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Greek Theatre

4. Democracy

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About this Lecture


In this module, we consider the extent to which Greek tragedy might be considered a ‘democratic’ institution, focusing in particular on: (i) the fact that the tragic festivals – the Great Dionysia, Lenaea, etc. – were organised and authorised by the democratic polis; (ii) the (differing) views of Prof. Simon Goldhill and P. J. Rhodes; (iii) the relative lack of any discussion of democracy in extant tragedy, with some notable exceptions (e.g. Theseus in Euripides’ Suppliant Women, Pelasgus in Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women), at least one of which is a negative example; (iv) the tension in tragedy between the wellbeing of the polis and the wellbeing of individual tragic ‘heroes’ (better referred to as tragic ‘autocrats’ or ‘tyrants’); and (v) the idea that the destruction of the tragic hero at the end of tragedy actually represents a ‘happy’ ending from the point of view of the polis.


In this course, Professor Richard Seaford (University of Exeter) explores several aspects of Greek tragedy and comedy. In the first module, we think about the contribution made by vase painting to our understanding of Greek theatre. After that, we think about the significance of the chorus in Greek tragedy and comedy In the third module, we consider what Greek theatre can tell us about contemporary history and society, before turning in the fourth module to think about the extent to which Greek theatre was a ‘democratic’ institution. In the fifth module, we consider the importance of ritual for the understanding of Greek theatre, before moving on in the sixth module to consider the ‘purpose’ of Greek theatre. Is it supposed to teach us something? If so, what? In the seventh module, we think about the importance of music and spectacle to Greek theatre. And in the eighth and final module, we consider whether Greek theatre is better understood as a traditional genre or an innovative one.


Richard Seaford is a professor of the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Exeter in England. He is the author of academic books, especially on ancient Greece, and has penned over seventy academic papers.

His work on Athenian tragedy and religion has led him to investigate the historical conditions for the radical development of Greek culture in the sixth century BC (sometimes called the origin of European culture), and to argue that a crucial factor in this development was money: the advanced Greek polis of this period was the first society in history that we know to have been thoroughly monetised.

Money and the Early Greek Mind. Homer, Tragedy, Philosophy (Cambridge 2004) explores the socio-historical conditions that made this first monetisation possible as well as its profound cultural consequences, notably the invention of 'philosophy' and of drama.

The investigation is taken further in several recent papers, for instance in ‘Money and Tragedy’ in W. V. Harris (ed.), The Monetary Systems of the Greeks and Romans (2008). His most recent book is Cosmology and the Polis: the Social Construction of Space and Time in the Tragedies of Aeschylus (Cambridge 2012). In 2005-2008 he was awarded a Leverhulme Major Research Fellowship by the Leverhulme Trust. For 2013-4 he was awarded an AHRC Fellowship for a comparative historical study of early Indian with early Greek thought.

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Seaford, R. (2020, March 13). Greek Theatre - Democracy [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Seaford, R. "Greek Theatre – Democracy." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 15 Mar 2020,