Ancient History & Civilisation


Section Five


The modern history of Classics has been a prominent theme through this book from its first chapter (on the prehistoric palace at Knossos and Sir Arthur Evans, its excavator and reconstructor). This final section focuses directly on the scholars who have interpreted the classical world for us, the artists and dramatists who have recreated it, and the early travellers and tourists who (as they saw it from a Northern European perspective) ‘explored’ the Mediterranean lands of the Greeks and Romans.

The first two chapters concentrate on how ancient literature and art have been used and re-used. Chapter 24 celebrates the revival of Greek drama in the twentieth century; though it also warns against rosy-tinted views of the modern influence of ancient Greece. It is true that Athenian tragedy has sometimes been re-performed to powerful effect in support of all kinds of noble liberal causes, from women’s suffrage to the anti-apartheid struggle. But we must not forget that it has been a favourite art form of totalitarian regimes too. Bobby Kennedy may have quoted Aeschylus in his famous speech after the assassination of Martin Luther King: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart …’. But, as we discover, that same phrase has had some much less savoury re-appropriations too.

Chapter 25 looks at the most influential piece of ancient sculpture ever discovered: the so-called ‘Laocoon’. Dug up in Rome in 1506, it captures in marble the story from Virgil’s Aeneid of a Trojan priest and his sons, throttled to death by snakes (Fig. 15). It has prompted more discussion than any work of art ever – from debates on how it should be restored (the priest’s right arm has kept restorers busy for centuries) to more theoretical questions of our response to it (how can we enjoy looking at a sculpture that depicts such a ghastly death?). But it has had an intriguing afterlife too: it was, for example, familiar enough to Karl Marx that he could make it a symbol of the evils of capitalism.

The next two chapters turn to travel, and to how tourists (especially the British) have experienced the classical world on the ground. What was a visit to Greece or Italy like in the nineteenth century – loaded down, if you followed the instructions of your guidebook, with mosquito nets, pith helmets and saddles? How were you supposed to regard the ‘natives’? At Pompeii, as Chapter 27 explains, early visitors were not only encouraged to reflect on human mortality, they were also advised to be on their guard against tricks, scams and overcharging restaurants. But in Greece (the focus of Chapter 26) there tended to be a much more romantic, or patronising, attitude to the locals – as if the modern Greek peasant had hardly changed since the days of Homer. It’s an illusion of ‘continuity’ that we still haven’t quite shaken off.

Travel is also the theme of Chapter 28, but in a metaphorical sense. James Frazer’s founding text of anthropology, The Golden Bough, is full of far-flung examples of ‘savage’ practices drawn from every corner of the British empire. But in fact he had never been further than Greece and, as he himself insisted, had never met a ‘savage’! Frazer was, of course, by training a classicist, and the model of ‘exploration’ that underlies The Golden Bough was drawn directly from classical literature (from the ‘Golden Bough’ in theAeneid that allows Aeneas safe passage to the underworld). After Frazer comes a far less desk-bound scholar, R. G. Collingwood. Though he is now most famous as a philosopher and author of The Idea of History, Chapter 29 brings his other, largely forgotten, interest back into view. For Collingwood also was a classicist, in particular an expert in the Latin inscriptions of Roman Britain. He spent his summers traipsing around the country – tracking down, deciphering and recording epitaphs, graffiti, religious dedications and milestones, the inscribed traces of the Romans in Britain.

Chapter 30 takes a wider sweep, by thinking about that motley group of people who have (sometimes implausibly, to be honest) counted as ‘British classicists’ – from Elizabeth I to A. E. Housman and Arnaldo Momigliano. But it also reflects on how we choose to remember scholars, and why we can be almost wilfully reluctant to face up to their faults and failings. Taking as the prime example the brilliant and terrifying Oxford Latinist, Eduard Fraenkel (teacher of Iris Murdoch and Mary Warnock among many others), I ask what belongs (or doesn’t) in a history of classical scholars and scholarship.

The focus of the final chapter is the place where many people first begin their encounter with Classics: that fictional Gaulish village, still standing out against the Romans, which is home to the plucky Astérix and his friends. What, I wonder, makes Astérix so popular across Europe? And what does he have to tell us about our own myths of Rome?



On 4 April, 1968, the evening after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Bobby Kennedy addressed an angry crowd in the black ghetto of Indianapolis. In the middle of his speech, he famously quoted some lines from a chorus of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon: ‘Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God’.

It was a powerful performance, but nonetheless a slightly stumbling use of a classical text. ‘My favourite poem’, he began, ‘My favourite poet’, he corrected himself, ‘was Aeschylus …’. And the quotation itself is the victim of some (maybe constructive) misremembering. What Kennedy had in mind was Edith Hamilton’s 1930s translation of the play, but where he spoke poignantly of ‘our own despair’, Hamilton had actually written ‘in our despite’ – an archaising and accurate translation of Aeschylus’ original, with a significantly different sense. Edith Hall is politely silent about Kennedy’s inaccuracy. In her splendid, punchy essay in Dionysus Since 69, she takes his speech as one of the key examples of modern political engagement with the plays of Aeschylus. At this moment, ‘one of the darkest in modern history’, she writes, ‘only Aeschylus would do’. She is mostly concerned, though, with more recent cases where the capacity of Aeschylean drama for ‘saying the unsayable’ has been deployed in political debate – whether for rethinking the horrors of military conflict from the Balkans to the Gulf or (as in Tony Harrison’s Prometheus) for addressing the ‘enemy within’, in the shape of poverty and class.

Particularly memorable is her discussion of Peter Sellars’ 1993 adaptation of The Persians. The original play took as its theme the defeat of the Persian fleet by the Athenians at the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC, and is remarkable, as Hall notes, ‘because its cast consists exclusively of Persians, the invaders of Athens and their much-hated enemies’. Sellars transferred the setting to the first Gulf War, with Xerxes and his fellow Persians reinterpreted as the Iraqi enemies of the United States. The behaviour of Saddam Hussein was given no more sympathy than Aeschylus gave to Xerxes, but highlighting the suffering of the Iraqi victims of the war and, even more, having the actors ‘say the unsayable’ (‘I curse the name of America … They are terrorists, you see’) amounted to an extraordinary assault on the audience. During the play’s run in Los Angeles, about a hundred people, out of an audience of 750 or so, walked out on every single night. But the ghost of Bobby Kennedy haunts this collection of essays beyond his famous quotation of Aeschylus. For Kennedy himself was assassinated on 5 June, 1968, just the day before the opening of the play Dionysus in 69, which lies behind the book’s title. That radical version of Euripides’ Bacchae by Richard Schechner, first staged in the Performing Garage, New York – complete with improvisation, nudity, birthing rituals and an audience perched on or under ladders, mingling perforce with the actors – is often identified as the turning point in modern productions of Greek tragedy. It marks the start of ancient drama’s extraordinary recent renascence (‘more Greek tragedy has been performed in the past thirty years than at any point in history since Greco-Roman antiquity’, observes Hall) and of its powerful engagement with the struggles and discontents of the late twentieth century, worldwide. The coincidence of this production with Kennedy’s death is itself revealing: the theatrical revolution went hand in hand with a real-life, political tragedy that saw the last hope for a liberal, anti-war America shattered.

In Dionysus Since 69, Froma Zeitlin offers a refreshingly hardheaded analysis of that now almost mythical show. Reflecting on her own vivid memories of being in the audience, she endorses its landmark status in the history of theatre. Schechner took an ancient tragedy that had not been performed commercially in the USA throughout the whole of the earlier twentieth century and showed just how eloquently its themes – of ‘violence, madness, ecstasy, release of libidinal energy … transgression of taboos and freedom of moral choice’ – could speak to 1960s New York. At the same time, she avoids the trap of judging its innovations wholly successful. One striking attempt at cast-audience interaction – ‘The Total Caress’ – went particularly (and amusingly) awry. This took place towards the end of the play, ‘when Pentheus and Dionysus had briefly retired from the scene for a homoerotic encounter’. The idea was that the other actors should circulate among the spectators and engage them in what was euphemistically called ‘sensory-exploration dialogues’, modelled, as Zeitlin puts it, on the ‘peacefully sensual behaviour of the bacchants in Euripides’. These encounters took a predictable turn. So Schechner substituted a much more stylised interlude, inadvertently revealing in the process the controlling zeal that lurks behind much apparently improvisatory theatre. The Total Caress had been ‘dangerous and self-defeating’, he said. ‘The theatrical event became less and less controlled by the Group.’ The productions discussed in Dionysus Since 69 spread far beyond the avant-garde performance spaces of New York City, from Ireland (in Oliver Taplin’s elegant appreciation of The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney, a version of Sophocles’ Philoctetes) to Africa and the Caribbean. Between them, the contributors have unearthed an extraordinary cornucopia of the famous, not so famous and sometimes frankly weird modern versions of ancient tragedy. Helene Foley, for example, has great fun with John Fisher’s 1996 camp parody, Medea, the Musical – a play within a play, about the troubles of a theatre director who attempts to relaunch the story (and overturn its sexual politics) with a gay Jason. This is picked up by Peter Brown, whose intriguing survey, ‘Greek Tragedy in the Opera House and Concert Hall’ identifies as many as a hundred new musical versions of Greek tragedy performed in the past thirty-five years, by composers from India, China, Lebanon and Morocco, as well as more predictably from Western Europe and the USA. Fisher’s gay parody is here seen next to such diverse offerings as a Creole Medea from New Orleans, abandoned by her white sea-captain, and Tony Harrison’s Medea: a sex-war opera, eventually performed as a play after its composer had died without finishing the score.

By the end of the book, the reader will realise that almost every worthy political cause of the past three decades – women’s rights, AIDS awareness, the anti-apartheid movement, the Peace Process (from Northern Ireland to Palestine), gay pride, CND, not to mention various struggles against dictatorship, imperialism, or the Thatcher Government – has found support through (and has in turn inspired) new performances of Greek tragedy; and that almost every horror of that period, notably the wars in the Balkans and the Gulf, has been analysed and deplored using Greek tragic idiom (for the destruction of Troy, read Kosovo, Baghdad, or where you will). This is very much part of the collection’s considerable appeal – and, at the same time, its nagging problem.

All the contributors seem to share a number of assumptions about the recent history of Greek drama: that the past thirty years have seen a more intense cultural interest in Greek tragedy than any time since antiquity itself; that these modern performances have been more politicised than ever before; that Greek tragedy is a uniquely powerful medium for the discussion of the most intense and complex human problems; and that this power has recently been harnessed by the forces for good in the world in their struggles against the forces of oppression (by the representatives of peace against military might, by women against misogyny, sexual liberation against repression, and so on). Some of this is fair enough. It is no doubt true that, in terms of the sheer number of productions, there has been an unparalleled interest in ancient drama over the past few decades – though it is also worth remembering that one of the hallmarks of Classics as a discipline has always been the capacity of each succeeding generation to congratulate itself on its own fresh rediscovery of classical antiquity, while simultaneously lamenting the decline of classical learning. The critics of the 1880s, after all, were saying much the same about the mania for Greek plays in their own day. But some of the other assumptions are more tendentious. Dionysus Since 69 might have been an even better book if it had given space to some of that debate, or had found a place for a contributor or two who was not singing from exactly the same hymn sheet.

Is it really the case, for example, that Greek tragedy has a unique power to ‘say the unsayable’, as the contributors repeatedly suggest? When Hall writes of Bobby Kennedy’s speech that ‘only Aeschylus would do’, why does she think that a carefully chosen quote from Shakespeare, say, would have done Kennedy’s job any less well? It would have been useful, in fact, to see some discussion of how the fate of the Bard (who has his own honourable record as a vehicle for political dissent all over the world) differs from that of Greek tragedy. It would even have been useful to get a glimpse of some opposition to the current theatrical enthusiasm for all things Hellenic. What of the argument, for example, that ancient tragedy is more the problem than the solution, and that part of the reason why Western culture deals so ineffectively with the horrors of war, or the inequalities of gender, is that it cannot think through these issues outside the frame established in Athens more than two millennia ago? And what of the argument, rather briefly skated over by Lorna Hardwick in her essay on post-colonialism, that performances of the Bacchae in Cameroon or Antigone in South Africa – far from being politically empowering interventions – in fact represent the ultimate victory of the colonial power. Native culture may throw out its political overlords, but it is still left performing their damned plays.

The engaging enthusiasm of most of the contributors to Dionysus Since 69 for Greek tragedy on the late twentieth-century stage has also induced a collective amnesia about the political commitment of many earlier revivals of ancient drama. There is no recollection in this volume of the performances of Gilbert Murray’s translation of The Trojan Women during the First World War (including a tour of the USA sponsored by the Women’s Peace Party) or in support of Murray’s favourite cause, the League of Nations, in Oxford in 1919. Nor is there any word of the performances of Euripides’ Ion in the 1830s which were a thinly veiled manifesto against slavery, nor of the battles against theatrical censorship in late Victorian and Edwardian England, largely fought around performances of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. Most readers will come away with the misleading impression that the politicisation of ancient drama was an invention of the past few decades, and with a far too rigid sense of what Hall terms the ‘1968–69 watershed’.

Even more misleading is the blind eye consistently turned in Dionysus Since 69 to the less comfortable political appropriations of Greek tragedy. True, there is a whole litany of good causes – from universal suffrage to striking miners – that ancient drama has been called upon to support. But the fact is that its use in support of some of the worst causes in the modern world has an almost equally impressive history. Hitler’s 1936 Olympics, for example, were accompanied by an extremely loaded production of Aeschylus’Oresteia, interpreted as a story of the triumph of Aryanism. Mussolini was a keen supporter and sponsor of the long-standing festival of ancient drama at Syracuse in Sicily. And – much as The Merchant of Venice was performed in the Third Reich as a weapon both for and against anti-Semitism – Anouilh’s Antigone was lapped up in wartime France by the Resistance and occupying powers alike.

The oddest political turn, however, is the subsequent fate of Kennedy’s famous passage of Aeschylus, a fate which sits awkwardly next to its hallowed status in the annals of liberal America and in the mythology of the civil rights movement. As the Canadian classicist Christopher Morrissey has recently observed, exactly the same passage was appropriated by Richard Nixon as one of his own favourite quotations. Not only, then, was it used as a memorial of the death of Martin Luther King; it was the phrase that Henry Kissinger claims buzzed through his own head as he shared Nixon’s last night in the White House with him. Only Aeschylus would do, presumably.

Review of Edith Hall, Fiona Macintosh and Amanda Wrigley (eds.), Dionysus since 69: Greek tragedy at the dawn of the third millennium (Oxford University Press, 2004)

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!