Griffin, Jasper: The Library of Our Dreams

From The American Scholar, Winter 1996, Jasper Griffin.

[Mr Griffin is Professor of Classical Literature and Public Orator at Oxford University. His most recent book is a commentary in the Ninth Book of Homer’s Iliad (Oxford University Press, 1995]

“ΤYRANTS ARE CULTURED because they keep company with cultured men,” is a famous line from a lost play by Euripides. The first such cultured men in Greece were poets and singers (which were one and the same, at that early date); and in the Homeric poems we find bards performing their epic songs at the court of the king of the Phaeacians and in the palace of Odysseus οn Ithaca. Many scholars have guessed that the poet of the Iliad and the Odyssey was himself a court bard; or, at least, that he would have liked to be one.

The immediately succeeding period, the seventh and sixth centuries B.C., saw the rise all over Greece of those unconstitutional rulers, seizing power and retaining it essentially by force, whom the Greeks called by the foreign name turannos. or as we say, tyrant. The twentieth century has seen plenty of coups and the installation of plenty of dictators, part military and part demagogue, οn very much this model. Some of these men, like some of the despots of Renaissance Italy, went in for patronage of the arts. The spectacular Polycrates of Samos entertained at his court the lyric poets of the day (circa 540- 520 B.C.), and so, more memorably, did the tyrants of Athens, Pisistratus and his sons.

It was in fact these Athenian tyrants who used literature to bolster their οwn popularity with the people, arranging for public recitations of the Homeric poems, which had been hitherto accessible only to the leisured class, and making the arrangements for the first performances of a radically new form, tragedy, which took the old legends, the subject matter of the epic recitations, and dramatized them for performance by actors in the theater. That was an epoch-making innovation, and in the hands of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the new form was to go οn developing, under the democratic constitution that succeeded the fall of the tyrant dynasty in 510, in unimagined directions.

After 500 B.C., mainland Greece rid itself of rule by tyrants, a name originally free of bad overtones (poets applied it to Zeus) that had come to have extremely sinister connotations because of the typical behavior of the men who held such positions. Only οn the fringes of the Greek world did they survive, notably in Sicily, where the tyrants of the great city of Syracuse patronized poets in the fifth century (Aeschylus went to Sicily to work for them, and he actually died there); in the fourth century they amused themselves by extending their patronage, nοw that the age of verse was over and that of prose had begun, to Plato and other philosophers. Plato and Dionysius, the Sicilian tyrant, parted with anger and recriminations οn both sides; the relationship of literary man and powerful patron was not an easy one.

Tyrants typically ruled a single city. The careers of Philip II of Macedon and his son, Alexander the Great, conqueror of the vast Persian Empire, put an end to the age of the independence of the cities. From nοw οn Greece was to be ruled by kings, each the heir to as much of Alexander’s conquests as he had been able to grab, hereditary rulers of extensive states. These men were Macedonians by origin. They came, that is, from a society only half Hellenized and in important respects less advanced culturally: for instance, a Macedonian aristocrat was not allowed to recline at dinner, in the Greek fashion, until he had killed a wild boar in the hunt. That could be a serious embarrassment for a military man of mature years, who might and did find himself exposed to humiliation every evening if he had not slain his boar. Some of the kings devoted themselves to war, others to pleasure, and some to educational and cultural interests. Philip himself we remember, had employed Aristotle to tutor his son.

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