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Simulating the Senate: Classics Course Immerses Students in Roman History and Government

Classics 214 senate meeting (Illustration credit: Abby McBride)

A meeting of the Roman senate in Michael Nerdahl’s class “The Republic of Rome and the Evolution of Executive Power” (Illustration credit: Abby McBride)

“All in favor?” says Lucius Manlius, surveying a sea of raised hands in the Roman senate. “Thus granted. Sweet.”

Manlius, a.k.a. Bowdoin senior Luke Lamar, was recently elected as consul by his fellow senators — otherwise known as the students of Classics 214, “The Republic of Rome and the Evolution of Executive Power.” The students are immersed in a month-long simulation of the Roman senate of 190-187 B.C., in the aftermath of the Second Punic War. As it happens, today’s biggest buzz is that the dreaded Hannibal was recently spotted in the east.

Taught by Lecturer in Classics Michael Nerdahl, Classics 214 might just be the world’s most lively history and government class. After spending an introductory segment learning the basics of Roman government, the students have been assigned Roman identities, complete with hometowns, ages, offices, family trees, patrons and clients. They’ve become method actors of sorts, absorbing their character’s tendencies, goals and political liabilities. Some characters are patricians, others plebeians; there are quaestors, aediles and praetors; some are members of venerable families while others are upstarts known as “new men.”

Each Monday and Wednesday afternoon the newly minted senators convene in a classroom in Adams Hall, where they debate and vote on domestic and international events, with an eye toward maintaining the welfare of Rome and advancing their own political success. Outside of class, they keep up on recent events in Rome and the surrounding region via an ingenious Twitter “rumor mill” (courtesy of Nerdahl).

For the month-long simulation portion of the course, Nerdahl works industriously behind the scenes to create and maintain a history-based narrative, both through the Twitter feed and through individual communications with students. “I give them situations and they react to them,” Nerdahl said. “It ends up being a mix of actual issues and ones that the students generate on their own.” His own character conveniently went into semi-retirement early on, so that during senate meetings he can step back as the student senators learn to make their own decisions.

As in real life, the senate is not exactly fair. The students who were assigned the highest senatorial ranks are called on to speak the most during senate meetings. Lower-ranked senators, who have more limited speaking opportunities when the senate is in session, can resort to political maneuverings outside of class. Every Friday there are elections, by which the students who played their cards right can move up in status.

“I explained from the get-go that for some of them it would be easier than others,” Nerdahl said. “It was part of their learning process to figure out why that was and how to get around that.” A few students have moved up the ranks quickly, while others have been less successful. “There’s definitely a bias within the political system that has come out as we’ve been doing this,” he said. “The class is showing nicely how much easier it is for the patricians to go up the ranks, compared to the plebeians.”

This semester is the course’s debut, and Nerdahl’s colleagues in the Classics Department are already impressed. Professor Barbara Boyd noted that “this is exactly the period of Roman history that was profoundly formative in the thinking of the founding fathers of the United States.” Boyd was also struck by the enthusiasm with which the students brought the course to her attention.

That enthusiasm is easy to see. An 85-minute class flies by as the jeans-and-T-shirt-clad senators address each other in character and use archaic-flavored language to make their arguments. “If you say something that everyone agrees with, they pound on the table as a way of applause, and if you say something that no one agrees with at all, you get shouted down,” said junior Mark Hansen, also known as Aelius Anser.  Every now and then a 21st-century turn of phrase creeps comically into an impassioned speech, and everyone laughs.

It may be fun, but the simulation is no small challenge for the students. While some are senior Classics majors, others are first-years with no background in the subject. Since decisions in the Roman senate were rooted in precedent, the students have to familiarize themselves with the historical material and truly make it their own. Each student also has to consider every topic of discussion through the mind of his or her alias, a person from a far-removed time and set of circumstances.

“It’s a big part of my learning theory that they learn by hands-on experience,” Nerdahl said. He designed the course in part to give students immersive practice in strategic thinking, problem-solving, public speaking, and the art of engaging in respectful and thoughtful debate—not to mention critical analysis, when in the final segment they do postmortems of their own performances as senators.

On a broader level, Nerdahl hopes to “lessen the distance between ancient and modern,” he said, and perhaps even inform the students’ understanding of modern politics. “I want them to think of the fuzzy political, procedural, and moral areas in the Roman constitution, so that they can have a more analytical view of modern ones, and see that all constitutions are unfinished experiments.”

Today’s senate meeting has been a productive one, though Hannibal is still at large somewhere in Greece. Lamar recites a brief closing prayer, accompanied by the sounds of laptops closing and backpacks being zipped. “The sun is going down,” he says. “Meeting adjourned.”

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