- Sophocles and Alcibiades: Athenian Politics in Ancient Greek Literature
Michael Vickers is first an archaeologist and ancient historian, but blessed with a love of Greek tragedy. The result is that his interpretations are particularly compelling. They are based on facts rather than intuition. With his expert knowledge of Athenian history, he combines an extraordinary command of a vast secondary literature on tragedy in some five languages. I have no additions to his exemplary bibliography (179–182). All this gives his book an authority lacking in literary critics. I should not like to need to refute his views. He states his aim in his first sentence (1): "The case to be made in this book is that Sophocles (and Euripides) took traditional legends and employed them to make highly pertinent observations on contemporary military and political events." He makes his case indeed.
Let us take his interpretation of Philoctetes (59–81). His intimate familiarity with all that is known of Alcibiades even allows him to detect traces of Alcibi-ades' diction in that of Neoptolemus and Philoctetes. Details like the reference to Oeta are shown to have contemporary political relevance (73). He comes as close as one can to becoming a member of the original audience primed to detect any reference to matters of the moment (viii): "I shall frequently be taking note of hitherto unconsidered scraps which, when combined, amount to something substantial." He argues (ix) that Sophocles and Euripides took available tales and "exploited the possibilities inherent in the traditional plots for creating fruitful resonances with the contemporary scene." This is precisely what I learned while attending theater some twenty-five years ago under East German communism. See my Theatrokratia (Hildesheim 2005), passim. The attraction of the theater was that it provided the only tolerated and indeed safe way to criticize the system. Audiences watched plays to detect what they might say of the political situation at the moment of production. Philoctetes was first and foremost provocative political commentary on recent events, [End Page 265] not a beautiful retelling of an ancient tale. Of course the literary critic will hold that the eternal and beautiful in a play make it worth close attention, not dated contemporary polemic. I do not dispute this. And indeed that a play reported an ancient story protected the playwright. He is not responsible for the way an irresponsible spectator might react to traditional material.
And of course reception builds barricades against history. Most obvious here is the perversion of Antigone. Christians and feminists give us Antigone, a courageous maiden, about fourteen years old, who lays down her life for her brother whose mistake she forgives. Her loyal husband-to-be dies with her. In fact the protagonist is "the villain" Creon. Antigone provides the new ruler with his tragic dilemma, a decision is required but none is possible. Will he be a corrupt ruler, by sparing relatives inconsistent in the application of law, or kill his virtuous but dangerous niece? Vickers (16–22) makes a convincing case that Creon suggested Pericles to Sophocles' audience. He notes parallels of language and ways of thought. The parallels between Creon's bullying of the guard and Pericles' recent Samian atrocities, of their silences in public, their sophistic analyses of events, and more have permanently altered my view of Creon. We have long been misled by the play's title. Vickers returns us to what Sophocles intended. Any emphasis on Antigone simply proves the success found in the portrayal of a minor character. I am certainly grateful that her "Christian love" allowed enthusiastic teaching of the play in Byzantine schools and contributed to the preservation of the Sophoclean corpus. One recalls Jesus as Tertullian's verus Prometheus. I could go on and on. Oedipus Rex, Bacchae, and Cyclops are provocatively discussed. I strongly urge all those who teach Greek tragedy in its historical context to read this thoroughly admirable tome with care. I was personally fascinated to learn that Vickers has taught in the republic...