The battle of Thermopylae. The fall of the Roman Empire. Odysseus’s long journey home. Ajax descent into madness. Antigone’s burial at times of civil war. Philoctetes’ lonely exile. Achilles and Hector. Pericles’ funeral oration. Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars. The abduction of Cassandra. Trojan Horses. Alexander the Great.
Why do ancient stories and figures of war continue to capture our imagination at a time when modern warfare appears to be so thoroughly dominated by technology? Why do we continue to study them, and to be moved by them? What can we learn not only from ancient writings on war, but from our continuing fascination with them? How does our relationship to ancient war influence and shape our understanding of and reaction to our long contemporary wars? Is there an aesthetics of war that owes its force to our long engagement with those powerful stories that allowed Joseph de Maistre to claim that “war is divine in the mysterious glory that surrounds it and in the no less inexplicable attraction that draws us to it”?
Our Ancient Wars” brings together scholars in history, political theory, philosophy, and literary studies from the US and abroad, who are working at the cutting edge of the field: Kurt Raaflaub (Brown), Hans van Wees (University College London), Arlene Saxonhouse (University of Michigan), David Potter (University of Michigan); Sara Monoson (Northwestern University), Paul Woodruff (University of Texas), Nancy Sherman (Georgetown University), Peter Meineck (NYU); James Tatum (Dartmouth), Seth Schein (UC Davis), Susanne Goedde (University of Munich), and Page DuBois (UC San Diego).
We are not content, however, to simply organize another – however sterling - conference on the topic of war. Rather, we see this conference as a rare opportunity to build bridges between scholars, artists, and the military, particular the veteran community in Michigan. To further this goal, we have, in collaboration with MSU, invited the “Theater of War,” also known as “The Philoctetes Project,” to give two performances of their widely reviewed and celebrated dramatic readings of Ajax and Philoctetes. The Theater of War, founded by the classicist, writer, translator, and theater director Bryan Doerries, presents readings of ancient Greek plays to service members, veterans, caregivers and families as a catalyst for town hall discussions about the challenges faced by military communities today. Peter Meineck, Clinical Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Studies at NYU, has described these stagings as “something very rare in contemporary performances of Greek drama: a profound and moving experience, and for me an entirely new way to experience these ancient plays.”
“Our Ancient Wars” will bring together various communities and institutions with and beyond the University. Here in Ann Arbor, the conference is co-sponsored by “Contexts for Classics,” a dynamic interdepartmental faculty initiative which, for ten years running, has been instrumental in making Michigan a premier international site for classical reception studies. In addition to the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, many departments are involved as cosponsors — Classics, Philosophy, Political Theory, Comparative Literature (through its “Year of Anachronism”), German Studies, English, American Culture, History, Psychology — as well as other institutions across the campus, from the Institute for Humanities and the Law School’s Center for International and Comparative Law, to the International Institute, the Residential College, the Rackham School for Graduate Studies, and the Office of the Vice Provost for Research. Another important partner on campus is the Student Veterans Assistance Program which maintains ties with various veterans’ institutions in the area. Beyond Ann Arbor, we are collaborating with Michigan State University in staging a number of Theater of War performances, and the Classical Traditions Initiative at Northwestern University is supporting the event.
All presentations and performances will be open to the public.
Victor Caston, Departments of Philosophy and Classical Studies, Silke-Maria Weineck, Departments of German Studies and Comparative Literature