As part of its inaugural “Ask Me Anything” series, the UCI School of Humanities invited Instagram followers to submit their burning classics-focused questions to scholar Zina Giannopoulou, an expert on Plato, Greek tragedy and epic, modern receptions of classical works and more. During the one-day event, users submitted nearly 40 questions spanning ancient religious beliefs to the connections between ancient democracy and today’s politics. Giannopoulou is known for bringing the ancient past to bear on current attitudes around medicine, the environment, and – of course – the Olympics. Here, Giannopoulou answers her favorite Instagram-submitted questions.
Q. What do you make of ancient Greek polytheism? Isn't one god enough?
A. One god may be enough, more than enough, barely enough, or totally unnecessary--it all depends on one’s religious sensibilities. Ancient Greek polytheism was, among other things, a rigorous moral diet because it trained its practitioners to live so as not to offend any of the 14 capricious deities of the pantheon. Any one of those gods could kill you for not worshipping them properly so a morally balanced life was key to survival. Most often, humans failed to live such lives, which is the stuff of tragedy and, sometimes, even of comedy.
Q. What can the fall of Athenian democracy teach us today?
A: The first known democracy in the world was in Athens in the 5th century BCE and is thought to have died at the end of that century, when oligarchic Sparta won in the war against Athens. Valuable lessons for today emerge from the period between the 5th century and the reign of Alexander the Great in 336-323 BCE. We see then a crippling economic downturn while politicians committed financial crimes, sent armies to fight unpopular foreign wars, and struggled to cope with an immigration surge. History teaches us that humans evolve by remaining largely the same. Democracy is a beautiful and fragile system, threatened by our predictable vices. A humanistic education is essential to saving and bettering our democracies.
Q. When one reads Heroides today, one quickly appreciates the spotlight on generally ignored classical narratives of women’s first-person point of view. Many of them are coming from a place of pleading, longing, and scorning men. Despite this, they still feel like powerful protagonists with motivations for ethical or vengeful change. Where does the power in a subservient narrative reside and how does it showcase a capacity for change when there is not much societal power at the disposal of the women writing the letters?
A. In spring 2023, I’m teaching an upper division course on marginal ancient women, so your question is very much on my mind. I’d say that subservient narratives have the power to make us empathize with the downtrodden and the oppressed. The first-person voice in Ovid’s Heroides is confessional, plaintive, conspiratorial, but also energetic—these women, abandoned by their heroic lovers, demand justice! If they can’t change their lot, they can, at least, inspire us, their engaged readers, to be mindful of how we treat others—our lovers, family, friends, neighbors, and especially those we will never meet, both living and yet to be born, whose life we affect in the here and now.
Q. Is it true that Homer had no word for the color blue?
A. That is correct! Homer refers to the color of the sea as “wine dark.” There are many theories for this strange-to-us description, ranging from the belief that ancient Greeks were colorblind to ideas about human evolution in color-perception. The word “blue” is also absent from ancient Hebrew, Assyrian texts, Icelandic sagas, Hindu Vedic hymns, and Indian epics such as The Mahabharata, but not from Egyptian texts where Egyptian blue is mentioned. Shades of black and white, on the other hand, are ubiquitous.
Q. Have you been consulted about performances of Greek plays or been in a Greek play?
A. Yes, last summer I served as academic consultant for a Greek production of Prometheus Bound at the ancient theater of Epidaurus! I had a great time discussing with the director and the actors one of the most poetic and difficult plays of the ancient Greek canon. I’ve never acted in a Greek play - a huge relief for all involved.
Q. What do you think is your most controversial opinion regarding the classics?
A. Controversial for whom and in what context? In general, I’d say that nowadays it’s perhaps controversial to believe in the power of the classics to educate, entertain, and humanize. In our lust for new things, we may be too quick to dismiss these texts as old, inaccessible, or, worse, irrelevant. My courses show me time and again that students love the classics and listen with rapt attention to those who can teach them passionately, sensitively, and without sugarcoating the sociopolitical inequities that produced them. Our world is getting more unfair and unmanageable every day; we need to be able to listen to as many voices as possible.
Q. Whom do you prefer, Plato or Aristotle?
A. Neither! My favorite Greek philosopher is Heraclitus who came before Socrates. He used a poetic and oracular language to describe his doctrines that things are constantly changing (universal flux), that opposites coincide (unity of opposites), and that fire is the basic substance of the world. I love his paradoxes, his aphoristic style, and his contradictions.
Q. What is one of the most central lessons/perspectives you'd like to share?
A. Since I don’t believe in lessons, let me share a wish. I just hope that we never lose our capacity and desire for storytelling. The new cycle of Humanities Core, entitled “Worldbuilding,” is a wonderful testament to our basic human need for creating and sharing stories with one another. Stories are the glue of personhood and sociality, and the classics remind us that the first literary texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, are precisely the products of storytelling. Let us stay connected with one another by exchanging tales that hone and deepen our humanity.
Q. Who is your favorite classical author and why?
A. It’s hard to choose one, but if I had to, it would be Sophocles. His 7 surviving tragedies are each a poetic masterpiece. I read his plays about Oedipus and Antigone once a year, and each time I notice something new.
Q. What are a couple of ideas that ancients and moderns can both relate to?
A. The story of the western reception of the ancient world is the story of our ideas of democracy, freedom, justice, and republics. It is the story of how we conceive love, friendship, and the soul. Without Homer, Plato, Cicero, and Vergil some of the most basic stories we tell ourselves would not exist, whether we know it or not.
Q. Why did you decide to study classics?
A. Classics in Greece is considered the most rigorous and difficult humanities field. One must learn two ancient languages—Greek and Latin—and be proficient in four modern languages—English, French, German, and Italian—in order to read primary and secondary texts. University entry exams are brutal. I guess I liked the challenge. But mostly, I fell in love with ancient Greek—its sounds, verbal economy, convoluted syntax, and conceptual precision. Languages are beguiling systems of thought, and at the time I was enthralled by ancient Greek. I still am.
Q. I see the classical mythology course “The Gods” is very popular. My questions are: who is your favorite god/goddess, why, and if you could meet them what would be the first thing you’d ask?
A. My favorite god is Dionysus, the god of wine, irrationality, merrymaking, and ecstasy. He came to Greece from Asia, but the Greeks, intoxicated by Apollonian reason, initially rejected him. I love rebels and outcasts, so Dionysus is an obvious choice for me. The ability to “lose yourself” and let go is also important to me, so again Dionysus fits the bill. If I could see him, I’d say, “Oh please, lord of wine, accept me into your circle of wild bacchants, let me sing and dance for hours, make me see the world differently!”
Professor Giannopoulou will teach Classics 45A “The Gods” this fall, though the course is currently waitlisted.
Classics scholar Aleah Hernandez will teach Greek 1A “Classical-Biblical” and Greek 100 “Antiphon & Euripides” this fall.
You can participate in the school's "Ask Me Anything" series via its Instagram page.