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Experiencing the Past: Making Ancient Greek Rhetoric Relevant

May 1, 2017

Richard Graff, associate professor in the Department of Writing Studies, has worked cross-collegiately with the Computer Science & Engineering Department's Interactive Visualization Lab (IV/Lab), as well as with collaborators in Greece and at Pennsylvania State University to produce interactive 3D models of ancient Greek civic structures that were used for oratorical performance and political deliberation.

The project joins two of Graff's main research interests—while he has specialized in Greek and Roman rhetorical theory and practice, he also seeks to understand how communication is affected by the spaces and media in which it occurs.

Graff and his collaborators started working on this project in an effort to give researchers and students the opportunity to visualize historical oratorical performances, thus enhancing their understanding of ancient rhetorical theory and education. A chief goal has been to convey the experience of participating in an ancient political gathering, whether as speaker or as audience member, and to reveal the various, often challenging spatial arrangements of the performance venues.

Graff notes that "Greek civic architecture, like the town halls of the ancient cities, has been neglected in the history of architecture because such structures were generally not as  impressive as the temples and theaters. The current archaeological remains of most of these buildings are in a very poor and fragmentary state. As a result, it is very difficult for we moderns to imagine their original appearance. Current digital tools like 3D modeling help to convey their original geometry and layout. But what is especially exciting about this project is that 3D visualization and immersive virtual reality enable us to approximate the experience of being an ancient orator or auditor." Though much of the project has focused on the visualization of ancient performance spaces, it has not neglected the dimension of sound. Panagiotis Karampatziakis, an architect and acoustical engineer in Thessaloniki, Greece has developed computer-run acoustical simulations which have enabled Graff to estimate the vocal power required to be heard and understood when speaking in ancient Greek political gatherings.  "The Greek political meetings were often very large—the Assembly at Athens, for one notable example, was attended by 6,000 or more male citizens, who typically met in an open-air auditorium that, if flattened, would be the size of a football field," explains Graff. "The expansive space, and competition from crowd noise and the wind, required the orator to speak at a volume verging on shouting—and their speeches were much longer than we are accustomed to hearing today."

The project has involved a number of significant challenges. Where archaeological and ancient written evidence concerning specific buildings is sparse, Graff and his colleagues have worked patiently to form and test hypotheses in order to determine plausible architectural reconstructions.  In particularly difficult cases, they have produced two or more models of a given structure in order to visualize competing hypotheses about the original form. Indeed, the ability to convey uncertainty has been a focus of Graff’s work with the IV/Lab, where recent developments have included refinement of a user interface that enables users to toggle easily between contrasting reconstructions or to compare different building phases of a structure, all within an immersive 3D Cave environment.  

"A factor that makes this research is so important is the innovation of using digital technologies for historical inquiry focused on transient human activities of the past. This project has been a multi-institutional collaboration that has joined researchers in technical and humanities fields and the results couldn't be more fascinating," states Graff. Work like this makes the past more present us today, allowing unprecedented insight regarding contemporary politics.

To learn more and follow Richard Graff and his team’s work, visit the "Visualizing Ancient Greek Rhetoric" project page at the University of Minnesota's IV/LAB website.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.