|The Hellenes it
has been suggested by Edith Hall defined themselves as opposite that
of the barbarians in their writings in particular Greek Tragedy.
To begin to look at this
statement and to determine what makes "Greekness", one
must examine it's beginnings. As early as Mycenaean Greece, Homer
tell us, the early Greek tribes came together. In the epic poem, The
Odyssey, the Greek kings and warriors combined resources to help
Menelaus rescue his wife who had been carried off to Troy by a
barbarian. Through the years of the Trojan war, the Greeks were
armed with determination and a single-minded vow to right a wrong
done to one of their own. They struggled and prevailed in their
quest to retrieve Helen and to annihilate the Trojans.
After the collapse of
Mycenaean society, even through the Dark age and into the Archaic
period with the help the oral tradition of poets like Homer the seed
of Greekness survived. During the Archaic period a new order
emerged, the polis. Although each polis evolved independently, they
shared certain similarities, such as religion, some form of
government and community. The importance of the sense of community
was the strength of the polis. It was the responsibility of every
citizen to promote the success of the state. With this strong
commitment to the state, this unity could be translated into pride
in being a Greek. While at the same time fostering a sense distrust
against any non-Greek whether friend or foe.
Greek writers of the period
continued to promote the idea that the barbarians were the opposite
of the Greeks.
For instance, Herodotus, in
his depiction of the Egyptians, was quick to point out that "
not only is the climate different from that of the rest of the
world, and the river unlike any other river, but the people also, in
most manners and customs, exactly reverse the common practice of mankind."(p.68,sec.35)
In this passage, then Herodotus implies not only the Egyptians were
barbaric but maybe something less than human. This kind of
description only reaffirms the Greek sense of superiority about
themselves and their belief that their manners and customs were the
only acceptable ones.
The distrust of those that
were not Greek did however prove to have merit with the arrival of
the Persians into the Mediterranean around 546 B.C.. For the next 50
years the Persians would try to dominate Greek territories. Under
the leadership of Darius, The Persian Empire established strong
footholds near Greece especially in the Greek colonies of Asia
Minor. The threat of this common enemy that was attempting to
conquer the Greek mainland caused the separate city-states to join
military forces to bring an end to the Persian tyranny. At the
Battle of Marathon the unified Greek forces finally were able to
defeat the Persians. However this did not end the conflict, the
Persians wanted revenge for the defeat at Marathon.
But Darius died leaving the
task to his son, Xerxes. One of his major victories was the sack of
Athens around 480 B.C. The sacking of Athens even further united the
Greeks mobilizing their hostility toward Persia and this Barbarian
threat. Through their skills, trickery, and cunning, the Greeks were
In Herodotus' accounts of
the Persian Wars, he repeatedly refers to the forces of the enemy as
barbarians, while, on the other hand, praising the Greeks for their
bravery and their united efforts.
During the 6th and 5th
century B.C., Greek tragedy and the theater were beginning to take
shape. Performances at the theater were important civic events and
this have been said to effectively define the Greek citizen.
Aeschylus in his play The
Persians, portrays the Persians as godless and irreverent. The
Greek manner of moderation, dedication to the gods and to the state
are quite the opposite of that of Xerxes. In his quest to achieve
power greater than that of his father, Xerxes through his actions
proves to be a model not to be followed. The ghost of Darius says of
his son, "The spring Of evil's found: my son in ignorance
Discovered it, by youthful pride; who hoped to check the sacred
waters of the Hellespont By chains, just as if it were a slave. He
smoothed His way, yoking Neptune's flowing Bosphorus With hammered
shackles. Mortal though he was, by folly thought to conquer the all
the gods and Neptune."(lines 744-750) In this statement Darius
was stating that in his son's ignorance he was challenging the gods
and that his boastful attitude had been his ruin.
Xerxes felt that he was not
bound by mortal actions and this barbaric attitude would be his
downfall. "For his pride and godless arrogance , they invading
Greece, felt no awe, they did not hesitate to plunder images of
gods, and put temples to the torch."(lines 807-810) This quote
emphasizes the prideful arrogance of Xerxes and the utter disregard
for the Immortals.
The Greeks above all things
would never be so boastful against the gods. It was their belief
that good as well as bad came from them. It would not be wise to
knowingly disrespect them. Darius further foretells that Xerxes'
behavior will be the ruin of the Persians. Darius warns," Zeus
is the chastener of overboastful minds, a grievous corrector.
Therefore advise him, admonished by reason, to be wise, and cease
his overboastful temper from sinning against the gods." (lines
828-832) By testing the gods, Xerxes in the end was witness to the
slaughter of his troops. He was reduced to a shadow of his former
self. The ghost of Darius tells the Queen,"to meet your son;
for he, in grief, has rent his embroidered robes to sheds.."
(lines 835-836) At his total defeat he is lamenting, whining and
vulnerable,--a fallen man. No self respecting Greek man would act
this way. With this he demonstrates the difference between the
barbarian and the ideal Greek. Xerxes sums it up himself in the
following lines, " Oh , hateful doom, Woe is me, Wretch alas,
without augury. How savagely swooped the deity. .......Here am I,
alas, O woe: To my native and ancestral land Woe is the evil I've
become." (lines 90-911/930-933) The audience is compelled to
feel pity and maybe even disgust toward Xerxes. Had he been a Greek
the honorable thing for him to do would be to fall on his own sword
much like Ajax.
Aeschylus shows the
Persians to his Greek audience as men who are godless, boastful, and
weak. Aeschylus exhibits the negative character traits, to remind
the audience of what they should avoid. An ideal Greek is one who is
respectful to all the gods, is moderate in all things, and he must
seek strength only for the good of his community. And above all else
he should never put himself before these principles.
In a later work by the
playwright Euripides, The Medea, the barbarian question is
also examined. In this tragedy the barbarian definition is coupled
with the issue of gender.
In Greek society in the 5th
century B.C. women and the non-Greek were persons without any
political rights. "Women were citizens for the purpose of
marriage and procreation......but otherwise they lacked all
independent status,'(Murray GWH 206), and the non-Greek did not even
have that advantage. In the play The Medea, Medea fell into
both categories leaving her doubly vulnerable. As a woman living in
Greece she could have never been acceptable even if she was
Greek-born. Her very personality was her undoing: she was vocal,
resourceful, passionate and also a practicing witch. This was not
the acceptable demeanor for a classical Grecian woman. Stay home,
weave, rear the children and obey the master of the household were
the tenants of womanhood.
Jason being a Greek knew
the importance of being acceptable. He took a new bride to attain
this. Jason was looking out for himself. Being Greek he needed a
Greek wife and children. And what better way to get it than to marry
the daughter of the king. Since women had no rights--what would be
Medea's recourse, a foreigner in a strange land? Well she used her
foreign-born talents to seek her retribution for the wrongs done to
her. She was a victim of love, she loved Jason unconditionally, and
when he chose another she could not bear his betrayal. This pushed
her to insanity. She crossed that thin line between love and hate.
Her methods were a bit extreme but it certainly got her point
across. One can sympathize with Medea: she was put in a no-win
situation, trapped by love and by the society to which her husband
had brought her. She says in her own words," We women are the
most unfortunate creatures. Firstly, with an excess of wealth it is
required for us to buy a husband and take for our bodies a master;
for not to take one is even worse. and now the question is serious
whether we take a god or bad one, for there is no easy escape for a
woman, nor can she say no to her marriage. She arrives among new
modes of behavior and manners. And needs prophetic power, unless she
has learned at home, How best to manage him who shares the bed with
her. And if we work out all this well and carefully, and the husband
lives with us and lightly bears his yoke, The life is enviable. If
not; I'd rather die."(line 231-243) In this speech, Medea
vocalizes what it was like to be a woman in the 5th
century B.C., there was no real alternative. Man was the master, a
woman had no free will over her life or her body.
With the desertion of her
husband for another, Medea was alone and desperate. Desperate people
do desperate things; her voice echoes that sentiment," I have
no mother or brother, nor any relation with whom I can take refuge
in this sea of woe."(line 256-258) In this statement, Medea,
verbalizes her despair; she is alone and her madness has consumed
The Greek audience that
would have been viewing this play would have been less than
sympathetic to the barbarian Medea. Since this barbarian is a threat
to polite Grecian society. Jason sums it up in these words, "
Firstly instead of living among barbarians, You inhabit a Greek land
and understand our ways. How to live by law instead of the sweet
will of force. And all the Greeks considered you a clever
woman."(lines 535-539) In this excerpt, Jason enlightens Medea
as to how much better off she is in Greece than in some barbaric
land. And he further implies that she is not trusted because she is
a clever woman.
Euripides although being
somewhat sympathetic to Medea uses her character to teach Greek men
to be wary of women in general. The character of Medea represents
the double evil of a barbarian and an uncontrollable woman. She is
used as caution to the Greek male that he must keep his self true to
the Greek ways and to have Greek wife that is schooled in the proper
place for a Greek wife.
Throughout the history of
ancient Greece the writers of the times wrote what they imaged the
barbarian to be. The 5th century B.C. was not much
different that any period in early Greek history. But with the City
of Dionysus festival and the advent of theater, it presented a new
vehicle to deliver an old message: Be wary the barbarian and to
trust only in what you know. Know what it is to be Greek and remain
true to all it's tenants, respect her gods, be moderate in
all things, and strive for the strength of the community. To suggest
that only Greek Tragedy defined barbarians as opposite of the ideal
Greek would not be totally correct since the subject matter was used
throughout early literature. But it can be said that use of tragedy
certainly was means to reach a larger portion of the male Greek
citizenry. During the City of Dionysus festival, religion and
community came together and in many ways the theater helped to
re-empathize what it meant to be an ideal Greek.