Monday, June 17, 2013

Classical Athens: Democracy, Victory, Theater

By 700 BC the municipal state of Athens had become the largest and richest in Hellenia. Just over 100 years later Solon, its most illustrious lawgiver, gave it a meaningfully democratic constitution. Powerful men in the city tested this new reality for some time.

Cleisthenes (born 570?) By 508, however, Cleisthenes had reestablished and reformed the constitution of Solon in ways that allowed Athens to endure as a participatory democracy. For this reason, tradition fondly refers to Cleisthenes as the father of Athenian democracy.

This establishment of democracy had two significant consequences. It inspired leaders in other cities to imitate it. It also contributed to unprecedented cultural creativity.

In 498 people in a number of Hellenian cities on the west coast of Anatolia, inspired by the example of Athens, revolted against their local leaders and the Persian ruler who picked them. These rebellious Hellenians asked Athenians to strengthen their chances of success by sending soldiers in support. This the Athenians did. The Persian ruler, however, successfully crushed the revolt. He then planned his attack on Athens as punishment for that support.

Athenian victories (490, 480, 479). In 490 the Persian hordes met the Athenians for battle on the plains of Marathon about 25 miles (40 km) east of the city. An army of Athenian citizen-soldiers decisively defeated them. This surprising victory fired Athenians with a tremendous sense of pride and purpose as bearers of freedom against tyranny.

This sense of pride and purpose only intensified when Athenians led other Hellenians to victory against the second army of Persian invaders at Salamis (480) and Plataea (479). With those triumphs also came great glory, wealth, and confidence, all given expression through tremendous cultural creativity.

This cultural creativity, which began with the establishment and development of democracy by Cleisthenes, continued with Aeschylus the playwright.

Aeschylus (525-455) was born into a wealthy family living in the seaside town of Eleusis about 12.5 miles (20 km) northwest of Athens. As a young adult he wrote plays to be performed during the Dionysia or annual festival in Athens honor Dionysius (Bacchus) god of consumption. For this celebration judges would first select three tragedies and five comedies to be performed at the Theater of Dionysius (which still exists). The best of each would then receive the great honor of winning first prize.

Judges first selected a tragedy written by Aeschylus for performance during the Dionysia in 499. Aeschylus was 26 years old and Athenians had been practicing democracy for almost a decade. The next year Athenian citizens would decide to help Hellenians in Anatolia who, inspired by their example, rebelled against Persian rule. When Darius sent a Persian army to punish Athenians for that decision in 490, Aeschylus was one of the citizen-soldiers who fought against it at Marathon.

Aeschylus won first prize during the Dionysia for the first time in 484. He again fought against the Persians at Salamis in 480. His tragedy, The Persians, which won first prize in 472, is based on the battle of Salamis and blames the Persian loss on the arrogance of Xerxes. It remains the only surviving tragedy based not on Greek myth but on an experienced historical event. Its production was financed by a wealthy young politician named Pericles.

Although Aeschylus wrote as many as 90 tragedies, only seven of them have survived. In addition to The Persians (472), we may still enjoy Seven against Thebes (467), The Suppliants (463), The Oresteia (458) trilogy (Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, The Eumenides), and Prometheus Bound (456?).

Aeschylus died in Gela, Sicily, in 455 where he had gone in 458. Tradition fondly refers to Aeschylus as the father of tragedy because all we know about the genre begins with him and his dramas remain inspiring.

Sophocles (c. 496-c. 406) was born into a wealthy family living in Colonus, just outside of Athens, and received an outstanding education. According to tradition, the 45-year-old Aeschylus fought at the Battle of Salamis while the 16-year-old Sophocles sang in the youth choir celebrating the victory. Sophocles would later serve as both treasurer of Athens (443) and one of its ten annually-elected rulers (441).

Sophocles competed against Aeschylus as a writer of tragedies during the Dionysia. He defeated Aeschylus for first prize for the first time in 468. While Aeschylus won first prize 14 times, Sophocles would win it 24 times. While Sophocles wrote as many as 120 tragedies, again only 7 have survived. His most famous plays are Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. The philosopher Aristotle praised Oedipus the King as an exemplary tragedy in his Poetics (written ca 335). Sophocles also wrote Ajax about that Hellenian hero of the Trojan War and The Women of Trachis about the accidental death of Hercules caused by his wife Deianeira.

Copyright © 2013 by Steven Farsaci.
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