Reconstructing European Climate from Ancient Drama?

This is one of those things that might raise an eyebrow. Here’s the summary in PhysOrg:

The open air plays of the ancient Greeks may offer us a valuable insight into the Mediterranean climate of the time, reports new research in Weather. Using historical observations from artwork and plays, scientists identified ‘halcyon days’, of theatre friendly weather in mid-winter.

“We explored the weather conditions which enabled the Athenians of the classical era to watch theatre performances in open theatres during the midwinter weather conditions,” said Christina Chronopoulou, from the National and Kapodestrian University of Athens. “We aimed to do so by gathering and interpreting information from the classical plays of Greek drama from 5th and 4th centuries B.C.”

Ancient Athenians would enjoy the open theatre of Dionysus in the southern foothills of the Acropolis and when possible they would have watched drama in the middle of winter between 15 January and 15 February.

From Second World War bombing raids, to medieval Arabic writings historians and climatologists continue to turn to surprising sources to help piece together the climate of our ancestors. In this case the team turned to the writings of 43 plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes and several were found to contain references about the weather. Greece enjoys long, hot, dry summers, yet in contrast the rare theatre friendly ‘halcyon days’ of clear, sunny weather during winter appeared to be especially noteworthy.

“The comedies of Aristophanes, often invoke the presence of the halcyon days,” concluded said Dr. Chronopoulou. “Combining the fact that dramatic contests were held in mid-winter without any indication of postponement, and references from the dramas about the clear weather and mild winters, we can assume that those particular days of almost every January were summery in the fifth and maybe in the fourth centuries BC.”

So I read all that and say to myself, “Shirley (don’t call me Shirley) they can’t be suggesting that just because a drama is put on in a winter and a character mentions the weather, that is an indication of the weather at the time?” Meanwhile, despite the dead link at PhysOrg, it is interesting that there is an “enhanced” html version of the article available online:

Ancient Greek drama as an eyewitness of a specific meteorological phenomenon: indication of stability of the Halcyon days - (Weather – Wiley Online Library)

… check this out; inter alia on halcyon days:

The Halcyon days, a phenomenon also observed nowadays, has its origins in an ancient myth. According to one version, the goddess Halcyon, daughter of Aeolus, the ruler of the winds, insults Zeus and Hera. So, the father of gods transformed her into a bird and condemned her to lay her eggs only in the mid-winter. Consequently, the little birds were hardly able to survive. Crying and praying endlessly, Halcyon managed to make Zeus feel pity for her and so he decided to give her 14 days of good and calm weather in mid-January in order to lay her eggs in security. The Halcyon days were named after this Greek myth, and in Aristotle’s Histories about animals (p. 5.8; 350 BC) he writes The halcyon breeds at the season of the winter solstice. Accordingly, when this season is marked with calm weather, the name of “halcyon days” is given to the seven days preceding and to as many following the solstice (Wentworth Tompson, 2007).

So it’s a couple of weeks in January that are nice (in Ontario we refer to this as the “January Thaw” and we didn’t get it this year) … then we get the data sources:

The data sources are the classical dramas of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes, classical theatre of fifth and fourth centuries BC, which provide us with earlier information about historical weather than the geographers of the third century BC, and they act as ‘eyewitness’ accounts.

In those 43 plays – 7 by Aeschylus, 7 by Sophocles, 18 by Euripides and 11 by Aristophanes (Lesky, 1988) – we notice seven references with information about the weather in Athens from 458 BC until 401 BC, providing direct and indirect indications related to clear weather and the beneficial Halcyon days in mid-winter. The chronological order of the dramas studied is as follows: Aeschylus in Agamemnon 458 BC, Euripides in Medea 431 BC, Aristophanes in Acharnians 425 BC, Aristophanes in Birds 414 BC, Aristophanes in Frogs 405 BC, Sophocles in Oedipus in Colonus 401 BC. In the following we present fragments of Greek drama not in chronological order, but according to the volume of information provided.

… after a section on Athenian festivals, there is a bit about the Lenaia which is interesting:

Lenaia seemed to be the second most popular celebration after the City Dionysian festival. Famous plays, especially the following comedies by Aristophanes, won the first or second prize in the dramatic contests in Lenaia: Acharnians (425 BC) won first prize, Knights (425 BC) first prize, Wasps (422 BC) second prize and Frogs (405 BC) first prize, but there is no information about Lysistrata (411 BC) winning a prize.

Lenaia seemed to be the second most popular celebration after the City Dionysian festival. Famous plays, especially the following comedies by Aristophanes, won the first or second prize in the dramatic contests in Lenaia: Acharnians (425 BC) won first prize, Knights (425 BC) first prize, Wasps (422 BC) second prize and Frogs (405 BC) first prize, but there is no information about Lysistrata (411 BC) winning a prize. [...]

It’s here that we enter a dangerous circularity. It’s warm enough to put on a drama during Gamelion (when the Lenaia were held). Any ‘weather talk’ in the plays that suggest it was warm is evidence that it is. So here’s the conclusion:

The comedies of Aristophanes, especially those presented in Lenaia, often invoke the presence of the Halcyon days. Combining the fact that dramatic contests were held in mid-winter without any indication of postponement, and references from the dramas about the clear weather and mild winters in Attica, we can assume that those particular days of almost every January were summery in the fifth and maybe in the fourth centuries BC. Information is also drawn from the paintings on vessels showing that the clothes worn in Lenaia and in the wedding ceremonies were not designed for rainy weather. All these references concern indications for the fifth century BC. We found no weather indications in the fourth century BC dramas, but dramatic contests continued to take place during that century, because Aristotle’s references to Lenaia were in the fourth century BC.

So far so good, even if the assumption there might be taking it a bit far (Now is the winter of our discontent, made glorious. But it continues:

In addition it should be mentioned that the classical period, which the indications of meteorological weather stability concern, coincides with a time of significant cultural and philosophical development.

Whaaaaa? And the price of tea in China was?

In case you missed the link above:

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Classics Confidential: Andrew Simpson on his Operatic Oresteia

This week, our Classics Confidential vodcast features Dr. Anastasia Bakogianni (OU) talking to Professor Andrew Earle Simpson (Benjamin T. Rome School of Music of The Catholic University of Washington, DC) about his operatic reception of Aeschylus’ Oresteia. You can listen to extracts from this three-part opera on the website http://www.andrewesimpson.com, which also contains additional links to photographs, video footage and reviews of the performances, and much more.