Euripides (484 BCE – 406 BCE)

by Michael Peverett

I realised after I'd been working on this for a while that I don't have much to say, nothing startlingly original, about Euripides' plays. That's not really a surprise, since I've never played with blackened shreds of papyrus, don't know any Greek and have never even seen a performance of a Greek tragedy. Accordingly, there are very few references to poetry or theatre here. Instead I became interested in trying to grasp the totality of his work so far as that is known, so this article has transformed into a sort of list of plays, with a few very brief comments on some of the ones that survive complete. As usual, references are not given; I will have repeated the errors of others as well as adding some of my own, in the best traditions of medieval scholarship. So check everything! If you really want to know about the Euripidean canon you need such works as the Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, Vol 5 (ed. Richard Kannicht, 2004), a snip from Göttingen at €368. T.B.L. Webster's The Tragedies of Euripides (Methuen, 1967) has brief accounts of all the lost plays.

I suppose most people will find this article boring - an endless list of lost plays and compressed summaries of confusingly similar legends. Setting the famous survivals back into this context has changed my view of Euripides, though. In a way I see the surviving plays less reverently. The broader context emphasizes, for example, how the characters who appear on stage had a familiarity for their audience and are almost like the stock characters in a Commedia dell'arte troupe: Agamemnon, Heracles, Clytemnestra, etc - check the plot summary of e.g. the Telephus, or the unexpected appearance of Orestes in the Andromache; also how tragedy is just as prone as comedy to the prevalence of certain motifs; parents are always killing or trying to kill their children, scorned females falsely accuse their scorners, etc. The idea that the conception of Greek tragedy progressively declines from nobly austere beginnings into tragicomedy and melodrama feels less secure.* I began to see Victorian admiration for the Alcestis, Ion, and Iphigenia among the Taurians as only one way - but nevertheless, an interesting way - of looking at Euripides. Whichever you cut it, the Bacchae remains unique and astonishing.

[* There are vague hints that the earliest tragedies (i.e. in the obscure half-century before the Persians) were more like satyr-plays. Whatever else tragedy implied, it did not imply a compulsory "unhappy ending" involving the death of a leading character. Indeed Aristotle seems to suggest that Euripides' penchant for "unhappy endings" received some criticism.]

As an introduction, here are some remarks about the instability of character portrayal in the plays, something that's given me a lot of trouble as a reader...

Victorian readers of that most amazing Victorian novel, the Complete Works of Shakespeare, tended to blame Shakespeare for inconsistency of character treatment across different plays: for example, it was unpleasing to come to the Merry Wives and to discover a Falstaff who is such a stiff pantomime parody compared with the uniquely beguiling old rogue of Henry IV. (The remarkable thing is that Shakespeare's plays could support such a novelistic reading at all - at some level Shakespeare did indeed invent the novel...)

But reading Euripides, the jolt-effect of character-inconsistency is everywhere. Though all his plays, so far as we know, dramatize scenes from the same vast body of legendary material, the "matter of Greece", we constantly find ourselves doing a double-take: the Achilles that we envisaged before the play began, in contrast to the Achilles as treated in this particular play. What's wrong with the formulation in this paragraph is that it distinguishes (what is natural for us) a static body of Greek myth "over there" from the dynamic "treatment" of the current author. This formulation is wrong for a Greek tragedian. The body of legendary material was not yet static or "over there". It was still being made and the tragedians were very active in making it.

Euripides' plays tend to sidestep the most central stories of that body of legend: by a kind of natural process of avoiding well-trodden ground that audiences were too familiar with and that invited unwelcome comparison with other canonical treatments, they drift out to the edges of the legends. Thus, although the Trojan War is a background to so many Euripidean plays, the plays are actually concerned with dramatising events taking place just before, or just after, or aside from, the main action. These edges of the legendary body can be characterized as giving a different perspective: not wholly submerged in the heroic or pious values they necessarily glance at, they are apt to cast an ironic or anti-heroic or critical or questioning "slant". Also, legend is more flexible at the edges. Euripides could invent new content (e.g. perhaps Medea's slaying of her children, Clytemnestra's first marriage...) or take up obscure minority traditions (e.g. Helen was never in Troy, in the Helen). As a result, though the figures that troop on stage tend to be familiar, the treatment is variable and inconsistent: there is no single image of Helen, Orestes, Electra. This does not seem to have caused unease, though Aristotle reports being awkwardly struck by the inconsistency of Iphigenia within a single play (Iphigenia at Aulis).

And yet, to say there is no consistency of character conception is inadequate. One is naggingly aware that behind the different treatments of Helen, for example, there is a discernible and distinctive Euripidean trend: a tendency, while acknowledging the strongly anti-Helen rhetoric typical of the tragic period (though not of Homer), to infiltrate a more positive view of Helen - a fascinated one anyhow. Euripides is building a myth that goes way beyond classical boundaries - Chaucer and Shakespeare understood it very well - the structuralist rule that sustains the myth is that whatever bad things are said about Helen without response, she is never portrayed actually doing anything bad.

Similarly, there is clearly some kind of relationship, submerged but not totally indiscernible, between the various treatments of formidable Odysseus, or shallow Menelaus, or tortured Orestes... Thus a multiple vision is uncomfortably necessary. When we listen to a speech by Achilles in Iphigenia at Aulis, for example, we must both recall and set aside other treatments of the hero: in Homer, in other tragedians, in other plays by Euripides and even in other parts of the same play. We must recall them since the current image is in a kind of dialogue with them, sometimes feeding off them and sometimes glancing at them critically; but we must also set them aside in order to attend to what is happening in front of our eyes, in order not to unwittingly substitute legendary stereotype for what is actually being done or said. That's an awkward stance to hold for very long.

One must also view the legendary action as having a shifting, heuristic, relative kind of status. For example, that first marriage of Clytemnestra's is mentioned only in Iphigenia at Aulis, where it emerges that Agamemnon slew her first husband and her baby and then abducted her forcibly. This story (presumably a sensational Euripidean invention) must be deemed to be true so far as this play is concerned, but it must not be imported into our view of Clytemnestra in other plays (which it would modify rather radically). At the same time, there is an underlying trend in Euripides of presenting a more positive view of Clytemnestra - as per her sister Helen - which in turn has a negative impact on his views of Orestes and Electra (Clytemnestra, barely mentioned by Homer, seems to have emerged as a powerful dramatic figure in the Agamemnon, though there might be lost precedents). There is no single authorized Euripidean version of the legendary events, only a series of variations and their resultant play of forces.

The point I'm labouring to get at is that a dislocation in the treatment of legendary material is fundamental to these plays, and it leads to a challenging and dissatisfying failure to resolve into a stable image; somewhat analogous to the syntactical dislocations of modern poetry. The Euripidean dislocations are a jagged faultline that expose, among other things, political and social issues relevant to fifth century Athens.


Another way of looking at this is to deny a clear distinction between making myth and making a play. We tend to make this distinction: between myths that somehow unattributably come into existence and literary works that may play with mythical material but whose production does not affect myth. In the unusual situation of 5th century Athens this distinction is inappropriate: the myths were being made by people whose names and literary works we know.

It's a fact that many of Euripides' alterations or additions to mythical stories did become part of the inherited corpus of myth. But this raises the question: what is this mythology? What is its function, if it was not something the tragedians or their audience themselves believed? Is belief in fact a useful notion here, or are we importing it anachronistically from our own Christian heritage?

Some thoughts on this inspired by that later mythology, the medieval "Matter of Britain". Perhaps Greek mythology is more akin to this than we tend to imagine?

1. Foundation mythology is politically important to an institution, supplying a common vision that crosses specialist boundaries and to some extent class boundaries, themes for ceremonial, legitimisation of current authority.
2. At the same time, since the foundation myth avoids speaking directly about the current institution and its power-centres, it opens a safe channel for the non-empowered to publicly discuss the institution critically, e.g. commending and enforcing ideals and lessons of history.
3. Mythology is initially made up, but its origins quickly become blurred and since it becomes common material for communication is then credited (some personal belief combined with some social consent). Thus Geoffrey of Monmouth's History though largely made up was within a very few years generally believed; the materials for possible disbelief were not accessible to future generations in the same way as the mythology itself.
4. The theological element in mythological stories is apt to be over-stated. Religious material is eagerly seized on by the makers of myth, but the function of the myth is not religious or philosophical. Thus Arthurian legends e.g. of the Holy Grail do not originate in response to urgent theological dialogue within medieval Christendom and they only accidentally contribute to future theological debates.

It may be that Greek myth is unique in character, as Greek tragedy is.


Thomas Magister (Byzantine, late 13th century CE) in his summary of Euripides' life says: "He wrote ninety-two plays in all, and in their number only eight were satyr-plays." i.e 84 serious plays and 8 satyr plays. The list below of known plays, excluding the doubtful "Critias" plays, but not the Rhesus (since Euripides probably did write a Rhesus), gives 72 serious plays and 7 (or 8) satyr plays, totals that are consistent with Thomas' figures. But perhaps this only means that the figures recorded by Thomas were someone's intelligent guess. Given the traditional idea that Euripides' plays were presented and judged in groups of four at the City Dionysia (held annually in March), this obviously raises a question about the small number of satyr plays - though we know, because of the Alcestis group, that the fourth play was not always a satyr play.

There are 17 serious plays surviving in full, plus the Cyclops satyr play, plus the doubtful Rhesus. Some of the plays survived mainly for extra-literary reasons, e.g. a selection of nine plays (including the Rhesus) by grammarians for pedagogic use. Most of the survivals are late works; none are early.

An odd thing is that no two of the surviving plays are known to belong to the same group of four (the Bacchae and Iphigenia at Aulis were indeed first produced together, but this was after Euripides' death and the plays were not connected). But most likely some of them did belong to the same groups (certainly if we believe that the plays predominantly were grouped and if we take seriously the total of ninety-two plays - just do the maths); Helen and Cyclops is one suggestion that I favour.

The following list suggests what some of the groups were like: there's a complete list of the plays for 415 BCE - The Trojan Women being the third - making up a group (winning second prize) with a clear structure of "before", "during", and "after" the Trojan War. The lost Andromeda is known to have been part of the same group as Helen; the connections are both topographical (Nilotic) and thematic (rescue from captivity). On the other hand, the Alcestis and Medea groups look like pure miscellanies.

[If all 92 plays were produced for the annual contest at the City Dionysia, and if they were always presented in groups of four, then this would imply that Euripides was invited to compete approximately every other year between 455 and 409. But of course nothing would preclude an author from writing plays in advance, in the reasonable hope of eventually being invited to produce them. After Euripides' death it was possible to put together a group of four plays for performance - was this his stockpile? If dramatists did build up a stock then some of those plays might end up being used elsewhere (Athens was not the only city where plays were performed, nor the City Dionysia the only occasion for them). A scholiast tells us, for example, that Andromache was not performed in Athens. That may in fact be an error, but even if it's an error it implies that this was what sometimes happened.]



C=The play survives more or less complete.
F=Substantial fragments of the play survive.
T=the play survives as little more than a title.

There are a great many Euripidean fragments surviving, many more discovered on papyri since Nauck's 1889 collection, which has now been replaced (in Euripides' case) by Richard Kannicht's 2004 collection (Vol 5 of Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta).

Titles are a problem. The main titles given here are Anglicized versions of Greek names employing a Latinate spelling! (i.e. Heracles not Herakles nor Hercules, Electra not Elektra, Hecabe not Hecuba). I've tried to mention alternative titles where these are likely to cause confusion. For the surviving plays these are usually the traditional Latin titles that were in standard use by older commentators but are less often used today, e.g. Hercules Furens. For the lost plays they tend to be transliterated Greek, e.g. Melanippe Desmotis.

This listing, though perhaps more complete than any currently on the Internet, is not comprehensive. What I would like to have produced is essentially what has been done for the Aeschylus corpus here: Euripides and Sophocles are due to follow in the next year or so. Some of the plot summaries in what follows are more or less cut and pasted from other internet sources that I don't acknowledge individually - but thanks and please excuse the liberty...

455 BCE Euripides' first competition (third prize)

1. Peliades (455 BCE) F - aka Daughters of Pelias. Said to have been Euripides' first play. The play presumably told the story of Medea's conspiracy to have Pelias killed by his own daughters.

2. Aegeus F (c. 450 BCE) F - probably told the story of Medea persuading Aegeus to try and kill his son Theseus.

441 BCE Euripides' first victory

The following 32 lost plays (3-34) are of unknown date.

3. Auge F - became pregnant by Heracles (the son was Telephus). Heracles, returning at a later date, recognized a ring and saved Auge, who had been sentenced to be drowned by her incensed father.

4. Thyestes T- dealt with some part of the extensive Thyestes legends; the only thing that seems to be certain is that in it Thyestes appeared in rags. Thyestes was the brother of Atreus. They quarrelled, and Thyestes slept with Atreus' wife. Atreus in revenge killed Thyestes' children and served them to him at a banquet. Later Thyestes raped his own daughter Pelopia and she gave birth to Aegisthus. Atreus brought up Aegisthus, believing him to be his own son, and ordered him to kill Thyestes; but recognition of father, mother and son followed and Pelopia killed herself. (Sophocles dramatized parts of this story in three Thyestes plays, an Atreus, and The Mycenaean Women.)

5. Aeolus F - Ovid's tale of Canace in Heroides 11 is thought to follow this play. Canace (one of the daughters of Aeolus and Aenarete) gave birth to a son fathered by her brother Macareus. Her nurse was preparing to remove the child from the palace pretending that she was going out merely to offer a sacrifice, but the child cried out and disclosed its presence to Aeolus. He threw the child to the dogs and sent a sword to his daughter, ordering her to kill herself. Canace and Macareus took their own lives.

6. Theseus F - set in Crete, the story concerned the conflict between Theseus and Minos and the slaying of the Minotaur.

7. Hippolytus the Veiled T - Euripides' earlier version of the story. The scene in which Phaedra propositioned Hippolytus is said to have shocked the audience. In the later version Phaedra is presented less negatively and the play revolves more around the power of the gods; Phaedra and Hippolytus do not converse during the course of the action, though in one scene Phaedra is present when Hippolytus berates her nurse.

8. Alcmene F - told the story of Alcmene (the mother of Heracles) being accused of unfaithfulness by Amphitryon and saved from death by Zeus. Alcmene also appears in The Children of Heracles, and Amphitryon in Heracles.

9. Alope F aka Cercyon - made pregnant by Poseidon, she is starved to death by her father Cercyon. Theseus kills Cercyon and asserts the child Hippothoös's rights. Alope is transformed into a spring.

10. Licymnius F - obscure. Apparently about a ship that is truck by lightning. It's referred to in Aristophanes' Birds.

11. Phoenix F - Phoenix, the son of Amyntor, refused to sleep with his father's concubine Phthia, who then accused him of attempted rape; Amyntor banished Phoenix and (in Euripides' play) blinded him. Peleus later appointed Phoenix tutor to the young Achilles.

12. Phrixus I F - there were two Phrixus plays and it's difficult to allocate most of the fragments to one or the other. The plot concerned Ino's attempt to kill Phrixus, the son of Athamas' first wife Nephele, by arranging a false report that the Delphic oracle required him to be sacrificed. The plot is revealed and Phrixus escapes. Athamas' plan to put Ino and their son to death is prevented by either Heracles or Dionysos. (Sophocles wrote an Athamus that covered similar ground; see also Ino (18).)

13. Phrixus II F - see above.

14. Temenidae F aka Temenidai. Hyrnetho is urged by her brothers to leave her husband Deiphontes. But too little survives to be sure of the plot.

15. Temenos T - Too little survives to be sure what the play was about.

16. Antigone (date later than Sophocles' play which was performed in 442 or 441) F - apparently a lighter piece in which Haemon assists Antigone in the burial and the lovers are later married.

17. Danae F - Danae was the mother of Perseus.

18. Ino F - in which Ino (see also 12-13), secretly returning to Athamas' palace in disguise as a servant, thwarts the new wife Themisto's attempt to murder her sons by a change of clothing, so that Themisto murders her own children instead (plot summary according to Hyginus).

19. Protesilaus F aka Laodamia - in which the widowed Laodamia kept an image of her husband in her bedchamber. (Compare Admetus' words in Alcestis - a Thessalian motif, perhaps?) When the image is burnt by her father, she throws hersalf into the flames too.

20. Pleisthenes F - may have been based on this Thyestean legend (see also 4): Thyestes, exiled by his brother Atreus, brings up Atreus' son Pleisthenes as his own. He sends Pleisthenes to kill Atreus, but instead Atreus kills Pleisthenes (assuming him to be the son of Thyestes).

21. Ixion F - Ixion was said to be the first person to kill a relative (his father-in-law, to avoid paying a bride-price). He eventually received purification from Zeus, but then tried to rape Hera. Euripides' play ended with his punishment for this.

22. Oineus F aka Oeneus - King of Calydon in Aetolia (father of Meleager, Tydeus, Deianeira), driven out by his brother Agrios and later avenged by his grandson Diomedes. (Date before 425 BCE since referred to in Aristophanes' Acharnians.)

23. Peleus F - plot uncertain - Peleus, who appears in the Andromache, was the father of Achilles. The play may have dealt with Peleus' old age or with his enmity with Alcastos, one of a series of misfortunes in his earlier life.

24. Polyidos F - Glaukos, son of Minos and Pasiphae, drowns in a jar of honey. His body was found by the seer Polyidos. Minos imprisons Polyidos in the tomb with the body, ordering him to bring it back to life, which with the help of a magic herb he does.

25. Scyriae F aka The Men of Skyros, Skyrioi - The young Achilles, disguised as a girl in the house of Lycomedes of Skyros, makes his daughter Deidameia pregnant.

26. Mysoi F - doubtful attribution to Euripides. The play dealt with the mobilization phase of the Trojan expedition, on analogy with plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus with the same title.

27. Epeus T - only the name of the play survives. Probably the Epeus who constructed the Trojan Horse.

28. Cadmus F - Cadmus and his wife Harmonia are changed into serpents.

29. Lamia F? - Possibly a satyr play, and possibly not a separate play at all but just the character Lamia, who seems to have introduced the Busiris. Lamia was a queen of Libya who became a child-murdering daimon.

30. Skiron F - satyr play.

31. Syleus F - satyr play.

32. Autolycus F - satyr play. (Possibly two plays of this title.)

33. Busiris F - satyr play. See also Lamia.

34. Eurystheus F - satyr play.

The following three plays are of disputed authorship - they may be by Critias (460 BCE - 403 BCE), Plato's uncle and later a leading figure among the hated Thirty Tyrants who imposed a reign of terror on Athens in 404 BCE (see also Sisyphus).

35. Pirithous F - possibly by Critias. Friend of Theseus, who joined him in trying to carry off Persephone from Hades. Traditionally only Theseus escaped, but Euripides (or Critias) had Heracles rescue both of them.

36. Rhadamanthys F - possibly by Critias.

37. Tennes - F - possibly by Critias.

The following group of four plays won second prize in 438 BCE. (The winner that year was Sophocles.) The Alcestis was the fourth play in the group, taking the place of a satyr play (though Heracles' drunkenness may allude to the satyr genre); this is the only known example of such a substitution, but of course so few records remain that it may have been fairly common practice - and see note to Orestes.

38. Cretan Women (438 BCE) T aka Cressae - said to remain "aggravatingly obscure", it's not even clear if the location was Crete or Mycenae. The plot may have concerned some part of the Atreus/Thyestes legends (see 4).
39. Alcmaeon in Psophis (438 BCE) F - Alcmaeon, needing purification after matricide, ends up at Psophis. He receives purification from Phegeus and marries his daughter Arsinoe, but the land becomes barren and he has to move on.
40. Telephus (438 BCE) F - Telephus was king of the Mysians (though in fact a Greek); they successfully repelled the Greek army but he was wounded by Achilles. The play concerns his arrival as a disguised beggar in Argos. He is eventually cured and agrees to guide the Greek army to Troy. The play features Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles and Odysseus, Clytemnestra and the baby Orestes (whom Telephus at one stage takes hostage). It also features Telephus speaking in Troy's defence. Aristophanes burlesqued the play in two of his comedies, the Acharnians and Thesmophoriazusae.
41. Alcestis (438 BCE) C - A surprising and brilliant play. Hints of satyr-play surround the opening dialogue between Apollo and Death, and also the comedy that Heracles brings with him. Yet this only makes the scenes with Alcestis and Admetus more powerfully serious.

42. Cretans (c. 435 BC) F - Pasiphae tries to hide the birth of the Minotaur from Minos (whom, in one fragment, she also holds responsible for her having had sex with a bull). Fr. 472 witnesses to an interest in ecstatic religious ritual that foreshadows the Bacchae.

The following group won third prize in 431 (The winner was Euphorion, with Sophocles second):

43. Philoctetes (431 BCE) F - Sophocles' Philoctetes came later, in 409 BCE.
44. Dictys (431 BCE) F - Dictys was the fisherman who rescued Danae and her infant son Perseus from the sea.
45. Medea (431 BCE) C
46. The Reapers/Theristae (431 BCE - satyr play) T

Medea is one of Euripides' masterpieces and perhaps now his most-read play, because of the aptness of its themes for school use. Like Alcestis but unlike later plays it allows only two speakers (plus the chorus) within a scene. It's also unusual in the extent to which the lead character takes the initiative. What Medea does is of course horrible and doesn't really make sense in rational terms, but it's impossible not to sympathise with her, so much more intelligent than her husband. Jason claims that his new marriage is not motivated by sexual desire but by prudence; immediately after he says this, however, the Chorus continue to interpret his behaviour in terms of blind desire. Medea doesn’t, but she doesn’t accept his rationalization either. She sees his behaviour as a blind and selfish pursuit of royalty. She, a foreigner now made doubly and explicitly aware of what a social encumbrance she is, has been insulted and shamed. What’s more, Jason has betrayed and insulted their children. (When their relationship implodes, both partners end up slighting the children of that union.) Jason accuses Medea of sexual jealousy, but this is a complacent error; Medea expresses no disappointed sexual longing. It’s the minor characters, the Chorus in particular but also the Nurse, who sentimentalize what is happening here into a love-triangle, who define what is happening in erotic terms, who lay stress on Medea’s once-overwhelming passion for Jason and on Jason’s raging desire for Glauce. The central pair do not use this kind of language. Both middle-aged, for them the key issues are pride, control, social position, competition. Jason's speech of self-justification tries to do two things: first, to soothe his own uneasiness at having possibly not acted quite as sensibly and prudently as he’d like to believe, and secondly, to calm his wife’s supposed sexual jealousy. Both efforts are irrelevant to the real sore points. What he completely overlooks (and thus continuously exacerbates) is Medea’s wounded pride, her acute consciousness of being a second-class citizen. Guilelessly, Jason betrays his own feelings; that their life together has utterly failed him, is unworthy of him. He claims to be satisfied with his sons yet immediately argues that they need to be subsumed into a royal family in order to prosper – on their own they cannot. He talks of his sons having an “equal place”, yet even without the awkward fact that Creon has just exiled them, what he describes is clearly not an "equal place", but a tolerated place. Thus Jason seeking to exonerate himself actually presses all Medea’s buttons.

47. The Children of Heracles (c. 430 BCE) C - aka Heracleidae. It survives because of a single manuscript and it's tempting to infer that on its own merits it was not bound to survive - perhaps many of the lost plays were like this. It is episodic and after the scene with the unnamed maiden (Macaria on the basis of other sources) she is not referred to again; Alcmene, who now appears for the first time and dominates the rest of the play, never mentions the death of her grand-daughter when justifying her hatred of Eurystheus. As William Allan has argued for the Andromache, this lack of continuity is not necessarily to be conceived as a problem. Considered as a play about asylum-seekers, both from their own point of view and from that of the host nation, this seems like a play with modern relevance; they deserve protection, they are innocent, heroic, troublesome, toughened by persecution and in the long view not necessarily on your own side. Suppliant plays like this one are a sort of sub-genre of Greek tragedy; more often than not, the host is Athens. The early part of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (first performed posthumously in 401 BCE) has quite a lot in common with this play.

48. Bellerophon (c. 430 BCE) F - aka Bellerophontes. Concerned the tragic outcome of Bellerophon's attempt to storm Mount Olympus on Pegasus (he fell to earth and became a blinded cripple shunning the haunts of men).

49. Stheneboea (before 429 BCE) F - the woman who falsely accused Bellerophon of attempted rape after he repulsed her advances; the play apparently concerned Bellerophon's return to Tyrins after killing the Chimera, and his punishment of Stheneboea.

Hippolytus was from a group of plays that won first prize for Euripides in 428BCE. The other competitors were Iophon (second) and Ion (third).

50. Hippolytus (428 BCE) C - aka Stephanephorus (the Wreath-Bearer) to distinguish it from the earlier Hippolytus the Veiled. Hippolytus goes into exile because of a woman's unjust accusation, like many another male hero of folktale. But a couple of issues modify the parallel with Joseph when accused by Potiphar's wife, or Bellerophon accused by Stheneboea (see previous two plays!), or Phoenix accused by Phthia, or Prince Seyavash accused by his step-mother Sudabeh in the Shahnameh. Phaedra is portrayed as possessed rather than wicked, and she takes her own life. Hippolytus is brashly fanatical, apparently quite unaware of the situation developing around him. Yet at the same time (that dislocation, again) the superb account of his appalling death forces us to concede his absolute innocence.

51. Andromache (c. 425 BCE) C - It has much in common with Orestes - not merely the characters Orestes, Menelaus and Hermione, but the proposal of an outrageous and barely motivated murder which at the last minute comes to nothing - as if part of the thrill is seeing how the dramatist flirts with breaking the rules about how far you can go in embroidering on the received body of legend. Andromache, long neglected because of its lack of Aristotelian unity, has gained recent prominence because of William Allan's book-length study - he argues persuasively that the play's linear procession, how it keeps going and keeps our interest, is what is relevant here. With Andromache our sympathies are clear, but as the play moves into its later phases they become increasingly disturbed - we make a wrenching adjustment to admit Hermione (who has been hateful up to the midway point, but must now be let off), then are briefly pleased with her friendship with Orestes, then are displeased to discover that Orestes is in a killing mood and has orchestrated the death of Neoptolemus (hardly a figure we expected to end up sympathising with). It's a bracing moral switchback. By this time Peleus is the centre of our interests, though he has a few skeletons in his own past too, as Menelaus had enjoyed pointing out.

52. Cresphontes (ca. 425 BCE) F aka Kresphontes. Mentioned in Aristotle's Poetics, talking about the affecting motif of kin-recognition in tragedy: "In the Cresphontes, for instance, Merope intends to kill her son and does not kill him but discovers..." Plutarch admired this scene, too. The plot can be constructed by combining Apollodorus and Hyginus: "Cresphontes had not reigned long in Messenia when he was murdered together with two of his sons. And Polyphontes reigned in his stead, he, too, being of the family of Hercules; and he had for his wife, against her will, Merope, the widow of the murdered king. But Merope had borne to Cresphontes a third son, called Aepytus: him she gave to her own father to bring up. He, when he came to man’s estate..." (Apollodorus). "...came to king Polyphontes and asked for the promised gold, saying that he had slain the son of Cresphontes and Merope. The king ordered him to be hospitably entertained, intending to inquire further of him. He, being very tired, went to sleep, and an old man, who was the channel through whom the mother and son used to communicate, arrives at this moment in tears, bringing word to Merope that her son had disappeared from his protector’s house. Merope, believing that the sleeping stranger is the murderer of her son, comes into the guest-chamber with an axe, not knowing that he whom she would slay was her son: the old man recognized him, and withheld Merope from slaying him. After the recognition had taken place, Merope, to prepare the way for her vengeance, affected to be reconciled with Polyphontes. The king, overjoyed, celebrated a sacrifice: his guest, pretending to strike the sacrificial victim, slew the king, and so got back his father’s kingdom" (Hyginus). It's unclear why the play was named after a character who must have been dead before the action began.

53. Hecabe (c. 424 BCE) C - aka Hecuba. Along with the Phoenician Women and Orestes, the most popular of Euripides' plays in Byzantine times (they are sometimes termed the "Byzantine triad"). The Chorus are Trojan slaves, but there develops a sort of accord between the captive Trojans and the victorious Hellenes. At first this accord is made between Odysseus and Polyxena. The Odysseus of the plays is wily, unscrupulous, and a spokesman for behaviour that the Athenians no longer accepted, e.g. human sacrifice (see also Iphigenia at Aulis). Nevertheless he seems to me an upright character. Later Hecabe and Agamemnon form a different kind of bond. But at the end of the play Polymestor's prophecies disturb what might otherwise seem an equanimity.

54. The Suppliant Women (c. 423 BCE) C - This is another play whose progressions are teasing - is it just episodic? Daniel A. Mendelsohn has pressed the political aspect of the play - Athens' self-image in rapidly changing political circumstances, examined through shifts of gender-behaviour. He also (like Mary Kuntz) emphasises the importance of the Demeter/Persephone myth suggested by the setting. [This play, like the Andromache, doubtless reflects the first phase of the Peloponnesian war in its anti-Spartanism.]

55. Erechtheus (422 BCE) F - King Erechtheus learns from Delphi that Athens can be saved from Thracian invasion only if he agrees to sacrifice one of his three daughters. His wife Praxithea assents; her daughters meanwhile have taken an oath that if one of them is sacrificed, the others will die as well. Erechtheus is killed in the defence, but he and his daughters are honored in cult, and Praxithea becomes the first priestess of the goddess Athena. (Praxithea's speech of assent survives because quoted by the 4th Century orator Lycurgus - translated by Mary R. Lefkowitz here: Creusa (in Ion) is also, she tells us, a daughter of Erechtheus, but was only an infant at the time of these events and so was spared.

56. Phaethon (c. 420 BCE) F - reconstructed by Goethe and more recently in a scholarly edition by James Diggle, 1970. Substantial fragments survive. It's about Phaethon's attempt to prove that his true father was Helios, the sun, and his ill-fated idea of taking the reins of the sun's chariot.

57. Wise Melanippe (c. 420 BCE) F - Compare Captive Melanippe (67). The children are apparently exposed closer to home and discovered by Melanippe's father, who is reconciled to them by divine intervention.

58. Electra (c. 417? BCE) C - On the disconcerting murder of Aegisthus while sacrificing, compare Cresphontes (52). [The date is quite uncertain - anything between 424 and 410 is possible; 413 has been proposed because of those references near the end to the unorthodox story of Helen (a "Forthcoming Attractions" trailer?) and to a fleet in the Sicilian sea. The question of whether this play preceded or followed Sophocles' Electra has been endlessly debated; that the two plays are not independent is clear, yet surprisingly no definite conclusion has been reached. The theory that Sophocles' play was written later seems to have a slight edge at the moment.]

59. Heracles (c. 416 BCE) C - aka Hercules Furens. This is how the strutting Lycus, a simple-minded tyrant, meets his doom (Velacott's translation):

     A shriek is heard from inside the palace.


     Listen – the opening note of a song I long to hear!
     Death is close; and the king
     Knows, and greets it with a groan of terror.

     LYCUS [within]:

     O land of Cadmus, I am treacherously murdered!

(I suppose the shriek is only an inference from the Chorus’ words, but was actually sounded in performance.) The comparison of the shriek to the opening note of a song is a powerful and grim idea (cf. the Chorus-leader's remark to the blinded Polyphemus in Cyclops). No-one on stage or in the audience desires any other fate for Lycus. Still, it makes an effect. Lycus, after all, is ambushed; so was he perhaps right to claim that the great Heracles was a coward to use a bow, and that he never met his enemy face to face? Is it also right, as the play seems to imply, that Heracles is a bit casual about the welfare of his family? Heracles we perceive to be someone who reaches too easily for his weapons. It's what he's good at:

     my hand has work to do...
                                   this club,
     Veteran of many victories...

This upright man becomes a danger to others when he loses his sanity. In fact we will not see Heracles again until after his mad fit. And then..

                                   this bow
     Is anguish to me, yet I cannot part with it. ]

60. Meleager (416 BCE) F - dealt with Meleager's love for Atalanta (possibly a Euripidean addition to the legend of the Calydonian boar) and his death.

The following group won second prize (the winner was Xenocles):

61. Alexander (415 BCE) F - aka Alexandros. This was another name for Paris; the play told the story of the Judgement of the Goddesses, and also why a royal prince was shepherding on Mount Ida, an unexplained feature of older accounts. A romantic play, ending with Priam's acceptance of the shepherd Paris/Alexander as his son.
62. Palamedes (415 BCE) F - stoned to death during siege of Troy following apparent evidence of correspondence with the enemy (the evidence was planted by Agamemnon, Diomedes and Odysseus). During the return from Troy, his father king Nauplius of Euboea took revenge by placing false lights on a promontory so many Greek ships were wrecked. Aeschylus (Palamedes) and Sophocles (Nauplius) also wrote plays on this subject.
63. Trojan Women (415 BCE) C - aka Troades, The Women of Troy. The date has led many commentators to assume a tacit reference to the recent destruction of Melos. At any rate it's a play whose pacifist intent seems exceptionally clear, and irresistible; the most tragic of tragedies and somehow reminiscent of both King Lear and Endgame. We feel unusally certain of what kind of play this is. Philip Vellacott writes very well about it. The play relies on the audience's knowledge of the mythic corpus: for example, to feel assured that Helen will not (as Menelaus claims) be punished with death in Greece, and that Hecabe will go mad rather than accompanying Odysseus.
64. Sisyphus (415 BCE - satyr play) F - A 42-line fragment (arguing that stories about the gods were first invented to strike fear into wrongdoers) quoted by the 2nd century CE skeptic Sextus Empiricus and attributed by him to Critias (see 35 - 37) is now widely thought to be by Euripides and to come from this play; it is the oldest-known naturalistic account of religion. English translation here:

65. Iphigenia among the Taurians (c. 414 BCE) C - aka Iphigenia in Tauris, a Latin title that is often assumed to be English and hence misconstrued. How much of this "counterfactual" story of a still-living Iphigenia was Euripides' own invention is uncertain; the only thing that is definite is that Iphigenia was worshipped in Tauris (Herodotus).

66. Ion (c. 414 BCE) C - After so many, so similar, kinds of plot, Ion comes as a welcome relief - and of course one of the best plays. It seems that the Attic foundation myths were somewhat vague (see also Erechtheus (55)), and Ion is persistently meta-mythological, i.e. it is about myth-making.

67. Captive Melanippe (412 BCE) F - aka Melanippe Desmotis. The argument for the date is controversial and this might in fact be an earlier play than Wise Melanippe (57). Melanippe is the daughter of Aeolus and Hippe. She gives birth to twins by Poseidon. She is sent into exile at the home of the king of Metapontos, where her sons are born and exposed. Reared by shepherds, they overcome a plot against them by the queen, Theano, who commits suicide. They are restored to their mother, who marries the king.

The following two plays were part of the same group. [Matthew Wright has recently proposed that Iphigenia among the Taurians was the third play in the Helen trilogy of 412 BCE - with Helen the first and Andromeda (unchronologically in terms of the mythical events) the second.]

68. Andromeda (412 BCE) F - The play seems to have been a favourite in the Hellenistic period. It apparently began with Andromeda chained to the rock (prior to her rescue by Perseus).
69. Helen (412 BC) C - aka Helena. Its plot turns on an escape from alien captivity whose details are very similar to the escape in Iphigenia in Tauris. In this play Helen is deemed not to have been in Troy at all, a fanciful invention of Stesichorus. Not, of course, an idea that one should import into the Orestes, but...

70. Cyclops (412 BCE or later, satyr play) C - This is the only satyr play by any author to survive complete. Satyric humour is often funny, but the roughness can also be disconcerting (as, in this play, the remarks about gang-raping Helen). The play is also often beautiful; Shelley translated it with a minimum of prudishness, perhaps taking as a challenge his own complaint that no-one ever showed the Greeks as they really were. [If it were ever justified on thematic grounds alone, I would be strongly tempted to link this play with the two foregoing - and I'm delighted to find that Colin Austin and S. Douglas Olson, in their edition of the Thesmophoriazusae, think the same. I also agree with them about the weakness of arguments for a later dating of Cyclops based on supposed allusions to Aristophanes' play (411 BCE) and to Sophocles' Philoctetes (409 BCE).]

The following were traditionally said to be a group, though the tradition is doubtful.. Another tradition (supported by Kannicht) links the Phoenician Women with Antiope and Hypsipyle. Mastronarde (the 1994 editor of Phoenician Women) is sceptical of both. (The obvious connection, I would have thought, is with the Oedipus.) If tradition is wrong, then Oenomaus and Chrysippus might be much earlier plays, since the arguments for the date concern Phoenician Women alone. William Poole proposes linking Oenomaus and Chrysippus with Thyestes to form a Tantalid trilogy.

71. Oenomaus (c. 410 BCE) T - Oenomaus was killed at Pelops' instigation, resulting in Pelops being cursed by Myrtilus, hence the successive misfortunes of the house of Atreus (Agamemnon, Orestes, etc). The actor-turned-orator Aeschines (b. 390 BCE) is known to have played the part of Oenomaus in a 4th century performance of this play.
72. Chrysippus (c. 410 BCE) F - Chrysippus was the bastard son of Pelops; he was loved and forcibly seized by Laius, who was showing him how to drive a chariot. The boy later committed suicide out of shame over his violation, and Pelops cursed Laius with childlessness, as one unworthy to come into contact with children. (Laius subsequently did bear the son Oedipus, but was warned by the oracle of Apollo that the child would kill him.)
73. Phoenician Women (c. 410 BCE) C - aka Phoenissae, Phoinissai.

The Phoenician Women seems to have been a popular play in late antiquity, and it's one of my favourites too. It's spacious and a little bizarre. Euripedes had written other Theban plays but the emphasis in this one is on painting an enormous and inclusive canvas. The tragic focus is diffused by the scale; crowds of characters scurry. The play begins with the usual "I am" scene-setting prologue, this one by Jocasta. Then it has a second prologue, this time Antigone on the walls with her old tutor to view the besieging army: this is a thrilling scene. The Chorus arrive, this crowd of exiles in whom no-one else seems very interested - they dance their own story, placing Thebes in a still larger perspective. Finally a single man appears, suspiciously poking around with his sword - Polyneices, under truce, entering the hostile city. When the drama finally focusses, it does so in physical gesture. The relentlessly centrifugal tendency - directing us to anything but the putatively tragic focus - can also be evinced from: The account of the betrothal of Adrastus' daughters; Teiresias' account of his visit to the Athenians; the conversation about military strategy between Eteocles and Creon .... Or think of the massed weaponry in this play, the splendid narratives on the shields, in contrast to, say, the bow in Heracles. Plurality is intrinsic to the siege of Thebes, with its seven gates. Nevertheless the centrifugal motion threatens to make the play fly apart. It possibly would have been even more gappy in its original form: for example, Creon may not have returned to the stage after Menoeceus' death. However, Phoenician Women in the form it survives has been modified to an uncertain extent - the ending, at least, betrays someone else at work. One of the motives seems to be to tie the play in with Sophocles' Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus. One imagines later readers trying to combine originally separate playtexts to compose a larger narrative of the mythic corpus.

74. Antiope (c. 410 BCE) F - Antiope made pregnant by Zeus; her dying father Nycteus wishes to punish her and made his brother and successor Lycus promise to carry this out. Antiope is later rescued by her sons when Dirce, wife of Lycus, is trying to kill her (plot summary according to Hyginus). [This Lycus is the father of the tyrannical Lycus in Heracles, a character Euripides probably invented.]

75. Hypsipyle (c. 410 BCE) F - Recently reconstructed from around 400 lines in the Oxyrhinchus fragments discovered in 1906. The play concerns the later part of Hyspipyle's colourful legend, when she has been sold to king Lycurgus of Nemeae and is put in charge of his young son, whose death she inadvertently causes.

76. Oedipus (c. 410 BCE) F - "If you write an Electra, then I'm writing an Oedipus!" - that's probably how the conversation went. We may think it surprising, that Euripides should have chosen to work on a story given such classic expression by Sophocles (the date of Sophocles' play is not known, but it's presumed to come from his middle period, say around 425 BCE). But long before that, Aeschylus had written an Oedipus, too (in the same group as the Seven against Thebes), and perhaps the canonization of Sophocles' play awaited Aristotle - after all, it only won second prize. In Euripides' play Oedipus was already blind, an injury sustained during the fight with Laius and his followers.

About 409 BCE, Euripides leaves Athens, first for Thessalian Magnesia (according to tradition), then to the Macedonian court at the invitation of King Archelaus. The following play may have been written to honour the new patron:

77. Archelaus (c. 410 BCE) F - aka Archelaos, Arkhelaos - about a Temenid ancestor, founder of Aegae; the play perhaps seeking to demonstrate the Hellenicity (and not, therefore, barbarianism) of the Macedonians by connecting their mythical origins to Greek divinities; as also the Molossians in Andromache.

78. Orestes (408 BCE) C - Orestes and his gang have an intense hatred of Helen, as can also be seen in Iphigenia among the Taurians. Most people find the murder plot in Orestes unpleasant but this is because they are seeking for moral rectitude in Orestes, Pylades and Electra and that isn't how Euripides sees the story - in fact he rarely attributes anything as simple as moral rectitude to his legendary characters. Politically, Euripides seeks to pull the traditional stories in certain directions. At this stage he sees the Trojan War in utterly negative terms: futile, destructive, a catastrophe. This is also the conception of Orestes, etc. Though they were not involved in the war they directly implicate it as prime cause of their own disasters. The most tangible connection, in this case, is the sacrifice of Iphigenia - a story unknown to Homer, or suppressed by him - which takes on immense significance. Euripides, however, doesn't share their mob-hatred of Helen. Even when he is not claiming (as in Helen) that she was not even involved, it's clear that narrowing the cause of the war down to a single "wicked woman" doesn't impress him (cf. Herodotus). Not that other causes are put forward instead. The true causes of events (in the plays) will always turn out to be the gods. But in reality - and here the Peloponnesian war is the real subject, - scapegoat-hunting is not the way. Tyndareos has already criticized Orestes' earlier matricide convincingly. There, he made the point that Orestes and Pylades ignored any legal processes. They formed their own judgments and proceeded straight to execution. That's exactly what they now attempt to do with Helen.

Pylades' role in this and in other plays about the Orestes legend is curious. He apparently has no important function, yet Greek drama, so limited to essentials by the number of actors, nevertheless found him indispensable. In the Choephori of Aeschylus he is almost a mute, but at the very climax delivers one 3-line speech:

                       Where then are Apollo's words,
     His Pythian oracles? What becomes of men's sworn oaths?
     Make all men living your enemies, but not the gods. (trans. Velacott)

- a speech that feels like Clytemnestra's death-warrant, and all the more impressive since it can't be voiced by either of the two regular actors. Perhaps the idea was to legitimize Orestes' matricide by showing that, at any rate, he did take independent advice. Pylades' one-scene role in Orestes is almost a parody of this: Pylades once again casts his vote for slaughter, but this time his words seem not principled, considered and weighty; on the contrary, frivolous, automatic, senselessly violent. In the Electras of Euripides and Sophocles, Pylades never speaks at all. He has a larger speaking role in the Iphigenia among the Taurians, where Euripides develops what was implicit before, the romantic adventure-story potential of the steadfast pal - something else that is bitterly parodied in Orestes. [According to an anonymous late work On Comedy, Alcestis, Orestes and Sophocles' Electra were pro-satyric plays, i.e. they took the place of a satyr-play. This surprising claim (though we know it was actually true of Alcestis) has encouraged some, including Kannicht, to propose Orestes as the fourth play in the Phoenician Women group.]

406 BCE - Death of Euripides in Macedonia

The following plays were performed together in 405 BCE, comprising a posthumous group that won first prize.

79. Bacchae (405 BCE, posthumous) C - Aeschylus had written quite a number of (lost) plays on Bacchic themes. The Bacchae seems to have retold the same story as Aeschylus' Pentheus; the Edonoi tetralogy (dealing with Lycurgus) seems also an important analogue - and see the comparison in Longinus' On the Sublime, where Euripides is said to have toned down Aeschylus' crude power. These older plays are of course all lost, so the Bacchae now seems an even more unique performance than it really is. In certain respects it is recognized as looking back to an older style of drama i.e. compared with other late plays by Euripides. Nevertheless, I suppose the presentation of Dionysus is an innovation. It is common enough in Greek tragedy for persons to withhold (or not know) their true identity, but disguise is not often employed like it is in later drama (though see Ino (18)). The development that has Pentheus go to spy on the maenads, instead of leading a force against them, may also be Euripides' invention.
80. Iphigenia at Aulis (405 BCE, posthumous) C, but the play may not have have been completed by Euripedes and the surviving text is composite with parts (especially near the beginning and the ending) that look much later. It takes to something of an extreme the tendency to dislocation described in my headnote. As the play draws to a close a strident, barbarian-thrashing patriotism becomes airborne and this is authorized by Iphigenia's unexpected and heroic change of attitude; yet how can our endorsement of this be squared with the largely anti-heroic ditherings of Agamemnon, Menelaus and Achilles, or the presentation of the army as a violent mob? The Iphigenia myth already had pacifist implications in Aeschylus' Agamemnon - a comparison that doesn't really favour Euripides, who gives comparatively little sense of how desperately the expedition against Troy is imperilled by the adverse winds.
81. Alcmaeon in Corinth (405 BCE, posthumous) F - The following addition to the Alcmaeon legend is attributed to Euripides by Apollodorus and probably derives from this play: While driven mad by the Furies, he had two children with Manto, the daughter of Teiresias. These were Amphilocus and Tisiphone. Alcmaeon entrusted them to Creon, the king of Corinth, who raised them. Creon's wife, however, feared that he might marry Tisiphone because of her great beauty, and sold the girl as a slave. Through a great coincidence, it was Alcmaeon who purchased her and kept her as his handmaid, not knowing who she was. When he returned to Corinth to fetch his children, her identity was somehow revealed, and Amphilocus went on to colonize Amphilochian Argos.

And finally...

82. Rhesus (date unknown) C - If this is by Euripides at all, it must be early. In fact nearly all scholars agree that it's a 4th century composition written after Euripides' death. That Euripides did write a Rhesus seems certain. Two fragments of prologue also survive; they are not part of the surviving play, but they may not be part of the original Euripidean drama either. The handling of the chorus, the epiphanies, and the agon are different from what we know of Euripides' practice elsewhere. The midway shift of interest from the Trojans to Odysseus and Diomedes seems to me particularly un-Euripidean (though cf. the switch of attention from Trojan to Greek in Andromache). Not so the prevalent anti-heroics, dropping almost into comedy at times - but you can see why these would impress most readers as a development likely to post-date Euripides' later plays. The motif (early in the play) of "don't attack, send a spy instead", may have been suggested by the Bacchae.

[Extracted from A Brief History of Western Culture. Research facilities provided by the University of Google. Please notify errors to]

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