Lessons of Ancient Democracy for Today

Lessons of Ancient Democracy for Today

100% in-person event

The University of Virginia Center for the Liberal Arts and the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations
A Classics Workshop for K–12 Teachers

Lessons of Ancient Democracy for Today
Saturday, March 25 (9:00 am to 3:15 pm)
Zehmer Hall/UVA @ 104 Midmont
 Ln, Charlottesville, VA 22903


Current public discourse in the US and abroad is full of talk about threats to democracy; some even speak of the twilight of democracy right now in the West. Our in-person workshop offers exploration of this important contemporary issue from the vantage point of classical antiquity, where democracy first emerged. We aim to open up perspectives for discussing democracy and related subjects in the classroom. Topics will range from the role of rhetoric and oratory in a democracy, to Black writers in dialogue with the ancients on the question of freedom, to grappling with demagogues and populism, to the idea of taking care of government, and of one another, in a democracy.

The program will include four 30-minute talks, each followed by general discussion, with an opening gathering and breaks, and lunch together. Presenters will include UVA faculty members along with faculty from Howard University and Arizona State University, partner institutions in our ongoing Classics Project for K–12 teachers.

Lunch will be provided.


9:00 – 9:45 – Coffee and Registration

9:45 – 10:45 – Jacqueline Arthur-Montagne, Assistant Professor of Classics, University of Virginia: ‘Free Speech? The Tools of Ancient Rhetoric in Troubled Democratic Times’

The art of classical oratory can be traced as far back as the Greek epics of Homer when heroes like Achilles and Odysseus delivered persuasive speeches to their peers. But the canonical orators of the classical tradition, such as Demosthenes and Cicero, honed their skills of public speaking in moments of democratic peril, when the autonomy of their citizen audiences hung in the balance. This presentation analyzes how the troubled democratic times of ancient Greece and Rome have shaped rhetorical training to the present, and how these techniques of public speaking persisted as powerful tools of self-determination long after the erosion of democratic institutions and norms in the classical past.

10:45 – 11:00 – Break

11:00 – 12:00 – Norman B. Sandridge, Associate Professor of Political Science, Howard University: ‘Government by the Caring: A Comparison of Ancient and Modern Conceptions of Democracy vis-a-vis Care for Others’

A democracy is typically understood as a political condition in which the people (demos) have power or supremacy (kratos) over some other subset of people, e.g., aristocrats or a king. Yet in his recent memoir of the January 6 insurrection, Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of American Democracy (2022), Congressman Jamie Raskin (MD-8) describes a democracy aspirationally as ‘that form of government that we all take care of together.’ For Raskin this ‘care’ is emotional, intellectual, and practical: citizens of a democracy should care about each other and for each other. In this talk we explore ancient conceptions of democracy in writers such as Herodotus, Thucydides, Isocrates, and Polybius, to try to understand how much this notion of care was present.

12:00 – 1:00  – Lunch

1:00 – 2:00 – Matt Simonton, Associate Professor of Ancient History, Arizona State University: ‘The Demagogic Danger to Democracy: What the Ancient Greeks Can and Can’t Teach Us about Populism’

As with so much of our political terminology, the ancient Greeks bequeathed us the word ‘demagogue.’ They recognized the danger posed to democratic societies when political leaders demonize members of the community, pander to the lowest common denominator, and engage in short-term gratification. But were the causes of their demagoguery the same as ours? And were their proposed solutions compatible with our own civic values?

2:00 – 2:15 – Break

2:15 – 3:15 – Angel Adams Parham, Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia: ‘Conversations on Freedom: The Black Intellectual Tradition and Classics’ 

One of the most enduring conversations in the Western tradition concerns the question of freedom. What is its essence? What are its many dimensions? Black writers across the centuries have developed sophisticated conversation on these questions, and have often drawn on the insights of writers from classical antiquity to do so. We explore some of these conversations on freedom and consider what they have to teach us today. 

Moderator: John F. Miller, Arthur F. and Marian W. Stocker Professor of Classics, University of Virginia


This program is sponsored by

March 25, 2023 9:00am

Zehmer Hall

University of Virginia

104 Midmont Ln, Charlottesville, VA 22903

Sign up for email updates