The Sex Pistols’ ‘God Save the Queen’, released in 1977 as commentary on the silver jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II, offered a powerful warning of the dangers of political nostalgia. The message was reinforced by Jamie Reid’s powerful image of a familiar portrait of the queen with her features obliterated by the ransom-note rendering of the song title and group name.
God save the queen
We mean it man
There’s no future
In England’s dreaming
The song’s lyrics assess the consequences of monarchy as an element of the political imaginary, the shared ideas and images with which a community thinks about its political institutions and practices, the queen isn’t a ‘human being’ but is nonetheless loved (see music and culture website Louder than War for a detailed analysis).
As Jon Savage showed in his cultural history of the punk years, England’s Dreaming, nostalgia for an imaginary past was part of the culture of English decline to which punk’s ideology emerged as a response; when England dreams, it looks to the past. Savage opens his survey of punk with the observation that ‘first we need the location, the vacant space where, like the buddleia on the still plentiful bombsites, these flowers can bloom’.
In identifying this void, Savage tapped into a broader critique of democratic culture. The problem of sovereignty for republican democracy is that there is no figurehead. But even in a democracy with a constitutional monarchy, the institution of monarchy operates as much as part of the political imaginary as it does as a real institution. Witness, for example, speculation about the queen’s feelings about Brexit and parliament, as in this Guardian article about her blue and yellow hat.
Classical Athens handled the problem of the democratic void in a distinctive way, as cultural historians have shown. In the same year as the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the Sex Pistols released their single, the French ancient historian Nicole Loraux completed her doctoral thesis, ‘Athènes imaginaire. Histoire de l’oraison funèbre athénienne et de sa fonction dans la cité classique’, which would be published in book form a few years later as The Invention of Athens, and which remains one of the most powerful explorations of the democratic Athenian political imaginary. The synchronism is not coincidental – this was a time when cultural theorists drew on new insights to explore societies ancient and modern. Loraux’s exploration of Athens was focused on a specific location – the public funeral speeches held to commemorate the war dead – in which Athenian politicians shaped the city’s political imaginary.
But location within Athens where some of the most visible work was done, as Cornelius Castoriadis, theorist of the political imaginary, noted, was the tragic stage. Athenian tragedy peoples the political imaginary and fills the democratic void, the lack of an identifiable individual holder of sovereignty. The citizens perform their politeia to themselves and the wider audience, but the Athens on stage is quite different from the Athens of the present. Athenian tragedy thus presents an intriguing anachronism, in the figure of the democratic king, who personifies Athenian virtues in his speech and actions. The Athenians’ self-image revolved around their support for those who asked for help, and tragedies such as Euripides’ Suppliant Women and Children of Heracles show Athenian kings, Theseus and Demophon, delivering that in person.
However, the figure of the tragic king is not entirely politically innocent. Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, written during the final stages of the Peloponnesian War when Athenian democracy was severely weakened, shows Athens at the point when it was newly united into a single political entity, with Theseus as its king. The citizens of Colonus are unsure of how to operate in this new environment, or how they should receive the problematic suppliant Oedipus. It falls to the king to assert the wishes of the unified centre, receive the suppliant and ensure the divine favour his cult will bring to the city. But, as the recent production of this play as the 2019 Cambridge Greek Play showed, the articulation of Theseus to the democracy is not entirely explicit in Sophocles’ play. This production opted to set the intricacies of Athenian political debate to one side, and to focus on the powerful story of Oedipus’ rejection of Thebes and of the successors fighting for control of it. Oedipus’ grant of support to Theseus and his successors asserts a continuity of Athenian rule from the king himself to the democratic archons who performed the religious role of the king in the democracy of Sophocles’ time.
In The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece, I explore the developing role of the image of the king in critical discussions of Athenian Democracy. Theseus was, in democratic Athens, as much of an iconographic presence as Queen Elizabeth II is in the contemporary United Kingdom. His statue appeared on temple pediments, his deeds were illustrated on temple friezes, as did paintings in public buildings. The labours he performed on behalf of the city were often depicted on painted pottery; he was often presented in similar clothing and poses to the tyrannicides, his clothing used to connect him to the iconography of democracy, rather like the queen’s hat. Like the Sex Pistols’ queen, Theseus could be a beloved monarch of Athens without being a human being, a living presence in the city. And Athenian nostalgia for the imaginary political past was often invoked and manipulated during times of civil strife, as is its contemporary British equivalent.
- See previous post Anachronism and Antiquity for more on Nicole Loraux’s study of anachronism and ancient history
- Atack, C. (2020) The Discourse of Kingship in Classical Greece (London: Routledge).
- Castoriadis, C. (1987) , The Imaginary Institution of Society, trans. K. Blamey (Cambridge: Polity).
- Easterling, P.E. (1985), ‘Anachronism in Greek Tragedy’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, Vol. 105, 1–10.
- Lefort, C. (1988) , Democracy and Political Theory, trans. D. Macey (Cambridge: Polity).
- Loraux, N. (1986)  The Invention of Athens: the funeral oration in the classical city, trans. A. Sheridan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press).
- Savage, J. (1991) England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and punk rock (London: Faber).
- Worley, M. (2017) No Future: punk, politics and British youth culture, 1976-1984 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).