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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 1 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.


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