Soldiers and Sailors:
Power and Class in the Philoctetes

Jonathan Chicken

Indiana University

Late 5th century Athens saw the displacement from power of the "hoplite class" of moderately wealthy landowners by the new, post-Periclean citizen-sailors who had gained so much influence by the time of the Peloponnesian War's close.  It is my contention that the Philoctetes is at its heart about this shift in power from the landed, hoplite ruling class and its characteristics—as represented by Philoctetes and his generation—to the "sailor" underclass and unscrupulous sophistic politicians—as represented by Odysseus—who sought to profit from this new order.  Though W.B. Stanford in The Ulysses Theme discusses the foul character of Odysseus in the play, this theme has not been dealt with before from the perspective of military power, which is ultimately linked to the class schism between aristocratic hoplites and democratic sailors.  The discourse of military power is made manifest in the concrete symbol of the Bow of Herakles—he who holds it holds power in the state—while Neoptolemus himself serves as the symbol of the state's direction; it is in the hands of his generation that the future lies.

Throughout the play, Sophocles discusses the triangle of Philoctetes, Odysseus, and Sophocles in terms which can leave no doubt as to his real intent.  Odysseus, the seaman par excellence of antiquity, has with him a chorus of  sailors.  Oscar Mandel, in Philoctetes and the Fall of Troy, points out that these are not a part of the fabric of earlier productions of the play, but a new introduction to the tale by Sophocles himself.  When Odysseus remarks that "it is the tongue, not the actions, that rules in all things for mortals" (Phil. 98-99), he has clearly been cast out of the heroic age and into the sophistic one.  Philoctetes for his part recognizes the nature of the enemy, who "hopes by his cajoling words to bring me and display me" (630) "as though he were bringing a strong man he had taken by force" (945).  Philoctetes of course laments the failure of the aristocratic, martial values of the heroic age—the Gods, he says, delight in preserving from death cunning and villainy while righteousness and valor (chrēsta, 451) perish. And Neoptolemus, as a representative of the old aristocratic order (esthlou patros pai, 96) and noble himself (gennaion, 50), echoes the old man: "where the worse man has more power than the better, where good (chrēsta, 457) perishes, and the coward is in power, the men in that place I will never tolerate."  Here chrēstos denotes functional, moral, and aristocratic values.  The good man is useful for hoplites, in concrete terms on the battlefield rather than in the law-courts or assembly.   Neoptolemus is the undecided future—it is his choice that will determine the future course of the state, and it is clear within the play which of the two alternatives Sophocles prefers.

Much ink has been spilled regarding the sudden deus ex machina that closes the play, but this is irrelevant to the themes outlined above.  It is not the "real" ending in the sense of the intended subtext of the play, because the subtext is hortatory in nature.  Sophocles does not know how the "real" play will end in the outside world, but Philoctetes exists within a mythic framework and must answer to narrative demands.  As Simon Goldhill has shown, the close connection between civic ideology and the City Dionysia makes this sort of message ideal for Sophocles to present as warning and advice for the empowered youths in his audience: make the right decision.

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]