Voices for liberty in the ancient world

The first yearnings to be free were expressed in Greek epics, tragedies and comedies

The earliest recorded voices for liberty were in ancient Greece.

It didn’t seem like a place where important things were likely to happen because as historian Herodotus (c.484-c.430 B.C.) remarked, “Greece and Poverty have always been bedfellows.” Greece is rocky and without rain for long periods, often unable to provide more than grazing for goats. But the people had an independent spirit.

The great Greek scholar Gilbert Murray reflected, “In Greece alone men’s consciences were troubled by slavery, and right down through the centuries of decadence, when the industrial slave-system ruled everywhere, her philosophers never entirely ceased protesting against what must have seemed an accepted and inevitable wrong.” Murray added, “The Greeks were not characteristically subjectors of women. They are the first nation that realized and protested against the subjection of women.”

To be sure, we don’t know much about ancient Greek authors because so much has been lost over the centuries. “Between us and them,” Murray explained, “there has passed age upon age of men...who sought in the books that they read other things than truth and imaginative beauty, or who did not care to read books at all. Of the literature produced by the Greeks in the fifth century B.C., we possess about a twentieth part; of that produced in the seventh, sixth, fourth and third, not nearly so large a proportion. All that has reached us has passed a severe test and far from discriminating ordeal. It has secured its life by never going out of fashion for long at a time.”

Fortunately, surviving Greek literature does include some wonderful voices for liberty. A fear of slavery and passion for liberty were expressed in the 6th book of Homer’s Iliad about 750 B.C. Hector was about to go to war, and his wife Andromache expressed terror that he would be killed. Hector replied:

“That is nothing, nothing beside your agony
when some brazen Argive hales you off in tears,
wrenching away your day of light and freedom!
Then far off in the land of Argos you must live,
Laboring at a loom, at another woman’s beck and call.”

Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, written around 400 B.C., reported the text of a funeral oration by Pericles, leader of Athens. Pericles referred to personal freedom in Athens, at least for those who weren’t slaves. Pericles said, “Not only in our public life are we liberal, but also as regards our freedom from suspicion of one another in the pursuits of everyday life; for we do not feel resentment at our neighbor if he does what he likes.”

Aeschylus (c. 525-455 B.C.) was the pioneering playwright of tragedies. Aeschylus was believed to have been born around in Eleusis, a city near Athens. He was a soldier who fought against the Persians at Marathon (490 B.C.) and Salamis (480 B.C.). At the time, the Persians controlled the biggest empire in Central Asia, and so these were great victories for the Greeks, and their confidence was expressed in their plays.

Until Aeschylus came along, plays involved a single actor who portrayed various characters (using masks), and chorus danced. Aeschylus introduced a second actor and dialogue, and he made the chorus part of the dramatic action. As was customary, Aeschylus performed in his own plays. Of the more than 90 plays he is believed to have written, only seven survive.

Like other Greek playwrights, Aeschylus didn’t write about contemporary situations. Rather, he drew on mythology, portraying struggles among gods and ancient Greek heroes. Perhaps this was a politically safer way to offer commentary. Shakespeare and the great German playwright Friedrich Schiller did the same thing, making their plays about other people and different eras than their own.

Prometheus Bound, believed to date from Aeschylus’ later years, is the work of greatest interest from the standpoint of liberty. It isn’t much of a play, in terms of the story, but it does express quite a protest against tyranny. Because Prometheus gave human beings the gift of fire, defying the will of Zeus, he had Prometheus chained to a remote mountain. Prometheus was helpless before Zeus, yet he boldly predicted that Zeus was doomed: “in his crashing fall shall Zeus discover how different are rule and slavery.”

Scholar David Grene wrote, “Prometheus is, politically, the symbol of the rebel against the tyrant who has overthrown the traditional role of Justice and Law. He is the symbol of Knowledge against Force. He is symbolically the champion of man, raising him through the gift of intelligence, against the would-be destroyer of man.”

Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) was the most successful Greek playwright. A younger contemporary of Aeschylus, he was born in Colonus, a village near Athens, the son of a factory owner, who by some accounts made armour. Apparently, he was able, well-educated and well-liked, and he became an associate of the great Greek political leader Pericles. In 468, he emerged as a name to reckon with when one of his tragedies won top prizes at the Dionysia, the most famous Greek drama festival, celebrating the god of the countryside. At each festival, three dramatists were selected to do their plays, and judges awarded first, second and third prizes. The ruins of the theatre building suggest audiences as large as 15,000 people. Altogether, Sophocles wrote 123 plays and won first prizes at 18 Dionysia festivals, more than Aeschylus (12) or Euripides (4). Initially, Sophocles performed in his own plays, but reportedly because he had a weak voice, he stopped doing this. Ancient sources suggest he might have written 123 plays, and seven survive.

In Antigone, which Sophocles wrote when he was past 50, the heroine defied her father the king, saying:

“Your edict, King was strong.
But all your strength is weakness itself against
The immortal unrecorded laws of God.
They are not merely now: they were and shall be,
Operative for ever, beyond man utterly.”

Euripides (c.480-406 B.C.) was one of the Greatest Greek dramatists writing tragedies. He is believed to have come from the island of Salamis. The year after his birth Athens won the Persian war, and although much of the city was in ruins, the people had preserved their independence. Athens led the Delian league of Greek city states resisting further Persian threats, but by 440 Athens had emerged as an empire which threatened the independence of others. Sparta, Corinth and Thebes began to resist Athenian rule, which led to the Peloponnesian War (431-404 B.C.). This proved devastating for Athens. Four years before Athens was defeated, Euripides left the city to become an exile in Macedon which is where he died. Fifteen of the 17 surviving plays date from the Peloponnesian War era, and they deal with issues of war.

Presumably because war prisoners were enslaved, and many of the enslaved were women (male prisoners commonly being put to death), Euripides wrote much about slavery and women. He protested the bad treatment of women. For instance, in Medea the heroine said:

“Surely, of all creatures that have life and will, we women
Are the most wretched. When, for an extravagant sum,
We have bought a husband, we must then accept him as
Possessor of our body. This is to aggravate
Wrong with worse wrong. Then the great question: will the man
We get be bad or good? For women, divorce is not
Respectable; to repel the man, not possible.”

Euripides’ play Hecabe showed how the pressures of war drive people to barbaric cruelty. Hecabe and other women prisoners subdued Polymestor, who had killed her son during the Trojan War, and they put out his eyes and killed his two sons.

During the Peloponnesian War, Athenian forces captured Melos, killed all the men and sold women and children as slaves. Apparently to protest these atrocities, Euripides wrote Trojan Women, about women who, after the Trojan War, awaited their fate as prisoners of the victorious Greeks. This must have been a shocking play for Greek audiences, because Greek warriers won their most famous victory in the Trojan War. Homer’s great epic The Iliad told how Agamemnon’s armies captured Troy. Yet Euripides portrayed the Trojan War as unrelieved misery. The messenger Talthybius announced that Troy’s former queen Hecuba would be the slave of Odysseus, Ithaca’s king; Cassandra would be a slave of Agamemnon; and Andromache would be the slave of Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son. These women would be sex slaves of the men who had killed their loved ones.

Hecuba wailed:

“A lying man and a pitiless
Shell be lord of me, a heart full-flown
With scorn of righteousness.”

And Andromache:

“Forth to the Greek I go,
Driven as a beast is driven.”

Cassandra vowed:

“Go I to Agamemnon, Lord most high
Of Hellas! I shall kill him, mother;
I shall kill him, and lay waste his house width fire
As he laid ours.”

The most poignant moment in the play was when the Greeks decided they must kill Andromache’s little boy Astyanax, because he was the son of the brave warrier Hector. It was feared that if he lived, he would grow up and lead a counter-attack against the Greeks.

Euripides’ protest was ignored. Athens persisted with the war, sending a big expedition to Sicily, and the expedition was wiped out. Later, of course, Sparta defeated Athens and sacked the city.

The only surviving complete texts of Old Greek Comedy are those by Aristophanes (c.448-385 B.C.). He was born too late to have known the glory days of Athens, and he grew up amidst the crises of the Peloponnesian War. He was a masterful satirist who ridiculed the intellectuals and politicians who brought all the trouble. Altogether, he is believed to have written more than 40 plays of which 11 have survived.

In Lysistrata, the heroine gathers together the wives of soldiers on both sides of the war and proposes a radical way to stop it: "we must give up -- sex...the men are all like ramrods and can't wait to leap into bed, and then we absolutely refuse -- that'll make them make peace soon enough, you'll see."

One woman asked, "And if they hit us and force us to let go?" Lysistrata replied: "Why, in that case you've got to be as damned unresponsive as possible. There's no pleasure in it if they have to use force and give pain. They'll give up trying soon enough. And no man is ever happy if he can't please his woman."

Later challenged by a magistrate, Lysistrata explained: "we women got together and decided we were going to save Greece. What was the point of waiting any longer, we asked ourselves. Well now, we'll make a deal. You listen to us -- and we'll talk sense, not like you used to -- listen to us and keep quiet, as we've had to do up to now, and we'll clear up the mess you've made." And they did.

After the golden age of Greek theater, some of the texts were translated into Latin and preserved. They were largely forgotten for more than a thousand years. The process of rediscovering them began in Italy during the 15th century. The great Dutch-born scholar Desiderius Erasmus produced fresh Latin translations of a number of Euripides' plays. Later, there were Spanish, French and English translations of plays by Sophocles as well as Euripides. Eventually Aeschylus and Aristophanes were rediscovered, too. The plays were performed, and many of the greatest names of European literature, including Jean Racine, Pierre Corneille, Voltaire, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Eugene O'Neill and T.S. Eliot, wrote works pursuing themes in Greek plays. Greek themes also inspired composers like Christoph Wilibald Gluck, Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky.

Here we see the extraordinary power of ideas to transcend their times, take a life of their own and influence future generations.


P.E. Easterling, The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

James C. Hogan, A Commentary on the Complete Greek Plays: Aeschylus (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

James C. Hogan, A Commentary on the Plays of Sophocles (Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1991).

Gilbert Murray, Aeschylus, The Creator of Tragedy (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1940).

Gilbert Murray, Aristophanes, A Study (New York: Oxford University Press, 1933).

Gilbert Murray, Euripides and His Age (New York: Henry Holt, 1913).

Gilbert Murray, The Literature of Ancient Greece (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956).

Gilbert Murray, The Rise of the Greek Epic (New York: Galaxy, 1960).

Rex Warner, Men of Athens (London: Bodley Head, 1972).

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