Ancient History & Civilisation

4. The Exile

The man whom we picture from these plays resembles sufficiently the sitting statue in the Louvre, and the busts at Naples, to let us believe that these are faithful copies of authentic Greek originals. The bearded face is handsome, but overwrought with meditation, and softened with a tender melancholy. His friends agreed with his enemies that he was gloomy, almost morose, not given to conviviality or laughter, and spending his later years in the seclusion of his island home. He had three sons, and derived some happiness from their childhood.118 He found solace in books, and was the first private citizen in Greece, so far as we know, to collect a substantial library.*119 He had excellent friends, including Protagoras and Socrates; the latter, who ignored other dramas, said that to see a play by Euripides he would walk to the Piraeus—a serious matter for a stout philosopher. The younger generation of emancipated souls looked up to him as their leader. But he had more enemies than any other writer in Greek history. The judges, who felt themselves bound, presumably, to protect religion and morals from his skeptical arrows, crowned only five of his efforts with victory; even so it was liberal of the archon basileus to admit so many Euripidean plays to a religious stage. Conservatives in all fields looked upon the dramatist as responsible with Socrates for the growth of unbelief among Athenian youth. Aristophanes declared war upon him at the outset in The Acharnians, satirized him with hilarious caricature in The Thesmophoriazusae, and, in the year after the poet’s death, continued the attack in The Frogs; nevertheless, we are told, the tragic and the comic dramatist were on friendly terms to the end.120 As for the audience, it denounced his heresies and crowded to his plays. When, at line 612 of the Hippolytus, the young hunter said, “My tongue hath sworn, but my mind remains unbound,” the crowd protested so loudly against what seemed to be an outrageously immoral proposition that Euripides had to rise in his seat and comfort them with the assurance that Hippolytus would suffer edifyingly before the story closed—a safe promise for almost any character in Greek tragedy.

About 410 he was indicted on a charge of impiety; and soon afterward Hygiaonon brought against him another suit, involving much of the poet’s fortune, and adduced Hippolytus’ line as proof of Euripides’ dishonesty. Both accusations failed; but the wave of public resentment that metThe Trojan Women led Euripides to feel that he had hardly a friend left in Athens. Even his wife, it is said, turned against him because he could not join in the martial enthusiasm of the city. In 408, at the age of seventy-two, he accepted the invitation of King Archelaus to be his guest in the Macedonian capital. At Pella, under the protection of this Frederick—who had no fears for the orthodoxy of his people—Euripides found peace and comfort; there he wrote the almost idyllic Iphigenia in Aulis, and the profound religious play, The Bacchae. Eighteen months after his arrival he died, attacked and dismembered, said pious Greeks, by the royal hounds.121

A year later his son produced the two dramas at the city Dionysia, and the judges gave them the first prize. Even modern scholars have thought that The Bacchae was Euripides’ apology to Greek religion;122 and yet the play may have been intended as a bitter allegory of Euripides’ treatment by the public of Athens. It is the story of how Pentheus, King of Thebes, was torn to pieces by a mob of female Dionysian orgiasts, led by his own mother Agave because he had denounced their wild superstition and intruded upon their revelry. It was no invention; the tale belonged to the religious tradition; the dismemberment and sacrifice of an animal, or of any man who dared to attend the ceremonies, was part of the Dionysian rite; and this powerful drama, by returning for its plot to the legend of Dionysus, bound Greek tragedy at its culmination with Greek tragedy at its birth. The play was composed among the Macedonian mountains which it describes in lyrics of unfailing power; and perhaps it was intended for performance in Pella, where the Bacchic cult was especially strong. Euripides enters with surprising insight into the mood of religious ecstasy, and puts into the mouths of the Bacchantes psalms of passionate devotion; it may indeed be that the old poet had gone to the limits of rationalism and beyond it, and recognized now the frailty of reason, and the persistency of the emotional needs of women and men. But the story does dubious honor to the Dionysian religion; its theme is once more the evils that may come of superstitious creeds.

The god Dionysus visits Thebes in disguise as a Bacchus, or incarnation of himself, and preaches the worship of Dionysus. The daughters of Cadmus reject the message; he hypnotizes them into pious ecstasy, and they go up into the hills to worship him with wild dances. They clothe themselves with the skins of animals, girdle themselves with snakes, crown themselves with ivy, and suckle the young of wolves and deer. The Theban king Pentheus opposes the cult as hostile to reason, morals, and order, and imprisons its preacher, who bears his punishment with Christian gentleness. But the god in the preacher asserts himself, opens the prison walls, and uses his miraculous power to hypnotize the young ruler. Under this influence Pentheus dresses himself as a woman, climbs the hills, and joins the revelers. The women discover that he is a man, and tear him limb from limb; his own mother, drunk with “possession,” carries Pentheus’ severed head in her hands, thinking it the head of a lion, and sings a song of triumph over it. When she comes to her senses and sees that it is the head of her son, she is revolted with the cult that intoxicated her; and when Dionysus says, “Ye mocked me, being God; this is your wage,” she answers, “Should God be like a proud man in his rage?” The last lesson is the same as the first; even in his dying play the poet remained Euripides.

After his death he achieved popularity even in Athens. The ideas for which he had fought became the dominant conceptions of the following centuries, and the Hellenistic age looked back to him and to Socrates as the greatest intellectual stimuli that Greece had ever known. He had dealt with living problems rather than “dead tales of minstrelsy,” and it took the ancient world a long time to forget him. The plays of his predecessors slipped into oblivion while his own were repeated in every year, and wherever the Greek world had a stage. When, in the collapse of that expedition to Syracuse (415) whose failure had been forecast in The Trojan Women, the captive Athenians faced a living death as chained slaves in the quarries of Sicily, those were given their freedom (Plutarch tells us) who could recite passages from the plays of Euripides.123 The New Comedy molded itself upon his dramas, and grew out of them; one of its leaders, Philemon, said, “If I were sure that the dead have consciousness, I would hang myself to see Euripides.”124 The revival of skepticism, liberalism, and humanitarianism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made Euripides almost a contemporary figure, more modern than Shakespeare. All in all, only Shakespeare has equaled him; and Goethe did not think so. “Have all the nations of the world since Euripides,” asked Goethe of Eckermann, “produced one dramatist worthy to hand him his slippers?”125 Not more than one.

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