Ancient World Now: Mycenae, Tiryns, and Epidaurus

Listen to my podcast on Mycenae: Episode #36: The Mycenaean World
After all these years of reading Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and marveling at Heinrich Schliemann’s fabulous discoveries, I finally made it to the Lion Gate at Mycenae! This place holds special meaning for me because the story of the Trojan War is my life’s focus, and its richness and depth continue to lead me in new directions.


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The Lion Gate is the main entrance to the citadel of Mycenae, which is on the hilltop behind me in this photo. This is where Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles, Odysseus, Ajax, and the rest of the Greek warriors met to discuss their plan to get Helen back from the Trojans, and where Clytemnestra watched for the signal fires for her husband’s return from the war.
Agamemnon had no idea what awaited him, but Cassandra, princess of Troy and war prize to the king, wailed unabated as she was brought in to the palace.

Shown below is the Tomb of Agamemnon, or the Treasury of Atreus, a beehive tholos built around 1250 B.C.: a massive structure. Bees actually inhabit the tomb and you can hear their buzzing hum when you walk inside.  This land is layered in myth and metaphor; every hill and valley, stream and copse tells a story. I still can’t believe I am 1 (1)
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Before our visit to Mycenae we stopped to tour the fortress ruins of Tiryns. This site is where the term “cyclopean walls” originated, and in Homer’s Iliad, its epithet was “mighty-walled Tiryns.” Legend claims Hercules ruled here and that the walls were built by the cyclopes. Mycenae controlled the mountain pass into the plain, while Tiryns controlled access by sea.
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At the 4th century Theatre at Epidaurus, the first 2 scenes from my Iliad play were performed by some members of our tour group. Considered by scholars to be the best preserved theatre from the ancient world, it is a masterpiece of acoustical engineering and architectural proportions.  Erika, from the audience, receives a copy of the play.

Ancient World Now: Athens I

2011 265This once in a lifetime trip is dedicated to my writing partner of so many years, Achilles, who died four weeks ago. Named after the great Greek warrior, Achilles was my constant companion and bestie. Hail to thee, great warrior, Achilles!

After decades of writing and thinking about it, I finally made it to Greece! This once in a lifetime trip is being led by Stanford professor Patrick Hunt, who is a National Geographic fellow and the world expert on Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Hunt frequently appears on National Geographic, the Discovery channel, and the History channel. Every quarter I enroll in night classes at Stanford where they have amazing world-renowned classics scholars. I just finished a class on Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War and another on Ten Great Battles of Antiquity. I traveled through eight time zones yesterday, so I spent today resting up for the fast-paced tour that begins tomorrow (Saturday, here in Greece) and only ventured out for a taxi ride to Mt. Lycabettus with a 360-degree view of Athens, a quick look in the National Archaeological Museum, and a leisurely bookstore visit where I bought a dozen great ancient world books for the classroom. This famous statue, the Artimesion Jockey, which dates to around 150-140 B.C.  was found in 1926 in an ancient shipwreck. The boy appears to be nine or ten, and reminds me of the story I told Room 5 of how twelve-year old Alexander the Great tamed Bucephalus, the wild-spirited horse, who was HIS constant companion and bestie for many years!jockeyofartemision

HELLO ROOM 5! This section is addressed to you!

Trip Notes: This trip fits in perfectly with our Social Studies unit theme Then and Now. And in May, when our school hosts it’s own Olympic games, I will give a presentation at an assembly on my visit to Olympia next week, which was where the first Olympic games were held! I have planned this trip for a year now, and am extremely excited to finally be here. However….I do miss you all! Be good!

Food I Ate Today: an egg scramble with Greek Feta cheese atop a delicious bread slice. Scrumptious, but my body may take some getting used to these new foods. I also drank a glass of carrot juice, which I love!

I Wonder: I wonder if they had carrots in ancient Greece!

Lesson and Activity: Daylight comes at different times to different communities around the world. Time Zones were invented a little over a hundred years ago to help people when they wanted to travel by train, which was a new invention at the time. Here is a map of the world that shows the time zones. Have you ever traveled to a different time zone? Ask your family if they know anyone who lives in a different time zone.Standard_World_Time_Zones


Ancient World Now: Brutus, Part II

Click here for direct link to audio podcast Episode #69.

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Quite early one morning, a couple of months ago, our backyard was inundated with water from someone’s broken sprinkler system. I threw on my robe and drove up the hill to try to locate the neighbor whose house had the leak. I knocked on the door to a house that appeared to be awake, and a kind, calm gentleman opened the door and invited me in. As we were trying to figure out which yards backed up to mine, I noticed that his house had a full-on Greek theme going on! He determined that the leak was from his neighbor’s yard, and we very soon stood at the door again, saying farewell. I reached out to shake his hand in thanks, and asked his name. Imagine the shock when he said his name was “Achilles!” I nearly fell down to the ground in disbelief! Of all names on Earth, his name happened to be Achilles! I told him about my work with ancient world stuff and about my cat Achilles, and we decided to get the neighbors together for a party. So, on Saturday night, some neighbors gathered together here at our house and we all bonded over costumes and scripts. What a treat it was, to have Katerina invoke the muse in her native Greek language! Here are a couple of pics from the night. (above: Achilles and his family, with me on the right)

Today’s episode is our second installment on Brutus, from Plutarch’s Lives for Boys & Girls, retold by W.H. Weston, and illustrated by W. Rainey, published in London & Edinburgh in the early 1900′s. Enjoy!

(below left: Larry, Cathy, Katerina, David, Melina, Scott, Estelle, and Debra—thanks for being such good sports! and below right: my David!)


Ancient World Now:Mycenaean World

Click here for direct link to audio podcast Episode #36.

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Once upon a time, Heinrich Schliemann married a girl named Sophia. For the rest of their lives they searched for Homer’s Troy and Agamemnon’s Mycenae. News that they had discovered both stunned the world. And they lived happily ever after! This image of Sophia draped in “Helen’s gold” set off a firestorm of excitement for ancient-style jewelry. Enrich your life by reading about Schliemann’s heroic search. And enjoy today’s podcast on the basic facts about the Mycenaean world.

Ancient World Now:Minoan Crete

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Some tech difficulties after an “upgrade” made us miss last week! With this temporary fix we are back on track, and as promised, here is Minoan Crete.

Upon her discovery, this lovely lady was nicknamed “La Parisienne”, and she is a major icon of Minoan civilization.

Who were these amazingly artistic people? The jury is still out. Their civilization flourished between 2200 BC and 1450 BC, long before the Golden Age of Athens. In fact, that’s 1,000-2,000 years before Pericles and his fabulously enduring monument, the Parthenon. Consider the events and world changes that have happened within the past 2,000 years! The Knossos palace finds of Sir Arthur Evans in 1899 AD shook the archaeological world! This ancient Bronze Age civilization existed only in the dim distant memory of legends. They are referenced in Homer and the stories of the ancient heroes, but until Evans’ excavations between 1899 AD and 1935 AD, the magnitude of their power and prestige was unknown. This is the land of King Minos and the Labyrinth of Daedalus. Of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur. This is the land of the bull dancers and the snake goddesses. And their story is still unclear!

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford houses the Sir Arthur Evans finds. I was there in 2006 and remarked to myself how antiquated it looked for such an important collection. Lo & behold, the museum was renovated in 2009. I will definitely visit in the future.

Enjoy the podcast! Next week, the Mycenaeans. Bring it on, Clytemnestra!

Ancient World Now:Son of Bride of Odysseus in the Underworld

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #26.

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Where is the justice for Ajax??? These images tell the story. To the right Odysseus and Ajax quarrel over the arms of Achilles, and to the left, on the vase, they get physical with each other. After Achilles’s death, his arms were to be awarded to “the best of the best”, but as you remember, Athena fixed the voting & Odysseus got  the goods. Ajax was  driven to suicide, as shown on this British Museum vase.

Here, finally, is Tecmessa, daughter of the Phrygian king Teuthras, covering the body of her beloved Ajax. This drinking cup is at the Getty Villa. Tears me apart just to look at it…..

And after all this, Odysseus thinks he can just stroll into Hades  and everything will be right between them. I don’t think so!

Ancient World Now:Andromache & Hector

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The parting of Hector and Andromache ranks as one of the most touching scenes in literary history, if not the most. In Book 6 of The Iliad, before going on to the battlefield for the last time, Prince Hector says goodbye to his tearful wife, Andromache, and their son Astyanax. When Hector approaches, the baby screams with fear at the sight of the bronze helmet with its horsehair crest. Both mother and father burst into laughter at the sight. The deep tragedy of their situation is cut through with this stroke of humanity.

Homer is not on the side of the Greeks or on the side of the Trojans. Homer is on the side of humanity and wants us to feel the pain of war. Andromache, for thousands of years, has been the epitome of the loving wife. Her sad plea for Hector to remain with them is for naught. He must go out to fight. Though she has lost both parents and all of her brothers to war, Andromache has two more loved ones to lose. Hector, of course, is killed in a mad rage by Achilles, and Astyanax is ripped from his mother’s arms and thrown from the walls of Troy by the Greek soldiers.

The most touching moments in The Iliad bloom up from scenes involving the Trojan royal household. Walk with me through Book 6 & Book 22 of The Iliad to sample the literary techniques Homer uses to take us to the war inside the hearts and minds of the non-soldiers, from the dutiful maidservant to playboy Prince Paris. Have tissues handy!

Ancient World Now:Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy

Click here for direct link to audio Episode #20.

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So many of you have asked me: What do you think of Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy?

Well, filmmakers always tamper with characters and situations from the original story, and Petersen is no exception. But I ask where,  in Homer’s name, is the real tale of the death of Ajax? And where, indeed, is Laocoon, the great seer, who with his sons was dragged to his watery death by a sea serpent when he tried to tell King Priam that the wooden horse would bring about the end of Troy?

The “greatness” of great story lies in the portrayal of the depth of human character. That a director has 180 minutes in which to show the scope of human triumph and tragedy is unrealistic. One must go to the source of these great stories in order to learn from them.

And how do we as humans display character? By the small things we do each day. In times of peace, it might be something as simple as nodding to the driver who yields their right of way. Or by patiently accepting the customer service routine from eager teen clerks because they are in training. And in times of crisis and war, we might reveal our character by resolving not to look at images of humiliation, or by remaining speechless in a time of sorrow and shame. These minor actions and inactions reveal the complexities of the human mind, heart, and spirit in ways, that in the rush of our lives, we often fail to see. It is precisely the lack of these simple human gestures that keeps modern film epics from attaining greatness. Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy is by its very nature crippled in its attempts. But, hey, using technology to create the image of the “launch of a thousand ships” was pretty cool! And then Brad Pitt as Achilles, well, what can I say?

Listen to this week’s podcast to find out how Petersen’s film differed from the original epic. Enjoy!

Ancient World Now: The Aeneid

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Today we begin The Aeneid by Virgil, who actually wrote it at the request of Augustus Caesar to link the citizens of Rome to the heroes of yore.  Enjoy the first of three installments of the epic, The Aeneid. Next week, you’ll learn all about this famous tale and why Queen Dido of Carthage is one of my favorite female warrior queens of all-time!

Spent 5 days in L.A. at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) convention, and can honestly say it was the most magical five days of my writing career. I met so many wonderful career writers it was amazing. I went to 8 workshops given by authors such as Jon Scieszka (of Stinky Cheese Man fame), M.T. Anderson, Gordon Korman, and Gennifer Choldenko (Al Capone Does My Shirts). I went to a booksigning with 44 kidlit authors. I attended a show for children’s book illustrators. I heard 13 keynote addresses. I listened with great interest to 4 panel discussions by industry insiders.

Gwen Minor with Author Paul Fleischman 2010

Seven years ago or so, I read aloud to my classes Paul Fleischman’s 1996 book Dateline: Troy. This remarkable book narrates scenes from The Iliad while including newspaper clippings of modern events that mirror the issues addressed in that most famous epic. If you’ve ever read aloud to anyone, you know how exhausting it can be. Multiply that by three classes for a week and a half and you see what I went through. I desperately wanted my students to know the story of the Trojan War, and they loved the story and Paul’s book, but it took so long to read it out loud! As I looked around at their tired faces, I knew I had to find a better way. So, that summer, I broke my leg roller-skating, and while I was laid up in bed for 3 weeks after surgery, I wrote a 40-minute play of The Iliad so that my students could act it out. I modeled it on some Shakespeare adaptations I had used from an old Scholastic book. Back to school that fall, I knew I had a hit on my hands as the kids showed their enthusiasm for all things Homeric and we started to collect plastic swords, shields, and helmets for the productions! If you look in my book, Read Aloud Plays: The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, I dedicated the book to that first class who made my work come alive onstage and make a special note of thanks to the first boy who played my Achilles. I took my copy of Paul Fleischman’s book Dateline: Troy to L.A. with me this past weekend and had him sign it. I told him how his book inspired my book because I had to get the kids involved in the story. He was amazed to see his book and told me no publisher would take it and that he was rejected over and over again. He said the only reason he got it published was because he sent it to Candlewick Press, a new kid on the block in the publishing world, and they were willing to take a chance on it. I gave him a copy of my book and signed it with gratitude. You undoubtedly know Paul’s father—the famous children’s book author Sid Fleischman. Here is a treasured photograph of me with Paul. Thanks to Peter Linenthal for being there with his camera!

Special thanks to Mac McCool, graphic novelist extraordinaire for giving me a copy of Herakles, the graphic novel made by his college students. Mac has published a bunch of kids’s books and he teaches illustration and sequential art at a university in California. I am sending him a copy of my book in return for his generous gift.

I met so many amazing people. I’ve never been to a professional gathering that was so supportive. I met the children’s author June Sengpiehl and her husband Paul Sengpiehl. Over lunch one afternoon, Paul recounted his years learning Latin in high school with his Latin teacher Lois Fischer, who taught her students this mnemonic for remembering the stages of Roman history: K-R-E-2-5-4. That is: Rome was a kingdom for 200 years, a republic for 500 years, and an empire for 400 years! How exciting! Thank you to Paul for sharing that memory device. I will certainly pass it on to my students and our 6th grade ancient history teacher.

And the best part about the whole weekend, I let go of a project that had hit some serious walls and was keeping me from moving on to the many other exciting writing projects I am working on. This is a good life lesson: sometimes it is better to give a thing up than to hold on and get dragged down with it. Several years ago, my good friend Peter Linenthal asked me to write a children’s book for him and he would do the illustrations. We worked very hard over a long, long time, but publishers and agents prefer to choose their own collaborators. They typically pair a lesser-known illustrator with a better-known writer or vis versa, in the hopes of giving as much support as possible to the project. I hope Peter finds a home for Jaya in the coming months so that he can get to work on the final art work. And thank you, Peter, for the gift of that amazing convention!

Ancient World Now: The Iliad

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Diomedes was one of the most revered heroes of the ancient world. Though we don’t hear much about him nowadays, he had as many adventures as Achilles and Odysseus! He is quite overshadowed by those other characters. But a huge chunk of The Iliad is devoted to his “aristeia”, or glory day on the battlefield, during which, he wounds Aphrodite, goddess of love.

This dramatic painting is by Arthur Heinrich Wilhelm Fitger and shows the mad chaos of Aphrodite’s desperate move to save her wounded son, Aeneas. And if you are a good student of the ancient world, you know that, yes, of course she saves him. Virgil’s Aeneid is the tale of Aeneas’s trials and tribulations after the Trojan War. Stay with me and you will hear my version of The Aeneid, soon to come as a podcast.

Next week we begin The Odyssey!!!