The Classical Quarterly (New Series)

Research Article

The social function of Attic tragedy1

Jasper Griffina1

a1 Balliol College, Oxford

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.


1 This paper singles out for discussion some representative examples of a widespread approach to Attic tragedy. I have not, for example, discussed M. Griffith's challenging ‘Brilliant dynasts: power and politics in the Oresteia’, CA 15 (1995), 63–129. I am grateful to S. Said for letting me see her important and learned address, ‘Tragedy and Polities’, delivered to the 1995 CHS Colloquium entitled ‘Democracy, Empire and the Arts in Fifth Century Athens’.