Topics in Classical Culture

The Legend of the House of Atreus: Greek Tragedy in Greece

This course will specifically focus on those surviving classical tragedies which tell the tale of the ill-destined royal House of Atreus. And true to the definition of myth, this tale is the sum total of all its variants. In order to get favorable winds so the Greek army could depart for Troy, King Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia, an act the seer Calchas promised would appease the angry gods (Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis). It takes ten years for the Greeks to win the Trojan War, and in that time, Clytemnestra has lived with her remaining daughter(s) in the palace at Argos (Sophocles' Electra, Euripides' Electra), while Orestes grew up safe and far away (Euripides' Orestes) After the Greeks win the Trojan War - ten years later - Agamemnon returns home only to be killed by his vengeful wife (Aeschylus' Agamemnon). Eventually Orestes returns home and together he and Electra kill their mother (Aeschylus' Choephoroi). Orestes is haunted by his mother's Furies, flees to Delphi and eventually to Athens, where he is put on trial for murder (Eumenides).  

By tracing this single well-developed story through the extant work of Athens’ fifth century tragedians, students will be introduced to the political/religious/artistic nexus that is classical tragedy: the architecture of the classical theater, the religious basis of the drama festivals, the use of myth in tragedy, the structure and mechanics of Greek drama. The single-theme focus will also allow us to compare the unique qualities of each of the major playwrights and the influence their personal experience and era has on their work.

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Athens Delphi Thorikos

Greece is unique among classical cultures because the curious intersection of myth, literary genius, history and reality is reflected in the material culture they left behind. And what makes this course unique is the travel component. After studying these plays and the culture that produced them, our students will then experience the reality of Greek tragedy in Greece.

We will begin our tour in Athens. We will discuss classical theater while sitting in the Theater of Dionysus, on the south slope of the Acropolis, where the Oresteia won first prize in the Greater Dionysia in 458 B.C. Although we can't sit in the throne of the Priest of Dionysus, we can see it, and although the Temple of Dionysus is long lost, some of its sculpture survives. When we visit the Acropolis, we will see evidence of Pericles' "imperishable monuments," proof of the  fifth-century Athenian greatness that all three playwrights contributed to. And we will read aloud the passage detailing Orestes' trial by a jury of his peers - the trial which marks the birth of democracy - while sitting on the Aeropagus where Aeschylus says it happened.

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Priest Throne Satyr Acropolis Parthenon Areopagus

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A trip north to Delphi will reveal the treacherous topography of ancient Greece, and bring new understanding to many of the historical, literary and political realities of that land. We will visit the Castellian Spring to cleanse ourselves before entering the sacred temenos at Delphi and approaching the Temple Of Apollo (of course, Orestes the murderer had to wash his entire body - our students can suffice with hair and hands!) We will see a Hellenistic copy of the omphalos (belly-button of the world) near which Orestes sleeps in the beginning of the Eumenides, and the Temple of Apollo, from where Apollo evicts the Furies. We will visit the stadium where Euripides' Orestes is supposed to have died in a terrible chariot race-accident (but a ruse). We will even climb a part of Mt. Parnassos to reach the Corycian Cave, mentioned innumerable times in choral odes of these tragedies.

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Castellian Spring Omphalos Temple of Apollo Stadium Corycian Cave

And then it is on to the Palace of Agamemnon, the Royal House of Mycenae. Students will enter through the monumental Lion Gate, whose lion relief connects this place with the palace described by Aeschylus (the significance of the literary lion-motif will be carefully explored in class). Of course, students will have already visited the National Archaeological Museum in Athens and seen the roomful of Mycenean treasures found by Schliemann in the late 1800's.

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Lion Gate Palace
Aerial View of
Treasury of Atreus
Tomb of

Side trips from Athens will include sites mentioned in the choral odes because they provide mythological and literary support to the theme. Such sites include Eleusis (home of the cult of Demeter), Tiryns (home of Heracles), Sounion (Temple of Poseidon), Nauplion (the harbor that welcomes Menelaus home from the war in Euripides’ Orestes), and Epidavros (because of the fourth century theater).

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Eleusis Tiryns Sounion Nauplion Epidavros

About the instructor: Janice Siegel attended the American School for Classical Studies at Athens on a Fulbright Scholarship in the summer of 1995. She has enjoyed four extended visits to Greece in recent years, one of which was a trip she designed for her high school students. She is the author of an extensive network of webpages devoted to classical Greece.

About the trip: The trip will take place during Spring Break 2000. I have contacted a travel agency used by the Temple University Board of Trustees and they are putting together a package to suit our unique needs. A minimum of 20 participants will keep the costs down considerably. Therefore, it is suggested that this trip be open to majors in Classics and other interested parties. Jfs