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Nov 19, 2015

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: The Tragedy of Politics

Long examines political themes in Ancient Greek drama.

While Greek tragedy generally dealt with stories from Greek myth and legend, this did not prevent its authors from exploring political ideas relevant to the realities of their own era.  The three most prominent tragedians – and the only ones from whom any plays survive intact – were the Athenian playwrights Aeschylus (c. 525-c. 455 BCE), Sophocles (c. 496-c. 405 BCE), and Euripides (c. 480-406 BCE), and their plays represent a rich mine of political thought.

In his Suppliant Women, Euripides puts democratic ideology into the mouth of the legendary Athenian hero Theseus.  When a Theban herald arrives and asks to speak to the “master” of the city, Theseus replies:

Your start was wrong, seeking a master here.
This city is free, and ruled by no one man.
The people reign, in annual succession.
They do not yield the power to the rich;
The poor man has an equal share in it.1

When the herald boasts in reply that his own city “is controlled / By one man, not a mob,” Theseus responds with a defense of democracy and a critique of dictatorship:

Nothing
Is worse for a city than an absolute ruler. …
With written laws,
People of small resources and the rich
Both have the same recourse to justice. Now
A man of means, if badly spoken of,
Will have no better standing than the weak;
And if the little man is right, he wins
Against the great. This is the call of freedom:
“What man has good advice to give the city,
And wishes to make it known?”  He who responds
Gains glory; the reluctant hold their peace.
For the city, what can be more fair than that? …
But when one man is king, he finds this hateful,
And if he thinks that any of the nobles
Are wise, he fears for his despotic power
And kills them. How can a city become strong
If someone takes away, cuts off new ventures
Like ears of corn in a spring field? What use
To build a fortune, if your work promotes
The despot’s welfare, not your family’s?2

All this is, of course, bizarrely anachronistic – about as anachronistic as, say, having King Lear singing the praises of Britain’s National Health Service.  Theseus is traditionally the king of Athens, in an era long before the city had become democratic; the master that the herald sought, then, would properly have been Theseus himself.3  But Euripides is more interested in contrasting democratic with monarchical political systems than in remaining faithful to the details of the Theseus legend.

One of the best-known political ideas in Greek tragedy is found in Sophocles’ Antigone, in which the titular protagonist, accused of breaking the law by performing funeral rites for her brother, a slain rebel, despite the ruler Kreon’s prohibition on doing so, appeals to a higher moral law that overrides the law of the state:

— You knew the order not to do this thing?
— I knew, of course I knew. The word was plain.
— And still you dared to overstep these laws?
— For me it was not Zeus who made that order.
Nor did that Justice who lives with the gods below
mark out such laws to hold among mankind.
Nor did I think your orders were so strong
that you, a mortal man, could over-run
the gods’ unwritten and unfailing laws.
Not now, nor yesterday’s, they always live,
and no one knows their origin in time.4

This idea of a higher law is one that we will see explored in more detail by thinkers like Socrates and the Stoics. 

The conflict between justice and mere human authority is one that Sophocles also takes up in another of his plays, the Philoctetes.  In Greek legend, Philoctetes was a member of the Greek expedition to Troy who was unjustly marooned on an island after he suffered a festering wound whose smell, combined with his cries of pain, his comrades found too annoying to put up with.  When the Greeks later realize that they need his magic bow in order to defeat the Trojans, Odysseus sails back to the island to retrieve it.  Recognizing that Philoctetes, naturally resentful of his treatment at the hands of his former comrades, is unlikely to part with the bow willingly, the wily Odysseus, in Sophocles’ account, instructs the young Neoptolemus, son of the late Achilles, to obtain the bow by deceit.  Neoptolemus reluctantly agrees to the plan, and indeed succeeds in tricking Philoctetes into surrendering the bow.  But then – in an episode that may be an innovation of Sophocles’ – he suffers from pangs of conscience and decides to return the bow to Philoctetes, defying Odysseus’s commands:

— I go to undo the wrong that I have done. …
I did wrong when I obeyed you and the Greeks.
— What did we make you do that was unworthy?
— I practiced craft and treachery with success. …
— You cannot mean you are going to give it back.
— Just that.  To my shame, unjustly, I obtained it. …
— Have you no fear of the Greeks if you do this?
— I have no fear of anything you can do,
when I act with justice; nor shall I yield to force.5

Just as Antigone presents favorably a woman’s defiance of Kreon’s twofold superiority as both her king and her uncle, so Philoctetes presents favorably a soldier’s disobedience to a direct order from a commanding officer in time of war.  In both plays, the authority of a human superior is trumped by the higher authority of the moral law.


  1. Euripides, Suppliant Women 404-408; Frank William Jones translation, in David Grene and Richmond Latimore, eds., Euripides IV (University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 73.
  2. Suppliant Women 428-451; Jones translation, p. 74.
  3. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, written nearly two decades after Euripides’ Suppliant Women, an asylum-seeker arriving in Colonus, a suburb of Athens, asks whether it is “[r]uled by a king?  Or do the people rule?” and receives the chronologically appropriate answer “The land is governed from Athens by Athens’ king,” namely Theseus again.  (Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus 66-67; Robert Fitzgerald translation, in David Grene, ed., Sophocles I (University of Chicago Press, 1954), p. 82.)  This may be a deliberate “correction” on Sophocles’ part of the passage in Euripides’ play – just as Euripides in his version of the Electra story (Electra 513-537) pokes fun at Aeschylus’s previously having Electra implausibly recognize her long-lost brother Orestes’ footprint and a lock of his hair by their likeness to her own (Libation Bearers 167-230).
  4. Sophocles, Antigone 447-456; Elizabeth Wyckoff translation, in David Grene, ed., Sophocles I (University of Chicago Press, 1954), pp. 173-174.
  5. Sophocles, Philoctetes 1224-1252; David Grene translation, in Richmond Lattimore and David Grene, eds., Sophocles II (University of Chicago Press, 1957), pp. 242-244.

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