Why an ancient Greek tragedy has resonance in politics today — in India and beyond (2024)

What could the earliest extant Greek tragedy have to say about the recent elections? Nothing one would expect. Aeschylus’ Persians is partly a first-person account of the battle of Salamis in which the mainly Athenian fleet destroyed Xerxes’ invading Persian flotilla. In keeping with tragic conventions, there is no action, only reports of the battle, narrated by heralds to a chorus of elderly Persians staged before the tomb of Xerxes’ father, Darius. There is much lamentation and tearing of hair and repeated cries of woe for the dead warriors and their grieving families.

How could this possibly be a trope for the recent electoral victory and defeat of the contending parties? And yet the play, a commentator reminds us, was often recalled in contexts very different from the Greco-Persian conflict. It was one in a stream of Greek tragedies performed in Germany during the war years emphasising heroism, and the grief of women left waiting at home. More frequently the play was staged to protest against war, often in the former East Germany, explicitly anti-fascist and anti-imperialist, equating Xerxes with Hitler.

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Later, it was inspired by US involvement in Korea and subsequently turned into a protest against the Vietnam War, then used to question the bombing in 1993 of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq by the UN. Although emblematic of a Eurocentric view of the Orient (effeminate, disorderly, cruel and hierarchical), the play has more recently been viewed as emphasising the need for a more humane and pacific world order.


In the account of a defining battle in an ongoing tussle between two parties, we can read in it familiar electoral vocabulary: Fought between politically distinct formations with their respective allies, each with its resources of ground troops and skilled commanders who attack opponents, (albeit verbally), resorting both to bribery and threats, to undermine and defeat the opposition. Traps are set, deception and guile routine.

Key themes in the ancient play resonate with the present. Take the case of the numbers: The much greater strength of the invading forces (dutifully exaggerated by Herodotus somewhat later), corresponds with the exaggerated outlook that exit polls flashed across the country, making even the doubtful doubt their disbelief. These disparate and dubious figures (“such a huge flood of men… an invincible sea wave”) are apt metaphors for the deep asymmetry between the contenders. Nor do ships and men come cheap. The Persians greatly outnumbered the Greeks because of their much greater wealth and resources (Xerxes’ palace is “rich in gold”), a theme that runs throughout the drama, pitting might and wealth against determination and courage.

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In the play, the catastrophe is multiply over-determined, for numerous contributory factors are adduced besides the ubiquitous divine-spirit. But for Aeschylus, the victory belonged entirely to the people, the ordinary citizens, not to their leaders. There was no implication that any particular Athenians were superior to their fellow combatants by birth, class, or rank. While numerous Persian nobility are named, not a single Greek leader is mentioned directly. This democratic depiction was as much at odds with Athenians as it is for the modern Indian voter, but the fundamental nature of the electoral process, as in the naval battle, is the temporary erasure of all distinctions of wealth and birth.

Those citizens (“called neither the slaves nor subjects of any single man”) fought for democracy and freedom. The narrative lifts the sea battle from just another fight between aggrandising monarchs to the ideological plane, represented through the polarities of freedom/ slavery, democracy/ tyranny. The self-image of the Athenians as democratic, non-hierarchical, espousing ideals of moderation and self-restraint, fit well with the moral dimension of traditional Indian political ideology, which was confronted, as the Athenians saw themselves confronted, with the loud arrogant and boastful rhetoric of their adversaries. In the Greek imaginary, the excessive wealth of the Persians led them to hubris and greater greed as they trampled on all that was regarded as decent and holy.

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Although the play is titled, Persians (Persae), the invading host is regularly referred to as “the barbarian” a pejorative term at this time, cognate with its familiar adjective, “barbaric”. The acts of these invaders had all the hallmarks of what we now would call barbaric and unholy, the destruction of civic institutions (the city of Athens was razed, its sanctuaries defiled), meant that the gods themselves were battling on the side of justice and morality.

Tragedy according to Aristotle, writing a good three generations later, must have a tragic hero, whose fall from a position of greatness is the result of a flaw. Aeschylus had not read Aristotle, but commentators find the flawed figure necessary to tragic outcomes, in Xerxes.

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Xerxes, combining foolishness with characteristic arrogance, is likened to a god (“an equal of the gods, born of the golden race”). He exacts the obedience masters demand of slaves. A familiar Greek trope characterised the Persians as a nation where only one man was free. His arrogance (hubris) comes from excessive power and wealth (His mother fears “great Wealth may kick up a cloud of dust from the ground and overturn prosperity”).

With the defeat of his forces, he returns to Susa. The transition is pictured in the rags his otherwise sartorial elegance is reduced to. His mother, Darius’ queen, acutely aware of the importance of his regal apparel, is more upset by his torn clothes than the prospect of the wholesale slaughter of Persian forces (845-8).


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The defeat of the Persians, the queen fears, will result in loss of control over his vast empire. The chorus laments that imperial rule is in danger, that the king’s subjects will no longer prostrate themselves before him, or keep their opinions to themselves (“Men will no longer curb their tongues/for people are released to talk freely when a strong yoke has been removed”). Despite this, the Queen reminds them, whatever else happens, the King will remain unaccountable to the people (distinguishing him from the Athenian officials who had to have their “accounts” examined at the end of their tenure). Absolute rulers unlike democratic ones are immune to scrutiny.

Xerxes though defeated, was not dethroned. He went on to rule for another decade or more. But the spirit of freedom and democracy set alight by that struggle lived on for more than a century: A lesson that we are now perhaps fortunate to learn.

The writer taught Philosophy at Delhi University

Why an ancient Greek tragedy has resonance in politics today — in India and beyond (2024)


Why do you think Greek tragedies are still enjoyed by audiences today? ›

Moreover, Greek tragedy is obsessed with conflict between the genders, between public and private duty, between self-control and a sense of helplessness in the face of the world's violence: all this too finds a powerful echo with modern audiences.

Was Greek tragedy political? ›

Almost all Greek tragedy is political in the weaker sense, given that nearly every surviving play features at least one character who holds political office as the king of a city. But when modern commentators refer to Greek tragedy as political drama, they tend to mean the stronger idea.

Why is a tragedy different for the ancient Greeks than it is for the modern world? ›

In Ancient Greece, plays were events for the whole community, a way of binding everyone together through a shared sense of values and beliefs. Modern tragedy, on the other hand, tends to speak more to the individual rather than the community as a whole.

How is a Greek tragedy different from a modern tragedy? ›

As far as conventions go, Greek Tragedies are very unified. The tragedy of the royal protagonist will go through only one time span, a day or less, one setting, and one story. In a modern tragedy, however, the ordinary protagonist's story goes through multiple realistic settings and a realistic time line.

Why is Greek tragedy still relevant today? ›

It offers a way to acknowledge that many aspects of human experience are beyond individual control, subject to forces (be they fate, nature or societal structures) that can seem as arbitrary and powerful as the whims of mythological gods.

How have ancient Greek tragedies influenced today's entertainment? ›

Greek theatre has influenced modern entertainment in many areas. Actors with costumes, special effects, the use of satire, and even the shape of the theatre itself are all lasting influences.

Why is Greek tragedy so powerful? ›

Instead, they were giving voice to timeless human experiences—of suffering and grief—that, when viewed by a large audience that had shared those experiences, fostered compassion, understanding and a deeply felt interconnection. Through tragedy, the Greeks faced the darkness of human existence as a community.”

How is ancient Greek different from today? ›

Ancient Greek uses infinitives in a way that Modern Greek doesn't. The optative verb mood as well as some diacritics didn't survive and there used to be an extra number called "dual" apart from the singular and the plural.

What is the difference between Greek drama and today's modern drama? ›

Ancient Greek theatre had minimal props and special effects, whereas modern theatre has extremely advanced and detailed props and special effects. 3. Most Ancient Greek plays had a religious undertone and plot, whereas modern plays have a very wide variety of plots and themes.

What impact has the Greek tragedy had? ›

The most famous playwrights of the genre were Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides and many of their works were still performed centuries after their initial premiere. Greek tragedy led to Greek comedy and, together, these genres formed the foundation upon which all modern theatre is based.

What is the difference between ancient tragedy and modern tragedy? ›

Modern tragedy can be considered as having distinct characteristics from classical tragedy, including: More than one central character. The characters and situations probably reflect more diversity in terms of class representation.

What is the difference between Greek and Modern Greek? ›

Simplification: Modern Greek is known for its simplified grammar and pronunciation compared to its ancient counterpart. Verb conjugations are less complex, and noun declensions have largely disappeared.

Why were Greek tragedies popular? ›

Theatrical performances in ancient Greece were not simply, or even primarily, for the purposes of entertainment. Tragic drama provided the audience with an opportunity to reflect on its own social, political, and religious values.

Why do the Greeks still matter to us today? ›

Many words used in the modern English language like idol, antique, dialogue, economy, spartan, architect, microscope, telephone, plus many more have been derived from the Greek language. The Greeks were the first to have a full-fledged alphabet system replete with vowels and consonants.

What did Greek tragedies teach their audiences? ›

Ancient Greek tragedies were DIDACTIC and written early on in TRILOGY form to teach, or warn the watcher/listener/audience to give due respect to the gods and their rituals; to desist from performing unnatural acts and/or, not to act with the sort of PRIDE which invites HUBRIS and will earn the PROTAGONIST a fatal " ...

How we still see Greek influence in our culture today? ›

We have the ancient Greeks to thank for things like present-day democracy, libraries, the modern alphabet, and even zoology. Here are some notable Greek figures—from philosophers to mathematicians and scientists—and how they have shaped the world we know today.

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