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Atreus and Thyestes in Greek and Roman Tragedy

November 18, 2013 @ 3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Portrait image of Anne Duncan outdoors wearing glasses and a black shirt

Monday Seminar

Anne Duncan

Solmsen Fellow (2013-2014)

Classics and Religious Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


There was a saying in imperial Rome: “The worst actor plays the king.” Officially, this aphorism pointed out the tendency for stage tyrants to be played by the least prestigious actor in a troupe; unofficially, it was a subversive critique of ruling power. If the worst actor played the king, then the better actors played all the other roles. The Greeks and Romans believed there was something inherently theatrical about absolute power: the absolute ruler came to see himself as the star of the show, and forced his subjects to playact as well. My book project, Command Performance: Theater and Tyranny in the Ancient World, explores the persistent connections between absolute rulers and dramatic performance in Greek and Roman literature and culture. It brings together literary analysis of kings in Greek and Roman tragedy with historical and historiographical analysis of the sources for absolute rulers in the ancient world. For my seminar presentation, I will discuss a chapter in progress on the myth of Atreus and Thyestes in a number of Greek and Roman tragedies. These brothers are used by generations of Greek and Roman tragic playwrights to signify the perils of absolute power: fraternal strife, civil war, murder of kin, incest, and cannibalism, all of which symbolize the drive for absolute power consuming itself. I will argue that the political interpretations critics are willing to grant to Roman tragedies such as Seneca’s Thyestes — which is commonly read as a critique of tyranny generally, or of Nero in particular — are valid interpretive strategies for the Greek plays as well, even if the texts are lost and the political contexts of their composition and performance are different.


Anne Duncan holds a Solmsen Fellowship at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin-Madison for 2013-14. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Classics and Religious Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Her publications include Performance and Identity in the Ancient World (Cambridge University Press, 2006) and articles on Greek and Roman performance issues. She is currently at work on two projects: a monograph about the intersections between theatricality and absolute rule in the ancient world (Command Performance: Tyranny and Theater in Classical Antiquity), and a textbook on Roman spectacle (under contract to Cambridge University Press).


November 18, 2013
3:30 pm - 5:00 pm
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University Club, Room 212
432 East Campus Mall
Madison, Wisconsin 53703 United States