Imagine a cool, overcast spring afternoon with a sharp breeze cutting through the branches of the olive trees. Sitting in the theater at Athens, you watch, apprehensively, as a father greets his son before the dark gates of an immense palace. The father is Creon, the new king of Thebes. He has condemned to death a young woman named Antigone, because she violated his ban on burying the body of a traitor. The son is Haemon, Antigone’s fiancé. He has come to beg his father to spare the young woman’s life. King Creon’s elderly advisors anxiously watch and wait.
The son begins respectfully. With utmost tact, he insists that he values his father’s success above all. He urges his father to be open to good advice: “Anyone who thinks that he alone has the capacity for thought or eloquence or reason, well, these men, once unfolded, are seen to be empty.” There’s nothing shameful in learning new things, Haemon explains. Trees that can bend survive storms, he points out. Whoever guides a ship but fails to loosen the sheet when necessary overturns his ship. Haemon implores his father to yield, and to stop being angry. He admits that he himself is young, but even an old person can’t be right all the time and can learn from someone who speaks well.
The chorus of elderly advisors agrees. They think that both men can learn from one another.
But Creon reacts with astonishing and terrifying fury. “So at our age we will be taught to understand nature by a man of his age?” he asks. Does Haemon advise him to honor people who produce disorder? Hasn’t Antigone been seized with just such a sickness?
Haemon manages to keep his voice calm. He points out that all the citizens are on his side.
Creon retorts that he is in charge, not the people. He confidently asserts that he rules exclusively in his own interest, since the city belongs to its ruler and to no one else.
Haemon now begins to lose control, too. Criticizing his father for sounding childish, he exclaims, “A city that belongs to one man is not a city!”
King Creon finds Haemon’s statement incomprehensible. “Isn’t the city thought to belong to the one who rules it?” he demands.
“Alone, you would rule nobly over a deserted land,” Haemon sneers. But he continues to insist that he only wants to prevent his father from committing an injustice.
Disparaging his son as a woman’s slave, Creon remains enraged that his son dares to criticize his father’s knowledge of justice and his confidence in his own authority.
Haemon argues that Creon is dishonoring the gods and is thereby endangering himself along with his son and his son’s fiancée.
Creon proceeds to denounce his son as a polluted character. Deaf to Haemon’s arguments, he screams, “You will never marry this woman while she is living!”
“She will die, then,” Haemon acknowledges. “And by dying, she will kill someone else.”
“How dare you threaten me!” Creon cries.
“I’m not threatening you, just telling you my intention.” Haemon intends to kill himself. He condemns his father’s inability to listen, and he suggests that he is not thinking well.
The king responds with monstrous ferocity. “You know what?” he says. “You can watch her die.” He orders Antigone to be brought forward so that Haemon can be present at her death.
“Don’t expect me to watch her die,” Haemon announces. “And you will never see me again. Go ahead and rave on among whoever of your friends are willing.” He stresses the word philoi (friends) ironically. Philoi also means blood relatives, but Creon has reduced it to mean only “political supporters.” This misguided assessment has perverted the king’s relationship with his own son. You, the audience, and the king’s elderly advisors all watch in horror as Haemon rushes away. They know that Creon’s treatment of a traitor and a rebel aligns with standard practice. You know that this story is not going to end well.
TYRANNY BEGINS and ends in violence, intimidation, and oppression. The brutality and greed of individuals wielding unfettered power, and their replacement by equally brutal and rapacious successors, whether by violence or by other means, inevitably fractures and crushes the community. In English, “tyranny” is more or less synonymous with “despotism,” and in this book I use the two terms interchangeably to refer to abusive, unrestrained, and unaccountable power. Abuses of power—whether by one person, a few, or many—destroy individuals and corrode communities.1
Today, worldwide, we are witnessing power grabs by corrupt strongmen and demagogues, including many who may even have been popularly elected. To gain and maintain power, such individuals foster and exploit tribal and partisan animosities. Their ability to flout the law has prompted some of us to lose faith in democratic political ideals and institutions. Some of us have given up on government altogether, preferring to rely on our own resources, wits, and guns for survival. Still others, convinced that the answer lies in expanding the power of majoritarian decision-making, seek to remove any and all checks on the power of the people, sometimes called “the popular will.” All of these routes, history shows, lead more or less directly to dictatorship or various forms of authoritarianism. Autocrats thrive on and promote the rejection of the rule of law, the rise of populism, and the introduction or reintroduction of violence into the political process. In the twenty-first century we are drifting—or, perhaps more accurately, hastening—toward despotism.2
But arguably, this is not inevitable. History also provides an extraordinary example of the reverse trajectory: during the eighth through the fifth centuries BCE, ancient Greece witnessed an unprecedented movement away from tribalism and autocracy and toward civil society and broader forms of political participation. Some Greek poleis (citizen-communities) instituted oligarchic or, in some instances, democratic governments. Most famously, by the mid–fifth century BCE, Athens had developed radically democratic political institutions that made political decisions the responsibility of every individual citizen.3
Unaccountable and irresponsible power over other human beings proved not only grasping and cruel but also impermanent. No human being lives forever, and the tyrannos (tyrant), or perhaps his son, was always vulnerable to violent overthrow. As a result, tyranny began to seem unwise even for the tyrant. This impermanence and vulnerability of tyrannical rule caused the ancient Greeks to experience various types of political organization. It is no coincidence that they coined the terms autocracy, meaning power held by one person, aristocracy, meaning power held by the best people, and democracy, meaning power held by the people as a whole.4 These compound words identify who has power, but not how they use it. The Greeks’ political experiments revealed that thuggishness, intimidation, and oppression can take many forms. They discovered, as we have, that not only autocrats but also powerful groups small and large can behave tyrannically and commit atrocities.5
The Greeks’ political experimentation did not occur in a cultural vacuum. Beginning more than three thousand years ago, the stories that we call Greek myths accompanied and advanced the ancient Greeks’ preoccupation with political power and their ingenuity in devising novel forms of political organization.6 Democracy did not exist as a concept until the Greeks coined the word and tried the experiment. Long before they did so, over the course of hundreds or maybe thousands of years, Greek epic tales and, later, Athenian tragic plays encouraged the Greeks to reject tyranny. Democratic political institutions developed as a consequence of gradual changes in social and political attitudes endorsed by epic and tragic reworkings of Greek myths over many centuries.7 The ancient Greeks failed to create a just, humane society of political equals, but their epics and tragedies introduced justice, humanity, and equality as requirements for human survival and happiness. Stories told in epic and tragic poetry cultivated attitudes and skills required to progress toward these goals. The failures of the ancient Greeks in their own times cannot excuse ours. They never removed tyrannical abuses of power from their world or from themselves, but their stories show us why and how we might.
Many people witnessing the world’s trajectory today are unaware of the valuable assistance available to us in the form of ancient Greek epic and tragic poetry. If you have never considered Homer, Aeschylus, or Sophocles relevant to contemporary concerns, this book is for you. (I include endnotes for scholars and individuals interested in pursuing particular topics further. I hope that others will feel free to ignore the endnotes.) Although ancient Greek tyrannical abuse often differed greatly from modern versions in structure and technique, the tales told in epic and tragic poetry nevertheless identify attitudes and skills crucial to preventing abuses of power today.
But why look to ancient Greek myths for insight and inspiration, you may well ask, since throughout the archaic and classical periods the Greeks themselves remained patriarchal, misogynistic, xenophobic, and bellicose bullies? Is it even ethical to read Greek literature at all? Although ancient Greek epics and Athenian tragedies condemn tyrannical behavior in all its forms, the ancient Athenians kept slaves. They treated women as property. They subjugated foreign communities, often with breathtaking brutality. They were more than willing to use violence in their relationships with outsiders and even, at times, with fellow Athenians.8 At the same time the Athenian political system, though it excluded women, foreigners, and slaves from participation, nevertheless constituted a direct democracy: by the mid–fifth century BCE, nearly all political decisions were determined by what we might call referenda, direct votes by all male citizens.9 In the same century, Athenians produced astounding innovations in art, architecture, and poetry. They devised historiography and moral philosophy. For a time, Athenians commanded a huge empire and amassed great wealth. None of this counterbalances the fact that the ancient Athenians never considered women, foreigners, slaves, or children equal to male citizens.10
We must condemn the Athenians for their slavery, misogyny, and abuse of power, as we must condemn the prejudice, misogyny, oppression, and tyrannical abuses of power that defile human societies of every time and place. At the same time, we can and must learn from the cultures of every human community. Every society offers both cautionary and salutary examples. I do not suggest that we read exclusively Greek literature, but only that we include it in our conversations about how we can and should treat one another, choose our leaders, and use our power. Ancient Greek literature focuses explicitly on these issues, and offers invaluable insights. The Athenians rejected autocratic government, and they broadened their political decision-making to include more people in the process than had ever been included anywhere in the world before.11 The eloquent condemnation of tyranny in ancient Greek epic and tragic poetry identifies tools that are essential for confronting abuses of power today.
Unfortunately, ancient Greece has become a pawn in the culture wars of the twenty-first century, with experts and nonexperts of all ideological persuasions enlisting Greek literature and history in various creative and antithetical ways in the service of their own partisan political agendas. At one extreme, an unquestioning acceptance of distorted claims of ancient Greek cultural superiority undeniably cripples our capacity to confront tyranny. At the other extreme, a sweeping disdain for or rejection of Greek (and Roman) literature and history robs us of instructive examples. Recent debate often centers primarily on Roman sources. Extremists on all sides of the contemporary culture wars regularly overlook the extensive criticism of ancient Greek ideals and behavior that exists within Greek texts themselves.12
As in everything, so too in ancient Greek myths: extremist ideologies risk blinding us to reality. The ancient Greeks never achieved a free, egalitarian society, and in subsequent centuries the misguided assumption of their unchallenged cultural superiority has often promoted terrible oppression and exclusion. But during the eighth through fifth centuries BCE, ancient Greek epics and tragedies began to acknowledge the essential humanity of every human being. The Homeric epics, already reworking traditional tales from still earlier times, emphasized the one thing that we all share regardless of our gender, skin color, race, religion, nationality, or political convictions: Whether we are male, female, rich, poor, powerful, weak, old, or young, we are all vulnerable to suffering and death. As Athena, goddess of wisdom, explains, “Death, you know, is an impartial thing. Not even the gods can ward it off even from a man who is dear to them, whenever indeed the destructive fate of prostrating death overcomes him” (Od. 3.236–38). Could any insight be more fundamentally nonpartisan or egalitarian?
Every culture’s narratives have political influence because they shape people’s identity, aspirations, and interactions with one another. Over centuries, epic and tragic narratives kept retelling traditional ancient tales with evolving details and emphases. To Greeks of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, these were stories of long ago about people now long dead. The epics and tragedies therefore held their characters’ choices up for scrutiny by people with no direct vested interest in the details and outcome of the plot. Because, like Homer’s earliest audiences, we don’t star in these tales, we can judge the characters’ behavior with less passion and partisanship than if we did. Crucially, the epics and tragedies don’t invite us merely to admire and condemn but to analyze and reflect. The mortal characters are complicated people confronting challenging predicaments, some of their own making, some not. Because we are not them, we can see ourselves more clearly and objectively in them than we could by looking in a mirror. We are not them, but they are us.
Myths told and retold in ancient Greek epic and tragic poetry invited the Greeks to value reality and factual evidence; to admire human ingenuity, skepticism, self-restraint, and accountability; to distinguish vengeance from justice; and above all to despise tyranny. We must denounce ancient Greek culture (and its legacy) as patriarchal, misogynistic, bellicose, and bullying.13 At the same time we must recognize that in doing so, we are judging the ancient Greeks by ideals that they themselves introduced, and that we are in danger of abandoning.14
Despite current political controversies over ancient Greece and its legacy, many people today do not know ancient Greek myths well or at all, and even fewer have the ability to read ancient Greek. But these stories can and must speak to us all. I have therefore opted to paraphrase some of the tales, staying as close to the Greek originals as possible in an effort to transmit insights visible to someone encountering the texts in Greek. In some sections I am in fact translating rather than paraphrasing. In italicized portions of the narratives, I address the reader directly in order to identify elements implicit but not explicitly stated in the texts. In retelling the tales I attempt to encourage readers to imagine experiencing these stories as someone living in ancient times might have done, not in order to prevent evaluation from the perspective of the twenty-first century, but to suggest places where ancient and modern reactions might and might not align. I hope that readers encountering these stories for the first time will find the combination of narrative summary followed by analysis helpful. In Athens in the fifth century BCE, tales told in epic and tragic poetry had a vast, perhaps nearly universal audience. They shaped the attitudes and aspirations not of a segment of the population, but of the whole. The rejection of tyranny today requires the participation not of a few experts, but of everyone.
Rather than offering an historical account of a sociopolitical movement, I aim to expose vital political insights visible in selected epic and tragic tales. In the following chapters, I retell and then interpret stories from Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 BCE), Homer’s Odyssey (c. 700 BCE), Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BCE), and Sophocles’s Antigone (c. 443 BCE), drawing from them some useful tools for today’s embattled and perilous political moment. My narratives and analyses derive not from other scholars’ translations but from reading the Greek texts themselves. All translations are my own. Because I have discussed the Iliad at length in a previous book (Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths), this book contains just one chapter on the Iliad, four on the Odyssey, and one each on the Oresteia and the Antigone. In focusing on the attitudes and skills accompanying the transition from autocracy to democracy, I have opted not to include any play by Euripides, since his surviving plays all date from the final third of the fifth century, well after the transition to radical democratic government in Athens was already complete.
Instead of attempting a broad cultural commentary on ancient Greek epic and tragic poetry, this book focuses on one theme: the abuse of power and the intellectual and emotional equipment required to prevent it. In choosing these particular texts and examining them specifically through that lens, I do not mean to suggest that the Greeks first recognized the risks of authoritarianism and then consciously used epic and tragic storytelling to produce broader political participation. Rather, these versions of Greek myths provide a window on the process of recognizing the dangers of all forms of tyranny, and they reveal intellectual insights and attitudes crucial to its defeat. The concept of sharing political power could well have been an unintended consequence. Undeniably, all archaic and classical Greek texts offer many valuable ideas in addition to the ones central to this book. Among their many illuminating aspects, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Aeschylus’s Oresteia, and Sophocles’s Antigone reveal potent tools for combating the abuse of power in ourselves and in others, whenever and wherever it threatens and in whatever form it takes.
This book is not about what Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles “intended.” That we can never know. We don’t even know who “Homer” was (the name is better understood as the name of a genre of poetic performance lasting many centuries), and we know little about the lives of Aeschylus and Sophocles.15 In the absence of interviews, letters, or journal entries, we cannot determine from an epic poem or a play the motives or intentions of its author, let alone a 2,500-year-old one. (Perhaps Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles intended to write comedies but missed their target?) My book is about the effect of these stories in the form in which the texts have come down to us. It is about the warnings and advice that these reworkings of traditional mythical material offered their original audiences and can offer to us today.16 This book is about the options that we face as human beings, and the insights and attitudes that ancient Greek epic tales and tragic plays reveal as survival skills. As the culture wars rage, these stories offer us more constructive ways of guiding our own decisions and governing our interactions with others.
Ancient Greek myths were transmitted first in the form of epic poetry, the oral tales in verse that coalesced into Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (c. eighth century BCE).17 Not long after the Homeric epics were first written down in the mid–sixth century BCE, the Athenians overthrew their last tyrant and established a democratic government (508 BCE), giving political decision-making power to an assembly of all male citizens. Beginning in the late sixth century BCE and throughout the fifth, Athenian tragic plays retold many ancient tales, but with new details and emphases.18 Both the archaic Homeric epics and the Athenian tragedies of the fifth century BCE exposed tyrannical behavior as self-defeating. Tragedies went even further in suggesting that democratic political institutions alone will not prevent and may even perpetrate tyrannical abuses. Athenian tragedies emphasized that the rejection of tyranny derives not merely from institutional changes, but from a transformation of values. Greek epics and tragedies prompt the realization that averting abuses of power requires asking not only “Who is to rule?” but also “With what methods and goals?” and “With what results?”19
Long before democracy existed even as a concept, the Iliad and Odyssey began to cultivate their audiences’ capacity for critical reflection, rational judgment, and creative problem solving. Both epics depict a particular culture and a set of events involving both human beings and divinities. In the divine realm, Zeus’s power is absolute. In the human realm, the aristoi (“best men,” defined as wellborn, wealthy, and powerful) compete for kratos (power). All people are decidedly not equal.20 By providing access to numerous viewpoints both mortal and immortal, however, both epics distinguish the audience’s perspective from the characters’ perspective. The Iliad even humanizes the Greeks’ Trojan enemies. The epics’ audience cannot ascertain with any certainty the intentions of the poet or the narrator, but the narrative emphasizes limitations in the characters’ understanding by offering us the broader view. The wider perspective makes it possible for the audience, ancient or modern, to evaluate the values of Homer’s characters and their consequences. The mortal characters largely attribute their own actions and experiences to divine agency, but Homer’s audience sees that this is frequently not the case at all.21
This possibility of evaluating the world of the Iliad and Odyssey and its inhabitants’ goals and actions was available to Homer’s original audiences and to every later generation of hearers and readers of the epics. By observing the consequences of the characters’ values and behaviors, the audience begins to question whether they are optimal: whether some of them are useful, but others not so much. The Iliad and Odyssey emphasize the vulnerability of the community to the greed and foolishness of self-centered and incompetent leaders, and both epics expose the vital interdependence between individual and group achievement, prosperity, and happiness. Both epics highlight the ambivalent potential of all human technology in its capacity to do great good and great harm. Both epics invite individuals to take responsibility for their own choices and actions, and to honor mutually beneficial obligations to one another. The Odyssey particularly emphasizes the value of reciprocal norms, as exemplified by xenia (guest-friendship), a set of conventions governing the behaviors of guests and hosts. Above all, the Odyssey portrays self-restraint, foresight, ingenuity, fact-based deductive reasoning, and rational deliberation as skills essential to survival and success.
Hundreds of years after Homer introduced the concept of the audience as critical moral thinker, as the first generations of Athenians were learning to wield democratic political institutions in the fifth century BCE, Athenian tragic playwrights continued to challenge traditional hierarchical (aristocratic) values while simultaneously critiquing newly emerging democratic political ideals. Their plays remind us that to challenge democratic values is to affirm them. By retelling many of the same stories with new emphases, the tragedies helped the Athenians to appreciate democracy as a mechanism for addressing individuals’ needs, preferences, and grievances while maintaining communal stability and harmony.22 In revising and repurposing an ancient tale of revenge, Aeschylus’s Oresteia (458 BCE), urged the Athenians to distinguish justice from vengeance and to redefine victory as a win for all concerned. Sophocles’s Antigone (c. 443 BCE), addressing the problem of conflict, warned contemporary Athenians to avoid the perils of polarization and to welcome good advice and creative solutions. By inviting discussion and debate, these tragic plays, then as now, promote the potential of democratic government to restrain destructive passions and to balance tribal allegiances with civic responsibilities.
One premise of my book is that the stories we read, watch, or tell shape our attitudes and choices. They teach us what to admire and what to condemn.23 And the crucial lesson from the ancient Greeks and their stories is that you can make all the economic, institutional, and technological changes you want, but unless you address the human propensity for tyrannical behavior, you are not going to find yourself living in a desirable, flourishing community. In practice, as we know, democratic procedures and institutions can easily become the disguise donned by despots.24
Despite the ancient Greeks’ own prejudices and exclusions, their epics and tragedies began to make moral reasoning the responsibility of every individual. Tales told in epic and tragic poetry present fact-based, rational decision making, caution, and self-restraint as admirable ideals of achievement. They emphasize the responsibilities of power (any power, whether derived from birth, wealth, personal talents, or numerical superiority), and they remind us that both the powerful and the powerless have obligations to one another. These stories cultivate the recognition that survival and success require an alignment (elusive, fragile, precarious, and shifting as it will inevitably be) between the needs of the individual and the needs of the community.25 Revising and reinterpreting traditional ancient stories, ancient Greek epic and tragic poetry initiated a movement toward political and social equality that we in the twenty-first century have yet to accomplish. If we seek to eradicate tyranny in all its toxic forms, ancient Greek epics and tragedies point the way.
In a previous book, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths (Yale University Press, 2017), I have examined the critique of rage in Homer’s Iliad and two fifth-century Athenian tragedies, Sophocles’s Ajax (c. 448 BCE) and Euripides’s Hecuba (c. 424 BCE). Encouraging the audience to evaluate the characters’ choices, the Iliad exposes violent rage as self-destructive. Homer’s characters attribute events to the gods’ decisions or to fate, but the narrative enables the audience to realize that human choices and actions have reasonably predictable consequences and that human decisions, not the gods or fate, largely determine human experiences. Most crucially, the Iliad cultivates the audience’s capacity to recognize the essential humanity of every human being, even an enemy. While Homer’s characters frequently desire vengeance, the Iliad permits the audience to appreciate that empathy better serves an individual’s own self-interest. Centuries later, Greek tragedies continue to emphasize that human attitudes and values—not the gods or fate, or even democratic institutions—determine the quality of life in any community. Sophocles’s Ajax and Euripides’s Hecuba both expose the capacity of a democratic voting process to validate injustice and even authorize atrocity. The Iliad, Ajax, and Hecuba all suggest that the transition from violent conflict to nonviolent, constructive group deliberation and decision making requires the ability to control one’s own capacity for violent rage, and the wisdom to condemn the violent rage of others.
But that is only the beginning, and this book introduces essential next steps. Homer and the tragic playwrights all emphasize a direct causal relationship between an individual’s priorities and skills and the survival and success of that individual and his or her community. The Iliad, Odyssey, Oresteia, and Antigone equip us to recognize and reject corrupt and incompetent leadership, to oppose the tyranny of the majority, and to resist the increasing use of violence and intimidation in the political process. Cultivating rational judgment and challenging unfounded certainties, they urge us to distinguish fact from fiction and good leadership from bad. In its effort to obliterate the concept of objective truth, tyranny strikes at the heart of democratic politics. If we cannot agree on factual evidence, then democratic debate and creative compromise cannot begin, let alone succeed. Ancient Greek epics and tragedies, however, offer antidotes to rapacious leadership and magical thinking by promoting empathy, fact-based logical deduction, and reasoned argument. Homer, Aeschylus, and Sophocles identify ethical and intellectual abilities crucial to egalitarian, compassionate, and constructive decision making in any society. They expose the destructiveness of tyranny and can help us to defeat it.
1. The tyrannos (tyrant) seized autocratic political authority over a citizen community by force. Some ancient Greek tyrants ruled wisely and exercised self-restraint. Others exhibited extreme greed and cruelty. Since the latter vastly outnumbered the former, the words tyrannos and tyrannis (tyranny) gained increasingly negative associations. The English “despotism” derives from the ancient Greek despotēs (master of slaves), a ruler of a household with absolute power over slaves. By the mid–fifth century BCE, the distinction between tyrannos, an unrestrained and usually abusive political ruler, and despotēs, a master of a household and slaves, had begun to blur somewhat. E.g., in Aeschylus’s Libation Bearers (458 BCE), Electra considers free men essentially indistinguishable from slaves, if abusive tyrants rule the entire citizen community (L.B. 103–4).
2. Abuses of power can take various forms, and precise distinctions may be difficult to draw. See Ryan’s lucid discussion of modern Marxism, fascism, and dictatorship (2012, 911–47). Ryan observes, for example, that although the Allied powers sought to defend “liberal democracy” against “fascism,” Stalin’s brutality and use of genocide preceded and rivaled Hitler’s (941). Albright distinguishes the modern “dictator,” who may fear the populace, from the modern fascist leader, “who expects the crowd to have his back” (2018, 12); but arguably, some ancient Greek tyranneis (tyrants)” fit the former description, others the latter. Warning that the movement toward fascism usually proceeds gradually (229–30) and appears to be gaining momentum today, Albright defines a fascist as “someone who claims to speak for a whole nation or group, is utterly unconcerned with the rights of others, and is willing to use violence and whatever other means are necessary to achieve the goal she or he might have” (245–47). Snyder explains that fascism today, as in the 1920s and 1930s, “serves oligarchs as a catalyst for transitions away from public discussion and towards political fiction; away from meaningful voting and towards fake democracy; away from the rule of law and towards personalist regimes” (2018, 16). These elements all provide identifying markers of tyranny. Levitsky and Ziblatt meticulously detail the warning signs and steps leading toward the demise of democracy (2018).
3. On the Greeks’ development of the rule of law, see especially Ostwald 1986. Kurke 1998, 156 (citing Morris 1996) considers the Athenian democracy part of a broader Panhellenic process. Raaflaub discusses the Greeks’ innovations in political theory and practice (2015) and their emphasis on human responsibility for the well-being of both the individual and the community (2016). Cartledge argues that democracy was a specifically Greek phenomenon, and he rejects the view that the Roman Republic was a type of democracy (2016, 247–63).
4. Autokratia (autocracy)” combines autos (self/same) with kratos (power), aristokratia (aristocracy) combines aristoi (best men) with kratos (power), and demokratia (democracy) combines demos (the people) with kratos (power). See Ober 2017, 18–33.
5. The Greeks also coined monarchia (monarchy; monos [one man] plus archē [sovereignty/dominion]), oligarchia “oligarchy” (oligoi [the few] plus archē), and the antithesis of demokratia (democracy), namely ochlocratia (ochlos [mob] plus kratos [power]). For ancient Greek attitudes toward tyranny, see especially Podlecki 1966; McGlew 1993; Raaflaub 2003; Lewis 2009; Luraghi 2015 and 2018; and Panou and Schadee 2018, 1–10. Raaflaub discusses the ancient Greeks’ development of arbitration and legislation in response to “elite abuses, social and economic crisis, civil strife, and tyranny” (2016, 134).
Fearing the tyrannical potential of democracy and the danger of its devolving into mob rule, the Framers of the US Constitution adopted not the Athenians’ political model of radical direct (not representative) democracy, but the Romans’ Res publica (Republic: literally, “the public business”), a hybrid of rule by one man (president; or, in the Roman Republic, two consuls), rule by the few (senate), and rule by the many (direct popular vote). The Framers also strengthened checks and balances between the three elements. Samons discusses the Founders’ concerns about the mob potential of the “popular will” and their effort to exclude from governing “the people in their collective capacity” (2004, 1–17). See also Wood 1972; Richard 1994 and 2009; Melton 2013, 79–88; Cartledge 2016, 283–305; and Hale 2017.
6. For the role of myth in both reflecting and shaping Greek culture and identity, see especially Pozzi and Wickersham 1991; Meier 1993; Redfield 1994, 69–98; Nagy 1996, 130; Kurke 1998, 156; Csapo 2005, 9; Graf 2011; and Martin 2016, 5–6. From its inception, tragedy was arguably part of a broad Panhellenic process (e.g., Stewart 2017). Good introductions to Greek mythology include Dowden and Livingstone 2011, Edmunds 2014, and Martin 2016.
7. Edmunds contends that Homer is not a political thinker (1989), but many other scholars disagree. See especially Raaflaub 1989 and 2000. Seaford identifies the Iliad’s role in the movement away from monarchy and in the historical evolution of ideals of reciprocity (1994, 191–234). Hammer insists that Homeric epic “is engaged in critical reflection and that this reflection is political in nature” (2002, 5 and passim), despite the fact that the polis (defined by Raaflaub as “citizen-community,” 2015, 10–15) did not yet exist. Hammer argues persuasively that deeming Homer “pre-political” “creates a perplexing situation in which institutions are political, but the pre-institutional activity of forming these institutions is not” (25; Hammer also provides extensive bibliography, 1–14, 19–48). Ahrensdorf presents Homer as an educator and an exemplar of “a noble and humane rationalism” (2014, 24 and passim).
J. H. Finley identifies myth as a “vehicle” for political thought in Attic tragedy (1967, 1–13), and Meier argues that the Athenians’ fear of their own capacity for tyranny “haunts tragedies from the 450s onwards” (1993, 133). Raaflaub maintains that concern for the tyrannical potential of the Athenian democracy itself led the Athenians in the late fifth century to enact legislation placing some limits on the power of the people (2015, 20 and nn60–61).
8. Hanson identifies a relationship between democracy and warfare (Hanson 2001), and Raaflaub discusses the persistent, endemic militarism of fifth-century Athenian culture despite questions raised, e.g., by works of Euripides and Aristophanes (2001). Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War details Greek bellicosity but also implicitly censures Athenian atrocities, such as the massacres at Mytilene in 427 BCE (Thuc. 3.50), at Scione in 421 BCE (Thuc. 5.32), and at Melos in 416 BCE (Thuc. 5.85–113, 116). (Following the capitulation of Mytilene, the Athenians revised their initial decision to execute the entire population, and the figure of one thousand males murdered has been questioned; but the Athenians executed numerous men without trial and enslaved many women and children.) See Kagan’s comprehensive analysis (1969, 1974, 1981, 1987).
9. Excellent introductions to fifth-century Athens and Athenian democracy include Kagan 1991, Davies 1993, and Raaflaub 1998. For analyses of the development of the polis and ancient democracy, see Forrest 1966; M. I. Finley 1973; Dunn 1979, 1992, 2005a, and 2005b; Ostwald 1986; Ober 1989, 1996, 2008, and 2015, esp. 157–75; Hansen 1991, 1992, and 1996; Rahe 1992; Euben et al. 1994; Ober and Hedrick 1996; Robinson 1997; Arnason and Murphy 2001; Raaflaub 2004 and 2015; Raaflaub and Ober 2007; J. M. Hall 2007; Meier 2012; Arnason, Raaflaub, and Wagner 2013; and Rosivach 2014. For the history and function of the Athenian democracy, see especially Hignett 1952; Jones 1986; Stockton 1990; Ober 1996 and 2008; Rhodes 2004; Samons 2004, 19–40; Osborne 2010; and Cartledge 2016, 91–122.
10. On women in ancient Greece and in Greek myth, see Pomeroy 1975; H. P. Foley 1978, 1981a, 1981b, and 2005; Lefkowitz 1986; Felson-Rubin 1987; Just 1989; Zeitlin 1990 and 1996; Easterling 1991; Fantham et al. 1994; S. Blundell 1995; Katz 1999; Felson and Slatkin 2004; Fabre-Serris and Keith 2015; Edmunds 2016; and Canevaro 2018.
On ancient Greek slavery, see M. I. Finley 1968, 1980, and 1987; Garlan 1988; Osborne 2010, 85–103; and Hunt 2018. Sadly, the ancient Greeks were neither the first nor the last people to objectify and enslave other people. Unlike slavery in the United States, however, ancient Greek slavery was not based on race. Everyone was equally vulnerable. Even royal birth could not prevent enslavement if the community was conquered in war. The existence of slavery, reprehensible as the practice was and is, serves as an argument in ancient Greek epic and tragic poetry for treating people in one’s power well. The tables might turn, and a former master or ruler could become a slave.
For the relationship between Athenian democratic ideology and imperialism, see Knox 1957; E. Hall 1989; Raaflaub 1994 and 1997, esp. 58–61; Rosenbloom 1995; Samons 2004, 100–142; and Osborne 2010, 306–22. Foster examines Thucydides’s view of Athenian imperialism as distinct from the speeches and actions that he attributes to Pericles (2010).
11. Ober argues that, remarkably, unlike the pattern typical for complex societies, in Athens during the classical period the elites did not rule (1989 and 2017). Cartledge examines the controversial question of whether to identify the Athenian system as a democracy beginning with the reforms of Cleisthenes (508 BCE) or not until Ephialtes’s reforms in the late 460s (2016, 72–75). Cartledge also discusses the number of citizens (109–11). On Athenian citizenship, see also Blok 2017, Dmitriev 2018, and Kasimis 2018.
12. E.g., see DuBois 2001 and 2010 vs. Hanson and Heath 1998, Hanson, Heath, and Thornton 2000, and Bloxham 2018. See also Hanink 2017. Zuckerberg cautions against the misappropriation of classical texts by online communities seeking to advance a “patriarchal and white supremacist ideology” (2018). She also expresses concern that opponents of this agenda “tacitly cede this point,” accepting “that the study of ancient literature perpetuates white male supremacy” and disagreeing “only on the question of whether that is a consequence that should be celebrated” (187). Zuckerberg laudably commends instead discussion of ancient sources “that is free of elitism and neither uncritically admiring nor rashly dismissive” (189). Assessing the “culture wars” of the 1980s and 1990s, Adler similarly observes that both sides collaborated in minimizing the importance of studying the classics (2016, 214). He urges classicists to welcome a more inclusive methodological approach, “since the heterogeneous nature of the field is among its core strengths” (4).
13. E.g., Osborne rightly criticizes Athenian democracy for accompanying “an Athenian way of life which we would judge illiberal, culturally chauvinist and narrowly restrictive.” He suggests that we “stop taking cover behind ‘democracy’ as a term at which only cheering is allowed, and instead ask seriously how we might attain the political openness (and cultural achievement) of Athens while taking pride in a society that is heterogeneous and determinedly open” (2010, 37).
14. Similarly, Albright argues that the failure of the United States to live up to its own standards of human rights does not justify rejecting those standards or abdicating the responsibility to uphold them (2018, 214).
15. Evidence suggests that the Iliad and the Odyssey, the epic tales that we attribute to “Homer,” developed orally over millennia. Nagy identifies “Homer” as the name for the Greek epic tradition rather than an individual (1996, 20–22) and argues for continuity of the Homeric epic tradition from the eleventh century to the fifth century BCE (2010, 3–28). Martin terms Homeric epic poetry “a multi-generational art form” (2016, 31).
On the narrative tradition concerning the life of Homer, see Nagy 2010, 29–58; and Graziosi 2016, 7–56. Graziosi finds no evidence for “a single original audience, or historical context, or specific political agenda in support of which the Homeric poems must have been composed” (37).
For biographical information about the tragedians, see Herington 1986, 15–31; Mitchell-Boyask 2009, 11–18; Lefkowitz 2012; and Swift 2016, 14–24.
16. Regarding myth as a source of moral examples, see, e.g., Redfield 1994, 20–29; Livingstone 2011; and Raaflaub 2012, 474, 488, and n44.
17. On the origins and processes of Homeric epic poetry, see Lord 1960, 1991, 1995; Kirk 1976; Nagy 1979, 1996, 2002, 2007, 52–82, and 2010; Cairns 2001b, 1–56; Fowler 2004; Beck 2005, 273–75; Dué and Ebbott 2010, 4–29; Gonzalez 2013; Ready 2015; and Finkelberg 2018. Nagy emphasizes the centrality of Athens in the transmission of both the Iliad and the Odyssey (2002, 9–35).
The Iliad’s various stories probably coalesced during the eighth century BCE, the Odyssey’s stories perhaps a half century later. Neither was written down until the sixth century BCE. Regarding arguments for a seventh-century BCE date for the Odyssey, see Cook 1995 vs. Osborne 1996, 159. Nagy emphasizes a gradual movement toward “text fixation” as a consequence of epic performances and “Panhellenic proliferation” preceding the production of written texts (1979, 7–9, 41, and passim). For diverse views of the “Peisistratean recension,” a theory regarding the first written texts of the Iliad and Odyssey, see Thalmann 1998, 301–2 and n65.
Oral composition and transmission of archaic stories enabled details and emphases to change over time. For Homer’s adaptation of earlier tales, see, for example, Peradotto 1990. Peradotto argues that “the Odyssey shows a highly developed awareness of the poet’s sense of his own power to control and to tinker with the ‘material’ given to him by his tradition” (1990, 31). See also Reece 1993; Felson 1994, 10; Marks 2003; S. Richardson 2006; and Haller 2013. Lord identifies the singer of epic poetry as no “mere carrier of the tradition but a creative artist making the tradition” (1995, 13). Similarly, Martin identifies flexibility and innovation as features of oral performance (2016, 31).
Nagy, however, rejects the conception of Homeric myth as “a matter of personal invention” (1996, 114). See also West’s challenge to “oral theory” and his resurrection of the “analysts’” approach (2011). Others have speculated that the same poet composed the Iliad as a young man and the Odyssey as an old man. West argues for written composition of the Iliad and Odyssey by two different individuals (2017), but this remains a minority opinion. Discussions of the controversy include Page 1959, 222–25; Austin 1975, 70; Nagy 1996, 114; Halliwell 2011, 56; and Austin 2011. Friedrich argues that the Iliad and Odyssey were composed by a literate poet drawing on the oral tradition (2019). Pointing out that our written version of the Iliad must be later than some oral version or versions of the Odyssey, Porter argues convincingly that each epic provides a backdrop for the other, with knowledge of one influencing audiences’ reactions to the other (2019).
We cannot know who “Homer” was. We can only consider the effect of the works as we have them. The Iliad may appear more “youthful” in examining the causes and consequences of passionate anger and vengeance, whereas the Odyssey, though it includes the vengeance theme, may appear more “adult” in affirming the value of endurance, reasoning, and self-restraint.
18. On the definition, origin, context, role, and performance of tragedy, see especially Winkler and Zeitlin 1990, Cartledge 1997, Easterling 1997, Sourvinou-Inwood 2003, E. Hall 2010, Scodel 2010, and Rehm 2017.
Athenian tragedy derived from and influenced Athenian cultural attitudes, adapting ancient myths and conflating past and present. Knox identifies “tragic myth” as “a people’s vision of its own past, with all that such a vision implies for social and moral problems and attitudes in its present” (1979, 23; and, similarly, Euben 1990, 50–52). Meier explains that the tragedies make the ancient stories “present and familiar” and at the same time “problematic,” as they were “filtered through the experience and needs of a new age, pervaded by the demands for reason and justice, the tensions and responsibilities of the citizenry” (1993, 125). Goldhill identifies the paideusis (educational function) of tragedy “in the retelling of the myths of the past for the democratic polis” (2000, 48). But cf. Rhodes, who argues for a close connection between drama and the polis rather than between drama and democracy (2003). Sommerstein maintains that by the fifth century BCE, myth was already “a powerful instrument of education and socialization” (2010, 117).
19. Contrasting ancient and modern conceptions of democracy, Ryan identifies two views: democracy as “a matter of character of a whole society” versus democracy as “a set of arrangements for answering the question ‘who is to rule?’” (2012, 946). Samons emphasizes the harmful consequences of the modern reductive understanding of democracy as little more than a voting process (2004, 68–71), observing that this conception makes “the character of that electorate and not the particular form of government” the determinative factor (71). Ryan notes that both Tocqueville and Mill “feared that democracy might trump liberalism” (2012, 947).
20. On Homeric values, see especially Adkins 1960, 1971, 1987; Havelock 1978; van Wees 1992; Donlan 1999; and Raaflaub 2016. Lacking much historical information for the society Homer depicts, scholars refer to the period as the Dark Ages (Donlan 1985, Dickinson 2006). Redfield identifies “epic distance” between the world of the characters and that of Homer’s earliest audiences (1994, 30–36), but Raaflaub finds substantial intersections between the two, such that “the old and the new overlapped and coexisted” (1993, 44–45). Some scholars emphasize the powerlessness of the people within assemblies in the epics (e.g., M. I. Finley 1954, 80; Andreyev 1991; and Thalmann 1998, esp. 243–71). Others find a more complex interaction between leaders and people (e.g., Ober 1996 and 1998, Raaflaub 1997 and 1998, and Hammer 2002).
21. See Ahrensdorf 2014 versus Redfield 1994, 101–2. Ahrensdorf explains that Homer affirms the mortal characters’ confidence in divine justice and then “proceeds to challenge this conventional piety (33–37). Rabel, however, identifies an “ironic distance” between the characters’ views and the narrator’s “radical critique of life lived in accordance with traditional views of heroism,” which is also distinct from “what the poet wishes to communicate” (1997, 21–31). But cf. de Jong’s argument that the pursuit of kleos (glory) motivates the poet as much as it motivates the characters within the epics (2006).
22. For imitation and allusions to earlier poetry in the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, see especially Garner 1990. Rinon identifies the “tragic pattern” in the Iliad that anticipates Attic tragedy (2008). On the flexibility of Greek myth and its limits, see, e.g., Graf 1993, Woodard 2007, Alaux 2011, and Torrance 2013.
For diverse views of the didactic function of tragedy, see Herington 1985, 67–71, and 1986, 110; Podlecki 1986, 82–86; Euben 1990, 50–58; Meier 1993, 51–61; Thomas 1995; Zeitlin 1996, 72–79; Kurke 1998; Sourvinou-Inwood 2003; Boedeker and Raaflaub 2005; Carter 2007; Barker 2009, 268–70; Goldhill and Hall 2009; Mastronarde 2010, 20–28; Osborne 2010, 368–418; Gregory 2012, 515, 529–30; and Raaflaub 2012.
As to whether tragedy “endorses,” “constructs,” or “questions” “Athenian civic ideology,” see especially Saïd 1998, 281–84. Some scholars maintain that tragedy reinforced aristocratic privilege in Athens, but others argue that the genre in general questions democratic values and encourages critical reflection. For diverse views, see Vickers 1973, 157; Goldhill 1986, 1990, 2000, and 2009; Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1988; Euben 1990, 18, 35–36, and passim; Meier 1993, 42–48; Boegehold and Scafuro 1994; Griffith 1995, esp. 63n3 and 109n143; Foley 1996; Cairns 2005 and 2016; Carter 2007, 36–63; Rabinowitz 2008; Barker 2009, esp. 268–75; Grethlein 2010, 74–104; Mastronarde 2010, 15–21; and Burian 2011.
Goldhill views tragedy’s questioning as being in conflict with fifth-century Athenian democratic ideology (e.g., 1990, 124–29, and 2000, 35, 46), but many scholars disagree, deeming the questioning of democratic values central to democratic ideology and emphasizing tragedy’s educational role (e.g., Euben 1990, 35, 51–59, and 94; Carter 2007, 1–8, 19, 143–60, and passim; Barker 2009, 1–19 and n36, 278, 368, 372; and Cartledge 2016, 129). Ober identifies “the symbiosis of democracy and criticism” (1996, 142–43), and Grethlein observes that tragedy is “a genre better suited to raising questions and opening up tensions than providing clear cut answers” (2010, 83). For the composition and diversity of fifth-century audiences and the variety of responses, see Roselli 2011 and Cairns 2016, 44–54.
23. On the power of stories to shape cultural attitudes, see, for example, Peradotto 1990, 27–31; Nussbaum 1997, 9–11 and 85–107, and 2010, esp. 95–120; Goldhill 2004; and Martin 2016, 12–22 and 40–41. Nussbaum 1997 and 2010 provided significant inspiration for this book as well as my previous one, Enraged: Why Violent Times Need Ancient Greek Myths (Anhalt 2017). Nussbaum 1986 greatly influenced my discussion of Aeschylus’s Oresteia and Sophocles’s Antigone in this book.
24. On the inability of constitutional rules alone to protect democracy, see especially Levitsky and Ziblatt 2018, 97–117. Similarly, Albright identifies the historical pattern of fascists exploiting democratic institutions in order to gain power and then, once in power, proceeding to destroy those very institutions (2018, 83, 234, 237, and passim). Albright also notes the perverted use of the nominally “democratic tool” of the plebiscite “to spread and validate a falsehood” in Hungary today as in Nazi Germany (184–85).
25. Albright defines an “illiberal democracy” as one “centered on the supposed needs of the community rather than the inalienable rights of the individual. It is democratic because it respects the will of the majority; illiberal because it disregards the concerns of minorities” (2018, 172). Homeric epics and Athenian tragedies provide an antidote, exposing tensions between communal needs and individual needs but also emphasizing their interdependence and the costs of prioritizing either over the other.