THE TRAGIC POETS
Aeschylus (b. 525 BC) fought in the wars against Persia before he dedicated his time to writing plays, which he presented as trilogies with a common theme. He revolutionized the theatre by adding costumes, stage settings, and a second actor. In so doing he turned the standard monologues into a true dialogue. In his tragedies destiny is influenced by the way people perceive things, and how their perceptions create conflicts. The action is simple and the chorus is still predominant but the first step was taken from traditional storytelling. Only seven of eighty plays survive, the first we know of is titled: The Persians.
Sophocles (b. 495 BC) was the son of an arms-maker and received an excellent education. He took the first prize away from Aeschylus when he was twenty-eight. Sophocles added a third actor, with more detail to the characters. He delves into the past to find the author of an old crime and creates the “tragic hero” with a moral conflict. The chorus has a secondary role, either as the reflection of the popular conscience, or as councilor. During his lifetime he won twenty 1st prizes and numerous second prizes. Sophocles was also a general and strategist in the Athenian army, and died when he was ninety years old.
Euripides (b. 486 BC) was a poet, an athlete and a painter. He took eloquence lessons from the sophists and was friends with the philosophers Protagoras, Anaxagoras and Socrates. Though his plays were popular with the public and widely performed around the country, he won fewer prizes because of his unconventional style. His stories are based on mythology and past events according to tradition, but his characters are closer to real life and communicate in the everyday dialects of the people.
He added a “prologue,” where he describes events preceding the story as well as an outline of the play (Aristophanes hated it). He also invented the "Deus-ex-macchina", either to introduce a god onto the stage or as a grand finale, with complicated machinery to create spectacular effects.
After his death there would be no significant changes or additions to Greek tragedy. Ironically, of all the tragic poets it was Euripides who would most inspire later writers.
The three poets of tragedy that have survived were popular playwrights in their lifetime and won many prizes in competitions during festivities in honor of Dionysus (though there is no relation between the cult and the plays).
The master of comedy as a political and social tool is Aristophanes, who often used animal characters to make his case on the decadence of Athenian society (The Birds, The Frogs). He made fun of Socrates by giving him a birdlike character perched in a cloud (The Clouds), Voltaire later accused him of being responsible for inciting Socrates' death sentence. Aristophanes was anti-war, unheard of in a society where military conflicts were a way of life, and believed everyone would be better off if women were in power.
Greek literature and philosophy were suppressed in Europe during the Middle Ages, some books were hidden in monastery basements but most perished to rats and mold. However they were translated and studied in Persia and Constantinople. Copies started filtering into Florence through the Crusades where they were translated to Latin during the Classic Revival of the Renaissance.
Before the theatre became such an important part of Greek society the chorus would recite parts of Homer's poem on an elevated platform with a leader to set the tempo (dithyramb).
The first (we know of) to break tradition was Thespis (born 534 BC) who introduced an independent actor to communicate with the chorus and its leader. The actor was called a "hypocrite", or responder. Thespis is the alleged inventor of masks with wide mouths to project the actors’ voices across a large outdoor amphitheater. None of his plays survive.
What really started the Trojan War?
The story of vain and arrogant gods causing trouble
Zeus is hosting a party in Olympia when Eros, the goddess of discontent, appears unannounced and uninvited. Her feelings hurt and filled with spite she presents a gold apple to give to the most beautiful of all the goddesses present.
Predictably the choice came down to Zeus' wife Hera and his two daughters Athena and Aphrodite. They ask him to choose but wisely Zeus is not going to get involved. Instead he sends the threesome to ask Paris, son of Priam king of Troy, to choose who should have the apple.
When Paris was a child his father Priam visited the Oracle at Delphi, where he was told his son would cause the end of his kingdom. To keep this from happening dad sent the boy to the country to live with farmers. What the Oracle told the king could have been interpreted different ways and we can tell a lot about the man in his literal interpretation of the message. The boy was a cabalist; it was more the king's callousness and stupidity, mirrored in the way he sent his son to live far from his mother and siblings, which caused the defeat of Troy.
The "Judgement of Paris"
The three vain goddesses presented themselves to Paris (tending his sheep?) with promises of power, war skills or sex. In some accounts the ladies stood naked in front of Paris, either of their own accord or because he asked them to.
Aphrodite’s offer to possess the world’s most beautiful woman was the most appealing to the young man. In this case the woman was Helen, wife of Menelaus King of Sparta. She was so beautiful all the Greek kings courted her so. Her surrogate father Tyndareus (her real parents were allegedly Zeus and Nemisis) made the aspiring husbands promise they would fight to get Helen back if someone kidnapped her from the man she chose to marry.
We’ll never know if Helen was truly kidnapped or if she went willingly. Menelaus, who had invited Paris to his castle while he was away fighting, must have had some inkling as to what most likely really happened when he got back home and found Helen gone. Paris' mix of rugged good looks and royal background must have seemed attractive to a neglected wife. Whichever the case, victim or accomplice, Helen left with Paris for Troy, a regrettable act but too late to change the course of events. Rather than admit Helen could have left him, Menelaus cried fowl and blamed Paris.
When news of Helen’s abduction reached the kings of Greece they’d all but forgotten about the promise made to Helen’s father. Ulysses and Achilles tried to avoid participating in a war that did not concern them but Menelaus' resourceful messenger called their bluffs. Agamemnon (king of Mycenae, Menelaus’ brother), Ulysses (Ionian king of Ithaca) and Achilles (son of King Peleus of Thessaly) all had to leave their families to keep their promise to Helen’s father.
From the start there were obstacles, there was no wind to set sail and the bored soldiers were getting antsy. Agamemnon then did something terrible. He followed a soothsayer’s advice and sacrificed his youngest daughter, Iphigenia, to the goddess Artemis (in retribution for something minor) so the winds would carry his soldiers to Troy. Homer’s poem begins here.
Agamemnon’s act shocked the people of Greece, human sacrifice was not in their culture. In some Greek plays Iphigenia is spared and swept away to become a priestess. Maybe the gods were testing, to see just how far his arrogance would take him.
Comedy came unto its own with the Greek poet Aristophanes. He is the uncontested master of political and social satire and the body of his work is called Old Comedy.
Aristophanes (b. 448 BC) went completely opposite the mainstream way of thinking by actively opposing the internal wars and imperialism. He was suspicious of the sophists (the world's first lawyers) who used rhetoric to get rich, and condemned the social and political decadence of the times. He called Euripides a “degenerate” and made fun of the young playwright in The Frogs. He ridiculed Socrates in The Clouds, portraying the philosopher swinging from a suspended bird cage. The French writer Voltaire later held him ultimately responsible for Socrates’ condemnation by the court.
In his plays the main characters start off on an impossible project or journey to find themselves in surreal settings. The chorus, often disguised as objects or as animals, is included in the action.
Two Athenians, Pisthéstratos (Faithful-friend) and Evelpides (Good-hope), tired of living the dissolute life of the city, have decided to expatriate. Guided each by a bird they travel to the “domain of the birds” to create a city that would fit their ideals.
A hoopoe, who used to be a man called Terée but is now a bird, receives them cordially and at their request calls all the birds to an assembly. At first they’re suspicious of the men but Pisthéstratos uses all his eloquence as a former sophist to convince them the birds were once masters of the world, usurped by the gods...
The Golden Age
The extraordinary intellectual surge that appeared around the 6th and 5th century BC was not a uniquely Greek experience. A wave of novel ideas were simultaneously changing perspectives in the eastern horizon.
While Socrates questioned assumptions and cited the advantages of living an honest life, Confucius wrote his doctrine on personal ethics and government responsibility to better Chinese society. In India, Siddhartha’s quest for truth led him to a spiritual transformation produced by an ascetic way of life, while the Hindu Bhagavad-vita preached selflessness and inner detachment.
As the philosophers speculated on the origins of life their search brought them to the question of reality. “What is real?” One group believed reality could only exist as one infinite and unchangeable essence.
A second group dismissed the idea, insisting reality was relative and could only be found in the identifiable, physical world of opposites. The two factions had contrasting theories but shared the same foundations. Both camps preached reason, logic, discernment, and integrity.
Homer's Iliad and Odyssey
The stories for the tragedies were taken from Homer’s account of the Trojan War and the Greek armies' journey back from Troy, victorious after a ten year siege that ended through trickery (the Trojan Horse). It’s not certain if the poem was written entirely by Homer (who it seems lived circa 1000 BC) or if it was written by several poets but this is irrelevant - just so you know the jury’s still out. What is important is the early Greeks considered the poem historic fact, and along with Hesiod was the only text used in schools. Therefore the play is not about the story, which the public already knows by heart, it is the way the story is interpreted that is important.
The poets participating in the competitions were friends with the philosophers, and the philosophers’ observations on human behavior influenced the way they portrayed their characters.
The Hellenistic Period defines the expansion of Greek culture after the Macedonian king Philip II defeated Athens in 338 BC. His son Alexander, whose tutor was the philosopher Aristotle, inherited his father's passion for everything Greek. He continued the military campaign after his father's death and in a very short time his empire spanned Persia, Egypt, Europe, North Africa and India. Wherever he conquered he enforced the Greek language and culture.
The Hellenistic period ended with his death in 323 BC, after the quarreling generals sliced the empire in three parts. By then the Roman Republic had already become a redoubtable contender in the race for absolute power, while Macedonia was struggling with a civil war. The Roman army went straight to the heart and attacked Athens, the most sought after city in the Mediterranean, during the 2nd Punic War (Macedonian Wars). The Romans prevailed and occupied Greece and by 146 BC Macedonia had become a Roman province.
The Hellenic Period or Hellenism (from Hellen, grandson of the Titan Prometheus) defines a moment in Greek culture that reached its zenith in the 6th century BC with the statesman Pericles (born c. 495 BC).
His mother came from a wealthy and influential family and his father was a politician. Pericles, an introvert, opted for a frugal lifestyle. He studied with the philosopher Anaxagoras and the sophists Damon and Protagoras. He was also friends with the poet Sophocles, the sculptor Phidias, and the historian Herodotus.
He encouraged the citizens of Athens to take part in the city’s functions and under his governance architecture, philosophy, theatre and the arts thrived. Hellenism is often confused with the Hellenistic Civilization, which starts right after.
Middle Comedy - Athenian New Comedy - 400 BC - 323 BC
Greece - with an overextended and weakened army due to the constant battles between city-states - was captured by Philip II of Macedonia (Alexander the Great's father). To avoid censure, the caustic plays in Old Comedy, which targeted the political and social decadence of Athenian society, are replaced by more benign subjects inspired by daily life; family squabbles and misunderstandings, greedy merchants and street-wise servants. The characters are archetyped and the chorus, which was preponderant in Old Comedy, plays a minor role - most likely due to the growing number of characters. What we know about Middle Comedy comes second-hand as no works have survived excepting Menander.
Tragedy & Comedy
The Olympic Games
The first Olympic Games took place in 776 BC in the Greek city of Olympia, and reached their height of popularity between the 5th and 4th centuries BC - a period where the perfection of the human body was the base for Greek artists. The athletes were uniquely from the upper classes and every four years all of Greece participated in the event, which was dedicated to the god-of-gods Zeus.
Theodosius I (the last Christian emperor to rule both Constantinople and Rome under a united Roman Empire) banned the games in 393 AD. Obviously the spectacle of noblemen romping naked in front of an audience was not in keeping with the conservative canons of the Catholic Church, which the emperor enforced with a stringent hand.
After Athens regained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1829, Greece tried to revive its past glory by reinstating the Olympics (this time around with clothes on.) Only Greek citizens were allowed to participate and the games did not have much success until the French government asked Pierre de Coubertin, an educator and reformer from a military background, to set up an international sports organization. Coubertin had been responsible for integrating sports in public schools and in the army, convinced that a healthy body is conducive to learning.
He took example from the Greeks and set up an association that organized, in 1896, the 1st “International Olympic Games” in Athens. His vision was to use sports as a way to unite nations. The torch relay, or the Olympic Flame, symbolizes this ideal passed from one generation to the next.
The word “marathon” originated from the Greek city of Marathon when, in 490 BC a soldier, Pheidippides, ran the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens with news of a victorious battle. From this came the tradition to end the games with a marathon.