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Classical Drama and Theatre

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Chapter 5: The Classical Age of Greece

I. Introduction: The Persian Wars and the Beginning of the Classical Age

Greek vase depicting the Tyrannicides, Harmodius and Aristogeiton, killing Pisistratus' son Hipparchus (click to see larger image)Pisistratus, the tyrant of Athens during the last half-century of the Post-Classical period, died shortly after he had instituted the City Dionysia. His sons inherited his power but, not having their father's sense of creating coalitions, they were forcibly removed from power soon after 512 BCE. It is not clear what happened next, but it must be in these years of unrest and disorder (510-508 BCE) that democracy first emerged in Athens.

The Acropolis of Athens, with the Parthenon (click to see larger image)For all the changes that may seem to entail, much remained the same. The rituals and festivals, quite a few of which the tyrant Pisistratus had introduced and promoted, continued on through the chaos of massive governmental reform, the City Dionysia being no exception. By the early days of the fifth century (the 490's BCE), the Athenians had settled into their new type of government where the general populace exerted direct control of the city through assemblies and the enactment of laws, and governmental measures regularly came to reflect the will of the majority.

Map of the Persian Empire (click to see larger image)But this new democratic regime hardly had a chance to catch its breath before it faced the greatest crisis Greece was to confront in the early Classical Age (the fifth century BCE). The massive and powerful Persian Empire attacked Greece, not once but twice. These two so-called Persian Wars (490 BCE; 481-479 BCE) are the primary focus of Herodotus' Histories and make some of the most fascinating reading of all time. It is not possible to do the Persian Wars justice here, only to note that, grossly out-numbered and vastly out-armed, the Greeks managed in both wars to push the Persians out of Greece mainly by setting aside traditional internal differences and fighting together for their common independence. It was, no doubt, the finest hour in ancient Greece and just about the only time the Greeks made common cause in antiquity. [Click here for more information about Herodotus and the Persian Wars.]

II. The Classical Age

Map of the city-states of ancient Greece (click to see larger image)Athens emerged from the Persian Wars triumphant. Using their navy and merchant marine, the Athenians took control of the seas around Greece. With renewed prosperity and a keen sense of their own importance in international affairs, they set about repairing the damage incurred during the wars and extending the traditions established prior to the Persian invasion, in particular, drama, painting and architecture.

Roman copy of a bust of Pericles (click to see larger image)Part of the reason for this surge in the arts was the confidence born of victory and independence. In antiquity, to win a war was to gain the assurance that one's gods were pleased, which meant that the ceremonies and celebrations performed in their honor must be to their liking. From that vantage point, it only makes sense to continue and even extend them.

Thus, the Classical Age was scion and heir of a sense of righteous vigor. Led by Pericles, a man who had to be re-elected to office every year but who was nonetheless firmly in control of Athens for much of his life, the Athenians set about expanding their commercial interests. Wealth soon poured into the city from an alliance called the Delian League which they had formed after the war for the benefit of all Greece, but their own mostly.

The Acropolis (click to see larger image)This new prosperity fostered many different cultural endeavors. The Parthenon, for instance, rose on the site of an old wooden temple to Athena on the Acropolis, the natural outcropping of rock in the middle of the city. During the Second Persian War, the Persian king Xerxes had burnt the old temple to the ground, a destruction that, devastating as it was, opened the way for a new, more modern and more elaborate shrine to the patron goddess of Athens. (Click here for more information about the Parthenon and other sacred spaces in antiquity.)

Socrates (click to see larger image)On the intellectual front, the best thinkers in the Greek-speaking world also flocked to Athens and imported a new way of looking at life dubbed philosophy ("love of wisdom"). At first these so-called sophists—the term originally meant "craftsmen"—became teachers and popular lecturers and then began to uproot the traditional modes of thought and later morality in Athens. Sophist as a moniker eventually came to be a slur implying "quack" and "charlatan," but there was no denying, at least at the outset, that these "artisans" taught valuable skills which won many a lawsuit and much political advancement for their students.

Underlying most of the sophists' tenets was a sense of relativism, that there is no fundamental good or bad, a dangerously cynical posture that bordered on atheism and threatened to erode the moral structures on which civil order, especially in a democratic society, depends. One sophist, the most famous, Protagoras, went so far as to say, "Man is the measure of all things." This maxim became the byword of the increasingly humanistic Classical Age.

The challenge presented by these sophists was met by perhaps the greatest team of thinkers in human history, Socrates and Plato. This teacher-and-student duo led the charge to set morality back on a firm foundation of strict philosophical argumentation and to counter the relativism of the sophistic movement. All cynics and sceptics since have had to face up to the dialogues of Socrates in which, as recorded by his student Plato, the master attacks various free-thinkers and debunks their wide-ranging claims that moral absolutes do not exist. It is still not clear which side won, but with this pair, staunch moralists gained a valuable and much-needed ally in the long on-going war between idealism and practicality, conviction and compromise, what ought to be versus what has to be.

III. The Peloponnesian War and the Post-Classical Age

Map: Athens and Sparta at the time of the Peloponnesian War (click to see larger image)The glory of Athens grew top-heavy by the later decades of the fifth century BCE. Made greedy over time by the wealth they had come to expect, the Athenians started expanding their realm by force. In response, Sparta initiated a war with Athens in 431 BCE in an effort to curb the Athenians' imperialistic designs, a quest for world domination as the Spartans saw it.

This on-and-off conflict is now known as the Peloponnesian War—Sparta is in the Peloponnese (southern Greece) and we today see the war from the Athenians' perspective since their records preserve the history of this conflict—it was essentially a civil war among Greek city-states, ending with Sparta's defeat of Athens in 404 BCE. The ultimate result was even worse. Weakened by incessant in-fighting, all southern Greece fell to a foreign power in the next century. The lesson to be learned about the consequences of a nation's failure to achieve compromise and peaceably resolve its internal disagreements is as yet not fully understood by many world leaders today: "United we stand . . ."

Philip II of Macedon (click to see larger image)In this so-called Post-Classical Age (the fourth century, i.e. the 300's BCE), the Greeks squabbled among themselves, allowing the expansion of the kingdom to the north of them, Macedon(ia), an area populated by Greek-speakers but ironically considered a "barbarian" nation by their more cultured southern kin. In Greek, barbaros means "foreign," purportedly from the nonsense syllables "bar bar" which is the way non-Greek languages sounded to the Greeks. During the first half of the fourth century, the Macedonians gradually consolidated their power in northern Greece and under the leadership of Philip II, a crafty and ruthless ruler and a general of great skill, began to extend their influence south.

Alexander the Great (click to see larger image)In 338 BCE, Philip succeeded in defeating the combined forces of the southern Greeks—Athens, Thebes, and Sparta all fighting together for the first time since the Persian Wars well over a century before!—and reduced them to a tribute-paying protectorate of his burgeoning empire. He would surely have become one of the best-known figures in history, had he not sired a son whose name and glory resound through all time, Alexander the Great. Still barely out of his teens, Alexander not only succeeded Philip as ruler of Greece but over the course of the next decade (333-323 BCE) went on to conquer many lands, including Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Egypt, and Persia, and even made incursions into India. When he died suddenly of a mysterious ailment in 323 BCE, he left behind a very different world.

Map: the Hellenistic Kingdoms (click to see larger image)The period after Alexander's lifetime is called the Hellenistic Age. Alexander had died without siring a legitimate heir, giving his generals carte blanche to seize and divide up his vast realm. These so-called diadochoi ("successors") inaugurated three centuries of internecine conflict in the eastern Mediterranean area. Governed by Ptolemy, one of Alexander's generals, followed by a long line of his descendants, Egypt was the only of these "successor states" to thrive and enjoy any stability, and indeed a Hellenized ("Greek-ified") Egypt did prosper, becoming a home-away-from-home for many post-classical Greek authors. The discovery there of thousands of papyri (scraps of "paper") with Greek writing on them, dating to the third century BCE onward, is evidence of the large number of Greek speakers who moved into Egypt in the Hellenistic Age. Thus, the Greeks' business interests continued to expand even after the Macedonian conquest, many becoming very wealthy in the course of their cosmopolitan commercial adventures.

Papyrus (click to see larger image)But, if well-fed and secure, they were also lost and unhappy amidst their materialistic bliss. One of the consequences of Alexander's dominion was to show what a small and insignificant place Greece actually was in the larger—the much larger!—world. Ironically, then, as the Greeks' monetary worth rose, their sense of self-importance declined. It grew ever harder, for instance, to believe that the Greek gods who presumably controlled the whole planet—and such an expansive domain it had proven to be!—would choose to live on a cold, medium-sized mountain in northern Greece, especially when it was now widely recognized that they could reside in an excellent vacation spot like Egypt. The Olympian religion, which had already suffered severe setbacks during the intellectual turmoil of the Classical Age, started to falter seriously.

Mount Olympus (click to see larger image)While not wholly discarding their ancestors' religion, many Hellenistic Greeks joined foreign cults in a search for greater meaning and direction in life. Some put religious structures aside altogether and indulged in philosophies, essentially cults based on logical argumentation, but in reality they were still belief systems of a sort. Spawned in the wake of Socrates and Plato, these philosophies dictated ways of living that could be deduced through proper reasoning.

The most important of these in the long run was Stoicism, a philosophy centering around the premise that the universe is essentially good and, therefore, suffering exists for the very purpose of building a better tomorrow. The logical response to this situation, the Stoics preached, is to distance oneself from any feelings of pain or remorse, to push aside emotion and understand that things will turn out for the better even if they do not seem that way at the moment. Thus, people should focus on their duty and ignore the pain encountered in the passage through life as much as possible. Stoicism has influenced a wide range of people then and now, from Saint Paul's conception of Christianity to Gene Roddenberry's depiction of Vulcans in Star Trek.

Eventually, the internal conflicts of these Hellenistic kingdoms spelled their doom. Yet another conqueror came along and took them down one by one. Unlike the Greeks, this new regime had for a long time avoided the fatal pitfall of internal bickering and thereby created the most powerful and long-lasting empire yet in Western Civilization. These conquerors were, of course, the Romans who began incorporating the Hellenistic Greek world into their realm around 200 BCE. Henceforth, Roman and Greek civilization would merge to form "Greco-Roman" culture, the hybrid we know as classical antiquity. [Click here for more information about the Hellenistic Literature and the Post-Classical Age.]

IV. Conclusion

The history of Greece is a tale of glory and folly, of inordinate success and incalculable waste. Perhaps because our strengths as humans almost invariably come from the same sources as our weaknesses—to wit, the blindness that leads many to be taken in by others also makes them brave in the face of overwhelming danger—the same things that had fostered the civilization of the ancient Greeks precipitated its fall, their unwavering belief in themselves and the conviction that their ways were the right ways, the best ways, and finally the only ways. In particular, the greed that drove the Peloponnesian War and fomented all its disasters for Athens and Greece alike was part and parcel of the Athenians' determination to improve themselves and their way of life. That is, the fire that sparked the Classical Age also incinerated it.

Parthenon (click to see larger image)Likewise, the Greeks' visionary art with all its grandeur and glory is tightly bound up with the egotism that led them early on to trust their own divine instincts but then also to underestimate the power of "barbarians" and eventually fall to beings they looked down upon as inferior. The Parthenon is a perfect example of how this all worked. It is a temple designed to please the human eye, not some god looking down from above. It is a three-dimensional reflection of the humanism that pervaded classical Greek thought, the soul sister of Greek philosophy that saw truth as what appealed to the mind, meaning the human mind. Raised out of the very bedrock of Greece, this magnificent edifice proclaims the greatness of our species and at the same time its ruins today show just how great we really are.

From the thin soil of their homeland, the pre-classical Greeks had built their civilization, a culture outstripping all previous ones in Europe, and then threw it all away fighting amongst themselves over those same dusty stones. In the end, the Greeks' sense of self-worth was both their triumph and their downfall. As that is the theme of so many classical tragedies, it makes sense that drama became one of their most enduring achievements.

Terms, Places, People and Things to Know
Classical Age
Persian Wars
Pericles [PAIR-uh-kleez]
Parthenon [PAR-thun-nawn]
Acropolis [uh-CROP-oh-liss]
Protagoras [pro-TAG-or-us]

Peloponnesian War
Post-Classical Age
Macedon(ia) [MASS-suh-dawn; MASS-suh-DOH-nee-uh]
Philip II
Alexander the Great
Hellenistic Age
Papyri [pup-PIE-rye]
Stoicism [STOW-uh-sizz-um]



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