James Romm is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard and the author of Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero and Ghost on the 
Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire.
 (October 2019)


The Happy Tragedian

Marie Spartali Stillman: Antigone Giving the Burial Rites to Her Brother’s Body, 1871

Sophocles: A Study of His Theater in Its Political and Social Context

by Jacques Jouanna, translated from the French by Steven Rendall

Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us

by Simon Critchley
When Sophocles departed the mortal world in his early nineties and arrived in the land of the dead, he chose not to compete for the title of greatest tragic playwright, but reverently ceded that honor to Aeschylus—or so Aristophanes imagined in his comedy The Frogs. That deference deprived later generations …

Loving Assassins

Aristogiton and Harmodius, Roman copies in marble after Greek bronze statues, circa fifth century BC

The Tyrant-Slayers of Ancient Athens: A Tale of Two Statues

by Vincent Azoulay, translated from the French by Janet Lloyd, with a foreword by Paul Cartledge

The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece

by Robin Osborne
In 514 BC the city of Athens, then under the control of the tyrant Hippias, witnessed a daring assassination, the first known political murder in European history. A pair of male lovers, the older named Aristogiton and the younger Harmodius, plotted to kill Hippias at the Panathenaic procession, a public …

A Stoic in Nero’s Court

Peter Paul Rubens: The Death of Seneca, circa 1612–1613

The Cambridge Companion to Seneca

edited by Shadi Bartsch and Alessandro Schiesaro

Seneca: The Complete Tragedies, Volume 1

edited by Shadi Bartsch; translated from the Latin by Shadi Bartsch, Susanna Braund, Alex Dressler, and Elaine Fantham
Plato, in his Republic, spoke of an ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy; he sought to ban tragic drama—in his eyes the purest, most destructive form that poetry could take—from his ideal state. Four centuries later, Lucius Annaeus Seneca, a Roman philosopher who took Socrates as his model to the …

The Great Rescue in Timbuktu

Abdel Kader Haidara in Timbuktu with ancient manuscripts from Mali, Niger, Ethiopia, Sudan, and Nigeria, September 2009. Haider was instrumental in saving the manuscripts during the militant Islamist takeover of Timbuktu in 2012.

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

by Joshua Hammer
On March 1, the International Criminal Court at The Hague formally charged Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, one of the leaders of the 2012 Islamist takeover of the Malian city of Timbuktu, with destroying the city’s cultural heritage—the first such international indictment. During June and July of that year, al-Mahdi took part …


‘His Mind Was Itself a Library’: Harold Bloom, 1930–2019

Harold Bloom, June 2019

Bloom inscribed for us one of his latest volumes, an entry in his four-part series on “Shakespeare’s Personalities.” As his shaking hand struggled to sign his name, I thought of the line from As You Like It describing extreme old age: “Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.” Yet Bloom, at eighty-nine, still had his teeth and vision, and his taste—his appreciation of great verse, especially—seemed only to grow with the passage of time. His life did not end in “second childishness and mere oblivion,” the fate of senility forecast in that play, but in clarity, knowledge, and grace.

Euripides, with Notes

Yilin Liu as Lyssa and Darcy Krasne as Iris, in Herakles, 2019

Greek tragedy survives today as words on a page, but ancient performances were distinguished as much for music and dance as for speeches and dialogue. Tragic poets were composers as well as playwrights. The aulos, a two-piped, reeded wind instrument, accompanied all choral odes, and its effect—at times solemn or languorous, at other times frenzied—was deemed crucial to the mood of the drama. A recent performance of Euripides’s Herakles at Barnard College showed how much is being recovered, thanks to recent archeological finds and research.

The Vitality of the ‘Berlin Painter’

Red-figure bell-krater showing Ganymede, described in the Iliad as the most beautiful of mortal men, Greek, Attic, circa 500-490 BC

The master referred to as the Berlin Painter, who lived in Athens in the early fifth century BC, was an artist whose name, nationality, and even gender remain unknown, but whose distinctive and confident illustration in the red-figure style stands out as clearly as any signature. The first phase of the Berlin Painter’s career coincided with the birth of democracy in Athens, and the early works—which portray ordinary people caught in simple moments of daily life in much the same way that other vase painters treated gods and heroes—demonstrate the humanism of that political evolution.

Great Aspirations of the Iron Age

Openwork plaque with a striding sphinx, Nimrud, Neo-Assyrian period, South Syrian style, ninth-eighth century BC

The cultures that took part in the complex trade network between major civilizations during the Iron Age, and the traces the traders themselves left behind in shipwrecks and foreign settlements, are the focus of the vast and impressive exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, “Assyria to Iberia at the Dawn of the Classical Age.”


Druid’s ‘Richard III’

In the first moments of the Druid theater company’s “Richard III” at John Jay College’s Gerald W. Lynch Theater, a wraith-like female figure slinks across the stage, trailing tattered veils. This is the deposed and widowed Queen Margaret a loser in Britain’s bloody Wars of the Roses. Her unscripted entry here suggests the curse she has placed, as we later learn, on the winners—the family of Richard of York, later King Richard.

Satoshi Miyagi’s ‘Antigone’

A rocky crag, surrounded by water on all sides, seems an appropriate perch for Antigone, Sophocles’ absolutist heroine—especially if that water is fed by the river Styx. The idea that running water forms the boundary between life and death is common to Greek and Japanese myths, as seen in the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center company’s strange, absorbing “Antigone” at the Park Avenue Armory.