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City of Suppliants

City of Suppliants
Tragedy and the Athenian Empire

With close readings of suppliant dramas by each of the major playwrights, this book explores how Greek tragedy used tales of foreign supplicants to promote, question, and negotiate the imperial ideology of Athens as a benevolent and moral ruling city.

Series: Ashley and Peter Larkin Endowment In Greek and Roman Culture

August 2012
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222 pages | 6 x 9 |

After fending off Persia in the fifth century BCE, Athens assumed a leadership position in the Aegean world. Initially it led the Delian League, a military alliance against the Persians, but eventually the league evolved into an empire with Athens in control and exacting tribute from its former allies. Athenians justified this subjection of their allies by emphasizing their fairness and benevolence towards them, which gave Athens the moral right to lead. But Athenians also believed that the strong rule over the weak and that dominating others allowed them to maintain their own freedom. These conflicting views about Athens’ imperial rule found expression in the theater, and this book probes how the three major playwrights dramatized Athenian imperial ideology.

Through close readings of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Euripides’ Children of Heracles, and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, as well as other suppliant dramas, Angeliki Tzanetou argues that Athenian tragedy performed an important ideological function by representing Athens as a benevolent and moral ruler that treated foreign suppliants compassionately. She shows how memorable and disenfranchised figures of tragedy, such as Orestes and Oedipus, or the homeless and tyrant-pursued children of Heracles were generously incorporated into the public body of Athens, thus reinforcing Athenians’ sense of their civic magnanimity. This fresh reading of the Athenian suppliant plays deepens our understanding of how Athenians understood their political hegemony and reveals how core Athenian values such as justice, freedom, piety, and respect for the laws intersected with imperial ideology.

  • List of Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
    1. Aeschylus' Eumenides: Hegemony and Justice
    2. Hegemony and Empire: Presumed Origins
    3. Euripides' Children of Heracles: "Helping the Weak and Punishing the Strong"
    4. Hegemony in Crisis: Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index Locorum
  • Index

Angeliki Tzanetou is Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is coeditor with Maryline Parca of Finding Persephone: Women’s Rituals in the Ancient Mediterranean and has published articles on ritual and gender in drama and on tragedy and politics.


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In this book, I argue that the depiction of Athens as a city that welcomed suppliants from other cities lends insight into the Athenians' view of their empire. Athens' compassion and generosity toward suppliants became a topos in Athenian civic ideology and was employed to justify possession of her empire.1 Athenian tragedy praised the city's altruism and denied that the pursuit of power was a factor motivating the Athenians' interest in helping others.2 Yet Athenians outside the theater justified their rule over other Greek cities more bluntly, often by asserting that the strong rule over the weak or by claiming that ruling over others allowed them to maintain their own freedom.3 My analysis traces the historical development of this ideology in the Athenian suppliant plays, Aeschylus' Eumenides (458 BC), Euripides' Children of Heracles (ca. 430 BC), and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (ca. 407/6 BC).

Viewed as a group, these plays affirm the belief that Athens ruled justly and benevolently. Many of the memorable disenfranchised figures of tragedy, such as Orestes and Oedipus, are gravely defiled by crimes they have committed against their kin and unable to reclaim their ties with their native cities. Others, such as Heracles' children, lose their home and are relentlessly pursued by a tyrant. Athens earns her reputation for magnanimity repeatedly by surmounting successfully the obstacles that impede the reception of the suppliants into the city (e.g., heavy pollution or war by pursuers). Athens reaps significant benefits by incorporating these foreigners into the civic body, often as cult-heroes (e.g., Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus or Eurystheus in Euripides' Children of Heracles), because they bring some special boon.

This book is not a study of all the plays that are grouped under the category of suppliant drama. Instead, it offers case studies of three plays, one by each of the major playwrights, which taken together contribute to a new understanding of supplication and its relevance to Athenian hegemony. Because most of the suppliant plays are staged in Athens, one of the objectives of this monograph is to demonstrate the significance of place. While other plays exist that contain elements relevant to this thesis, my idea that hegemony presents a unifying interpretive framework for the Athenian suppliant plays will be developed from a systematic study of Eumenides, Children of Heracles, and Oedipus at Colonus.

Other plays fit the pattern as well. Even though Euripides' Medea is staged in Corinth, the outcome of Medea's supplication of Aegeus in Euripides' play is reminiscent of the pattern that we find in the Athenian suppliant plays: she too is promised a home in Athens by Aegeus. Similarly, in Euripides' Heracles, Theseus persuades Heracles to follow him to Athens, though the bonds of friendship and hospitality offer a more appropriate context for relating this play to the familiar theme of Athens' generosity toward strangers. While these two plays pay tribute to Athens, they do not go further in their explication of Athenian hegemony. On the other hand, Aeschylus' Suppliant Women is the only suppliant play set in Argos, not Athens. For this reason, I discuss some aspects of the play programmatically in the introduction to establish some important differences between Suppliant Women, Eumenides, and the rest of the suppliant plays, which depict Athens as the hegemonic city of Greece. The many facets of Athenian hegemony cannot be exhausted within the small space of a single monograph, and in fact one encounters the complex character of Athenian hegemony in other plays as well. It is my hope that this book will pave the way for a broader examination of this topic.

Aeschylus' Eumenides, Euripides' Children of Heracles, and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus allow us to trace the development of the dramatic expression of Athenian hegemonic ideology, as it evolved from the height of Athenian imperialism to the end of the Peloponnesian War. Moreover, Euripides' Suppliant Women (424 BC) shares the characteristics of the other Athenian suppliant plays but is more briefly treated than the others (see Chapter 2). In studying Euripides' political plays—Children of Heracles (ca. 430 BC) and Suppliant Women—I opted for the former because it has been less studied in light of the workings of Athenian hegemonic ideology than has Suppliant Women. Finally, while both plays date to the first decade of the Peloponnesian War, Children of Heracles bears more clearly the imprint of the changes in the history of the empire that had come about between the production of Aeschylus' Oresteia in 458 BC and the beginning of the war between Athens and Sparta.

The portrayal of Athens as an inclusive city that provides support to those suffering undeservedly is shaped by the historical realities of Athens' empire. Having fended off Persia, Athens first led the Delian League, a military alliance against the Persians, and soon after became an empire. Turning their former allies into subjects, the Athenians exacted military and financial contributions from them in the form of compulsory tribute. Even though the duration of Athens' rule was brief, it fostered its share of discontents. Her subjects protested bitterly against the loss of their independence even before the Peloponnesian War broke out, ending Athenian hegemony in 404 BC. Both Spartan propaganda and complaints from the allies painted a negative image of Athens as a tyrannical master, ruling over involuntary subjects.

The interpretation of the reception of foreign suppliants in tragedy is germane to the debate surrounding the political character of Athenian theater. Political interpretations of tragedy over the past thirty years have focused on the role that democratic political culture played in tragedy. Extending the insights of the French structuralist school (Vernant and Vidal-Naquet 1990), which emphasized negation of structure, transgression, and ambiguity as the salient features of the genre, the majority of critics have argued that the plays themselves can be shown to interrogate democracy and its institutions. Simon Goldhill's article "The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology," has had a long-lasting impact upon this debate, especially among Anglophone critics. Emphasizing the pivotal role of the predramatic ceremonies in the context of the annual civic festival in the theater of Dionysus, Goldhill has demonstrated the ways in which the plays themselves can mirror and question Athenian civic ideology within the context of performance. It is now widely accepted that the plays explore Athenian democracy and its institutions and in so doing engage with gender and class disparities and with war and justice. Though some critics doubt whether Athenian civic institutions played as vital a role in tragedy, as has been assumed, more recent work has expanded our awareness of the significance of this approach.

Most notably, Richard Seaford argues that the destruction of the royal household—a typical feature of many plots in tragedy—is also representative of the negation of a pre-polis and pre-democratic past whose subversion exemplifies the process through which the democratic community came into being. While Seaford emphasizes the centrality of ritual and civic cult in constructing and affirming community solidarity, Mark Griffith argues that the negotiation of class disparity within the ranks of Athenian citizens can yield a novel way of bridging the divide between aristocratic past and democratic present. As he demonstrates, elite figures in tragedy act as models of authority, serving to mask disparities between mass and elite citizens. Identification with these elite figures yields an act of misrecognition on the part of the audience, who consent to a version of Athenian civic ideology, which promotes "solidarity without consensus."

A good illustration of the wide variety of approaches and perspectives on politics in tragedy is David Carter's Why Athens: A Reappraisal of Tragic Politics. In his joint introduction with Mark Griffith, Carter offers a new working definition of historicist studies under the label of "audience studies." Shifting from text to audience, as he argues, historicist critics ask what the plays meant to the original audiences of the plays, utilizing the text as evidence about the "performance that went on between the poet, actors, and audience," who attended and participated in the annual celebration of the religious festival of the Great Dionysia.

This body of work is especially valuable for crafting an approach to Athenian civic ideology in light of the historical realities surrounding the growth of Athens' power as well. The study of empire, whose stamp is visible in the civic ceremonies that preceded the performance of the plays (e.g., the display of the tribute of the allies, the libations poured by the generals) at the festival of Dionysus, invites us to examine the ways in which the treatment of traditional myths furnished a tool for exploring the character of Athens' rule. Drama, like public art, glorified and monumentalized the Athenian achievement by celebrating Athens' prowess—encased in the city's mythical victories against the Persians and other Greeks, her defense of Panhellenic laws and customs, her openness to suppliants—and praised her democratic traditions by featuring her autochthonous origins, celebrating freedom of speech, and commemorating the Areopagus as revered bulwark of Athens' imperial democracy.

This process did not always unquestioningly reproduce Athenian civic ideology. The results of this inquiry in turn can be brought to bear upon the Athenians' self-understanding of their role and obligations as citizens and rulers of the empire. In this connection, it is important to take into account that the plays were performed before an audience of citizens and foreigners. The City Dionysia had acquired an international character through the presence of representatives from the allied cities, who after 454/3 BC made an annual trip to Athens in March to remit the tribute. Indeed, the presence of foreigners may have set limits, as Aristophanes claims that it did (Ach. 502–506), to what could be said in their presence. But the composition of the audience poses a different problem for tragedy, since the plays represent the realities of empire obliquely, unlike comedy, where Athenian imperialism is represented in a clear and unapologetic fashion.

The particular subject matter of the plays, historical background, and their religious and social settings also account for the divergent ways in which different plays represent the historical realities of empire. For example, we see that Euripides' political plays Children of Heracles and Suppliant Women deliver the core message of Athens' openness and generosity (see further, Chapter 2), distancing the city's ideal image from the realities of Athens' rule. To be sure, these plays afford the possibility of questioning Athens' motives, but they do not outwardly undercut the theme of Athenian benevolence toward others. Euripides' Trojan Women, which dates to 415 BC, on the other hand, depicts the suffering of war through the endless laments of Troy's women, the razing of the city, and the enslavement of its population as a way of commenting on the Greeks' accountability from which the Athenians are not excluded.

In tragedy, the coexistence of positive and negative statements about the empire may also reflect a certain degree of ambivalence on the part of the Athenians toward their achievements, as Tonio Hölscher notes in his discussion of the public art of the empire:

… artistic intensity was a result of the "adventure" on which Athenian society had embarked in the fifth century. Their path led them, almost irresistibly, into a political order without precedent and into dominion over an empire of incomparable extension; theirs was a balancing act without net that must have created an ambivalent state of collective psychology, between euphoric self-assertion and profound self-doubt, in which all themes of social import were discussed, represented, celebrated, and questioned without end.

Recent approaches on the topic of empire attempt to come to grips with the process by which the plays convert history to drama. Some of the most representative studies have engaged specifically with the representation and actions of particular characters onstage, using them as templates for evaluating the positive and negative portrayals of Athens' power. Sophie Mills and Rebecca Futo-Kennedy examine the roles assigned Athenian characters—the Athenian king Theseus and Athena, the city's divine patron—and demonstrate how each came to represent distinct facets of Athens' political identity. Mills says that Theseus served as the model of the quintessential Athenian hero and as the embodiment of the Athenians' idealized civic ethos along the lines presented also in the surviving funeral speeches. The characteristics ascribed to Theseus—courage, justice and an eagerness to remedy the suffering of others—typified the ideal standards of conduct, expected of all Athenians, and were used to articulate Athens' distinctiveness, military and cultural, not only over barbarians but also over other Greeks. As Mills writes, Thucydides' narrative provides a counterpoint to this fixed, unchanging and ideal image of Athenian excellence. Such built-in ideological constraints contributed to an exaggerated image of the Athenian achievement, which precluded a more dynamic engagement with the realities of Athens' power.

Yet the presence of Athenian characters onstage did not always guarantee a straightforward affirmation of Athens' imperial ideals. As Rebecca Futo-Kennedy argues, Athena's characterization as patron of the city in the tragedies of Aeschylus and Sophocles refers more readily to the historical realities of Athens' rule. Futo-Kennedy maintains that the plays do not in effect conceal Athens' imperial conduct, given its sure and early signs already by the 470s and 460s BC. Athena furnished a powerful symbol of imperial rule by way of advertising onstage the superiority of the Athenian justice system, which was used to justify her military dominance. The fault lines between the ideal and the reality of imperial power, however, begin to emerge, as she contends, in later plays, such as Sophocles' Ajax, where Athena wields her power in an authoritarian manner and is no longer vested in advocating the cause of justice on behalf of others, as she did in Aeschylus' Eumenides. Athena's connections with the empire are well documented in the ancient sources, and the study of her character demonstrates the ways in which tragedy begins to represent the harsh realities of Athenian imperialism more overtly over time.

David Rosenbloom argues that Aeschylus' Persians and Agamemnon represent Xerxes' and Agamemnon's demise as foils for Athens' empire.By staging the failure of great leaders, Aeschylus' plays prompted Athenians to reflect upon the negative consequences of their continuing expansion in Greece and upon the political and moral costs of their military undertakings. The lesson of Aeschylean tragedy, Rosenbloom writes, is Solonian, urging Athenians to adopt a stance of "looking to the end" and admonishing them to take political lessons from tragedy about the eventual demise of their own power.

Critical efforts to determine the extent to which tragedy attempts to legitimate Athens' rule unavoidably face the difficult question of answering definitively what Athenians thought of their empire and how they went about representing their dominion to others. Did playwrights lend voice to the Athenians' moral discomfort with their rule over their fellow Greeks by warning them about its inherent limits, as Rosenbloom suggests? Or were they content to celebrate it by commemorating the worthy and valorous deeds of illustrious mythical heroes and by creating a separate space where Athens' ideal civic self could remain intact, immune from any critique, as Mills argues? Alternatively, did the plays lend voice to the two faces of Athens' power and undercut its legitimacy by exposing the fissure between hegemonic and imperial justice, as Futo-Kennedy suggests?

Taking my cue from these approaches, I submit that undertaking an inquiry into the manifestations of the ideology of hegemony in the Athenian suppliant plays allows us to situate the perceptions that Athenians held about their power against the historical setting of the empire. The statements that the Athenian suppliant plays make about empire are ideological, offering an image of Athens' relations with other Greeks not as they actually were but as the Athenians purported them to be. Accordingly, the plays converge in representing Athens as a hegemonic city, that is, a city that led others on the basis of consent and on the strength of her moral commitments. The plays offer variations on the idealized portrait of the city as protector of the weak and the oppressed, each representing Athens as a city of justice (Eumenides), a "free city" (Children of Heracles) and as a "pious and reverent city" (Oedipus at Colonus).

The need to defend and consolidate Athens' hegemony over Sparta began in the 460s BC, when Athens' foreign policy changed, challenging profoundly the relationship between the two major powers, Athens and Sparta. Eumenides sets in relief the need to endorse the legitimacy of Athens' leadership after Athens broke away from the Spartans' anti-Persian League and began to pursue her military interests on her own, in the early 450s BC. The depiction of Athens as a "free city" in Children of Heracles in turn can be read as a defense of her conduct toward the allies against the claims that the Spartans were making around the time of the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, when they proclaimed themselves as the liberators of the cities that the Athenians ruled. Oedipus at Colonus, composed ca. 407/6 BC (and produced after Sophocles' death in 401 BC), also defends Athens' conduct and advertises her pious and humane treatment of strangers close to the end of the war when Athens still had the opportunity to answer for her ruthless use of force against other Greeks. By testing and probing Athens' moral leadership, the plays showcase the potentialities and limits of this ideology.

The cluster of issues that I have set out to examine in these plays conveys a new understanding of supplication in tragedy that sets this study apart from recent treatments of the topic. My study differs from those of Suzanne Gödde, who concentrates on ritual and rhetoric in the suppliant plays, and of Jonas Grethlein, who also emphasizes the significance of the exchanges between Athens and foreigners in the suppliant plays. For Grethlein this exploration is by-and-large limited to how Athenians perceived themselves as citizens in the democracy, not as rulers of an empire. Athenian myths of supplication offer sophisticated political commentary on Athenian attitudes toward the status of the empire. The study of ideology in these plays does not fit neatly into the categories of "ideology as questioning" or "ideology as creed," proposed by Christopher Pelling. The book's focus lies in explicating the ideological strategies employed in the texts, with particular attention to ideology as a process of legitimization.

My approach to ideology in the Athenian suppliant plays is indebted to Nicole Loraux's major study of the Athenian funeral oration and to Christopher Pelling's contribution to the study of tragedy and ideology. It also draws upon ideas current in political theory, religion, and anthropology. The goal of the present study is twofold: first, it seeks to establish the historical and ideological parameters that shape supplication in tragedy. Second, it develops a theoretical framework for reading the Athenian panegyric with attention to the workings of hegemonic ideology, especially as defined by Gramsci (see below, "Hegemony and Ideology").

Contexts of Supplication

Supplication, an important religious and civic institution in Greece, commanded the attention of poets and artists alike. My own discussion here is limited to an overview of some aspects of supplication in epic and tragedy that shed light on its historical development and clarify my thesis on supplication and Athenian hegemony. Both Homer and tragedians accorded prominence to this theme, which threads through the epics and provides the focal point of plays devoted to the perilous predicament of suppliants. Indeed, some of the most famous depictions of supplication scenes in art were inspired by Homer, such as Priam's supplication of Achilles, Nausicaa's of Odysseus, or Cassandra's of Ajax. They also reproduced scenes familiar from tragedy, such as Iphigeneia's supplication of Agamemnon (Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis), Alcmene's supplication (Sophocles' Amphitryon/cite>), the supplication of Heracles' children (Euripides' Children of Heracles), and numerous others. A number of these scenes, especially those depicting supplication at the altar, captured the intense pathos of the situation and elicited pity from the viewers.

Because epic and tragic scenes of supplication stage the act from beginning to end, they furnish a fuller understanding of the process of supplication. Thus, both epic poetry and tragedy offer a repertory of gestures, words, and arguments that suppliants used to persuade their addressee to grant their request; crucial to the representation of the process in both genres was the evaluation of the petition by its recipient. In representing this process, however, epic and tragedy differed in a variety of respects. The main difference between the two lay in the decision-making process, which in epic emphasizes individual responsibility, while in tragedy the decision also involves the participation of the community. We can account for the shift from the personal to the collective sphere of activity by tracing the development of practices of supplication historically, from epic to tragedy.

In Homer, suppliants direct their plea to an individual (a god or a mortal) and make a personal plea to their addressee, who then decides its outcome. Supplication is embedded within the power networks of the aristocratic society the poems by and large depict. Like xenia ("guest-friendship"), supplication constituted one of the avenues available to outsiders for gaining access to a community, and this avenue, too, was also closely tied to warfare. The suppliant would accordingly supplicate an individual able to grant his request but whose executive power did not necessarily derive from his political authority (as it does in tragedy). Rather, the choice of whom to supplicate depended upon the specific circumstances of the request and took place in a variety of locales. There are numerous examples of supplications by the vanquished to the enemy on the battlefield or at a military camp, pleading for the release of prisoners of war—of which those of Chryses' supplication of Agamemnon in the Iliad and Priam's supplication of Achilles are perhaps the most famous ones.

Suppliants, however, especially exiles who had fled their own country on account of homicide or who were strangers in need of assistance, could also approach either the palace of the king or the house of a powerful nobleman. Thus, arriving as a stranger in Phaeacia, Odysseus receives detailed instructions from Nausicaa on how to enter the palace of King Alcinoos and supplicate Queen Arete. Telemachus accepts the seer Theoclymenus, now an exile from Argos, as a suppliant aboard his ship at Pylos and takes him home with him to Ithaca . Thus, aside from supplications in battle, Homeric supplication was by and large regulated within the sphere of the oikos ("the household"), often serving as preamble for establishing relations of guest-friendship or, in the case of exiles seeking a new home, as a path toward reintegration. Similarly, some of the exchanges occurring in the context of supplication involved transactions of an economic nature, such as the suppliant's offer of gifts or ransom, to ensure a positive outcome. Since gifts were markers of honor and prestige, their bestowal links supplication to the network of exchanges binding an aristocratic society. Within this context, their use illuminates the ways in which supplication could be deployed to call attention to, or consolidate, the recipient's status and authority.

Although scholars acknowledge the continuity in the practice of supplication in the post-Homeric period, tragedy also reflects the significant historical developments that took place in the archaic and classical periods and caused supplication to come under the purview of Athenian civic institutions. The practice of supplicating at the sanctuaries of the gods is scarcely attested in Homer. Tragedy mirrors this development—all plays are staged at the altars of the gods—and renders supplication largely a matter for the polis, with the king and the people as the parties to whom suppliants directed their pleas. Following this initial tableau, the evaluation of the suppliants' request in tragedy, as in real life, was placed in the hands of the civic authorities. Thus, apart from examples of individual supplication, the pattern whereby suppliants direct their plea to the entire city by supplicating the king and the demos is present in all suppliant plays.

From Pelasgus in Aeschylus' Suppliant Women to Demophon and Acamas, Theseus' two sons, in Euripides' Children of Heracles to Theseus in Euripides' Suppliant Women and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, the king of the city is in charge of deciding the supplication after consulting with the citizens of mythical Athens, while Athena in Aeschylus' Eumenides, the only divine supplicandus (the recipient/addressee) in the suppliant plays, is addressed by Orestes in her capacity as civic leader. Dramatically, supplication in the city calls attention to the personal and collective accountability of king and demos, who together share the responsibility in deciding its outcome. Thus, Pelasgus in Aeschylus' Suppliant Women is very reluctant to decide the case of the Danaids by himself and refers the decision to the Argive Assembly. Similarly, Athena expressly states that Orestes' guilt is too weighty a matter for her to decide, and she therefore calls for a trial and selects citizens to judge the outcome. In suppliant drama, the participation of the community and its representatives frames concerns about moral agency in light of collective practices of decision-making and in so doing offers judgments on the moral character not only of individuals but also of the city as a whole.

Drama and Community

In suppliant drama, the decision to accept or reject the suppliant is part of a process of political deliberation, which underscores the ethical responsibility of the city's agents by dramatizing scenarios of conflict that render the outcome of the supplication doubtful. Comparison between Homer and tragedy is instructive in this respect as well. In Homer, the supplicandus makes a choice between accepting or rejecting the suppliant, based on the context and circumstances of the appeal, and wavering in reaching a decision is rare. When Menelaus, for example, hesitates whether to spare Adrastus' life on the battlefield, Agamemnon intervenes and tells him to kill him. By contrast, the action of suppliant drama revolves around the difficult decision of accepting the suppliants into the city, a choice that involves going to war against the suppliants' enemies. Such obstacles surface in all the suppliant plays, and the risk that their reception entails for the fortunes of the city is the object of debate, often protracted, between the suppliants and the king, on the one hand, and the enemy, on the other.

The threat of war acts as a deterrent to granting the request, and the kings to whom the suppliants address their plea do not readily accede to such requests. Instead, they exhibit hesitation and uncertainty (Pelasgus) or initially even deny the request (Theseus in Euripides' Suppliant Women). In Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, to take one example, Pelasgus is overcome by feelings of indecision and faces a significant moral quandary, being forced to decide between his obligation to act piously toward the suppliants and the gods and his duty to protect his city.

Pelasgus' predicament differs from that of other characters such as Agamemnon or Medea whose decisions prove ruinous for their family and city. Unlike them, the king does not view his choice as a personal one but stresses his accountability to his city and its people. Since the test to which Pelasgus is put constitutes a trial of his competence as a leader, he makes a sensible choice by relegating the decision to the Assembly of the Argives. The overall moral evaluation of the principles underlying the dilemma of accepting the suppliants in the rest of the plays of this group, similarly extends beyond the agency ascribed to individual actors by presenting the decision as a matter of collective responsibility, shared by the people and their representatives. Like Pelasgus, Theseus argues that the Assembly must decide the supplication and Demophon conducts an assembly meeting to judge the herald's demand that the city expel the suppliants sitting at the altar of Zeus Agoraios.

Suppliant plays then constitute dramas about the community—a fact Richmond Lattimore recognized in his analysis of Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, in which he highlights the key role the king's dilemma plays in deciding the Danaids' supplication. As Peter Burian pointed out, however, Lattimore perhaps overstates its importance, since only Pelasgus presents this choice as a dilemma.

Between Ritual and Law

In her book on Homeric supplication, Manuela Giordano aptly shows that supplication was a human institution with divine authority. Indeed, there were clear limits to the authority of the mortal supplicandus, since all suppliants were placed under Zeus' protection, and those who harmed a suppliant or violated the established rules were liable to divine sanctions. While the divine imperative afforded the suppliant protection against wrongdoing, the success of his petition lay in the discretion of the supplicandus. Though in many cases divine and human custom could work in tandem, tragedy presents situations that created uncertainty about the motives of the suppliant and in so doing set in doubt the legitimacy of his claims. To understand further the dramatic representation of such ambiguities and the manner in which they were negotiated in the plays, we must turn next to some of the major scholarly interpretations on this subject.

The large body of literature on supplication has elucidated the code of gestures, acts, and words that suppliants employ. Crucial for an understanding of the dynamics of the exchange that took place between the suppliant and his addressee is the discussion of whether supplication constitutes a ritual in the proper sense of the word, as John Gould argues in his influential article "Hiketeia," published in 1973. Gould maintains that the success of supplication was largely a matter of the proper execution of the ritual gestures, which, once properly performed, engendered the obligation on the part of the supplicandus to grant the request. Additionally, the efficacy of the suppliant's approach consisted in establishing and maintaining contact by touching either literally or figuratively a part of the body, usually the knee or the chin of the supplicandus. Maintaining contact during the performance of supplication highlights the ritual dimension of the practice and explains its efficacy, which Gould and others attribute to establishing and maintaining physical contact.

Critics of the ritualist approach point out its limitations for an analysis of supplication in epic and tragedy, where speeches and arguments are instrumental for the suppliants' act of persuasion. With his study of Greek and Roman practices of supplication, Fred Naiden has broken new ground by showing that ritual gestures play a secondary role in determining the outcome of the suppliant's request. Based on an exhaustive examination of the available evidence, he contends that the success or failure of supplication stems from the legal or quasi-legal elements of the institutional practices associated with supplication. His four-step schema illustrates that the process of supplication unfolds from the suppliant's initial approach, followed by appropriate gestures and words, which introduce arguments germane to the request, culminating in the final and most important step, the decision to accept or reject the suppliant. Naiden identifies the two main components of any supplication, ceremony and judgment, and thus clarifies the discrete roles performed by suppliant and supplicandus. He thereby boldly demonstrates that the structural elements of supplication underlie the variations and adaptations of this practice across different cultures in the Mediterranean.

Naiden acknowledges the significant variations in local practice and ascribes differences to historical and political changes that occurred over time. He further discusses the historical evidence on practices of supplication in classical Athens and demonstrates that suppliant plays incorporate aspects of historical practice, as it relates to Athenian democratic institutions.

Supplication and Democracy (Aeschylus' Suppliant Women)

Thinking about supplication along these lines brings into sharp focus the resonance of Athenian institutions in the drama of supplication for ancient audiences, who were familiar with these practices. In this connection, Naiden has shown that in Athens suppliants first presented their request before the Council; then, after the preliminary hearing, the Council would make the recommendation for the petition to be heard by the Athenian Assembly. Individuals bringing their petitions before the Assembly presented themselves as suppliants at the altar of the Twelve Gods in the Agora before the opening of the proceedings. After the deliberations over the case in the Assembly, the decision was taken by vote, and (successful) outcomes were recorded on Assembly decrees.

In Aeschylus' Suppliant Women we encounter the closest approximation between dramatic and actual practices of supplication as it was practiced in Athens. In this play, the Argive Assembly, not the king, decides the supplication by a popular vote. Pelasgus' jurisdiction mirrors the role served by the Athenian magistrates of the Council, while his later instructions to Danaus to come before the Argive demos to petition for asylum on behalf of the group replicates the process of deliberation in the Athenian Assembly to decide a variety of requests from foreigners. Like other metics ("resident aliens") who petitioned for tax exemption on the basis of their merits, Danaus' successful petition results in the award of metic status to the Danaids and a guarantee for asylum protection.

(Re)locating Supplication in Athens

Critics have focused on the dramatic motifs and themes common to all suppliant plays. In this vein, they have suggested that suppliant drama conforms to a uniform pattern of confrontation and resolution, involving a three-party exchange between the suppliants, their savior, and the enemy; savior and enemy fight against each other, and the host city wins the war and receives praise and blessings. However, Naiden's emphasis on the mirroring of Athenian norms and practices in the suppliant plays offers a starting point for rethinking the parameters that underlie the pattern of suppliant drama.

The setting of the majority of the plays in Athens is significant in its own right. All of the suppliant plays, but Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, are set in Athens, as are his fragmentary Eleusinioi (ca. 470s) which probably predated his Suppliant Women (463 BC) and Children of Heracles (ca. 456 BC). Though this is admittedly a limited corpus, the playwrights' predilection for staging plays in Athens deserves further attention.

Battle for Hegemony?

The military challenge that typically features in plots of suppliant drama can be explained against the backdrop of the intense hegemonic rivalry between Greek cities in the course of the fifth century. We have already seen that suppliant drama was a polis drama and that the test of the city's piety revolved around a military confrontation between host and enemy city. The decision to support the suppliants by going to war, however, also furnished a trial of the city's strength and of her capacity to oppose her foes successfully. More specifically, the host city's willingness to accept foreigners, despite the threat of war, advertised her military superiority no less than her reverence for the suppliants and the gods. To be sure, the justification for going to war varies widely among the suppliant plays. In Aeschylus' play, in particular, the king never explicitly mentions Argos' military superiority among the reasons compelling him to go to war, as do, for example, King Demophon or Aethra. Even so, military antagonism is a feature of Suppliant Women as well, and the ensuing engagement is a measure of Argos' military capabilities.

The suppliant plays point out the connections between supplication and hegemony. Both Argos in Aeschylus' Suppliant Women and Athens in the later suppliant plays lay specific claims to hegemony. In Aeschylus' play, King Pelasgus proclaims that Argos' dominion extends to the ancestral territory of the Pelasgians. The suppliant plays set in Athens called attention to Athens' military superiority in varied ways, not least by emphasizing that this city alone was able to shelter and abet strangers.

But Argos and Athens do not share equal claims to hegemony. Argos' dominion is weak compared to that of Athens. Pelasgus' rule is short-lived and proves inconsequential. According to the reconstruction of Aegyptioi, the second play of the Danaid trilogy, the war ends badly: the king dies in the course of the battle, and Danaus, a foreigner, takes over the throne and rules Argos as a tyrant. The Danaids are forced to marry their cousins, and Danaus orders them to murder their husbands in the last play of the trilogy, bringing pollution to the city. Conversely, the Athenian suppliant plays make a show of Athens' power: not only does the city prove her foes to be inferior but Athens also reaps military benefits from the suppliants, who help secure her ascendancy in the future (e.g., the Argive alliance in Aeschylus' Eumenides). Compared with his Athenian counterparts, Pelasgus emerges as a weak leader. The suppliants, powerless foreigners, exert tremendous pressure upon the king to their advantage and threaten to bring indelible pollution upon the city. Argos falls short of attaining the stature of Athens, for even though Pelasgus insists on relegating the decision to his citizens, the king does not act altogether from a position of power. In the Athenian plays, kings negotiate shrewdly with the suppliants and do not accede to their demands unconditionally. Unlike Pelasgus, they take steps to ensure positive outcomes and effectively neutralize the threat that the suppliants posed for the city, as they do, for example, when they accept Eurystheus and Oedipus, who promise to protect Athens against her enemies.

These differences lend support to the argument that the historical realities of the mythical city's power conditioned her image as supplicandus. Argos is divested of the trappings of hegemonic power, which typically define Athens' role in tragedy. While Athens had achieved ascendancy in Greece by the 460s BC, Argos had been eclipsed by Sparta's rise to power. Athenians were sympathetic toward the Argives, the Spartans' main contenders in the Peloponnese, and they became their allies in 462/1 BC. This may account in part for the positive depiction of Argos' mythical constitution; but, as we have seen, Argos can lay only partial claims to the idealized image of Athens as a city of suppliants. While the clear references to Athenian practices and institutions of supplication in Argos may lend the impression of a shared civic landscape with Athens, the depiction of Athens as a hegemonic city differentiates the two city settings of suppliant drama.

Because this study examines the interdependence between hegemony and supplication against the historical backdrop of Athens' rise to power. I do not treat Aeschylus' Suppliant Women as fully as the rest of the plays in this book. However, the play's affinities with, and differences from, the model that Athens represents in the later plays are germane to the book's thesis. As the earliest of the extant suppliant dramas, Aeschylus' Suppliant Women may have furnished a preliminary representation of the pattern we find in the later suppliant plays, which celebrated myths of Athenian political mythology. Admittedly this is not conclusive, and we can speculate further whether Athens had come to be regarded both as the ideal and as the prototypical supplicandus of the suppliant plays. Even so, if discrete meanings are attached to particular city settings in tragedy, as Froma Zeitlin and Suzanne Saïd have argued, then the depiction of Argos in Aeschylus' Suppliant Women could also have served as a foil to that of Athens. More specifically, while the prevalence of tyranny, violence, and civil discord typified Thebes as an "anti-Athens" in tragedy, Argos offered the middle ground between Athens and Thebes, in part because it is portrayed as a city of returns (e.g., the Danaids in Aeschylus' Suppliant Women; Orestes in Aeschylus' Eumenides).

More specifically, when the Argive Assembly facilitates the suppliants' reception through a grant of metoikia ("the status of foreign resident") to the Danaids (Supp. 609–620), the play points to realities familiar to an Athenian audience and further suggests, as scholars have noted, that mythical Argos stands as a metonymy for contemporary Athens. In Aeschylus' Suppliant Women, as Geoff Bakewell notes, the suppliants' petition for asylum and the difficulties that emerge in this context set in relief tensions and anxieties over Athens' metic population. Even though the Danaids offer praise and blessings to the city and its people at the end of the first play, the adverse consequences of the Danaids' acceptance for the city (war and, later, pollution) suggest that Aeschylus' trilogy may have explored the threat that outsiders or foreign settlers posed for Athens but also for any other city. As Athens' counterpart, Argos furnishes the only other setting of suppliant plays where Athenian concerns can be examined. In the Athenian suppliant plays, the playwrights also entertain and negotiate negative possibilities, but Athens' hegemonic leadership emerges unchallenged.

Supplication and Empire

Attention to the actual practices of supplication, combined with critical engagement with tragedy as a civic performance and as a forum for reflecting upon Athenian democracy and its institutions, has shaped the direction of recent criticism on suppliant drama. The strong focus on Athens in the suppliant plays provided an especially apt exploration of Athenian beliefs, values, and ideals, set in relief through the city's encounters with outsiders who sought her protection.

Further probed, however, the position of strength, which Athens commands in the eyes of the suppliants as the only city able to arbitrate and defend their claims and differences against other Greeks, offers a portrait that is representative of Athens' character as an imperial power. Specifically, my claim is that supplication in the Athenian suppliant plays offers a blueprint for examining Athens' relations with her imperial allies and concentrates on the affinities that obtain between supplication and empire. To begin with, in actual practice, the rules of the ritual dictated that the roles between suppliant and supplicandus be unequal: one party put forward a request; the other had the power to approve or reject it. In the Athenian suppliant plays the distribution of roles between Athens, who plays the part of powerful supplicandus, and the non-Athenian suppliants, who are consistently depicted as weak and defenseless, renders the plight of the suppliant parallel to that of Athens' tribute-bearing allies in significant respects. This analogy furnishes a concrete basis for considering the suppliants' reception in light of political issues and concerns pertinent to the character of Athens' leadership.

Among the suppliant plays, those staged in Athens, Aeschylus' Eumenides, Euripides' Children of Heracles and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, feature dramatic scenarios of Athens' successful intervention on behalf of non-Athenian suppliants. Each of these plays explored different facets of the central theme of Athens' panegyric, the city's openness toward suppliants, and celebrated the city's unique character. Her compassion and generosity toward suppliants were distinctive features of her portrayal as protector of suppliants along with other values also felt to be distinctively Athenian, such as piety, freedom, justice, and moderation. Athens' distinctive portrayal as a city open to suppliants served as a platform for articulating a series of political and ideological arguments that affirmed Athens' leadership. This debate was not confined to the plays but also extended beyond the theater to the arena of politics, where Sparta and Athens had been waging ideological wars against each other already before the Peloponnesian War began.

The historical context sheds light on the ideological purpose served by the suppliant plays. The positive portrayal of Athens therein is expressly removed from the unpalatable realities of the allies' enforced subjection, which had emerged by the 460s and early 450s BC. Instead, the plays model Athens' rule upon the template of a hegemonic alliance, that is, they represent Athens' interactions with foreign suppliants as a partnership between mutually consenting parties. In casting the suppliants as assuming the role of willing allies, beholden to Athens by gratitude, they underplay the true character of Athens' rule. This positive depiction offered a response to the criticism leveled against the empire for its treatment of the allies, by rivals and discontents alike.

Another purpose served by Athens' depiction as protector of the rights of the suppliants in tragedy was to garner support and recognition of her hegemonic position among Greek cities. Tragedy defined such leadership in moral terms. The portrayal of Athens as open to suppliants, who were victims of tyrannical persecution, injustice, and actions in violation of Panhellenic laws, is consistent with this aim. There was, nonetheless, a crucial disjunction between the professed and actual motives, that is, between drama and real life. More specifically, the plays depict Athens as pursuing a more liberal foreign policy than she did in actuality. Athenian diplomacy was based on pragmatism and self-interest; and Athenians exercised their dominance over the allied cities forcibly as well: by intervening in their affairs, with or without their consent, to install democracies, to punish recalcitrant allies, and to restore the balance of power to their favor if their interests were challenged in any way.

My discussion of the Athenian suppliant plays sets out to explore this discrepancy by concentrating on the process whereby tragedy builds the concept of hegemony. In modern theoretical discussions, hegemony is used to distinguish leadership exercised through consent from leadership exercised by domination. The representation of Athens as a hegemonic city affirms her values and power. The reception of the suppliants, however, is fraught with obstacles that preclude a straightforward affirmation of this self-professed commitment toward suppliants and outsiders. The eventuality of war against the receiving city or the risk of contagion, if the suppliants were polluted, posed barriers to entry, thereby diminishing the suppliants' prospects of success. Such contingencies reflect generic constraints, imposed by the plot, which served as a vehicle for dramatizing the peripeteia ("reversal") of the suppliant plot. Yet the difficulties entailed in accepting foreign suppliants also disclose the dialectical process through which tragedy negotiated Athens' depiction as a hegemonic city.

Broadly defined, this dialectic explores the interstices between morality and power. On the one hand, the dilemma of the supplicandus, whether to accept or reject the suppliant's petition, served as a test of his piety. On the other, the risks that the city underwent to accept the suppliants signal the necessity of imposing limits on Athens' openness and compassion for the suffering of others. Such limits are represented as valid and justified, emanating as they do from the contingencies surrounding supplication. Yet, closely probed, the conditions that the city imposed upon the acceptance of suppliants replicate the obligations that Athens enjoined upon her allies. Mirroring the role of allies, the suppliants prove eager and able to reciprocate the city's offer of protection by repaying her generosity in kind.

Similarly, by juxtaposing Athens' role as supplicandus with the power she wielded as hegemon ("leader"), the plays mobilize a complex dialectic surrounding the aims and methods of Athenian hegemony. On the one hand, Athens' gestures of acceptance toward outsiders affirm her portrait of benevolent hegemon. On the other, the crisis of supplication sheds light on the operations of power by reinforcing the hierarchies that ensured Athenian dominance over her allies. By annexing foreigners who bring significant military and political benefits to Athens, the plays contrive solutions that address the requirements set by Athens. Athens' power is then affirmed in the most concrete terms possible. The acceptance of the suppliants at the end of these plays serves to naturalize the contributions, which the allies made to the city by maintaining the fiction that these were generated spontaneously out of gratitude and loyalty toward a generous protector.

The Topos of Supplication: Possible Origins?

It is difficult to trace the origins of the special relationship Athenians claim to have enjoyed with foreigners in their mythical past. Thucydides provides the earliest mention of Athens as a haven for foreigners in his "Archaeology," noting that the city had enjoyed political stability in her early days, owing to the barrenness of her soil. This protected her from incursions, thus allowing the original inhabitants to dwell in Attica undisturbed and grow over time in numbers "on account of migrations" (διὰ τὰς μετοικίας), by receiving and enfranchising prominent exiles fleeing war or strife in their own cities. Athens was also atypical by the standards of other Greek cities in that a very large number of foreigners lived and worked in Athens and the Peiraeus by the fifth century. Even though after 451/0 BC, with the passage of Pericles' citizenship law, non-Athenians could no longer be enfranchised, their presence in the city was significant; metics, in particular, contributed to the cultural and financial life of the city and also served in her armed forces. Thus, in Thucydides' own experience of Athenian civic life, dealings with foreigners were common.

The wide and varied range of interactions between Athenians and foreigners—metics, visitors, and diplomatic envoys—furnished an obvious point of contrast with the Spartans' well-known distrust of outsiders. In the section of his funeral oration dealing with military preparation, Pericles contrasts the easy access that Greeks from other cities are said to have enjoyed in Athens with Sparta's stringent measures against foreigners, as evinced by the practice of xenelasiai ("expulsions of foreigners"):

διαφέρομεν δὲ καὶ ταῖς τῶν πολεμικῶν μελέταις τῶν ἐναν-τίων τοῖσδε. τήν τε γὰρ πόλιν κοινὴν παρέχομεν, καὶ οὐκ ἔστιν ὅτε ξενηλασίαις ἀπείργομέν τινα ἢ μαθήματος ἢ θεάματος, ὃ μὴ κρυφθὲν ἄν τις τῶν πολεμίων ἰδὼν ὠφεληθείη …

We also differ from our opponents in our military training. Our city is open to all, and we never engage in deportations to prevent anyone from seeing or learning something from which any of our enemies might derive profit, were we not to guard it as secret.

The comparison with the Spartans, who are not mentioned, is obvious. In seeking to promote Athenian claims of superiority, Pericles argues that Athens led the charge in military affairs as well. To this end, he credits the Athenians for their openness and for avoiding concealment, an overt criticism of the Spartans' insularity, aimed at undercutting their much-touted reputation in military matters among the Greeks. The speech, an encomium of Athens, delivered after the first year of the war, acknowledged Athens' military exploits in the sphere of the empire but also depicted Athens as a source of benefits for her allies, not least by highlighting her generosity on behalf of others:

καὶ τὰ ἐς ἀρετὴν ἐνηντιώμεθα τοῖς πολλοῖς· οὐ γὰρ πάσχοντες εὖ, ἀλλὰ δρῶντες κτώμεθα τοὺς φίλους. βεβαιότερος δὲ ὁ δράσας τὴν χάριν ὥστε ὀφειλομένην δι' εὐνοίας ᾧ δέδωκε σῴζειν· ὁ δὲ ἀντοφείλων ἀμβλύτερος, εἰδὼς οὐκ ἐς χάριν, ἀλλ' ἐς ὀφείλημα τὴν ἀρετὴν ἀποδώσων. καὶ μόνοι οὐ τοῦ ξυμφέροντος μᾶλλον λογισμῷ ἢ τῆς ἐλευθερίας τῷ πιστῷ ἀδεῶς τινὰ ὠφελοῦμεν.

In doing good, we are also unlike others; we make our friends by bestowing rather than by accepting favors. Now he who confers a favor is a firmer friend, because he keeps alive the gratitude of those indebted to him through his goodwill; but the one who must pay it back is more detached in his feelings, because he knows that in repaying another's generosity, he will not be incurring gratitude but instead be paying a debt. We alone do good to others not through a calculation of interest but by acting without fear with the confidence we possess on account of our freedom.

Athens' numerous acts of generosity ( ) also set the city apart from all others, argues Pericles, who thereby represents the realities of the allies' dependency in idealized terms as an exchange of charis ("favor") among philoi ("friends"), adding that the benefactor is more likely to secure a return if the beneficiary responds out of gratitude rather than from a sense of duty or obligation. Pericles paints a positive image of Athens' interventions, which are distanced from the pursuit of interest (καὶ μόνοι οὐ τοῦ ξυμφέροντος μᾶλλον λογισμῷ … τινὰ ὠφελοῦμεν).

In the suppliant plays, openness and generosity toward foreigners are also the key traits of Athens' panegyric. The plays highlight the Athenians' unique sense of pity and justice that prompt them to help the marginal and the disadvantaged (women, children, and the old) as well as outcasts from other cities, fleeing blood pollution. Athens' ability to shelter and protect them against all odds, and even incorporate them into the civic body, exemplified her unswerving resolve to intervene for the purpose of remedying the suffering of others. Athens' other-regarding conduct was meant to inspire trust in her moral leadership. The template of a hegemonic alliance, that is, a coalition of voluntary members, organized under the leadership of a single city, which joined forces for the purpose of confronting a common military threat, is useful for thinking about the relationship between Athens and the foreign suppliants. Its salient elements—the duality of power, mutual consent, and the exchange of military benefits—emerge as the defining traits of the exchanges between Athens and the mythical suppliants as well. The foreign suppliants' dependency upon Athens is represented as voluntary, as each of them offers and receives military and political benefits from Athens.

The image of Athens as benevolent hegemon in the extant Athenian suppliant plays dates to 458 BC, when Aeschylus' Oresteia was performed. But the origins of the topos of supplication are to be sought earlier, during the period of the Persian Wars, which set the stage for Athens' increasing involvement in Greek affairs. The covenant of voluntary submission to a powerful protector, which has left its imprint on the depiction of Athens as protector of suppliants, reflects the circumstances pertaining to the founding of the Delian League in 478/7 BC. Founded at the request of the Ionian states, whose supplication the Spartans had previously ignored, the Delian League was a defensive military and political alliance, led by Athens with the voluntary participation of the original member states that joined forces with Athens to furnish protection against the Persians and punish Greek cities, which had pledged loyalty to the Persians.

If Herodotus and Thucydides are to be believed, Athens' imperial designs were present from the beginnings of the league. Cimon's victory at Eurymedon in 467 BC furnished proof of the change in the character of the alliance whose military operations could no longer be regarded as defensive, once the Persian threat had been removed. Instead, the Athenians led the allies on extensive campaigns first in northeast Greece and the Aegean, and then they sought to expand their influence in the East by fighting wars against Cyprus and Egypt. The imperial character of Athens' rule, however, can be documented even more clearly over time not only by continuous warfare and expansion but also through the harsh treatment of the allies. The use of force first against Naxos and then against Thasos in the 460s set the precedent for treating the allies as subjects by enforcing payment of the tribute. Following Cimon's victory at the naval battle at Eurymedon, the Persian threat weakened significantly; nevertheless, Athens' punitive measures against the allies offer evidence that the tactics of the empire were soon at variance with the founding principles of the league.

The Athenian Panegyric: Hegemony versus Domination

Unlike the histories, tragedy and funeral speeches consistently depicted Athens as a benevolent hegemon who sheltered the weak and the oppressed and punished their enemies. The most celebrated among these were the mythical supplications of Adrastus and Heracles' children dramatized by Aeschylus in the now lost Eleusinioi and Heraclidae and in Euripides' Children of Heracles and Suppliant Women. These political myths, which celebrated Athens' protection of suppliants, her commitment to freedom and justice, and her legendary victories against formidable foes, provided ideological justification for Athens' position of leadership after her victories against the Persians. The surviving evidence does not allow for an exact dating of these myths. The earliest that we can date the Athenian panegyric in tragedy is in the early 470s, the probable date of the Eleusinioi.

We also lack firm evidence on the dating of the funeral oration, whose beginnings scholars place anywhere between 506 and 465 BC. The funeral speeches celebrated Athens' military superiority and situated its beginnings in the distant mythical past. The catalogue of the deeds of the ancestors, which was a fixed element of the later fourth-century funeral speeches, included not only the mythical wars fought on behalf of suppliants and the battle against the Amazons but also Athens' early victory against Eumolpus, culminating in her more recent victories against the Persians at Marathon and Salamis. Though the surviving sample of fifth-century speeches is meager, Loraux and others have argued that the address to the dead had acquired its fixed form in the fifth century, and the fourth-century speeches reproduce, though not unoriginally, the topoi that had been established over a century ago.

Among these, the examples of the suppliants who flocked to Athens from every part of Greece, in particular, proved her worthy of the power she wielded. Protection for the weak was the prerogative of the powerful, and the supplications that others had made to Athens in the past confirmed that her power was widely recognized among the Greeks. As Isocrates (4.56) puts it: ἐκ δὴ τούτων [i.e., the supplication of Heracles' children] ῥᾴδιον κατιδεῖν ὅτι καὶ κατ' ἐκεῖνον τὸν χρόνον ἡ πόλις ἡμῶν ἡγεμονικῶς εἶχεν ("from these events, it is easy to understand that our city already at that time held the position of leader"). Similarly, in Herodotus the Athenians are said to have sought and earned the position of honor in leading the army on the battlefield before the battle of Plataea by claiming, as proof of their superiority, the supplications that Heracles' children and Adrastus had made to them in the past, as well as their victory against the Amazons.

These political myths further constructed a portrait of Athenian leadership from which the arbitrary use of force and violence is expressly absent. Athenians went to war to defend their city against Eumolpus of Thrace or the Amazons or to punish offenders, such as Eurystheus or the Thebans, who refused to recognize the rights of suppliants or denied the dead their due honors. As Mills has shown, Athens gained recognition in the eyes of those whom she led as a civilizing power because she upheld the moral standards that were binding for all Greeks. Furthermore, the funeral speeches highlight the contrast between Athens' morally principled leadership and violent domination, ascribed to despotic and tyrannical Greek kings or uncivilized barbarians. This antithesis also serves to define hegemony against despotism. The former is defined as leadership based on consent; the latter, as the exercise of domination against states or entities that oppose it.

Both generic and historical conditions contributed to the constant and unchanging depiction of Athens in the funeral speeches. The praise of Athens' hegemonic leadership, which we find in the surviving funeral speeches, is at odds with her style of leadership, which progressed rapidly from hegemonic to imperial. As we have seen, Athens began to annex other cities by force and tighten her control over the allies already a decade after the Delian League was formed, and by the 450s Athenian imperialism had reached its final phase of development. Once this change became palpable, it engendered strong feelings of disaffection among Athens' allies and mobilized serious resistance on the part of the Spartans and their allies, for whom the growth of Athenian power presented a serious threat. We get a sense of the growing anti-Athenian sentiment from Athenian sources, notably Thucydides, whose history offers a penetrating account of the rise and fall of Athens' power.

Thucydides demonstrates compellingly that the Athenians' appeal to a hegemonic past was inconsistent with their current practices of empire. For example, when the Athenian envoys in Sparta take the stand, they argue that Athens acquired the empire through the allies' and the Spartans' consent, even as they admit that they must now restrain their rebellious allies in the interest of preserving their rule. The paradoxical collocation of consent and force in this context lays bare the incongruity between hegemonic and imperial power. Thucydides demonstrates that this favorable image of Athens' rule was not tenable in the post-Periclean phase of the war, as the empire continued to consolidate its power by subjugating other Greek cities. Thus, Cleon's speech in the Mytilenaean debate squarely condemns the cherished Athenian value of pity as inappropriate for ruling an empire; and the Athenian speaker in the Melian debate summarily rejects any attempt at putting a good face on Athens' motives either by referring to earlier victories against the Persians or by claiming that they had been wronged. Similarly, Euphemus in his speech to the Camarinians also rejects typical justifications of Athens' power by embellishing his speech with her victories on behalf of to Greece during the Persian Wars. As Mills puts it: "Such speeches are not renunciations of the claims of Athens to others' gratitude: they are rather admissions that Athens' power is such that the city can and will do what it likes anyway, and that the justifications which we find implicit in the speech of the Athenians in Book 1, in the funeral oration and, I suggest, in the mainstream of fifth-century Greek thought, are therefore irrelevant."

Panegyric literature did not engage with the harsh realities of Athenian imperialism and least of all with the atrocities perpetrated by the Athenians against Scione, Melos, and other cities during the course of the Peloponnesian War. The image of Athens as a benevolent hegemon in the Athenian suppliant plays remained distanced from the thorny issues of force and domination. Instead, orators and playwrights remained committed to representing Athens as acting in concert with allied interests, even as Athenians secured their imperial stronghold through continued expansion.

Tragedy and the Funeral Oration: Two Different Kinds of Panegyric?

Tragedy and funerary oratory also differed in the way in which they justified Athens' power. The arguments made by orators on the occasion of the state-sponsored funeral in support of Athens' rule are qualitatively different from those heard in the Theater of Dionysus. The orators of the funeral speeches defend the legitimacy of Athens' empire by praising above all her military prowess and by advertising her moral and cultural superiority, but they do not mention the contributions that foreigners, metics, and allies made to Athens' wars. In part this was due to funeral speeches themselves being primarily addressed to the Athenians and their families. Additionally, the funeral oration, which commemorated the city of Athens and the exceptional courage of the Athenian citizen-soldiers, also cultivated an image of Athenian democracy, aligned with the civic purpose of the speech.

As Loraux argues, however, the orators omitted mention of the allies and their contributions so as not to detract from the praise of Athens' excellence, which alone stood as proof of Athens' right to hegemony. Pericles in his funeral oration, for example, compares the Spartans to the Athenians, claiming that the former always fought with their allies, while the latter prevailed against those defending their native territory by fighting alone. Lysias claims in his funeral oration that the Athenians had earned the victory at Marathon by themselves since they did not expect to win any war with the allies' assistance that they could not have won themselves, nor did they want to be indebted to them for their safety. This view is in accord with the exaggerated praise of Athens' hegemony in the speeches of the orators. Metics or allies come into view occasionally in the speeches to pay tribute to Athens' greatness. As Loraux puts it, Athens' dependents exist in the speeches to endorse the city's hegemony.

The majority of the extant funeral speeches postdate the empire, which could explain why they praised Athens unilaterally, that is, without paying tribute to the allies. They may have represented Athens' rule favorably and nostalgically in the wake of Sparta's rule, which followed the demise of the empire in 404 BC and was admittedly far more cruel than that of Athens. Thus, the fourth-century speeches (and perhaps the fifth-century ones), I would argue, provided a more monolithic or one-sided representation of Athens' rule than tragedy did. Playwrights pursued a different strategy; the acceptance of the suppliants suggested that their contributions were understood by the Athenians to be part and parcel of advancing her power and securing the promise of benefits.

The ideological tenor of these arguments was to a large extent shaped by the distinct occasions and settings in which they were performed. The occasion of the public commemoration of the Athenian dead at the cemetery in the district of the Ceramicus focused on praise of the arete ("excellence") of the city and those who had served it. Though foreigners were not prevented from attending commemorations, both metics and allies who had fought in the same battles were not commemorated in the public oration. In the theater, however, the predramatic ceremonies—which included the pouring of libations by the generals, the voting of honors to citizens, the display of the tribute of the allies, and the parade of orphans who had been raised at the city's expense—endorsed Athens' imperial power, not least by acknowledging the contributions made by the allies. Furthermore, performances at the City Dionysia took place before a mixed audience of citizens and foreigners; among them were foreign dignitaries, who were accorded seats of honor (prohedriai). The dignitaries were representatives from members of the Delian League who after 454 BC (when the treasury was moved from Delos to Athens) made the trip to deposit their share of the annual tribute.

The presence of foreigners at the Dionysia conditioned the image of themselves that Athenians sought to promote before an international audience and was strengthened through the celebration of Athenian openness toward suppliants. Dicaeopolis in Aristophanes' Acharnians implies that poets at the Lenaia enjoyed greater freedom of expression because foreigners were absent. Yet the strictures against which he protests prove an important point: that the Athenians took stock of the presence of foreigners, and their inclusion in the festival suggests that Athens' image as a hegemonic city in the suppliant plays took into account the perspective of the allies.

The Athenian Suppliant Plays: Negotiating Consent

We have seen so far that the image of Athens, as harboring suppliants and outsiders seeking refuge from other cities, affirmed her imperial enterprise by celebrating her generosity, openness, and compassion. Athens gains specific reference as a haven for foreigners in the majority of the extant suppliant plays. Many of these are staged in Athens: Aeschylus' Eumenides, Euripides' Children of Heracles and Suppliant Women, and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus all dramatize the plight of non-Athenians to whom Athens offers assistance. This theme also surfaces in Euripides' Medea and Heracles, which are staged away from Athens. Both plays feature the intervention of Athenian kings, Aegeus and Theseus respectively, who offer a refuge to Medea and Heracles, both soon-to-be exiles on account of the murder of their children (though Heracles is not a suppliant, and Medea's supplication to Aegeus is part of the revenge plot). This theme has also left its imprint on tragedies that are not concerned with supplication, such as Euripides' Electra and Orestes and perhaps to a lesser extent on Iphigeneia in Tauris. The first two mention Athens in their aetiologies in connection with the trajectory of the exiled Orestes, while the last links Orestes and Iphigeneia with existing Attic cults of Artemis in the coastal sanctuaries of Brauron and Halai Araphenides upon their return to Greece.

In all the suppliant plays, the initial request for asylum is always followed by an urgent situation, typically arising from the risk of war or pollution for the receiving city, which jeopardizes the suppliants' acceptance, even when they are deemed worthy of acceptance. The pattern of request followed by crisis is treated in a particular manner in the Athenian suppliant plays, which consistently resolve the crisis through the offer of benefits on the part of the suppliants. This gesture, an expression of the suppliants' gratitude toward their protectors, further ensures that the terms of asylum are advantageous for Athens. By contrast, Pericles' portrait of Athens' benefactions in his funeral oration represents the allies' contributions as spontaneous acts of gratitude and underplays the economic benefits of the empire.

Supplication in these plays mobilizes a pattern of reciprocal exchanges that substantiate the city's representation as benevolent hegemon. Dramatically, the conclusion of this pattern culminates in some form of integration, engineered by Athens, for those excluded from their native city. Thus, with the exception of Euripides' Suppliant Women, in which Adrastus and the Argive mothers seek Theseus' intercession on their behalf in settling their conflict with Thebes, exiles and foreigners such as Oedipus in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus or Eurystheus in Euripides' Children of Heracles gain acceptance and acquire a new standing as Attic cult-heroes. Similarly, in Heracles and Medea, Theseus brings Heracles to Athens, while Medea is also promised a safe haven by Aegeus.

As a group, the Athenian suppliant plays offer a broad and comprehensive understanding of the evolution of the ideology of Athenian hegemony, which can be documented from the earlier plays, Aeschylus' lost Eleusinioi (probable date in the 470s) and Eumenides (458 BC), to Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (407/6 BC; performed in 401 BC), spanning roughly the rise and fall of Athens' empire. The historical realities of empire affect Athens' hegemonic image. Plutarch suggests that in the Eleusinioi Theseus assisted Adrastus by negotiating a truce with the Thebans to facilitate the recovery of the bodies. In Eumenides, on the other hand, Orestes offers Athena and her people a political and military alliance with Argos in return for their advocacy. Exemplifying one of the core elements of this ideology, his role as friend and ally of Athens derives from the historical context of the alliance between Argos and Athens, concluded in 462/1 BC. Correspondingly, in the wake of the breach of diplomatic relations with Sparta, spearheaded by Ephialtes and the radical democrats, the play promotes Athens' sole hegemony in the Greek world.

The later suppliant plays register the tensions that Athenian imperial policy had yielded more overtly by the 450s, setting in relief the increasingly heavier financial and military burdens facing the allies. Significantly, they depict the benefits that suppliants promise as necessary for their acceptance and, as a result, pose limits to the acceptance of non-Athenians. At the same time, they represent the suppliants as willing to offset the risks entailed by their reception by promising Athens lasting advantages in their capacity as heroes after their death. For example, in Euripides' Children of Heracles and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, the integration of the suppliants meets with significant resistance—in the former, on account of the divine demand for a human sacrifice; in the latter, due to Oedipus' pollution—that complicates image of Athens as helper of suppliants and registers a shortfall between ideology and practice.

The dramatic framing of these issues may take a variety of forms. Children of Heracles explores volition in the face of compulsion by situating the sacrifice of Heracles' daughter against the prospect of the suppliants' expulsion. In a similar vein, Oedipus' pollution does not allow for his ready acceptance, as the chorus' initial impulse is to drive him out. Theseus receives him as a permanent resident, thanks to his deep sense of compassion, justice, and moderation but also in recognition of the great boon that Oedipus brings Athens as a guardian and protector of Attica against his native Thebes.

Hegemony and Ideology

The examination of supplication under these parameters also draws upon a theoretical framework that is germane to Athens' depiction as a hegemonic city. I use the term "hegemony" in the sense of moral leadership, designed to elicit broad consent on the part of the audience with the policies of the empire. This definition of hegemony derives from the work of Antonio Gramsci, who first used the term "hegemony" to denote the control exerted by the dominant class over subordinate groups by representing its point of view as "natural." Hegemony, however, was not exercised as a form of dominance. The fundamental characteristic of hegemonic discourse is the production and negotiation of consent. This process involves an active and continuous struggle between the beliefs, ideas, and values that the dominant class seeks to impose and the social reality that exposes the disadvantages of subordination. At the root of hegemonic discourse then is a constant tension between ideology and reality that "makes this interface into an inevitable site of ideological struggle."

In this sense, hegemonic discourse is at its core dialogic and dynamic, not monolithic and static. Ideology for Gramsci is primarily aimed at the dominant class and seeks to promote internal self-understanding. The subordinated classes consent to a negotiated version of ideology in the absence of other articulated alternatives. To this effect, hegemony attempts to counter resistance by opposing or even assimilating competing voices. An important corollary of hegemony is that "it must be continually renewed, recreated, defended and modified. It is also continually resisted, limited, altered, challenged by pressures not all its own."

The Athenian suppliant plays offer fresh insights into the complex process whereby ideology is produced in tragedy. The tension between hegemony and domination is expressed through complex scenarios of negotiation and acquiescence that suggest a dynamic interplay between competing voices. In this regard, the interaction between drama, politics, and ideology in the Athenian suppliant plays partakes in the polyphony that is a hallmark of the genre. This is not the case, for example, in funerary speeches, which offer a straightforward affirmation of Athenian ideals. Tragedy instead constructs the relationship between ideology and historical reality in terms of a dialectic between the ideal and the real instantiations of empire. The realities of Athens' domination do not surface directly but through scenarios of conflict between Athens and the suppliants, which set in relief the ideological tension between force and consent and between resistance and acquiescence. The resolutions of these conflicts, in turn, can be shown to employ strategies typical of the operation of ideology at large. The plays contrive illusory, albeit dramatically appropriate, solutions that attempt to eliminate the apparent discrepancy between the ideal and the reality. Even so, the dialectical process in which they are engaged lays bare the contradictions that underlie the exercise of Athenian power and lend voice to the Athenians' increasing anxieties regarding the preservation of the empire.

The Athenian suppliant plays construct the realities of imperial subjection in positive terms, fashioning the image that Athenians wanted to project to their allies. Although the tragedies engage multiple and at times conflicting points of view, the inclusion of the voice of the "weak and the oppressed" exposes the asymmetry of power between Athens and her allies and constitutes an important aspect of the image of the imperial city, which the plays project for Athenians and foreigners in the theater. Though the ideological stance of the Athenian suppliant plays towards empire may ultimately appear to lie closer to legitimization than dissension, the plays underscore the divergence between hegemony and empire. In this way, the ideological negotiation, which they help mobilize, offered alternatives to violent domination by privileging consent over force and by envisioning Athens' leadership in moral terms.

The individual chapters explore the manifestations of Athens' hegemonic power by tracing its progress from the earlier to the later days of the empire. In Chapter 1, I demonstrate that the double reception of Orestes and the Furies by Athena in Aeschylus' Eumenides, read against the background of Athens' breach of diplomatic relations with Sparta in 462/1 BC, helped articulate the hegemonic rivalry between the two most powerful cities in Greece. Orestes' acquittal and the reception of the Furies—polluted outsiders who find a refuge in Athens—support Athens' hegemonic ambitions by affirming her military superiority and advertising her judicial authority. Orestes' offer of the Argive alliance acknowledges and expands Athens' military reach. The Furies' integration as Athenian divinities further strengthen Athens' hegemony by representing the city as direct beneficiary of the powers that these chthonic divinities had wielded in the distant past in the sphere of justice.

In Chapter 2, I offer a brief historical overview on the growth of Athenian imperialism and explain the varieties of tragic hegemony in the suppliant plays. In Euripides' Children of Heracles, which was performed at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War (ca. 430 BC), the plight of Heracles' suppliant children brings into sharper focus the realities of imperial subjection at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War. While the play's encomion of Athens' imperial freedom validates the ideal image of Athens as protector of the weak, the demands placed subsequently upon the suppliants register a significant tension between the ideal and the reality. The sacrifice of Heracles' daughter sets in relief the limits that the play builds into Athens' ideal image. Forced to remit a heavy tribute in return for asylum, the suppliants' acquiesce to the burdens of empire. The sacrifice exposes the disparity of status between Athenians and their allies, maintaining all the while the fictional premise that the allies' contributions were not compulsory but rather a token of loyalty in recognition of Athens' magnanimity.

In Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus we witness signs of an ideology in crisis. Athens' pity toward the suffering of others in this play does not augment Athens' praise but instead attempts to defend her ideals at the end of the Peloponnesian war by offering proof of her commitment to morality. The significant obstacles that Oedipus' integration entails, however, preclude an easy affirmation of these ideals. The process of Oedipus' integration negotiates the threat of contagion for the city against the promise of future benefits that his annexation as savior-hero will bring. The traits that Oedipus embodies as a hero, at once dangerous and beneficial, become a matter of civic concern. Oedipus' pollution serves to articulate the type of limits imposed upon foreigners who took up residence in Athens. Although Theseus awards Oedipus an honorary type of citizenship, the play clearly distinguishes between foreigners' standing and that of Athenian citizens, even when they become fully assimilated as "Athenians." For when Oedipus chooses the grove of the Furies as his residence, he embraces with gratitude a status equal to, but separate from, that of his hosts.



“Tzanetou offers a very useful addition to the ever-increasing scholarship on the relationship between tragedy and the Athenian empire, and it deserves a wide audience…”
Bryn Mawr Classical Review


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