With the possible exception of Homer, no cultural phenomenon from the ancient world has had a more widespread or persistent impact on subsequent generations, from Aristotle’s day to our own, than Greek tragedy. It developed primarily in Athens, in the late sixth century BCE, and, as is generally agreed, reached its peak there during the Periclean Age, with the works of Aeschylus, Euripides, and, above all, Sophocles. The plays they wrote are still performed today. Many of the problems they confronted are those of our common humanity—love, hatred, jealousy, the stresses of war, conflicting social codes—and remain as urgent now as they were when first staged. Just how urgent, and relevant, is strikingly demonstrated by the wide-ranging essays in a recent special double issue of Comparative Drama (Winter–Spring 2010), not least those, like Eleftheria Ioannidou’s and Gonda Van Steen’s, that see the passions and politics of ancient Athens renewed in the work of modern Greek dramatists.
But the problems facing their ancestors could, and can, also be difficult and deceptive. Our Western world, permeated by two millennia of Judeo-Christian religious and moral assumptions, makes it a perilous business to try to understand where Greeks then stood on many crucial issues, let alone why. Their heavily anthropomorphized gods had no more moral standards, in our sense, than those primeval tribal elders and aristocratic young studs on whom they were so clearly modeled: powerful and immortal, they followed their own pleasures and whims (though apparently subject, in some sense, to Fate and Necessity), and tended to be actively malign when crossed. Humans learned to petition them for benefits, flatter them hopefully, and otherwise keep well out of their way. Homer—often described, ironically, as “the Bible of the Greeks”—offered a guidebook to what had been regarded as desirable Bronze Age human upper-class behavior: on the battlefield, in society, and when dealing with a pantheon of deities who, all too often, meddled spitefully in the affairs of mortals.
But from before the time of the Persian Wars (490–479 BCE), and increasingly thereafter, this archaic worldview—in essence a legacy from the Mycenaean Era—had come under persistent attack from a new generation of rationalizing Ionian thinkers. Hecataeus of Miletus dismissed many Hellenic myths (which, incidentally, were to provide Greek tragedy with almost all its characters and themes) as absurd. Xenophanes of Colophon attacked both Homer and Hesiod for portraying the gods as acting in ways that would be morally discreditable in human beings, and also pointed out that, just as the gods of the Thracians had red hair and blue eyes, so horses, if they could draw, would delineate their gods as horses. Later, Protagoras of Abdera, a friend of Pericles and an open religious agnostic, famously declared that man was the measure of all things. The validity of oracles became…
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