Rome Comes Alive! Rich Media in the Roman Civilization Classroom

[This is a guest post by Barbette Spaeth, Associate Professor of Classical Studies at William & Mary. In it, she talks about how her Rich Media Grant project turned out.]

Latin is a dead language; it’s plain enough to see.  It killed off all the Romans, and now it’s killing me.

That’s the view that many people have of Latin and the people who spoke it: a dead language and a dead culture.  With this project, I was hoping to use rich media to bring the Romans back to life for the students in my Roman civilization course at W&M (CLCV 208).

I met first with Pablo Yáñez and Paul Showalter to discuss my project in the spring of 2012.  I had a lot of initial ideas about what I might want to do with rich media, but I ultimately decided to focus on the digitization of video clips.  In the summer of 2012 I ordered through Swem Library a large number of DVDs about ancient Rome, mostly documentaries, to supplement the large collection of popular movies that I had (what I call my “cheesy Roman movie collection”).  In the fall of 2012, I was able to watch some of the new videos and pick out sections that I wanted to take clips from.  Toward the end of the fall, I went into the Swem Media Center, and received training from Troy Davis on how to extract and edit film clips.  On his recommendation, I used Windows Media Player to screen the film and find the exact part that I wanted, then Mac DVD Ripper Pro to extract the clip, and finally QuickTime to edit the clip.  It took me over two hours to do my first clip, but subsequent tries were much easier, and I now can do a clip in about 15 minutes.  At first I did this work in the faculty lab at the Media Center, but then I decided that it would be easier to do it at home or in my office, so I purchased the software for myself.

Michael Palin, John Cleese, and Eric Idle in Monty Python's Life of Brian.

Michael Palin, John Cleese, and Eric Idle in Monty Python’s Monty Python’s Life of Brian, directed by Terry Jones in  1979.

This spring, while I am teaching the Roman Civilization course, I have been adding clips to my lectures.  For my introductory lecture to the course, I showed the students a clip from Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which the question is asked, “What have the Romans ever done for us?”  For my discussion of the famous Rape of the Sabine Women under Romulus, the first king of Rome, I showed a clip from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which the eldest brother sings the story of the “Sobbin’ Women.” For a recent lecture on the fall of the Roman Republic, I showed a clip from the documentary Engineering the Roman Empire, in which Caesar’s construction of a bridge across the Rhine is dramatized, and also a clip from the film Cleopatra, in which Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra enters the city on a giant sphinx and is met by Caesar in the Forum.

An image from Richard Lester's 1966 film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

An image from Richard Lester’s 1966 film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

In another lecture on literature from the Middle Republic, I showed several clips from the film A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, to illustrate similarities to the plays of Plautus and thus characteristics of Roman comedy.  The clips have generally gone over very well, and some of them have generated quite lively discussion. By the end of the semester, I hope to have added at least one clip to each of my lectures.

All in all, I think that this has been a successful project.  I recognize now that I will need to edit my lectures a bit more in the future to allow more time for the discussion of the clips.  I also would like in the future to add other forms of rich media to my course, including digital mapping of Roman sites and 3D reconstructions of ancient monuments, but these will require a much larger investment of time, I think, than the clips, and so will need to wait for a less busy semester.  Finally, I would like to thank Gene Roche, Troy Davis, Pablo Yáñez, and Paul Showalter for all of their help, without which I never would have gotten any of this off the ground.