Main Text


i. euripides and his tradition

Many of Euripides' most striking dramas have not even survived. The most scandalous, perhaps, was his Aeolus, notoriously portraying brother-sister incest leading to childbirth and suicide. The most bizarre may have been his Cretans, featuring Queen Pasiphaë's adulterous affair with a bull. But the most beautiful was held to be Andromeda, in which the Ethiopian princess, chained to a rock as a meal for a sea-monster, was rescued by the aerial epiphany of the winged hero Perseus.

According to the comic playwright Aristophanes, Andromeda was so delightful that it was the preferred recreational reading of Dionysus, the god of theatre himself (Frogs 53), and its fragments reveal an appealing concoction not unlike Iphigenia among the Taurians: it added the theatricality of exotic spectacle and song to emotive pathos and suspense, and distinctively 'novelistic' elements such as adventure, intrigue, an emotional reunion, and a barbarian setting. Yet Alexander the Great, no professional actor, is supposed to have been able to perform a whole episode of Andromeda off by heart, and did so at his last supper (Athenaeus, Deipnosophists 12.537d–e); the single most significant reason for Euripides' astonishing ancient popularity was really the accessible and memorable poetry in which his characters expressed themselves. Princesses and paupers, demi-gods and warriors, practitioners of incest, bestiality, human sacrifice and murder: he made them all 'speak like human beings' (see Aristophanes, Frogs 1058).

The Greeks and Romans were passionate about Euripides. A character in a comedy announced that he would be prepared to hang himself for the sake of seeing this (dead) tragedian (Philemon fr. 118).1 Aristotle's formalist discussion of tragedy complains about Euripides' use of the deus ex machina, his unintegrated choruses, and the 'unnecessary' villainy of some of his characters. Yet even Aristotle conceded that Euripides was 'the most tragic of the poets', pg xmeaning that he was the best at eliciting pity and fear.2 Besides Euripides' impact on the literature of succeeding generations—especially Menander, Ennius, Virgil, Ovid, Seneca, and oratory—his plays are everywhere apparent in the visual culture of the Mediterranean. Homer apart, no author stimulated the arts more; the Romans painted Euripides' scenes on their walls and carved them on their sarcophagi; the Byzantines commissioned elaborate mosaics keeping his pagan myths alive in the visual imagination of Christendom. Touching scenes from the two Iphigenia plays were popular choices.

The nineteenth-century scholar Benjamin Jowett said Euripides was 'no Greek in the better sense of the term',3 for after his revivification in the Renaissance Euripides often suffered by comparison with the structural perfection, 'purity', and 'Hellenic' spirit perceived in his rival Sophocles. This is, however, to oversimplify the complex and largely unwritten story of Euripidean reception and performance. Iphigenia among the Taurians was much imitated in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most importantly by Goethe in his Iphigenie (completed in 1787). Iphigenia at Aulis has always been popular. It was the first Greek tragedy to receive the honour of a vernacular English translation, by Lady Jane Lumley (1558). It inspired one of the most influential of all neoclassical adaptations, Racine's Iphigénie en Aulide of 1674. Today it is most widely known through Michael Cacoyannis's atmospheric cinematic version of 1976, often held to be the best film based on a Greek tragedy ever made. Both Iphigenia plays have inspired numerous operas, the best of which were Christoph Gluck's Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) and Iphigénie en Tauride (1779). Gluck's aim was to reform his medium by reflecting in continuous music an authentic Greek dramatic style. The bloodthirsty maenads of Bacchae, on the other hand, repelled readers until well into the nineteenth century, but once Nietzsche had reopened the question of Dionysus' relationship to the theatre in The Birth of Tragedy (1872), the play became extremely fashionable. Bacchae underlies Bernard Shaw's Major Barbara,4 and is now frequently performed. Its ecsta-pg xitic choruses have also inspired several twentieth-century operas, most importantly Hans Werner Henze's Bassarids of 1966 (on the libretto of which W. H. Auden collaborated), and ballets choreographed by such important figures as Diaghilev (1912) and Martha Graham (1933). Rhesus, on the other hand, written almost certainly not by Euripides but by an unknown tragedian in the fourth century bce, has been neglected in both academe and on the modern stage.

Yet the twentieth century has smiled on Euripides more than any era since antiquity. One reason is his approach to myth, which has been characterized as subversive, experimental, playful, and eccentric in an identifiably modern way. Although he has occasionally been seen as a formalist or mannerist, the term 'irony' dominates criticism. 'Irony' is taken to describe Euripides' polytonality—his ability to write in two simultaneous keys. This 'irony', however, is conceived in more than one way: sometimes it describes the hypocritical gap between the rhetorical postures Euripidean characters adopt and their true motives. Alternatively it defines the confrontation of archaic myths with the values of democratic Athens, a process which deglamorizes violence, casting heroic revenge narratives as sordid 'gangland killings'.5

Another reason for Euripides' modern popularity is that his supple and multi-faceted works easily adapt to the agendas of different interpreters. Euripides has been an existentialist, a psychoanalyst, a proto-Christian with a passionate hunger for 'righteousness', an idealist and humanist, a mystic, a rationalist, an irrationalist, and an absurdist nihilist. But perhaps the most tenacious Euripides has been the pacifist feminist.

'Radical' Euripides was born in the first decade of this century with Gilbert Murray as midwife. This famous liberal scholar, later Chairman of the League of Nations, initiated in Edwardian London a series of performances of Euripides in his own English translations. Trojan Women (1905) was interpreted by some as a retrospective indictment of the concentration camps in which the British had starved women and children during the Boer War: as a result of Medea (1907), the heroine's monologue on the plight of women (see § viii) was recited at suffragette meetings. A prominent suffragette, Lillah McCarthy, daringly took the role of Dionysus in Bacchae in pg xii1908, and subsequently of Iphigenia in Iphigenia among the Taurians (1912). Murray's political interpretations of Euripides, developed in performance, found academic expression in Euripides and his Age (1913). This book has fundamentally conditioned all subsequent interpretation, whether by imitation or reaction. A decade later Euripides' radicalism had become apocalyptic: 'not Ibsen, not Voltaire, not Tolstoi ever forged a keener weapon in defence of womanhood, in defiance of superstition, in denunciation of war, than the Medea, the Ion, the Trojan Women'.6

ii. euripides the athenian

What would Euripides have made of his modern incarnations? The reliable external biographical information amounts to practically nothing. No dependable account of Euripides' own views on politics, women, or war survives, unless we are arbitrarily to select speeches by characters in his plays as the cryptic 'voice of Euripides'. Aristophanes and the other contemporary Athenian comic poets, who wrote what is now known as 'Old Comedy', caricatured Euripides as a cuckolded greengrocer's son, but their portrait offers little more truth value than a scurrilous cartoon.

The problem is not any dearth of evidence but a dearth of factual veracity. The student of Euripides has access to a late antique 'Life' (Vita) and a fragmentary third-century biography by Satyrus. There are also the so-called 'Letters of Euripides', a collection of five dull epistles purporting to be addressed to individuals such as Archelaus (king of Macedon) and Sophocles, but actually written in the first or second century ce. Collectively these documents provide the first example in the European tradition of the portrait of an alienated artist seeking solace in solitude. This Euripides is a misogynist loner with facial blemishes who worked in a seaside cave on the island of Salamis, and retired to voluntary exile in Macedon as a result of his unpopularity. Unfortunately, however, this poignant portrait is demonstrably a fiction created out of simplistic inferences from Euripides' own works or from the jokes in Athenian comedy. Beyond what is briefly detailed below, the only aspect of the 'Euripides myth' almost certain to be true is that he possessed a large personal library (see Aristophanes, Frogs 943, 1049).

pg xiiiEuripides' lifespan was almost exactly commensurate with that of democratic Athens's greatness. He was born in about 485 bce, and was therefore a small boy when the city was evacuated and his compatriots defeated the second Persian invasion in 480 bce. He spent his youth and physical prime in the thriving atmosphere of the 460s and 450s, a period which saw the consolidation of Athens's empire and position as cultural centre of the Greek-speaking world. He wrote at least eighty plays, and possibly ninety-two. Nineteen have been transmitted from antiquity under his name. Of these, Rhesus is probably not by Euripides himself, and Cyclops is a satyr play (a comic version of a heroic myth sporting a chorus of sex-starved satyrs). Euripides first competed in the drama competition in 455 bce, was victorious in 441, won again in 428 with the group including Hippolytus, and posthumously (in 405?) with Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis.

Besides the un-Euripidean Rhesus, all the plays in this volume date from the last decade of his life. Iphigenia among the Taurians was almost certainly first performed between 415 and 412, at least sixteen years after the outbreak in 431 of the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and her rival Sparta over hegemony in the Aegean. If it was performed in 412, with the similar Helen and Andromeda, it dates from the year after the worst Athenian disaster ever: the fleet and many thousands of men were lost at Syracuse in Sicily after an attempt to extend Athenian imperial influence. Thucydides, near-contemporary of Euripides and author of the History of the Peloponnesian War, saw the significance of the calamity (7.87): it was 'the greatest action of this war, and, in my view, the greatest action that we know of in Greek history. To its victors it was the most brilliant of successes, to the vanquished the most catastrophic of defeats'. Athens never fully recovered from this blow to her morale and her resources, and in 404, the year after the probable first production of Bacchae and Iphigenia in Aulis, lost the war, her empire, and (briefly) her democracy and her pride.

It is tempting to speculate on Euripides' own reaction to these unfolding events. There are heartbreaking dramatizations of the effects of military conflict in Trojan Women (415) and Iphigenia at Aulis (?405), which confronts its audience with warlords justifying unspeakable atrocities under pressure in time of war. These unforgettable plays however lend no substantial support to the widely pg xivheld view that Euripides, after initially supporting Athenian expansionism, despaired and retreated from the contemporary scene as the promoters of war became more powerful. It may be that truth lies behind the biographical tradition that he spent his last two years at the Macedonian court of Pella, supposedly writing plays including Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis; it may be that the very existence of the 'Macedonian exile' tradition reveals Euripides' anti-democratic sympathies. On the other hand the lack of evidence for a political career, in contrast with Sophocles' attested appointments to high office, may suggest a neutral emotional detachment from public affairs. But Euripides was clearly engaged with the intellectual and ethical questions which the war had asked and which underlay the policy debates in the Athenian assembly. For these appear in disguise in his tragedies: the arguments used by the characters in Iphigenia at Aulis for and against the plan to sacrifice the princess confront notions of patriotism, pragmatism, expediency, and force majeure with the ideals of loyalty, equity, justice, and clemency. This ethical conflict echoes repeatedly the chilling debates in Thucydides which decided the fates—usually death or slavery—of the citizens of rebel states on both sides in the Peloponnesian War, including Mytilene, Melos, and Plataea.

One certainty is that Euripides, intellectually, was a child of his time. Every significant field studied by the professional intellectuals ('sophists') in contemporary Athens surfaces in his tragedies: ontology, epistemology, philosophy of language, moral and political theory, medicine, psychology, and cosmology. There is thus a kind of truth in Aulus Gellius' statement that Euripides studied Physics with Anaxagoras, rhetoric with Prodicus, and moral philosophy with Socrates (Noctes Atticae 15.20.4); in the first version of Aristophanes' Clouds (fr. 401) it was even alleged that Socrates provided Euripides with the ideas for his clever tragedies! And Euripidean characters certainly adopt the new philosophical methods: they subtly argue from probability and relativism, and formulate their points as antilogy, proof, and refutation.

iii. euripides in performance

Most Euripidean tragedies were first performed at an annual festival in honour of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, dancing, and theatrical illusion, who is the protagonist of Euripides' most obviously pg xv'Dionysiac' tragedy, Bacchae. The Great Dionysia was held in the spring when sailing became feasible. It was opened by a religious procession in which a statue of Dionysus was installed in the theatre, along with sacrifices and libations. Yet the Dionysia was also a political event. It affirmed the Athenian citizenry's collective identity as a democratic body with imperial supremacy: front seats were reserved for distinguished citizens, and only Athenians could perform the prestigious benefaction of sponsorship (chorēgia). For the spectators included representatives from the allied states which made up the Athenian empire. They displayed their tribute in the theatre, where they also witnessed a display by the city's war orphans. The plays were expected to befit this audience: insulting Athens at the Dionysia may have been a prosecutable offence (Aristophanes, Acharnians 501–6). It is not certain whether women attended the drama competitions, although most scholars assume that, if women were present at all, it was in small numbers, perhaps including only important priestesses.

The tragedies were performed over three successive days in groups by three poets: each poet offered three tragedies plus one satyr play. In 431 bce, for example, Euripides took third place with three tragedies (Medea, Philoctetes, and Dictys), followed by a satyr play called Theristai, 'Reapers': the other two competitors were Euphorion (Aeschylus' son), who won first prize, and Sophocles, the runner-up. The plays were judged by a panel of democratically selected citizens, and care was taken to avoid juror corruption, but the audience's noisy applause and heckling influenced the outcome (Plato, Republic 6.492b5–c1).

The plays were performed in the theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Athenian acropolis. Individual actors probably performed their speeches and songs most of the time on the stage (skēnē), while the chorus of twelve sang and danced to forgotten steps and gestures in the dancing arena (orchēstra). All the performers were male, and all were masked. For performance conventions we have to rely on the characters' words, since the Greeks did not use stage directions. The last two decades have produced important work on the visual dimension and its contribution to the meaning of tragedy: scholarship has focused on physical contact, and on entrances and exits. The evidence for the material resources of the theatre as early as the fifth century is slight, although the poets had access to a machine which permitted the airborne epiphanies ex pg xvimachina, such as Athena at the end of Iphigenia among the Taurians. There was also the ekkuklēma, a contraption allowing bodies to be wheeled out of the doors of the palace or tent forming the 'backdrop' to most surviving tragedies. Vase-paintings offer a stylized reflection of the costumes, masks, and scenery, and some are directly inspired by individual tragedies.

iv. iphigenia among the taurians

Towards the end of his career Euripides became attracted to dramas set in faraway, exotic lands, and thus turned the theatre of Dionysus into a panoramic window onto the barbarian margins of the known world. He may have been consciously reviving one of the traditions of earlier tragedy, for the earliest extant play, Aeschylus' Persians, had in 472 bce thrilled its audience with the oriental setting, costumes, and protocols of the Persian court at Susa. Exactly sixty years later Euripides transported his audience to the Ethiopian coast in his Andromeda, and in Helen to the mouth of the Egyptian Nile; in his (possibly earlier) Iphigenia among the Taurians his spectators could feast their eyes on a barbarian temple, running with the blood of human victims, on the craggy coast of the Crimean peninsula. This is the most remote setting of any Greek tragedy except the Aeschylean Prometheus Bound.

More clearly than any other tragic drama except Euripides' own Helen, Iphigenia among the Taurians reflects the popularity in Athens of the historian and ethnographer Herodotus. His prose treatise on the Persian wars, which had become familiar at Athens in the previous decade, had included a description of the Taurians of the Crimea (4.99, 103). It is this strange people, whose economy rests on cattle farming, whom Euripides brings to life in the theatre. Several details in Herodotus' account reappear in the tragedy, especially the custom of sacrificing shipwrecked sailors and the impalement of victims on stakes (38–41, 1429–30).7 It will probably never be known whether the savage tribes of this area really worshipped, as they do in Euripides, a goddess equivalent to the Greeks' Artemis (Herodotus actually says that they called their maiden goddess 'Iphigenia'). But one of Artemis' Greek titles, Tauropolos pg xvii('bull-hunting'), was aurally sufficiently similar to suggest that Artemis was connected with the Taurians.

This helps to illuminate the invention of the myth which told of Orestes' Black Sea quest for Artemis' ancient cult image, destined to come from the Taurians to Greece. But it is just as important that in his later career Euripides became increasingly interested in what happened to Orestes after he killed his mother; in Electra, in the immediate aftermath of the murder, he suffers feelings of intense self-hatred; in Orestes, in the grip of a nervous breakdown, he is condemned to death by the people of Argos, tries to kill Helen, but is rescued from the angry mob by Apollo. In Iphigenia among the Taurians the same god diverts him to the Black Sea on a quite different mission, the quest for the image of Artemis. In the land of the Taurians he is nearly sacrificed, but is reunited in time with his long-lost sister, and makes good his escape to Greece.

At times the play's atmosphere is not unlike that of 'Westerns' made in the 1950s, where white frontiersmen are taken captive by Red Indians, to face barbaric death and mutilation. Superficially Euripides seems to take every available opportunity to contrast Greek valour with barbarian cowardice, Greek cunning intelligence with barbarian gullibility, and Greek sensibility with barbarian savagery. For some of its spectators it may therefore have offered little more than an escapist romp legitimizing their patriotism and xenophobia. Yet on a deeper level the play presents a greater challenge to unthinking Greek ethnic supremacism than any other text of the fifth century. For the averted catastrophe of the tragedy—the sacrifice of Orestes—is consistently paired in the audience's imaginations with the intended sacrifice of Iphigenia by her Greek father, so long ago at Aulis. The parallelism between the fates of the siblings is repeatedly stressed, forcing the audience to question whether Greek ethics were really so superior. After all, as far as the Taurians were concerned, Orestes was only a shipwrecked sailor: the Greek Agamemnon, on the other hand, had been prepared to authorize the ritual killing of his own beloved daughter. The most explicit questioning of the 'double standard' underlying conventional Greek thinking about the inferiority of other cultures is, strikingly and appropriately, put into the mouth of the barbarian king Thoas: when told that Orestes had murdered his own mother, he exclaims, in horror, 'By Apollo, no one would have dared to do this even among barbarians!' (1174).

pg xviiiScholarship has tended to focus on the play's interest in religious ritual and especially in 'aetiology'—the provision of mythical explanations for religious customs still practised in Euripides' day. For example, the play offers an original explanation for the presence of the cult image of Artemis at her sanctuary at Brauron in Attica. But it also shows how Iphigenia and Orestes, who in today's language are horrifically 'abused' children of a catastrophically dysfunctional family, are enabled by their encounter to come to terms with their psychological trauma, and to avoid re-enacting their family past by transforming it into ritual. Their acquired wisdom allows the substitution of harmless rites for actual atrocity.8

This deeply thoughtful, moving, atmospheric, and humane drama has nevertheless caused critics much consternation, especially during the last two hundred years. Its escapist plot, lack of a catastrophic death or suffering, and happy ending have led it to be classified as a tragicomedy, as a satyric tragedy owing much to the conventions of satyr play, as a burlesque, or as a 'romantic' tragedy. Its enigmatic status has led it to be neglected even more than Helen, which, although not dissimilar, is far more clearly intended to be overtly funny. But the ancients had no such problem with the play; even Aristotle, who preferred unhappy endings, admired the skilfully crafted recognition scene, which involves the fascinating device of Iphigenia's 'letter home'. Aristotle's admiration was deserved: the reunion is not only emotionally touching but in preventing the performance of human sacrifice is integral to the development of the plot. The tragedy was repeatedly performed in later antiquity, becoming familiar enough to inspire a bizarrely parodic Alexandrian mime in which the heroine is stranded among barbarians who speak an ancient dialect of India.9 At Rome the tragedy's celebration of the friendship between Orestes and Pylades was much admired; Cicero's treatise On Friendship records that an audience rose to its feet and applauded spontaneously at the scene in Pacuvius' lost Latin adaptation of the play when Pylades volunteered to die in his friend's place (7.24).

Yet by far the greatest strength of the play undoubtedly lies in its articulate, expressive, brave and intelligent heroine, a charming pg xixcharacter unique amongst the remains of extant Greek tragedy. Euripides' tragedy, astonishingly, makes it easy for his audience—who were almost entirely male—to relate powerfully to the emotional plight of a childless, lonely, exiled woman in at least early middle age, who has never married and (unlike her sister Electra in other plays) certainly never will. In Iphigenia among the Taurians the unlikely figure of a spinsterly older sister has an extraordinary opportunity to confide her innermost thoughts and fears to the assembled citizens of Athens and beyond them to posterity.

v. bacchae

Although a popular play in antiquity (it was a favourite of the emperor Nero), the modern admiration for Bacchae is a relatively recent development. In the late eighteenth century a critic of Greek tragedy could still hardly contain his revulsion, warning his readers that 'the refined delicacy of modern manners will justly revolt against this inhuman spectacle of dramatick barbarity'.10 But the great upsurge of interest in the connections between ancient Greek ritual and myth which developed at the end of the last century drew scholars magnetically to this extraordinary play, and it is now rightly considered one of Euripides' supreme masterpieces.

It has long been debated how far, if at all, the savage rites in Bacchae reflect the 'real' maenadism known to have been practised in antiquity. Yet it is certainly legitimate to see the play as staging a narrative symbiotically connected with the rituals performed in honour of Dionysus, as for Christians the narrative of the Last Supper is inextricably bound up with the ritual breaking of bread and drinking of wine, ceremonial substitutes for the flesh and blood of the sacrificed body of Jesus. The Bacchae includes many elements suggestive of the experience of those participating in Dionysus' mysterious cult: stories relating the birth of the god, odes describing the altered state of consciousness—the sublime state of ekstasis or ecstasy ('standing outside of oneself')—which his cult offers, messenger speeches recounting the Bacchants' collective worship on the mountain of Cithaeron with their ivy-twined branches and dappled fawnskins, the ritual sacrifice of a man whose flesh is pg xxtorn apart, and miracles and epiphanies through which the god manifests himself to mortals.

The cult of Dionysus was regarded by the Greeks as an import from barbarian lands, and the play enacts an ancient myth narrating its problematic arrival at the mainland Greek city of Thebes. The story is one of numerous mythical illustrations of an archaic Greek imperative: those who doubt the power of the gods must be disabused of their disbelief. The royal house of Thebes must be punished because it questioned the divine paternity of Dionysus, its most illustrious offspring. Yet the work is much more than an exemplum of divine prerogative expressed through the consecutive motifs of resistance, punishment, and acceptance. Dionysus is not only the play's protagonist: his drama is a study of his own elusive personality and of his devastating power.

Most Greek tragedy did not treat myths directly involving Dionysus. His connection with the theatre expresses his function as god of altered consciousness, of appearance, and of illusion. In one of the most powerful moments in world theatre Dionysus, himself disguised as a mortal, puts the finishing touches to the Bacchanal disguise of Pentheus, his mortal cousin and adversary, and sends him to the mountains to be dismembered by the women of the city he is supposed to rule. Pentheus is in a Dionysiac trance; he can no longer distinguish between reality and illusion; he is taking on the identity of someone other than himself. This scene self-consciously forces the onlooker into contemplating the experience of watching any performance which entails the impersonation of one being by another. Drama demands that performer and spectator collude in a suspension of the empirically 'real' world, and an involvement in a world that is not really there. Pentheus dresses in a maenad's attire, just as each chorus-member had adopted the costume and mask of a maenad before actuality was forsaken and the drama began; in the original production this also required assuming the identity of the opposite sex, for all the performers would have been male. Bacchae, therefore, can be seen as a meditation on the very experience of theatre; a mimetic enactment of the journey into and out of illusion, the journey over which Dionysus presides in the mysterious fictive worlds he conjures up in his theatre.11

pg xxiThe Greek mind was trained to think in polarities; to categorize, distinguish, and oppose. If the divine personality of Dionysus can be reduced to any one principle, it is the demonstration that conventional logic is an inadequate tool with which to apprehend the universe as a whole. Dionysus confounds reason, defies categorization, dissolves polarities, and inverts hierarchies. He is a youthful god and yet as an immortal, respected by the elderly Cadmus and Teiresias, cannot be defined as young. He is a male god and yet in his perceived effeminacy and special relationship with women cannot be defined as conventionally masculine. Conceived in Thebes yet worshipped abroad he is neither wholly Greek nor barbarian. He conflates the tragic and comic views of life, as the patron deity of both genres. Similarly, his worship can bring both transcendental serenity and repulsive violence: the slaughter of Pentheus, followed by his mother's invitation to the Bacchants to share in the feast, entails three crimes considered by the ancient Greeks to be among the most abominable: human sacrifice, infanticide, and cannibalism. Dionysus may be worshipped illicitly on the wild hillsides of Thebes, but he is also the recipient in Euripides' Athens of a respectable cult at the heart of the city-state: as such, he cannot be defined as the representative of nature in opposition to culture and civilization.12 And in using illusion to reveal the truth he confounds all conventional distinctions between fiction and fact, madness and sanity, falsehood and reality. In Bacchae Dionysus causes the imprisoned to be liberated, the 'rational' to become demented, humans to behave like animals, men to dress as women, women to act like men, and an earthquake physically to force the untamed natural world into the 'safe', controlled, interior world of the household and the city.

Until the last minute, when the deluded Agave appears, Thebes is represented exclusively by males; the beliefs of the 'other', dangerous culture which the disguised Dionysus threatens to introduce have been articulated in the mouths of women. But with the arrival of Agave and her gradual return to 'normal' consciousness, even this binary, gendered opposition is exploded. Here is a Theban woman who once doubted the existence of the god, but who comes to know as she emerges from her Dionysiac mania that in the severed head of her son she bears the physical proof that Dionysus pg xxiiis a living reality in Thebes. The revealed truth is that the denied god, the outsider, the alien, has belonged inside all along.

The transhistorical appeal of Bacchae is partly due to its insusceptibility—appropriate for a Dionysiac text—to any single interpretation. Its portrayal of the unrestrained emotionalism which can lead human crowds into inhuman conduct spoke loud to scholars at the time of the rise of fascism;13 its portrayal of the conflict within Pentheus' psyche has also fascinated psychoanalytical critics. But ultimately the tragedy frustrates all attempts to impose upon it a unitary central 'meaning'. It neither endorses nor repudiates the cult whose arrival in Thebes it narrates. It never did prescribe for its audience a cognitive programme by which to understand an inexplicable universe. It simply enacts one occasion on which the denial, repression, and exclusion of difference—psychological, ethnic, and religious—led to utter catastrophe.

vi. iphigenia at aulis

From pious Abraham and his son Isaac to the tale of Jephthah's sacrifice of his only daughter in the Book of Judges, the motif of the child sacrificed to please divinity has taken various forms in Judaeo-Hellenic tradition. Iphigenia at Aulis is the most detailed and developed literary version of this archetypal myth, but also the one which most calls into question the motives and integrity of the sacrificing parent. One of the most shocking moments in Greek tragedy occurs at the point in Iphigenia at Aulis where Clytemnestra, the heroine's mother, is desperately trying to prevent her husband Agamemnon from carrying out the intended sacrifice. Clytemnestra opens her appeal with the information that Iphigenia is not the first child of hers whom Agamemnon has killed. Clytemnestra says that she married him against her will, after he murdered her first husband, Tantalus, and tore her baby from her breast to dash him to the ground.

In no other tragedian does this information appear: the effect of the nasty little secret which proves that Agamemnon has always been capable of slaughtering innocents in his own self-interest is therefore quite devastating. Euripides has turned a tragedy about Agamemnon's famous dilemma over Iphigenia into one incident in pg xxiiithe life of a self-serving warlord guilty of previous atrocity. But Clytemnestra, in the past and currently a blameless victim of her husband's callousness, goes on in the same speech to imply that if Agamemnon kills Iphigenia he may himself be killed on his return from Troy—that is, she threatens Agamemnon with the plot of Aeschylus' Agamemnon. Even a virtuous and forgiving woman, it is suggested, can be transformed into a vindictive murderess under sufficient pressure. Indeed, almost all the characters are portrayed as strangely wedded to the past, from which they provide narratives to justify a present attitude or action or decision. Yet they also seem curiously conscious of their futures, or at least of the characters they later became according to the mythical and dramatic tradition—an 'intertextual' feature which lends this tragedy a distinctively 'modern' tone. The inclusion in the drama of the tiny baby Orestes, it could be argued, forces the audience to 'remember the future' even as it recalls these characters' past.14

Clytemnestra's future is suggested by her characterization in earlier tragedy, but for the male characters the text against which Iphigenia at Aulis works is, above all, the Iliad. The youthful and naive Achilles of Euripides, for example, is given a trial run at conceiving a great grudge against Agamemnon, a precursor of the 'wrath' which determines the plot of the Iliad, and the Argive king himself is shown vulnerable to the moral weakness and inconsistency which in epic mars his generalship at Troy. The psychological depth with which Euripides treats the familiar story thus makes Iphigenia at Aulis one of his most profound and tragic plays.

Euripides was fascinated by the factors which condition the moral choices made by individuals, and in his tragedies repeatedly explored the dangers inherent in precipitate and unconsidered decision-making. In Hippolytus, for example, the hero's death is caused by his father's hasty decision to curse and exile him without proper deliberation or due legal process. Athenian history provides several examples of similar decisions, especially in time of war: a notorious incident was the Athenian assembly's furious decision in 427 bce summarily to execute all the male inhabitants of Mytilene, a decision they revoked the very next day after a 'sudden change of heart' (Thucydides 3.36). This resulted in a desperate race against time as one trireme chased another across the Aegean sea. Iphigenia at Aulis pg xxivuses myth to stage a not dissimilar occasion during a military crisis when several members of the same family took and rescinded hasty decisions about the life of an innocent girl.

Aristotle notoriously complained about the 'inconsistent' characterization of Iphigenia, whose understandable rejection of the plan to sacrifice her is subsequently replaced by a passionate death-wish (Poetics 1454a26). It has occasionally been proposed, in defence of Euripides, that Iphigenia's predicament has virtually driven her mad.15 But Iphigenia is only imitating the male characters in her own play. Agamemnon has summoned her to be sacrificed, changes his mind at the beginning of the play, but is incapable of sticking to the better moral course when Iphigenia's arrival forces his hand: fear of his own army's reaction prevents him from rescinding the authorization of the sacrifice. Menelaus changes his mind no less dramatically, emotionally rejecting his earlier 'rational' view that Iphigenia's sacrifice was an unfortunate necessity when he sees his brother's distress. Even Achilles, who longs to prove his heroic stature and defend Iphigenia against the army, allows her to persuade him that she really wants to die. Is it so surprising that a young girl should be swayed by the militaristic ideology of the community in which she finds herself, when the strongest warriors in Greece are incapable of real moral reflection or maintaining a consistent moral position?

One school of interpretation used to insist that the tragedy offered an uncomplicated patriotic celebration of a Greek heroine's selfless heroism in offering herself for immolation on the altar of her country. It is of course true that women were regarded as inferior to men in Euripides' day, and that war against the barbarians of Asia would not have been seen in itself as morally problematic. There might well have been a warm glow in the theatre when Iphigenia declares that she is happy to die because 'it is right that the Greeks should rule barbarians, mother, and not barbarians Greeks' (1400–1). Yet the overall impression made by the play is of a community in absolute moral crisis. The prospect of Iphigenia's death is unbearably moving, but it is inseparable from the tragedy's portrayal of the volatile, unreflective Greek mob, manipulated by the sinister, unseen Odysseus, and above all the hypocrisy, self-justification, self-delusion, and cynical duplicity (underscored by the motif pg xxvof the fraudulent letter) practised by its leaders. Iphigenia's real problem is how to die nobly in an ignoble cause for the sake of thoroughly ignoble men.

Euripides did not write the whole text of the play as it stands. It may be relevant that it was produced posthumously by his son, who possibly completed or rewrote it. There is a question mark over Agamemnon's 'delayed' prologue, positioned after the opening dialogue; there are also several spurious passages scattered throughout the play, probably interpolated by actors after the fifth century. But by far the most significant interpolation begins with the appearance of the second messenger, or at least at that part of his speech which reports the disappearance of Iphigenia, whisked away by Artemis, and the substitution of a deer. This comforting alternative ending to the tragedy—perhaps inserted by an ancient theatrical company familiar with Iphigenia among the Taurians—radically affects both its theological meaning and its emotional impact, and modern directors often prefer, quite legitimately, to conclude performances with Iphigenia's unrelievedly tragic walk to her death at line 1531.

vii. rhesus

This colourful and unusual tragedy has been direly neglected for the simple reason that it is probably not by Euripides himself, although it has been preserved in the manuscripts of his works, and he did almost certainly write a (lost) play entitled Rhesus. But the emotional, intellectual, aesthetic, and theatrical impact made by the play is so unlike that produced even by Euripides' least distinguished tragedies that in the ancient world some ancient literary critics already claimed that it was spurious. The modern reader will be struck in particular by the un-Euripidean lack of interest in women, and absence of the intellectual bravura which marks every one of his surviving plays.

In the 1960s one respectable scholar published a spirited defence of the Euripidean authorship of Rhesus, arguing that its distinctive qualities are signs that it dated from early in his career.16 But most experts now agree that the ancient written record somehow substituted the text we possess for Euripides' tragedy of the same name. pg xxviThere are several possible explanations for such a substitution: Euripides was widely imitated by other tragedians, and others bore his name, including his own youngest son, who was responsible for the posthumous production of Iphigenia at Aulis and Bacchae. The prevalent scholarly view holds therefore that Rhesus is the work of an unidentifiable playwright active in the fourth century bce (when there was a revival of interest in dramatizing themes from the Iliad), and as such it is a unique document, since all the other Greek tragedies date from the century before.

The activities in the military camps of the Trojan war had provided the Greek tragedians with the plots of numerous tragedies, such as Sophocles' Ajax, inaugurating a western theatrical tradition still evident in the camp scenes of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida. Rhesus dramatizes the exciting and bloody story of Rhesus and Dolon, familiar to the Athenian audience from the tenth book of the Iliad (which just so happens to be the book of that epic whose own authenticity is most suspected).17 It is the only Greek tragedy whose entire action takes place at night. Its setting is military—the temporary sleeping quarters of the Trojan army, between their city and the camp of the Greeks. The tragic action consists of the arrival of the Trojans' great ally, King Rhesus of Thrace, and his murder by two Greeks, Odysseus and Diomedes, who have been sent on a secret mission into the enemy camp. They also kill Dolon, the Trojan spy sent to discover the plans being made by the Greeks. The occasion is the night after Hector has nearly succeeded in setting fire to their ships and routing them. Hector seems invincible, and the Greek campaign doomed to failure. But by the end of the play the situation has been reversed: although Hector concludes the piece by resolutely ordering the army to prepare for action, for the dawn brings him confidence that the Trojans can fire the enemy ships, and 'herald the day of freedom for the Trojans', his audience, who knew the Iliad intimately, will have heard the tragic irony in his totally misguided optimism.

The ethical interest centres on the virtues and vices of military leaders, by providing a gallery of fighting men with different approaches to the war. Hector is a brilliant warrior, but hasty and impetuous, just as he is in Homer. Aeneas' presence in the play is largely to point a contrast with his imprudent leader, to urge cau-pg xxviition and to suggest that espionage should precede any major military decision (86–130); further contrasts are drawn between Hector and his sexually obsessed brother Paris, and between Hector and his late-arriving ally Rhesus of Thrace. Rhesus' reputation seems to rest on nothing but a frontier war, and his bombastic boasts and ambitions know no limits: he is a prototype of the miles gloriosus, or braggart soldier, of the incipient genre of New Comedy. Rhesus is completely incompetent: he neglects even the most elementary precautions, letting his contingent fall asleep without posting a single sentry to keep watch, or even laying out arms and chariot gear in preparation for combat.18 It is probably relevant that Athenian history of the late fifth and early fourth centuries includes some extremely hostile relationships with the kings of Thrace, who were believed to be unreliable and disloyal military allies; the figure of Rhesus as portrayed in this tragedy may well have been consonant with the audience's real historical views of his countrymen. The play certainly endorses the notion that Greeks were better warriors: both the Trojan and Thracian fighters are contrasted with the cunning Greek Odysseus and his companion Diomedes, who lay their plans carefully, secure Athena's goodwill, and complete their assignment with ruthless efficiency.

Yet despite the tragedy's emphasis on its aristocratic heroes, it is a curiously democratic rewriting of the epic story. Two of the minor characters—the shepherd and Rhesus' charioteer—are vocal and independent-minded men, whose scenes greatly enliven the effect of the drama. Moreover, the convention of the chorus allows a much fuller development of the lower-class perspective on the action than the aristocratic focus of epic ever could. The chorus of sentries provide an interesting commentary on the activities of their superiors, and offer an unusual amount of interventionist advice, criticism, and support.

Rhesus certainly does not deserve the relegation to the margins of literary history that it has suffered. Perhaps more than any play by Euripides, it needs to be read as a theatrical script for enactment by expert actors. It is not particularly great literature (although some passages, particularly in the choral odes, are not inconsiderable poetry). But it is likely to have been highly successful theatre. The nocturnal, masculine, military atmosphere, with its passwords pg xxviiiand watch fires, disguises, scouts and reconnaissance, will have enthralled the male spectators for whom it was designed, many of whom will have seen military action themselves. The play also offered them a series of flamboyant visual effects. It opens on a lively note, with the sleeping Hector being wakened by the noisy entrance of the chorus of Trojan sentries, bursting with the news that the enemy have convened a meeting. Rhesus' arrival, with jangling bells on his shield, golden armour, twin spears, and Thracian entourage, must have provided a splendid spectacle. At the heart of the play the goddess Athena appears on stage to offer help to the Greek spies Odysseus and Diomedes, and then, in a theatrical stunt without equivalent in extant tragedy, pretends to be Aphrodite in order to divert Paris' attention: Dionysus in Bacchae also assumes a disguise, but not that of another immortal.

Yet the theatrical climax of the play is postponed until the end, with the surprise appearance of a second female immortal, rising above the all-male plane of the human action. Rhesus' corpse is carried on in the arms of his mother, a Muse borne aloft in the theatrical machine. The Muse, an epic rather than a tragic figure, provides a link with the Homeric archetype, reminding the audience of the poem from which the tragedy takes its inspiration, and also underlining the imminence of the Trojan defeat. In a musical moment without parallel in the other plays, this divine embodiment of song sings a solo lyric lament over her son's body, announces that she will consecrate him at a mysterious oracle of Dionysus in Thrace, and predicts the deaths of both Hector and Achilles. The play, which deftly telescopes within a single night of military subterfuge the story of the whole Trojan war, constitutes a fast-paced, action-packed, theatrical Iliad in miniature.

viii. athenian society

Euripides' plays were first performed in Athens at a festival celebrating Athenian group identity, and consequently reveal an 'Athenocentrism' manifested in the famous praise in Medea of the beauty of Athens's environment, the grace of its citizens, and its cultural distinction (824–45). In this volume the clearest example is the appearance of Athena (rather than Artemis) at the conclusion of Iphigenia among the Taurians, who gives instructions for the foundation of cults on Attic soil, and promises Orestes that his trial at pg xxixAthens will ensure that tied verdicts at the court of the Areopagus will forever secure acquittal for defendants (1435–72).

Yet the social fabric of the city which Euripides inhabited was heterogeneous. In 431 bce an estimated 300,000 human beings lived in the city state of Attica. But at least 25,000 were resident non-Athenians ('metics'), including businessmen and professionals; a third were slaves, the majority of whom came from beyond Hellenic lands—from the Balkans, the Black Sea, Asia, or Africa. This ethnic pluralism perhaps finds expression in the 'multi-ethnic' casts of tragedy: the present volume alone introduces Crimean Taurians in Iphigenia among the Taurians, maenads from Asia Minor in Bacchae, and Trojans and their allies from Balkan Thrace in Rhesus.

Slavery was fundamental to the Athenian economy and society, and tragedy reminds us of this unfortunate portion of the population (e.g. Electra 632–3). In Acharnians Aristophanes commented on the intelligence Euripides imputed to his slaves (400–1), and his plays include slaves with important roles as well as mute attendants: Iphigenia at Aulis opens with a powerful exchange between Agamemnon and a voluble old slave belonging to his wife, Clytemnestra. The institution of slavery is itself much discussed: a character in a lost play affirmed that a noble slave is not dishonoured by the title, because 'many slaves are superior to the free' (fr. 511).19 The old slave in Iphigenia at Aulis is certainly a strong moral presence: articulate, unblinkingly opposed (unlike his supposed superiors) to the barbarous plan to slaughter Iphigenia, prepared to fight Menelaus for what he believes is right, and profoundly loyal to Clytemnestra, on whose behalf he intervenes independently in the action (855–96).

The ethical dilemmas and emotional traumas in Euripides are never wholly inseparable from the decidedly unheroic pressures of finance and economics. It is not just that the metaphorical fields draw colour from monetary transactions (Clytemnestra in Iphigenia at Aulis speaks of Agamemnon 'paying for' Helen at the price of Iphigenia's life, 1168–70). Money or lack of it colours the characters' experiences. Euripidean characters express anxiety about maintaining the means to live, especially in exile; Orestes recounts how he was spurned by his friends, and forced to receive meals as charity, sitting alone at a separate table (Iphigenia among the Taurians 949–54). Others express lucid insights into the economic pg xxxbasis of society: the most striking example by far is Medea's first monologue in Medea, which clarifies the socio-economic imperatives underlying her own and other women's predicament:

Of everything that is alive and has a mind, we women are the most wretched creatures. First of all, we have to buy a husband with a vast outlay of money—we have to take a master for our body … divorce brings shame on a woman's reputation and we cannot refuse a husband his rights … I would rather stand three times in the battle line than bear one child (Medea 230–51).

She trenchantly exposes the jeopardy in which marriage placed women: besides the insulting dowry system, women were subject to legalized rape in marriage, a hypocritical double standard in divorce, and agonizing mortal danger in childbirth.

This kind of speech outraged the Christian writer Origen, who criticized Euripides for inappropriately making women express argumentative opinions (Contra Celsum 7.36.34–6); in Frogs Euripides claimed to have made tragedy 'more democratic' by keeping his women—young ones and old ones—talking alongside their masters (948–50). It is indeed a remarkable feature of Euripidean tragedy that most of his best thinkers and talkers are women: Medea is a superior rhetorician to any man in her play; Iphigenia in Iphigenia among the Taurians is more lucid and expressive than her brother, and extemporizes brilliantly in the scene where she dupes the barbarian king Thoas; in Iphigenia at Aulis Clytemnestra's appeals to both Achilles and Agamemnon are masterpieces of emotive and cogent persuasion.

Women are of course prominent in tragedy generally: patriarchal cultures often use symbolic females to help them imagine abstractions and think about their social order. It is also relevant that women performed the laments at funerals, that Dionysus' cult in reality as well as in Bacchae involved maenadism and transvestism, and that women were perceived as more emotionally expressive and susceptible, like the women of Thebes in Bacchae, to divine possession. They were also regarded as lacking moral autonomy: Athenian men were obsessed with what happened in their households behind their backs, and all the transgressive women in tragedy—like Agave and her sisters—are temporarily or permanently husbandless. The plays are products of an age where huge sexual, financial, and affective tensions surrounded the transfer of women between the households that made up the city state. pg xxxiClytemnestra's appeal to Agamemnon in Iphigenia at Aulis describes the vulnerability of women in such a society with pungent accuracy (1146–65). There was certainly a feeling in antiquity that Euripides' focus on women was sharper than that of either Aeschylus or Sophocles; until recently critics were debating whether Euripides was a misogynist or a feminist. Yet the only certainties are that he repeatedly chose to create strong and memorable female characters, and that as a dramatist he had a relativist rhetorical capacity for putting both sides of the argument in the sex war.

The position of women in the real world of Athens has itself long been a contentious issue, especially the degree of confinement to which citizen women were subject. But it is clear that most men would have preferred their wives and daughters to stay indoors, to be little discussed in public, to practise thrift, to possess unimpeachable sexual fidelity, and to produce several healthy sons. They certainly regarded women as inferior, and would probably have approved of Iphigenia's statement that 'it is better that one man should see the light of day than any number of women' (Iphigenia at Aulis 1394). Women could not vote or participate in the assembly; nor could they speak for themselves in the courts of law or normally conduct financial transactions except through the agency of their male 'guardian' (kyrios)—father, husband, or nearest male relative. But women did, of course, negotiate with the existing power structures (we hear hints in the orators of the need for men to seek their womenfolk's approval), and were prominent in the central arena of public life constituted by official religion. This illuminates Iphigenia's present role in Iphigenia among the Taurians as priestess of a Taurian cult of Artemis, and in her future role, prescribed by Athena, as keeper of the keys of Artemis' shrine in Attica (1462–3). Another dignified priestess appears in Euripides' Ion (the 'Pythia' of Apollo at Delphi), and in Helen the Egyptian priestess Theonoe plays an important part. In a lost play the wise woman Melanippe defended women against practitioners of misogynist rhetoric like Hippolytus (Hippolytus 616–68);20 one of her strategies was to list the Panhellenic cults which women administered (fr. 499):21 pg xxxiiMen's criticism of women is worthless twanging of a bowstring and evil talk. Women are better than men, as I will show … Consider their role in religion, for that, in my opinion, comes first. We women play the most important part, because women prophesy the will of Zeus in the oracles of Phoebus. And at the holy site of Dodona near the sacred oak, females convey the will of Zeus to inquirers from Greece. As for the sacred rituals for the Fates and the Nameless Ones, all these would not be holy if performed by men, but prosper in women's hands. In this way women have a rightful share in the service of the gods. Why is it, then, that women must have a bad reputation?

ix. euripides and religion

Melanippe's words are a fitting introduction to the category of dramatis personae constituted by the gods. What is to be deduced about Euripides' religion from his on-stage divinities in these plays (Athena in Iphigenia among the Taurians, Dionysus in Bacchae), and the Apollo, Death, Aphrodite, Artemis, Dioscuri, Thetis, Madness, Hermes, and Poseidon who physically appear in others? One function of Euripides' gods from the machine, for example in Iphigenia among the Taurians, is certainly to act as a metatheatrical 'alienation' device drawing attention to the author's power over the narrative. But does this mean that he was an atheist?

Allegations that Euripides was a religious radical began in his lifetime. Aristophanes' caricature includes the charge that Euripides' tragedies had persuaded people 'that the gods do not exist' (Thesmophoriazusae 450–1), and portrays him praying to the air ('Ether') and 'Intelligence' (Frogs 890–2). By later antiquity it was believed that it was at Euripides' house that Protagoras, the great relativist and agnostic thinker, read out his famous treatise on the gods, beginning 'Man is the measure of all things' (fr. 80 B I Diels-Kranz).

Some characters in Euripides undoubtedly articulate views which must have appeared advanced or sceptical to his audience. Cadmus in Bacchae tells the vindictive Dionysus that gods ought to be less susceptible to anger than humans (1348), and Iphigenia stoutly denies the tradition that the goddess Artemis could favour human sacrifice (Iphigenia among the Taurians 380–91). Orestes thinks that even the supposedly omniscient gods are as blind, confused, and ignorant as humans, and that sensible people must rely pg xxxiiiupon their own judgement (570–5). Other characters express views that will have sounded modern and 'scientific'. They depart from traditional theology by attributing the workings of the universe either to physical causes or to the power of the human mind. In Trojan Women Hecuba wonders whether Zeus should be addressed as 'Necessity of nature or the mind of man' (884–6). In one lost play a character asserted that 'the mind that is in each of us is god'; in another that the first principle of the cosmos was Air, which 'sends forth the summer's light, and makes the winter marked with cloud, makes life and death'; in a third Air was explicitly equated with Zeus (frr. 1018, 330.3–5, 941).

Consequently there has always been a critical tendency to see Euripides as seeking to overturn or challenge traditional religion, especially belief in the arbitrary, partisan, and often malevolent anthropomorphic Olympian gods of the Homeric epics. It has been argued that in figures like the vengeful Dionysus of Bacchae and the bloodthirsty Artemis of Iphigenia at Aulis he included the most uncompromisingly 'archaic' and self-interested of all Greek tragic gods precisely to undermine them. Thus his theatrical divinities are a literary throwback to the old anthropomorphism, constituting a consciously reductive enactment of the commonly accepted personalities of the Olympians. Alternatively, Euripides is interpreted as a humanist who denies any but human motivation to human action and whose works operate on a similar principle to Thucydides' rationalist and atheological determination that it is human nature, to anthrōpinon (3.82.2), which drives and conditions history. Critics have even seen Theonoe in Helen as a proselyte advocating a new Euripidean doctrine: her striking statement that Justice has a great shrine in her heart (Helen 1002–3, see also Trojan Women 886) offers, allegedly, a completely new religion of peace and justice, which Euripides is urging should replace the old Olympian cults.

Yet it is mistaken to confuse Euripidean characters' more innovative theological opinions with his own (unknown) personal views. Moreover, many of the expressions of scepticism are more complicated than they seem. One rhetorical function of scepticism is to affirm the belief being doubted simply by raising it to consciousness. Orestes may doubt that the gods know what they are doing, but his scepticism brings his tense relationship with Apollo into sharp focus. This helps the audience to appreciate the pg xxxivplay's underlying argument, which emphatically reaffirms the infallibility of the Delphic oracle.22

For the overall impact of Euripidean tragedy does nothing to disrupt the three fundamental tenets of Athenian religion as practised by its citizens: that gods exist, that they pay attention (welcome or unwelcome) to the affairs of mortals, and that some kind of reciprocal allegiance between gods and humans was in operation, most visibly instantiated in ritual. The tragic performances were framed by the rituals of the Dionysia, and ritual fundamentally informs tragedy's imagery, plots, and songs: a study of wedding and funeral motifs, for example, has shown how they become conflated into sinister variations of the figure of the 'bride of death',23 a particularly important poetic figure in Iphigenia at Aulis.

The plays themselves frame accounts of ritual: in Iphigenia among the Taurians Iphigenia pours out a funeral libation to the brother she believes to be dead (157–77) and orchestrates a purificatory procession from the temple of Artemis to the sea (1222–33). In Bacchae Pentheus is prepared on stage (912–70) for participation in the mountain rites of Dionysus, which are also described repeatedly in the songs of the chorus. The history of religion, moreover, seems to have fascinated Euripides, who includes in his tragedies numerous 'aetiological' explanations of the origin of cults. This is a conspicuous feature of Iphigenia among the Taurians, which provides mythical explanations for several aspects of the cult of Artemis both in and beyond Attica, and the whole of Bacchae is an aetiological explanation for the origin of Dionysus' cult in Greece.

It is true that Artemis in the Iphigenia plays and Dionysus in Bacchae are unusually brutal and demanding, even by the standards of ancient Greek gods. But Artemis still provides a shrine where families can dedicate the clothing of their women who died in childbirth (Iphigenia among the Taurians 1466–7), Dionysus brings joy as well as terror, and the songs concluding Iphigenia at Aulis help to prepare Iphigenia for death and the community for losing her. Ritual brings group consolidation and profound consolation, as a human response in the face of catastrophe.

pg xxxvEuripidean plots are also repeatedly driven by violations of the great taboos and imperatives constituting popular Greek ethics, the boundaries defining unacceptable behaviour which Sophocles' Antigone calls the 'unwritten and unshakeable laws of the gods' (Antigone 454–5), and which Euripidean characters are more likely to call 'the laws common to the Greeks' (e.g. Heraclidae 1010). These regulated human relationships at every level. In the family they proscribed incest, kin-killing, and failure to bury the dead: kin-killing, for example, is absolutely central to both Iphigenia plays and to Bacchae. At the level of relationships between members of different households and cities these 'common laws' ascribed to Zeus the protection of three vulnerable groups: suppliants, recipients of oaths, and parties engaged in the compact of reciprocal trust required by the guest/host relationship.

Supplication is a formal entreaty, accompanied by ritualized touching of knees, hand, and chin, which puts the recipient under a religious obligation to accede to the suppliant's requests. Supplication in Euripides characterizes numerous crucial scenes. In Iphigenia among the Taurians Iphigenia supplicates Orestes (1067–71), but also recalls desperately supplicating her father as she begged him to spare her (361–4); this terrible scene is actually enacted in Iphigenia at Aulis, shortly after Clytemnestra has supplicated Achilles (1216–17, 908–10). Oaths are also frequent: in Iphigenia among the Taurians the heroine makes Pylades swear to deliver her letter to Orestes, when she still believes him to be in Greece (744–58). The regulation of hospitality is also apparent in these plays: in Iphigenia among the Taurians Thoas demonstrates the wrong way of receiving strangers by slaughtering visitors to his country, and in Iphigenia at Aulis one reason the Greeks want to punish Troy is because Paris violated his relationship with his host Menelaus.

x. music, chorus, song

We have lost the melodies to which the lyrics of tragedy were sung to the accompaniment of pipes (auloi). But it is possible partially to decipher what John Gould has called 'strategies of poetic sensibility'24 within the formal, conventional media open to the tragedian: pg xxxvibesides the choral passages, which were danced and sung, the tragedian had several modes of delivery to choose from for his individual actors. In addition to set-piece speeches and line-by-line spoken dialogue (stichomythia), they included solo song, duet, sung interchange with the chorus, and an intermediate mode of delivery, probably chanting to pipe accompaniment, signalled by the anapaestic rhythm (INTRODUCTION). Euripides' songs were extremely popular: the ancients believed that some Athenians in Sicily saved themselves after the disaster at Syracuse in 413 bce by singing some of his songs to their captors (Plutarch, Life of Nicias 29). In a lost comedy named Euripides-Lover (Axionicus fr. 3) a character discusses people who hate all lyrics but those by Euripides.

In this edition the sung and chanted sections have been labelled and laid out in shorter lines so that the reader can appreciate the shifts between speech and musical passages. This matters because it mattered in antiquity. The musicologist Aristoxenus said that speech begins to sound like song when we are emotional (Elements of Harmony 1.9–10). It certainly affects our appreciation of Iphigenia's desolate state of mind, for example, that Euripides chose to make her sing about her plight in the first scene of Iphigenia among the Taurians; Pentheus never sings in Bacchae, a sign, perhaps, of his emotional repression, while his mother Agave moves from song in her madness to speech as she recovers sanity; for much of Iphigenia at Aulis male spoken rhetoric contrasts sharply with the songs of the female chorus and Iphigenia's own funeral lament, performed before her weeping mother.

The chorus can also speak, and even function as an 'umpire' between warring parties in a debate (Iphigenia at Aulis 376–7, 402–3). Sometimes it is sworn to collusive silence (Iphigenia among the Taurians 1056–77), although the chorus of Bacchae is partisan in that tragedy to an unusual degree. Sometimes its songs 'fill in' time while actors change roles, or 'telescope' time while events happen offstage (e.g. Iphigenia among the Taurians 1234–82). Often the chorus sings forms of lyric song derived from the world of collective ritual. A choral song may be a hymn of praise, like the hymns to Dionysus sung by his followers in Bacchae (e.g. 64–166, 370–431). At the climax of Iphigenia among the Taurians the chorus sing an exquisite hymn to Apollo, relating how as a baby he took away the Delphic Oracle from Earth, its previous owner (134–82): it was the Delphic oracle which sent Orestes on his mission to Tauris. But the pg xxxviiritual reflected in choral odes is often of a darker character; in Iphigenia at Aulis the trick played on the heroine is macabrely reflected in the sad ode which evolves from a marriage-song into a funerary lament (1036–97).

Some choral odes present a mythical narrative functioning as a form of memory; early in Iphigenia among the Taurians the Greek chorus trace the curse on the heroine's family back to her ancestor Pelops (179–202), and in a lovely later ode recall the sacking of their city (1088–152). Other choral songs may be more firmly rooted in the time of the action taking place, but likewise offer valuable contextualizing material. In the unusual first song of Iphigenia at Aulis, the chorus of women breathlessly catalogue the famous heroes they have been lucky enough to see assembling at Aulis for the expedition against Troy (164–302). The bellicose, brooding Greek army is a forceful unseen presence in the tragedy, and it was a brilliant stroke to present the audience with a description of the famous leaders—Ajax, Diomedes, Achilles, and so on—seen from the admiring and slightly eroticized perspective of a group of ordinary women. Yet some choral odes are more philosophical or contemplative in orientation, and meditate in general terms on the issues which have been explored in the concrete situation of the play's previous episode. Thus the chorus of Iphigenia among the Taurians are prompted by the arrival of Greek men they assume to be merchants to reflect on the excitement and danger inherent in overseas trade (392–438).

xi. Speech

In Aristophanes' Frogs a prominent feature of Euripidean tragedy is the spoken 'programmatic' prologue of the kind which opens Iphigenia among the Taurians and Bacchae; it is characterized as predictable in both metrical form and in 'scene-setting' function. But this is reductive: the prologue typically establishes expectations, themes, and images which will subsequently become central to the drama. Euripides, moreover, varied the impact by his choice of speaker: he opens Iphigenia among the Taurians with its sad, reflective heroine, thus allowing her to charm the audience with her deeply personal story and intrigue them with her account of her mysterious dream; in contrast, he alienates the audience of Bacchae from Pentheus partly by letting his deadly enemy, Dionysus, have pg xxxviiithe first word. The chanted opening of Iphigenia at Aulis, moreover, suggests that Euripides was quite capable of experimenting with opening scenes in which the speakers are locked in urgent, agitated, dialogue.

The Roman rhetorician Quintilian (10.1.67) judged Euripides of more use than Sophocles to the trainee orator. The modern reader will undoubtedly be struck by the highly formal debates in Euripides, for example in the confrontation of Medea and Jason in Medea or Helen and Hecuba in Trojan Women. The plays in this volume are some of the least rhetorical in Euripides, but important debates take place in which Pentheus confronts the disguised Dionysus in Bacchae and Menelaus quarrels terribly with Agamemnon in Iphigenia at Aulis. The debate (agōn) is one of the features which Athenian tragedy assimilated from the oral performances which characterized two other great institutions of the democracy: the law courts and the assembly. To meet the increasing need for polished public speaking and its assessment under the widened franchise, the study of the science of persuasion, or the art of rhetoric, developed rapidly around the middle of the fifth century; this is reflected in tragedy's increased use of formal rhetorical figures, tropes, 'common topics' such as pragmatism and expediency, and hypothetical arguments from probability. One form of exercise available to the trainee orator was the 'double argument'—the construction or study of twin speeches for and against a particular proposition, or for the defence and prosecution in a hypothetical trial. As a character in Euripides' lost Antiope averred, 'If one were clever at speaking, one could have a competition between two arguments in every single case' (fr. 189). In assessing Euripidean rhetoric it must be remembered that his audience had become accustomed to startling displays by litigants in lawsuits (Aristophanes, Wasps 562–86); by the 420s political oratory sometimes descended into competitive exhibitionism in which the medium had superseded the message (Thucydides 3.38).

Euripides' gift for narrative is perhaps clearest in his 'messenger speeches', vivid mini-epics of exciting action, whether it is the herdsman's bemused description of Orestes' fit of madness near the beginning of Iphigenia among the Taurians (260–339), the hair-raising account of the Greeks' escape to their ship at its end (1327–419), or the gruesome picture of Pentheus' death and dismemberment at the hands of the crazed maenads in Bacchae pg xxxix(1043–52). All Euripides' poetry is marked by exquisite simile and metaphor, often traced thematically, as in Shakespeare, through a play (in Iphigenia among the Taurians images of the sea and voyaging; in Bacchae hunting and wild animals): his 'picturesque' style was much admired in antiquity ('Longinus', On the Sublime, 15.1–4).

Euripides showed infinite versatility of register, and was capable of selecting rare poetic words for special effect (Aristotle, Poetics 58b19–24). Yet he still revolutionized the diction of tragedy by making his characters speak in his distinctively 'human way': Aristotle affirms that it was not until Euripides wrote roles using language drawn from everyday conversation that tragedy discovered natural dialogue (Rhetoric 3.2.5). This ordinary quality to his characters' language attracted emulation by able poets even within his lifetime, yet in Aristophanes' Frogs Dionysus dismisses them as insignificant 'chatterers' in comparison (89–95). For Euripides was really doing something extremely difficult in making his unforgettable characters speak 'like human beings'. Thus the author of an encomium to Euripides in the Palatine Anthology justifiably discourages the aspiring imitator (7.50):25

  • Poet, do not attempt to go down Euripides' road;
  • It is hard for men to tread.
  • It seems easy, but the man who tries to walk it
  • Finds it rougher than if it were set with cruel stakes.
  • If you even try to scratch the surface of Medea, daughter of Aeetes,
  • You shall die forgotten. Leave Euripides' crowns alone.


1 All fragments of comedy are cited from R. Kassel and C. Austin (eds.), Poetae Comici Graeci (Berlin and New York, 1983–95).

2 Poetics 56a25–7, 54b1, 61b21, 53a30.

3 See A. N. Michelini, Euripides and the Tragic Tradition (Madison and London, 1987), 11 n. 40.

4 See Fiona Macintosh, 'The Shavian Murray and the Euripidean Shaw: Major Barbara and the Bacchae', Classics Ireland, 5 (1998), 64–84.

5 This phrase is borrowed from W. G. Arnott's excellent article, 'Double the vision: a reading of Euripides' Electra', G&R 28 (1981), 179–92.

6 F. L. Lucas, Euripides and his Influence (London and Sydney, 1924), 15.

7 See Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford, 1989), 110–12.

8 David Sansone, 'The sacrifice-motif in Euripides' IT', TAPA 105 (1975), 283–311.

9 Published and translated in Denys Page (ed.), Select Papyri, iii (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1941), 336–49.

10 Richard Paul Jodrell, Illustrations of Euripides on the Ion and the Bacchae (London, 1781), ii, 550.

11 See Helene Foley, Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides (Ithaca, NY, and London, 1985), 205–58.

12 C. Segal, Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides' Bacchae (Princeton, 1982).

13 R. P. Winngton-Ingram, Euripides and Dionysus: an interpretation of the Bacchae (first published 1946, second edition with foreword by P. E. Easterling (Bristol, 1997)).

14 C. A. E. Luschnig, 'Time and Memory in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis', Ramus, 11 (1982), 99–104.

15 See e.g. H. Siegel, 'Self-delusion and the volte-face of Iphigenia in Euripides' Iphigenia at Aulis', Hermes, 108 (1980), 300–21.

16 William Ritchie, The Authenticity of The Rhesus of Euripides (Cambridge, 1964).

17 See Bernard Fenik, Iliad X and the Rhesus: The Myth (= Latomus 73, Brussels, 1964).

18 G. M. A. Grube, The Drama of Euripides (London, 1941), 443.

19 All references to fragments of Euripides are cited from A. Nauck, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, 2nd edn., with supplement by B. Snell (Hildesheim, 1964).

20 Practising generalized invective against women seems to have been a favoured pastime: an example of the behaviour of Theophrastus' 'tactless man' is not that he inveighs against womankind, but that he does it at weddings (12.6)!

21 Translation taken from M. R. Lefkowitz and M. B. Fant, Women's Life in Greece and Rome: A Source Book in Translation, 2nd edn. (London, 1992), 14.

22 T. C. W. Stinton (' "Si credere dignum est": Some Expressions of Disbelief in Euripides and Others', PCPS 22 (1976), 60–89) discusses the complicated impact of apparently sceptical remarks in both Helen and Electra (74–82).

23 See Rush Rehm, Marriage to Death: the Conflation of Wedding and Funeral Rituals in Greek Tragedy (Princeton, 1994).

24 J. Gould, 'Dramatic Character and "Human Intelligibility" in Greek Tragedy', PCPS 24 (1978), 43–67, esp. 54–8.

25 I would like to thank both Paul Cartledge and James Morwood for helpful comments on a previous draft.

logo-footer Copyright © 2018. All rights reserved.
Access is brought to you by Log out