by George Theodoridis
May 07, 2021
Once a year Athens went to the theater to heal herself...
Once the two Persian attacks were done, once the last barbarian
soldier left Plataea and Mycale, once the last Persian ship was
driven out of the waters of Salamis, a burgeoning epidemic of
arrogance overtook Athens.
The Athenians had established
the Delian League, an alliance
which incorporated some 300-odd cities, all paying tributes of
either money or men or ships as a means of boosting Greece's
military and build an adequate protection against a possible further
revenge attack from Persia.
That League became, in fifth century terms, quite considerable in
With Athens its
unquestionable ruler, the once-small Attican city became the engine
of a powerful empire's initially benign, but soon an oppressive,
colonial power much like the one they had just repelled.
Initially too, the treasury was placed on the uninhabited island of
Delos, Apollo's sanctuary island, but it took little time before it
was moved to the temple of the goddess Athena, the Parthenon, in
Lysistrata, there is a
wonderfully hilarious exchange between the Athenian woman Lysistrata
and a prominent politician, The Magistrate.
Their dialogue shows just
how wise Lysistrata was to guard the treasury.
The Magistrate, at this point furious with Lysistrata, asks her to
explain how she and the women would stop the war. Lysistrata
You simply wash the city just like you wash wool.
First, you put the wool into the tub and get rid of all the
daggy bits, all the crap around its bum.
Then you put it on a
bed, take a rod and scrutch and bonk all the burrs and spikes
out of it. All those burrs and spikes that have gathered
themselves into tight knots and balls and are tearing and
tangling the wool of State, well, you just tease them all out of
Rip their heads off!
Then, off for the
combing. You put all the wool together into one basket. All of
it! Friends, foreign or local, allies -anyone who's good for the
State. Drop them all in there. As well as our citizens from the
Consider them, too,
as part of the same ball of wool, only separated from each
other. So, what with all those colonies joining the ball, you'll
be able to weave a cloak big enough for the whole city.
575ff, author's translation)
By the play's end, a
treaty has been signed and Athenians and Spartans are getting drunk
and are dancing together in the bliss of Peace.
Off the stage, Athens
began to raid the treasury not long after it had been relocated
there, spending money on glittering herself and on other
self-serving interests. The allied parties of the Delian League, who
were dutifully paying their taxes, saw this blatant plunder of their
wealth and it made them angry and unruly.
In response, Athens became increasingly more brutal, arrogant and
corrupt, increasingly more afflicted by its burgeoning hubris.
Plato had already
warned the Greeks about the dangers of hubris. Thus, Athens became
quite sick, and she had to be urgently cleansed of that sickness'
spurged of those symptoms that brought her to that state.
This is where theater
The first play we have in
which this epidemic is identified is in Aeschylus' The Persians,
a tragedy which he wrote in 471 BCE.
In this play, the author
shows the horrendous consequences of this disease. He staged it as a
warning to the Greeks, who had by then showed the same temperament
and proclivity for war-mongering and conquest as the Persians did
when they had launched their invasion to Greece.
Athens became strong militarily but feeble and infirm mentally,
morally and spiritually.
Her moral compass, as
Thucydides remarked later in his
History of The Peloponnesian War,
was abandoned and replaced by the rules of savagery.
Sparta began to see the new belligerent Athens as a military threat,
sweeping away her own allies and, in 431 BCE mounted a challenge:
a proxy war on the
island of Corcyra.
This war broadened to
encompass almost every Greek city and became known as the
It lasted, on and off,
almost thirty years, ending in 404 BCE with the destruction
of Athens and the establishment of a new anti-democratic government,
ruled by the Thirty Tyrants, puppets of Sparta.
In the interim, on the Dionysian stage, Athens' illness was examined
as meticulously as a surgeon examines bodies in the operating
theatre, exposing the affected parts in painfully glaring lights.
This work of diagnosis
was done by the tragedians of whom we, alas, have only some of the
works of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides.
theatre" was built at the feet of the Acropolis and the
Parthenon, a place that had come to symbolize Athens' wrongs.
Some 15,000 Greeks
observed the work of her doctors.
The question about
whether women were also observing is all but concluded and the
answer is in the affirmative.
Roman mosaic in Pompeii
credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen
This clinic operated during Spring, as part of the festival of the
Great Dionysia in honor of Dionysus Eleutherius, the god of, among
many other things, fertility and freedom.
His epithet means just
The stage exhibited the sickly Athens as well as the cured Athens.
Spectators would see the Athens of the Erinyes, the avenging furies,
as well as the Athens of the Eumenides, the benevolent protectors of
They would see the Athens
of the brutal men as well as that of the strong women who stood up
Medea, Klytaemestra, Helen, Hecabe, Lysistrata, Praxagora...
So, when Pericles
enacted a law declaring that henceforth only children whose parents
are both citizens of Athens may be granted Athenian citizenship,
Euripides showed how poisonous that law was for the people and for
He did so by making a
slight change to an old myth.
In his eponymous
tragedy, he has Medea, effectively a refugee, kill her children
instead of leaving them behind when she left for Athens, as the
original myth had it.
Her husband Jason is
no more than an extra, a secondary character.
Medea's words 'the
words Euripides had put into her mouth' showed which of the two
sexes was the stronger, which the more courageous, the more
worthy of kleos (eternal fame) and which was the weaker, the
To the Corinthian
women Medea says,
"Then people also
say that while we live quietly and without any danger at
home, the men go off to war. Wrong! One birth alone is worse
than three times in the battlefield behind a shield."
In Euripides' mind, the
female wins the war on bravery and endurance of pain.
In fact, the absence of
women in Athens' daily life is one of the reason that the city's
spiritual health is so feeble. This point is made very blatantly by
all the playwrights of 5th century BCE Athens.
Thus, it is no accident that women appear so often in both the
tragedies and the comedies. This is why so many Greek plays feature
such strong women uttering such powerful speeches.
Iphigeneia's speech (in
Iphigeneia in Aulis) must have had the whole of Athens
shedding tears for days.
In 416 BCE, the Athenians slaughtered all the men of Melos and
enslaved all the women because the Melians (allies of Sparta) would
not pay their taxes.
Athens gave them no
option at all:
"pay or you die."
Thucydides has the
full account of the dialogue between the two sides, a dialogue that
leaves the political pragmatics of war on full display.
War pollutes the
soul. Corrupts it. Empties it of virtue...
Detail of The Trojan Women
Fire to Their Fleet
Claude Lorrain, Metropolitan Museum of Art
A year later, Euripides, enraged, produces his Trojan Women,
where the victorious Greek men behave in exactly the same savage
Yes, that stage enacted
myths, but these myths were parables of real life, the modern
microscopes that peered into the man's body and soul.
After three days of Tragedies, where Athens' afflictions were
glaringly displayed and diagnosed, Athens was visited by the comedy
writers, of whom, again unfortunately, we have the works of only
a satirist, and
perhaps the indubitable master in this field.
the Athenians very well, as he also knew the stage. He knew the
Athenian of the agora, the market place, as well as the member of
the council and of the Ekklesia, the Parliament.
Aristophanes, then, was the one to prescribe the remedy for sickly
"Have a sex strike,"
he said, to paraphrase Lysistrata.
"Give all the
legislative powers to the women" would be heard from Praxagora's
lips (see Aristophanes' Women In Parliament).
"Get rid of the jury
men who sting Athens like wasps sting people!" (See
"Send away the
sausage sellers" (See Aristophanes' Knights) and "learn
how to use Clever Logic rather than Wise Logic, if you want to
avoid the clutches of your creditors."
listen to the cloud-inhabiting sophists, like Socrates!" (See
The satirist has the most
powerful tool in his hand, because satire is a flame thrower.
Aristophanes aimed that
pointy flame at the belly of Athens' corrupt politicians. He
cauterized the wounds, prescribed the cathartics, delivered the
Dionysus, tyrant of Sicily, once asked Plato what his fellow
Athenians were like. Plato's response was to give Dionysus the books
of Aristophanes' plays.
Aristophanes not only knew the Athenians, he also knew what they
were made of, the full contents of their character, as Martin Luther
King Jr. put it.
The School of Athens
Scholars also called the Athenian stage a school, "The school of
Athens," with the intimation that it was also the school of the
This appellation is also
quite valid. After all,
Is not a teacher also
a doctor and is not a doctor also a teacher?
Don't they both try
to purge the man (and thus the city) of all his ills, his
undisciplined pride, his ignorance, his injustice, his brutality
and his corruption?
The practical details may
differ, but both aim at the same:
In both cases, school and
clinic, Aristotle's Catharsis takes place.
It takes place not only
at the end of every tragedy, purging all the painful emotions that
the trilogy brought to the surface, but also, and far more
importantly, at the end of the entire festival, once all the
symptoms have been examined and all the necessary remedies
Fifth century BCE Athens went to the theatre to be healed, and the
theatre did its very best to provide that healing.
Unfortunately, Athens continued to be ill. Her arrogance was not
removed, her war mongering and her brutality were not tempered, and
the inequality between the sexes continued.
Many of the Greek plays tragedies as well as comedies address this
In them, women are
punished for the wrongs committed by men. The young, Juliet-like
Iphigeneia of Euripides' Iphigeneia in Aulis is a victim of her
father's sin against Artemis and of his wanting to go to war.
Sophocles' tragedy by the same name, suffers the death sentence
because of her uncle Creon's extreme, autocratic views.
Helen, a most complex
character, suffers abduction and endless insults because of Paris.
Hecabe, Cassandra, Andromche, Medea, are just a few more examples of
women suffering the consequences of men's arrogance and disrespect.
The death of Aristophanes marked the end of a golden age of culture
and thought and the beginning of Athens' steep decline.
Then came the era of the Macedonians, of Phillip and of Alexander
which was, in turn, followed by the era of the Romans. Homer of the
48 rhapsodies was replaced by Virgil of the 12.
Yet it was during that era the fifth century BCE's that the Greeks
had given to the world a new word to ponder over: paradox.
For it was during her
most turbulent era, the era of war and inequality, that she gave
birth to the most magnificent, intelligent and effective remedies
for society to heal itself.
Any student today and I dare say for many eras to come can walk in
any direction he or she chooses, enter any theatre in any University
in the world, and he or she will hear references made to the
fifth-century Greek theater, when the first healers made their