Our next location is a mere 100 steps from where I’m writing these essays. I pass it every day on my way to and from the library. It is the Monument of Lysicrates, built around 334 B.C.E., just about the time Aristotle returned to Athens to found his Lyceum. I always pause there, take in the view and watch the many seemingly well-fed and contented cats scattered around the place. If you let your eyes drift up from the monument, your vision is seized by the vast sacred rock of the Acropolis. It is skin-pinchingly sublime.
Indeed, New Yorkers might experience a feeling of déjà vu or double vision with this monument because you can find not one, but two copies of it atop the San Remo apartment building on Central Park West, just north of the Dakota, where John Lennon lived and died. The monument was also widely copied elsewhere.
The original Monument of Lysicrates is composed of a 9.5-foot-square limestone foundation topped with a 13-foot-high cylindrical edifice. There are six Corinthian columns, thought to be the earliest surviving examples of that style, made from marble from Mount Pentelicus, about 15 miles northeast of Athens. These support a sculpture divided into three bands that carry an inscription commemorating Lysicrates — a wealthy patron of the arts of whom little else is known — and a frieze depicting the adventures of the god Dionysus and some pirates whom he transformed into dolphins. The god sits caressing a panther as some satyrs serve him wine, while others, with torches and clubs, drive the pirates into the sea.
Above is a shallow dome which is the base for three rather mutilated scrolls in the shape of acanthus leaves that stand about three feet high. This was designed to hold a large bronze trophy or “tripod,” which has long since disappeared. To my eyes, what remains resembles a rather lovely, large broken flower vase.
What does this all mean? And why is it important?
The monument is a trophy to commemorate Lysicrates’ triumph in the dramatic contest, or agon, of the world’s first theater festival: The City or Great Dionysia, first established in Athens deep in the sixth century B.C.E. As with theater and opera today, there was patronage of the arts in classical Athens. To be asked to perform a tragedy was, in ancient Greek, to be granted a chorus. Tragedians were sponsored by a choregos, a chorus bringer, a wealthy or important Athenian citizen, who would recruit choristers and pay for everything: This was Lysicrates.
We do not know how tragic poets and choregoi were matched. But the oldest piece of theater that we possess, “The Persians” by Aeschylus from 472 B.C.E., was sponsored by the young Pericles, the great champion of Athenian democracy. When a tragic tetralogy won (that’s three plays, plus a satyr play, where the preceding dramas would be openly ridiculed), then the sponsor and not the playwright was declared the victor and a memorial or trophy was erected to display the bronze tripod of the winning choregos. These were displayed in theHodos Tripodon, or Street of the Tripods.
The street still bears this name. It would once have been littered with tripods, but all except for that of Lysicrates have now disappeared. The City Dionysia began with a procession along this street, with all the citizens, foreigners, visiting dignitaries and choregoi dressed in their finery. At the front of the procession, a wooden effigy of Dionysus was carried aloft. The Dionysus that was honored at the festival was the local patron god of Eleutherae, a village on the border between Attica and the neighboring region of Boeotia. But the place name also recalls the Greek word for freedom, eleutheria, and the link between the theater festival and experience of liberation would have been hard to miss.
So, let’s liberate our minds for a moment and imagine that you and I could take a walk right now together along the Street of the Tripods. We could follow the road as it extends eastward from the agora of the ancient city and then bends around the southeast corner of the Acropolis. We might pass clusters of slow-moving tourists and groups of schoolchildren, past the bars and tavernas vying for custom on a slow winter’s afternoon, past Lulu’s Bakery and Deli, and perhaps stopping — in honor of Dionysus, god of the vine and intoxication — for a glass of overpriced and rather routine red wine from Diogenes Patisserie (the locals call the monument the Lamp of Diogenes, alluding to the light that the first of the Cynics was reputed to carry in order to try to find an honest man in Athens).
Then we could set down our glasses, leave the patisserie, and make a sharp right and ascend the steep steps of the narrow Hodos Epimenidou, named after Epimenides, source of the famous liar paradox. We might see a pair of young lovers lost in an embrace, and two old gentlemen distractedly gambling with scratch cards. But then, at the top of the steps, we would find ourselves directly facing the sweeping south slope of the Acropolis. Spreading out before us is the Theater of Dionysus.
It was here, and nowhere else, that theater began almost three millenniums ago. I find this thought a continuous source of astonishment. It was here that possibly around 14,000 people sat in late March or early April each year and watched plays all day, including the 31 tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides that survive.
It is tempting to lose oneself, like the young Nietzsche, in Dionysian revelry. And it is always nice to take a walk. But it is also crucially important to remember that the City Dionysia was one of the key institutions in that astonishing Athenian political invention that Nietzsche detested: democracy. The first reference to democratic assembly voting procedure occurs in Aeschylus’ early tragedy “The Suppliant Maidens,” from 470 B.C.E.
But ancient tragedy is not just a celebration or vindication of democracy or Athenian glory (although Athens does come off quite well in some of the plays). Rather, theater is the place where the tensions, conflicts and ambiguities of democratic life are played out in front of the people. It is the place where those excluded from Athenian democracy are presented on stage: foreigners, women and slaves. Theater is the night kitchen of democracy.
Let’s return to our monument. In June 2016, the Greek press reported that the Monument of Lysicrates had been daubed with graffiti by “anarchists.” The green spray-painted uppercase lettering read, “Your Greek monuments are concentration camps for immigrants.” A little extreme, perhaps, but I was intrigued. Although the offending words were quickly removed, when I looked closely in clear sunlight last weekend, the words were still partly legible.
Rather than simply be outraged, I suggest we think about these words. If ancient monuments simply serve some ideology of Hellenism that is then identified with the defense of the Greek state against immigrants, or Fortress Europe against the infidel hordes, then I think we are misunderstanding something very significant about ancient Athens in general and tragedy in particular.
Consider the Aeschylus play I mentioned above, “The Suppliant Maidens.” The plot is very simple: A group of some 50 women from Egypt seek refuge in Argos in Greece to avoid being forced into marriage to an equal number of young Egyptian men. The women, called the Danaids, claim refuge on the basis of their ethnicity, their bloodline, which they insist is Greek.
Their father, Danaus, says to King Theseus, “Everyone is quick to blame the alien/Who bears the brunt of every evil tongue.” But Theseus insists that even if the maidens can prove their Greek ancestry, this is entirely irrelevant to whether they can be admitted into the city, which is something that has to be debated and decided in a democratic vote. In this play, ethnic claims to blood legitimacy are subordinated to democratic procedure and the due process of law.
Questions of refuge, asylum seeking, immigration, sexual violence and the duties of hospitality to the foreigner reverberate across so many of the tragedies. Theater is that political mechanism through which questions of democratic inclusion are ferociously negotiated and where the world of myth collides with law. Think of “Antigone,” a play about rival claims to the meaning of law, or nomos. Or the Oresteia trilogy, whose theme is the nature of justice and which even ends up in a law court on the Areopagus, the Hill of Ares just next to the Acropolis. Tragedy does not present us with a theory of justice or law, but with a dramatic experience of justice as conflict and law as contest.
To be sure, classical Athens was a patriarchal, imperialist society based on slaveholding. Yet the figures who are silenced in the public realm are represented in the fictions of the theater, as if the democracy that was denied to those figures publicly is somehow extended to them theatrically. As the classicist Edith Hall rightly writes, tragedy is polyphonic: It both legitimizes the chauvinism of Athenian power and glory at the same time as giving voice to that which undermines it.
If we fail to understand the polyphony of antiquity, then we also might be tempted to pick up a can of spray paint and begin daubing monuments with graffiti.