Friday, July 15, 2022

The Trojan Women by Euripides - The epitaph of Greek shame.

The Trojan Women (c. 415 BCE) is a special case for Euripides.  What I think he is doing is inventing the protest play.  The Athenians had recently committed a true atrocity, when it besieged and destroyed the neutral island state of Melos in 416; the Athenians exterminated the men and enslaved the women.  Meanwhile, plans were underway for the eventually disastrous Athenian expedition to Sicily, “[t]he epitaph of Greek shame” (tr, Lattimore, l. 1191, p. 289) to borrow Hecuba’s line about another war crime. 

Euripides responds to all of this, presumably collaborating with his producer, with a long howl of pain, a play about the suffering of the victims of war, especially the women who are enslaved and raped amidst the murder of their families.  The climatic crime, the brutal, graphic murder of Hecuba’s last grandson, not onstage but as close as Euripides could get, is like Heracles almost too much to bear – “too horrible to say more” (1177, 288). That’s Hecuba – grandma – again.

The warning to the Athenians is clear enough, from Athena’s glee about the upcoming destruction of most of the Greeks on their return journey to Cassandra’s lament for the Greek soldiers:

                     Those the War God caught

never saw their sons again, nor were they laid to rest

decently in winding sheets by their wives’ hands, but lie

buried in alien ground…  (376-9, 261)

That sure sounds like a warning about the Sicilian expedition.  The idea of a protest play may all be in my imagination, but not only in mine.  Dating at least to the Vietnam War, The Trojan Women has now become a protest play.  Please see The Trojan Women Project for part of the now long history of the play as a statement about war and refugees.  I included an image from a 2013 performance in Jordan by Syrian refugees.  A London performance of The Trojan Women by a mix of Ukrainian, Afghan, and Syrian refugees is scheduled for August.  I wish I could see it.

I read Women of Owu (2006) by Femi Osofisan, who moved the play to early nineteenth century Nigeria while simultaneously commenting on the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the invaders who fight in the name of “freedom” and “human rights”:

Bless the kindness which has rescued us

From tyranny in order to plunge us into slavery! (13)

I wish I could see this one, too.

One more aesthetic note: I had not remembered how The Trojan Women is so full of story.  Large parts of the Trojan War are included – the judgment of Paris, the abduction of Helen, the Trojan Horse, and more  – and the play is also revisiting Euripides’s own Hecuba and Andromache, as well as Aeschylus’s Agamemnon.   Six of the surviving plays of the last decade of Euripides’s life, a significant fraction of the total he could have written, are about aspects of the Trojan War, deeply engaged with Homer and Aeschylus and likely other plays we have lost, retelling the familiar stories in unfamiliar ways.  What did Euripides think he was doing?

Typically when I have been quoting from the old University of Chicago translations I have been referring to the volumes devoted to individual writers, but this time I used volume 2 of Greek Tragedies, the series that randomly scrambles the writers.  Maybe there is some logic, I don’t know.  Anyway, that is why I included line numbers along with page numbers.  Richmond Lattimore’s Euripides sure sounds a lot like Lattimore’s Homer.

The next play is Iphigenia in Tauris by Euripides, c. 414 BCE, perhaps the year after The Trojan Women.  The retelling of the old stories continues.


  1. This must've been a difficult play for Euripides to write. He had been a supporter of Alcibiades until the massacre at Melos, had even thought off and on that the war would bring glory to Athens. Some recent reading suggests that "Cyclops" is about Alcibiades, but I haven't read it yet. Thucydides really hated Alcibiades, I remember that clearly.

    "The Trojan Women" is almost an out-and-out anti-Greek play, a powerful condemnation of the victorious Agamemnon and his pals. Hecuba doesn't know why the Greeks aren't ashamed of themselves. "Argives once for fear of him slew this child!"

  2. I am so enjoying these reads, and spend my time trying to decide I like most Euripides or Aristophanes. As I am new to Greek drama and history, I am fascinated by the way the societal and military history imbue the plays. I have already decided that next year I shall read the Landmark series of Greek and Roman historians. However, I think I shall return to these dramas frequently. It's turning out to be a wonderful reading journey.

  3. Throughout Sheri S. Tepper's novel The Gate to Women's Country is text from a play called Iphigenia at Ilium, which is a version of The Trojan Women, rewritten by the women of the town where the main character lives in order to remind them of what's important and why.

  4. This play is a turning point for Euripides. He had not quite abandoned the idea of Athens before. Supposedly, soon enough he would literally abandon Athens, although he still submitted plays.

    Yes, the historians, yes! Although I am pretty weak on the Romans myself. The upcoming plays by both Aristophanes and Euripides are so good they will not help you make your choice.

    So interesting to hear about the Tepper novel. I should read that someday. The Trojan Women has a unique status.

  5. An interesting contrast to Euripides' earlier Hecabe, almost a purer distillation. That one had a revenge plot embedded within it, but this one has almost no real action, just talking. Athena and Poseidon plan revenge on the Greeks at the beginning but it doesn't start until, presumably, right after the end of the play. (Based on what Cassandra says, Hecabe is also going to die right after the end of the play, presumably by her own hand, but we don't get this either.) Instead, we get a display of why the Greeks deserve to be punished, and on the pointlessness of a war that nobody can agree on who to blame for its starting.

    A fascinating denial by Hecuba that the Gods could possibly have been as petty as to orchestrate Helen's abduction (in her argument that Menelaus should kill Helen). The opening of the play with Poseidon and Athena directly contradicts this. Although Hecuba herself says later: "All through these years the gods had but one end in mind, no other destiny than this for me, and Troy - the one city they chose for their especial hate." She's not particularly consistent, but that's understandable given the circumstances.

    Vellacott really nailed the ending. "I call the dead, I who am near to death, stretched on the soil, my hands beating the ground." Lots of great poetry. "Troy is a beacon," says Hecuba, which feels like a preview of Aeschylus's Agamemnon, with its network of torches bringing the news of the war's end back to Greece. It also feels like an indicator that Troy is a symbol, of Melos as well as any number of places in the centuries since.

  6. Another irony is that if Hecuba had in fact sailed off with Odysseus she would have died in the terrible storm that destroys all but one of his ships. And of course no one from that ship makes it home except Odysseus himself.

    Wonderful comments; thanks so much. The Vellacott line is great.