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‘Love, the unconquered in battle’: the poetics of defeat in ancient Greek tragedy

Note to reader: WARNING: Unhappy ending!

The ancient Athenian tragic poets were excellent writers of character. Among their virtues was the ability to construct the psychology of the opposite side, a skill that required them to empathise with the defeated party. Their compassion manifests itself in the way they have created theatrical roles of immense splendour. These roles include the majestic Trojan Queen Hecuba, the sorrowful Andromache, the condemned Antigone and many solemn tragic choruses: the Chorus of the Elders in The Persians, the Chorus of the Theban Maidens in the Seven Against Thebes, the Chorus of Phoenician Women in Euripides’ eponymous play, among others. In the aforementioned plays the theme of the oikos (family/kinship/household) is central to their composition: the royal houses of Darius, Priam and Oedipus are portrayed alongside secondary themes of pity, fear, duty and disillusionment with war.

Another play called Phoenician Women (476BC) by the early tragic poet Phrynichus, now lost, has only one element in common with the play by Euripides of the same name, namely that the Chorus is comprised of Phoenician women. On the other hand it has the same subject matter as Aeshylus’ The Persians, the defeat of the Persian army at the Battle of Salamis (480BC) and Aeshylus’ play, which comes after it chronologically, owes it a heavy debt.

Case study: duty and doomed love in Antigone (441 BC)

In Antigone Sophocles (c. 497/6 - winter c. 406/5 BC) deals with the aftermath of the war. Creon, who has become king of Thebes, has decreed that Polynices should be neither mourned nor buried. Antigone believes it her filial duty to Polynices to bury her brother in defiance of the decree, claiming the superiority of divine law, an action that is both her greatness and leads to her downfall. Her sister Ismene tries to save her by persuading her not to go through with the burial while her fiancé Haemon tries to persuade the king, his father, to change his arbitrary law. Both fail, and the determination of neither Antigone nor Creon to shift their position leads to their unavoidable conflict. When Creon passes the death sentence on Antigone her impending marriage to Haemon is brought into jeopardy. At this point in the story Sophocles speaks of their love.

Antigone and Ismene. Illustration by Emil Teschendorff (1892)

One of the most famous love poems of all time is the song to doomed love sung by the critical Chorus of older citizens reluctant to support disobedience. Haemon’s love for Antigone means he cannot accept her condemnation by his father, but the Chorus describe his love as madness (Sophocles, Antigone, 781ff.). The opening of the chorus, in the Greek Ἔρως ἀνίκατε μάχαν (Eros, invincible in battle), is one of the most famous phrases quoted from Greek literature.

Love, the unconquered in battle, Love, you who descend upon riches, and watch the night through on a girl's soft cheek, you roam over the sea and among the homes of men in the wilds. Neither can any immortal escape you, nor any man whose life lasts for a day. He who has known you is driven to madness. You seize the minds of just men and drag them to injustice, to their ruin. You it is who have incited this conflict of men whose flesh and blood are one. But victory belongs to radiant Desire swelling from the eyes of the sweet-bedded bride. Desire sits enthroned in power beside the mighty laws. For in all this divine Aphrodite plays her irresistible game.

(Transl. Richard Jebb)

Nikiforos Lytras (1832–1904), Antigone in front of the dead Polynices, 1865, oil on canvas. National Gallery of Athens

Although Creon changes his mind, he is too late; Antigone has already hung herself.


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