Consider a play of Sophocles or Aeschylus or Euripides or Aristophanes. Evaluate the play as a piece of historical evidence for understanding ancient Athens.
‘Tragedy could be said to be a manifestation of the city turning itself into theater, presenting itself on stage before its assembled citizens.’[footnoteRef:1] Literature broadly functions as a nuanced insight into the culture, values and concerns of a society, reflecting the contextual milieu to engage with their contemporary audience. Moreover, Athenian Tragedy stands as one of Ancient Greeks most enduring and influential exports and remains a gateway into exploring the big ideas at the fore of Ancient Athenian society. Euripides, one of few Greek tragedians who has a selection of plays extant today, was reasonably nonconformist and applied a degree of iconoclasm to themes of religion and Greek politics. Aristotle’s Poetics boldly identifies Euripides as, ‘the most tragic of the poets.’[footnoteRef:2] Euripides remains a significant dramatist of Ancient Athens, whose plays prompted confronting questions of morality, mythology and the complexity of human nature. Euripides’ 431 BCE tragedy Medea is an intricate narrative that considers the ethics and psyche of an inherently antithetical leading woman, distinguishing between maternal and martial characters as reflective of the highly militaristic and patriarchal society of 400BCE Athens. This essay will examine Medea’s representation of both religion and feminism, encompassing a discussion of Athenian values and customs. [1: Jean-Pierre Vernant and Pierre Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, (Zone Books: 1990), p.185.] [2: Aristotle, ‘The Poetics’ (335BC), translated by S. H. Butcher in ‘The Poetics of Aristotle’ (Project Gutenberg eBook Poetics, 2008), Chapter 13. ]
Theatre was a significant element of Athenian culture in the classical period, and was both a means of entertainment and education.[footnoteRef:3] Being a central component of religious ritualism and democratic engagement, the theatre in Athens was prominently located on the highest hill.[footnoteRef:4] Encompassing a long tradition in itself, the tragic dramas produced in the 4th and 5th centuries BCE catalysed dramatic performance in the Western world.[footnoteRef:5] From its beginnings, dated to circa. 534 CBE, Athenian tragedy, as the prominent form of drama, was intertwined with religious and spiritual spheres.[footnoteRef:6] Developing from a religious tradition of dithyramb performance dedicated to Dionysus, where song and dance paid tribute to the god of wine and theatre, the earliest plays involved one actor presenting a dialogue and supported by a chorus.[footnoteRef:7] The origins of the dramatic tradition rest with the ritualism and religious foundation of Greek society, and provide a historical account of the tradition and valuing of theatre in Ancient Athenian culture. [3: Thomas Martin, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, 2nd edn. (Yale University Press, 2013) p.158.] [4: Marianne McDonald, The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2003), p.2.] [5: McDonald, The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, p.2. ] [6: ibid, p.1. ] [7: ibid, p.1. ]
5th century tyrant Pisistratus was intent on unifying the Athenian people through festivals. To this end, a multiple day event referred to as the Festival of Dionysus was established. The Festival operated as a dramatic competition, with 3 playwrights each presenting a 4-part set. The emphasis was on the expression of Tragedy, and given its thematic occupation with existential questions of what it means to be a moral agent, this speaks to the valuing of the philosophical discipline within classical Athens. Moreover, taking place in the Theatre of Dionysus, with seating for 14,000, attendance at the festival was considered a civic duty. Attendance was compulsory, and the association between theatre and political engagement is indicative of Athenian awareness that an educated and intellectual polis was necessary for the success of democracy. Such insight into the political values of the time should be taken as kernels of historicity themselves.
As it is necessary to examine the history of Athenian drama in discussing the relationship between plays and society, so too is it necessary to define what was meant by tragedy in this era. Aristotle wrote at length in The Poetics on the function and form of Athenian tragedy, outlining six key features that dominated the tragedies of the time. Aristotle emphasised the significance of a simple plot and an independence from spectacle, noting that, ‘tragedy is an imitation of an action that is serious, complete and of a certain magnitude… through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.’[footnoteRef:8] For Aristotle, and for the playwrights of the time, the value of tragedy lay in its ability to connect with an audience on a visceral and emotional level, mobilising a consideration of the values and attitudes that Athenian society held dear. In the discussion of Medea, it becomes clear that Euripides was challenging patriarchal axioms of 4th century BCE Athens, and influenced by his contextual backdrop of the Corinthian war, discusses femininity in contrast to militarism, the masculine in contrast to the feminism.[footnoteRef:9] As such, the institution of Athenian theatre serves a dual purpose. For the Athenians, the performative aspect of tragedy motivated political and philosophical engagement.[footnoteRef:10] For contemporary audiences, it operates as a gateway into the zeitgeist, reflecting the values and concerns dominating the time. [8: Aristotle, The Poetics, Chapter 6.] [9: Brian Lush, ‘Combat Trauma and Psychological Injury in Euripides’ Medea’, Helios, vol. 41, no. 1 (2014), p.25.] [10: Nadja Berberovic, ‘Ritual, Myth and Tragedy: Origins of Theatre in Dionysian Rites’, Epiphany: Journal of Transdisciplinary Studies, vol. 8, no. 1 (2015), p.33. ]
Speaking to the ability of plays to operate as historical evidence, historian Humphrey Kitto notes, ‘Politics and religion are more significant in drama than in painting, for instance, because the raw material of drama is drawn from the sphere of social and moral ideas.’[footnoteRef:11] This intertwining of political context is significant when understanding Euripides as a challenging non-conformist intellectual. His 4th century BCE play Medea remains a pillar of Athenian literature that continues to inform both the dramatic tradition and the historical narrative. Medea, a complex text that considers the nature of betrayal, revenge and infanticide, is founded in the mythology of Jason and Medea, a narrative undoubtedly familiar to the audience of the time. Whilst reimagining some narrative events, Euripides maintains the focus of mythology. Just as religion was the foundation of Athenian culture in the classical period, religion served as the framework for the narrative of Medea.[footnoteRef:12] [11: H. D. F. Kitto, Greek Tragedy, 3rd edn. (Routledge, 2002), p.301.] [12: Berberovic, ‘Ritual, Myth and Tragedy’, p.33. ]
Euripides’ frequent integration of the gods throughout the play engenders a historical understanding of religion and mythology as being central to tragedian contemplations of morality and existence. Hecate is one such example of a prominent god, revered by Medea as the embodiment of a powerful heroine, ‘Hecate, the goddess I worship more than all the others.’[footnoteRef:13] Moreover, the character of Helios, canonically the grandfather of Medea and the god of the Sun, plays an active role in the unfolding of the plot by gifting Medea a crown, a gown and a flaming chariot that would be her escape. The continued presence of the gods within the narrative serves a dual purpose – firstly, entertaining the crowds with retellings of familiar myths, and secondly, recording for posterity the significant role Greek gods played in all fields of life. In essence, Medea’s preoccupation with mythology enables an understanding of the historical significance of religion to Athenians. [13: Euripides, Medea (431BC), translated by Ian Johnston in ‘Medea’ (Richer Resources Publications, 2008), lines 466-467.]
Whilst Medea remains under continued literary and historic study, an enduring analysis is that Medea is a commentary on the depravity of humanity and the enigmatic and elusive nature of the gods. This analysis is evidenced in the final lines of the play:
‘Zeus on Olympus, dispenses many things. Gods often contradict our fondest expectations. What we anticipate does not come to pass. What we don’t expect some god finds a way to make it happen. So with this story.’ [14: Euripides, Medea, lines 1683-1692.]
Considering the weight of any plays parting lines, Euripides’ decision to leave his audience with contemplations of the gods is revealing. It is evidence of a desire to intellectually engage with the presuppositions and beliefs surrounding Greek mythology. Euripides final lines, steeped in religious wisdom, reveal not just mythology as being at the fore of Athenian society, but also the philosophical discipline that seeks to question what is known.
Maintaining its reputation as one of the greatest Greek tragedies, the treatment of femininity in Medea distinguishes the play from its contemporaries, bolstering the notion of Euripides as a prominent voice of social critique.[footnoteRef:15] Writing for the benefit of a primarily male audience, the character of Medea encompasses an antithetical juxtaposition of maternalism and militarism.[footnoteRef:16] Medea’s headline crime of infanticide, whilst a reprehensible evil, is intended as a warning to the male audience of the consequences of patriarchy being feminine resentment, ‘infanticide is a product of repression.’[footnoteRef:17] The message of the play is clear: beware of those you oppress. [15: Kitto, Greek Tragedy, 3rd edn. (Routledge, 2002), p.305. ] [16: Lush, ‘Combat Trauma’ p.25. ] [17: Terry Collits, ‘Intimations of Feminism in Ancient Athens: Euripides’ Medea’, Sydney Studies in English, vol. 26 (2000), p.19.]
Academic Terry Collits explores the theme of feminism in Medea as a reflection of primitive feminist values existing in Ancient Athens. Medea’s long soliloquies offer an insight into both the feminine experience of the time, elaborating on the restrictions and inequalities imposed upon women within the patriarchal society.[footnoteRef:18] A famed excerpt from one of Medea’s dialogues discusses the oppression and objectification of women within what was considered a firmly progressive and equitable society. [18: Martin, Ancient Greece, p.175.]
‘We women are the most unfortunate. First, we need a husband, someone we get for an excessive price. He then becomes the ruler of our bodies.’[19: Euripides, Medea, lines 264-267. ]
Identified as her ‘dangerous alienness,’[footnoteRef:20] Euripides’ favourable representation of Medea as the scorned woman provides insight into her psyche and anguish rather than blanket condemnation. Euripides nuanced consideration of the female condition provides contemporary audiences with a historical understanding of the historic treatment of Athenian women. [20: Collits, ‘Intimations of Feminism’, p.4. ]
Further, Medea serves as an exploration of the core distinction between men and women in Ancient Athens. Men were epitomised as the strength of the polis, with a high value placed upon militarism and martial ability, whilst women were emblematic of nurturing and submission.[footnoteRef:21] The antithesis of Medea lies in her character embodying both a maternal figure and a militant drive, challenging establishment beliefs of gender norms. Academic Brian Lush considers the interplay of militarism and maternalism that exists within Medea: [21: Martin, Ancient Greece, p.175.]
‘In the process of suppressing her maternal aspect in pursuit of her heroic agenda, Medea applies an increasingly martial logic to her children, whose welfare she comes to interpret as a warrior rather than as a mother.’ [footnoteRef:22] [22: Lush, ‘Combat Trauma’, p.45.]
A reading of Medea through a psychoanalytic lens enables an understanding of not only the experiences of women in Athens, but also reveals that within Ancient Athens, it was broadly accepted that the female psyche was relatively one-dimensional, with women operating within the role set for them by the state. Euripides consideration of the female condition in both its beauty and horror was considered a non-conformist approach. In that way, Medea provides historical evidence of the social conditions and attitudes existing in 4th century BCE Athens.
In conclusion, the efflorescence of Athenian culture is captured in the plays that survive today, enabling a glimpse into the unchanging nature of the human psyche, the evolution of religious values and the enduring consideration of women in the world. Through an analysis of such plays, and tragedies in particular, we are able to examine and record our understanding of Ancient Athens for posterity. The survival of such plays themselves speaks to theatre as a significant element of Athenian values and traditions, enabling a historical understanding of the zeitgeist of Athens to be one of intellectualism and democracy.
- Aristotle, The Poetics (335BC), translated by S. H. Butcher in ‘The Poetics of Aristotle’ (Project Gutenberg eBook Poetics, 2008).
- Berberovic, N. ‘Ritual, Myth and Tragedy: Origins of Theatre in Dionysian Rites’, Epiphany: Journal of Transdisciplinary Studies, vol. 8, no. 1 (2015), pp.31-38.
- Collits, T. ‘Intimations of Feminism in Ancient Athens: Euripides’ Medea’, Sydney Studies in English, vol. 26 (2000), pp.1-21.
- Euripides, Medea (431BC), translated by Ian Johnston in ‘Medea’ (Richer Resources Publications, 2008).
- Kitto, H. Greek Tragedy, 3rd edn., Routledge, 2002.
- Lush, B. ‘Combat Trauma and Psychological Injury in Euripides’ Medea’, Helios, vol. 41, no. 1 (2014), pp.25-57.
- Martin, Thomas. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, 2nd edn., Yale University Press, 2013.
- McDonald, Marianne. The Living Art of Greek Tragedy, Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 2003.
- Vernant, J. and Vidal-Naquet, P. Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, Zone Books, 1990.