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Democracy, according to the Greeks

Many modern historians have a rose-tinted view of ancient Athenian democracy. But in reality, theatre was part of the cultural backdrop to an imperialist democracy.

In ancient Athens, politics and theatre went hand in hand. Art, literature and drama blended easily with Athenian imperialism and with the version of "democracy" that underpinned it. Sophocles - the 5th-century BC playwright whose tragedy Oedipus the King was part of the inspiration for Freud's "Oedipus complex" - is a nice example of how the blend worked.

In 440BC, a few months after his Antigone won first prize at the Athenian drama festival, Sophocles served as one of the commanding officers of an Athenian task force that sailed off to put down a rebellion on the island of Samos. The inhabitants had decided to break away from Athens's empire - the network of Athenian satellite states spread all over the eastern Mediterranean - and they had to be brought back into the fold. The irony was that a few decades earlier, Athens had led Greece to victory against a vast Persian invasion; now, the Athenians had imposed their own tight control over their former allies (which may have left some wondering whether conquest by the Persians might have been the better option).

More equal than others

For modern historians with a rose-tinted view of ancient Athenian democracy, the military command of Sophocles counts as a feather in the Athenian cap. The guiding principle of this system was that every citizen should play a full part in political, military and civic life; there were to be no bystanders. By the middle of the 5th century BC, most jobs - from those on the city council to executive officers and juries - were assigned by lot to give everyone an equal chance of running the city. Admittedly, Sophocles's command was one of the very few military offices still assigned by election (not even the Athenians were wide-eyed enough to draw their generals out of a hat), but having a dramatist who was also a general fits nicely with the spirit of their politics. Their slogans were all about equality: citizens were equal in power and equal before the law and had an equal chance of getting their voice heard.

None of this is bad, as democratic aspirations go. In fact, most modern political systems could learn something from Athens. But there is a darker side to this democracy. Part of that darkness is well known. Athens may have been a city in which every citizen was equal, but those equal citizens were a tiny minority of the population: perhaps 30,000 men out of 250,000 inhabitants altogether. The vast majority - slaves, women and immigrants - were totally excluded from the political process. Ancient Athenian politics was more an exclusive gentleman's club than a democracy in our terms. Even the autocratic Romans welcomed immigrants more warmly than democratic Athens.

But the case of Sophocles raises other issues. The campaign to regain control of Samos was a brutal piece of imperial control: the local leaders in Samos had wanted to get out of Athens's orbit and the Athenians had wanted to keep them in. Not unlike some sections of the modern United States, Athens might deny an overtly imperialist agenda but it pursued regime change and the imposition of democracy wherever it suited Athenian interests.

The people of Samos got off lightly. They were brought back by force into "alliance" (as the euphemism was) with Athens but there was no mass enslavement, no massacre of the male population, no occupying garrison permanently stationed there, no confiscation of land, such as we find elsewhere in the Athenian orbit. The penalty paid by the Samians was modest - an imposed democracy, the removal of the island's independent naval deterrent and vast sums to pay in financial compensation over years to come.

All the same, it is hard to think that one month Sophocles was putting the finishing touches to his great Antigone - a play about ethical conflicts between the individual conscience and the dictates of the state - and the next month he was sailing off to force the Samians to toe the Athenian line once again. Yet, oddly, at the time, there was a common story that he was elected to his military command because of the popular success of Antigone, that celebration of individual liberty.

Stage of empire

Or maybe it is not so odd. True, the great tragedies that were acted on the Athenian stage debated all kinds of moral and ethical issues, from incest and matricide to the workings of the divine will. But the festival at which those plays were first performed was one of the most jingoistic moments of Athenian culture - and became increasingly so over the second half of the 5th century, during the period of Sophocles's lifetime.

The plays may have debated the rights and wrongs of the exercise of power, but the rituals that went on just before the performances showed no hesitation whatsoever about Athe­nian control in the world. The most dramatic of these was the presentation of the tribute in cash from Athens's subject states to the Athenian authorities - deposited, it seems, directly on to the theatre stage. This spectacle, however, was followed by a parade that would have fitted easily into the public ceremonials of Soviet Russia: war orphans, those whose fathers had died fighting for the Athenian empire, were trooped across the stage.

In the modern world, Greek drama has been performed in aid of excellent liberal causes - against apartheid in South Africa, against world war in the early 20th century (when Euripides's Trojan Women was used as a wake-up call to the ghastly effects of world conflict). But in ancient Athens itself, theatre was part of the cultural backdrop to an imperialist democracy. Perhaps it is not so surprising after all that Sophocles went straight from Antigone to a military command.

Mary Beard is professor of classics at the University of Cambridge

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Melvyn Bragg guest edit