Plagues Follow Bad Leadership in Ancient Greek TalesRoundup
tags: theater, ancient Greece, epidemics, classics, Plagues
Joel Christensen is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at Brandeis University.
In the fifth century B.C., the playwright Sophocles begins “Oedipus Tyrannos” with the title character struggling to identify the cause of a plague striking his city, Thebes. (Spoiler alert: It’s his own bad leadership.)
As someone who writes about early Greek poetry, I spend a lot of time thinking about why its performance was so crucial to ancient life. One answer is that epic and tragedy helped ancient storytellers and audiences try to make sense of human suffering.
From this perspective, plagues functioned as a setup for an even more crucial theme in ancient myth: a leader’s intelligence. At the beginning of the “Iliad,” for instance, the prophet Calchas – who knows the cause of a nine-day plague – is praised as someone “who knows what is, what will be and what happened before.”
This language anticipates a chief criticism of Homer’s legendary King Agamemnon: He does not know “the before and the after.”
The epics remind their audiences that leaders need to be able to plan for the future based on what has happened in the past. They need to understand cause and effect. What caused the plague? Could it have been prevented?
comments powered by Disqus
- Josh Hawley Earns F in Early American History
- Does Germany's Holocaust Education Give Cover to Nativism?
- "Car Brain" Has Long Normalized Carnage on the Roads
- Hawley's Use of Fake Patrick Henry Quote a Revealing Error
- Health Researchers Show Segregation 100 Years Ago Harmed Black Health, and Effects Continue Today
- Nelson Lichtenstein on a Half Century of Labor History
- Can America Handle a 250th Anniversary?
- New Research Shows British Industrialization Drew Ironworking Methods from Colonized and Enslaved Jamaicans
- The American Revolution Remains a Hotly Contested Symbolic Field
- Untangling Fact and Fiction in the Story of a Nazi-Era Brothel