Sunday, September 26, 2004



William Scott Ferguson, Greek Imperialism (1913), lecture 2 (Athens: An Imperial Democracy), reminds us about the extent of citizen participation in dramatic performances in ancient Athens:
In the hundred years of the empire close to two thousand plays of picked quality were written and staged in Athens, while during the same time from five to six thousand new musical compositions were made and presented. It is estimated that upwards of two thousand Athenians had to memorize the words and practice the music and dance figures of a lyric or dramatic chorus every year. Hence, a normal Athenian audience must have been composed in large part of ex-performers, a fact which students of Sophocles and Aristophanes would do well to bear constantly in mind.
This memorization later proved useful to some Athenians, as we read in this passage from Plutarch's Life of Nicias (tr. J. Dryden) which describes the fate of Athenian captives after the disastrous Sicilian Expedition:
Several were saved for the sake of Euripides, whose poetry, it appears, was in request among the Sicilians more than among any of the settlers out of Greece. And when any travellers arrived that could tell them some passage, or give them any specimen of his verses, they were delighted to be able to communicate them to one another. Many of the captives who got safe back to Athens are said, after they reached home, to have gone and made their acknowledgments to Euripides, relating how that some of them had been released from their slavery by teaching what they could remember of his poems, and others, when straggling after the fight, been relieved with meat and drink for repeating some of his lyrics. Nor need this be any wonder, for it is told that a ship of Caunus fleeing into one of their harbours for protection, pursued by pirates, was not received, but forced back, till one asked if they knew any of Euripides's verses, and on their saying they did, they were admitted, and their ship brought into harbour.
Xenophon, Symposium 3.5 (tr. O.J. Todd), mentions another feat of memorization:
"My father was anxious to see me develop into a good man," said Niceratus, "and as a means to this end he compelled me to memorize all of Homer; and so even now I can repeat the whole Iliad and the Odyssey by heart."
Ancient Greeks memorized Euripides and Homer. Modern Americans memorize the lyrics to Gilligan's Island.

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