The Tragic Cycle in Athenian Drama

by Awesome Eagle

The Greek tragic cycle played a major role in the production and performance of Ancient Greek drama. The word Tragedy is derived from the Greek word tragodia, which translates to ‘goat song’ which was a ritual performed in honor of Dionysus. The tragic cycle involved a set pattern that a play must conform to be known as a ‘tragic’ play. The basic cycle involved hubris, aite and nemesis and was all predetermined in the play by fate. The famous ancient Greek tragedians such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides all conformed to this set pattern and created great works.

The basis of the tragic cycle lies in the committing of Hubris by a main character such as Jason in the Medea and Creon in the Antigone. Hubris can be defined as the sin of pride and is usually committed when a person though oneself equal to the gods. In Ancient Greek tragedies, hubris was usually committed at the beginning and entailed the main character offending the gods. The sin of pride differed according to the story. In Aeschylus’ The Persae we see Xerxes commit hubris and offend Poseidon, the god of the seas, by bridging the Hellespont and in the Medea when Jason violates the laws of Xenia (laws of hospitality) and acquired the Golden Fleece. In the Antigone Hubris is best shown when the chorus state “Roving ambition helps many a man to good and many it falsely lures to light desires, till failure trips them unawares, and they fall on the fire that consumes them”. This statements highlights how once hubris is committed, a person is predestined to suffer aite and eventually their nemesis. The stage of Hubris in the tragic cycle is extremely important and sets the stage for the eventual suffering of aite and nemesis.


The continuation of the tragic cycle after hubris lies in the stage of Aite. Aite can be seen as moral blindness and a person suffering aite was represented as young, rash, foolish, irrational and impetuous. In ancient Greek tragedies, aite was seen in the body of the play with frequent warnings and signs that if the character remained unhumbled he would be struck down. Most of these warnings though were false hope as the characters nemesis was already predetermined. Aite can be seen in all ancient Greek tragedies and can be definitely seen in the Medea as Jason’s moral blindness causes him to decide to divorce Medea which further increases hit intensity and extent of his nemesis. In the Antigone, Creon massively angers he gods by stating “let the eagles carry his carcass up to the throne of Zeus”. This was a grave mistake as Creon is insulting the gods by saying that he will pollute the gods and shows the extent of Creon’s aite. It is through the hubris of the character that he enrages the gods and makes himself more vulnerable to the eventual nemesis.

The end of the tragic cycle housed the nemesis. The nemesis can be seen as the inevitable destruction and is the vengeance of the gods which results in some calamity befalling the protagonist, causing him to regret his hubris. In ancient Greek tragedies the nemesis most normally occurred at the end of the play and showed the total destruction and emasculation of the protagonist. The nemesis befalling the protagonist varied from play to play but usually resulted in the loss of something important to him. In The Persae, Xerxes nemesis centered on the destruction of his fleet at the Battle of Salamis whilst in The Medea, Jason’s nemesis is centered on the death of his children, wife and father in law at the hands of Medea. In the Medea we can see that Jason’s nemesis is so total that he takes the subjugated posture in his conversation with Medea and he states “I’ll go. I have lost both my sons”. In the Antigone we see Creon’s nemesis through the suicides of both his son and wife. The destruction of the protagonist is the main point of the nemesis but it only comes to fruition through fate.

The concept of fate permeated not only the tragic cycle but Greek society at large. The Greeks themselves were very fatalistic and believed that they had no free will as the gods determined all things. A person also could not escape the future laid out for them by the gods and merely had to accept it. It is through the application of fate to the tragic cycle we see that once a person has committed hubris, then they are predetermined to commit aite and receive their nemesis as well. The epilogue in the Medea shows this when the chorus say “Zeus on Olympus dispenses many things. Gods often contradict our fondest expectations. What we anticipate does not come to pass. What we do not expect some god finds a way to make it happen. So with this story”. This shows that the gods are the true masters of fate and the ancient Greeks had no say in their own fate. The epilogue in the Antigone also shows the prevalence of fate when they say “. . . hold the gods in awe. This is the law that, seeing the stricken heart of pride brought down; we learn when we are old”. This show the inevitability in committing hubris and how nemesis will come and it also shows that some learn this lesson too late.

Greek drama grew out of the need to honor Dionysus but soon developed into a sophisticated and entertaining art form. Greek Tragedy is seen as one of the three main influences on later roman Drama and theater which in turn has had a large impact on our modern drama and theater. The creation and implementation of the tragic cycle affected the development of some of the world’s most timeless and brilliant plays and through the use of Hubris, Aite, Nemesis and the input of fate allowed Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to entertain and inform their fellow men, and teach us about Ancient Greece.