Labors on the Tragic Stage

  Velaoras, Alexandros. “Labors on the Tragic Stage.” CHS Research Bulletin 9 (2021).

CHS-International Olympic Academy Pre-doc Fellow in Sport and Society 2020–21


The aim of this project is twofold: first, to explore how Attic tragedy incorporates heroic labors (ἆθλοι) in its narrative; and second, to explore how it accommodates them to the ideology of the polis. Through the study of selected plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, it was found that the performance of labors is a recurrent ‘story pattern’ (Burian 1997) in extant tragedies and that the success or failure of the labor performed in each one is decided by its potentially beneficial effect on the polis. The typology of tragic labors proposed here takes into consideration both the poetics and the politics of Attic tragedy and explains how pre–democratic myth is reconciled with the democratic context of the genre.


The purpose of this project is to explore how tragedy employs the theme of labors (ἆθλοι) and how it adapts it to fit the specifications of the genre and the ideology of the polis. My initial hypothesis was that many acts performed by tragic characters can be regarded as labors. By labor I mean a dangerous or difficult exploit, one which demands outstanding courage and/or physical or mental effort. Similarly to heroic labors, these labors are sometimes undertaken by the characters of their own free will (as in Sophocles’ Antigone); other times, they are imposed on them by some authority (human, as in Sophocles’ Philoctetes,1 or divine, as in Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians) so that some crisis, often threatening the well-being of the community, can be addressed. My research has indicated that these labors are very often signified in tragedy by a set of words such as ἀγών, πόνος, μόχθος, κίνδυνος, τόλμημα, ἔργον and, less frequently, ἆθλος and κάματος (as well as their cognates), which eloquently underline the common culture between mythical heroic labors, sports and war.2 Moreover, the successful completion of the labor depends upon the potential benefit to the polis and it is always in accordance with its ideology.

In Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, for example, Orestes returns to Argos to seek revenge for his father’s murder as he has been directed by Apollo’s oracle (269–270, 557–559). To do so, he will have to kill his own mother and her lover (274). In the oracle, the act of revenge, i.e. the labor, is deservedly termed a κίνδυνος, ‘danger’ (270).3 The successful completion of this divinely ordained labor will restore justice and liberate the Argives, who are now subjected (ὑπηκόους, 304)4 to Aegisthus and Clytemnestra (302–305). As a result, the wounded moral order will be cured and the political community of Argos will be restored to its previous, superior status.

In Iphigenia among the Taurians, Orestes has reached the land of the Taurians in order to bring Athena’s image (ἄγαλμα, 87 and passim; βρέτας, 980 and passim) with him to Athens. In that way, the Ἐρινύες, ‘Furies’ will stop pursuing him for killing his mother (79–80, 931, 941–942, 970–971, 1439–1440, and 1455–1456).5 Again, this labor is imposed on Orestes by Apollo (as it is repeated on several occasions in the play: 77–78, 85, 105, 937, 976–978, 1012–1014, and 1438). Like in Libation Bearers, it is termed a κίνδυνος (90; cf. κινδύνευμα, 1001), which requires τόλμη, ‘courage’ (τολμητέον, 111 and 121; cf. 114–115 with Parker 2016:79–80 ad loc.). The terms πόνος and μόχθος also occur with the same reference (for example at lines 95 and 122 respectively). Like other heroes, most notably Heracles (see Eur. Heracl. 7–8), Orestes is not alone in the performance of his labor. He is accompanied by Pylades, who is his συλλήπτωρ πόνου, ‘assistant in the labor’ (95; cf. 690: συμμοχθοῦντ’ ἐμοί, ‘sharing my toils with me’). At lines 90–91, the Athenian audience learns that their city is involved in this labor by being the final recipient of the goddess’s statue. At the end of the play, Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, will ensure the safe return of Orestes, Pylades, Iphigenia, and the Greek women of the Chorus to Athens. In that way, the restoration of justice is completed. Athena also announces the construction of two new temples of Artemis and the institution of new cults in her honor (1450-1467).6 Thus, Athens acquires two new nonurban sanctuaries, the importance of which for the polis has been discussed by François de Polignac.7

During my fellowship, I worked intensively on Euripides’ Suppliant Women. In that play, the labor recounted is Theseus’ successful military expedition against Thebes (most frequently signified by the word πόνος) in response to the supplication of Adrastus and the mothers of the Argive war leaders. Theseus’ aim is to recover and bury the bodies of the dead (25–26), whose recovery Thebes does not allow. The recovery (ἀναίρεσις) of the dead was a standard procedure in archaic and classical warfare. By preventing it, the Thebans break an (unwritten) military law and they openly defy human and divine laws which ordain that the dead be buried and which are respected by all Greeks. Despite his initial refusal to grant the suppliants’ request, Theseus is eventually persuaded by Aethra, his mother, to help them. The recovery of the dead, effected by means of war, is followed by an honorific, public funeral at Eleusis. With the performance of this labor, Theseus and Athens help the Argive suppliants, as Adrastus had hoped (256, 327 and 370). Moreover, they reaffirm key religious values and they restore the challenged ritual order. The noble objective of this labor, the respect shown by Theseus towards both civic and religious proceedings and his moral excellence (723–730) assured his success. Thus, with his military expedition, he helped the Argives and thereby benefitted the entire Greek world as well.

How the ideology of the polis determines the outcome of the tragic labor can better be explained by comparing Theseus’ labor with the similar labor undertaken by the eponymous character in Sophocles’ Antigone. The burial of Polyneices, forbidden by Creon, who considers him a traitor, is a dangerous exploit (κινδύνευμα, 42) which demands outstanding courage (τολμήσας, 248) and physical effort (in order to lift or drag the corpse and dig the hard and dry earth; 250-251). In the opening scene of the play, Antigone is trying to persuade Ismene to become her companion in her labor (εἰ ξυμπονήσεις καὶ ξυνεργάσῃ σκόπει, ‘Consider whether you will share the pain and the labor,’ 41; trans. Lloyd-Jones). Ismene refuses and Antigone undertakes and accomplishes this task (πόνον, 907) on her own but only to be arrested, brought in front of Creon and condemned to death. In both Suppliant Women and Antigone, the objective of the respective labor was the burial of unburied war dead. However, unlike Theseus, Antigone commits a number of violations. Not only does she transgress the limits of female involvement in funerals (women were only responsible for washing and tending the corpse at domestic funerals);8 but she also defies the decision of the political leader which forbade the burial of Polyneices. If Theseus wins a ‘crown of glory’ (Eur. Supp. 315) for Athens, Antigone challenges and subverts the order of the polis – even if she is vindicated in the end.9 It appears that a labor which has or may have an adverse effect on the polis cannot, must not be successful. Even if its performer succeeds, he or she cannot be celebrated as a hero(ine). Similarly, Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus succeeds in finding Laius’ murderer as instructed by the oracle of Delphi but he is destroyed when the truth about his patricidal and incestuous past is revealed. 

As a follow-up of this project, I hope to extend my research to the entire tragic corpus (including the fragments) in order to draw valid conclusions applying to Attic tragedy as a genre. This could deepen our understanding of plot construction and the dialectics of heroic myth and democratic culture in tragedy.

Dissemination and Outputs

This research project was presented at the following venues: 

1. the Work-in-Progress Workshop of PhD Students in Classics (Department of Philology, University of Patras; Patras, Greece; May 26, 2021); 

2. the 1st Annual Research Workshop (CHS Greece; Nafplio, Greece; July 30–August 1, 2021); and 

3. the 10th International Scholars’ Symposium (CHS US, International Olympic Academy, and CHS Greece; virtually; October 9–10, 2021).

An article of about 5000 words is forthcoming in FirstDrafts@Classics@.


I wish to express my gratitude to my advisor, Stamatia Dova, for her invaluable advice and unfailing support through all stages of the project. I would also like to thank Efimia Karakantza for discussing the project with me during its conception. Efimia Karakantza and Gesthimani Seferiadi read an early draft of my forthcoming article; I am grateful to both for their useful comments on it. I am also grateful to the participants in the events mentioned above for their questions and comments. Finally, I would like to thank Christina Lafi, Marilena Katsadoraki, and Evan Katsarelis for their continuous support in administrative matters.

Select Bibliography

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De Polignac, François. 1995. Cults, Territory and the Origins of the Greek City-State. Trans. Janet Lloyd. Chicago. Orig. pub. as La naissance de la cité grecque. Paris, 1984.

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———. Forthcoming. Antigone. Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World. London.

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Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore.

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———. 2015. “Athletic Contests in Contexts of Epic and Other Related Archaic Texts.” Classics@ 13:n.pag. 

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1 See lines 50–69.

2 On which, see Pritchard 2013:164–191 and Pritchard 2019:180–205; also cf. Nagy 2013:271. 

3 Orestes later also calls it ξιφηφόρους ἀγῶνας, ‘sword fights’ (584), thus making the connection with sports contests.

4 The negative connotations of the word ὑπήκοος are manifest in Aesch. Pers. 234 and 242.

5 In fact, only those Erinyes who were not persuaded by the newly established law, according to which an equal number of votes at the court of justice meant acquittal (Eur. IT 1469-1472), kept pursuing him (Parker 2016:256-257 ad 970-971).

6 On which see Kyriakou 2006 ad loc.

7 De Polignac 1995.

8 Alexiou 2002:5; Goff 2004:31.

9 Sourvinou-Inwood 1990; see also the chapter entitled “Antigone as a ‘bad’ woman” in Karakantza forthcoming.