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Combat trauma and the tragic stage: "restoration" by cultural catharsis.

The effects of combat trauma are well described in the dramatic literature of the Ancient Greeks: the madness of Herakles, the rage of Achilles, the suicide of Ajax, the isolation of Philoctetes, and the trials of Odysseus, to name just a few. Much of the narrative content of Athenian tragedy reflected a preoccupation with the consequences of violence and war. These plays were produced at a time of almost constant conflict in the Greek world where warfare was an ever-present threat. In Athens, where political enfranchisement was dependent on military service, the development of tragedy was closely linked with rapid social changes in political and military culture, responses to external and internal martial threats. Perhaps this is why Athenian tragedy reflects a deep and frequently disturbing anxiety about warfare, combat, and violence.(1)

In this paper, I suggest that Athenian tragedy offered a form of performance-based collective "catharsis" or "cultural therapy" by providing a place where the traumatic experiences faced by the spectators was reflected upon the gaze of the masked characters performing before them.(2) My focus here will be on the notion of nostos or "homecoming" as perceived by combat veterans, their families and the society to which they have returned.

As we possess no critical or anecdotal responses to tragedy from the fifth century, my methodology is to compare the presentation of violence and its effects in tragedy with ancient accounts of soldiers' experiences in combat. While this can reveal a great deal about the social, ethical and political aspects of a play, it cannot reconstruct how the work itself functioned in performance. As performance theorist Peggy Phelan has noted, "Performance's only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance' (Phelan 146). While the original performance can never be recaptured, a "re-performance" even in a different cultural milieu, can still offer important information on how an ancient play may have been received. A theatre performance is an extra-textual event where the spectator experiences the words and actions of a play in the moment, as part of a collective entity: the audience. This is a completely different experience than the more contemplative, and singularly personal relationship of the reader to the text. With this in mind, Philip Auslander has coined the term "liveness" to describe a performance in its original social, political and environmental context. Auslander challenges the supremacy of the play script by describing it as "a blueprint for performance" and does not consider writing to be a form capable of recording the totality of the live event (Auslander 52). Any attempt to examine the impact of tragedy in performance must surely take the concept of "liveness" into account. If ancient Athenian drama did indeed attempt to address the psychological concerns of an audience that included a significant number of combat veterans, then some valuable insights into the reception of the plays in antiquity might be gleaned by observing them in performance to an audience of combat veterans today.

This approach is encapsulated in the basic premise of Aquila Theatre's and the National Endowment for the Humanities' Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives public program, which uses staged readings from epic and tragedy to create a public discourse on the issues surrounding the homecoming of the warrior. These readings, by both actors and veterans, are followed by a "town-hall" style meeting led by a scholar and are presented at performing arts centers, public libraries and other local cultural institutions in 100 sites all over the United States. The live performance is thus contextualized within its original ancient culture and then placed alongside the contemporary experiences of the veterans and their family members in the audience. Of course, in any such comparative study, cultural differences must be taken into consideration; nevertheless, the parallels between ancient play, primary source material and modern responses are frequently striking.

Although a modern combat veteran may not be cognizant of the culture of fifth century Athens, he (and now more frequently, she) often has a visceral understanding of the situations and emotional responses of characters such as Ajax, Philoctetes, Her-aides or Tecmessa. Since October 2001, approximately 1.6 million American men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, contributing to a total of around 25 million living veterans who served in U.S. forces. It is estimated that around 300,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are likely to suffer from some form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and an additional 320,000 may have experienced traumatic brain injuries.(3) The issue of nostos as it pertains to the warrior has a particularly timely and urgent relevance.

The Theatre of Dionysos itself was, in many ways, a locus for the staging of returns. The festival of the City Dionysia, where tragedy was presented, was established to help define the city as a place where the disparate inhabitants of Attica would return at the same time every year to celebrate the annual arrival of Dionysos in spring. This new festival was created in the mid-sixth century and was modeled on the older ribald traditions of the various rural Dionysian public celebrations held throughout the towns and villages of Attica.(4) It soon developed into a mass processional, sacrificial and performative celebration of Athens as the center of Attic cultural life. In effect, the City Dionysia offered Attic citizens a ritual "homecoming" by drawing them to the southeast slope of the Acropolis - the heart of Athenian national identity, described by Aeschylus in the Eumenides (1025-26) as the "eye" (heart) of the entire land of Theseus (Attica).(5) Reinforcing the concept of nostos, the idol of Dionysos was removed from its shrine in the sanctuary prior to the festival, and taken outside the city limits, to be then paraded back inside: in a reenactment of the Dionysian return. According to some sources, the returned statue may have been placed in the theatron (theatrical "viewing place") as a divine spectator.(6)

Many of the tragedies staged at the Theatre of Dionysos explored the concept of nostoi from conflicts and wars, portraying the devastating aftermath and its effects on women, children, households and the community at large. For example: Aeschylus' Persians tells of the homecoming of Darius after his defeat by the Athenian led forces at Salamis (861-862); Suppliants relates the return of the daughters of Danaus, a descendent of Jo, to their ancestral land of Argos threatening a war between Egypt and Greece (15-16); Agamemnon depicts the effects of the Trojan War on Argos and the disastrous nostos of Agamemnon himself (810-854); in Seven Against Thebes, Polynices returns home at the head of an invading army intent on sacking his city and seizing power from his brother (39-68). In the extant plays of Sophocles, Ajax prefers suicide over a dishonorable nostos (Ajax 430-480); the marooned and wounded Philoctetes is desperate to return home, but not if it means going to Troy and aiding Odysseus whom he hates (Phi/octetes 1004-1044); Antigone cannot abide the sight of her unburied brother after the war on Thebes and chooses to bury him, a decision that results in even more death (Antigone 891-928). In the plays of Euripides, Herakles' homecoming should have saved his family, but he goes berserk and murders his wife and children (Herakles 922-1015). Other plays by Euripides, such as Trojan Women and Hecuba, deal directly with the traumatic effects of a long siege, for an audience who were themselves suffering the annual siege of their city by the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War. In Athenian tragedy, homecomings are frequently violent and destructive--tragic nostoi are fraught with the complexities of combat trauma.

The original audience members of these plays knew the effects of violence of warfare intimately. (7) While mass hoplite battles were fairly rare, even more limited skirmishes between smaller numbers of Greek infantry would have been sudden and violent. Hoplite engagements would mean than an enemy combatant would have to be brought down at close quarters with the spear, either under, or, over the shield; or, by hacking at the head, arms and legs with a short sword. Such penetrating or lacerating injuries would have produced a great deal of blood. There is no doubt that hoplite warfare was brutal: at the battle of Plataea in 479 BCE, a Spartan warrior--named Aeimnestos--killed the Persian general Maradonius by crushing his skull with a rock (Plutarch Aristides 19.1, Herodotus, 9.64.2). At the battle of Thermopylae, the Spartans resorted to fighting with their "bare hands and teeth" once their spears and swords had broken (Herodotus 7.225.3). Those who served in the Athenian navy also endured terrifying conditions and brutal combat. Aeschylus creates a shockingly vivid account of a mass sea battle in Persians (249-514), where the messenger tells the Persian court of their defeat at Salamis in 480 BCE:
Then the Greek ships, seizing their chance,
swept in circling and struck and overturned
our hulls,
and saltwater vanished before our eyes--
shipwrecks filled it, and drifting corpses.
Shores and reefs filled up with our dead
and every able ship under Persia's command broke order,
scrambling to escape.
We might have been tuna or netted fish,
for they kept on, spearing and gutting us
with splintered oars and bits of wreckage,
while moaning and screams drowned out the
sea noise till
Night's black face closed it all in.
Losses by thousands!
Aeschylus' Persians 417-432 (Tr. Janet Lembke & C.J.
Herington)


Athens needed its citizen-warriors to aggressively fight to ensure the survival of their community. But what about when these same men returned home and took their place again in Attic society? Plato has Socrates ask this same question in book 2 of the Republic (375 b-e), during a discussion of the correct training of the guardians. Socrates is quite clear on this point: they must be violent towards their enemies but humane at home, or they will destroy their own city. Panhellenic rituals and mythologies seem to have recognized this violence-transformation-restoration motif.(8) If there is indeed a strong connection between these early rituals and myths and later drama, then why did tragedy flourish only in Athens? Perhaps, here too there is a military/political connection that can shed some light on this question and support the theory that tragedy helped serve a specific psychological need in the community at large, one that was bounded together by strong military ties.

In Athens, there were several close connections between ancient combat and the theatre. Marching as a hoplite, fighting in formation and rowing a trireme were all dependent on socially cohesive collective movement skills, as was performing in a chorus. Moreover, it is notable that these movement forms were all led by the aulos, an oboe-like double pipe reed instrument. Aulos players are frequently depicted on vase paintings leading a chorus or a hoplite phalanx. Significantly, the connections between military service and performance were institutionalized by the democratic reforms of Cleisthenes in the late sixth century. These measures were intended to further unify Attica and provide recruitment for the Athenian military. Included among them, was a directive that each of the ten tribes must send one men's chorus and one boy's chorus to sing and dance a dithyramb and compete in the annual City Dionysia.

The theatre space itself was enlarged and improved around the time of the reforms of Cleisthenes, c. 510-500 BCE and again around 430 BCE. This coincided with the Athenian building program which reinforced Athens' position as the de facto head of the Delian League: a military alliance against Persian and, later, Spartan aggression. New archaeological research has shown that the Theatre of Dionysos, at this time, may not have been temporary, as has previously been assumed, but was a permanent structure that accommodated 5-6000 people: (9) one of the largest public structures ever erected in fifth century Athens. (10) The theatre held the same amount of people as the Pnyx, where the assembly met to vote on Athenian policy. We might assume that the same Athenian citizens who attended important meetings of the assembly were the same people who attended the theatre (with the addition of foreign dignitaries). Thus, the place where military policy was decided was closely linked to the venue for tragedy. Tragedies were financed by a liturgy imposed on wealthy citizens as a form of taxation. In return these choregoi could find fame and honor if their production received the highest prize. The other form of liturgy that competed with service as a choregos was to finance, fit out and name a trireme: the oared warship that provided Athens with military security.

In the last quarter of the fifth century a statue of the healing god, Asclepius, was brought from Epidauros to Athens in response to the plague and losses sustained in the Peloponnesian war. The playwright, Sophocles, was entrusted with housing the cult statue of the god, until a sanctuary was completed. This new Athenian Asklepieion, the home for the god of medicine and healing, was located on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis next to the theatre of Dionysos. The connection between healing and the theatre may be far older, and as Robin Mitchell-Boyask points out, "the placement of the Asklepieion immediately above the Theater of Dionysus is not mere coincidence, but rather it arises first from archaic associations between poetry and healing."(11) The healing found at the theatre was not physical but psychological: Athenian society had been traumatized by invasion, plague, military disaster and almost constant war. Perhaps, then, Asclepius' new role was to institutionalize the performative cultural therapy offered by the plays.

What is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or combat trauma was certainly familiar to the ancient Greeks. Lawrence Tritle has drawn close parallels between descriptions of certain warrior behaviors in ancient Greek texts and the kind of symptoms displayed by veterans suffering from the effects of combat trauma. One example is Clearchus from Xenophon's Anabasis: a Spartan veteran seemingly addicted to battle and, according to Tritle (60-70), displaying all the signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. "Xenophon, and before him Homer, recognized that even in surviving battle, survivors carry with them the burden of guilt, and difficulty of living in peace" (78). In Thucydides, we find a vivid and disturbing account of the retreat from Syracuse, where the sight of the Athenian unburied dead causes shudders of grief and horror in their surviving comrades (7.75). Even worse were the sights and sounds of the abandoned wounded. 'Thucydides describes them pleading with the able-bodied to be taken away, how friends and relatives hung on the necks of their tent-mates and tried to follow until their strength failed, and how they shrieked as they were left to die. He noted that dejection and self-condemnation were rife among the survivors. This is an ancient description of what is now termed "survivor guilt" and many of the narrative elements incorporated into ancient texts, particularly tragedy, apply directly to modern clinical descriptions of combat trauma:
  Military personnel are members of professional
  workgroups, similar to police and other first
  responders, trained to respond to multiple traumatic
  events; they do not normally perceive themselves as
  victims, nor their reactions as pathological. The
  paradox of war-related PTSD is that reactions labeled
  "symptoms" upon return
  home can be highly adaptive in combat, fostered
  through rigorous training and experience. For
  example, hyperarousal; hypervigilance; and the
  ability to channel anger, shut down (numb) other
  emotions even in the face of casualties, replay or
  rehearse responses to dangerous scenarios, and
  function on limited sleep are adaptive in war.
  Improving evidence-based treatments, therefore,
  must be paired with education in military cultural
  competency to help clinicians foster rapport and
  continued engagement with professional warriors.
  This includes sensitivity and knowledge in
  attending to difficult topics, such as grief and
  survivor's guilt stemming from loss of team
  members, ethical dilemmas in combat, or situations
  associated with feelings of betrayal.


Charles W. Hoge MD (12)

The Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives program addresses the issues of combat trauma ancient and modern by presenting scenes from three Greek plays (Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Sophocles' Ajax and Euripides' Herakles) and part of Book 23 of Homer's Odyssey. The first short scene performed at these readings is from the parados (choral entrance song) of Aeschylus' Agamemnon: the first play in his Oresteia trilogy. The chorus members enter to learn why the women of Argos are performing celebratory sacrifices and describe the great task force that was gathered to sail to Troy to reclaim Helen ten years earlier. At Ag. 104 these elders of Argos tell of an omen seen at Aulis: two eagles swooped down and devoured a pregnant hare. The interpretation of this sign by a prophet led to the killing of Agamemnon's daughter, Iphigenia, before the fleet sailed to Troy: a human sacrifice to calm a savage storm that was devastating the fleet and preventing them from embarking on their mission.

Within the sacrificial culture of the Ancient Greeks, Agamemnon's observation of the omen of the eagles, the prophet's interpretation of this sign and the ordering of a sacrificial offering prior to embarking upon a war are not particularly remarkable events. (13) Xenophon's Socrates remarks, "and you observe, I suppose, that men engaged in war try to propitiate the gods before taking action; and with sacrifices and omens seek to know what they ought to do and what they ought not to do" (Economics 5.1920). It was quite normal for a commander before embarking on a battle to make sacrifices; but, what of a human sacrifice--especially that of a young girl? Burkert has collected numerous Greek examples of pre-battle maiden sacrifice. These include Athenian sacrifices at the sanctuary of the Hyalcinthides: the daughters of the mythical Athenian founder-king, Erectheus, who willingly sacrificed themselves to save Athens and the theme of a tragedy by Euripides of the same name. (14) In Agamemnon, the prophet Calchas invokes Artemis as goddess of the hunt and calls for a sacrifice, reminding us of the dose link between hunting, sacrifice and warfare. (15) This myth clearly resonated with the Greeks as demonstrated by the Spartan commander Agesilaus who attempted to repeat a sacrifice to Artemis at Aulis before embarking on an expedition into Persian territory in 396 BCE.(16)

The story of Agamemnon's sacrifice of his own daughter predates Aeschylus' Ores-teia. It is found in the post-Homeric epics, Nostoi and Cypria (now lost, apart from fragments, such as the reference to Iphigenia's sacrifice in Proclus, Chestomathia 104. 15-20); Pindar's Pythian 1 1 (17-25); possibly in the Hesiodic Catalog of Women (Fr. 23 (a) M-W); and in the Oresteia by the [6.sup.th] century lyric poet Stesichorus (215 PMFG). Aeschylus' innovation was to introduce a deeper human element to the story by having the chorus members envision Agamemnon alone in his tent as he wrestles with a terrible decision: should he kill his daughter to calm the storm, stop the plague and sail on Troy; or, should he save her life and abandon his command?
"An unbearable fate will fall on me if! Disobey
but how can I bear to slaughter my own daughter,
the glory of my house?
How can I stain my hands, the hands of a father,
with this young girl's blood, as it drenches the altar?
How can I choose? Both ways are full of evil!
Should I desert the fleet and fail my allies?
The sacrifice stops the storm,
the blood of a virgin must be spilled,
rage craves rage,
what must be must be.
Let it be for the best."
Aeschylus Agamemnon 205-218. (17)


An audience with military experience might well have a different response to this moment than the modern civilian audience member. Athenian warriors, whether infantry, rowers or cavalry officers, knew first hand the necessity of strong command. Bad leadership or indecision in the field could lead to disaster, a point underscored by Herodotus. He details how the Athenian hoplite army at Marathon was presided over by ten generals, who each commanded for one day in rotation. Prior to the battle, against the vastly superior invading Persian force, they were split on whether to attack or not. Miltiades, one of the ten, persuaded the Athenian polemarch (war cabinet leader) to vote for the offensive and then waited for his own day of generalship to come to launch his incredibly successful and decisive attack. (18) Herodotus' account shows how a motivated leader used the proto-democratic military command structure to his advantage just as Aeschylus makes it clear that Agamemnon's staff officers in the guise of the Greek chiefs are described as being "too hungry for war" (Ag. 230). Aeschylus' portrayal of Agamemnon is not an account of a king who heartlessly kills his daughter to gain a blessing for a war he is resolved to see through until complete victory; rather, it is a terrifying picture of any soldier who has had to wrestle with his/her competing obligations between home and family and the responsibilities of duty and command.

The story that the winds at Aulis were sent on the Greeks because Agamemnon entered a grove sacred to Artemis and killed one of her stags is notably absent in the Aeschylean version. This account may have been known from the post-Homeric Cypria, and certainly found its way into the narrative of Sophocles' Electra (565), which postdates the Oresteia by perhaps some forty years. (19) Instead, we are confronted with the fact of a terrible storm "bringing hunger and delay to that wretched harbor / driving the men to wander on the edge of insanity" (Ag. 193-194). Agamemnon's force is starving to death and his ships are rotting: "the flower of Greek manhood" is starting "to wither and waste away" (Ag. 198). Then, we hear that Calchas the prophet (not a god it should be stressed, but a mortal interpreter) proclaimed "a remedy to soothe the storm," and judging from the response of Agamemnon and Menelaus, who are "unable to hold back a flood of tears; it is assumed that the prophet introduced the notion of the sacrifice of Iphigenia. But prophets and their prophecies are not infallible evidence of the will of gods in Greek religious culture. (20) Gods do walk the stage in the Oresteia: Athena and Apollo appear as protagonists in Eumenides, so here Aeschylus seems to be setting out a marked distinction between the word (logos) of a god and the opinion (phemis) of a seer. Agamemnon has a choice: he is not acting on the direct command of a divinity. Aeschylus' dramatic innovation is to depict him distraught and alone as he exclaims via the song of the chorus, "How do I choose? Both ways are full of evil!" (Ag. 210).

Martha Nussbaum views Agamemnon's choice as resembling "the plight of Abraham on the mountain: a good and (so far) innocent man must either kill an innocent child out of obedience to a divine command, or incur the heavier guilt of disobedience and impiety." (21) Although Nussbuam acknowledges that the reasons for the wrath of Artemis are not given in the play, she still sees Agamemnon as acting out of a fear of divine retribution, instead of a military leader taking responsibility for the men under his command. Furthermore, Agamemnon's rationale is usually explained as being driven by the impulse to fight the war rather than to save the men under his command. (22) For modern veterans, this scene often takes on another definition: expressing the tension that exists between the responsibilities of military service and the needs of the family left behind when a soldier is deployed to fight in a foreign war. What is quite remarkable is that the immediate result of Agamemnon's decision is described in terms of a complete mental breakdown: "his storm-swept psyche veered on an impious course" (Ag. 220). This is a profound description of the kind of mental detachment from societal norms frequently experienced by those who have faced the trauma of combat.
At that very moment he changed and his altered mind would dare
do anything. Such shameless thoughts make mere men bold,
maddening minds and reducing them to ruin. (23)
Aeschylus Agamemnon 221-24.


In the Ancient Greek/Modern Lives discussions that follow the readings, vivid contemporary parallels have been drawn with ancient mythic ones. One example is a hypothetical scenario used in the course of the program to ask if modern American society might understand Agamemnon's terrible dilemma and even feel a degree of empathy towards him. It is proposed that there is a modern general who has marshaled a great multinational force, in secret, ready to launch a surprise attack against an enemy country (this is somewhat analogous to the events of the Gulf War in 1990-1). It is imagined that the enemy country possesses one hidden missile that has the capability to completely destroy the friendly allied forces. However, the allies are under strict radio and communication silence as they prepare to launch their attack and cannot be located by the enemy. At the allied camp, the general has decided to fly his daughter from her home country to join and stand before the world's media as he announces that the attack is underway. He waits for her as she is being flown in on a military transport plane that is supposed to be flying undetected under the enemy's radar systems. Suddenly, a runner bursts in and tells the general that the enemy has a radar lock on the plane and they have heard enemy radio communications say they are intending to track its descent and launch their one missile on the place where it lands: the allied camp.

Thus, a modern version of Agamemnon's dilemma: our general cannot communicate with the plane and turn it back as this will break radio silence and lead to a devastating enemy attack. So, he only has two choices and must decide on one very quickly: he can allow the aircraft to land, take refuge with his daughter in his command shelter and risk the destruction of his entire forces and those of his allies; or, he can send the runner back with a verbal message for a forward air battery to shoot the plane down, which would kill his daughter. What does he do?

Most audience members at Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives readings have reluctantly agreed that he would destroy the plane to save his army. While we may later question the motives that put his daughter in harm's way in the first place, if he won the war, he would return a hero, and it might even be felt that he made a great "personal sacrifice" on behalf of his nation. Likewise, the chorus members say to Agamemnon on his return home "I thought you must have lost all grip / on your senses, when you dared/that sacrifice, to save your dying men. / But now, from a heart loyal and true I say: / "Well done to all who wrought this joyful end." (802-805). Would the general sentiment of the public sound similar today? And what of our general's wife and the mother of the dead child? Would we understand her killing her "war hero" husband? Is this revenge, or, is she acting to protect herself and her remaining children? This kind of contextual framing can, in turn, lead to a spirited public debate and make a direct connection between what is being articulated by the mythic material of tragedy and the personal experiences of the veterans and their families in the audience. In this way, ancient material can act as a catalyst to frank public discourse on very difficult subjects; that discourse can, in turn, offer a different interpretation of the narrative content of the plays, one from the perspective of an audience of combat veterans.

The second reading is from Sophocles Ajax (201-330) where Tecmessa, the captive spear-bride" of Ajax, describes the events of the previous evening, when Ajax returned to their hut in the Greek camp at Troy. She tells how he was covered in blood and was dragging captured livestock, which he tortured and flayed, believing them to be the Greek commanders who, had the day before, deprived him of the arms of Achilles. Tecmessa's situation resonates with the spouses of combat veterans who have frequently related how their husbands or wives return home with a plethora of psychological problems that are then visited upon the family. Many spouses of Vietnam veterans and returning soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan talk of incessant "patrolling" in the night, fear of crowds and built-up areas, and drug and alcohol abuse to assist with sleeplessness and stress.

Tecmessa's situation in the play is recognized as the predicament of someone whose own home and family have been destroyed, and whose survival is dependent on the very man who carried out the destruction. Her status in Ajax's life is made more secure by the child they have had together, but it is clear that Tecmessa has also been part of the "collateral damage" of war: a victim of forced abduction, rape, imprisonment, slavery and trauma. Combat trauma is not just experienced by warriors but also by the civilians war impacts, both in the war-zone and back at home. Additionally, today's women soldiers frequently face two enemies: the one they have been sent to fight and the belittlement, sexual harassment, assaults and rape they can suffer by their fellow male soldiers. One woman Air Force veteran reported that a male colleague she had always respected told her, during a mock attack, that he would kill her rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy, because he could not endure what might happen to her. Greek tragedy is far from silent on the subject of the effects of warfare on women and non-combatants. This is another important area where an exposure to the ancient material featured in Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives has promoted free and frank public discussion.

In Sophocles' Ajax, a warrior serves with distinction in a foreign war for nearly ten years. He disagrees with many of the reasons for the conflict and feels it is not his fight. Nevertheless, he is bound by his obligation to his culture's prevailing codes of honor and his desire to equal the exploits of his father: a man who had served with valor in the wars of the previous generation. His primary motivation is his pursuit of an honorable reputation and to come home a greater man: hardened by the experience of combat; tested to the full extent of human endurance. Above all, he longs to be respected by his community, as one who served honorably, and embraced by his family as a true heir to his illustrious father. When his commanders refuse to acknowledge his service and marginalize his abilities, he turns his considerable anger--forged on the battlefield and previously directed towards the enemy--on his leaders, resolving to kill them. But this effort is futile and he is ultimately insignificant in the face of the power structure of the military machine he serves. Now he is trapped: he no longer has any reason to fight and has made the comrades he once served alongside his most hated enemies. Nor can he leave to return home in disgrace and face a dishonorable nostos. (24)

Chris Hedges has written eloquently and passionately on what he calls "the seduction of battle and the perversion of war":
  The prospect of war is exciting. Many young men, schooled in
  the notion that war is the ultimate definition of manhood,
  that only in war will they be tested and
  proven, that they can discover their worth as human beings in
  battle, willingly join the great enterprise. The admiration of
  the crowd, the high-blown rhetoric, the chance to achieve the
  glory of the previous generation, the ideal of nobility
  beckons us forward." (Hedges 84)


For Ajax the realities of war mean that there can never be a life of glory and his solution then is to take his own life. The same scenario might be applied to soldiers suffering from the trauma of combat in any conflict ancient or modern. Recent figures from a 2009 study in the Journal of Mental Health Counseling reports that the suicide rate for American males in the US military is more than double the corresponding rates in the civilian population. (25) Furthermore, an analysis of a 2010 report on suicide prevention in the US Army states: "a multitude of interacting factors--such as job and personal stress, psychiatric conditions and brain injuries--are contributing to a continuing epidemic of suicide among returning so1diers." (26) Tritle (74) also points out that there may be many more veterans taking their own lives through car accidents, alcohol abuse, and other means that are not recorded as suicides. As Sophocles' Ajax highlights, the issue of suicide amongst combat veterans may not be a new phenomenon, but a tragic fact for many returning home from war. Suicide in military culture is a great taboo and may account for the general sense that the incidents are under reported. In stark contrast to this code of silence, Ajax places the suicide of a great troubled warrior center stage. But Sophocles does not present Ajax's suicide as an act of self-resignation by a man too ashamed of what he has done to face his father; nor does he craft it as the result of manic desperation and dejection. Ajax does indeed state that he no longer wants to be part of a world where he must equivocate his values (475480), but he also knows that by spilling his own blood he can activate the Furies and does indeed call for a curse against the sons of Atreus that they too "will be killed by their closest" (843). This certainly was fulfilled in the case of Agamemnon, who was killed on his return home by his wife, Clytemnestra.

Ajax's suicide threatens to tear apart the Greek army at Troy. The portrayal of an army's commanders at odds with each other is also a trope that resonates strongly with modern veterans. Many have offered accounts of the insanity of their own commanders' in-fighting and political maneuvering that placed the lives of the soldiers under their command at great risk. What became known as "fragging" (killing a superior officer) in Vietnam is another reality of warfare. The Athenians themselves ordered the execution of their admirals after the successful naval battle of Arginusae for denying men under their command rescue and leaving them to drown (Xenophon, Hellenica, 1.7.35-35).

Like Aeschylus' use of the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Agamemnon. Sophocles did not invent the suicide of Ajax: it was well known from the epic tradition and a frequent motif in Greek vase painting prior to the date of the play. Instead he allows his audience to experience the moment of Ajax's death in the most intimate way: by clearing the performance space of the chorus and all other players and revealing Ajax alone with only the implement of his death, the sword of Hector. (27) This is a remarkable scene in extant Greek tragedy and one that resonates deeply with the veteran community, where the issue of post-combat suicide is as tangible for them as it is for the mythical Tecmessa, Eurysaces and the chorus of Salaminian warriors.

Herakles is the mythological archetype of a warrior figure that is never allowed a successful nostos. He is a therianthropic beserker: a man who transforms his nature from human to animal in order to fight. (28) Herakles is often depicted in his famous lion skin, taken from the Nemean Lion: his first labor, performed in penance after he slaughtered his entire family in an act of savage, insane brutality. The entire myth of HeraIdes is an articulation of this tragic cycle of violence and redemption. It culminates when he is finally released from this torment by his apotheosis to Olympus, after yet another family is destroyed at Trachis. Euripides' Herakles is a superb re-telling of one of these terrible events in the mythic life of this most ambivalent of heroes. Here, Herakles' wife, Megara, their children and his elderly mortal father, are awaiting the homecoming of the hero from his last labor. After a year, they assume he must be dead, especially on learning that he was forced to visit the underworld. With Heraldes gone, they find themselves trapped by the new tyrant of Thebes, Lycus. Megara is the daughter of the deposed king Creon and Lycus wants all trace of her family destroyed. In the nick of time Heraldes arrives and resolves to save his family by hiding inside the house and killing Lycus. This he does; however, as the incredibly powerful messenger speech of this play relates, the killing does not stop with Lycus.

This messenger speech forms one of the most powerful moments of the Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives program. One actor delivers the news that Heraldes went insane and killed his own wife and children, believing them to be the family of his bitterest enemy, Eurytheus: the king who sentenced him to perform the twelve labors. He tells how Heraldes killed Lycus and then ordered a purification of the house. Then, he started to act strangely at the ritual--calling out to non-existent people, pretending to wrestle an unseen opponent, riding an invisible chariot and tearing down imaginary walls. His father recognizes the change that has come over his son and says, "it must be the killing you have done" (Her. 967). Then, Heraldes takes his bow and starts to slaughter his children, until one of them runs towards him and clasps his legs begging to be recognized. But Heraldes cannot see clearly: his eyes have rolled back in his head and his face has become like a Gorgon's, and he brings his famous club crashing down on the head of his child. Megara tries to flee with one of her children, but they are both brought down and killed. Only Heraldes' father is spared by the intervention of Athena, (29) who pins the crazed man under a great boulder and ensures that he passes out.

This vivid and disturbing account of the brutal and savage killing of a family has produced many strong responses from audiences who have watched the scene performed as part of Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives. One woman told how her mother and father had divorced soon after her father returned from Vietnam, only to remarry as soon as both children had left home. Perplexed, she asked her mother what was going on and was told that her mother loved her father, but feared for the children after he returned home, changed by his experiences of war. While Herakles may be an extreme example, the scene described in the messenger speech reflects the realities of audience members who have experienced the rage, confusion, fear of violence and altered mental status of their loved ones returning from war. The death of children is also a bitter reality of war and several combat veterans who served in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan have told harrowing stories of children obliterated by mortar attacks, run over by trucks, blown up by improvised explosive devices meant for American soldiers and shot dead during fire fights.

The program readings culminate in the scene from Book 23 of Homer's Odyssey where Penelope tests her husband's knowledge of their marital bed, which Odysseus had constructed from a great olive tree and had built his house around. Only she, he and one maid knew this secret. When she orders their bed removed, Odysseus finally drops his guard and reacts emotionally and truthfully, retelling how he made this great bed himself. This is the moment of homecoming, where true intimacy is restored between husband and wife and Odysseus' emotional and unplanned outburst reveals his true self. A master sergeant in the Iowa National Guard, who had just returned from a yearlong deployment in Iraq (his fifth overseas posting), watched this scene at Camp Dodge in Johnston, Iowa. He was struck at how much this scene resembled how he and his wife had to reconnect each time he came home, over a simple, intimate "shared experience." (30) At a special performance of this scene at the White House, the actor (also a Vietnam veteran) who read the part of Odysseus, reacted very strongly to this scene. In particular, the metaphor of the shipwreck in Book 23 of the Odyssey:
The more she spoke, the more a deep desire for tears
welled up inside his breast--he wept as he held the wife
he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last.
Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel
when they catch sight of land- Poseidon has struck
their well-rigged ship on the open sea with gale winds
and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming,
struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shore,
their bodies crusted with salt but buoyed up with joy
as they plant their feet on solid ground again, spared deadly fate.
So joyous now to her
the sight of her husband, vivid in her gaze,
that her white arms, embracing his neck
would never for a moment let him go ...
Homer Odyssey 23. 235-246. Tr. R. Fagles


Veterans, present at this, and other events, told how they had returned home from Vietnam in disguise, discarding their uniforms and believing that, after having killed so many people, "no one could ever love me and I could never be loved again." For these vets, their partners, wives and lovers had been the only hope of any kind of human connection, and they spoke of how it felt like being pulled from a sea in which they were drowning. Though these lines refer to Penelope, for these men, an ancient Homeric simile seemed remarkably true.

A great many people have been deeply affected by the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and many are still dealing with the repercussions of Vietnam, Korea, and even World War II. Additionally, as the front lines of combat blur, we see more and more female soldiers experiencing traumatic events and different manifestations of PTSD. While the specific challenges the veteran faces are constantly changing, there is continuity between ancient and modern warriors and their experiences of the psychological and emotional effects of combat.

Ancient Greeks/Modern Lives attempts to build bridges across different groups, to learn from the experiences of the veteran community and to create public discourse and go some small way to remedy what Tritle calls the "Illiteracy of war" in American culture.3' Though it does not purport to offer therapy, it may be therapeutic. Perhaps, this provides some insight into whether Greek tragedy functioned in a similar fashion for its original audience and offered a dramatic mirror to the realities of war facing the spectators seated in the theatron at the Sanctuary of Dionysos in Athens. This use of mythic material, which has been refashioned to speak to the needs of a given community, has been explored by Slavatore Settis (110) who, in seeking to define the place of dassics in the modern world, described its impact beautifully as:
  An effective key for accessing the multiplicity of cultures
  in the modern world and for the help it can give us in
  understanding the way in which these cultures are penetrating
  each other. The 'classical' can be the stimulus for a resolute
  comparison not only between ancients and moderns, but also
  between 'our' cultures and 'other' cultures.


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Connor, W.R. "City Dionysia and Athenian Democracy" in Aspects of Athenian democracy. Ed. W.R. Connor, M. H. Hansen, and K. A. Raaflaub. Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 1990.

Csapo, E. "The Men Who Built the Theaters: Theatropolai, Theatronai, and Arkhitektones" in The Greek theatre and festivals: documentary studies. Ed. P. Wilson. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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Hedges, C. War is a Force That Gives us Meaning. New York: Random House, 2002.

Hoge, C.W. "Interventions for War-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: Meeting Veterans Where They Are" in Journal of the American Medical Association, 2011, 306 (5) 549-551.

Kuehn, B. M. "Military Probes Epidemic of Suicide: Mental Health Issues Remain Prevalent", Journal of the American Medical Association 304.13, 2010, 1427-1430.

Martin, J., Ghahramanlou-Holloway, M., Lou, K. and Tucciarone, R "A Comparative Review of us Military and Civilian Suicide Behavior," Journal of Mental Health Counseling 31.2, April 2009, 101.

Meineck, R "The Embodied Space: Performance and Visual Cognition at the Fifth Century Athenian Theatre" in The New England Classical Journal, 39.1, Feb 2012, 3-46.

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Mitchell-Boyask, R. Plague and the Athenian Imagination: Drama, History and the Cult of Asclepius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Moretti, J. C. "The Theater of the Sanctuary of Dionysus Eleuthereus in Late Fifth-Century Athens", Illinois Classical Studies, vol. 24-25, 2000, 377-398.

Nussbaum, M. C. The Fragility of Goodness: Luck and Ethics in Greek Tragedy and Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Papastamativon Moock, C. "The Wooden Theatre of Dionysos Eleuthereus in Athens: Old Issue, New Research" in The Architecture of the Ancient Greek Theater, International Conference, 27-30 January 2012 at R. Frederiksen - E. Gebhard - A. Sokolicek (eds.), The Danish Institute at Athens (forthcoming).

Parker, R. Polytheism and society at Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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Pickard-Cambridge, A. The dramatic festivals of Athens, 2nd edn. Oxford: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1968.

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Rhodes, P.J. "Nothing to Do with Democracy: Athenian Drama and the Polls", The Journal of Hellenic Studies, vol. 123, 2003, 104-119.

Roselli, D. K. Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011.

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Notes

(1.) A brief survey of the surviving plays is telling. Aeschylus: Persians: destruction of Persian forces; Seven Against Thebes: attack on Thebes; Suppliant Women: killing of husbands; Oresteia: familial murders; Prometheus Bound: violent punishment. Sophocles: Trachiniai: suicide and self immoliation; Antigone: suicides; Ajax: suicide; Oedipus Tyrannos: suicide and self mutilation; Electra: familial murder; Philoctetes: combat injury, Oedipus at Colonus: forced abduction and future familial death. Euripides: Alcestis: potential suicide; Medea: familial murders; Herakleidai: suicide and capital punishment, Hippolytus: suicide and divine killing; Andromache: potential suicide, capital punishment and murder; Hecuba: murder and mutilation; Suppliant Women: warfare, burial of war dead; Electra: familial killing; Herakles: familial and political murder; Trojan Women: Murder and post war devastation; Ion: potential murder; lphigenia in Tauris: potential familial murder; Helen: post war events, potential familial murder; Phoinissai: combat deaths, and suicide; Orestes: familial murder; Bacchae: familial murder; Iphegenia at Aulis: familial murder/suicide; Rhesus: combat death.

(2.) Here, I am influenced by the work of Jonathan Shay who views Athenian theatre as a means of helping to reintegrate the combat veteran back into their civic roles. Shay (2002) 152153.

(3.) Veterans of Modern Warfare and Vietnam Veterans of America, Veterans Fact Sheet, January 2012.

(4.) On the date of the founding of the City Dionysia see Meineck (2012) 20-25.

(5.) See Sommerstcin (2009) 480-481 n195.

(6.) See Aristophanes, Frogs 16-18, Slater (2002) 184-185, Pickard-Cambridge (1968) 60, and Wiles (1997), 19.

(7.) There remains debate as to the composition and size of the audience in the fifth century. Recent estimates of the size of the wooden theatron suggests no more than 5-6000 and we must assume that a good number (perhaps 500-1000) were foreign visitors. See Csapo (2007) 97-98, and Meineck (2012) 4-5. The evidence for women in the theatre is inconclusive but recently Roselli (2011) 195-201 has suggested that the area of the Acropolis slope behind the theatron may have been place where women, slaves and those who could not afford or get a ticket assembled. This theory remains problematic as the most recent archaeological surveys suggest that there may have been dwellings located in this area, Goette (2007) 98-99. Of course, there can be no singular audience that thinks with one collective mind. Any large assembled body will reflect a multiplicity of socio-political views and differing experiences. However, a community as a whole does experience events that affect everyone, even though their individual reactions might vary. One modern example, is the experiences of New Yorkers on 9/11. While there are many different reactions to what happened, all might agree that they had experienced a traumatic event that continues to powerfully resonate ten years on. For the Athenians in the fifth century we might consider the evacuation and destruction of the city, plague, siege, military disasters, political upheaval and class conflict.

(8.) See Speidel (2002) 253-90.

(9.) Pickard-Cambridge (1968) 141. See also Moretti (2000) 395 and Csapo (2007) 97.

(10.) On the temporary theatron see Csapo (2007) 87-115. However, the latest archaeological findings from the site have found imprints of the wooden postholes in the soil, which would indicate that the wooden theatron was a permanent structure. Despite undergoing renovations around the 430's, which included the addition of stone seating for the front rows and a possible enlargement of the theatron, the theatre remained a predominantly wooden structure until the mid to late fourth century. Papastamati-von Moock (forthcoming).

(11.) Michell-Boyask (2008) 105-121.

(12.) Hoge (2011) 549-551.

(13.) Walter Burkert traced this sacrificial trope in Greek tragedy back to Paleolithic cultures and advanced the theory that humans devised rituals of slaughter to help negate their biological responses to killing. See Burkert (1983) 22-29. If then, one of the earliest forms of communal mimesis was the performance of rites that codified and clarified the act of killing for the hunter and placed the consequences of violence in a religious and societal context, might tragedy have done the same for the warriors of Athens? And does this help explain how ancient drama can still provoke such intense emotional responses from American veterans today? See Meineck (2009) 173-191. For a survey of the classical scholarship on the theme of sacrifice in Greek Drama see Roselli (2007) 81-90.

(14.) See Burkert (1983) 65 note 30 and 66-67. Euripides Erecththeus in Collard, Cropp and Lee (1995).

(15.) On the imagery of hunting and sacrifice in the Oresteia see Vernant and Vidal-Naquet (1998) 141-160.

(16.) Xenophon Hellenica 3.4.3-4.

(17.) Translations are by the author unless otherwise noted.

(18.) Herodotus 6.109-112. It is notable that the attack is not launched until the sacrifices have been completed.

(19.) See Finglass (2007) 269 on line 569. There is a daughter of Agamemnon named Iphimede named in the Hesiodic Catalog of Women (23a M-W), who is offered up for sacrifice to Artemis and transformed at the last moment into a divinity

(20.) The famous example detailed by Herodotus (1.53) is the oracle given to the Lydian King Croesus who was seeking divine guidance on whether he should invade Persia. The answer was "if he should send an army against the Persians he would destroy a great empire". Of course, the empire he subsequently destroyed was his own and Croesus suffered defeat at the hands of the Persians.

(21.) Nussbaum (1986) 35.

(22.) Rabinowitz (1993) 39.

(23.) A similar sentiment is found in Erich Maria Remarque's novel All Quiet on the Western Front, "we run on, overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God only knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life." Tr. A. W. Wheen.

(24.) Now see Paul Woodruff's excellent new book The Ajax Dilemma (2011), which articulates the ancient situation Ajax finds himself in from a variety of parallel modern perspectives.

(25.) Martin et al. (2009) 101.

(26.) Kuehn (2010) 1427-1430. Bryan et al. (2010) 1044-1056.

(27.) See Meineck (2006).

(28.) The term "berserk state" is used by Jonathan Shay (1994) 77-102 to describe "a special state of mind body and social disconnection" in moments of frenzy in combat. The word "berserk" is from Old Norse and refers to warriors who went into battle in a trance-like state wearing nothing but animal skins.

(29.) Amphitryon's had asked Lycus to kill him before the children are slain (Her 321-326). Athena denied him this wish and he is forced to witness and survive the carnage.

(30.) Creating Dialogue Between Greek Drama and Veterans, Iowa Public Radio, 1m November 2011.

(31.) Interview for Ancient Greeks / Modern Lives Feb 2012.

Peter Meineck

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