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The social function of Attic tragedy1

  • Jasper Griffin (a1)
  • DOI:
  • Published online: 01 February 2009

The time is long gone when literary men were happy to treat literature, and tragic poetry in particular, as something which exists serenely outside time, high up in the empyrean of unchanging validity and absolute values. Nowadays it is conventional, and seems natural, to insist that literature is produced within a particular society and a particular social setting: even its most gorgeous blooms have their roots in the soil of history. Its understanding requires us to understand the society which appreciated it, and for which it came into existence. In the particular case of the tragic poetry of Athens, the most influential body of recent criticism focuses on the relation of the drama to the realities of political and social life.

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D. Bain , JHS 113(1993), 187.

C. Sourvinou-Inwood , ‘Assumptions and the creation of meaning: reading SophoclesAntigone', JHS 109 (1989), 134148

S. C. Humphreys in JHS91(1971), 191193; B. Heiden in Trag.Com.Pol,165, n. 40.

S. J. Harrison , JHS 109 (1989), 173175. His argument is that w. 1418–22, spoken from the machina by Heracles, which promise Philoctetes a glorious existence like his own after all his sufferings, ’subtly suggest‘ posthumous cult. If so, this cult must be one to which Appian once alludes, ’on an island near Lemnos‘; this island must be Chryse, a few miles from Lemnos; Lemnos itself had been acquired for Athens by Miltiades and was an Athenian possession. Thus ’there is at least some possibility that this cult of Philoctetes on Chryse existed in the fifth century B.C. and was known to Sophocles and his audience’ (p. 175). The argument is subtle, but several steps in it are speculative, and the supposed allusion is fleeting and elusive; to make it a central plank in the interpretation of the play must be very bold. And even if it is accepted, the awkward fact remains that Sophocles has placed such allusion as there is to cult entirely on the recipient. There is no mention of the worshippers or of ‘collectivity’.

J. Griffin , ‘The Epic Cycle and the uniqueness of Homer’, JHS 97 (1977), 3953.

John Gould , ‘Hiketeia’, JHS 93 (1973), 74103.

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The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
  • URL: /core/journals/classical-quarterly
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