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The Core Curriculum

Historical context for Euripides' Bacchae

Relates to: 

“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.

Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino. Attic cosmetics lid, ca. 450-425 BCE. (Wikimedia Commons) In the Bacchae Euripides portrays the powerful interplay between desire and reason in human nature.Pentheus torn apart by Agave and Ino. Attic cosmetics lid, ca. 450-425 BCE. (Wikimedia Commons) In the Bacchae Euripides portrays the powerful interplay between desire and reason in human nature.

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.”


Excerpted From:

Atkinson, J. “Euripides’ Bacchae in its historical context.” Akroterion, [S.l.], v. 47, mar. 2012