Historical Context

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Last Updated on April 27, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 754

Fifth Century Greece and Its Influence

The fifth century B.C. in Greece was a time of great advancement in philosophy, art, and government. Great writers such as Aristotle, Aeschylus, and Sophocles wrote plays, philosophy, and political tracts that would influence the world for thousands of years to come. Democracy was being established, and the "Hippocratic Oath," written by Hippocrates the Great in 429 B.C., was being taken by the first doctors; this oath is the same oath taken by contemporary doctors. The Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.) was in full swing during Sophocles's lifetime, and it was during this period in history that many ideals of the modern Western world first appeared.

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Bronze Age of Greece

Antigone takes place in Bronze Age Thebes, sometime during the 1200s B.C. Sophocles uses the legends of the family of Oedipus (Antigone's father) in order to explore social and political issues of his time. Attending the theater was a civic and religious duty in Sophocles's time. By setting his play in a time period 800 years before his own, he could explore social and political issues without offending those currently in power. He uses the authoritarian rule of Creon and the strong-willed Antigone to warn against the dangers of dictatorship and to highlight the status of women in Greek society.

Civil and Moral Unrest

In 429 B.C. a great plague killed almost two-thirds of the population of Athens, causing civil and moral unrest and testing the bounds of democracy. Warfare was also common at this time in Greek society, as the city-states of Greece competed with each other for trade, commerce, and artistic superiority. This unrest is reflected in the events portrayed in Antigone, beginning with the civil war that pits Antigone's brothers against each other and ending with the deaths of Antigone, Haemon, and Eurydice.

Democracy and Government

Sophocles was not only a respected writer, but also a member of the government in Athens. Democracy was practiced differently in Ancient Greece than it is in the modern United States. Full citizenship, which included the right to vote, was only given to free men; women and slaves were not considered full citizens and so lacked the same rights as men. They were forced to follow a different code of conduct. Despite such inequities and restrictions, the foundations laid in the fifth century B.C. provided a framework for the founders of the United States—and other world democracies-when they sought to establish a free democratic government.

Playwrights and Drama

The writers of the fifth century B.C. established the traditions of both tragedy and comedy. The first three plays at the Great Dionysia festival were tragedies, followed by the satyr play, which poked fun at the characters and situations of the earlier tragedies; "satyr" served as the forerunner to the modern dramatic convention of satire, which uses humor to criticize or mock. The satyr plays were then followed by a comedy by another playwright, as the competition for comedic plays was separate from the competition for tragedies.

There were strict rules for tragedy in the Great Dionysia, and the plays were viewed as valued cultural commodities. To qualify—let alone win—dramatic works had to subscribe to a strict format that had been used for many years. To preserve this cultural jewel, a great deal of importance was placed on the passing of knowledge; it was as much a role of the playwright to teach as it was to compose. Aeschylus, a great writer of tragedy, was one of the teachers entrusted to teach younger writers the methodology of tragedy. Sophocles was one of his students (who would later defeat his instructor at the Great Dionysia), and he, in turn, also shared his knowledge with younger writers. Modern plays are evaluated according to the standards set forth by plays written in Ancient Greece, and contemporary playwrights look to writers such as Sophocles and Aeschylus for instruction and inspiration.

The Sophists

Athens in the fifth century B.C. saw the rise of a revolutionary group of teachers and philosophers called the Sophists. This group broke with tradition and focused more on the study of the actions of humankind than on the standard legends of gods and goddesses. Sophocles was one of these individual teachers, who, although differing in their views as well as their standards, agreed that the main subject of their teaching should be human actions. These middle-class teachers instructed the sons of the wealthy about politics and the practice of democracy with the full support of Pericles and other leaders.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

1200s B.C.: The states in Greece are run by dictators who are members of the royal family. Power is transferred from father to son, and never to daughters. The citizens have no say in affairs of state.

400s B.C.: Democracy is taking hold in Greece. Athens, for example, is run by ten generals elected by the free male population. The citizens have a say in what actions their government takes.

Today.: Democracies flourish on all continents of the world. The most famous of these democracies, the United States, was founded on the Athenian experiments with democracy in the 400s B.C. Following the end of the Cold War (a state of nonmilitary aggression between democratic and Communist countries), many more countries are in the process of establishing democratic governments.

1200s B.C.: Greek society was "polytheistic," meaning that the Greeks worshipped many gods. Zeus was the king of the gods, with many other gods such as Hades, the god of death, and Aphrodite, the goddess of love, who gathered with Zeus on Mount Olympus (the heavens). The Greeks believed that one must make offerings to the gods to appease them and that ritual sacrifice could influence the gods' feelings and actions regarding certain issues (such as harvests or wars).

400s B.C: Greek society was still polytheistic but as long as the city's gods were not neglected, worship was open to any god. Worship of the gods was still important but it became more of a civic and social duty. In art, emphasis was less on the actions of the gods and more on human actions.

Today: Most Western societies are monotheistic, meaning that they worship only one god. Religion has become marginalized in many societies and ritual sacrifices and offerings have become taboo in most Christian sects. There is a resurgence in interest in earth-based and pagan (non-Christian) religions, but the Greek gods have disappeared into myths and legends, only resurrected in films, books, and television shows.

1200s B.C.: Bronze was used to fashion weapons of war and household tools. The coming of the Bronze Age meant a great leap forward in civilization by allowing people to invent new tools and weapons to make their lives easier and more productive.

400s B.C.: The Golden Age of Athens (480-404 B.C.) saw the rise of great tragedies and comedies in the theater, finely crafted sculptures, and advancements in democratic ideals. This age was crucial to the development of democratic ideals and the foundations of modern drama as we know them today.

Today: The advancements in science and technology made in the latter part of the twentieth century, such as space flight, the personal computer, and alternative sources of power, will almost certainly have a very real effect on generations of humans to come.

1200s B.C.: Doctors in the modern sense did not exist in Bronze Age Greece. Oracles and prophets would try to interpret the gods' will and action would be taken accordingly.

400s B.C.: Hippocrates the Great wrote the Hippocratic Oath in 429 B.C. The oath sets out ethical standards for the medical profession and includes the passage. "I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but I will never use it to injure or wrong them."

Today: The Hippocratic Oath is still taken by doctors upon graduation from medical school, but in recent years its forbiddance of abortion has been left out by some schools.

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