In Ancient Athens, our middle school history class, The Iliad provides context for understanding the birth of democracy.

In recent weeks we have been reading, analyzing, and memorizing three passages from The Iliad, a story that begins in the tenth year of the Trojan War. After nine years of fighting, Agamemnon’s authority is deteriorating rapidly. As commander of the Greek forces, he repeatedly urges his troops to give up and go home. As the Greeks struggle with how to bring an end to the war, we hear the voices of princes, accomplished warriors, and even foot soldiers. This is the first time we see a public forum in which people young and old, aristocratic and common, appeal to a whole assembly.

Through this, we begin to see that ultimately it is an assembly of the people that grants authority to its leaders. And as the foundational Greek story, the Iliad is an essential historical text for understanding the development of the Greeks through the Mycenaean Age of the kings, to the Dark Ages of the oikos, and to the emergence of the polis, which eventually led to democracy.

So how do we go about studying all of these aspects of literature and history? We have had all-class discussions about the basis of authority, debating whether is it inherited, god-given, merit-based, derived from popularity, or the result of intimidation and fear. We are also working in class, in both small groups and individually, to develop a thesis on one of three topics:

  • the roles of the orator, council, and assembly;
  • unqualified obedience to authority vs. communal participation in decision making; or
  • the common good vs. self interest.

During Block 1, students were given a thesis statement on which to base their persuasive essay. Now they are learning to develop their own thesis statements oriented around one of these three topics. They will go on to develop their theses into full essays, giving each student the opportunity to focus on making a persuasive argument about an aspect of Homer's text.

We will go on this block to read Plutarch’s mythological account of Theseus as the facilitator of synoikismos (unification of Attica under Athens) and the father of democracy. This will lead us to the historical account of the birth of democracy and a full study of the democratic system in the Golden Age of Athens.

Our study of Ancient Athens, and specifically how The Iliad introduces the birth of democracy, is well suited to this year's election. Students are seeing that the sophisticated democratic model in modern nations like the United States is not all that different from the ancient world. We see the same questions of authority based on merit, popularity, and fear being played out in our public forum in ways that are strikingly similar to Agamemnon and the ancient Greeks. In this sense, Ancient Athens is not so ancient after all.

-- Ilyse Gordis