1. JOCASTA: The prologue, as so often in Euripides, begins with a fairly detailed account of past action by an individual alone on stage: often, as in Hippolytus, Bacchae and others, the speaker is a god. This résumé may form the whole of the prologue, as in Bacchae, or a second part, more lively and varied, may intervene before the entrance of the chorus (as here and e.g. in Electra or Orestes). It became a Euripidean convention to have this first speaker trace his or her ancestry (and often outline the remote origins of the present crisis): the tendency is mocked in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Sophocles, who normally opens his plays with dialogue, seems to have been more alert to the dangers of monotony.
Jocasta mentions a number of earlier episodes in the mythical history of Thebes, and many more are referred to later in the play. It may therefore be convenient to summarize this history, so that readers may consult this note in order to see how a particular allusion fits into the mythical chronology. Of course, the stories were variable in detail, and poets treated them freely and allusively: it was prose writers such as the mythographers who tried to systematize them in this fashion.
Io, daughter of the River Inachus, was beloved by Zeus, but in order to conceal her from Hera he turned her into cow-form with a touch of his hand; undeceived, Hera persecuted Io, driving her across the world tormented by a gadfly. Eventually she reached Egypt, was changed back into human form, and bore a son Epaphus (676–82). His descendant, Agenor, went to settle in Phoenicia. He was the father of a daughter, Europa, and a son, Cadmus. Europa, playing on the seashore with her friends, was abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull and carried overseas. Cadmus set out in quest of her, but was told by an oracle to abandon this search and instead to found a city at the spot where a cow with particular markings finally sat down (638–48). This animal led him to the site of the future Thebes.
Cadmus prepared to offer the cow as a sacrifice (662), but was barred from a spring of water by a great serpent (657ff.), which some authors called the offspring of Ares. Cadmus killed this serpent with Athena’s aid, and on her advice sowed its teeth in the earth: from this spot grew up armed warriors, the so-called ‘Sown Men’, who immediately began fighting each other: the survivors became the original Thebans (the myth obviously implies that the Thebans are born warriors) (657–75, 818–21). Cadmus became king of Thebes and married Harmonia, daughter of Ares (822–3). Later, however, he was driven into exile. In the Phoenician Women the continuing anger of Ares at the slaying of his serpent is an important motif that helps explain the catastrophes afflicting Thebes: at one point (1065–6) it is suggested that Ares sent the Sphinx in retribution.
The next ruler of Thebes referred to in this play was Laius, son of Labdacus and father of Oedipus. Jocasta summarizes his story in the prologue: warned that if he fathered a son that son would kill him, he first tried to refrain from intercourse, but when a son did appear exposed him. But the child survived and eventually killed his father without recognizing him (13–45, 801–5). When Thebes was being attacked by the monstrous Sphinx, it became clear that no one could kill the beast except by solving its riddle. Oedipus did so (46–50, 806–11, 1018–50). Tragedy often refers to the riddle but never quotes it: various versions are found in prose accounts and commentators. Essentially it was ‘what creature has four legs, two legs and three legs?’ and the answer was ‘man’ (crawling on all fours as a child, walking on two legs as an adult, walking with a stick when old).
Oedipus, still unrecognized, was rewarded with the throne and Jocasta’s hand in marriage. This incestuous relationship was as horrific in Greek eyes as in ours; still worse was the fact that Jocasta bore her son children: two sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, and two daughters, Ismene (mentioned but ignored in Euripides’ play) and Antigone (51–8, 1047–50). The process by which his true identity was exposed after many years is dramatized in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. In that play Jocasta commits suicide and Oedipus seems likely to be sent into exile. Euripides allows both of them to live on in war-torn Thebes. At some point before the action of this play begins Oedipus has cursed his sons: this was a traditional part of the legend, though explanations of his motives varied. Whether their bitter enmity is a result of his curses is questionable, but it is obvious that their mutual fratricide, the climax of this play, is the final upshot of their father’s anger. (Euripides, however, makes Oedipus now regret having uttered these curses.)
On the question of how and where Oedipus eventually dies, see note 83.
2. O Sun, whirling: The textual uncertainties of the play are well illustrated by the fact that the first two lines in the manuscripts are almost certainly spurious. The full manuscript version begins: ‘O you who cut your path amid the stars of heaven, mounted in a chariot of beaten gold, o Sun, whirling …’ The evidence that lines 1–2 are a later expansion is unusually clear-cut. Two ancient papyri of the opening of the play begin with line 3; an ancient collection of summaries of Euripidean plays quotes the same line as the ‘beginning’; and various later writers, e.g. on metrical matters, quote it in contexts that suggest it was well known, probably because it was the opening line. The issue is fully discussed by M. Haslam, ‘The Authenticity of Euripides, Phoenissae 1–2 and Sophocles,Electra 1’, Greek Roman and Byzantine Studies 16 (1975), pp. 149–74.
3. wade through blood: The stress here on the bloody fate of the whole house, absent from the Sophoclean version of the oracle, is obviously better suited to the themes of this play, which focuses on the generation after Oedipus and culminates in the deaths of Laius’ widow and grandsons.
4. golden brooch-pins: The detail recalls Sophocles’ version, where Oedipus blinds himself with the brooches he finds on Jocasta herself after her suicide. Here, of course, Jocasta is not dead; but Euripides does not feel obliged to think of an alternative instrument.
5. with whetted sword: The prophecy of Apollo might be thought to have already guaranteed this; Oedipus’ fury with his sons adds a further level of supernatural causation. This form of ‘overdetermination’ is common in tragedy. Oedipus seems to be angry because his sons have virtually imprisoned him in the palace. In the early epic tradition it was said that he was outraged at being served an inferior cut of meat: later authors probably found this motive too trivial.
6. behind the stage-building: The scene which follows, while not integral to the action, enlarges our sense of the drama of the war, and introduces us to Antigone, here an attractive character in her youthful enthusiasm. The episode is modelled on the scene on the walls of Troy in Iliad 3 known as the ‘Teichoskopia’ (The Viewing from the Walls) in which Priam questions Helen about the identity of the Greek warriors whom he sees moving to and fro on the battlefield below. Here the situation is reversed: a young woman questions an old man.
7. you are royal: In contemporary Athens well-born women, especially if unmarried, were not expected to roam freely outside the home. These values are transferred to the heroic age.
8. from the men of Argos: Euripides is more concerned than the earlier tragedians with realistic detail of this kind; this contrasts with Aeschylus’ relative indifference to such matters. In the Seven against Thebes the older poet includes a lengthy scene in which a scout reports to Eteocles every detail of the accoutrements of the attacking champions, including much that he could hardly have witnessed.
9. Amphiaraus: The only one of the Seven who traditionally came on the expedition unwillingly. As a prophet, he foresaw the outcome without being able to avert it. See also lines 1111ff. and Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes 568ff.
10. to say nothing good of each other: The servant’s comments anticipate the entry of the chorus. As at the beginning of the scene, he is anxious to protect Antigone’s reputation. The disparaging remarks on women are the kind of thing that encouraged audiences to regard Euripides as a misogynist; but the opinions of a character should not be automatically ascribed to the author.
11. from the Phoenician isle: The reference is to Tyre, an island until it was joined to the mainland by a mole during Alexander’s siege of 332 BC.
12. serve as a slave to Phoebus: The chorus are being sent from Phoenicia to Delphi to serve in Apollo’s shrine as temple servants. En route for Delphi they have reached Thebes, and are now confined there by the siege which has just begun. Because of their Phoenician ancestry they are distantly related to the Thebans (see note 1), but their dress and probably their style of singing and dancing would mark them as foreigners. Euripides no doubt wished to use a different kind of chorus from Aeschylus in the Seven against Thebes (whose chorus consists of Theban women); he also often prefers to characterize the chorus as marginal (foreigners in a strange land, old men, maidens), able to comment on events from a different perspective although caught up in them. See J. Gould, ‘Tragedy and Collective Experience’, in Tragedy and the Tragic, ed. M. S. Silk (Oxford 1996), pp. 217–43 (= J. Gould, Myth, Ritual, Memory and Exchange (Oxford 2001), pp. 378–404); also D. J. Mastronarde, ‘Knowledge and Authority in the Choral Voice of Euripidean Tragedy’, Syllecta Classica 10 (1999), pp. 87–104.
13. Zephyrus’ chariot … unharvested plains: Zephyrus is the favourable west wind, blowing across the Mediterranean from Sicily (the geography is colourful rather than precise). ‘Unharvested plains’ is modelled on a Homeric phrase referring to the sea.
14. glorious sons of Agenor: See note 1 above; Cadmus, founder of Thebes, was son of Agenor and set out on his travels from Phoenicia.
15. O rock … navel: This stanza paints a picture of the neighbourhood of Thebes, the city where Dionysus was born and where his rites continue to be celebrated on Mount Cithaeron. For the serpent of Ares see note 1 above. But the chorus would prefer to leave this city, for all its wonders, and find refuge in worship at Delphi.
16. near by I see the altar-hearth: This phrase hints at the possibility of taking refuge as a suppliant on sacred ground. Euripides often uses the supplication-ritual elsewhere (e.g. the openings of Children of Heracles, Heracles and Helen find the sympathetic characters seeking sanctuary in this way). Here Polyneices’ words may lead the audience to expect a development which does not come about.
17. sings a monody of welcome: It is typical of Greek tragedy that emotional moments involve lyric song, particularly from female characters. Jocasta’s monody may be compared with other set-piece arias in Euripides’ work: Evadne in Suppliant Women 99off., Cassandra in Trojan Women308ff. A common pattern in the genre is for matters to be treated first in lyric, then recapitulated in calmer vein through spoken verse. So here Jocasta’s song anticipates various topics subsequently handled in the dialogue.
18. Offspring exert … all womankind love their children: The choral comment is obvious and banal, as these two-line remarks after long speeches or songs often are (cf. 526–7, 586–7). They offer an opportunity for both performers and audience to draw breath; it has even been suggested that they may have been drowned by applause at the end of a virtuoso passage.
19. what is my old father doing … in his eyes: Jocasta had described Oedipus’ condition in her monody, but the recapitulation is conventional (see note 17).
20. Adrastus’ daughters should wed a boar and a lion: It is fairly obvious that Apollo meant that their husbands would be violent warriors, and the point is understood a few lines later, when Polyneices describes how he and Tydeus fought for a bed. In tragedy oracles are conventionally enigmatic and are rarely understood by the characters at first hearing, though their meaning will usually be plain to the audience.
21. It is an old, old saying … counts for nothing: Many editors have cut the comments on wealth, ending the speech at 437. It has been thought that Polyneices should not be dwelling so much on his own self-interest. But even if we accept that Euripides is treating Polyneices sympathetically, that need not exclude a desire to recover his rightful share of his inheritance. Odysseus in Homer and Orestes in Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers also show a natural concern for their property.
22. Mother, here I am: The arrival of Eteocles initiates the agon-scene, the rhetorical contest which is a regular part of Euripides’ repertoire (see M. Lloyd, The Agon in Euripides (Oxford 1992)). Speeches in an agon are usually long, rhetorically sophisticated and highly self-conscious (the openings of both Polyneices’ and Eteocles’ speeches contain self-referential comments on truth and argumentation). This is also a part of the play in which ‘modern’ issues, topics important in Euripides’ own time, regularly make their appearance – in this case, the opposition between absolute power and equality. The three-cornered debate in this scene is unusual; most agon-scenes involve a confrontation between two opponents, but here Jocasta tries in vain to act as peacemaker. In tragedy theagon illuminates the matters at stake, but does not settle anything; normally, as here, it only intensifies conflict. The long speeches are followed by quickfire dialogue between the brothers which again heightens their antagonism: towards the end of the scene Jocasta tries to intervene in this exchange, with equal lack of success.
23. If all men agreed … is not reality: These lines are difficult and no doubt deliberately challenging for the audience. Two ideas seem to be combined: first, that no consensus can be reached among men concerning moral judgements (and therefore Eteocles cannot be expected to take the same view as Polyneices regarding the rights in this case); second, that morality is only a matter of words, without underlying reality. The two points are distinct, since it would be possible to believe that good and bad do exist even if one could not identify them to universal agreement. These ideas have the flavour of contemporary sophistic thought: Gorgias and Protagoras taught various kinds of relativism, and some of their pupils carried these arguments into the political arena.
24. In all else should a man fear the gods: These lines are shocking to orthodox opinion, and became notorious for their ruthless frankness. Julius Caesar is reported to have quoted them regularly (Cicero, On Duties 3.82, Suetonius, Life of Caesar 30.5).
25. Equality: The language is reminiscent of political debate: isotes (‘equality’) recalls isonomia (‘equality before the law’), one of the catch-words of Athenian democracy. Here equality is personified and seen as a ruling principle of the universe. Traditional imagery of the changing cycle of nature (compare Sophocles, Ajax 669ff.) is combined with more modern ideological polemic.
26. trophies of victory to Zeus: It was standard practice for the Greeks to dedicate spoils to Zeus and other gods after success in battle, sometimes adding a commemorative inscription: for many examples see W. K. Pritchett, The Greek State at War ii (Berkeley and London 1974), pp. 246–75. Jocasta’s point is that for Polyneices to boast in this way of sacking his own city would be disgraceful, not glorious.
27. the contest is no longer one of words: The futility of the debate is clearly marked, and Jocasta’s intervention proves futile: neither of the brothers attempts to answer her arguments. Failure of persuasion is a common theme in Greek tragedy: see e.g. Orestes’ failure to convince Tyndareus and Menelaus in the agon-scene of the Orestes. At this point the metre changes, and the remainder of this scene is in trochaic tetrameters, a longer line which seems regularly to be used by Euripides for agitated or excited dialogue. This effect is heightened from 603 onwards (‘With more than your share?’) as the lines are repeatedly split between the two brothers. The argument becomes more rapid and heated.
28. riders of the white horses: The two brothers Amphion and Zethus, in a Theban context almost equivalent to Castor and Polydeuces.
29. Where will you take your stance before the gates?: This exchange marks an important modification of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. In that play, Eteocles appoints a series of Theban champions to confront the leaders of the attacking forces at each of the seven gates of Thebes. Only when the scout identifies the assailant at the last gate as Polyneices does Eteocles realize that it is now inevitable that he himself must face his brother, fulfilling his undesired destiny (653ff). In Euripides the hatred each brother feels for the other is such that both of them actually desire to have the opportunity for fratricide.
30. your father’s curses: Again the themes of the Seven against Thebes are evoked. See especially lines 655 and 709, where Eteocles recognizes the fulfilment of the curses, and 677ff., where the chorus make repeated efforts to dissuade him.
31. named you Polyneices, ‘man of much strife’: The etymology is explicit here, and alluded to later at 1494 (see also Aeschylus, Seven against Thebes 405, 829ff.). The name suggests that it was traditionally Polyneices who was seen as the aggressor (and Jocasta’s speech still emphasizes this aspect). Euripides has modified the characterization, making Eteocles a much less sympathetic figure than his brother. Significant names (as ‘expressions of destiny’) are common in Greek literature, especially in epic and tragedy: compare Bacchae 367, 506–8, Aeschylus, Agamemnon 681–98, and many other cases.
32. From Tyre to this land came Cadmus: On the mythology of Cadmus see note 1 above. The choral ode exemplifies in an extreme form Euripides’ late lyric manner, often referred to as ‘dithyrambic’ because the dithyramb, a type of song in honour of Dionysus, was generally regarded as wilder and less disciplined in structure and thought than other hymnic forms. D.J. Mastronarde’s summary of the characteristics of Euripides’ style in the odes of this play is as follows: ‘short cola, an abundance of compound epithets (several unique in extant Greek or used in a uniquely eccentric sense), run-on appositions, accumulation of relative clauses and imbalance between main clauses and subordinate clauses, verbal repetitions, and the paradoxical wedding of beautiful language and sensuous description to violent content’ (D. J. Mastronarde (ed.), Phoenician Women(Cambridge 1994), p. 331.)
33. the Roaring One: This translates Bromios, one of the names of Dionysus, son of Zeus and Semele, who was born at Thebes. For more detail on his birth see Bacchae iff., 88ff., 242–5, 519–29 and notes.
34. Epaphus: He was the son of Zeus by Io, brought to birth when she reached Egypt. See Aeschylus, Suppliants 291–315, Prometheus Bound 846–52. His grandson Agenor settled in Phoenicia; hence Io is the chorus’s ‘first mother’. See also note 1 above.
35. Creon, son of Menoeceus: Creon is a regular figure in the Theban dramas, appearing in all of Sophocles’ plays on these legends (though very differently characterized in each). He is both son and father of Menoeceus: in historical Greek genealogies, names often recur every other generation. This scene contrasts Eteocles, the hot-tempered and impulsive ruler, with Creon, an older and more prudent figure. We have already seen that Eteocles is a proud and power-hungry monarch; we now see that he is no great strategist.
36. a company to lead against our seven gates: The traditional picture, immortalized by Aeschylus’ play, was for seven champions on each side to confront one another. Euripides introduces a more realistic note (as Eteocles’ preceding remark may imply) by making each of these men leader of a company of soldiers.
37. It would be a costly waste of time … our very walls: These lines are clearly a mischievous critique of the central scene of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in which nearly 300 lines are occupied by just such a description. The allusive reference to his great predecessor can be paralleled most clearly in the Electra (Electra’s sceptical comments on the tokens which had convinced her prototype in Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers), and other cases of allusive reminiscence have been plausibly detected.
38. But if I meet with any misfortune …: The remainder of Eteocles’ speech is subject to considerable critical doubt. In particular, lines 757–62 and 774–7, the passages which confirm Antigone’s betrothal to Haemon and forbid the burial of Polyneices, seem clearly to be composed in order to connect this play with the plot of Sophocles’ Antigone, in which Antigone buries her brother in defiance of Creon’s edict and perishes together with her fiancé Haemon. It is undramatic for Eteocles to be so explicitly expecting to die, and these sections, with their over-precise predictions of the future (especially 777 ‘even if related by blood’) are probably later additions to Euripides’ text. If this is right, so too will be the later developments of this theme, above all the confrontation of Creon and Antigone at the end of the play (1625–82: see notes there). The interest of these sections for the subsequent reception of Euripides’ play is such as to justify their inclusion here.
39. the prophet Teiresias: This blind seer regularly figures in tragedies set at Thebes: he appears also in the Bacchae and in Sophocles’ Antigone and Oedipus the King. It is common for him to advise rulers and for his warnings to be rejected angrily, but in the end they are always justified. That Eteocles has alienated this authoritative prophet is another indication of his inadequacy as a ruler.
40. Precaution: Not a regular deity of cult. Also, calling a god ‘serviceable’ is virtually unparalleled, and suits Eteocles’ pragmatic piety.
41. so out of tune with the festivals of the Roaring One: The chorus devote the first strophe of this ode to an elaborate contrast between the joyous dances and festivity of peace (presided over by Thebes’ patron Dionysus) and the ‘savage dance graced by no music’, the warfare inspired by and welcome to Ares. Warfare is seen as a kind of caricature of festivity. This type of image, involving the hideous distortion of something normal or pleasant, is frequent in tragedy.
42. Cithaeron: This was the mountain on which the infant Oedipus was exposed. The chorus, having begun with the present, moves back in time, wishing Oedipus had never survived, or that the Sphinx had never threatened Thebes (for in that case Oedipus would not have had to solve her riddle and thus become king, and none of the subsequent disasters would have happened). For the sequence of events see Jocasta’s account in 1–80, and note 1; for more on Oedipus and the Sphinx see the next choral ode, 1019ff., and note. The sequence of thought is loose; the connections of cause and effect, which would be familiar to the audience, are not spelt out in full.
43. You brought to birth …: The final part of the ode moves still further back in time, to describe the foundation of Thebes and the birth of the Sown Men (see note 1 above). The relevance of this will become apparent in the next scene, when Teiresias declares that one of the direct descendants of the Sown Men must die.
44. Harmonia’s nuptials: This refers to the marriage of Cadmus to Harmonia, daughter of Ares. That the gods attended their wedding feast as a sign of special favour is mentioned in Pindar, Pythian 3.87ff. The prosperity and divine goodwill enjoyed by Thebes in the past is contrasted with her present misfortunes (compare the treatment of Troy’s past in Trojan Women 820–59).
45. Amphion’s lyre-strings: Amphion and his brother Zethus, sons of Zeus and Antiope, are figures from the early history of Thebes; their mythological relation to Cadmus and his family is somewhat ill defined. Amphion was a gifted musician, and his greatest achievement, referred to here, was to play so enchantingly that the stones moved of their own accord to form the defensive walls of Thebes. Euripides’ lost play Antiope included a famous agon between the practical brother Zethus and the artistic Amphion; in the final scene Hermes predicted the building of these walls and so vindicated Amphion.
46. where Ares’ finest garlands may be gained: I.e., where victory in war can bring glory – but for which side?
47. from the land of Erechtheus’ sons: The ancient commentators on this passage remark that this is an anachronistic reference included to glorify Athens (Erechtheus and Cecrops are both mythical kings of Athens). The war referred to was dramatically treated by Euripides in his earlierErechtheus, another lost play, but there is no particular reason to suppose that Teiresias was a character. Apart from intertextual ingenuity, the playwright presumably means us to recall that this legend involved human sacrifice in order to save Athens; Teiresias is about to recommend the same drastic measure to aid Thebes.
48. There is no alternative: Teiresias turns to leave, without having divulged his secret. Creon indignantly restrains him and demands the truth. The scene is modelled on the exchange between Oedipus and Teiresias in Sophocles, Oedipus the King 297ff.; at line 320 there the prophet asks to be taken home, and Oedipus protests.
49. You must sacrifice Menoeceus here …: The sacrifice of a pure or virginal young man or woman is a recurrent motif in tragedy (Iphigenia is the most famous), and Euripides is particularly fond of this type of situation, in which a divine command requires that one should die so that many can be saved. The same sequence is found in his Children of Heracles and was evidently prominent in the lost Erechtheus. Such plots permit a powerful clash between the individual’s desires and the public good, normally solved by the victim nobly accepting his or her death as a duty. In this play the initial reluctance of Menoeceus turns out to be feigned, a clever variation on the regular pattern. More problematic are the cases where the victim is to die in order to allow an expedition to sail (as inIphigenia at Aulis), or to satisfy a dead ghost (as Polyxena is sacrificed to appease the dead Achilles in Hecabe). For discussions see J. Schmitt, Freiwilliger Opfertod bei Euripides (Giessen 1921); E. O’Connor-Visser, Aspects of Human Sacrifice in the Tragedies of Euripides (Amsterdam 1987); J. Wilkins, ‘The State and the Individual: Euripides’ Plays of Voluntary Self-sacrifice’, in A. Powell (ed.), Euripides, Women and Sexuality (London 1990), pp. 177–94; ironic readings in H. Foley, Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides (Ithaca and London 1985).
The demand for Menoeceus to die is probably a Euripidean invention. Sophocles, Antigone 1303 refers to the earlier death of a son of Creon, Megareus, but no circumstances are specified.
50. I beg you by your knees: This is a gesture of supplication, the procedure by which one person throws himself on another’s mercy: physical contact establishes a bond. Creon kneels and reaches out to touch Teiresias. The appeal is ritualistic, and Zeus in his capacity as god of suppliants is thought to be concerned for their interests. Supplication thus imposes an obligation, but it can still be resisted or rejected. See further J. Gould’s detailed treatment in ‘Hiketeia’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 93 (1973), pp. 74–103 (= J. Gould, Myth, Ritual, Memory and Exchange, pp. 22–77).
51. Haemon’s coming marriage … he is still betrothed: This rather fussy explanation is probably a later addition, made at the same time as the interpolations introducing the theme of Antigone’s betrothal to Haemon in the previous scene (see note 38 above). Diggle follows Willink in bracketing these lines as non-Euripidean.
52. am ready to die to save my country: If 944–6 are genuine (unlikely: see last note), Creon’s desperate resolve would be futile, for he is himself a married man. This is a further argument for their exclusion.
53. If only every man would take … bless them: These high-minded lines (perhaps not authentic) paint an ideal vision of politics. The Athenian audience would no doubt think of ways in which their own society fell short of this ideal. This type of moralizing generality is much more common in tragedy than precise political allusion to current events.
54. You came, you came, winged creature: The chorus address the Sphinx, now long dead, using the rhetorical device called apostrophe. For mythical details see note 1 above. The strophe describes how Thebes suffered from the Sphinx’s flying raids, the antistrophe refers to the coming of Oedipus, apparently a saviour-figure, but one who brought further misfortunes through the pollution of his crime and the curses he laid on his sons. The false saviour Oedipus is then contrasted with the true saviour Menoeceus.
55. AMESSENGER enters: Large-scale events such as battles and slaughter were not easy to present on the Greek stage: hence the frequent use of the messenger, anonymous but clearly identified as a servant or loyal supporter of the royal house. The speech developed a rhetoric of its own: vivid, detailed, often using language reminiscent of epic, frequently including quotation of direct speech, usually ending with a moralizing tag. It is conventional for the speaker to be able to tell the listeners much more than one individual could in fact have seen, though there are occasional gestures towards realism. For many aspects of the Euripidean messenger speech see I. de Jong, Narrative in Drama: the Art of the Euripidean Messenger-speech (Mnemosyne Suppl. 116, Leiden 1991). Most Greek tragedies include a messenger-speech and many have more than one. In this play there are two messengers and four speeches! Another convention is that time seems effectively to stand still while the messenger is narrating events: although in some plays there is urgent need for action, this is ignored until the narration is complete (e.g. Iphigenia among the Taurians 1322ff., Helen1526ff., cf. 1622–3). So too here: in real life, the messenger would explain the new plan of single combat at once, but here the narrative is expounded in chronological sequence, and the need for action by Jocasta only emerges at 1259ff.
56. When Creon’s son … to save the land: It is surprising that more is not made of Menoeceus’ self-sacrifice; instead it is disposed of in three lines, so that the narrative of the battle can follow. Perhaps the drama of decision-making appealed more to the poet than the suicidal moment itself.
57. And first to lead his troops …: The catalogue of warriors’ names and description of their shields’ symbols again recalls Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes. The passage also adds the details of which gate most of the warriors are attacking: some of these repeat the Aeschylean version, others diverge. The inclusion of Adrastus, Polyneices’ father-in-law, as one of the Seven is unusual. He replaces a hero called Eteoclus (mentioned in Aeschylus and in Euripides’ own Suppliant Women; also in a similar list in Sophocles,Oedipus at Colonus 1313–25). Possibly the name was thought confusing in a play that says so much about Eteocles. Some scholars see the list of warriors as a later elaboration (Diggle brackets 1104–40). But tragic poetry often includes catalogues of this kind.
58. the monster that sees all: This refers to Argus, the mythical figure set to guard Io: he was suited to the task by having countless eyes, so that he was never wholly asleep. Nevertheless, Hermes lulled him to sleep and killed him.
59. Titan Prometheus: A difficult passage. It appears that Tydeus is being compared with Prometheus, though some editors take this to be a further symbol on his shield. Whereas Prometheus brought fire to men and helped them with this gift, Tydeus is bringing fire against Thebes in order to burn and destroy it.
60. All this I was able to see … carrying the password: The messenger gives his credentials, so to speak. Similarly the servant in the prologue explained to Antigone how he knew all the names of the warriors on the opposing side (95ff., 141ff.). The intermittent concern for realistic justification is characteristic of Euripides.
61. the fury of Capaneus’ attack: See already 179–92. Capaneus was traditionally characterized by arrogance amounting to blasphemy: he boasted that he would burn Thebes whether Zeus willed it or not, and was punished with a thunderbolt. Cf. Aeschylus Seven against Thebes 423ff., Sophocles Antigone 127–40 (unnamed; the audience is expected to know who is meant).
62. why would you not let me give my good news … tale of woe: An almost metatextual allusion to the normal conventions, whereby the messenger gives his account and leaves at once. Here, however, a second speech follows. For good news in one speech followed by bad in another compare Aeschylus Agamemnon 503ff., 636ff.
63. Priests began sacrificing sheep: In historical times it was standard practice to test the gods’ will by divination before battle, and seers (the Greek manteis suggests ‘prophets’ rather than simply ‘priests’) accompanied armies on their expeditions. Bad omens could sometimes be disposed of by a second attempt, or even several. See further R. Parker, ‘Sacrifice and Battle’ in War and Violence in Ancient Greece, ed. H. Van Wees (London and Swansea 2000), pp. 299–313.
64. go, prevent your sons … fearful contest: Once again Jocasta must attempt to play the peacemaker, this time with deeds as well as words; and once again she will fail.
65. Which of her two sons shall pierce: Typical tragic irony. The chorus assume that one of the battling brothers will die, but the audience know that both are doomed. Teiresias in fact predicts this at 880 (in a passage deleted by some editors), but an audience would not be likely to recall this; in any case, warnings of this kind are often forgotten until too late.
66. Yet here I see Creon: Some scholars (including Diggle in the Oxford text) believe that in Euripides’ original play Creon’s role was confined to the scenes with Eteocles and Teiresias, and that all parts of the text from this point on involving him are spurious. If this is right, the passage which follows must have replaced or expanded a scene in which a messenger conversed simply with the chorus. My own preference is to regard the present scene and most of the text down to 1583 as substantially authentic: see further note 75 below, and for more detailed debate Mastronarde’s commentary.
67. O house of Oedipus: Creon addresses the palace, represented by the stage-building. The house is seen as almost a living entity, experiencing the burden of guilt and crime in Oedipus’ family and sharing the pain of its inhabitants. This kind of personification of the house was brilliantly exploited by Aeschylus in the Oresteia; he may well have invented the concept, if as is likely the stage-building was then a recent addition to the tragic performance. See further J.Jones, On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy (London 1962), pp. 82–111, O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Oxford 1977), pp. 319–20, 458–9.
68. Etruscan trumpet: In the sixth and fifth centuries BC ‘Tyrrhenian’ (Etruscan) was used by Greek writers to refer to the non-Greek peoples of Italy, with whom Greek colonists had been acquainted since the extensive settlements in the west in the eighth centuryBC. The notion of metalwork being imported from Italy to Greece in the heroic age is anachronistic, but not glaringly so: Hesiod in the last section of the Theogony already mentions the Tyrrhenians in a heroic context.
69. traitors to my marriage: The meaning is that Antigone’s brothers would have been expected to play a role in managing her marriage ceremony, as was normal when a father was dead or incapacitated. Some take these lines differently, dividing the speech so that part (rendered as ‘supporters of your mother …’) is spoken by Jocasta, part by Antigone.
70. thrusting the blade straight through her neck: The weapon is of course readily available on the battlefield. This is however an unconventional death for a woman: most tragic heroines committing suicide hang themselves (Antigone, Phaedra), and Jocasta did so in Sophocles. It is perhaps significant that Jocasta directs the blow at her neck. See further N. Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman (Eng. tr. Cambridge, Mass., and London 1987), p. 51 on this point.
71. the troops rushed to arms: The madness continues; Eteocles’ proposal to avoid bloodshed by single combat, belated as it was, proves ineffective. For a parallel in the historical period see Herodotus 1.82 (Sparta versus Argos).
72. Polyneices, your name proved true: The name means ‘much strife’, as already stated in 636 (see note 31 above).
73. O house, o house: The repetition is emotional, typical of tragic lyric at moments of intensity, not least passages of lamentation. Tragedy goes even further along this road than earlier lyric verse (see G. O. Hutchinson, Greek Lyric Poetry (Oxford 2001), pp. 429–32), and Euripides is notorious for repetitions of this kind (extensively parodied in Aristophanes, Frogs: e.g. 1137, 1352–5).
74. No one was unaware … woe upon our house: The song of Antigone concludes with a vivid picture of pathetic appeal (Jocasta bares her breast as Hecabe did in an effort to arouse pity in Hector in the Iliad, or as Clytemnestra does in an effort to move her son in Aeschylus, Libation-Bearers). Her feminine distress is juxtaposed with their male violence; the setting ‘in a meadow of lotus flowers’ provides a further contrast with the bloodshed. The lines, however effective, reach a level of mannerism that is extreme even for late Euripides (especially the lines on the ‘libation of blood’). Diggle may well be right to doubt the authenticity of 1570–76.
75. be blessed with happier fortune!: Most scholars agree that the remainder of the play is not authentic, but the work of a later hand. It is not certain how the play originally ended – most probably with lamentation and perhaps with preparations for burial. The present ending is clearly composed (together, probably, with some shorter passages earlier in the play) in order to link the plot up with the stories dramatized in Sophocles’ Antigone (Antigone buries Polyneices despite Creon’s edict) and Oedipus at Colonus(Oedipus ends his exile and his life in Attica, accompanied by Antigone). The awkwardness of the ending as it stands is obvious. How can Antigone remain and bury Polyneices (and die for it, as the Antigone-plot demands) and also accompany her father into exile, especially if (as in Sophocles) he may have to journey for many years? Also, Antigone’s challenge to Creon before she buries her brother is sure to make it difficult if not impossible to execute her intention; while Creon’s failure to place her under some form of restraint is inexplicable. The desire for dramatic confrontation has resulted in a striking but highly implausible sequence. It appears that at the time this ending was composed (probably in the fourth century BC) the fame of the Antigone was such that the temptation to anticipate that plot was irresistible. A similar procedure has produced a hybrid text at the end of the Seven against Thebes (1005–53 are plainly intrusive, and most probably the daughters of Oedipus played no part at all in Aeschylus’ original text).
The play was evidently known in its present form to the Roman poets of the first century AD: Statius in the last books of his Thebaid quarries the last scenes extensively. For this reason and for the general interest of the conclusion, it is rendered here in full, although it seems clear that at least large portions of it are not Euripidean.
76. Come, take your leave: The exchange here inverts the finale of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King. There, Oedipus demands to be sent into exile, and Creon is hesitant, deferring decision until he has consulted Delphi.
77. should serve Polybus as my master: A very odd description in any version of the story. Polybus, king of Corinth, is normally said to have adopted Oedipus as his son (see Jocasta’s narrative at 28ff. for a variant on this).
78. wind my arms around your knees: A gesture of supplication: compare 923 and note 50 above.
79. It is to be left alone …: The allusion to the plot of Antigone comes close to direct quotation here: compare lines 29–30 and 205 of Sophocles’ play.
80. one of the daughters of Danaus! The fifty Danaids, forced into marriage with their cousins, killed their husbands on their wedding night (all except Hypermestra, who helped hers escape). Hence they became a proverbial example of female atrocity.
81. Creon leaves: The staging here is very uncertain. Now that Creon is aware of Antigone’s intention, it hardly makes sense for him to leave the stage simply assuming she will depart from Thebes; but he makes no further contribution to the play. An alternative is to have him withdraw from the main acting area but remain visible with his guards as a menacing presence. The problem is bound up with the general patchwork quality of this ending.
82. Where is Oedipus, the glorious master of riddles?: As so often, tragedy highlights present disaster by recalling the happier or more successful times now long past (in this case, Oedipus’ triumph over the Sphinx, see note 1 above). A close parallel is Theseus’ effort to put heart into the despairing Heracles (Euripides, Heracles 1250), ‘Are these the words of Heracles, the all-enduring?’ Heracles replies ‘Never did I know sorrow such as this.’ But in the lyrics which follow the present passage the actors change their tone: Oedipus recalls his success with the riddle, Antigone warns him to accept his lot (1728ff.).
83. Now Loxias’ oracle is being fulfilled, my child …: The six lines which end this dialogue allude to the events dramatized in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, in which the aged king, after years of wandering, finds refuge in Theseus’ Athens and dies in mysterious and supernatural circumstances at the rural district of Colonus: in that play it seems to be assumed that he has joined the number of the heroes, former mortals who receive cult and worship (see esp. E. Kearns, The Heroes of Attica (London 1989), pp. 50–52, 208–9). Sophocles’ play was produced posthumously, some years after the Phoenician Women. It is possible that the tradition of Oedipus’ death at Athens was older than Sophocles (though we have no other evidence besides this passage; according to the Iliad he was buried at Thebes); but if it is right to see the end of this play as a later composition, these lines would obviously be inspired by Sophocles’ classic treatment.
84. the god of horses: Poseidon, who is said to have offered a horse as his gift to Athens in competition with Athena to become the city’s patron (she offered the olive-tree).
85. I shall shroud him in dark earth: After a long passage in which Antigone has assured her father of her company in his exile, we revert to her intention to bury her brother. Again we see the incompatibility of motifs. Greek tragedy often admits calculated inconsistency, but in minor matters or else scattered across widely dispersed passages (see R. Scodel, Credible Impossibilities (Stuttgart-Leipzig 1999)): this kind of blatant and persistent confusion is quite abnormal and betrays the hand of an inferior poet.
86. Go to where … mountain slopes: Oedipus seems to mean ‘lead me to Cithaeron’, where Bacchic rites were celebrated.
87. O you citizens of a land renowned: Unless Creon and his men are still there, no citizens are on stage (the chorus are foreign). Is Oedipus to be seen as addressing the Athenian audience? If so, this would be a further indication of late composition: explicit audience address is alien to fifth-century BC tragedy (D. Bain, ‘Audience Address in Greek Tragedy’, Classical Quarterly 25 (1975), pp. 13–25, O. Taplin, Stagecraft of Aeschylus, pp. 129–34 (though Taplin has since modified his position considerably, especially as regards pp. 132–4: cf. General Introduction, note 16)). The lines resemble, and are probably an imitation of, the conclusion of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (1524–30), where it is disputed whether they belong to Oedipus or the chorus.
88. O Victory … your crown: This short conclusion also appears in the manuscripts at the end of several other plays by Euripides, including Orestes (in Hippolytus and Iphigenia among the Taurians it follows an authentic tailpiece). It is obviously spurious: the invocation of victory by the dramatist through his spokesman on stage is a further breach of dramatic illusion and belongs to a later age.
1. ELECTRA: On the prologue-technique, see notes on the opening of Phoenician Women. As there, it will be convenient to give here a summary of the relevant myths concerning the family history of Orestes, and to refer back to this note when individual episodes are mentioned later in the play.
The founder of the house was Tantalus, a son of Zeus. Although favoured by the gods and permitted to share their feasts, he committed some crime which earned him eternal punishment. The poets differ on what his offence was: Euripides speaks of his ungovernable tongue, which may mean he passed on secrets of the gods to men. Others refer to his attempting to steal the divine food ambrosia, or testing the gods’ wisdom by feeding them human flesh. His punishment is placed in Hades by Homer; on the novel idea that he is suspended in mid-air, see 982 ff. and note 55. In theOdyssey he is constantly tormented by having food and drink forever out of his reach; the notion that he has a rock suspended over him threatening to fall is perhaps a later development, found first in Archilochus.
Tantalus’ son was Pelops, who gave his name to the Peloponnese. He courted Hippodameia, daughter of King Oenomaus of Sicyon. This king, being opposed to his daughter’s marriage, habitually challenged her suitors to a chariot race and slew them when they were defeated. Pelops bribed his charioteer Myrtilus to sabotage the king’s chariot, and thus won the race and caused Oenomaus’ death. Pelops later also killed Myrtilus (988), hurling him into the sea near Geraestus in south Euboea; according to some this was because Myrtilus attempted to seduce Hippodameia. With his dying words Myrtilus cursed Pelops and his descendants.
Pelops’ sons were Atreus and Thyestes, who both claimed the kingship of Mycenae-Argos. Their dispute focused on possession of a golden lamb which seems to have guaranteed right to the kingship: Atreus had it, but Thyestes stole it by seducing Atreus’ wife Aerope (996 ff., 1008–10). Atreus, however, was confirmed in power by a celestial portent, the reversal of the sun in its course (1001iff.). Feigning friendship to his brother, Atreus invited him to a dinner at which he served him with the chopped-up flesh of Thyestes’ own sons, whom he had just killed, mixed with other meat (1007–8). Thyestes, horror-stricken, withdrew into exile; his surviving son Aegisthus vowed revenge. (In later versions, especially in Latin writers, the reversal of the sun or other heavenly bodies takes place at the time of the Thyestean feast, marking the enormity of Atreus’ crime).
As Electra explains, Agamemnon and Menelaus were the sons of Atreus: they ruled in Mycenae-Argos and Sparta respectively, and married the two daughters of Tyndareus, Clytemnestra and Helen. Helen’s abduction (or seduction) by Paris caused the Trojan War; in Agamemnon’s absence Aegisthus seduced Clytemnestra, and the two of them plotted to kill him on his return. (On the sacrifice of Iphigenia as one motive for Clytemnestra’s antagonism to her husband see Preface to Iphigenia at Aulis.) Orestes was sent away for safety (in some versions despatched by Electra or his nurse) and was brought up in Phocis, near Delphi, with his close friend Pylades, son of the local king Strophius. On coming of age he consulted the oracle of Apollo and was commanded to avenge his father by killing his mother (and of course Aegisthus, but that is treated as uncontroversial). He was successful, but the present play deals with the psychological and political consequences.
2. Chrysothemis: She is mentioned in the Iliad and in other sources, but rarely plays a part in the legend: in extant tragedy she appears only in Sophocles’ Electra, as a more timid foil to Electra herself. She is ignored in the rest of this play.
3. her motives: Electra refers to Clytemnestra’s adulterous affair with Aegisthus while Agamemnon was absent at Troy.
4. There is no point in accusing Phoebus …: Despite this remark, many characters, including Electra, do question or find fault with Apollo’s command in the course of the play: see 76, 163–5, 191–4, 285–7, 416–17, 591–6, 956. Already in his Electra Euripides had allowed the god’s wisdom to be challenged, even by his fellow deities (1244–7, 1302). Moral criticism of the myths, with their often bloody and barbarous deeds, was common in Euripides’ time. In the end Apollo does resolve the problems of the survivors, but this does not mean that every spectator will be confident that the matricide was a good deed. Tragedy characteristically highlights deeds and choices which are morally difficult, sometimes insoluble.
5. shared in the murder: As also in Euripides’ own Electra; in the versions by the other tragedians Electra only lent moral support.
6. the Kindly Ones: (In Greek Eumenides.) She means the Furies, who had been given this euphemistic title in Aeschylus’ Eumenides. The reference to terrors that plague Orestes prepares for the madness-scene, but so far we can still assume that the Furies are real rather than the hallucinatory fears which afflict Orestes later. Even in Aeschylus, there is ambiguity: at the end of the Libation-Bearers the Furies are invisible to all but Orestes, whereas in the Eumenides they are present on stage and form the chorus.
7. It is the decree of this city of Argos: These lines introduce an important new element in the story. In Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers, the people of Argos had been oppressed by the tyrannical rule of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, and Orestes after their deaths is hailed as a liberator. In this play the matricidal act revolts the Argive people: besides the persecution by the Furies (even if they exist only in his mind), Orestes must cope with the political consequences of his action. Electra’s comments here also make clear that events have reached a crisis (‘This is the appointed day …’ : cf. Aristotle, Poetics 5 on the tendency for tragedy to restrict its time frame to a single day).
8. entrusted to my mother’s fostering: This explains the presence of Hermione, who is needed for later developments. It is almost certainly an ad hoc invention by Euripides, who frequently adds explanatory ‘footnotes’ of this type.
9. Maiden for all too long a day: This line plays on the etymology of the name Electra, which is often treated as equivalent to a-lektr-. This means ‘deprived of marriage bed’, and alludes to the refusal of Clytemnestra and Aegisthus to let Electra marry. Cf. Sophocles, Electra 963–6. In the end Electra will marry Pylades.
10. contaminated: Those who have committed bloodshed are thought to be ‘polluted’ in the religious sense, and may bring bad luck on those they touch or even speak to. For this range of ideas see W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Eng. tr. Oxford 1985), pp. 75–82 and especially R. Parker, Miasma. Pollution and Purification in Greek Religion (Oxford 1983).
11. HERMIONE exits offstage: Hermione is completely silent in her brief appearance. This is a consequence of the three-actor rule: Electra and Orestes, playing major speaking parts, will both be continuously on stage for some time to come, and the third actor plays Helen. Hermione here (but not when she reappears) is played by a mute player.
12. who will sing with my lament: The explicit anticipation of a lyric exchange is one of many self-consciously ‘theatrical’ or metatextual touches in this play.
13. tread softly: For an actor to admonish the others on stage and entreat them not to awaken a sleeping figure seems to be a ‘typical scene’ of tragedy. Scenes like this appear in Euripides’ Heracles, Sophocles’ Women at Trachis and Philoctetes (produced in the previous year).
14. Oh no – your eyes are rolling, Brother: These lines make a swift introduction to the madness-scene, one of the most famous parts of the play (alluded to by Virgil in the Aeneid and quoted by Longinus in On the Sublime). Euripides’ presentation of madness is analysed in more detail by G. W. Bond in his commentary on the Heracles (Oxford 1981) (general note to 930–1009).
15. Give me my horn-tipped bow …: In the lyric poem entitled Oresteia by Stesichorus (fragment 217), Apollo had given a real bow to Orestes in order to fend off real Furies. In this scene the Furies are hallucinations, and probably no bow is physically present either. Orestes faces psychological, not supernatural, terrors.
16. calm descending on the stormy waves: Ancient tradition records the entertaining story that an actor called Hegelochus mispronounced the word ‘calm’ in this line, so that he appeared to be replacing it with the similar Greek word for ‘weasel’. This seems to be an authentic anecdote deriving from the earliest production, as it is alluded to by Aristophanes (Frogs 303–4) only a few years later (other comedians also make fun of the occasion).
17. would have begged me earnestly, clasping my chin: This is a gesture of supplication. The notion of Agamemnon wanting Clytemnestra to be spared is a novel one, running completely contrary to tradition. In Homer’s Odyssey his ghost speaks of her with bitter resentment in the underworld, and in Aeschylus Electra and Orestes try to summon their father’s wrathful spirit to lend them support in the matricide.
18. O you terrible goddesses …: One cannot pray to a hallucination; in this song the chorus are assuming that the Furies are real and that Orestes’ madness is the result of their persecution. Thus after the more ‘psychological’ presentation in the previous scene we return to a more mythological perspective. Either we can see this as preserving a significant ambiguity (cf. note 6 above) or it may be that the explanation lies in the different register: dialogue and lyric song permit different perspectives.
19. derives from wedlock with gods: Tantalus (note 1 above) was a son of Zeus, but sources are vague about his mother. According to the scholia he also married Dione, a daughter of Atlas.
20. in grand luxury: There is some similarity to the fulsome address by the chorus to Agamemnon when he appears on stage in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon. The reference to luxury may imply that Menelaus has been corrupted by his time in the East (though the allusion to his family background, if the text is sound, would suggest that he was a ready victim to such corruption).
21. Glaucus, son of Nereus: In the Odyssey Menelaus was informed of his brother’s fate by the sea-god Proteus in Egypt. Rather than simply repeating the Homeric version, Euripides plays a variation.
22. so I wouldn’t recognize him if I saw him: We note Euripides’ concern for realism and chronology. The Trojan war lasted ten years and Menelaus has been absent for a further seven (the figures go back to Homer); Orestes must therefore be at least seventeen or eighteen years old. Euripides may be consciously improving on a rather implausible passage in Homer, where Helen recognizes Telemachus, whom she has not seen for a similar length of time (Odyssey 4.141ff.).
23. leafless prayers: ‘Leafless’ because suppliants normally carried sacred boughs (Iliad 1.14, Sophocles, Oedipus the King 3, etc.); Orestes does not.
24. Awareness: The line is enigmatic, the expression abstract: Menelaus is naturally puzzled. The usual reading of this line takes it as referring to ‘conscience’; for discussion of alternatives see D. H. Porter, Studies in Euripides’ Orestes (Mnemosyne Suppl. 128, Leiden 1993), Appendix 1 (pp. 298–313).
25. Pylades: The tradition is consistent that Pylades came to Argos with Orestes and supported him at the crisis. His absence in the first part of this play is nowhere explained: in part it results from Euripides’ need to use all three actors for other roles.
26. A man does not show … loved ones: The sequence of thought is unclear and the text probably corrupt.
27. Oeax … what happened at Troy: This is a typical example of Euripides’ delight in connecting stories with one another or exploring the implications of relationships. Oeax was the son of Palamedes, who was one of the cleverest of the Greeks at Troy. This aroused Odysseus’ jealousy, and he plotted either to murder Palamedes or to frame him and get him condemned to death by the Greeks. His treacherous behaviour became known, and Palamedes’ father Nauplius in revenge lit beacons at night which lured some of the returning Greek ships on to the rocks. Euripides suggests that Oeax would have inherited the family feud.
28. Here comes Tyndareus: The appearance of a new character forestalls Menelaus’ reply. Tyndareus, the father of Clytemnestra and Helen, is not a familiar figure in the legend, although the fifth-century BC historian Hellanicus appears to have written of the relations of Clytemnestra, presumably including her father, bringing charges against Orestes (fragment 169 in R. Fowler, Early Greek Mythography I (Oxford 2000)). The extreme awkwardness for Orestes of coming face to face with a grandfather whose daughter he has murdered gives spice to the scene; the audience will already be anticipating fierce exchanges of words. Tyndareus’ cloak of mourning contrasts visually with Menelaus’ finery (and Orestes’ filthy condition).
29. fellow husband with Zeus: This bizarre formulation alludes to the uncertainty as to whether Helen was the daughter of Leda by her husband Tyndareus or by Zeus himself (the latter is normally assumed, and is confirmed by Apollo at the end of the play): cf.Helen 18–21, Iphigenia at Aulis794 ff. Clytemnestra by contrast is of purely human parentage.
30. Ah, there he stands before the palace …: Tyndareus sees Orestes but for some time avoids even speaking to him, confining himself to discussion with Menelaus. This expresses his revulsion at coming into any contact with the criminal. Only at 526 does he finally address Orestes.
31. Everything that is caused … wise men’s eyes: An obscure reply, probably alluding to sophistic ideas. In context it probably means that the compulsion imposed by the laws should not be slavishly accepted, i.e. that there is room for debate as to whether the laws are always right. But Menelaus may be deliberately avoiding putting his cards on the table.
32. Now is the time to debate wisdom with this man: The text is uncertain, but something like this seems likely to be the sense. The term agon (‘debate’ or ‘contest’) is used in this line, introducing the standard rhetorical conflict which we find in most Euripidean plays. (Cf. note 22 toPhoenician Women, and for discussion of the present debate M. Lloyd, The Agon in Euripides (Oxford 1992), ch. 7). This is a curious example, as the natural opponents are Tyndareus and Orestes, but Tyndareus for much of his speech speaks through Menelaus (at 526–33 he directs his attack at Orestes, but then turns back to Menelaus for the close of his speech). The response of Orestes is made directly to Tyndareus. After a further brief speech Tyndareus departs; Orestes then addresses Menelaus in an appeal which has some of the agonistic qualities (especially artificiality of argument), but also carries intense emotional appeal. Menelaus’ reply does not partake of the agon conventions and fails to engage with any of Orestes’ points.
33. He neither showed regard for justice … law of the Greeks: Tyndareus’ account of what Orestes should have done has often been criticized as anachronistic: was it possible in the heroic age to oust Aegisthus and Clytemnestra by any means other than force? Did the legal system Tyndareus presupposes even exist? Was the court founded at Athens in Aeschylus’ trilogy conceived as the first human court for homicide cases? Even if Tyndareus’ alternative is not as far-fetched as some critics maintain, it is significant that no character in the other versions of the story ever suggests this course of action.
34. when your mother held out her breast to you in supplication: This was a famous climactic moment. See especially Aeschylus, Libation-Bearers 896ff., Euripides, Electra 1206ff., and in this play itself 825ff. with 841 below.
35. My father sowed the seed of my life … seed from another: The idea that the father’s role is primary and the mother is merely the receptacle for his seed is used in defence of Orestes by Apollo in Aeschylus, Eumenides 658–9, and can be paralleled elsewhere. It was not, however, a universal view, and even in Aeschylus it hardly mitigates the horror of matricide; still less here, where Orestes is snatching at any argument he can find in his own defence.
36. let me tell you how I have benefited all Greece by my action: This is a paradoxical argument reminiscent of the rhetorical schools of the day. The sophist Gorgias argued that Helen was equally innocent of crime whether it was passion, persuasion, the gods or compulsion that made her go to Troy. Plato in the Phaedrus has Lysias argue that one should yield to the courtship of a non-lover rather than a lover. Euripides’ work includes many such speeches maintaining bizarre or counter-intuitive propositions. In Medea Jason undertakes to prove that his abandoning Medea for another woman is wise, virtuous and beneficial for Medea; in the lost Cretans, Pasiphae undertook to prove that it was Minos’ fault, not hers, that she had slept with a bull (F 427e).
Talk of the benefit of Orestes’ deed recurs in the Argive assembly, where it forms the basis for some obviously dubious arguments. It is interesting that Iphigenia in the Iphigenia at Aulis declares her intention to die for the good of Greece, although others question her decision. We may suspect that Euripides had heard many high-sounding claims from orators that their policies were for the greater national good.
37. what would the dead man have done to me?: The question is raised also, though not answered, in the Aeschylean trilogy. Orestes lists the perils which are threatened if he disobeys Apollo’s command (Libation-Bearers 275ff.), but these seem to be plagues sent by the god, not by Agamemnon. At the crisis Clytemnestra warns him to beware the hounds (i.e. the Furies) of his mother, but Orestes replies, ‘but if I shirk this task, how can I escape the hounds of my father?’ (924–5).
38. And what of Apollo?: This concluding passage is the most forceful passage questioning Apollo’s role that we have heard so far. Orestes’ almost hysterical demand that Apollo should be executed is not to be taken seriously, but a real point is being made: where is Apollo, and why is he not present to defend his agent, as in the Eumenides? His appearance at the end of the play does not answer all questions. See Preface.
39. She deserves death more than you … : The hostile characterization of Electra here seems quite different from the woman we have so far seen, who tends her brother with tearful sympathy. She is more like the heroine of Euripides’ earlier Electra. Is this intertextual allusion, or Tyndareus’ angry distortion of the facts? In any case, it paves the way for the later scenes in which Electra becomes more aggressive: note especially the imagery of fire, anticipating the threat to burn down the whole palace in the closing scene.
40. I do not ask that you kill Hermione: The sacrifice of Iphigenia is not referred to elsewhere in the play, and for Orestes to drag it in here is strangely irrelevant. The idea of a matching sacrifice by Menelaus is grotesque – nor would such an act make any difference to Orestes’ own dilemma. His weak position is reinforced by weak arguments.
41. imagine that it is he who hears this …: The rhetoric continues to be extravagant. Agamemnon is imagined as performing a dual role, both speaking and listening!
42. I will go and try to persuade … moderation: Although we may sympathize with Menelaus’ dilemma, he does not cut a very impressive figure here. He fails to answer any of Orestes’ points or to refer to his debt to Agamemnon; his efforts to persuade Tyndareus will obviously fail; and Orestes will have no way of telling whether Menelaus has tried at all. His prevarications suggest that he has been intimidated by Tyndareus’ stern warning. Although we may allow that Menelaus is not positively portrayed, Aristotle’s complaint that Euripides has made him unnecessarily wicked seems misguided (Poetics 1451a, 1461b).
43. EnterPYLADES: At this point the metre changes to trochaic tetrameters, a metre increasingly used by Euripides in later plays and very prominent in the Orestes. The metre is used for all of the rest of this scene. It here conveys excitement and a sense of urgency; this is increased when at 774–98 each line is divided between the two friends. Compare the same techniques in Phoenician Women 588–624.
44. rather she brought him: The idea is that Menelaus is under Helen’s thumb. Cf. Electra 930–31, on Aegisthus as submissive to Clytemnestra. For the idea that Menelaus is not a serious fighter cf. the jibe in Iliad 17.588, and lines 717ff., 1201–2 here.
45. the ancient misfortune of that house …: The events referred to are explained in note 1 above. ‘Tantalus’ sons’ is loosely used: Atreus and Thyestes were actually his grandsons. As often in tragedy, present disaster is set against past prosperity.
46. Not noble was that noble act …: Deliberately expressed in contradictory terms. Orestes’ action is both honourable dealing-out of justice and horrific crime: the latter perception of his deed is highlighted here through the vivid recollection of the moment of killing, including even direct speech. In contrast with their earlier adherence to Electra’s cause, the chorus now explicitly condemn Orestes’ deed (though in the concluding lines they allow that he is ‘wretched’).
47. AMESSENGER …: On the messenger speech in tragedy see note 55 on Phoenician Women. As usual, the characterization is light. This man is a countryman, loyal to the family of Agamemnon, sympathetic to Orestes, honest but naive in his reactions to the rhetoric of the assembly.
The description of the assembly is one of the passages which comes closest to the fifth-century BC politics of Euripides’ own day. Many lines would have evoked amused or sour recognition of the rhetorical tactics and dubious motives familiar to the Athenians from their own democratic debates. The opening formula in line 885 ‘Who wishes to say …’ echoes the initial question opening a debate in Athens (cf. Suppliant Women 438–9). The complaints about demagogues and slick speakers recall contemporary discussions of the weaknesses of the assembly (see especially Thucydides’ Mytilene debate, 3.38ff.). Possibly the speech has been supplemented to enhance these ‘modern’ notes (Diggle follows earlier scholars in deleting 895–7 (on heralds) and 904–13 (on demagogues), but if so the interpolator was following Euripides’ clear lead.
On the contrast between the Athenian court of the Areopagus in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, which finally acquits Orestes, and the Argive court here, which condemns him to death, see C. B. R. Pelling, Literary Texts and the Greek Historian (London 1999), pp. 164–88.
48. where men say Danaus … Aegyptus: This refers to the legend of Danaus and his daughters, but seemingly not the version dramatized by Aeschylus. After the Danaids had slain their husbands, the father of the dead men, Aegyptus, came to Argos demanding reparation. Danaus at first thought of giving battle, but was persuaded to summon (or go before) an Argive court for arbitration. This version is summarized by the ancient scholia on this passage.
49. Talthybius: He was the herald of Agamemnon in the Iliad, where he is mentioned at various points but has no significant part to play. He figures in Euripides’ Hecabe and Trojan Women, in both of which he is a relatively sympathetic figure, compassionate towards Hecabe although forced to carry out his own orders. Here the characterization is negative, reinforcing Orestes’ isolation. For Euripides’ tendency to present heralds in a bad light compare Suppliant Women 399ff., 426ff.
50. an Argive and yet no true Argive: This line is reminiscent of the various attacks on politicians accusing them of foreign birth (thus Aeschines calls Demosthenes ‘son of the Scythian’). Ancient scholars detected a sneer at the contemporary politician Cleophon, who suffered from similar slanders; but it is unlikely that the poet intended a specific allegory. The man is an archetypal demagogue (the next line reminds us of descriptions in Aristophanes and Thucydides of the more famous Cleon, by now dead).
51. it is ruin they have brought: In conjunction with the name Phoebus, it is clear that this is a play on the resemblance between his other name, Apollo, and the Greek verb used here, apôlesen, ‘brought ruin, destroyed’. Again the questioning of Apollo’s role and reliability is given prominence (in Aeschylus he appears and speaks for Orestes at his trial).
52. share the lament that follows: Who sings what in the following passage has been much discussed (the manuscripts have no authority in such matters). The arrangement here follows Diggle. Others have given the whole sung interlude to Electra or (less plausibly) to the chorus. For discussion and bibliography see M. Damen, ‘Electra’s Monody and the Role of the Chorus in Euripides’ Orestes’, Transactions of the American Philological Association 120 (1990), pp. 133–45. Cf. note 55.
53. Cyclopean land: Mycenae, whose massive walls were thought to have been constructed by Cyclopes.
54. setting shearing steel to the head: The reference is to cutting one’s hair in mourning. The ‘land’, personified, is urged to do what its womenfolk will do.
55. O that I might come to the rock … necessity of this house: After two stanzas of lamentation from the chorus, the singing role passes to Electra, who sings of the sorrows of her family in more detail. Whereas the chorus’s contribution formed a strophic pair, Electra’s lament is ‘astrophic’, a single aria without stanzaic structure. This seems to reflect her greater involvement and deeper distress.
On the myths referred to here (the punishment of Tantalus; Pelops, Oenomaus and Myrtilus; the golden lamb; the Thyestean feast and Aerope’s adultery), see note 1 above.
The punishment of Tantalus is here described in a novel way (developing the hint of an unusual version in 7: ‘hovers in the air’). Traditionally the stone hangs or hovers over his head in Hades; here it is hung between heaven and earth and he in some way whirls or orbits with it. The ‘golden chains’ allude to passages spoken by Zeus in Homer, in which he threatens to suspend Hera or the other gods by them: these were interpreted allegorically by some later readers (Iliad 8.19ff, 15.19–20). Astronomical theories such as those of Anaxagoras are also clearly in the poet’s mind (especially ‘the rock … a lump from Olympus’ mass’, an expression which suggests that the heavenly bodies are solid objects, not divine powers).
For Euripides’ fondness for ‘escape-lyric’ see Bacchae 402ff. and note 39.
56. Why should I any longer feel shame at this …: The true hero does not weep or indulge in sentimental protestations. Having first contrasted Electra’s distress with Orestes’ sternness, Euripides now allows a moment of tenderness and shared emotion.
57. You have a city: This neglects Pylades’ explanation at 765 that he has been exiled. The inconsistency is trivial, and easily explained: Pylades’ devotion will be greater if he has something to sacrifice by dying with his friends.
58. let us consider together how Menelaus should share our misery: This line and Orestes’ enthusiastic response marks the transition from one plot-line (means of escape sought but not found) to another (plotting and revenge). Euripides in his later plays makes a habit of combining story-patterns which could be used separately, creating more complex plots and enhancing the emotional range. See F. Solmsen, Kleine Schriften (Hildesheim 1968), pp. 141ff.; P. Burian, ‘Myth into Muthos: the Shaping of the Tragic Plot’ in P. E. Easterling (ed.), Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1997), pp. 186–90. The effect of this transition on the audience’s moral assessment of the characters is disorienting: from being helpless and distressed victims Orestes and (shortly) Electra are swiftly transformed into merciless conspirators. The desire to hurt Menelaus is understandable; to kill Helen is extreme, despite the regular hostility toward her in tragedy; to contemplate killing Hermione too is shocking. See further Preface.
59. they are here as our friends: The presence of the chorus is often awkward for intrigues, but the convention that they keep secrets is so well established that the matter is disposed of in two lines (earlier in the century they would no doubt have been asked to swear an oath, as e.g. in Medeaand Ion).
60. I understand the sign: An obscure line, but seemingly spelling out what Pylades evasively implied in ‘the deed’. ‘I understand the clue you are giving me.’ Others render ‘watchword’ rather than ‘sign’.
61. But as it is …: Pylades’ stirring summons to take proper revenge for all the dead at Troy echoes some features of the anti-Helen tradition (in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon the people of Argos are said to be resentful of the many deaths ‘for the sake of another man’s wife’; cf. in this play 57ff., 98ff.). But Pylades exaggerates this hatred of Helen to fantastic heights, imagining that their deed will make them into national heroes. There are hints of delusion, even of fanaticism, in the latter part of this scene.
62. Brother, I think I see a way to achieve this very thing …: The increasingly negative presentation of the trio extends now to Electra. Her hatred of Menelaus and Helen makes her indifferent to the innocent Hermione.
63. O Father, who dwell … helper: The invocation of Agamemnon’s ghost recalls the scene at his tomb in Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers, where Orestes, Electra and the chorus call on him for aid in the task of revenge. There the scene extends through nearly 200 lines of lyrics and concludes with a shorter sequence of trimeters (306ff., 479ff.). Here the invocation is confined to spoken verse and is a perfunctory effort. The task for which they seek his aid is also strongly contrasted.
64. Have their swords lost their edge in the face of beauty?: This recalls the story in the Epic Cycle (echoed also in Aristophanes, Lysistrata 155–6), that during the sack of Troy Menelaus was ready to kill Helen, but she bared her breasts and he, spellbound, lowered his sword. The same episode underlies the scene involving Menelaus and Helen in Trojan Women 860ff.
65. [screaming from inside]: The cry of the victim from within is a typical feature of the intrigue-plot: the audience would have been waiting as eagerly as Electra. The archetypal example is the crying out of Agamemnon as he is murdered (Aeschylus, Agamemnon1343ff.)
66. Stab her, kill her, strike her, destroy her: This is a chilling moment, even if the audience still believes that Euripides cannot allow the conspirators’ plot to succeed. The vicious note of lust for revenge makes it hard to continue sympathizing with Electra. (Whether she or the chorus or both chant these lines is disputed, but it seems unlikely that she is excluded.)
67. here comes Hermione …: The scene which follows is a typical ‘entrapment’ sequence, another recurrent feature of the intrigue-plot. The ambiguities in Electra’s replies are characteristic of such scenes.
68. But there is a rumbling … Lines 1366–8 are deleted by some editors, on the basis of a comment in the scholia ascribing them to actors in a post-Euripidean production. This issue is connected with the question of how the Phrygian’s entry was staged. It would be simpler if he simply ran out the door (through which Orestes certainly emerges later), but more spectacular if he climbed out of the roof of the stage-building and jumped or let himself down on a rope from that high point. (For use of the stage roof by actors comparePhoenician Women 88ff.) The latter staging may be implied by his opening words (‘climbing over the cedar rafters … down the Dorian triglyphs’). If the chorus’s lines are authentic, they could be misdirection, encouraging the audience to expect an entry from the doorway – but they would only be deceived for a moment. The matter will remain controversial: for a recent discussion see T. Falkner, ‘Scholars Versus Actors: Text and Performance in the Greek Tragic Scholia’, in P. E. Easterling and E. Hall (eds.), Greek and Roman Actors: Aspects of an Ancient Profession (Cambridge 2002), pp. 342–61.
The Phrygian himself is one of the boldest surprises Euripides has for his audience. In effect he is a messenger, but of a unique type: a singing messenger, and one who gives his account of events in a highly colourful, exotic and often opaque style far removed from the customary clear exposition of such figures. Also, those messengers are normally given full knowledge of events: but the Phrygian leaves it quite unclear what has happened to Helen, an important ambiguity. He is also the only anonymous singing slave in tragedy (apart from choruses). That he is represented as a eunuch is likely (see 1528); that he is dressed in Eastern style is certain. He sings throughout (up to the point where Orestes enters); the chorus responds in spoken verse. The metres are astrophic and bewilderingly diverse. Although there is some difficulty in understanding exactly what has happened in the house, this is more because of the Phrygian’s own agitation and uncertainties, not from any incoherence on his part: despite the impression given by some translations (notably that of W. Arrowsmith in the Complete Greek Tragedies series), he is not speaking pidgin-Greek but uses highly sophisticated diction and imagery. We see the influence of the ‘new music’ fashionable in Athens at this time (though Euripides’ closeness to the work of Timotheus, of whose work most survives, has perhaps been exaggerated).
69. beauty bird-born, Leda’s swan-winged chick: Zeus came to Leda, Helen’s mother, in the form of a swan (as in Yeats’s magnificent poem): hence it was sometimes illogically supposed that she was born of an egg, an idea treated with reserve by Helen herself (Helen 18ff., 256ff.). If the text can be credited, swan-form is figuratively ascribed here even to Helen.
70. Ganymede: A beautiful boy of the Trojan royal family, abducted by Zeus to act as his wine-waiter by day and to share his bed by night. Cf. Trojan Women 820ff.
71. a cunning net … that serpent who killed his mother: The imagery is strongly reminiscent of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, and the associations of treachery, trapping and snake-like poison cannot but have a negative effect on our view of Orestes.
72. In the Phrygian fashion … the Phrygian … stirring the air, the air: The lyric repetitiousness of style is parodied by Aristophanes, Frogs 1352ff.
73. how much we Phrygians are inferior … martial process: The national chauvinism of Greek thinking about East and West was given added impetus by their success in resisting the Persian invasions earlier in the fifth century BC. See esp. E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy (Oxford 1989). Needless to say, this crudity of outlook need not be Euripides’ own opinion, but he is prepared to use the ‘stock’ assumptions where it suits him. A far more complex spectrum of attitudes is visible in Herodotus’ great History.
74. ORESTES enters from the palace doorway: The scene between Orestes and the Phrygian (1506–31) is in trochaic tetrameters (cf. note 43); this seems to suit the lively and fast-moving exchange. The tone of the scene is hard to catch. The scholia already complain (on 1512) ‘what is said here is unworthy both of tragedy and of Orestes’ unhappy situation’. Orestes is in a position of superior power and enjoys it; the Phrygian is a comical and untragic figure (still more so to many Athenians, no doubt; see last note), and in the end he does get safely away. But Orestes’ taunts and threats leave an unpleasant taste in the mouth. They also make clear that Hermione can expect no mercy.
75. Tyndareus’ daughter perished: Orestes here and in 1533, 1536, assumes Helen is in fact dead; the audience, having heard the Phrygian’s account, is not so sure. At 1580 and subsequent lines Orestes has changed his tune (we can assume, if we like, that he has found no corpse indoors; but such filling-in of detail is hardly necessary in such a fast-moving play).
76. fallen, fallen … because Myrtilus fell: The use of the same verb is also present in the Greek and clearly deliberate. On Pelops’ killing of Myrtilus see note 1 above; also 992.
77. His silence proclaims he does: This is an in-joke alluding to theatrical convention: Orestes and Menelaus are already onstage, Apollo is about to appear (the audience do not know this, but they may have guessed a deus ex machina is imminent); hence three actors are already needed for this scene, and Pylades must be played by a mute extra. Moroever, there is an ingenious reversal of the climactic scene in Aeschylus’ Libation-Bearers. There, Orestes along with a so-far silent Pylades confronts his mother: she appeals to him for pity, and he falters, asking Pylades what he should do; and Pylades responds by reminding him of the command of Apollo. There an apparently mute actor suddenly spoke; here a previously vocal actor is silent. Orestes needs no encouragement on his destructive course.
78. Oh, take your sword away from my daughter: The following section of dialogue (down to 1617 ‘You have trapped yourself…’) involves division of each line between speakers, and in each line Orestes caps Menelaus: he has the upper hand. (There has been some reordering of the lines in order to produce a more plausible sequence: C. W. Willink (Orestes, Oxford 1986), followed by Diggle, places 1608–12 after 1599. Hence the odd appearance of the marginal line-numbers.)
79. Apollo appears on high: Orestes, Pylades and Hermione certainly, and Electra very probably, are already on the roof of the stage-building. Apollo must appear on a still higher level, probably on the ‘crane’ (Greek mechane, Latin machina; hence ‘deus ex machina’) which was regularly used to bring flying figures into view. This device was certainly used in some famous scenes, e.g. for Medea’s departure in the chariot of the sun at the end of Medea, or for Bellerophon flying on Pegasus in the lost play Bellerophon(parodied in the first scene of Aristophanes’ Peace). It is not certain that Helen appears with Apollo, but it seems desirable that Menelaus and Orestes should both be shown her true state (if 1631–2, deleted by Murray and Diggle and omitted in our version, were genuine that would make her presence certain, but they are probably spurious). Some doubt that the crane could support both characters’ weight. Others hold that there may have been a still higher platform above the stage-building, reserved for the gods. For discussion see D. J. Mastronarde, ‘Actors on High: the Skene-Roof, the Crane and the Gods in Attic Drama’, Classical Antiquity 9 (1990), pp. 247–94.
On the role of Apollo see Preface to this play.
80. bringing safety to mariners: The role of Castor and Polydeuces, Helen’s brothers, as protectors of seafarers is well known. Helen was worshipped as a deity at Sparta and shared cult with her brothers, but her role as a sea-goddess seems to be Euripides’ invention. Indeed, this whole section of the play involves innovation on his part. In Homer Helen returns to Sparta with Menelaus and they live in harmony together, but it is foretold that when they die they will both dwell in Elysium, the home of a few privileged heroes in the afterlife. This future is also predicted for them at the end of Euripides’ Helen. For her life to be cut short and her divinity established almost immediately after her return to Greece is unprecedented; but it provides a way to end the conflict and gives clearer justification for her miraculous disappearance from the palace.
81. to rid the earth of its complement of mortals: This explanation for the Trojan war, absent from Homer, was found in the early epic poem called the Cypria, and is also mentioned in the prologue to the Helen. It reinforces our sense of the gods as remote from mankind and little concerned with their interests.
82. You, Orestes … destined to prevail: Orestes will spend a year in exile, in line with Athenian law on an involuntary homicide. He will give his name to a town in Arcadia (aetiology): cf. Electra 1272–3, where the Dioscuri make a similar prediction, but apparently predicting lifelong exile. After that he will undergo trial at Athens, but this is to be a very different trial from that in Aeschylus (and still more from the assembly-scene in this play, whose decision it overturns). In the Eumenides he was tried by men, but Apollo predicts a trial by gods, and assures him of the favourable verdict. Any potential tragic tension is dissipated.
83. Neoptolemus: Son of Achilles. This alludes to a different strand of legend, dramatized in rather different terms by Euripides in Andromache. There Hermione is discontented with her marriage; here she will not have to endure it. The death of Neoptolemus at Delphi further suggests the power of the gods to help and harm. Apollo raises up the son of Agamemnon, but will strike down the son of Achilles.
84. some spirit of vengeance: Orestes uses the word alastor, denoting a supernatural power that afflicts a family or household with punishment for past crimes, often by misleading or tricking individuals. Cf. Aeschylus, Persians 354, Agamemnon 1501, 1508, Euripides, Hippolytus 820, etc.
85. O Victory … giving me your crown: These lines also appear at the end of the Phoenician Women: see note there. They are certainly spurious in both places. Probably they replaced an authentic choral tailpiece in some later production.
Bacchae: ‘Bacchae’, women of Dionysus-Bacchus, are synonymous with Bacchants and maenads; many other names are used for them in Greek, though not in this play. On worship of Dionysus in classical times see Preface to the play. In mythology and art there are recurring features, some but not all of which may have been reflected in actual ritual: the wearing of fawnskins, often loosely worn; bare arms and feet; the carrying of the thyrsus, a staff or wand of fennel adorned with vine-leaves, which are also often worn in the hair; agitated dancing and shaking of the head back and forth; playing of musical instruments, especially drums and tambourines; handling of wild creatures, notably snakes. For illustrations in art see T. Carpenter, Dionysiac Imagery in Archaic Art (Oxford 1986); H. A. Shapiro, Myth into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece (London and New York 1994), pp. 171–6; and the plates illustrating R. Osborne’s essay in C. B. R. Pelling (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford 1997), following p. 212.
1. delivered by the lightning-flame: Semele was another of Zeus’ many mortal lovers. Hera, as usual jealous and vindictive about her rival, disguised herself as an old woman who befriended Semele and cast doubt on the divinity of her lover. She advised her to make this alleged Zeus swear an oath by Styx to grant her any request. Zeus was sufficiently infatuated to do so. Semele then (still acting on Hera’s malicious advice) asked him to appear to her in his divine glory as he appeared on Olympus. Zeus regretted his promise but was bound by it. The unfortunate Semele was engulfed by divine flame (the glory of the epiphany involved the bolts of lightning which were Zeus’ characteristic weapon). Semele died, but Zeus rescued the unborn Dionysus from her womb: see furthernote 9 below.
2. from a god’s to a man’s: This point is repeatedly stressed in the prologue, as if to ensure that the audience is not in doubt. The repetition points to the unusual technique: see Preface. We know of no other drama in which a disguised god played a leading role and remained in disguise almost throughout.
3. I come from Lydia’s fields: Although Dionysus by birth belongs to Thebes, he is also seen as a foreign god arriving from the exotic east: this helps to explain his androgynous appearance, the wildness of his rites, and the Greeks’ unfamiliarity with him. At one time scholars believed that he was indeed a god imported from further east, but the discovery of his name in Mycenaean texts, centuries before Euripides’ time, makes this less plausible (see e.g. W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Eng. tr. Oxford 1985), pp. 162, with pp. 357 n. 71 and 364 n.24). The story of his arrival from foreign lands may best be seen as a suitable framework for the god’s epiphany (cf. 22, 47, 50).
4. leading my maenads into battle: This is typical Euripidean false preparation. Although Pentheus several times announces his intention to use military force (784, 809, 845), and Dionysus is prepared to meet him on these terms, it is on the level of the king’s individual psyche that the god will win his triumph. The conflict in battle was probably traditional; Euripides may even have invented the version in which Pentheus dresses as a woman and goes to spy on them, but if so he is using a recurrent story-pattern (parodied in Aristophanes’ Women at the Thesmophoria): cf. note 71below.
5. Mother Rhea and myself: Rhea is the wife of Zeus’ father and predecessor, the Titan Cronos. She is identified with the Great Mother or Mountain Mother, Cybele, an Asiatic deity worshipped with dances and noisy processions on various mountains. Because of the affinity between her rites and those of Dionysus they were often associated.
6. as they enter: The entry-song of the chorus forms a glorification of the god. The language reflects religious ritual (especially the summons ‘On you Bacchants’ and the call for pious silence; the repeated ‘to the mountain’ at 116, 165, may also echo authentic Bacchic celebrations); the words translated here ‘hymns ever honoured by custom’ function as a generic marker: the song is a hymn, and like most Greek hymns includes a narrative portion. This ode, like most of the songs in the Bacchae, is composed mainly in ionic metre (the basic rhythm is u u - - ), which has associations elsewhere with cult hymns to Dionysus (especially Aristophanes, Frogs 324ff.).
7. the Roaring One: One of the titles of Dionysus, reminding us of his bestial aspect: he can take the form of lion, bull or snake. The emphasis on noise in this ode is noteworthy (cf. the colourful scene of Dionysus’ arrival in Catullus 64), and doubtless reflects the musical accompaniment of the chorus’s entry.
8. crying ‘Evoe’: Evoe or Eu(h) oi is an untranslatable cry of exultant celebration, associated with Dionysus, to whom the word in adjectival form is sometimes applied (157, 413, 566, 579).
9. While his mother was carrying him …: The birth-myth, a common feature of hymnic poetry. When Semele perished, Zeus rescued the half-grown foetus from her womb and stitched the child magically within his own thigh, where he grew to maturity then emerged. Miraculous births are common in divine myth: cf. especially Athena, born from Zeus’s head. For further lyric narrative of the same event see 519ff.; for Teiresias’ version see 286ff. and note 30. As there is a parallel Indian myth of a god (Soma) being inserted in the thigh of the sky-god, this may be a very old Indo-European tale inherited by the Greeks. The idea that Zeus was hiding the child from Hera would then be Greek embroidery, fitting in with much later stories of the enmity between Hera and Zeus’s bastard children (cf. her persecution of Heracles).
10. a child with bull horns: On Dionysus as bull see 66 and note 7; also 922, 1017–9. As a god of nature and of the wild, he can readily shift into bestial forms.
11. whence it is … serpents they have caught: An aetiology, i.e. a tale that explains why things are as they are – in this case, why maenads are (at least in art) regularly believed to handle snakes. The explanation given is that they are mimicking the appearance of the new-born Dionysus.
12. O secret chamber of the Curetes …: A complex stanza. We have here another aetiology, for the kettledrum. The chorus go back to an earlier divine birth, that of Zeus, who was hidden away in ‘sacred haunts of Crete’ to protect him from his cannibal father Cronos. There is a clear analogy with Zeus hiding Dionysus from the wrath of Hera. In the story of Zeus’ childhood, the Curetes or Corybantes were his protectors on Crete, and devised the kettledrum to drown the infant’s wails and prevent Cronos from hearing him. Later the drum was presented to Rhea to be used in her rites. The satyrs, attendants of Dionysus, obtained it from her and introduced it into Dionysus’ rites. The last point looks like a later elaboration to ‘explain’ why such drums are also used in Bacchic worship.
13. the second-year feast that delights Dionysus: In historic times the Dionysiac festivals involving maenadic rituals took place every second year in midwinter (though other celebrations of the god, including the Athenian dramatic festivals, were organized on an annual basis).
14. He is a delight to see: ‘He’ is Dionysus, participating in and leading his own worshippers. A. Henrichs, ‘Male Intruders among the Maenads: The So-called Male Celebrant’, in Mnemai: Classical Studies in Memory of Karl K. Hulley, ed. H. D. Evjen (Chico 1984), pp. 69–91 and elsewhere, has shown that there are no grounds for Dodds’s belief that the rites were led by a male celebrant in whom the god was thought to be incarnate.
15. the slaughtered goat, carnivorous delight: This clearly implies that the god or his worshippers will hunt down and tear to pieces a goat (a beast regularly sacrificed to Dionysus) and devour its raw flesh. The tearing of animals limb from limb by the Theban Bacchants is described later in the play, and eventually Pentheus suffers the same fate. The poet does not describe any kind of meal being made on either occasion; but Agaue does invite the chorus to join her in a feast (1184), a suggestion from which they recoil. All this has suggested to some critics that tearing and eating of raw flesh may have formed a part of the god’s festival even in historic times; but the evidence is not at all strong (cf. A. Henrichs, ‘Greek Maenadism from Olympias to Messalina’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 82 (1978), pp. 150–52.
16. Enter TEIRESIAS: On Teiresias, a regular character in Theban plays, see note 39 to Phoenician Women. Here he enters alone, without his usual attendant. The transition from the chorus’s vision of a youthful worshipper ‘gambolling on swift feet’ to the slow entry of the blind old man is telling. Teiresias is anxious to participate in the worship of the new god, but he and Cadmus make ungainly and uncertain Bacchants. Although they speak of being rejuvenated, the burst of energy is short-lived (364–5). There is surely some humour in the sequence that follows, but it is important not to overstate this: Cadmus and Teiresias are right, and the main point of the scene is to show Pentheus in the wrong, rejecting the advice of two men he has good reason to listen to, his grandfather and a seer with a proven record of prophetic power. Scenes involving the repudiation of warnings from a ‘wise adviser’ are common in Greek literature: cf. Teiresias to Oedipus in Sophocles, Oedipus the King and to Creon in Antigone, the servant to Hippolytus inHippolytus 88ff., or Solon to Croesus in Herodotus book 1. However, this is not a conventional ‘wise adviser’ scene: Teiresias’ warnings in his main speech are combined with peculiar arguments derived from ‘modern’ sophistic theorizing (note 30 below), and his own words strongly imply that Pentheus is not far wrong in thinking that he wishes to exploit the arrival of the new divinity for his own advantage (255–7, with 306–9). Cadmus’ motives too are partly self-interested (note 34 below)
17. Agenor’s son … towered city of the Thebans: On the myths concerning Cadmus, see note 1 to Phoenician Women.
18. Shall we not go to the mountain by carriage?: A humorous touch. Cadmus is not confident that he is as tireless as he just declared himself.
19. We do not chop logic when speaking of divinity: The details of text and translation are disputed. Another possible sense is ‘we have no wisdom in the gods’ eyes’. Lines 199–203 are rejected by Diggle, but they seem defensible and interesting (though it is possible that there has been something lost after 200). One objection is the fact that Teiresias describes Dionysiac worship as if it were old and well established, when in the play the god has only just arrived in Greece. But Teiresias is concerned to establish him as a respected figure as swiftly as possible; also, there is a ‘time-shift’ effect on the part of the poet, momentarily altering the perspective to that of his own time. (A similar effect at lines 71–2 ‘hymns ever honoured by custom’.)
20. How excited he is: This strikes the keynote of Pentheus’ character: hot-tempered, lacking in self-discipline, unwilling to listen to anyone else or alter his own narrow views.
21. He is at first unaware of CADMUS and TEIRESIAS: To the modern reader it is much odder that Pentheus pays no attention to the presence of the chorus, a band of foreign women in weird dress at large in his city without supervision. But it is conventional for the chorus to be ignored when necessary, and for Pentheus to start questioning them before turning to the old men would be distracting, and would delay the true point of this scene. When Pentheus does come to ask questions about Dionysiac practice, it will be face to face with the disguised god.
22. strange goings-on in Thebes: E. Hall, in P. E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1997), pp. 106–9, points out a recurrent situation in tragedy: when the ruler is away, women get up to mischief (Agamemnon’s absence at Troy, Theseus’ in Hippolytus). This echoes Athenian misogynistic assumptions. But here the situation is more complex, as the god is behind the disruption of Theban life, and the women’s behaviour is no mere pretence.
23. to serve the lusts of men: Even Pentheus’ most fervent defenders can hardly deny that he is obsessed with sexual motives: cf. 225, 237ff., 260ff, 353ff, 487, 812ff., 957ff., 1062. He is himself unmarried; he makes a point of mocking the stranger’s beauty and long hair when he has him in his power; some passages suggest a particular closeness to his mother. Psychological criticism has not resisted these alluring details. Cf. E. R. Dodds, Bacchae (2nd edn Oxford 1960), pp. xliii, 97ff., 172; C. Segal, ‘Pentheus and Hippolytus on the Couch and on the Grid: Psychoanalytic and Structuralist Readings of Greek Tragedy’, in E. Segal, Interpreting Greek Tragedy (Ithaca and London 1986), pp. 268–93.
24. in the public gaol: Cf. 259. Soon they will be released miraculously (443ff), as will Dionysus himself when Pentheus attempts to imprison him (497ff., 545ff.). Yet later Pentheus still threatens the god with prison (793). Language of binding and constraint also appears in his hopeless effort to tie up the bull in the stables: see note 56 below.
25. I’ll cut his head off his shoulders: Obviously there is irony here, perhaps already apparent to the audience who know the legend. It is Pentheus who will be finally decapitated.
26. falsely named Zeus as her lover: Pentheus adopts the mistaken version circulated by his mother and aunts (26ff). They are already being punished for this slander of Semele, and so will he be.
27. fees for burned sacrifices: Teiresias is attacked in these terms elsewhere in tragedy (Sophocles, Oedipus the King 388, Antigone 1050), but he is able to treat those accusations with contempt. In this scene we may suspect there is rather more justification in Pentheus’ suspicions, but he is still wrong to ignore the prophet’s advice.
28. who sowed the earth-born crop?: On the legend of the Sown Men, of whom Echion was one, see note 1 to Phoenician Women.
29. When a clever man … intelligence: Reflections on rhetorical technique and the dangers of fair-seeming speech are frequent in Euripides, and reflect Athenian interest in and suspicion of the arts of persuasion. See S. Halliwell, ‘Between Public and Private: Tragedy and Athenian Experience of Rhetoric’, in Greek Tragedy and the Historian, ed. C. B. R. Pelling (Oxford 1997), pp. 121-41 (references in tragedy at 131 n. 34). Often such sentiments are found in the agon-scene. This is not properly an agon (Teiresias and Cadmus are speaking on the same side, and Pentheus says too little in response to either man’s arguments), but it has something of the same self-conscious qualities.
30. This new god …: Teiresias embarks on a full defence of Dionysus, which has several curious feaures. One is the medley of different, even incompatible, types of argument (at one point Dionysus is equivalent to wine, at another he is a highly anthropomorphic god who desires honour); another is the way in which they are juxtaposed rather than combined in an effective structure. We may suspect that Euripides is parodying a ‘sophistic’ lecturing style.
The equation Demeter = earth, Dionysus = wine is unmistakably alluding to the teaching of the sophist Prodicus (fragment B5). The ‘rationalizing’ of the story of Zeus’ thigh, a thoroughly inadequate attempt to make the story more credible, uses similarities of words (meros = thigh, homeros = hostage) in a way reminiscent of etymological explanations in Herodotus and (later) Plato’s Cratylus. The reference to ‘ether’, a buzz word of intellectuals, also points to a sophistic source or inspiration.
31. He, a god himself, is poured out … man’s blessings: This peculiar formulation is hardly likely to persuade Pentheus to worship the new deity. Even the slow-witted Cyclops laughs at the idea of a god living inside a bottle (Cyclops 525–7).
32. You shall yet see him on Delphi’s rocky summit: Teiresias predicts here the importance of Dionysus at Apollo’s shrine in historical times. Apollo held sway there in nine months of the year, but during the winter Dionysus was thought to be in residence, and the oracle was closed for the season.
33. takes pleasure in receiving honour: Gods, like men, expect and demand recognition of their true status. Cf. Aphrodite in the Hippolytus (7–8), or the Furies in Aeschylus’ Eumenides.
34. Even if, as you say … say that he does: Cadmus wants the distinction of having a god in the family, even if Dionysus turns out not to be one. The characterization is humorous but devastating. For Cadmus’ concern with the family and its interests see 1250, 1304ff.; in the end all his relatives, and he himself, are involved in its downfall.
35. the pitiful end of Actaeon: The example of Actaeon, Pentheus’ cousin, is invoked as a warning; in fact it is also terrible foreshadowing of events. Pentheus too will be torn apart on Cithaeron (and by women compared with hounds). The more familiar version of his offence, popularized by Ovid, is that he chanced upon Artemis (Diana) bathing while he was out hunting. That is possibly a later variant.
36. asking the god to do nothing untoward: The servant in Hippolytus similarly prays to Aphrodite on his master’s behalf, and with as little effect. Note in what follows Teiresias’ despondency and diminished energy. The old men are no longer joyously young. The mood of the scene has darkened; whereas at first they were amusing, now the old men, as they leave with faltering steps, seem pathetic figures.
37. bring sorrow: The line alludes to the resemblance between Pentheus’ name and penthos (‘grief’). See further 507–8. On name-etymologies see note 31 to Phoenician Women.
38. To be clever is not to be wise: The expression is sharper in Greek, using two cognate forms (to sophon is not sophia). The distinction is significant, and will recur later in the play; the actual terms appear frequently. Fundamental is the contrast between human (imperfect or deluded) ‘cleverness’ and divine (superior) wisdom. There is also a contrast between excessively subtle or ambitious ways of thinking and the simplicity of accepting what the gods send and enjoying their gifts (cf. the end of this ode). The chorus reject not only the overconfident assurance of Pentheus but also, probably, the hypersophisticated theorizing of Teiresias (and by implication other, modern thinkers?). But the terms become elusive: Pentheus accuses the stranger of being too clever, Dionysus insists that he is wise in the way he should be; in a later ode, wisdom is shockingly defined as triumphal revenge over enemies. See further lines 200ff., 332, 480, 490, 506, 641, 655, 824ff., 877ff., 1005, 1190.
39. Oh, that I might come to Cyprus: Euripidean characters and choruses often express the desire to fly far away to some place of refuge from present misfortunes (‘escape-lyric’): e.g. Hippolytus 742ff., Heracles 1157ff. Paphos is a town on the south-west coast of Cyprus. The ‘barbarian river’ with a hundred mouths is the Nile, which was believed in antiquity to flow underground beneath the Mediterranean and so to fertilize Cyprus.
40. we’ve caught the prey you sent us after: The language of hunting – both imagery and reality – will be prominent in the play henceforth. At present the god is ensnared, ‘a tame beast’; but the hunter Pentheus will become the hunted, and the tame, courteous captive will unleash savage violence (cf. 1192 ‘our lord is a hunter’). See further lines 618ff., 848, 861ff., 977ff., 1017–23, 1108.
The apparently helpless captive recalls the disguised Dionysus in the Homeric hymn to Dionysus. There pirates abduct a young man who is similarly compliant and unresisting. He is of course the god himself, and once they have shown their callous intentions, he assumes the form of a lion and they end up in the sea, transformed into dolphins.
41. with a smile: It is widely held that the actor playing Dionysus wore a smiling mask throughout (cf. 1021). On masks see A. W. Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 2nd edn revised by J. Gould and D. M. Lewis (Oxford 1968; reissued 1988), pp. 192ff. (with illustrations); for a sceptical treatment see S. Halliwell, ‘The Function and Aesthetics of the Greek Tragic Mask’, in Drama 2 (1993), pp. 195–211 = Intertextualität in dergriechish-römischen Komödie, ed. N. W. Slater and B. Zimmermann (Stuttgart 1993) 195ff.
42. Well, stranger, your body is not without beauty: This scene in which Pentheus taunts Dionysus is one of the passages which clearly imitates Aeschylus’ lost Dionysiac plays. The parody of an Aeschylean scene in Aristophanes, combined with the ancient comments on that scene, makes plain that Dionysus was taken captive, interrogated and mocked for his feminine looks and costume (Aristophanes, Women at the Thesmophoria 134ff., with scholia; Aeschylus, Edonoi fragment 61, perhaps also 59, 60, 62). In Aeschylus it is likely that Lycurgus, another standard opponent of Dionysus, was the questioner.
43. Dionysus himself initiated me: Dionysiac mysteries certainly existed in antiquity (cf. W. Burkert, Greek Religion, pp. 290–5). R. Seaford in a series of papers, and in his commentary, has made a case for their being important as background for the Bacchae. In his view much that is said to or by Pentheus, and much that he does, corresponds to aspects of the initiation process as performed in classical times. The evidence is uneven and scattered in place and date; the case is not proven (though that is not to say that Seaford is definitely wrong). It must be stressed, however, that normal initiation would be a path to happiness and fulfilment, whereas for Pentheus the end is delusion and death. The sequence in the play, therefore (as Seaford himself says), would be a caricature or negative image of true initiation.
44. Is there a Zeus there who fathers new gods?: Cf. Menelaus’ bewildered puzzlings over a ‘daughter of Zeus’ called Helen in Egypt (Helen 489ff.).
45. much less sense than Greeks: Pentheus’ cocky reply is in context deeply misguided, but no doubt reflects Greek chauvinism (cf. Hermione’s attitude in the Andromache or the slogans bandied in the Iphigenia at Aulis; also Herodotus 1.60.3). Dionysus’ response echoes the more enlightened attitude of more sophisticated thinkers. Cf. W. K. C. Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy iii (Cambridge 1969), pp. 160–3. See also notes 65 and 67 to Iphigenia at Aulis.
46. a name that makes you ripe for disaster: The banality of Pentheus’ superficial reply is obvious: he answers only the last question, and on a crudely literal level. The god replies with an ominous prediction, alluding to the meaning of the king’s name (see note 37above). Teiresias had made a similar point, but to Cadmus behind Pentheus’ back; now it is put to him face to face.
47. off to prison: The location of the prison is unclear. Is it within the precincts of Pentheus’ palace, or further off? Since after the next ode his cries come from behind the stage-building, and he surely emerges from the central door, it is probably best to assume that he is taken into the palace at this point.
48. Daughter of Achelous, sovereign Dirce: The chorus address the river Dirce, one of the two rivers of Thebes, as though she were a deity, then the reference to ‘your springs’ makes her physical reality more prominent; but a moment later she is representative of the people of Thebes (‘you … are thrusting me away … Why do you reject me?’).
49. the infant son of Zeus … by this name: A further recounting of the myth of Dionysus’ preservation and birth (note 9), made more vivid by the use of direct speech. ‘Dithyrambus’ is a further title of Dionysus, connected with the dithyramb, a type of song performed in his honour. Its significance is unclear: perhaps ‘triumphant’.
50. sprung from the dragon of old: The serpent that Cadmus slew and from whose teeth grew the Sown Men: see note 1 to Phoenician Women. Creatures born of the earth (‘chthonic’) often have a sinister or malignant aspect (cf. the Giants, Typhon). This image of Pentheus as a dark and monstrous figure appears several times in the chorus’s songs, but seems inappropriate to the king we have seen on stage. Perhaps we are meant to see the chorus as demonizing Pentheus: if so, this has its implications for our sympathies later on.
51. Come down from Olympus, lord: Summoning a god to appear and give aid is a regular feature of hymns (hence the expression ‘kletic hymn’, i.e. one which calls upon or summons). Of course, Dionysus is much closer than the chorus think.
52. Axius’ swift-flowing stream … father Lydias: The Axius and the Lydias are rivers in Macedonia which the god will cross in his journey (apparently from Thrace or Lydia) to Pieria, birthplace and home of the Muses. There may be a compliment here to Euripides’ Macedonian hosts (see General Introduction, p. xxxvi).
53. The voice of DIONYSUS suddenly rings out from inside the palace: This scene, often referred to as the ‘Palace Miracles’, has been much discussed. The god cries out from within; the chorus seem to recognize him as Dionysus and anticipate an epiphany. He calls for the spirit of the earthquake to ‘shake the earth’s floor’, and the chorus describe the palace as collapsing; fire and lightning are also mentioned. How much of this was dramatized in visible form in the Athenian theatre is doubtful: very probably the words (and the agitated song and rhythms) were judged sufficient to stimulate the audience’s imagination. Parallel scenes elsewhere in tragedy where again there can be no question of fully realistic production include the final scene of the Prometheus Bound (where Prometheus and the chorus are engulfed by an earthquake); Euripides, Heracles904ff. (the destruction of parts of Heracles’ house); Erechtheus fragment 370 (an earthquake caused by Poseidon).
When the stranger emerges, he continues to play his part even with the chorus, and they show no suspicion that he may in fact be the god. See S. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1986), pp. 276–83, for discussion of ways in which Euripides seems to play with theatrical illusion in this sequence.
54. Women of Asia …: From this point to the end of his narrative of events offstage Dionysus and the chorus leader speak in trochaic tetrameters, the alternative dialogue metre revived by Euripides in his later plays. It occurs only here in this play. The effect is more rapid and perhaps less dignified than the normal iambic trimeter: it seems to be meant to convey the god’s amusement with his game, though it is also typically associated with swift or violent action.
55. easily and without effort: This contrasts with the emphasis in his next speech on Pentheus’ violent and futile activity. Gods do all things ‘with ease’, a point made often in Homer (e.g. Iliad 3.381, 15.356ff.).
56. while sweat dripped from his body: R. P. Winnington-Ingram, Euripides and Dionysus (Cambridge 1948), p. 84 offers a subtle reading: ‘in binding it with effort and strain Pentheus is performing the futile task of constraining the animal Dionysus within himself’. Some critics find this excessively Freudian, but whatever we think about this specific scene, the poet has made it hard for us to ignore Pentheus’ psychology.
57. grow for mortals: There is clearly something lost after these words, and the line printed in square brackets in the translation is an attempt to supply the likely sense.
58. you are clever, clever … cleverness is needed: The theme of wisdom and cleverness (both expressed in the Greek sophos) recurs: see note 38.
59. A MESSENGER enters: On the convention of the messenger-speech, see note 55 to Phoenician Women. In this play there are two examples, related in a number of ways. Both describe an expedition to the mountain and an attempt to spy on or get the better of the maenads; in both, the women are at first calm and at peace in their mountain refuge, but once provoked turn to violence and display supernatural strength. This speech should provide a warning for Pentheus; instead he persists in his defiance of the god and becomes the victim whose death is described in the later speech. Dismemberment and tearing of flesh figure in both – of animals in this speech but of Pentheus himself later on.
The speech evokes complicated responses from the audience. On the one hand the beauty and the wonder of Dionysiac worship is described (the miracles performed by the women, and their gracefulness); on the other, the swiftness with which the bacchants become aggressive is alarming (still more disturbing their raids on the villages and abduction of children). The account of how they were pursued but proved immune to men’s weapons should also warn Pentheus against any idea of military action against them; but here again he fails to heed the lessons he might learn from the messenger.
60. I fear your quick temper … kingly manner: It is a natural technique in drama, which lacks an authorial voice, to characterize people through the comments of others.
61. three bands of female worshippers: Not just because there were three daughters of Cadmus to account for: it appears that triple division into ‘companies’ of maenads persisted in historical Thebes and elsewhere (Rhodes, Magnesia).
62. they weren’t, as you say … wood: This explicit contradiction of Pentheus’ assumptions by an eye-witness is clearly important; but the king chooses to ignore it (814, etc.).
63. one fellow who hung about in town … ready tongue: Obviously negative characterization, though perhaps more to show the messenger’s retrospective disapproval than to damn the ‘townish’ type as a whole. But such characters often do receive criticism in Euripides (cf. the contrast between the city demagogue and the naively virtuous farmer in the messenger speech of the Orestes, 902ff.).
64. were possessed by the god: An echo of Aeschylus’ trilogy on Lycurgus, ‘the house is inspired, the palace is possessed’ (fragment 58). Both lines are quoted by Longinus, On the Sublime 15, who considers that Euripides has moderated the boldness of Aeschylus’ conception.
65. So welcome this god … pleasure left to man: The messenger draws the right conclusion but his final reasoning is naive and simple-minded, hardly doing justice to the eerie and disturbing sequence of events he has described. His mention of wine and Aphrodite (‘the Cyprian’) is also ill judged, given the prejudices of his ruler.
66. tell them to assemble …: Pentheus begins to muster his army. For the expectation of an armed attack on the Bacchants see note 4 above.
67. You hear my words, Pentheus: This is the first time Dionysus has used any form of address to Pentheus; it adds emphasis to his warning. The god gives the man one last chance to alter his course; but he surely knows, as we do, that Pentheus will not take that chance.
68. Spare me your lectures: Formally the scene now gathers pace: distichomythia (two lines from each speaker in turn) in 792–801, then stichomythia (one line from each in turn) in 802–44.
69. My good fellow: The expression used is a difficult one, rare in tragedy and probably colloquial. While there is some variation according to context, it seems to have a rather superior and patronizing or ironic tinge. See E. Dickey, Greek Forms of Address (Oxford 1996), pp. 158–60.
70. Ah: This enigmatic exclamation by Dionysus is the turning point of the play. From this point on he proceeds remorselessly to arrange Pentheus’ death. The importance of the moment is marked by the exclamation being extra-metrical, interrupting the sequence of stichomythia. What is the tone? Gloating, disappointed, resigned, pitying, dismissive? Each director will have her own ideas. The ambiguity of tone is discussed by O. Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (London 1978), pp. 120–21 and S. Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy, pp. 284–5.
71. Do you want to see them: A new motif is introduced: instead of making war on the maenads, Pentheus will have the chance to spy on them. For the notion of observing forbidden rituals compare the stories of intruders at the Thesmophoria, a festival reserved for women: in one account King Battos of Cyrene came to spy on the rites and was caught and castrated (Aelian fragment 44); in another Aristomenes of Messenia made a similar attempt and was overpowered by women with sacrificing knives and torches, and taken captive (Pausanias 4.17.1). The plot of Aristophanes’Women at the Thesmophoria is a parodic version of this story-pattern.
Pentheus’ reaction to Dionysus’ question is hard to assess. His eagerness to see the maenads is extraordinary, and his loss of self-control in the rest of this scene seems to suggest that he is already falling under the god’s power (though Dionysus only calls down madness upon him at 850ff.). Greek myth is full of stories in which divinities send mortals mad (cf. the proverbial ‘quem deus vult perdere, prius dementat’). In Homer, though perhaps less often in other authors, divine intervention normally works on impulses already present in the mortal concerned. On the same model it is suggested, especially by E. R. Dodds and R. P. Winnington-Ingram, that something in Pentheus (repressed desires?) motivates his replies. The god sees the weaknesses that will enable him to destroy his opponent. For criticism of this psychic reading see Seaford’s introduction to his commentary, in Bacchae (Warminster 1996), pp. 33–5.
72. Am I to give up … and rank as a woman?: Pentheus is still sufficiently in control to rebel at this suggestion. Joining in Bacchic worship, as Teiresias and Cadmus did, does not involve dressing in women’s clothes: this transvestism is a fresh element. Obviously it provides a further means to humiliate Pentheus; it can also be seen in terms of his own psychology (cf. previous note). On another level it may have some ritual significance (Seaford, Bacchae, introduction p. 33 and note on 912–76), perhaps associated with initiation or ‘rites de passage’; but this hypothesis needs to be treated with great caution. There is no clear evidence for ritual transvestism in Dionysiac religion.
73. Let us go into the palace: There is something wrong with the text here: most probably a line has been lost and two separate speakers’ lines merged. The translation offered seeks to restore the sense required, following the suggestions of Jackson (see Diggle’s apparatus).
74. either I’ll set out with my army or I’ll take your advice: Pentheus as he goes inside maintains that he is still considering the alternatives. This is clearly self-deception, and we hear no more about armed assaults in the next scene, where he is totally in the power of Dionysus.
75. is by turns: This translates Diggle’s emendation en merei for the manuscript’s en telei. The transmitted text is difficult, but is normally taken as meaning ‘a god in authority’ or ‘a god in all fulness’ (Kirk translates ‘he shall recognize the son of Zeus, Dionysus, as a god in perfect essence – a terrible one, but to men most gentle’: The Bacchae by Euripides (Englewood Cliffs and Bristol 1970)). This may be thought preferable to the rather banal idea that he is terrible on some days, gentle on others; but we continue our policy of rendering the text as printed by Diggle.
76. What is wisdom? … ever cherished: These lines form a refrain (877–81 = 896–901). A refrain is also found in 991–6 = 1012–16 (elsewhere in Euripides only at Ion 125–9 = 141–3, a hymn to Apollo). Refrains are more frequent in Aeschylus, and seem to be especially associated with ritual or ceremonial contexts.
There is cause to doubt the text here (Diggle obelizes the opening of the refrain), but we translate the traditional readings (except that in 876 the second to must be deleted (Paley)). The reference to wisdom (thematic in the play) presumably implies that what follows is wise as well as honourable. The principle of helping your friends and harming your enemies (and indeed enjoying their distress), while resisted by Socrates in Plato and repugnant to many later thinkers, is well established in Greek popular ethics (see K. J. Dover, Greek Popular Morality (Oxford 1974), pp. 180–84, and M. Whitlock Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies (Cambridge 1989), ch. 1), and the increasing bloodthirstiness of the chorus’s sentiments suits the pattern of the play: they will go further still in the next ode.
77. what custom has prescribed: As before, the chorus advocate a simple and unreflecting acceptance of traditional practice, including religious devotion (Dionysiac worship being included). The passage hints at the currents of scepticism and questioning of old values which we can discern in other texts of the late fifth century BC. Even the chorus’s own language is affected by these ideas: ‘whatever the divine may be’ is on the one hand an admission of human ignorance, but also reminds us of the agnosticism of sophists such as Protagoras. The final sentence of the antistrophe also alludes to contemporary debates, especially the opposition of nomos (law, custom or tradition) and phusis (human nature): see W. K. C. Guthrie, History of Greek Philosophy iii, ch. 4, esp. pp. 55–60, 113–16, 129–31. A common approach among intellectuals was to say that custom had no real justification, and that human nature, sometimes construed as appetite or selfish ambition, should take priority (e.g. Callicles in Plato, Gorgias 482–6). The chorus prefer the view that nomos (‘what has become accepted …’) is itself rooted in and justified by ‘nature’.
78. I think I see two suns … bull now: Pentheus’ delusion partly involves seeing falsely but also gives him a kind of muddled insight. The vision of Dionysus as a bull is a kind of truth: the savage, bestial side of the god is being revealed. The hallucinations of Pentheus are alluded to in a famous passage of Virgil (Aeneid 4), quoted on p. xlv above.
79. now you see what you should see: The first of a series of sinister ambiguities in this scene, relished by the audience but missed by the bemused Pentheus.
80. I am completely in your hands: The phrase can also be understood as ‘I am dedicated/committed to you’, and may imply ritual dedication to the god. For an essay analysing this aspect see B. Seidensticker, ‘Sacrificial Ritual in the Bacchae’, in Arktouros(Festschrift B. Knox), ed. G. W. Bowersock et al. (Berlin and New York 1979), pp. 181–90.
81. through the midst of the land of Thebes: In his altered state of mind, Pentheus no longer feels any misgivings about being seen by the citizens.
82. bears the burden for this city: Again the phrase seems to evoke religious ideas, this time of the scapegoat who suffers punishment for the sins of the community. See R. Parker, Miasma. Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford 1983), pp. 257–71; J. Bremmer, ‘Scapegoat Rituals in Ancient Greece’, Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 87 (1983), pp. 299–320.
83. renown that towers to heaven: Up to this point Pentheus can be supposed to hear Dionysus’ words, though not fully grasping their meaning. The ‘renown’ he will gain will not be the glory of the victor but the notoriety of being made a lasting example of the folly of offending the god.
84. On, swift hounds of Madness …: The ode is composed mainly in the metre known as dochmiacs, virtually confined to tragedy and associated with moods of intense excitement and emotion. The chorus anticipate with fierce delight the downfall of their persecutor. ‘Madness’ is personified, but the focus is on her agents or ‘hounds’, the hunting Bacchants. By contrast, in Aeschylus’ Bacchic play Xantriae it appears that Madness appeared in person (as in Euripides’ Heracles).
85. First his mother will see him …: Vivid visualization of the scene which is imagined to be happening or about to happen as they sing. The use of direct speech makes the scene even more immediate (see V. Bers, Speech within Speech (Lanham, Maryland, and London 1997), pp. 91–2, 112–13). The irony of Agaue’s second question is patent. In the lines which follow we see again the building-up of Pentheus as a monstrous or demonic figure, in contrast with the pathetic pawn we have witnessed in the previous scene.
86. Death will discipline his purpose: The passage extending from this phrase to the end of 1007 is the most difficult in the play, because the transmitted text is clearly corrupt in several places. To restore precisely what Euripides wrote is hopeless; we provide here a possible version incorporating emendations by various scholars, mostly printed in Diggle’s apparatus.
87. Come, Bacchus, beast-god… net of death: The hunter of Bacchants, Pentheus, becomes the hunted: on the motif, cf. note 40. On ‘smiling face’, cf. note 41 above.
88. A MESSENGER enters: The exchange between the messenger and the chorus is striking formally, as the messenger speaks, but the chorus sing in response. His sombre comments contrast with their exultant tone of celebration. We should contrast the opening of the next scene, in which Agaue and the chorus combine in sung exchange.
89. When we had left behind …: For comparison of the earlier messenger speech with this one see note 59 above. Some of the details were rather speculatively connected with ritual e.g. by E. R. Dodds (the placing of Pentheus in the tree, the pelting of the victim with stones). There is little justification for this.
90. capture this climbing beast: Dionysus had referred to Pentheus as a man, and only a man, not a beast, can tell tales about the Bacchants’ activities. We see the beginning of Agaue’s delusion (cf. 1123): see further the ambiguous phrase in 1141–2 ‘as if it were a mountain lion’s’, which could be either a simile or Agaue’s own perspective: in the next scene we see it is the latter.
91. because of my offences: In a notorious passage of his commentary (p. 217), Dodds commented: ‘Pentheus dies sane and repentant: along with the ritual mitra (“headband”) he has discarded the madness which he acquired when he put it on. His repentance must be taken as sincere, and is fatal to the view which sees in him a blameless victim of religious fanaticism.’ This surely goes too far. Pentheus regains his sanity and realizes that he was a fool to intrude on the bacchants’ dances, but there is no reason to suppose that in this moment of panic he suddenly sees that he should have revered Dionysus as a god all along. More important is the need for the poet to show him fully aware of what is happening to him: the quotation of his actual words enhances the horror.
92. in sport like a ball: A brilliant metaphor, bringing to a close perhaps the most horrific passage in Greek tragedy. As often, the tragic poet increases the terror and pathos of a key moment by contrasting it with some normal, positive or innocent pastime.
93. Let us dance for the Bacchic god … drips with his blood: A short but important song, involving a significant shift of tone. At the start the emphasis is on celebrating Pentheus’ downfall, but at the end the chorus’s thoughts turn to what this means for those who killed him (‘lamentation and tears’), and above all for his mother (‘to clasp a child … ’). This sympathy for Agaue is vital for the next scene.
94. Agaue enters: It is not certain whether the wand or pole with her son’s head on it is actually used on stage. It would be easier to carry the head (represented, of course, by Pentheus’ mask) cradled in her arms, and she is certainly holding it by line 1277.
95. Share now in the feast: Another moment of supreme horror, as Agaue can only be suggesting feeding on her spoils (probably also implied at 1241–2). Cannibalism does occasionally feature in tragedy (always involuntary, as in the feasting of Thyestes), and the idea of omophagia (eating raw flesh) was part of the Dionysiac experience at least in myth (cf. note 15); but for it to be enacted on stage would be bold even for Euripides. At any rate, the chorus recoil.
96. a skilful huntsman, skilfully: This rendering obscures the recurrence of the word sophos (‘clever, wise’: see note 38), here reused in a different sense. Dionysus is wise not only in his divine foreknowledge and ability to outwit Pentheus, but also in his skilful direction of his hunting ‘hounds’.
97. Cadmus now enters: Cadmus himself says that his search was endless, and he only began it once he heard what had happened. Meanwhile Agaue raced to the city ‘on frenzied feet’. The time-scheme is impossible in realistic terms, but tragedy often manipulates time in this fashion (choral odes, moreover, regularly indicate the passage of an unspecific period of time).
98. justly, but excessively, though he is our own kin: Important lines. Cadmus earlier emphasized the need for family solidarity: it will be good for the prestige of the royal house to have a god in it (even if he is not one). Now it adds bitterness to his loss that Dionysus has treated them in this way despite being a relation. We soon learn that his kinship with Agaue and Pentheus will condemn Cadmus to exile as well (see note 104 below). Cadmus admits that the punishment of his daughter and grandson is just, but claims it was excessive (cf>. 1346). Some ancient and modern defenders of the gods may argue the power of the gods cannot be regulated by human ideas of what is and is not enough: indeed, in myth it is typical of them to retaliate with revenge far sterner than the original offence, and extending more widely (e.g. all of Troy must be destroyed for Paris’ crime and/or because of the judgement of Paris). But Cadmus’ response cannot but strike a chord in a sympathetic theatrical audience.
99. What cause for shame is here?: The dialogue shifts to stichomythia (one-line exchange), in a moving scene of question and answer as Cadmus tries to calm his daughter and draw her back to reality. The episode has been described as the ‘psychotherapy scene’ (G. Devereux, ‘The Psychotherapy Scene in Euripides’ Bacchae’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 93 (1973), pp. 36–49; see already E. R. Dodds, Bacchae, on the lines). It is closely comparable with the scene in the Heracles where Amphitryon (again a father) helps Heracles towards realization of what he has done (1109 ff.).
100. decently arranged, limb to limb: The single manuscript which preserves this play goes straight on to the next line (‘What part… ?’), but this leaves Agaue’s first question unanswered. It is clear that something has been lost here, though how much is disputed. The decision depends on what we suppose originally stood in this gap (‘lacuna’ is the technical term) and what in the (surely very considerable) gap after 1329. It seems from later sources that the scene originally included the revelation and piecing together of the fragments of Pentheus’ body, and a lament over her son by Agaue including much self-reproach. Many scholars put this in the later lacuna, but I am inclined to agree with those who would put it here. If so, we may assume that at least twenty lines are lost at this point.
101. O my child … believe in the gods: If the reconstruction in the previous note is correct, Agaue has lamented her son and now Cadmus follows suit, in a pathetic eulogy which melds grief and self-pity. What he remembers of Pentheus is the readiness of the young king to protect his grandfather. The cameo is touching, and the characterization of Pentheus, hot-tempered and quick to deal out punishments, rings wonderfully true.
102. Your lot is painful … brings you pain: This, the last significant comment by the chorus in the surviving text, shows a judicious balance of tone: they feel for Cadmus but do not regret Pentheus’ death. The audience may by now feel a good deal more compassion for the dead man and the survivors. This chorus at least is hardly a moral guide for the spectator.
103. the change in my fortunes …: Agaue’s sentence is incomplete. Here there is a second and probably a longer lacuna. In the lost portion there may have been further dialogue; possibly the piecing-together of the body (though this should, I believe, take place in the earlier lacuna, see note 100above). Some evidence has been assembled which may help in reconstructing the missing part: a single line in which a speaker (Agaue, we assume) says, ‘For if I had not taken this pollution upon my own hands’; fragments of a papyrus which may preserve part of Dionysus’ speech (little is clear, but the name of Zeus figures, also references to ‘learning’ and ‘impious’ or ‘impiety’); help has also been sought from the curious work known as the Christus Patiens (‘Suffering Christ’), a Byzantine dramatization of the Passion which adapts a good deal of Euripidean material and may well have made use of lines which we have now lost. But the arguments here are tenuous, and cannot carry us as far as a total reconstruction.
During the lacuna Dionysus appears above the stage-building. (There would be no need in this case for the crane to be used: on the various means of dramatizing scenes on a higher level, see D. J. Mastronarde ‘Actors on High: the Skene-Roof, the Crane and the Gods in Attic Drama’, Classical Antiquity 9 (1990), pp. 247–94). Probably he was attired in more majestic fashion; those who suppose that he wore a smiling mask earlier must assume that he now wore a more austere one.
When the text resumes he is in mid-speech. The ancient hypothesis to the play says that he declared the establishment of his rites, and it is clear that he must also specify exile as punishment for Agaue and her sisters (see 1363). In the text that survives he addresses Cadmus.
104. You will be transformed … land of the blessed: This extraordinary speech combines a variety of traditions concerning Cadmus, not all of which are attested before Euripides. We may distinguish the following elements: (a) he is punished by being transformed into a snake (a creature like the serpent he slew when young); (b) he will lead a barbarian army against cities of Greece, winning many successes but eventually being repulsed at Delphi (‘the oracle of Loxias’); (c) after death he and his wife will dwell in the isles of the blessed (this is already referred to in Pindar). These are clearly three distinct versions, and the first two are hardly compatible (is Cadmus to act as leader while in snake form?). Some scholars believe that (b) reflects Greek knowledge of the destruction of major Greek cities at the time of the Dorian invasion. Herodotus also knows of an oracle that barbarians would sack Delphi and be destroyed as a result: the Persians in 480–479 BC believed this referred to themselves, wrongly according to Herodotus (9.42 ff., 5.61). Euripides has evidently created a compound version which seems bizarre to the modern reader and perhaps struck an odd note even to the ancients: but it does provide a longer perspective and quasi-aetiological elements of the kind familiar in other speeches by gods at the end of plays.
Metamorphosis is predicted also at the end of the Hecabe (Hecabe is to become a wild bitch), but there it can be argued that the change reflects her vicious personality.
Agaue and her sisters are exiled because they are polluted by blood-guilt: this is the normal treatment of such offenders in mythology. Why is Cadmus punished? Some critics believe it is because his worship of Dionysus was inadequate or insincere (cf. 333 andnote 34 above). This is unlikely: although intellectuals might worry about purity of heart and mind, the general assumption in Greek religion was that the ritual act was the crucial thing, rather than the beliefs of the worshipper (a strong statement to this effect by S. Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks (Cambridge 1999), pp. 3, 183). It is more probable that Cadmus is so treated as head of the offending household: family solidarity again.
‘The land of the blessed’ is Elysium, the remote mythical region (usually thought of as an island) where some of the heroes were destined to go after death – a privileged few who were spared the horrors of Hades. The notion is first found in the Odyssey. But Cadmus views the prospect of eternal life with despondency.
105. Dionysus, we beseech you, we have done wrong: This exchange highlights some of the central issues of debate concerning Euripides’ treatment of the gods. Humans naturally protest (and the audience, being human, should pity them and share some of their concern); but despite human hopes (1348) gods are not like men, and are not answerable to them. The will of Zeus is impenetrable. Yet divine retribution frequently seems cruel and excessive to the victim and the onlooker. Tragedy may dramatize divine justice, but it is a harsh justice. These dilemmas were particularly prominent in Euripides’ work: 1348 is close to the famous line in a much earlier play, Hippolytus, ‘gods ought to be wiser than men’ (120). For discussion of Euripides’ gods, see General Introduction, pp. xxxiii–xxxv; for a different view see e.g. M. Lefkowitz, ‘ “Impiety” and “Atheism” in Euripides’ Dramas’ in J. Mossman (ed.), Euripides (Oxford 2003), pp. 102–21 (arguing that they are more just, and more traditional, than most scholars think). More generally see R. Parker ‘Gods Cruel and Kind: Tragic and Civic Theology’, in C. B. R. Pelling (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian, pp. 143–60.
106. DIONYSUS leaves the stage: This is controversial. There are no stage directions in our manuscript; all such additions are based on the judgement of editors and commentators in modern times. The sole manuscript which preserves this part of the play does ascribe one more speech to Dionysus, namely 1377–8: ‘Yes, for terrible was my treatment at your hands, having my name go without honour in Thebes.’ The nineteenth-century scholars E. Bothe and G. Hermann decided that Cadmus should be the speaker and made the tiny changes which adjust the grammar (in the Greek this amounts to altering only two letters). In the text as printed by Diggle these emendations are incorporated, so that Dionysus says no more. Our practice is to translate Diggle’s text, and I believe the ascription to Cadmus is correct, but it has not convinced all scholars: D. J. Mastronarde, Contact and Discontinuity (Berkeley 1979), p. 96 argues strongly that it would be unparalleled for a god to withdraw so unobtrusively from a deus ex machina scene. (The compromise that Dionysus remains but says no more is conceivable, and could make a powerful contrast with the human plane, but is again atypical.)
107. Father, I must go … share my path: The scene recalls the parting of Electra and Orestes at the end of Euripides’ Electra (1308 ff.); perhaps that had been particularly successful in performance.
108. to the house of Aristaeus: Aristaeus was the father of Actaeon (cf. 1227). There is a very short gap here. No doubt the original text would have made clear the point of this instruction (perhaps Dionysus told Agaue to meet her sisters there).
109. Yes, for terrible was his treatment: On the manuscript reading ‘was my treatment’, implying that these lines belong to Dionysus, see note 106 above.
110. And so it has turned out here today: These closing choral lines also appear in identical or closely similar form at the end of Alcestis, Medea, Andromache and Helen. It has often been suggested that they are editorial insertions in some places, but a choral comment is normal at the end of a Greek tragedy, and the sentiments, though conventional, are appropriate enough in each case. For discussion, see D. H. Roberts, ‘Parting Words: Final Lines in Sophocles and Euripides’, Classical Quarterly 37 (1987), pp. 51–64.
IPHIGENIA AT AULIS
1. AGAMEMNON’s tent: ‘Tent’ may be a misleading term. The army has been based at Aulis for weeks, if not months: it is likely enough that the commander-in-chief has requisitioned a local house, and later scenes seem to require something more substantial than a canvas door to separate inside from out.
2. Old man, come out here in front of the tent…: The prologue of this play, as it stands in our manuscripts, is highly unusual in form. It begins (lines 1–48) with a passage of dialogue between Agamemnon and his old servant, a figure who will be important later in the play: this is composed in anapaests, a metre often employed for the entry of choruses in other dramas, or for greetings by the chorus to new arrivals, but never used by Euripides in his surviving plays for an opening dialogue (there is however testimony that this metre was used in the prologue of the lost Andromeda). Next, after the slave’s request to be enlightened about his master’s anxieties, there follows an expository passage by Agamemnon (49–114), composed in iambic trimeters and similar in style to many other expository prologues by Euripides: however, it restates some things the old man has long known. Third comes another set of exchanges in anapaests (115–62), in which the old man receives instructions and exhortations before setting out on his mission. At the end of this Agamemnon voices a brief moralizing comment and re-enters his shelter.
Critics differ strongly as to which parts of this opening (if any) should be seen as genuine. Some think the iambics authentic, the anapaests a later addition (England, Page, Kovacs); others declare the anapaests Euripidean, the iambics spurious (Fraenkel); others again suppose both to be genuine (Knox); while some declare the whole prologue post-Euripidean (e.g. Diggle). Murray attempted to improve matters by placing the iambic passage before both sets of anapaests. The reader will probably find the opening effective enough, if somewhat repetitive; in my view it clearly derives from two different drafts imperfectly combined, but whether either was partly or wholly by Euripides is hard to determine. It must be borne in mind that ‘non-Euripidean poetry’ does not necessarily mean ‘bad poetry’.
For further discussion see B. M. W. Knox, Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater (Baltimore 1979), pp. 275–94; C. W. Willink, ‘The Prologue of Iphigenia at Aulis’, Classical Quarterly 21 (1971), pp. 343–64; D. Bain, ‘The Prologues of Iphigenia at Aulis’, Classical Quarterly 27 (1977), pp. 10–26; D. Kovacs, ‘Towards a Reconstruction of Iphigenia Aulidensis’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 123 (2003), pp. 77–103, where references to more detailed discussions can be found.
3. you keep writing: In epic the heroes appear to be illiterate. Only in one passage in Homer is writing alluded to, and this is in a separate narrative, in which it is treated as something mysterious and sinister (Iliad 6.168 ff.). But tragedy, composed in a period where writing was much more common, includes a number of scenes in which it is used. In the Hippolytus, Phaedra leaves a suicide note accusing Hippolytus of raping her; in the Iphigenia among the Taurians, Iphigenia proposes to send a letter to her brother.
4. that man who judged the goddesses: The reference is to Paris, also often called Alexander or Alexandros, who decided that the prize for beauty, a golden apple, should go to Aphrodite. (She bribed the young man with the promise of Helen as his bride.) The hatred of Hera and Athena for Troy originated with this episode. The contest is described in more detail at 572ff. and 1283–1311. It is a favourite theme in Euripides, especially in lyrics: for a detailed study see T. C. W. Stinton, Collected Papers on Greek Tragedy (Oxford 1990), pp. 17–75.
5. as the story goes: Euripides frequently allows his characters to draw attention to the ‘traditional’ nature of the mythic background. Sometimes this is done in order to cast doubt on the tradition or at least to highlight its implausibility (as at 794–800), but this seems to be a relatively neutral case.
6. Of the Greeks only we four … Menelaus and I: This translation renders an emended version of the line: the manuscripts have ‘Of the Greeks we alone know the true situation – Calchas, Odysseus and Menelaus.’ Although Diggle prints the manuscript reading, some alteration seems inevitable. The difficulties are more wide-ranging, however: how much is known to the army at large? Do they know of the pretence of a false marriage, but believe it to be true? That seems hard to maintain, given the account of the soldiers’ curiosity and questioning on Iphigenia’s arrival, as narrated by the messenger (425ff.); moreover, even Achilles himself later proves ignorant of the alleged offer (801ff., esp. 835–43). But when the army is later baying for blood, it is clear that they know that Artemis demands the girl’s sacrifice: so when did they learn this? Are we to assume that Calchas has told them (as Agamemnon fears will happen, 518ff., 528ff.)? D. Kovacs (‘Towards a Reconstruction’) regards this as a key element in testing the authenticity of different parts of the play. The discrepancies are real, but it is not altogether plain that Euripides had made up his mind on the exact sequence of revelation.
7. AGAMEMNON and the OLD MAN now sing in a lyric exchange: The metre shifts back from iambics to anapaests. These were sometimes chanted, and elsewhere we normally do not italicize such passages, but we do so here to emphasize the different quality of the separate parts of the prologue. Also, this section, unlike the first, includes some sequences in Agamemnon’s speech which are in ‘melic’ anapaests and were evidently sung: for the distinction see A. M. Dale, The Lyric Metres of Greek Drama (2nd edn Cambridge 1968) ch. 4, esp. pp. 5off.; M. L. West, Greek Metre(1982), p. 122. B. M. W. Knox, Word and Action, pp. 288–9, sees characterization in the metrical shifts; D. Kovacs, ‘Towards a Reconstruction’, pp. 82–3, sees the inconsistency as a sign of later composition.
8. It is the name and nothing else that Achilles provides: Euripides is fond of distinctions of this kind, making explicit the gap between appearance and reality: in this play cf. 910, 938–9. These ideas are especially prominent in the Helen: see note 6 on Helen in volume 3 of this translation.
9. dwellings raised by the Cyclopes: The majestic strongholds of Mycenae and other ancient cities were often said to have been built with aid from the Cyclopes, one-eyed giants of superhuman strength.
10. The CHORUS enters: The chorus of this play, as in most of Euripides’ extant dramas, is female. They are from Chalcis, a town directly opposite Aulis on the island of Euboea; the Euripus is the channel that separates the two. The decision of the poet to make the chorus a group of females with no direct involvement in the action, as opposed to the more obvious alternative of a chorus of Greek soldiers, is an important one. It means that they have no stake in the expedition, and that they are ready to empathize with Clytemnestra and Iphigenia. See further Gould and Mastronarde as cited in note 12 to Phoenician Women.
The structure of the opening song casts doubt on the authenticity of the latter part. The first section (164–230) is triadic (strophe and matching antistrophe, then a concluding stanza known as an epode); after that there are only matching strophic pairs. The second section (231–302) is also inferior in sense and style, and includes numerous heroes of inferior rank. It is especially suspicious that Ajax reappears in the second part after being mentioned more briefly in the first. Most probably the original song ended at 230, having reached a climax with the crucial figure of Achilles. The remainder is a pastiche inspired partly by the catalogue of ships in book 2 of the Iliad.
For a discussion of the role of the choral songs in this play see H. Foley, Ritual Irony (Ithaca 1985), pp. 78–84, who argues that they present a more positive and romantic image of the Greeks and the war than the dialogue sections of the play.
For information on individual heroes mentioned see the Glossary: some are of very minor importance.
11. Palamedes: For this clever and inventive hero see note 27 to Orestes. In the several plays featuring him, he regularly gave a catalogue of the benefits he had devised for the Greeks: the diversion of board-games was among them.
12. from the land of Phocis: Something appears to have dropped out of the text here and at the corresponding point in the antistrophe. The sense is not significantly affected.
13. That’s a reproach that brings me honour: The virtuous slave is a recurrent figure in Euripides. See further K. Synodinou, On the Concept of Slavery in Euripides (Ioannina 1977); also E. Hall, in P. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy(Cambridge 1997), pp. 93–126, esp. pp. 110–18, 123–4.
14. What is this disturbance outside my tent: The metre shifts into trochaic tetrameters, and this is sustained through the argument that follows until the end of Agamemnon’s response (401), except that the chorus’s intervening comment, in itself a standard feature, is in iambic trimeters (an unparalleled breach of such a trochaic sequence). On the mood of these trochaic passages see note 27 to Phoenician Women. They are more numerous in this play than in any other.
With the slave’s hasty disappearance, the agon begins. This is an unusual version of that ‘typical’ form. After an exchange of one-liners, Menelaus makes a long speech, Agamemnon replies with a significantly shorter one, and a few more stichomythic jibes follow. The usual expectation would be that the opponents would separate, further apart than ever; but here the messenger arrives with fresh news, and Agamemnon’s deep distress at the news of his family’s arrival prompts a change of heart from Menelaus. On the sequel see note 23 below. This agon is also abnormal in that the main speeches are in tetrameters: that metre had been used for follow-up dialogue in agon-scenes in Phoenician Women and Orestes, but not for the long speeches by the antagonists.
Despite a number of oddities, there can be little doubt that this scene is substantially Euripidean: the sharp-edged rhetoric and the ‘unpacking’ of the seamier side of the heroic age are entirely characteristic. For a useful discussion of the scene see S. Halliwell inGreek Tragedy and the Historian, ed. C. B. R. Pelling (Oxford 1997) at pp. 135–7 (note esp. p. 137 on alternative versions of events).
15. You remember the time …: Menelaus on Agamemnon’s electioneering strikes an entertainingly anachronistic note: it surely owes much to Euripides’ experience of Athenian political activity. (Cf. e.g. Aristotle, Constitution of Athens 27.3; Plutarch, Themistocles5.6; Nicias 9.5; P.J. Rhodes, ‘Political Activity in Classical Athens’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 106 (1986), pp. 132–44) This first part of the speech also redeploys the motif of inconsistency and change of mind (cf. Agamemnon’s change of mind in the prologue, alluded to at 363ff.; and see note 23 below).
16. you and the army of all Greece: The word used here, Panhellenes, is the first indication that some at least of the characters view this campaign as a panhellenic expedition, and this strikes a note of patriotic fanfare which becomes more strident later in the play: cf. 370 in this speech, and 1264ff., 1271–5, 1379ff. (esp. 1384, 1386, 1400–1401), 1446, 1456, 1474. See further Introduction to this play, and note 65 below.
17. Do you yearn to have a good wife?: Cf. 389, ‘the man who lost a bad wife and now wants to get her back’. In Homer Helen is a fascinating and attractive figure, but even in the Iliad the elders of Troy, while admiring her beauty, feel that she should be sent home to her own country, and Achilles allows himself a jibe or two at the devotion of the sons of Atreus to their wives (Iliad 3.156–60; 9.337–43). In tragedy hostility towards Helen is normal: Aeschylus set the pattern (Agamemnon 62, 225, 686ff. etc.), and negative comment is frequent in Euripides. Hence the recovery of Helen is a dubious gain; this theme is developed further by Menelaus at 485ff. (after his change of heart) and by Clytemnestra at 1166ff.
18. some heaven-sent affliction: For the idea that the whole of the army, or of Greece, is suffering from some delusion or mad desire for the campaign, compare 807, 1264. For comparable language in historical narration see Thucydides 6.24.2–4.
19. The army has heard …: On the problems of who among the army knows how much about Agamemnon’s intentions, see note 6 above. The case of the messenger, however, is straightforward: as the servant of Clytemnestra, he knows only what she knows, that her daughter has been summoned to Aulis for a distinguished marriage. Hence his cheerful but misguided eagerness to proceed with the celebrations (435ff.)
20. Oh, what pain …: Agamemnon’s speech is treated as almost a monologue, despite the presence of both Menelaus and the chorus. True soliloquy in the Shakespearian style is rare in Greek tragedy. See W. Schadewaldt, Monolog und Selbstgespräch (Berlin 1926) (pp. 232ff. on this speech).
21. Hades, it seems, will be her bridegroom soon: The same motif is found at 540, 1278. The macabre idea of ‘marriage’ to Hades is quite frequent in tragedy, especially in the context of virgin sacrifice or execution. See further H. Foley, Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides (Ithaca 1985), pp. 84–92 (some wild points); R. Seaford, ‘The Tragic Wedding’, Journal of Hellenic Studies 107 (1987), pp. 106–30; R. Rehm, Marriage to Death: the Conflation of Wedding and Funeral Rituals in Greek Tragedy (Princeton 1994).
22. He is still a baby: Orestes, the future murderer of Clytemnestra, is only an infant here. He would probably have been represented by a dummy wrapped in swaddling clothes. Some editors are sceptical about the appearance of Orestes in Euripides’ version, and regard all references to him as later additions, but this is to cast doubt on an improbably large number of passages. Children are introduced elsewhere in Euripides for pathetic effect (Alcestis, Medea, Andromache, Trojan Women).
23. Brother, give me your right hand to clasp: In response to his brother’s misery Menelaus undergoes an unexpected change of heart. This is a characteristic feature of the play: in the prologue Agamemnon has thought better of his original intention and is sending a second message; in this scene, now that Menelaus has changed his mind, Agamemnon will change his. Later in the play we have the crucial change of mind when Iphigenia declares her willingness to be sacrificed. Changes of mind are much more frequent (and often more puzzling in motivation) in Euripides than in his predecessors. See esp. B. M. W. Knox, ‘Second Thoughts in Greek Tragedy’, Word and Action, pp. 231–49; also J. Griffin, ‘Characterization in Euripides’, in Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature, ed. C. B. R. Pelling (Oxford 1990), pp. 128–49, esp. pp. 140–49; J. Gibert,Change of Mind in Greek Tragedy (Hypomnemata vol. 108, Göttingen 1995).
24. worthy of Tantalus, son of Zeus: Tantalus was Menelaus’ great-grandfather: see note 1 to Orestes above. Since he was chiefly famous as one of the great sinners, we must suspect a mischievous touch of humour by the poet.
25. The whole gathering of the Greek army: A very important line. In earlier versions we have no reason to suppose that the army put pressure on Agamemnon to kill his daughter (though in Aeschylus the king dreads the thought of being seen to abandon the expedition). In this play the army, frequently mentioned and described as an unruly mob, is a sinister presence offstage, and in the second scene with Achilles almost bursts into the action (1338ff.). Racine developed this motif further in his play on the same theme.
26. The whole breed of prophets: Euripidean characters often express hostility toward prophets: e.g. Helen 744–60, Bacchae 255–7, fragment 795. For their role and status in Greek society in general see W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Eng. tr. Oxford 1985), pp. 111–14; J. D. Mikalson, Athenian Popular Religion (Chapel Hill 1983), ch. 6.
27. Sisyphus: In the Odyssey and most other sources, Odysseus is the son of Laertes, but there was an alternative tradition that Laertes’ wife Anticleia was already pregnant by the crafty Corinthian Sisyphus when he married her. In tragedy this accusation often goes with a negative portrayal of Odysseus as a villain (e.g. Sophocles, Philoctetes 417).
28. Cyclopean walls: See note 9 above.
29. keep silence: The familiar convention of choral discretion is once more taken for granted: compare Orestes 1103–4.
30. among women … countless forms: The sense is obscure here, but the translation we offer seems the most convincing in this context.
31. You came, Paris …: This passage refers to the ‘Judgement of Paris’ (see note 4 above). Paris, while minding herds on Mount Ida near Troy, was visited by the three goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, escorted by the messenger-god Hermes. He was asked to decide which of them was the most beautiful; each goddess promised different rewards. Paris chose Aphrodite as the winner, and his reward was the beautiful Helen.
The myth described Paris as living on the hillside tending herds. At some stage it was evidently felt that this was an unworthy occupation for a Trojan prince, and an elaborate story was devised in which Paris was exposed at birth on Mount Ida, because of fears arising from a sinister dream that his mother Hecabe had, in which she bore a firebrand which consumed all of Troy. Paris survived, grew up as a shepherd, and only in adulthood came to be recognized as a son of Priam. The story was dramatized by Euripides in theAlexandros (see Preface to Trojan Women in Electra and Other Plays, volume 2 of this translation).
32. Clytemnestra … another carriage: Some editors argue that the spectacle of a series of carriages has been added to a Euripidean version in which Clytemnestra and Iphigenia arrived with less pomp and circumstance. For discussion see D. L. Page, Actors’ Interpolations in Greek Tragedy(Oxford 1934), pp. 166-8; O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Oxford 1977), p. 77. In that case some of the choral welcome and parts of Clytemnestra’s speech would need to be cut. It is true that the scene of arrival is unduly protracted, but the issue is not as important as some of the other controversies concerning this play.
33. I don’t understand … understand: This very weak line (there is nothing obscure about Agamemnon’s apparent meaning, though of course the real import of his words is hidden) interrupts the regularity of the stichomythia and is certainly an intrusion.
34. You will come to the same place as your father, daughter: This probably means Hades, but again the stichomythia is disrupted and the authenticity of this line is very doubtful.
35. You aren’t finding … father?: Oddly, Iphigenia seems ignorant in this context of the wedding supposedly arranged. Perhaps part of this scene is spurious; it can only be defended by assuming that she is pretending ignorance, teasing her father.
36. Kiss me and let me take your hand …: Physical contact generates emotion, and Agamemnon almost breaks down. Cf. the famous moment when Medea prepares to kill her children, but is distracted by the sight of their hands, faces and soft skin (Medea 1069ff.).
37. Aegina was the daughter of Asopus …: This gradual release of information through stichomythia seems highly artificial to modern taste, but scenes of this kind seem to have appealed to the Athenian audience, many of whom were no doubt pleased to be able to answer the questions before the actor did (cf. Aristophanes, Frogs 1109–18 on the sophistication of the theatre-going public). For somewhat similar exchanges see Iphigenia among the Taurians 515ff., Sophocles Philoctetes 410ff. On stichomythia generally see C. Collard, ‘On Stichomythia’, Liverpool Classical Monthly5 (1980), pp. 77–85.
38. Peleus won the hand of Nereus’ daughter: On the wedding of Peleus and Thetis see the extended description in 1036–79: see note 52 below.
39. Cheiron: Cheiron, the most famous of the Centaurs, traditionally wise and well disposed to mankind. That he was Achilles’ tutor is already mentioned in the Iliad (11.83iff.).
40. Have you already performed … fine prows: This passage in particular includes a number of details about the wedding rituals of ancient Greece. For fuller accounts and ancient illustrations see R. Garland, The Greek Way of Life (London 1990), pp. 219–25; J. Oakley and R. Sinos, The Wedding in Ancient Athens (Wisconsin 1993).
41. Queen of Argos: This refers to Hera, who not only holds Argos in special esteem (Iliad 4.52) but oversees marriage.
42. where Phoebus toiled: Apollo and Poseidon spent a year in service to the Trojan King Laomedon (who then foolishly cheated them of their payment). See Iliad 21.441–9, where it is said that Poseidon built the walls and Apollo looked after the herds.
43. Cassandra: She was a daughter of Priam, and was beloved by Apollo, who gave her the power of prophecy; but when she refused to sleep with him, being unable to take back the gift, he made it useless by decreeing that none would ever believe her predictions. Her ecstatic state when inspired by the god’s power is dramatized in famous scenes of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Euripides’ Trojan Women.
44. offspring of the long-necked swan: Helen is the daughter of Leda, who was married to Tyndareus, but she is normally said to be the child of Zeus, who seduced or raped Leda in the form of a swan (see also Orestes 1385–6 and note 69). As in the case of Heracles, who can be described as son of Zeus or of Amphitryon, she has two fathers. But in the Helen (lines 17–21) she herself adopts a sceptical attitude to the myth of her own birth, and the chorus take the same line here. In the late fifth century BC rationalizing or demystifying mythology was a common practice among intellectuals (compare e.g. Trojan Women 988–90, and Plato, Phaedrus 229c–30a).
45. enter CLYTEMNESTRA from the door of the tent: To appreciate the scene which follows we need to be conscious of Athenian conventions regarding the behaviour of women, which were extremely strict. A well-born woman married to one man should not be found speaking in public (or at all) with another man; and Achilles’ anxiety reflects his awareness that even an innocent conversation might be misconstrued. When Clytemnestra even goes so far as to initiate physical contact he is shocked. For the social comedy here compare Ion 517ff., another scene which depends on a misunderstanding of two parties’ relationship.
46. Stranger, born of Aeacus’ line, wait …: The whole passage which follows, from 855 to 916 (the next intervention of the chorus), is in the lively longer lines called trochaic tetrameters, regularly used in scenes of agitation and excitement. The same metre is used elsewhere in the play (seenote 14 above; see esp. 1338–1401, the moment of crisis). It was also used in the similar scene in Ion (see previous note).
47. to fall at your knees: On the ritual of supplication see note 50 to Phoenician Women.
48. can be of service when they will …: Clytemnestra hints that the army may, with Achilles’ aid, follow his lead and help them prevent Iphigenia’s sacrifice. But her hopes are deluded, as a later scene shows (1344ff.).
49. My anger rises …: For a discussion of the problems of this speech (919–74) see W. Ritchie, ‘Euripides, Iphigenia at Aulis, 919–74’ in Dionysiaca (Festschrift D. L. Page), ed. R. D. Dawe et al. (Cambridge 1978), pp. 179–203.
50. It is not for the sake of marriage that I have said this …: This slightly comic passage includes some reminiscences of Homer (‘anticipations’, in the sense that the plot of the Iliad is chronologically in the future). The motifs of a quarrel with Agamemnon, and the issue of keeping a woman who is in a sense his, recur in the first book of the Iliad; also, in book 9 the hero declares that he has no need to marry a daughter of Agamemnon, as there are plenty of possible wives for him at home. But the subsequent lines here are bizarre: Achilles appears to say that he would have been perfectly happy to go ahead with the deception for the public good, if only Agamemnon had consulted him about it! Sly characterization by Euripides here seems a better explanation than bungling by an interpolator (for the latter view see e.g. D. Kovacs, ‘Towards a Reconstruction’, p. 92.
51. If the gods are intelligent: Typically provocative Euripidean speculative comment, effectively placed as the coda to a speech and scene.
52. Hymenaeus: A deity presiding over and symbolizing marriage; wedding-songs frequently invoke him, and his name itself can refer to such a song. The wedding of Peleus and Thetis was famous in mythology as an occasion in which the whole company of the gods attended the marital feast and brought gifts for the distinguished couple. Pindar, in Pythian Odes 3.85ff., treats the wedding feasts of Cadmus and Peleus as moments of supreme human felicity. But the happiness of this festive occasion is flawed in several ways: Peleus and Thetis were subsequently to part (already they live apart in the Iliad, and Achilles anticipates a wretched old age for his father); their only son Achilles is to die young; and the celebration was marred by the unexpected appearance of Eris (Discord), who cast a golden apple into their midst and declared that it belonged to the most beautiful one present: this led to the dispute among the goddesses which the Judgement of Paris was meant to solve (see 71 and 573 and notes 4 and 31 above).
53. Ganymede: A beautiful Trojan prince abducted by Zeus to serve as his lover and also to act as cupbearer at the feast of the gods. His presence at the wedding-feast of Peleus and Thetis is not a stock detail, but serves as a contrast with Iphigenia in the epode of this song. Whereas Ganymede is favoured by the gods, Iphigenia seems destined to die at their command; but the audience may be meant to recall that she too in some versions is translated to divinity.
54. shall be furnished with a suit of armour for his body …: Cheiron foresees the events of the Iliad, in which divine armour is forged by Hephaestus and brought to Achilles by Thetis: see Iliad 18.368–617, 19.1–22.
55. The lustral water … dark blood for Artemis: The religious rituals in preparation for a sacrifice are described: Agamemnon mentions heifers as victims, but has of course another victim in mind. For extended ancient descriptions of sacrificial ritual see Homer,Odyssey 3.404–63, Euripides,Electra 791–839; for a modern summary, W. Burkert, Greek Religion, pp. 55–9.
56. let me make this my first charge against you …: The quasi-legal language is a regular feature of an agon-scene (though this scene does not develop into a full agon). Clytemnestra’s denunciation of Agamemnon’s past misdemeanours recalls the Athenian orators’ practice of recapitulating their opponents’ careers. In Euripides, compare esp. the speech of Electra addressing the dead Aegisthus (Electra 907ff.). The present speech includes some mythical novelties: Clytemnestra’s previous marriage and Agamemnon’s murder of her child are surely Euripidean inventions. Tantalus must be a different figure from the ancestor of Agamemnon and Menelaus.
57. Come, if you go to war …: This ingenious passage exploits the audience’s knowledge of the mythical ‘future’, in which Clytemnestra avenges Iphigenia by killing Agamemnon on his return from Troy (for this motive see Pindar, Pythian Odes 11.22ff.; Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1412–19). Other motives are ignored. The same effect is achieved in a later passage (1454–5).
58. and no one else the killer … to her home: The text is doubtful here. It is possible that a line has been lost, and we translate on that assumption, attempting to fill the gap with a plausible line of thought.
59. If I had the eloquence of Orpheus …: Iphigenia’s plea was notoriously contrasted with her later speech by Aristotle (Poetics 15); we can be confident that both these scenes were already there in his text. On the interpretation of her change of attitude see note 65below.
Orpheus was the archetypal poet, a mythical singer who was capable of beguiling wild beasts and even of attracting natural objects such as rocks and trees.
On the formal aspects of this scene (what appeared to begin as an agon modulates into a supplication-sequence) see M. Lloyd, The Agon in Euripides (Oxford, 1992), p. 9
60. It is a terrible thing … and terrible if I do not: For Agamemnon’s statement of his dilemma cf. Aeschylus Agamemnon 206ff. (a chorus quoting the king’s actual words); but the role of the threatening army here is a Euripidean innovation.
61. Ah, ah, snow-clad glen of Phrygia: Iphigenia launches on an extended monody, the first example of this favourite Euripidean form in the play. Like Electra’s lament in Orestes 982ff., the song is astrophic, lacking stanza form (the same aplies to the shorter song which precedes her final exit, 1475ff.). For a sensitive analysis see T. C. W. Stinton, Collected Papers, pp. 40–44.
62. where Priam once cast … city of the Phrygians: On the exposure of Paris as an infant see note 31. Mount Ida was where he was abandoned but grew up as a shepherd. His double name was thought to derive from his foster-parents having given him a different name: usually Alexander is the name bestowed by Priam and Hecabe, Paris the name he bears among the herdsmen. The following passage reverts to the theme of the Judgement (cf. note 4 above).
63. Would that he had never been raised as a herdsman among cattle: Cf. 1319: ‘I wish that Aulis had never …’ For ‘counterfactual’ prayers cf. Medea iff.
64. O Mother, my Mother …: Formal features of this scene (effaced in a prose version) demand some attention. In 1338–401 we have the rapid, excited trochaic tetrameters again; from Achilles’ entrance at 1345 there is constant use of antilabe (division of line between speakers), with lines divided between Achilles and Clytemnestra until 1368, where Iphigenia breaks silence, interrupting their dialogue in mid-line, with her crucial speech. At the end of the speech the normal iambic trimeters resume with the chorus’s comment (1402).
65. Mother, you must hear what I have to say: Iphigenia’s speech is the crux of the play (see also pp. 173–4). In some sense the audience ‘knows’ that it is coming: she must be sacrificed if the war of Troy is to take place, and no Greek poet, not even Euripides, would be capable of revising the myths to that extent. In voluntarily accepting the necessity of self-sacrifice she resembles Heracles’ daughter in the Children of Heracles and Menoeceus in the Phoenician Women (see note 49 to that play above); similar also is the scene in the fragmentary Erechtheus in which a mother offers up her daughter to save Athens (fragment 360: C. Collard et al., Euripides: the Fragmentary Plays i (Warminster 1995), pp. 148–94, at pp. 158ff.). There are two problems here: the characterization of Iphigenia and the nature of the cause for which she is to die. Aristotle in the Poetics regards consistency as one of the qualities needed in a dramatic character: ‘For even if the person being imitated is of an inconsistent sort and that kind of character has been posited, still he should be consistently inconsistent. An example … of inconsistency is the Iphigenia at Aulis, for the girl who makes the speech of supplication bears no resemblance to the later one’ (15.1454a26ff.). As we have seen, however, change of mind is thematic in this play, and even if Iphigenia’s new mood is not expected (arguably it would be, given the conventional pattern of this plot: Menoeceus too at first seems reluctant, and so was the mother in the Erechtheus), it is not inexplicable: after at first naturally recoiling from the prospect of death, she in the end rises to the occasion and accepts her heroic duty in a great cause.
But is the cause in fact so great? We may accept that most Athenians would feel that Greek interests should be preferred to barbarians’ (Persia’s involvement in the latter part of the Peloponnesian war is hardly irrelevant), and that the language of panhellenic unity might strike a chord in some of those who sympathized with the sentiments expressed by Lysistrata a few years earlier in Aristophanes (Lysistrata 1123–56, esp. 1128–34): talk of alliance among Greeks, aggression towards ‘barbarians’ played a significant part in the rhetoric of the fifth century BC (Thucydides 4.20.4, 5.29.3, Xenophon, Hellenica 1.6.7, and later 6.5.33ff). Gorgias in an oration at the Olympic games (probably of 408 BC) had called for ‘unanimity’ among the warring Greeks; Lysias echoed these sentiments in 388 BC. But in Euripides’ drama the Greeks are not resolving on unity but bent on retribution; they are in the grip of a heaven-sent affliction (411), a god-inspired passion (807, cf. 1264). The panhellenic enterprise of the Trojan war has been shown in such a poor light earlier in the play (Agamemnon’s careerism, Menelaus’ lustfulness), and the potential danger of further foreign wife-stealing seems so implausible that the speech must, I believe, be read as noble but deluded. If Iphigenia had to die, it should have been for a better cause.
For a valuable statement of the contrary position, see B. M. W. Knox, Word and Action, pp. 343–54, esp. pp. 348–9. On ideas of panhellenism see further F. W. Walbank, ‘The Problem of Greek Nationality’, Phoenix 5 (1981), pp. 31–60 = Selected Papers(Cambridge 1985), pp. 1–19; also K. J. Dover, Greek Popular Morality (Oxford 1974), pp. 83–5, 279ff.; E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy (Oxford 1989), pp. 160–5, 190–200.
66. You bore me to be the child of all Greeks, not yours alone: This line is especially close to the patriotic sentiments of Euripides’ Erechtheus F 360 (where it is the mother who declares herself ready to surrender her daughter for sacrifice). The difference in situation is important, however: there the girl dies to save Athens. In Euripides’ own Electra Clytemnestra explicitly contrasts the hypothetical need for a child to die for the sake of the city with the actual situation facing Agamemnon (1020–29, a passage often neglected in discussion of the Iphigenia at Aulis).
67. One man … ten thousand women: The difficulties of interpreting this speech are increased by the fact that most modern audiences will rebel against such sentiments as this one and the statement of the Greeks’ right to rule over barbarians (see next note). We naturally prefer to read such passages in an ironic sense, as overstated or absurd. Before moving too swiftly to an ironic reading we should bear in mind how many people might have found such statements perfectly reasonable even a century ago. However, it is perhaps possible to draw a distinction between the views of Iphigenia (young, enthusiastic, idealistic) and those of Euripides. The playwright’s own opinions are of course irrecoverable, but we can at least note that many women and some foreigners are painted in positive or at least sympathetic lights in his plays (e.g. E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian, ch. 5; also her essay in P. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy, pp. 118–24).
68. It is natural that Greeks rule barbarians, Mother, not barbarians Greeks: Cf. Aristotle, Politics 1.2.1252b, who quotes this line. Aristotle discusses the whole topic in Politics 1.2–7, 3.14 and is an important source for educated Greek opinion. For a helpful account drawing on his work and other sources, see P. Cartledge, The Greeks (Oxford 1993), ch. 3 on Greeks versus barbarians (also ch. 6, on the related topic of ‘free versus slave’).
69. Ah, noble spirit: Achilles’ admiring words are followed by a restatement of his willingness to help her if she (again!) changes her mind. There is a puzzling clash between Achilles’ statement of his intentions and what he actually does: at 1568ff. we see him actually assisting in the sacrificial ritual. That later passage, however, is almost certainly a spurious addition.
70. Do not hate my father …: As in 1171f., the words of the characters clearly foreshadow Clytemnestra’s revenge and Agamemnon’s death ten years hence.
71. sing … the paean to Artemis: The paean is a form of hymn, particularly associated with Apollo but sometimes with other gods: as his sister, Artemis is suited to receive such a tribute. But the paean usually has positive associations (or at least expresses a hope that misfortune will be averted); in this context it must be a distorted version, replacing lamentation. On all aspects of the paean see Ian Rutherford, Pindar’s Paeans (Oxford and New York 2002), part 1, esp. pp. 108–26 on the tragic paean (p. 115 on this passage).
72. Hail her …: The extensive echoes of Iphigenia’s song in this choral passage make it probable that lines 1510–31 are a later pastiche composed in imitation of 1475ff.
73. a fame that will never die: Even if the preceding section is genuine, the remaining part of the play is generally regarded as spurious. It is not clear whether Euripides himself composed a conclusion, or whether it followed or would have followed the same lines (see pp. 174–5). Some parts of the existing ending display such linguistic and metrical weaknesses that they must have been composed at a very late date (Byzantine times?). See further M. L. West, ‘Tragica V’, Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies 28 (1981), pp. 61–78, esp. pp. 73–6, who sets out the faulty details (pp. 74–5) and argues that 1546–77 are a passable imitation of Euripides, based on the description of Polyxena’s sacrifice in Hecabe 521–64, while 1578–1629 are inadequate in so many ways that they must have been composed at some point between the fourth and seventh centuries AD. The motive for the addition of this material may well have been that the play came at the end of a codex in which the final pages were lost or damaged.
74. unless my memory stumbles … tongue in the telling: The messenger’s uncertainty can be paralleled in other dramas: see I. J. F. de Jong, Narrative in Drama: the Art of the Euripidean Messenger-speech (Mnemosyne Suppl.116, Leiden 1991), pp. 9–14 on limitations on the messenger’s knowledge or understanding.
75. spinner of your shining beams by kindly night: Artemis is here treated as a moon goddess. D. Kovacs, ‘Towards a Reconstruction’, p. 98 n. 73 regards this as a further sign of the late date of this section.
76. Bitter anguish was filling my heart: For the messenger’s personal emotion see I.J. F. de Jong, Narrative in Drama, pp. 106–16.
77. a deer was lying on the ground: The substitution of a deer for the human victim is a traditional part of the legend: it figures already in the epic Cypria and in Hesiod fragment 23. On the similarity to the tale of Abraham and Isaac see A. Henrichs, in Le Sacrifice dans l’ antiquité, Fondation Hardt Entretiens 27 (Vandoeuvres-Geneva 1981), pp. 195–242. The Greek version is more sombre, as the human disappears anyway: although Calchas and the messenger may declare that she has joined the gods, Clytemnestra does not seem convinced. There will be no doubt, however, that Agamemnon’s behaviour has left lasting resentment that will bear bitter fruit on his eventual return.
As explained above, this is not the authentic Euripidean ending. It is likely that the original finished with a deus ex machina appearance by Artemis, from which a few lines are quoted by the late author Aelian (On the nature of animals 7.39, printed as fragment i on p. 422 of Diggle’s Oxford text). The quoted words are: ‘I shall place a horned deer in the Greeks’ own hands; sacrificing it they will boast that they are sacrificing your daughter.’ The speech must have been addressed to Clytemnestra.
The authenticity of the fragment has been questioned, but on no very solid grounds. The argument of D. Kovacs (‘Towards a Reconstruction’, p. 98) that in Euripides’ play Iphigenia did truly die at the altar is not persuasive.
78. My child …: Lines 1615–20 are a poor effort at anapaests, lines 1627–9 (the closing choral tag) an ‘unconvincing snatch of “lyric” ’ (M. L. West, ‘Tragica V’; his article gives more detail).
79. new-born calf of ours: This refers to the infant Orestes.
1. CHORUS: The text of the play begins with the entry of the chorus. This is not unparalleled in tragedy (especially in the early period), but it is unusual in Euripides (to judge from the surviving works) and unlikely in an imitator of his style. Ancient scholars knew of more than one prologue in iambic trimeters which they associated with this play. It is at least possible that an authentic prologue has been lost (as argued by W. Ritchie, The Authenticity of the Rhesus of Euripides (Cambridge 1964), pp. 104–13 (henceforth cited as ‘Ritchie’)).
2. the fearful whip of Pan: Sudden alarm and unexplained excitement were sometimes associated with divine intervention and particularly that of Pan (hence ‘panic’). Cf. Medea 1171–3. Pan is in fact Cronos’ great-grandson (being son of Hermes, son of Zeus, son of Cronos).
3. The Greek army has been kindling watchfires: In Homer it is the Trojans who kindle fires on the plain and cause dismay among the Greeks.
4. including Dolon: It is not certain how many people come on with Aeneas, and whether Dolon is among them, but this seems a plausible reconstruction. It would be unusual in tragedy for a named character to enter as part of an anonymous group (here a company of soldiers) and only later to emerge as an individual; but there are so many unique features to this play that we can hardly rule it out. The alternative is to have him appear from the wings at Hector’s call for volunteers. See Ritchie, pp. 113–15.
5. AENEAS: Aeneas, most famous in later times for his role in the Roman foundation-legends, is already a figure of considerable stature in the Iliad. There he is a reliable fighter but not up to Hector’s standard. In this scene he acts as a foil to Hector: his prudent counsel balances Hector’s rash optimism. The poet is imitating the scenes in the Iliad in which the more pessimistic Polydamas acts as ‘wise adviser’, urging caution on Hector (see especially Iliad 18.243–313). See Ritchie, pp. 66ff.
6. son of Peleus: This of course means Achilles, the most dangerous fighter on the Greek side, who will eventually kill Hector. According to the plot of the Iliad he has withdrawn from the battle at this stage, furious with the treatment he has received from Agamemnon. This is mentioned later in the play (491–5) but ignored here. Perhaps the audience is meant to recall Achilles’ declaration in Homer that he will resume fighting only when the fire reaches his own ships (9.650–5).
7. the son of Oileus: The lesser Ajax, one of the Greek warriors of the second rank. It is not clear why Hector mentions him as opposed to any other leader. Indeed, the previous exchange might have been thought to have disposed of this topic. Perhaps 175–6 should be deleted.
8. your desire for these horses matches my own: In the Iliad Dolon makes the same request, which is overconfident in two ways: he assumes that he will survive the expedition, and that the Trojans will win the war. Both hopes are misguided. The horses of Achilles figure several times in Homer, in memorable scenes (especially Iliad 17.426–56, 19.392–424). The idea that Hector himself covets this prize is the dramatist’s invention: Hector’s willingness to forgo it in the public interest shows his nobility.
9. Why, what form of dress will you have other than this?: In Homer Dolon puts on a wolf-skin cloak; here the disguise is taken further, as he envisages creeping around the Greek camp disguised as a wolf. The notion of a full wolf-costume is earlier than Euripides, as can be seen from an Attic red-figure vase-painting now in the Louvre (Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae 3.660ff., plates vol. p. 525, no. 2: early fifth century). For a complex but suggestive argument that the wolf-disguise is a relic of primeval magical rituals whereby confraternities don animal disguises, perhaps as a form of initiation, see L. Gernet, The Anthropology of Ancient Greece (Eng. tr. Baltimore and London 1981), pp. 125–39, ‘Dolon the Wolf’ (originally published 1936).
10. Hermes, master of cheats: Hermes is notoriously a trickster: already in his infancy he stole Apollo’s cattle (see the account in the Homeric Hymn to Hermes). He is thus a suitable patron for those undertaking deception. The name ‘Dolon’ means ‘trick’ or ‘guile’.
11. who built the ancient walls of Troy: Apollo and Poseidon built the walls of Troy for King Laomedon, though he then defrauded them of their reward (Iliad 21.436–57).
12. the ship of state: The image is used in early lyric poetry (notably by Alcaeus, e.g. fragment 326) and is frequent in tragedy: it is extensively deployed in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.
13. where is he now, the man of Mysia: ‘Mysia’ refers to the coastal region of Asia Minor lying between Phrygia to the north and Lydia to the south. The idea is that none of their neighbours should now scorn Trojan valour.
14. speech that was not Greek: An interesting modification of the Homeric picture, where there is no linguistic differentiation between Greeks and Trojans (at Iliad 2.803ff. there is a reference to the multiple languages of the Trojan allies, but this never causes any failure of communication in the poem as a whole). Cf. E. Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-definition through Tragedy (Oxford 1989), pp. 13–17, 19–55. Athens had settlements and a continuing interest in the Thracian region, so that the theatrical audience might well be conscious of the fact that there was a ‘Thracian tongue’.
15. But I have no need … share our toil: This is a new element to the story, introduced as a source of antagonism between Hector and Rhesus. But the hostility is handled rather unsatisfactorily: in the present scene Hector is calmed down by the chorus-leader, and in the next the conflict between the two men evaporates as soon as Rhesus has defended himself. This is not the familiar agonistic style of Euripides.
16. Adrasteia: Another name for the goddess Nemesis, a deity who is thought to observe and punish overconfidence and excessive success.
17. Strymon, who once, whirling in watery form: In a manner frequent in Greek and Latin mythology, the river is treated as both a watery force of nature and an anthropomorphic god. Cf. e.g. Odyssey 11.241ff., where Poseidon ‘lay in the springs of the eddying river’, then engulfs the maiden Tyro in his/its waters and makes love to her.
The run-over of the sentence from strophe to antistrophe is highly unusual in tragedy, and contrary to the practice of Euripides elsewhere: in almost all cases stanzas of odes are syntactically self-contained. This is one of the strongest arguments for non-Euripidean authorship.
18. You have come to me as Zeus the bringer of light: This highly honorific language seems to anticipate the reverential treatment of living mortals in ruler-cult (first clearly attested for the Spartan Lysander in the late fifth century BC). Cf. 385ff. below. In the world of tragedy this hyperbolic style would probably suggest to the audience that the addressee is rising too high and likely to meet with disaster (cf. the acclamation of Heracles’ triumph in Euripides’ Heracles).
19. a burden most welcome: The meaning is that the opponents of Rhesus will be buried in Trojan soil.
20. Son of the songstress mother: In the Iliad allies of the Trojans sometimes find fault with Hector (5.471ff., 17.140ff.). Here the reverse is the case.
21. Indeed you were a minor princeling: The poet adds colourful background and introduces a debt of gratitude which Rhesus should have kept in mind: we cannot prove that the details of Hector’s aid to Rhesus were novel in this play, but it seems probable. This kind of elaboration of the bare mythical record is very much in the Euripidean manner.
22. in bottomless cups: Greeks regarded Thracians as excessively heavy drinkers. Cf. Xenophon, Anabasis 7.31.21–33, Plato, Laws 637d.
23. a single dawning of the sun: The version recounted by Pindar (see Preface to this play) allowed Rhesus one day of fighting on which he swept all before him; it was on the following night that he was killed by the Greek spies. This version may be in the dramatist’s mind at this point. But it also characterizes Rhesus as bold to the point of overconfidence (like Dolon, and indeed Hector himself).
24. Then there is Odysseus, a cunning piece of craftsmanship …: On the negative portrayal of Odysseus in most tragedies, see W. B. Stanford, The Ulysses Theme (2nd edn Oxford 1963), pp. 102ff. Obviously this account prepares for his appearance a little later in the play, which the audience familiar with Iliad 10 will already be anticipating.
Hector refers to the following deeds of Odysseus. (1) He sneaked into Troy and managed to steal the Palladion, a cult image of Pallas Athena, doing so because the Greeks had learned of a prophecy that Troy could not fall as long as this object remained within her walls. Diomedes was his companion in this exploit too. The episode was included in the lost early epic poem known as the Little Iliad. (2) On another occasion Odysseus entered Troy disguised as a beggar, on a spying mission, and left after killing many Trojans. This is mentioned in the Odyssey (4.242ff.). (3) For the reference to staging an ambush, compare Odyssey 14.468ff. (a narrative of Odysseus about a night expedition during the war).
25. the nightingale … slaughtered brood: A particularly grim and horrific myth, often referred to in poetry and dramatized by Sophocles in his lost Tereus. Tereus married Procne, but lusted after her sister Philomela. He cunningly trapped Philomela and raped her, then cut out her tongue to protect himself; but she wove her experience as an image in an embroidery and so revealed the truth to her sister. In revenge Procne killed and chopped up her son by Tereus, Itys, and fed him to her husband (a variant on the Thyestean feast). All three were eventually turned into birds, Procne becoming the nightingale, whose song is regarded as a perpetual lament for her son (cf. Aeschylus, Suppliants 60ff., and often elsewhere). The canonical narrative version is that of Ovid, Metamorphoses6.426–674 (which strongly influenced Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus). The Latin poets tend to identify the nightingale with Philomela – oddly, since in human form she had lost her power of speech.
26. The CHORUS leave the orchestra: For the chorus to depart in mid-play is unusual but not unparalleled: it occurs also in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Alcestis and Helen. For discussion see O. Taplin, The Stagecraft of Aeschylus(Oxford 1977), pp. 375–81, 384–7.
27. ODYSSEUS and DIOMEDES enter: Obviously the chorus go out along one exit from the theatrical space, the two Greeks enter by another. It appears from 591–3 that they have spoils from Dolon with them, probably including the wolf-skin (but it is unlikely that Odysseus is actually wearing it, as Ritchie suggests). The characterization of the Greeks as hyper-cautious and timid until egged on by Athena provides a contrast not only with their efficient energy in the Iliad but also with the overconfidence of the Trojans and Rhesus.
28. The goddess ATHENA suddenly speaks … stage-building: On how scenes of this kind were staged, see D. J. Mastronarde, Actors on High: the Skene-Roof, the Crane and the Gods in Attic Drama’, Classical Antiquity 9 (1990), pp. 247–94. The appearance of a deity in mid-play is unusual, though Euripides’ Heracles offers a parallel (Madness and Iris), and Sophocles’ Niobe seems to have involved a mid-play epiphany of Apollo and Artemis. The present scene has a number of oddities, however: it seems that the humans can only hear Athena, not see her (because it is night?). It is sometimes said that this is also the case in the prologue to Sophocles’ Ajax, but this is not a plausible interpretation of that scene. Furthermore, she later assumes the role (and voice?) of Aphrodite in order to deceive Paris (a superfluous sequence, since Paris has no other part to play in the story). In the Iliad Dolon, not Athena, told the Greek spies about Rhesus.
29. If he lives through this night to see tomorrow: The ancient scholia (commentaries) on Homer report a version according to which Rhesus would be invincible once he spent a night in Troy and once his horses had fed on the Trojan plain and drunk of the rivers of Troy. The story is alluded to by Virgil (Aeneid 1.472–3). B. Fenik, Iliad 10 and the Rhesus: the Myth (Brussels 1964), has argued that this version was earlier than the Rhesus and that these lines reveal knowledge of it. Alternatively they have been seen as giving rise to the story (so Ritchie, p. 64).
30. Alexandros: Alexandros is another name for Paris, who abducted Helen and caused the war. Athena refers below to her hatred of Paris: this is because he adjudicated in the beauty-contest among the three goddesses, the ‘Judgement of Paris’, and chose Aphrodite (‘the Cyprian’): see 647–8, and notes 31 and 62 to Iphigenia at Aulis. Hence Paris is befriended by Aphrodite, and will naturally trust a voice he supposes to be hers. This gives the poet the opportunity to introduce ironic ambiguities (see 665–7).
31. it is not ordained … die at your hands: Paris will eventually be killed by Philoctetes, using the bow of Heracles.
32. You two, whose eagerness has gone too far …: The staging of this sequence is not clear. Either Odysseus (and Diomedes?) reappear on stage in time to hear Athena’s words, or, more probably, they are still offstage, engaged in slaughtering Rhesus’ men, and she is to be thought of as projecting a warning to them, since a god’s voice can be heard from afar by supernatural means (cf. Iphigeneia among the Taurians 1385ff. and 1446ff.). If the latter is right, Odysseus will dash on stage as soon as Athena has withdrawn, with the chorus in hot pursuit. Whether Diomedes reappears or not is uncertain; at any rate, he says nothing. Possibly he is to be thought of as minding Rhesus’ horses some distance away. The horses will surely not have been brought on stage, and they can hardly have been abandoned temporarily.
The rapid entry of the chorus in pursuit and shouting ‘Pelt him, pelt him!’ resembles comedy rather than tragedy: compare especially Aristophanes, Acharnians 204ff.
33. Once before he came to our city: On this episode see note 24 above.
34. The CHARIOTEER of Rhesus enters, wounded: This is a kind of messenger-scene, but unusual in concept and construction. Normally a messenger, however moved or grief-stricken by events, is not personally involved, whereas here the man who brings the news is himself among the wounded. Moreover, the charioteer sings on first entry (this is of course expressive of his grief and pain); only at 756 does he revert to trimeters. Second, although he gives an accurate account, as far as he is able, of what has happened, the charioteer places a completely false interpretation on the events: he supposes that Rhesus has been the victim of Hector’s treachery. It is presumably for this reason that he does not wait for Hector to arrive before giving his report.
The narrative is an elaborated version of the scene in the Doloneia. See Iliad 10.471ff. The ominous dream that disturbs the charioteer is much more briefly referred to there, and is given to Rhesus (497ff.).
35. for the nightmare roused me: Cf. Iliad 10.514ff., where Apollo, indignant at the killings prompted by Athena, causes Rhesus’ cousin Hippocoon to awaken: ‘and on emerging from sleep, when he saw the deserted space where the swift horses had stood, and the men gasping amid cruel bloodshed, he groaned aloud and called out the name of his dear comrade’.
36. surely it was then they came: This is not the case, and seems to be an effort on the chorus’s part to protect themselves by misleading or misrepresenting the facts to Hector. Choral deception of a character is paralleled e.g. in Euripides’ Helen 1619ff., where the chorus-leader tries to pull the wool over Theoclymenus’ eyes.
37. unless some god had kept telling the killers?: The charioteer puts this explanation forward with dismissive scorn, but the audience recognizes the unconscious description of Athena’s role in the action.
38. THE MUSE appears … RHESUS: A deus ex machina ends the majority of Euripides’ authentic plays. Often the god’s intervention is necessary because the action has become so tangled or the conflicts so acute that they cannot be resolved on the human plane: a god is needed to ‘cut the knot’. This is not the case here: all that the Muse does is make clear that the charioteer’s accusations were unjustified (and he is no longer present to learn this). Much more important is the pathetic impact of the divine parent mourning her dead son. The miniature monody from a divinity is unparalleled, though it may have had precedent in some earlier tragic representation of Thetis, Achilles’ mother (Aeschylus, fragment 350, preserves part of a spoken lament by Thetis). Her lamentation for her son played a major part in some of the early epics and is reflected even in the Iliad, where Achilles still lives (see especially 18.50–64). The model of Thetis is an important influence on the portrayal of the Muse here (as 976ff. effectively acknowledge). For the presentation above the stage of mother and dead child cf. and contrast Medea 1317ff., where Medea plays the deusrole.
It is noteworthy that the two divinities, the Muse and Athena, are the only female characters in the play. Athena’s martial support for the Greeks and its destructive effect are contrasted with the Muse’s maternal love and (below) her cultural gifts. Athena of course is a virgin goddess and has no children. This opposition is one of the most effective features of the play.
On the questions of staging see Mastronarde, ‘Actors on High’ (note 28); on the question which actors sing and why, see E. Hall, ‘Actor’s Song in Greek Tragedy’, in S. Goldhill and R. Osborne (eds.), Performance Culture and Athenian Democracy (Cambridge 1999), pp. 96–122 at 97, 108, 111 .
39. one of the sisterhood of Muses: The Homeric commentator who summarizes Pindar’s poem (see Preface to this play) says that Rhesus’ mother was the Muse Euterpe; in this play she is unnamed.
40. the finest son a mother ever bore: Here too the poet pays tribute to the Iliad’s presentation of Thetis (at 18.54 she describes herself in closely similar language as ‘unhappy mother of the finest of sons’).
41. her too, I curse, who left her home in Greece and sailed here: The Muse refers to Helen. Condemnation of Helen’s selfish infidelity is a cliché of tragedy, e.g. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 62, 225, 448, 681ff., Euripides Andromache 590–69, Iphigenia among the Taurians 356, 438ff., or Orestes126ff. and often later in that play. The more compassionate note which we find in Homer is rare in later literature (though Sappho, fragment 16, is a significant exception).
42. Son of Philammon: The son of Philammon is Thamyris, a Thracian poet who was foolish enough to challenge the Muses to a singing contest. Such ambitious challenges by mortals inevitably end in disaster: the Muses not only emerged as victors but punished him with blindness. The story is briefly related in the Iliad (2.594–600); Homer does not mention Philammon, and we may assume that other poets had developed the theme. For Strymon’s ‘potent embrace’ see 348–54.
43. since I knew your fate: Again the parallel with Thetis and Achilles is evident (see e.g. Iliad 1.414ff., 18.436ff.).
44. And yet we sister Muses … utmost kindness: Indirect compliments to Athens are often introduced in tragedy (e.g. in the Trojan Women the captives hope that they will be sent in slavery to Athens, not Sparta!). This is a particularly ingenious example. For Athens as a land favoured by the Muses see Medea 824ff. Orpheus, the mythical singer, was the son of either Apollo or Oeagrus and one of the Muses (Calliope according to Apollonius); hence he is Rhesus’ cousin. As one who had journeyed to the underworld and returned, Orpheus was thought to have special knowledge of life and death, and so he was thought to have founded ‘mysteries’ which were often associated with those of Dionysus and Demeter. For other references see Aristophanes, Frogs 1032, Plato, Republic2.365–6. Musaeus, another early culture-hero, has a name that suggests a connection with the Muses, and is often paired with Orpheus: Aristophanes in the same passage of Frogs describes him as bringing medical cures and oracles to mankind. He was said to have been the father of Eumolpus, the first priest of the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone at Eleusis. Thus Athens is glorified firstly as a city of culture, but still more as a centre of religion. On mystery-religions see W. Burkert, Greek Religion (Eng. tr. Oxford 1985), pp. 296–301, and the same author’s Ancient Mystery Cults (Oxford 1987).
45. this much shall I ask of the maid who dwells below: She means Persephone, consort of Hades and queen of the dead. There was a general inhibition about naming her: hence ‘the maid’.
46. she owes it to me to show that she honours the family of Orpheus: Presumably because Orpheus is thought to have instructed mankind in the mysteries of Demeter and Persephone.
47. Yet, hidden in a cavern of the silver-veined earth shall he lie …: A remarkable passage. As in many of the authentic plays, the god proclaims a cult for which the events of the drama provide an aetiology (narrative of origin). The Muse seems to be predicting that Rhesus will attain ‘heroic’ status, less than divine but receiving worship and possessing supernatural powers, like Oedipus at the end of the Oedipus at Colonus. On hero-cult see further W. Burkert, Greek Religion, pp. 199–208. Mount Pangaeum was a site of Bacchic worship (Herodotus 7.111–12), but there is no other reference to Rhesus being honoured there alongside Dionysus. The only other notable reference to Rhesus, in the much later author Polyaenus, refers to the Athenian general Hagnon bringing his bones from Troy to Amphipolis in 437/6 BC and burying them near the Strymon, an act which may imply he regarded the bones as having some symbolic or talismanic power (compare the recovery by the Spartans of the bones of Orestes, Herodotus 1.67–8). The Strymon runs down from Mount Pangaeum past Amphipolis (cf. 916–22). The poet may have modified a traditional aetiology; he is most unlikely to have invented it.
48. O what sorrows accompany child-bearing: Another tragic commonplace. Cf. Medea 1090ff.
49. forcing my way through the trench … I will fire their ships: After the wholly unhomeric scene with the Muse, the plot-line of the Iliad is resumed: Hector and the Trojans breach the Greeks’ defensive trench and wall in book 12, and are fighting by the ships at the end of book 15; the first of the ships is set on fire at 16.112ff. It is at that point that Patroclus, dressed in Achilles’ armour, enters the battle and turns the tide.
50. may grant victory: There is presumably an ambiguity here: within the play the soldiers hope for military success; in the world of the theatre, the chorus hope for success in the dramatic contest. This kind of double meaning is more effective than the spurious endings of Phoenician Womenand Orestes, where the dramatic illusion is broken completely.