War and prophecy, plague and death

In the fifth century B.C., the playwright Sophocles begins “Oedipus Tyrannos” with the title character struggling to identify the cause of a plague striking his city, Thebes. (Spoiler alert: It’s his own bad leadership.)

As someone who writes about early Greek poetry, I spend a lot of time thinking about why its performance was so crucial to ancient life. One answer is that epic and tragedy helped ancient storytellers and audiences try to make sense of human suffering.

From this perspective, plagues functioned as a setup for an even more crucial theme in ancient myth: a leader’s intelligence. At the beginning of the “Iliad,” for instance, the prophet Calchas – who knows the cause of a nine-day plague – is praised as someone “who knows what is, what will be and what happened before.”

This language anticipates a chief criticism of Homer’s legendary King Agamemnon: He does not know “the before and the after.”

The epics remind their audiences that leaders need to be able to plan for the future based on what has happened in the past. They need to understand cause and effect.

What caused the plague? Could it have been prevented?

uarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon, ca. 1832, oil on wood panel, by William Page, a 1984 gift of Mr. and Mrs. Mortimer Brandt. (Smithsonian American Art Museum)

People’s recklessness

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