The Influence of Tragedy/Comedy on History Essay

The Influence of Tragedy/Comedy on History

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC) is widely acknowledged as the first true historical narrative in Western literature. Divided into eight books, it detailed the hostilities between the Athenian Empire (Delian League) and the joint forces of Sparta and Corinth (Peloponnesian League). In addition, the History combined political and ethical reflections with history. Apart from recalling the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides likewise analyzed the detrimental effects of armed conflict on human society and culture (Price 3).

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The History, however, is not without controversy. Some scholars argued that its adoption of tragic elements reduced its credibility and accuracy. Indeed, the History shares certain similarities with several well-known Greek tragedies. These commonalities, in turn, reduced Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War into a tragic plot.

Historical evidence show that the Peloponnesian War did not exist as a discrete phenomenon. The wars that took place around the time the History was written were the following: the Ten Years War (431-421), the Ionian War (414-404) and the disastrous expedition to Sicily (415-413) (Shankman and Durrant 110). The Peloponnesian War, therefore, is nothing more but a myth. It cannot be considered as a historical event because it never happened in the first place.

Greek tragedies are also of mythical nature. It is not unusual for them to contain extraordinary storylines and or characters. The protagonist of Homer’s Iliad (9th century BC), Achilles, was so strong that he ends up killing many people whenever he was provoked:

Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,

Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks

Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls

Of heroes into Hades’ dark,

And left their bodies to rot as feasts

For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done. (Il. 6. 1-10)

Myth-forming structural elements are one of the key components of the Greek tragedy. In the context of ancient Greek literature, myths personify the key institutions, values and beliefs of ancient Greek society. The tragedy, meanwhile, debunks these myths by placing them in compromising situations such as moments of extreme crisis, violent conflict and emotional distress. In the process, the conventional values and social bonds in ancient Greece are challenged (Anderson 124).

The eventual demise of Achilles shows that not even the most powerful individuals are spared from defeat, misfortune or mortality. The fictional quality of the History, on the other hand, symbolizes the conflict between the glorified image of warfare and the ugly truth behind it. Although it is true that victory in battle brings wealth, power and honor, these do not conceal the fact that such a triumph is not attained without bloodshed.

Another similarity between the History and the Greek tragedy is the fatalistic point of view. Both assume that the destiny of every individual is controlled by given circumstances, personalities and or institutions. In Book II of the History, a terrible plague sweeping Athens was regarded as divine retribution for the impiety of its citizens:

As for the gods, it seemed to be the same thing whether one worshipped them or not, when one saw the good and the bad dying indiscriminately. As for offenses against human law, no one expected to live long enough to be brought to trial and punished: instead everyone felt that already a far heavier sentence had been passed on him and was hanging over him, and that before the time for its execution arrived it was only natural to get some pleasure out of life. (Th. Hist. 2. 53-54)

In Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex (429 BC), the Delphic Oracle warned Oedipus that he was destined to kill his biological father and marry his birth mother:

My mother and my father unaware,

I went to Delphi. Phoebus would return

No answer to my question, but declared

A thing most horrible: he foretold that I

Should mate with my own mother, and beget

A brood of men would shudder to behold,

And that I was to be the murderer

Of my own father. (Oed. Rex. 8. 780-790)

Virgil’s The Aeneid (1st century BC) revealed how Juno played with the fates of Rome and Aeneas:

This rising city, which my hands erect:

But shall celestial discord never cease?

‘T is better ended in a lasting peace.

You stand possess’d of all your soul desir’d:

Poor Dido with consuming love is fir’d.

Your Trojan with my Tyrian let us join;

So Dido shall be yours, Aeneas mine:

One common kingdom, one united line.

Eliza shall a Dardan lord obey,

And lofty Carthage for a dow’r convey. (119)

In the context of the History and the Greek tragedy, there is no point in striving towards achieving one’s goals. Human existence was characterized with suffering that is a result of both human actions and divine intervention (Farley 29). This philosophy reflected the belief of the ancient Greeks that an individual’s destiny was for the deities to manipulate. Attempts to change one’s fate, therefore, meant risking the ire of the gods and goddesses (Westmoreland 641). Ancient Greek deities were known for harshly punishing those who had offended them – Hera caused Hercules to kill his own wife and children by driving him temporarily insane (Ptak 58).

Given the tragedy’s accurate manifestation of the fatalistic worldview of the ancient Greeks, it is no longer surprising if some ancient Greek historians incorporated tragic elements in their accounts of the past. But Thucydides’ integration of tragic elements in the History produced a third similarity between his work and the Greek tragedy – the constant appeal to the audience’s senses of fear and pity. Aristotle argued in his work the Poetics (335 BC) that pity and fear are the emotions that are the most effective in winning audiences. People, after all, only pity individuals who experienced unmerited misfortune (Shankman and Durrant 110).

In addition, their fears are best aroused when they witness persons who underwent the same misfortunes as theirs. Thus, characters and or situations that can be pitied at and or feared for are the ones that audiences can relate with the most (Shankman and Durrant 110). Despite their mythical natures, Greek tragedy and the History will still appeal to audiences because of their highly emotional manner of presenting people and or circumstances. Who would not feel sorry or concerned for someone whose peaceful existence was shattered by a dreadful prophecy or a fatal illness that was assumed to be a punishment from a celestial power?

The tragedy is one of the most popular forms of ancient Greek literature. This is mainly because it challenges the institutions, values and traditions that ancient Greek society considers important while appealing to the emotions of the audience. As a result, historians such as Thucydides likewise integrated tragic elements in their works. Emotions, after all, do not need a high degree of logic just to be won over.






















Works Cited

Anderson, Michael J. “Myth.” A Companion to Greek Tragedy. 3rd ed. Ed. Justina Gregory.

Malden, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Farley, Wendy. Tragic Vision and Divine Compassion: A Contemporary Theodicy.

Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990.

Fitzgerald, Robert, trans. The Aeneid. By Virgil. New South Wales, Australia: Accessible

Publishing Systems Pty Ltd., 2008.

Kitto, Humphrey Davy Findley, trans. Antigone, Oedipus the King, Electra. By Sophocles.

New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lombardo, Stanley, trans. Iliad. By Homer. Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing

Company, Inc., 1997.

Price, Jonathan J. Thucydides and Internal War. New York, New York: Cambridge

University Press, 2001.

Ptak, Roger. Sky Stories: Ancient and Modern. Commack, New York: Nova Science

Publishers, 1998.

Shankman, Steven, and Stephen W. Durrant. The Siren and the Sage: Knowledge and

Wisdom in Ancient Greece and China. New York, New York: Cassell, 2000.

Warner, Rex, trans. History of the Peloponnesian War. By Thucydides. 6th ed. New York,

New York: Penguin Group, 1972.

Westmoreland, Perry L. Ancient Greek Beliefs. San Ysidro, California: Lee and Vance

Publishing Company, 2006.





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