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.
 (April 2020)


What Did India Learn from the Greeks?

The Battle of the Hydaspes, in what is now Punjab, between the troops of Alexander the Great and the Indian king Porus, 326 BC; illustration from the Faits du Grand Alexandre, circa 1470

The Greek Experience of India: From Alexander to the Indo-Greeks

by Richard Stoneman
“They Came, They Saw, but India Conquered,” wrote the historian A.K. Narain in 1957, characterizing the effects of the Greek penetration into “India” (the ancient name included what is today Pakistan and sometimes easternmost Afghanistan). He referred not only to Alexander the Great’s invasion of the Indus Valley in 327 …

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 Winking Satire of ‘Agrippina’

Joyce DiDonato as Agrippina and Matthew Rose as Claudio in Handel’s Agrippina at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, 2020

Agrippina the opera may thus appear as a bizarrely comic prequel to a nightmarish era of Roman history, as its producer for the Met, David McVicar, seems to hint by putting the ensemble atop a row of funereal plinths at the end of the production. Only the servant Lesbus, a figure invented by Handel’s librettist Grimani, sits apart on the stage during the finale, laughing as the curtain descends. He holds a book in hand—a copy of Tacitus, as one discerns through opera glasses, in which these grim destinies can be read. He alone stands outside history, observing its perverse twists from an ironic distance.

‘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.


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.