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2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes

by Prof. Michael Arnush, Classics

The Athenians invented tragedy and incorporated the tragic competition and festival into their lives annually. Accordingly, we can never completely separate any surviving tragedy, including Sophocles’ play, from an Athenian context. What was the world of Athens ca. 441 BCE, and to what extent does The Burial at Thebes reflect the lives of those who inhabited the city and no doubt attended the performance? How did Athens evolve from a small city-state with limited resources and influence to the most powerful and culturally influential community in the Mediterranean in the 5th century BCE? What role did the legendary Pericles play not only in the formation of an Athenian empire, but as well of a city-state in which the dramatic arts could flourish?

Bust of Pericles, Roman
copy of a 5th century (?)
original, 2nd c. BCE
(British Museum)
By the middle of the fifth century Athens had truly come into her own. The early part of the century witnessed two critical changes in the nature of the Athenian community: the Persian wars of 499-479, and the development of democracy. The wars pitted the fiercely independent Greek city-states (poleis; the singular is polis) against a massive invasion by a Persian empire that stretched from the eastern Mediterranean shores to India, from the Black Sea to the Arabian peninsula. No less than the survival of Greek culture was at stake, and at such epic confrontations as the Battles of Marathon, Salamis and Plataea, the Athenians and other Greeks repelled the invading forces in a rare show of unity, although a few Greek poleis betrayed the common cause; communities that did so were known as “Medizers” for conspiring with “the Mede” (another name for the Persians), and conspicuous among them was the city of Thebes, the setting for our play. Not only did the wars challenge the Greek sense of community, but Athens herself was put to the test, as the Persians sacked the city and its citizens were forced to abandon their homes. Also tested to its limits was Athens’ nascent democracy (demokratia, meaning “power in the hands of the demos (people)”). Athens was the first community in the world to empower its citizens (male only; women and slaves were accorded no voice) to legislate, to govern and to adjudicate disputes, and to do so through election and direct representation. This new form of self-governance depended on a community-wide commitment to citizenship and the destruction of the city represented an enormous challenge to the citizenry.

The Persian wars informed the Athenian mindset and democratic system for the next 200 years, as the Athenians were fond of reminding everyone of their sacrifice. As the citizens began to rebuild the city and adorn their temples, the sculptural programs often hearkened back metaphorically to the defeat of the uncivilized “barbarians” (from the Greek barbaroi, or “those who don’t speak Greek”) at the hands of the civilized Athenians. And rebuild they did, and earnestly. By 441, the year of our play, the citizens had begun to construct the Parthenon – the temple to Athena on the Acropolis – and other temples, and many civic buildings to house the organs of democracy were in the planning or construction phases. The funds for this building program emanated from two key sources: the silver resources of Attica – Athens’ territory – and the annual revenue from the Delian League. This League, a confederation of over 200 Greek poleis, provided Athens with money, ships and men in exchange for protection against future Persian reprisals. When the Persian threat receded into the background by mid-century, the Athenians converted the League into an Empire, where Athens controlled the seas and the marketplaces throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Those who had chosen to ally with Athens against the Persians now found themselves encumbered, and to some even enslaved, by the very community that trumpted the virtues of democracy and autonomy.

Presiding over this Empire, and the Athenian cultural explosion of art, drama and literature, was none less than the renowned Pericles, architect of Athens’ “golden age.” Son of a citizen-soldier of the Persian wars and a descendant of the founder of the Athenian experiment in democratic rule, Pericles ascended to the leadership of his community as an elected general through his strategic skills, his intelligence and wit, and his oratorical style. For 30 years, until his death from the plague in 429, he guided the Athenian ship of state, serving as the inspiration for the successes of the city. In the now-famous Funeral Oration of Pericles, recorded by Thucydides in his epic retelling of the Greek civil strife known as the Peloponnesian war, Pericles captures the essence of the Athenian story:

In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas; while I doubt if the world can produce a man, who where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility as the Athenian. And that this is no mere boast thrown out for the occasion, but plain matter of fact, the power of the state acquired by these habits proves. For Athens alone of her contemporaries is found when tested to be greater than her reputation, and alone gives no occasion to her assailants to blush at the antagonist by whom they have been worsted, or to her subjects to question her title by merit to rule. Rather, the admiration of the present and succeeding ages will be ours, since we have not left our power without witness, but have shown it by mighty proofs; and far from needing a Homer for our panegyrist, or other of his craft whose verses might charm for the moment only for the impression which they gave to melt at the touch of fact, we have forced every sea and land to be the highway of our daring, and everywhere, whether for evil or for good, have left imperishable monuments behind us. Such is the Athens for which these men, in the assertion of their resolve not to lose her, nobly fought and died; and well may well every one of their survivors be ready to suffer in her cause (Thuc. 2.40, from the Perseus website).

Pericles did not shrink from articulating the burdens of leadership or the resistance that some offered to Athens’ imperial designs, as Thucydides recounts later in his history:

[Y]our country has a right to your services in sustaining the glories of her position. These are a common source of pride to you all, and you cannot decline the burdens of empire and still expect to share its honors. You should remember also that what you are fighting against is not merely slavery as an exchange for independence, but also loss of empire and danger from the animosities incurred in its exercise. Besides, to recede is no longer possible, if indeed any of you in the alarm of the moment has become enamored of the honesty of such an unambitious part. For what you hold is, to speak somewhat plainly, a tyranny; to take it perhaps was wrong, but to let it go is unsafe (Thuc. 2.62, from the Perseus website).

Empire, to Thucydides and Pericles, clearly had its price, and Pericles argues that the benefits more than outweighed the costs.

Against this backdrop, Sophocles composed and staged his play. Ancient sources tell us that the playwright and Pericles were friends, and indeed within a year of the play’s production the two led an Athenian military force to suppress a secession by the island of Samos from the Empire. The Samian rebellion was one of a series of expressions of displeasure by Athens’ allies, and together these revolts constituted chinks in the armor of the Athenian Empire. We don’t know if this expedition tested their friendship; Sophocles’ participation as an elected general is not surprising, since all Athenian citizens were expected to contribute to the military life of the community. Regardless, an Athenian community that exercised both the principles of democracy and a ruthless response to imperial resistance may well have resonated with Sophocles when he wrote the Antigone. Witness the chorus’ characterization of the rule of Creon, the leader of his community - both the extent of his authority and his willingness to tolerate resistance:

You have laid down the law.
You exercise the power.
Your regulations hold
For the living and the dead. (p. 18)


Failure of rule
is the most destructive thing. Obedience
And respect must be instilled. (p. 42)


And everyone who wields it
Will brook no opposition (p. 52)

No doubt some in the audience saw the depiction of King Creon of Thebes as an echo of Periclean leadership of democratic Athens, and a statement on the limitations and consequences of unchecked authority. Creon is not Pericles, for the Athenian general’s power derived from the people rather than from inheritance, was subject to criticism from the citizenry openly and with legal recourse, and could be terminated in the annual elections for the generalship. Yet, like Creon, Pericles was heavy-handed in the treatment of his polis’ allies, and Sophocles may well have had his friend’s authoritarian behavior in mind in his characterization of the king of Thebes.