Archive for the ‘Ancient History’ Category

Researching the early Middle Ages for an upcoming seminar, I came across this interesting tidbit which I thought you might enjoy.  It is a serendipitous connection with the ancient world of Aesop, in particular Androcles and the Lion, early Medieval history and the world of contemporary children’s books!  It is a fairly well-known and accepted fact that fables and fairy tales are adapted and transmogrified (don’t you love that word?) which means changed in appearance or form, sometimes in a bizarre way, by every culture that grows to know and love them. Aesop is told and retold by successive generations in a manner that reflects that generation’s worldview, beliefs, struggles, hopes, and dreams.

Aesop’s Tale of Androcles and the Lion involves a Greek slave who runs away from his master, comes upon a lion lamed by a thorn in his paw, removes the thorn and then the lion and Androcles live for a time in the den of the lion; here the lion brings Androcles fresh meat each day.  Later both the slave and the lion are captured and Androcles is sentenced to death in the amphitheater–where like may other unfortunates, he will die as sport of hungry lions.  But, in this case the lion happens to be Androcles’ friend, and despite his hunger he refuses to harm his friend, and rather fawns over him.  The astonished crowd demands the prisoner’s release and both Androcles and the lion are spared.  The moral of the story is that “Gratitude is the sign of noble souls.”

After the dawn of Christianity, the tale was told in much the same way except that Androcles is now a Christian, rather than an escaped slave, and is condemned to die for his faith in the Roman coliseum.  The ending is quite the same, with the grateful lion refusing to devour his friend and both of them being spared.  Later the same tale is appropriated by the Catholic Church and in this case the kind thorn-remover is St. Jerome (327-420).  Now, St. Jerome is an important figure in the Church as he was the first to translate the Greek New Testament into Latin, and ultimately the entire Bible from Hebrew into Latin.  This version is the Latin Vulgate edition and is still used today.  He is famous also for being an eyewitness to the Visigoth sacking of Rome, where he lamented, “My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth and sobs choke my speech.”  The painting at right is by Italian Renaissance artist, Niccolo Catalonia and is entitled, “St. Jerome in his Study.”  In the Jerome version of the lion tale, after the lion is helped by the saint, he remains at the monastery as a protector and pet and often even helps with household chores–the moral I suppose that “he who does not work shall not eat.”

Finally, that brings us the most contemporary edition of this tale–Andy and the Lion by James Daugherty. You may recognize Daugherty’s name as he is also author of The Landing of the Pilgrims, The Magna Charta, Poor Richard and Of Courage Undaunted–all excellent books.  But he is best known for his version of the Androcles tale. In every way this rendition is the most quintessentially American it could possibly be–involving a barefooted but benevolent American youngster who helps a lion that has escaped from a circus (where else?) and features the sort of kind-hearted, simple folks of small town life.  It is nostalgic to read, even if you’ve never lived in this type of rural setting, and is a rendition of which I think, even Aesop would have approved.  The moral of this story is “kindness remembered, or the power of gratitude.”

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I promised I would continue to address the importance of classical literature at the high school level for those doing ancient studies and in particular how these could be added into a current study using the Ancient History Through Literature Study Guide. While The Greek Way by Edith Hamilton is currently used in the above study, another treasure we found recently was the author’s work on ancient Rome in The Roman Way.  In validating for a high school student the importance of classical knowledge I appreciate Albert Einstein’s perspective. His notions of the modern tendency to cultural myopia—seeing the world only through the narrow constraints of our own contemporary lens—seem particularly apropos at this juncture:

Somebody who only reads newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses. He is completely dependent on the
prejudices and fashions of his times, since he never gets to see or hear anything else. There are only a few enlightened people with a lucid mind and style and with good taste within a century. What has been preserved of their work belongs among the most precious possessions of mankind. We owe it to a few writers of antiquity (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) that the people in the Middle Ages could slowly extricate themselves from the superstitions and ignorance that had darkened life for more than half a millennium. Nothing is more needed to overcome the modernist’s snobbishness.

A contemporary author who has made the classical works more accessible to this generation is Edith Hamilton.  Both her The Greek Way and The Roman Way can act as primers for those of us not well-versed in the ancient classics.  In The Greek Way Hamilton introduces students to the great minds of ancient Greece, shot through with a clear Judeo-Christian perspective. Lavish seminal quotations portray the ancient’s continual pursuit of truth and beauty, exposing the young scholar to an appreciation for the birth of philosophy—the love of wisdom. For Hamilton, an understanding of the Greek way is essential to true education. She shows deftly how ancient Greece established the Western foundations of art, literature, architecture, sculpture, drama, tragedy, comedy, philosophy, and science, and overarching all is the relentless and intractable pursuit of truth. As Hamilton notes, these Athenians, “being free from masters they used their freedom to think. For the first time in the world the mind was free, free as it hardly is today.” We moderns would do well to sit with Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Their wisdom can inform and enlighten our understanding of God and the transcendent truth to which we ascribe as Christians in a postmodern world.

In The Roman Way, students will have the opportunity to see how Greek philosophy carried over to Rome and enabled Rome for a time to establish an empire built upon republican principles of law and civil order. Reading the letters of Cicero is instructive in light of the apathy and indifference that allowed Rome’s noble system of government to fall victim to usurpation and abuse of power. The poetry of Horace, his love of simplicity and gentle virtue, the love poems of Cattallus, and the war diaries of Caesar all form the foundations of modern history and literature. While this cursory overview is hardly reflective of the riches to be mined in studying this period, those that are fortunate enough to discover the treasures here will likely form a lifetime curiosity that will lead them into still greater discoveries.  A high school student (and his or her home schooling parent!) given the opportunity to sit with the greatest minds of all time will have an amazing lens through which to understand, judge, and discern, the universal issues of life, politics, and the human heart.

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Since a number of you have read my article in this summer’s edition of The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, “Crossing the Educational Rubicon: Charlotte Mason through High School” some questions have been posed to me since the article has variations from my Ancient History Through Literature Study Guide.  So I will clarify some things here as well as give you some things to be looking for as the upcoming school year unfolds.

First of all, the Ancient History Study Guide will stand quite well on its own, and there is no need to supplement or enhance unless you chose to do so.  Since my experience in teaching these various subject areas is always evolving and since the world of book publishing is continually changing, I often discover new jewels that can be added to a particular historical period that either weren’t available when I wrote the guide or I just didn’t have the knowledge or confidence to attempt them. Such is the case regarding the ancient period, as in the last few years countless titles have come out for young people on the various topics related to the classical world of ancient Sumer, Egypt, Greece and Rome.

Also, I recently had the privilege of working with a wonderful and experienced teacher team-teaching this period to a class of high school girls!  That aroused a whole new level of research, interest, and delight in discovering the treasures of the ancients.  One work that was particularly meaningful was the Epic of Gilgamesh by Geraldine McCaughrean. McCaughrean–a British author, has been awarded the Whitbread Prize on the three occasions, as well as the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Award.  As a contemporary children’s author you cannot attain a much higher level of honor and recognition for a body of work. So I recommend her highly and in the case of the Epic of Gilgamesh, she offers a wonderful way to introduce this historical work to your student in her book, Gilgamesh the Hero.

In the world of epic literature, Gilgamesh stands as the very first, and as a literary work offers a valuable way to introduce and learn the stages of the heroic quest (also referred to as the Hero’s Journey), a series of events that every heroic figure must go through to apotheosis or catharsis.  Once you’ve learned the hero’s quest you will never look at literature in the same way.  Indeed, analyzing heroic figures from the Bible takes on a richer and deeper meaning as well.  See my previous blog posting entitled “What is the Heroic Quest? under Ancient History.  So for those introducing this for the first time I recommend McCaughrean’s book or those teaching high school level can opt for a recent translation by David Ferry. Do preview before delving into this with your student.  Now, the exciting part is that in 3-4 weeks we will be offering a downloadable ebook with study notes for this epic which will make this approachable and user friendly.  So watch the blog for announcements.  We will also be working on notes for the Stanley Lombardo translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey and making those available in the fall as well.  I will continue to post more on this topic in the coming days related to teaching this at the high school level and using the works of Edith Hamilton and Stanley Lombardo for those teaching at the high school level.

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The Biblical story of Noah has its counterpart in nearly every culture around the world and has been interpreted in a variety of forms.  But only the Old Testament version has the complete scope of elements that make it such a literary classic and one which has been interpreted again and again by some of the best children’s book authors and illustrators.  Peter Spier’s nearly wordless edition won the Caldecott Medal in 1978 and remains one of my favorites.  It begins with a lovely lyrical poem by Jacobus Revius (1586-1658) that would make a wonderful work for bright young minds to memorize.  It begins like this:

High and long,

Thick and strong

Wide and stark,

Was the ark.51R7QD3M6VL_002

Climb aboard,

Said the Lord.

Noah’s kin

Clambered in.

Other editions that capture the wonder and magnificence of this story are Arthur Geisert’s The Ark and Lisbeth Zwerger’s Noah’s Ark.  Geisert is a master in pen and ink and his detailed drawings capture the grand scope of this drama. In Zwerger’s edition she adds surrealistic elements (unicorns and centaurs make an appearance) that allow the story to transcend a concrete world of time and space.  Noah’s family at times look as though they could be contemporary Jews escaping the holocaust (except for an anachronistic hat or other article of clothing) which of course lends the tale a deeper and broader impact for pondering.  Zwerger’s use of space transcends the concrete material world and lends a mystery and delight to a beloved tale.

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For any reader interested in an overall understanding of ancient history, Genevieve Foster’s Augustus Caesar’s World presents an engaging, entertaining, and fascinating look at the seminal events and persons of the major empires of antiquity.  Written using her innovative “horizontal history” approach, Foster takes the reader into the personal lives of such notable persons as Herod, Cleopatra, Octavian, Antony, Brutus, and of course, Julius Caesar. Beyond Rome, readers will be introduced to the lives of Siddhartha,  Confucius, Gamaliel, Horace, Cicero, Vergil and more.  The book opens with the intrigue involved in the plot to assassinate Caesar, but extends far beyond that to the seminal figures of Ancient China, Persia, India, Israel and more.  For a more extensive introduction to this wonderful book,  see Kerry Walter’s review at amazon.com.  For those new to a study of ancient history, or those just needing  a refresher course, this is a delightful choice.

Augustus Caesar’s World

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The Heroic Quest is an important literary device that allows readers to identify the consistent and recurring motifs that form epic literature.  Analyzing literature using the elements of the heroic quest enables readers to see the deeper meanings inherent in classic literature.  Basic elements of the heroic quest are as follows:

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Since I am currently immersed in the civilization of the ancients, I will be posting the best books I’ve found for teaching this period of history to your students. From the Epic of Gilgamesh, to D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, to The Story of Jonah by Peter Spier, there exists a

wealth of gorgeous children’s books in this category.  This was not always the case particularly for the youngest student, as the offerings were slim to none.  It was often the case that the only beautifully illustrated and lyrically written books for young children on ancient times were Bible stories.  While this is an important element of ancient study, there were few books that presented the ancient civilizations of Sumer, Greece, Egypt, Persia, China, etc.  This situation has changed for the better, and now those wishing to use children’s literature to teach this important subject have much more to choose from.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Gilgamesh the Hero by Geraldine McCaughrean–this abridged and edited edition of civilization’s first epic is delightfully retold by the award-winning and expert lyrical crafts-woman McCaughrean.  This epic is important for the literary elements it introduces (see What is the Heroic Quest? in my other posts), and for the fact that it is mankind’s first recorded epic work.  It is a clear reflection of Sumerian ideology and many elements within this story are also reflected in Biblical narratives as well.  The story of Utnapishtim is another telling of the biblical flood story of Noah.  Contrasting Utnapishtim’s story with Noah’s makes for a wonderful exercise in world views.

Another all-time favorite of mine for this period of history is Peter Spier’s Book of Jonah.  While the story of Jonah is a seminal part of our cultural heritage, not until I read Spier’s edition did I really understand the story behind the story.  What the bible doesn’t tell us is that Jonah feared going to Nineveh because Nineveh was the seat of the hated Assyrian Empire.  Known for their cruelty and draconian punishments, Jonah’s fear is completely understandable.  Mr. Spier’s lovely watercolors and thorough back matter make this book an essential part of an ancient history study.

For Ancient Greece the inimitable classic of Greek mythology continues to be D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths by Ingri and Edgar Parin d’Aulaire.  This husband-wife author/illustrator team first won acclaim when they published the Caldecott Medal winner of 1940–Abraham Lincoln.  Using an old-world craft of stone lithography, the artists managed to imbue their illustrations with a lovely depth of color and beauty.  While their book on the Greek myths does not reflect that craft very well, it does present their classical background and their ability to make an extensive pantheon understandable to the lay reader.  They also have a homey and comfortable understanding of what is appropriate for the young reader and thus, make these tales suitable for even the very young.

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