Mediterranean Quests

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With the support of AHA International and the University of Oregon’s Office of International Affairs, I have helped create a multi-site study abroad experience scheduled for the Fall semester, 2014.  The program will be located in Athens, Greece (four weeks), Macerata, Italy (three weeks), and Siena, Italy (three weeks) and is designed for students interested in earning Humanities credits.  I will teach two interdisciplinary courses that will track concepts and themes in literature, art, archaeology, and architecture from Archaic Greece through the medieval period.  The first course, “Holy Heroes,” will explore the category of the hero from the Homeric literature through the saints of the middle ages.  The second course, “Quests for Immortality,” will track views of life, death, and the afterlife from Greco-Roman antiquity through the medieval age.  For more information, please contact me or AHA International.

Ancient and Modern Physiognomy

In this segment from NPR, Bob Mondello explores the role of social media and snap polls in the U.S. debates. He thinks that reality television shows such as American Idol have conditioned Americans to watch events and cast their votes. Moreover, he states that “the things reality shows have conditioned us to look for — polish, brashness, engagement with the camera — are all surface, not things that have much to do with governing.”

Mondello would prefer that we judge candidates according to the effectiveness of their argumentation rather than to superficial qualities such as body language and style. Yet these features have been a regular part of political life for over two thousand years.  The Greeks and Romans in particular were obsessed with physiognomy, a “science” devoted to scrutinizing a person’s various external features, both permanent (e.g., physical size or skin color) and transitory (e.g., comportment, movement, gestures, and vocal intonation) in order to learn about their inner qualities. The body, in other words, provided observers with important clues about a person’s character: as ps.-Aristotle states at the beginning of his Physiognomy, “minds follow their bodies and are not isolated and unaffected by the changes of the body … and the body is clearly affected along with the affectations of the soul” (805a1). This position allows him to conclude, for instance, that “a brilliant complexion indicates a hot, sanguine temper, whilst a pale, pink complexion signifies a talented nature” (806b1). Similarly, soft hair is the sign of a coward, while coarse hair signals a man of courage (806b1).

Maud Gleason’s Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome explores this topic among second-century Roman elites, while Mikeal Parsons’s Body and Character in Luke and Acts demonstrates how the author of these texts engages and subverts common physiognomic assumptions. Simon Swain’s Seeing the Face, Seeing the Soul: Polemon’s Physiognomy from Classical to Medieval Islam combines essays from numerous scholars along with valuable translations of Roman and Islamic texts.

While Mondello is surely right that the external features of candidates are unrelated to their ability to govern effectively, the Western intellectual tradition shows that they are nevertheless instrumental in determining which candidates are given this opportunity.

How Reality TV Turns Debates Into ‘White House Idol’

The Endurance of Greco-Roman Rhetoric


The Greeks and Romans maintained an almost obsessive interest in rhetoric.  From Aristotle to Cicero to Quintilian, authors repeatedly affirmed that mastering the art of persuasive speaking was necessary for any educated (male) citizen to be taken seriously in the public square.  Building upon the study of grammar and logic, rhetoric, according to the ancients, was an essential part of a comprehensive education (enkyklios paideia).  In medieval universities, these three fields constituted the trivium, or the first part of a liberal arts education.  In the following article, Sam Leith considers the rhetorical legacy the ancient world has given to Western language patterns.

Other Men’s Flowers and the Art of Persuasion

Roman Political Campaigns: The Evidence from Pompeii

As we enter the final months of the election season, Americans brace themselves for the negative campaigning that will inevitably flow through all of their media channels.  Yet Political Action Committees, attack ads, and dubious propaganda have a long history in Western politics, as Philip Freeman explains in his essay on the character of political elections in the Roman city of Pompeii.

Negative Campaigning, Pompeii-Style