Euripides and His Age, by Gilbert Murray, , at sacred-texts.com
Our Greek historians, with Thucydides at their head, are practically unanimous in associating with the Peloponnesian War a progressive degradation and embitterment in Greek public life, and a reaction against the old dreams and ideals. We can measure the change by many slight but significant utterances.
When Herodotus records his opinion that in the Persian Wars the Athenians had been "the Saviours of Hellas" he has to preface the remark by a curious apology (VII. 139): "Here I am compelled by necessity to express an opinion which will be offensive to most of mankind, but I cannot refrain from putting it in the way which I believe to be true." He was writing at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, and by that time Athens was not the Saviour but "the Tyrant
[paragraph continues] City." Her "allies" had from time to time refused to serve or tried to secede from the alliance; and one by one she had reduced them to compulsory subjection. The "League" had become confessedly an "Empire."
Even Pericles, the great statesman of the good time, who had sought and achieved so many fine ends, had failed to build up a free League based on a representative elected body. The possibility of such a plan had hardly yet been conceived in the world, though a rudimentary system of international councils did in some places exist between neighbouring villages; and Pericles must not be personally blamed for an error, however fatal, which no one living knew how to avoid. But he realized at last in 430 B.C. what Athens had come to (Thuc. II. 63): "Do not imagine you are fighting about a simple issue, the subjection or independence of certain cities. You have an Empire to lose, and a danger to face from those who hate you for your empire. To resign it now would be impossible—if at this crisis some timid and inactive spirits are hankering after Righteousness even at that price! For by this time your empire has become a Despotism (Tyrannis), a thing which it is
considered unjust to acquire, but which can never be safely surrendered."
The same thought is emphasized more brutally by Cleon (Thuc. III. 37):
"I have remarked again and again that a democracy cannot govern an empire, and never more clearly than now. … You do not realize that when you make a concession to the allies out of pity, or are led away by their specious pleading, you commit a weakness dangerous to yourselves without receiving any gratitude from them. Remember that your empire is a Despotism exercised over unwilling men who are always in conspiracy against you." "Do not be misled," he adds a little later, "by the three most deadly enemies of empire, pity and charm of words and the generosity of strength" (Thuc. III. 40).
So much for the ideals of chivalry and freedom and "Sophia": for I think the second of Cleon's "enemies" refers especially to the eloquent wisdom of the philosophers. And as for democracy we do not hear now that "the very name of it is beautiful": we hear that it is no principle on which to govern an empire. And later on we shall hear Alcibiades, an Athenian of democratic antecedents, saying at Sparta:
[paragraph continues] "Of course all sensible men know what democracy is, and I better than most, from personal experience; but there is nothing new to be said about acknowledged insanity" (Thuc. VI. 89).
The ideals failed, and, if we are to believe our contemporary authors, the men failed too. Pericles, with all his errors, was a man of noble mind; he was pure in motive, lofty, a born ruler; he led his people towards "beauty and wisdom," and he wished it to be written on his grave that no Athenian had put on mourning through his act. Cleon, they all tell us, was a bellowing demagogue; violent, not over honest, unscrupulous, blundering; only resolute to fight for the demos of Athens till he dropped and to keep the poor from starving at whatever cost of blackmailing the rich and flaying the allied cities. And when he—by good luck, as Thucydides considers—was killed in battle, he was succeeded by Hyperbolus, a caricature of himself—as a pun of the comic poets’ puts it, a "Cleon in hyperbole." This picture has been subjected to just criticism in many details, but it represents on the whole the united voice of our ancient witnesses.
One character only shines out in this
period with a lurid light. Alcibiades, so far as one can understand him at all from our fragmentary and anecdotal records, must have been something like a Lord Byron on a grand scale, turned soldier and statesman instead of poet. His disastrous end and his betrayal of all political parties have probably affected his reputation unfairly. Violent and unprincipled as he certainly was, the peculiar dissolute caddishness implied in the anecdotes is probably a misrepresentation of the kind that arises so easily against a man who has no friends. It needs an effort to imagine what he looked like before he was found out. Of noble birth and a nephew of Pericles; famous for his good looks and his distinguished, if insolent, manners; a brilliant soldier, an ambitious and far-scheming politician; a pupil of the philosophers and an especially intimate friend of Socrates, capable both of rising to great ideas and of expounding them to the multitude; he was hailed by a large party as the destined saviour of Athens, and seems for a time at least to have made the same impression upon Euripides. Even in the Suppliant Women, peace-play as it is, Euripides congratulates Athens on possessing in Theseus "a general good and young," and critics have connected the phrase with the
election of Alcibiades, at a very early age, to be General in the year 420. More significant perhaps is the curious case of the Andromache. The ancient argument tells us definitely that it was not produced in Athens. And we find from another source that it was produced by one Democrates or Timocrates. Now Euripides had a friend called Timocrates, who was an Argive; so it looks as if the play had been produced in Argos. This would be astonishing but by no means inexplicable. It was an old Athenian policy to check Sparta by organizing a philo-Athenian league in the Peloponnese itself (Ar. Knights, 465 ff.). The nucleus was to consist in three states, Argos, Elis and Mantinea, which had been visited by Themistocles just after the Persian wars and had set up democracies on the Athenian model. It was Alcibiades who eventually succeeded in organizing this league in 420, and it seems likely that the Andromache was sent to Argos for production in much the same spirit in which Pindar used to send his Chorus of Dancers with a new song to compliment some foreign king. The play seems to contain a reference to the Peloponnesian War (734), it indulges in curiously direct denunciations of the Spartans (445 ff., 595 ff.), and the Spartan Menelaus
is the villain of the piece—a more stagey villain than Euripides in his better moments would have permitted. We have also one doubtful external record of our poet's temporary faith in Alcibiades. In the year 420 there fell an observance of the Olympian Festival, the greatest of all the Pan-Hellenic Games, which carried with it a religious truce. Alcibiades succeeded in getting Sparta convicted of a violation of this truce, and consequently excluded from the Festival, which was a marked blow at her prestige. Then, entering himself as a competitor, he won with his own horses a whole series of prizes, including the first, in the four-horse chariot competition. And Plutarch, in his Life of Alcibiades, refers to a Victory Ode which was written for him on this occasion, "as report goes, by the poet Euripides" (ch. 11). This revival of the Pindaric Epinikion for a personal victory would fit in with the known character of Alcibiades; and it would be a sharp example of the irony of history if Euripides consented to write the Ode.
Euripides’ delusion was natural and it was short-lived. The Suppliant Women points towards peace, and the true policy of Alcibiades was to make peace impossible. And even apart from that the ideals of the two men
were antipathetic. The matter is summed up in the Frogs of Aristophanes, produced in 405, when the only question remaining about Alcibiades was whether he was more dangerous to the city as an honoured leader or as an enemy and exile. The two great poets of the Dead are asked for their advice on this particular subject and their answers are clear. Aeschylus says: "Submit to the lion's whelp"; Euripides rejects him with three scathing lines (Frogs, 1427 ff., cf. 1446 ff.). Long before the date of the Frogs Alcibiades had probably grown to be in the mind of Euripides the very type and symbol of the evil times.
All Greece—we have the emphatic and disinterested testimony of Thucydides for the statement—was gradually corrupted and embittered by the long war. Probably all war, as it accustoms people more and more to desperate needs and desperate expedients for meeting them, and sets more and more aside the common generosities and humanities of life, tends to some degradation of character. But this particular war was specially harmful. For one thing it was a struggle not simply between two foreign powers, but between two principles, oligarchy and democracy. In almost all the cities of
the Athenian alliance there were large numbers of malcontent rich, who were only too ready, if chance offered, to overthrow the constitution, massacre the mob, and revolt to Sparta. In a good many of the cities on the other side there were masses of discontented poor who had been touched by the breath of democratic doctrines, and were anxious for a chance to cut the throats of the ruling Few. It was like the state of things produced in many cities of Europe by the French Revolution. A secret civil strife lay in the background behind the open war; and the open war itself was a long protracted struggle for life or death. Probably the most high-minded man when engaged in a death-grapple fights in much the same way as the most low-minded. And there can be no doubt that as the toils of war closed tighter round Athens, and she began to feel herself fighting, gasp by gasp, for both her empire and her life, the ideals of the Saviour of Hellas fell away from her. She fought with every weapon that came.
Such times called forth naturally the men that suited them. The assembly cared less to listen to decent and thoughtful people, not to speak of philosophers. It was feeling
bitter and fierce and frightened and it liked speakers who were feeling the same. The same fear that made it cruel made it also superstitious. On one occasion the whole city went mad with alarm because of a prank played on some ancient figures of Hermes. On another a great army was lost because it and its general were afraid to move during an eclipse of the moon. So soon had Anaxagoras been forgotten.
Is this the result, one is inclined to ask, of the great ideals of democracy and enlightenment? Of course the old Tory type of Greek historian, like Mitford, revelled in an affirmative answer. But a more reflective view of history suggests a different explanation. We must distinguish carefully between the two notions, Enlightenment and Democracy. They happen to have gone together in two or three of the greatest periods of human progress and we are apt to regard them as somehow necessarily allied. But they are not. Doubtless Democracy is itself an exalted conception and belongs naturally to the ideas of the Enlightenment, just as does the belief in Reason, in the free pursuit of knowledge, in justice to the weak, the wish to be right rather than to be victorious, or the hatred of violence and superstition as such. But the trouble is
that, in a backward and untrained people, the victory of democracy may result in the defeat of the other exalted ideas. The Athenian democracy as conceived by Pericles, Euripides or Protagoras was a free people, highly civilized and pursuing "wisdom," free from superstition and oppression themselves and helping always to emancipate others. But the actual rustics and workmen who voted for Pericles had been only touched on the surface by the "wisdom" of the sophists. They liked him because he made them great and admired and proud of being Athenians. But one must suspect that, when they were back at their farms and the spell of Pericles’ "wisdom" was removed, they practised again the silliest and cruelest old agricultural magic, were terrified by the old superstitions, beat their slaves and wives and hated the "strangers" a few miles off, just as their grandfathers had done in the old times. What seems to have happened at the end of the wartime is that, owing largely to the democratic enthusiasm of the sophistic movement in Athens, the common people is strongly in power; owing to the same movement its old taboos and rules of conduct are a little shaken and less able to stand against strong temptation; but meantime the true moral lessons
of the enlightenment, the hardest of all lessons for man to learn, have never worked into their bones. Just as the French Revolution called into power the brutal and superstitious peasant who was the product of the Old Régime and could never rise to the ideas of the Revolution, so the Athenian enlightenment had put into power the old unregenerate mass of sentiment that had not been permeated by the enlightenment. Cleon was no friend of sophists, but their avowed enemy. And when he told the Assembly in its difficulties simply to double the tribute of the allies and sack their towns if they did not pay; when he urged the killing in cold blood of all the Mitylenean prisoners, he was preaching doctrines that would probably have seemed natural enough in the old days, before any sophists had troubled men's minds with talk about duties towards dirty foreigners. And the people who followed his lead were the same sort of people who would naturally be terrified about the mutilation of a taboo image or an eclipse of the divine moon. What they had, perhaps, acquired from the sophistic movement was a touch of effrontery. Boeotians or Acarnanians might commit crimes, when they needed to, by instinct, without stating their reasons: in Athens you had at least to
discuss the principle of the proposed crime and accept it for what it was worth. A cynic or a hypocrite trained in a sophistic school might offer occasional help with the theory.
Perhaps the earliest touch of Euripides’ bitterness against his country comes, as we have seen, in the Hecuba (p. 86). But the period we have just reached, soon after the Heracles, is marked by one of the most ironic and enigmatical plays he ever wrote. The Ion is interesting in every line and contains one scene which is sometimes considered the most poignant in all Greek tragedy, yet it leaves every reader unsatisfied. Is it a pious offering to Apollo, the ancestor of the Ionian race? If so, why is Apollo the villain of the piece? Is it a glorification of ancient Athens, her legends and her shrines? If so, why are the shrines polluted by lustful gods, the legends made specially barbaric, and the beautiful earth-born Princess shown as a seduced woman and a would-be murderess? Nay, further, why does the hero of the play explain in a careful speech that he would sooner live a friendless slave in the temple at Delphi than a free man and a prince in such a place as Athens—a city "full of terror," where men "who are good and might show
wisdom are silent and never come forward," while the men in power watch enviously round to destroy any possible rival? (598 ff. Cf. Euripides’ words in Frogs, 1446 ff.) In Delphi he has peace, and is not jostled off the pavement by the scum of the earth (635)—a complaint which is often made in Greek literature about democratic Athens.
I think the best way to understand the Ion is to suppose that Euripides, in his usual manner, is just taking an old canonical legend, seeing the human drama and romance in it, and working it together in his own clear ironic mind till at last he throws out his play, saying: "There are your gods and your holy legends; see how you like them!" The irony is lurking at every corner, though of course the drama and romance come first.
The Ion is, of all the extant plays, the most definitely blasphemous against the traditional gods. Greek legend was full of stories of heroes born of the love of a god and a mortal woman. Such stories could be turned into high religious mysteries, as by Aeschylus in his Suppliant Women; into tender and reverent legends, as by Pindar in one or two odes. Euripides uses no such idealization. In play after play, Auge, Melanippe, Danae,
[paragraph continues] Alope he seems to have scarified such gods, as he does now in the Ion. Legend told that Ion, the hero-ancestor of the Ionians, was the son of the Athenian princess Creusa. Creusa was married to one Xuthus, an Aeolian soldier, but the real father of Ion was the god Apollo. Euripides treats the story as if Apollo were just a lawless ravisher, utterly selfish and ready to lie when pressed, though good-natured in his way when he lost nothing by it—a sort of Alcibiades, in fact. Xuthus is a butt; a foreigner with abrupt and violent manners, lied to by Apollo, befooled by his wife, disobeyed by her maids, and eventually made happy by the belief that her illegitimate son is really his own. Creusa herself, though drawn with extraordinary sympathy and beauty, is at heart a savage.
Creusa, when she bore her child, laid him, in her terror, in the same cavern where Apollo had ravished her: surely the god would save his own son. She came again and the child was gone. As a matter of fact the god had carried him in his cradle to Delphi, where he was discovered by the priestess and reared as a foundling in the temple courts. Creusa was then married to Xuthus, who knew nothing of her adventure.
[paragraph continues] Some seventeen years or so afterwards, since the pair had no children, they came to Delphi to consult the god. Creusa there meets the foundling, Ion, and the two are strangely attracted to one another. She almost confides to him her story, and he tells her what he knows of his own. Meantime Xuthus goes in to ask the god for a child; the god tells him that the first person he meets on leaving the shrine will be his son. (This, of course, is a lie.) He meets Ion, salutes him as his son and embraces him wildly. The boy protests: "Do not," cries Xuthus, "fly from what you should love best on earth!" "I do not love teaching manners to demented foreigners," retorts the youth. Sobered by this, Xuthus tries, with Ion's help, to think out what the god can mean by saying that this youth is his son. His married life has always been correct; but once when he was a young man, there was a time … It was a great religious feast at Delphi and he was drunk. Ion accepts the explanation, though he evidently does not much like his new father. He makes difficulties about going to Athens. He is sorry for Creusa. He wishes to stay as he is. Xuthus decides that Creusa must be deceived; he will say he has taken a fancy to
[paragraph continues] Ion and wishes to adopt him. Meantime let them have a great birth-feast … and if any of the Chorus say a word to Creusa they shall be hanged! Creusa enters, accompanied by one of Euripides’ characteristic Old Slaves. The man has tended Creusa from childhood, lives for her and thinks of nothing else; he is utterly without scruple apart from her. The Chorus immediately tell Creusa what they know of the story. Ion is Xuthus's illegitimate son; he must have known it all the time; he has now, with the god's connivance, arranged to take the son back to Athens; as for Creusa, the god says she shall have no child. Stung to fury to think that her child is dead, that the boy whom she so loved is deliberately deceiving her, and that Apollo is adding this deliberate insult to his old brutal wrong, Creusa casts away shame and standing up in front of the great Temple cries out her reproach against the god. She is disgraced publicly and for ever, but at least she will drag down this devil who sits crowned and singing to the lyre while the women he has ravished go mad with grief and his babes are torn by wild beasts. In the horror-stricken silence that follows there is none to advise Creusa except the old Slave. Blindly devoted and fostering
all her passions, he wrings from her line by line the detailed story of her seduction, and then calls for revenge. "Burn down the god's temple!" She dare not. "Poison Xuthus!" No; he was good to her when she was miserable. "Kill the bastard!" .. . Yes: she will do that. … The Slave takes poison with him and goes to poison Ion at the birth-feast. The plot fails; the Slave is taken and Creusa, pursued by the angry youth, flies to the altar. It is fury against fury, each bewildered to find such evil in the other, after their curious mutual attraction. Here the Delphian Prophetess enters, bringing with her the tokens that were with the foundling when she first came upon him in the temple courts. Creusa, amazed, recognizes the old basket-cradle in which she had exposed her own child.
She leaves the altar and gives herself up to Ion. For a moment it seems as if he would kill her; but he tests her story. What else is there in the basket? She names the things, her own shawl with gorgons on it, her own snake-twined necklace and wreath of undying olive. The mother confesses to the son and the son forgives her. But Apollo? What of him? He has lied. … Ion, temple-child as he is, is roused to rebellion: he will
break through the screen of the sanctuary and demand of the god one plain answer—when he is stopped by a vision of Athena. She comes instead of Apollo, who fears to face the mortals he has wronged; she bids them be content and seek no further. Creusa forgives the god; Ion remains moodily silent.
The Ion is so rich in romantic invention that it sometimes seems to a modern reader curiously old-fashioned; it is full of motives—lost children, and strawberry-marks, and the cry of the mother's heart, and obvious double meanings—which have been repeated by so many plays since that we instinctively regard them as "out of date." It is redeemed by its passion and its sincere psychology. On the other hand, it is more ironical than any other extant Greek play. The irony touches every part of the story, excepting the actual tragedy of the wronged woman and the charming carelessness of the foundling's life. We should remember that an attack on the god of Delphi was not particularly objectionable in Athens. For that god, by the mouth of his official prophets, at the beginning of the war, had assured the Spartans that if they fought well they would conquer and that He, the God, would be fighting
for them. The best that a pious Athenian could do for such a god as that was to suppose that the official prophets were liars. Still Euripides attacks much more than Delphi. If his thoughts ever strike home, it is not merely Delphi that will fall, it is the whole structure of Greek ritual and mythology. It is against the gods and against Athens that his irony cuts sharpest.
Irony is the mood of one who has some strong emotion within but will not quite trust himself on the flood of it. And romance is largely the mood of one turning away from realities that disgust him. In the year 416 B.C. Euripides, in his relation to Athens, was shaken for the first time out of any thought of either romance or irony. During the summer and winter of that year there occurred an event of very small military importance and no direct political consequences, to which nevertheless Thucydides devotes twenty-six continuous chapters in a very significant part of his work, the part just before the final catastrophe. The event is the siege and capture by the Athenians of a little island called Melos, the massacre of all its adult men and the enslavement of the women and children. The island had no military power. It had little commerce
and lived on its own poor agriculture. Its population was not large: when it was depopulated five hundred colonists were enough to people it again. Why then this large place in Thucydides’ brief and severe narrative? Only, I think, because of the moral issue involved and the naked clarity of the crime. Thucydides tells us of a long debate between the Athenian envoys and the Melian Council and professes to report the arguments used on each side. No doubt there is conscious artistic composition in the reports. We cannot conclude that any Athenian envoy used exactly these horrible words. But we can be sure that Thucydides took the war on Melos as the great typical example of the principles on which the Athenian war party were led to act in the later part of the war; we can go further and be almost sure that he selected it as a type of sin leading to punishment—that sin of "Hubris" or Pride which according to Greek ideas was associated with some heaven-sent blindness and pointed straight to a fall.
In cool and measured language the Athenian envoys explain to the Melian Senate—for the populace is carefully excluded—that it suits their purpose that Melos should become subject to their empire. They will
not pretend—being sensible men and talking to sensible men—that the Melians have done them any wrong or that they have any lawful claim to Melos, but they do not wish any islands to remain independent: it is a bad example to the others. The power of Athens is practically irresistible: Melos is free to submit or to be destroyed. The Melians, in language carefully controlled but vibrating with suppressed bitterness, answer as best they can. Is it quite safe for Athens to break all laws of right? Empires are mortal; and the vengeance of mankind upon such a tyranny as this…? "We take the risk of that," answer the Athenians; "the immediate question is whether you prefer to live or die." The Melians plead to remain neutral; the plea is, of course, refused. At any rate they will not submit. They know Athens is vastly stronger in men and ships and military skill; still the gods may help the innocent ("That risk causes us no uneasiness," say the envoys: "we are quite as pious as you"); the Lacedaemonians are bound by every tie of honour and kinship to intervene ("We shall of course see that they do not"); in any case we choose to fight and hope rather than to accept slavery. "A very regrettable misjudgment,"
say the Athenians; and the war proceeds to its hideous end.
As I read this Melian Dialogue, as it is called, again and again, I feel more clearly the note of deep and angry satire. Probably the Athenian war-party would indignantly have repudiated the reasoning put into the mouths of their leaders. After all they were a democracy; and, as Thucydides fully recognizes, a great mass of men, if it does commit infamies, likes first to be drugged and stimulated with lies: it seldom, like the wicked man in Aristotle's Ethics, "calmly sins." But in any case the massacre of Melos produced on the minds of men like Thucydides and Euripides—and we might probably add almost all the great writers who were anywise touched by the philosophic spirit—this peculiar impression. It seemed like a revelation of naked and triumphant sin. And we can not but feel the intention with which Thucydides continues his story. "They put to death all the Melians whom they found of man's estate, and made slaves of the women and children. And they sent later five hundred colonists and took the land for their own.
"And the same winter the Athenians sought to sail with a greater fleet than ever before and conquer Sicily. …" This was
the great Sicilian expedition that brought Athens to her doom.
Euripides must have been brooding on the crime of Melos during the autumn and winter. In the spring, when the great fleet was still getting ready to sail, he produced a strange play, the work rather of a prophet than a mere artist, which was reckoned in antiquity as one of his masterpieces but which set a flame of discord for ever between himself and his people. One would like to know what Archon accepted that play and what rich man gave the chorus. It was called The Trojan Women, and it tells of the proudest conquest wrought by Greek arms in legend, the taking of Troy by the armies of Agamemnon. But it tells the old legend in a peculiar way. Slowly, reflectively, with little stir of the blood, we are made to look at the great glory, until we see not glory at all but shame and blindness and a world swallowed up in night. At the very beginning we see gods brooding over the wreck of Troy; as they might be brooding over that wrecked island in the Aegean, whose walls were almost as ancient as Troy's own. It is from the Aegean that Poseidon has risen to look upon the city that is now a smoking ruin, sacked by the Greeks. "The shrines
are empty and the sanctuaries run red with blood." The unburied corpses lie polluting the air; and the conquering soldiers, homesick and uneasy, they know not why, roam to and fro waiting for a wind that will take them away from the country they have made horrible. Such is the handiwork of Athena, daughter of Zeus! (46).
The name gives one a moment of shock. Athena is so confessedly the tutelary goddess of Athens. But Euripides was only following the regular Homeric story, in which Athena had been the great enemy of Troy, and the unscrupulous friend of the Greeks. Her name is no sooner mentioned than she appears. But she is changed. Her favourites have gone too far; they have committed "Hubris," insulted the altars of the gods and defiled virgins in holy places. Athena herself is now turned against her people. Their great fleet, flushed with conquest and stained with sin, is just about to set sail: Athena has asked Zeus the Father for vengeance against it, and Zeus has given it into her hand. She and Poseidon swear alliance; the storm shall break as soon as the fleet sets sail, and the hungry rocks of the Aegean be glutted with wrecked ships and dying men (95 ff.).
And the angry presences vanish into the night. Were the consciences of the sackers of Melos quite easy during that prologue?
Then the day dawns and the play begins, and we see what, in plain words, the great glory has amounted to. We see the shattered walls and some poor temporary huts where once was a city; and presently we see a human figure rising wearily from sleep. It is an old woman, very tired, her head and her back aching from the night on the hard ground. The old woman is Hecuba, lately the queen of Troy, and in the huts hard by are other captives, "High women chosen from the waste of war" to be slaves to the Greek chieftains. They are to be allotted this morning. She calls them and they come startled out of sleep, some terrified, some quiet, some still dreaming, one suddenly frantic. Through the rest of the play we hear bit by bit the decisions of the Greek army-council. Cassandra, the virgin priestess, is to be Agamemnon's concubine. The stupid and good-natured Herald who brings the news thinks
it good news. How lucky for the poor helpless girl! And the King, too! There is no accounting for tastes; but he thinks it was that air of unearthly holiness in Cassandra which made Agamemnon fancy her. The other women are horror-stricken, but Cassandra is happy. God is leading her; her flesh seems no longer to be part of her; she has seen something of the mind of God and knows that the fate of Troy and of dead Hector is better than that of their conquerors. She sees in the end that she must discrown herself, take off the bands of the priestess and accept her desecration; she sees to what end she is fated to lead Agamemnon, sees the vision of his murdered body—murdered by his wife—cast out in precipitous places on a night of storm; and beside him on the wet rocks there is some one else, dead, outcast, naked … who is it? She sees it is herself, and goes forth to what is appointed (445 û.).
The central portion of the play deals with the decision of the Greeks about Hector's little boy, Astyanax. He is only a child now; but of course he will grow, and he will form the natural rallying point for all the fugitive Trojans and the remnants of the great Trojan Alliance. On the principles of the Melian
dialogue he is best out of the way. The Herald is sent to take the child from his mother, Andromache, and throw him over the battlements. He comes when the two women, Andromache and Hecuba, are talking together and the child playing somewhere near. Andromache has been allotted as slave to Pyrrhus, the son of Achilles, and is consulting with Hecuba about the horror she has to face. Shall she simply resist to the end, in the hope that Pyrrhus may hate and kill her, or shall she try, as she always has tried, to make the best of things? Hecuba advises: "Think of the boy and think of your own gentle nature. You are made to love and not to hate; when things were happy you made them happier; when they are miserable you will tend to heal them and make them less sore. You may even win Pyrrhus to be kind to your child, Hector's child; and he may grow to be a help to all who have once loved us. …" As they speak the shadow of the entering Herald falls across them; he cannot speak at first, but he has come to take the child to its death, and his message has to be given. This scene, with the parting between Andromache and the child which follows, seems to me perhaps the most absolutely heart-rending in all the tragic literature of
the world. After rising from it one understands Aristotle's judgment of Euripides as "the most tragic of the poets."
For sheer beauty of writing, for a kind of gorgeous dignity that at times reminds one of Aeschylus and yet is compatible with the subtlest clashes of mood and character, the Trojan Women stands perhaps first among all the works of Euripides. But that is not its most remarkable quality. The action works up first to a great empty scene where the child's body is brought back to his grandmother, Hecuba, for the funeral rites. A solitary old woman with a dead child in her arms; that, on the human side, is the result of these deeds of glory. Then, in the finale, come scenes of almost mystical tone, in which Hecuba appeals first to the gods, who care nothing; then to the human dead who did at least care and love; but the dead, too, are deaf like the gods and cannot help or heed. Out of the noise and shame of battle there has come Death the most Holy and taken them to his peace. No friend among the dead, no help in God, no illusion anywhere, Hecuba faces That Which Is and finds somewhere, in the very intensity of Troy's affliction, a splendour which cannot die. She has reached in some sense not the bottom, but the crowning
peak of her fortunes. Troy has already been set on fire by the Greeks in preparation for their departure, and the Queen rushes to throw herself into the flames. She is hurled back by the guards, and the women watch the flaming city till with a crash the great tower falls. The Greek trumpet sounds through the darkness. It is the sign for the women to start for their ships; and forth they go, cheated of every palliative, cheated even of death, to the new life of slavery. But they have seen in their nakedness that there is something in life which neither slavery nor death can touch.
The play is a picture of the inner side of a great conquest, a thing which then even more than now, formed probably the very heart of the dreams of the average unregenerate man. It is a thing that seemed beforehand to be a great joy, and is in reality a great misery. It is conquest seen when the heat of battle is over, and nothing remains but to wait and think; conquest not embodied in those who achieved it—we have but one glimpse of the Greek conquerors, and that shows a man contemptible and unhappy—but in those who have experienced it most fully, the conquered women.
We have so far treated the Trojan Women
as though it stood alone. In reality of course it belonged to a group, and one cannot but ask what the other plays were, and whether their themes were such as could stand beside this and not be shrivelled into commonplace or triviality. Fortunately, though the plays are both lost, we know something about them. They were Palamedes and Alexander; and both are on great subjects. The Palamedes tells of the righteous man condemned by an evil world; the Alexander has for its hero a slave.
Slavery had always been one of the subjects that haunted Euripides. We do not happen to find in our remains of his work any definite pronouncement that slavery is "contrary to nature," as was held by most Greek philosophers of the succeeding century. Probably no practical man of the time could imagine a large industrial city living without the institution of slavery. But it is clear that Euripides hates it. It corrupts a man; it makes the slave cowardly and untrustworthy. Yet "many slaves are better men than their masters"; "many so-called free men are slaves at heart." And again, in the style of a Stoic, "A man without fear cannot be a slave" (fr. 958: cf. fr. 86, 511, etc.). Much more important than such statements
as these, which are, according to his manner, generally put in the mouth of a slave, are the many instances of "sympathetic" and courageous slaves, and the panegyrics on men who have no slaves but work with their own hands. These show the bent of the poet's mind. It is not, however, till the year of the Trojan Women that he takes the bold step of actually making a slave his hero and filling his play with discussions of slavery, including a definite contest in aretê between the slaves and the masters. True, the slave turns out in the end to be a prince. The herdsman whose favourite bull the young nobles have seized for a sacrifice, and who pursues and challenges and eventually conquers them in strength and skill as well as magnanimity, turns out to be Alexander, son of Priam, who has been reared by the slave herdsmen of Mt. Ida. By our standards that is a pity. We should have preferred him a real slave. But probably on the Greek stage thus much of romance was inevitable, and after all it had its connection with real life. Many a Scythian and Thracian and even Phrygian chief, like this Alexander, must have stood for sale in Greek slave markets.
The root idea of the Palamedes, the righteous man falsely slain, has a momentous place
in the history of Greek thought. It starts, of course, as a bitterness or a paradox. Righteousness to the fifth century Athenian was almost identical with social service, and, in a healthy society with normal conditions, the man who serves his city well will naturally be honoured by his city. But then comes the thought, itself fraught with the wisdom of the sophists: "What if the multitude is bent on evil, or is blind? There are many men who are evil but seem righteous; what if the man who is righteous seems to be evil?" Hence come the story of Aias in Pindar, and Palamedes in this play, and the ideal Righteous Man of Plato's Republic who "shall be scourged, tortured, bound … and at last impaled or crucified" (Rep. p. 362a). The idea runs through the various developments of later Greek mysticism and attains its culminating point in Christianity. It is in full concord with the tone of the Trojan Women.
We know little of the Palamedes. That hero was the true wise man, and his enemy was Odysseus, the evil man who "seemed wise" and had the ear of the multitude. Palamedes is falsely accused of treason, condemned by the unanimous voice of his judges and sent to death. Fragments tell us of some friend, perhaps a prisoner, carving
message after message upon oar-blades and throwing them into the sea that the truth might be known; and we have two beautiful untranslatable lines uttered by the Chorus: "Ye have slain, ye Greeks, ye have slain the nightingale; the wingéd-one of the Muses who sought no man's pain." Tradition saw in the words a reference to the wise Protagoras, lately slandered to his death.
The consideration of these other plays of the same trilogy strengthens the impression that I receive already from the Trojan Women, an impression of some deepening of experience, some profound change that has worked into the writer's soul. Other critics, and notably Wilamowitz and Mr. Glover, have similarly felt that this play marks a turning point. It was not a change of front; it was not sudden; it was not dependent on visions or supernatural messages. It was the completion of a long process of strong feeling and intense thought, not the less sane because of its decided element of mysticism. It probably differed in many ways from the sudden and conscious conversions which began the ministry of certain Greek philosophers, both Cynic and Stoic, in the fourth and third centuries before Christ.
[paragraph continues] It differed still more from the experience of Paul on the road to Damascus or Augustine beneath the fig-tree. But it does seem to me that in this tragedy the author shows a greatly increased sense of some reality that is behind appearances, some loyalty higher than the claims of friends or country, which supersedes as both false and inadequate the current moral code and the current theologies.