The best drama from the ancient world
For over 2,000 years, the Greek dramatist Menander’s works were lost. Then, in the twentieth century, they were rediscovered. Menander was praised by his contemporaries as a great comic playwright – some even said the greatest, beating even Aristophanes into second place. But when Menander’s work was rediscovered in the twentieth century, it was something of a disappointment. Translators and Greek scholars were lukewarm in their praise for the newly discovered Menander material. He was, perhaps, the first writer to be the victim of over-hype surrounding his work.
All of this makes us wonder: which are the greatest plays of the classical era? What are the finest ancient Greek and Roman plays? Here is our pick of ten of the best. We’ve tried to offer as great a range of authors as possible here, so have restricted ourselves to just two entries by the same playwright (which proved difficult with some playwrights who wrote a number of classic plays).
Sophocles, Oedipus Rex. Samuel Taylor Coleridge once said that the three perfect plots in all of literature were Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex or ‘Oedipus the King’. The story of the play is relatively familiar: a prophecy foretells that Oedipus will kill his father and marry his mother. Fleeing his parents to avoid fulfilling such a prophecy, Oedipus will – in one of the great plot twists in classical literature – learn a shocking truth about his history…
Sophocles, Antigone. Although written prior to Oedipus Rex, this play covers events that occur later than the above play. Antigone is Oedipus’ daughter, the product of her father and mother’s incest (so her mother is also her grandmother), and Antigone shows one of ancient Greek drama’s most celebrated heroines demanding the return of her beloved brother’s body, following his death in the Siege of Thebes.
Aeschylus, The Oresteia. Okay, this is actually three plays rather than one – in fact, it’s the only intact trilogy of plays from the City Dionysia festival in ancient Greece. It tells the story of the turbulent goings-on in Agamemnon’s family after his return from the Trojan War. The starting-point is his wife Clytemnestra’s plot to murder her husband upon his return, for having sacrificed their daughter in exchange for fair winds to carry him off to the wars.
Euripides, Medea. This is perhaps Euripides’ greatest and most popular tragedy, which is all the more surprising since the trilogy of plays to which Medea belonged came last in that year’s City Dionysia. The play recounts the shocking story of the wife of Jason (he of the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece): Medea, Jason’s wife, takes revenge on him when he leaves her for another woman by killing Jason’s new wife, and her own children with him. It remains a startling and unsettling play which is often revived for the contemporary stage.
Euripides, Cyclops. Although tragedy and comedy are well-known genres in classical theatre, there was a third genre of drama, known as the satyr play. Satyr plays were bawdy satires or burlesques which featured actors sporting large strap-on penises – the phallus being a popular symbol of fertility and virility, linked with the god Dionysus. Only one satyr play survives in its entirety: written by the great tragedian Euripides, Cyclops centres on the incident from the story of Odysseus when the Greek hero found himself a prisoner in the cave of Polyphemus, the one-eyed monster. We include it here because it helps to show the rich variety of classical theatre, even if it’s not the finest example of ancient drama – it’s important from a cultural and historical perspective, as it reveals a less famous side to classical drama.
Aristophanes, Lysistrata. Picking one of Aristophanes’ surviving eleven plays as his ‘best’ is a tricky undertaking, but we’ve plumped for two on this list. The first of the two is this comic masterpiece, about one woman’s attempt to end the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The way Lysistrata intends to do this is – well, by persuading all the women of Athens to refuse to go to bed with their husbands until peace is declared. Aristophanes was a fascinating playwright and figure in the ancient world, and Lysistrata gives a sense of how his work engaged with complex political issues of the time, using comedy to question and overturn accepted beliefs.
Aristophanes, Thesmophoriazusae. This poem is unusual among classical plays in that it often retains its original ancient Greek title in modern English, though it has been translated and performed under the title The Poet and the Women. As we’ve revealed elsewhere, Aristophanes may have borrowed the plot of this play – which sees a man adopting female dress so he can spy on what the women of Athenian society are saying – from a real-life event.
Terence, The Brothers. Adelphoe, to give this play its original title, is probably the most famous play by Terence, a leading Roman playwright and former slave who took the plots of the earlier playwright Menander (whose work, believed lost for many centuries, resurfaced in the twentieth century) and reworked them for a later Roman audience. The play takes the form of a rather cruel sort of sociological experiment: a father splits up his two sons, allowing his brother to raise one of them while he raises the other. The father is strict and rules his son with an iron fist; the other son, raised by his uncle, is allowed an altogether more permissive upbringing. This comedy explores the best way to raise your children: is it a good idea to be strict, or to allow a child to make his own mistakes?
Plautus, The Pot of Gold. If Terence was a comedy craftsman, whose chief virtues are artistry and learning, Plautus is the raw comic genius who lacks the structure and discipline of Terence but more than makes up for it in energy and verve. Originally titled Aulularia, this comedy by one of ancient Rome’s early comic dramatists centres on a miser who guards his wealth – embodied by a pot of gold – sometimes to a paranoid extent. Although the ending of this play hasn’t survived, it’s often considered Plautus’ finest achievement.
Seneca, Thyestes. Surprisingly, the Roman tragedian who would exercise the greatest influence on modern English drama, from Shakespeare onwards, wrote his plays not to be performed on stage but to be read. He was one of the greatest advocates of Stoic philosophy in the Roman world (along with Marcus Aurelius), but his plays – such as this one, about a man who ends up being fed his two sons in pies – helped to inspire the Elizabethan revenge tragedy made famous by Thomas Kyd, William Shakespeare, and others.
Image (top): Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes (author: Carole Raddato), Wikimedia Commons. Image (bottom): Portrait of Aristophanes (artist unknown), Wikimedia Commons.
Hi – very nice post, and very big challenge to compose this list. I loved the way you clumped the Oresteia into one – very clever! I laughed when I read your comment on Menander’s over-hype. Although not a dramatist, Hesiod is IMHO also a recipient of over-hype – what a pompous right-wing dude! I’m a lifetime fan of Homer and all later writers who devoted any lines to/about Achilles.
If you’re interested to check it out, my latest post showcases the dramatic readings of Sophocles’ Ajax by Bryan Doerries’ Theater of War – it’s: Tragedy, Katharsis & the Theater of War https://theshieldofachilles.net/2017/04/17/tragedy-katharsis-theater-of-war/
Wonderful coverage. Oedipus Rex is a delight to teach, which I did for over 40 years.
Thank you! There’s so much to say about Sophocles’ play. I enjoyed teaching it to first-year Drama students a few years back. What an introduction to a Drama degree!
To be fair to Menander, wasn’t his work supposed to be infused with contemporary send-up that connects his plays to the Satyr/satire plays more than high comedy. ? His work – what little of it has been rediscovered – shares more with Plautus its delivery than Terence?
Good work on covering so many of the big names – I don’t think I’d have been able to narrow the Euripides selection down to just two! I’ve noticed that you cover a lot of classical texts on this blog, so I’m curious to know if there might be a Greek scholar behind these posts?
Thank you, Claire! No, not a Greek scholar (only an amateur enthusiast – my expertise is in modern literature) though I always value the insight of those who are, as it were, classically trained :)