A Mock Trial, Mysteries, and Meaningful Language – Studying Spoken Ancient Greek at the Princeton Athens Center

Aug. 14, 2023

By Catherine Curan

A trial unfolded at the Princeton Athens Center last June, with impassioned arguments asserting the guilt and innocence of a person accused of murder. Inspired by a speech from the fifth century BCE, this mock trial by Princeton University graduate students replicated the court of ancient Athens – with every word spoken in Ancient Greek.

The collaborative project was developed by Chiayi (Sherry) Lee, who brought a fresh, immersive approach to teaching “Advanced Spoken Ancient Greek” with the support of the Seeger Center. Lee, a graduate student in Classics at Princeton, focused on “Ancient Greek as a meaningful language to be understood, rather than as a code to be deciphered.” Her pedagogy was informed by cutting-edge research in second language acquisition, promoting “a deeper awareness of the structures and nuances of original Greek texts” through speaking and writing.

A group of students around a conference table.

The mock trial at "Advanced Spoken Ancient Greek" at the Princeton Athens Center.

In addition to staging the mock trial (which resulted in an acquittal), Lee’s students honed their Ancient Greek on a series of excursions during the four-week course. At the ancient cemetery of Kerameikos in central Athens, they read and recited funerary epigrams. At Eleusis, an archeological site northwest of Athens, they reenacted parts of an ancient ritual known as the Eleusinian Mysteries.

After taking Lee’s beginner’s course last summer, Alonso Burgos Vazquez Mellado, a graduate student in Comparative Literature at Princeton, was eager to return to her classroom at the Princeton Athens Center.

“Sherry gears her class towards approaching Ancient Greek as a contemporary language that can be used to talk, write compositions and have conversations, without foregoing the traditional component of reading classical texts,” said Burgos, adding, “Sherry’s empathy as a teacher and her outstanding knowledge of the language have made it difficult for me to imagine learning Ancient Greek in any other way.”