BEYOND THE FIFTH CENTURY: Interactions with Greek Tragedy from the Fourth Century BCE to the Middle Ages

Edited by Ingo Gildenhard and Martin Revermann

De Gruyter (2010) p/b 441pp £22.50 (ISBN 9783110223774)

This substantial volume is composed of papers, each with its own extensive bibliography, originating from a study day on the reception of Attic tragedy and its influence on later drama up until the late mediaeval period. It features a useful programmatic introduction clearly stating the layout and intentions of the book, followed by four sections in chronological order grouping together papers on the 4th c. and Hellenistic periods, the Augustan Principate, the Roman Empire and Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

The different articles are of varying quality and interest, but together they provide a series of individual and thought-provoking approaches to, and reflections upon, the profound influence of Attic tragedy, even on contemporary drama. The first section contains articles on the immediate impact of the plays, using the ancient biographies of the major classical tragedians, the iconography of household pottery and Greek festival inscriptions to demonstrate the canonisation of Aeschylus’, Sophocles’ and Euripides’ works and the way their scripts rapidly became cultural artefacts, thus facilitating the possibility of reading the tragedies as works of literature, as well as their re-presentation and dissemination throughout the empires of Alexander and the Romans. These articles trace the change in civic impact of tragedy from a localised event presented largely by citizens to an audience of their fellows about Athenian democratic concerns to a Mediterranean-wide phenomenon, attracting an international Hellenistic audience in both East and West through the medium of translations and adaptations performed by professional actors. Although many new tragedies were written subsequently, such as the Rhesus, these Hellenistic and Roman plays are now mostly lost, along with many of the works of the three great Attic tragedians, but glimpses of their contents and staging sometimes survive in dramatic scenes on Southern Italian pottery or in a different genre of writing, like Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

Thus tragedy did not die, but rather changed its aspect when taken up by Rome, initially through the translations of Livius Andronicus at the Ludi Romani, as part of Rome’s bid for international reorientation as a Mediterranean power and in an effort to link herself with the history and mythology surrounding Troy. The stories of Attic tragedy then came to permeate Roman life through their extensive use in schools and law courts, helping members of the elite classes to command respect and enhance their social status, as evidenced by the works of Lucian and the writers of the Second Sophistic. The increasing emphasis on spectacle in Roman shows leads on to treatments of Seneca’s tragedies, in particular his messenger speeches and the influence of pantomime performance on the lengthy descriptions and emotional intensity of his soliloquies, which clearly influenced the genre of Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy and Shakespearean drama.

Later articles deal with the musical traditions and live performances in Classical Greek of the Eastern empire, along with scholarly efforts to provide more reader-friendly editions of the original texts with learned commentary, until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453 and mass migration of Greek intellectuals to the West inspired translations into Latin and the cultural revival of the Renaissance when the few precariously surviving Classical tragedies finally reached the safe haven of print. They also chart the interest of the Mediaeval West in using tragic references to bolster Christian authority, showcase Classical learning and validate and enhance Christian literature itself. 

The final papers show how Christianity, even while condemning the morality of the mimes and pantomimes of contemporary theatre, drew upon the traditions of Greek tragedy to explore the possibility of Christian tragedy, inspiring the allegorical celebration of the Mass as a representation of the passion of Christ with its sacramental catharsis becoming a spiritual experience for the participants, while the public performance of martyrdom and passion plays encouraged sympathetic suffering with Jesus for the redemption of mankind and consequent self-recognition by the individual Christian spectator.

This collection of articles is self-confessedly designed for scholarly readers, graduates and ‘adventurous undergraduates’ (p.5). It belongs on the shelves of specialist researchers and university libraries. 

Claire Gruzelier

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