Modern race relations in the Classics/Latin classroom?

“There is no present or future-only the past, happening over and over again-now.”
― Eugene O’Neill, A Moon for the Misbegotten

This past semester, I was faced with a dilemma.  My students wanted to talk about race relations following the police-involved deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York; but I didn’t know what to say. It is an incredibly complicated issue with which I don’t know where to start; and how is it relevant to teaching my students about the passive voice and Latin participles? My class isn’t a course in American history where we can talk about the complicated social and economic forces that have to led to such tragedies. So, I found myself cutting off my students’ discussion and carrying on with class.  I wasn’t satisfied with this.  College is one of the best places for discussing such things, for engaging in respectful, careful debate about complex modern issues.  Indeed, one of the benefits of Classics is that we can use it to learn about the present. So this winter break, I developed a rough, possibly too ambitious, lesson plan for how to discuss modern race relations while still talking about ancient Rome and Latin.

Since this is a complicated issue and a rough draft of a lesson plan, please offer your feedback and thoughts about it.  I would greatly appreciate the help.  I would also be very happy to hear other ways you have approached race and slavery in the Latin or Classics classroom.

How I will do it

  1. If another unfortunate situation in which a black man is killed by a white man in a seemingly race motivated way (whether the killer is a police officer or not, like with Trayvon Martin) occurs, I will change the schedule of the class and give the students a new assignment.  Depending on the timing, either I will e-mail the students with the new assignment for the following class, or I will assign it in class for the next session.  Regardless of the timing, I will explain why we are doing this assignment and that I do not have all the answers about the modern world’s problems.  The assignment: read Dr. Sandra Joshel‘s article about Roman slavery and it’s lack of connection to race and read a few ancient sources in this PDF: Roman Slavery and Freedmen.  I will acknowledge that this is a different assignment and it may be longer than other assignments, but it will be fodder for a good class discussion.I like Joshel’s article for several reasons.  She dispels any connection between race and Roman slavery, she discusses ethnic stereotypes that did exist in ancient Rome, and she mentions a concept that I think will be very helpful for a discussion of such things: social death.  This term describes a phenomenon whereby slaves and others lose their identity and past at the same time that they lose power–for example, through becoming enslaved.The PDF introduces and includes adapted versions of two ancient Latin sources: Cicero, ad Att. 5.20 and Pliny, Ep. 7.29.  I like Cicero’s letter because it shows how slaves were the result of Roman expansion and Cicero’s complete dehumanization of the slaves.  Pliny’s letter reveals the author’s disdain for the freedman Pallas who was influential in Claudius’s court.  While Pallas may have been a special case, this relatively short letter clearly shows the social inferiority of freedmen (despite having many of the same legal privileges as freeborn Romans) and does so quickly and clearly (unlike, say, the subtle jokes in Petronius’s Satyricon).  I include passages about slaves and freedmen so that the discussion can best parallel the modern day (when the racial justifications for American slavery and decades of social, political, and economic inferiority and of some persecution have harmed and limited the prospects of African Americans). My adaptations of the texts have eliminated all subjunctive and limited deponent verbs so that this assignment could be used with as many Latin classes as possible (but I did not include macrons or glosses because it is still only a draft). If you want to minimize the reading load for your students or you are teaching a class where students may not know Latin, translations can easily be assigned (like this nice one of Cicero, ad Att. 5.20)
  2. Before class, I will read over the materials but I will also read up on social death so that I can explain it in class and lead a discussion about its usefulness (or uselessness) for understanding the ancient world and for understanding the modern world.
  3. In class, I will divide the students into groups to review their translations of the passages (see my post on group work in a language class).  This will give students a chance to start discussion and alleviate some of the stress from a potentially larger than normal assignment.  I will, of course, circulate around the room to help students with the translations.  Alternatively, you can ask students to summarize and give initial reactions to the assignments if you assigned translations (see my post on group work in Classics in translation classes)When students seem to understand the translations, I will begin a class discussion.  This will start with some of the “Questions to consider” on the handout to ease students into the discussion.  I want to ease students into it for two reasons: (1) to help students go from thinking about the specific to the abstract, and (2) to help students talk about a sensitive, complicated topic.  While we discuss the Cicero passage, I will introduce the idea of social death, which is very useful for talking about the Cicero passage.  When we discuss the Pliny passage, I will ask them if they think the idea of social death is helpful for understanding the position of Pallas.  This discussion will help students understand a large part of the ancient world.Next, I will ask students to discuss these ideas in relationship to the modern world, since this is the ultimate goal of disrupting my semester’s schedule.  Just to be safe, I will restate that I want the discussion to be respectful.  I will guide the discussion as a moderator and someone who is also trying to wrestle with these ideas, and I will say so myself.  I will have two certain questions: “Compare and contrast ancient perceptions and treatment of slaves and freedmen to modern perceptions and treatment of African Americans.” and “Does the idea of social death help us understand the modern world?”  Depending on time, I might have students write about these ideas to themselves first, so that their ideas are more thought out and so that everyone thinks about them (see my post on in-class writing).  Also, depending on time and the quality of the discussion, I might ask my students to briefly free write about these ideas to be turned in the following class period.


  • Students will discuss and possibly better understand a complicated modern social issue–isn’t this a goal of college?
  • Students will learn about ancient slavery in a sophisticated, theoretical way.
  • Students will see how Classics can still be relevant and useful for understanding the present.


  • There is no guarantee that it will effect how any of us understand or feel about modern race relations.  But it is still trying to do something about modern day racism and further legitimizes discussion of these issues.
  • It derails the semester schedule.

Again, I offer this idea as a possible plan and one that I would love to hear your opinions about.  It is not perfect and its ambition may need to be tempered to fit into class periods of various timespans, but at least it’s trying to do something about a terrible issue that should no longer be allowed to fester in silence.


6 thoughts on “Modern race relations in the Classics/Latin classroom?

  1. A good comment from facebook: I think this is excellent (and I hope you don’t mind if I share it with other grad students). My only suggestion would be to incorporate monthy or bi monthy cultural releavance and more discussion heavy days into the semester. Why wait for another tragedy?


  2. Another comment that was e-mailed to me suggested that we also think about the nature of students’ reactions to the events. Students are reacting emotionally so how much does this respond to their emotions rather than reason? Their reactions are also over a long period of time, unlike to a single event, say with the JFK assassination or 9/11–so the timing of the assignment is important for dealing with student’s emotions and not throwing them off. The e-mail suggested to deal with the emotions first and said, “One option might be to deal with the topic immediately, and allow discussion, but take a few minutes to explain social death to bring in some relevance, even without the readings. Then consider the readings as a follow-up.”

    In addition to that comment, I have wondered if it is a good idea to use the translations in a Latin class to, in order to lessen stress for students. But that also undercuts the idea that we want students to learn the languages as the best way to understand the ancient world.


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