Sunday, 23 September 2018

Sorceress or scapegoat?

Of all the seductive, sinister and transgressive women who have haunted the Western imagination, none has a reputation more lurid than Medea’s. (Margaret Atwood)

The city is founded on a monstrous deed. (Medea)

East German writer Christa Wolf’s Medea is a harrowing novel that seeks to retell the story of the Colchian princess and rehabilitate her from evil, barbarian witch to knowing foreigner and immigrant who can see the hypocrisy, lies and violence on which Corinth (the city she is exiled in with her feeble husband Jason) is organised and ruled. Such a woman, who has learned the dirty secrets of Corinth’s power elite, which is now struggling with political unrest and natural disaster, is dangerous and has to be discredited and destroyed, and this, Wolf suggests, is the process by which Medea is turned into a scapegoat and comes to be falsely accused of killing her children and murdering Glauce, the Corinthian princess Jason has abandoned her for.

The novel is written as a series of voices, as each protagonist feints, plots and manoeuvres as the crisis engulfing Corinthian society unfolds, and below is an excerpt from one of Medea’s monologues:

‘So this is how it is: either I’m out of my mind, or their city is founded on a crime. No, believe me, I’m quite clear on this point, what I say or think about it is quite clear to me, for I’ve found the proof, yes, I’ve touched it with my own hands. Oh, it’s not arrogance that threatens to undo me now. The woman – I simply followed her. Perhaps I just wanted to teach Jason a lesson, since he’d stood by and let them seat me at the end of the table among the servants, that’s it, I didn’t dream that, that was yesterday. At least they’re the highest-ranking servants, he said pathetically, don’t cause a scandal, Medea, please, not today, you know what’s at stake, the King can’t lose face in front of all his foreign guests. Ah, Jason, save your breath. He still hasn’t understood that King Creon can’t grieve me anymore, but that’s not what I’m talking about, I have to clear my head. I have to promise myself never to speak about my discovery to a living soul. The best thing would be to do what Chalciope and I used to do with secrets when we were children, do you know what that was, Mother? We’d wrap our secret up tight in a leaf and eat it up while staring into one another’s eyes. Our childhood – or rather everything in Colchis – was full of dark secrets, and when I arrived here, a refugee in King Creon’s gleaming city-state of Corinth, I had an envious thought: these people have no secrets. And that’s what they think too, that’s what makes them so convincing; with every look, with every one of their measured movements, they’re drumming it into you: Here’s one place in the world where a person can be happy. It was only later that I realized how much they hold it against you if you express doubts about their happiness. But that’s not what I’m talking about either, what’s the matter with my head? It’s buzzing with a whole swarm of thoughts, why is it so hard for me to reach into the swarm and snatch out the one thought I need?’

(Read the rest of the excerpt here. Read Margaret Atwood’s introduction to the novel here. And read Christa Wolf’s essay on Medea and Cassandra, another character from Greek literature she has based a novel on, here).

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Iannis Xenakis on Rome and Seneca’s Medea



Following my post last week on Greece under the barbarian rule of Rome and the influence of Greek culture on the Romans, I’ll take the opportunity to post something related to the subject using the composer Iannis Xenakis who, in his work, captures better than anybody the madness, terror and ‘ecstatic dream world’ that Nietzsche defines as characterising Greek tragedy.

In 1967, Xenakis was commissioned by the Theatre de France to write the music for a production of Seneca’s Medea. Xenakis scholar Nouritza Matossian (an Armenian from Cyprus) says:

‘Xenakis had often wondered how the music of ancient Greek theatre might have sounded, how the actors, chorus and musicians might have chanted the text and played the aulos and in [Medea] he provided his solution. He treated the instruments as voices and the voices as instruments to create an implacable work, extending the language phonetically with whispers and hisses, repeated phrases and even banging stones. The atmosphere is archaic, with a setting which is both raucous and primitive.’

Regarding the work, Xenakis says that when he was approached to write it:

‘I hesitated because I knew Seneca as a pseudo-philosopher, an imperial courtier, and above all a Roman who sought, like all Romans of that period, to emulate the ancient Greek masterpieces.

‘But in reading the Latin text written in the first century AD I was seduced by its violent sonority, its barbarity, so I agreed.’

Above is Xenakis’ Medea in full, while below is a clip from Matossian’s 1990 BBC documentary on Xenakis, Something Rich and Strange.


Sunday, 16 September 2018

Liberty, democracy, thalassocracy

John R. Hale’s Lords of the Sea is a good read on the interconnected rise of the Athenian navy, democracy and empire, drawing on Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon and Plutarch to construct a coherent narrative of Athens’ history from 483 BC to 322 BC.

Hale starts with the remarkable career of Themistocles – the visionary who realised that a Persian attempt to invade and subjugate Greece was inevitable and that Athens had to develop sea power to counter this threat – and ends not with Athens’ defeat and surrender to Sparta in the Peloponnesian war (404 BC) but with Athens’ capitulation to Macedonia some 80 years later. For Hale, Athens’ Golden Age is interrupted, not terminated, by Sparta, and once the Lacedaemonians’ short-lived empire ignominiously collapses, Athens revives and is able to continue its glorious trajectory well into the 4th century, before being definitively scuppered by Alexander the Great and his successors.

Hale argues that Athens, in the process of establishing itself as a maritime power, became absorbed by the sea and that the navy seeped into the fabric of everyday Athenian life – influencing language, science, art and culture. Historians, politicians, artists, poets, dramatists all incorporated maritime metaphors and naval themes into their work. The Athenian government became a ‘ship of state’, its leaders ‘steersmen’. Maritime references abound in Athenian comedy and tragedy, and Athenians showed their commitment to their navy by naming their children Naubios, Naukrates, Naumache or Nausinike. For Hale, Athens’ maritime empire opened the city to international trade and contact and fostered a spirit of tolerance, open-mindedness and free enquiry, while the demands of naval warfare placed a new emphasis on technique and cunning, which supplanted the previous virtues of raw courage and brute force associated with cavalry and hoplite fighting and undermined, in the process, the upper class supposed to embody them.

Hale stresses, then, that the navy became the emblem of Athenian liberty and democracy. The ethos of the trireme, manned by free Athenian males, where distinctions of class and wealth were thrown overboard in favour of collective spirit and mutual endeavour, inevitably translated into the political field and shaped the radical demos that Athens became. The common man who risked his life at sea for Athens and brought wealth and security to the city now wanted to take part in the Assembly and affect decisions on matters of war, defence and foreign policy.

But if the navy provided the power and prestige for democratic values and institutions to hold sway in Athens, then, inevitably, critics of Athenian democracy blamed Athens’ maritime obsessions for what they saw as the degeneration of society.

Aristotle disparagingly described the Athenian constitution as ‘democracy based on triremes’, and argued that the exoticism and heterogeneity of outward-looking maritime empires were antithetical to the functioning of an orderly state. Plato was an equally ardent critic of the Athenian thalassocracy and its architects – who he identified as Themistocles, Cimon and Pericles:

‘Yes, they say these men made our city great. They never realise that it is now swollen and infected because of these statesmen of former days, who paid no heed to discipline and justice. Instead, they filled our city with harbors and navy yards and walls and tribute and such-like trash.’

But if these navy yards were trash for Plato, Hale suggests for democratic Athenians they were the city’s pride and joy:

‘The glories of the Acropolis dominate our modern view of Athens. Ancient Athenians saw their city differently. In terms of civic pride, the temples of the gods were eclipsed by the vast complex of installations for the navy. Near Zea Harbor at the Piraeus stood the largest roofed building in Athens, indeed in all of Greece. It was a naval arsenal, four hundred feet in length. The Athenian architect Philo designed it to house the linen sails, rigging and other “hanging gear” of the fleet. Philo was so proud of his storehouse or skeuotheke that he wrote a book about it, and the Assembly voted to inscribe its specifications on a marble stele. The Parthenon received no such attention at the time of its construction.’

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Greeks under the rule of barbarian Rome


Above is the final episode in Michael Scott’s BBC series Ancient Greece: the Greatest Show on Earth. (Watch part one here and part two here). Episode three looks at how Greek theatre fared as Rome emerged as a dominant military and political power and Greece and Greek cities and kingdoms lost their independence. It’s not a bad programme, but I find the Romans to be insufferable barbarians, on about the same level as the Seljuks and Ottomans.

Regarding what happened to Greek literature under the Romans, I was reading an essay by Peter Bien from The Greek World: Classic, Byzantine and Modern, in which Bien says the following:
‘It would be a mistake to think that Greek literature died with Greek liberty. Menander’s marvellous comedies of manners, the plays that, by way of Plautus and Terence, set the first theatrical example for the Renaissance, for Shakespeare and for Moliere, were… the growth of an age politically hopeless. Polybius, through whose history we know that Scipio wept over Carthage destroyed, was a Greek hostage. The historical analysis of Tacitus and of Livy depend on history written by losers, by generations of sarcastic Greeks. Machiavelli rediscovered and transfigured their style, mostly through Tacitus and Livy, and Marx read Machiavelli. Clarendon in his History of the Great Rebellion goes back for this style to the same ancient historians. Shakespeare transcribes Plutuarch’s Lives at times almost word for word.’
I’m curious as to which ‘sarcastic Greeks’ Bien is referring to.

Regarding Plutarch, Bien adds:
‘Plutarch’s drawing of Romans is much more effective than his gallery of Greeks. The Greeks lived longer ago, and he knows less about them. The death of Cicero, the suicide of Cato, and the story of Antony and Cleopatra are written in brilliant dryness. It was Plutarch’s sense of tragedy, not that of the tragic poets, that Shakespeare drank in.’
Bien also has this to say:
‘The greatest hero of late Greek literature is Jesus Christ. The gospels are in Greek because the entire eastern Mediterranean world in their time had been Hellenized since before Christ, and one of the thrills and shocks of the gospels is that mixture of cultures. In spite of their linguistic awkwardness, or because of it, they are powerful pieces of simple writing such as Greek had never encompassed before.’

Thursday, 6 September 2018

Culture and war: JE Lendon’s Soldiers and Ghosts



‘The army of Alexander the Great was the most successful army the Greek world ever knew. Its soldiers were brave because their parents raised them brave, because out-of-the-way Macedon had preserved the warrior values of an older Greece – the Greece that Thucydides remembered with a shudder – when men still wore swords. Macedon was a society of noble companions and riotous banqueting, a society of untamed emotion, of boasting, of drunken murder, a society that recalled that of epic. Philip and Alexander harnessed this traditional ethos by bringing the world of Homer back to life and so turned the ramshackle levy of old Macedonia into an army of world conquest.’ (JE Lendon: Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity).

Above is an interview with JE Lendon regarding his Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity. The interview was conducted in 2005 by Bill Buschel for Hellenic Public Radio in New York. Lendon’s book argues for the role of culture and ideology in shaping the way Greeks and Romans carried out their wars. In particular, Lendon says, Greek warriors drew inspiration and sought to emulate the ethics and even the tactics they believe they inherited from the epic past as depicted in Homer; while the Romans too looked to history and myth for information as to how to fight their wars. In fact, Lendon goes on, when Greek culture in all its facets began to pervade Rome, Roman military leaders increasingly turned to the codes and feats of the Greek warrior, particularly Alexander the Great, to guide their behaviour in combat. In late Roman/early Byzantine military history, this translated, for example, in the Emperor Julian (the Apostate) choosing to fight a (disastrous) war with the Persians not out of military necessity but, according to Lendon, because Julian aspired to imitate the heroics of Alexander the Great.

* For Buschel’s interview with Lendon on Lendon’s book Song of Wrath: the Peloponnesian War Begins, go here.

Greek drama and the decline of Athens


Above is the second part of Michael Scott’s series Ancient Greece: the Greatest Show on Earth, which traces the central role of comic and tragic theatre in the culture and politics of ancient Greece. In the first part of the series – Democracy – (see it here) Scott established the links between tragedy and democracy in Athens, while in part two – Kings – he examines how theatre spread throughout the Greek world and changed in content and purpose with the decline of Athens in the aftermath of its defeat in the Peloponnesian war and the emergence of Greek kingdoms, such as Macedon. It’s a good narrative and there’s some interesting detail and points but, again, the British talking-head classicists are a dull lot, with the exception of Oliver Taplin. In fact, what is most exciting in the series is the travelogue element. Greece always looks stunning and Scott visits some evocative sites, such as the Syracuse stone quarries where 7,000 Athenian prisoners were held after the disastrous Sicilian expedition in 413 BC and Chaeronea, where the Macedonians led by King Philip the Great defeated an Athenian-led force to claim control over Greece in 338 BC.

* See part three of the series here.