What Have Athens and Rome to Do with Us? (Gen Ed 1007)



Histories, Societies, Individuals icon with text

Emma Dench

Why do we venerate Athens as the birthplace of democracy when it was a culture structured on slavery and gender inequality? Why does the fall of the Roman empire make us nervous when that empire gloried in violence, and judged numerous societies (including large swathes of northern and western Europe) to fall below the standards of civilization? In this course, we learn to appreciate the complexity of models of Athens and Rome that inspired many of the concepts and institutions that inform our self-perception and our relationships with others in the modern west and beyond, such as democracy, civilization, empire, the science of human difference, and sexuality. Through the close study of these themes in each ancient society, we become aware of their meaning and significance within each specific context, and also of the processes of selection, alteration and interpretation that have been involved in modern receptions. Recognizing both affinities and distance between our own society and those of ancient Athens and Rome, we gain some control over our historical legacy, are able to think for ourselves about its benefits, costs and blindspots, and consider the kind of legacy that we ourselves want to leave behind.