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Men (not to mention gods and women) Behaving Badly

Let's face it. If the truth be known, the Greeks had it all sewn up, didn't they? In the late fifth century' BC they controlled pretty much all of the known world and seemed to have a monopoly on things Classical - like art and architecture, literature, drama, science and mathematics, philosophy, and of course democracy. With its well-equipped and well drilled fleet, Athens policed the Mediterranean, protected its citizens from the murderous Mede and extended its wise rule over fellow Greeks and foreigners alike - all of them lucky enough to have Athens as their overlord.

The Parthenon
Athens was a Golden city in a Golden Age. Its architects and builders were putting the finishing touches to the Parthenon, great teams of sculptors were fashioning in marble the myths and legends of Athens' spectacular rise to pre-eminence. To the whole world, the Acropolis and its fabulous buildings shone out like a beacon, illuminating the world with the Periclean vision of civilisation.
Pericles was the great Athenian statesman - sophisticated, wise, fiercely patriotic. His enlightened rule epitomised all that was best in the Athenian democracy. The democracy was radical, direct, participatory: that meant that everyone got involved, everyone took responsibility for the way the city was governed. The way the democracy was organised, it was quite likely that at least once in your life, you would find yourself not only serving on the Council of 500 ( a kind of parliament)but you'd even be its chairman. A sort of Prime Minister for the day?!


Democracy: demos cratos, literally = People Power. As Pericles himself once said:
"We do not say that the man who does not get involved in politics is minding his own business. Rather, that man has no business here at all."

Mount Olympus
And looking down, benignly, on thedemocracy a pantheon of gods. These were the Olympian gods who took their name from the mountain in Northern Greece where they were thought to live. Mt. Olympus: high, remote, inaccessible. Just like the gods themselves. The Athenians worshipped their gods and the gods looked after them.
This was the fundamental idea behind traditional Greek religion. This was why the Greeks prayed, this was why they sacrificed - to keep their gods sweet. The Athenians themselves had Athene to protect them. Athene was the goddess of wisdom, daughter of the King of the gods, Zeus himself. Her huge gold and ivory statue, sculpted by the master craftsman Pheidias peered out from the gloom of the Parthenon, lit only by the light reflection in the pool of water in front of it when the great door was opened.

Not everyone, of course shared this somewhat simplistic vision of the gods. Philosophers speculated on alternative explanations and offered the people the possibility of other systems of belief and enquiry. Socrates was one such philosopher. He was to be found most days idling about the stoas and market place, attracting quite an audience with his provocative questioning of his fellow Athenians. He particularly targeted so-called experts and by his question and answer technique revealed their ignorance. Socrates was a popular figure and was regarded by many as the "wisest of men". He himself refuted the idea, saying that his wisdom, such as it was, came from the certain knowledge that he knew nothing. This brand of sophism, nevertheless, found a great many supporters.

Socrates never wrote anything down - his teachings are all recorded by Plato. But there were a great number of playwrights and lyric poets at work in the fifth century. The theatre was an arena in which the Athenians dared to look honestly at themselves, holding up a minor, as it were, to their past and their present. The plays were competitive, in the sense that they were performed at a festival in competition with other plays. There were prizes for the best play, the best playwright and the best chorus.

The theatre at Dodona

The stadium at Delphi

The ancient Greeks were hugely competitive in all walks of life. Most obviously in the athletics in the Olympic games held every four years - and by the way, the intervening years were not wasted - there were games at Nemea, Delphi and Isthmia. They competed for honour and glory, worshipping by their performance the very gods who had given them their talents in the first place. The games were conducted according to rules of honour, justice ,and equality. Like everything in Greek society, there was an orderliness, a restraint and a sense of fair play and justice.

I thinks it's time to explode a few myths, don't you?!!! Where do we start? Let's work backwards;

Treasury at Delphi
The Olympic Games were held at Olympia because it was politically neutral - a place where the various cities could pursue their petty jealousies and rivalry on neutral ground without one city having any particular advantage. A bit like Man Utd and Liverpool agreeing to play at Villa Park, so that neither side would have home advantage.
Competitors took an oath of fair play; yet vase paintings show them bending the rules, doing precisely what was forbidden: biting, gouging out eyes. The politicians erected flashy buildings called treasuries on the site just as a bit of one-upmanship, to show off their wealth. In the Greek world, status was everything. You were judged. by what you had in the way of possessions. And by the way, were the games democratic? You are joking; no women were allowed to watch the events. Well, the males did compete in the nude!

What about the theatre? Competitive, yes, as I have already said. Governed by rules? Yes. For instance, improper behaviour in the theatre could lead to severe penalties, including death.

But the theatre is the key to a more truthful picture of Greek society in the 5th century. In fact, for a glimpse of the very worst behaviour possible, tune in to a play or two written by the four outstanding playwrights of the century.

Aeschylus was a great patriot and traditionalist; he fought against the Persians and saw Athens carve out an empire for herself His trilogy of plays, the mighty Oresteia, deals with a glorious yet disturbing period in Greek history. The Greeks avenged the abduction of the beautiful Helen by laying siege to Troy for ten years and eventually defeated it after building a wooden horse and sacking the city. A great triumph - yet Aeschylus dwells on the dark, primeval forces which lurk just beneath the surface. The celebrations of Agamemnon , the Greek leader are short - lived. He returns home in triumph, but he has offended the gods by the barbarity of his actions at Troy and, worse still, he has angered his wife, Clytemnestra, by callously cutting the throat of his own daughter Iphigenia, a sacrifice demanded by the gods in return for victory at Troy.

Agamemnon takes a shower, and a shadowy figure moves up to the curtain. The axe falls and he slides down in the bath, the drain clogging up with the blood and gore from his gaping wounds. Another victim of a curse on his family which shows no sign of letting up. In the next play, his charming wife, falls victim to an avenging son, Orestes. The lover she had taken with indecent haste after Agamemnon's departure, is also sliced up. Oh dear, of dear, oh dear, where will it all end? Aeschylus was very interested in justice and revenge. What happens when justice is replaced by tit-for-at revenge? It's still very much in the news today. Think about it. You only have to think of Northern Ireand. And by the way, where was the morality in the gods' actions?

Anything Aeschylus can do, Sophocles can do just as well. Consider Oedipus! Here was a man who married a woman old enough to be his mother - and then he discovered that she was his mother, and that his sons were in fact his own brothers and his daughters his own sisters. And by the way, did I mention that he had killed his own father in a fit of pique? You think you've got problems? Well, Oedipus is a victim of fate, he couldn't help or avoid what he did, no matter how hard he tried. But it was all so nasty that it's difficult to find any sympathy for him. If the Greeks really did spend their time worrying about the likes of Oedipus and the problem of identity, they must have been pretty screwed up most of the time!

And Euripides!? They say you should save the best till last! This playwright was responsible for creating some of the greatest monsters in all literature. Consider Hippolytus - a nice enough chap but not very interested in women. In fact, more interested in horses and other manly pursuits. Aphrodite, goddess of love took a terrible revenge on him for ignoring her by making his stepmother fall in love with him and then denouncing his supposed incestuous approaches in a letter - before herself committing suicide. Hippolytus died under the hooves of his own horses - but not before he had breathed these immortal words about women:

Oh Zeus! Why have you established in the sunlit world
This counterfeit coin, woman, to curse the human race?
If you desired to plant a mortal stock, why must
The means for this be women? A better plan would be
For men to come to your temples and put down a price
In bronze, or iron, or weight of gold, and buy their sons
In embryo, for a sum befitting each man's wealth.
Then they could live at home like free men - without women.

If his views on women were typical of the 5th century, then no wonder women started to behave badly - both in drama and in real life!

Euripides' greatest creation (in my humble opinion) is Medea. You have to feel sorry for Medea - she didn't have much going for her:

  • she was a barbarian i.e. non-Greek, therefore the absolute pits,
  • she was a witch, and worst of all,
  • she was a woman in a man's world.

Not much of a CV eh? But married to the hero Jason, she had prospects. Until, that is, he took another, younger Greek princess. Poor Medea! Lots of sympathy, then, at first. But then she goes and spoils it by murdering Jason's intended by getting the two children she'd had by Jason to wrap her in a poisoned dress. Tut tut. Then, she murders Jason's intended father-in-law and then, for good measure, slices up the two boys and flies off into the sky with their bodies.
What a woman! Mind you, Electra's not much better - she killed her own mother Clytemnestra for that psycho murder in the bath I mentioned earlier. But that's another story.
The agora in Athens
Lets' find some light relief for a moment. Aristophanes, the comic genius, inspiration for Spitting image, Blackadder, Birds of a Feather (I made that up) Monty Python and Men Behaving Badly. I'm afraid that his theatre has the full monty of bad behaviour. Men, women, gods, the lot. A tame example to start with. His hero Dicaiopolis sits alone on the Pnyx Hill, waiting for the assembly to meet and begin. He wants to introduce a bill suggesting the Athenians see sense and make peace with their arch rivals, the Spartans. He'll have to wait a long time. No one seems much bothered. The marshals are trying to round up the good citizens down in the agora, trying to force them up the hill to do their democratic duties. A rope, smeared with red dye is used like a lasso - anyone marked by the dye can be fined.

There's not much of the Periclean spirit amongst this lot here. if we are to believe Aristophanes, the citizens shunned their duties and, instead relied on shysters like Cleon to look after their interests for them. Cleon was a tanner by trade and Aristophanes loses no opportunity to make fun of this smelly, low-born, foul-mouthed individual who was able to beguile the gullible masses with his election promises (you might like to speculate which of our current crop of MPs most approximates to this description).

The women of Athens do not behave much better. Aristophanes echoes the popular conception of women as sex-crazed and boozed-up. In the play Lysistrata, they try to force their men to give up the war with Sparta by withdrawing their sexual favours. The men just nip down the road to their favourite prostitute whilst the women almost go crazy with their sexual frustrations.

And as for the gods? Not much evidence here for the kind of gods I described at the beginning. In the play Frogs, Dionysos, is lampooned as a sill old fart who is a complete idiot and slightly less brave and intelligent than his slave. Yes, the same Dionysos who was god of the theatre and wine. Incidentally, as god of wine he was a particular favourite of the ladies. Women would get drunk, in public, then excuse themselves and be excused because, as they said, they were worshipping Dionysos. Below right, you can see these female devotees, the so-called Maenads or mad ones. What excuse do you use nowadays, ladies?!

But surely this bad behaviour is only in the plays. Isn't it? Sorry: As far as the gods are concerned, bad behaviour was pretty much the norm. Wherever you look in the myths, the gods behave in a nasty, petulant, vindictive manner. They have their favourites whom they protect, and their victims whom they pursue relentlessly . You only have to think of Odysseus in Homer's Odyssey and the treatment he gets at the hands of Poseidon.

But if you are looking for models of good behaviour to emulate - best not to even consider looking to the gods. After all, where did they come from and how did they become lord and master over the Greeks. It's a long and gruesome story. Just consider this: how did the enlightened Greeks of the fifth century take seriously a family of gods whose family album contains pictures of incest, patricide, mutilation, sexual activities of Olympic proportions? Zeus was king of the Olympian gods - but only because he had led a revolt against his own father Cronos and supplanted him. Cronos, you might say, got what he deserved: Cronos had, after all, eaten all his children. at birth to ensure that none would challenge his power. Cronos, incidentally, had earlier supplanted his own father Ouranos by taking a pair of pinking shears to his genitalia. What a crew! Zeus kept up the family tradition and had many children by many females, both mortals and immortals. You get the picture. Not much in the way of morality here.

It leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

What about the empire, then? Didn't Athens rule her subjects with Periclean wisdom and justice? Ask the people of the island of Thasos. They wanted to withdraw from Athenian rule. Athenian justice was swift and cruel. Massacres ensued. Didn't Athens use the moneys from her subject citizens wisely and to their benefit? Sorry, but many of the allies complained when a huge amount of the cash was siphoned off to pay for the Periclean building programme on the Acropolis. But, as Pericles so eloquently put it: if Athens is golden, her glory reflects on all the empire. So stop moaning.

But at least Athens encouraged free expression and the democracy was mature enough to accept criticism and challenge, wasn't it? Remember Socrates? In 399bc he sat in a prison cell. The governor of the prison watched him as he was compelled to drink the poison hemlock. His crime? The charge was that he had corrupted the minds of young Athenians by suggesting that perhaps the gods did not exist, or that, at least, they should question accepted beliefs about the gods. Judging by what we know of these gods, Socrates surely was right to try and point people in another direction.

And what about all those exquisite carvings on the temples? They celebrate, if that is the right word, the Greek struggle against the forces of barbarism, the victory of civilisation over the forces of evil. If their plays are anything to go by, dark forces were still very much at work and needing to be confronted .

Delphi: theatre of Dionysos and Temple of Apollo

At Delphi, two gods lived side by side. On the one hand, there was Apollo, the god of light, reason, moderation and civilisation. On the other, there was Dionysos, the god of wine, of sexuality and sensuality, the god of excess. The Greeks believed that men had elements of both gods in their make-up. To avoid behaving badly, men had to have both in equal measure. They had to know their limits and avoid excess. What we know of Greek mythology and a good deal of Greek society suggests that Dionysos usually held the upper hand. How else to explain so much bad behaviour from men, gods and women?

DS. 16.9.99