Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature

Course No. 2390
Professor David J. Schenker, Ph.D.
University of Missouri, Columbia
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Course No. 2390
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Course Overview

All our lives, we've been taught the importance of the ancient Greeks to so much of the world that came after them, and particularly to our own way of living in and seeing that world. Mention politics, philosophy, law, medicine, history, even the visual arts, and we barely scratch the surface of what we owe this extraordinary culture.

How can we best learn about these people who have given us so much; who have deepened and enriched our understanding of ourselves?

We can look to modern historians for perspectives on the origins of their own discipline, and on the two thinkers, Herodotus and Thucydides, whose contributions to that discipline were immense. To political scientists for the links between the U.S. Senate and the councils of Athens. And to teachers of philosophy for insights to illuminate the deepest implications found in Plato.

But there is an entirely different perspective found in another of their great legacies—the classic Greek literature that is still read today and that is still able to engage and enthrall us. Would we find that Herodotus, Thucydides, and Plato might engage us in advanced levels of understanding when their works are examined as not only history or philosophy, but as literature, their words weighed and forms shaped as carefully as those of any poem or drama?

To Know Them Is to Know Ourselves

From the viewpoint of Professor David J. Schenker, the answer is "absolutely yes." In Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature he offers a view of literature that roams beyond a common definition of the word. By introducing us to a world that remains far closer than we might imagine, he opens up to us the epics of Homer; the dramatic genius of the playwrights Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes; and the poems of Archilochus, Sappho, and many others. He includes some of the world's greatest works of history and philosophy, and he gives rhetoric and oratory their proper due as well.

"We might disagree with the Romantic poet Shelley that 'we are all Greeks,'" Professor Schenker notes. "But we can indeed trace back to them, in some cases through them, much of what makes us who we are today. ... To study the Greeks is a valuable lesson in what we can call cultural literacy. To know them is to know ourselves. Or, as the Roman statesman Cicero said, 'If you don't know where you come from, you'll always be a child.'

"We do, in many ways, come from the Greeks, and in order to function as responsible and productive human beings, it's important that we know something about the Greeks."

Beginning with Homer and the two great epics credited to him, the Iliad and the Odyssey—including a provocative discussion of whether Homer even existed—Professor Schenker offers a wide-ranging overview of the subject that is instructive and entertaining.

For example, you'll learn that the arming scenes so familiar to us in action films, the moments when heroes prepare for the climactic battle—clicking magazines into assault rifles, tossing ammunition belts over shoulders, and slamming sharpened bayonets into scabbards—go all the way back to Homer and perhaps even earlier.

In epics like the Iliad and Odyssey, the tension is built very slowly during a traditional formulaic scene, with the hero shown preparing for battle one piece of armor or a single weapon at a time, donning breastplate, helmet, shield, sword, and other paraphernalia of war one by one before venturing out to meet his opponent.

In another example of Professor Schenker's ability to entertain while he informs, you'll experience a famous moment from Euripides's Medea as its original Athenian audiences might have.

Hear a Change of Language Turn a Statement into a Hiss

After Professor Schenker reads, first in English, an enraged and murderous Medea's tirade to Jason, the lover who has betrayed her, he repeats its famous first line, "I saved your life, and every Greek knows I saved it" in Greek.

Esosa s'os isasin hosoi, he intones, and you hear how the repetitive sibilants must have sounded centuries ago, hovering in the Athenian air like the cold threat of a hissing snake.

That moment's impact echoes throughout the lectures. Professor Schenker presents his material largely chronologically, with occasional breaks to group works by genre. He delivers again and again on what he calls the course's guiding principle: "These are not museum pieces to be venerated because of their age, but works of great literature that remain compelling, meaningful, and enjoyable."

And often startling, as well: Greek authors of the Classical period, including those as revered as Aristophanes, Herodotus, and Plato, did not cede to Homer alone recognition as the originator of Greek literature; they included in the same breath the name of the poet Hesiod (c. 750 B.C.E.). You'll learn about his Theogony, which includes in its 1,000 lines a gold mine of mythological data about the births of the gods and their organization of the world, as well as a compelling narrative about Zeus and his rise to power as king of the gods.

Equally remarkable is the story told of the debut of Aeschylus's The Eumenides, first staged in Athens in 458 B.C.E. It is said to have elicited full-blown terror in its audience. When the Furies—the hideous, avenging spirits roused from sleep by the ghost of the murdered Clytemnestra—appeared in the audience, men shrieked and fainted, and pregnant women miscarried on the spot!

A Partnership of Knowledge and Ruthlessness

The unmatched manuscript collection of the great Library of Alexandria—which, after the death of Alexander the Great, became the intellectual heart of the Greek-speaking world—was assembled through the ruthlessness of the ruling Ptolemies. Visitors to the city, or any arriving ship, had to surrender all manuscripts in their possession for the library's scribes to copy, with the copies returned to their owners and the originals kept by the library! In fact, when the city of Athens allowed the Ptolemies to borrow, with a high security payment, its precious copies of the Athenian tragedies, the Ptolemies chose to forfeit the security payment. Those manuscripts were added to a collection so vast that estimates place its numbers in the hundreds of thousands of volumes.

Almost no complete works by lyric poet Sappho, who is referred to by some in antiquity as the Tenth Muse, have survived. Although her collected works filled nine papyrus scrolls in the Library of Alexandria, most of what we have today, with few exceptions, are fragments—sometimes single lines, often only a word or two—that came from scraps of papyrus or quotations from later authors. Nevertheless, her reputation as one of the ancient world's most passionate voices is secure. The 2005 confirmation of a newly discovered Sappho poem on a piece of papyrus used in a mummy wrapping was, in Professor Schenker's words, "cause for celebration."

The same can be said about Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature and the opportunity it gives us to deepen our understanding of a culture that has given us so much. In these ancient works we can confront, as Professor Schenker notes when discussing the Iliad and Odyssey, "timeless questions and problems that define our human condition." Moreover, these questions serve, for us as much as for the ancient Greeks, "as foundation for all that follows."

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Definitions, Boundaries, and Goals
    We define "ancient," "Greek," and "masterpiece" before moving on to discuss the importance of reading these works and the best ways to do so. x
  • 2
    Homer I—Introduction to Epic and Iliad
    This lecture introduces the Homeric epics, examines how the theory that they were composed orally might influence our reading, and summarizes essential mythological background before moving on to an overview of the Iliad and a deeper discussion of Book 1. x
  • 3
    Homer II—Iliad, The Wrath of Achilles
    We explore the themes and action of books 2–9 of the Iliad, including the poet's imaginative presentation of chronology and a remarkable concentration of scenes that explore the possibility of peace or cooperation in the midst of war. x
  • 4
    Homer III—Iliad, The Return of Achilles
    We complete the Iliad, focusing on Achilles's return to battle and its aftermath, learning that Homer's Achilles is not only Greece's greatest warrior but also a man struggling with the values of his culture and the awareness of his own mortality. x
  • 5
    Homer IV—Odyssey, Introduction and Prelude
    Moving to the second Homeric epic, we compare it to the Iliad, enjoy a brief overview, and consider its structure as a traditional nostos, or return story, before turning to the work itself. x
  • 6
    Homer V—Odyssey, The Adventures
    We discuss the most familiar parts of the Odyssey—the nine-year journey from Troy to Ithaca—learning much about the psychic and emotional distance Odysseus has also traveled as he prepares to return to a life of peace at home. x
  • 7
    Homer VI—Odyssey, Reintegration
    This lecture covers books 13–24, following the adventures of Odysseus on Ithaca as he completes his return, before concluding with some comments on the continuing power and relevance of the Homeric epics through the ages. x
  • 8
    Hesiod—Theogony and Works and Days
    We look at two works that share much with the Homeric poems in the form and manner of their composition but also exhibit considerable differences in presenting both a creation myth and a commentary on interactions with both humans and gods. x
  • 9
    Homeric Hymns
    There is much we do not know about the poems referred to collectively as Homeric Hymns: Who composed them? When? For what purpose? The two examples considered in this lecture reveal much about the complex Greek attitudes toward the divine. x
  • 10
    Lyric Poetry I—Archilochus and Solon
    This is the first of two lectures on a group of poems composed from about the mid-7th through the mid-5th century B.C.E. Although often personal, erotic, and confessional, they can also be strikingly public and political in their themes. x
  • 11
    Lyric Poetry II—Sappho and Alcaeus
    We consider several types of melic poetry (from melos, meaning song), including works by Sappho and Alcaeus, and ponder why this type of public song effectively died out by the end of the 5th century. x
  • 12
    Tragedy—Contexts and Conventions
    In the first of 13 lectures that address Athenian drama of the Golden Age, we focus on tragedy as produced by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and introduce the genre's roots, mechanics, and conventions. x
  • 13
    Aeschylus I—Persians
    We discuss the life and some aspects of the dramatic technique of Aeschylus, the oldest of the three great Athenian tragedians, and we look at the earliest of his extant plays. x
  • 14
    Aeschylus II—Agamemnon
    In this lecture and the next, we discuss Aeschylus's Oresteia, the only tragic trilogy that survives intact from antiquity, beginning with its brilliant first play, which introduces the trilogy's many interwoven themes and questions. x
  • 15
    Aeschylus III—Libation Bearers and Eumenides
    We see Aeschylus continue to explore the themes of Agamemnon in the second and third plays of the trilogy and then look back over all three to consider possible interpretations. x
  • 16
    Sophocles I—Ajax and Philoctetes
    We begin our examination of the most popular and successful of the three giants of 5th-century Athenian drama with an introduction to his life and some of the innovations and techniques of his work; then we look at two of his seven extant plays, Ajax and Philoctetes. x
  • 17
    Sophocles II—Oedipus the King
    Although Sophocles's three Theban plays are not a trilogy, they are best considered together because they follow the same story. After introducing the mythology, we move into Sophocles's treatment of the early part of the myth in Oedipus the King. x
  • 18
    Sophocles III—Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone
    We discuss the other two Theban plays: Oedipus at Colonus, a work of Sophocles's old age, which gives us the end of Oedipus's life, and Antigone, which takes us back to Thebes and the strife among Oedipus's successors. x
  • 19
    Euripides I—Electra, Orestes, Trojan Women
    The next three lectures are devoted to selected tragedies of Euripides. We begin here with some historical and cultural background, which is especially important because Euripides's work serves as a vivid witness to the intellectual and political ferment of the later 5th century. x
  • 20
    Euripides II—Medea and Hippolytus
    In Medea, Euripides creates one of the most compelling female roles in theater history, while in Hippolytus, the role he gives to the gods contributes to an ongoing discussion about Euripides's attitude toward traditional religion. x
  • 21
    Euripides III—The Bacchae
    Euripides's final play, produced only posthumously, has been interpreted both as a criticism of the traditional view of the gods and also as an admission that he has been wrong to question the role of the Olympians in the lives of mortals. x
  • 22
    Aristophanes I—Introduction to Old Comedy
    We introduce the other theatrical genre that developed in 5th-century Athens. Although comedy shares some of the conventions and components of tragedy, it takes us, in many ways, into a different world. x
  • 23
    Aristophanes II—Acharnians and Lysistrata
    The Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta lasted 27 years (431–404 B.C.E.), a period that coincided with the height of Aristophanes's career. We examine two of the several comedies he wrote that directly address aspects of that war. x
  • 24
    Aristophanes III—The Frogs and The Clouds
    During Aristophanes's career, Athens was at the forefront of intellectual and cultural changes, and those innovations underlie several of his comedies. We look at two of them and conclude our discussion with a brief look at comedy after Aristophanes. x
  • 25
    Herodotus I—Introduction to History
    We begin our discussion of history with the man who has been called both the father of history—as the first practitioner of the genre as we know it—and the father of lies for his many so-called digressions and fantastic stories. x
  • 26
    Herodotus II—The Persian Wars
    Herodotus's narrative approach offers historical depth, geographical breadth, and mythological background, often in the form of self-contained stories. Do these stories contribute to the history? Or do they lead us to suspect even the most straightforward and seemingly pertinent parts of it? x
  • 27
    Thucydides I—The Peloponnesian War
    At the beginning of his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides introduces himself as a different sort of historian—accurate, scientific, and careful of sources. Although he was more modern in his methods than Herodotus, questions about his objectivity and bias remain. x
  • 28
    Thucydides II—Books 1–5
    We discuss three famous passages from books 1–5, examining how Thucydides uses the Peloponnesian War as a stage for his larger considerations of human nature, particularly as it manifests itself in times of crisis. x
  • 29
    Thucydides III—Books 6–7
    Books 6 and 7 are something of a departure from the rest of the work, a self-contained unit on the Athenians' ill-fated expedition against Syracuse in Sicily. What begins with optimism and unparalleled wealth ends in complete and utter defeat for the Athenians. x
  • 30
    Plato I—The Philosopher as Literary Author
    We examine some of the literary qualities that appear throughout Plato's philosophical dialogues, focusing not on the philosophical ideas or systems that might be extracted from the dialogues, but at the way Plato has chosen to present those ideas. x
  • 31
    Plato II—Symposium
    Beginning an examination of two of Plato's most polished literary masterpieces with The Symposium, we see that distinctions between its philosophical and literary parts are impossible to draw, and that it is best read as the seamless whole Plato gave us. x
  • 32
    Plato III—Phaedrus
    The twists and turns of what seems merely a dialogue about love and rhetoric reveal Socrates's subtle and careful attempts to engage his interlocutor—and, by extension, Plato's readers—in a more serious study of philosophy. x
  • 33
    Rhetoric and Oratory
    From Homer on, Greek literature reveals a deep interest in the role and power of speeches. We consider some examples from other literary genres to see the evolution of rhetoric as a formal discipline. x
  • 34
    Hellenistic Poetry I—Callimachus and Theocritus
    With the next two lectures, we move into a new world, away from mainland Greece to Alexandria, from the democracy of the city-state to far-reaching monarchies, and from public forms of literature to works that demand of their audience more specialized forms of knowledge. x
  • 35
    Hellenistic Poetry II—Apollonius
    We look at the single extant epic poem from the Hellenistic period, an account of Jason's quest for the Golden Fleece. This lecture brings us full circle, taking us back to the Homeric epics that so clearly influenced this work. x
  • 36
    Looking Back and Looking Forward
    This concluding lecture examines the survival and continued influence of Greek literature. We see that it was largely through the Romans that Greek literature survived antiquity, and largely through the literary activity of the Hellenistic period that the Romans accessed the Greeks. x

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Your professor

David J. Schenker

About Your Professor

David J. Schenker, Ph.D.
University of Missouri, Columbia
Dr. David J. Schenker is Associate Professor of Classical Literature at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he has taught since 1991. Dr. Schenker earned his Ph.D. in Classics from the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Schenker was a recipient of the 2006 American Philological Association Awards for Excellence in Teaching. At the University of Missouri-Columbia, he has won several teaching awards, including...
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Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 37.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Caught my interest It has fulfilled what I most wanted which was putting ancient Greek literature into historical and classical perspective. For years bits and unattached pieces of knowledge have swirled in my mind in a rootless way. The course has help to satisfy some of my curiosity. I also found myself engrossed and entertained.
Date published: 2020-08-12
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fabulous overview! Although this was a summary course, Prof. Schenker covered the selected texts with enough depth to make it worthwhile. He has a great speaking voice (tone, inflection, enthusiasm) and he clearly loves his material. I sped through the lectures and learned even more than I expected I would. A great course and I recommend it highly.
Date published: 2020-02-24
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Glad I bought it, but... I haven't finished this course yet, but I'm close to being done. The instructor presents in a calm, organized, pleasant manner, and offers interesting insight into the course material. I personally found myself most interested in what we would ordinarily classify as "literature," ie. the poetry and plays, as opposed to, say, looking at the literary aspects of Plato (I'd rather read Plato for the philosophy). But for someone who is fairly new to this material, it's all illuminating in one way or another, and I'm most likely going to go back and listen to the course from the beginning a second time.
Date published: 2018-08-08
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Solid Overview TTC courses on the Greeks offer a wide variety of options. One can, for example delve into Professor Vandiver’s courses on individual works (Iliad, Odyssey, Herodotus, etc.) or the dialogs of Plato or even of just one of his works (Republic). This course is the exact opposite, as it attempts to cover classic Greek literature from Homer through the Hellenistic age. Even though this is pretty ambitious, devoting 36 lectures to the topic seems reasonable. Professor Schenker does a credible job of this survey course. He is reasonably engaging, though not overly enthusiastic in his presentation. Even so, his love of the topic does come through in his words, if not stylistically. This would be a fine course for anyone with little or no background in classical Greece (or anyone wanting a refresh of college courses of long ago), as Dr. Schenker manages to combine a bit of history, some biography, a sprinkling of culture and government of the time, along with brief plot summaries in a manner that allows us to have a reasonably comprehensive understating of the times and works. The flow of the course begins with Homer and follows a pretty much straightforward chronological approach. So, what’s not to like? The same problem that any survey course or overview has when one has done some recent reading in the area. Perhaps it is just me, but I expected a bit more emphasis on the literary aspects of the writings and a bit less of other background material. Even so Professor Schenker did touch on some points that I had not understood or raised dome differing aspects of works about which I thought I had a pretty good grasp (e.g. “Lysistrata”). For those with sufficient background, go straight to courses devoted to specific works. Otherwise a good place to start.
Date published: 2018-07-20
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Mastepieces of Ancient Greek lit.& Classical Mytho I purchased this course after finishing the course on Classical Mythology . This is about the fourth or fifth time I have ordered the Great Courses. My main interest is Literature and I enjoy the CD`S that I play and listen to in my car . I drive 26 miles to the train station. I commute to Chicago three times a week. This gives me an half hour both to and from the station. I read the Course Guide while on the train. I have enjoyed the reeducaton and the many things that were brought to my attention by the professors who were teaching the course. I own the Great Books of the Western World and they have all the reading material I need to supplement my reading. I also enjoyed the streaming that was avaliable to me in the Classical Mythology course . Seeing professor Elizabeth Vandiver and listening to her teach was a great treat. I have just started the Masterpieces of Ancient Greek Literature. Thank you for all the enjoyment you have given me. John A.Perri
Date published: 2018-01-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Zeroed in on the specific interest. The lectures always bring to light an aspect or an example overlooked in other offerings, or a totally new definition unseen or unheard.
Date published: 2017-07-13
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great Course. I do love anchiet history and am familiar with these works but Professor Schenker got me to really enjoy them. Historical background really helped prior to discussing the particular work and he got me to appreciate the works as literature to enjoy instead of an academic topic to study.
Date published: 2016-11-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Could be set to Dance Music This is a wonderful course. I bought it after listening to Vandiver's Odyssey series. I thought it was going to be in Greek, and although I don't speak any Greek, I figured I could pick up enough after a couple of lectures to follow along okay. As it turned out, all of these lectures are in English. Any prospective buyer should know this. As for the content, it was a terrific introduction. Some reviewers objected to what they thought was too much summary. There is a good summary of the works under discussion, but the summary is interspersed with perceptive analysis. Schenker has a great voice, too. The dude could be on the radio. In fact, he might be on the radio for all I know. The local weather guy sounds like him, and I need to find out if it actually is him. At one point, Schenker says that everybody needs to learn Greek, and I think he is correct. Where is this course especially good? Well, he does a good job with Homer, but he really shines with the playwrights and historians. The Hellenistic poetry he discusses at the end of the course didn't really do anything to charge my batteries, but that could just be personal preference. If you buy this course, maybe you'll have a different opinion. A couple of times, Schenker reads the original Greek, and I wish he had done more of this. It sounded fantastic. One word of caution, I was listening to this course on my personal audio device while taking out the garbage. As I was putting my garbage in the can, the garbage truck sped around the corner and almost ran me over. I barely escaped, so if you find yourself in a similar situation, I urge you to be careful!
Date published: 2016-10-13
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