Written By Walter Borden, M.D., Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Aeschylus speaks to me. Born in Eleusis, a village just north of Athens and the haunting grounds of the goddess Demeter, said to be the goddess of fertility and the harvest. To Aeschylus that was just a myth that masked her true identity—the goddess of grief. When he was a little boy crying at the grave of his grandfather, she’d whispered to him that his sadness and tears would make the soil rich, would bring new life to sprout.
Only the citizens of Eleusis were aware of Demeter’s real meaning—and mission. She’d lost her daughter, Persephone, to a plague, but Demeter felt it as a robbery—her baby stolen by a death she called Hades, god of the underworld. He was the evil of ancient times. She vowed to find her daughter, bring her back, to her arms, to life.
The citizens of Eleusis were sworn to secrecy, never to reveal her grief—it was too agonizing. Their oath of secrecy became the cult of the “Eleusinian Mysteries.”
As a citizen of Eleusis, Aeschylus knew all that, but he revealed the secret of the mysteries in one of his early poems. For breaking the oath of secrecy he was prosecuted for heresy in an Athenian court under a system of public democratic justice, established by Solon some hundred years prior. Aeschylus was found not guilty. The jury decided that grief outweighed guilt. After experiencing Athenian justice personally, he became its powerful spokesperson.
Having killed his mother, Orestes is Pursued by the Furies, by William-Adolphe Bouguereau
Aeschylus later gave Persephone’s mysterious death his creative twist. Plague and death were thought to be a calamity wrought by the gods. The popular explanation was that Hades, the god of the underworld, abducted Persephone. Aeschylus thought this was the storybook way of saying the girl’s dying must have a sinister, but purposeful source. Indeed, even today, do we not explain senseless tragedy by attributing it to evil? Aeschylus said that people blamed the gods when something inexplainable happened. Did it simply mean that to lose someone really close was bad, and could make you feel bad?
In his metaphorical dramatic interpretation, Demeter and Persephone couldn’t accept losing each other. Their bond was so strong; grief endured and lashed them together. They pined, persisted, persevered, and then—a miracle. Their grief-bond seemed to ferment and come alive in a new form. New life sprouted. They called it Spring, the time of fertility. Followed by a time of growth, Summer, and then harvest, Autumn. Cold set in, snow. Winter, the earth rested waiting for the return of Spring. The seasons came to be, cycles of life and death. The “Mystery?” It’s about fertile grief, how grief can bring new life.
Aeschylus’ best writing germinated in his personal tragedy on the plains of Marathon fighting the Persians. He saw his beloved brother, Koryenous, hacked to death by the Persians. He suffered grief which fermented—metabolized—blossomed (sprouted if you will) in his drama.
Die Seeschlacht bei Salamis [English: Battle of Salamis], Wilhelm von Kaulbach, 1868.
In 510 BCE, when Aeschylus was fifteen, the tyrant Pisistratus fell and Cleisthenes came to power, instituting a constitution that was the culmination of the movement toward democracy that had begun with Solon a hundred years earlier. Greece and Aeschylus were both in their adolescence, filled with idealism, energy, and enthusiasm. It was a time of hope. Then came attacks by Persia, and the beginning of Aeschylus’s personal suffering. His prime work was conceived after his brother’s death in the Battle of Marathon in 490 BCE. From the bitter sweet victory mixed with his brother’s blood came a passion to find non-violent ways to solve conflict. He knew the need for a system of justice to replace vengeful violence which then became a major theme in his work.
Of his ninety plays, only seven survived. They are all we have of his work, and there is controversy as to when each was written, except the first and the last. The Oresteia was produced in 458 BCE, two years before his death. The first was probably The Persians, the only non-mythological play, written shortly after the Battle of Salamis, in 480 BCE.
Aeschylus’s profound insight was the importance of freedom to speak one’s mind, as a generality, but especially in expressing the pain of loss, that unspoken grief is unresolved grief that can become madness and murderous retaliatory rage, breeding more violence. He is said to have observed that words are like a physician to the mind gone mad. From his own life and personal pain, in the Oresteia, he created a tragic drama that touched the deep need for psychological healing in a people that had experienced overwhelming losses from terrible wars, plagues, cycles of retaliatory violence, and the impact of social changes as the Bronze Age gave way to early modern civilization.
Mosaic of Orestes, main character in Aeschylus’s only surviving trilogy, the Oresteia
Aeschylus was the first tragedian, but also soldier, democrat, social critic, psychologist, and philosopher. Called the religious or moral tragic dramatist because of his focus on crime and punishment and on personal responsibility for destructive behavior, he could more accurately be described as a psychologist of conscience.
As a dramatist of crime and punishment, he was the first to stage a courtroom scene, and he knew personally what it meant to be wrongly accused, since he had been charged with heresy for revealing the secrets of the mystical Eleusis, later vindicated in a law court. His genius combined psychology and sociology in the context of historical development, reinforcing his message with the arts of dramaturgy, staging, poetry, music, and choreography. He marketed justice with appeal to the senses as well as the mind.
There is very little known of a biographical nature except that his father, Euphorion, came from an old aristocratic family in Eleusis, near Athens. Of his two sons one became a dramatist. His sister was the matriarch of a dynasty of tragic dramatists. The lineage raises interesting questions about this family who wrote with so much insight about the importance of relationships and family issues.
Although the women were invisible, Aeschylus’s sister could not have been an inconsequential person, and her brother’s work portrays some very strong female characters. Athena, who speaks for Aeschylus in the Oresteia, is the play’s most powerful figure, overshadowing Zeus and Apollo. The injustice to women in Greek society and its destructive impact on them and the community is the theme of his Suppliants and a subtheme in the Oresteia.
As an adolescent, he lived through the overthrow of Pisistratus, the murder of the latter’s son Hipparchus, and the establishment of the democratic constitution of Cleisthenes. It was a turbulent time: Persia was mobilizing to attack Attica, the Athenian heartland. Aeschylus became a soldier and fought in the infantry at Marathon and Salamis. The Persians was produced ten years after Marathon and immediately after the victory at Salamis. The Oresteia and Seven Against Thebes are strongly antiwar, and the themes of war’s waste of innocent lives and unresolved grief resonate throughout. In The Persians, he dramatizes the Greek victory as a mastering of a savage hubris latent within the victors. He also attacked the glorification of war in the Athenian celebration of the victory over Persia.
Until Aeschylus, drama was two-dimensional. In the ancient epic/lyric form, there is one actor, the hero, and the chorus, which represents some facet of the voice of humanity. The hero is defined, and engulfed, by external forces that grow stronger as he struggles against them. The character of the hero is almost irrelevant; he is pushed and pulled by destiny’s demons. The chorus, a communal voice with a character of its own, is the protagonist and defines the issues—usually grand communal themes, such as the polis, the defeated and/or the victimized—by focusing them on the single actor through a prism of moral force. Chorus and actor are in reciprocal relation.
The Murder of Agamemnon by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1817)
As the crisis develops and tension builds, the focus shifts. The actor becomes protagonist, the center of the moral struggle, which ends with the hero facing the crisis and making his decision. In the lyric epic, the initial situation never changes. The plot remains the same as in the first ode, when the actor enters and reveals the general situation. There is no moving plot. The only action is the increasing tension within the hero. There is no way to change perspective.
In a creative leap, Aeschylus adds a second actor, which brings movement to the plot and shifts the focus onto character. The second actor introduces new information, such as relevant events that would be impossible for the hero to know, events that may drastically change his circumstances. An old family employee can come onstage with news that the hero’s wife is really his mother, or a messenger arrives to tell him that the presumed dead son is alive and has returned with murder in his heart, or that the opponent he is going to fight to the death is really his brother. The plot moves and thickens. Moreover, interactions between characters add definition and dimension to their development.
In another creative leap, he modified the structure of the trilogy, linking three plays in a series with a unified theme. The concept of linked acts—action over time with continuity of motif—enables evolution of plot and issues associated with the generation of inner drama in the hero. Trilogy, as used by Aeschylus, can best be understood as the ancestor of the three-act play.
Using this structure, he was able to portray the transfer of influences from person to person, generation to generation, within a family and within a people. Change, growth, and decline was brought to life on the stage. He could dramatize the legacy of emotions—a sense of obligation, a sense of guilt—that passed from fathers to sons and daughters and on to future generations. He could depict the harbingers of madness and the long-term effects of grief, abuse, conflict, and violence—thus showing that retaliatory violence, even in the name of justice, only breeds more violence, that oppression of women and children makes them violent in turn, that brutality is destructive to society. He was able to show that unspoken grief results in an inability to come to terms with the past and leads to the reenactment and perpetuation of old conflict and pain. His dramas are the first psychiatric studies.
Aeschylus helped lay the foundation of psychodynamic psychology. He was also a consummate advocate for the incorporation of psychological understanding in democratic justice. He dealt with the issue of criminal responsibility when madness is an element of criminal behavior. Guilt had deep roots in Hellenic culture, stemming from the primitive conviction that the gods—Zeus in particular—would take revenge on any mortal who offended them. In Homer’s time, guilt was associated with the anger of the gods; extenuating circumstances and motivation were irrelevant; psychological issues were irrelevant. Only the act counted, and punishment was absolute. The Furies were the gods of vengeful punishment and could drive the offending mortal to ate, guilt-ridden madness.
Orestes at Delphi, flanked by Athena and Pylades, among the Erinyes and priestesses of the oracle. Paestan red-figure bell-krater, c. 330 BC.
As psychological understanding evolved, ate was seen as arising within the human mind rather than having been put there by the gods. Furthermore, guilt—and by extension, depression—was seen as impairing thinking and judgment. The orator and legislator Lycurgus (390-324 B.C.), in Against Leocrates, quotes an unnamed poet:
“When the anger of the demons is injuring a man, the first thing is that it takes the good understanding out of his mind and turns him to the worse judgment, so that he may not be aware of his own errors.”
Aeschylus refined this notion into the theory that the guilty could unknowingly seek punishment. Guilt and despair were not seen as visitations from the gods but as an internalized sense of wrongdoing that could rise to the level of ate─that is, reach such intensity that it became insanity.
There are crimes that arise from a sense of guilt, and some criminal behavior is a seeking of punishment. While Solon planted the seeds of psychology in justice; Aeschylus cultivated and helped shape the growth, giving clear and dramatic power to a basic element buried in Solon’s legal code: that the substance of justice includes humanism—that is, compassion, mercy, respect for the person, for the rights of the weak, and at the same time dispassionate psychological understanding.
The transformation of the passion for retaliatory violence into a higher order, a system of rational justice, began in the seventh century BCE and was institutionalized by Solon in the sixth century. Aeschylus dramatized this transformation in the fifth century, distilling and refining the psychological elements of Solon’s justice, giving them a powerful voice. Solon separated theology from the administration of justice for the first time in human history, and took the gods out of the law.
Roman marble herma of Aeschylus dating to c. 30 BC, based on an earlier bronze Greek herma, dating to around 340-320 BC
Aeschylus used the gods as symbols; his religion is secular, reflecting the evolution of the theology founded on Zeus’s law, “to the doer be done”—the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “eye for an eye”—into a new institution of justice and a moral code based on human psychology. In the Oresteia, Zeus, Furies, and Apollo are symbols of the old order; Athena is the new; they are clearly dramatic symbols, not to be seen as real deities. As Solon had done with his legal code, Aeschylus dramatically brought the laws of Olympus down to Earth so that they could be seen inside men and women, understood, and elaborated in a system of public justice.
He dramatized the development of mature conscience and its relationship with law. The gods do not direct human actions; the direction comes from within. The individual, not the gods, bears all responsibility, but responsibility is not absolute, as under Zeus’s law, nor should punishment be absolute. The mature sense of responsibility, conscience, is rational—meaning actions directed toward others are determined by reason and empathy tempered by values.
Aeschylus dramatically portrayed the transition of values from gods to parents and the identification with those values within the family. Empathy and parental identification are at the core of a rational sense of right and wrong and the ability to anticipate causing harm. Rationality also means that all relevant circumstances have to be considered, and that there are degrees of responsibility. Circumstances, such as chance, accident, motivations, intent, harm done, and psychological understanding are factored into the equation that the mature rational mind uses in assessing guilt. There are degrees of guilt, and punishment should be proportional. These conditions are integrated in the rational sense of responsibility called conscience. While for the most part conscience and law coincide, they may differ, and even conflict. That is the stuff of tragedy, too, and Aeschylus is its master.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Peloponnesian War, where Athens suffered tragic defeat
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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, 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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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.
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.