Letter from Philippi

As is the case with all conflicts, this war was advertised as a war of liberation. Both sides – Athens, a direct democracy, and Sparta, a militaristic oligarchy – claimed to be freeing some injured third party. In reality, the fight was for total domination of the Greek world. Although Thucydides, an affluent young soldier-historian from ancient Athens, gave no title to the book he started writing in the early spring of 431 BC, «The Peloponnesian War» is today considered one of the greatest books ever written. By spring of 421 BC, a decade after the fighting, the Athenians realized they had engaged in a bloody and unwinnable war and thought it would be better to negotiate with Sparta. During this nascent diplomacy, Aristophanes presented his comedy «Peace» at the City Dionysia Festival, winning the second prize. The play features an Athenian countryman named Trygaeus – which means «grape-harvester» – who hates the war and seeks peace. To get up to heaven, to Zeus, he procures a huge flying dung-beetle and proceeds to fly on its back. After a precarious flight, Trygaeus achieves his goal. Aristophanes encouraged the Athenians of his time to see that the reasons for continuing the war with Sparta were weak and that the advantages gained by making peace were far greater. This recipe is still valid, isn’t it? Last Friday I flew to Kavala and from there proceeded to the ancient city of Philippi, a few miles away. This is the same Philippi where Marc Antony fought against Brutus and Cassius in 41 BC, a date that marked the end of democracy in Rome and the beginning of imperial years. Philippi is also the birth city of Lydia, the first Christian in Europe. It is also here that the Apostle Paul was held prisoner in a dungeon. Fast-forward to modern times. Every summer since 1957, a festival has been held at the ancient theater of Philippi. This year Aristophanes’ «Peace,» as performed by the State Theater of Northern Greece in a very enjoyable production directed by Yiannis Iordanidis, opened one of the most renowned Greek summer festivals. (The same production will be presented at Epidaurus this coming Friday and Saturday.) With the crackdown on terrorism and the war on Iraq having recently come back to the fore, Aristophanes’ four plays containing passionate and eloquent pleas for peace are more timely than ever, as is the cliche that Greek tragedy and comedy is timeless and forms a permanent part of our Western culture. In «Peace,» the character of Trygaeus is performed by the extraordinary comedian, Thymios Karakatsanis, who knows how to refresh topical jokes after 2,500 years. Like Trygaeus, today’s politicians fly up in all directions – don’t they? – to discuss war and peace with various «Hermeses» who, no doubt, represent the world of today’s dignitaries. And again like Hermes – superbly played by Giorgos Galitis – tend to chess-move their way through all kinds of situations. Since we’re talking about peace, let’s rewind to the past. Technically, Sparta won the war against Athens, but there was anarchy and terrorism, and possibly even suicide attacks, in all Greek states after this so-called victory. Let’s remember the first suicide «bomber» in history – Samson, the proverbial strong hero of Israel. (Dan Eggen and Scott Wilson of the Washington Post, who yesterday published a history of suicide attacks, did not mention him.) If Samson could be a suicide bomber, why exclude some ancient Greek who might have done something of the kind? Now, watching «Peace» in Philippi, I thought of how the ancients have become our truest contemporaries. The performance in Philippi derived its power mainly from the centrality of a youthful chorus, which served as the audience’s surrogate and was clearly the principal medium in which dance, song and storytelling were fully synthesized. There was excellent music by George Christianakis, and imaginative choreography by Isidoros Sideris. «You have all the characteristics of a popular politician: a horrible voice, bad breeding, and a vulgar manner,» Aristophanes wrote. Fortunately, the comedies of Aristophanes do not live by wit alone. In our reckless haste for classical wisdom and praise for Periclean democracy, we Greeks sometimes forget that our ancient forefathers were every bit as uncertain as we are now. In theater, the ancient Greeks may have avoided sensationally dramatizing atrocities onstage, but in real life history was carved by the very worst impulses of human beings. Thucydides described the Athenian moral decay that accompanied the abuses of imperial power. Consider the case of the tiny island of Melos, which refused to become part of the Athens alliance. Five years after «Peace» was presented, in 416 BC, the cultured Athenians no longer felt any compunction over punishing civilians. In Book V of his «Peloponnesian War,» Thucydides brusquely relates how, after the Melians refused to capitulate to the Athenian’s demands, all the Melian men were put to death and all women and children sold into slavery. As Athenians blandly opined in their endorsement of Machtpolitik: «It is a general and necessary law of nature to rule whatever one can.» Audiences, then and now, are apparently all in desperate need of catharsis. Today, we have the threat of terrorism, the war in Iraq and domestic labor reforms in Greece. Would a few old-comedy laughs by Aristophanes lighten our souls? As a servant asks his master in Aristophanes’s «Frogs» (405 BC), «Shall I crack any of those old jokes, master, at which the audience never fails to laugh?»

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