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Christian Interaction with Greek Tragedy in the Second and Third Centuries

Sarah Griffis

Harvard University

Christians under the Roman Empire continued to take up the culturally significant category of classical Greek tragedy and to utilize it to their own rhetorical ends. Despite arguments that Christians would not have engaged with the ideas or works of “pagan” authors or, even more drastic, that tragedy was not a category well-known to Christians (Tracy, “Augustine our Contemporary,” 52), there is ample evidence that tragedy continued to exist and to form the cultural imagination (Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind, 179; Gildenhard and Reverman, Beyond the Fifth Century; Csapo and Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama) well beyond its fifth-century BCE golden age. Scholars working on the reception of classical tragedy have acknowledged the continued presence of Greek tragedy in the Roman world, although the topic as it relates to specifically Christian reception has not been given deep coverage. Where the topic is raised at all, scholars typically mention only that it is a neglected area of research (Gildenhard and Revermann, 12; Easterling, Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy).

            In this paper I discuss references to Greek tragedy in the Roman world in the writings of select Christian writers, and argue, first, that Christian writers, like other individuals in the Roman Empire, not only knew about Greek tragedy in a general sense, but they were well acquainted with specific plays, biographical information about tragedians, and a range of interpretations of tragic plots. Beyond their knowledge of these cultural phenomena, Christian writers capitalized on the ubiquity of this category by posing commentary on tragedy as a hinge: first establishing a common ground with their audience by appealing to tragedy, but then pivoting away from tragedy toward Christian ideas as “improvements.” This legitimization technique occurs simultaneously with a proposal of Christian ideas that are posed as not at odds with those ideas tragedy puts on offer, but as taking those ideas to their logical end: improving upon a well-established category in the repertoire of ideas in antiquity.

            I will demonstrate this thesis by examining two second to third century Christian writers who explicitly mention either classical Greek plays or classical tragedians. The first thinker, Tertullian, uses tragedy as a conceptual scaffolding in two texts, de Spectaculis and the Apologeticus. The second, Clement of Alexandra, uses his Exhortation to the Greeks to discuss what types of events are encapsulated in tragedies and how Euripides’s plays can be a tool to help lead Christians to real truth. By showing early Christian thinkers engaged with the topic and contents of Greek tragedy, I point to the continued reception of Greek tragedy in the Roman world and to a specific group of people within it, as well as provide evidence that Christian thinkers were preoccupied with ethical concerns about suffering also found in many tragedies, especially the role that notions of ἁμαρτία play in suffering, justice, and agency.

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Greek Culture in the Roman World

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