Literature and History from Hellenism's First 3,000 Years

Dec. 11, 2023

By Catherine Curan

This fall, professors Katerina Stergiopoulou and Jack Tannous launched a new class at the Seeger Center, “Hellenism: The First 3,000 Years,” the first required course for the new minor in Hellenic Studies.

The title may be tongue-in-cheek, but it captures the depth and breadth of Hellenic Studies at Princeton’s Seeger Center.

“The course offers a unique opportunity to study some of the most important texts written in forms of the Greek language over the last three thousand years, by people across what we might now consider national, ethnic, religious, and even linguistic boundaries,” said Stergiopoulou, an assistant professor of Classics and Hellenic Studies.

Through works including Homer’s Iliad and the poetry of C.P. Cavafy, students explored the meaning of speaking, writing, and reading in Greek in political communities from ancient Athens to the Roman Empire to contemporary Greece.

Stergiopoulou and Tannous also gave students an opportunity to view historical texts at the Princeton University Library. Highlights included a 16th-century copy of Homer annotated in Greek and Latin, an 18th-century chronicle of Biblical history adorned with hundreds of stunning hand-drawn portraits, and an early 20th-century book of poems that Cavafy self-published in Alexandria. The Homer edition was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Ted Athanassiades, Princeton Class of 1961, in honor of the 20th anniversary of the Program in Hellenic Studies, with additional funding from the Friends of the Princeton University Library. The Chronicle of Biblical history was purchased by the Program in Hellenic Studies with the support of the Seeger Fund.

Tannous is an associate professor of History and Hellenic Studies and director of the Program in Hellenic Studies. He said that beginning with Homer, exploring Byzantine and church history, and concluding with Cavafy – a contemporary poet captivated by ancient Greece and Byzantium – yielded a rich experience.

“We’ve discussed Cavafy poems that reflected on reading the same texts that we read. It’s really fascinating to see how someone in the early 20th century responded to the things we’ve been reading this semester. I told the students today, it’s almost like Cavafy took our class,” said Tannous at the end of the semester.

“If you are the heir of a 3,000-year tradition of reflection on the nature of the universe and what it means to be human, and all sorts of very important questions, and there are many different answers to these questions, how do you make sense of that?” Tannous continued. “And how do you make sense of what it means to be a speaker of Greek? These are questions we’re asking every week.”