The Modern Odyssey
Most blogs through SUNY New Paltz’s Center for International Programs are written by students living and traveling overseas, but this one comes from a professor’s perspective. I have the pleasure of leading sixteen SUNY New Paltz students through Sicily and southern Italy over the next three weeks, exploring an important part of the ancient Mediterranean that is often overlooked but was vitally important for shaping later Italian history, including the formation of the Roman Empire.
Around 770-760 B.C., small groups of Greeks began establishing permanent settlements in ancient Italy, first on an island off the the Bay of Naples, followed soon after by further colonies on the peninsula itself and Sicily. What drew the Greeks westward was manifold – opportunities for trade (particularly for vital metal ores), a solution to overpopulation problems, agricultural abundance, and political freedom – not wholly unlike what drew later Europeans to the Americas. In fact, the Greeks’ expansion went as far as the southern coast of modern Spain!
In some respects, traveling to new lands today is quite different than what our ancient counterparts experienced, and it is hard to imagine how fearless those Greek men must have been. Today, we come equipped with much more reliable (not to mention speedier) forms of transportation, incredible abilities to navigate from the cell phones in the palms of our hands, the ability to procure housing and even dinner reservations online at the touch of a few buttons, not to mention helpful things like Google Translate or websites like Tripadvisor. Despite all of the technological advances over the millennia, I am certain that my students share many of the same concerns as the Greek colonists did: “How am I going to find food?” “What if I cannot communicate with the locals who speak a different language?” “What do I do if I get sick or hurt?” I suppose it goes to show that humans are truly fundamentally the same despite the passage of time.
As this band of New Paltz “settlers” walk in the footsteps of the ancient Greeks in exploring new territories, I too step into the ancient role of ekistes, the head of a colonist group. As I have planned this program over the past year, I have developed great empathy with these leaders who had the enormous responsibility for not only selecting a successful settlement site, but also anticipating the necessary supplies and maintaining social cohesion among the members of the group. Their level of preparation was quite literally a life or death matter. To help them in this task, they frequently sought guidance from a divine source, namely the oracular god Apollo, either at his sanctuary on the island of Delos or at Delphi on the Greek mainland. The ekistes would leave these sacred sites with either a description of the area they should settle and/or signs to look for to indicate when they had landed at the correct spot. My modern equivalent was going to Rome for the past few days to pick up the various sightseeing passes we will need as well as finalize a variety of arrangements. Sadly, no oracles were involved in the process, which would have been pretty impressive.
However, like my ancient Greek counterparts, I have relied a great deal on my own experience traveling in these waters as well as the guidance of generous colleagues to make this memorable experience for all involved. Similarly, the Greeks (wisely) did not sail blindly into unknown territory, but instead utilized information gathered by earlier traders exploring the coastlines of the western Mediterranean since the Bronze Age (ca. 1300-1100 B.C.). It was probably the misty memories of such exploratory voyages preserved in the Greeks’ oral history that served as the basis for Odysseus’ famous adventures in Homer’s Odyssey, many of which allegedly took place in the areas that the students and I will visit in the upcoming days.
But besides discovering new places, language, and culture, my hope is that my students will discover something much deeper – themselves. Studying abroad and removing oneself from all that is familiar is one of the most meaningful forms of education there is. I feel very fortunate to have been able to start so young in my journeys overseas, and with each one, I continue to grow into a more well-rounded, confident person. The ancient Greeks living in southern Italy and Sicily went through a similar process. Removed from mainland Greece, they not only developed unique art and architecture, reflecting the melting pot of cultures they found themselves within, but they also fiercely clung to their Greek identity, enthusiastically participating in the most Greek of societal practices from patronizing the theater to participating in the Olympic Games. In a new world of seemingly endless economic opportunities, many of the Greek colonies flourished, becoming some of the most wealthy cities in the ancient world. Sometimes it takes leaving the familiar to rise to our greatest potential, no?