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Tragedy Offstage

Suffering and Sympathy in Ancient Athens

By Rachel Hall Sternberg

Publication Year: 2006

Humane ideals were central to the image Athenians had of themselves and their city during the classical period. Tragic plays, which formed a part of civic education, often promoted pity and compassion. But it is less clear to what extent Athenians embraced such ideals in daily life. How were they expected to respond, emotionally and pragmatically, to the suffering of other people? Under what circumstances? At what risk to themselves? In this book, Rachel Hall Sternberg draws on evidence from Greek oratory and historiography of the fifth and fourth centuries BCE to study the moral universe of the ancient Athenians: how citizens may have treated one another in times of adversity, when and how they were expected to help. She develops case studies in five spheres of everyday life: home nursing, the ransom of captives, intervention in street crimes, the long-distance transport of sick and wounded soldiers, and slave torture. Her close reading of selected narratives suggests that Athenians embraced high standards for helping behavior—at least toward relatives, friends, and some fellow citizens. Meanwhile, a subtle discourse of moral obligation strengthened the bonds that held Athenian society together, encouraging individuals to bring their personal behavior into line with the ideals of the city-state.

Published by: University of Texas Press


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Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

It is impossible to acknowledge everyone who sustained and enriched a work so many years in the making, so I will be brief. Bryn Mawr dissertation advisors T. Corey Brennan and Richard Hamilton supplied the encouragement and criticism that launched two of the chapters here. The other three chapters could not have been written without a ...

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pp. 1-20

One night, several passersby see a group of thugs attacking someone in the center of the city. On a nearby island, another man’s childhood friend lies mortally ill, unable to rise from his bed. Athenian citizens, this time soldiers, are wounded and unable to walk as the rest of the army retreats after a disastrous battle. A man kidnapped by the marauding ...

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One. Home Nursing

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pp. 21-41

Phaedra, young wife of Theseus, has fallen ill with suppressed love for her stepson Hippolytus. She suffers, she frets, she cannot stay still. In this scene from Euripides’ Hippolytus, the loyal and garrulous servant who is tending Phaedra expresses weary exasperation at the task. Her comment that nursing entails “vexation of the mind, and hard work ...

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Two. The Ransom of Captives

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pp. 42-75

Aeschylus wrote a tragedy, now lost, on the ransom of Hector; it stood third in a trilogy based on Books 16–24 of the Iliad.1 Unfortunately, we cannot know how the playwright dramatized the scene in which Priam, king of Troy, offers the Greek warrior Achilles an enormously rich ransom for the body of his slain son. In Homer, great attention is paid to ...

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Three. Bystander Intervention

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pp. 76-103

In the Agamemnon, the old men of the chorus hear the terrible cries of their king as he is being stabbed to death by Clytemnestra. Speaking one after another, expressing contradictory views, they form the very picture of indecision and confusion. Should they rally the citizens, or should they rush inside the palace and catch the murderer with “fresh-flowing sword”? ...

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Four. The Transport of Sick and Wounded Soldiers

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pp. 104-145

In the tragedy by Sophocles, the warrior Philoctetes has been abandoned on an island by his fellow Greeks because of an incurable and painful snakebite; his anguished cries hamper the performance of religious rites (9–11). For ten years he languishes in terrible isolation until the Greeks revisit the island; he then begs to be taken aboard their ship. Despite the mythi-...

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Five. The Judicial Torture of Slaves

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pp. 146-173

The immortal Prometheus stands shackled to towering rocks in desolate Scythia, exposed to the bright blaze of the sun. An adamantine wedge pierces his chest and pins him to the spot. He is there because Zeus is punishing him for giving to mankind the gift of fire. For the duration of Prometheus Bound, every character that enters the stage must respond ...

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pp. 174-182

The social historian attempts to find out, among other things, what life was like for ordinary people and how society worked: its cultural ideals and its everyday realities. The task is difficult in the case of ancient Greece, since modern scholars must rely upon a limited corpus of literary works that are skewed toward the upper classes, the educated few whose wealth and leisure ...


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pp. 183-210

Works Cited

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pp. 211-226

Subject Index

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pp. 227-231

Index of Ancient Passages

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pp. 232-238

E-ISBN-13: 9780292794368
E-ISBN-10: 0292794363
Print-ISBN-13: 9780292714168
Print-ISBN-10: 0292714165

Page Count: 250
Illustrations: 5 tables
Publication Year: 2006

OCLC Number: 646793564
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Tragedy Offstage

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Subject Headings

  • Athens (Greece) -- Moral conditions -- History.
  • Helping behavior -- Greece -- Athens -- History -- To 1500.
  • Caring -- Greece -- Athens -- History -- To 1500.
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