Ancient Greek Tragedy Speaks to Democracy Theory

In: Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek and Roman Political Thought
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  • 1 University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, mi, USA


This essay initially distinguishes Athenian democracy from what I call ‘hyphenated-democracies’, each of which adds a conceptual framework developed in early modern Europe to the language of democracy: representative-democracy, liberal-democracy, constitutional-democracy, republican-democracy. These hyphenated-democracies emphasize the restraints placed on the power of political authorities. In contrast, Athenian democracy with the people ruling over themselves rested on the fundamental principle of equality rather than the limitations placed on that rule. However, equality as the defining normative principle of democracy raises its own problems, namely: How do we – of limited vision – identify who is equal, and what injustices attend the criteria used to establish who is equal? Consideration of several ancient tragedies illustrates how the Athenian playwrights explored these questions and how they identified the challenges faced by those who understand democracy as grounded on egalitarian principles.


This essay initially distinguishes Athenian democracy from what I call ‘hyphenated-democracies’, each of which adds a conceptual framework developed in early modern Europe to the language of democracy: representative-democracy, liberal-democracy, constitutional-democracy, republican-democracy. These hyphenated-democracies emphasize the restraints placed on the power of political authorities. In contrast, Athenian democracy with the people ruling over themselves rested on the fundamental principle of equality rather than the limitations placed on that rule. However, equality as the defining normative principle of democracy raises its own problems, namely: How do we – of limited vision – identify who is equal, and what injustices attend the criteria used to establish who is equal? Consideration of several ancient tragedies illustrates how the Athenian playwrights explored these questions and how they identified the challenges faced by those who understand democracy as grounded on egalitarian principles.

Addressing the topic of tragedy and Athenian democracy requires that we first consider the thorny issue of the meaning of democracy itself. Any understanding of that term as used to describe the political regime in ancient Athens faces the challenge of importing modern conceptions of democratic practices back into the ancient world, conceptions that have been heavily influenced by later theoretical constructs. I begin this essay by briefly discussing the richly ambivalent and frequently contradictory language of democracy as it occurs in today’s discourse with what I call ‘hyphenated-democracies’: representative-democracy, liberal-democracy, constitutional-democracy, republican-democracy. I suggest that we must resist introducing these hyphenated-democracies when considering ancient authors and ancient practices in order to focus on what was central to the ancient tragedians about Athenian practices: namely, the challenges posed by a commitment to a constructed – not a natural – equality. I then address briefly the language of democracy that surfaced in fifth century Athens before turning to a broad assessment of what a small sample of the ancient tragedies can contribute to democratic theory today. Please note: I say ‘democratic theory.’ I read the ancient tragedies as resources for reflection on the issues that face us living in modern political regimes to which we ascribe democratic principles and aspirations; it is in that context that I consider the tragedies rather than as enmeshed in the democratic practices of ancient Athens.1

I The Language of Democracy

Today the language of democracy entails far more than the simple etymological ‘power of the demos/people’, heavily encumbered as it is by normative principles drawn from disparate theoretical orientations. Given the obvious historical and demographic changes that bring us to a world where nations or states are not cities, where an assembly open to all citizens is completely untenable, democracy as the Athenians practiced it has become impossible. Features deriving from vastly different theoretical legacies have attached themselves to democracy, clouding the original intent of the word. I refer to just four: representation, natural rights, constitutionalism, and republicanism.2 Unlike the original language of democracy that identified those who have power within the polity, each of these accretions highlights the restraints placed on the power of a people engaged in self-rule, whether these limits come from nature, the political structure, a moral world order, or constitutions created by earlier generations.

Natural rights, protections for the individual against interference by a government, for instance, had no place in ancient democracy. As Moses Finley explains, there were ‘no theoretical limits to the power of the state, no activity … in which the state could not legitimately intervene provided the decision was properly taken … Freedom meant the rule of law and participation in the decision making process, not the possession of inalienable rights’.3 If we look for the language of rights in ancient democracy, we find them only as the opportunity to do something, for example, intermarry, bring suits against another citizen, attend the assembly.4 They did not provide the protective fences around the individual against ‘government’ – a legacy of 17th century liberalism – that the modern attention to rights provides. In Athenian democracy, the ‘government’ was not distinct from the people. It was the people. They did not seek protection from themselves.

Government as distinct from the people in contemporary democracies introduces the institution of representation, separating the demos from those who enact laws and rule over them. When Thomas Paine claimed in 1792 in The Rights of Man: ‘What Athens was in miniature America will be in magnitude’, he was mistaken.5 The ‘magnitude’ of America demanded the representative form of government, but (as Bernard Manin argues) representation entails the transition from the vote to consent, from self-rule to accepting the rule of others, consenting to be governed.6 The language of consent, so central to the modern democracy, was not part of ancient democracy. As the phrase ‘it seems best to the demos’ for decisions of the ecclesia suggests, the demos, not their representatives, decided. They did not consent. Representation, though, did more than just change the focus from vote to consent; it protected the people from themselves. Publius in The Federalist, for example, fearing (not embracing) democracy valued the ‘filtering’ effects of representation that ensured the gifted and enlightened entered the halls of power rather than the mass of people. Publius warns about a situation where ‘a multitude exercise in person the legislative functions’ and remarks that ‘[h]ad every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob’.7 Good government, according to Publius (and most democratic theorists today), does not require that the people rule over themselves, only that, in the language of The Federalist, the people be the ‘fountain of government.’8

In the early 19th century when the language of democracy began to lose the pejorative connotations it had for more than two millennia,9 it awkwardly joined the more acceptable and tame language of republicanism. We speak today without hesitation of ‘democratic republics,’ obscuring the tensions inherent such language. In Federalist #10, Publius distinguished between democracy and republic; the former ‘consist[s] of a small of number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person,’ and ‘can admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction,’ while a republic, marked by representation, ‘promises the cure’ for the factions that disturb a democratic regime.10 But there is more to the distinction. Republicanism deriving from the Roman republic and developing in the anti-monarchical regimes of modern Europe also introduced the so-called mixed regime. Though the mixed regime had many different manifestations, the division of political functions within the governing body protected one part of the polity from the ambitions of another part. Insofar as Athens functioned as a democracy, the demos was not so restrained.

Nor was the Athenian demos restrained in the decisions it might make by a constitution.11 From the time of the Magna Carta in 1250, restraints on the actions of a ruler or government were woven into the political language of liberty. But it is not only a King John who is restrained; the people as rulers are also restrained. Paine is illuminating here. In his diatribes against the dead hand of the past as captured by constitutions, he writes: ‘The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies’ and he warns his readers about the ‘manuscript assumed authority of the dead.’12 In the 20th century, Sheldon Wolin channeled Paine asking: ‘When a democratic revolution leads to a constitution, does that mark the fulfillment of democracy, or the beginning of its attenuation?’13 For Wolin, it is the latter, leading him to conclude that the phrase ‘constitutional democracy’ is an oxymoron. And yet, we regularly refer to (and praise) constitutional democracies.

The hyphenated-democracies all involve limiting the demos’ capacity to rule itself. When considering ancient democracy and tragedy, we must shed these hyphenated-democracies. So, what does define Athenian democracy? References can be made to self-rule, participation, the ecclesia, the city’s courtrooms. All these though depend, I argue, on the determination of who is included in the definition of demos. For the tragedians, the issue that surfaces is not how to limit the power of the demos or the dangers of popular rule, but how to construct the demos, or simply: How do we identify who is equal? As is so frequently and appropriately bemoaned, Athens was not egalitarian; slaves, metics, women, foreigners and, after Pericles’ citizenship laws of 451 bc, those not born of Athenian parents were all denied membership in the ruling demos. Aristotle distinguishes regimes by asking who has authority in the regime, an issue that leads immediately to the question of who is equal and therefore shares in authority. Politics for Aristotle is in many ways defined by controversies over the definition of who is equal, controversies that create the fundamental instability of political regimes.14 As Aristotle suggests, equality is a flexible term. Efforts to instantiate it produce conflict over who is included and who excluded. Those constructed boundaries are always subject to debate and here is where, I believe, ancient tragedies speak to democratic theory. They do not address the issues that dominate the hyphenated-democracies, how to structure representation, how to distribute power among different agents, how to limit or enhance the power of the people and so forth, but they make us to think about equality and its relation to the construction of a people, the demos itself. Treating equality as the unproblematic assumed normative goal of democracy hides the challenges that equality poses.

The liberal tradition as it developed in the 17th century used natural rights as a criterion to define equality. Natural rights inhere in all of us insofar as we are human and thus by nature no one is so superior to another as to claim legitimate authority over another. The absence of any justified claim to authority in a world of equality leads to conflict and the creation of a political system to resolve the conflicts that arise – and to a world in which consent to be ruled takes pride of place. Jefferson’s line from the Declaration of Independence, ‘All men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights,’ defines the starting point for modern democratic regimes. No one assumes that slave-holding Jefferson describes the world in which he or we live; he is articulating our aspirations. The ancient Athenians, in contrast, with no thought of natural rights, would not have understood equality as depending on rights inhering in all individuals. In the modern democratic world, in contrast, the fiction of natural equality sustains any self-identifying democratic regime. For the Athenians equality was an artificial construction, conventionally determined.15 Thus, they faced the challenge of determining why one criterion of equality trumped another as well as the consequences of an artificially constructed equality.

The language of ‘democracy’ itself surfaces quite late in the development of what we refer to as ‘Athenian democracy,’ arriving perhaps only in the later years of the 5th century bc; the earlier language that described democratic institutions tied it to equality rather than power.16 Accepting the language of Aristotle (who wrote when ‘democracy’ was a frequent inhabitant of the Greek vocabulary) about events occurring more than 100 years earlier, historians identify the reforms of either Cleisthenes or Ephialtes as the ‘founding’ moments of Athenian democracy. Though certainty about what these reforms entailed is lacking, both moments fractured the political power of aristocratic families and religious authorities and transferred power to an increasingly larger percentage of the Athenian population. What can be certain is that these moments marked the dismantling of a traditional hierarchical structure in order to establish a more egalitarian one.

We have no evidence that prior to the mid-fifth century, just when tragedies were beginning to be performed on the Attic stage, that Athenians self-identified as living in a demokratia. Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women from perhaps the late 460s has a Chorus of suppliant women eager to learn if Argos will grant them asylum. When their father returns after relaying their request, they ask where the larger number of ‘hands’ of the demos lay (ll. 603-604). The words demos and kratos lie next to each other in their question; for the first time in extant Greek literature we find the terms in conjunction with one another. More familiar in the first half of the fifth century were isonomia and isegoria emphasizing with ise/o equality rather than power. Equality before the law (or, in Vlastos’ persuasive presentation, the equal sharing of the laws17 ) and the equal opportunity to speak in public define the regime.

Herodotus in the mid-fifth century tells of a debate in Persia concerning what sort of regime to institute after the overthrow of the pretender to the Persian throne. Otanes favors a regime that sounds strikingly similar to what the Athenians enjoyed. He does not call it a democracy, but the practices he highlights are found in fifth century Athens. Much of Otanes’ speech criticizes monarchy, but when he turns to the regime he favors, he says that ‘when the many (plêthos) rule’, the name for such a regime – isonomia – is the most beautiful of all. It avoids the defects of monarchy which breeds hubris. Isonomia distributes public offices by lot, it scrutinizes its office holders once they have finished their terms, and it brings deliberations before the community (es to koinon). Otanes concludes that ‘all things are possible for the many (polloi)’.18 Equality dominates Otanes’ speech. The lottery (in contrast to the vote) assumes that all are equally qualified to fill political office. The scrutiny (euthunê) ensures that no one takes advantage of an office in order to promote his welfare over that of another. Decisions made in common ensure transparency, allowing all equal participation in decisions. The hierarchy of monarchy breeds arrogance; equality prevents arrogance. Otanes’ proposal, of course, fails to persuade the other Persian nobles, but in arguing for a regime based on equality, Herodotus has him articulate the key principle of ancient democracy.

In hyphenated-democracies, the language of equality remains, but the difficulties of incorporating equality into what pass as democratic practices often gets overlooked. Voting for representatives, for instance, affirms an inequality of skills; the limits of a constitution affirms the priority of one generation over another, the mixed regime addresses of the fear of too much power belonging to some and not others. The tragedians writing for a democratic audience confront the unadulterated problems equality poses for democratic theory. In particular, they challenge us with the uncertainties surrounding our fundamental democratic reliance on natural equality.

II The Comic Poet on Tragedians and Democracy

At the risk of treading on the section of this special issue devoted to comedy, I begin with Aristophanes’ portrayal of the tragedians, for he – albeit with the exaggeration of the comic artist – pinpoints themes expressed in their plays. Though the most sustained portrait of the tragedians appears in Frogs, already in his first comedy Acharnians, Aristophanes mocks Euripides for his democratic inclinations. There Dicaeopolis, eager to make his own peace with Sparta during the Peloponnesian War, appeals to Euripides when his plan calls for beggarly attire, because Euripides regularly introduces lowly creatures into his tragedies (Ar., Ach., 414-418); a long list of lost works by Euripides are cited to confirm Dicaeopolis’ expectations. According to Aristophanes, Euripides populates the stage with the lowliest of the low, the poorest of the poor, the petty objects of everyday life. By bringing them to the tragic stage, as no different from their glorified neighbors, Euripides democratizes the most exalted of the poetic arts and he becomes a resource for Dicaeopolis, a man weary of a world that looks to glory and nobility. In Thesmophoriazusae Euripides is the object of the anger of the Athenian women for the abuses he hurls their way. In his defense, Euripides uses language from his tragedies that speaks to the everyday passions, desires for wine and fornication, reducing again the noble to the ignoble, so that the tragic characters on Euripides’ stage are no more than your average housewife chafing at anything that restrains her pursuit of pleasure. In Aristophanes’ comedies Euripides presents an egalitarian world of heroes reduced to the ordinary and hierarchies dissolve. The noble neither deserves our awe nor exhibits any proximity to the divine.

Euripides’ democratic impulses appear most vividly in Aristophanes’ sustained study of tragedy, Frogs, where Aeschylus and Euripides compete for the seat on the Throne of Tragedy. When Euripides arrived in Hades, he challenged Aeschylus’ claim to the Throne by ‘giving recitals for the muggers and purse-snatchers and father beaters and burglars’ (ll. 772-776).19 When the contest for preeminence begins, barbs filled with comic absurdities fly, but embedded in the caustic insults is the opposition between an egalitarian and a hierarchical perspective on political life. Euripides initially complains about the topics and characters in Aeschylus’ plays. Aeschylus responds: ‘And you, you enemy of the gods, what subjects did you write on?’ To which Euripides replies: ‘Certainly not horse cocks or goatstags, like you, the sort of things they embroider on Persian tapestries’ (ll. 936-937). Aeschylus’ plays resonate of eastern luxuries, while Euripides presents himself as a man of the people, leaving embroidered linens to the high-talking characters of Aeschylus’ plays. As in Acharnians, Euripides proffers rags, not elegance.

Avoiding the ‘bloated’ language with which Euripides claims Aeschylus invests his art, Euripides asserts that he put his plays on a ‘diet,’ with language appropriate to his characters, and he boasts of the varied status of his characters: ‘I’d have the wife speak, and the slave just as much, and the master and the maiden and the old lady’ (ll. 948-949). Euripides praises his own inclusion of popular types and his willingness to include even women as equal participants in his performances, calling this a ‘democratic act (dêmokratikon)’ (l. 950).20 Henderson in his translation adds a footnote here: ‘That women and slaves should have any kind of equality with adult male citizens was in fact a radical idea.’21 Though Euripides may not be proposing such a radical reform, Aristophanes acknowledges the problem towards which the playwright leads us: Given that democratization entails equality, how do we separate those who are to speak publicly, have a place in the lottery system, and serve on juries from those who are not? For Aristophanes’ Euripides, space on the ancient stage allows for the expansion of equality as the Pnyx does not.

Euripides defends his inclusion of the panourgoi and delights in the political consequences of doing so: ‘I taught these people how to talk … and how to apply subtle rules … To think, to see, to understand, to be quick on their feet, to scheme, to see the bad in others’ (ll. 951-958). A bit later he adds: ‘I encouraged these people to think, by putting rationality and critical thinking (logismon) into my art, so that now they grasp and really understand everything, especially how to run their households better than they used to and how to keep an eye on things’ (ll. 971-978). Aristophanes, thus, has Euripides teaching his audience how to participate in the life of the city, speak in the assembly, in the law courts, defend themselves against the wealthy. Remember, he had just bragged that he allowed women and slaves and old ladies to speak as much as the master. Dionysus, as judge, remarks, the demos used ‘sit there like dummies, gaping boobies;’ now, they insist on knowing ‘Where’s the garlic from yesterday? Who’s been nibbling the olives?’ (ll. 984-992). The examples belong to comedy, but Aristophanes suggests (warns?) that Euripides has taught the lowly to defend their interests. We can question whether Euripides had the effect imagined, but according to Frogs Athens has become more democratic, more egalitarian because of his plays.

Does Euripides’ ‘democratic act’ play out in his tragedies and, if it does, what issues surface insofar as it does? That is the question for the next section of this essay, but first let’s look at Aristophanes’ Aeschylus, whom Aristophanes portrays as exhibiting aristocratic hostility to Euripides’ egalitarianism.

The chorus calls upon Aeschylus ‘the first of the Greeks to rear towers of majestic utterance and adorn tragic rant’ (ll. 1004-1005) to respond to Euripides. He begins: ‘For what qualities should a poet be admired?’ (l. 1008). Euripides replies: ‘Skill and good counsel, and because we make people better members of their communities’ (ll. 1009-1010). But, Aeschylus complains, Euripides has turned ‘good upstanding people into scoundrels’ and transformed Aeschylus’ own ‘noble six-footers’ into ‘the civic shirkers, vulgarians, imps, and criminals’ (ll. 1011-1015). His own characters, Aeschylus claims, have an ‘aura of spears, lances, white-crested helmets’ (ll. 1014-1017). Such heroes encourage Athenians to yearn for victory and emulate god-like characters. Despite his self-presentation for the sake of Aristophanes’ comic art, Aeschylus’ tragedies display no simple reversion to those noble six-footers. They exhibit a willingness to address questions concerning equality that democracies and democratic theory must face.

Even as Aeschylus defends the Homeric resonances among his characters, like Euripides, he insists on the didactic role of his poetry, claiming that elevating the characters on stage also elevates members of the audience; the poet has ‘a special duty to conceal what is wicked and not stage it or teach it … It’s very important that we tell them things that are good’ (ll. 1053-1056). But Euripides insists: ‘It is necessary to speak in human language’ (l. 1058), while Aeschylus reaffirms that the poet must speak in language appropriate to the demigods. Dressing ‘royals in rags’ (l. 1063) makes the rich man unwilling to command a warship, happy instead to plead poverty. Aeschylus does not affirm the validity of a hierarchical societal structure; he addresses the consequences of ignoring the benefits of a hierarchical model that offers patterns of nobility worthy of emulation. His audiences, Aeschylus claims, learn respect while Euripides’ become garrulous and insolent so that (in Dionysus’ language) ‘[The sailors] talk back and refuse to row, and the ship sails this way and that’ (ll. 1076-1077). Aristophanes does not deny the equality of rich and poor portrayed on Euripides’ stage. Rather, both he and Aeschylus worry about eliding the boundaries that distinguish better from worse, causing the ‘ship’ to sail ‘this way and that’. Does equality indeed make us diminish our aspirations, as Aristophanes’ Aeschylus maintains? Should the tragedian elevate the audience by engendering a love of noble actions, thereby protecting the city from descending into a morass of moral relativism with the ship sailing ‘this way and that’?

According to Aeschylus the equality celebrated by Euripides fosters all sorts of evils: ‘Didn’t he show women procuring/ and having babies in temples,/ and sleeping with their brothers/ … As a result, our community’s filled/ with … clownish monkeys of politicians’ (ll. 1079-1086). Euripides does dress his princesses and kings in rags threatening to shatter old hierarchies, but he also forces the audience to examine the false pretenses of hierarchy and the challenges of democratic equality, in particular, how to construct the boundaries existing between equal and unequal given the limitations of human knowledge. Below I discuss briefly two Euripidean tragedies – works addressing those themes which earn Aristophanes’ and Aeschylus’ ridicule – and his implicit critique of Athenian democracy (any democracy) that must articulate the difference between high and low, equal and unequal, in ignorance. Though Aeschylus in Frogs is the writer of aristocratic tragedies, a glance at his Prometheus Bound reveals a concern (albeit more muted) with the place of equality in the political regime. Sophocles had withdrawn from the contest depicted in Frogs, but he too speaks to the challenges of democratic equality, though again not as forcefully as Euripides. The discussions of the tragedians below are suggestive, hardly the thorough examination of the relation of the speeches to the actions of the characters each tragedy would require in a more sustained analysis. The effort is to offer a foretaste of how the ancient tragedies might enhance our own engagements with democratic theory.22

III Let the Playwrights Speak

The rags with which Euripides dresses his heroic characters define the opening scenes of his Electra. Electra appears in what she describes as ‘filthy locks and robes all torn into slavish rags’ (ll. 184-185).23 Orestes mistakes her for a slave (ll. 106-110). Prior to Electra’s appearance, her farmer-husband spoke. His engaging modesty and complete lack of pretension let him readily acknowledge his inferior status: ‘I was born of Mycenaean/ family, on this ground I have nothing to be ashamed of,/ in breeding they shone bright enough. But in their fortune/ they ranked as paupers, which blots out all decent blood’ (ll. 34-48). The play makes a mockery of his shame; Electra describes him as ‘a poor man, but well born’ (l. 253), ‘decent by nature (sôphrôn ephu)’ (l. 261), making ambiguous the language of ‘blood’ and ‘decent’. In the portrayal of this humble and restrained man, Euripides undermines the world that defines worth by wealth and descent and Electra reinforces this when she addresses her famer/husband: ‘I think you equal to the gods in kindliness’ (l. 67). The god-like is the poor farmer whose ‘decent blood’ has been blotted out, not those kings entwined in a net of murders.

Orestes, after his encounter with this noble farmer, confirms the inadequacy of traditional notions of worth, but also acknowledges the difficulty of knowing how to overcome that inadequacy:

There is nothing clear (sharp, akribes) about the good/manly being;

for the natures of mortals are marked by confusion (taragmon).24

At times I have seen descendants of the noble family

Grow worthless though the cowards had courageous sons;

Inside the souls of wealthy men bleak famine lives

While minds of stature struggle trapped in starving bodies. (ll. 369-372)

Confusion, disquietude (taragmos), brought on by the limits of observation prevents us from distinguishing high from low, noble from ignoble. As Orestes says, we cannot know, ‘inside the souls’ of the rich or the poor. Political systems that distinguish on the basis of external criteria reinforce errors resulting from our blindness. Aristotle, discussing slavery in Politics I, expresses just this concern: ‘Nature wishes to make the bodies of free persons and slaves different … yet the opposite often results, some have the bodies of free persons while others have the souls (1254b26-34) … For they claim that from the good should come the good, just as human being comes from a human being and a beast from a beast. But while nature wishes to do this, it often is unable to’ (1255b1-4).25 If only the free man and the slave were as different as gods and humans we could distinguish them. But they are not. And so we have the injustice of enslaving those worthy of ruling. The demands of political order force us to accept blindly what we can observe. Orestes’ reflections on his encounter with the farmer draw out the limits of sight.

The aristocratic hold on political power in Athens may have faded with Cleisthenes’ and Ephialtes’ reforms prior to Euripides’ play, but the Athenians still create a host of distinctions that set their democratic equality within a framework of profound inequalities. A regime that found its origins in the language of equality, isegoria and isonomia (not power), created artificial boundaries that did not derive from an unobservable worth. The political challenge becomes articulating and enforcing those artificial boundaries, despite the commitment to equality. The myths of autochthony or citizenship laws like that of 451 bc constitute an effort to naturalize exclusions. Euripides’ Electra destabilizes the criteria, revealing the compulsion – not to mention injustice – necessary to maintain a regime originating in the language of equality.

Orestes’ long introductory speech continues:

How then can man distinguish man, what test can he use?

The test of wealth? That measure means poverty of mind;

By nerve in war? Yet who, when a spear is cast across

His face, will stand to witness his companions’ courage?

We can only toss our judgments random on the wind. (ll. 373-379)

Later in the tragedy the farmer/husband will add: ‘A small crumb of gold will buy/ our daily bread, and when a man has eaten that,/ you cannot really tell the rich and poor apart’ (ll. 429-431). And an old man will remark: ‘Often a noble face hides filthy ways (l. 551).’ ‘Random judgments’ concerning worth confirm our dependence on convention. Nothing enables mankind of limited sight to establish a hierarchical order justified by worth among men. Rather than rely on a Jeffersonian generalization about the equality of all men, Orestes acknowledges a natural inequality whose grounding is inaccessible. Thus, the construction of who is equal and who is not remains arbitrary (random), always subject to contestation, and the political communities in which we live threatened by the instability of that randomness.

Though Electra’s and Orestes’ speeches express support for welcoming the man in rags into the realm of equals, teaching sailors to thumb their noses at their commanders as Aeschylus had accused Euripides of doing, the siblings remain bound by the old models. In the end, under the direction of the gods, Electra abandons her farmer/husband to marry Pylades. The gods enter to reinforce the boundaries and relieve humans from the worry about the arbitrariness of those boundaries. Their appearance ensures that the randomness Orestes identified does not lead to the rejection of visual cues, creating an explosion of social and sexual equality. The gods preserve the conventional hierarchies lest the whole collapse. Or, perhaps, we can read Euripides as allowing us to blame the gods for constructing boundaries in opposition to the egalitarianism articulated by the human characters in the play. Is Euripides suggesting that humans lacking the insight to judge worth must therefore rely on the gods – or whatever the modern-day equivalent of the gods may be – to determine the external signs necessary to define who is equal? That may be the true tragedy of our efforts to build egalitarian regimes. Equality may demand too much of us and so we live with our hyphenated-democracies that subscribe to principles of equality and yet limit the power of equal citizens.

Euripides’ Phoenician Women introduces a different perspective on factors that militate against egalitarianism. That tragedy tells the story of Polyneices’ seeking his turn to rule Thebes after his brother Eteocles ruled for the period allotted to him according to the agreement reached after their father Oedipus’ death. Thebes is not a democracy, but the exchange of rule between the brothers mimics the Athenian practice of taking turns filling the offices of the city. Such an exchange assumes equality between the office-holders; no one is more suited to rule than another. In the Thebes of Phoenician Women, though, the exchange does not proceed smoothly. Eteocles refuses to relinquish his power, leading to Polyneices’ invasion and the death of both brothers. Here, it is not the randomness of distinctions that disturbs the order, but the passionate drive for power that resists equal participation in rule. Confronting his brother, Eteocles says:

I’ll speak … without concealment:

I’d go to the stars and beyond the eastern sky

or under earth, if I could do one thing,

seize tyranny, the greatest of the goods.

I will not choose to give this good thing up

to any other, rather than keep it myself. (ll. 502-507)26

This drive for power undermines any regime that builds on visions of equality.

Eteocles’ passion for rule captures the fragility of appeals to egalitarianism and agreements to share rule. In the very last line of his grand speech he offers a horrifying conjunction of words: kalliston adikein (l. 525). If it is necessary to be unjust to secure tyranny, injustice becomes beautiful. The passion to dominate is so strong, Eteocles affirms, it will overcome any commitment to the sharing of rule equality demands. Protecting against this Eteoclean pride is where the republicanism and constitutionalism of the hyphenated-democracies reside. Democracy on its own, Eteocles indicates, cannot survive the human drive for tyranny. The mixed-regime and constitutionalism were not available to resolve the conflict, though, and so both brothers die. So long as men like Eteocles can call injustice beautiful, driven by tyrannical aspirations, appeals to equality are endangered and the institutional protections of against democracy of the hyphenated-democracies become essential. These tragedies by Euripides illustrate two sides of the democratic impulse: the leveling of kings and the elevating of the humble and the human passions that resist the democratic sharing of rule.27

When Otanes recommends isonomia to the Persian nobles, he identifies the euthunê, holding officials accountable for their time in office, as one of its notable practices. In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound Zeus the tyrant is the epitome of inequality, setting himself above all others, humans and gods, and as such presented as unaccountable (oud’ hupeuthunos, l. 324) and as free (eleutheros, l. 50) by his henchmen. Nevertheless, while the play displays Zeus’ cruelty, it also reveals the limitations of Zeus’ power, indeed of all power: power is tenuous. Zeus overthrew Cronos, Cronos had overthrown Uranus. Even a god’s rule cannot be assured. By consistently pointing to this vulnerability, Aeschylus identifies the dependence of ruler on ruled and the limits of hierarchy. Unlike Euripides who forces us to reflect on how to discover the grounds for equality and the passions that resist equality, Aeschylus (without questioning the naturalness of inequality) warns about the fragility of hierarchy itself, a fragility that leads to the reliance of whoever rules on the characters who introduce the tragedy: Kratos and Bia.

The language of ‘newness’ emphasizing the contingency of power runs throughout the play. Zeus is new; he is young. ‘For new are the steersmen that rule Olympus;/ and new are the customs by which Zeus rules’, sing the chorus (ll. 148-150).28 Hephaestus affixing the chains to bind Prometheus to the rock notes: ‘Every ruler is harsh whose rule is new’ (l. 35; see also l. 233). And Prometheus warns Zeus: ‘You are young/ and young your rule and you think that the tower/ in which you live is free from sorrow: from it/ have I now seen two tyrants thrown’ (ll. 955-958). Though Zeus is immortal, a prophecy foreshadows the demise of his rule. The pattern of rule among the gods exhibits a pattern of flux. If tossing out a tyrant happened once, much less twice, it can happen again. Zeus’ rule, Prometheus warns, will be brief (l. 939), just like the lives of men, ‘creatures of the day’, who are constantly confronted by the impermanence of their own existence. Though as an immortal god and protected from the threat of death that faces mortals, Zeus is human in his subjection to the insecurity that threatens all creatures. Any claim by the immortal Zeus to eternal rule in the end depends on the willingness of Prometheus to reveal the secret he holds about the potential usurper. Like the mortals dependent on the whims of the gods, Zeus too is subject to the whim of the enchained Prometheus.

In his search for security Zeus uses Kratos and Bia. The inequality entailed in the rule of the tyrant demands violence to sustain it. Prometheus Bound points to the ambiguity of who is subject to whom such that the inequality of rule and the meaning of freedom appear far more ambiguous than an initial vision of Prometheus being bound to the rock on Zeus’ orders might suggest. Though bound, Prometheus has a freedom of mind that belies his physical situation; he has power over Zeus even if Bia and Kratos serve Zeus. In Aeschylus’ play superior is subject to his subjects, muddying the understanding of inequality, hierarchy and their relation to rule. Prometheus ends up ruling Zeus.29

Sophocles did not participate in the contest depicted in Frogs, removing himself from the debate over the democratic vs. aristocratic impulses of tragedy. In Antigone, however, there is an interchange between Haemon and Creon where language suggestive of democratic concerns appears. Haemon pleads with his father not to allow Antigone to die; Creon is dismissive, noting the superiority of father to son. Haemon reacts: ‘I urge no wrong. I’m young, but you should watch/ my actions, not my years, to judge of me.’30 His words have no effect; Creon then asks: ‘You don’t think she is sick with that disease?’ to which Haemon responds: ‘Your fellow-citizens (homoptolis leôs) maintain she’s not.’31 In anger, Creon rejects the implication of Haemon’s comment: ‘Is the town (polis) to tell me how to rule?’ No notion of shared rule disturbs Creon’s self-certainty. And when he tells Haemon that custom gives possession of the city to the ruler, Haemon rebukes his father: ‘You’d rule a desert beautifully alone’ (ll. 725-739). These few lines may speak of democratic aspirations for shared rule, but Sophocles abandons this interchange as the play moves to its resolution. Haemon cannot force his father to listen to the demos, even if their intuitions are correct. Rather, it is the seer Teiresias with his connection to the divine who eventually shakes Creon out of his stubbornness. The resolution lies not in the views of the people, but in piety to the gods. The tragedy identifies Creon’s impiety, his failure to attend to the gods, to recognize his subordination to those superior beings, not his failure to listen to the demos.

This concern with piety rather than democracy marks Antigone’s famous ode on the laws of Zeus as well: ‘Nor did I think your orders were so strong/ that you a mortal man, would over-run/ the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws’ (ll. 453-455). Creon’s subordination to the gods permeates Antigone’s ode. The ode may capture a contemporary concern with limitations on political power set by natural laws or natural rights (and for that reason, no doubt, has captured so much attention in the contemporary world32 ), but as with the turn to Teiresias rather than the inhabitants of Thebes, it highlights the subjection of man to the divine, an equality of subordination, but not of power. Likewise with the famous Ode to Man: The Chorus marvels at all that man has accomplished – control over the natural world, the seas, the birds, the wild beasts – but the ode ends with man’s inability to subdue death. For all his prowess, man remains subordinate to the immortal divinities. Antigone is a play about the limitations of man before the divine, not an exploration of equality and its challenges such as we find especially in Euripides.

Though Antigone is the play that perhaps most often finds its way into political theory syllabi, Sophocles’ Ajax speaks more directly to issues of equality and democracy, the artificiality of criteria introduced to establish who is equal. In Electra it was wealth and heritage; in Ajax it is gender and bastardy. Ajax, often read as portraying the fall of the Homeric hero, also questions the exclusion of the female and the bastard from political discourse – or discourse in general. The heroic characters Ajax, Menelaus, and Agamemnon (though not Odysseus who may be the true democratic character33) all demonstrate their failure to engage in reasoned discussion. The female and bastard, in contrast, display their capacity for logos. Aristotle distinguishes man from animal by man’s capacity for logos; animals express themselves only with phônê. In this play Tecmessa, Ajax’s concubine, and Teucer, Ajax’s bastard half-brother, exhibit logos while the Homeric hero Ajax expresses himself with the sounds of animals.

In the tragedy a frenzied Ajax, angered at the generals who denied him Achilles’ arms, slaughters cattle thinking they are the generals who have so dishonored him. Tecmessa describes for the Chorus the events leading to that slaughter: how she encountered the armed Ajax about to leave their tent, how she admonished him saying: ‘What are you doing, Ajax?’ to which Ajax replied: ‘Woman, for a woman silence brings what is beautiful/orderly (kosmon)’ (l. 293). At which point, she tells the sailors, ‘having heard these words, I ceased [speaking]’ (l. 294),34 silenced by a senseless man. Ajax, having told Tecmessa that silence is beautiful for a woman, is not silent. Throughout the play he grunts and voices meaningless phrases. Tecmessa describes how after he killed the cattle he spoke words coming from his madness to the creatures who could not understand him, much less (given that they had already been slaughtered) hear him about the revenge he still plans against the Atreidai and Odysseus. Tecmessa spoke wisely; Ajax speaks the words of a madman to shadows.

When Ajax appears on stage groaning and stuttering, Tecmessa urges him to refrain from such sounds. We can hear in her admonishment to him his to her: ‘Be quiet.’ When Tecmessa asks for silence from Ajax, it is because he speaking nonsense. Nevertheless, for the second time, Ajax dismisses Tecmessa’s words, demanding that she leave. The Chorus, recognizing the foolishness of Ajax’s demand, urge him not to be harsh. And when Ajax continues to rant about the vengeance he will wreak, the Chorus prescribes silence: ‘Do not speak great things/boasts’ (l. 386). Ajax listens no more to the Chorus than to Tecmessa; he will speak big words and boast about his greatness. It is the madman who rejects the speech of woman and inferiors.

Ajax’s half-brother suffers the same fate with the Atreidai who have forbidden burial of Ajax’s corpse. Agamemnon mocks Teucer’s origins. Born of a slave, Teucer’s words are those of a slave, easy for a king to disregard. Teucer’s words are empty, Agamemnon says, meaningless for men who derive power from their armor, from their bodies, from their heritage. As a final rebuff, Agamemnon calls Teucer’s words ‘barbarian speech. I no longer understand you speaking. I do not know the barbarian tongue’ (ll. 1262-1263). Teucer’s response, though, underscores the fragility of the status Agamemnon claims for himself; he reminds Agamemnon of Ajax’s fate and the changing fortunes of the warrior who becomes a reviled mad man after having been greatly revered. Teucer also reminds Agamemnon of Agamemnon’s own origins, his grandfather a Phrygian, his foreign-born mother, and asks him: ‘How can a man of such origins scorn the seeds of my origins?’ (l. 1298). Change, the instability and artificiality of hierarchical orders, that is the world for Teucer, for the man lacking a noble heritage and who, though a bastard, speaks with the assurance of one who sees himself the equal of kings.

Others have noted the resonances of the Iliad in Ajax, most powerfully Tecmessa’s plea that Ajax not abandon her which echoes Andromache’s speech to Hector. Thersites lies behind Teucer’s speech. In the Iliad Odysseus had whipped Thersites; in Ajax Odysseus defends Teucer, appearing to support Teucer’s the entrance of into the deliberative circle. The sympathetic portrait of Tecmessa and Teucer in contrast to those who claim heroic stature and noble birth suggest that Sophocles might be characterizing the absurdities of exclusions that construct a political world along the lines of gender and birth. As with Euripides’ Electra, the problematic boundaries of exclusion illustrate the irrationality of definitions of equality that allow some to participate in the practice of isegoria and not others. In Electra it was wealth and social status. In Ajax Sophocles focuses on the capacity for logos shown by both female and the bastard. In 451 bc, Pericles’ citizenship law came into effect. Ajax was probably produced around 442 bc. We cannot know whether Sophocles is responding to that law, but we can note how he structures the two halves of the tragedy around the inadequacies of excluding first the female and then the bastard from the opportunity to speak and be heard. The city may need to construct boundaries for defining equality, as Pericles’ law did, but the external clues used to identify who is equal may frustrate the welfare of the city and the individuals living within it. Both Ajax and the Atreidai suffer by dismissing the words of those they judge inferior.

IV Conclusion

The novelty of the Athenian democratic experiment was its commitment to equality captured in the early language of isegoria and isonomia. The language of rule entails inequality, the superiority of one over another. The Athenian response was to develop a non-hierarchical understanding of rule. The hyphenated-democracies in the modern world address difficulties that emerge from non-hierarchical principles of rule by limiting the rule of those who are considered equal. The ancient playwrights – most especially Euripides – through the words and actions of their characters explored the initial challenges that egalitarian principles demanded of the political body, ambitions that could not be achieved because of the limitations of human knowledge, ambitions that would lead to injustices and instability. When Euripides in Frogs proclaims that his tragedies are a ‘democratic act’ he expresses his resistance to the demand that tragedy ennoble its characters and make them god-like. As the democratic tragedian, he emphasizes the egalitarian foundations of ancient democracy that introduces the ‘nobody son of nobody,’35 the Thersites and the Teucers of the world, into the political arena. But the equality he offers only raises new issues, for equality must stop somewhere. Where? Euripides is uncomfortable answering that question, as are the other playwrights, and with the gods’ support he falls back on the conventional hierarchies at the end of Electra.

A polity dependent on decisions made according to what seems best to the demos must define the demos. The difficulty of doing so leads to exclusions on the basis of artificial criteria that undermines those boundaries and makes them permeable. Because of that permeability and uncertainty the democratic regime – just like the tyranny of Zeus in the Prometheus Bound – faces instability and thus – again just as in the Prometheus Bound – must rely on force (or the gods) in order to support those arbitrary (random) boundaries. From a society of slave holders and the subordination of women we get tragedies that investigate the difficulties egalitarianism poses for their political regime, not in order to denigrate that regime but to reveal the contradictions and tensions entailed in any efforts to build on egalitarian principles. To the degree that we care about the democratic principles, tragedians remind us of how unhyphenated-democracy from which the hyphenated-democracies of the modern world emerge with their dreams of equality depends on defending principles that undermine its stability. We can welcome that knowledge or hide from it. But the tragedy of democracy as we find in the works of the ancient tragedians is that we cannot escape it.36


I thus avoid the turbulent waters surrounding the topic of ancient tragedy and Athenian democracy initiated by Simon Goldhill’s article and the critical responses to it. See S. Goldhill, ‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 107 (1987), pp. 58-76, and especially P. J. Rhodes, ‘Nothing to Do with Democracy: Athenian Drama and the Polis’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 123 (2003), pp. 104-119. See P. Wilson, ‘Tragic Honours and Democracy: Neglected Evidence for the Politics of the Athenian Dionysia’, Classical Quarterly, 59.1 (2009), pp. 8-29, for a summary of the literature.


Of necessity, this review is schematic. For a recent magisterial effort to trace the history of democracy see, J. T. Kloppenberg, Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).


M. I. Finley, Democracy: Ancient and Modern (London: Hogarth Press, 1985), p. 116.


See, however, J. Ober, ‘Quasi-Rights: Participatory Citizenship and Negative Liberties in Democratic Athens’, Social Philosophy and Policy, 17, no. 1 (2000), pp. 27-61 for a somewhat different take on this issue.


T. Paine, ‘The Rights of Man’, in E. Foner (ed.), Collected Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1995), p. 568.


B. Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997).


Publius, ‘Federalist No. 48’ and ‘Federalist No. 55’, in G. W. Carey and J. McClellan (eds.), The Federalist (The Gideon Edition) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), pp. 257 and 288, respectively.


This phrase (with slight variations) appears throughout The Federalist. See Publius ‘Federalist No. 22, 49, and 51’, pp. 112, 261 and 268, respectively.


R. R. Palmer, ‘Notes on the Use of the Word “Democracy’’’, Political Science Quarterly, 68 (1953), pp. 203-226. See also J. T. Roberts, Athens on Trial: The Antidemocratic Tradition in Western Thought (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994).


Publius, ‘Federalist No. 10’, p. 46.


See A. W. Saxonhouse, Free Speech and Democracy in Ancient Athens (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006), pp. 44-45, for a discussion of whether the graphê paranomôn can be viewed as a precursor of constitutionalism.


Paine, ‘The Rights of Man’, pp. 438-439; See also Thomas Jefferson who in his Notes on Virginia argues for regularly scheduled constitutional conventions so that no generation is beholden to decisions made by previous generations. T. Jefferson, ‘Notes on Virginia,’ in M. D. Peterson (ed.), Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984), pp. 123-326.


S. Wolin, ‘Norm and Form: The Constitutionalizing of Democracy’, in J. P. Euben, J. R. Wallach, and J. Ober (eds.), Athenian Political Thought and the Reconstruction of American Democracy (Ithaca: Cornell University Press), p. 30.


A. W. Saxonhouse, ‘Aristotle on the corruption of regimes: Resentment and justice,’ in T. Lockwood and T. Samaras (eds.), Aristotle’s Politics: A Critical Guide (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp. 184-204.


See the fragments of the Sophist Antiphon as an unusual exception, in K. Freeman, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratics: A Complete Translation of the Fragments in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948), pp. 144-152.


About the terminology see, also, Lauriola’s full discussion in this volume (below, esp. pp. 338-348).


G. Vlastos, ‘Isonomia’, American Journal of Philology, 74.4 (1953), pp. 337-366.


Hdt., trans. David Grene (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987), 3.80.


Ar., Ra. trans. J. Henderson (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2008). All following quotes are from Henderson’s translation.


On this passage and on the concept of democracy in Aristophanes, see also Lauriola in this volume (below, pp. 336-365, esp. 356-357).


Ar., Ra. p. 76 n. 119.


In the following section I draw on previous works which offer more fully realized analyses of each play with attention to a range of different issues. For Euripides, see A. W. Saxonhouse, ‘Of “Demagogic Apes”: Euripides’ Democratic Critique of Democratic Athens’, in L. Ward (ed.), Natural Right and Political Philosophy: Essays in Honor of Catherine and Michael Zuckert (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013), pp. 345-360. For the Phoenician Women, see A. W. Saxonhouse, ‘Another Antigone: Euripides’ Phoenician Women and the Emergence of the Female Political Actors’, Political Theory, 33 (2005), pp. 472-494. For Aeschylus, see A. W. Saxonhouse and D. Picariello, ‘Aeschylus and the Binding of the Tyrant’, Polis: The Journal for Ancient Greek Political Thought, 32.2, (2015), pp. 271-296. Finally, for Ajax, see A. W. Saxonhouse, ‘Logos and Voice in Sophocles’ Ajax’, in K. Havard (ed.), Athens, Arden, Jerusalem: Essays in Honor of Mera Flaumenhaft (Lanham, Rowman and Littlefield, forthcoming 2017).


I use the translation by Emily Townsend Vermuele: E., ‘El.’, trans. Emily Townsend Vermuele, in M. Griffith, G. W. Most, D. Grene, and R. Lattimore (eds.), Euripides II: Andromache, Hecuba, The Suppliant Women, Electra (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1959] 2013).


These two lines are my translation; the rest are Vermeule’s.


Arist., Pol., second edition, trans. Carnes Lord (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), p. 8.


This is Wyckoff’s translation, from E., ‘Ph.,’ trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff, in D. Grene and R. Lattimore (eds.), Euripides IV: Helen, The Phoenician Women, Orestes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959).


Phoenician Women questions gender hierarchies. It begins with Antigone’s Pedagogus denigrating women, but it develops Antigone’s and Jocasta’s courage and wisdom, undermining that initial misogyny and reinforcing Euripides’ tendency to undercut even traditional gender hierarchies.


All translations are by David Grene, from A., ‘Pr.’, second edition, trans. D. Grene, in D. Grene and R. Lattimore (eds.), Aeschylus II: The Suppliant Maidens, The Persians, The Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus Bound (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, [1956] 1992).


Space does not permit attention to Suppliant Women, which portrays a king who does not revel in his superiority, and does address questions of inclusion and exclusion. For an excellent discussion of Supp. with regard to this latter point see G. W. Bakewell, Aeschylus’s Suppliant Women: The Tragedy of Immigration (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013).


All translations are by Wyckoff, from S. ‘Ant.’, trans. Elizabeth Wyckoff, in D. Grene and R. Lattimore (eds.), Sophocles I: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1954).


Wykoff’s translation in too strong in suggesting a democratic defense. Haemon does not refer to ‘fellow-citizens’, but to the men who live in the same city.


G. Steiner, Antigones (New York: Oxford University Press, 1984).


B. Knox, ‘The Ajax of Sophocles’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, 65 (1961), pp. 1-37.


My translations.


This is the language of Josiah Ober. See J. Ober, ‘Conditions for Athenian Democracy’, in T. Rabb and E. Suleiman (eds.), The Making and Unmaking of Democracy: Lessons from History and World Politics (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), pp. 2-21.


I am deeply grateful to Maxwell Lykins for the help he provided in bringing this essay to completion.

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