Ancient History & Civilisation


‘I portray men as they should be, but Euripides portrays them as they are.’

(Sophocles, quoted by Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 25, 1460b33–4)

‘Whatever other defects of organization he may have, Euripides is the most intensely tragic of all the poets.’

(Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 14, 1453a28–30)

‘I am really amazed that the scholarly nobility does not comprehend his virtues, that they rank him below his predecessors, in line with that high-toned tradition which the clown Aristophanes brought into currency … Has any nation ever produced a dramatist who would deserve to hand him his slippers?’

(Goethe, Diaries, 22 Nov. 1831)

‘What were you thinking of, overweening Euripides, when you hoped to press myth, then in its last agony, into your service? It died under your violent hands … Though you hunted all the passions up from their couch and conjured them into your circle, though you pointed and burnished a sophistic dialectic for the speeches of your heroes, they have only counterfeit passions and speak counterfeit speeches.’

(Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy, ch. 10)


Already in his own lifetime Euripides was a controversial figure. Daring in his theatrical innovations, superbly eloquent and articulate in the rhetoric which he gave to his characters, closely in touch with the intellectual life of his time, he has stimulated and shocked audiences and readers not only through the unexpected twists and turns of his plots, but also by the alarming immorality of many of his characters. But before exploring these and other aspects of his work in more detail, we must briefly put him in context, by giving an outline of the earlier history of the Athenian genre of tragedy, and the work of Aeschylus, his great predecessor, and of Sophocles, his older contemporary.

Unlike epic poetry, which was a traditional form familiar throughout the Greek world, tragedy was a relatively new invention in the fifth century BC, and one which was particularly Athenian. Its origins and early development are obscure: if, as Aristotle believed, it originated in a form of choral song, the ‘dithyramb’, a song in honour of the god Dionysus, then it had already been transformed before the time of Aeschylus. Ancient tradition held that contests between tragic playwrights had become an established part of the festival known as the City Dionysia (held in March) some time in the 530s, and that the key figure of these early days was a dramatist called Thespis. Our earliest surviving tragedy is Aeschylus’ Persians, performed in 472, a full sixty years later. The dramas which have survived span the rest of the fifth century, a period of intense political activity and social and intellectual change. Hence generalizations even about the extant dramas will be dangerous, and we must always bear in mind that we have only the tip of the iceberg.

The Athenian tragedies were performed in the open air, in a theatre enormous by modern standards: some experts believe that it could have contained more than 14,000 people, as it certainly could after reconstruction in the fourth century.1 This large audience was probably composed mainly of men (it is likely that women could attend, but probable that not many did so). Those attending paid for admission, but the price was low, probably less than half a labourer’s daily wage; in the fourth century even this charge was paid for out of public subsidies. The stage-arrangements were sparse: a building set behind the main area where the actors moved would represent a palace or other such building according to the needs of the play. Perhaps on a lower level (though the layout is much disputed) was the open area called the orchestra (‘dancing-space’), in which the chorus stood or danced. The events were presented as happening out of doors, theatrically necessary but also more natural in Mediterranean life. Entrances along passages on either side of the theatre were loosely conceived as leading to different destinations – country or city, army camp or seashore, depending on the plot. Actors were all male (even for female parts), normally Athenian citizens; all wore masks and dignified formal dress; speaking actors were almost invariably limited to three in number, but could take on different roles during the play by changing costume and mask offstage. Stage equipment and props were few; the action was largely stylized, even static, with the more violent action conceived as taking place offstage, then being reported to the actors, often in a long narrative speech. All plays were in verse, partly spoken and partly sung; although Euripides made several strides towards more ‘realistic’ drama, the effect of a Greek tragedy in his time would still have been to move the audience to a distant world, where great figures of the mythical past fought and disputed over momentous issues.

Every Greek tragedy had a chorus, a team of twelve or fifteen singers representing the community or some other body concerned with the events of the drama. It may be that originally tragedy consisted wholly of choral songs; if so, the key innovation, whether Thespis or another was responsible, must have been the introduction of an actor who engaged in dialogue with the chorus, who could withdraw and take part in events offstage, then return to inform them of developments. Aeschylus is said to have introduced a second actor, Sophocles a third. There the tragedians stopped, though as the century passed the three actors were often expected to play more roles, and ‘mute’ actors (domestic slaves, attendants or soldiers) were permitted. Different sections of the drama were formally distinct: a substantial choral song normally divided major sections of the play (it is common to use the modern term ‘acts’); but formal variation is found even within a single scene. Actors might address one another in long formalized speeches (‘rhesis’), or in more fast-moving dialogue: the tragedians were especially fond of fast-moving line-by-line exchanges (‘stichomythia’), and later in the century, especially in Euripides, this might be given still greater rapidity by dividing successive lines between characters. As we shall see, actors often move from one stylistic register to another, shifting from speech to recitative to full-scale song; in earlier tragedy they tend to sing together with or in response to the chorus, but later the actors sing solos or ‘monodies’.2 In general, the importance of the actors and the size of their role in the play increased, while that of the chorus declined; but in the work of the three great tragedians the chorus were never unimportant, and their songs or ‘choral odes’ do far more than fill in time or allow an interval: these odes comment on the action, react to it and ponder its significance, placing it in a larger perspective, chronological and religious. Some of the finest poetry in Greek tragedy comes in the choral odes.

We tend to think of the theatre as a recreation, and one which is available more or less any night of the year. The position in ancient Athens was quite different. Drama was part of a civic occasion, the festival of Dionysus. Although the city held many religious festivals, tragedies were performed only at a few, and at fixed points in the year. It was not possible for a dramatist to stage anything he liked at any time; he had to apply to the proper authorities and be ‘granted a chorus’, given permission to compete and financial support (it is true, however, that we also have evidence for theatrical activities in rural Attica, where procedure was perhaps less formal than at the great civic festivals). In the earliest times the dramatist would also play a part in his plays, though Sophocles is said to have given this up because his voice was weak. Still more important, the author was also the producer, working together with his actors and choruses and training them. At the City Dionysia three tragedians would compete for the prize every year; each of them would present three tragedies – sometimes but not necessarily a connected ‘trilogy’. Aeschylus favoured these trilogies (as his masterpiece, the Oresteia, illustrates), but they seem to have gone out of fashion after his death, and the overwhelming majority of surviving tragedies are self-contained dramas. After that each competing dramatist would also put on a ‘satyr-play’. This last was a wild and fantastic tailpiece, usually shorter than a tragedy: it always had a chorus of satyrs, the bestial entourage of Dionysus, and usually treated mythological themes in a burlesque and bawdy way. The only complete example to survive is Euripides’ Cyclops, an amusing take-off of the story told in Homer’s Odyssey about the hero’s encounter with the one-eyed monster.

What of the content of the tragedies? Perhaps the most significant fact is that the subjects are almost always mythological.3 The only surviving exception is Aeschylus’ Persians, though we know of a few others in the early period. The Persians commemorates the victory of the Greeks in the recent war against Xerxes, king of Persia, and in particular the battle of Salamis, which had taken place only eight years earlier. But this exception in a way proves the rule, for the play is not set in Greece, but at the Persian court, presenting the subject from the Persian viewpoint. Nor is it mere jingoism: the theme is almost mythologized, raised to a grander and more heroic plane. No individual Greek is named or singled out for praise: the emphasis falls rather on the arrogant folly of a deluded king, who has led his people to defeat. There is, as always in tragedy, a supernatural element: the ghost of Xerxes’ father, summoned back to earth, pronounces stern judgement on his son’s rash ambition. In the rest of the tragic corpus, the dramatists use myth to distance their stories in time, and so give them universality. Instead of setting their actors the task of impersonating living generals or politicians confronting contemporary crises, the tragedians, like Homer, show us men and women who are remote from us in their circumstances, yet vividly like us and real in their hopes, fears and desires.

Secondly, Greek tragedy is civic in emphasis: its plots, that is, deal with kings and rulers, disputes and dilemmas which have vital implications for the state as a whole. If Oedipus cannot find the murderer of Laius, the plague which is already devastating Thebes will destroy it. If Odysseus and Neoptolemus cannot recover Philoctetes and his bow, Troy will not fall. Consequently tragedy normally deals with men and women of high status – monarchs and royal families, tyrants and mighty heroes. Characters of lower rank generally have smaller parts. As we shall see, however, this is one area in which Euripides showed himself an innovator: ‘I made tragedy more democratic,’ he is made to say in the satirical treatment of tragedy in Aristophanes’ Frogs, produced after his death.

Thirdly, complementing and often conflicting with the political dimension, the family is regularly the focus for tragic action. Part of the lasting power of Greek drama lies in the vividness with which it presents extreme love and (still more) intense hatred within the family: matricide, parricide, fratricide, adultery and jealousy, even incest and other forbidden passions. Duty to family and duty to the state may come into conflict: can Agamemnon bring himself to abandon the expedition against Troy, or must he take the terrible decision to sacrifice his daughter for a fair wind? Loyalty to kin is central to Antigone; conflicting obligations to different members of the family create many of the dilemmas in the Oresteia. The list could easily be extended.

Fourthly, there is the religious aspect. We know too little of early tragedy to confirm or deny the theory that it concentrated mainly on the myths of Dionysus, in whose honour the plays were performed; but by Aeschylus’ time the scope has obviously broadened. But no Greek tragedy is secular. Although the dramatists normally focus on the actions and sufferings of human beings, the gods are always present in the background. In early tragedy they figure quite frequently on stage as characters (as in Aeschylus’ Eumenides). Sophocles seems to have been much more restrained in this, while Euripides normally confines them to the prologue (where they do not usually meet any mortal characters), or to the conclusion of a play, where a god may appear on a higher level, above the stage-building. Sometimes this seems to be a matter of the god standing on the roof of the building, but more spectacular still was the use of a crane-like device to allow the divinity the power of flight. From this remote position of authority the god would declare his will,ex machina as the phrase has it, intervening to resolve or at least impose a conclusion upon the events on earth.

Even when gods do not appear, they are frequently invoked, addressed in prayer, called to witness an oath, sometimes questioned or challenged. With the awesome powers of Olympus watching and influencing events, human affairs gain a larger significance: these are not trivial wars or petty crimes, if they attract divine attention and even retribution. Yet because the humans often seem helpless pawns or puppets in the divine game, the greatness of the heroes can seem sadly insignificant, and their proud boasts or ambitions may often be ironically overturned or frustrated. The wiser players on the tragic stage sometimes draw this pessimistic conclusion. ‘I see we are but phantoms, all we who live, or fleeting shadows,’ says Odysseus in Sophocles’ Ajax (125–6); or as the chorus sing in Oedipus the King, after the horrible truth is out: ‘Alas ye generations of men, how close to nothingness do I count your life. Where in the world is the mortal who wins more of happiness than just the illusion, and after the semblance, the falling away? With your example, your fate before my eyes, yours, unhappy Oedipus, I count no man happy’ (1186–96).

One last general point should be made. Greek tragedy was intended for performance: although texts undoubtedly circulated, the primary concern was production in the theatre.4 It is important to try to reconstruct the stage movements, the points at which characters enter and exit, observe one another, come into physical contact, pass objects to another person, and so forth. Major questions of interpretation may hinge on these seemingly small-scale puzzles: to take an example from the plays in the first volume of this series, does Hippolytus ever address Phaedra or not? It all depends on how we envisage the staging, and relate it to the words, of a particular scene (Hippolytus 601–68, esp. 651 ff.). Another striking instance is the uncertainty over the later part of the Andromache: in the original performance, the character Andromache either appeared in the final scene or she did not. Since she speaks no words in that scene, the text gives us no guidance; but her mute appearance, recalling to the audience her previous suffering and the miseries of Troy, would modify the effect of the end of the play, in which so much is made of the death of Neoptolemus, one of the sackers of Troy.

Moreover, the tragic performance involved music and dancing by the chorus, of which we can recover next to nothing – a few descriptions in ancient prose authors, a handful of papyri with musical annotation, and pictures of dramatic productions on vases do not get us very far. To compare our situation with that of an opera-lover confined to studying a libretto would be unfair to the tragedians, for the spoken dialogue of tragedy is far richer and more significant, demands far more attention from the audience, than the interludes between songs in opera. But we should not forget that, particularly in the choruses and the other lyrics, we have lost what the original cast and audience would have regarded as a vital part of the production.5


To try to sum up the work of Aeschylus and Sophocles in a few paragraphs is to risk pure banality.6 The attempt must be made, however, if we are to see Euripides in relation to his great predecessors. Seven complete tragedies attributed to Aeschylus survive, including his monumental trilogy, the Oresteia (Agamemnon, Libation-Bearers, Eumenides). One of the others, Prometheus Bound, has recently been subject to close critical scrutiny, and on the basis of this analysis many authoritative judges think it spurious; but if so, its author shares something of Aeschylus’ grandeur of conception and magnificence of language. As already explained, Aeschylus tended to use the trilogy form, which permitted him, as in the Oresteia and in the series of which the Seven against Thebes is the third, to trace the history of a family through several generations, showing how the sins of the elders are re-enacted or paid for by their descendants. Inherited guilt, ancestral curses, persecuting Furies, vendetta and religious pollution – concepts such as these permeate the world of Aeschylean tragedy, a world of dark powers and evil crimes, in which humans must pray and hope for justice and retribution from the gods, but may pray in vain, or find that the gods are slow to respond. Austere in its characterization, eloquent yet exotic in its polysyllabic style, dominated by long and complex choral songs, his drama often seems to belong to a much older world. Yet this is only one side of a complex artist; Aeschylus, born in the sixth century BC, is also the poet of democratic Athens, deeply concerned with its ideals of reasoned discussion and decision-making. By the end of the fifth century BC he was established as a classic (his plays were re-performed in recognition of this), though he could also be regarded as remote and difficult. Aristophanes’ Frogs, which dramatizes Dionysus’ quest in the underworld for a great poet to bring back to life, presents Aeschylus as a symbol of the good old days, but also as a composer of grandiose and incomprehensible lyrics. In the next century, Aristotle in the Poetics uses examples from Sophocles and Euripides far more than from Aeschylus.

To sum up Aeschylus as a poet of archaic grandeur would, however, be quite misleading. He is capable of much lighter and even humorous passages: particularly memorable are the sentimental reminiscences of Orestes’ nurse in the Libation-Bearers, or the complaints of the herald in theAgamemnon about the awful time the common soldiers had at Troy (it is significant that both of these are lower-class types; the great tragic figures are not allowed these more chatty interludes). More important, in his presentation of the doom-laden world of the heroic age he not only shows us horrific events and catastrophe, but also allows his characters to work towards a difficult resolution. In Aeschylean tragedy there is a strong emphasis on the power of the gods, particularly the will of Zeus, who oversees human lives and may bring blessings as well as destruction. Not all the dilemmas faced by Aeschylus’ characters are insoluble, although the final outcome may be preceded by further hard choices or disasters. The city of Thebes is saved from invasion, but only through the death of Eteocles, its king. Above all, in the Oresteia, the one trilogy which we can study as a magnificently unified whole, Aeschylus dramatizes the contrast between a darker world of vendetta and savage intrafamilial conflict and a society in which the rule of law has an important place, where argument and persuasion may prove superior to hatred and violence. It is a society which mirrors or idealizes his own: the refugee Argive Orestes, pursued by the monstrous Furies, finds sanctuary in a mythical Athens where Athena presides over an archetypal law-court. In this trilogy, although the suffering and crimes of the past are not forgotten, the final emphasis is on the enlightened justice of the present, and the reconciliation of opposed factions among the gods promises prosperity in the future. Aeschylus as a boy had seen the overthrow of the Athenian tyrants; he had fought at Marathon, and in his later years saw the transformation of his city into a democracy and the centre of an empire. It is no surprise that ideals of political debate and civic harmony are prominent in his work; but in view of the darker side discussed above, it would be facile to label him an optimist, either about human nature or about human society. The tragic power of his dramas is not diminished by his central recognition that something positive may, in the end, emerge after or out of suffering.

Whereas Aeschylus’ characters (Prometheus apart) are above all members of a family or of a larger community, Sophocles tends to focus on individuals set apart from their society or at odds with those who care for them: Ajax, Antigone, Electra, Philoctetes, the aged Oedipus. With him, more than with the other two tragedians, it makes sense to speak of tragic heroes and heroines. Again we have only seven plays, selected in late antiquity for school study, and we know that this represents less than a tenth of his output; moreover, those we have are mostly impossible to date. Obviously generalizations must be surrounded with cautious qualifications, but we can recognize a number of other differences from Aeschylus (to whom he nevertheless owed much). The abandonment of trilogy form has already been mentioned. The role of the chorus is somewhat reduced, though some of the odes which reflect on human achievement and its smallness in relation to the timeless power of the gods have a poetic splendour to match almost anything in Aeschylus. The characters have more depth and subtlety: as an anonymous ancient biographer said of Sophocles, ‘He knows how to arrange the action with such a sense of timing that he creates an entire character out of a mere half-line or a single expression.’ Partly because he makes more varied use of the third actor, Sophocles constructs scenes which involve more shifts of attention, more realistic and sophisticated interplay between characters, than we can easily find in Aeschylus. Another difference is in the religious atmosphere. Aeschylus regularly brought the gods on stage and allowed them to converse with humans (the Furies, Athena and Apollo in Eumenides, Aphrodite in the lost third play of the Suppliants trilogy); Sophocles does so only rarely, and even then the gap between man and god is emphasized: Athena is remote and haughty with Odysseus in Ajax, Heracles commanding and superhuman in Philoctetes; both are probably out of reach, above the human level. In general, the gods do not communicate plainly or unambiguously with mortals: oracles and prophecies offer mysterious and misleading insights, and even Oedipus, the most intelligent of men, can find that his whole life has been lived on completely false assumptions. The limitations of human knowledge allow ample scope for dramatic irony, where the audience understand the double meanings or the deeper truths behind the superficial sense of the words. Central to Sophoclean tragedy is the gap between reality and appearance, understanding and illusion; his characters often discern the truth about their circumstances, or themselves, only when it is too late to avert disaster.

Sophocles has sometimes been seen as a particularly ‘pious’ writer or thinker. In part this results from a very partial reading of certain selected passages which have been taken to express the poet’s own opinions (always a dangerous method); in part it derives from information about his involvement in Athenian religious life, for instance the cult of Asclepius. But within his plays, although the power of the gods is beyond question, and those who doubt that power or reject their oracles are swiftly refuted, it is hard to see any straightforward scheme of divine justice at work. Divine action is characterized as enigmatic and obscure. There is an order in the world, as is shown by the fulfilment of oracles; but the pattern is often too elusive for men to grasp. The gods are not indifferent to humanity: they punish Creon in Antigone, they grant a home and honour to Oedipus at the end of his life (Oedipus at Colonus). But there are also mysteries which remain unanswered: why does Antigone have to die? Why did Philoctetes suffer agonies in isolation on Lemnos for nine years? Any open-minded reader of these plays will acknowledge that Sophocles does not give us a simple or uniform account of human life or of mankind’s relation to the gods and fate. Had he done so, the plays would probably not have remained so hauntingly powerful over two and a half millennia.

Sophocles is justly regarded as the greatest master of formal structure – no mere mechanical technique, but a vital aspect of his art. The development of each scene, in each play, is beautifully paced; the contrasts of style and mood between successive scenes, or between one scene and the choral song which follows, are achieved with seemingly effortless brilliance. These skills are combined with deep understanding of character in the scenes between Neoptolemus and Philoctetes, with mastery of tension and irony in the advancing quest which will lead Oedipus to self-discovery. On a more minute level of style, Oedipus the King also shows his subtlety of technique in the exchange which culminates in the revelation of the hero’s identity (1173–6): here each line is divided between Oedipus and the herdsman whom he is questioning, and as the truth becomes plainer Oedipus’ questions become shorter and more faltering, the servant’s responses fuller and more desperate. This flexible handling of dialogue form is only one small example of the complete command Sophocles has over his medium. Appalling hatred and unbearable loss are expressed in formal verse of wonderful lucidity and sharpness; only rarely do the eloquent lines dissolve into incoherent cries of pain, as they do when Philoctetes is overcome by his repulsive wound.


We turn now to our main subject, the third of the great tragedians. It is far too commonly supposed that Euripides comes ‘after’ Sophocles, and this can easily lead to a simplifying formula which sees Aeschylus as primitive, Euripides as decadent, and Sophocles as the apex of perfection in between. In fact although Euripides was clearly younger, he and Sophocles were competing together, often against one another, for most of their lives, and Sophocles died within a year of his rival. Both were very much younger than Aeschylus, though they will certainly have seen some of his later productions. Sophocles in fact competed against Aeschylus with his first production, in 468 BC, and won; Euripides first put on a tetralogy in 455 BC with a less satisfactory result, coming third. We do not know his competitors on that occasion. From that point on Euripides was constantly in the public eye, putting on a total of around ninety plays up to his death in 406 BC (his last plays, including the Bacchae, were produced posthumously).

We know very little about his life, and what comes down from antiquity is often unreliable (a great deal seems to be derived from the comic treatment of the dramatist by Aristophanes).7 There is a long-standing tradition that he was unpopular and unsuccessful in his career. We are told that he was melancholy, thoughtful and severe, that he hated laughter and women, that he lived in a cave looking out to the sea from Salamis, that he had a substantial library. None of this amounts to much more than doubtful anecdote. A more concrete statement, which probably rests on inscriptional evidence, is that he won the first prize only four times (once posthumously) in his whole career. This sounds more dramatic than it is, since prizes would be awarded to the tetralogy of plays as a whole: in other words, sixteen out of about ninety plays were winners. Even with this reservation, however, there remains a contrast with the other two tragedians: Aeschylus and Sophocles were each victorious with over half their plays. We should not attach too much importance to the figure about his victories, for it is clear that he was repeatedly granted a chorus, and that the Athenians enjoyed and were fascinated by his work. The constant parodies and references to his plays in Aristophanes’ comedies are not only satirical criticism but a kind of tribute to a playwright whose work he obviously knew intimately and whose significance was beyond question.

We happen to have more plays by Euripides than by the other two tragedians put together: the complete total is nineteen, but that includes the satyr-play Cyclops and also Rhesus, a play widely thought to be a fourth-century BC imitation. This larger figure is partly accidental, the results of the hazards of transmission through the ages, but partly reflects the popularity of Euripides in the educational tradition – his language is easier, his speeches were more suitable for aspiring orators to study, and his plays, with their heady mixture of intellectual and emotional appeal, might be found more immediately accessible.8 We can also put fairly firm dates on a good many of the plays, because of information which survives in copies of the original inscriptions recording victories in the contests and citing the names of annual magistrates of Athens. Where external evidence for dating is lacking, the date of a play can be determined within limits by ‘stylometry’, that is, the statistical analysis of the poet’s changing linguistic and metrical habits, using the firmly dated plays as a framework.9 This means not only that we can say something about Euripides’ development as a poet, but also that it is possible to identify, or at least speculate about, passages which touch on or allude to Athenian politics and other contemporary events. This is naturally most tempting with plays such as the Children of Heracles and the Suppliant Women, which are set in Athens and present a mythological image of the Athenians as benefactors of others. But there are many other passages which, without naming Athens, use the language of contemporary politics or ideology. A good example comes in Orestes, in which a detailed account of a meeting of the assembly of Argive citizens includes lines which remind the reader of historical and rhetorical texts of the period – of the historian Thucydides’ portrayal of Athenian demagogues, for example (Orestes 866–952, especially 902–16). Although the importance of this approach has sometimes been exaggerated, and the tragedies are not windows on to history, it is a mistake to rule out such allusions on principle.10

None of the plays we possess in entirety is from the earliest stage of Euripides’ career; the first, Alcestis, was produced in 438 BC, when he was already in his forties. The great majority of surviving plays come from the last three decades of the fifth century BC, the period of the great war between Athens and Sparta, a time in which the cultural and political prominence of Athens was still conspicuous but no longer unchallenged, and by the end of the period increasingly under threat. Euripides did not live to see the defeat of Athens, but several of his later plays suggest growing pessimism about political and military leadership, about civic deliberation, and about the conduct of the victors in wartime. These are not novel themes, in poetry or in life, but they have an added resonance in the light of fifth-century BC history.

The sheer range and variety of Euripides’ plays is extraordinary.11 Perhaps if we had as many of Aeschylus’ or Sophocles’ plays they would seem equally difficult to categorize; but it is tempting to see Euripides as particularly innovative and trend-setting. Like Sophocles, he seems to have worked mainly on sequences of self-contained plays, though it looks as if the Trojan Women was the third of a trilogy concerning the Trojan war from its origins to its conclusion. Unlike Sophocles, he does not generally take a single heroic figure to form the focus of a play – only Medea easily fits this pattern. There is a strong tendency to divide the play between major characters: thus in Alcestis the heroine gives way to Heracles, the sufferer to the doer; in Hippolytus Phaedra dominates the first half of the play, Hippolytus the second; in the Bacchae the action is polarized, with the mortal Pentheus and the disguised god Dionysus in conflict throughout. Other plays extend this experimentation to the overall structure. Thus in Andromache we begin, as we might expect, with the widow of Hector in difficulties, but as the action advances Andromache is forgotten and other events follow, with different characters taking the limelight. In the Trojan Women the continuous presence of Hecabe, the grieving queen of Troy, seems to mark her out as the ‘heroine’, or at least the principal sufferer, but she is a figure who can achieve nothing. As the play unfolds we are shown a series of scenes which embody the suffering and ruin accompanying the fall of Troy, a sequence which adds up only to further misery. Other plays multiply characters and divide our attention still more: Helen has eight human characters with full speaking parts, Orestes nine, thePhoenician Women eleven.

The plays of Euripides, although they still work within the traditional range of myths, do not generally dramatize heroic initiatives and triumphant achievements. His are tragedies of suffering rather than of action (Medea again is a special case, a partial exception). Phaedra, Andromache, Hecabe, the Trojan women, the chorus of mothers in the Suppliant Women, the guilt-ravaged Orestes, are all presented as victims, whether of war or other persecution, human folly or divine antagonism. Even when they do attempt to take the initiative, to assert themselves through action, the consequences are rarely presented positively. Phaedra’s efforts to preserve her good name bring about Hippolytus’ death without achieving her objective; Electra and Orestes in Electra destroy their mother, but with psychologically devastating results for themselves; in Orestes, the young man’s matricide makes him an outcast, and his efforts to take revenge on his mother’s sister Helen are first frustrated, then turned to near-farce. Even when Euripides is reworking material which had been treated grimly enough by Aeschylus, he regularly gives his own version a new twist. The brutal sacrifice of Iphigenia at Aulis, so that the Greek fleet may sail for Troy, was presented by Aeschylus in an unforgettable choral song as a terrible necessity, an agonizing decision reluctantly taken by Agamemnon, and one which will have momentous consequences. In Euripides’ version,Iphigenia at Aulis, Agamemnon and Menelaus chop and change, other members of the expedition seem to have more authority than the leaders have, Iphigenia herself changes her mind, and, most disturbing of all, there is the offstage presence of the army, an uncontrollable mob of soldiers panting for blood. Iphigenia at Aulis is a fast-moving and constantly attention-grabbing play, but one in which the high seriousness of the Aeschylean ode is dissipated, and the tragic sacrifice becomes wasteful self-deception. As A. P. Burnett put it: ‘In these plays the poet shows men scaled for comedy trying to live in a world still ruled by the gods of tragedy.’12

Some of the ways in which Euripides made old subjects new have already been mentioned. This practice was not simply a perverse desire on his part to alter tradition. Between 480 and 430 BC some 500 tragedies would have been staged; a middle-aged man in his audience might have seen over two hundred.13 The Athenians, like any audience, enjoyed innovation: indeed, originality and novelty were at a premium in the second half of the fifth century BC, as new ideas and new literary styles made their appearance in Athens. Euripides was in part responding to audience demand (though it is only fair to add that a sizeable portion of his audience would be more conservative, and that Sophocles clearly did not feel the need to innovate so ostentatiously). By the middle stage of Euripides’ career Aeschylus looked archaic: in his Electra, the younger tragedian unmistakably parodies a recognition-scene from Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers, in which the discovery of a lock of hair at Agamemnon’s tomb was taken as evidence of Orestes’ return (513ff.). It is interesting to note that the grounds for criticism are improbability, lack of realism and violation of common sense. Aeschylus and his audience had been above such concerns; by Euripides’ time it was more natural to apply to tragedy at least some of the standards of everyday life.14 Nevertheless, the parody is two-edged: it turns out that the Euripidean Electra’s scepticism is misguided, and the deduction from the Aeschylean token remains valid. The allusion to Aeschylus need not be merely dismissive.

Innovation can also be observed in the composition of Euripides’ plots. It is natural for us to think of the myths as fixed and organized, as they are in the modern summaries which we find in handbooks; but in fact the fluidity of the legends is surprising, and the tragedians already found variations in the epic and lyric accounts which they inherited. Euripides often uses less familiar versions of myths, or combines stories normally kept apart. Although the loss of so much earlier literature makes firm assertions dangerous, it seems likely that he is modifying the legend in making Medea kill her own children deliberately (in an earlier version it was the Corinthians who took their revenge upon her offspring). In the legends of Heracles it was normally held that the hero’s labours were a kind of penance for killing his children in a fit of insanity. Euripides reverses the sequence, making Heracles return home to his family triumphant after his labours are ended – then, the crowning horror, madness and slaughter follow. In his Helen he adopts the bizarre version of the lyric poet Stesichorus, which made Helen a prisoner in Egypt throughout the Trojan War, while Greek and Trojan armies fought for ten years over a phantom. The unexpected becomes the rule, in both plot and characterization: women behave manfully, slaves show nobility and virtue, barbarians express civilized sentiments.

Even when he is closer to the traditional versions, he often introduces new characters or explores the implications of legends with a fresh eye: thus in Orestes Menelaus, Tyndareus, Hermione and Orestes’ friend Pylades all have prominent roles, and the effect is quite different from earlier versions of this myth. Characterization can also be modified: in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, Eteocles, king of Thebes, is a noble figure, though labouring under a curse; in Euripides’ Phoenician Women, he becomes a power-crazed tyrant. In the Electra of Euripides it is even possible to sympathize with Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, the murderers of Agamemnon. Sharp changes of direction and unexpected shifts of personality are also common: in Andromache, Hermione at first seems a cruel and malicious princess, but later becomes a sympathetic victim. In Medea, the heroine vacillates throughout much of the play: loving mother or merciless avenger, which side of her character is to prevail? Aristotle in his Poetics (ch. 15) found fault with these startling reversals of character, singling out Iphigenia at Aulis for criticism: ‘the girl who pleads for her life is quite different from the later one’, he complains, referring to the scene where Iphigenia, after earlier begging for mercy, resolves to sacrifice herself in the name of Greece. Euripides also plays variations on his own earlier work: our extant Hippolytus is a second version, in which the portrayal of Phaedra is made more sympathetic and her character more complex.15

In some ways Euripides can be seen as a more self-consciously literary dramatist than his fellow tragedians. It is not accidental that it was he who was said to have a large library. He seems regularly to modify the conventions of his genre and adapt the work of his predecessors, sometimes even drawing attention to the changes he has made. The parody of the Aeschylean recognition-scene has already been cited; similarly, later in Electra, the trapping and killing of Clytemnestra within the hovel in which Electra and her husband have their home is a re-enactment of the killing-scenes within the palace of Agamemnon in Aeschylus’ trilogy: humbler setting, unheroic characters, dubious morality all work together. In Helen, the heroine proposes that they contrive an escape by pretending Menelaus is dead and mourning him. Is that the best you can do?, asks Menelaus; ‘there’s a certain old-hat quality in the proposal’ (1056). The point is that the trick has been tried often before in tragedy: the character is given the critic’s fastidiousness. Aeschylus and Sophocles are also experienced in reshaping and adapting traditional motifs, but Euripides goes far beyond them in playing with conventions and exploiting the spectator’s awareness of the dramatic situation. While shocked and moved by the events on stage, we are nevertheless frequently reminded that this is ‘only’ a play.16

As the example from Helen just quoted suggests, Euripides’ plays are not devoid of lighter, humorous touches. Indeed, his wide repertoire includes not only starkly ‘tragic’ plays in the stricter sense, such as Medea, but also dramas which are harder to categorize.Alcestis, with its fairy-tale plot and happy resolution, seems to belong to a kinder and less threatening world than most tragedies. Later plays, notably Iphigenia among the Taurians and especially Helen, have often been classed as tragi-comedies. In both plays, after many misfortunes, the principal characters are reunited in a far-off setting (Helen is held captive in Egypt, Iphigenia in the Crimea), recognize one another after many false steps, and plan a successful escape back to Greece, outwitting their barbarian opponents. Hair-breadth escapes and cliff-hanging moments are common, as when Iphigenia is about to sacrifice her unrecognized brother to the goddess Artemis. We know that similar scenes occurred in lost plays by Euripides: in Cresphontes, a mother is on the point of killing her son with an axe, but the danger is averted, the potential tragedy dissipated.

There is much here which looks back to the Odyssey, with its complex plot full of deceptions and recognitions. Moroever, plays of this kind also look forward to later comedy, the types of plot favoured by Menander, Terence and eventually Shakespeare (not to mention Oscar Wilde).17 These plays are sometimes called escapist, misguidedly; there remains a strong sense of suffering and waste in the past, and they undoubtedly still qualify as tragedies. But they do show the versatile Euripides experimenting with new types of play, and these experiments are accompanied by a lighter and more ironic tone, providing a very different kind of pleasure from the cathartic experience provided by the Oresteia or Oedipus. Euripides is plainly interested in variations of tone, juxtaposing scenes of very different emotional intensity. A ‘comic’ element may be found even in much grimmer plays, but there it is often used to reinforce the seriousness of the rest of the action. The self-pity and bad temper of the downtrodden Electra, for example, provide some humour as we sympathize with her husband, the long-suffering farmer; but their conversation also contributes to our understanding of Electra’s tortured psyche. Far more macabre is the delusion of Heracles, who believes he is journeying to Mycenae, arriving there, punishing Eurystheus – when all the time he is in his own home, slaughtering his sons. The effect is intensely powerful: this madness would be funny if it were not so horrible.

In reading a plain text, and still more a translation, of Euripides it is easy to overlook the formal and musical aspects of the dramas. Here too we can see that he went beyond the earlier conventions of the genre, in ways which were exciting to the audiences, but also often controversial. Greek tragedy is broadly divisible into spoken verse and sung verse: the former is the medium in which the actors converse with one another or with the chorus-leader, the latter is most commonly found in the songs of the chorus. Already in Aeschylus there are plenty of exceptions: actors can sing solo parts or participate in lyric dialogue. In Agamemnon, the prophetess Cassandra voices her god-given insight in emotional song, to the bewilderment of the chorus; still more wild and agitated are the lyric utterances of Io, tormented by pain, in Prometheus. But Euripides seems to go further in giving his actors lyric passages, often highly emotional and linguistically rich (no doubt these were also striking in their musical accompaniment). The solo passages, arias or ‘monodies’, are often virtuoso pieces, and must have made huge demands on an actor: examples are rarer in the earlier plays, but there are several in Hippolytus. From the later plays the most memorable examples include Creusa’s lament for the child she exposed years ago and now believes dead, the ecstatic suicide-song of Evadne, and (as in Aeschylus) the prophetic raving of Cassandra (Ion 859–922,Suppliant Women 990ff., and Trojan Women 308ff.). In the Orestes of 408 BC we find the prize example, a tour-de-forcenarrative of the attempt on Helen’s life, sung by a Phrygian eunuch in a state of extreme panic, exotically foreign in its linguistic and rhythmical looseness, and no doubt accompanied by violent gestures and mime. The brilliant lyric parody in Aristophanes’ Frogs(1309–63), which lifts lines from Orestes and elsewhere, shows how extraordinary audiences found his style in these arias. Other formal features of the drama would take too long to illustrate, but the general impression is of sharper and more prosaic or argumentative dialogue style combined with a more self-consciously ‘poetic’, decorative, image-laden, almost romantic style in lyrics.18

Several other aspects of Euripides’ work can be illuminated by Aristophanes’ Frogs, in which Aeschylus and Euripides compete against one another in the underworld. Although it is unsafe to use this play to establish Aristophanes’ own aesthetic position, it is first-rate evidence for at least some of the things in Euripidean drama which made most impression on contemporary audiences. In the Frogs, Euripides is made to boast that

as soon as the play began I had everyone hard at work: no one standing idle. Women and slaves, master, young woman, aged crone – they all talked … It was Democracy in action … I taught them subtle rules they could apply; how to turn a phrase neatly. I taught them to see, to observe, to interpret; to twist, to contrive; to suspect the worst, take nothing at its face value … I wrote about familiar things, things the audience knew about … The public have learnt from me how to think, how to run their own households, to ask ‘Why is this so? What do we mean by that?’

(Frogs 948–79, tr. D. Barrett)

In Euripidean drama others besides kings and heroes play major roles; a large number of plays are named after, and focused on, female characters. Indeed, it has been pointed out that most of Euripides’ thinkers are women: certainly Creon, Jason and Aegeus are easily outclassed by Medea, and in both the Trojan Women and Helen Menelaus is inferior to his quick-witted wife.19 Lower-class characters are more prominent and more influential: the Nurse in Hippolytus is a perfect example. In Electra, the downtrodden princess is married to a mere farmer, who respects her in her adversity, and has not slept with her. The farmer comes from a noble family now impoverished; his low status is contrasted with his honourable behaviour, but the latter still has to be explained by his noble birth. In both Hecabe and the Trojan Women, the decent herald Talthybius is sympathetic to the captive women, and shocked at the misdeeds of his social superiors. Mention should also be made of the many messengers in Euripides, several of whom are vividly and sympathetically characterized.

The other point which the passage in the Frogs emphasizes is the way these characters talk. Here we come close to one of the central aspects of Euripides’ work, his fascination with argument, ideas and rhetoric. In the later fifth century BC professional teachers were instructing young men, in Athens and elsewhere, in the art of rhetoric, which in a small-scale democratic society could justly be seen as the key to political success. Types of argument were collected, methods of refutation categorized. It was possible, one of these experts claimed, ‘to make the worse case defeat the better’. Euripides gives his characters the inventiveness and articulacy which these teachers sought to impart. This is particularly clear in the so-called agon (‘contest’ or ‘debate’), at least one example of which can be found in most of his plays. The agon is a scene in which two (occasionally more) characters express their antagonism in long, highly argumentative and sometimes ingenious speeches: rhetorical skill is combined with energetic emotion. Examples are Jason versus Medea, Theseus versus Hippolytus, Helen versus Hecabe (Medea, Hippolytus, Trojan Womenrespectively). These scenes sharpen our understanding of the issues, and often challenge us to adjudicate between the parties involved. There is rarely a clear winner, either on the arguments or under the prevailing circumstances in the play: often considerations of power and self-interest matter more than who is in the right. As a result, tragic conflict-scenes seldom lead to a resolution, but tend rather to heighten the antagonism of those involved.20

Perhaps all drama suggests larger issues beyond the particular experiences enacted on stage, but Euripides’ plays articulate these more abstract and universal concerns to an unusual degree. Although the characters on stage are not mere types – what could be called typical about Medea or Heracles? – their situations and dilemmas often suggest larger questions, more general themes and problems inherent in human life and society. When does justice become revenge, even savagery? Can human reason overcome passion? Should right and wrong be invoked in inter-state politics, or is expediency the only realistic criterion? These questions are not left implicit: the characters themselves raise them, in generalizing comments which are often given special prominence at the opening of a speech. The audience, like the characters, must often have been uncertain which side was in the right, and their attitude would naturally change as the drama unfolded. Many, perhaps most, Athenian theatre-goers would also have served as jurors in the law-courts (Athenian juries were much larger than those in modern trials, numbering as many as 500 citizens); many would also have voted on proposals in the democratic assembly. They were used to moral and verbal contests, real and fictional, public and private, forensic and literary. Indeed, Athenians were notorious for their addiction to debate: the contemporary historian Thucydides makes a politician call them ‘spectators at speeches’, a telling paradox.21 It is no coincidence that this ‘agonistic’ aspect of Athenian society is so vividly reflected in the dramas. Euripides may have taught the audience to be glib and clever, but he was responding to a development already well advanced.

Perhaps no question has been as prominent in criticism as the nature of Euripides’ beliefs, his philosophy. This may seem strange: why should we expect a dramatist to adopt a philosophic position, still less to maintain it from play to play? The reason that this issue seems to many people particularly important is that Euripides frequently introduces abstract ideas or theoretical arguments, sometimes drawing attention to the oddity of his character’s language or thought. In the Suppliant Women, the Athenian Theseus and the Theban herald argue at length about the relative merits of democratic and monarchic government (399–456). Even if we allow that Theseus, the favourite hero of Athens, is no ordinary monarch, the anachronism involved in placing such a debate in the heroic age is obvious. In Hippolytus, Phaedra discourses on the power of passion and how it can overwhelm the mind’s good resolutions: her calmness and the abstract tone of her words seem strange after her earlier frenzy. More striking still are the many passages in which characters question the nature, or the very existence, of the Olympian gods. In the Trojan Women, Hecabe, in need of inspiration in the agon, prays as follows:

O you who give the earth support and are by it supported, whoever you are, power beyond our knowledge, Zeus, be you stern law of nature or intelligence in man, to you I make my prayers; for you direct in the way of justice all mortal affairs, moving with noiseless tread.


These lines echo both traditional prayer-formulae and contemporary science; they involve contradictory conceptions of the supreme deity; they even hint at the theory that gods are merely externalizations of human impulses. Little wonder that Menelaus remarks in response ‘What’s this? You have a novel way of praying to the gods!’

In passages of this kind Euripides plainly shows his familiarity with the philosophic or metaphysical teachings of a number of thinkers: Anaxagoras, Protagoras, Gorgias and other figures known to us particularly through the writings of Plato and Aristotle. Influence from philosophy or abstract prose has occasionally been detected in Aeschylus and Sophocles, but any such cases in their work are rare and unobtrusive; with Euripides we are dealing with something new. This introduction of modern ideas coheres with his general tendency to make the characters of myth less remote and majestic, more like ordinary mortals with human weaknesses. Unsettling and bizarre these passages may seem, but they are clearly meant to surprise and stimulate: it would be absurd to suppose that Euripides did not realize what he was doing, or that he was incapable of keeping his intellectual interests out of his tragedies.22

Ancient anecdote claimed that Protagoras, an agnostic thinker, gave readings from his work in Euripides’ house, and that Socrates helped him write his plays. Although these stories are rightly now recognized as fictions, the frequency with which Euripides introduces philosophic or religious reflections still needs explanation. An influential tradition of criticism has maintained that Euripides was a disciple of one or other of these thinkers, and that his dramas represent a concerted endeavour to open his countrymen’s eyes to the moral defects of men and gods as represented in the traditional myths. In the earlier part of the fifth century BC, the lyric poet Pindar had questioned a myth which told of divine cannibalism, and in the fourth century Plato was to censor epic and tragedy in the name of morality. The myths were also criticized by Euripides’ contemporaries on grounds of rationality and probability: how could sensible people take seriously stories of three-headed hounds of Hades, or other monstrous creatures? There is, then, no reason to doubt that Euripides could have seen reasons to be sceptical about some of the myths: he makes Helen doubt whether she was really born from a swan’s egg, and Iphigenia question whether any deity could conceivably demand human sacrifice (Helen 18, 259, Iphigenia among the Taurians 380–91).

It is much less plausible to suppose that he was urging total scepticism about the gods or the supernatural, and proposing some alternative philosophical or humanist view in their place. It is difficult for the modern student to appreciate how different Greek religious thought and practice were from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.23 There was no creed, no sacred books, no central priestly establishment. The city performed its sacrifices and paid honour to the gods, as had always been done; sometimes new gods were admitted to the pantheon; but cult was not the same as myth, and it was well known that myths contradicted one another and that poets made up many stories – many lies, as the Athenian Solon once said. To express doubts about one particular myth did not shake the foundations of religion. Outright atheism was rare and freakish. The more open-minded attitude of the great traveller Herodotus may have been commoner: he declared that all men were equally knowledgeable about the divine.24

Certainly there are serious difficulties in treating Euripides as an unbeliever on the evidence of his plays. This is not simply because, alongside the more questioning attitudes in the passages quoted, we find many speakers expressing profound faith and devotion, and choral odes which invoke the Olympians in magnificent poetry: one could always argue (though with some circularity) that these characters possessed only partial or erroneous insights into religion. More important is the fact that without the existence of the gods the plays simply do not work. How is Medea to escape if the sun-god, her grandfather, does not send his chariot to rescue her? How will Theseus’ curse destroy his son if Poseidon is a mere fiction? How will the plot of Alcestis even begin to work unless death is something more than natural, unless there is a personified being against whom Heracles can do battle? A full discussion would also have to consider the numerous scenes in which gods appear at the end of plays to bring events under control: here, rationalizing interpretations truncate the dramas.

But if Euripides the ‘anti-clerical’ atheist cannot stand, neither can he simply be forced into the straitjacket of ‘traditional’ piety, even if that piety is defined in terms flexible and sophisticated enough to include Aeschylus and Sophocles.25 There remains overwhelming evidence that Euripides, in this as in other respects, was an innovator: just as he introduces new and often unfamiliar characters into traditional myths, or views familiar tragic situations from unexpected angles, so he combines traditional mythical and theatrical conventions about the gods with disturbing new conceptions and challenging ideas. Sometimes the contradictions become acute and paradoxical, as in a notoriously baffling passage of Heracles. In this play Heracles, son of Zeus by the mortal woman Alcmena, has been brought to his knees by the goddess Hera, who persecutes him because she resents Zeus’ adulteries. Theseus, befriending Heracles and seeking to comfort him, refers at one point to the immorality of the gods, whereupon Heracles bursts into a passionate rejection of this concept:

I do not believe that the gods love where it is wrong for them to do so, or that they bind one another – I have never thought it right to believe this, nor shall I ever believe that one has been master of another. For god, if he is truly a god, needs nothing. These are merely the wretched tales of bards.

(Heracles 1340–46)

This outburst comes near to rejecting the very premisses that underlie the play and Heracles’ own experiences within it. Is Euripides showing us something about Heracles’ psychology? Insisting, in Plato’s manner, on the moral inadequacy of the myths? Alluding to the poetic and fictional quality of his own play? Or all of these at once, and more? The passage, and the issues it raises, is likely to remain controversial.26

Although all such labels are bound to oversimplify a many-sided artist like Euripides, we may find more valuable than ‘atheist’ the term proposed by E. R. Dodds, one of the most gifted interpreters of Greek literature of the last century, who dubbed Euripides ‘the irrationalist’.27 By this Dodds meant that Euripides was interested and impressed by the achievements of human reason, not least in the fields of rhetorical argument and philosophic theory, but in the end felt that they were inadequate both as explanatory tools and as instruments to enable mankind to deal with the world. Reason versus passion, order versus chaos, persuasion versus violence – these antitheses are present in all Greek tragedy, but Euripides seems more pessimistic about the limits of man’s capacity to control either himself or society.28 The demoralizing and brutalizing effects of a prolonged war surely play a part in the development of his outlook: the Suppliant Women, Hecabe and the Trojan Women, or a decade later the Phoenician Women and Iphigenia at Aulis, all dramatize the suffering and callousness which war makes possible or inevitable. Even Helen, for all its playful irony and lightness of touch, implies a bleak and pessimistic view of human action: the Trojan War, far from being a glorious achievement, was fought for a phantom; and although Menelaus and Helen are finally reunited, that partial success cannot compensate for the countless lives thrown away on the plains of Troy.

On this reading, Euripides does not assert the independence of man from divine authority; he is neither an agnostic nor a humanist. Rather, he acknowledges that there are forces in the world which mankind cannot understand or control. They may sometimes be described in the language of traditional religion, or referred to by the names and titles of the Olympians, though even then he often suggests some new dimension: ‘she’s no goddess, then, the Cyprian, but something greater’, cries the Nurse when she learns of Phaedra’s desire (Hippolytus 359–60). At other times he will make his characters speak of nature, or necessity, or chance: as Talthybius asks in Hecabe, ‘O Zeus, what am I to say? Do you watch over men or are we fools, blind fools to believe this, and is it chance that oversees all man’s endeavours?’ (488–91). Or again, a speaker may throw out the suggestion that ‘it is all in the mind’: ‘when you saw him your mind became the goddess. All the indiscretions of mortals pass for Aphrodite…’ (Trojan Women 988–9). The supernatural, however it is defined, embraces those things which are beyond human grasp. The author of the following speech, again from Hippolytus, may not have been a conventional Greek thinker, but he understood how to communicate religious longing.

It’s nothing but pain, this life of ours; we’re born to suffer and there’s no end to it. If anything more precious than life does exist, it’s wrapped in darkness, hidden behind clouds. We’re fools in love – it’s plain enough – clinging to this glitter here on earth because we don’t know any other life and haven’t seen what lies below.

(Hippolytus 189–96)

To discuss the poet’s philosophical outlook at such length risks placing undue emphasis on Euripides the intellectual. Although the plays include passages which are clearly meant to provoke reflection, and some of these stand out conspicuously in context, they are not the whole of the dramas; they may not even be the most significant parts. The scholar in the study, the student trying to put together an essay, may lose touch with the experience of the audience in the theatre. They would have been in no doubt that tragedy was first and foremost about extreme emotion and intense suffering. When Aristotle wrote that Euripides was the most intensely tragic of the poets, he meant that he was the one who most powerfully evoked pity and fear, which Aristotle classically defined as the supremely tragic emotions. No account of the genre can be adequate which fails to give due prominence to this aspect.29 On every side we meet grief and anger, joy and disillusionment, love and hate, jealousy and malice. The long-drawn-out parting of Admetus from his dying wife; the desperation and degradation of Hecabe, nursing the body of her murdered son; the collective grief of the mothers of the Seven against Thebes, or of the captive women at Troy; Creusa’s passionate outburst against Apollo, fraught with painful recollection of the moment when the god had his way with her, and in the wake of those memories, grief for her lost child; the madly deluded delight of deranged Cassandra; the hymn of hate with which the Bacchants call down Dionysus’ vengeance upon Pentheus – the list is virtually endless. Ancient descriptions of the theatrical audience make clear that their reaction was not merely cerebral but strongly responsive to the claims made on them emotionally by the characters on stage.30 Different parts of the play give different pleasures and stimulate the theatre-goer in a variety of ways: the fast-moving stichomythic exchanges challenge their quickness of wit, the rhetorical displays delight their intellect, but the many passages of solo or communal lamentation appeal to a deep human desire to feel with and for the sufferer even when the cause of suffering does not affect oneself – even, indeed, when the suffering is fictitious. All of this is part of the paradox of tragedy, already theorized by Gorgias well before Aristotle.

How does this relate to questions concerning Euripides and his gods? Perhaps chiefly as a reminder that theological speculation or religious propaganda are not the business of a tragedian. Religion in tragic drama is not identical with religion in contemporary Greek life; nor, however, can the two be firmly distinguished.31 Tragedy enhances and enlarges common experience in order to achieve its effects: human atrocities such as infanticide or self-blinding or devouring the flesh of one’s own children are happily rare in normal life but far more frequent in tragedy; and just as human guilt and suffering is made more terrible and painful, so the gods are used and introduced in such a way as to aid in the creation of the dark and sinister world of tragic myth (comedy portrays a kinder pantheon, less firmly set on avenging insults to their honour). The picture is not simple or uniform: in some plays the gods are kind and bring about a happy ending after misfortune (though rarely without some cause for grief and regret); but in others wrongdoers may be punished, but the undeserving suffer equally terrible fates, and the gods allow or deliberately bring this to pass (Antigone in Sophocles’ play; Jocasta and Antigone in the Phoenician Women, Iphigenia in the Iphigenia at Aulis). Divine justice may seem arbitrary: Orestes is acquitted and restored to honour, but Neoptolemus is to be struck down. The ways of the gods are inscrutable: occasionally, however, the veil may be lifted, and we are not meant to like what we see.

Many of these points – the gods as threatening powers well suited to tragedy, the centrality of human response to suffering, and the ultimate impenetrability of the Olympian design – are highlighted with particular clarity in the closing scene of the Bacchae, in which Cadmus, the head of the family, appeals to Dionysus for clemency, but the god dismisses his plea.

CADMUS Dionysus, we beseech you, we have done wrong!

DIONYSUS Too late you came to know me; when you should have, you did not.

CADMUS This we acknowledge; but you come upon us with a hand too heavy.

DIONYSUS Yes, for I, a god born, was treated by you with contempt.

CADMUS Gods should not be like mortals in temper.

DIONYSUS Long ago my father Zeus gave his consent to this.

(Bacchae 1344–9)*

The will of the god is not to be resisted, but it can still be questioned and challenged. Protests are only human. Tragedy provokes complex reactions: as a human audience watching fellow humans suffer, we are bound to sympathize with Cadmus even if we accept that the god has a right to receive worship. If our only response to the death of Pentheus were to say ‘impiety has been justly punished’, the tragedy would have failed to have its proper effect.


The last plays of Euripides come from the final years of the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, though the poet did not live to see his city’s final defeat. The Phoenician Women is not precisely datable, but was probably produced in 410 or 409 BC. TheOrestes is firmly dated to 408 BC. The poet died in the year 407–6 BC and the Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis, together with the lost Alcmaeon, were put on stage posthumously, by the poet’s son, presumably at the first opportunity, in 405 BC: this group of plays won first prize. The controversy over the authorship of theRhesus has already been mentioned, and is discussed further in the Preface to that play. In my view, as in that of the majority of critics, it is unlikely to be the work of Euripides, but if it is authentically his, its date is quite uncertain. In what follows I concentrate on the first four plays.

Euripides’ exact date of birth is not certain: ancient authorities offer 485 and 480 BC. In either case he would have been in his seventies when he composed the plays in this volume.* Ancient biographers report that in the final years of his life Euripides accepted an invitation to leave Athens and take up residence at the court of Macedon; whether or not we believe this, it is certain that he composed, probably at this late date, a play in honour of the Macedonian royal house, entitled Archelaus, which dealt with the mythical origins of the family and paid indirect tribute to the living monarch of that name. Traditionally this departure from Athens has been seen as Euripides’ final gesture of indignation at the unkind reception of his dramas by the Athenian public. A more plausible motive may be the desire to find a comfortable home in his declining years rather than remaining in a city hard pressed by war. It is hard to suppose that the playwright would not have been present as director and manager of the Orestes, in many ways his most daring drama to date. Probably his emigration was shortly after the festival of 408 BC, in which case he may have been resident in Macedonia for less than two years.32

This is not the place in which to recapitulate the dark tale of the final years of the war: only a few key points need be mentioned here.33 The disastrous conclusion of the Athenian expedition to Sicily had been a significant blow to morale, and prompted a wave of rebellions among Athens’ subject allies, but the imperial city made a swift recovery. The remaining years of the war were dominated by three major factors. The first was internal revolution: the democratic government was temporarily overthrown in 411 BC, and a narrower establishment held power for almost a year. Thucydides gives a vivid picture of the atmosphere of terror and distrust which prevailed in the city during this period (see especially 8.66, 70, 74.3): although the new government was swiftly ousted, the democratic consensus had been exposed as seriously flawed, and the anxiety created by this episode must have been slow to fade. Second, the major power of Persia was once more extending its influence into the activities of the Greek states. Athens and Sparta both hoped to win Persian support in order to win the war, but both were reluctant to make the concessions which the Persian king’s representatives might demand. In the end Sparta was to reach a lasting agreement with Persia and this proved decisive. Third, there was dissension among the Athenian leadership, not only about how best to conduct the war but on whether it should be continued at all. Many among the governing class had been exiled or executed in the aftermath of the 411 BC revolution; some who had not been punished were nevertheless in eclipse; others who continued to wield power had no clear policy or concentrated more on securing their own position; the most charismatic and controversial figure, Alcibiades, was recalled from disgrace in 407 BC after conspicuous successes, only to be removed from office once more after a single failure. Athens continued to defy expectations by winning fresh victories, but the tide had turned. By the time Euripides left Athens there can have been few who felt optimistic about the city’s chances of winning the war, still fewer who expected that she could continue to hold the position of authority she had retained since the mid-century domination of the Aegean.

Greek tragic drama is not allegorical (readings which try to see Pericles or Alcibiades behind individual mythical characters are not persuasive), but the genre is strongly influenced in a more general way by contemporary events.34 Most obvious are the scathing generalizations about war, politics, personal ambitions, governments and demagogues: although some of these are commonplaces of popular morality, they seem to acquire an added edge in the later plays of Euripides. More important is the way in which the plays dramatize individuals who are incapable of achieving the goals they desire in the public arena. The moderation of Polyneices is more attractive than the shameless ambition of Eteocles, but both are flawed, and neither survives. In the Orestes, the ‘hero’ is first sick and helpless, then besieged by powerful antagonists, then pleads a hopeless and unpersuasive case in a hostile assembly; when he takes to violence in self-defence, his efforts are no more effective, despite his vicious intentions. Positive values are found to be undependable (Menelaus ignores his nephew’s claims upon him), or are subverted (Pylades’ devoted friendship leads him to propose conspiracy and murder). In the Iphigenia, Agamemnon is a pitiful and vacillating figure, unable to resist outside forces, cast down by every setback, and finally yielding to a necessity which he might have resisted more successfully earlier. Despite the overconfident rhetoric of the principals, none of the agents in these plays has much capacity to influence events. In both the Orestes and theIphigenia the dramatist makes us aware of the frightening presence offstage of a powerful mob – the Argive citizens in the former, the Greek army in the latter. There is violence waiting to be unleashed, violence which could crush the individual leaders. For all its differences, the Bacchae shows some of the same pattern (including the offstage violence, no longer potential but actual, and there made still more terrible by being the work of female hands, and done in a state of insanity). In that play Pentheus is out of his depth from the start: there is indeed a single character who can and does control the action effectively, but that authoritative figure is not human, and has little concern for what humans think of his decisions.

Despite his advancing years, Euripides shows no sign of failing powers. In the Phoenician Women and the Orestes we see a number of tendencies in his work reaching their most extreme point: in some respects the Iphigenia, a problematic case because of the problems of multiple authorship, sustains this trend, while the Bacchae represents a turning-back. The plays in general are becoming longer, the plots more complicated. In the first of the plays we find a great diversity of characters and shifting of focus: from Jocasta, Eteocles and Polyneices we turn to Creon, Teiresias and Menoeceus; Antigone, introduced early on, becomes a central figure towards the end; Oedipus makes a cameo appearance; the play has no ‘hero’ or central figure, but dramatizes the sickened state of unhappy Thebes, saved from destruction but still bedevilled by the misfortunes of the past. The Orestes and the Bacchae are more sharply focused on the actions and reactions of the protagonist, but as we have seen neither Orestes nor Pentheus is in control of events. Perhaps only in the Iphigenia is a heroic action freely chosen and in some sense admirable: but there is good reason to question the justification for the princess’s self-sacrifice, and the evidence of the play itself gives us little cause for confidence that the Trojan war will be a glorious affair.

These dramas also take further Euripidean patterns in the choice and handling of the chorus: he persistently selects not elder statesmen or soldiers or citizens of the community, but figures who are in some way marginal: women, foreigners, slaves, unable to influence events but compelled to witness and bear witness to them (the Rhesus, with its chorus of male soldiers, stands firmly apart here). There is no place in these plays in which the chorus debate with, advise or successfully persuade the actors, as the chorus of the Antigone influenced the misguided monarch Creon. Even their traditional involvement in conspiracies planned on stage in their presence goes no further than a perfunctory assumption that they will observe conventional discretion and keep the actors’ plans secret. In several of these plays Euripides seems to be experimenting with and enhancing another aspect of the chorus’s traditional role, as narrators of the mythical past: while inactive in the present, they extend the audience’s understanding of the background. It is true that in the Bacchae the chorus of Asian Bacchants are given something of their traditional prominence in the tragic experience: they are the companions of the god, the defenders of his cult, the singers of his praises, and they stand or fall with him. But although they enlarge our apprehension of the meaning of Dionysus, they themselves play no active part in the drama. It is appropriate that they do not even share the audience’s awareness of the identity of the disguised Dionysus, but assume he is merely the god’s priest.

The influence of Aeschylus seems particularly strong upon a number of these plays: the Phoenician Women is a reworking of the older poet’s Seven against Thebes, the Orestes of the second and third plays of the Oresteia. The Iphigenia certainly makes some use of the classic narrative of the sacrifice in the Agamemnon, though other sources may be lost. The Bacchae returns to what was surely a prominent (some would say the central) myth of early tragedy, the triumph of Dionysus over his adversaries: Aeschylus had written many plays on this theme, and some direct echoes can be detected (Bacchae 453, 726, and notes 42 and 64). But often it is the novelty of Euripides’ handling of the tradition that is most striking. Famous scenes in epic or early tragedy are introduced in novel forms: Antigone on the walls of Thebes recalls Helen on the walls of Troy in Iliad 3; the lyric description of the Greek ships in the Iphigenia is an abridged version of the long catalogue in Iliad 2. Myths from other contexts are allusively introduced: the death of Actaeon in the Bacchae, the future passing of Oedipus at Colonus in the Phoenician Women, the trial of the Danaids in the Orestes. Equally, Euripides may reject the opportunity to do the traditional thing, as being too obvious: Eteocles declines to list his champions, since time is short (Phoenician Women 751–2, and note 36); Aeschylus’ majestic invocation of Agamemnon’s ghost is compressed to a mere ten lines of perfunctory trimeters (Orestes 1231–9); Pylades does not break silence with momentous words but declines to speak, out of dramatic necessity (Orestes 1591–2).

Equally obvious is the poet’s continuing readiness to exploit and develop the forms and modes of tragedy. Already in earlier plays he had begun to make more use of the trochaic tetrameter, a longer but more rapid line than the normal metre for spoken verse, the iambic trimeter. Long disused, it becomes prominent in Euripides’ work from the Heracles onwards, often for scenes of excited but slightly informal or racy style, sometimes to accompany agitated action and violent emotion. It is most frequent in the Orestes and the Iphigenia. The messenger speeches multiply: four feature in the Phoenician Women, two each from different messengers! The agon or rhetorical conflict had already been put to novel use in the Helen, produced in 412 BC: there, Menelaus and Helen both make speeches, but pleading the same case, and Theonoe’s response is one of ready acquiescence. In the Phoenician Women we again have a three-cornered agon, but this time much more antagonistic: Polyneices and Eteocles both speak their minds with aggressive frankness, and Jocasta’s effort at peace-making proves futile. The Orestes again has a three-party agon, with Tyndareus at first addressing Menelaus because he cannot bear to speak directly to Orestes. Formally distinct conventions are combined or blended: in theIphigenia, an apparent agon turns into a supplication-scene; in the Orestes, the Phrygian sings a messenger-speech in exotic lyric verses. The singing actor plays a prominent role in most of these plays: besides a monody from Jocasta, a lyric exchange between Antigone and her father probably concludes the authentic portion of the Phoenician Women; a monody by Electra follows a choral lamentation in the Orestes; in the Iphigenia the heroine takes over the choral role with a song that performs some of the functions that a choral ode might have in an earlier drama (1283ff.). There is a tendency for these monodies to become looser in structure and less easily defined in metrical terms. None of those just mentioned has strophic form (i.e. they are not constructed in stanzas); hence the movement and length of the arias are less predictable, the form freer of restraints. This ‘astrophic’ tendency also infects the choral odes themselves, in Euripides himself and his imitators (very briefly Bacchae 1153–64; Iphigenia at Aulis1510ff.)35 These lyric patterns cannot be unconnected with the known or conjectured developments in musical technique at the time, the so-called ‘New Music’: much is obscure, but it would seem that performers were now allowing themselves a wider range of notes and sharper changes between musical modes and styles.36

To some extent the Bacchae reverses many of these tendencies, returning to a more austere form. The play is shorter than most of the other late dramas (this remains true even when one takes some account of missing portions of the Bacchae’s text and interpolations in the others). The plot is more tightly constructed, proceeding in linear fashion and concentrating on the central antagonism between Pentheus and Dionysus. The number of characters is smaller than in the other late plays (particularly if one discounts anonymous characters such as messengers). The choral role is considerably larger, and its contributions are more significant: despite their character as Asiatic Bacchants, the poetic lyricism of the choral songs is less exotic, their moralizing commentary more traditional; the metre most frequently used, ionics, seems to have associations with religious cult songs. The play lacks an agon; the actors do not indulge in song (apart from Agaue, who is not permitted a full-scale monody); the messenger-speeches, while still characteristically vivid, are kept within bounds and closely related to one another and to the central plot-line. All of these factors seem to result from the choice of a deeply traditional subject; they reinforce the unmatched intensity and power of this supreme tragic drama.

When the news of Euripides’ death reached Athens in 406 BC, Sophocles is said to have dressed his chorus in mourning and appeared in this style of dress at the proagon, the public occasion on which dramatists presented themselves prior to the theatrical contests (Life of Euripides 3.11–14 = T1.20 Kovacs). In the following year Aristophanes put on his Frogs, the last of several plays in which he had included Euripides as a character (the others were Acharnians and Women at the Thesmophoria). Although the play makes persistent fun of the dead playwright and concludes with his defeat in the contest with Aeschylus, we should not allow the anarchic humour to blind us to the fact that this dramatization of such a confrontation is itself a tribute to the standing of Euripides. Already the canon is forming: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides are the three great tragedians (the dismissal of lesser rivals in a quick, contemptuous exchange early in the play is telling testimony: lines 83–102).

Recent discussions have shown that older critics were too swift in accepting that tragedy, or the authentic tragic spirit, died with the fall of Athens soon after Sophocles’ death: even the surviving literary evidence should have been sufficient to show that the genre continued to thrive in the next century, although no complete play survives (unless we count the Rhesus as a fourth-century BC product).37 Historical and epigraphic study, combined with a sharper examination of the evidence from non-dramatic allusions to tragedy, demonstrates the widespread fascination with tragedy well beyond Athens.38 It remains true that no later Greek dramatist matched the stature of the great three. We know of the establishment as soon as 386 BC of an additional contest at the City Dionysia (perhaps also at the Lenaea) in which an ‘old tragedy’, one of the classics, was revived; and later in the fourth century BC the performance of one of the old dramas as a prelude to a presentation of new plays became standard. Our evidence is fragmentary, but in 341BC Euripides’ Iphigenia (we do not know which play) was reperformed, in 340 BC the Orestes, in 339 BC another of his plays, the title of which is not preserved. It is difficult to deny that this practice acknowledges the existence of a canon of classics, even if we allow that the canon is not necessarily closed.39

Not always honoured as he deserved in life, Euripides was preeminent after his death.40 Aeschylus seems to have become less popular after the fifth century BC: Aristotle in the Poetics mentions him far less often than Sophocles and Euripides, and we know of few revivals of his work. But although Aristotle more than once compares Sophocles and Euripides to the latter’s disadvantage, he quotes examples as often from Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians as from Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, and acknowledges the younger dramatist’s supremacy at the arousing of pity and fear. That Euripides was widely read is amply attested by the evidence of the papyri from Egypt,41 which have proved a treasure trove for the recovery of portions of plays lost from the manuscript tradition: the Erechtheus, Hypsipyle, Cretans, Phaethon and Telephus are among those which can now be reconstructed with some clarity.42 His influence extended far beyond the tragic genre: his recognition dramas such as the Ion and the Helen, with their bitter-sweet reunions and use of tokens or keepsakes for identification, profoundly shaped the development of New Comedy. The incomplete sentence from the Life of Euripides by Satyrus shrewdly defines the line of descent: (a few words are lost at the start, presumably referring to relationships of loyalty or antagonism) ‘… towards wife, and father towards son, and servant towards master, and also the whole business of vicissitudes, raping of young women, substitutions of children, recognition by means of rings and necklaces. For these are of course the main elements of the New Comedy, and Euripides brought them to perfection, though Homer was his forerunner.’43 The tradition runs on through Menander’s Latin imitators, Plautus and Terence; it continues in Shakespeare and Goldoni, Molière and Wilde. The cradle and the tokens it contains in Euripides’ Ion, by means of which the foundling is identified, are the distant predecessors of Miss Prism’s capacious handbag in The Importance of Being Earnest.

No less potent is the legacy of the darker side of Euripides’ work – the agonies of indecision and guilty conscience, the horror of manic violence unleashed, the cruel rhetoric of tyrant and oppressor, the constant refrain of the female mourner voicing the grief of family or community. To recount in full the influence of Euripidean tragedy in antiquity would be to summarize much of ancient literary history. Descriptions of the followers of Dionysus and of the intense euphoria of the Bacchic experience could not but be indebted to the unforgettable representation of the god’s entourage in the Bacchae. Hellenistic and Roman tragedy drew above all on Euripidean models; in particular, they followed the lead of those widely read plays, the Phoenician Women and the Orestes. Senecan tragedy constantly develops Euripidean themes and motifs; Statius’ epic Thebaid elaborates the plots of several of his plays.44 It is not only the higher genres such as tragedy itself, epic and high lyric that pay him tribute. The introspective, painfully emotional yet rhetorically adept speeches of Euripidean heroines (above all Medea) have a deep impact on all later representations of inner conflict: the soliloquies of Menander’s characters are no less under his spell than the love-sick women of Ovid’s Heroidesand Metamorphoses, to say nothing of Catullus.45 It is no accident that the rhetorical teacher Quintilian gives extended treatment to Euripides in his catalogue of the authors whom the orator in training should study: here the aspiring speaker could find not only epigrammatic quotations and moralizing tags but guidance on construction, technique and argumentative ingenuity.46 Many more plays by Euripides survived into the Byzantine era than by the other two great tragedians, whose work was found too difficult or inaccessible; commentators annotated his work more fully, anthologists extracted improving selections, literary critics acclaimed his intelligence and skilled use of language.47 The critic known as Longinus, author of the essay On the Sublime, declares that the poet devotes most effort to creating a tragic effect with two passions – madness and love (15.3); he quotes with deep admiration the madness-scene from the Orestes, and shows a fine appreciation of Euripides’ capacity to visualize grand and extraordinary events (the chariot-ride of Phaethon, the ecstasy of nature itself in the Bacchae); but he also enthuses concerning the poet’s skill in achieving pathetic effect through great simplicity of words and word-order:

Thus Heracles says after the killing of the children:

‘I’m full of troubles, there’s no room for more.’

This is a very ordinary remark, but it has become sublime, as the situation demands. If you rearrange it, it will become apparent that it is in the composition, not in the sense, that Euripides’ greatness appears.


Even philosophers turned to Euripides for illustrations: the conclusion of Medea’s monologue became a classic example for the Stoic analysis of the opposition between reason and passion.48

To pay proper tribute to a great poet requires a great poet. The fourth book of Virgil’s Aeneid, in which the Latin writer recounts the passion, desertion and death of Dido, includes many elements drawn from the tragic tradition – the sister-confidante, the old nurse, the extended monologues, the long-premeditated suicide are among them.49 In one memorable passage Virgil describes Dido’s wretched dreams as her misery drives her close to madness: the simile he uses to dignify and expand on her experience unmistakably pays homage to two Euripidean masterpieces.

As mad Pentheus observes the ranks of the Eumenides, and sees a twin sun and a double Thebes revealing themselves, or as when, driven from the stage, Agamemnon’s son Orestes flees his mother, armed as she is with torches and black snakes, while the avenging Furies sit upon the threshold.50

By comparing her sufferings to those of Euripides’ classic characters, Virgil gives Dido herself the status of a tragic queen. Similarly in the underworld she is found amid the company of ghosts from heroic Greek myth, figures such as Phaedra and Pasiphae, many of whom also featured in Euripidean plays.

There can be no question here of following the fortunes of Euripides’ reputation through the centuries to the modern era.51 It is sufficient to say that he is probably admired more today than at any time since antiquity, whether as a theatrical innovator, as an experimenter with almost postmodern willingness to shift the genre’s boundaries, as a composer of challenging rhetoric, as a dramatist of the horrors of war, or as a champion of human values in the face of a corrupt society and an unfeeling universe. Whatever future changes may occur in the evaluation of different plays, and however varied the assessments of Euripides in relation to his fellow dramatists, it is unlikely that a time will ever come at which his name is forgotten or his works leave audiences unmoved.


1. On the festivals and theatrical conditions, see above all A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, Dramatic Festivals of Athens (2nd edn Oxford 1968); E. Csapo and W. J. Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama (Michigan 1995); more briefly E. Simon, The Ancient Theatre(Eng. tr., London and New York 1982), pp. 1–33; O. Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (London 1978), ch. 2. A readable account of the theatrical context is provided by R. Rehm, Greek Tragic Theatre (London 1992). See also J. R. Green, Theatre in Ancient Greek Society (London 1994).

2. Some but not all of these formal devices can be shown to a limited extent in English, but they are inevitably eroded in a prose version. The formal structures and variations of the genre are discussed in detail by most commentators: an important synthesis is the collection of essays edited by W. Jens, Die Bauformen der griechischen Tragödie (Munich 1971). Some are more briefly described by M. Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (London 1987), ch. 4, ‘The Tragic Text’.

3. For an excellent discussion of the types of myths favoured, see B. M. W. Knox, Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theatre (Baltimore 1979), ch. 1.

4. O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Oxford 1977); D. Bain, Actors and Audience (Oxford 1977); D. Mastronarde, Contact and Discontinuity (London 1979); M. Halleran, Stagecraft in Euripides (London and Sydney 1985); R. Rehm, Greek Tragic Theatre. Despite the powerful impact of these studies, they have not gone unchallenged. For a variety of criticisms see D. Wiles, ‘Reading Greek Performance’, Greece and Rome 34 (1987), pp. 136ff; S. Goldhill, ‘Reading Performance Criticism’, Greece and Rome 34 (1987), pp. 45–59, reprinted in I. McAuslan and P. Walcot (eds.),Greek Tragedy (Greece and Rome Studies 2, Oxford 1993), pp. 1–11. A thoughtful and stimulating reply by Taplin, ‘Opening Performances: Closing Texts?’ Essays in Criticism 45 (1995), pp. 93–120.

5. See M. L. West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford 1992). On dance, see A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, Dramatic Festivals of Athens, ch. 5; S. Lonsdale, Dance and Ritual Play in Greek Religion (Baltimore and London 1993).

6. For fuller essays, see R. P. Winnington-Ingram and P. E. Easterling in The Cambridge History of Classical Literature, vol. 1, ed. P. E. Easterling and B. M. W. Knox (Cambridge 1985; paperback 1989); also the pamphlets by S. Ireland and R. Buxton in the Greece and Rome New Surveysseries (Oxford).

7. D. Kovacs, Euripidea (Mnemosyne Suppl. 132, 1994) collects the ancient evidence for the poet’s life, reputation and reception in antiquity. Since he is particularly concerned to show how much is derived from comedy, he quotes and translates long extracts from Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs. S. Scullion, ‘Euripides and Macedon, or The Silence of the Frogs’, Classical Quarterly 53 (2003), pp. 389–400, maintains that the dates given in the ancient sources for Euripides’ birth rest purely on guesswork: the only firm chronological limits are imposed by the attested dates of his plays, which make any birth-date prior to about 476 BC feasible. The year 476 BC itself, however, would make him only twenty or twenty-one when he first produced a play: a birth-date in the 480s BC remains plausible.

8. Revivals of older tragedies became a regular feature at the festivals from 386 BC onwards: see A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, Dramatic Festivals of Athens, pp. 99–100. Euripides’ plays were frequently chosen. For the possibility of performances outside Athens already in the fifth century BC, see P. E. Easterling, ‘Euripides Outside Athens: A Speculative Note’ Illinois Classical Studies 19 (1994), pp. 1–8. See also note 38.

9. This work is highly technical, but the essentials can be gleaned from A. M. Dale’s introduction to her commentary on Helen (Oxford 1967), pp. xxiv–xxviii. More recent work includes M. J. Cropp and G. Fick, Resolutions and Chronology in Euripides: the Fragmentary Tragedies (Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Suppl. 43, 1985).

10. See further G. Zuntz, The Political Plays of Euripides (Manchester 1955), chs. 1–3, esp. pp. 78–81. Some more recent approaches, which all seek in different ways to put tragedy in an Athenian context, can be found in the collections Nothing to Do with Dionysus?, ed. J. Winkler and F. Zeitlin (Princeton 1990); Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis, ed. A. Sommerstein et al. (Bari 1993); and Greek Tragedy and the Historian, ed. C. B. R. Pelling (Oxford 1997). Some of the strengths and weaknesses of these approaches are discussed by J. Griffin, ‘The Social Function of Greek Tragedy’, Classical Quarterly 48 (1998), pp. 39-61; contrast the responses by R. Seaford, ‘The Social Function of Attic Tragedy: A Response to Jasper Griffin’, Classical Quarterly 50 (2000), pp. 30–44, and S. Goldhill, ‘Civic Ideology and the Problem of Difference: The Politics of Aeschylean Tragedy Once Again’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 130 (2000), pp. 34–56. For a historian’s intervention in the debate see P. J. Rhodes, ‘Nothing to Do with Democracy: Athenian Drama and the Polis’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 133 (2003), pp. 104–19.

11. For a very valuable survey of the range of his œuvre, which lays proper emphasis on the abundant evidence from the fragmentary plays and the dangers of overconfident generalization, see D. J. Mastronarde, ‘Euripidean Tragedy and Genre: the Terminology and its Problems’, in Euripides and Tragic Theatre in the Late Fifth Century, ed. M. Cropp, K. Lee and D. Sansone (Illinois 2000), pp. 23–39.

12. From the jacket blurb of Catastrophe Survived (Oxford 1973).

13. I draw here on R. P. Winnington-Ingram, ‘Euripides, Poietes Sophos [Intellectual Poet]’, Arethusa 2 (1969), pp. 127–42. His points are further developed by W. G. Arnott, ‘Euripides and the Unexpected’, in I. McAuslan and P. Walcot, Greek Tragedy, pp. 138–52.

14. In Aristophanes’ Clouds, originally produced in 423 BC, the rebellious Pheidippides is asked by his father to sing a passage of Aeschylus, and scoffs at the idea, dismissing the older poet as a bombastic and incoherent ranter. When asked to produce a modern alternative, he shocks his father by reciting a passage from Euripides’ Aeolus defending the merits of incest!

15. This is the usual view, found for instance in the standard commentaries of Barrett and Halleran and restated in our first volume, but J. Gibert, ‘Euripides’ Hippolytus Plays’, Classical Quarterly 47 (1997), pp. 85–97, has shown reason to question the consensus, and his scepticism is developed further, with new arguments, by G. O. Hutchinson, ‘Euripides’ Other Hippolytus’, in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 149 (2004), pp. 15–28.

16. An influential statement of the view that self-conscious reference to the theatre (sometimes described as ‘breaking the dramatic illusion’) was nonexistent in the Greek tragic tradition was that of D. Bain, ‘Audience Address in Greek Tragedy’, Classical Quarterly 25 (1975), pp. 13–25 andActors and Audience (Oxford 1977), pp. 208–10. O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, pp. 129–34, adopted a similar position, but his fuller account of the matter in 1986 made some concessions as regards late Euripides (‘Fifth-century Tragedy and Comedy: a Sunkrisis’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 106 (1986), pp. 163–74), and more recent work by Taplin and others has gone still further: see S. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1986), esp. ch. 10; P. Wilson and O. Taplin, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society new series 39 (1995), pp. 169–80, esp. pp. 169–70.

17. B. M. W. Knox, Word and Action, pp. 250–74 (‘Euripidean Comedy’). For an important new study of these plays, see M. Wright, Euripides’ Escape-Tragedies (Oxford 2005).

18. Good summary, with further references, in C. Collard, Euripides (Greece and Rome New Surveys 14, Oxford 1981), pp. 20–29.

19. The reference to Euripides’ thinkers comes from E. R. Dodds’ essay ‘Euripides the Irrationalist’, Classical Review 43 (1929), pp. 87–104, reprinted in his collection The Ancient Concept of Progress and Other Essays (Oxford 1973), pp. 78–91. On women in Athenian literature and society, see further J. Gould, ‘Law, Custom and Myth: Aspects of the Social Position of Women in Classical Athens’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 100 (1980), pp. 38–59, reprinted in Gould, Myth, Ritual, Memory and Exchange (Oxford 2001), pp. 112–57; S. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, ch. 5; and the essays in A. Powell (ed.), Euripides, Women and Sexuality (London 1990).

20. For a very helpful essay on this side of Euripides, see C. Collard, ‘Formal Debates in Euripidean Drama’, in I. McAuslan and P. Walcot, Greek Tragedy, pp. 153–66; also M. Lloyd, The Agon in Euripides (Oxford 1992).

21. Thucydides iii, 38, 4. It is particularly striking that the word translated as ‘spectator’ is the regular term for a member of the theatrical audience.

22. A. N. Michelini, Euripides and the Tragic Tradition (Madison, Wisconsin and London 1987), part 1, gives a well-documented history of the debate over Euripides’ views. A seminal work is G. Murray’s short book Euripides and His Age (London 1913), but although highly readable this is now very dated.

23. See the useful collection of essays edited by P. E. Easterling and J. V. Muir, Greek Religion and Society (Cambridge 1985), esp. J. Gould’s contribution, ‘On Making Sense of Greek Religion’ (pp. 1–33; reprinted in Gould, Myth, Ritual, Memory and Exchange, pp. 203–34).

24. Herodotus ii, 3, 2. On this subject in general, J. Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion (Chapel Hill 1983) and Honor Thy Gods (Chapel Hill and London 1991) are valuable collections of material, but tend to draw too firm a line between what happens in life and what appears in literature.

25. Protests against the cruelty and injustice of the gods are found also in the earlier dramatists: note especially Thetis’ angry accusations of Apollo, who falsely promised her happiness on her wedding day, but subsequently slew her son Achilles (Aeschylus, fragment 350 Radt, translated as fragment 189 in the Loeb Aeschylus); also Sophocles, Women of Trachis, 1264ff.

26. T. C. W. Stinton, Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, new series 22 (1976), pp. 60–89; reprinted in Stinton, Collected Papers on Greek Tragedy (Oxford 1990), pp. 236–64; H. Yunis, A New Creed: Fundamental Religious Beliefs in the Athenian Polis and Euripidean Drama(Göttingen 1988), esp. pp. 155–71.

27. E. R. Dodds, ‘Euripides the Irrationalist’ (see note 19).

28. Classic (over-) statement, in K. Reinhardt, ‘Die Sinneskreise bei Euripides’, in Tradition und Geist (Göttingen 1960), now available in English as ‘The Intellectual Crisis in Euripides’, in J. Mossman (ed.), Euripides (Oxford 2002), pp. 16–46.

29. For valuable comments on these points see J. Griffin, ‘The Social Function of Greek Tragedy’, pp. 54–61; the earlier, polemical part of this paper is less rewarding.

30. Cf. Gorgias, fragment B11.8–14 Diels-Kranz (also fragment B23); Plato, Ion 535 b–e (reactions to a rhapsode’s performance of Homer); Philebus 48a (tragedy); Plutarch, Moralia 998e. Many relevant passages on Greek responses to poetry are discussed by M. Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (1987), pp. 5–17, 32–5, 38–47, S. Halliwell, Aristotle’s Poetics (London 1986), ch. 1; and also by Griffin, ‘The Social Function of Greek Tragedy’.

31. On these matters I have been helped above all by repeated reading of R. Parker’s indispensable paper ‘Gods Cruel and Kind: Tragic and Civic Theology’, in C. B. R. Pelling (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford 1997), pp. 143–60.

32. S. Scullion, ‘Euripides and Macedon’, pp. 389–400, argues that Euripides’ sojourn and death at the Macedonian court are fictions spun by Hellenistic biographers.

33. The main ancient sources are Thucydides, book 8, and Xenophon, Hellenica (translated in Penguin as ‘A History of My Times’), books 1 and 2. For a detailed modern narrative see D. Kagan, The Fall of the Athenian Empire (Cornell 1987); shorter treatments by A. Andrewes in Cambridge Ancient History (2nd edn) vol. 5 (Cambridge 1992), pp. 464–98, or S. Hornblower, The Greek World 479–323 BC (3rd edn London 2002), pp. 181–3.

34. Another way in which contemporary trends have been thought to influence tragedy concerns the Bacchae. Many interpreters have seen the hostile reception of Dionysus in Thebes as in some way reflecting Athenian unease at the worship of new deities from foreign parts (e.g. the Thracian goddess Bendis, or Sabazios): see e.g. E. R. Dodds, in his commentary on the Bacchae (2nd edn Oxford 1960), pp. xxii–xxv; H. S. Versnel, Inconsistencies in Greek and Roman Religion I: Ter Unus (Leiden 1990), pp. 100–189. For criticism of this approach, arguing that the ‘new gods’ were neither new nor controversial, see R. Parker, Athenian Religion: a History (Oxford 1996), ch. 9. W. Allan, in a valuable paper entitled ‘Religious Syncretism: the New Gods of Greek Tragedy’, forthcoming in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, shows that all references in tragic drama to ‘new gods’ are dramatically justified in context, and require no explanation from outside the play.

35. Astrophic choral odes are however commoner in some of the earlier dramas. For a full tabulation see G. Rode in Die Bauformen der griechischen Tragödie, pp. 85–6.

36. See esp. M. L. West, Ancient Greek Music (Oxford 1992), pp. 350–55; E. Csapo, ‘Later Euripidean Music’, in Euripides and Tragic Theatre in the Late Fifth Century (Illinois 2000), pp. 399–426. P. Murray and P. Wilson (eds.), Music and the Muses (Oxford 2004) is an important collection of papers: again see esp. E. Csapo’s contribution, ‘The Politics of the New Music’, pp. 207–48.

37. E.g. P. E. Easterling, ‘The End of an Era? Tragedy in the Fourth Century’ in Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis, ed. A. Sommerstein et al. (1993), pp. 559–69.

38. See e.g. O. Taplin, ‘Spreading the Word through Performance’, in S. Goldhill and R. Osborne (eds.), Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy (Cambridge 1999), pp. 33–57; M. Revermann, ‘Euripides, Tragedy and Macedon: Some Conditions of Reception’, in Euripides and Tragic Theatre, ed. M. Cropp et al., pp. 451–67; W. Allan, ‘Euripides in Megale Hellas: Some Aspects of the Early Reception of Tragedy’, Greece and Rome 48 (2001), pp. 76–86.

39. See further P. E. Easterling, ‘From Repertoire to Canon’, in her Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1977), pp. 211–27.

40. For a masterly survey (in German) see H. Funke, ‘Euripides’, Jahrbuch für Antiken und Christentum 8/9 (1965–6), pp. 233–79. See also R. Garland, Surviving Greek Tragedy (London 2004).

41. Figures are derivable from R. Pack, The Greek and Latin Literary Texts from Greco-Roman Egypt (2nd edn Ann Arbor 1965); more up to date is J. Krüger, Oxyrhynchos in der Kaiserzeit (Frankfurt am Main 1990). More briefly see R. Garland, Surviving Greek Tragedy, pp. 52–3.

42. Very valuable treatment (including translations) in C. Collard, M. Cropp, K. Lee and J. Gibert, Euripides: Fragmentary Plays I–II (Warminster 1997–2004).

43. Satyrus, Life of Euripides (third century BC), fragment 29.7 Arrighetti (= Kovacs, Euripidea T4.11, pp. 18–20). See further B. M. W. Knox, ‘Euripidean Comedy’, in Word and Action, pp. 250–74 (whose translation of Satyrus I largely borrow); R. Hunter, The New Comedy of Greece and Rome (Cambridge 1985), ch. 5.

44. R. Tarrant, ‘Senecan Drama and Its Antecedents’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978), pp. 213–63, somewhat modified in later publications. On Statius’ sources see D. Vessey, Statius and the Thebaid (Cambridge 1973), pp. 67–71.

45. G. Williams, Tradition and Originality in Roman Poetry (Oxford 1968), pp. 461ff.

46. Quintilian, Education of an Orator, 10.1.67–8; like Satyrus, he remarks on Menander’s debt to him.

47. E.g. Dio Chrysostom’s essay comparing the three tragedians’ treatments of the Philoctetes myth (Oration 52); see esp. 11–14. See further W. Schmid and O. Stählin, Geschichte der griechischen Literatur (Munich 1929–48), i, 3, pp. 823–38.

48. D. J. Mastronarde in his commentary on Medea (Cambridge 2002), lines 1078–80.

49. See further P. Hardie, ‘Virgil and Tragedy’, in C. Martindale (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Virgil (Cambridge 1997), pp. 312–26.

50. Virgil, Aeneid, 4.469–72, alluding to Bacchae, 918–19 and Orestes, 255ff. The same scene in Orestes, as we have seen, aroused the admiration of Longinus.

51. For works which give access to most aspects of this history see P. E. Easterling, Companion (especially the essays by P. Burian and F. Macintosh); H. Flashar, Inszenierung der Antike (Munich 1991); M. McDonald, Ancient Sun, Modern Light (Columbia 1992); H. Foley, ‘Twentieth-century Performance and Adaptation of Euripides’, in Euripides and Tragic Theatre, ed. M. Cropp et al., pp. 1–13; E. Hall et al. (eds.), Dionysus Since 69 (Oxford 2004); R. Garland, Surviving Greek Tragedy.

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