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PSS Spring '13

SHIELDS UP

“ILIAD” BOOK 7, lines 224-254 Translated by Richmond Lattimore

Narrator: “Telamonian Aias...
So he spoke, and balanced the spear far-shadowed, and threw it, and struck the seven-fold-ox-hide terrible shield of Aias in the uttermost bronze, which was the eighth layer upon it, and the unwearying bronze spearhead shore its way through six folds but was stopped in the seventh ox-hide. Then after him Aias the illustrious in turn cast with his spear far-shadowing and struck the shield of Priam’s son on its perfect circle. All the way through the glittering shield went the heavy spearhead, and crashed its way through the intricately worked corselet; straight ahead by the flank the spearhead shore through his tunic, yet he bent away to one side and avoided the dark death.

Leah Himmelhoch

by Mary LeClair

For nearly a decade, Associate Professor of Classics Leah Himmelhoch has invited her students to do a close reading of the great classics such as Homer’s epic poem Iliad. At first the translated text written in dactylic hexameters can seem foreign to students until she asks them to stand, grab a spear and practice the warrior’s maneuvers from the great Greek battles.

“The Iliad is hard enough to read; it can intimidate,” she says. “I want to teach students to connect with the writings; these were people and I want my students to have sympathy and empathy for their experiences. I want them to see that the text is lively, the characters are engaging, and the stories are head scratchers. I want them to ask themselves ‘What would I do?’ as they read about the dilemmas of the ages.”

Throughout her education—first as an undergraduate at Yale University and then at the University of Texas at Austin for her masters and Ph.D.—Himmelhoch has learned by doing. Starting her career as an archeologist, she is drawn to historical artifacts that reveal the story of past lives and how people actually lived. Her third-floor office in Smith Hall contains bookshelves filled with a library of the classics but also swords, shields and statues.

“I believe if I am teaching about the weapon, I should be able to use it. When you read about a spear in literature, I think, “How do you use the spear? How does it work?” says Himmelhoch, who in addition to teaching Greek and Latin Literature, Greek Archaeology and Ancient Gender and Sexuality, is also a martial artist.

For example, after studying the warrior Achilles’ adventures during the last year of the Trojan War, Himmelhoch brought her students closer to Dark Ages and Archaic warfare, and their understanding of the first great book of warfare, by taking them to Smith Lawn to form a phalanx. As once a contingent of 8,000- 10,000 warriors would form a line of defense, students in her “Ancient Warfare” class stood shoulder to shoulder with long wooden spears drawn, and their wooden shields overlapped to reenact the ancient battle scenes. They also experiment, trying out the different proposed theories about what an ancient phalanx may actually have looked or functioned.

What drives her work? She has a natural curiosity about where everything comes from, a determination to do empirical research, and a passion for ancient language. “Poetry is also history, written so it could be memorized and repeated,” she explains. “By reading ancient texts, we can talk to dead people. So when I started teaching I approached it with my students as taking a look at how we speak to each other.”

The texts are engrossing. “Iliad, the first text written in the West is about war, why?” Himmelhoch asks. “The hero is Achilles and the text celebrates his death. We learn from the Iliad about class and gender issues, and we learn that warfare is a means to immortality.”

And what drives her teaching? “I consider myself a liberal arts professor. Classics were once the only educational degree of the time, imparting the skill sets of citizenship which included the ability to write and critique. Learning those things requires brain push-ups. I want my students to know what the liberal arts are.”

“Literature talks about things that are foundationally important in life, such as death and love. By the Iliad’s end, Achilles, the greatest warrior ever, only wants his dead friend, Patroklos, back, but he especially wants to go home to his father, whom he has just realized he will never see again. So I ask myself, how do I get students to read closely? Well, there are only two ways to communicate – through speech and touch.”