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The Oldest Dead White European Males

A defense of ancient (and tarnished) Greece.


The species known as DWEM, which has only recently been isolated and identified, is already the focus of intense controversy. As usually happens to newly discovered species, it is even being broken down into subspecies; I am informed that a professor at a local university has recently offered a course in DWAM, that is, in Dead White American Males, with readings presumably in such writers as Thoreau, Emerson, and Mark Twain. I propose to discuss only the European type, and, in particular, its first appearance on the face of the planet.

My specimens are certainly dead. In fact, they have been in that condition longer than any other members of the species—for more than 2,500 years. Despite recent suggestions that they came originally from Ethiopia, they were undoubtedly white, or more exactly, a sort of Mediterranean olive.They invented the idea and gave us the name of Europe, fixing its imagined frontier at the long sea passage between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, waters that Xerxes, the Great King of the Persians, crossed, Herodotus tells us, on his way from Asia to Europe. And they created a form of society in which, for all practical purposes (which were, for them, war, politics, competitive athletics, and litigation), women played no part whatsoever.

I refer, of course, to the ancient Greeks, particularly to those of the eighth to the fourth centuries before the birth of Christ. Their assignment to the DWEM category is one of the accomplishments of modern multicultural and feminist criticism; and it is a declaration of their irrelevance. But previous ages spoke of them in very different terms. "We are all Greeks," wrote Shelley in 1822, "our laws, our literature, our religion, our arts, have their roots in Greece." There is some exaggeration here, especially in the matter of the Christian religion, which has deeper and wider roots in Hebrew Palestine than it does in Neoplatonic philosophy; Shelley, who had been expelled from Oxford for writing and circulating a pamphlet titled "The Necessity of Atheism," was not exactly an expert in this field. Still, by 1865 this identification with the ancient Greeks had advanced so far that, as Frank Turner put it in his fascinating book The Greek Heritage in Victorian Britain:

The major commentator on Homer as well as a major translator of the poet, the chief critic and historian of Greek literature, the most significant political historians of Greece and the authors of the then most extensive commentaries on Greek philosophy either were or had recently been members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords.

The ancient Greeks were not seen just as roots, but as fully formed models of Victorian moral and intellectual culture. George Grote, the "intellectual and tactical leader of the philosophic radicals in the House of Commons," was the author of an influential History of Greece, in which the Athenian assembly bears a startling resemblance to the House of Commons, with Pericles as prime minister and his opponent Thucydides the son of Melesias as leader of her majesty's loyal opposition. And William Ewart Gladstone, in the intervals of serving as president of the Board of Trade, colonial secretary, chancellor of the Exchequer, and four terms as prime minister, found time to write a series of books, one of them in three volumes, on Homer, in which he tried to prove that the Greeks, like the Jews, were a chosen people, entrusted by God with "no small share of those treasures of which the Semitic family of Abraham were to be the appointed guardians, on behalf of mankind, until the fullness of time should come." The Victorians appropriated the ancient Greeks, imagined them as contemporaries, and used their writings as weapons in their own ideological wars. If they had been attuned to modern advertising techniques, they might have reversed Shelley's claim and launched the slogan GREEKS 'R' US.

There was a reaction, of course. Scholars such as Jane Harrison, James Frazer, and Andrew Lang, drawing on the rather unreliable anthropological material available to them at the time (unreliable because most of it had been compiled by Christian missionaries who, like Gladstone, tried to detect premonitions of Christianity in what they regarded as the aberrations of the primitive mind), painted a very different picture of the religious ideas and practices of the Greeks. And historians developed a more acerbic view of the realities of Athenian democratic in-fighting: the ten-year sentence of exile imposed on Aristides the Just, the suicide in exile of Themistocles, who had saved Athens in the Persian War, the assassination of Ephialtes, the reformist colleague of Pericles, the temporary overthrow of the democracy by an oligarchic coup d'état in 411 B.C., and the reign of terror of the Thirty Tyrants, backed by victorious Spartan troops, in 404.

In 1938 Louis MacNeice, who was a professor of Greek at the University of London as well as, next to Auden, the finest poet of his generation, bade a melancholy farewell to "the glory that was Greece" in his poem "Autumn Journal." Contemplating the prospect of once more acting, to use his own phrase, as "impresario of the ancient Greeks," he sketched an ironic picture of the professor preparing his lectures on Greek civilization:

The Glory that was Greece: put it in a syllabus, grade it Page by page To train the mind or even to point a moral For the present age: Models of logic and lucidity, dignity, sanity, The golden mean between opposing ills…

But then he suddenly turns his back on this familiar and comfortable prospect:

But I can do nothing so useful or so simple; These dead are dead And when I should remember the paragons of Hellas I think instead Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists, The careless athletes and the fancy boys, The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard—boiled sceptics And the Agora and the noise Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring Libations over graves And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly I think of the slaves. And how one can imagine oneself among them I do not know; It was all so unimaginably different And all so long ago.

The Roman word for "poet," vates, also meant "inspired prophet," and in these lines MacNeice unconsciously anticipated, as poets often do, future developments. For in the fifty or so years since he wrote them, classical scholars have concentrated their attention on the dark underside of what the Victorians hailed as the Greek Miracle. There is hardly an aspect of ancient Greek civilization that has not been relentlessly explored, analyzed, and exposed in its strangeness, its "otherness," to use a once fashionable term borrowed from the French existentialists, by scholars armed with the insights and methods of anthropology, sociology, psychology, psychoanalysis, structuralism, deconstruction, narratology, semiotics, and all the other proliferating weapons of the modern intellectual armory. If the Victorian vision of Greece could be summed up in the slogan GREEKS 'R' US, the modern critics could retort that GREEKS 'R' THEM, or more pointedly, GREEKS 'R' DWEM.


The results, of course, have been mixed. It might be said of the new approaches to Greek culture and literature what Sophocles in a famous choral ode of the Antigone said of mankind in general:"Equipped with the ingenuity of its techniques, a thing subtle beyond expectation, it makes its way sometimes to bad, sometimes to good." In this re-evaluation of the Greek heritage, four areas are of special interest: anthropology, psychology, slavery, and the position of women.

One thing is certain: the strangeness, the "otherness," certainly exists. Many of the normal, routine practices of the ancient Greeks seem to us not just strange, but positively bizarre. One of the most common occurrences in any Greek epic text, for example, is a sacrifice. Sacrifice, for us, is a blandly metaphorical word: we talk of a "sacrifice play" in team sports, or more seriously, in the old formulas of the Christian communion service, "We offer and present unto thee O Lord ourselves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice unto thee." And if we do think of sacrifice as a real ceremony, we are apt to see it in the romantic aura of Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn":

Who are these coming to the sacrifice? To what green altar, O mysterious priest, Lead'st thou that heifer lowing at the skies, And all her silken flanks with garlands dressed?

Keats stopped there; his urn didn't show what happened next. But Homer, more than once, gave the full scenario. A domestic animal, the victim, makes its way toward the rough stone altar (it must not be coerced). The presiding sacrificer cuts a tuft of hair from its head and throws it onto the fire that has been lit well in advance; he then scatters barley meal over the animal. Another ministrant swiftly brings an ax down on the animal's neck, cutting the tendons, and the women who are present raise their ritual shriek (ololuge is the Greek onomatopoeic word for it). Another celebrant pulls back the animal's head and cuts its throat; the blood is caught in a bowl and splashed onto the altar.

The carcass is now hacked apart. The tough (and valuable) hide is ripped off and set aside. The thigh bones are stripped of flesh, wrapped in layers of fat, and decorated with small pieces of meat from the edible parts of the victim: this is the portion of the gods, and as it is thrown on the fire the thick bluish smoke goes up toward their dwelling place in the clouds. Meanwhile wine for the gods is poured out on the ground. The liver and the heart of the animal are toasted on the fire and eaten, as the serious business of roasting the flesh proper begins.

And all this hard and bloody work takes place in the glaring Aegean sun. The air is heavy with the odors of sweat, blood, burning fat, and the inedible offal of the animal that has been thrown away.And the flies—Homer speaks of them elsewhere as swarming round the milk pails in peace time, and in a more sinister context as feeding on the wounds of a dead warrior—the flies must have been there in swarms, covering the raw meat, stinging the butchers at their work.

It is not like anything we know, but for Homer's audience it was routine, normal, on a par with the launching of a boat, or the arming—or the death—of a warrior; and it was always described in the same formulaic language. All this ritual bloodletting and butchery, moreover, is not only the preliminary to a feast, it is also an act of worship of the Olympian gods.

For us, however, it is a puzzle: an elaborate pattern of behavior that seems at once naive—in its offering to the gods of the bones and fat decorated with some token tidbits of the edible meat—and sophisticated—in the careful ritualization that blunts the shock of the animal's violent death and tries to absolve the celebrants (through its pretense that the victim is willing) of any feeling of guilt. It is the kind of puzzle that often faces anthropologists studying tribal customs in undeveloped countries.Indeed, much of the best modern work on Greek culture has in fact been based on an anthropological approach to the problems it presents.

As early as 1724, a French Jesuit called Joseph Lafitau, who had lived in Canada among the Indians, published a book in which he made the remarkable claim that though he had learned from classical authors many things that helped him understand the people he refers to as "savages," the reverse was also true: "The customs of the Savages afforded me illumination the more easily to understand and explain several matters to be found in ancient authors." This passage is cited by Pierre Vidal-Naquet, one of a brilliant group of French cultural historians who, in recent years, have used the insights and the techniques of modern anthropology to investigate the religious, moral, and political mentality of the ancient Greeks. Louis Gernet (1882-1962), little known in his lifetime, became famous after his student Jean-Pierre Vernant published a collection of his articles under the title Anthropologie de la Grece antique in 1968. Vernant himself, especially concerned with what he calls psychologie historique, "the history of the inner man," has given us a wealth of fresh and illuminating perspectives on Greek mythology, thought, religion, art, and literature, with a special emphasis on tragedy. Some of his many books have been works of collaboration: with Marcel Detienne, whose special field is religion and whose book Les Jardins d'Adonis is the only successful and rewarding application of the methods of Levi-Strauss to Greek mythology; and with Vidal-Naquet, a historian who concerns himself with formes de pensee, formes de societe, whose brilliant essays on ancient Greek politics, society, and literature draw strength and depth from his political engagement in the controversial issues of his own time—the war in Algeria, the Holocaust—and his sense of the vast perspectives, la longue duree, of history. (He recently served as editor of a remarkable Atlas Historique, a history of the human race from its prehistory to 1987 that makes inspired use of creative cartography and graphs.)

The problem posed by the rites of sacrifice is one of the principal concerns of these investigators; one of the many collaborative volumes issuing from their circle bears the evocative title La Cuisine du Sacrifice Grec. It is also the focus of an extraordinary book by Walter Burkert, a book that in its title has added to the already existing classifications of mankind—Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Homo sapiens, Homo sapiens sapiens, and so on—a new one: Homo necans, Man the Killer, Man the Sacrificer. Developing the theories of the Swiss folklorist Karl Meuli, Burkert traces the sacrificial ritual back to the preagricultural hunters, who, by their preservation of its hide, skull, and thigh bones, mimed a symbolic reconstitution of the slaughtered wild beast in a ceremony that absolved them from responsibility for its death—the "comedy of innocence"—and served as a magical deterrent to the extinction of the hunted animal's species. When, in the agricultural phase of human history, the victim was a domestic animal, the comedy of innocence, the pretense that the animal was a willing victim, became even more necessary. Burkert develops his probing analysis with immense learning, applying new insights drawn from his thesis to every aspect of Greek ritual and myth.


One of the principal concerns of the Paris circle, the history of the inner man, was also the subject of an influential German book by Bruno Snell called Die Entdeckung des Geistes (translated as The Discovery of the Mind), which appeared originally in 1948. But unlike the theories of the Parisians, which are always impressive and suggestive even when they cannot be fully accepted, Snell's thesis about the early Greek mind, specifically about the mind of Homer, is fundamentally unsound. Snell's argument is that the discovery of the mind was an achievement of post-Homeric Greece, that in Homer's poems we are in a world that has not yet conceived the idea of the individual consciousness, of the personality.

As might have been expected from one of the editors of a lexicon of early Greek epic, one of the most useful tools for research in the Homeric texts, Snell's method is strictly philological. He points out that there is no word in the Homeric vocabulary for the spiritual or intellectual organ that we call "the soul" or "consciousness." There is, of course, the word psyche, but it is used only of whatever it is that leaves the body with the advent of death. For the emotional and intellectual functions of the living man, Homeric language offers a plurality of organs: the thymos, seat of violent passions, especially anger; the phrenes, seat of rational consideration and corresponding intention to act; noos, the organ of thought, of reflection, not connected with action or intention. And the word phrenes, which locates the rational faculty in the human body, does not mean, as we would expect, the brain; it means the diaphragm, the midriff.

Snell also claims that the Homeric language has no word for "body" either, except the word soma, which, as the ancient commentators pointed out, is used only of the dead body. The living body is thought of not as a unity, but as a collection of separate limbs—arms, legs, torso, head—just as the consciousness appears not as a central entity but as the separate realms of thymos, phrenes, and noos. All this, taken together with the frequency of expressions that attribute human action to divine intervention, seems to him to rule out for Homeric man the existence of a personal self in any sense we can understand. Snell's conclusion is disconcerting. "As a further consequence," he sums up,

it appears that in the early period the "character" of an individual is not yet recognized….There is no denying that the great heroes…are drawn in firm outline and yet the reactions of Achilles, however grand and magnificent, are not explicitly presented in their volitional or intellectual form as character, i.e., as individual intellect and individual soul.

Snell's case has an obvious weakness: it is an argument from silence, always a dangerous argument, especially when applied to two long poems that we know are only a fragment of what once existed in this epic genre. He is conscious of this weakness, though, and he tries to reinforce his position:"Through Homer, we have come to know early European thought in poems of such length that we need not hesitate to draw our conclusions, if necessary, ex silentio. If some things do not occur in Homer though our modern mentality would lead us to expect them, we are entitled to assume that he had no knowledge of them." But this, too, rests on a false assumption, on the assumption that the language of the epic poems is the language of Homeric society.

It was not, of course, the language of Homeric society (whatever that phrase may mean), nor of any society that ever existed. It was a language spoken neither by gods nor men, but one devised for epic song, full of ennobling archaisms, and every word and form amenable to the prosodic demands of the epic hexameter line. One scholar (an American this time) has gone so far as to argue that the Mycenean kings transmitted their mobilization orders in epic hexameter, and that pilots used the same medium to pass on sailing directions; but this picture of epic verse as a functional means of everyday communication (which Snell needs for his argument from silence to be taken seriously) is a fantasy.Suppose a soldier made some smart rejoinder to the mobilization order. The officer of the day would surely not have said to him what Homeric characters say to each other in such circumstances: "poion se epos phugen herkos odonton"—"What kind of word has escaped the stockade of your teeth?" There must have been some snappy Mycenean equivalent of "At ease, soldier!" And the chances are small that it would have fit the metrical pattern of the hexameter line.

In any case, the lexical method itself, with its assumption that the lack of a descriptive term argues the absence of the phenomenon for which there is no name, is a snare and a delusion. The English language—and I am not talking about 27,000 lines of early English verse, but about the whole range of spoken and written English from Chaucer to, say, Norman Mailer—has no word for that momentary self-congratulatory glow of satisfaction, immediately repressed, that is provoked by the news of the misfortunes of our friends, for the reaction "Better him than me" or "It's about time he learned the facts of life." When we want to describe this emotion, we have to fall back on a German word, Schadenfreude.

It is to be hoped that no future student of Geistesgeschichte will announce, on this basis, that this ignoble emotion was never experienced by people who grew up speaking English—or French, or Italian. Indeed, English propagandists in the First World War made much of this fact, and suggested that only the Huns had such base feelings. They were keeping silent about the fact that the classical Greeks, whom they had all been taught to admire by Dr. Jowett of Balliol, had a very expressive word for it: epichairekakia, "rejoicing over calamities." (It is to be found in the Nichomachean Ethics of Aristotle, a text through which most Oxford men had been taken at a slow pace.)

Our researcher, however, had better look beyond the absence of such a word from the English and French dictionaries. In the first edition of his Reflexions Morales, published in 1665, La Rochefoucauld printed under the number 99 the following maxim: 

Dans l'adversité de nos meilleurs amis nous trouvons toujours quelque chose qui ne nous déplait pas. (In the adversities of our best friends we always find something which is not displeasing to us.)

La Rochefoucauld suppressed this scandalous thought in all succeeding editions of his famous maxims, but Dean Swift, in Dublin, had read the first edition and presented the idea, in his own fashion, to the English-speaking public: 

Wise Rochefoucauld a maxim writ Made up of malice, truth and wit…He says: "Whenever Fortune sends Disaster to our dearest friends Although we outwardly may grieve We oft are laughing in our sleeve." And when I think upon't this minute I fancy there is something in it.

But the flaws in the argument from silence are even more serious than at first appears. The silence is far from perfect. There is, in fact, a Homeric word for the body as a unit, demas, a word that Snell dismisses hurriedly on quite inadmissible technical grounds. And there are many passages in the poems that suggest a Homeric conception of the unified individual personality. Above all, there is the hero's name, the name that he proudly bears and proclaims on all occasions, whether exulting over a fallen enemy or claiming his share of glory, the name that he conceals in the Cyclops's cave and later proudly, and as it turns out rashly, announces to his blinded enemy, the name by which later he proudly identifies himself at the court of the Phaeacians: "I am Odysseus, son of Laertes, known to all mankind for my crafty designs—my fame goes up to the heavens…"

This is the heroic self, the name, which in the case of Odysseus as in so many other cases is a speaking name, with more than a hint in it of the hero's nature and destiny. But an individual personality is also suggested in those recurrent passages where a hero addresses some part of himself, his thymos or his kradie, his heart; the words used imply the central personality of the speaker, a personality to which the part addressed belongs. It might be added that Homer's reference to the diaphragm as the organ of the intelligence is no more surprising than our own frequent reference to the heart as the organ of the emotions or even of the intellect. Pascal knew all about the brain, but that didn't stop him from saying le coeur a ses raisons, and a famous American senator once ran for higher office with the slogan, "In your heart, you know he's right."

All this does not mean, of course, that Snell's careful analysis of Homer's language has to be rejected; his lexical approach has thrown light on many aspects of Homeric thought and feeling. What does not stand up to examination, however, is his claim that the language reveals the absence of a conception of individual personality, and that consequently a discussion of character as a base for speech and action is, in the case of the Homeric poems, irrelevant and misleading.

Many scholars who repudiate the extreme position still feel it necessary to warn against the use of the word "character." They give the impression that they think Snell is only half wrong: they claim that in Homer, and for that matter in Greek tragedy, we do not find the fully developed personalities with which we are familiar in modern literature. "However strong their impact as personalities"—I am quoting Albin Lesky, one of the most judicious scholars in this field—"they lack the wealth of individual features—often represented for their own sake—of their modern counterparts." He is obviously thinking of the novel—Emile Zola's gigantic creations, for example, or those of Thomas Mann; in Buddenbrooks the reader will find a myriad of "individual features…represented for their own sake." But the fact that Homer does not carry this extra baggage is something to be thankful for, not regretted. Shakespeare did not carry it, either: he did not tell us what young Hamlet was studying at Wittenberg, or how many children Lady Macbeth had. Homer's characters, like Shakespeare's, like those of all great art, are the product of creative genius working in a rich tradition and equipped with an exquisite sense of artistic economy and balance. This poet knew what so many of his successors never learned, or else forgot: that (to quote Corinna's advice to Pindar) one should sow seeds with the hand, not the sack. Voltaire, many centuries later, put it another way: "The recipe for boredom is—completeness."

The proof of the pudding, in any case, is in the eating. Homer's characters are in fact among the most individually striking ever created. The later Greeks never tired of discussing, in prose and in poetry, the nature of Achilles' pride, the suicidal wrath of Ajax, the versatility of Odysseus; they re-created these figures in terms of their own time on the tragic stage. And subsequent ages have followed their example: Bloom, Dedalus, and Molly are only the most recent of a long series of re-embodiments of Homer's characters. Only Shakespeare can compete with Homer in this extraordinary power to impose his fictional personalities on the imagination of succeeding ages. Only scholars—and I speak of them with sympathy, since I am one of their number—could bring themselves to deny Homer the power to create literary character in the fullest sense of the words, in defiance of the brute fact that Homer's characters have fascinated and obsessed writers and readers for some 2,500 years, longer than any other such set of personalities except the characters of the Hebrew Old Testament.


The "inner man" is not the only precinct of ancient Greece to be explored with new insights and technologies. Attention has also been directed to two aspects of Greek, and especially Athenian, culture that the Victorians swept under the rug: slavery, and the inferior position, one might even say the subjection, of women. The Victorians were not alone in their indifference to the phenomenon of chattel and other kinds of slavery in Greece; as Moses Finley acidly pointed out, the very full index to Paideia, Werner Jaeger's three-volume work on the formation of the Athenian character, which appeared in 1933, contained no entry for "slaves" or "slavery." This despite the fact that, as Finley remarked elsewhere, "there was no action, no belief or institution in Greco-Roman antiquity that was not, in one way or the other, affected by the possibility that someone involved might be a slave."

There were two things that the Greeks of the classical period prized above all others. One was kleos or fame, the admiration of his fellow men for his prowess as a soldier, an orator, or an athlete—particularly the last, for winners of events at Olympia and the other great games were so overwhelmed with honors and rewards that it was a commonplace in the odes that poets wrote, on commission, to celebrate their victories to remind them, in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes blunt, that they were not gods but only mortals. The other thing that the Greeks prized was schole, or leisure: freedom from the drudgery of work, time to stroll in the columned porticos of the city and discuss politics, points of law, or the latest tragedy, and to attend the law courts, where suits were under judgment, or the Assembly, where questions of policy, even of peace or war, were under discussion, and to frequent the gymnasium, where they could keep the body in shape and at the same time admire the beauty of the young men who might well be listening to a snub-nosed, barefoot eccentric called Socrates.

Slaves rarely make an appearance in the dialogues of Plato (though there is an exception in the Meno, where a house-born slave boy is used for a demonstration that even the lowest form of human life has latent knowledge that can only have come from a previous existence). But without the slaves those long, leisurely conversations, in the gymnasia, the wrestling schools, the houses of the wealthy (Agathon, Callias, Polemarchus), and by the banks of the Ilissus, could not have taken place. Finley is only one of the historians (Vidal-Naquet is another) who have investigated the "peculiar institution" of the Greeks in all its complexity and its diversity—the chattel slaves of Athens, mostly of foreign origin, the native Helots of Sparta and Penestae of Thessaly, the various forms of debt bondage and the many other forms of dependence summarized in the ancient formula "between free and slave."

Slaves were not the only prerequisite, however, for those golden hours of leisure. Someone had to oversee the slaves. A man also needed a wife, whose excellence, according to one of Plato's characters, was "the duty of ordering the house well, looking after the property inside, and obeying her husband." What is meant by "ordering the house well" is made clear in the Oeconomicus, another Socratic dialogue, this one by Xenophon. It introduces us to Ischomachus, a young gentleman who has just finished instructing his new bride, a girl of less than fifteen years, in her duties. He tells Socrates, proudly, what he prescribed: she is to train and to supervise a staff of domestic slaves, to organize the efficient storage of equipment and supplies, to store and to manage the distribution of grain, wine, and oil, to make and to meet the annual budget, and to see to the manufacture of household clothes from the raw fleece all the way to the finished garment. She is strongly urged not to use makeup of any kind and to avoid sitting by the fire; she is to be constantly on the move, checking, inspecting, helping. According to Ischomachus, she accepted the program with enthusiasm.

It is typical of the male Greek attitude that we are never told the wife's name. She is just "the wife of Ischomachus." This faceless anonymity was the norm for respectable Athenian women; even in legal cases, where their right or their claim to property may be the issue, they remain nameless. (A certain Neaera, an Athenian woman whose name does turn up in a court room speech, is, according to the speaker, not an Athenian citizen and has had a remarkable career as a prostitute.) When, at the end of the Funeral Speech that proclaimed the glory of the men who had fallen in battle, Pericles addressed a few cold words to their widows, telling them that their glory was "to be spoken about least," he was only expressing the firm conviction of the Athenian male.

Inside that house of which they were the managers and from which they rarely emerged, Athenian women must have been a formidable presence. Sometimes we get a glimpse of that aspect of the relations between the sexes, as in the Lysistrata of Aristophanes, where the play's heroine talks about wives asking husbands what they have been doing in the assembly today:

Too many times, as we sat in the house, we'd hear that you'd done it again—manhandled another affair of state with your usual staggering incompetence. Then, masking our worry with a nervous laugh we'd ask you, brightly, "How was the Assembly today, dear? Anything in the minutes about Peace?…"

But since the books, the inscriptions, and the vase paintings on which we have to base our vision of Athenian home life were all made by men, who no doubt fully agreed with Pericles on the subject of women, such glimpses are rare.

Still, there was much more to be found and studied than previous generations had found (or wished to find), and modern scholars, women prominent among them, have combed, reinterpreted, and assembled the evidence to re-create the life of ancient Greek women, and especially Athenian women, from childhood through initiation rites of various kinds to marriage and motherhood in its legal, religious, and social context. Understandably, some of the female scholars who deal with this material strike a polemical note. One vigorous survey of the position of women in Athens at its political and artistic high point, the fifth century B.C.—a book remarkable for, among other things, its extraordinarily full coverage of the evidence from vase paintings—appeared under the title The Reign of the Phallus.

But there is one category of evidence that poses a problem: the picture of women that emerges not from the court speeches, vases, and inscriptions, but from poetry, the epic, and the drama. For classical Greek literature presents us with an astonishing wealth of imposing female characters, in this respect far surpassing the Roman literature that was formed on the Greek model, and rivaling any literature of the medieval or modern world.

Homer's Odyssey, which in its present form is probably a product of the late eighth century B.C., gives us not only Penelope, the faithful and resourceful wife, but also Helen, the wife whose adultery caused a ten-year war and who now presides in queenly fashion over the court of the husband whom she had abandoned. There is also Nausicaa, one of the most charming—and intelligent—young women in all literature, as well as Circe, the enchantress who turns men into swine, and Calypso, the importunate divine mistress.

And Athenian tragedy, at the high point of the reign of the phallus, presents us with a succession of female characters who play leading roles, from Clytemnestra, the wronged and vengeful wife who towers over the male figures of the Oresteia, to Antigone, the young woman who, invoking divine law against human decrees, defies the power of the state; from Medea, the abandoned wife who makes her husband pay a terrible price for his ingratitude, to Electra, who, in Sophocles' play, never wavers from her resolve to avenge her father even when all hope seems lost; from Phaedra, wasting away from starvation as she tries, vainly, to resist the love for her stepson that Aphrodite has imposed on her, to Creusa and her passionate appeal to, and denunciation of, the god Apollo when she fears that he is not going to restore to her the child that she secretly bore him. Only one of the surviving tragedies has no female character, and the titles and fragments of the hundreds of lost plays tell the same story: women, on the tragic stage, play the active roles, as man's partner or more often antagonist, that real life, according to our other sources, denied them.

One proposed explanation of this surprising situation is that all the characters, men and women alike, belong to a far-off mythical past and so have little or no relevance to the passions and the concerns of the fifth-century audience. But this defies the realities of theatrical performance. Tragedy, Aristotle rightly says, should arouse pity and fear; it can only do so if it touches the deepest levels of its audience's hopes, wishes, and forebodings. And of course the Athenians did not think of the mythical heroes as far away and long ago; these figures were a forceful presence in the popular mind, as ideal models or awful warnings. When Socrates refuses to save his life by abandoning what he considers his god-given mission, he cites the example of Achilles, who refused to save his life by abandoning his resolve to avenge his friend Patroclus. And when the sentence of death is handed down, he tells the court he looks forward to meeting, in the lower world, such heroes as Palamedes and Ajax, who, like him, were unjustly condemned. In any case, Shakespeare's theater, too, presents characters and places far off or long ago. Not a single one of his plays is set in the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean context of his own time and country; and yet no one doubts that he lived up to Hamlet's prescription for the players and showed "the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."

It is true that with few exceptions, such as Aeschylus's Clytemnestra, the women in Greek tragedy act purely in the domestic sphere, as virgins, wives, or mothers, or if beyond it as in the case of Electra, through men. Tragedy gives us a picture of a life on which our prose documents are silent, a picture of the inner life of the house, the intimacy of the relationships between husband and wife, mother and son, father and daughter. It shows the wife and mother in that confined space where she is both queen and prisoner—a picture that is very different from the one suggested by the bland eulogies of the funeral inscriptions. It suggests what one would have suspected, that in many cases the result of confining a wife to the house, the slaves, and the children was to create a potentially explosive, even dangerous, force.

Of course, Greek myth provided plenty of examples of women as dangerous, as the adversary, from the Amazons who engaged in open warfare against men to child-killers such as Medea and Procne, husband-killers such as Clytemnestra and Deianira, adulterous seducers such as Stheneboea or (in Euripides' lost first version) Phaedra. It even provided dangerous women in large groups, like the fifty daughters of Danaus, forty-nine of whom slaughtered their husbands on their wedding night, or the women of the island of Lemnos who went to the extreme limit of defiance of the male hierarchy by murdering their husbands and marrying their slaves. And tragedy eagerly embraced such themes.

The chorus in Aeschylus's Suppliants are the daughters of Danaus; by threatening to hang themselves on the statues of the city's gods, they force a reluctant king into fighting a battle for them in which he loses his own life, and although the last two plays of the trilogy are lost, we know that forty-nine of them duly murdered their husbands. In Sophocles' Trachiniae, Deianira (whose name means "husband-killer") is the unwitting and unwilling agent of the death of her husband, Heracles. In the seventeen tragedies of Euripides that have survived intact, Phaedra, Electra, and Agave kill or help kill a man, Medea kills a man and her male children, Hecuba blinds a man, and Creusa tries to kill one, while on the other hand Alcestis gives her life to save her husband's, and Iphigenia, Macaria, and Polyxena are sacrificed at the altar by men. Women's voices are so insistent on the Euripidean stage that Aristophanes can have him say, in the Frogs, that in his plays, "They all stepped up to speak their piece, the mistress spoke, the slave spoke too,/the master spoke, the daughter spoke, the grandma spoke."

Some feminist critics have developed the argument that such a concentration on women in the public performance of tragedy was simply a reinforcement of the dominant male ideology, a justification of the seclusion and the repression of women. The plays, written by men and acted by an all-male cast, were performed at an official festival of the male-dominated democracy; the decision to award first, second, and third prize was in the hands of male judges, and, even more important, the selection of the three playwrights who were to have their plays produced was also the prerogative of male officials. The plays, even those of Euripides, who has often been considered sympathetic to women, must have been a reaffirmation of the male values of Athenian society.

Interpretations along these lines have been advanced with greater or lesser degrees of subtlety. Still, even the most fair-minded and rewarding treatment of the role of women in tragedy, Froma Zeitlin's chapter called "Playing the Other" in Nothing To Do with Dionysus?, while it explores brilliantly the theme that "drama…tests masculine values only to find those alone inadequate to the complexities of the situation," also finds that "in the end tragedy arrives at closures that generally reassert male, often paternal, structures of authority."

It is true, of course, that women in tragedy, even in Euripides, are almost always agents of male destruction or willing sacrificial victims. The trouble is that Euripides loads the dice against any easy acceptance of these situations at face value. He does this by his presentation of the male characters involved. Iphigenia gives her life for Greece, but the men for whom she gives it—Agamemnon, Menelaus, Calchas, Odysseus, even Achilles—are unmasked as weaklings, braggarts, cowards, and base intriguers. In Alcestis, a wife surrenders her own life to save her husband's in ideal Athenian wifely fashion, but the lines that Euripides puts in the husband's mouth must have made the audience sit up.

After all, if your wife agrees to die instead of you (and in this age of organ transplants this play could be less of a fairy tale than it was for the Athenians), you should know better than to react to her last dying wails with the customary formulas of the deathbed scene. You are the one husband in the world who cannot and must not say, as Admetus says, "In the name of the gods do not have the heart to abandon me—in the name of your children whom you will leave behind orphaned…raise your head up—be strong, endure—If you die I don't want to live." Above all, you don't say: "If I had the tongue and song of Orpheus, so that, enchanting Demeter's daughter or her husband by my music, I might have taken you from Hades, I would have gone below and neither Pluto's hound nor Charon the ferryman of souls would have prevented me from bringing you back to life and the light of the sun." He didn't have to go to such heroic lengths; he could just have died when his time came.And, as if this were not enough to set one's teeth on edge, Alcestis's death is followed by a quarrel between the husband and his father, who had declined, like his mother, to take his place in the grave. It is the most electric scene in the play, a sordid and bitter quarrel between two egotists, staged over the body of the woman whose self-sacrifice has made it possible for her husband to denounce his mother and father as cowards, and to disown them.

Jason, too, is condemned by his own words. Reminded by Medea that she saved his life in Colchis and left behind not only her family but also her status as a princess, he answers complacently that he owes his success at Colchis not to Medea, but to Aphrodite alone of gods and men; Medea was merely so madly in love with him that she couldn't help herself. In any case, he goes on to say, she has been amply repaid for what little she did do for him. "You left a savage country, to live in Greece; here you have known justice…" Medea will kill her sons, and Jason will lose not only them but also his bride and her father and his hope of a new kingdom; but after his speech it is hard to feel anything for him but contempt.

And the end of the play is no reassertion of "male…structures of authority." Jason is abandoned even by the gods to whom he appeals; they send down a magic chariot in which Medea escapes from Corinth. What is more, it is in this play that one of the fundamental male structures of authority is specifically repudiated: the ideal of martial glory, the sanctification of male heroic death in battle that is so memorable a feature of Pericles' Funeral Speech. "They say," Medea tells the chorus of Corinthian women, "they say we live a life free from danger in the house, while they fight, spear in hand. What fools! I'd be ready to take my stand in the shield line three times rather than give birth just once." That biological function that was for the Greek male chauvinist the only justification for woman's existence—"There ought to have been some other way," says Jason later on in the play, "for men to breed sons…"—that despised but necessary natural function is here given pride of place above the martial valor that was the highest virtue of the man and the citizen.


The relocation of Attic tragedy in its social and religious context has added much to our understanding of it. And yet the attempt to cut it down to size, to make it a prisoner of its environment, limited in scope by the constraints of Athenian male ideology, is a waste of effort. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. For great literature, though fashioned for and by its time and place, always reaches out beyond, speaking to later generations as well; it is, to use the terms of Jonson's eulogy of Shakespeare, not only of an age, but for all time. Many of the greatest poets are more fully appreciated by later ages than by their own. They foreshadow and help to create the sensibilities of the generations that come after them.

Euripides is a case in point. In the centuries that followed the end of Athens's great age, Aeschylus and Sophocles were revered as classics, but Euripides was performed. We have a vivid reminder of this fact in the shape of a broken piece of stone, part of an inscription of the fourth century B.C. that records the names of the nine tragedies offered by three poets at the Great Dionysia, together with the name of the author of the "old tragedy" regularly offered at this time in addition to the new ones. It covers the years 341, 340, and 339 B.C., and in each year the "old tragedy" was by Euripides.

Of course, he is not the only one to survive on the later stage. In recent years the plays of all three Greek tragic masters, in translation and in adaptation, have found fresh audiences on stage and screen, in theaters from Berlin to Edinburgh, from New York to San Diego; and they speak to us as if the centuries between our time and theirs had never been. In theaters all over the world, versions of Sophocles' Antigone, prominent among them those of Anouilh and Brecht, have faced modern audiences with the problem that Sophocles posed to his Athenian audience—the clash of loyalties, to the state and to older, higher obligations.

In Ireland, at Derry, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney recently produced his version of the Philoctetes of Sophocles, a play about a victim of injustice so embittered by suffering and by brooding on his wrongs that when salvation and a cure for his debilitating disease are offered by his enemies, for their own cynical purposes, he cannot bring himself to accept it; it takes a voice from the heavens to change his mind. Heaney wrote into what is for the most part a faithful as well as brilliant translation of the Sophoclean play a moral for his country and his times:

History says, Don't hope On this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime The longed-for tidal wave Of justice can rise up, And hope and history rhyme. So hope for a great sea-change On the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore Is reachable from here. Believe in miracles And cures and healing wells.

And we have seen, too, Iphigenia in Aulis played in New York as a protest against our war in Vietnam, and a French version of Euripides' Trojan Women produced in Paris as a protest against the French war in Algeria.

The Greeks are still very much with us. Even that strange ritual of sacrifice with which we started, that epitome of "otherness" so alien to our thought and our feeling, has its resonances in our world.We too might need some equivalent of the "comedy of innocence" if we had to kill a domestic animal with our own hands every time we ate meat. As it is, we leave the business of killing to others and try not to think about it. But in recent years many of us have indeed begun to think about it, to face the mechanical horrors of the stockyard slaughterhouse and worse, the refined cruelty of a system that raises animals confined and force-fed in narrow cages, so that even before its death the victim is deprived of any real life. Some of us have turned away altogether from eating meat, enough of us that public institutions and airlines make provisions for vegetarian meals. And in the ancient world, too, there were those—Pythagoreans and Orphics—who refused to take part in the sacrifice and the consumption of meat, even though it cut them off from the community and made them a people apart, and sometimes persecuted.

In fact, when one thinks again of that list of things that MacNeice, the Anglo-Irishman writing in Hampstead in 1938, found so unimaginably different, one can not help feeling that to an American, especially to an American living in or near the city of Washington, D.C., in the spring of 1992, they seem all too familiar. "When I should remember the paragons of Hellas," he wrote, "I think instead

Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists, The careless athletes and the fancy boys, The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard—boiled sceptics And the Agora and the noise Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring Libations over graves And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly I think of the slaves.

The Agora was the marketplace, for which we have substituted the shopping mall. Women today may not pour libations on graves, but we have our macabre funeral parlors, where the late lamented, embalmed and touched up for the occasion, make a last appearance for relatives and friends. Our trimmers are not at Delphi, they are much closer to home. And our dummies are not at Sparta—but we have them all right. As for the slaves: Americans need no reminder that 150 years ago there were slaves and slaveowners on both sides of the Potomac.

Indeed, when we think of the two great flaws in Athenian democracy that recent scholarship has explored and emphasized, we ought to remember not only that slavery and male dominance were characteristic of all ancient societies, but also that we, of all people, have no right to cast the first stone. Pericles' proud claim for Athenian democracy—power in the hands of the people, equality before the law—makes no mention of the slaves, but our Declaration of Independence, according to which "all men are created free and equal," does not mention them either, although the man who drafted it and many of those who signed it were owners of African slaves. That wrong was finally righted only by a bloody and destructive civil war, but we are still suffering the consequences of those many years of injustice. The wound in the commonweal is not healed yet, and we have to pray and to believe, like Heaney, that "a further shore/Is reachable from here," that "hope and history" may "rhyme."

As for the other flaw, the exclusion of women from Athenian public life, we should not forget that women in these United States had to struggle for more than half a century before the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution gave them full voting rights in 1920; that Great Britain reluctantly made the same concession in 1928; and that the French took the last word of the revolutionary slogan "liberte, egalite, fraternite" so literally that French women were not given the right to vote until 1945.

All this does not entitle us, of course, to discard the results of the re-evaluation of Greek culture that has emphasized its "otherness," the attitudes and the institutions that resemble those of Egypt and Babylon, not to mention those of Lafitau's Algonquins, Hurons, and Iroquois. But we should not forget the astonishing originality that sets the Greeks apart, that makes them unique. They invented democracy more than 2,000 years before any modern Western nation took the first steps toward it.They invented not only philosophy and the theater, but also the model of a national literature, with its canon of great writers, its critics and commentators, its libraries. They invented organized, competitive athletics. They invented political theory, rhetoric, biology, zoology, the atomic theory.One could go on. Though we can no longer say, with Shelley, that we are all Greeks, nor can we claim, as the Victorians might have claimed, that GREEKS 'R' US, we must always acknowledge how greatly, how deeply, how irrevocably, we remain in their debt.

Bernard Knox was an American classicist whose books include The Oldest Dead White European Males: And Other Reflections On The Classics.

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