(this entry has been updated since last night)
As I wrote in the comment thread on the previous post, I didn't mention Euripides' play, The Trojan Women, lightly in conjunction with the diary of the German woman. As Zhoen and others pointed out, the plight of women as victims and shamed spoils of war is a universal and timeless theme. I went back today and re-read the play (translated, of course!)-- it was as devastating as ever. There is one awful scene after another: Cassandra's speech to her mother, Hecuba, as the young virgin priestess is led off, prophesying, to become the "bride"of Agamemnon; the young boy Astyanax, son of Andromache and the already-dead Hector, is taken from his mother to be thrown over the walls of Troy; and finally Hecuba - the old queen and widow of Priam, King of Troy - laments the fate that will force her onto the Greek ships to serve out her days as a slave.
The thing about Greek tragedy is that it IS so modern. This play was presented in 415 B.C. and was written as a one part of a trilogy in critique of war and its cost for the innocent. In his introduction, the great translator Richmond Lattimore writes:
"In 416 B.C., Athens had tried to force the neutral island state of Melos to join the Athenian confederacy. This was in peacetime. The Melians were besieged and blockaded. They capitulated, and all grown male citizens were put to death, and their women and children were enslaved. This was, however, only the most recent and most flagrant of the abuses of power shown by both sides during hostilities dating back to 431 B.C. Moreover the Athenians were at the time of the trilogy about to launch thier great (unprovoked) expedition to conquer Sicily. But Euripides is not, I think, specifically against Athens. he is against all warmakers."
I found an article about a recent production of a related Euripedes play, Hecuba, in London, with Vanessa Redgrave playing the title role. Modern audiences -- and political leaders -- are not the only ones who have been made deeply uncomfortable by the historical parallels contained in the plays. The adapter for this production, Tony Harrison, wrote the following:
In my notebooks, where I glue pictures among the drafts of translations from the Greek tragedies I've adapted for the stage, is the recurring image of an old woman appealing to the camera that has captured her agony, or to the heavens that ignore it, in front of a devastated home or before her murdered dead. They are all different women from many places on earth with the same gesture of disbelief, despair and denunciation. They are in Sarajevo, Kosovo, Grozny, Gaza, Ramallah, Tbilisi, Baghdad, Falluja - women in robes and men in metal helmets as in the Trojan war. Under them all, over the years, I have scribbled "Hecuba". My notebooks are bursting with Hecubas. Hecuba walks out of Euripides from 2,500 years ago straight on to our daily front pages and into our nightly newscasts. To our shame she is news that stays news.
My college degree is in classics; the last term of senior year I took Greek Tragedies, in which we read three plays in the original, led by a virtuoso professor who could translate Aeschylus on the fly, book in hand, into vivid, poetic English. I was not terribly skilled, and dramatic Greek was difficult, but that course remains a high point of those years, and probably of my life.
People look at you funny when they hear you studied classics. Some of that is because this literature tends to be introduced so badly and the relevance lost on modern students. My own interest in Greek myths and art and literature - especially the saga of the Trojan War - had been kindled when I was very young and was encouraged by my mother and great aunt. There was always something there that touched me deeply; when I was a child of course I couldn't understand it - they were just good stories. Eventually I understood them as much more than that: powerful expressions of universal truths about our best and worst human qualities, which seemed to leap off the pages and the gently polished surfaces of the vases toward me, across the centuries.