Ancient Greece: what can we learn?
Lesson 1: Tactics for engaging in civil disobedience, from Antigone to Aristophanes
guardian.co.uk, Monday August 1
What do you do if the state imposes what you regard as a blatantly unfair sanction, something that challenges everything that you hold dear?
That is the dilemma faced by the titular heroine of Antigone, Sophocles' play first produced in Athens in about 441BC. She reacts with what we would now think of as an act of civil disobedience. Just before the drama opens, Antigone's brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, have killed each other in battle. Polynices has been decreed by King Creon (Antigone's uncle) a traitor to the city, and denied burial on pain of death. Antigone's response is that Polynices is still her brother: "I will bury him myself / And even if I die in the act, that death will be a glory." The play questions the limits of loyalty to the authorities, the strength of family ties and the importance of piety.
Things do not go well for any of the characters. Creon duly condemns Antigone to death. Her fiance, Haemon, who happens to be Creon's son, refuses to live without her. For good measure, his mother, Creon's wife, kills herself.
Creon is the last man standing – but utterly broken. Antigone remains a poster girl for defiance against authority. A more cheerful form of civil disobedience is that practised in Aristophanes' comedy Lysistrata, premiered in 411BC, towards the end of Athens' gruelling war with Sparta. The heroine Lysistrata persuades the women of Greece to go on a sex strike to bring an end to the war: they swear to forgo such intriguing sexual positions as the "lioness on the cheese-grater".
The men, desperate for sex, agree to terms and the play ends with a song and a dance.