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    Teaching the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World Essay

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    After teaching a lecture course called “The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World” at Beloit College in the spring of 1996,1 decided to bring it to the attention of other classicists, for three reasons. First, it attracted, and engaged the interest of, a large number of students. Judging by their frequent in-class references to The Learning Channel, I assume that this is partly because of the current popularity of the Wonders (and other topics related to archaeology) on some cable television channels. Second, I have not heard of a similar course being taught anywhere else. I would be interested to hear whether such courses have in fact been offered elsewhere, and with what success. But the main reason why I think this course deserves publicity is the compelling nature of its overarching theme: how members of one culture view other cul tures, and what use they make of other cultures in their own world. In other words, the title of the course is only a partial reflection of its content. Each of its seven main sections includes, in addition to lectures on the construction of one of the Wonders, lectures (and opportunities for class discussion) on the cultural and historical context in which the monument was created, and on the meaning which it assumed in later years.

    Raising these issues in a course on the Seven Wonders has several advantages. From a classicist’s point of view, it obviates the necessity for expertise in Egyptology and Assyriology: I presented the Pyramid of Giza and the Hanging Gardens of Babylon prima rily from the perspective of the Greek and Roman writers who provide so much written testimony about them. The same issues of point of view and cultural cross-fertilization also surfaced when I presented the Nachleben of each monument, with the result that by the time the course ended, the students had been reminded of the connections between their world and the ancient Mediterranean in two ways. Besides seeing some of the broad sweep of Mediterra nean history, from antiquity to the present, they focused in the final section of the course on the crucial period of the late eighteenth and  nineteenth centuries in Europe, which saw the development of Egyptology, Assyriology, and Classics, as well as unprecedented uses of ancient ideas and symbols in the formation of modern national identities. Hence they gained some insight into the work ings of academic disciplines, and the cross-fertilizations that have taken place in both the past and the present between academia and “the real world.” Texts for the course were four in number. All were chosen with the assumption that most of the students in the class knew nothing of the ancient Mediterranean. The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, edited by Peter Clayton and Martin Price (London 1991), provides basic information on the history (ancient and modem) of all seven monuments, as well as a brief guide to the creation of the canonical list of seven during the Renaissance. Lionel Casson’s Travel in the Ancient World (Baltimore 1994), pronounced entertain ing and readable by students, reinforced the general historical information dispensed in class and gave a lively picture of tourism in antiquity. For a general introduction to mythology I chose Barry Powell’s Classical Myth (Englewood Cliffs 1995). David Grene’s translation of Herodotus (Chicago 1988) rounded out the list. Half of the course grade came from eight quizzes: one on each of the monument-sections of the course, and a final geography/chronol ogy quiz. I allowed students to drop one of these grades. The other half of the course grade came from the final project, an account of five wonders of the modem world (see below).

    The course is organized as follows: The first week is spent orienting students to the relevant geography, chronology, and history. The emphasis from the beginning is not on the Wonders alone, but rather on the cultures that produced them. I should mention that I also stress basic knowledge of geography and chro nology throughout the course (as I find it necessary to do in every class I teach). The first handout students received was a timeline of ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern history, with the dates of construction of the seven Wonders added. I chose the room in which I taught the Seven Wonders class because it had an enormous pull down map of the Mediterranean and the Near East, to which I referred almost daily. I also frequently distributed maps, xeroxed mainly from Michael Grant’s Atlas of Classical History (New York 1994). In the final quiz, students were asked to put in chronological order a jumbled list of people and events stretching from Khufu (Cheops) to Mussolini, and to add to a map of the Mediterranean the names of the seven Wonders in their proper places.

    To return to a synopsis of the course: During weeks two through twelve, we spent two to four class sessions on each of the seven Wonders. These lectures include not only descriptions of the monu ments themselves and their Nachleben, but also topics related to each monument and the culture that produced it. An example is barbarians in the eyes of Classical Greeks. Students read extended passages in Herodotus, not only his description of Babylon (while they learned about the Hanging Gardens), but also his characteriza tions of the Persians and Scythians and his account of the Greek resistance to barbarian invasion (as background for the statue of Zeus at Olympia). They also saw, and heard about, references to the Greek victory in the iconography of classical Athens. Two more examples, introduced during sessions on the Artemision at Ephesos, are the phenomenon of mother-goddess worship and the myth of the Amazons, including the recent archaeological evidence from north of the Black Sea which may corroborate Herodotus’ descrip tion of these women. During sessions on the Pharos of Alexandria, besides providing a general introduction to Alexandrian culture, I touched on Cleopatra and the multiple meanings that she has assumed over the centuries. The issue of Afrocentrism and the responses of classicists to Bernal’s Black Athena (New Brunswick 1987, 1991) were natural corollaries to this.

    I presented a brief lecture on the topic, followed by discussion. The topic of weeks twelve through fourteen was the attitudes to antiquities evinced by people from the Roman period to the present. In other words, having looked at the seven Wonders through the eyes of ancient writers like Herodotus, we then turned to the points of view adopted by people closer to our own day. During this phase of the course students heard about and reflected on the Grand Tour, the Greek War of Independence, and the ongoing debate over the Parthenon marbles. We also considered some of the modern political uses of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian antiquities, examin ing briefly the attitudes of Napoleon, Mussolini, and Hitler to the artefacts of the ancient Mediterranean. During the last week of class, students presented excerpts from their final projects: accounts of five wonders of the modern world. What is crucial in this exercise is not so much the monuments they chose to write about, but rather the point of view or persona they adopted and the underlying assumptions they revealed as they wrote: Did they wish to seem skeptical, awestruck, curious, ostensi bly impartial? I asked students to consider taking Herodotus as a model in terms of persona or style (or both), and several of them did, composing lengthy digressions, comparanda and complex aetiologies. Several chose to describe monuments located in the Mid west-the Mall of America, I discovered, lends itself particularly well to Herodotean analysis. Of course, several students placed their narrators in a remote post-holocaust future of some sort, unable to recognize the Statue of Liberty, etc., a la David Macaulay’s Motel of the Mysteries (Boston 1979)

     As I said to my students at the beginning of my remarks on Bernal, Lefkowitz et al., my goal that day, and indeed throughout the course, was to show them that Classics is neither monolithic nor static. A course on the seven Wonders could also demonstrate this while focusing on entirely different topics, chosen to take advan- tage of another instructor’s strengths and interests: architectural history, travel narratives, comparative mythology, cultural studies. But I believe that wherever the focus lies, a course with the Wonders as its framework will succeed not only in drawing large numbers of students, but also in demonstrating to them the vitality of our discipline and the connections between it and them.

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