Responding to the great bloodshed of young men, women, and virgins he experienced during the Peloponnesian War, Euripides exposes the horrors of war and its damaging effects on humans, particularly on women, in his war plays. Euripides’s dramatic tragedies appeal to our sense of pity and call for peace.
The acme of Euripides’s literary genius coincided with the Peloponnesian War. As such, it isn’t surprising that his later plays deal with war, slavery, and sexual degeneracy—all things that had devastated the once splendid city. Electra, Hecuba, Andromache, The Trojan Women, and Iphigenia in Aulis are all set during the Trojan War. Euripides isn’t so much depreciating the heroic ideal of that war as much as he is providing extensive social commentary on the consequences of the Peloponnesian War as the long-ago war in Euripides’s plays parallels the ongoing one devastating Greece. Moreover, his war plays examine who suffers most from the horrors of war and what becomes of humans as a result. His plays are, therefore, esoteric commentaries on the tragic consequences of the Peloponnesian War as well as reflections on the importance of pity to bring healing and peace to a battered and bloodied world.
Euripides was no proto-feminist though contemporary feminist readings often misconstrue the gynocentric nature of his plays. Euripides often depicted women as nymphomaniacs, and Aristophanes satirized this side of Euripides in Thesmophoriazusae. However, Euripides was not without a strong sense of empathy for the plight of women. After all, it is from his pen that we see the plight of women in war. Euripides’s plays are meant to shock his audience into pity, thus making him the great tragic playwright of pity in the Greek world.
The Trojan Women was written on the eve of the gambit which would ultimately bring about the downfall of Athens: the Sicilian Expedition. Athens’ current moment in history, then, mirrored that of the Argives—a sea expedition for a faraway conquest. The play may have very well been an appeal for peace. After all, Euripides loathed war and exposed its naked hollowness in his plays which do not focus on the Trojan War itself but its disastrous consequences for those involved.
In the war plays a haunting image recurs: the separation of child from mother—from her arms or womb—which ends in death. Astyanax is ripped from the arms of Andromache. Iphigenia releases herself from the warm arms of her mother. Polyxena is also taken away from Hecuba. In its more brutal form, Agave butchers her own son at the dramatic conclusion of the Bacchae, and Medea slaughters her children after having smothered them in a coldly affectionate embrace.
Iphigenia’s death, her separation from her mother, is the most noble—in some sense—of the child sacrifices that Euripides depicts in his various war tragedies. Iphigenia in Aulis conveys the image of a voluptuous woman being whisked away by lustful force. In his opening monologue, Agamemnon speaks of how the Greek army had assembled at Aulis. “He fell in love. She fell in love, and he carried her off to his ranch in the Idan hills,” Agamemnon says, referring to the elopement of Paris and Helen. Helen is taken away from the bedchambers and arms of Menelaus, thus sparking the Trojan War.
Or was it?
The third choral ode reminds us of the lust-infested environment of the Trojan War. Helen is the offspring of a rape. She is the daughter of Leda, thanks to the advances of Zeus. The chorus of women sing of the doom that has befallen Troy and its women: “All this because you, Helen, child of Leda and the arch-necked swan. If the story they tell is true that the swan was really Zeus; or is this only fable culled from poetic annals not worth knowing?”
The master ironist ends with a poetic twist. Is it important to know the fable of Helen’s birth by rape? Euripides suggests that it is. In fact, omitting the fact that Helen was the child of such sexual violence depreciates the context and recurring images of lustful violence in Euripides’s play. Not only is Helen taken away by Paris by force, but Helen herself was the offspring of a forceful advances of a high god onto a princess. Lust knows no boundaries; likewise, war knows no boundaries. What was conceived in lust will bring lust and, ultimately, misery.
Even Agamemnon, hardly an upstanding and noble figure, speaks an ironic truth when he says, “The Greek is possessed by a kind of lust to sail at once to this foreign land and put an end to the raping of Greek wives. They will kill my daughters in Argos. They will kill you and me if I break my pact with Artemis.”
It is true that Agamemnon had vowed to sacrifice his virgin daughter to procure safe passage to Troy as atonement for killing the sacred deer of Artemis, but Agamemnon’s words near the conclusion of the play also reveal the contradictions surrounding Helen’s departure from Greece to Troy and the central role of lust in inciting the Trojan War. Earlier he had said she had fallen in love with Paris and seemingly joined with him on her own free will. Here, Agamemnon reveals the darker and older account of Helen’s forceful abduction by the deviant Paris. Helen, though, is not without blame.
The circumstances surrounding her persona is one of unmitigated sexual lust, be it with Menelaus or Paris. Perhaps this is fitting given that she was born of Zeus’s uncontrollable sexual appetite. In any case, Euripides subtly reveals that the Trojan War was born from rape: first, the rape of Leda by Zeus, which gave birth to Helen; second, the rape of Helen by Paris, which is implied when he says that the Greek army is intent on ending the “raping of Greek wives.”
When Achilles returns to speak with Clytaemnestra after having failed to persuade the Greek soldiers to release Iphigenia, the “uproar among the troops” reveals that in lust there can be no marriage or family. In the violence wrought by lust there can only be blood and bruises. Achilles was earlier introduced as a gullible, hot-rod boyfriend. His hair, body, and armor shined and dazzled all. He was the image of beauty and perfection. Returning to Clytaemnestra he is bruised and soiled in dirt and mud. He barely escaped with his life.
Achilles’s hatred toward Agamemnon has been well-known ever since Homer recounted their rivalry in the Iliad. If Euripides’s account of the feud between the two great Argive heroes of the Trojan War is true, then Achilles had been Agamemnon’s unwitting pawn, and it is understandable why he hates Agamemnon. Clytaemnestra and Iphigenia were under the impression that the now eligible daughter was to be wed and believed Achilles to be the chosen groom. Achilles, when it was earlier revealed that Agamemnon had used his name to deceive Iphigenia, was outraged, “No, King Agamemnon has insulted me. He should have asked my permission if he wanted to use my name to trap his child. It was my name that made Clytaemnestra bring her to him.”
Yet Achilles’s outrage is somewhat ambiguous. It seems like vanity is the primary reason for Achilles’s rage. He was distraught that his name would forever be tarnished as the lure of the innocent Iphigenia to her death. He doesn’t seem to have that much concern for Iphigenia initially, though he somewhat haphazardly redeemed himself in his attempt to save Iphigenia from the bloodlust of the army.
The atmosphere of deceit, lust, and rape is what makes the ending of the play so tragic but so powerful. Iphigenia willingly becomes the innocent sacrifice. Up to this point we have been reminded of constant misconduct and rape. Zeus raped Leda. Paris abducted Helen. Agamemnon deceived his family. In the midst of this storm that would make even Lucifer smile, Iphigenia—that white-cloaked, ruddy-faced, flowery-haired woman—stands out as the only truly noble individual in the play.
This does not make her death and separation from Clytaemnestra less tragic. It serves to magnify our rage at Agamemnon who tries to rationalize his actions and present himself as a helpless and hapless man forced to do what he did by the gods. Agamemnon refuses to take responsibility for his actions, and really no one takes responsibility for his or her actions throughout the play. The chaos can only be remedied by the one heroine who takes responsibility for her actions and assumes the responsibilities of others. That is what makes her separation from Clytaemnestra so touching and moving.
But we should not become so attached to Iphigenia’s heroic self-sacrifice which allowed the Greeks to safely journey and lay waste to Troy. That is not Euripides’s point. Instead, he wanted to show the hollowness of war itself and the tragic sacrifice of innocent victims, often virgin women.
Indeed, war and sacrifice go together, a fact which only intensifies the barbarism of war. Why did Iphigenia have to die? To secure the safe voyage of the Greek army who in a decade-long war would cause the deaths of thousands. The sacrifice of Iphigenia did not bring an end to death. It only served to bring further death. The haunting image of a fertile daughter being sacrificed for the end of war is the most scandalous image that Euripides can produce to reveal the horrifying reality of war: It is the coming-of-age daughters who suffer most from war.
What makes Iphigenia’s death stand apart from the other children torn from the arms of their mothers is that hers is willing. (Though Euripides also writes a play in which Iphigenia survives, perhaps in part due to her nobility in bearing the wrongful misdeeds and irresponsibility of all parties involved in her death.) The same cannot be said for the screaming Astyanax when he is torn from the loving arms of Andromache in The Trojan Women.
Like Iphigenia in Aulis, The Trojan Women gives a contradictory account of Helen’s role in the origin of the Trojan War. Nevertheless, lust still permeates the environment—at least concerning Helen’s role in bringing misery to Hecuba, Andromache, and the litany of other Trojan widows who are now suffering under the tyrannical yoke of concubinal slavery. As the Leader says, “Troy, unhappy Troy, where so many thousands of young men were lost all for one woman’s sake, one wanton lust!”
The death of Astyanax is a haunting image. Astyanax runs back to Andromache and hides in the comfort of her arms. Talthybius, the reluctant pawn of violence, wrenches Astyanax from Andromache’s comforting and loving arms. As he tears Astyanax away, the boy screams in pain and sorrow, and he is flung from the battlements of Troy. Such a spectacle on stage must have struck the heart of the Greek audience who fancied themselves the pinnacle of civilization and humanity. But Euripides mocks this self-conception of exceptionalism as Andromache yells at the Greek soldiers, “You barbarians, what un-Greek cruelties can you invent? Must you kill a child—wholly innocent?”
After throwing Astyanax from the walls headfirst, the Greek soldiers return carrying him on a shield. At first glance one might think that the Greeks are treating his deceased and mangled body with a certain respect and honor. They have, after all, brought him back on a shield to his mother for a burial. They have even washed him clean of the blood and dirt. But the evidence of bruises and mangled limbs makes the image of Astyanax on the shield a cruel mockery of a sleeping child.
But the mother is absent for the return. She has been sold into slavery to Neoptolemus. Instead, it is Hecuba who is present to receive the bruised and battered corpse of Astyanax. She weeps in place of Andromache and says, “It is not you but I, your grandmother, an old cityless, childless crone, that has to bury your torn body. Wasted, lost forever, all those cuddles, all that care, all that watching you while you sleep.”
Euripides’s literary genius is revealed in Hecuba’s lament. He links the image of the dead Astyanax on the shield to the image of the peacefully sleeping Astyanax with Andromache watching over him. Neither can share each other’s love anymore. This image moves the audience to tears as Hecuba embraces the lifeless body of her grandson.
In The Trojan Women, Hecuba is presented as a pitiable woman who has had everything torn away from her. Her surviving daughters are sold into slavery or killed. Andromache, more a daughter to Hecuba than Helen ever was, is also carried away into slavery. The theme of virgin desolation remains: Earlier in the play, the Greeks snatch Cassandra away from Hecuba. Hecuba laments, “I saw my virgin daughters, bred for bridegrooms of the highest rank, torn from my arms and all their breeding thrown to foreigners.”
Euripides’s plays depict war without a romantic overcoat and with all its shocking tragedies. Children are separated from mothers—into captivity or death—in the most gruesome and barbaric way.
The eponymous play Hecuba continues the ruin of Priam’s pitiable wife. Cassandra and Andromache have been taken away. Astyanax is dead. Now Polyxena, Hecuba’s last remaining daughter, is to be torn away from her. Polyxena prophesies her own death to Hecuba:
Pitiable woman, you will see me, your pitiable whelp, like a heifer bred in the mountains, torn from your arms and sent down to Hades with my throat cut, to the darkness under the earth, where I, unhappy Polyxena, shall lie among the dead.
Hecuba has nothing but hatred for Helen. This hatred is motivated by her love for Troy, for her dead children and husband, and for Polyxena. When Odysseus breaks the news of Polyxena’s fate, Hecuba implores Odysseus to kill Helen:
[Achilles] should have asked for Helen to be slaughtered at his grave. She brought him to his destruction at Troy… I beseech you not to tear my daughter from my arms. Do not kill her. We have dead bodies enough. This girl is my delight. In her I forget my sorrows. She is my comfort and takes the place of many things. She is my city, my nurse, my staff, my guide.
It is worthy to note that Hecuba associates her last surviving daughter with her city. Homer says that the bad man is he who is “lost to the clan, lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways, that one who lusts for all the horrors of war.” In a heart-wrenching moment, Hecuba offers herself as a substitute on the sacrificial pyre so that Polyxena may live.
But Hecuba’s offer of replacement is good enough for the Greeks. Polyxena must be sacrificed. In another scene that moves the heart but provokes shock and rage, Polyxena kisses her mother goodbye:
No, my dear mother, give me your sweet hand, and let me press my cheek to yours. For never again shall I look upon the radiant circle of the sun. This is the final time. You are listening to my last words. O my mother who gave me birth, I am going away to the Underworld.
Polyxena is subsequently taken away and killed at the grave of Achilles where her blood pours over his tomb.
Euripides portrays the further ruin of Hecuba: from a truly “pitiable woman” to a ravenous dog. He does so not to shun Hecuba for her own barbaric revenge on Polymestor, the killer of her youngest son, Polydorus, but to demonstrate the shocking consequences of war. Hecuba transforms from a “most unhappy woman” to a “dog with fire-red eyes” because she has been “lost to clan, lost to the hearth, lost to the old ways” and finally consumed by “the horrors of war.” The descent of Hecuba is truly tragic: Having lost her family and fatherland, she becomes a murderer like those barbarous Argives.
The play opens in the tent of Agamemnon’s captives. A specter of death looms over the play as Polydorus’s ghost is the first character to speak. Of course, the play ends in death when Hecuba and the captive women blind Polymestor and kill his sons. That which began in captivity and death ends in captivity and death. When we are slaves to war, we become conduits of death.
Euripides’s war plays center on women. Iphigenia, Hecuba, Andromache, Cassandra, Polyxena, and Helen all feature prominently. This concentration on the suffering of women, as well as children, reveals the bleak truth that war is most destructive to women. We see virgin brides sacrificed and murdered. We see mothers and grandmothers deprived of the fruits of their womb. We even see a woman who once asked innocent children to be spared become a killer of innocent children when she loses her family, hearth, and homeland.
Euripides doesn’t romanticize war. He exposes its horror and bloodshed and shows us, bleakly and starkly, war’s damaging effects on humans. We mustn’t forget that Euripides composed the plays during the Peloponnesian War. Responding to the great bloodshed of young men, women, and virgins, Euripides’s dramatic tragedies call for peace.
It is hard to ascertain whether Euripides really saw the family as important as Sophocles or Aristotle does. But what is clear is that war destroys families. The death of Astyanax, the culling of the womb, is evidence of that.
To Euripides who experienced the carnage of war, those who glorify and romanticize war are often men who have never loved and never had a family. Euripides lost his own son, Xenophon, in 429 B.C. at the outbreak of hostilities between Athens and Sparta. The loss of his son in war undoubtedly prompted his sentiments toward women. A society that is enslaved by war is a society that cannot bring life into the world.
The war plays of Euripides underscore this reality and hauntingly so. But there is yet something profound and healing in these war plays: pity. Pity is the great pathological feeling that Euripides’s plays rouse. The shocking and scandalous imagery that Euripides uses prompts his audience to pity the victims of wanton sacrifice, cruelty, and butchery. Pity offers a way out of that society enslaved by hatred and war.
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Note: The citations of Iphigenia in Aulis and The Trojan Women are taken from Paul Roche’s translations. The citations from Hecuba are taken from James Morwood’s translation.
The featured image is “Andromaque” (1883) by Georges Rochegrosse (1859–1938) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.