Skip navigation

The Core Curriculum

Historical Context for The Medea by Euripides

Relates to: 

Medea About to Murder Her Children by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, 1862 (Wikimedia Commons)Medea About to Murder Her Children by Eugène Ferdinand Victor Delacroix, 1862 (Wikimedia Commons) “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.”


Excerpted From:

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