A group of students stand beneath a stone arch with two lionesses carved within.

Theme – Contest: Athletes, Actors, and Sages in Antiquity

Hist 393 or INTL 330 or PHIL 380: Four credits

St. Mary’s College’s Greece Study Tour offers participants an opportunity to gain knowledge of the layerings of history in this part of the world the influence of which so greatly outstrips its modest size.
2016 is a summer Olympiad. We will go to Olympia, where the Olympic torch is lit by the sun.

2016 is also a year for the 6th Nemead, sponsored every two years by the Society for the Revival of the Nemean Games. And they happened to be scheduled for right when we’re in Nemea, which was one of the four pan-Hellenic game sites (along with Olympia).

So we will study some of ancient athletics. And we will run in the modern revival of them.


As you can tell, since all ages are invited, those whose knees or whatever don’t allow them to run can still walk the stadium “run,” complete with the borrowed white cloak.

This is the sort of thing about which you can bore your grandchildren with repeated retellings. Think about it. Who wouldn’t want to be THAT grandparent?
But this study tour is not only about running.

Take any play. Take any short story. Take any thick novel. They are peopled with protagonists and antagonists, as is, one might say, life itself. Protagonists and antagonists are both agonists, and really fat dictionaries will confirm this for you. But what is an agonist?

The classical word agōn (in Greek, αγών) means “contest, struggle.” This is a powerful concept, for it has been noted that three of the major contributions of classical Greece—athletics, drama, speech-making in the law courts and political assemblies—are all examples of agōnoi. It is what ties together Clytemnestra, Pericles, Antigone, Socrates, and all the foot-racers and discus-throwers. Even more interesting, the agōn is nothing on which the Greeks had a monopoly; it famously has its counterparts elsewhere in the world, as in German (der Kampf) and in Arabic (jihad).

For this word, and the process named by it, to be so long-lived and so widespread, struggle must be multi-dimensional. In our readings and our travels, we will encounter a range of human struggle. We will read of struggles within families (the Oresteia), between warring states (Thucydides), between political dictates and religious principles (Antigone), between legal dictates and a moral mission (Socrates), between cultural realities and a religious mission (Paul), and between an individual’s life and aspirations (Marcus Aurelius). We will visit sites of struggle: a number of theaters and odeons, all four of the pan-Hellenic athletic sites, and the site of Athens’ budding democratic debates and trials.
The meaningfulness of agōn lies not, or at least not exclusively, in winning. The theme of this course, therefore, will not be “Look at all the ways to be a winner and be a loser!” Matters are more complex. Rather, the agōn challenges us to muster determination, to endure, and sometimes even to compromise. The range of these challenges will be the focus of this memorably situated course.

About the Trip

A study tour is not simply an off-campus course. Not only do we get to see sites, structures, and landscapes that directly relate to our readings, like those mentioned above, but we learn that our image of Greece must extend beyond silent, weather-worn limestone foundations and pages in literally inanimate books. Greece has lived and died many times, and now can be caught very much alive.

Greece, like the rest of southern Europe, gets its summer wind prevailing from the south. This means from the Sahara. It is hot, with summer temperatures in the 90’s, and in a heat spell, the 100’s. Summer rains are rare, and summer humidity a mere story (myth?) Greeks have heard about. Accordingly, Greeks take seriously the siesta time, which extends from about 1:00 to about 5:00 every afternoon. (The fact that precision is not possible here is part of the charm, and sometimes the frustration, of the land.) Hence, they start their days early, and extend them late. The Greeks consider anything eaten before 9:00 p.m. to be a pre-dinner appetizer!

Napping, however, is but one option for siesta. It is also good time for swimming at an area beach, for catching up on some reading or writing, for strolling to one of the occasional shops or cafe that does not close for siesta. However, this is a credit-bearing academic course. Those interested in three weeks of Greek beaches, punctuated only by gift shopping and evenings in the cafe, are likewise advised that this study tour is not for them.

Typical Schedule

So a typical day might look like this:

  • 7:00 Breakfast in hotel restaurant (provided)
  • 8:00 Depart (by foot, by taxis, by bus) to the historical site or museum of the day
  • 1:00 Break for lunch either all together or in small groups, after which people can relax, nap, read, write homework assignments, or go in small groups to a local beach
  • 6:30 Meet at a pre-arranged location for a seminar
  • 9:00 Dinner either all together or in small groups
  • 11:00 In small groups, visit a café or stroll the village square


Our long-time Greek travel agents, the Coconni family at Educational Tours and Cruises, have arranged for us to stay in some memorable inns and hotels, all with standard amenities.

The Greek economy

The Greek economy has been contracting since 2011, and this has, predictably, been worst for those who are least able to afford any of the cushioning that can soften the effects of any recession anywhere. (Witness the U.S. in 2008.) The Greek unemployment rate peaked at 28% in 2013, and has modestly improved since then—but is still at 25% as of March 2015.
One element of Greece’s economy the importance of which is agreed on by the likes of the governments of Greece and of Germany, as well as the IMF and the European Central Bank, is that tourism reliably constitutes 7% of Greece’s economy. And no party to the on-going economic negotiations wants to jeopardize that.

Since 2011, I have led three study tours to Greece (2012, 2014, 2015), and each time we have been warmly welcomed—if anything, even more warmly as their economic doldrums have dragged on. The Greeks are fond of Americans—and not just because of our money. They like our friendliness and lack of pretension. Plus, many of them have at least one family member who lives in the States.