A little thing I like to call “Historian’s Jeopardy”

Welcome to Historian's Jeopardy!!!

It isn’t the most popular thing I do, but especially in my 101 class I assign a little thing I like to call “Historian’s Jeopardy”!  These give my students fits!  But, they’re good fits.  They’re growing pain-like fits.  I know its frustrating and I do it anyway, not because I am sadist, but because I want them to start thinking like historians–and historical thinking is not an obvious or natural state of thinking, it requires training.  Historians have many years of this training which refines their thinking, so it takes some doing.

This is how it works: I give them an informational tid-bit that one would find in the course of reading primary and secondary sources.  Then, I give them spaces to write questions.  Ideally, they give me two questions of one type–closer to your Jeopardy concept; and, one question that functions as a follow-up.  For example (considering the first type of questions, first):

A:Ausonius, a distinguished poet from Bordeux (in France), writes in high praise of the garum made in the Roman city of Barcino.

Q1: Were ancient cities in the Roman Empire connected by trade routes and trading amongst each other?

Q2: What products were produced and exported by the port city, Barcino?

A:Cities established in Europe by the Romans routinely have theaters, though not as many have stadiums or other arenas.

Q1: What activities did the Romans enjoy in their leisure time?

Q2: How “Roman” were the Empire’s cities in Europe?

A:Livy and Vergil both publish works (one a history the other an epic) about the origins of Rome which are centered around the exploits of a Trojan name Aeneas, who was respected by his Greek enemies for his loyalty to Troy, and his belief that Helen should be returned.  Aeneas will found the culture that eventually produces Romulus and Remus.

Q1: To what degree are the Romans influenced by Greek culture?

Q2: How did Romans understand their own origins, and how noble were they believed to be?

Roman theater and Odeon in Lyon, France.

In prior classes, we spent a significant part of our week on Greece talking about what Greek culture offered to the world (i.e. Hellenism).  Just as Hellenism spread through Alexander’s conquests, so, too, did it and Roman values spread through Roman conquests of Europe.  Roman ruins in Europe, which in turn come from the Greeks, are the foundations of Western Civilization.  This has been emphasized in our classes.  Most of the problems from the exercise are targeted to those concepts.  These are not the only acceptable answers, but they are better answers.

Historians have a vast body of knowledge to complement they’re musings on sources, so it was important to target the information for those areas with which the students were already familiar to give them a fighting chance.  It is still really hard, though, and I try to facilitate success by directing them to the actual evidence provided in the answers.  For example, with the answer above, I directed them to the fact that this answer was giving them specific geography to try to trigger them to use and recognize the value of each piece of information.  As an answer, it clearly relates to a question regarding the places, distances and movement through the Empire.  It also makes specific mention of a product manufactured in a particular city which answers some economic questions.

The next step is the follow-up question.  Once I have realized the value of a piece of information, I need to take advantage of that information.  So, in the first instance above, one is considering the economic movement through the empire.  How far is Barcino (modern day Barcelona) garum travelling?  How much money is Barcino making off this, what else is getting shipped out of its Mediterranean port?  This is how a historian thinks: there are mental chain reactions that stimulate research projects and professional inquiries.  It is a healthy stimulation that benefits the layman as much as the professional historian, not just with history but with current events and news stories, or even simple curiosity and expanded cultural literacy.

In one instance, I specifically referenced a primary source and in others specifically referenced primary sources that they had already read:

A:Polybius writes: But since the position of affairs has brought us to inquire into the genius of Hannibal, the occasion seems to demand that I explain the peculiarities of his character which have been especially controversial. Some regard him as having been extraordinarily cruel, some exceedingly grasping of money. But to speak the truth of him, or of any person engaged in public affairs, is not easy. . . And there are many proofs of this to be found in past history if any one pays attention. . .  Again, was not Cleomenes of Sparta a most excellent king, a most cruel tyrant, and then again as a private individual most obliging and benevolent? And yet it is not reasonable to suppose the most opposite dispositions to exist in the same person. They are compelled to change with the changes of circumstances: and so some rulers often display to the world a disposition as opposite as possible to their true nature. Therefore, the natures of men not only are not brought out by such things, but on the contrary are rather obscured. The same effect is produced also not only in commanders, despots, and kings, but in states also, by the suggestions of friends. For instance, you will find the Athenians responsible for very few tyrannical acts, and of many kindly and noble ones, while Aristeides and Pericles were at the head of the state: but quite the reverse when Cleon and Chares were so. And when the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) were supreme in Greece, all the measures taken by King Cleombrotus were conceived in the interests of their allies, but those by Agesilaus not so. The characters of states therefore vary with the variations of their leaders. King Philip again, when Taurion and Demetrius were acting with him, was most impious in his conduct, but when Aratus or Chrysogonus, most humane.

Q1: How did the Romans regard Hannibal of Carthage?

Q2: How did Romans regard political leaders?

Follow-up: What did the Romans admire in military leaders?

A:Roman authors frequently portray Alexander as a rather cruel tyrant.  (Hint: How is Xerxes described by the Greek authors?)

Q1: How did Romans regard individual leaders with military power?

Q2: Where were Romans critical of their Greek muses?

Follow-up: How much value did Romans put in their Senate and Republic?

Alexander the Great portrayed in a Pompeii mosaic

There are actually more possible answers for these two than the first three examples, but these are some of the directions to take.  Remember that we spent the last two weeks identifying the foundational features of classical Greece and Rome for Western Civilization including a look at city profiles that I prepared for them.

Ephesus #1 – Hittite and Persian city with heavy Greek influence remade by Alexander’s conquest into a Hellenistic city.


Ephesus #2 – Roman era, the roads are remade to Roman standards, porticoes are covered, library and brothel added.

Pompeii – Organized city with forum (Roman version of the Greek agora), gymnasium, theater and odeon.

Barcino #1 – (Modern-day Barcelona) Excavated portions of the modern city reveal commercial area that is producing Roman products.


Ephesus #3 – Evidence of the emergence of a Jewish-cult, Christianity, showcasing the theater referenced in the Acts of the Apostle and Paul’s conflict with the silver smiths of the Artemis cult and the monuments of the Virgin Mary, her house and the first church dedicated to her according to tradition.

Ephesus #4 – In the New Rome era (Byzantine), the Roman city is remade in the mold of Christian Roman city, following Constantine’s conversion.


(The following handout comes out next week–basically the rest of the semester is spent looking back at Rome and by extension Greece, finishing (not beginning with) the Italian Renaissance–very overrated!)

Barcino #2 – The city transforms into an Aryan Christian diocesan center, reflecting both the interfering influence of Constantine on his adoptive religion and the transformation of the Roman world in its conversion, showcasing the excavation of the Aryan cathedral and bishop’s residence.

So, students are armed with certain knowledge that I want them to access with this drill in a specific way–one that reflects historically thinking!


Leave a comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s