Until next time, God bless,
History Is Stranger Than Fiction
By Amy Barr
In some educational circles, the word history is preceded by the word required and has all the appeal of bitter medicine that must be swallowed quickly and avoided thereafter. To graduate from high school in most states, a student is required to gulp down two little doses: American history and world history. Considering that history is an account of everything ever done, this explains why so many understand so little. Students finish these fly-by classes without much knowledge and even less enthusiasm.
History has a popularity problem not because it is a dull subject but because of how it is taught. The truly intimidated panic and teach history with uninspiring flashcards or worksheets. Others fly so high over the terrain of human events that they never land to let learners stop and smell the roses of time. Home educators are generally more motivated to teach history with a spark of life in every lesson, but they often lack the confidence to follow the road less traveled to do so.
“I love dry details and stacks of dates,” said nobody ever. Quirks of happenstance, forces of personalities, and the peculiarities of human events will lead any curious person to discover that history is stranger than fiction. If “teaching” history sounds too challenging, remember this basic truth: absolutely everyone loves a good story. Help your learners realize that history is the remarkable story of everything that’s happened and they’ll take it from there with a bit of help from you. Think of it this way: once your child learns to love history, your job as educator will get a lot easier.
Pick any era and you can find some surprising details to make history more attention-grabbing for your learner at any age. Dig a bit and you’ll find it isn’t that hard to put a face on human events. The important thing is to follow paths that will be interesting to you and to your learner. Find a topic that makes those young eyes light up and start there. Teaching about Rome, for example, need not be a litany of emperors or a list of battle dates. When reluctant students start to hear about real-life details, their imagination should kick in. Soon they’ll be hooked.
When battle elephants became the trendy fashion in warfare, the Romans (who had no elephants) discovered that pachyderms are petrified by pigs. At the siege of Megara, when the Roman army grew desperate to turn the enemy away, they tried to unleash a herd of pigs into the battlefield to chase off their elephant-mounted foes. Alas, the piggies would not budge from their doomed city. The desperate Romans slathered the whole herd of pigs with oil and set them on fire. The terrified elephants trampled their own army once they caught sight of all that flaming bacon speeding toward them.
Speaking of elephants, Gaius Julius, known for his military prowess and his bold moves, inherited the name Caesar from dear old dad. Gaius would have his peers think the name Caesar came from an ancestor who once killed an elephant. Others think the name meant “hairy” because his ancestors were apparently known for their lush locks. The family nickname spotlighted the one thing about which Julius Caesar was self-conscious: an impressive bald spot. It was a happy day for Caesar when he was voted the honor of wearing a laurel wreath full-time. Henceforth, he would use that formal foliage to cover up his naked noggin. Prior to this honor he sported history’s first attested comb-over hair style.
Speaking of baldness, the emperor Caligula was so embarrassed about being covered in hair everywhere but on his head that he made mentioning goats in his presence a crime punishable by death. In his imperial court, the mere mention of goats (or looking at the emperor’s head from above) could get a person in trouble, but uttering praise for his favorite horse was entirely a different matter. He built the beast its own house and filled it with the most fashionable furniture, along with jewels and an ivory food trough. Why not give the horse all the trappings of power? Caligula planned on granting the top political office in Rome to his horse. Maybe the horse would have made better decisions than the emperor.
And speaking of laughable world leaders, powerful Antony and regal Cleopatra come to mind. They were well known practical jokers. Antony, the ring leader of all sorts of antics, was constantly searching for new laughs. The two of them would dress up in costumes to fool friends around town, but their best jokes were on each other. One time when the inseparable couple went on a fishing trip, Antony discovered the fish weren’t biting. On the sly he had a diver swim under his boat to attach a giant fish to his line so he could impress his darling Cleopatra. Realizing the ruse, the next day she secretly had another diver swim under the boat as Antony bobbed his lure. After attaching a very old, dried and salted fish, the diver gave a yank and Antony reeled it on board and realized he’d been discovered by the queen. Cleopatra quipped that Antony shouldn’t quit his day job.
So how do you find the quirky and offbeat details to make history more interesting? When kids are younger you might need to spend just a little more time at the library or work with primary sources online but, once they are older, send them on historical treasure hunts of their own. Don’t just rely on textbooks as your sole source of history. Museums, documentaries, and reenactments not only count as history lessons, but they also still have a spark of life left in them. Naturally, the best way to foster a love of history is through travel. Sure, you can read about Julius Caesar’s funeral, but did you know that you can still visit his actual funeral pyre in the Roman forum, where people still place fresh flowers daily?
There are countless peculiar and remarkable events in history, plenty to spark interest for even the most reluctant learner. If you find the right hook, even an indifferent student can get reeled in by a lifelong love of history.
Amy Barr is a homeschool mother of three and a full-time instructor of other home educated students as co-founder of The Lukeion Project, www.lukeion.org. As an archaeologist, she spent more than a decade excavating sites throughout the Mediterranean and teaching Classics at the college level. Now she and her husband, Regan Barr, offer their expertise through live online workshops and college preparatory high school courses about the Classical world, Latin, and Greek. The two of them lead annual family tours to the Mediterranean and invite you to join them for a tour of the best sites in Greece.