The charms of autocracy on the Euripidean stage
Greek tragedy is full of autocrats, but it is only on the Euripidean
stage that we hear dramatic characters advertising the merits of
autocracy. Taking as its starting point the debate between Theseus and
the Herald in the Suppliants this paper (a) will investigate
pro-autocratic views, criticisms of democracy as well as of democratic
assemblies that are responsible for horrendous decisions in other
Euripidean plays and (b) will explore the ubiquitous disenchantment
with the rule both of the one and of the many, taking into account the
socio-political environment and historical background as far as it can
be reconstructed by contemporary and later sources.
Theatre and autocracy in the Greek world of the High Roman Empire
This paper will attempt to establish whether the Roman administration or its culture-sensitive emperors had any impact on the reading, writing and performance of tragedy and comedy in the Greek East in the first three centuries of the empire. It will approach this under-documented topic from four angles:
- What is our evidence for the writing of tragedy and comedy? Does anything in that evidence suggest a different outcome from that of the classical or Hellenistic periods?
- What is our evidence for the production of tragedy and comedy at mousikoi agones? Again, does anything in that evidence suggest a different pattern from the classical or Hellenistic periods?
- What can be inferred from the quotation of and allusion to tragedy and comedy by authors like Plutarch and Dio of Prusa, figures who have a substantial investment in literary activity, who are politically sensitive and who have connections in the Roman administration? Do their preferences differ from those of politically less sensitive Greeks like Aelius Aristides or from what little can be inferred from Arrian’s version of the often anti-governmental lectures of Epictetus?
- Do readers in Egypt seem to be attracted to or to avoid plays the present autocracy in a strongly unfavourable light..
Dinner for two: constructive destruction in Varius’ Thyestes
Varius Rufus’ tragedy Thyestes was performed during the young Caesar’s Actian Games in 29 BCE. This performance context and the testimony that the author received a million sestertii for it make it virtually incontrovertible that the play endorsed and supported the victorious side and the incipient (soon to be Augustan) autocracy, but the way in which it did so is by no means as clear. Leigh (1997), building on the work of La Penna (1979), argued in a rightly influential article that the imagery of the tyrant as an appetitive, lustful and cannibalistic figure connects Platonic psychology, tragic characterization and political theory as reflected in historiography and oratory. Specifically, he connects the Antonius of Cicero’s Philippics (among other sources) with the figure of Atreus. Important as Leigh’s article is, its case for a relatively simple anti-Antonian discourse in Varius’ play is complicated by the fact that, while Atreus is the tyrant, butcher and mutilator, it is Thyestes who is the cannibal. Indeed any play about the brothers must deal with the problematic behaviour of both, and the one surviving line of Varius’ tragedy (iam fero infandissima, | iam facere cogor) shows that it foregrounded this doubleness.
This paper will re-examine the evidence for Varius’ Thyestes and also the related cases of the (re-)performance of Accius’ Tereus in 44 and the original performance of the same playwright’s Atreus in the late second century. It will show how a Thyestes in 29, rather than simplistically demonizing Antonius, must acknowledge and account for the horrors of civil war and the young Caesar’s own part in it. Building on Morgan’s related readings of Hercules and Cacus in the Aeneid (1998) and the bougonia in the Georgics (1999) as ‘constructive destruction’, Varius’ Thyestes will be shown to be a more sophisticated form of ‘propaganda’, explaining the horrors of the past as well as looking forward to the stability of the future autocracy.
Hieron II’s Dynastic Theatre
King Hieron II of Syracuse (279-215) completely transformed the Theatre of Syracuse, turning it into the centre of a large religious complex, which presented him as a powerful figure with a close relationship to Olympian Zeus and part of an ancient dynasty. The theatre communicated this message through its monumentality, elements of its decoration, connections with other parts of Heiron’s building programme, and especially through a system of seat-labelling which forced theatregoers to engage with his dynastic ideology in order to use the theatre. Syracuse’s history had left it with very complex attitudes to monarchy, but Hieron’s skillful shaping of its theatre allowed him to accentuate the positive aspects of the Syracusan monarchic tradition and to present his regime as an integral and permanent part of the Syracusan scene.
Alexander and Theatre
This paper will explore Alexander the Great’s use of theatre to legitimize, support, and frame his reign, from his apt quotations from tragedy, to his use of theatrical performances while on his Eastern campaign, to his self-presentation in costume as various gods, to his own performances of tragedy, including, famously, his performance of an excerpt of Euripides’ Andromeda from memory on the last night before his fatal coma. The paper will argue that Alexander utilized theatre for multiple, complementary reasons: to signify his status as a Greek king, to spread Greek culture throughout the world, to reassure his Macedonian soldiers that he had not abandoned Greek culture, and to reinforce his claims of divine parentage and, ultimately, of godhood. Whether Alexander sincerely believed that his appearance in costume as Dionysus or Heracles at public events transcended mere role-playing is unrecoverable, but its impact was clear. Alexander became the model of both the absolute ruler who used theatre to support his rule and the mad king, dressed up as a god, forcing his subjects to play along with his theatrical delusions.
Greek theatre in Republican and Imperial Rome
We investigate the fascination Romans had for Greek theatre and their apparent determination to make it their own--not only through theatre itself but also through portraits, reliefs, decorations and so on. The Romans problematized Greek culture. First the warlords of the Republic and then the benefactors of the Empire adopted theatre, a form of artistic expression they associated with democratic Athens; at the same time, they also distanced their own form of constitution from democratic Athens'. In re-producing theatre in its Greek, and specifically fifth-century Athenian, fashion, what form of Greek culture did the Romans want to express? What was the cultural and political gain in doing so? And did it change over time?
Antigone and the Autocrats
There is no play from antiquity which has had a more significant impact on the discourse of autocracy than the Antigone, especially since the hugely influential arguments of Hegel. This paper suggests that the play's understanding of autocracy has been systematically misunderstood in 20th and 21st century criticism -- including my own! – and suggests a different way of understanding the drama's dynamics. This very discussion will open out into a debate about how feminism and other contemporary political readings of the play are complicit with a misguided notion of heroism at the heart of the discourse of autocracy
and its resistance.
Tyrants in the closet: Seneca’s tragic autocracy
The paper will trace some prominent ways in which Seneca’s best-loved tyrants deploy theatricality to control both their narratives and their audiences. It will concentrate on Atreus, Clytemnestra, and Oedipus, perhaps the most self-conscious of Seneca’s royal characters.
Greek theatre in Italy: from elite to autocratic performances
We know that both elite Romans and emperors themselves organized theatrical performances in Greek (in public and private contexts) in Italy, even at times when Roman theatre was already well established. This paper will examine what was different in the aims, the modalities, and the effects of those performances when organized by autocrats compared to when organized by members of the elite in non-autocratic contexts. More precisely, it will look at the differences between performances in Greek language that took place in Italy during the Republic and those organized by Roman emperors during Imperial times, trying to determine if there was anything specific in the way those autocrats used Greek theatre, especially from a political point of view.
Where have all the good men gone? Autocracy and oligarchy in Greek tragedy
It is a boiler-plate truism that Greek tragedy is fundamentally democratic. (Or is it?) On the other hand, one of the most telling findings of the ongoing history of Greek theatre (at Sydney) is that democratic and autocratic regimes were more or less amenable to theatre, oligarchic regimes much less so. In response, in this paper, I seek to establish the relative visibility of autocratic and oligarchic regimes in extant tragedy.
The Artists of Dionysus in Ptolemaic Egypt:
Hellenization and Royal Propaganda
The early Ptolemies had a sophisticated cultural programme, introducing Greek religion and literature, establishing the Ptolemeia festival at Alexandria, and encouraging the Hellenization of Egyptian traditions. Part of this was the promotion of a local version of the Artists of Dionysus, who played a part in Ptolemeia festival and in entertainment for the royal court. The Artists were also apparently established in the Khora: two inscriptions from the Greek city of Ptolemais in the Thebaid attest an elaborate troop of musicians there, the earliest known Greek associations in Egypt (Paganini 2017). They were one of the groups Tlepolemus, regent of Ptolemy 5, lavished money on in 202-1BC according to Polybius (16, 21.8). The Egyptian Artists are barely mentioned in our sources between the 3rd century BC and the Roman period, when they take on a different form as part of the World Organization. Their lower profile in the later Hellenistic period seems to run parallel to the apparent decline of the Ptolemeia and Theadelphia festivals in Alexandria after the 3rd century BC.
The Egyptian Artists of the Hellenistic period existed not simply to provide artistic entertainment, but to support the regime and the dynastic cult. They differ from other groups of Artists in the Hellenistic period not because they gravitate toward political power, but because in Egypt this was probably their only role. Dionysus was important for royal propaganda because he could be presented the triumphant god who had presided over Alexander’s victories (cf. the place of the role of Sehel island near Aswan, known as the “Island of Dionysus” as a cult centre for the Egyptian “basilistai” in the 2nd century BC).
Additionally, in the Ptolemaic world view Dionysus could be claimed as the Greek version of an original Egyptian Osiris. In the narrative of Diodorus of Sicily (1.17-22) - which probably goes back to the Ptolemaic propagandist Hecataeus of Abdera (late 4th century BC), and now seems to have parallels in contemporary Egyptian texts - Osiris is a world-conquering culture hero, who prefigures Alexander. It is striking that in his narrative Diodorus (1.18.4) specifically associates Osiris with music (the satyrs, Apollo and the Muses), a detail which seems to be at variance with the divine personality of the Egyptian Osiris as usually understood, but which provides an Egyptian precedent for Dionysus’ association with theatre and performance. Seen against that background, the Ptolemies were not so much importing Dionysus and his Artists as bringing them home.
Satyrs amongst the kings
While tragedy, comedy, and the acting profession after the Classical period increasingly attract scholarly attention, the fate of the decidedly choral satyrplay in later periods is largely overlooked. Allegedly, satyrplay was spent even before the end of the Athenian democracy: in 438 BC Euripides staged the “prosatyric” Alcestis, and by the mid-fourth century BC it was no longer part of the tragic didaskalia. Yet plenty of evidence attests to the performance and popularity of new satyrplay in the centuries that followed. How are we to make sense of choruses of men in satyr-shorts outside of Classical Athens and apart from tragedy? In this paper I will lay out the evidence for the continued performance of satyrplay and will argue that satyric choruses enjoyed new relevance in the dramatic programmes of the Hellenistic kings and Romans.