Euripedes: Rhesus, Hecuba, Heraclidae

Having finished the massive tome that is The City of God, starting this week I’m returning back to the Greek plays, of which those of Euripedes and Aristophanes remain. Hopefully before the end of this month I’ll finish all the plays so that I can quickly get into Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. All of the plays read this week were by Euripedes: Rhesus, Hecuba and The Heraclidae. All three had starkly different central themes, though each theme could be traced back to other Greek plays that I’ve read in this series. Rhesus left the least impression on me. It’s about an episode in the Trojan War (briefly described in The Illiad) where Odysseus and Diomedes sneak into the Trojan camp and almost murder Hector but are redirected by Athena to kill Rhesus, the King of Thrace, instead. Hecuba is a revenge-driven tragedy that echoes the Oresteia in its plot: the titular character’s children are murdered in the first half and the second half is spent avenging them. Lastly, Heraclidae is the most distinctive play with multiple focuses that evolve throughout the play.


Out of the three plays, Rhesus speaks the least to me. The role of Dolon, or example, doesn’t make sense to me. Much is made in an early scene where Dolon offers his services to spy on the Greeks. An extended exchange occurs between him and Hector where they negotiate what the price for his daring act will be. Dolon refuses the offer of marriage to one of his sisters or riches, instead asking for Achilles’ prized horses. This gives the impression that the horses will be a significant plot point in some way, but we never hear of Dolon again until it’s curtly revealed that he’s killed by Odysseus and Diomedes. Later, Odysseus does take Rhesus’ horses after he kills him but these are not presented as an important achievement in any way. Perhaps Dolon was inserted to show the incompetence of the soldiers on Troy’s side, also reflected in how Odysseus and Diomedes were able to sneak into the Trojan camp. (Hector berates the sentinels explictly for this.) To me, the entire character could have been scrapped.

An important theme that still emerge from the play, however, is the role of gods in destiny and the assignment of blame. The former crops up as the two Greeks are planning on what to do in the Trojan. The goddess Athena suddenly appears and proclaims:

ATHENA . Whither away from the Trojan ranks, with sorrow
gnawing at your hearts, because fortune granteth not you twain
to slay Hector or Paris? Have ye not heard that Rhesus is come to
succour Troy in no mean sort? If he survive this night until tomorrow’s dawn, neither Achilles nor Aias, stout spearman, can
stay him from utterly destroying the Argive fleet, razing its
palisades and carrying the onslaught of his lance far and wide
within the gates; slay him, and all is thine; let Hector’s sleep alone, nor hope to leave him a weltering trunk, for he shall find death at another hand.

We’ve seen how in plays such as the Oedipus trilogy, “fate” is presented as this inexplicable, mysterious and unalterable order of things in nature that may result in inevitable personal tragedy for humans without anything they can do about it. But here, Athena’s intervention is presented as a completely well-reasoned argument that is merely informed by divine foreknowledge instead of dictated by it: killing Rhesus is a more logical decision as he and his forces pose an imminent threat to the Argive fleet, compared to Hector, who will be killed in a more dramatic fashion later. Now, one could still argue with Athena: if Hector was killed that night, it’s probable that the war would immediately end, him being the de facto commander-in-chief of the entire Trojan war effort and considering the paramount importance of heroic figures in representing the power of the armies in the ancient world. But perhaps it’s the case that Rhesus would attack them anyway, considering that he has much to prove. (Earlier in the play, he had been lambasted by Hector for not arriving earlier to help the Trojans.)

Athena’s intervention is juxtaposed against the interjection of the Muse, Rhesus’ mother after her son has been killed by Odysseus and Diomedes. After Hector argues with a charioteer who angrily accuses him of being the killer of Rhesus instead of the two Greeks, the Muse appears, proclaiming a dramatic, lyrical lament about her son and confirming to the chorus that it was really not Hector who is guilty of the deed. She squarely blames Athena for the tragedy that has occurred. The vivid display of her sorrow makes her practically a human character, powerless as she is to change the course of events. While she says more than Athena, she is ultimately inert.


Hecuba was a fun play to read as Euripedes uses a variety of dramatic techniques to add suspense, irony, and fluid drama in the play. Even in the beginning, we are presented with the ghost of Hecuba’s son Polydorus, who narrates the events that led to his death: he was sent to Thrace by his father Hector to be kept safe, but King Polymester kills him instead of because of greed for the gold sent with him. We’ve already seen examples of the opening narrative by a secondary character used in other plays, such as Euripedes’ Electra (where the first extended speech is given to her peasant husband), but here the use of the dead Polydorus provides the play an opportunity to set up a strong dramatic irony. Polydorus speaks of himself as hovering over the head of his mother, but because of his state, he is powerless to communicate with the rest of the world of the play. The audience is stuck in a nearly identical situation. It’s clear that Euripedes deliberately uses this tactic to heighten the sense of dramatic irony, given that the reveal of Polydorus’ dead body is a pivotal point at the midpoint of the play, where it turns from merely being a tragedy to a revenge play.

But we shall focus on the first part first, which is filled with lament, powerlessness and inactivity. Hecuba, the mother of Hector and wife of Priam, the erstwhile king of now-fallen Troy, is now captured as a slave to the Greeks. The chorus plays the role of captive Trojan women, and interestingly, in the chorale numbers they lament about their own personal misfortunes in being enslaved, instead of always being focused on the plight of the main character. The sacrifice/execution of Hecuba’s daughter Polyxena occupies this first part. Hecuba’s subordinate status is highlighted by her pleas to Odysseus to spare her daughter, but they are futile. Polyxena herself is pessimistic and resigned to accept her death, as she reflects that life as a fallen and enslaved princess would be full of misery anyway. She is finally taken away by Odysseus, leading to Hecuba fainting and falling to the ground, the lowest point of the play.

Hecuba seems done for, finished, exhausted, and she could have just died of sorrow right then and there. But a herald enters, and in typical Greek fashion, narrates the scene of execution that has just taken place. Just as we’ve seen this dramatic device being played, his narrative of the scene makes it impressive to the audience much more easily than if it were actually enacted on stage. Polyxena displayed immense courage in her last moments, refusing to be held down and freely offering herself to be killed, inspiring the Greeks’ admiration and respect. Hecuba is a little comforted by this revelation, she points to her daughter’s noble origins. One of her most interesting comment is her observation that nature seems to respond to efforts to change it, but humans are often stuck to their natures:

Is it not then strange that poor land, when blessed by heaven with a lucky year, yields a good crop, while that which is good, if robbed of needful care, bears but little increase; yet ‘mongst men the knave is never other than a knave, the good man aught but good, never changing for the worse because of misfortune, but ever the same?

Despite this temporary closure, this scene is not the turning point for the play yet, though internally we can imagine that it must have strengthened her inner resolve in some way. The big reveal comes next, in which the corpse of Polydorus is revealed to have been discovered and is brought in. The mother erupts in anger at the sight of the mutilated corpse. Unlike Polyxena’s death, which could be accepted as part of the laws of war, Polydorus’ murder was the result of pure greed, breaking all the rules of hospitality and morality.

Agamemnon enters the scene, and Hecuba immediately goes about trying to enlist his help to enact her revenge. It’s a bold and dramatic move from a character that has just spent the first half of the play crying, wailing, and lamenting. Agamemnon also seems to be depicted as easily swayed and spineless. He rejects her plea to help her as he doesn’t want to be viewed badly by the rest of the Greeks, but at the same time he doesn’t take steps to stop her from doing it. Agamemnon’s easily manipulable character echos the version of his character in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where he is also manipulated by a woman (Clytemnestra) to step upon a purple cloth and be led to his death. Here, however, Agamemnon stays in the background for the core of the second part: the plot to murder Polymester. From a plot perspective, the whole thing goes a little bit too smoothly. The king is called up, and he is easily deceived by Hecuba into believing that the family has more treasure hidden somewhere that they want to reveal to him. He’s led into a tent filled with captive Trojan women who flatter him and praise his children, then viciously blind him and murder the children. The depiction of the action is offstage, just so, similar to the depiction of the murders in Aeschylus’ Oresteia. 

The aftermath of the deed is the focus of the latter part of the second part. Polymester tries excuse his murder of Polydorus by claiming that he was merely expressing his loyalty to Agamemnon and the Greeks, but Agamemnon is unmoved; he is convinced that Polymester had violated the sacred rules of hospitality and lets Hecuba go free.

Hecuba, then, is a play of transformation for the titular character. It’s radical in that it focuses on the plight of an enslaved woman, a character with no formal power and always negotiating from a lower position. Yet Euripedes doesn’t let us forget her, after all, as she says herself (and I can picture Euripedes himself saying it), she is of unalterable, undoubtedly noble stock. Enslavement is not sufficient to erase her agency and cunning. But this transformation only occurs after the moving revelation of Polyxena’s courage in the face of death. The young daughter is thus the catalyst in the machinery of the play. Perhaps Euripedes also wants to highlight that while war is full of sad and ugly realities, they are nothing compared to the violation of the norms of hospitality that Polymester had committed. Polymester’s crime is in opposition to a deeper moral principle. No wonder, instead of being killed outright, he is blinded in both eyes, condemned to suffer on Earth for the rest of his life instead of being given the opportunity to be a ghost like his victim.

The Heraclidae

The Heraclidae is the most distinctive play of the three. It also features a multi-part structure like Hecuba, but even more so, with focuses that evolve majorly throughout the play. The world of the play is the aftermath of Heracles’ death: Iolaus, an old friend of his, is on the run with Heracles’ children, who are being chased by Eurystheus, whom Heracles had wronged before by falling in love with his daughter against his wishes. The first part of the play resembles other suppliant plays that we have encountered before, namely Aeschylus’ The Suppliant Maidens and Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus. They have reached Athens, and Iolaus appeals to its king Demophon to protect them from Copreus, Eurystheus’ man, who has been tasked with bringing them to him by force. Suppliant plays in Greek theater seem to be written for the purpose of advertising the Greeks’ favorable view of the rules of hospitality and custom of sheltering people on the run, which was the case here and also in the two aforementioned other suppliant-type plays. An argument occurs between Copreus and Demophon concerning who has the right over Iolaus and the children. Predictably, Copreus argues that he is merely an agent of Eurystheus who is trying to carry out his lawful sentence on them. Iolaus attempts to argue that since they have been banished from the city, they are no longer under the authority of Eurystheus. In addition, Iolaus invokes distant familial ties between Heracles and Demophon, and also the fact that Heracles had saved his father’s life some time ago. Demophon is happy with Iolaus’ explanation and takes them in, scaring Copreus away. He vows to return with an army to punish Demophon’s generosity in sheltering them.

If this were The Suppliant Maidens, then the play would have ended there, with Copreus’ army trying to attack Athens in futility. But surprisingly, it doesn’t. It turns out that Eurystheus has a large army, and he’s confident enough of his military prowess that he is leading it into battle himself. Demophon freaks out, consulting the priests on what to do, and they tell him that a noble virgin girl must be sacrificed. But Demophon is reluctant to demand one of his own people to give up a daughter in order to protect strangers – he is afraid that will end in rebellion or civil war. All seems lost, until one of the children, Heracles’ daughter Macaria steps up from the crowd and freely offers herself as a sacrifice, almost like a deus ex machina device. Macaria says a series of long speeches vowing that she would not let them be viewed as cowards, demanding strangers to spill their blood to defend them. Iolaus is impressed, but is reluctant to accept the offer, proposing that the sacrificial victim be drawn by lot instead. But Macaria steadfastly refuses. She emphasizes that she wants to die freely; there is no “graciousness” in dying by chance. With this, Iolaus is impressed and accepts the arrangement. Just like Polyxena in Hecuba, the essential element of bravery in the face of death according to the Greeks is the free will to face and welcome it.

So the sacrifice is made, and the two sides get ready for battle. It’s here that the focus changes again, this time to Iolaus himself. In an intriguing scene, a servant brings the good news that Heracles’ older son Hyllus has come with a large army to help them in the battle against Eurystheus. Iolaus is pumped up and wants to join in the battle, but the servant is surprised, dismissing him as being too old. Iolaus refuses, insisting on equipping himself with armor and weapons. The two have an intense stichomythic exchange on Iolaus’ suitability for battle. The battle itself occurs offstage, with a messenger narrating the events immediately afterwards. It turns out that Iolaus managed to do a heroic deed, chasing and capturing Eurystheus by going after his chariot. People report him being magically transform into a young man again. This is a form of closure for the character of Iolaus, ultimately redeemed and glorified – a fitting prize for one who has displayed such loyalty to his late friend.

But the final puzzle remains to be resolved: that of Eurystheus himself. This time Alcmena, Heracles’ mother, plays a major role. She never appeared in any of the scenes before, but she insists on killing Eurystheus to avenge all the things that he has done to her family, although he is already captured and the custom was against such execution. However, here the rules are broken: the chorus expresses their approval at having the usual custom broken just for this occasion. The play concludes with Eurystheus being condemned to death, all the characters having reasoned that in this case, Eurystheus really did deserve the death sentence.

With such a diversity of material and central characters, what is The Heraclidae really about? As a whole, it seems like a disjunctive play, with only weakly connected themes fitted chronologically into a single plot. I think the core of the message has something to do with bravery and courage, and how these qualities are displayed by the Heraclidae, the people associated with Heracles. Macaria’s act of self-sacrifice is praised by Iolaus as reflecting her status as a true daughter of the great man: “Daughter, thou art his own true child, no other man’s but Heracles’, that godlike soul.” Macaria’s crucial intervention creates a turning point in the play, in that the children of Heracles, the Heraclidae, are transformed from merely passive suppliants at the mercy of strangers to active fighters. This is contrasted with Demophon, who is initially full of bravado to protect them but is ultimately unable to work out a solution to the traditional problem of risking your city’s well-being to protect strangers.

Shortly after Macaria’s sacrifice is also the point that Hyllus arrives with his army, breathing new optimism into their side. The messenger who describes the battle describes Hyllus as challenging Eurystheus to one-on-one combat to quickly decide the outcome of the battle, but Eurystheus is too much of a coward to accept the challenge. Perhaps spurned by this series of encouraging developments, when the opportunity displays itself, Iolaus insists on displaying his own bravery, for which he is deservedly vindicated on the battlefield. Despite not being related by blood to Heracles, he also displays the same qualities as his old friend. In that way his magical transformation from an old man to a youth is really a transformation into being truly one of the Heraclidae, from caretaker to true hero.

Thus we have seen that Hecuba and Heraclidae both feature turning points that dramatically evolve the course of the play, and strikingly, the catalytic event is of a young woman displaying steadfast courage in the face of certain death. There are not many traditional moments of masculine battlefield bravery like in the Illiad – in Heraclidae, the central example of battlefield bravery is that of Iolaus, an old man. Perhaps this is really the ideal Greek way of viewing death that Euripedes wants to put forward. But one cannot deny the freshness in the characterization of these plays. While ultimately, the bravery displayed by the female characters might be a reflection of their noble blood, not exactly a modern feminist message, it is still quite a progressive for Euripedes to do.

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