Tragedy and Athenian Sovereignty over Greece

Tragedy is not just an exploration of the complexities, tensions and ambiguities of law and political power.  The great Greek tragedies were propaganda for Athens.  They defend the view that Athen was the centre of the Greek world, and uniquely able to bring justice to the Greek world.

 In Euripides’ The Suppliant Women, Theseus, legendary king of Athens, refers to Hellenic law, something which he evidently believes is known to Athens better than other Greek states, and justifies his intervention in Thebes.  He does indeed bring justice to the women of Argos, in their desire to bury the sons who died in an assault on Thebes.

In Oedipus at Colonus, Sophocles makes the moment of the death, or disappearance, of Oedipus, the moment at which Theseus learns some sacred secrets which he will pass down to future ruler of Athens.  Again Thebes, Theseus protects its former king Oedipus against the cruelty of Creon, at this stage the strong man of Thebes before he becomes king.  

In the Oresteia, a cycle of vengeance in Argos which is destroying the state is settled by a divine court in Athens, where Orestes takes refuge, and which is the mythical origin of the historical Athenian court of Areopagus.  İt is there that the cycle of revenge is ended and the chthonic divine revenge violence of the Furies is turned into support for a court which decided on guilt and punishment, independently of supposedly aggrieved parties.  

The centre of divine judgement in Ancient Greece was Apollo’s oracle at Delphi. In Ion, Euripides makes Apollo associated with Athens, and makes the royal family of Athens the ancestors of all Greek communities through Ion. Ion is the son of Apollo, who was a temple servant at Delphi. The Oresteia sends Orestes from Delphi to Athens.  

Argos (Mycenae) was the centre of Homeric Greece, its king, Agamemnon commanded the Greek forces against Troy.  His brother, Menelaus King of Sparta, is at the centre of the story because it is his wife Helen who was taken by Paris to Troy.  The Athenian tragedies turn Athens into the place where Argos is protected from itself, and from enemies.  Argos led Greece, now Athens leads Argos, with Sparta somewhere at the margins, not even worth directly abusing as the enemy of Athens.  

The tragedies are deeply involved in the creation of the image of a state, and in the ideology which justifies its existence. The divine and customary laws of Greece, and the freedom of the citizens of Greek city-states, is so deeply centred on Athens, that Athens can judge the whole of Greece and bring its own forces against other states.  

The tragedies, before, during and after the defeat of Athens in the Peloponnesian War, are full of the hubris which brought Athens to a fall in that war.  The tragedies are the cultural aspect of the Athenian belief in dominion over Greece, loose but real, going beyond all bounds of sustainable power.  


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