How Peaches Geldof brought Greek tragedy into the tabloids

Well, not exactly. But it’s not often that aspects of Classical literature find their way onto the gossip pages of the Mail Online. That is precisely what happened in the wake of Peaches Geldof’s decision to name her younger son Phaedra.

Actually, his full name is “Phaedra Bloom Forever”, which is quite ironic. Ironic because, in the world of Greek mythology and tragedy, Phaedra most certainly does not “bloom forever”.

Greek mythology relates that Phaedra married Theseus, who already had a son named Hippolytus. Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, and (after he rejected her advances) committed suicide, having written to Theseus to accuse Hippolytus of raping her. Hippolytus, incidentally, later died after Theseus consequently cursed him. And there you have it: a summary of the Classical significance of the name Phaedra, as well as a crude spoiler of the plot of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus.

In fact, the resonance of Phaedra is not confined to Classical mythology and drama. She has since been invoked in the works of Racine, Tsvetaeva, Swinburne and many others. To that list of literary luminaries who have recalled the name of Phaedra, we add Peaches Geldof.

You might be inclined to ask what my point is here. Does not Peaches Geldof have the right to give her son any name she should choose? Is it really any of my business that Geldof Jnr. should be (perhaps rather inauspiciously) named after a mythological character whose tragic death was immortalised in the works of Euripides? Or, indeed, that his mother should choose a woman’s name for a boy?

Perhaps, though, the name of Phaedra might not be as inauspicious as all that. In the Hippolytus, Phaedra is not marked out only by her barely controllable sexual desire. In fact, her character is largely defined by the conflict between this sexual desire and her conscious attempts to preserve a good reputation as a virtuous wife. Though she feels an urge to commit adultery, she also fights it, and curses adulterous women powerfully and memorably:

“There is one woman who should die horribly –
the one who first polluted her marriage,”

(Euripides Hippolytus 407, trans. Robert Bagg)

Perhaps “die horribly” doesn’t quite do justice to the powerful anger and harsh aural effect of the original “ὡς ὄλοιτο παγκάκως”. An alternative translation might read “may she perish in utter disgrace” (replicating the harsh sounds with sibilance), and there is certainly something to be said for the gravitas and weighty formality of “may all the world’s curses fall upon her shameless head” (as rendered by John Davie in the Penguin edition).

In any case, what is clear is Phaedra’s strong belief that, as a wife, she must retain a good reputation. All the more so as an aristocratic wife:

“What seems chic in the palace
no matter how truly filthy
will swiftly thrive in every modest street.”
(Euripides Hippolytus 411-412, trans. Robert Bagg)

I might take this further. The dichotomy between the “palace” and the “modest street” in Phaedra’s perception can be equated with the difference between celebrities and the public in modern society. After all, Phaedra’s point does not necessarily relate to power or social rank. The timeless implication is that those in the public eye must set a good example to the rest of society by maintaining a virtuous reputation. This is part of Phaedra’s motivation, and encapsulates an attitude which sadly seems largely absent in modern-day celebrity culture.

I’m not expecting the full resurgence of an Athenian-style reputation-based moral
code in modern society. But when Phaedra Bloom Forever Geldof-Cohen grows up, perhaps he will show awareness of the value of a good reputation, the most beneficial part of his namesake’s legacy. And as such, maybe he could make some kind of a stand against celebrity scandals. Tragedy for the tabloids, perhaps.

Citations:

Euripides, ed. John Ferguson. Hippolytus. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1984. Print.

Euripides, trans. Robert Bagg. Hippolytos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Euripides, trans. John Davie. Medea and Other Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.

 

What happens in Sicily… Taormina

I thought I’d post some more photographs taken during my trip to Sicily a few weeks ago. This particular post deals with the town of Taormina.

Taormina was founded by Greek settlers (more specifically, refugees from Naxos) in the 4th Century B.C. Later, Taormina was conquered by the Romans, and acquired wealth thanks to a local marble mine.

Perhaps the most important ancient building surviving in Taormina is the Greek theatre.

Greek theatre

Greek theatre in Taormina

In terms of setting and view, this theatre is unique: dug out from the rocky hillside, it looks down upon the sea, and the sea breeze carries the sound from the stage area to spectators.

Greek theatre in Taormina, looking down on the sea.

View from the top of the theatre, looking down on the sea.

The Romans dismantled and dug out part of the stage – changing the structure of the theatre in an attempt to create a structure similar to that of an amphitheatre. Hence the large cavity in the centre of the stage and the towers constructed on either side.

View of the theatre, also capturing a worrying amount of grey cloud.

View of the theatre, also capturing a worrying amount of grey cloud.

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Also to be found in Taormina is a considerably smaller Roman theatre, built in the 1st Century A.D. The stage area and some rows of seating survive.

Roman theatre in Taormina.

Roman theatre in Taormina.

What happens in Sicily… Segesta

A couple of days ago, I returned from a trip to Sicily, where I (armed with a camera and, more often than not, an ice-cream cone) enjoyed a whistle-stop tour of several Classical sites. One of the locations I visited was Segesta, which contains the remains of an incomplete Greek temple and a Greek theatre. There are also the remains of the agora (literally marketplace), from which stones were later taken away for other constructions.

Greek theatre in Segesta. This theatre would have seated 5,000 people, giving an indication of the town’s population during the Hellenistic Era (during which the theatre was constructed).

According to Virgil, Segesta (known to the ancient Greeks as Egesta) was founded by Acestes and a group of Trojans who did not wish to continue following Aeneas on his journey to found the Roman civilisation; indeed, Thucydides (who states that Segesta was founded by Trojans) seems to agree with this. In any case, Segesta became an Elymian city (the Elymians being one of the three peoples native to Sicily), located on an important strategic point on the trade routes leading to Sardinia and Spain.

Greek temple in Segesta.

From 415 B.C., Sicily became involved in the Peloponnesian War. Segesta was already being threatened by the territorial ambitions of Selinunte (then Selinus) and therefore appealed to Athens for help. Segesta was able to persuade Athens of its wealth (and, implicitly, of the opportunities for Athenian empire-building in Sicily). Consequently, Athens began the catastrophic Sicilian expedition (as recorded by Thucydides).

The temple. The columns are made from the local limestone, since the nearest marble quarries were 40km away from the site.

We can tell that the temple (pictured above) is incomplete: the floor level of the temple is missing, as is an internal “nave”; moreover, the columns lack the fluting patterns that would have been added. There are several different theories as to why the temple is incomplete. Perhaps (controversially) the construction of the temple was only begun to demonstrate the wealth of Segesta to the Athenians, and construction was halted when Athenian aid was confirmed; alternatively, perhaps the town simply ran out of resources to build the temple. Furthermore, as a consequence of its incomplete nature, we do not know to which deity this temple was dedicated.

The temple.