Written by George Theodoridis, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Once a year Athens went to the theater to heal herself.
Once the two Persian attacks were done, once the last barbarian soldier left Plataea and Mycale, once the last Persian ship was driven out of the waters of Salamis, a burgeoning epidemic of arrogance overtook Athens.
The Athenians had established the Delian League, an alliance which incorporated some 300-odd cities, all paying tributes of either money or men or ships as a means of boosting Greece’s military and build an adequate protection against a possible further revenge attack from Persia.
That League became, in fifth century terms, quite considerable in size. With Athens its unquestionable ruler, the once-small Attican city became the engine of a powerful empire—initially benign, but soon an oppressive, colonial power much like the one they had just repelled.
Initially too, the treasury was placed on the uninhabited island of Delos, Apollo’s sanctuary island, but it took little time before it was moved to the temple of the goddess Athena, the Parthenon, in Athens’ Acropolis.
In Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, there is a wonderfully hilarious exchange between the Athenian woman Lysistrata and a prominent politician, The Magistrate. Their dialogue shows just how wise Lysistrata was to guard the treasury.
The Magistrate, at this point furious with Lysistrata, asks her to explain how she and the women would stop the war. Lysistrata responds cooly:
You simply wash the city just like you wash wool.
First, you put the wool into the tub and get rid of all the daggy bits, all the crap around its bum. Then you put it on a bed, take a rod and scrutch and bonk all the burrs and spikes out of it. All those burrs and spikes that have gathered themselves into tight knots and balls and are tearing and tangling the wool of State, well, you just tease them all out of there. Rip their heads off! Then, off for the combing. You put all the wool together into one basket. All of it! Friends, foreign or local, allies -anyone who’s good for the State. Drop them all in there. As well as our citizens from the colonies. Consider them, too, as part of the same ball of wool, only separated from each other. So, what with all those colonies joining the ball, you’ll be able to weave a cloak big enough for the whole city. (Lysistrata, 575ff, author’s translation)
By the play’s end, a treaty has been signed and Athenians and Spartans are getting drunk and are dancing together in the bliss of Peace.
Off the stage, Athens began to raid the treasury not long after it had been relocated there, spending money on glittering herself and on other self-serving interests. The allied parties of the Delian League, who were dutifully paying their taxes, saw this blatant plunder of their wealth and it made them angry and unruly.
In response, Athens became increasingly more brutal, arrogant and corrupt, increasingly more afflicted by its burgeoning hubris. Plato had already warned the Greeks about the dangers of hubris. Thus, Athens became quite sick, and she had to be urgently cleansed of that sickness—purged of those symptoms that brought her to that state. This is where theater comes in.
The first play we have in which this epidemic is identified is in Aeschylus’ The Persians, a tragedy which he wrote in 471 BCE. In this play, the author shows the horrendous consequences of this disease. He staged it as a warning to the Greeks, who had by then showed the same temperament and proclivity for war-mongering and conquest as the Persians did when they had launched their invasion to Greece.
Athens became strong militarily but feeble and infirm mentally, morally and spiritually. Her moral compass, as Thucydides remarked later in his History of The Peloponnesian War, was abandoned and replaced by the rules of savagery.
Sparta began to see the new belligerent Athens as a military threat, sweeping away her own allies and, in 431 BCE mounted a challenge: a proxy war on the island of Corcyra. This war broadened to encompass almost every Greek city and became known as the Peloponnesian War. It lasted, on and off, almost thirty years, ending in 404 BCE with the destruction of Athens and the establishment of a new anti-democratic government, ruled by the Thirty Tyrants, puppets of Sparta.
In the interim, on the Dionysian stage, Athens’ illness was examined as meticulously as a surgeon examines bodies in the operating theatre, exposing the affected parts in painfully glaring lights. This work of diagnosis was done by the tragedians of whom we, alas, have only some of the works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
This “diagnostic theatre” was built at the feet of the Acropolis and the Parthenon, a place that had come to symbolize Athens’ wrongs. Some 15,000 Greeks observed the work of her doctors. The question about whether women were also observing is all but concluded and the answer is in the affirmative.
This clinic operated during Spring, as part of the festival of the Great Dionysia in honor of Dionysus Eleutherius, the god of, among many other things, fertility and freedom. His epithet means just that, “freedom.”
The stage exhibited the sickly Athens as well as the cured Athens. Spectators would see the Athens of the Erinyes, the avenging furies, as well as the Athens of the Eumenides, the benevolent protectors of the city. They would see the Athens of the brutal men as well as that of the strong women who stood up to them: Iphigeneia, Antigone, Medea, Klytaemestra, Helen, Hecabe, Lysistrata, Praxagora.
So, when Pericles enacted a law declaring that henceforth only children whose parents are both citizens of Athens may be granted Athenian citizenship, Euripides showed how poisonous that law was for the people and for the country. He did so by making a slight change to an old myth. In his eponymous tragedy, he has Medea, effectively a refugee, kill her children instead of leaving them behind when she left for Athens, as the original myth had it. Her husband Jason is no more than an extra, a secondary character. Medea’s words—the words Euripides had put into her mouth—showed which of the two sexes was the stronger, which the more courageous, the more worthy of kleos (eternal fame) and which was the weaker, the coward.
To the Corinthian women Medea says,
“Then people also say that while we live quietly and without any danger at home, the men go off to war. Wrong! One birth alone is worse than three times in the battlefield behind a shield.” l. 249ff
In Euripides’ mind, the female wins the war on bravery and endurance of pain. In fact, the absence of women in Athens’ daily life is one of the reason that the city’s spiritual health is so feeble. This point is made very blatantly by all the playwrights of 5th century BCE Athens.
Thus, it is no accident that women appear so often in both the tragedies and the comedies. This is why so many Greek plays feature such strong women uttering such powerful speeches. Iphigeneia’s speech (in Iphigeneia in Aulis) must have had the whole of Athens shedding tears for days.
In 416 BCE, the Athenians slaughtered all the men of Melos and enslaved all the women because the Melians (allies of Sparta) would not pay their taxes. Athens gave them no option at all: “pay or you die.” Thucydides has the full account of the dialogue between the two sides, a dialogue that leaves the political pragmatics of war on full display. War pollutes the soul. Corrupts it. Empties it of virtue.
A year later, Euripides, enraged, produces his Trojan Women, where the victorious Greek men behave in exactly the same savage way. Yes, that stage enacted myths, but these myths were parables of real life, the modern microscopes that peered into the man’s body and soul.
After three days of Tragedies, where Athens’ afflictions were glaringly displayed and diagnosed, Athens was visited by the comedy writers, of whom, again unfortunately, we have the works of only one: a satirist, and perhaps the indubitable master in this field. Aristophanes knew the Athenians very well, as he also knew the stage. He knew the Athenian of the agora, the market place, as well as the member of the council and of the Ekklesia, the Parliament.
Aristophanes, then, was the one to prescribe the remedy for sickly Athens:
“Have a sex strike,” he said, to paraphrase Lysistrata. “Give all the legislative powers to the women” would be heard from Praxagora’s lips (see Aristophanes’ Women In Parliament). ”Get rid of the jury men who sting Athens like wasps sting people!” (See Aristophanes’ Wasps). “Send away the sausage sellers” (See Aristophanes’ Knights) and “learn how to use Clever Logic rather than Wise Logic, if you want to avoid the clutches of your creditors.” Finally, ”don’t listen to the cloud-inhabiting sophists, like Socrates!” (See Aristophanes’ Clouds).
The satirist has the most powerful tool in his hand, because satire is a flame thrower. Aristophanes aimed that pointy flame at the belly of Athens’ corrupt politicians. He cauterized the wounds, prescribed the cathartics, delivered the purgatives.
Dionysus, tyrant of Sicily, once asked Plato what his fellow Athenians were like. Plato’s response was to give Dionysus the books of Aristophanes’ plays.
Aristophanes not only knew the Athenians, he also knew what they were made of, the full contents of their character, as Martin Luther King Jr put it.
Scholars also called the Athenian stage a school, “The school of Athens,” with the intimation that it was also the school of the world.
This appellation is also quite valid. After all, is not a teacher also a doctor and is not a doctor also a teacher? Don’t they both try to purge the man (and thus the city) of all his ills, his undisciplined pride, his ignorance, his injustice, his brutality and his corruption? The practical details may differ, but both aim at the same: healing.
In both cases—school and clinic—Aristotle’s Catharsis takes place. It takes place not only at the end of every tragedy, purging all the painful emotions that the trilogy brought to the surface, but also, and far more importantly, at the end of the entire festival, once all the symptoms have been examined and all the necessary remedies prescribed.
Fifth century BCE Athens went to the theatre to be healed, and the theatre did its very best to provide that healing.
Unfortunately, Athens continued to be ill. Her arrogance was not removed, her war mongering and her brutality were not tempered, and the inequality between the sexes continued.
Many of the Greek plays—tragedies as well as comedies—address this inequality. In them, women are punished for the wrongs committed by men. The young, Juliet-like Iphigeneia of Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis is a victim of her father’s sin against Artemis and of his wanting to go to war. Antigone, in Sophocles’ tragedy by the same name, suffers the death sentence because of her uncle Creon’s extreme, autocratic views. Helen, a most complex character, suffers abduction and endless insults because of Paris. Hecabe, Cassandra, Andromche, Medea, are just a few more examples of women suffering the consequences of men’s arrogance and disrespect.
The death of Aristophanes marked the end of a golden age of culture and thought and the beginning of Athens’ steep decline.
Then came the era of the Macedonians, of Phillip and of Alexander which was, in turn, followed by the era of the Romans. Homer of the 48 rhapsodies was replaced by Virgil of the 12.
Yet it was during that era—the fifth century BCE— that the Greeks had given to the world a new word to ponder over: paradox. For it was during her most turbulent era, the era of war and inequality, that she gave birth to the most magnificent, intelligent and effective remedies for society to heal itself.
Any student today—and I daresay for many eras to come—can walk in any direction he or she chooses, enter any theatre in any University in the world, and he or she will hear references made to the fifth-century Greek theater, when the first healers made their appearance.
George Theodoridis, B.A., M.A. (Prel.), Dip.Ed., has translated all the plays written by the Athenian dramaturges of the fifth century as well as many of the Lyric poets, including Sappho, and a few morsels from Plato’s lush table. A retired secondary school teacher, he now lectures on classics at the voluntary University of the Third Age in Melbourne, Australia. George is also a member of the research team of the Barum Fabula, a digital library of classical literature. All of his translations are available on his website and thirteen volumes of the plays on available on Amazon.com.