CHS 2020 Spring Fellows | Erika L. Weiberg

Operation Waiting Wife: Gender and War on the Home Front in Greek Tragedy

Before Orestes kills Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ Libation Bearers, mother and son debate about the experiences of husband and wife during the husband’s time fighting at Troy (918-921). Orestes views his mother’s experiences at home as passive “sitting inside” (919, 921), but his father’s experiences at war as active, painful toil (919, 921). Speaking suddenly for all women, Clytemnestra objects that wives, separated from their husbands, also experience pain (920). Like Orestes, most readers of Greek tragedy have privileged the struggles of men at war over the struggles of women at home. Greek tragedy, however, stages both perspectives, giving voice to the soldier’s experiences of combat and combat trauma alongside what Clytemnestra describes, the pain of wives separated from their husbands because of war and the problems wives confront when their husbands return from combat.

During her fellowship at the CHS, Dr. Erika L. Weiberg will work on revising her book manuscript on wives of soldiers in tragedy, entitled Operation Waiting Wife: Gender and War on the Home Front in Greek Tragedy. This book focuses on nostos (homecoming) plays and argues that wives’ experiences of trauma shape the language and structure of these plays. Four plays about homecoming frame the warrior’s return from the perspective of his wife. Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, Euripides’ Heracles, and Euripides’ Helen dramatize wives’ emotional experiences of their husbands’ absence on campaign and his return from war. Drawing on trauma and affect theory, each chapter investigates the temporal irregularities, absences, repetitions, and inventive structures of these plays, which mimic the patterns of wives’ experiences of traumatic loss. These experiences include ambiguous loss (the pain of feeling that a loved one is psychologically present, but physically absent), sexual violence, domestic violence, the premature deaths of relatives and children, and the systemic crisis of women’s political disenfranchisement and oppression. In addition, by staging the perspectives of survivors and witnesses of the violent events described onstage, these tragedies teach their external audience about both the experience of trauma for soldiers and their wives and the complexities of bearing witness to these experiences. This will be the first scholarly book focused on wives’ experiences of war and homecoming in tragedy.

This project’s methodology is both interdisciplinary and comparative, combining trauma studies and feminist theory, while framing discussions of ancient texts with contemporary U.S. military spouses’ experiences of deployment and return. Through these diachronic comparisons, this book amplifies the potential use of ancient drama to critique endless war and to de-stigmatize the difficulty of reintegration for veterans and their families. This project offers clear implications for our current cultural moment, when over two million veterans have returned from the American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Through the CHS library’s extensive collections, especially on Homer and drama, Dr. Weiberg plans to shape a compelling new narrative of wives’ emotional experiences of war as represented in Athenian dramatic poetry.

Erika L. Weiberg

Dr. Erika L. Weiberg is an expert on Greek poetry, especially epic and drama, gender and sexuality in antiquity, and literary theory, reception, and translation studies. She is currently an assistant professor of Classics at Florida State University, where she teaches classes on Greek literature and gender and sexuality in ancient Greece and Rome. She received her PhD in Classics from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, her MPhil from the University of Cambridge, and her BA from Davidson College. She has published articles and book chapters on trauma and gender in Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and is working on articles on the Odyssey, Herodotus, and Ovid. Her research has been supported by grants and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Loeb Classical Library Foundation, in addition to the Center for Hellenic Studies. Her next project investigates the reception of the Medea and the Argonauts story in contemporary writing about gender and sexuality. You can find out more about her research and teaching here: