Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.08.53

D. M. Carter (ed.), Why Athens? A Reappraisal of Tragic Politics.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. xii, 472.  ISBN 9780199562329.  $160.00.  

Reviewed by Alex Gottesman, Temple University (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

It is no longer controversial in the least to suggest that tragedy has a politics, or that understanding a tragedy’s social and cultural contexts are crucial for understanding it. But where do we go from here? This well-organized volume (originating from a 2007 conference at Reading) takes a wide view of tragedy’s contexts and seeks to explore the many ways in which tragic performances resonated with their audience(s). The essays here remind us that, as far as the politics of tragedy are concerned, there is much more to be discussed about tragedy than whether, and how, it was democratic. At the outset I should say that all the contributions are of high quality. But in my review I will highlight those that seemed to me to be especially interesting or novel.

The volume consists of fourteen essays by both established and younger scholars. It is divided into six parts, each concluded by a response. The first part sets the stage by focusing on the contexts of tragedy. Wilson’s paper builds on his previous research on the financing of tragic performances (the khoregeia), while Carter discusses tragedy’s Athenian audience, which he believes was quite broad. Duncan also considers the audience of tragedy but from a different perspective. Specifically, she considers the evidence for plays that we think were written to be performed somewhere other than Athens, namely Aeschylus’ Aetnaeae, written for Hieron of Syracuse, and Euripides’ Archelaus, written for Archelaus of Macedon. Had these two plays survived, they would certainly have added much to the debate about tragedy’s “Athenianness,” since we could then easily compare them with Athenian productions and discern what remained the same and what changed when the public art form of democratic Athens was transplanted to the courts of tyrants. Duncan prefers to read the testimonia about both plays as suggesting that they rather straight-forwardly celebrated the poets’ patrons. In her view, this shows that tragedy’s ideological commitments depended on who was holding the purse-strings, whether a monarch or a democracy.

The papers of the next part showcase a particularly promising approach to the question of tragedy’s close engagement in Athenian politics at the level of discourse. While Burian considers general features of democratic ideology and practice, examining how tragedy itself, as a genre, explores central democratic notions of equality, free (or frank) speech, and agonistic deliberation, Hesk attempts to pin down a specific democratic concept which finds resonance in tragedy, namely, euboulia, or “good deliberation.” Starting from Edith Hall’s recent work on the Trachiniae, Hesk argues that euboulia, is also foregrounded in Euripides’ Supplices and the Euripidean Rhesus. However, as Hesk reads the concept, euboulia is not exclusively a democratic concept. It was readily exportable abroad. Anyone, regardless of the prevailing political regime, could relate to deliberation scenes in tragedy and find in them the limitations of human planning and intelligence compared to the ineluctable work of fortune and the gods.

Barker, like Burian, also takes up the notion of parrhesia, and considers its operation in one play, Euripides’ Orestes. The term parrhesia is relatively rare in fifthcentury sources, appearing in Euripides only a handful of times. What Barker has in mind, however, is not the inconvenient-truth-telling aspect of parrhesia, central to Foucault’s influential study of this term (surprisingly not cited, although the second lecture is precisely on Euripides, with a focus on the Orestes), but its aspect of disagreement or dissent. This aspect he reads as central to the plot of the Orestes. Barker does not dwell on the one occurrence of the term parrhesia in the play, which interestingly occurs in the messenger’s unflattering depiction of a demagogue (905). Instead, he argues that with the play’s increasingly anarchic action Euripides is dramatizing the failure to manage dissent. Unlike the trial of Orestes in the Eumenides, which is carefully contained within the framework of an institution, Euripides treats the trial of Orestes as an instance of dissent breaking its institutional moorings and threatening to destabilize social order.

Tragedy, it is often noted, involves not only the polis but also the oikos. The next section accordingly is focused on family contexts, and explores how the audiences’ social frames of reference might have colored their interpretation of tragic action. Griffith returns to ground he covered in his seminal article “Brilliant Dynasts” (1995),1 which was focused primarily on democratic/aristocratic tensions in Aeschylean tragedy. Elite, inter-polis, xenia-based relationships clashed with civic obligations to one’s fellow citizens, but also called for reconciliation with them. Dramatists continued to exploit these fertile tensions in later tragedy, regardless of changes associated with Pericles’ Citizenship Law of 451/0. Athenian audiences continued to be interested in “brilliant elite adventures, dynastic plotting, and divinely assisted catastrophes and rescues” (180).

While Griffith surveys the topic widely, highlighting relevant elements in all the later tragedies, OKell focuses on only one aspect. Most, if not all, the audience members would have been concerned at one time or another with the issue of inheritance. Thus OKell considers how laws and practices of inheritance might have shaped how the audience responded to the tragic action. Athenian inheritance laws were much more patrilineal than those of places like Sparta and Gortyn. Heiresses were much more important, since the property would devolve through them undivided to their husbands. Did that difference substantially affect how a Spartan might have reacted to the figures of Antigone and Ismene, or those of Orestes and Electra? Probably not, according to OKell, but it does raise the possibility that different audiences responded differently to different aspects of the story. For example, Athenians might have read the father-son tension between Creon and Haemon against the backdrop of the epiklerate, with Antigone’s marriage determining who will “inherit” Theban rule. That nuance might have been lost on Cretans and Spartans, but they would have been able to relate to the conflict regardless (much as we can).

The next section deals with a topic that has been attracting increasing scholarly interest, choruses. In an interesting paper Murnaghan picks up on Henrichs’ work on choral self-referentiality, and highlights a paradox: “Even as [choruses] themselves sing and dance, they testify to conditions in which no one would want to do so” (246). Choruses play a dual role. On the one hand they are characters of a tragic plot, in which they must bear witness to horrendous acts and consequences. On the other, their function is to dance and sing even when the topic is painful stories. Tragedy takes advantage of this duality in multiple ways. It is often exploited when a chorus misreads the situation and dances for joy while the audience knows it will soon sing a very different tune (e.g. in Ajax, OT, Trachiniae). It is also exploited when its two aspects are brought into alignment thanks to the work of Athenian institutions (e.g. Eumenides, OC, Eur. Suppliants), or when they incorporate (“jingoistically”) non- Athenian cultic traditions into Athenian dramatic forms (e.g. Helen, IT, Electra). Finally it is exploited (as in Persians) to call into question the relationship between a chorus and a leader—a particularly pregnant dynamic in the context of Athenian democratic politics.

The next two chapters are grouped under the title “Suppliants,” and both deal with the very common sub-genre of what has been called “suppliant drama.” These plays all turn on the reception of suppliants and their requests for aid (e.g. Aesch. Supp.; Eur. Hcld., Supp.). Commonly, but not necessarily, the requests entail a war against those threatening the suppliants. As Tzanetou reads them (following Isocrates 4. 56), the plays in fact comment on imperial Athens’ relations with its subject states. They encode empire as a fundamentally moral enterprise to protect the weak against the powerful (while also depicting Athens, or a stand-in for Athens, as in addition more powerful and more just than its opponents). She traces the beginning of this trope to Aeschylus’ lost Eleusinioi (ca. 470), but argues that it became more pronounced as the empire became more onerous and oppressive, as if the playwrights were compensating for Athens’ imperial policies.

Tzanetou’s historicising approach is nicely paired by the approach of Vinh in the following chapter. Whereas Tzanetou gives an overview of the genre of suppliant drama and its political subtexts, Vinh takes a close look at a single paradigmatic suppliant drama, Euripides’ Suppliants, a play that has seemed to many as inferior or unsatisfying dramatically. Vinh suggests that its lack of dramatic coherence stems from the play’s reliance on music and ritual, rather than plot, to create a meaningful experience for the audience. Thus, the play weaves together disparate threads, such as the Proerosia festival, funerary orations and rituals, and supplication, to send complex messages that are not reducible to any single dimension. In fact, Vinh resists readings that seek to distill the political message of the Suppliants into a simple celebration and justification of Athenian power, such as the one offered for suppliant drama in general by Tzanetou. She instead sees the Suppliants as a “dynamic force that generates in the audience an emotional and behavioral involvement rather than an intellectual understanding” (344). The play’s agenda is certainly hegemonic, culturally and probably politically as well, but Vinh does a good job showing how it actually goes about getting that agenda across in an artistically compelling way.

The final section deals with the Panhellenic aspirations of tragedy. Rosenbloom surveys the evidence broadly, but focuses especially on Aeschylean and early tragedy, while Gibert deals with Hellenicity in later Euripidean tragedy. In his wide-ranging contribution Rosenbloom begins with the semantics of the term Panhellenes, suggesting that it differs from the simple Hellenes in that it suggests an assembled collective. It also implies “elite agents competing for material and symbolic rewards and a mass audience that authorizes and promulgates their status” (354-5). In tragedy it occurs only in the context of war, specifically in Panhellenic expeditions such as the Trojan War and the Theban War. Rosenbloom examines in detail the different tactics used to make Athens into a stand-in for all of Hellas, especially in Aeschylus’ Persians and Eumenides, Euripides’ Suppliants and Ion, but also touching on Sophocles’ Philoctetes, and even (in a rare nod to comedy in this volume) on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. It is not a straightforward sleight-of-hand however, equating Athens with all of Greece in order to praise Athens as most Hellenic of the Hellenes. Thus he reads Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis as critical of the equation: a searching question of what it means to be a “Hellene,” and what it means to demand individual sacrifice for a supposedly Hellenic good.

Overall, the essays in this volume are uniformly high-quality. Scholars working on the topics and plays covered will certainly want to consult them. It is uncommon to find a set of conference proceedings this well-integrated. The essays frequently refer to each other not only in the footnotes but in the body as well, suggesting that the original conference must have sparked lively and fruitful scholarly exchange, which has been carried over into publication.

Table of Contents

Mark Griffith and D. M. Carter, “Introduction”
I. Context
Peter Wilson, “The glue of democracy? Tragedy, structure and finance”
D. M. Carter, “Plato, drama, and rhetoric”
Anne Duncan, “Nothing to do with Athens? Tragedians at the courts of tyrants”
Richard Seaford, “Response”
II. Discourse
Peter Burian, “Athenian tragedy as democratic discourse”
Jon Hesk, “Euripidean euboulia and the problem of ‘tragic politics’”
Elton T. E. Barker, “‘Possessing an unbridled tongue’: frank speech and speaking back in Euripides’ Orestes
Malcolm Heath, “Response”
III. Families
Mark Griffith, “Extended families, marriage, and inter-city relations in (later) Athenian tragedy: Dynasts II”
Eleanor OKell, “Inheritance and the Athenian nature of Sophoclean tragedy”
Peter Rhodes, “Response”
IV. Choruses
Sheila Murnaghan, “Choroi achoroi: the Athenian politics of tragic choral identity”
Eirene Visvardi, “Pity and panhellenic politics: choral emotion in Euripides’ Hecuba and Trojan Women
Ian Ruffell, “Response”
V. Suppliants
Angeliki Tzanetou, “Supplication and empire in Athenian tragedy”
Graziella Vinh, “Athens in Euripides' Suppliants: ritual, politics, and theatre”
Barbara Goff, “Response”
VI. Athens and Greece
David Rosenbloom, “The panhellenism of Athenian tragedy”
John Gibert, “Hellenicity in later Euripidean tragedy”
Anthony J. Podlecki, “Response”


1.   M. Griffith, 'Brilliant Dynasts: Power and Politics in the "Oresteia"', CA 14 (1995) 62-129.

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