Part I: On Teaching Ancient Greek and Roman Civilization
More than once, I have heard the comment from non-Classicists that the standard university survey course in Roman civilization should be named Fascism 101. “Only after the midterm,” I reply. The midterm covers material up to and including the assassination of Julius Caesar on the Ides of March (March 15), 44 BCE; the countdown to the final exam begins with Caesar falling dead in the Theater of Pompey, which was being used for meetings of the Roman Senate because the Senate House was being rebuilt, and covers the authoritarian rule of the emperors. Admittedly, I introduce the Roman legion, the main Roman fighting force, early on because its development mirrors that of the state as a whole. And no one can escape the reality that something rare and precious in the body politic of ancient Rome perished forever with Tiberius and Gaius Sempronius Gracchus, the great political and social reformers who came to untimely ends nearly a century before Julius Caesar has his comeuppance. Finally, let’s face it: the Roman legion, along with gladiators and animal fights, is one of the main reasons some people sign up for the course. Every time I teach it, there are students who enter the class already knowing the strategies of most of the major battles. A few of them are more familiar with the different types of catapults and siege engines than is a typical doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering.
In short, although I may emphasize the social, political, and economic aspects of the history of ancient Rome when teaching a general survey course, there is no way to avoid the hobnailed sandals of the Roman legions as they march their standards across much of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. There is always the moment when I show the photos of these standards, with my stomach turning as I point out what would have been the obvious comparison to my parents’ generation: the standards used by the Nazis in their iconography. Classicists may sometimes seem like a quiet bunch researching and teaching an obscure discipline, but collectively the profession has at least its share of responsibility for the propaganda behind the wars and genocides of the last century, when most of the time the type of work we do was much less obscure.
My Quaker friends sometimes ask how I can abide teaching such material. Saying that I am a language and literature specialist who does somewhat more Greek than Latin extricates me for only a few minutes. Someone will inevitably ask about the atrocities committed by both the Athenians and Spartans during the Peloponnesian War, the internecine conflict that ate up any peace dividend the ancient Greeks might have gained after fending off the Persians early in the fifth century BCE. For those of us who saw that the peace dividend after the Cold War was of short duration, there is a lesson to be learned, but that is not their point. “Surely your students are there to learn about the military tactics and the marital patterns of the Spartan warrior class, not which philosopher thought which type of matter was the fundamental building block of the universe.”
Even if a large number those who sign up for electives in Greek and Roman civilization are doing do, at least in part, because of a long-standing interest in military history and the related issues of brutal combat “sport,” that does not make it a poor reason to enroll. Short of learning about coups d’état in the ancient Mediterranean as a way of advocating armed insurrection in the present day —a position which I have never seen at work and which I hope I never will— there are no bad reasons to choose a course which crosses a such a huge number of disciplines and provides numerous opportunities in every lecture to think critically about our own society. Social and military history, literature, philosophy, gender studies, material culture and architecture, technology, agriculture, sports, economics, and environmental studies are some, but by no means all of the fields we touch upon over the semester. Despite increasing enrollments in all of our courses, we encourage critical thinking and synthesis through writing. Besides, when it comes to military history, I have known more than one member of a Quaker peace committee to sublimate frustrations at work by aiming to get the Romans to defeat the Vandals, Huns, and Visigoths via a computer simulation.
How, then, do I teach military history and combat “entertainment”? I emphasize that my goal is not to teach people to think as I do (even if I wanted to do so, that would not be appropriate), but rather to encourage a deeper understanding of conflict and its causes, as well as their expression in literature and art. I start my discussions of military hardware and gladiatorial combat with the confession that these are not my areas of expertise and interest, and that, even if they were, my class time is limited. Paper topics are set up to accommodate particular areas of discussion. Inevitably, that leads to upwards of a third of my Roman Civ. students writing essays on gladiator figurines —a sobering statistic now that the course enrollment has been increased to 180 students!— but once again, that is not the point. The reality is that the minimalist approach is unsatisfactory for all of us.
Two years ago I revamped the discussion of the Roman military to include Cicero’s substantial contribution to the development of what is called the just war theory (a subject that is already discussed in Wheelock, the textbook that is used by those students who take Latin) and, in the brief space at the end of the semester when we cover the development of Christianity, a brief reference to pacifist and non-pacifist thought in the early Church. The latter turned out to be a necessity because a few (admittedly, only a few) students who had heard of it somewhere else wrote on their exams that “the Roman empire collapsed because the soldiers were Christians, and as Christians they refused to fight.” My discussion of the just war theory has met with mixed degrees of interest in both Latin language and Roman survey classes, but those who have looked at it in depth have run the gamut of professional interests and, to the limited degree that I can tell, underlying beliefs about war and peace. Indeed, some of the most perceptive responses to short essay questions on Cicero have been from students with no philosophical or religious objections to the use of military force per se, but who are looking for ways to reduce the incidence of it.
More people have responded to my decision to include two fifty-minute PowerPoints on the Roman economy and environmental issues in the Roman world. Many students have found it distressing that the Pax Romana, the generally peaceful period in the “high” Roman Empire in the first two centuries of the Current Era, reached its limits not only against more nimble invaders, but also sputtered when confronted with problems in the food supply, disease, and instability in climate. All of these became major factors in the third century CE. The success of the Roman legions, which were stretched rather thin through most of the empire, depended on the acculturation of millions of people, a decent standard of living, and, most of all, food. This is panem et circenses (bread and circuses), if one likes, but almost all of my students are concerned about the prospect of environmental instability in our own day leading to social instability, or worse, disruptions in the food supply.
On the Greek side, one of the most popular paper topics for my class this winter was failures and successes in peace treaties and negotiations during the fifth and early fourth centuries BCE. Once again, Quakers would not find most of these papers written from a pacifist perspective, but would nevertheless see a number of thoughtful discussions of Greek arbitration. For the final exam, the most popular question allowed students to compare issues drawn from two lists which I provided in advance. The first list covered any major event from the First Peloponnesian War (460 BCE) through the trial and death of Socrates (399 BCE); the second list included about a dozen major events in the last century, such as issues leading to the outbreak of World War I, the Treaty of Versailles, the Cold War, and Canada-US relations since 1945. The latter list emphasized topics the students would have seen in high school history (I had access to the Ontario curriculum when designing the question), although they were encouraged to look at secondary literature while approaching all aspects of the question.
Part II: What can Quakers say about the tendency to encourage military service as a means of funding higher education?
Encouraging post-secondary to think more broadly about issues of war and peace, regardless of the conclusions they may draw, may come to naught if an increasing number of them cannot afford to attend college or university. This brings me to the second military matter that I see in my work as an academic and one which happens to be especially relevant this week, given that International Conscientious Objectors Day is upon us on May 15 (see here to a link from the Peace Pledge Union describing the day). Very often in the United States, and to some extent in Canada and other English-speaking countries, students who are having trouble paying for their educations are encouraged to sign up for the military. This raises a number of troubling concerns. Here I am not talking about students who whose wish to pursue a military career arises from their own convictions (although I would support those who have doubts about such service, as well as the appreciable number of people who have changed their views about the armed forces once confronted with what military service entails), but rather those who see few alternatives.
Friends and others have done a superb job of trying to find legal ways out of the military, primarily in the US, for those who have enlisted in the armed forces, but who have come to object to military service on moral grounds. While some of these men and women signed up out of conviction, a large number did so for economic reasons, including support for post-secondary study. One of the best examples of this work is that of Quaker House in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Other Friends have tried to help those who have heard of soldiers coming to Canada during the Vietnam and tried to follow their example. This has NOT been successful, despite the use of all available legal avenues. The policy of the Canadian government has long since changed. The young people involved in recent years have been deported back to the US and court-martialed. (Note to anyone reading this post who is either thinking of following suit or encouraging someone else to do so: I urge you to Contact Quaker House in Fayetteville and/or the GI rights hotlines in the States.) Finally, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a number of Quaker Meetings, and non-sectarian peace organizations such as the Center on Conscience and War have worked at counteracting the all-pervasive nature of military recruitment by helping young people find ways of achieving their goals without enlisting. Thanks to the efforts of the Canadian Friends Service Committee (CFSC), a Canadian brochure which covers this topic can be found here. More work on counter-recruitment can and should be done, in all English-speaking countries.
Other than publicity (which is a serious problem in and of itself, especially to those who have been raised in a military culture), perhaps the biggest impediment to encouraging alternatives to military enlistment for people who want to attend college or university is indebtedness. Most young people from English-speaking countries who need help funding their post-secondary education will turn to loans. Students from lower-income families are the most likely to be steered to loans and the least likely to complete their degrees, making them reluctant to become indebted.
What can we as Quakers say about that?
|Another photograph of Kristin Lord by Peter Stettenheim.|
This was taken two years after the first one.