Monday, January 14, 2013


Angeliki Tzanetou, City of Suppliants: Tragedy and the Athenian Empire. Ashley and Peter Larkin series in Greek and Roman culture. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. Pp. xiv, 206. ISBN 9780292737167. $55.00.

Reviewed by Sophie Mills, University of North Carolina at Asheville (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

In this important new book Angeliki Tzanetou expands on a 2011 essay on tragedy and Athenian hegemony.1 Employing careful readings of Aeschylus' Eumenides, Euripides' Heraclidae and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, the book comprises several connected arguments, which Tzanetou traces through her discussions of the three texts, illustrating them with copious and well-chosen examples. First, the portrayal of Athens in tragedies in which defenseless foreign suppliants seek her help is strongly shaped by contemporary political currents: the military challenge central to suppliant drama plots is stimulated by Athens' intense rivalry with Sparta and (to a lesser extent) other cities. In all such plays, Athens is portrayed as a hegemonic city — a city that led others on the basis of mutual consent and "the strength of her moral commitments" (7). When Athens, through its affinity for piety, freedom and justice, agrees to help suppliants, they become willing allies, beholden to Athens, and thereby enable Athens' superior status to be based on mutual consent, as a hegemonic city. Tzanetou argues that though such tragedies obviously portray a highly idealized Athenian behavior, they do also reflect some of the reality of Athenian relations with her allies: in tragedy, the protection Athens grants the suppliants is always reciprocated by what they offer Athens in return, just as in real life Athens' allies were expected to contribute to her war effort. Athens' acceptance of outsiders generally affirms her image as benevolent hegemon, but where there are crises surrounding supplications, notably in the Heraclidae and Oedipus at Colonus, the workings of the hierarchies behind Athenian power are revealed and we see some tension between force and consent in the relationship between Athens and the suppliants. In another careful argument, Tzanetou shows that although there is a thematic overlap between panegyric of Athens in oratory and in tragedy, oratory focuses on Athenians and almost erases foreign/metic/allied contributions while tragedy very deliberately includes these voices, while co-opting them for her own ideological ends of justifying Athenian power. Additionally, and to my mind slightly less successfully, Tzanetou traces a historical development in Athenian hegemonic ideology, from Aeschylus' Eumenides to Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, as the Athenian empire developed and, given its treatment of its allies, idealized justifications of Athenian power became harder to sustain.

Chapter one argues that Aeschylus' Eumenides emphasizes the legitimacy of Athens' dominance in Greece and superiority to Sparta both militarily and as a city of justice, celebrating Athens' ability to assimilate what is foreign advantageously for all parties concerned. Through Athena's leadership, both Orestes and the Furies enhance Athens' power and advantage and Athenian hegemony is highlighted. Tzanetou connects the alliance with Argos resulting from Athens' acceptance of Orestes with Pericles' claim that Athens earns allies through benevolence (Thuc. 2.40.4-5). The reception of the Furies into Athens as exiles from Delphi also illustrates Athens' hegemonic tendencies as a city that assists the marginal and the oppressed — but is it really true that, as Tzanetou states (64), the Furies enter into a relationship of dependency with Athens like that of other non-Athenians by offering the city benefits in exchange for their new home? Given their huge power to harm as well as bless, they seem to me qualitatively different from others whom Athens incorporates. However, it is certainly true that Athena's persistent persuasiveness reflects the aims of hegemonic ideology in creating a voluntary agreement between Athens and those whom she led. Tzanetou also makes the excellent observation (65) that even Athena hints briefly at harsher realities of power behind the ideal of mutual consent when she mentions that she has Zeus' thunderbolt in case the Furies refuse her persuasion.

After a short second chapter on the development of Athenian hegemonic ideology from 450-430 and the increasing discrepancy between moral justifications for Athenian leadership and its attractive reality, chapter three argues that the portrayal of Athens in the Heraclidae as defender of the weak and oppressed is an answer to the claims of Spartans in the early Peloponnesian War that they were the liberators of cities caught in the clutches of a tyrannical Athens. Athens' strength, which gives it the freedom to protect others from tyranny, is contrasted with Eurystheus' attempts at coercion. However, as Tzanetou shows in what I thought was the book's best chapter, this play does not simply reflect Athens' claims to a limitless generosity. While at first Euripides portrays the standard acceptance of defenseless suppliants by Athens, the crisis that emerges when Demophon is obliged to backtrack after promising protection greatly complicates the panegyric by showing that there are limitations to Athenian openness. While Iolaus understands Demophon's difficulties, he is powerless to make him change his mind and his pitiful lamentations subtly undermine earlier praise of Athens' generosity. Tzanetou argues effectively that this dramatic situation evokes the tensions and inequities in the relationship between Athens and her allies in that the sacrifice of Heracles' daughter evokes the contributions that member states were required to make to Athens. While Demophon does not exactly demand compliance with the divine mandate to sacrifice Heracles' daughter, the suppliants have no option but to accept it, and even as she prepares to die Heracles' daughter expresses gratitude to Athens for accepting them as suppliants at all (Hcld. 503-6.) As Tzanetou notes (100), the play co-opts the voice of the foreigner and thereby suppresses its potential for articulating protest and shows the inequality of the distribution of power between Athens and the allies. Even though negotiation and a kind of consent are exhibited, Athens ultimately sets her terms.

I had most questions about chapter four on Oedipus at Colonus, partly because Tzanetou argues for a development in the suppliant plays which reflects the history of the later Athenian empire. I was not entirely convinced that we can trace such a development. Tzanetou argues that the confrontation between Oedipus and the chorus at the start of the play represents a crisis in Athenian hegemonic ideology as Athens' inclusivity is shown to be limited, and that this limitation reflects a decline of Athens' hegemonic ideology in the later Peloponnesian War. She is certainly right that the scrutiny to which Oedipus is subjected is more stringent than that given to Orestes, but does this really reflect a decline in Athenian hegemonic ideology? The circumstances behind Orestes' and Oedipus' supplications are not the same: Orestes is not seeking permanent refuge in Athens, while the magnitude of Oedipus' crimes surely demands caution in accepting him. Athens' acceptance of suppliants in tragedy is certainly related to the city's ideological self-image outside the theatre, but the acceptance of particularly problematic suppliants such as the infanticidal Heracles and then the supremely polluted Oedipus might as easily stem from an increasing self- promotion — Athens is strong enough to accept even suppliants such as Oedipus — as from a decline in hegemonic ideals. Tzanetou does not tackle Euripides' Heracles since the play is not based in Athens (131), but I would have welcomed treatment of how this play fits into her scheme of historical development. The treatment of Theseus and Oedipus is slightly misleading in places: Tzanetou states that only after Oedipus reveals to Theseus the future benefits he will bring to Athens does Theseus offers him citizenship (106). While this is technically true, I would suggest that Theseus' instant acceptance of Oedipus and refusal to be repelled by him is simply a foreshadowing of his eventual offer, so that Athens' acceptance of Oedipus is less qualified than Tzanetou argues. Tzanetou also states (115) that Theseus gives three reasons for accepting Oedipus — friendship between their cities, his suppliant status and contribution to Athens' welfare — and that the last of these seals Theseus' offer of citizenship. In fact, Theseus does not seem to lay especial weight on what Oedipus will give to Athens: at least when Oedipus first offers it, Theseus seems to make light of it (OC 586), and after 635 it fades temporarily into the background. I would prefer to interpret the chorus's initial response to Oedipus, like that of Theseus to Adrastus in Euripides' Suppliants, in terms of needing an initially "wrong" response to point up the difficulties of accepting suppliants and Athens' excellence in so doing.

In spite of these disagreements with parts of Tzanetou's arguments, over all I found this a stimulating and thought- provoking book which made me re-examine some of my own assumptions about the relationship between Athenian imperial ideology and tragedy. Tzanetou offers a very useful addition to the ever-increasing scholarship on the relationship between tragedy and the Athenian empire, and it deserves a wide audience. The book itself is particularly attractively produced and although I noticed a few minor misprints, none is likely to cause confusion.


1.   "Supplication and Empire in Athenian Tragedy" in D. M. Carter (ed.), Why Athens? A Reappraisal of Tragic Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011): 305-324.

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