Posts Tagged ‘aeschylos’

Democracy and Revolution

In Athens, Greece on 10 May 2012 at 12:57

Athens, May 10

Dear people,

While many of us keep chilling on the hill, or wandering through the desolate city, Agora Athens is going on, every day. Surely it’s not a big event, but it’s an event. We were told to nurture no illusions about it, so the fact that it exists is definitely positive.

It’s all thanks to the people who kept believing in this opportunity to meet and exchange ideas. They have been working on it for time, on the ground and on the net, and in the last few days they have been putting up manifestoes all over Exarchia.

The agora has attracted some attention from Greek activists, immigrants, and foreign travellers. It has addressed major themes like the debt, immigration, police violence, the dangers of tear gas, and the psychological effects of repression, with interventions by experts on the subject.

Yesterday the agora changed its usual meeting place in Syntagma with the quiet hill of Pnyx near the ancient stoa, meeting place of the philosophers of old. The topic would be direct democracy and self organisation.

The whole scene is like one of Plato’s Dialogues. In between the marble, the bushes and the trees, a few dozen people – mainly Greeks – are sitting in a circle on a hill. They are discussing the concepts of liberty, equality, solidarity, justice, democracy.

Far from Syntagma and the oppressing dailiness of the city all these words sound like perfectly unreal ideas, exactly like Plato himself would see them. This event is not going to change the world, but here on Pnyx, it has a very evocative aesthetic value.

Assembly on direct democracy at Pnyx

Athens is not one of the major cities of Greek tragedy, like Thebes or Mycene, but in the great Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylos, the city symbolically represents the triumph of reason and right.

The Oresteia is the only complete trilogy that has survived. It is practically the oldest pieces of theater, but it has one of the most beautiful opening sequences that I know. It’s a simple summing up of names, as if it were a biblical geneaology. But with a little bit of imagination, those names become incredibly cinematographical. As if the intro were written for wide-screen 3D.

It’s told on stage by the introducing character. Troy has fallen, finally, after ten years of bitter strife. The Greeks are inside the citadel, the Trojan men are killed, the women and children are enslaved and the babies are thrown off the walls without mercy. The palaces are plundered, the city is in flames.

Those flames spell a message, a message by supreme commander Agamemnon, king of Mycene, to his wife Clytaemnestra. It says ‘Mission accomplished. I’m coming home.’

Opening credits. Burning Troy fades into the distance. On a hilltop far away, a guard notices the flames. He runs to pile up wood, he takes a torch and lights it.

The camera zooms out again over the nightly panorama of the Aegean. As the poet spells the names of land and sea, the light travels over islands, hills and forests like a telegraph. In every one of those places a man spots the light, and passes it on. Cut to space, you see all of Greece and Asia Minor, in the middle you see a red glow where Troy had been, and all around you see little white lights expanding over the earth to bring the news that mighty Troy has fallen.

At sunrise, the message reaches Clytaemnestra on her balcony of the royal palace of Mycene.

Cut to Clytaemnestra. Her eyes are dark. She is all but delighted by the news of her husband’s return. She hasn’t been faithful to him.

Agamemnon hadn’t been faithful himself either. He had claimed more than his fair share of female booty during the conflict. His greed had caused Achilles to retire from the war and almost brought complete doom over the Greeks. Finally, he wasn’t ashamed to bring one of his conquests home with him. She was called Cassandra, she had the gift to foretell the future, and she was cursed by the fact that no-one ever believed her.

When she crossed the treshold into the house, Cassandra started to scream. She cried doom, death and destruction over the house of Atreus. But people laughed at her impatiently, and told her to shut up.

Her cruel predictions came true when Agamemnon was killed in his bathtub by his own wife, with the complicity of her lover.

This is when the real story starts. The tragic hero is Oreste, son of Agamemnon and Clytaemnestra. He has to avenge his father. And his perverted fate is that to do so, he has to kill his own mother.

In a certain sense the Oreste tragedy is a mirror of the tragedy of Oedipus. Oreste would do anything to avoid his fate, but he doesn’t have a choice. He asks the god Apollo for help, and the god confirms. However painful, revenge is a must, and only Oreste can do the job.

And he does. With a dagger, Oreste kills the woman who gave him life. At the instant she dies, the hero breaks down and he is attacked by clouds of black-winged goddesses of remorse, the Erinyes. They swirl around him constantly, hissing that he is the most despicable of all creatures, and that he has committed the gravest of all crimes.

Oreste flees, he is on the verge of going mad, he returns to Apollo, begging to liberate him from his sense of guilt. “I had to do it. You said so yourself. Why don’t you help me?”

And Apollo: “There is nothing I can do for you. You have to go to Athens. Run, boy. Run. In the sanctuary of Athena you will be judged.”

Oreste runs to Athens, to the temple of the goddess of wisdom. Athena herself presides over an assembly that hears the case of Oreste and the case of the Erinyes.

Oreste is absolved. And yet the Erinyes get their recompensation. While Athena orders them to stop harassing Oreste, she acknowledges their importance, she offers them a place in the pantheon and with it the right to be revered.

The piece ends with a triumphant parade to celebrate the victory of reason.

According to Pasolini, who made a splendid translation into Italian, the Oresteia symbolizes the transformation of ancient tribal society based on force to an urban society based on the law. It’s a hymn to Athens as founding city of democracy.

The concept of revolution, of revolt against the ruling system in the name of human principles, is buried even deeper in the human psyche.

It starts with Prometheus, the bringer of fire.

In Aeschylos’ Prometheus Bound, the son of man is nailed to a mountain in the Caucasus. He had brought light among men, he had tought them the arts and the crafts of the gods. And he alone would pay for it all.

Every day Prometheus’ liver is eaten out by an eagle, and every day it grows back again. Crucifixion and eternal torture is his share for stealing the fire.

While he is up in agonising pain, various visitors, gods and humans, try to persuade Prometheus to make his peace with Zeus and ask for forgiveness. But Prometheus sends them off with words of rage and folly.

Where Jesus on the cross stoically accepted his fate, except for a single lament, Prometheus remains defiant all the way, against all hope. He is the archetype of the revolutionary martyr, when he screams with all his fury…

“Go away, and kneel! Fold your hands in prayer and be the dog that licks the foot of power! I don’t give a damn about Zeus! Let him do whatever he wants with the world, his time is almost up! He won’t be the king of gods for long!”



On the Edge

In Greece, March to Athens on 30 April 2012 at 17:48

March to Athens
Day 175-CI, from Παλαιοχώρι to Ελευσίνα, 17 km.

At the tavern

Eleusis, April 30

Dear people,

We are veterans. We have withstood all challenges. And crossing another ridge of hills is no problem for us. We took them head on and passed into Attica in only two days.

Still, after yesterday’s long leg to a non-existing place, some people had wanted to slow down and take an unscheduled day off in the meadow.

They didn’t convince the group. It wouldn’t have been a good idea for us to spend our last resting day in a meadow while we have our entry into Athens to prepare.

Before we left, we all gathered around the old lady of the tavern. We are her little babies, and she wanted to give us some advice before we wandered on into the wide world.

Respect, love, hope and faith. We don’t have to lose any of those. If we do, it’ll be the end of the revolution.

Little shrines at the garden center

We descend towards the sea, and oh! Only the people who have witnessed it can imagine the joy to see fair Salamis at large! I cannot help but think of the Persians.

All the Greek tragedies we know of speak about mythological or legendary subjects. All but one. The oldest surviving play, The Persians by Aeschylos, is inspired by a historical event.

More than historical, at the time it was first represented, the subject was contemporary. Aeschylos himself had participated in all three decisive battles against the Persians.

The Persian invasions of Greece happened at the turn of the fifth century BC. There were two of them, ten years apart. The first one was massive, it was led by king Darius. And even though his army was many times bigger than that of the Greeks, the invasion was repelled at the battle of Marathon. A messenger was sent out to bring the news to Athens, forty-two kilometres down the road. The inhabitants of the town were preparing for the worst, they were ready to flee. Then the messenger arrived, running, he had just enough breath left to yell ‘Victory!’, before dropping dead on the ground.

The second invasion was led by Darius’ son Xerxes. If the first one was massive in size, the second one was astronomical. According to Herodotus, the Persians numbered in the zillions. And they were not only Persians. They came from Babylonia, Egypt, Assyria, Cappadocia and every other nation that the Persians had conquered.

To make all those soldiers cross into Greece, Xerxes ordered a floating bridge to be built over the Dardanelles, connecting Europe to Asia. But the sea was wild, and the storms made it difficult to pass. They say that Xerxes wanted the sea to be lashed for not obeying his will.

The Persian army was much too big to be resisted. Nevertheless, three hundred Spartans tried to do so at the pass of Thermopylae in northern Greece. It was complete madness, but there was no alternative. A Spartan soldier may never surrender and never retreat. He may only win or die.

So they died, fighting. Up until this day there stands a sign at the Thermopylae which says ‘Stranger! Go to Sparta! And tell that we have died here, to obey her laws.’

One day I’ll go to Sparta. And even if there is no-one to hear it, I will bring the news that three hundred brave sons of Sparta died at the Thermopylae.

The Persians marched on south. They conquered Boiotia, they conquered Athens and they completely destroyed it. The only thing the Athenians could save was their navy, the ‘wooden walls’ of the city.

The Persians would have marched on to the Peloponnese. But their army was so large that it could only move if its supply lines were secure. For this, they depended on the Persian navy.

The Oracle had foretold that mighty Salamis would be the scene of Greece’s resurrection, and so it was.

With a strategem, the Greeks lured the entire Persian fleet into the narrows between the island and the mainland. Then they closed the entries and attacked. The huge numerical advantage of the Persians was cancelled out at once. Their navy had no space to manoeuver. They were caught in a trap and completely annihilated.


Salamis is a pivotal event in Greek and western history. After the battle, the bulk of the Persian army retreated. The remainder was defeated a year later at Plataea.

Aeschylos’ play is centered on the battle of Salamis. It couldn’t have been a hymn of victory, because then it wouldn’t be a tragedy. But anyway the point of view from which it is narrated is remarkable.

The protagonists of The Persians are the women in the royal palace of Susa. They are waiting for news from the front. Somewhere on the far western edge of the empire, their husbands, sons and fathers are subdueing a tiny rebellious province. They should be back soon.

Then the news of defeat comes in. Many of the men have found a sailor’s grave in the narrows of Salamis. They will never be back. At that point their world crumbles, and the Persian women join together in a heaven shaking lament of despair.

It’s a beautiful piece. It breaks your heart.

And yet, on his tomb stone Aeschylos, one of the founding fathers of theatre, didn’t want to be remembered for his plays, but for the part he played himself in the battle of Salamis.

We arrive in the mysterious town of Eleusis, at sea. We can’t see the metropolis yet, because it’s hidden by a low ridge of hills, but we can sense it’s there. The matter thickens.

In Eleusis the ancient city has turned into old rubble, and the modern city is suffering decline as well. Along the main street I count sixteen shops and bars that have gone out of business, almost half of the total. In the other streets around it, the situation isn’t very different.

When we take the square, various people come to talk to us. One of them is a girl who has finished more than one study. She speaks English and Italian. But she doesn’t have a job, and neither does she have the prospect to find one.

“I am twenty-six years old, and I don’t have any dreams.”

It’s one of the saddest things I heard since we arrived in Greece.

Acampada Eleusis

A Tragic Town

In Greece, March to Athens on 27 April 2012 at 18:39
March to Athens
Day 172-XCVIII, Θήβα.

Remainders of the temple of Apollo in Thebes

Thebes, April 27

Dear people,

The episode of the sphinx and the riddle comes from the story of Oedipus. The answer is man. As a baby he crawls, as an adult he walks upright and as an old man he uses a cane.

Oedipus gave the right answer and slew the sphinx. Thebes was liberated from a big nuisance to her traffic, and Oedipus was hailed as a hero. He married the princess, he inherited the throne, and they lived happily ever…

Or did they?

Thebes has a very prominent place in Greek tragedy. As a matter of fact, the ancient city was cursed from the moment that its founder Cadmus killed a dragon that was sacred to the war god Mars. He, and all his offspring, would suffer for it.

The three great ancient playwrites have dedicated various of their plays to the tragic history of Thebes.

Only a couple of dozen of their works have survived, but still Aeschylos, Sophocles and Euripides (in that order) are at the basis of theatre, and by extension cinema. Building on the ancient poet who sings the exploits of great heroes, they added more characters, a choir, and in doing so they invented a whole new way of storytelling.

Today their works stand out for their narrative force and inventiveness just like they did when they were written. They are truly ‘classic’, in the sense that they are perpetually contemporary.

Of the three, Euripides is probably the most appealing author, because of the profound humanity of his characters, and his timeless insight into their motives, strengths and weaknesses. They say that Sophocles himself admitted to this. “I paint my characters the way they should be. Euripides paints them the way they are.”

Banner representing the march

The Oedipus Rex by Sophocles tells the true story behind king Oedipus’ apparent fairytale exploits. Not in a lineary fashion, as they happened, but in restrospect.

The public knows the entire story from the start. All events are in the past. There is no way to avoid them.

The real tragedy of Oedipus Rex is not the horrible facts as they were foretold and consumed, but the way the main protagonist slowly finds out about them.

Oedipus is king. Thebes is subject to a horrible plague. Before they will lift it, the gods demand that a certain mysterious murder which happened years before is solved. It’s the start of a reconstruction of the facts.

Step by step, Oedipus begins to realise that all the years of apparent happiness were only an illusion. As a spectator or as a reader you suffer along with him while he becomes ever more desperate to cling on to any hope that the truth isn’t true. Finally, when the last shred of doubt has evaporated, he goes mad, he blinds himself and wanders off ravingly into the world.

Oedipus was born the son of the king and queen of Thebes, and the oracle had predicted that this unlucky prince would kill his father and marry his mother.

Fate is the central theme of Greek tragedy. No-one can escape fate. Not even the gods. Tragic heroes are those who try to do so nevertheless. In the end they realise that their effort to avoid fate was exactly what made fate accomplish itself.

When Oedipus’ parents learned about the curse, they abandoned their child to the wolves. They didn’t have the courage to wait and watch. So they didn’t know that the child was saved by a shepherd and brought to Corinth, where he grew up as a prince.

One day, Oedipus finds out about his fate. He decides never to go back to Corinth, because he is convinced that his step parents are his real parents.

Instead he goes to Thebes. On the road he kills a man that had failed to give him the right of way. Then he slays the sphinx and marries the princess.

During the reconstruction he finds out that he was a native of Thebes all along, that the man he killed was his father the king, and that the princess was his mother.

Making music

For Thebes it was only the first of many other tragedies to follow. Aeschylos, in his Seven Against Thebes, had already narrated the sequel. The two sons – and half brothers – of Oedipus inherited the throne and decided to reign alternately, a year each. At the end of the first year, Eteocles refuses to step down in favour of his brother Polynices. To claim his right, Polynices scrambles an army to attack Thebes. Each of the city gates is assigned to a great hero, and on the seventh gate the brothers confront each other in person.

They both die in combat. The throne befalls to their uncle Creon, who decides that only Eteocles has the right to a decent burial. The body of Polynices is to be left to the dogs. Those who try to bury him are to be put to death as well.

Only one person challenges cruel Creon’s supreme disrespect for the dead. Antigone, sister of the two fallen brothers.

In the homonymous play by Sophocles, the stubborn pride of Creon and the brave disobedience of Antigone finally lead to the complete and utter destruction of the royal house of Thebes.

All the while, blind Oedipus wanders the world. Everywhere he goes, people chase him away as a bringer of bad luck. Much worse than death, his divine penalty is a long life of sufferance.

Just before he died, Sophocles wrote a sequel to his Oedipus Rex. It was called Oedipus at Colonus, and it was first represented posthumously. It’s a touching piece about aging, remorse, madness, and love.

The true heroin of the play is once again Antigone. She is the only person in the world who hasn’t abandoned Oedipus. With loving dedication she guides her father and half brother through the darkness to his final resting place. Colonus, where Sophocles himself was born.

View of modern Thebes

Apart from the legend, also in history itself, Thebes is a cursed place.

She sided with the Persians against her great rival Athens during the invasion of Xerxes, and she would pay for it dearly. It was only due to the subsequent rivalry between Athens and Sparta that Thebes was able to regain importance, and finally live a brief season of dominance under her great general Epaminondas in the twilight years of the city state.

Finally, the fate of the city was sealed by Alexander.

After the decisive defeat of the Greek city states at Chaeronea, the Thebans still dared to rise up against their Macedonian overlords.

Alexander decided he would turn the city into an example for all of Greece. He ordered Thebes to be razed to the ground. According to tradition, the only building he wanted to be left was the house of the poet Pindar.

In modern Thebes, you can still find some lone rocks here and there with a sign that says ‘archeological site’. It doesn’t amount to much. Alexander’s troops did a good job.

The new city is built on the same hill as the ancient one. In the absence of significant landmarks there are no tourists. Instead there is a quarter with some old houses and a lot of immigrants. The place feels authentic. It’s a city on a human scale. But even though true misery isn’t directly visible, Thebes is definitely suffering.

I see countless empty shop windows all over town. Shoe stores, fashion stores, grocers, bakers. For lack of customers with purchasing power they have all closed. What remains is a sign that says ‘for rent’. ‘Ενοικιαζεται’, you find that word wherever you go.

The middle class is fading away, the downtown shopping district is slowly becoming a wasteland and foreign-owned discount malls are sprouting up like sphinxes on the outskirts of town to cash in on the crisis.

Thebes has suffered disasters of much greater magnitude in her long history. But always people kept faith that a hero would come along to save the day.

Nowadays, it seems like people here have lost all hope that something or someone can still save them.

Internal assembly under Liberty Tree

Max and José Miguel