Examining the Theatocracy: Drama and Politics in the Ancient World

Course Description: 

Plato in his Republic and Laws includes the theatre alongside the law courts and the assembly as the primary locus for political activity in classical Greek society. In doing so, he characterises the Athenian population as a government comprised of theatre-goers – a “theatocracy”. This course will examine how the ancient theatre functioned as a forum for political expression on the part of both the author and the audience, considering how dramatic texts and performances both reflected and affected the political structures and ideals of the Graeco-Roman world. We will study the relationship between dramatic texts and political ideology through consideration of the contents of the dramatic texts themselves, the views of ancient literary criticism, and the perspective of performance studies. Throughout the course, we will consider a variety of different genres (tragedy, comedy, satyr play, and mime), in wildly differing political and social contexts: from the radical democracy of classical Athens; through the puppet kingdoms and military camps of the Hellenistic period; to the empire of Neronian Rome. In doing this we will read in English translation a number of the greatest surviving works of classical drama and examine how they might have functioned in their original socio-political contexts. We will also have an opportunity to ask larger questions about the relationship between media and politics; how we can use literary texts in the study of political and social history; and the role of art in society. Consequently, this course should be of value to students interested in political and cultural history, literary studies, and media studies, and we warmly welcome those with research interests outside of the ancient world.

Learning Outcomes: 

By the end of this course, you will have gained an understanding of the different ancient dramatic genres and how they developed over time. You will have developed a familiarity with a number of the most important examples of each of these genres, as well as with the historical contexts in which they were written, performed, and reperformed. You should also have gained an understanding of the methodological issues concerning the use of literary sources in political history and the reconstruction of the performance contexts of ancient drama, and developed your own views on these issues. In addition to this, you will have produced a significant research paper or project treating one of the issues covered in the course.


In addition to conducting the weekly readings and participating in class discussion, it is expected that students will produce a research paper or reception project on a subject connected to the course and present their work in a 20 minute presentation in our final session. The exact nature of the research paper or reception project should be agreed with the instructor, but a reception project might take the form of, for example, a script rewriting one of the ancient texts studied for use in a contemporary political climate, or a video documentary integrating archive footage of modern performances of ancient texts. A short (300 word) proposal for this paper or project should be submitted by the end of the 7th week of the semester.