retaliatory strikes by pro-regime forces as well as a possible march on the capital to unseat the Libyan leader.

The dire warning came as Col Qaddafi appeared late Friday in central Tripoli to rally supporters. Wearing a fur cap and sunglasses and speaking from the ramparts of the Red Castle, a historic fort overlooking Green Square, he told an estimated thousand people that they would “fight and win” in their defence of the country. He also said that, if necessary, weapons depots would be thrown open to arm his people for battle.

This afternoon (I think) Qaddafi made a speech and the Guardian’s ‘live’ news blog made this comment at one point:

There are no images of Gaddafi, just his disembodied voice on Al-Jazeera, adding to the surreal nature of the occasion. While his regime crumbles, he’s talking about kids taking pills. It really is like Nero fiddling while Rome burns.

Finally, the Sunday Times (Sri Lanka) seals it with a headline which doesn’t even have a Roman reference in the body of the editorial:

… which pretty much makes it official, I guess … Qaddafi is Nero … Libya is burning … but unlike Nero, I suspect his final words will be something like qualis carnifex pereo


Classical Myth Course Thriving at UW-Madison

A very nice account:

Each spring, for 30 years, classics professor Barry Powell led nearly 500 UW-Madison students in Classical Myth, considered a backbone course for the humanities on campus. So his views on the topic might surprise some former students.

“There’s no such thing as classical myth,” says Powell. “It really doesn’t exist.”

Unlike Judeo-Christian scriptures, the nebulous canon of Greek (and, later, Roman) myth represents contradictory stories with varied ages and origins. To Powell, the course simply represents a selection of material and a way of presenting it.

During the last 80 years, however, the course and its leaders have left an indelible mark on UW-Madison and universities around the world.

In Powell’s words, from his best-selling textbook: “Only when we see how myth changes over time, yet somehow remains the same, can we grasp its essence.”

Name a large lecture space on campus — Ag Hall, even the Stock Pavilion — and chances are that the course once met there. Though the loss of one teaching assistant reduced the available discussion sections to a mere 15, the department added a summer session to meet the still-heavy demand.

On a Tuesday morning, assistant professor Jeff Beneker stands in front of the lecture screen on Bascom Hall’s second floor. Only a few of the 478 seats — wooden chairs covered with decades of seat-back graffiti — remain, mostly mid-row; students line the back wall.

At 9:55, the lights dim. The first lines of Hesiod’s “Theogony,” or genealogy of the gods, appear.

“It’s an instructional text, providing important information when we’re trying to learn how the gods are related,” says Beneker. “But as students of Greek culture, we’re also interested in the literary aspects of the poem.”

With its classical trim and raised stage, the room suits both the topic and Beneker’s performance. The Greek names come alive as he turns unfamiliar words into familiar sounds. Instead of using a pointer, he reaches toward the illuminated text for emphasis, as if grasping each word one at a time.

In 15 minutes, Beneker touches on Greek language, literature, history, geography, spirituality, performance practice, linguistics, criticism and philosophy. No wonder: His syllabus covers a period of more than 1,300 years, forming the roots of Western civilization.

Like most of his students, Beneker didn’t intend to be a classicist. Recalling his days as an engineering student, he can relate to students with packed schedules and little exposure to the humanities.

“We don’t want to ‘convert’ them,” he says. “But while they’re here at UW, we can get them involved and bring them into the oldest humanities tradition. I hope that makes them better scientists, giving them a broader view of humanity and what it means to be a person — in the ancient world and in the modern world.”

“The ancient Greeks invented these stories as a reflection of themselves and their society,” adds associate professor William Aylward, who teaches the class every other spring. “They mean so much to different people. They continue to be popular; they continue to resound. Other topics don’t have this enduring value. That’s what makes it so fun to teach.”

Students agree. Some take the course to satisfy a literature requirement; others enjoy the humorous, often bawdy stories. Tales of heroes, war, sex and scandals elicit just as much interest today as they did in the ancient world.

“It doesn’t take a lot for me to draw students into the stories,” says Jeannie Nguyen, a graduate student who has twice served as Beneker’s teaching assistant. “I think it’s because they’re presented as stories, not facts, open for their own interpretation and opinions on it. Everybody likes to give their own opinions.”

Remarkably, both the material and the presentation of Classical Myth, or Classics 370, still resemble the course’s first incarnation in many ways. Mirroring the transmission of the myths themselves, the lectures and teaching techniques have passed from professor to professor in a true oral tradition.

Walter “Ray” Agard arrived on campus alongside Alexander Meiklejohn in 1927. Agard began in Meiklejohn’s Experimental College before focusing on the classics.

In the 1930s, the department consisted of Latin, Greek and Sanskrit professors, accustomed to teaching literature in its original language. Building on the Great Books studies then in vogue, Agard’s course on myth in translation revolutionized the field.

“Many of my colleagues in other places thought that it was a degradation, practically, to offer courses as superficial as that to people who didn’t study the language at all,” said Agard in a 1972 interview.

At a time when public outreach was considered scholarly research, Agard’s work reached a popular audience of thousands.

“He’s a pivotal figure, making the transition from just teaching Greek and Latin to teaching the classics in translation and getting it out to the public,” says Laura McClure, professor and chair of classics. “It was innovative to teach classics without knowing Greek and Latin. It was only in the ‘30s and ‘40s that the idea became widespread. That gave us the foundation to develop these courses here that we still teach today.”

Upon completing his Ph.D. in 1948, Herbert Howe picked up seamlessly from Agard. Powell describes himself as Howe’s understudy, auditing the course several times and using Howe’s own lecture notes before taking over in 1975.

McClure, who taught the class in rotation with Powell during the 1990s, described her experience the same way.

“I was an understudy for the first year,” she says. “I made tapes of Barry giving the lectures; his idea was that I would ‘imbibe’ the Powell technique, just as he imbibed it from Howe.”

The Powell, Howe and Agard techniques reached their apex with Powell’s textbook “Classical Myth.” Nearing its seventh edition, the book combines a variety of ancient texts with expository materials, evocative images and modern perspectives on everything from “Star Wars” to Seamus Heaney.

“Any book or set of readings is just an interface between the content and the students,” says Aylward, who team-taught the course with Powell in 2006. “This particular book is a phenomenon.”

A true departmental collaboration, the book draws most heavily on Howe’s work. Aylward became co-editor after the fourth edition, contributing material on Roman civilization and Troy. Still, Howe’s own translations form the centerpiece.

“He did a great job of translating the Greek and Latin,” says Powell. “They’re very modern, kind of hip. The book really follows Herb’s lectures. It reserves Herb’s lucid and humorous presentation, which is why it’s been such a success.”

When Powell began teaching in the 1970s, few universities offered courses on myth. Thanks to his engaging text, Ohio State now packs 600 students into a lecture hall each trimester. Universities in Australia, New Zealand and even Taiwan have helped make the book one of the best-selling volumes on the ancient world.

In 1972, Agard described the three hallmarks of good teaching: competence and growth in one’s subject, perspective in organizing material and, “most important of all, having and showing enthusiasm for your material and for your students.”

This is the course’s true legacy. In nearly 80 years, only six people have taught the course. When Howe passed away last year at age 98, his obituary noted that he had taught approximately 26,000 students: “more, he believed, than any other faculty member in the history of UW-Madison.”

“The most passionate, enthusiastic, eccentric professors that I know are from the classics department,” says senior Annabelle Merg. “There’s something about the interconnectedness of classical mythology — oral traditions changing and the integration of surrounding cultures — that makes it impossible for the professors to talk in a straight line. The result is this thoroughly entertaining lecture that leaves you stunned and desperate for more.”

“I knew it was time to retire when a student told me, ‘I love this class; I’m crazy about it, and it’s just like my mother said!’” says Powell, with a laugh. “I realized I’d taught a whole generation.”

What John Gruber-Miller Is Up To …

From the Daily Review Atlas:

John Gruber-Miller, professor of classics at Cornell College, will deliver Monmouth College’s 27th annual Bernice L. Fox Classics Lecture on Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m. in the Wells Theater.

Titled “Peeking into a Periegete’s Mind: Probing Pausanias’s ‘Description of Greece,’” the lecture is free and open to the public.

“The Roman travel writer Pausanias is our most important ancient source for the art and archaeology of ancient Greece,” said Gruber-Miller. “He wrote his ‘Description of Greece’ during the second century CE when the great renaissance of Greek literature and culture known as the Second Sophistic was in full bloom.”

Over the past two summers, Gruber-Miller and two undergraduate researchers have been probing Pausanias’s text, attempting to uncover the truth of what he writes. His illustrated Fox Lecture presentation will be divided into three parts: Pausanias’s research topics/questions, his methods for reaching answers and the development of his authority.

“At the same time, we will ask our own questions,” said Gruber-Miller. “Why should we read the travel writings of a Roman in Greek lands? What image and identity does Greece hold in our imagination? What can we learn about doing research today from an ancient writer?”

At Cornell, Gruber-Miller teaches a range of courses in classics, Greek and Latin and is the adviser for the college’s interdisciplinary classical studies program. He was the editor for “When Dead Tongues Speak: Teaching Beginning Greek and Latin,” which was published in 2006. Gruber-Miller received his bachelor’s degree from Xavier University and his master’s degree and Ph.D. from Ohio State University.

Established in 1985, the lecture honors the late Bernice L. Fox, who taught classics at Monmouth from 1947 until 1981. The goal of the series is to illustrate the continuing importance of classical studies in the modern world and the intersection of the classics with other disciplines in the liberal arts.