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Ancient Greece’s Antidote to War Was Theater and Sports


war and theater in ancient greece.fallen warrior aphaia
War and Theater in Ancient Greece, Credit: Daderot/ commons CC0 1.0 . Fallen warrior of Aphaia

Contrary to war, theater was a place of light and allowed Greeks to face each other and learn of their history together in the very light of the day.

By Evaggelos Vallianatos

Mountains, forests, rivers, and extremely difficult terrain divided the Greeks and determined most of the boundaries of communities, which became known as polis, or city-states.

Bronze Age

Reading the epic ancient Greek poems Argonautika, the Iliad, and the Odyssey is a fascinating introduction to very early Greek society of the late Bronze Age BCE about 3,200 years ago.

This society emerged from the struggles and brilliance of Bronze Age Minoan and Mycenean culture from around 3,000 to 1,000 BCE. Piety for the gods, the Greek language, metallurgy, architecture, beautiful art, and sanitation had roots in Bronze Age Greece.

Bronze Age Greece was comprised of numerous kingdoms with democratic foundations. In the Odyssey, the young son of King Odysseus, Telemachus, calls a public meeting to inspire the elders to join him in resisting the suitors courting his mother Penelope while threatening the independence of Ithaca, his own safety, and that of his mother.

Telemachus took that courageous step with the advice and support of the goddess Athena who assured him his father Odysseus was alive and returning home. Athena was also guiding Odysseus to find his way back to Ithaca.

Common language and ancient traditions, including piety for several gods, united the Greeks. The country had hundreds of temples and thousands of altars honoring the gods. The Greeks were inseparable from their gods, who were forces in nature and the cosmos. Nevertheless, that vital unity was often fragile. Cities competed in virtues, politics, and war. Being the best was itself a virtue.

Greek culture was a perpetual competition for victory in all parts of life—from singing, dancing, and athletics to science, architecture, and fighting in wars. The Greeks, however, could see that antagonism should have limits and be brought under control.

Antidotes to War: Athletics and Theater

Athletics was one such brake to extreme competition and hubris. In the Iliad, the superhero, Achilles, honors his dead friend and colleague, Patroclus, with athletic games resembling the Olympics. In fact, the games of Achilles might have been the precursor to the actual  Olympics, which began in Olympia in the northwestern Peloponnese in 776 BCE.

In both cases, the games were an antidote to war. Achilles knew that his wrath against Agamemnon fueled the ten-year Trojan War.

The Wrath of Achilles by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-1635.
The Wrath of Achilles by Peter Paul Rubens, 1630-1635. Credit: Public Domain.

Even the gods were divided over the Greeks fighting the Trojan War. Zeus, father of the gods, sided with the Trojans, as did Aphrodite, Apollo, and Ares. On the other hand, Hera, the wife of Zeus, Poseidon, the brother of Zeus, and Athena, the daughter of Zeus, favored the Greeks.

Theater became the second antidote to war. The great fifth century BCE Athenian dramatic poets (Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes) urged Athenians to rely on reason rather than passion and hubris in resolving domestic and inter-Greek conflicts.

War and Peace

The ancient Greek play Philoctetes by Sophocles, which is performed to this day in Greek theaters, is exemplary of the dichotomy between war and peace that plagued the Greek world. It’s a story about the cruelties of war and the endurance of Philoctetes, who was a Greek soldier in the Trojan War. He had the misfortune to suffer from a serious snake bite wound on one of his legs. His pain was so persistent and unbearable that he screamed continuously. The Greek leaders, Odysseus, Menelaus, and Agamemnon, decided to end the disruption Philoctetes caused among the troops. They had him removed to the Aegean island of Lemnos.

Philoctetes had to make do alone—and wounded—in Lemnos. Nonetheless, the bow of Heracles saved his life. He hunted birds and lived in a cave. Yet, he also survived and preserved his humanity.


Philoktetes on the Island of Lemnos by Guillaume Guillon-Lethiere, 1798.
Philoktetes on the Island of Lemnos, by Guillaume Guillon-Lethiere, 1798. Credit: Public Domain.

War never hurts and destroys the cowardly and scheming, the son of Achilles, Neoptolemus, admits. War always kills the best of men (Philoctetes 436-437). But war also turns humans inside out, as expediency and deception become the norm rather than the rare exception. Power rules and corrupts absolutely.

Odysseus urges Neoptolemus to grab the bow of Heracles from Philoctetes

Nothing ought to stand in the way of grabbing Philoctetes’ bow, Odysseus advised Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus. Odysseus also encouraged Neoptolemus to forget his ethical standards and do as he was told so that he might become eternally famous. Odysseus, in other words, told Neoptolemus it’s quite all right to betray a fathers’ culture for temporary gain, and it’s even adequate to become a barbarian in order to fight barbarians.

The strength of Philoctetes

Sophocles introduces the Greek world to Philoctetes, a man who holds on to his Hellenic traditions and one whom the gods entrusted with Heracles’ mighty weapon. Philoctetes was, however, also left to rot or die on the Aegean island of Lemnos solely because of his injury.

His desire to live and return to his elderly father, King Poeas of Meliboea / Malis (Maleae) in Thessaly, who was also a former famous archer Argonaut, allowed Philoctetes to survive despite the odds. That was basically his sole purpose for survival—to return home to his father and to the gods of his father. Philoctetes hates war and those benefiting from its execution, and he begs Neoptolemus to abandon the corrupt business of war and take him home to his father.

Philoctetes is distressed to discover that Neoptolemus is not what he appears to be—the honest, young son of his favored hero, Achilles. Neoptolemus is indeed young and handsome like his father, but he is also the corrupt face of the Trojan War.

Once Philoctetes discovers that Neoptolemus—sans the mask of Achilles—is merely a warrior to whom he forfeited his bow because he believed in his lies, he fights back with the only weapon at his command, namely his powerful mastery of Greek. With a great deal of anger, he informs Neoptolemus that he hates him. He pronounces him a shameless adventurer that took advantage of a crippled man who turned to him as a suppliant.

Guard each other like lions

Neoptolemus feels bad about the misfortunes of Philoctetes, and he feels even more miserable about his own personal immoral involvement, the result of which was to essentially satisfy the war plans of Odysseus. Hence, he does drop his war mask and consequently joins Philoctetes, even returning his bow to him. Nonetheless, he continues to hope that Philoctetes will join him in Troy.

Philoctetes, however, has had enough with war and informs Neoptolemus that he would not be joining him. At this point, the demi-god Heracles appears and urges them to guard each other like lions. Neither Neoptolemus nor Philoctetes individually, Heracles says, could hope to conquer Troy, but, together, they would be invincible. It is this togetherness of Greeks working as one people and guarding each other like lions that is the second moral and political purpose of Sophocles’ play, Philoktetes. The significance of this is to communicate that Greeks should not eternally rely on their conventional fierce independence of fighting it out to each his own—or against each other—as was the case with the Athenians and Spartans in the Peloponnesian War.

Hercules’ bow

Heracles had used his bow to protect not this or that private claim but to expand and defend the public interest of all Greeks. Sophocles was telling Athenians to expand their vision of the Hellenic political community, as civil war was an anathema. This is what Sophocles meant when he said that only Philoctetes and Neoptolemus working together would be able to conquer Troy.

Battle of Potidaia, 431 BCE, between Athens and Corinth. Socrates is defending his student Alcibiades on the ground (center). Engraving, 1788.
Battle of Potidaia, 431 BCE, between Athens and Corinth. Socrates is defending his student Alcibiades on the ground (center). Engraving, 1788. Credit: Public Domain.

In other words, the beast of war in Greece would end if Athens and Sparta began guarding each other like lions. Heracles’ bow was symbolic of the Athenians and that which was possible if they and other Greeks abandoned their fratricidal wars.

Man, the fiercest of animals

In addition, according to Sophocles—and his third major theme—the world was a very dangerous place. Man, he said in Antigone, was the fiercest of all animals. Yet, man, he repeated in Philoktetes, also had fierce and precarious fortunes. Everything about man was full of danger and fear that even good fortune and prosperity could suddenly turn to evil and impoverishment (502-503).

This is why Sophocles sought confidence and strength from the old culture of the Greek people and their gods. They were permanent because they had passed the test of time. If only the Greeks could conquer their own Troy, they would be in a position to continue the reverence of their gods and enjoy the world of their fathers—the world of their own making. Their freedom would be secure. Such was the essence of Sophocles and of all Greek tragedy played out in theaters throughout the Hellenic world.

odeon of Herodes Atticus
The Odeon of Herodes Atticus, a theater built in 161 AD in Athens. Credit: Athens Epidaurus Festival

The light and the truth of theater

Hence, in contrast to war, theater was a place of light for Greeks to face each other and to learn of their history together in broad daylight. Much like the Panhellenic Games, theaters presented the truth—although this was often the bitter truth of tears and pain one grasps only through suffering.

By Evaggelos Vallianatos


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