Skip navigation

Search

The Core Curriculum

Euripides

480 BCE – 406 BCE
Dates are approximate

Portrait Bust of Euripides Roman copy c.340-30 BCE Source Data from: University of California, San DiegoPortrait Bust of Euripides Roman copy c.340-30 BCE Source Data from: University of California, San Diego “Euripides is one of the three Athenian tragedians whose works we possess in more than fragments; indeed, the surviving plays of Euripides outnumber those of Aeschylus and Sophocles combined (seven each compared with Euripides’ eighteen, or if we count the probably spurious Rhesus, nineteen). Some of this is due to chance, but Euripides was the most performed, most read, most widely admired tragedian of the later Greco-Roman world, and arguably the most influential on later drama. From the evidence available for comparative judgments (admittedly sparse), his works appear to have offered the greatest range of moods and tones, provided the most unsettling perspectives, and engendered the greatest controversy. Euripidean drama still challenges theatergoers, readers, and critics alike.

“Very little can be said with certainty about Euripides’ life. The anecdotal information in the ancient “Life of Euripides” is suspect.... We do know that Euripides had only recently died when the comic poet Aristophanes produced his Ranae (Frogs, which stages a contest in the Underworld between Euripides and Aeschylus) in 405. But the story that the poet went into exile at the court of Macedon late in life, embittered by his lack of success as a dramatist and the ridicule to which he was subjected in comedy, may be apocryphal.... The claim in the “Life” that the poet died torn apart by wild dogs while in exile certainly looks like an invention prompted by the fate of Pentheus in Bacchae.

“Despite Aristophanes’ repeated joke that Euripides’ mother was a vegetable vendor, there is every reason to believe that he came from comfortable circumstances.... The amusing caricatures of Euripides in Aristophanes, where he appears as a character in Acharnenses (Acharnians) and Thesmophoriazusae (Women at the Thesmophoria) as well as Frogs, no doubt contributed to his reputation as an intellectual filled with newfangled ideas, by turns clever, impractical, sarcastic, and fastidious. They also give the clear impression that, however outré and off-putting as he may have seemed to some, others adored his powerfully theatrical and intellectually probing dramas.”

from Peter Burian. "Euripides."  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. Oxford Reference Online.

Historical Contexts

The Medea

Medea.jpg

Medea Killing Her Child. Amphora. 4th c. BCE: Louvre Museum. Paris, France. ArtStor: Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts ArchiveMedea Killing Her Child. Amphora. 4th c. BCE: Louvre Museum. Paris, France. ArtStor: Erich Lessing Culture and Fine Arts Archive
“There is much in Euripides’ plays that reflects the intellectual ferment of his day. From the beginning, he was linked to the new thinkers who were flooding Athens with radical ideas, in particular those philosophers, teachers of rhetoric, and “life coaches” known as Sophists, but also scientists and philosophers like Anaxagoras. Euripides’ plays are awash with advanced and sometimes controversial ideas; the ancient aristocrats of his dramas, and even their servants, are notoriously and anachronistically cognizant of the latest intellectual trends in philosophy and theology. Euripides found much he could adapt for his own purposes in contemporary speculations about the relationship between perception, language, and truth, between what is in the nature of things (physis) and what is mere convention (nomos). The Sophists’ fascination with argument—and winning through clever rhetoric in a contest of arguments—is reflected again and again in the opposition of rhetorically sophisticated speeches in Euripidean debate scenes. And yet, he was never simply carried along on contemporary intellectual currents , as one might suppose from Aristophanes’ parodies, with their suggestions of relativism and rejection of traditional beliefs....

“The social and political upheavals of Athens in the latter part of the fifth century also have a bearing on our understanding of Euripidean drama. With the exception of Alcestis, all the surviving dramas date from the period of the Peloponnesian War, which ended in ignominious defeat for Athens shortly after  Euripides’ death. The Athens of Euripides’ first fifty years had played a crucial role in defeating the Persian Empire, and went on to perfect the characteristic institutions of the democracy and consolidate an Aegean empire. The war, which began in 431, led to a series of increasingly dangerous struggles, internal as well as external, that shook the confidence of the state, subjected its people to hardships, and eventually threatened the city's very existence. Over against the plays of Aeschylus, written at the peak of Athens’ post–Persian War glory and Periclean ambition, surviving Euripidean drama seems to suffer (or benefit) from yet another kind of belatedness.”

 

from Peter Burian. "Euripides."  The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. Oxford Reference Online.

Bacchae

“The Bacchae, as we know it, was first produced in Athens under the direction of Euripides’ son, also called Euripides, in perhaps 405 BC, a year or two after his father’s death, but when the tragedian first presented the play he was in Macedonia at the court of Archelaus (…) Approval for the production of the play would have been given in the summer of 406. The Peloponnesian war had been dragging on for 25 years, and the military situation was getting progressively worse for the Athenians. They were no longer able to enjoy unchallenged command of the Aegean with their fleet, as the Spartans now had naval forces capable of taking on the Athenian triremes. At the macro-level, the balance of political and economic power had shifted in the favour of the Spartans, as the Persians had decided to make sure that the Athenians could not win the war. The immediate crisis in 406 arose first from the Spartan victory in a naval battle at Notium, and then from a naval battle at Arginusae, which the Athenians won, but turned into a disaster, because the commanders were unable on account of the weather conditions to pick up the survivors. The political fallout from these two battles was that after Notium the career of the charismatic commander, Alcibiades, was over, and secondly that the generals who were at Arginusae were collectively held responsible for the failure to pick up the stranded men. The trial of the generals was constitutionally invalid and undermined such military leadership as Athens still enjoyed. On the Spartan side, Lysander took command of the axis fleet and campaigned north as far as Lampsacus on the Hellespont. Across the straits was the Athenian fleet at Aegospotamoi. The Athenian officers refused to take the advice of the experienced Alcibiades, as he had been discredited politically. Lysander duped the Athenians into acting as though he was not going to initiate an action. But he did, and the Athenians lost the battle, and so also the war. That battle would have occurred a few months after the performance of the Bacchae in Athens.

But perhaps of more relevance here is the point that from early in Archelaus’ reign there was a rapprochement between Athens and Macedon, because it served Athenian strategic interests. In 410 Athens helped Archelaus to seize control of Pydna, and Archelaus obliged by keeping Athens supplied with timber for their ships and oars. Indeed, in perhaps 407/6 BC Archelaus was honoured by the Athenian Assembly with the titles Honorary Consul (Proxenos) and Benefactor. So when Euripides was in Macedon, he would not have been there in defiance of anything like an atmosphere of hostility to Macedon, however much Athenians looked down on Macedonians as a lesser breed.

A similar point could be made about the significance of Lydia for the Athenians c. 405 BC. In the Bacchae Dionysus has arrived in Thebes from Lydia and he is accompanied by Lydian women. The chief city of Lydia, Sardis, was the capital of the Persian viceroy in Asia Minor. Athenian troops were fighting in Lydia in 409, but (…) Alcibiades was negotiating with the Persian satrap Tissaphernes (Thucydides 8, 81 sq), and in about 408 Athenians were trying to win Tissaphernes over (Hornblower 1991:149). Thus for the Athenian audience of the Bacchae Lydia was oriental and “the other”, but at the same time a territory for which they had to have a healthy respect.”

Source: ATKINSON, J.. “Euripides’ Bacchae in its historical context.” Akroterion, [S.l.], v. 47, mar. 2012. ISSN 2079-2883. Available at: <http://akroterion.journals.ac.za/pub/article/view/106/118>. Date accessed: 23 Oct. 2015. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.7445/47-0-106.