Reading remote places in Aeschylus’ early tragedies

It is widely accepted nowadays that when reading ancient Greek tragedies, Aristotle’s Poetics should no longer be considered the pre-eminent code of rules for Greek tragedies as was the case for hundreds of years. From the 1950s onwards, scholars such as A.W. Pickard-Cambridge, Oliver Taplin, A. M. Dale, H. D. F. Kitto – to mention only the most effective researchers – released new ways of approaching Greek tragedies,[1] interpreting the whole genre as a kind of megatext that functions like an enormous web of plots, characters and events related to each other by endless denotations and references. A relatively small number of myths and legends reappear in the surviving tragedies (and, presumably, in the lost ones as well), repeating and occasionally slightly changing the well-known patterns, thus reinforcing and questioning them at the same time[2].

As contemporary theories has been merged with classical drama readings, they gave birth to a series of new approaches focusing on the context of the ancient Greek drama, which was now seen in its widely extended intertextuality. Social context, history, myths, literature, philosophy, mural painting and pottery, even architecture have been discovered as strong and active influential factors interwoven with this incomparable genre. As David Wiles – one of the most significant current researchers of Greek tragedy seen as an increasingly universalized, pan-Hellenic genre – pointed out, the plays and their context should be analysed in close interdependence, since theatre represented an integral part of Athenian cultural and political life[3].

Being freed from theoretical and formal restrictions, the theories relating to Greek tragedy now took into consideration several new aspects of the genre that go beyond the notions of verbal text, space, plot and character. Greek tragedy recalls the imagination of the spectator who would be able to see afar the stage territories and phenomena of imagination, clandestinely coded in the text.


Recalling remote places

Far from being merely strict rules of a dramatic text and a theatre performance, conventions were also been used as adept devices that guided the attention of the public or even helped them to detach themselves from the bare scenic reality and get involved in the separate world of drama and performance. The most intrepid convention of the Athenian tragedy and its performance is the fact that in a minimally equipped space that represents mythological or royal places it brings into being lands and characters which – through the presence and the voices of some selected Athenian citizens – become real and mythical, human and superhuman at the same time, both close and distant from the everyday life of the spectator. It creates a distance from the action and becomes involved in it at one and the same time. The basic conventions of the Greek tragedy assign one of the most extended freedoms in theatre history.[4]

Frequently long narratives, occasionally only a few strange names or misty hints provoke the intuition of unseen places and unknown people: “From our point of view, it is the action that happens on the stage that is important to the audience. The act offstage is fleshed out in the audience’s imagination only by attention given to it outstage. But from another point of view, the onstage actions are there to create invisible (more obsessing, more terrible) space and action in the audience’s mind, just as tragedy’s words are important partly because they create in the mind a picture of emotions surging within the speaker: emotions which are imagined to cause, and be expressed by, the language.”[5] Therefore the interplay between words (that were transmitted to us in fragments, even in the case of surviving tragedies) and spaces (those that could be seen onstage and those which call for visualization by the public) resulted in various valuable conventions designed to create the awareness of remote places that could never appear in their reality onstage. Sometimes these incidents create grandiose and fruitful gaps out of which the imagination is able to produce the inherent substance of the play.

Besides the diverse techniques and devices that extend the visible theatrical space towards the invisible – the real space towards the imaginary one – it is essential to consider the infinite number of new meanings and manifold reading possibilities offered by the meta-spaces evoked in the imagination of the public.


Mental landscapes: Prometheus at the edge and the endless wanderings of Io

The authenticity of Prometheus Bound has always been questioned and then reinforced by scholars[6]. However, it is habitually published and examined as part of the Aeschylean corpus. Since Aeschylus uses the change of scene relatively frequently – through extensive and significant narratives or through refocusing the action – and Prometheus Bound is unquestionably part of the earlier surviving plays, the special handling of the space in this tragedy places it beyond any doubt among the texts worth considering from this point of view.

Presumably the audience could see an apparently static scene with Prometheus in its focal centre, who had been fastened to a rock (very likely a scenic prop or device representing the rock), unable to move throughout the entire action. Despite this fact, his immobilised figure becomes the centrepiece of the tragic scene and action as all the characters – the Chorus of Oceanids, Ocean, Io and Hermes – come to see him. These continuous movements around Prometheus’ motionless and dignified figure provoke the sensation of a skilled “natural spotlight” that unmistakably enhances the central hero of the play. Moreover, from the first lines we learn that, in placing the action of this drama, the author decided against using the mythically mentioned Caucasus, instead choosing to set the scene in the remote, at that time entirely unknown Scythian land, the place that was generally defined as the edge of the Earth – drawing by this an exceptionally suggestive geography of existence.[7] Adding the fact that from Greek legendary and mythology we can discern mental landscapes full of connotations, Prometheus’ rock reinforces the image of the remote, isolated and inaccessible place. Richard Buxton emphasises that the mountain – oros – is a significant imaginary place for the Greeks, with special attributes that enhance the symbolic and existential meaning of the physical space.[8] All three main aspects of the oros help the reader of the play comprehend the whole net of connotations set around this seemingly simple plot and setting. The oros is outside the polis or town, or any other inhabited and cultivated space – the loneliness of the hero who betrayed the gods and opposed Zeus is one of his major punishments. Oros is considered to have existed before human civilisation; it takes us back not only to mythological lands but also to mythical times, before the history of the humankind – and so it happens in the case of this tragedy, as it focuses (except from Io) on the major conflict between gods and heros, in the times when Zeus was at the beginning of his domination. Finally, this is the place for revelations, where relationships, social status, even rules can be reversed – this is the space where Prometheus will foresee the future of Io. Furthermore, he would be able to foretell even Zeus’ future, but he keeps it secret, by this suggesting the thought that in his way he triumphs over the new ruler of the world.[9]

We can state that the play is placed from its very beginning in an unmapped, more mythical, imaginary territory than a real one. Now, approximately in the middle of the text Io arrives, persecuted by Zeus and condemned to relentless wanderings, in sharp contrast with the immobilised central hero. (Prometheus Bound presents Io’s first occurrence in this legend within Greek literature and art.[10]) Two apparently simple narratives dominate this central part of the play as Prometheus – who, as his name suggests is able to foresee the future – tells Io of her further wanderings.

At first, Prometheus describes a frightening, yet vaguely traceable route containing European settings roughly known or heard of by the Athenians. The second part of his narrative encounters Io’s journey in Asia; this locus undeniably leads towards an indefinable land far away from the lands of the geography of human existence. These two centrally situated narratives seem to be even more forceful if we consider that in Aeschylus’ Suppliants there is a straightforward description of Io’s route (lines 540-564) that clearly depicts geographically existent localities over the Thracian Bosporus into Asia Minor and down to Egypt.[11] Turning back to the narratives in Prometheus Bound we can firmly discern the first part of the route (lines 696-741) depicting the acknowledged part of the Ancient world that – however imprecisely – is mapped in the Greek minds: they are inhabited places existing in reality. Researchers Griffith and Conacher mention some details in which this first part of the route doesn’t follow exactly the places, localities and tribes of that time.[12] As a consequence, the first part of the narrative is a re-mapping of the geographical evidence. Shortly, Aeschylus here rearranges some facts, but at the same time makes it noticeable that these places are still on our map, they are accessible throughout human existence. On the other hand, when Prometheus encounters the second part of Io’s journey (lines 790-815), the route goes throughBosporus towardsAsia. Mythological tribes and monsters rise up suddenly from the narrative: Io will be forced to wander through the land of Gorgons and griffins, and along the river Pluto – to mention just a few of these spaces. If, in the first part, the author dislocated some places and localities while depicting Io’s route throughoutEurope, he then goes further in this freedom when the description turns to the almost unknownAsia, the land of myths and imagination.

Regarding it as a whole, Io’s journey is a bizarre and frightening experience of spaces that reaches much further than the human existence; she goes down the map, intrudes into the territory of supernatural, into spaces of the mind or even of the unconscious being articulated by mythological settlements.

From the very first moment of the performance, through the central narrative of Io’s wandering and finally until the disastrous end of the play – however this might have been staged – when Zeus condemns Prometheus and pulls him down by a terrible earthquake, the whole tragedy is a dynamic interplay of mythical structures and meanings, of words and images, stimulating again and again new approaches for its readers.



The cunning ekphrasis: description of the shields in the Seven Against Thebes

The Seven Against Thebes – as all other extant Greek tragedies – presents a complex structure of the strongly interwoven real and imaginary aspects of spaces, characters and action.

If Prometheus Bound is a drama about endlessness – and loneliness that cannot be healed – Seven Against Thebes is the opposite of the former: it is the tragedy of claustration. Inside the city walls of Thebes, Eteocles is waiting for the attacks of his own brother, Polinices. This play also culminates in a large narration,[13] this time a description of the shields of those seven warriors who lead their soldiers against the seven gates of the city.

An image has to be created in the audience’s mind; an image which exists in reality, but which could be seen only if the enemy intruded inside the city walls. The spy who comes to Eteocles offers a detailed description of the meaningful shields and Eteocles takes the reader’s position as his interpretations give room to only one possible explanation, the clue to each shield. The first trap is hidden in the spy’s trustworthy and truthful description, as the oral depiction of an image cannot recreate the whole picture itself. The second trap is in Eteocles’ misreading which doesn’t allow any other explanation of the picture’s meanings.

The spy, who is the only connection between the inner and outer space, is the Messenger of the faraway, unseen pictures which are essential in the tragedy. He has no character, no other specific role in the play than to depict truthfully what he had seen and learnt about the strategy of the enemy. And this makes his role a vital one, not only as regards the plot of the play, but also in terms of the whole structure and composition of the Greek tragedy: “This gives the Greek dramatist perhaps greater scope than the modern for overcoming the potential limitations of the dramatic focus on the stage; by narration, he can extend his field of operation much further and handle events of a kind that could not be narrated directly.”[14] Any narrative held by a Messenger is regarded by convention as the whole and unaltered truth – however unreal it would sound. In this play, Aeschylus found a way to blur the image given by the Messenger’s account, and this alteration is concealed behind the accurate and factual depiction of the enemies’ shields. The spy’s (Messenger’s) narrative of the shields and Eteocles’ interpretations are structured in seven pairs of speeches: one by one, the spy offers an accurate account of the seven warriors approaching the seven gates of the city and one by one Eteocles turns these descriptions in menacing omens.[15] These apparently skilful interpretations of the shields seem to turn the whole attack in the favour of the defenders.[16] In this first step the mottos and threatening pictures meant to intimidate the Thebans are directed against the attackers: Eteocles’ interpretations take advantage of the greatly estimated power of the spoken word – which is exercised in rituals, incantations and curses.

After offering these special, destructive meanings to the shields, Eteocles also orders one by one a Theban warrior who would fight against the enemies. He will be the last one who takes the last position. He is waiting for his adversary and the attackers are becoming fewer and fewer. As the seven speeches are approaching the end, the tension grows. Finally, from the last speeches we learn that Eteocles will have to fight with his own brother, Polinices. Even if he was very apprehensive in reading the pieces of the picture, he wasn’t able to see it as a whole – he realizes that his replies to the descriptions led him into the very heart of the tragedy. Not decision but recognition is the key to the scene: Eteocles – as Oedipus before – is able to understand the riddle only when he can put the pieces together. From the point of view of this interpretation, the clue to his tragedy is that describing pictures and seeing them as a whole are two completely different things. Verbal description is a successive one: the Messenger encounters the parts of the whole, and thus Eteocles will understand the meaning of the entire picture only when the last piece of the puzzle is put into its place. Ekphrasis – which is not only a description but also interpretation of the picture – would not help Eteocles to escape from the trap of this shrewd interfusion of words and remote images. On the contrary, it is part of the twins’ fate.

Once again the spoken word – and this time, for definite – overcomes all strategies, puzzles and fights. Eteocles is not able to avert the greatest threat: the curse of the twins’ father who foretold that they would die by each other’s hand. Oedipus, the master of riddles bequeathed this to his sons.


Other people and other places

None of the surviving Greek tragedies takes place inAthens, the city where the texts were put on stage for the first time. All the plays deal with people living in other cities or other times – historical background is approached by the mythical, universal meaning, meanwhile myths are closer to the human experience than ever. There are differences created by distances, and at the same time there is an opportunity to regard them as allusions, allegoric references to the plays’ contemporary context. Thus Athenian tragedy displays the differences and the overlapping between close and remote, human and superhuman, history and myths; it places its action in spaces that are far enough away to work as symbols or existing only in the audience’s imagination.

The enemy who attacked the Greeks through the Bosporusis shown in the Persians, while dark-faced women in unusually decorated robes come and ask for protection in the Suppliants. Barbarians and women are people who would never have any influence in the life of the city. However, through their fate, their choices and their characters the Athenians had to learn about their own fate, choices and characteristics: ‘Non-Athenians, women, and slaves were in reality excluded from the assembly and normally had to be represented by a citizen in the lawcourts. Yet, paradoxically, the fictional representatives of these groups, silenced in the public discourse of the city, are permitted by the multivocal form of tragedy to address the public in the theatre as they never could in reality.”[17]

In the Persians the author refers to a place that probably has never been seen by any of his audience. However, he encounters a part of the recent history (it is alleged that he himself took part in the battle at Salamis). Moreover, he moves the centre of the action to Susa, directly into the heart of the enemy’s country. A great number of studies concern themselves with the historical accuracy of this tragedy, finding at least three or four details that are utterly different from the historical facts and that are likely to be known both by the author and his audience[18]. The most plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that the author did not attempt to write a historical drama. On the contrary, he was mythologizing history in order to keep a certain distance with the subject of his play. And in the same play he offers the opportunity for sympathy with the enemy that still could be felt at the time of the play’s production. The barbarian Persian warriors are described in the first choral ode, where their strange, exotic names and rich costumes are described in an oriental colour and flavour[19]; later on in the highly emotional narrative of the Messenger, the audience could hear some of these names again, but now in the picture full of mourning and horror depicting their dead bodies floating on the water, an encounter of the endless misery and desolation of the defeated. At the end Xerxes, the king who could not follow his father, Darius, in his glory and victory, appears all alone, singing a choral ode with the chorus of the Persian elders. Far, but close – adversary at the beginning, but calling for sympathy as the action (merely narratives) is unfolded in front of the audience’s eyes. Again a skilful device of showing the antagonistic coexistence of the self and other, seen and unseen. And the audience has to experience the controversial sentiment of philantropia and epikairekakia (empathy and at the same time gloating over the other’s misfortune).[20]

The Suppliants reinforces one of the main topoiof Greek literature, namely hiketeia; the asking for help that takes place between two equal partners, an act of reciprocity[21]. The fifteen Danaids, being chased by their own Egyptian cousins, arrive after a long journey to the Argive coast and ask for protection. Being the most lyrical tragedy, this play not only takes us back to a very distant mythological past, but also evokes Egypt through the threat of the Egyptian pursuers, who want to force these gentle young girls into marriage. As Herington remarks, this tragedy is the most dreamlike one; a long narrative of journey, arrival and finding a shelter coming up from collective and – very likely – international memories of gods and their endogamy.[22] The Danaids themselves stand for dual meanings at least from two points of view: they are the weak ones, who seek protection, but – as we and the contemporary audience could learn from mythology – later on they will be the offenders of their own husbands; they are dark-skinned, exotically costumed young women, but through their ancestor, Io, they are related to Argos. The interplay of offender and defender, barbarian coming from remote places (from theNile), and at the same time being related to this “civilised” city and coast is of fundamental importance in understanding the play.

Remote places again are displayed through narrative, discussed and – just like in all existent Athenian tragedies – never unequivocally handled. Meanings are at least twofold, differences[23] become the most intriguing problems that call for reading and understanding, faraway places are fleshed out in our minds and imaginary places help us to draw geography of the human existence. Down from the map, into the mind, remote places represent the most unambiguous codes that hold these tragedies close to our contemporaneity: that of deconstruction of the hierarchical meanings, of dichotomies that can only coexist in their paradoxical interdependence, and of the inherent intertextuality presenting strongly interwoven characters, plots and allusions. All these are achieved eminently through those fragmentary surviving texts and on an almost totally bare stage, which – in the abovementioned plays – was not even supplied with the background of the skene.

Symbolon, 2007

[1] Simon Goldhill’s rather detailed summary of recent theories offers an overview starting from the classical philology that dominated from the end of the 19th century until the 2nd World War, being followed by the complex ramifications of emerging new approaches like New Criticism, anthropology and structuralism, stagecraft and performance criticism, and psychoanalysis. Simon GOLDHILL: Modern critical approaches to Greek tragedy, in: The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (ed. P. E. EASTERLING), C. U. P., 1997, 324-347

[2] “If, from the point of view of its plots, Greek tragedy constitutes a grandiose set of variations on a relatively few legendary and formal themes forever repeating but never the same, it follows that tragedy is not casually or occasionally intertextual, but inherently so.” Peter BURIAN: Myth into muthos, in: The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, 178-208, p.179.

[3] David WILES: Greek Theatre Performance. An Introduction, C. U. P., 2000, p.2.

[4] “To insist on one site or the other all through is to involve ourselves in difficulties of our own creating. We expect stability in a ‘scene’; to the Athenian of the fifth century – especially the earlier fifth century – space as well as time had in the theatre a certain elasticity.” A. M. DALE: Seen and Unseen on the Greek Stage. in: Collected Papers, CambridgeUniversity Press, 1969, 119-129, p. 120.

[5] Ruth PADEL: Making Space Speak, in: Nothing to Do With Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context (ed. John J. WINKLER – Froma I. ZEITLIN), Princeton University Press, 1990, 336-365, p.345.

[6] For facts and theories brought for and against the authenticity of the play see: Stephen G. DAITZ: A Re-Interpretation of Prometheus Bound 514, in Transactions of the American Philological Association,Princeton University, vol. 115, 1985, 13–17; Everard FLINTOFF: Aristophanes and the Prometheus Bound, in: The Classical Quarterly, Oxford University Press, 1983, vol. XXXIII, 1–5; Everard FLINTOFF: The Date of the Prometheus Bound, in: Mnemosyne, Bibliotheca Classica Batava, 1986, vol. XXXIX, 82–91; Mark GRIFFITH: The Authenticity of ‘Prometheus Bound’, C. U. P., 1977; S. IRELAND: Sentence Structures in Aeschylus and the Position of the Prometheus in Corpus Aeschyleum, in: Philologus. Zeitshrift für Klassische Philologie, CXXI, Akademie-Verlag, Berlin, 1977, 189–210; Gilbert MURRAY: Aeschylus, the Creator of Tragedy. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1940; Dana Ferrin SUTTON: The Date of Prometheus Bound, in: Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies, winter 1983, 289–294; Günther ZUNZ: Aeschyli Prometheus, in: Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Harvard University Press, vol. 95, 1993, 107–111; M. L. WEST: The Prometheus Trilogy, in. The journal of Hellenistic Studies, London, vol. XCIX, 1979, 130–148.

[7] “To fifth-century Athenians, ‘the Schythian wasteland’ was almost proverbial, and could include the whole expanse to the north of the civilized world.” AESCHYLUS: Prometheus Bound, (ed. and commentary Mark GRIFFITH), C. U. P., 1983, p. 81.

[8] “Myths present an image of mountains which is both more extreme and more consistent than that of everyday life, paring down that wide range of uses which men actually made of the oros, and coming back again and again to the same few, symbolically productive characteristics.” Richard, BUXTON: Imaginary Greece. The context of mythology, C. U. P., 1994, p.88.

[9] For the meaning of oros see: Richard, BUXTON: Imaginary Greece, p.82-96.

[10] AESCHYLUS: Prometheus Bound, p.6.

[11] AESCHYLUS: Prometheus Bound, p.213-214.

[12] AESCHYLUS: Prometheus Bound, p. 213-228; D. J. CONACHER: Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. A literary commentary, University ofToronto Press, 1980, p.33-87.

[13] For a theory of the ring composition of the play see: William G. THALMANN: Dramatic Art in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, New Haven and London, Yale University Press, 1978, p.3-30.

[14] Malcolm HEATH: The Poetics of Greek Tragedy, Gerald Duckworth & Co. Ltd,London, 1987, p.153.

[15] Detailed analysis of the speeches is offered by Vernant and Vidal-Naquet, pointing out how the images and mottos on the shields are read and misread at the same time, how Polinices can be interpreted as a duplication of Eteocles, as these two fight against each other, not being able to overcome the inherited curse of the family. Jean-Pierre VERNANT – Pierre VIDAL-NAQUET: Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, translated by Janet LLOYD,New York, 1990, p. 275-300.

[16] “Each attacker bears on his shield a blazon or motto which, unbeknown to him, is an adverse omen yet unrevealed. Eteocles interprets each of these omens in a sense which is disastrous for the enemy.” H. D. CAMERON: The Power of Words in the Seven against Thebes, in: Transactions and Proceedings of the Case Western Reserve University, vol 101, 1970, 95-118, p. 101.

[17] Edith HALL: The sociology of Athenian tragedy, in: The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, 93-126, p. 93.

[18] Some studies published in this issue: D. J. CONACHER: Aeschylus. The earlier plays and related studies, University of Toronto Press, 1996, p.4-8., David ROSENBLOOM: Myth, History, and Hegemony in Aeschylus, in Barbara GOFF (ed.): History, Tragedy, Theory. Dialogues on Athenian Drama, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1995, p.102., Christopher PELLING: Aeschylus’ Persae and History, in: Christopher PELLING (ed): Greek Tragedy and the Historian, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997, p.1-19., H. D. BROADHEAD (ed. with introduction, critical notes and commentary): The Persae of Aeschylus,Cambridge, at the University Press, 1960, p.XVII-XXIII.


[19] H. D. BROADHEAD (ed. with introduction, critical notes and commentary): The Persae of Aeschylus, p. XXX.

[20] W. B. STANFORD: Greek Tragedy and the Emotions, An introductory study, Routledge & Paul Kegan, 1983, p.59.

[21] “A prime interest of ίκετεία is that it displays a particular instance of the ritualisation of reciprocity around a value (prestige) of universally accepted significance in the society of ancient Greece.” John GOULD: Hiketeia, in: The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. XCIII,London, 1973, 74-103, p.75.

[22] John HERINGTON: Aeschylus, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1986, p.94-96.

[23] See: Jacques DERRIDA: La différance, in: Marges de la Philosophie, Paris, Édition de Minuit, 1972, 1-29.