Ancient and modern

Movie-makers should look to the Athenians before cashing in on this crisis

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

18 April 2020

9:00 AM

Covid-19 has not yet reached its peak but already the moguls of the small screen are plotting how to monetise, with exquisite sensitivity, of course, the tragic deaths of thousands of people. They would be wise to listen to the Athenian lovers of tragedy.

In 499 bc the powerful Greek city of Miletus on the coast of western Turkey (Asia Minor) raised a revolt against its Persian overlords. It failed and in 494 bc Persia took its revenge: the city was sacked, its women and children sold into slavery, and most of its men slaughtered. Just a year or so later, the poet Phrynichus turned this historical incident into a tragedy, our first record of such a development. It was not a success. Herodotus reported the response as follows: ‘The audience burst into tears, fined him a thousand drachmas for reminding them of a disaster that was so personal to them, and made an order that no one should ever stage it again.’


In 476 bc Phrynichus took a different tack. He composed a tragedy on a mythical topic, but with direct reference to the Persian invasions which the Greeks had repelled after battles at Marathon, Thermopylae, Salamis and Plataea in 479 bc. This time he got away with it.

Four years later, in 472 bc, Aeschylus, perhaps encouraged by Phrynichus, went the whole hog. He staged a historical tragedy, Persians. This was set in the Persian capital of Susa and depicted the Persian reaction to their loss at Salamis. It won the first prize — it did, after all, depict a Greek victory — but that was that. For whatever reason, the experiment ended there.

So TV moguls would be ill-advised to make the nation re-live the grisliness it has been so recently experiencing. Yet perhaps all is not lost for them. Greek comedy was entirely different. Its subject was current events, and everyone from politicians to philosophers and playwrights were up for a lambasting guaranteed to leave the audience in stitches. So here is the challenge: make us weep with helpless laughter at it all! Big bucks there for oh-so-fashionable comedians, obviously.

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