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The Murder of Agamemnon: Birth of Modern Justice

by December 13, 2019

Written by Stella Samaras, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom Weekly

“The poet’s grace, the singer’s fire,

Grow with his years; and I can still speak truth

With the clear ring the God’s inspire…” 

Aeschylus, Chorus from Agamemnon

In 458 BCE, the aging Aeschylus was a contender at the Dionysia. Athens, although enjoying peace between the Persian and Peloponnesian wars, was undergoing political change.  Aeschylus had a word or two to sing about it. With the Dionysia on his radar he knew he had a wonderful outlet to be heard and an opportunity to persuade the masses toward empathy and reason. He also had his eye on the annual prize.  He was in it to win.
The Context: Areiopagus vs Heliaia
To achieve both ends he needed to employ a thinly veiled allegory in the guise of a story from antiquity. You see, his thoughts touched upon the stripping of power from the old and well-established council of nobles, the Areiopagus, and its replacement by the more populist court of citizens, the Heliaia. The reform reduced the Areiopagus from a legislative power to just bringing down rulings on murder.
It was a touchy subject, the transference of power, the loss of honour. How to approach it? Which myth would serve his purpose? Something set during the war of the Titans, the time when the patron goddesses of the Areiopagus, the Erinyes (Furies), were born? Hmm…maybe not.

Northern Elevation of the Acropolis seen past the Areiopagus Hill before it centre left, 1888 photograph by Adolf Bötticher [Public domain]

Aeschylus, a veteran of the Persian Wars, saw the good the Areiopagos had done for Athens and wanted to remind its citizens of the virtues of this council, while reassuring the polis of its own empowered ability to mete out justice under the auspices of the goddess Athena. He wasn’t out to ruffle feathers, rather to soothe them.

Perhaps he could pitch his views in the mythical battle between Poseidon and his niece Athena? The battle was cross-generational and pertained to Athens but the scope for pathos was limited. No, the Festival called for something with more oomph.
Justice and Vengeance
Straight social commentary and pandering wouldn’t win him the prize at the Dionysia. The winning triad of plays had to provide something more, perhaps a discussion of a higher principle, one that was at the core of what the Areiopagos and Heliaia were about: an eternal principle—justice.
Should the law circumscribe behaviour by meting out justice retrospectively in acts of revenge and risk perpetuating vendetta? This was the old way, the way of the Furies whose curses and mad retribution scared Athenians into behaving. Or should justice be meted out in an Athenian court where revenge had no place and couldn’t self-perpetuate?
The Areiopagos

The Areiopagos Hill in Athens by Polychronis Lembesis [Public domain]

Aeschylus would write a cycle of three plays for the festival to hammer his point home. His story had to capture Athens’ attention: it had to establish the roots of a crime, grapple with the ethics involved, see its consequences play out, and then provide a denouement that would satisfy, cleanse, and teach. The first play would have to be tantalising, capturing their imagination and holding it through to the end of the third.

Hmm…which myth? Troy?
A Cursed House
With the Areiopagus in mind, the story had to deal with murder, but not just any murder. It had to be an act of retribution and to the minds of some, a justifiable act. Could the death of Agamemnon fit the bill? He lied to his wife, Clytemnestra, to enable him to entice her to bring their daughter Iphigenia to Aulis where the restive Greek army awaited the winds to rise. She was to be a bride for Achilles, he said.
Instead, father sacrificed daughter at the altar so his army could set sail for Troy. Ten years passed and Clytemnestra and her lover, Aegisthus, Agamemnon’s cousin, were well prepped to avenge the murder. Once the deed was done, Orestes and Electra were compelled to avenge the death of their father with the death of his murderers.
Of course, the house of Atreus (Agamemnon’s father) was already cursed when Atreus served his brother, Thyestes, the bodies of his children in a meal. The crime was atrocious. Until Aeschylus’ treatment of the myth, Aegisthus, the eaten boys’ younger brother, avenged them by being the one to physically plunge the sword into Agamemnon.
Sleeping Furies

Clytemnestra wakes the sleeping Erinyes (Furies), Louvre Museum [Public domain]

However, Orestes avenging his father by killing a figure of such low esteem as Aegisthus would not elicit the pathos needed for a powerhouse production. Aegisthus was a coward, who took no part in the war but stayed at home and courted his soldier/cousin’s wife.

The Mannish-Woman and the Womanish-Man
In a stroke of genius, Aeschylus flipped the perpetrator from being a craven man to a strong woman and mother of the avenger. By placing the net and sword in Clytemnestra’s hands he heightened the dramatic tension, the pathos of the play, and highlighted the issue with calling on the Furies to provide justice.
When father killed daughter the family was cursed anew. His wife avenged their daughter as justice had to be served. The next course of justice was son killing mother. Without the intervention of the Athenian council the chain of killings would not be broken, for the justice of the Furies must needs be served regardless of the will of s/he who is called to serve it.

“If pity lights a human eye

Pity by Justice’ law must share

The sinner’s guilt, and with the sinner die.”


Having killed his mother, Orestes is Pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

By making Clytemnestra the instrument of justice, Aeschylus faced another challenge: the audience accepting her as an equal to a man. When he refers to her in terms such as, “…Clytemnestra, in whose woman’s heart a man’s will nurses hope,” he is not making a feminist stand. Had he intended to make such a political point he would not describe Aegisthus, who he clearly has an aversion to, as:

“You woman! While he (Agamemnon) went to fight, you stayed at home;

Seduced his wife meanwhile; and then against a man

Who led an army, you could scheme this murder!”

Aeschylus, in trying to maintain a strong argument against vengeance as a form of justice, had to accord as much honour to each victim/perpetrator. He could only do this by elevating the status of Clytemnestra to be equal to a man. The choice may have perturbed some.
 Fate, the Sanctity of the Guest-Host relationship and a Middling Course
Having conceived a vital plot line, Aeschylus had recourse to tragic tropes to strengthen his play. By repeating the story of Atreus and the death of Iphigenia he reinforces the role that indelible fate plays in driving the inevitable.
Agamemnon death

The Murder of Agamemnon [Public domain]

From the outset, Aeschylus pummeled his audience with foreboding, remembering past wrongs of the family but also connecting the family curse of Atreus with Paris’ transgression, stealing away with Menelaus’ wife, Helen. Menelaus was a son of Atreus too. By reliving his grief and the consequences of the ten-year war, Aeschylus built on a sense of ill will and disharmony.

Compounding the sense of impending doom is the act of hubris Clytemnestra easily convinced Agamemnon to do – by treading on the costly tapestries she had strewn before him, he overreached his measure as a man and a king. He put the gods offside. By the time the audience is presented with his prostrate corpse, the suspense of having to wait for the inevitable has reached fever pitch.
Would all this be enough to put Aeschylus’ play on a winning path? Well, he did have more to offer.
Aeschylus’ imagery reached out and touched his fellow citizens and even reaches forward to us today. Whether he is describing the conditions of a campaigning soldier, the heartbreak of an abandoned spouse, or the plight of old age, his imagery is poignantly relatable.
Did he do enough to win that year? Yes. Did he get his point across with logos, pathos, and ethos? Did his audience leave the theatre renewed by a cathartic experience? That would depend on the veracity of his actors and his music. For a victorious playwright, I’d like to imagine that they did.

Aristophanes’ The Frogs: A Way to Stop a War?

by August 21, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The Frogs, an ‘old’ comedy play by Aristophanes, was performed in 405 BCE at the Lenaia festival of Dionysus. With the Peloponnesian War raging on, plays of the time had a tendency to deal with saving the state, matters of right and wrong, and background events of the war itself. Writers focused on political themes, pushing the idea that a poet has the ability to save the state from war.
Illustration of the Peloponnesian War

Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat

The Plot of Aristophanes’ The Frogs
Originally disguised as Heracles, the god Dionysus ventures down to the underworld to seek out Euripides, the tragic poet who had died in the previous year. Against the backdrop of war, Dionysus thinks that Euripides is the only one who can safe Athens from itself. Dionysus crosses the lake with Charon while debating with a chorus of frogs along the way.

the Self-Portrait as Bacchus, is an early self-portrait by the Baroque artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, dated between 1593 and 1594.

Soon, the issue of Dionysus’ disguise as Heracles presents itself when he realizes Heracles made a few enemies in the underworld. Accompanied by his slave, Xanthius, Dionysus makes him wear the costume instead. Then Xanthius, dressed as Heracles, gets invited to a banquet of feasting and dancing. Dionysus, not surprisingly, wants to be the one at the banquet so they swap clothes yet again. However, at the banquet Dionysus dressed as Heracles makes even more people mad, so they switch again. This whole first half of the play is mostly Dionysus’ fumbling with choices, making Xanthius cover for him and improvising to right his wrongs.
Vase of Xanthias

Red-figure vase painting showing an actor dressed as Xanthias in The Frogs, standing next to a statuette of Heracles

As the play progresses, Dionysus finds himself in the palace of Pluto where Aeschylus and Euripides are competing for the best tragic poet. Dionysus acts as the judge while Aeschylus and Euripides quote snippets of their verse, critique, and respond to one another. In the final judgment of the debate, a scale is brought in and whichever poets’ words have the most weight to them will cause the scale to tip in their favor.
Ultimately, this measuring device proves ineffective and Dionysus asks the battling poets to provide advice for how to save the city. In the end, Aeschylus proves to be more practical and suited for the job, so Dionysus chooses to take him back to earth.
Portrait of Aeschylus

Bust of Aeschylus

Key Themes in Aristophanes’ The Frogs
In this play in particular, Aristophanes unequivocally posits that it is the poet’s duty to save the city. However, this is fully dependent on defining who is the right poet, who has the right ideas, and who makes the right decisions. This is expressed through a series of choices, disguises, and deceptions throughout the play. Dionysus is the butt of the jokes in the first half of the play, constantly going back and forth with Xanthius and constantly making the wrong choice.
Aristophanes - bust

Bust of Aristophanes

In the second half of the play, Dionysus transitions into a stoic, perceptive judge of others. His final choice of Aeschylus is left up to the audience to decide whether or not it was the right decision. Aristophanes also leaves the success or failure of Aeschylus to save the city open-ended. Aristophanes is intentionally ambiguous and subtle, which the audience no doubt would have picked up as a larger comment on the present day backdrop of war. Aristophanes manipulates the reality that his plays are set against, providing audiences a transcendent view of truth.
The Reception of Aristophanes’ The Frogs

The Frogs performed by The Barnard Columbia Ancient Drama Group

Having won the contest in 405 BCE, the Frogs was a comedic hit from the beginning. Some sources even suggest that Athens commissioned in the same year for the play to be put on again. The Frogs is also commonly performed in modern day theaters, being adapted into musical form as well. The onomatopoeia of the frog croak, witnessed in the choral ode of the play, has been used in Finnegans Wake by James Joyce, and was referenced in Jesting Pilate by Aldous Huxley.
It is clear that Aristophanes’ The Frogs was a great success. The fact that the raging Peloponnesian War ended the year after, however, probably didn’t have much to do with it, despite the Poet’s attempts.

A Tale of Two Theaters: Greek and Roman Theaters

by July 31, 2019

By Jocelyn Hitchcock, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Greek and Roman theaters regularly rank among the most popular archaeological sites to visit. Their sheer size and state of preservation make it easy for visitors to gauge the scale of events in antiquity and to feel as if they can travel back in time; an experience that doesn’t always occur when trekking crumbling ruins. But while Greek and Roman theaters are often lumped together in common vernacular, there are actually meaningful differences that distinguish their origins and cultures.
Roman Theater Plan

Roman Theater Plan

The Evolution of the Greek Theater Structure
The most basic elements of both Greek and Roman theaters are shared: semicircular, raised seating, a chorus, and incredible acoustics. The early Greek theaters were made of wood, built into the hillside, and had a beaten earth stage as the focal point. The oldest example of an ancient Greek theater is the Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus, located on the South Slope of the Acropolis in Athens and dating to the 6th century BCE. The seats were built into the natural slope of the hill, taking advantage of the elevated viewing opportunity.
Ancient Greek theater

Ancient Greek theater, 450-400 BC, Classical period. Neapolis Archaeological Park of Syracuse.

Originally made all out of wood, the 5th century renovations saw a rectangular stage with corresponding wings added and stone seats in the front row only.
By the 4th century BCE, all the seats were transformed from wooden planks into stone benches and acquired a backdrop of stone and semi-columns. The evolution of the Theater of Dionysus exemplifies the transformations of other Greek theaters in antiquity, representing the typical architectural form embodied throughout. The theaters of Epidaurus, Delphi, and Pergamon all remain in great condition and demonstrate the social demand for these monumental arenas.
Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus

Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus

Roman Theater Structure Refined
Centuries later, Roman theaters took the architectural form of Greek theaters and tweaked it, refined it, and altered it just enough to fit their own socio-political tastes. Perhaps the biggest visual difference is that Roman theaters were usually freestanding, which means that they were not constructed into a hillside. Roman theaters also built the backdrop (or the scaenae frons) to at least two stories and joined it with the seating. They installed awnings that could be extended, enclosing the whole theater in a style of which we are familiar with today.
Other modifications included the complete paving and/or marbling of the performance area, the orchestra, and the seats. They added monumental statues, columns, and reliefs to the stage to make it even more impressive to the viewers.
Theater of Hierapolis

Theater of Hierapolis

Greek and Roman Theater Performances
As to be expected, the type of performances held in both Greek and Roman theaters were quite similar. Comedy and tragedy dominated, and theaters housed drama competitions and festivals to be carried out throughout the year. Masks, costumes, props, songs, and music all made up the show, with actors communicating with the audience directly or indirectly.
Scholarship since the 1960’s has worked hard to reconstruct dramatic performances, prompting questions about the function of the built in backdrop, stage decor, and what exactly was left up to the viewers to imagine themselves.
Theater at Epidaurus

Theater at Epidaurus being used for a summer festival in 2018

With few exceptions, Greek tragedies and comedies were performed by up to three actors, with some doubling up characters when need be. They used masks, which have been interpreted as “semiotic agents,” taking on a life of their own and possessing the typified personality, character, and attributes. As such, stock characters were immediately recognizable, but it was up to the play and performance to dictate the acute personality of the character.
Apart from the actors, Greek dramas made ample use of the chorus, much to the confusion of modern scholars. The chorus is distinct from the stage action spatially, as they stand on the circular orchestra in front of the rectangular stage. They sing directly to the audience or other characters, but often as a removed viewer of the activity.
Examples of theatrical masks

Examples of theatrical masks

Roman dramas, while originally taking themes from Greek topics and myths, eventually began to adopt their own themes with Etruscan and Latin origins. Choruses in Roman tragedies were incorporated into on-stage action, an aspect that differed from Roman comedy. Roman comedy were either Greek adaptations or entirely Roman in a Roman setting. Male actors would have likely performed all roles in Roman theater, like in Greek theater, but there is some evidence that women may have been minimally involved.
Late Roman Theater

Late Roman Theater

More Please!
Overall, the comparison between Greek and Roman theater speak to the desire for ‘more’ evolving in the respective societies: more genres, more topics, more characters, and more elaborate furnishings. The Greek theaters that were once comparatively humble evolved into Roman theaters seating some 20,000 patrons viewing drama festivals and competitions with playwrights from around the Roman Empire.

The Bloodless – but perhaps Most Clever – Greek Tragedy Ever Written

by October 2, 2018

By Ben Potter and Anya Leonard
Sophocles’ Philoctetes, first performed in 409 BC, isn’t a typical tragedy, certainly not in the more modern perception of the genre. There is no high death toll and no evil, underhand conniving that leaves characters bitter and crushed. In a word, there is no blood. In fact, as far as Greek tragedy goes, Philoctetes is really a ‘happy ever after tale’ with all the characters basically getting off the island of Lemnos with a good deal. But then how does Sophocles keep it interesting? Through the tension and conflict that is a precursor to the successful conclusion that the audience knows is to come. So whilst Philoctetes may disappoint with its lack of fatalities, it is certainly abundant in suspense.
Painting of Philocletes

Attributed to Jean Germain Drouais (French, 1763–1788)

But let’s rewind a little bit and set the scene. Philoctetes takes place on the island of Lemnos and is a prelude to the triumphant Greek conclusion of the Trojan War. In order to succeed in said campaign, the Greeks need a specific weapon, which was once owned by Heracles and currently in possession of the lame and tormented castaway Philoctetes, who received the gift for lighting the demi-god’s pyre. Unfortunately this poor fellow received a particularly nasty snake bite on the journey to Troy, which when it festered, made him unpopular company. They rid the stinking sick man by stranding him on the island where he remained… until a team of Greeks returned in order to obtain the sacred bow.
Enter Odysseus, hero of the Odyssey and Neoptolemus, son of Achilles. They have an extremely difficult task in front of them though, as Philoctetes did not take kindly to his abandonment and is still quite embittered.
The play opens fraught with tension, as Odysseus immediately acknowledges that Philoctetes would rather ‘catch me than any Greek alive’. Odysseus’ fear is apparent – he knows that even he cannot defend himself against the magical bow that never misses. And yet, he has such a task at hand.
The less apparent conflicts are those that take place within the individuals in the play, which don’t blatantly come across in the text. Neoptolemus’ inner-conflict is most obvious of the three – loyalty to his friends and comrades, or obedience to his conscience. He seems aware from the moment Philoctetes entrusts him with the magical bow, that he will have to make some compromise.
Odysseus’ inner conflict is far more practical and almost ruthless. Should he manipulate the boy Neoptolemus, something he has no qualms about, and make him coax the bow from Philoctetes? Or should he put himself at risk in either a diplomatic context or by trying forcefully to get the bow?
(It should be noted that this Odysseus is not a carbon copy of the popular and noble hero of the Odyssey, but a conniving, ruthless and selfish swine. Theatrically this villainy works beautifully when juxtaposed with the naive Neoptolemous and the bitter, pathetic Philoctetes).
Painting of Philoctetes hurt

The Wounded Philoctetes, N. A. Abildgaard,1775.

Finally, Philoctetes himself has the dilemma of pride. He has suffered the ultimate humiliation at the hands of Odysseus and the Greek commanders Agamemnon and Menelaus, which he can never forget as long as his foot is puss filled. Should he swallow his pride in order to save the Greeks and cure his pain via the talents of the Greeks’ healer, Macheon? Or should he take this golden opportunity to wreak the ultimate revenge on kleos, or reputation, obsessed heroes by causing their defeat in the war?
The physical tension and conflict in the play comes to a head when our young and developing Neoptolemus has to restrain Philoctetes as he is about to shoot Odysseus. The suspense is two-fold. Firstly, because the audience watches an attempted murder and secondly, because Neoptolemus’ standing suddenly, and irrevocably, changes. He moves from being the one neutral to seemingly isolating himself from both other men. Odysseus now has reason to resent him, as Neoptolemus returned the bow to the vengeful and wronged man. Likewise, Philoctetes is upset that Neoptolemus has just prevented him from settling the score with his old adversary.
So what can happen after all this? How can the three men come to some sort of acceptable consensus and get Philoctetes to Troy? The apparent hopelessness of the situation is clear from Philoctetes’ strong words, “I’d rather listen to my deadliest enemy the Viper” – than listen to Odysseus.
Painting scene of the play

Odysseus and Neoptolemos with Philoctetes

The audience has Neoptolemus to thank for his role in ending the tension. Neoptolemus, who has changed from the plaything of Odysseus to an individual who obeys his conscience, uses his diplomatic skills to resolve some of the problems in the play. We can also see this as a move away from the idea of Homeric heroes, as Neoptolemus is humble, meek and truthful, unlike the arrogant and self-centered protagonists found in the old epics.
Indeed some might say that the main issue of the play is not about Philoctetes at all, but more to do with Neoptolemus and his development as a man.
Additionally, the conflict is ended by Heracles (appearing to Philoctetes suddenly), who bids him to go and win the war. Philoctetes then returns with Odysseus and Neoptolemus to Troy, scared bow in hand.
Sculpture of Greek Military man

Bust of Alcibiades

But in all of this conflict, inner turmoils and resolutions, there is an underlying political message to the play. Philoctetes was performed during the Peloponnesian War, just a year after Antiochus disobeyed the tented general Alcibiades, which led to the destruction of the Athenian fleet and Alcibiades’ defection to Sparta. In 409 BC there was a great demand for the return of Alcibiades. Sophocles could have been suggesting the Alcibiades was like Philoctetes in that he was seemingly unbeatable, like Philoctetes’ bow, whilst having underlying flays of arrogance, egotism, hedonism, and dubious loyalty, which can be identified in Philoctetes’ wound that is holding him back from the greatness he is capable of.
Essentially, Philoctetes’ wound is a metaphor for Alcibiades’ character flaws. The Athenians, who would have undoubtedly have had war on the brain, may have picked up on this.
But unlike the Peloponnesian War, there is no bloodshed in Philoctetes. Other than the to and fro of bow possession, there is not even actual action in the entire play, so it’s the feeling of tension that drives the plot to its relieving climax. Like in many great productions, it is the threat that a serious incident will occur that is more tantalizing than the actual event itself.
As long as there is some ground on which the three men can disagree, there is always a promise of some dramatic explosion, and in this sense, Philoctetes is a far more clever play than most Greek tragedies. And because we don’t get our expected confrontation, the tension is always hanging in the air. A fight or murder would relieve this, but it is only when the curtain falls that we are allowed to exhale.

Was Ancient Greek Theater Only for Men?

by September 5, 2018

by Ben Potter
A quick search of our homepage will reveal that a copious amount of ink has already been spilt discussing the life and works of the great practitioners of Athenian theatre: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes.
However, leaving aside these individuals for the moment, brilliant as they may have been, what of the vehicle of delivery itself? No, not the actors, nor even the venue, but the festivals in which seminal works such as Oedipus Rex, Electra, Ajax, Orestes, Prometheus Bound, The Wasps, The Knights, and Philoctetes were showcased?
The City Dionysia

The City Dionysia Theater

The two major Athenian theatrical festivals, The Lenaia and The City Dionysia were held in honor of the god Dionysus. Calling them theatrical, whilst not misleading, isn’t wholly illuminating as they were merely primarily, not exclusively concerned with theatre.
The Lenaia lasted for four days during January/February and, because of the time of year, was almost exclusively attended by Athenian residents, due to little winter shipping in the Mediterranean.
The Lenaia was originally a festival of comedy (although tragedy was introduced in 488 BC), probably because there was more scope for political and social ‘in-jokes’, as the audience would have consisted of few non-citizens.
Alternatively, the City (or Great) Dionysia lasted six days and took place in the spring (March/April). Consequently it could have been attended by citizens from Athenian colonies (in addition to friendly travelers) because shipping would have resumed by this point.
Two things are noteworthy about the City Dionysia. Firstly, it was solely a festival of tragedy until 432 BC, and it was the main event, the big deal, the Oscars to the Golden Globes of the Lenaia. Secondly, it seems the Dionysia was ‘more religious’ or, perhaps, more preoccupied with traditional religious practice than the Lenaia.
Pan or Dioynsius festival

Before a statue of Pan
by Nicolas Poussin

Supporting evidence comes from Oswyn Murray in his comprehensive Early Greece: ‘the festival involved an annual procession of the ancient statue of Dionysus from Elutherai (a mountain settlement on the northern borders with Boeotia) to Athens’.
This shows us that if one wished to take in a show then, at the very least, one would have to feign interest in a religious procession.
Classics professors looking to justify their tenure have made a lot of the ins and outs of these two festivals. However, something really interesting, and still now ambiguous, is the role women who were allowed or obliged to play in them.
Women would certainly have had a role to play in the holy procession and been given a share of the rare and delicious animal sacrifice. Additionally, women were generally a vitally important part of most Dionysian rituals in their official status as his Maenads/Bacchae (specific female acolytes).
Beyond this, things get a little sketchy, as reliable evidence for Athenian women (their lives being private, domestic and illiterate) is scarce. However, we do have reason to believe women were allowed to attend dramatic festivals even if, like in Shakespearean London, they were not permitted to act in them.
We look to the comic masterpiece of Aristophanes, The Frogs to confirm this: ‘Every decent woman or decent man’s wife was so shocked by plays like Euripides’ Bellerophon that she went straight off and took poison’.
There is a school of thought that says women were perhaps allowed to attend tragedies, but not comedies.
The main argument for women being excluded from comic shows is that comedies would have been a ‘bad influence’ on the ‘easily susceptible’ (i.e. women), whilst tragedies had an important moral message to teach. This, however, does not hold up to closer scrutiny. In Aristophanes’ comedies the women behave no worse (and usually better) than the men, whilst in tragedies such as Medea we see a woman kill her babies. Additionally, in Agamemnon we see a woman kill her husband, and in Electra we see a woman kill her mother and display incestuous feelings towards her father.
Death of Agamemnon

Death of Agamemnon

Thus it’s hard to imagine that the corrupting influence of bawdy jokes and toilet-humour would have been more damaging on the delicate sensibilities of Athenian lady-folk than tales of incest, murder, suicide, treachery and blasphemy.

Furthermore, if women could attend one branch of theatre, but not the other, then we may expect to be told somewhere why this was (or at least have it joked about by the waggish Aristophanes).
So were women supposed to learn important lessons at the theatre?

Most Athenian women (even of the upper classes) would have received little or no formal education whatsoever, so these infrequent visits to the theatre would have been probably the only opportunity for mass enlightenment.
We can see in plays such as Aristophanes’ Assemblywomen (396 BC) that an attempt is made to communicate ideas women may never have had the liberty to contemplate. The brief plot of this comedy is that the women of Athens obtain power of the city through an elaborate scheme in which they descend on The Assembly dressed in drag.
This play could be Aristophanes’ attempt to champion the rights of Athenian women by implying that not only are they capable of creative/devious thinking, but also that they may be suitable to play a political role.

Cast of Lysistrata, 1928

Likewise in Lysistrata (411 BC), in which the Athenian women go on a sex strike, Aristophanes could be challenging the existing system of the husband being kurios (master) over his wife. Such plot lines may have been seen as subversive, however if they were, would any serious message have had less of an impact when veiled in comedy? Perhaps so.
The argument that Aristophanes had no interest in transmitting a political or social message is groundless. Cambridge professor Paul Cartledge pointed out that the controversial and powerful demagogue ‘Cleon thought Aristophanes was worth taking legal issue with’ and Aristophanes actually rewrote his satirical Clouds to make it more strongly political.
Euripides was another major playwright who conveyed a strong message to his female audience; a very different and possibly more effective message than Aristophanes.
Euripides has been called everything from a misogynist to a feminist and was blatant in his attempts to suggest that ‘clever’ women should not be trusted. Most obviously in Medea (431 BC) where the title character is a woman who has given up her citizenship and then murders her children following her husband’s affair.
This powerful and emotive play could have been Euripides’ attempt to persuade women of Athens to stay loyal to the state, not be overly concerned or jealous about their husband’s extra-marital misdemeanors, and generally to be wary of concerning themselves in ‘male’ matters.
However, it could have been just the opposite. A message to women that they don’t need to put up with this sort of thing and a warning to men that, despite their great power and social status, despite the world being run by them, for them, they could lose everything they cared about in the blink of furious, female eye.
However, moving away from the speculative, we must address the very real possibility that women had little significance at all in the two festivals.
Apart from the actual opening procession itself, women may have had not much to do. Even assuming women were allowed to attend all the theatrical productions, perhaps none of the performances were geared towards them.
Women in a procession

Ancient Greek women

In Assemblywomen the underlying message of the play is that the current politicians in Athens were so poor that even a woman would make a better leader! And the fact that rule by women is considered a suitable topic for a comedy indicates that the message of the play is not towards women but a scathing attack on low-caliber politicians.

Likewise in Lysistrata it seems that the theme is more the obtainment of peace than sexual equality.
Euripides’ negative (or at least extreme) portrayal of women could easily be a reminder to Athenian men to keep close watch on their wives and perhaps not allow them too much freedom.

It seems that the main and key advantageous role women had at these festivals was to receive a preciously rare moment of education at the theatre. This, however, was no official or even planned act, but more the accidental vehicle by which individual playwrights could spread their influence further.
The fact that Athenian women would have had so little access to creative thinking and ideas would have meant that, for the individual women, this day would have been of great significance, even if their formal role in the festivals would have been rather limited.
Thus, we cannot really conclude on a truly positive note that theatre was a vehicle of emancipation that changed female Athenian society. What it was, however, was a pinprick of light in a life of repetition and banality, a highpoint of refinement, art, culture and beauty to liberate and elevate a class of society, which had less potential for social progression than the bevy of slaves who kept Athens ticking.
Even if only for a moment.

The Battle of Love and Law

by December 29, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga
There’s a reason Euripides is often called the “people’s poet.” Though his plays were not the most popular in their own time, after his death they were soon recognized for their incredible attention to character.
Euripides, the People’s Poet
Euripides was able to take people on the outskirts of society—slaves, women, illegitimate children—and give them complicated psychologies and desires in a way that no tragedian was ever able to do before. One of his most famous plays, the Hippolytus, is a great example of this—by telling a story that seems fairly uncomplicated on the surface, Euripides is able to give us a glimpse into the complicated psyche of an illegitimate man who desperately craves legitimacy, and ultimately show us the intricate relationship between love and law.
Hippolytus begins with the appearance of the goddess Aphrodite on the stage. She introduces the audience to the major conflict of the play: Hippolytus, the illegitimate son of Athens’ King Theseus, has severely insulted Aphrodite by rejecting her and erotic love altogether in favor of a chaste life as a devotee of Artemis. As punishment, Aphrodite causes Theseus’ wife, Phaedra, to be overcome by a desire for her stepson—so that, once Phaedra’s unlawful attraction is revealed, Theseus will kill Hippolytus.
Aphrodite’s plan succeeds spectacularly: when Phaedra’s nurse, in an effort to save her mistress (who, rather than admit her shameful love, is attempting to kill herself by starvation) reveals Phaedra’s secret to Hippolytus, and the horrified Hippolytus angrily rejects it, Phaedra’s intense shame leads her to hang herself—but not before leaving a note for Theseus in which she claims to have been raped by Hippolytus.
The outraged Theseus uses one of three wishes given to him by Poseidon to curse his son, and as Hippolytus flees into exile, Poseidon sends an enormous bull thundering out of the sea, which startles Hippolytus’ horses; the man is thrown from his chariot, though he remains tangled in the reigns, and the horses drag him to his death against the rocks.
More Than Meets the Eye…
This brief summary only hints at the complexities hidden beneath the surface-story. To plumb these depths and reveal the underlying tension between eros (erotic love) and nomos (law or custom), we must take a closer look at Hippolytus and Phaedra.
When Hippolytus first appears, he is just returning from a hunt, and his first order of business is to give reverence to Artemis. “For you, dear Lady, I bring this garland, this lovely chain of flowers,” he proclaims as he stands before her statue and altar, “from a virgin meadow…virgin it is, and in summer the bees frequent it, while Purity waters it like a garden.”
Euripides wastes no time in showing the audience that Hippolytus not only esteems the goddess, but also the very concept of virginity—above all else. What seems like every time he is on stage, Hippolytus references his virginity and his commitment to chastity in some way—it is clear that he holds tightly to the ideal and to the holiness he hopes to gain from his chastity.
Why is Hippolytus so determined to reject eros—an erotic longing which, according to Phaedra’s nurse, is willed by the gods and cannot be withstood without a certain amount of arrogant presumption?
“Euripides wastes no time in showing the audience that Hippolytus not only esteems the goddess, but also the very concept of virginity—above all else.”
Even his own attendants attempt to warn Hippolytus that his rejection of Aphrodite is disrespectful and dangerous, but Hippolytus is resolute, responding simply with a sardonic “I don’t like deities who are marvelous after dark.” The blatant cynicism of that statement is our first clue in understanding Hippolytus’ character: his rejection of eros is largely related to the deep seated feelings of hate and anger which he holds in his heart.
Hatred of Women?
It would be all too easy to simplify Hippolytus’ hatred by calling it a hatred of women—his most famous speech, after all, delivered after the nurse informs him of Phaedra’s amorous desires, begins “Zeus! Why did you let women settle in this world of light, a curse and a snare to men?” and ends with “Let people say I am always harping on the same theme. Still I shall never tire of hating women.” His hatred of women is very real—however, to claim that it is the only reason for his rejection of eros is to over-simplify a much more complex decision which very likely can be traced back to Hippolytus’ identity as Theseus’ son.
Desperate for Legitimacy
Hippolytus’ history is not complicated to understand (in fact, stories like his seem all too common in Ancient Greek history and mythology), although it’s likely to have had some complicated consequences on Hippolytus’ character.
Hippolytus’ mother, named Hippolyta, represents a dark side to Theseus’ history as a legendary hero and upright citizen: she is one of many women whom he kidnapped and later deserted. While Hippolyta’s ultimate fate is unclear, we do know that she bore Theseus a son, and that Hippolytus grew up defined by his status as a bastard child of the king. His behavior, particularly his vow of chastity and hatred of women, openly points toward his resentment of his illegitimacy.
Hippolytus is dragged to his death
In striving always to be pious—a shining example of devotion to the gods—Hippolytus is showing an obsession with the law, with nomos. In rejecting eros—the erotic, the feminine, the familial—he is attempting to achieve a perfect lawfulness, uncomplicated by the powerful, natural force that often causes people (like Phaedra, like Hippolytus’ own father) to break the law and destabilize the city by undermining laws of inheritance and succession. He is, in essence, avoiding the force that leads to the birth of illegitimate children (who, it is important to note, are basically forced to live outside the law. Ancient Greece stripped illegitimate children of many if not most rights of citizenship).
Hippolytus’ desire to avoid that natural force of eros is perhaps most visible in his famous speech about women. He says to Zeus:
If you wished to propagate the human race you should have arranged it without women. Men might have deposited in your temples gold or iron or a weight of copper to purchase offspring, each to the value of the price he paid, and so lived in free houses, relieved of womankind..
Hippolytus dreams of a city in which love, marriage, and sex are unnecessary. Familial ties are based solely on an exchange of goods.
“Hippolytus is, in essence, avoiding the force that leads to the birth of illegitimate children.”
As classicist and philosopher Seth Benardete put it in his The Argument of the Action, “Hippolytus…judges nature in light of the law rather than law in light of nature. His scheme depends on keeping the law of private property: the abolition of nature is better than any cancellation of the law.” Hippolytus wants a world of perfect law without nature—nomos without eros. What he does not see, of course, is that this is an utterly impossible dream.
Nature, represented in the family, also represents a kind of paradox: it is both a threat to the city, and an absolute necessity to the city. Though loyalty to your family can certainly undermine your adherence to the law (love and loyalty to one’s mother, for example, could lead one to break the law if it meant defending or avenging her), the city is also built upon its families, because families provide the city with citizens. It’s for this reason, more than anything else, that marriage laws were formed in Ancient Greece—adultery was considered unlawful, of course, and in a certain way, marriage was expected of every law-abiding citizen, so that the population wouldn’t die out and the city would be kept going. Eros may be a threat to nomos in some ways, but they are also inextricably linked.
The goddesses in the play themselves function as examples of that link. While it may seem that they are at odds with each other and not on the friendliest of terms (in fact, at the end of the play Artemis promises to punish one of Aphrodite’s followers as revenge for the death of Hippolytus), they are also connected.
Eros may be a threat to nomos in some ways, but they are also inextricably linked.”
Artemis is the goddess of virginity (and she becomes, for Hippolytus, a kind of representation of self-control and lawfulness), but she is also the goddess of the hunt, and the hunt is a perfect symbol for erotic desire—it is the chase, the constant longing to obtain the object of obsession (this is particularly interesting in regards to Hippolytus, who is an avid hunter. One has to wonder whether his love of the hunt is a kind of displacement of his repressed erotic feelings).
Aphrodite is the goddess of love, and is associated with a certain amount of eroticism, but she is also (some would say first and foremost) considered the goddess of lawful marriage, and in this way she is important to the health of the city. Thus, the goddess of nomos (for the purposes of this play) also holds within her character an aspect of eros, and the goddess of eros holds an aspect of nomos. Aphrodite and Artemis are, in some ways, indecipherable from each other.
With Aphrodite’s relationship to the law in mind, we can see the punishment of Hippolytus in an entirely new light. Hippolytus, by refusing eros, is refusing to get married, and is thus disrespecting not only nature, but also the laws of the city (in essence it is a vicious circle: the man who grew up outside the law, in a desperate attempt to live within that law, continues to alienate himself from it).
In this case, though it may seem over-harsh to modern readers, Hippolytus deserves his punishment—his punishment is in keeping with the law.
Phaedra, Hippolytus’ step-mother, also seems to be caught in the same vicious circle of lawfulness which ensnares Hippolytus. When we first see Phaedra, we see her in a state of near-madness and physical sickness. She is wasting away, weak, her body twisted; and we soon learn (after much prying on the part of the Nurse and Chorus) that her sickness is lovesickness—though it is not eros that has made her ill, but her resistance of eros. Phaedra tells us:
Once I saw how my trouble was developing, I knew there was no medicine with which I could combat it; there was no changing my mind. Now I will tell you the way I reasoned it out. When love had wounded me I looked about how I might best put up with it. I began with the resolve to keep quiet and hide my disease…next, I intended to overcome my folly by my self-control, and so endure it. And thirdly, when I could not master Cypris by these means I thought it the best plan…to die. As I would not wish my good deeds to pass unnoticed, so I did not want a crowd of witnesses to my sin…There you have my reason for killing myself: the desire to spare my husband and children that shame.
Phaedra becomes an interesting sort of parallel character to Hippolytus. She has also committed herself to a kind of chastity—though she feels eros in a way that Hippolytus might not, she refuses to act upon it for the sake of her reputation and good name. Rather than bring shame to herself and her family, she tries to kill herself by refusing to eat. This self-inflicted punishment is particularly interesting in that it implies a desire for control.
If death was Phaedra’s only goal she could have achieved it differently, with a faster method (as we will see her do later in the play), rather than draw out her suffering; but her refusal to eat demonstrates a determination to have absolute control over her body and her natural instincts, which include her amorous desires. Phaedra is, in her own way, obsessed with the law and its clear-cut demands. Adultery is not only unlawful, but also incredibly shameful, and so her eros must be rejected in favor of nomos, even if it means Phaedra’s death. In fact, Phaedra is so supportive of the law that her support turns into a hatred of women similar to that of her stepson. She says:
I realized full well that I was that object of universal detestation, a Woman. A foul curse on the woman who first committed adultery with strange men!…Those women who talk chastity, but secretly have their disreputable affairs, I hate. Sea-Goddess Cypris! How in the world can they look their husbands in the face, without quaking for fear lest the darkness, the partner in their crimes, some day take voice; or the walls of their chamber?
A World Without Eros
Phaedra, like Hippolytus, wants to live in a world in which eros does not interfere with the carrying out of nomos—and nomos, for her, is very linked with the idea of reputation and societal custom. Shame is Phaedra’s worst enemy—she cannot bear the thought of what people will say. Interestingly enough, one has to wonder whether Phaedra’s acute sense of shame and hatred of adultery is a result of her own family history.
Hippolytus rejecting Phaedra, by Jozef Geinaert
Her mother, Queen Pasiphae, had an adulterous affair with a bull and gave birth to the legendary Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull monster. Perhaps the labyrinth that was this monster’s home was not built solely for the purpose of sacrificing Athenian youth, but also as a way for King Minos to inter the family shame.
It is partly for this reason, really—the obsession with nomos that both Phaedra and Hippolytus share—that Aphrodite’s plan works so brilliantly (or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say tragically). Phaedra’s fear of shame is what leads her to fabricate the lie that Hippolytus raped her, in order to hide the true reasons for her suicide and save face, and Hippolytus’ refusal to break an oath sworn before Zeus, even when his life is in danger, both ultimately lead to the success of the divine plan.
Whatever Happened to Theseus?
This brings us to a new question: what is Theseus’ role in this divine plan? He is central to the decisions of the other characters, and yet he is absent for the better part of the play. Theseus is a particularly interesting character in that for all intents and purposes, he seems to be a great bastion of nomos.
Despite being king of Athens, he does not consider himself exempt from the law. In fact, the only reason he and Phaedra are in Troezen (the setting of Hippolytus and Hippolytus’ home) is Theseus’ obsession with following the law, even when technically unnecessary. Theseus, in an effort to defend his throne, killed several of the Pallantides (Pallas’ sons)—this would have been considered a perfectly justified killing (especially as the Pallantides were attempting to attack Theseus first), but Theseus imposed upon himself a needless year-long exile in Troezen, simply for the sake of ritual tradition (and despite the danger involved in leaving his throne unattended—he did not kill all the Pallantides, after all).
By this example alone, Theseus seems as obsessed with the law as are his wife and stepson; and yet, there is a side to him that is not quite that committed. After all, Hippolytus himself is proof that Theseus has committed adultery and has had children out of wedlock (we must remember, too, that Hippolyta is not the only woman Theseus kidnapped—he has committed this crime more than once). Moreover, there is an implication in the play that Theseus is not adhering to the laws of legitimacy and succession. Phaedra’s nurse, while attempting to discover the source of Phaedra’s illness, says:
if you die you will betray your children and deprive them of their father’s house, as sure as the horse-loving Amazon queen bore a master for your own children, a bastard, but with no bastard heart.
According to Benardete, the Nurse’s argument does not make sense unless we assume that Theseus is considering Hippolytus as an heir. “Why should the illegitimate Hippolytus be favored over Phaedra’s legitimate children?” he says, “Her death cannot be the cause; rather, Theseus must already have decided to make Hippolytus his heir, and only if Phaedra stays alive could he possibly be dissuaded”.
If this is truly the case, it means that Theseus is openly defying the laws of marriage and legitimacy, and it would not be bold to assume that Aphrodite’s plan is meant to punish Theseus as much as it is meant to punish his son.  There is actually a small hint of this idea in Aphrodite’s opening speech. “Yes, she must die;” Aphrodite says of Phaedra, “I shall not let the thought of her suffering stop me from punishing my enemies to my heart’s content” (76 – emphasis mine). In many ways, Theseus has insulted the ideals of lawful marriage and family just as much as Hippolytus—Aphrodite could easily consider him an enemy.
One has to wonder whether Theseus’ disregard for these laws is actually due to a deep-seated mistrust of his own legitimacy. According to the legend of his birth, Theseus’ mother, Aethra, slept with both the king of Athens, Aegeus, and Poseidon in one night. Theseus is thus considered to have a dual-paternity (this is part of what gives him his heroic strength and bravery). However, if viewed from a different standpoint, Aethra’s night with two men would not lead to dual-insemination, but instead to an uncertainty about the true paternity of the child. There is no way of knowing for certain, then, whether Theseus has a right to the Athenian throne (This is also throws into question Theseus’s killing of the Pallantides. If he is not truly the heir of Aegeus, the deaths would not have been considered justified. Perhaps this explains his seemingly overzealous need to purify). This is further complicated by the fact that Aegeus and Aethra were not in a lawful marriage at the time of Theseus’ conception—so, even if Aegeus is truly Theseus’ father, the law should have prevented Theseus from ascending the throne. How much of himself does Theseus see in his son?
It is clear, then, that the Hippolytus is about much more than a woman who falls in love with her stepson and a father who makes a horrible mistake. That tragic surface-story hides a complex struggle between eros and nomos—two fundamentals that are often mistakenly believed to exist separately from each other. In fact, eros and nomos are inextricably linked—we see this in the similarities between the goddesses (a fact that Hippolytus tragically fails to recognize) and in the failure of each character’s attempt to reject the one in favor of the other.
The presumptuous rejection of eros leads to nothing but pain, and it seems like no coincidence that the play opens with an image of Phaedra’s wasted, writhing body and closes with an image of Hippolytus’s body reduced to bloody tatters. Their rejection of nature—their desperation to live in a state of perfect and impossible lawfulness—destroyed them both; and Theseus, who had no small role to play in the matter, is left to pick up the pieces.