Jonathan Hall, the Phyllis F. Horton Professor in Classics, History and the CollegeBy Josh Schonwald
It typically happens around the fourth or fifth week of the quarter. A student in the Greek History leg of the “Ancient Mediterranean World” core sequence will approach Jonathan Hall in a state of intellectual distress, saying something like: “I don’t know what to believe anymore.”
Learning his approach to ancient history can be “profoundly disorienting,” said Hall, the Phyllis F. Horton Professor in Humanities, and Professor and Chair of Classics and Professor in History.
But a disoriented student is a sign that “the penny has dropped”—that his undergraduate students are absorbing one of his central messages. “Don’t take things at face value.”
Many students come into Hall’s class with a view of history that’s been shaped by the History Channel and years of grammar school multiple-choice exams: “They think history is a memory exercise, the regurgitation of facts and dates,” he said.
“I want them to see the history that I am passionate about: history that is an active process of engaging with primary documents, looking at the material culture, questioning how authors have synthesized materials and considering the context of the authors. Did they get it right? It’s an interrogative process,” said Hall.
He calls it “the forensic approach.” And this approach means scrutinizing, and often debunking, long-held assumptions about the ancient world. For instance, in his Greek History core class, Hall examines the phalanx, an infantry formation, which has been used as evidence of egalitarianism. In the celebrated representation of the hoplite phalanx, soldiers line up in ranks in close order, locking their shields together. They all have the same equipment, and the phalanx functions in a way that enables the soldiers in all parts of the formation, front and back, to be engaged in battle. In short, it’s egalitarian.
But after Hall’s students learn the conventional representation (he assumes no prior knowledge), he begins to poke holes in this rendering. He presents students with depictions of infantry on vases and epitaphs inscribed on gravestones. He shows them the classical sources, from Tyrtaeus (a Spartan poet) to Thucydides and Xenophon. He introduces them to economic analysis—what did a sword, a shield and a spear cost?
Students discover the phalanx was quite different from the representation. “It’s actually the people in the front, the people who could afford to arm themselves, who are coming into direct contact with the enemy,” explained Hall. “People in the back of the phalanx rarely confronted their opponents directly.”
In his class on Sparta, Hall pierces through “The Spartan Mirage,” which portrays Sparta as an austere society, devoid of decadence and art, selfless, single-mindedly militaristic. “For some, it’s a utopian blueprint to follow,” he said. However, in his class, “we essentially excavate layer after layer of ideology.” He guides students through evidence that suggests a different Sparta.
For one, he asks his students to consider the sources. Do they have a tangible purpose in portraying Sparta in a particular way? “Much of what was written about Sparta comes from wealthy, anti-democratic Athenians.” He asks students to think about the “argument of likelihood. Of the hundreds of city-states, could Sparta really be so atypical?”
This interrogative process, Hall said, can be disorienting to some students because it teaches them critical reflection and, ultimately, critical self-reflection. “They question more than just assumptions about the Spartans or Athenian democracy. They start questioning many of their assumptions about the world.”
As an undergraduate, Hall thought ancient history was dry material, “just battles and dates.” He planned to major in literature and philosophy until a tutor at Oxford, Nicholas Purcell, showed him that studying ancient history was an active process of exploring society and economics of the past, rather than the regurgitation of facts. Hall was so inspired by this new take that he went on to pursue a Ph.D. at Cambridge.
If there’s anything Hall hopes to convey to undergraduates, it’s his passion for classical history. No teaching experience has been more ideal for conveying this passion than the University’s study program in Athens. He has served as academic director of the program since 2000, and he regularly teaches in the “Greek Antiquity and its Legacy” class.
“It’s an amazing experience,” Hall said, “the chance to introduce students to a new culture, to have access to the material culture and to explore together how the classical past continues to inform the present.”