Friday, March 18, 2022

Rhesus by Euripides - You must not go beyond what has been destined for you.

Well, that was not so bad, Rhesus, I mean. Curiously, it is the only surviving Greek play taken directly from the Iliad, and it feels a bit like an episode from a serial adaptation of Homer.  Like a television series.  It is efficient; it cooks along; it features a number of star characters, some in tiny roles.  It is also plainly written, lacking much imagery, original or otherwise, and as far as I am concerned lacking interesting lines.  It was probably entertaining enough to watch.  The stubborn Hector and blustery Rhesus are amusing to watch.  The Rhesus part is another tiny one, given that his name on the marquee.

The ethos of the play is summarized once Athene appears, accompanying her favorite heroes Odysseus and Diomedes in a midnight murder rampage.  Their enemy Hector can be caught unaware, too:

DIOMEDES:  Well, should he not be killed and his account settled?

ATHENE:  No.  You must not go beyond what has been destined for you.

There is no authority for you to kill this man.  (33)

Fate is taken to its logical end: that is not how the story goes.

I also enjoyed the way Athene openly lies to Paris when she bumps into him.  The gods simply cheat.  What can you do?

ATHENE:  Fear not.  Here is your faithful Aphrodite

watching over you.  (33)

And then Paris directly, accidentally, insults Athene as ironically as possible:

PARIS:  I think the best thing I ever did

in my life was to judge you first and win you to my city.  (34)

These quotations have all been from the Richmond Lattimore translation.  Up to this point, I have been reading two versions of each play, which has been rewarding, but with Rhesus I did not bother.

The authorship of Rhesus has been questioned since antiquity, mostly on the grounds that it is not especially good, as if the genius Euripides could not have written such a thing, which seems preposterous to me, although I do like the theory that the Rhesus we have is the mistaken substitution of 4th (BCE) century hackwork – by that television writer – for a lost Euripides play of the same title.

Still, there is a puzzle here.  Centuries later, Greek copyists of the 3rd (CE) century radically contracted the body of extant Greek plays, to the seven each by Aeschylus and Sophocles that we have, and ten by Euripides.  Perhaps the survivors were saved by being included in anthologies for students.  By pure chance, a Byzantine manuscript containing nine more Euripides plays survived long enough to be copied twice, the treasures going to the Laurentian in Florence and the Palatina in the Vatican.  The manuscript looks suspiciously like a section of the complete plays of Euripides in alphabetical order: Elektra, Helen, Herakleidae. Herakles, Hiketides / The Suppliant Women, Ion, Iphigenia in Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris, Kyklōps / Cyclops (my Greek transcription is likely a hash).  This is why so many Euripides plays begin with “H” and “I,” alphabetical luck.

The alphabetical plays are comparable in quality to the anthologized batch, so as long as I have known about this distinction, I have wondered about the process that saved not just the ten Euripides plays but all of our Aeschylus and Sophocles.  What I mean is, they – whoever “they” were, however it all worked – deliberately saved Oedipus Rex and Agamemnon and Bacchae, which seems obvious, but also Rhesus.  Why?  What did they want with it?  What did they do with it?

The Getty has a 6th century amphora depicting the episode.  Up above I showed Diomedes killing Rhesus, but the amphora is worth seeing more for its extraordinary horses.

Our next four plays are by Euripides.  I remember three of them as masterpieces, including the next one, the peculiar Alcestis (438).  It is not a tragedy, not a comedy, not a satyr play.  What is it?  William Arrowsmith has a great version, and I will try Anne Carson’s translation, in Grief Lessons, as well.


  1. I didn't mind this one. Yes, it reads like an episode from a mini-series, and it would be great to know what were the other two plays that were performed with "Rhesus."

    I think it's got enough ambivalence about the Greeks and enough satire regarding stage conventions that it certainly could be by Euripides. One imagines the fun Odysseus had in disguise, cursing Agamemnon and Menelaus. And Muse points out that all the heroes are fated to die, that Odysseus will get his comeuppance, etc. An early antiwar effort from Euripides. Gather your armies, your heroes, your allies, and you're still all doomed.

  2. I came away thinking "why not Euripides?" for many of the reasons you mention. How to distinguish from a later Euripides imitator, I can't say.