Citizenship, despite the Home Office’s farcical attempts to rebrand it as a “British value”, is a notion that originates in Greece. You see it being moulded and honed in the comedies of Aristophanes, the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles. Greek theatre was not simply a means of entertainment, nor even of representing society back to itself; rather, it provided the smithy in which the basic concepts that underpinned a state were forged in the first place – a quasi-sacred mechanism for placing order and meaning in the world.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Aeschylus’s Oresteia. First performed in 458BC, the trilogy charts the move from tyranny to the creation of a divinely mandated but secularly managed form of early participatory democracy. After Agamemnon, king of Mycenae, is murdered by his wife Clytemnestra on his return from sacking Troy, their son Orestes kills her in revenge and is then pursued from place to place by hound-like Furies – goddesses of revenge – bent on exacting bloody retribution for his matricide. The cycle’s third and final play, The Eumenides, finds Orestes seeking sanctuary in Athens, clinging to a statue of the city’s deity Athena. Athena appears on stage in person and demands to know what’s up. Orestes confesses to his mother’s killing, but argues (in tandem with his advocate Apollo) that this act was justified, indeed required, by her treacherous slaying of Agamemnon. The Furies counter by pointing out that Clytemnestra was herself avenging Agamemnon’s sacrificing of their daughter Iphigenia (which he did in order to raise winds to bear his fleet to battle); and they contend that the killing of a mother is more heinous than that of a husband, since (unlike a married couple) mother and son are of the same flesh.