Sophocles (496-406BCE) was the second of the three great tragedian of ancient Athens, the first, Aeschylus, was discussed in my last post. Sophocles is best known for a group of three plays known as the Theban plays, referring to the city of Thebes, which was one of major states of Ancient Greece when it was divided between many city states.
The three Theban plays should not be thought of as a trilogy strictly speaking. Ancient Greek tragedies were written in trilogies, but these plays were written separately at different times. They are what is left over from a number of trilogies by Sophocles, as is normal with ancient authors many of his texts are lost. The three plays fit together as story, but do not have the level of integration of plays written together for performance as a trilogy at the competitions where tragedies were initially staged.
The Theban plays refer to the royal family of Thebes, round King Oedipus, who provides the title of the first play. The title strictly speaking is Oedipus Tyrannos. That ‘tyrannous’ is normally translated as ‘king’ rather than ‘tyrant’ is an interesting comment in itself on ancient Greek politics and ideas about politics.
The philosopers writing in Athens, at the same time as the great tragedies were staged, developed the idea of a ‘tyrant’ as a negative form of political authority, even a monstrous form of authority in which one man rules according to personal desires, unrestrained by custom, law, morality, and institutions.
However, one of those philosophers Plato accepted tyrants into his school, and made a notoriously failed attempt to bring the tyrant of the Greek colony of Syracuse in Greece round to the idea of ruing with Platonic wisdom and justice. It is not just the view of anti-democrats like Plato that tyrants might have some element of legitimacy in some contexts.
The sixth century Athenian tyrant Pisistratus had some respect as a strong ruler with just intentions who reformed Athenian institution. ın the ancient Greek world a tyrant might still accept a citizens’ assembly and other well established institutions, so that the tyranny was focused on one person control of government rather than the complete subordination of every aspect of that city-state to arbitrary individual will.
The Theban plays are: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus. The story of Oedipus has become very famous, even for those who have never read or watched an ancient Greek tragedy. It also exists in varying forms going back to a brief mention in Homer’s Odyssey. The version in Sophocles is that a a king and queen of Thebes faced with a prophecy that their son will kill the father arrange for him to be exposed and die in the mountains.
The royal servant assigned to the task passes the infant Oedipus onto to a shepherd instead and Oedipus in the end becomes the adoptive son of the king and queen of Corinth. Discovering a prophecy that he will kill his father and marry his mother, Oedipus unaware that the royal couple who raised him are not his biological parents flees and ends up in Thebes where he kills man outside the city, who he later realises is his father King Laius. He then frees the city of a monster, the Sphinx.
Unaware that Oedipus killed their king, or that he is the son of that king, the people of Thebes offer him the vacant throne and marriage to the king’s widow Jocasta. So Oedipus unwittingly marries his mother after killing his father. The play Oedipus the King opens with a plague in Thebes and Oedipus’ search for the reason. The prophet Tireseas is forced to reveal his knowledge, which is that the gods are punishing Thebes for the stain of association with Oedipus, the stain of his unwitting crimes.
Oedipus suspects Jocasta’s brother, Creon, of a arranging the story as part of a conspiracy to take power. In this respect the play deals with the danger of a ruler who is given great power for good reasons, but becomes abusive and paranoiac in his use of that power. Oedipus’ further investigations lead to the confirmation of the story from Tireseas that he had rejected. Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus goes into exile after blinding himself. In this way, the play suggests that tyranny is self-destructive as well as destructive of the state over which it is exercised. It also suggests the need to expel a ruler who threatens both the welfare of the city and restraints on his power.
Oedipus at Colonus deals with the exile of Oedipus, in which he is protected by the king of Athens from persecution by Creon who has now taken power. As with Aeschylus, we see that Attic tragedy defends the role of Athens as ‘educator of Greece’ (a saying attributed to Pericles as explained in the post before the last one), even while having a critique of power.
Oedipus dies in a way that suggests he is close to the gods, and we can see another layer in the story of the tyrant. As a monster of some kind, Oedipus belongs outside the city state and when he is outside the city, he is in touch with a justice superior to that of the city, which belongs to human communities before state imposed laws. The divine power associated with such laws is, however, dangerous when associated with individual power using the organised violence of the state.
It is Antigone that is usually most associated with ideas of liberty, but I hope that remarks on the two other plays show how they have many ideas about the nature of law and liberty, and the dangers posed by political power. Antigone is the story of Oedipus’ daughter of that name and her resistance to the tyrannical tendencies of Creon.
Her brothers Polyneices and Eteocles had struggled for control of Thebes, ending in the death of both as Poyneices attacks the city, when it is held by Eteocles. Creon decrees that Polyneices cannot be buried with proper ritual and his body should be left outside the city for the wild animals to eat. This was an appalling prospect for ancient Greeks, and the desire for soldiers to avoid such a fate is a major theme of Homer’s Iliad.
Antigone insists on mourning her brother and attending to his corpse in the normal manner. Her defiance of Creon leads to Creon imprisoning her in a tomb, where she commits suicide. The violence with which he imposes his will leads to the suicide of Antigone’s fiancé who is the son of Creon and then the suicide of Creon’s wife.
In the end Creon learns to accept the advice of Tireseas, the prophet persecuted by Oedipus, and to moderate his insistence on pushing his powers to the extreme. Antigone is the heroine of the customary, and even divine, law of Greece which precedes the edicts of tyrants like Creon, so can be seen as the defender of justice against laws based on political power rather than on the basic principles of human justice, what is often referred to since Aristotle as natural law.
There are questions about how far the original audience would have seen Antigone as a character to be admired though. The society was intensely patriarchal and women defying the authority of men was a horrifying prospect. Perhaps the dramatic context provided an opportunity to push at the limits of the ideas normal to audience, maybe it just allowed them to think that one of the dangers of bad government is that it produces mad dangerous woman, and the play does portray Antigone as unhealthily obsessed with death.
She can be seen as a heroine of justice, and is often taken as a symbol of justice above the state, by those of classical liberal and libertarian persuasion, but others as well. She might also be taken as a symbol of conflicts over justice taken to a dangerous and self-destructive extreme, so that she is guilty as well as Creon, before he learns measure and moderation in the use of power. In any case, there is much to think about with regard to law and liberty in these plays, and it is important to recognise the ‘thinking about’ and not just impose simple interpretations inattentive to the details of the plays. Judgements of liberty and justice require respect for context and particularity.
Ancient Athens was the place where the comic and tragic traditions in western drama began. Aeschylus (c. 525 BCE to c. 456) was the first of three great tragedians. The other two will be considered in the next two posts. The work of those three is often known as Attic tragedy, with reference to the region of Attica which contains Athens and was part of the lands of the Athenian city-state at that time. The idea of a city state with extensive land outside the city might sound oxymoronic, but city states which expanded into neighbouring territory and where power still rested in institutions of city self-government, are generally still referred to as city states.
The tragedies were performed in day long festivals, which included religious sacrifices, and heavy consumption of wine. Festivals took place in an outdoor theatre, the amphitheatre, examples of which can still be seen in Athens and other places where remains of ancient Greek cities can be found. The festivals were dedicated to the god Dionysus, associated with intoxication, ecstasy, death, and rebirth. Actors wore masks with stereotypical expressions so that audiences were looking at a depersonalised performance, not a recognisable individual actor giving a personal interpretation of a role.
The amphitheatre was large enough to contain the citizens of the city state (women and slaves excluded of course) and were a form of common city life in which a very large part those allowed to participate did participate, as they did in political assemblies and religious festivals. Plays were generally only performed once as part of a competition and the day was divided between groups of plays by one author. Some tragedians emerged as particularly distinguished, so there plays were performed again and their texts survived. That is the authors discussed in these posts.
So we can see that ancient Greek theatre was very far from how we normally experience theatre, and performances of Attic tragedies now are inevitably far removed from the ancient experience, even if some original aspects are sometimes emphasised. We cannot now have a completely ‘authentic’ experience of ancient performance, but we can at least keep in mind the ancient context.
It is one of many fascinating aspects of ancient Athens, and other ancient Greek city states, that some kind of aesthetic performance was a regular feature of common life. The idea of art as a very distinct part of life did not really exist in the way it does now, but the idea of a particular sphere of art, ‘poetics’, did grow in the philosophy of the time, as can be seen in Plato and Aristotle.
One reason I find it difficult to place Plato in a liberty canon, even if for a long time he was seen as an exponent of government free of lawless immoral tyranny, is that he had a very negative view of tragedy, though he appears to have respect for the tragedian Sophocles, at least, as a personality. My decision to take Aristotle as the starting point of this series was connected with his appreciation of tragedy, which is at the centre of his work on the arts, the Poetics.
It is also one reason why despite Aristotle’s own undoubtedly strong aristocratic tendencies, I see some connection with democratic ideas in his thought. He emphasised the value of a literary form that gathered together all free males, and where they indulged in the most mobbish low life behaviour of excessive drinking and festivity.
Of course there are many things to appreciate about Attic tragedy other than its political concerns, but it is form of literature and performance very tied up with the political debates of ancient Athens. It shows politics to be deep in the lives of human communities and to be part of choices we have to make about laws and justice, providing great dangers where the wrong choices are made and to allow human flourishing where better choices are made. These choices are given enormous individual and communal resonance.
This post will concentrate on the Oresteia, a trilogy Aeschylus originally wrote for festival performance. When this long historical sequence of posts reaches a conclusion of some sort, it should be possible to come back to some of the other plays. The three plays within the Oresteia are Agamemnon, Libation Bearers and Eumenides (Kindly Ones).
Like many other tragedies, these plays pick up on stories in the epics attributed to Homer, and which appeared a few centuries before the time of the Attic tragedies. They refer themselves to the Mycenaean-Bronze Age Greek world of the previous century, focused around a story of a league of Greek kings laying siege to a city in western Anatolia, and then the long journey home of the most cunning of those kings.
The Homeric story at the root of the Oresteia is the return home of King Agamemnon, in which he is murdered by his wife and her lover. Such an act was even more horrifying for the original audience than it is for us, since it was a transgression of sacralised bonds of obedience and fidelity applied to married women in relation to their husbands. Even the horror of that original audience at Clytemnestra’s act must have been in some way made ambiguous though, by the knowledge that Agamemnon had sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, ten years earlier, so that a wind would come to take the Greek boats to Troy.
The son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, Orestes takes revenge and kills both murderous wife and lover, as he was bound to do according to the expectations of the time. There are various versions of the story, but the distinct aspect of the version of Aeschylus is that horror of a cycle of acts of violence in which each act can seek justification in revenge, and the demands of divine justice. Even the patriarchal Athenians must have thought of Clytemnestra’s act or murder as having some measure of justification in Agamemnon’s violence against their daughter, though perhaps seeing her more as an instrument for the anger of divine forces than as an individual justified in her choices.
The focus will now be on Aeschylus’ trilogy rather than the general story behind it appearing in many different texts. In Aeschylus, the divine forces communing a justice of violent retribution outside any legal process, are the furies, monstrous female creatures independent even of the gods, enforcing justice that exists outside any laws created by human institutions. In this case, the furies are more tied to the rights of the mother than to the revenge rights on her of the son. They wish to destroy Orestes, and he can only avoid this by fleeing from Argos (in the Peloponnesus) northwards towards Athens, where he can seek more measured justice.
In Athens, the court that judges Orestes is balanced between citizens of Athens and the furies. The casting vote belongs to Pallas Athena, the celibate goddess associated with Athens, with wisdom and with war, though she is not the chief deity of war. The citizens take the side of Orestes while the furies continued their demands for his blood. Athena’s casting vote rescues Orestes, whose reasons for killing his mother are deemed adequate, by Athena though she admits to a bias because she was born from Zeus without a mother. This follows on from the earlier comments of Orestes’ protector, the god Apollo, that a mother is a nurse of a child rather than a parent equal with the father .
However, the trial is not just a defeat for the furies and the rights of women, since Athena turns them into the ‘kindly ones’, protectors and enforcers of the laws of Athens. They present themselves during the trial as protectors of old laws against new, but accept the idea of a new role upholding law and piety in Athens. Orestes swears to never harm Athens, the city of Athena, so in some sense accepts a female authority, even if one who places herself on the side of the father against the mother.
The role given to Athens and Athena is a an expression of the view of Pericles, discussed in the last post, as reported by Thucydides, that Athens was the teacher of Greece, and the relation between Athens and its allies in which they subsidised the building of the Parthenon temple in honour of Athena, and accepted Athens as the final judge of legal disputes.
Aeschylus provides a mythical foundation for the main law court in Athens, the Areopagus, since during the trial, Athena proclaims that the court assembled will continue indefinitely as an institution of the city. The court was regarded as aristocratic because judges came from the educated upper class and had previously served in some high public office. One of the reasons Plato, Aristotle and others criticised Athenian democracy was that it was suspicious of Areopagus, transferring some of its functions to the city assembly and large citizen juries .
The most obvious thrust of the Oresteia with regard to ideas of liberty is the deep ‘divine’ significance of legal institutions within the community, in preference to individual execution of archaic codes of revenge. Though the case excuses Orestes for killing his mother, the case along with the founding of a sacralised court, also undermines the basis of his individual act of revenge and Agamemnon’s belief that he could decide to ignore the sanctity of life and his bond to his daughter, because of a wish to assuage divine forces.
Though the trilogy presents a world view which is patriarchal in an extreme way, it does allow female voices with distinct views to speak and though we should be very careful indeed about importing modern feminist and egalitarian views into the play, it is hard to believe that Aeschylus and his audiences were not at least a little troubled by male violence, and interested in the idea of a an elevated role for women in developing a law governed community, beyond the role of priestesses, which was the obvious first association. Not that they were interested in doing so outside the play, but that the trilogy enabled them to explore, a little bit, ideas at odds with their deeply held customs.
The Oresteia does definitely offer the idea that legal and institution innovation can be necessary at times to satisfy the deepest requirements of justice, while also emphasising respect and reverence for the laws of Athens in Aeschylus’ own time. There is a something of a duality of attitude to law, that is law divided between what is above debate and change and what is a product of debate and change That is the necessary frame of any liberty oriented debate about law and legal institutions.
The greatest tragedy of the earthquake of 12 January 2010 in Haiti was that the devastation was caused more by human failure than the natural disaster. The earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay Area in 1989 was about as strong, causing the Bay Bridge to break, but killed only 63 people.
Before the Spanish came, the island of Hispaniola had been divided into chiefdoms, and the two western ones, Jaragua and Marien, became Haiti. Haiti’s first tragedy began with the arrival of the Spanish, who sickened, enslaved and killed off the native Taino Indians.
The second tragedy of Haiti was the importation of African slaves by the Spanish. French pirates and colonists cam to Haiti, The Treaty of Ryswick of 1697 split Hispaniola between Spain and France. Many more French settlers arrived and established plantations producing sugar, coffee, and indigo with slave labor.
A slave rebellion, inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, fought the French government from 1791 to 1803. The liberated armies were commanded by General Toussaint L’Ouverture. The French National Assembly abolished slavery in the French colonies in 1794, but later Napoleon sent troops to regain French control. Continue reading