Award winner: Aldrete's scholarship, enthusiasm inspire students

Whether trying to recreate the armor that gave Alexander the Great’s armies a technological advantage or sifting through Roman garbage, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Prof. Gregory Aldrete’s fascination with ancient history is neither dusty nor stodgy. It’s popular with students and gaining national recognition.

Earlier this month, Aldrete was one of three professors presented with the 2009 Excellence in Teaching Award from the American Philological Association at the group’s annual meeting held in Anaheim, Calif.

In essence, Aldrete was named “best classics professor in the nation” by the leading association of classics professors. What makes this award especially significant and personally rewarding is that Aldrete isn’t a “classics professor.” He’s really more of a generalist.

Aldrete says his “Foundations of Western Culture” course — an introductory-level class that enrolls students from many different majors — might be the most important class he teaches, because it has the power to show all students that history is relevant and rewarding.

“People are interested in history, when it’s presented as a story rather than a list of dates,” says Aldrete, a Birmingham, Ala., native who joined the UW-Green Bay faculty in 1995. “I didn’t plan to be a teacher. I went to Princeton to become a doctor. But I took a Roman History class and was absolutely enthralled by that professor’s lectures. History can be contagious. If I’m not interested in a subject, then I’m not likely to get my students interested.”

He tries to follow three simple rules in his approach to teaching: Approach it with enthusiasm, present it as a narrative, and emphasize experiential history. That is, to encourage students to put themselves in the role of the ancients and think as those long-ago ancestors might have thought.

Certainly one of those collaborative projects garnering national attention is the Linothorax armor. In Greek and Roman texts there are references to linen armor worn by ancient warriors across the Mediterranean. And yet, because linen is an organic material, none has survived. Consequently, our mental picture is of conquering soldiers such as Alexander’s wearing hot, heavy, metal armor as they fought their way across the Mediterranean and the Middle East to India.

Aldrete and former student Scott Bartell, UW-Green Bay Class of 2007, set out to see if they could replicate this linen armor worn by Alexander’s legions using glues and fabrics in a lamination process that would have been technologically and logistically feasible.

Their work has drawn praise in the scientific world and has also caught media attention from The Discovery Channel, Archaeological Channel and MSNBC. For want of a better description, they have discovered an ancient form of Kevlar, the remarkable material that protects soldiers and peace officers.

Click here to see a video demonstration of their armor’s resistance to arrows and axes.

One of the fascinating realities about the study of ancient history is that our sources are so few, Aldrete says. That challenges researchers to think how those people solved their problems, using the materials and technology that was available at the time.

It also means there is room for some rather fascinating discoveries. Recently he was in Rome to be filmed for a documentary series called “Trashopolis” that looks at how sanitation and garbage have influenced the development of great cities. Highlights of his visit included descending to shoot in front of the outlet of the oldest continually operating sewer (2,600 years old) built by the Romans, and climbing a 100-foot garbage pile of broken clay (the Roman olive oil containers pictured at the top of this page).

Aldrete’s courses are popular. In History of Ancient Greece, he demonstrates how military tactics paved the way for the spread of Greek philosophy, art, architecture and democracy. Actually, his students do the demonstrating. They take to the lawn outside the classroom, line up on opposing sides with harmless cardboard weapons, and march into “battle.”

For the students, the exercise reinforces the idea that it was tactical superiority, and not just sheer numbers, that helped the Greeks triumph. Their ancient innovation, a tightly-massed phalanx of shield- and spear-carrying soldiers, would route a more dispersed and less-disciplined foe.

It’s this sort of hands-on approach to ancient history that has won Aldrete UW-Green Bay’s highest honor for teaching, the Founders Association Award for Excellence, presented to him in 2003.

His peers also voted him the University’s top faculty researcher in 2006, when he received a second Founders Award, in the category of scholarship.

His book Daily Life in the Roman City: Rome, Pompeii, and Ostia was released in paperback last year by the University of Oklahoma Press. The original, hardcover edition published by Greenwood Press (2004) has become widely used as a textbook in Roman civilization courses.

Aldrete is currently on sabbatical, conducting research and working on several publications, including a book with his wife Alicia they have titled, “What Have the Greeks and Romans Done For Us?” Their intent is to show how the ancient world has led us to our modern world.

“You know, sometimes people think that because those ancient people didn’t have our technology they weren’t as smart. One thing that I’ve learned is that while they didn’t have our technology they were every bit as clever.”

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An early computer gamer: As high school students in 1983 Aldrete and classmate Steven Datnow authored the Diabolical Plot of Dr. Dracupig, a computer game for the Apple II computer. It was among the first computer games.

Star Wars, anyone?

A friend of Aldrete has worked on Star Wars and applied some of Aldrete’s research on Roman gestures (used by great orators of the period) to creating the Star Wars universe. His friend even named a character in the Star Wars saga in Aldrete’s honor. The former Galactic Senator Agrippa Aldrete (Episode 1) is named after Aldrete and his beloved black Labrador retriever. (You can look it up on “Wookieepedia,” the Star Wars wiki.)