The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or What difference does a course make?

The Ancient Mediterranean in 5 words or What difference does a course make?

by Katherine Blouin

Last Fall, I decided to do a little experiment in my 1st-year undergraduate course “The Ancient Mediterranean” (a Classics and History course). On the first day of class, right at the start of lecture, I distributed a homemade, anonymous survey to the group, which contained a few questions: What 5 words come to their mind when they think about the Ancient Mediterranean? Why are you taking this course? What are you expecting with this course? Is this your first course in ancient history? If no, what other high school or university course(s) did you take? How many languages do you speak?

On the last day of class, that is 13 weeks later, I distributed another survey, in which I asked students to respond to the 5-word question again. How different or similar would their answers be this time around? I was excited to find out, and so were the students. What follows is thus dedicated to them.

This before/after survey exercise is by no means scientific. Yet I believe it nevertheless illuminates certain trends regarding the general perception of ancient history and Classics among young Ontarians, and thus help us teachers think about how both high school and university curricula/syllabi can foster more nuanced, intersectional and de-Eurocentrized perceptions of ancient history amongst students, including those who won’t pursue a Classics or History degree.

The group

The course’s size went from 180 students on week 1 to 150 on the day of the final (attrition-wise, this is normal by UofT standards). The two main reasons for enrolling include an interest in history and (for more senior students) program requirements. Most students were first year undergraduates. Since the course was offered in the Fall, this means they were mostly coming straight out of high school. In other words, given the reduced historical curriculum in Ontarian high schools, and also the rather outdated nature of the conception of history the official program promotes (namely the biological model whereby “civilizations” sprout, blossom then decay/fall), the majority of them had not been exposed to any ancient history before, and when they had, it had been mostly through the problematic yet still popular “Classical word is the root of Western civilization” trope.

One of the most incredible features of the UTSC student body is its diversity and, also, the fact that most students are bi-/multilingual. In addition to English, languages spoken by students enrolled in the course include: Albanian, Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, Bulgarian, Cantonnese, French, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hindi, Igbo, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin, Polish, Portugese, Romanian, Russian, Spanish, Sinhalese, Tagalog, Tamil, Turkish, Urdu, Vietnamese. Such diversity, and the breadth and depth of personal, family, and collective experiences it testifies to, impacts the way students relate (or not) with ancient Mediterranean history, as well as with several of the phenomena discussed during term (multilingualism, migration, religion(s), wars, the politics of heritage).

The course

The course provides an aerial survey of the history of the Mediterranean-at-large (including the Near East), from the development of agriculture to the Umayyad caliphate. The idea is to allow students in Classics and History (the course is double-numbered) to be able to contextualize the “Greco-Roman” world within the broader historical, geographical and cultural worlds they belonged to, and to also have a general sense of how ancient history’s connections to later periods are multifaceted and profound. In other words, the course aims to de-Eurocentrize ancient Mediterranean history.

You can find a description of the course as well as its syllabus here.

Before – Week 1

On the first day of class, 139 students filled the survey (that is most of those who were in class that day). Almost all of them answered the 5-word question, for a total of 612 entries. In total, the group came up with 214 different words or referents (words referring to a territory and its people – i.e. Greek and Greece – were grouped together).

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Table 1: What words come to your mind when you think about the “Ancient Mediterranean”? – Week 1 (word + nb of entries)

The 20 most popular words are listed in the table below:

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Table 2: The Ancient Mediterranean in my class’ 20 most popular words – Week 1

The most striking feature of Table 2 is that for almost half the students who filled up the survey, the ancient Mediterranean was seen as Greek. The words ‘Rome’ [not Italy] and ‘Roman(s)’, come in second, but in lesser number, since they show up in about a third of the copies. I was expecting these two referents to be popular, but the sheer prevalence of “Greece” over “Rome” was a surprise. Likewise, they amount to way more entries than the following top words, which refer to general, obvious features traditionally attached to ancient History and Classics (notably an emphasis on military history, politics, and trade) and the Mediterranean Sea itself in popular culture.

The traditional, mostly Eurocentric and at times Orientalist picture that emerges from Table 2 is both confirmed and nuanced by several of the thematic clusters one can observe in Table 1. These include words related to food (production) (agriculture, fishing, food, goat, kabob, olives, salad, souvlaki, spices); climate and landscapes (Aegean Sea, beach(es), blue, camel, coastal, desert, fertility, hot, nature, ocean, palm trees, rivers, sea/bodies of water, sun, tropical, villages, water); people (Alexander the Great, Aristotle, Augustus, Bedouins, Caesar, Gaius, Hypatia (the only female), Thucydides); “religion” (Christian, gods, goddess(es), Islam, Jupiter, mythology, polytheism, Poseidon, Zeus); archaeology (loot, paint, rubble, (ancient/destroyed) ruins, sculpture, statues).

As for epithets, there is quite a variety of them: advanced, ancient, beautiful, central, cool (sort of), diverse, fun, hopeful, interesting, mysterious, old, pioneering, rich (in culture), tumultuous, unknown (to me), vintage, weird, western, wild, wonderful. One should also highlight a few words that refer to later (or fictional) periods and cultures: Black Death, Ottoman Empire, Sinbad, Sultan, Venice (does it show one of my colleagues at UTSC works on the Venetian and Ottoman Empires?) and…dragon.

Finally, almost 30 toponymic referents appear in Table 1, though most often in only one or two surveys: Africa, Anatolian, Asia, Asia Minor, Athens, Babylon(ia), Carthage, Constantinople, Cyprus, Egypt/Egyptians, Eurasia, Europe(an), Greece/Greek, Iberian, Levant, Macedonia, Malta, Mesopotamia, Middle East(ern), Peloponnesian, Persia, Phoenicia, Rome/Romans, Silk Road, Spain, Sparta/Spartans, Troy, Turkey, Tyre.

Once students were done with the survey, I asked those who felt like it to share some of the words they had in mind with the group. Here was the result (which includes words not in the surveys themselves).


All in all, that was a good start; one well worth building upon. And complicating.

After – Week 13

Fast forward to week 13, that is the last day of class. 75 students filled the survey. That’s about half the number of students still enrolled in the course by then (yes, the end-of-term mayhem leads many to skip lectures). This second round of surveys provided 351 entries amounting to 162 different words/referents.

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Table 3: What words come to your mind when you think about the “Ancient Mediterranean” – Week 13 (word + nb of entries)

My efforts to teach ancient Mediterranean history beyond the Classics seems to have resonated with students, for the top 20 word ranking looks substantially different. The most popular word is now “diverse”, which appears in about a quarter of the copies. Related words such as multicultural(ism)/-faith/-religion/-lingual (16 entries), varied (1 entry) or connection/connected/interconnected (8 entries) also express similar or related ideas.

Capture d_écran 2018-12-29 à 19.31.02

Table 4: The Ancient Mediterranean in my class’ 20 most popular words – Week 13

Another noticeable change is the lower number of references to “Greece” and “Rome”. Not only are these two referents not in the first and second place anymore, but they feature after “Egypt(ians)” and “Mesopotamia”. You can go ahead and put the blame on my passion – if not obsession – for these two regions. New toponyms (Alexandria, Ur, Ionia, Nubia, Sparta), hydronyms (Euphrates, Tigris, Nile) and peoples (Octavian, Parthians, Persians, Sargon, women/women’s rights) also appear on the list, and one notes more words conveying the idea of change, flux or complexity than on week 1.


So what difference did that one course make? I can certainly not answer for my students, of course, and the survey only reveals a truncated picture of what overall pieces of information they will carry with them in the months and years to come. Yet one thing seems clear: the diachronic, de-Eurocentrized and intersectional nature of the course’s syllabus did lead to a substantial recalibration of the overall image the students have of the “Ancient Mediterranean”; one that shifted from a sepia zoom to a colour panorama.

What and whose stories we historians chose to share with our students matter, and the more voices they hear, the merrier we’ll all get. As Stó: Nation author and teacher Lee Maracle aptly said in October 2018 at the University of Toronto’s “Humanities Pedagogy: Confronting Colonization” workshop, we scholars and teachers ought not to “take anything away”. Rather, we need to “change the way we look at it. The start is facing ourselves and our own history.”

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