Coming Back to the Classics

Coming Back to the Classics

Don’t know your Ares from your Aries?  Or Circe from Ceres?  And who did Aristotle teach, again?  No problem!  This month, we’ll look at resources here at IU East that address the Classics – Greek and Roman mythology, culture, society, politics and philosophy.  Once considered the foundation for any young person’s education, the Classical world continues to influence popular culture throughout the Western world to modern times. 

Frontispiece for The Whole Works of Homer, Prince of Poets, Translated by George Chapman. The first English language translation, completed in 1616. Adobe stock #162413169. Licensed for educational use.


The Iliad and The Odyssey, two epic poems in blank verse, were first written down between 2500 and 3000 years ago, likely from the memory of bards who had been reciting them for years previous.  While both poems are historically considered the work of a single person known as Homer, his or her true identity remains a mystery.  Still, these two long-form poems covering the events of the Trojan War and the ten-year return of the clever hero Odysseus to his homeland, Ithaca, comprise one of the bases for western literature.  Their influence endures to the present day: The 2000 Coen  Brothers film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” is based on the Odyssey, concerning the return of its protagonist to his beloved, while numerous fictional works, including both of Madeline Miller’s acclaimed novels, center on events and characters found in these works. 

In addition to the poems, playwrights contributed greatly to our knowledge and understanding of Greek life, culture and ideas.  Tragedians such as Aeschylus and Euripedes, as well as comedic writers like Aristophanes, wrote numerous plays featuring Greek gods, goddesses, heroes and royal figures.  While few exist today, the ones that do still find their way to the modern stage.  

From left: Plato and Socrates. Adobe stock#46390770. Licensed for educational use.


Some of the foundations of Western thought hinge on philosophy, the study of how we understand the world around us via thought, reason and truth.  Western philosophy begins with the ancient Greeks – the term “Philosophy” was created by Pythagoras, of mathematics fame and much of what we think of as philosophy began with Socrates (469-399 BCE.)  His ideas, which have been famously distilled as “The examined life is the only life worth living,” were carried on through his student Plato and Plato’s student, Aristotle. Their ideas, theories and notes have influenced everything from logic to rhetoric, and with Aristotle as tutor to Alexander the Great, Greek philosophy spread from Greece alongside the Red Sea all the way to Gandhara (modern Afghanistan/Pakistan). 

Heracles fights the centaur Nessus. Adobe stock #98896258. Licensed for educational use.


“Who put the glad in Gladiator?  Hercules!” Disney’s take may be upbeat and cheery, but the real story of Herakles (his Greek name, also spelled Heracles) is rather dark and mordant.  Son of chief god Zeus and Queen Alcmene of Thebes (granddaughter of hero Perseus, who slew Medusa), Herakles was famous for completing the 12 Labors.  Why did he complete them?  Because in a fit of madness believed to be spurred by Zeus’ wife Hera, he slaughtered his wife and two sons.  The Labors were punishment and intended as a form of purification as well.  Greek mythology is full of complicated characters whose motivations, while often blamed on the gods, led to acts of both virtue and irrationality, grace and folly.  Or, in other words, they are human characters, fully formed and placed in unusual situations.  Their humanity, their responses under pressure and the occasionally capricious, occasionally wise actions of the gods make the stories of Greek mythology timeless.  To this day they are told and retold, in movies, in popular fiction and, yes, in Disney films.

Roman mythology, contrary to popular belief, did not simply adopt the Greek gods and rename them.  They augmented some of the gods’ powers and deeds (for example, Dionysus was renamed Bacchus and more highly revered in Roman culture because of his explicit connection to wine, while Hades/Pluto was granted dominion over wealth as much as the dead.)  Roman authors, such as Apuleius, added more stories to the mythological canon, including the ever-popular story of Cupid and Psyche, while Virgil’s Aeneid was based on the adventures of Aeneas, a refugee from the Trojan War.

Roman Pantheon, built ca. 113-125 CE. Adobe stock#55873373. Licensed for educational use.

As classics scholar Francis Comford wrote, “The ancient classics resemble the universe. They are always there, and they are very much the same as ever. But as the philosophy of every new age puts a fresh construction on the universe, so in the classics scholarship finds a perennial object for ever fresh and original interpretation.”  Indeed, the classics continue to inspire because of their very universality and timelessness, along with the way they have integrated themselves into our daily lives.  Whether you think Aries is a constellation or a Chrysler K-Car model from the early 1980s, or if your class is taught using the Socratic Method, or if you absolutely love seeing Brad Pitt ham it up as the famous warrior Achilles, the classics are everywhere.  Want to know more about Greek and Roman life?  Interested in discovering more about Greek government and its influence on modern times?  Curious about ancient Roman architecture, ruins, volcanoes and calendrical systems?  Ask us! or simply click this button:

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