Despotic Nostalgias: Classical Athens and the Autocratic Return
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McKeon, Keating Patrick Joseph
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CitationMcKeon, Keating Patrick Joseph. 2020. Despotic Nostalgias: Classical Athens and the Autocratic Return. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThis dissertation explores the construction of nostalgia in fifth-century BCE Athenian conceptions of autocracy. I develop a model of “autocratic return” to demonstrate how the autocrat’s desire for homeward travel (nostos) presents ambitions of sole rule as the inevitable resolution of a prior physical displacement. Previous scholarship has either prioritized the significance of nostos in specific works of literature, or emphasized its diachronic role as a motif connecting discrete poetic genres from Homer’s Odyssey onwards. My project innovates in its holistic study of the pattern’s cultural refashioning at a specific place and moment, locating the artificial yearning for an absent home, and the consequent wish for return travel, as critical features in the poetic and political representation of autocracy at Athens. I establish the act of homecoming and its consequences both as an illuminating frame through which to view the classical reception of autocracy, and as an important point of intersection for epic, epinician, and tragic concerns.
The dissertation first establishes a historical framework for this concept in the wake of the Persian Wars. I identify in Herodotus’ Histories a series of increasingly threatening returns undertaken by autocrats with specific reference to Athens and demonstrate the increasing ability of the Athenian state to contain this type of journey, which serves in turn as an important measure of democratic ascendancy. I next consider the fifth-century Athenian theater as a critical space for the mediation of traditionally inevitable homecomings made by mythological sole rulers, and I propose autocratic return as a distinct subtype of the nostos play. Taking Aeschylus’ Persae and Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus as my case studies, I explore the appropriation of epinician features in Attic tragedy as markers of fraught or failed return travel attempted by autocrats.
This dissertation offers a new perspective on the long afterlife of nostos in the Greek cultural imagination; suggests an additional dimension to the fifth-century democratic conception of autocrats in Athens connected specifically to their travel; and adds significant understanding to the incorporation and refashioning of epinician lyric in Attic tragedy.
Citable link to this pagehttps://nrs.harvard.edu/URN-3:HUL.INSTREPOS:37365971
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