When I was a senior in college, I took a seminar in tragedy.  We read a lot of the same plays you have just finished reading and quite a few plays from later writers attempting to equal the Greek tragic playwrights.  

For the most part, most post-Greek playwrights failed, even though they often came up with some splendid plays.  Partly, this was because of the confusion between tragic events and tragedy.  Any playwright can show you tragic scenes: death, destruction, poverty, sickness, etc.). But to turn these events into tragedy requires something more.  

Requirements for tragedy

First of all, tragedy requires a protagonist of sufficient nobility and stature, a character that commands, not just our sympathy, but our respect and even admiration.

Next, a good tragedy centers around a conflict of great magnitude, perhaps a conflict between right vs. right, the conflicting claims of important responsibilities, e.g., responsibilities to family, state, and to the gods.

Finally, good tragedy should have a catharsis, a resolution that doesn’t just bring to an end the stage action, but also affects the audience in an important way.  There should be something in the tragic events that increases the stature of the protagonist, making him somehow nobler.  Note the dilemma for Hamlet in his “To be, or not to be speech” and that odd line about “whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows….”

The story we address next in this class, the story of Athens in the 5th century BC (more specifically, from the end of the Persian war in 479 BC until the end of the Peloponnesian War in 404 BC) has both tragic elements and the elements of a real tragedy, elements that show forth particularly clearly in the pages of Thucydides.

We will look at four phases of the Athenian story—perhaps equivalent to three tragedies and a satyr play.

1.  The rebirth of Athens (479-460). This period begins with Athenian expansion and success but ends with some setbacks and a stalemate but with Athens well off.

2. The Wars of Pericles (460-445). This follows a similar pattern, Athenian expansion and success, followed by setbacks and a stalemate, and Athens still doing fine.)

3.  The Archidamian War (431).  This is the first phase of the Peloponnesian War proper.  It begins with Athenian aggression and success, but ends with setback and a stalemate, with Athens still well off.

4.   The Decelean War (420-404).  This is the 2nd phase of the Peloponnesian War and, here too, it starts with Athenian aggression and success, but this time it ends up—well, we will see.

After the defeat of Mardonius at Plataea (479) and the destruction of the Persian navy at Mycale (also 479), it might have seemed that Gree freedom was assured.  In defending their freedom, the Greeks had again and again defeated the armies of the most powerful empire of the time.  What force on earth could possibly threat Greek freedom?

Well, there were still threats to Greek freedom.  The Persians might regroup once again.  They had the resources to launch another formidable attack on Greece, and they could influence Greek affairs in subtler ways.  But the great threat to Greek freedom came from a surprising source.  Not the despots of Persia, but they democrats of Athens proved a threat to Greek freedom.

Athens did not set out to stamp out Greek freedom: quite the reverse.  But, like Oedipus who finds out he is the man bringing divine wrath on Thebes, so the Athenians found themselves doing what they would have thought abominable.

The Athenians do start out this period as liberators, rather than oppressors, and Athenians were in general popular among the other Greeks—certainly more popular than the Spartans.

Right after the Persian War, the Spartans seemed the logical leaders of Greek attempts to ward off any further attack from the Persians.  They had their own elite troops plus the forces of the Peloponnesian League.  Corinth, Megara and the Spartan “perioikoi” were all solidly behind Sparta.  

But the Spartans had a knack for making themselves unpopular.  Overseas influence was a corrupting influence on the Spartans.  Pausanias, the great hero of the battle of Plataea, is a good example.  Once out of Sparta, he was high-handed and corrupt—behaving like a Persian overlord in regions the Spartans had “liberated’!  He begins an intrigue with the Persians which might end up with him working for the Persians and marrying one of the Persian king’s daughters!  He’s recalled to Sparta to face trial, but there’s insufficient evidence.  He continues his intrigues, until one of the messengers read the message he was supposed to deliver and saw in it orders for his own death. He returns to Sparta and gives the information to the ephors, who want somewhat better evidence.  The messenger meets with Pausanias and reproaches him—and Pausanias admits his treachery, but promises the messenger rewards if he’ll not expose the story.  But the ephors were listening.  Pausanias figures out he is in trouble, flees to a temple, where the Spartans seal him in, letting him out only just before he dies of starvation.

Spartan difficulties here meant that overseas leadership ends up ceded to Athens.  But a strong Athens was a potential problem to Sparta, and so, in the period following the Persian War, the Spartans wanted to stop Athens from building new walls and fortifying the city (remember that the Persians had destroyed the city of Athens in 480 BC).  

Athens gets its walls rebuilt anyway, thanks in large part to Themistocles, the man who had masterminded Greek victory at Salamis.  Themistocles tells the Athenians to get to building while he goes to Sparta to negotiate.  Themistocles then delays the discussion, claiming to be waiting for the other Athenian ambassadors.  The rumor spreads in Sparta that the walls are being built.  Themistocles tells the Spartans not to listen to rumors but to send men to go see for themselves.  Meanwhile, he’s told the Athenians to delay the ambassadors when they reach Athens: not really a hard thing to do when one considers all the good things one might enjoy in Athens that were unavailable in Sparta.  Themistocles gets the message that the Athenian walls were sufficiently strong to defend the city—and then goes home.  No point in negotiating anymore!

With Athens itself fortified, Athens can now lead a coalition of Greeks to deal with potential Persian problems.  In 477, Themistocles (behind the scene) and Aristides (more openly) help create the Delian League.  

Themistocles and Aristides are themselves the kind of men who might be viewed as tragic heroes…but who also symbolize some of the tragic conflict of Athens itself.

Both were champions of Greek freedom. Both were fine generals, and both played key roles in defending Greek freedom against the Persians. Both loved Athens, and wanted what was best for her, but they were two very different kinds of men with two different ideas of what was best.

Themistocles and Aristides were political rivals, and their rivalry is well reflected in the pages of Plutrach’s lives.

During the Persian War, Aristides earned a reputation as a particularly admirable man.  Though capable himself, he knew when others might be better than he. He was one of the strategoi at the battle of Marathon, and it normally would have been his turn for supreme command as the strategoi rotated through their duties.  But Aristides differed to Miltiades, recognizing him as as the better man to command at the time.  At Marathan, Aristides himself fought hard himself at the center of the Athenian line, and, when the fighting was over, he was chosen to guard the spoils: here was a man one could trust.

After Marathon, Aristides became so famous for his trustworthiness that he won the nickname Aristides the Just.  This was sure to arouse jealousy, of course, and  Aristides was ostracized in 482 BC.  He had been handed a pre-marked ostracon with his name inscribed on it by a man who didn’t even know who he was.  Aristides asked the man what he had againt “Aristides.”  “Nothing,” said the man.  “I don’t even know him.  But it bugs me to hear him called “the Just.

As he left the city, Aristides prayed that Athens would never be in bad enough shape that they would have to call him back.  But, of course, Athens soon was in bad shape. When the Persians came back in 480 BC, Aristides was recalled to Athens where he was needed.  He worked with Themistocles at Salamis, but after the victory, he and Themistocles disagreed on strategy.  The latter wanted the Persian bridges across the Bosporus destroyed.  Aristides said no: we want them gone, don’t cut off the retreat.  Themistocles sent message to Persians claiming credit for unburned bridges!

At Plataea, too, Aristides played an important role, convincing the Athens to not argue about place of honor in battle but to fight well wherever they were.

As I note above, Aristides (the public face) and Themistocles (behind the scenes) guide the formation of the Delian League in 477.  This league was formed with three main purposes:

1.  To protect Greece against future Persian attacks.
2.  To liberate the Ionian Greeks
3.  To get reparations for the damages caused by Persia in the earlier war.

Aristides was in charge of figuring out appropriate payments by each Greek city-state.  He gave each city state a choice: they could contribute men and ships, or they could just pay a money equivalent at let Athens supply extra men and ships.

This ended up working out well for Athens.  Lots of good jobs for poorer Athenians, lots of opportunities for Athenian businessmen.  The Athenian economy grows, and, with the strong economy, Athenian culture takes off as well.  We’ll soon have the “Golden Age” of Athens.  Themistocles didn’t stay to see it though:  like Pausanias, he gets involved in Persian intrigues, but, more skillful than Pausanias in such dealings he makes it pay off.  A sort-of tragedy, I suppose, that Themistocles and Pausanias, two key figures in the victory of the Greeks over the Persians, end up betraying Greece to Persian interests.

But while Themistocles deserted the cause of Greek freedom, Athens as a whole was doing a solid job: the Delian League worked well.  In 468 BC, troops led by Kimon [Cimon] won a huge victory over the Persians at Eurymedon.  The Persian threat seemed considerably less.  Many Ionian Greeks were now free.  And the Greeks had all sorts of Persian treasure, enough to rebuild what Persia had destroyed.  

Mission accomplished: time to disband the league?  Not so fast, says Athens.  The Athenians, partly from self-interest and partly because the Persians really were still a potential danger, wanted the keep the league together.

For a few years, there weren’t any real problems.  Kimon was the dominant figure in Athenian political life, and his aristocratic/pro-Spartan sentiments allowed Athens to avoid conflicts with the other major Greek power.  But Kimon lost his influence as a result of an earthquake in Sparta in 464 BC.  Kimon induced the Athenian assembly to vote to send immediate aid to Sparta.  But when Athenian troops arrived in Laconia, the hyper-xenophobic Spartans said thanks, but no thanks: please go home.  This was a slap in the fact to Athens, and Kimon payed the price: he was ostracized.

This makes way for Ephialtes and Pericles, more democratically-minded leaders, to take over Athens.  Ephialtes in soon assassinated, but Pericles continues the work of completing Athenian democracy.  The Council of the Areopagus loses most of its power, becoming primarily a manslaughter court (cf. Aeschylus’ Eumenides, presented in 458 BC).  Also, under Pericles people are now paid for serving in public office, making it both more attractive and easier for the poorer folk of Athens to participate.

Pericles is the chief protagonist of this period of Athenian history.  He is certainly a man of sufficient stature for a tragic hero.  Son of Xantippus, the victor at Mycale, Pericles had much of his father’s ability as a stragegos.  A student of the philosopher Anaxagoras, he had wide-ranging interests beyond the military.  And behind every great man there stands a woman: in Pericles’ case, his mistress Aspasia.  Aspasia was one of the hetaerae, a well-educated foreign woman.  Even Socrates claimed to have learned much from Aspasia, and some historians speculate the she was Pericles’ speech writer and that the great funeral oration Thucydides features early in his Peloponnesian War was really written by Aspasia.

There is a famous bust of Pericles that shows two sides of his character.  From one perspective, he appears noble: the great statesman.  From another perspective, Pericles looks ruthless.  A potentially tragic duality here?  Maybe.

Pericles was a champion of cultural activities, sponsoring theatrical productions and encouraging the arts.  But he also encouraged an expansionist foreign policy.

•    459—Expeditions against Corinth , Cyprus, and to aid Inaros’ revolt against Persian rule in Egypt
•    457—An attack on Aegina
•    447—At attack on Euboea
•    432—An attack on Potidea

The general pattern is that Athenian allies, wanting out of the Delian League, aren’t allowed to go peacefully.  Instead, they are attacked, defeated, and forced to pay tribute.  Athenian military colonies (cleruchies) help Athens maintain its dominance.

Sometimes, the Athenians intervene as liberators: they tend to champion the democratic element in various city-states, putting that element in power.  But the Athenians also are imperialists.  Friends and enemies of freedom at the same time!  Certainly a potentially tragic theme!