Greek Dramatist Euripides Dies Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The death of Greek dramatist Euripides marked the end of the Classical Age; his work set the pattern for complex and melodramatic drama for centuries to come.

Summary of Event

Euripides, the youngest of ancient Athens’ three greatest tragic poets, lived most of his life in Athens. He retired to the court of Archelaus, king of Macedonia, in 408 b.c.e. and died there two years later. Euripides Archelaus (d. 399 b.c.e.) Protagoras Thucydides

Few certainties exist about the death of Euripides. Of the sources for his life, composed mostly of ancient quotes, gossip, anecdotes, and criticism dating from the second century b.c.e. to the eleventh century c.e. or later, the best authority is the Atthis (n.d.; English translation of more than 170 fragments, 1949) of Philochorus. Philochorus, an early third century b.c.e. historian, composed a treatise on Euripides that calls into question the loosely assembled bits of information.

Euripides.

(Library of Congress)

Generally, it is believed that the events depicted in Euripides’ plays reflected what was occurring in his private life. One of the oft-repeated traditional views of Euripides is that his mother was a greengrocer who sold herbs. Another common belief centers on the assumption that Euripides’ treatment of women in his plays reproduced his personal hatred and hostility toward them (thought to be the result of two disastrous marriages). In addition, contemporary Athenian comic poets made many jokes about Euripides. Though these stories have been shown to have no basis in fact, the frequency with which they are repeated necessarily render narratives of Euripides’ later life and death equally unreliable.

However, owing to the large output of plays toward the end of his life, which provide points of reference, and the customary emphasis placed on the latter period of life by Greek annalists of antiquity, certain events about the end of Euripides’ life have some degree of certainty.

By the year 415 b.c.e., Euripides had undergone a period of change evident in a series of plays written about this time. The Peloponnesian War, which had begun in 431 b.c.e., had raged for sixteen years and had taken its toll on Euripides. Although his early plays often adopt the theme of revenge, his later ones are imbued with an emphasis on forgiveness and peace. Also, whereas his early wartime plays had suggested that he believed war to be honorable and necessary to defend the oppressed, his series of plays in 415 b.c.e. depict inhuman brutality. As he was writing the plays, in 416 b.c.e., Athenians besieged and captured the small neutral island of Melos, massacring all the adult men and enslaving all the women and children. Euripides was critical of Athens because he believed it had been false to its ideals.

The war dragged on, and Euripides, akin to characters in his tragedies who long for a means of escape from their terrible circumstances, spent more time away from Athens. Many Athenians detested him for his denouncement of war and his insistence that the doings of the gods were evil. They were confused by the innovation and complexity of his tragedies. He had seemed to vent a deep antipathy toward women; however, he strangely defended adultresses in his plays. Philochorus depicts Euripides at this time in his life with a long beard and moles on his face. A bust of him in his old age shows a worn, fine face, thin hair, and somewhat sunken lips. He lived very much alone, despising visitors and living on the island of Salamis in a cave that looked out on the sea. Reputedly, he spent his days thinking and writing.

By this time, some of Euripides’ old friends had been driven out of Athens. The poet’s master, Anaxagoras, had died long before; the famed Sophist Protagoras, who had read his famous book, On the Gods, in Euripides’ own house, had drowned at sea, proving to many Athenians how the gods regarded his ideas. Timotheus, the Ionian musician whose failed first performance brought thoughts of suicide until Euripides encouraged him, had forsaken Athens for Macedonia.

Perhaps some darker event befell Euripides, because in 408 b.c.e., he left Athens in voluntary exile. Early sources insist that he left in grief and almost all Athens rejoiced in his misfortune. More gossipy commentaries maintain that his shame for his wife’s immorality occasioned his departure, but his motives remain obscure. He stayed for a while in Magnesia, near Ephesus, but soon continued on to Macedonia, a barbaric or semibarbaric country of rivers, forests, and wild mountain ranges.

As an invited guest of Archelaus, king of Macedonia, Euripides was treated with respect, sharing the company of other wise men including Thucydides, the historian. While at court, he continued to compose plays. One narrative of his time there reports that a Macedonian who insulted Euripides was given to him by Archelaus to be scourged.

The event of his death in 406 b.c.e. was given a dramatic turn by traditional sources. According to one, Euripides was sitting alone, in a wood, when the king’s hounds fell on him and tore him to pieces. Another one related that he was torn from limb to limb by a mob of irate women. How Euripides really died is not known, although at the age of seventy-eight, he may well have died of natural causes. He was buried in a magnificent tomb at the confluence of two streams in a valley in Macedonia.

Significance

With the death of Euripides, the age of Classical Greece was drawing to a close. His death occurred two years before the fall of Athens in 404 b.c.e., and his plays seem to indicate a crisis of conscience that occurred during the waning years of his life.

Euripides was by far the most modern of the ancient dramatists. Thought to have hastened the demise of tragedy through his more realistic depictions of characters, he appears to reflect the cultural strains that existed in fifth century b.c.e. Greece. Embittered by the lengthy Peloponnesian War, Euripides seems to have adopted the new sophistic questioning to suggest a new moral atmosphere in which he despairs over meaningless human suffering. He depicted men and women as the people they actually were, as opposed to their ideal images, and placed them among familiar and household things and had them speak simple dialogues. By the end of his life, he had also written tragicomic plays, pointing to the drama of fourth century b.c.e. and, ultimately, toward the tragedies of the English playwright William Shakespeare.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dunn, Frances M. Tragedy’s End: Closure and Innovation in Euripidean Drama. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1996. Dunn argues that Euripides’ techniques in plot and endings opened tragedy to comic impulses.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Highet, Gilbert. The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1992. Well-researched and interesting source for the beginnings of Western literature. Follows Greek and Roman authors who managed to survive through the ages and helps the reader understand what they meant to civilization.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jones, Nicholas F. Ancient Greece: State and Society. New York: Prentice Hall, 1996. An interesting book describing the fifth and fourth centuries b.c.e. in Athens, focusing on the physical arrangement of the city, government, religion, political and economic groups, family structure, and typical occupations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lloyd, Michael. The Agon in Euripides. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1992. A study of the agon, or formal debate, a technique used in Euripides’ tragedies in which two characters confront each other, often before an arbitrator or judge, and make long speeches as if they were opponents in a court of law. Lloyd believes the agon is often of crucial importance to the central conflict of the play.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morford, Mark P. O., et al. Classical Mythology. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 2001. An excellent introduction to the myths and legends of Greece and Rome. Contains useful illustrations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Murray, Gilbert. Euripides and His Age. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1979. Classic study of Euripides. Reconstructs his life and times, the conventions of Greek tragedy, and how Euripides worked within them and liberated them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin. Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1993. The author argues that the prominence of female characters in Euripides’ plays suggests a structure of male dominance while simultaneously applauding the strength of women.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Reprint. New York: Viking Press, 1954. Written four hundred years before the birth of Christ, this volume details contemporary accounts of the war between Athens and Sparta, which eventually plunged the entire Greek world into twenty-seven years of struggle.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Aeschylus; Anaxagoras; Aristophanes; Euripides; Menander (dramatist); Pindar; Protagoras; Thucydides. Euripides

Categories: History Content