Grades: High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: Long-Term Unit
Six to seven 50-minute class periods plus independent work
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff
Students will analyze scenes from the Trojan War that are visually depicted in an ancient object and an eighteenth-century painting, especially the details depicted in the foreground, middle ground, and background. They will research an epic poem inspired by the Trojan War and write a literary response analyzing how themes and values in the poem reflect the historical context in which they were made. Finally, they will work in teams to reframe a tale from the Trojan War in a contemporary context—both visually and in poetry—and recite the tale in a poetry slam.
Students will be able to:
understand that stories about the Trojan War were originally passed down orally and resulted in different variations in literary texts.
analyze scenes from the Trojan War that are visually depicted in an ancient object and an eighteenth-century painting.
write a literary response analyzing how themes and values in literary texts reflect the historical context in which they were made.
work in teams to reframe and recite a tale from the Trojan War in a contemporary context.
Featured Getty Artworks
Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Life of Achilles by an unknown Roman artist
The Sacrifice of Polyxena by Giovanni Battista Pittoni
Reproduction of Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Life of Achilles by an unknown Roman artist
Reproduction of The Sacrifice of Polyxena by Giovanni Battista Pittoni
Background Information and Questions for Teaching about the sarcophagus and painting
Student Handout: “Homer, Oral Tradition, and the Trojan War”
DVD excerpt of a modern-day retelling of the life of Achilles, such as scenes from Troy (dir. Wolfgang Petersen, 2004; rated R) or Helen of Troy (dir. John Kent Harrison, 2003; unrated) (Note: Please consult your school district’s policy on watching excerpts of any films.)
Book and audio CD: The Spoken Word Revolution, edited by Mark Eleveld (Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2003) (optional)
CD player (optional)
The Life—and Afterlife—of Achilles
Begin with steps 1, 3–6 of the “Homer and Tales of the Trojan War” section of the Intermediate-Level Lesson (see http://getty.edu/education/teachers/classroom_resources/curricula/performing_arts/lesson08.html), including the display of a reproduction of the front panel of Sarcophagus with Scenes from the Life of Achilles, which was made by an unknown Roman artist in A.D. 180–220.
Display a reproduction of the eighteenth-century painting The Sacrifice of Polyxena by Giovanni Battista Pittoni. Tell students that this painting also depicts a scene with Achilles. Have students take the time to look closely at the painting and ask them to share their initial observations. Then guide discussion by asking the following questions:
What do you notice in the foreground? What do the details reveal about what is happening? (The woman dressed in white has her left arm outstretched as if she is being guided by the man who holds her left hand in his. Although the man has a knife in his right hand, the woman’s expression is calm. The man is whispering to another man, in armor and a red robe, who points at the woman as if ordering the man with the knife to do something.)
What do you notice in the middle ground? What do the figures’ poses reveal about what is happening? (A throng of people gathers with flags and spears as if waiting for an event.)
What do you notice in the background? What do the details reveal about the setting? (The arch and columns look like architecture from antiquity.)
Share the title of the painting with students. Does the title surprise them? Why or why not? Share Background Information about the painting with students.
Other Stories about the Trojan War
Point out that the scene depicted in Pittoni’s painting was not included in The Iliad. Remind students that The Iliad only covered fourteen days of the ten-year Trojan War. The events of the war were once recounted in a series of six other epics, known as the Epic Cycle. These epics were composed about the same time as The Iliad, but only fragments of the cycle exist today.
Have students watch the movie Troy or Helen of Troy, then ask them the following questions:
Which aspects of the Trojan War are included in the movie? (the abduction of Helen, the Trojan Horse, the Sack of Troy)
Why do you think these scenes are appealing to today’s moviegoers? (battle scenes are visually engaging, the appeal of action and revenge)
Share a brief synopsis of the major events in The Iliad (see "Homer, The Iliad: Plot Summary" on Wesleyan University's Classical Studies website http://www.wesleyan.edu/classics/greek_resources/iliad_summary/iliad_summary.htm. Ask students the following questions:
Compare the events depicted in the movie with the fourteen days of the Trojan War recounted in The Iliad. Why do you think Homer chose to focus on fourteen days near the end of the Trojan War? Do you think he should have recounted how the war ended, including tales of the Trojan Horse? Why or why not?
Based on the events Homer chose to include in The Iliad, what do you think are the story's main themes? (military glory, obligations to country vs. family, fate vs. free will, etc.) Why might these themes be relevant to ancient Greek society?
What qualities of the character Achilles would be of value to ancient Greek audiences?
For the Roman writer Virgil, it is not Achilles but another character in The Iliad, Aeneas, who would be the focus of his epic poem The Aeneid. In the twelfth-century French poem Le Roman de Troie by Benoît de Sainte-Maure, Achilles is depicted as inferior to the Trojan prince Hector, whom he killed. In Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the god Apollo helps Paris use his arrow to kill Achilles. Each time a tale of the Trojan War is retold, it becomes framed within the interests of the author and the historical context in which it is written. For example, Virgil’s Aeneid was composed during the time of Emperor Augustus, and in both the world of The Aeneid and Augustus’s Rome, national interests were put before personal ones. By way of contrast, the hero of The Iliad, Achilles, represented the interest of Greek citizens in the role of fate on an individual.
In Pittoni’s painting, the artist’s inclusion of elaborate antique architecture in a picture of mythological martyrdom reflects the interests of eighteenth-century artists and critics who wanted to revive the ideal of classical Greece and Rome. This period of history, which began in the 1750s, is referred to as Neoclassicism.
Have students choose a selection from an epic poem that recounts a tale of the Trojan War. Instruct students to write a literary response about this selection. Have them compare and contrast that selection with a selection from Homer’s Iliad. Tell them to research the author and the historical period in which the author was writing. In what ways do the themes and styles in which the works were written relate to the themes and issues of their historical periods? You may wish to provide students with the following sources:
“Helen of Troy” by Margaret R. Scherer (PDF, 7.43MB)
“Introduction to Virgil, The Aeneid” by John D. Cox
“Legends” on the University of Cincinnati’s Troy website
Trojan War Poetry Slam
Inform students that the earliest epic poetry was written with six metrical “feet” in each line, which is called dactylic hexameter. Point out that Homer wrote his verse in dactylic hexameter. Review the first two stanzas of The Iliad provided in the student handout “Battle of Achilles and Hector from Homer’s Iliad” (from the Intermediate-Level Lesson). Allow students to work in groups to discuss the use of figurative language in the stanzas, including similes (i.e., “rushing on like a champion stallion drawing a chariot full tilt” and “blazing like the star that rears at harvest”) and hyperbole (i.e., “gigantic in power”). Also point out the use of strong verbs to intensify the action (i.e., “racing,” “sweeping,” “surging,” “flaming”). Tell students that the repetition of verbs ending with “ing” would also help the poet to memorize the poem.
Poems such as The Iliad would be sung by rhapsodes. The metrical phrasing of the poems, as well as repeated phrases, would sometimes help the rhapsodes remember the content. Rhapsodes would travel between different city-states for poetry competitions. By the sixth century B.C., poetry competitions were popular throughout the Mediterranean. In Athens, forums for poetic agones (gatherings of people for formal contests) existed alongside athletic competitions.
Tell students they will work in teams to compete in a modern-day poetry competition—a.k.a. a poetry slam. Students will take their inspiration from stories from the Trojan War. For more information about poetry slams, review “A Brief Guide to Slam Poetry” on the Academy of American Poets’ website (www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5672). Prepare students for their own poetry slam by first listening to examples of slam poetry, such as in the audio CD available in the book The Spoken Word Revolution or in audio and video clips online at the following websites (Note: Please preview all clips before viewing them with students.):
Urban Word Live
Verbs Media on Verbs on Asphalt http://www.verbsonasphalt.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=8&Itemid=9
Students will work in teams of three to reframe, recite, and visually depict a story from the Trojan War in a contemporary context. Each team will decide who will be: 1) the writer, who must write the poem using figurative language and strong verbs; 2) the performer, who will memorize the stanzas; and 3) the artist, who will create a visual depiction of the poem in a modern-day setting. The team must work together to help the performer to be able to memorize the poem and perform it dramatically. For the writer, this may involve including repeated phrases. For the artist, this may involve visually depicting as many details from the poem as possible. Have each team create and distribute a “program” for the performance, which should include reproductions of the artwork and copies of the poem for the class.
When all teams have completed their assignments, organize and perform the poetry slam for the school.
Assess students’ class participation based on their ability to analyze scenes from the Trojan War in different media. Assess their literary responses based on whether they reflect both research and students’ own ideas about how the themes and values of the sources reflect the historical context in which they were created.
Assess each team’s contribution to the poetry slam by originality, the inclusion of vivid details, and evidence of figurative language, strong verbs, memorization, and dramatic performance.
Compare the heroes Aeneas and Achilles. Have students work in pairs to write two monologues—one from the perspective of Aeneas, the other from that of Achilles. Each monologue should reflect the values of either ancient Greek society or the time of Augustus’s Rome. Invite each pair to present their monologues to the class.
Common Core Standards for English Language Arts
Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.
Text Types and Purposes
1. Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence.
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.
Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grades 9–12 (Proficient)
3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
3.1 Identify similarities and differences in the purposes of art created in selected cultures.
3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.
4.0 Aesthetic Valuing
4.1 Articulate how personal beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence the interpretation of the meaning or message in a work of art.
4.2 Compare the ways in which the meaning of a specific work of art has been affected over time because of changes in interpretation and context.
5.0 Connections, Relationships, Applications
5.2 Create a work of art that communicates a cross-cultural or universal theme taken from literature or history.
English–Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grades 9 and 10
3.0 Literary Response and Analysis
3.3 Analyze interactions between main and subordinate characters in a literary text (e.g., internal and external conflicts, motivations, relationships, influences) and explain the way those interactions affect the plot.
3.12 Analyze the way in which a work of literature is related to the themes and issues of its historical period. (Historical approach)
2.0 Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)
2.2 Write responses to literature:
a. Demonstrate a comprehensive grasp of the significant ideas of literary works.
b. Support important ideas and viewpoints through accurate and detailed references to the text or to other works.
c. Demonstrate awareness of the author’s use of stylistic devices and an appreciation of the effects created.
Grades 11 and 12
3.0 Literary Response and Analysis
3.6 Analyze the way in which authors through the centuries have used archetypes drawn from myth and tradition in literature, film, political speeches, and religious writings (e.g., how the archetypes of banishment from an ideal world may be used to interpret Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth).
3.7 Analyze recognized works of world literature from a variety of authors:
b. Relate literary works and authors to the major themes and issues of their eras.
c. Evaluate the philosophical, political, religious, ethical, and social influences of the historical period that shaped the characters, plots, and settings.
2.0 Writing Applications (Genres and Their Characteristics)
2.2 Write responses to literature:
a. Demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of the significant ideas in works or passages.
b. Analyze the use of imagery, language, universal themes, and unique aspects of the text.
c. Support important ideas and viewpoints through accurate and detailed references to the text and to other works.
d. Demonstrate an understanding of the author’s use of stylistic devices and an appreciation of the effects created.
© 2011 J. Paul Getty Trust
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