Month: December 2015

26. The Suppliants (463 BC) by Aeschylus

Plot : Two brothers, Aegyptus and Danaus, descendants of Io and Zeus, have fifty children each. Aegyptus’ fifty sons determine to carry off Danaus’ fifty daughters, who escape with their father to Argos, their ancestral home. The Egyptians follow, and Danaus and the maidens beg King Pelasgus of Argos to protect them.
My thoughts : Again, with only one third of the story available, reading this play is unsatisfying. The drama of the arrival of the Egyptians and their promise of war is left hanging by the unfortunate loss of the other parts. A shame as the remainder of the story would have been interesting : the second play would have Danaus relenting and giving up his daughters, yet make the girls vow to kill their husbands on the wedding night. (Danaus has been prophesised to die at the hands of his son-in-law, a likely bet for someone with fifty daughters!). However, one daughter Hypermestra, has fallen in love with her husband and refuses to kill him. The third play would have to resolve the guilt of all concerned.
Like Seven against Thebes, the Gods are called on for help, but never appear on stage. I wonder if it was sacrilegious to portray a God on stage?
Favourite lines/passages
The Egyptians approach, and the maidens have been left alone by Danaus who has returned to Pelasgus to seek aid. The Maidens cry out

Could I but find a seat in the blue air
Where drifting rain-clouds turn to snow,
Some smooth summit where even goats cannot climb,
A place beyond sight, aloof,
A dizzy crag, vulture haunted,
To witness my plunge into the abyss,
To escape a forced marriage my heart refuses!
The my dead flesh might feed wild dogs,
Fatten the vultures of the valley, I’d be content!
For death is freed from suffering and tears.
Let death aim well,
And claim me before the bed and the embrace,
Where can I fly to be free,
To escape the bond of the flesh?

Diversions/digressions : Potentially confusing, there is another play by Euripides called The Suppliants, or The Suppliant Maidens, which is not related to the events of Aeschylus’ play, but is related to the events in Seven against Thebes. A trap for beginners like me!
Personal rating : 4/10
Next :  Aeschylus’ (and Ancient Greece’s) only surviving trilogy of plays, The Oresteia (458 BC), consisting of Agamemmnon , The Choephori (or, The Libation Bearers), and The Eumenides (or, The Furies)

 

 

 

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Strange tales #1 The death of Aeschylus

There is a tale that Aeschylus, my “author of the month”, died from being hit on the head by a falling tortoise. He was spending a lot of time outside due to a prophecy that he would be killed by a falling object, when an eagle flying past mistook his head for a rock and dropped the tortoise it was carrying on him to smash it open (the tortoise, not Aeschylus’ head). For more detail, look for a copy of

J. C. McKeown (2013), A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Cradle of Western Civilization, Oxford University Press (9780199982103)  p. 136.

 

 

25. Seven against Thebes (467 BC) by Aeschylus.

25. Seven against Thebes (467 BC) by Aeschylus.

Plot : The curse of Oedipus descends upon his two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, as they battle over the throne of Thebes. King Eteocles is told that the seven gates of his city are to be attacked by the seven generals of the enemy army led by Polyneices. He sends his six best warriors to defend the other gates, leaving the seventh and last gate to himself to personally defend, as Fate would have, against his own brother.
My copy is the Penguin edition covering Aeschylus’ four surviving plays outside his Oresteian Trilogy, edited by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 9780140441123)

My thoughts: More assuredly than The Persians, this is believed to be the single surviving play of a trilogy by Aeschylus, this time dealing with the curse of Oedipus.
Suffice to say that the family has been cursed when the grandfather Laius disobeys Apollo. The son Oedipus kills his father, unknowingly marries his mother, and upon realising his deeds, blinds himself. His anger leads him to curse his sons, and hence the conflict which culminates in Seven against Thebes.
Again Aeschylus sets the action of his play inside the besieged city of a people whom the Athenians could be expected to have little sympathy for, as Thebes had fought on the side of the Persians against the rest of the Greeks in the living memory of the audience. (Indeed, Thebes is repeatedly called by its earlier name of Cadmus throughout the play, with the play’s current title added maybe 60 years after its was written)

The original play starts with the beseiged city facing direct attack and King Eteocles berating the Theban women for wailing and praying hysterically in the open square, and demoralising his troops. Upon the arrival of his spy, Eteocles hears which enemy is attacking each of the city gates, and assigns one of his generals to defend. Of course he leaves the last gate for himself, and upon hearing that his brother attacks there, rushes to meet him and settle the feud. Rather disappointingly, the drama of their confrontation, battle and mutual deaths all happens off stage, and we only have the Chorus’ reaction to the final realisation of the curse. And yet, perhaps the curse is not yet done, as the play ends with their sister Antigone preparing to defy the elders of the city and give her brother Polyneices a decent burial.  (The final scene featuring Oedipus’ daughter Antigone is thought to have been tacked on some years later by another author, and the original ending is now lost.)

Favourite lines/passages:

Eteocles : The gods, I am sure, have already ceased to think of us. The offering they desire from us is that we die. Why any longer shrink from our appointed end?

Eteocles : When the gods send destruction there is no escape.

You can tell he was a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

Diversions/digressions: Sophocles also covered the whole story in his trilogy of plays which do survive, so I will no doubt discover Antigone’s fate in  a month or two.

Personal rating: Not as powerful or emotional as The Persians despite the dramatic potential of the doom hanging over the brothers and their city. I can only give it 3/10.

Next : The Suppliants, again by Aeschylus.

24. The Persians (472 BC) by Aeschylus.

24. The Persians (472 BC) by Aeschylus.

Plot : News reaches the Persian court of their disastrous defeat at the Battle of Salamis where their army and navy have been decimated by the Athenians. My copy is the Penguin edition covering Aeschylus’ four surviving plays outside his Oresteian Trilogy, edited by Philip Vellacott (ISBN 9780140441123)
My thoughts:
The first play reached in my list, The Persians is interesting in that it was written by an Athenian for an Athenian audience to celebrate their successful rout of the invading Persian forces eight years earlier, yet is based on the news reaching the Persians and describing in detail the overwhelming disaster from their point of view. Xerxes’ rashness in attacking the Athenians is seen as the downfall of the Persian Empire, opening the door for democracy to overtake their society’s rule by kingship. The battle is not glorified – indeed, the description of the horrors of violent death as well as starvation and drowning are quite graphic as would be expected to be spoken by the grief stricken Persians.
A very effective technique which may have instilled some sympathy for the defeated enemy, and does not take advantage of the chance to praise the Greek leaders and forces. Apparently the Athenian audience was so moved that they cried, and Aeschylus was fined by the Greek authorities.

It is believed that Aeschylus fought in the battle, or at the very least witnessed the battle directly, rather than relying on second hand reports, and the details provided convince me he was present and describes the battle in reality rather than imagined prose. The play also looks back at the other famous Persian battle at Marathon, and foretells their final demise at Plataea. Since Aeschylus wrote many plays as trilogies, I would assume that these other battles may have been the first and last of a trilogy.

I had read Aeschylus some time back and must have been underwhelmed at the time as I quickly forgot the plays. On re-reading The Persians I was pleasantly surprised how powerful this play was. Clearly reading the classics in order, and particularly taking the time to consider and blog my thoughts, is a great help for me in remembering and appreciating those titles I have read, and I have a record of my thoughts to go back to me when the mood strikes me.

Favourite lines/passages:

Where is he whose nimble leap
Lightly clears the enclosing net?
Smooth Delusion’s flattering smile
Leads but where her trap is set;
There man pays his mortal debt
Doom has caught what death will keep.                                      Chorus

While here, each Persian wife,
Longing for him she sped
Armed to the fierce campaign,
Sprinkling her empty bed
With tender tears in vain,
Weeps out her lonely life.                                                                 Chorus

Diversions/digressions:
A very short play which I devoured quickly.  Greek plays at this time featured only two main actors plus a speaking chorus, so I was watching how the actors would need to change parts and reappear as new characters. For example, the cast of this play has Xerxes (the King of Persia), his mother Queen Atossa, the ghost of his father King Darius and a messenger from the war as well as the ever-present Chorus. Looking at the order of speeches, Actor 1 would have to portray the Messenger and Darius while Actor 2 covered Atossa and possibly Xerxes. This then led to the question if female actors were banned from the stage in Ancient Greece as they were in later ages, as apparently they were.

Personal rating: 6/10.
Next : Seven against Thebes, again by Aeschylus.

Looking back, looking forward

Time to draw breath at this point and say a few things about what I have done and where I will be going from here.
Firstly, after six months I have read and blogged my thoughts on 23 titles covering from 2000 BC to around 500 BC, roughly the first 1500 years. I have not read every extant piece of writing available from that period by any means, but have certainly looked at the more familiar and renowned titles, and I feel comfortable that I have achieved what I wanted to at this point, and I am eager to move on. My favourite book this year was undoubtedly The Ramayana, with The Odyssey a close second.
The blog has received only minimal subscribers, but has been viewed 223 times by 136 visitors from 27 countries.
Secondly, I must admit that from this point on, European literature (and later English literature) will form the bulk of titles being read. There are a number of reasons for this (i) my own Western background and lack of language skills, (ii) the ease of availability of these works to a reader with my resources, and (iii) the building of a cohesive and structured reading plan which builds directly upon what has been read before, so essentially the ‘Western Canon’.
Already, I have come to realise that there are many works of literature throughout China, India, the Arab world and elsewhere that I was not even aware of, yet will not be reading, although I will include those most familiar to Western audiences (The Tales of 1001 Nights, The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and more)
So with a New Year upon us, I turn towards the plays of the classical period of Ancient Greece, and acknowledge that the next 12 months will be focused mostly on this area. The dating of most works from now on can be a little more precise, compared to the previous titles which were lucky to be tied down to a particular century with any certainty. Also we can start to see more than one surviving work by the same author, as up until now only Homer has had the luck to have had more than one substantial work reach us intact.
So from Kimmy and I, we wish all readers, regular, occasional, and new, a year full of peace, prosperity and enjoyable reading.

 

23. Odes of Pindar (c.476 BC)

Plot : Praise of victorious athletes in the Great Games (including the Olympian Games) due to the transformation and power granted by the Gods. My copy is again the Penguin edition (ISBN 0140442309X), this time translated by C. M. Bowra.

My thoughts :
Neither one thing nor the other, many of these odes tell little of the mythology they cite, or are turgid going, with the reader/hearer expected to be familiar with the details and family references of the legendary Gods and heroes, and virtually nothing of the actual sporting events and athletes they purpose to praise. Thankfully the editor included brief explanations in the footnotes to each ode, which were worth checking prior to reading each ode.
For me, this was a rather dull collection which means much more to the scholar than the casual modern reader. Nevertheless there was a sprinkling of nicely turned phrases which I did enjoy.
Again, like Aesop’s Fables, I found these easier to complete by occasional bursts of four or five rather than prolonged periods of reading. It is late in the year and I must admit I am feeling both lazy in brain to think much about these odes, and impatient to getting back to stories rather than poetry.

Favourite lines/passages:
“Truth does not always gain if she displays her face unflinching, and silence is often a man’s wisest counsel.” Nemean V
“He casts his anchor on the furthest edge of bliss” Isthmian VI
“For treacherous Time hangs over men and twists awry the path of life” Isthmian VIII

Diversions/digressions:
As far as Greek mythology is concerned, there are better reads already covered earlier in the blog, such as the Homeric Hymns.

Personal rating: 3/10

Next: The seven surviving plays of Aeschylus, in the order they are generally believed to have been written, starting with The Persians.

The Classics Club list for 2016

Just found the perfect blog site : The Classics Club here at wordpress https://theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com/

The goal is to support classics reading by posting a list (and I love lists!) of 50+ classics I intend to read and blog about in the next five years. Since my blog is all about reading the classics in order, this should not be a hard list to create. So here goes for 2016  ….

Aeschylus : The Persians    √
Aeschylus : Seven against Thebes  √
Aeschylus : The Suppliant Maidens  √
Aeschylus : Agamemnon  √
Aeschylus : The Choephori (Libation Bearers)   √
Aeschylus : The Eumenides (Furies)  √
Herodotus : History of the Persian War [Histories]  √
Sophocles : Antigone  √
Sophocles : Ajax  √
Euripides : Alcestis   √
Euripides : Medea  √
Thucylides : History of the Peloponnesian War  √
Aeschylus : Prometheus Bound   √
Sophocles : The Trachiniae (Women of Trachis)  √
Euripides : The Heracleidae (Children of Heracles)  √
Sophocles : Oedipus the King √
Euripides : Hippolytus √
Euripides : Andromache  √
Aristophanes : The Acharnians √
Euripides : Hecuba  √
Aristophanes : The Knights √
Euripides : The Suppliants  √
Aristophanes : The Wasps  √
Aristophanes : Peace  √
Euripides : Electra  √
Aristophanes : The Clouds   √
Euripides : Heracles  √
Aristophanes : The Birds  √
Euripides : Ion  √
Euripides : Iphigenia among the Taurians   √
Euripides : Helen   √
Aristophanes : The Thesmophoriazusae √
Aristophanes : Lysistrata  √
Euripides : The Phonecian Women  √
Sophocles : Philoctetes √
Euripides : The Cyclops  √
Euripides : Orestes  √
Sophocles : Oedipus at Colonus  √
Sophocles : Electra  √
Euripides : The Bacchae  √
Euripides : Iphigenia at Aulis  √
Aristophanes : The Frogs  √
Aristophanes : The Ecclesiazusae (Assemblywomen)  √
Aristophanes : Wealth
Euripides : Rhesus  √
Hippocrates : The Hippocratic Oath  √
Xenophon : Anabasis
Xenophon : Cyropaedia
Xenophon : Hellenica
Xenophon : Agesilaus
Xenophon : Memoribilia, Apology, Economics, Symposium
Xenophon : Hiero and other treatises