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Tragedy and the Polis

Aeschylus' pride in his military service to his homeland points to a fundamental characteristic of Athenian tragedy: it was at its base a public art form, an expression of the city-state (polis), that explored the ethical quandaries of human beings in conflict with gods and with one another in the context of a polis-like community. Even though variations on stories from the pre-polis past, such as tales of the Trojan War1, supplied the plots of most tragedies, the moral issues they illuminated were always presented in the context of the society and obligations of citizens in a polis.

Sophocles' Success

Sophocles' tragedies2 were overwhelmingly popular. In a sixty-year career as a playwright, he competed with a series of tragedies about thirty times, winning at least twenty times and never finishing worse than second. Since winning plays were selected by a panel of ordinary male citizens who were influenced by the audience's reaction3, Sophocles' record clearly means his works appealed to the large number of men who attended the drama competition of the festival of Dionysus. The evidence on whether women attended is contradictory, but they probably were allowed to see dramas. That Sophocles' plays concerned difficult ethical problems in the context of the polis is significant for understanding the function of Athenian tragedy. We cannot know precisely how the ancient audience interpreted tragedies in general or those of Sophocles in particular, but the spectators can hardly have been unaware that the central characters of the plays were figures who fell into disaster from positions of power and prestige. Their reversals of fortune4 come about not because they are villains, but because, as human beings, they are susceptible to a lethal mixture of error, ignorance, and hubris (aggressive arrogance).

Sophoclean Tragedies and Athenian Empire

The Athenian empire was at its height when audiences at Athens were seeing the plays of Sophocles. Indeed, the presentation of the plays at the festival of Dionysus was preceded by a procession in the theater 5 to display the revenues of Athens received from the dues of the allies. Thoughtful spectators would have perhaps reflected on the possibility that Athens' current power and prestige, managed as it was by human beings, remained hostage to the same forces which, the playwrights taught, controlled the fates of the heroes and heroines of tragedy. Tragedies certainly had appeal because they were engrossing purely as entertainment; but they also had an educative function: to remind its male citizens, those who in the assembly made policy for the polis, that success by its nature engendered problems of a moral complexity too formidable to be fathomed casually or arrogantly.


The relevance that the themes of tragedy could have to issues affecting the city-state even in plays whose plots had ostensibly nothing to do with life in a polis shows up clearly in Sophocles' play entitled Ajax 6, presented in the early 440s B.C. The play bore the name of the second-best warrior (Achilles had been preeminent) in the Greek army that besieged Troy in the Trojan War. When his fellow Greek soldiers voted to award the armor of the dead Achilles7 to the wily Odysseus instead of himself, Ajax went on a berserk rampage against his former friends which the goddess Athena8 thwarted because Ajax had once rejected her help in battle. Disgraced by his failure to secure revengeAjax committed suicide.9 Odysseus then stepped in to convince the Greek chiefs to bury Ajax despite his attempted treachery because the future security of the army and the obligations of friendship demanded that they obey the divine injunction always to bury the dead. Odysseus' arguments 10in favor of burying Ajax anachronistically treat the army as if it were a polis, and his use of persuasive speech to achieve accommodation of conflicting individual interests to the benefit of the community corresponds to the way in which disputes in the polis were supposed to be resolved.


In his powerful play of 441 B.C. entitled Antigone 11, Sophocles presented a drama of harsh conflict between the family's moral obligation to bury its dead in obedience to divine command and the male-dominated city-state's need to preserve its order and defend its values. Antigone, the daughter of Oedipus12, the now-deceased former king of Thebes13, comes into conflict with her uncle, the new ruler, when he forbids the burial of one of Antigone's two brothers on the grounds he had been a traitor. This brother had attacked Thebes after the other brother had broken an agreement to share the kingship.14 Both brothers died in the ensuing battle, but Antigone's uncle had allowed the burial only of the brother who had remained in power. When Antigone brazenly defies her uncle15 by symbolically burying the allegedly traitorous brother, her uncle condemns her to die. He only realizes his error when sacrifices to the gods go wrong. His decision to punish Antigone ends in personal disaster when his son and then his wife kill themselves in despair. In this horrifying story of anger and death, Sophocles deliberately exposes the right and wrong on each side of the conflict. Although Antigone's uncle eventually acknowledges a leader's responsibility to listen to his people, the play offers no easy resolution of the competing interests of divinely-sanctioned moral tradition expressed by a woman and the political rules of the state enforced by a man.

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