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  • 1 University of North Carolina, Asheville, nc, USA


It is orthodox to state that tragedy encourages its audience to meditate on questions related to living in the polis with the resulting claim that it should promote self-examination among its citizen-spectators. The evidence that tragedy is political in some sense is incontrovertible. And yet, given what is sometimes seen on stage, it is worth exploring this orthodoxy a little and asking if there are limitations to it. In particular, what happens when the city of Athens itself is brought into close contact with tragic suffering? It seems that there were limits to what the Athenians were willing to see of suffering that directly involved their city. This paper suggests that by its nature, tragedy must always contain the possibility of not challenging, but rather reaffirming, the audience’s beliefs about their own city and thus themselves. Modern scholars may possibly over-estimate the Athenians’ ability for self-critique.


It is orthodox to state that tragedy encourages its audience to meditate on questions related to living in the polis with the resulting claim that it should promote self-examination among its citizen-spectators. The evidence that tragedy is political in some sense is incontrovertible. And yet, given what is sometimes seen on stage, it is worth exploring this orthodoxy a little and asking if there are limitations to it. In particular, what happens when the city of Athens itself is brought into close contact with tragic suffering? It seems that there were limits to what the Athenians were willing to see of suffering that directly involved their city. This paper suggests that by its nature, tragedy must always contain the possibility of not challenging, but rather reaffirming, the audience’s beliefs about their own city and thus themselves. Modern scholars may possibly over-estimate the Athenians’ ability for self-critique.

For the past couple of decades, it has been orthodox to consider tragedy as an intellectual and didactic literary form, heavily marked by its origins in the Athenian democracy.1 As Simon Goldhill has argued, many of the practices preceding tragic performance are connected with the workings of the Athenian democracy,2 and when this fact is joined with an appreciation of the complexity of the questions which tragedy raises about democracy, ideology, morality, citizenship, justice, the family and so forth, then a further claim easily arises, that tragedy promotes a kind of self-examination and even perhaps self-criticism among its citizen-spectators.3 Additionally, it has been argued that democracy encourages its citizens to question and criticise its own institutions in a way that more authoritarian societies such as Sparta deny. Pelling4 states that part of civic ideology was ‘to worry about [civic ideology] in the right place’, and that the tragic theatre was an important place where this could happen. Goldhill5 puts the argument especially strongly: both tragedy and comedy ‘implicate the dominant ideology put forward in the pre-play ceremonies in a far from straightforward manner; indeed the tragic texts seem to question, examine, and often subvert the language of the city’s order,’ and he goes on to argue that tragedy is didactic, encompassing both questioning and affirmation of citizens’ duties and obligations.

Some scholars modify this intellectualised portrait of tragedy. Malcom Heath emphasises tragedy’s emotional dimension, and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood, its religious aspect.6 Jasper Griffin is more generally sceptical of Goldhill’s position, considering it an anachronistic product of the thought processes of liberal thinkers in a modern democracy, and arguing that there is no evidence to suggest that the playwrights actually did wish their audiences to question their own values in the way that we consider desirable today.7 Certainly, the fate met by Socrates might suggest that extreme self-examination was not viewed entirely positively by the citizens who condemned him to death, and in Plato’s Apology, he is represented as quite embattled in his efforts to jolt the Athenian populace out of self-satisfaction. In his response to Griffin,8 Goldhill contends that the city of Gorgias, Thucydides, Plato, Socrates and the sophists would be amply capable of embracing the combination of irony, didacticism and questioning that he considers central to tragedy. One might, however, wonder whether such spectators were representative:9 Thucydides, Plato and Socrates were hardly convinced democrats, while central to sophistic thought of all kinds was the questioning of current orthodoxies, and they could hardly be said to represent mainstream Athenian opinion. While Athens’ intellectual atmosphere certainly did allow more criticism of the city than was possible in Sparta, the democracy itself may not always have been entirely tolerant.10 While characters such as Plato, Socrates, and Goldhill might comfortably negotiate a combination of irony, didacticism and questioning, the same might not necessarily be true for less intellectual spectators. What sort of relationships are we to imagine in spectators between violence and suffering and deliberation on affairs of the polis, especially contradictions in, and criticisms of, its ways that they are held to conceive through viewing tragedy? Are all, or mostly all, spectators expected to undergo a speedy psychological shift from visceral reaction to misery to thinking about politics and questioning their own beliefs and actions, or is this just for a few?11

P. J. Rhodes has questioned the idea that tragedy is an essentially democratic art form, suggesting instead that it would be better to consider tragedy as a literary form that handles issues important to the polis in general rather than the democracy specifically. He gives multiple examples of a kind of slippage in earlier work between ‘civic’ and ‘democratic’, or between ‘polis’, ‘democracy’ and Athens’, arguing that these terms are far from interchangeable.12 In this paper, I will suggest that the slippage goes even further than Rhodes argues. Not only is there slippage between ‘polis’, ‘democracy’ and ‘Athenian” ’, but also between ‘questioning’ or ‘criticism’ and ‘self-questioning’ or ‘self-criticism’.13 While tragedy certainly does ask penetrating questions about life in the polis, not only does the nature of dramatic performance mean that there is no mechanism which could force spectators to apply such questions directly to themselves or their city, but, as I will argue below, it also deliberately complicates any possibility of this happening. I will also suggest that the playwrights always left their audience some ‘escape routes’ away from difficult self-examination and that some spectators probably took them.

The idea that tragedy is political in some sense is incontrovertible, as are the connections between democratic institutions, pre-performance practices and tragic performance. But some of the democratic ceremony surrounding the Dionysia,14 such as its emphasis on war and military values, and above all, the exhibition of the tribute of Athens’ subjects, is as much an affirmation of Athens’ self-image and the praise and justification of Athenian power as anything to do with Athens’ democracy per se. When viewed in this light, these practices seem closer to the concerns of the rhetoric of that other highly democratic institution, the annual funeral speech over the war dead of Athens, which offers reassuring patriotic sentiments to their audience by affirming their city’s moral and military power. In fact, certain stories which the funeral orations recount incessantly as the history of early Athens are themselves dramatised in Euripidean tragedy.15 The Dionysia was also attended by non-Athenians. If it is true that the Athenians would have a ‘heightened awareness’ of the non-Athenians in their midst, so that the festival becomes ‘an area of public self-awareness and self-promotion for the city and the citizens,’16 one might think that some in the audience might be disposed towards a view of Athens, and themselves as Athenian citizens, closer to its untarnished, idealised image than to self-criticism. Aristophanes (Ach. 600-607) comments on the Athenians’ exceptional enjoyment of praise of their city, and in his parodic version of funeral oration rhetoric (Pl. Mx. 234c-235c), Plato’s Socrates sarcastically comments on how proud of himself and his city he feels on listening to such speech. Since the audience contained a high proportion of the people who also made crucial political decisions in the assembly, if they were to view certain events on stage in the light of the decisions they had previously made when on the Pnyx, some of them at least might have preferred to be reassured, not challenged about those decisions.17

Kevin Lee argues that the process in which the archon chose the poets whose work would be performed at the Dionysia was probably ‘conservative, cautious and reliant on precedent’, reflecting ‘not the confident opinion of an expert … but of a man who was, by definition, average’. While poets who offered more challenging visions of the city would not be censored, ‘any challenging material had to be presented in an acceptable way and within tolerable norms’. Additionally, the poets had to appear at the proagon in front of interested parties, a ceremony which Lee considers was ‘something of an ordeal which forced the poets to confront their public responsibility in a direct way.’ While dramatists had many motivations for writing, victory at the competitions was highly desirable: one may assume that dramatists would know that some tragic ‘messages’ would be more attractive to audiences and judges than others and might shape their plays accordingly.18

Inherent in the practices surrounding tragic performances, then, were possibilities of affirmation and reassurance as well as self-examination. Second, the spatial and temporal indeterminacy of the tragic dramas themselves complicates the assumption that they could inculcate self-criticism in its audience, both because no author can compel his audience to take specific conclusions from his work,19 but also because of the way that tragedy presents traumatic events to its audiences.

Tragedy appears to works most effectively where there is a gap between the circumstances of the tragedy and of the audience: an audience must care about the suffering of the characters on stage but needs distance to appreciate the play as a play. If the gap is too great, the audience will be disengaged; if it is too small, they cannot focus properly on the play, as happened during a staging of the Oresteia in Berlin in 1945 against a huge photograph of the ruined city, which traumatised many of the audience.20 On a slightly different, but related, note, the simulations in the virtual reality games currently used to treat troops with post-traumatic stress disorder are realistic, but not completely so, because extreme realism erases the distance between game and reality that is necessary for therapy to work.21 In the contemporary world, films which dramatise actual disasters also require a degree of distance to be effective with their audiences. Spectators of films such as United 93, especially those for whom what happened was lived reality, rather than just a story, could only endure watching them with the aid of the automatically distancing effects of being a spectator, the surroundings of the cinema, the audience and so on, as well as the distance of time. Even then, such distancing effects were not always enough for every spectator to be able to appreciate the film, rather than reliving sheer horror.22

Distance proved key to the Athenians’ appreciation of tragedy, after they imposed a huge fine on the early poet Phrynichus for ‘reminding them of their own troubles’ in portraying a recent historical event – the capture of Miletus – that hit too close to home (Hdt. 6.21.2). Thereafter, with the exception of Aeschylus’ Persians, a story dramatising the suffering of Athens’ safely defeated enemies, tragedy avoids dramatising actual events and instead features the figures of Greek mythology, rather than contemporary figures. Phrynichus’ unfortunate experience was a warning to subsequent tragedians, but through it, they gained the benefit of a genre which could explore contemporary questions through focusing on a distant past in which mythological kings could discuss democracy (E. Supp. 429-455), or where Iliadic queens might bring contemporary intellectual inquiry to bear on Zeus (E. Tr. 886). People could consider others’ troubles, which resembled their contemporary experiences, but which, because they were rooted in a long-ago world, could be safely ‘left hanging on the mythical, other-worldly pegs provided by the play’s structure’23 if necessary. The distance offered an essential sort of comfort zone.24 If indeterminacy is essential to making tragedy work to offer a comfort zone to its audience alongside societal critique, it must always contain the possibility of not challenging, but rather reaffirming, spectators’ beliefs about their city and themselves.25

The characters of tragedy inhabit an indeterminate region between ancient and contemporary,26 and even that indeterminate space is not fixed: sometimes the tragedy will approach the contemporary and then move away again.27 The poetic Greek of tragedy also combines distance and closeness, as did its highly stylized form whose ‘familiar patterns and performative routines provide a further dimension to the “comfort zone”.’28 The audience of tragedy experiences this indeterminacy as they watch, sometimes intensely aware of the presence of friends or family or strangers next to them, sometimes completely oblivious of these when fully engaged with the struggles of characters who they know from stories, whose conflicts are both theirs and not theirs. Mark Griffith29 makes the intriguing suggestion that the plays enabled their audiences to ‘abandon their personal identities’ through the events unfolding, so that a peasant can imagine himself as Agamemnon or Clytemnestra. If this is so, then offering some distance to the audience, enabling them to get ‘out of character’ if necessary, seems important. Peter Meineck’s experiences with using tragedy with contemporary veterans may also be significant here:30 while the veterans see their own experiences in the ancient texts, they are able to do so precisely through the gap between the contemporary and the ancient that enables them to be close to, and also comfortably apart from, the connection between them.

Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood suggests a fascinating example of how tragedy’s indeterminacy can tread a path between fear and comfort. In Aeschylus’ Eumenides, set in Athens, the Erinyes’ threat to blight Athens at 780-7, ‘marks a grave danger for Athens in the world of the tragedy.’ But she argues that the audience is ‘insulated’, protected from feeling this danger too close, by means of the chorus’ self-referentiality earlier in the play: the Erinyes of the story are also a ‘chorus of Athenian men in the here and now’ with the result that their terrible threat ultimately ‘does not affect the world of the audience; it was a danger in the past that has been overcome.’31 Indeed, one of her main arguments is that tragedy and Athenian religion are indivisible from one another32 and if, as she claims, Greek religion posits an unknowable divine world, some sort of a comfort zone for audiences to cope with danger and uncertainty in the religion of tragedy would seem desirable and even necessary.

The distanced time of tragedy is often connected with a distance in space. In comedy, contemporary Athens is central, and comedy creates a fantasy world where nothing irrevocably painful typically happens, except to annoying politicians or intellectuals, such as Socrates at the end of the Clouds. Usually resolution, abundance and festivity end the performance. Tragedy is frequently set in a city other than Athens – 32 tragedies are set in Thebes alone33 – maintaining spatial and temporal distance from the contemporary audience.34 Prima facie, a play set in ‘Athens’, even allowing for a distance in time, would seem to deny its audience the spatial distance offered by a play set in ‘Thebes.’ If tragedy works somewhere between the poles of critique and comfort, through being set at a greater distance, such as in Thebes, a play might offer greater opportunities for questioning and critique of social and other institutions than a play offered to Athenians which is set in Athens. Since the action of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Antigone is set in a city which is not Athens and Athens has no apparent role in it at all, the questions which such plays raise, about living in cities, the relationship between gods and man, the family versus the city and so on, can be appreciated by the audience and the distance between ‘ancient’ Thebes and contemporary Athens may enable the audience to conduct self-examination and examination of their city within a useful emotional and intellectual comfort zone.

But when Athenians view a play about ‘Athens’, the distance necessary for tragedy to work becomes smaller, and potentially too small, and it is reasonable to wonder whether there are some unspoken limits on how tragedians are ‘allowed’ to portray their city if they are to keep the comfort zone intact. Other cities can be portrayed without constraint, but perhaps what is said about Athens itself may have to reflect a more idealised image of Athens, or at least be plausibly interpreted as doing so by those of the audience who needed that interpretation. Extant tragedy does seem to suggest that this may be so. All the tragedies in which ‘Athens’ has an active role, portray the city in a broadly positive manner, or at least – and this is equally important – the city’s actions are capable of being read favourably by anyone who firmly believed in the rightness of his city’s power and preeminence. Critique might be certainly be available in the plays for those who wished to see it: for example, Euripides’ Suppliants contains many topoi familiar from the funeral speeches, such as the city’s unique devotion to suppliants, its free democracy and its vigorous defence of Greek ideals (for example, ll. 187-191, 321-325, 340-341, 378-380, 404-405, 438-455), but Athens’ intervention to help Adrastus does not stop the wars in Thebes and certainly does not save Evadne and her father from misery. These failures of Athens may colour the view of the play as a whole for some spectators. However, it is equally possible to point out that when Athens intervened to preserve Greek customs, it was entirely successful on its own terms, even acquiring a reward for its generosity in the alliance, sanctioned by Athena, that it gains with Argos: the city could not save Thebes, but this is not what it intended to do nor could it, given the strong mythological tradition in which the Epigonoi avenge their fathers. Pelling discusses interpretations of the latter part of the play which downplay the suffering of Evadne through attributing to her Argive, non-Athenian origins ‘the extreme and non-civic grief which marks the un-Athenian activity’. He considers such interpretations ‘too facile an approach to analysing the Other. It would be a complacent audience indeed which felt that such grief could never be found in an idealized Athens.’35 In that formulation, such a reading certainly seems highly unsatisfactory. But by displacing extreme grief and agony onto Argives, an Athenian audience can enter into Evadne’s grief and pain more fully because of the gap between them, since, as Athenians, they are protected from too close an identification with her. Thus the play creates its own comfort zones for those who preferred affirmation of their city, and escape routes from criticism of Athens, even when a more critical view is also possible. Tragedy must allow for its spectators, if necessary, to avoid ‘being reminded of their own troubles’ and retain a more comforting view of what it means to be a citizen of the city which helps the suffering but which always, itself, remains outside the tragedy (ektos … sumphorās, E. hf 1249). Tragedy is political but it is also imbued with the affirmative image of Athens that emerges from other texts and artefacts shaped by Athenian power. Perhaps we have relied too much on the way that Thucydides coolly undermines all idealised portrayals of his city, and over-estimate the Athenians’ ability for self-critique. If it is true that tragedians do pull their punches where Athens is concerned, the notion of Athenian tragedy as inherently didactic, self-critical and even subversive should be modified.

This is a time of extraordinary sophistication, not only technologically but also, from the perspective of academia, of social and intellectual ideas: issues such as privilege, white and other, trigger warnings, or the complexities of transgender experience, to name but a few that have featured in the Chronicle of Higher Education in recent months. Such issues are hugely important to many, but for many others, not only are they not interesting, but they are pointless at best, and destructive at worst. In 424 bc, Aristophanes’ Clouds portrayed Socrates and his philosophy, in which, as Plato shows us, self-criticism and reflection are central, in a similarly contemptuous manner, as either trivial – learning to measure how far fleas jump (ll. 143-153) – or dangerous, teaching young men how to use rhetoric dishonestly to damage fundamental societal institutions (ll. 1399-1444). Whatever else Aristophanes was doing in this play, we can be sure that he was trying to make people laugh. Evidently, he considered such a portrayal of Socrates, the ‘gadfly’ who consistently afflicted the comfortably smug ‘horse’ that he considered the Athenian democracy to have become (Pl. Ap. 30e), a way of eliciting laughter. And if that is so, then it would seem likely that he was appealing to the prejudices of a people not all of whom might have been entirely open to deep self-examination. In making this argument, I am certainly not defending anti-intellectualism, in either ancient or modern worlds, but offering a minor corrective to any view of the Athenians as universally self-questioning, intellectually astute and willing and able to interrogate themselves consistently.36 Of course, the tragedians and many spectators were like that, but equally, we know that plenty of Athenians enjoyed watching the merciless satirisation of Cleon in Aristophanes’ Knights but then duly voted him back as general the next year, to the bafflement of Thucydides and others, as baffled as many have been in the United Kingdom and the United States over the recent victories for Brexit and Donald Trump. Academics are more naturally disposed to a Thucydidean view of the world, but this disposition may lead us to a slightly distorted view of tragedy’s broader audience.37

Before considering how Athenian tragedies might work for Athenians, it is worth focusing briefly on one play which is not set in Athens but which has often been interpreted through an Athenian filter as comment – set safely far away in time and space – on the recent actions of the contemporary audience. Euripides’ Trojan Women is an excellent test case for exploring the co-existence of strains of the complex and self-critical alongside the more reassuring, since many critics have argued that it is really ‘about’ Athenian action at Melos, offering a ringing condemnation of the arrogance of victors and promising them punishment. The context of Thucydides’ connection of the Athenian treatment of Melos with the subsequent disaster at Sicily has made this an understandably attractive interpretation, although the chronological difficulties of this reading are significant.38 Perhaps some veterans of Melos did squirm in their seats at the sight of Hecuba’s abject misery as they remembered what they had seen and done the previous winter. It would take impressively honest, conscientious and self-critical men to do this. Can we assume that most of the audience were people of such a kind? I am not sure that we can,39 if just because the condemnatory reading is not the only one possible, and Euripides has made it sure that this is so. The Chorus, while speculating on where in Greece they are likely to go after Troy’s fall, actively prefer a trip to Athens over anywhere else, above all Sparta (ll. 208-213, cf. 218-219). From a mythological standpoint, it is reasonable for them to hate Sparta, since the source of all their troubles, Helen, is Spartan, but given Athens’ notoriously limited part in the Trojan War, the references to Athens deliberately bring the contemporary into the mythological in a way favourable to Athens that seems difficult to imagine as ironic or critical in any way. Moreover, Sicily and South Italy are also considered desirable (ll. 220-229), as they were to the Athenians in contemporary politics,40 and there is no reason for these references to arise organically from the dramatic mythological circumstances of this play.41 Roisman has shown how many aspects of this play that more traditional scholarly readings interpret as condemnation of Athens could as easily be condemning Sparta. Helen started the Trojan War, just as from an Athenian perspective, Sparta started the Peloponnesian War, a view even shared by Sparta (Th. 7.18.2-3), while the sight of the traumatized and burned Troy could bring Plataea as easily to mind as anything done by Athens. For those who want it, the comfort zone remains intact, even if another, harsher interpretation remains an option for others.42

Athenian myths were dramatized in some 19 tragedies that we know of.43 Athens or places in Attica are part of the action or close to it in some fragmentary plays, and in five extant plays whose production dates range from 458-401 bc: Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Euripides’ Heraclidae, Suppliants and Heracles, and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. Additionally, Euripides’ Hippolytus, set in Trozen concerns Theseus, the king of Athens, and is itself a retelling of a story he also treated in another now fragmentary Hippolytus play. Each of the extant tragedies shows an Athens which is remarkably similar, both to other portrayals of tragic Athens, and to the Athens of the funeral orations, which claim to express the essence of the idealised Athens for which so many soldiers died, and to console their survivors by assuring them that their deaths served a glorious cause. In particular, the characterisation of Theseus in tragedy closely resembles that of Athens in the funeral speeches,44 and Euripides’ Heraclidae and Suppliants and Aeschylus’ fragmentary Eleusinioi dramatise stories that were part of the canonical deeds of Athens that featured in almost all those texts, and which were ‘history’ for the Athenians. The Heraclidae tells the story of Athens’ rescue of Heracles’ children after his death from his implacable enemy Eurystheus,45 while both the Suppliants and Eleusinioi dramatise Athens’ intervention to bury the bodies of the dead Seven Against Thebes.46 For a modern reader, the accounts of these tales in the funeral orations may seem ‘trite, chauvinistic, and full of historical distortions’47 and not worthy of being taken seriously, but, as Steinbock states, ‘this version of Athenian history was “true for the Athenians, in that it conform[ed] to the idea that they wish[ed] to have of themselves”.’48 If this is right, then the essential ‘truth’ of these stories for an Athenian audience should influence modern interpretations of these tragedies, especially since 4th century orators apparently took them entirely seriously when they invoked images and myths from them to support the cases they were arguing.49

The extant Athenian plays50 portray Athens as a city active in doing good to those around them, especially oppressed suppliants. Athens is good and does good because of a military power that it will deploy only where necessary, but it will not hesitate to deploy it, matching military power with moral knowledge. The city can also transform others for change, even if the change might be imperfect or impermanent, and, importantly, it is rewarded for its actions, often by an eternal alliance theoretically committing the descendants of those Athens has helped to continue to support Athens. Under the auspices of Athena and the nameless Athenian jurors in the Eumenides, the power of persuasion enables the Erinyes to turn their terrifying powers to becoming the guardians of justice and order at Athens. In the Suppliants, as I have suggested, Theseus steers a difficult path between being aware of Adrastus’ past missteps, helping his problematic suppliant, and bringing him to reflect on his past failures. While this clearly does not save him or Thebes, Athens itself is made stronger through the alliance that Athena sanctions at the end of the play. Demophon in the Heraclidae is a less impressive representative of Athens than his father Theseus, but even he ultimately saves Heracles’ oppressed children and their old guardian Iolaus and extracts eternal protection for Athens from Eurystheus, previously a sworn enemy.51 In Oedipus at Colonus, Athens is literally Oedipus’ promised land after years of miserable wandering (ll. 84-95), and thanks to Athens’ military and moral power, he too finds a proper ending, while Athens is rewarded with protection by his body from beyond the grave against Theban incursions (ll. 621-622) – an especially reassuring thought in the late Peloponnesian War.

Such brief, optimistic readings can be contested, and darker, more ironic or critical readings of Athens can be held to underlie them: ostensibly patriotic plays such as Euripides’ Suppliants are often, in spite of ancient sources’ claims that it is an encomium of Athens, given a complex and negative reading.52 Some in the audience could have focussed on these negative currents: one would love to know what Thucydides thought of the Heraclidae, for example. But characters like Thucydides might already have been disaffected and brought to such plays what they wanted to see in them.53 The indeterminate space of tragedy means that this is not a universal reading, however, and there is also room for a safe space, a way of avoiding too much criticism of the city for those who do not want to see it. Disappointing though we might find it, for some in its audience, Euripides’ Suppliants might have been a largely encomiastic, ‘feel-good’ piece that affirmed their pride in Athenian history. And even if tragedy’s portrayal of Athens seems ambivalent in certain ways, the actions of its enemies in tragedy are never characterised as virtuous or justified. From the information that we currently have, tragedy seems strikingly consistent in its portrayal of Athens as the city which helps other cities, to their mutual benefit, while never itself experiencing tragic suffering. Athens is ‘ektos symphorās’, ‘outside the disaster’, as Heracles perceptively comments to Theseus (E. hf 1249) when he attempts to offer encouragement to him in his darkest hour.

Space constraints preclude a detailed reading of every Athenian play, but in this last section, I will discuss Euripides’ Heraclidae, whose Athenian representative Demophon has often been considered decidedly inept, even as he offers many traditional topoi of Athenian excellence, while the Marathonian chorus appear to reject ‘Athenian’ principles of justice and mercy at the end of the play. Is Euripides casting an ironic or sceptical eye on the relationship between the image of the ideal Athens and political reality?54

When old, helpless Iolaus begs for assistance for himself and the young children of Heracles against Heracles’ sworn enemy Eurystheus, and the Argive herald who is his mouthpiece, the Athenian king Demophon instantly offers Athens’ help (ll. 236-249). This part of the play is full of conventional expressions, both in words and actions, of the vocabulary of the idealised Athens of encomiastic texts (e.g., Heracl. 38, 101-108, 113, 129, 191-198, 206, 286-287, 309-325, 329-332, 362-370). Particularly significant is the herald’s claim that Athens always chooses useless allies (ll. 176-178; 147-152; cf. E. Supp. 321, 577): an Athenian audience disposed towards a patriotic interpretation of his statement may reflect that Athenian power is such that they simply do not need strong allies. Most kings in suppliant plays do express some hesitation before committing themselves to suppliants because of the dangers of incurring danger from their enemies or even the gods, and at this point, Demophon’s action could be considered either an example of the speedy attention to helping the vulnerable that is central to the portrayal of Athens in Athenian tragedies and in encomiastic portrayals of Athens in other genres,55 or as just plain foolish (cf. ll. 415-419). And indeed, his hasty agreement must be reviewed when it emerges that the gods demand a virgin sacrifice if Athens is to prevail. Demophon refuses to offer any of his people to help the suppliants. His reluctance is understandable, as even Iolaus agrees (ll. 435-436), but it also throws into real doubt claims that Athens always sacrifices itself to help suppliants without fear of the consequences. Only when Heracles’ daughter offers herself to save her brothers can the battle proceed and Eurystheus be captured. Some people come out of the play unsuccessfully – Heracles’ daughter loses her life, though for glorious ends and Eurystheus is killed – but others find success: Athens saves the suppliants in a battle in which Iolaus even miraculously regains his youth, and not only is Athens’ reputation for saving suppliants restored but, as is usual in Athenian plays, the city is rewarded for pains taken on behalf of the oppressed, with Eurystheus as their surprising benefactor (ll. 1030-1036).

The narrative of this play certainly does twist the usual narrative of Athenian success through courage and virtue, since Athenian success appears to be a result of sheer good luck rather than anything more substantial. But one might recall the comment of Ar. Nu. 585-589, that Athens consistently makes bad decisions, but the gods turn its mistakes to the good. Some spectators could view the action of the Heraclidae with a similar level of self-confidence in their city’s powers. Two other elements in the play may also seem to undermine the praise of Athens. That Heracles’ daughter must die to save her family seems shocking to a modern audience, but she accedes to this task willingly (l. 532) and receives the praise that she desires, nor is there any emphasis on her fear, or blood, or revenge for her death: she is no Iphigenia. For an ancient audience her courageous death may also resemble what was required of hoplites in real life in the glorification of death for a higher communal good that is so lauded in the funeral speeches.56 Moreover, the descendants of those Heraclidae whom Iolaus and their sister bade honor Athens forever are the Spartans, now Athens’ enemies: one might imagine that some of the audience reflected on Spartan ingratitude for past services57 rather than grieving for the fate of an anonymous daughter of Heracles.

The end of the play is another problem as the Chorus appear completely to abandon supposedly Athenian ideals of justice in sanctioning Alcmena’s murderous revenge on the surrendered Eurystheus (ll. 1053-1055). It is difficult to square what happens here with the ideals of Athens laid out by Demophon earlier in the play and other texts praising an idealised Athens. As Euripides’ contemporary Thucydides constantly argues (e.g., 5.89-97), admirable ideals are often overcome by fear and self-interest. Athens claims dedication to justice but apparently recants when it costs too much and is eventually complicit in Alcmena’s brutality.58 Even here, though, there are some ‘escape routes.’ One might argue, for example, that Athenian generosity has once more helped the oppressed and the city has been rewarded for it, and what happens to worthless creatures like Eurystheus and Alcmene is of little concern: similarly in Euripides’ Suppliants, Athenian ideals save the oppressed at no cost to Athens, but the tragedy continues for others. Moreover, the Athenians can only get the blessing from Eurystheus that the oracle promises, by either getting their own hands dirty or letting Alcmena arrange his murder. Eurystheus knows this and accepts it (ll. 1026-1029).59 Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood argues that an ancient audience would have viewed the end of the play through the religious schema of ‘appropriation of the enemy hero’, of which there are many examples in Athenian history and tragedy, and might have found an ending in which Eurystheus will become their protector actively reassuring,60 especially since Alcmene’s Spartan descendants will actually be harmed by incurring Eurystheus’ eternal enmity through what she does to him (ll. 1034-1035).61 Above all, the inescapable fact remains that Athens, by following its own moral code, and ever ektos sumphorās remains unscathed, even in an unknowable and changeable universe.

It is the job of scholars to interrogate texts more deeply than a non-professional Athenian spectator might do, even one who actively sought education in the theatre. Moreover, we are constantly trying to reconstruct ancient attitudes, and must take great pains to attempt deep readings of ancient texts. But for that reason, along, perhaps, with our own individual scholarly and psychological temperaments, our reactions to tragedy may potentially distort the impressions of tragedies that a significant number of the ancient audience might have taken away with them. It might sometimes be worth stepping back a little from complexity, paradox and irony.62 Our tendency to prefer complexity and irony may paradoxically be a holdover from our less critical Hellenophile past, when the Greeks were the pinnacle of civilisation and we believed in ‘golden age’ Athens and Pericles’ school of Hellas. The audience are viewed as remarkably sophisticated if we impose upon all of them a modern and arguably anachronistic interest in questioning and subversion.63 There must, however, also have been some, and perhaps many, less exalted viewers for whom tragedy was a source of entertainment, horrified fascination and questions, but also a degree of comfort where their own city and its history was involved, with a sense that they at least could be safe and prosper through the protection of those whom their ancestors had saved by their wisdom, virtue and power, whom they were saving now and whom their descendants would continue to save, ektos sumphorās to the end.


See already W. Arrowsmith, ‘A Greek Theatre of Ideas’, Arion 2.3 (1964), pp. 32-56, pp. 32-33, quoted by P. J. Rhodes, ‘Nothing to do with democracy: Athenian drama and the polis’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 123 (2003), pp. 104-119, p. 117: ‘The Athenians regarded the theater not as entertainment but as the supreme instrument of cultural instruction, a democratic paedeia complete in itself.’ More recently N. Croally, Euripidean Polemic (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), discusses the issue at length, claiming explicitly that ‘tragedy questions ideology’, p. 43; cf. pp. 11-12, and in general pp. 17-69.


S. Goldhill, ‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology’, in J. J. Winkler and F. I. Zeitlin (eds.), Nothing to Do With Dionysos?: Athenian Drama in its Social Context (Princeton, nj: Princeton University Press, 1990), pp. 97-129.


‘The play-festivals of Dionysus [which] meant exploring and confirming but also questioning what it was to be a citizen of a democracy’: P. Cartledge, ‘ “Deep Plays”: Theatre as Process in Greek Civic Life’, in P. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 3-35, p. 6; P. Euben, Greek tragedy and political theory (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 27-29, and the material cited by W. Allan and A. Kelly, ‘Listening to Many Voices: Athenian Tragedy as Popular Art’, in A. Marmodoro and J. Hill (eds.), The Author’s Voice in Classical and Late Antiquity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 77-122, p. 79 n.7.


C. Pelling, Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 213-235.


Goldhill, ‘Nothing to do With Dionysus’, p. 114, though the rest of pp. 114-115 somewhat modifies this bold claim.


M. Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (London: Duckworth, 1987); C. Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy and Athenian Religion (Lanham, md: Lexington Books, 2003), especially pp. 153, 293, 331-332, 513-518.


J. Griffin, ‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy’, Classical Quarterly, 48 (1998), pp. 39-61.


S. Goldhill, ‘Civic ideology and the problem of difference: the politics of Aeschylean tragedy, once again’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 120 (2000), pp. 34-56.


Rhodes, ‘Nothing to do with Democracy,’ p. 119.


Croally, Euripidean Polemic, p. 224; K. J. Dover, ‘The Freedom of the Intellectual in Greek Society’, Talanta vii, pp. 24-54 is cautious, but see M. Ostwald, From Popular Sovereignty to the Rule of Law (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1986), pp. 528-536 and R. Wallace, ‘Private lives and public enemies: freedom of thought in classical Athens’, in A. Boegehold and A. Scafuro (eds.), Athenian Identity and Civic Ideology (Baltimore, md; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), pp. 127-155.


Goldhill, ‘Civic ideology’, p. 41, seems to suggest that this was indeed a universal response, but M. Revermann, ‘The Competence of Theatre Audiences in Fifth- and Fourth-Century Athens’, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 126 (2006), pp. 99-124, p. 101 emphasises the diversity of the Athenian audience, and the need for playwrights to accommodate different types of viewers.


Rhodes, ‘Nothing to do with Democracy’, pp. 107-113, esp. pp. 114-115.


Cf. Allan and Kelly, ‘Listening’, p. 85.


For which, see Goldhill ‘Nothing to do with Dionysus’, pp. 101-102; 106-114.


See below.


S. Goldhill, ‘The Audience of Athenian Tragedy’, in P. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 54-68, p. 61.


Cf. D. Rosenbloom, ‘Athens’, in H. Roisman (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy, (Malden, ma: Wiley Blackwell, 2014), pp. 164-165.


K. Lee, ‘The Dionysia: instrument of control or platform for critique?’ in D. Papenfuss and V. M. Strocker (eds.), Gab es das Griechische Wunder?: Griechenland zwischen dem Ende des 6. und der Mitte des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr. : Tagungsbeiträge des 16. Fachsymposiums der Alexander-von-Humboldt-Stiftung, veranstaltet vom 5. bis 9. April 1999 in Freiburg im Breisgau (Mainz: Ph. von Sabern, 1999), pp. 80-81; cf. Griffin, ‘Social Function’, p. 54; Allan and Kelly, ‘Listening’, pp. 87-8.


J. Bobo, ‘The Color Purple: Black Women as Cultural Readers’ in W. Brooker and D. Jermyn (eds.), The Audience Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 305-314, p. 309. D. Roselli, Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens (Austin, tx: University of Texas Press, 2011), pp. 29-31, 44-51 paints a picture of a very empowered Athenian audience.


G. Steiner, ‘Tragedy Pure and Simple’, in M. S. Silk (ed.), Tragedy and the Tragic (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), pp. 534-546, p. 545 n.3.


J. McChesney, ‘Military Hospitals Experiment with Virtual Reality’,


J. Garofoli, ‘Film Touches Deep Nerve for Families of Flight 93 Victims’,; H. Timmons, ‘Four Years On, A Cabin’s-Eye View of 9/11,; E. Levy, ‘United 93: Film’s Politics’,


Lee, ‘Dionysia’, p. 82.


Lee, ‘Dionysia’, pp. 82-83. Pelling, Greek Tragedy, p. 220 agrees that tragedy necessitates some distance between audience and play, but considers it ‘a genre which does challenge and test prejudices … [making the audience feel] “pleasurably uncomfortable”.’ But what happens when ‘pleasurably uncomfortable’ shades into ‘uncomfortable’? Audiences must always be offered a way back from excessive discomfort.


Lee, ‘Dionysia’, p. 82 states, ‘any internalizing of the play’s content, any probing or deconstruction of the cultural norms invited by its themes was in the unguided hands of the several spectators’. Cf. Croally, Euripidean Polemic, pp. 255-256; Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy, pp. 22-25, 46-47.


Lee, ‘Dionysia’, p. 82; Allan and Kelly, ‘Listening’, pp. 99-112.


C. Sourvinou-Inwood, ‘Assumptions and the Creation of Meaning: Reading Sophocles’ Antigone, The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 109 (1989), pp. 134-148; Tragedy, pp. 16-19.


Lee, ‘Dionysia’, pp. 83-4.


M. Griffith, ‘Brilliant Dynasts: Power and Politics in the Oresteia’, Classical Antiquity, 14 (1995), pp. 62-129, pp. 72-75.


P. Meineck, ‘Combat Trauma and the Tragic Stage: “Restoration” by Cultural Catharsis’, Intertexts, 16.1 (2012), pp. 7-24.


Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy, pp. 237-238, 242-246.


Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy, pp. 153, 293, 331-332.


D. Rosenbloom, ‘Thebes’, in H. Roisman (ed.), The Encyclopedia of Greek Tragedy (Malden, ma: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), pp. 1390-1392, p. 1391.


See especially F. Zeitlin, ‘Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama’, in Winkler and Zeitlin, Nothing to Do With Dionysos?, pp. 130-167.


Pelling, Greek Tragedy, p. 231.


Pelling, Greek Tragedy, pp. 228-229 allows that some spectators may have needed escape routes from troubling ideas, yet it seems clear that he prefers to imagine the Athenians as ‘a very self-critical and self-analysing people’.


Cf. Griffin, ‘Social Function’, p. 42.


A. van Erp Taalman Kip, ‘Euripides and Melos,’ Mnemosyne, 40 (1987), pp. 414-419.


Cf. P. Green, ‘War And Morality in Fifth century Athens,’ Ancient History Bulletin, 13.3 (1999), pp. 97-110. Cartledge, ‘Deep Plays’, p. 32 claims that Euripides is inviting his audience to proceed to a ‘remarkable depth of self-scrutiny’ to which he compares a radical British playwright equating the bombing of Baghdad in 1991 with the Nazis’ bombing of London in World War ii.


Green. ‘War and Morality’, p. 104.


J. Roisman, ‘Contemporary Allusions in Euripides’ Troades’, Studi Italiani di Filologia Classica, 15 (1987), pp. 38-47, pp. 43-47.


For Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy, pp. 358-361, the religious ‘perceptual filters’ of the audience would also tend to distance the play from Athenian reality.


Rosenbloom, ‘Athens’, p. 164.


S. Mills, Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).


Lys.2.11-16; D. 60.8; cf. Isoc. 4.54-6; 12.194, 10.31.


Lys. 2.7-10; D. 60.8; cf. Isoc. 4.58, 10.31, 12.171, 14.53.


B. Steinbock, Social Memory and Athenian Public Discourse: Use and Meanings of the Past (Ann Arbor, mi: University of Michigan Press, 2013), p. 57.


Steinbock, Social Memory, p. 57, quoting N. Loraux, The Invention of Athens, trans. A. Sheridan (Cambridge, ma: Harvard University Press, 1986), p. 171.


Steinbock, Social Memory, pp. 61-62.


Hippolytus is a partial exception in its story of the murder of his son by Athens’ greatest hero, but even this plot offers significant mitigating factors for Theseus’ actions. Moreover, this Theseus is entirely detached from any language of the rhetoric of the idealised Athens that permeates the other Athenian plays: Mills, Theseus, pp. 186-221. A previous version of the story which appears not to have mitigated the guilt of Phaedra and possibly Theseus caused offence among the Athenians, according to the Hypothesis to the extant play (cf. Ar. Th. 497, 547, 550; Ra. 849-850): perhaps it reminded its audience of ‘their own troubles’, albeit old ones.


For a more detailed reading of this play, see below.


E.g., J. W. Fitton, ‘The Suppliant Women and the Herakleidai of Euripides’, Hermes, 89 (1961), pp. 430-461, pp. 430-448.


‘Each member of an audience, consciously or not, modifies the stimulus he perceives according to his own predispositions’: E. Cooper and H. Dinerman, ‘Analysis of the Film Don’t be a Sucker’, in W. Brooker and D. Jermyn (eds.), The Audience Studies Reader (London: Routledge, 2003), pp. 27-36, p. 30.


P. Vellacott, Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides’ Method and Meaning (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), pp. 178-192; P. Burian, ‘Euripides’ Heraclidae: An Interpretation’, Classical Philology, 72 (1977), pp. 1-21.


Lys. 2.23, 26; Isoc.4.87, 12.170: cf. Mills, Theseus, pp. 67, 142-143, 179.


D. Roselli, ‘Gender, Class and Ideology: The Social Function of Virgin Sacrifice in Euripides’ Children of Herakles’, Classical Antiquity, 26 (2007), pp. 81-169, pp. 132-135; D. Mendelsohn, Gender and the City in Euripides’ Political Plays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 87-94; Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy, pp. 323-324.


Cf. Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy, p. 325.


Burian,‘Euripides’ Heraclidae’, p. 1.


A. Burnett, ‘Tribe and City, Custom and Decree in Children of Heracles,’ Classical Philology, 71 (1976), pp. 4-26, pp. 10-14. Pelling, Greek Tragedy (p. 227), comments that the strange realignment of sympathies at the end of the play ‘is not Athens’ fault’ and (p. 234) ‘the ideal remains … an ideal: it is usually, if not quite always, real life which is at fault.’


Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy, pp. 324-325.


Burian, ‘Euripides’ Heraclidae’, p. 20.


From a very different methodological perspective, Sourvinou-Inwood, Tragedy, p. 291 argues that modern tendencies towards rationalizing or the ‘postmodern perceptual cast’ which privileges ‘subversive, ironic, and self-deconstructing’ ways of viewing religion in tragedy may distort our attempts to imagine the ancient audiences’ views of the plays.


Allan and Kelly, ‘Listening’, pp. 83-85.

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