The Trojan Women at the Flea Theatre, New York, in 2016

Jonathan Neale writes: We start with a theatre, and two moments of astonishing gender transgression. One happened in a theatre on a hillside in the center of Athens on a spring day in late March of 431 BCE. The second happened there sixteen years later, in March of 415 BCE. Both took place as the audience watched tragedies by the poet Euripides. These plays were about gendered oppression, sexual pain, rape, slavery and the horrors of war.[1]

            The picture of ancient Athens in this chapter is different from the one you may be used to. In the 1980s the American journalist and democratic socialist, I. F. Stone, set out to write a book about the trial of Socrates in Athens. Stone began with the mainstream view that Socrates was a fair-minded intellectual who had been sentenced to death by a brutal court. Stone wanted to write a book about civil liberties and right-wing repression. [2]

            Stone’s great strength as a journalist was that he always read texts carefully. Partly because he was deaf, he read the transcripts of Congressional hearings word by word, looking for what lurked behind the careful formulations and the silences. So too he read the Greek sources in the same way, and discovered that Socrates was an elitist, and supported a coup that briefly bought dictatorship and death squads to Athens. In the end, Stone came to the American Civil Liberties Union-like conclusion that if anyone deserved to die, it was Socrates, but that his rights as a defendant should have been better respected.

            In this article I have tried to follow Stone’s example and read the texts of ancient Athens for what they actually say. I rely, too, on the work of radical scholars like Ellen Wood, Joshua Ober, David Roselli and Alfonso Moreno. But my focus is on following two plays by Euripides, and on the contradictions of class and gender they reveal.

Athenian Tragedy

The audience for tragedy in ancient Athens was unlike the audience for plays now anywhere in the world. Athens was a city state, with an agricultural hinterland. Tragedy was a collective ritual. It was part of the spring festival of Dionysus, the god of drink and sexual revels. The festival began with a day of procession, where everyone paraded. Then there was a day of sacrifices, three days of tragedies, a day of songs sung by the different tribes, and a day of comedies. Three poets presented four plays each: a tragic trilogy and a filthy, funny satyr play for light relief at the end.

            The audience sat in an open air theatre built onto the side of the Acropolis, the hill that was the ceremonial and political centre of Athens. About 6,000 people paid admission, and another 2,000, more or less, sat for free in the trees and on the rocks around the theatre. In many years, the city government paid for most of the seats, so people could watch for free. Most of the audience were free men, but there were women and slaves in the audience as well. After the first performance of a tragedy, it would often be restaged in the many local theatres in the villages around Athens, and in other cities.[3]

            The first presentation of each play, during the festival of Dionysus, was a collective ritual of the city. The tragedies dealt with the central contradictions of Athenian life and society in ways that the people found both beautiful and moving. Athens was something new and special, a class society that was also a ‘democracy’. The word was invented there. The core meaning was not about voting, but about power. ‘Cracy’ meant power, and ‘demos’ meant the people. Not the people in the sense of all the people, but the people in the sense of the ordinary people as opposed to just the wealthy few.

            Democracy was born in Athens in a revolution, between 510 and 508 BC. A government of the few – an ‘oligarchy’ – was overthrown by a popular uprising. After the uprising, this kind of debt enslavement did not happen, and the relationship of power between small farmers and rich people changed. A new balance of power developed over the next fifty years that favoured the demos in many different ways. By the spring of 431, when our first play was produced, the assembly of all free adult Athenian men met regularly to vote on the major issues of the day. This assembly was served by a committee of 500, elected by consensus from local meetings of all non-slave men in each village and urban neighbourhood. The magistrates and the main city officers were chosen by lot from among all the men who went to the assembly.

            This was a radical change – because these officers and judges were not elected, any free man might find himself an office holder. He did have to be 20 years old to speak in the assembly, and 30 to become a magistrate. But no other special qualifications or background required for high office. The only exceptions were the ten generals of the army, all of whom were elected by the assembly. Legal trials were a key way of making political decisions, and all juries were chosen by lot from among the men at the assembly. Poor men who had to farm or work every day found all this participation difficult. To fix this, the rich were taxed so that everyone could receive a daily wage for attending the assembly, holding an office, or serving on a jury.

            All these measures were introduced for the same reason – to make the demos more powerful and the rich weaker. But the deeper the grip of the new politics of equality, the stronger were the contradictions in the new system. This was a system based on the equality of all free men. But it was a system of three classes – the rich, the demos and the slaves. The rich relied on large land holdings for their wealth, and on trade. Athenian politics was still one long struggle between the rich and the demos. But just as important were the excluded.

            Most of the slaves were outsiders or the descendants of outsiders who had been taken captive in war, or people bought from other cities and lands. Crucially, Athens was the richest city in the Greek world, partly because of silver mines worked by slaves.

            There is controversy among historians about how many slaves there were in fifth century Athens. The most convincing argument is made by Alfonso Moreno in Feeding the Democracy. He estimates 200,000 free Athenians in the fifth century, and 100,000 slaves. If we accept that estimate, we can assume that many of the slaves worked in the mines or as urban servants, but some must have worked in agriculture.[4]

            The conventional view among classicists and historians has been to accept the blatant contradiction and say that most free Athenian men were democrats who supported slavery and patriarchy. However, this seems unlikely to capture what was actually going on in Athens. We have argued elsewhere on this blog that gender relations change and are changed to fit changing systems of class inequality. Mostly this change happens from the top down. But people also try for a unified personhood, and to avoid cognitive dissonance.

            For example, consider how metaphor works by analogy. If you are in favour of one kind of inequality, to stay sane you tend to be in favour of other kinds of inequality too. And the same holds for equality. As the political and economic system grew more equal, among some Athenian men of the demos there grew a hatred of slavery and patriarchy. Many more men of the demos experienced an acute feeling of internal conflict. And a third group sought to ally themselves with the rich and become part of an elite. How do we know this? We know from the plays of Euripides, among the Athenians the most beloved of all tragedians.

            The wealthy in Athens in these years were bitterly opposed to democracy, and in favour of a dictatorship of the rich. In this camp were the philosophers Socrates and Plato, the historians Xenophon and Thucydides and, we will argue, the comic dramatist, Aristophanes. They dominate the written the record. For the views of the majority, and the defenders of democracy, we have to rely on one non-Athenian historian, Herodotus, and the tragedians.

            Tragedies by only three poets have been preserved: Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. These three were, by the common consent among their contemporaries, the greatest of all dramatists. All were staunch defenders of the Athenian democratic revolution.

            The oldest was Aeschylus. He came from a wealthy background. He was fifteen during the revolution of 410. He served as a soldier at the battle of Marathon against the invading Persian empire, and served in the fleet against that empire at Salamis. All of his seven surviving plays celebrate equality. His greatest work, the Orestia trilogy, has many themes, but it builds to a climactic defence of the jury system in Athens.

            The second playwright, Sophocles, was born about 28 years later. His family was less wealthy than that of Aeschylus, but his father was a manufacturer of armour and could afford to educate his son well. Six of his seven surviving plays are wholly on the side of resistance to authority and power. His most famous, Oedipus the Tyrant, portrays the central character as a bully and a torturer who is brought low by his arrogance. His most thrilling play, Antigone, celebrates the resistance of a lone woman to the dictator Creon, whose name means ‘Power’. His last play, Oedipus at Colonus, written when he was almost ninety, has much about politics, Athens and asylum, but the central concern is approaching death and redemption.

            Then there is Euripides, a generation younger than Sophocles. He was almost fifty when he wrote Medea for the Dionysus festival in the spring of 431, and had been writing plays for perhaps twenty years. And in his Medea, there was one theatrical moment which breaks stunning gender boundaries even 24 centuries later. This alone is reason to focus on Medea here.

            Euripides was, everyone at the time agreed, the poet of the common man, and of women. His enemies said of him, in derision, that his mother had sold greens in the marketplace, and tradition holds that he was a farmer who worked his land with his own hands. That’s as may be. Certainly, he was not wealthy.

            Euripides embraced democracy and he hated slavery. He wrote in a new language, not the archaic and heroic poetry of Aeschylus, but in a down to earth language that mirrored the way people spoke in the streets and the fields. This point can be taken too far. It was still poetry, written in metre and in heightened language. Euripides is still harder to read now than the historians of his time. But the contrast with what had come before struck everyone.

            So did the contrast in his choice of subject. Because the tragedies were part of the festival of Dionysus, the convention was that the stories were about old legends of gods and heroes. Euripides follows this convention – all his protagonists are well born, and usually aristocratic. But again and again, his slaves speak like human beings.

            Medea opens with a slave, the ‘Nurse’ who looks after Medea’s children. Distressed, Nurse has slipped out of the palace for a moment of quiet, and to tell us of her fears.

            Then the ‘Tutor’ approaches with his charges, the two little sons of Medea. He lets slip that he knows something awful is about to happen, but he won’t say what.

            Nurse says something utterly Euripidean: ‘Look, we’re both slaves together, don’t keep me in the dark.’ 

            To understand what follows, you need to know a bit about how Greek tragedy was produced. There were three actors, although they could play several parts. All actors were men, playing in masks and robes, though many of the characters were women. The actors needed strong voices, for they were playing to an audience of about eight thousand. There was also a chorus. They sometimes represent the common people. In Euripides the chorus are often a severely marginalised group. In this play the chorus are the women of Corinth, where Medea lives.

            The chorus and the actors talk back and forth, but mostly the chorus sing as they dance to music. There were also extra actors with no speaking lines, like Medea’s children in this play. There were no acts or scenes, so the plays unfold in real time. At the back of the stage area was a big building with a roof and a door of some kind. (In this case, it is the palace where Medea is staying.)

            Action scenes of fighting and killing were crucial to most of the stories. Usually they happened offstage, and a messenger would arrive to tell the other actors and the chorus of the unexpected tragedy.

            The plays were presented at the annual festival of Dionysos. He was a special kind of god. He was identified with barbarians, and there was general agreement that he came from the east. He was the god of wine, of intoxication, wildness, contradiction, and sometimes orgies.

            Greeks enjoyed wine, but watered it down and were officially and formally disdainful of drunkenness. His worship involved mysteries, closely guarded initiations which gave people glimpses of the transcendental. He was bawdy, hairy, disrespectful, identified with the satyrs, half men and half horses. (The lower half was a horse). Groups of women held secret rituals for the god, sometimes on the mountainsides, where they drunk themselves into collective euphoria.[5]

            Every trilogy of tragedies was followed by a fourth ‘satyr’ play. These were comedies, full of filth and innuendo, acted by men disguised as satyrs. The annual festival began with a great procession, in which the sons of men who had fallen in the armed forces of Athens marched. But so did the metics, the resident free non-Athenians, who were often traders, and an important part of daily life, but nowhere else marked out ritually.

            Dionysos was the god of order overturned, of communitas and a festival of misrule. It was not an accident that the plays of Euripides were part of his cult.


            In Medea, Nurse and Tutor are afraid that Medea will kill their charges, her children. Medea has reason. Her husband is the legendary hero Jason, of Jason and the Argonauts. His voyages over, he now lives in Corinth. He has just abandoned Medea for a younger woman, the daughter of the King of Corinth. For Jason, it is a career move to take a younger trophy bride.

            It is an old, old story. But this time the story is told from the point of view of the older woman. Euripides enters deep into Medea’s feelings, and leaves us in no doubt that the jealousy tearing her apart is saturated with sexual pain.

            This is not only a woman’s sexual pain. The classicist, Helene Foley, points out that Greek tragedy was written by men, for an audience the majority of whom were men. But the method of that tragedy was to arouse feelings indirectly, by writing of gods and heroes, in other cities, in ancient times, to illuminate the contradictions and passions in ordinary Athenian men. In the same way, Foley points out, men in the audience were allowed to feel the passions tragic women displayed. So Euripides is writing of, and from, the sexual pain of men as well.[6]

            At the same time, Medea’s agony is also a mirror for all women. Medea tells the chorus:

Surely, of all the creatures that have life and will, we women are the most wretched. When we have brought a husband for an extravagant [dowry], we must accept him as the owner of our bodies… But will the man we get be bad or good? Divorce is not respectable for women, and we cannot fight off the man … And if we are successful, your life is to be envied. But if not, death is better. If a man grows tired of company at home, he can go out and find a cure for boredom. We wives are forced to look to only one man. And they tell us that we live safe at home while they stride off to battle. Idiots. I would rather stand in the front line of battle three times than bear one child.[7]

            She says this knowing, as does her audience, that the Greek warrior in the front line of battle had his shield right up against the enemy’s shields, spears thrusting through the cracks, the weight of dozens or hundreds of men from behind pushing the two front lines together.

            In 1913 the English classicist Gilbert Murray remarked that ‘Songs and speeches from the Medea are recited today at suffragist meetings.’ One can see why.[8]

            Medea then immediately sounds a different note, with its own modern resonance. She tells the women of Corinth: ‘The same arguments do not apply to you and me. You have this city, your father’s home, the enjoyment of your life and the company of your friends. I am alone. I have no city. Now my husband insults me. I was taken as plunder from a land at the edge of the Earth. I have no mother, no brother, no one of my blood to turn to.’[9]

            The audience know Media is an exile, a refugee. She is not just a stranger and a non-citizen. She is a foreigner, not even a fellow Greek. And Colchis, her homeland, was famous among Athenians as the source of many of their slaves.[10] Euripides has taken a despised, repellent and vulnerable outsider as his heroine.

            As the chorus know well, and as the playwright reminds us, Jason came to her savage, barbarian home of Colchis on the Black Sea to steal the legendary Golden Fleece. Medea was soon sexually obsessed with Jason. She betrayed her father, the King of Colchis, and led Jason to the Fleece. Then she and her brother fled with Jason on his ship, the Argo, hotly pursued by her father, the King.

            Medea took decisive action. She cut her little brother into pieces, and threw the pieces overboard one by one. To recover the body of his son, Medea’s father had to slow his ship to pick up the pieces one by one, and Jason and Medea escaped.

            The audience knew the story of Medea well, through myth and legend. And Euripides reminds the audience of the time Medea bewitched the daughters of another king and tricked them into boiling and eating their father. Medea is a sorceress, a foreign witch, a worker of spells, a sexually voracious murderer. This is the protagonist Euripides has chosen for his tragedy. And he invites us to take her side, as he himself does.

            Medea asks the women of Corinth for solidarity: ‘I have one favour to ask. If I can find a way to revenge myself on Jason, please say nothing. A woman is weak and afraid in most matters. The noise of war and the look of steel make her a coward. But mess with her rights in marriage, and no spirit is more bloody.’[11]

            The women of Corinth give her that solidarity. Through the carnage that follows, they sound no warning. Not even when they learn of Medea’s plan to destroy Jason by killing his sons.

            The legend of Jason and Medea was well known. But one bit of the story – Medea killing her children – was new in Euripides’ play.[12] He adds that to increase the tragedy, while still keeping us on Medea’s side. He is willing to follow her into the depths of evil. We are not supposed to think it is the right thing to do. The chorus, and Nurse, comment for us, and tell us it will not only be wrong, but a horror for her to kill her own innocent children. But we are supposed to empathise, and not to betray her.

            One of the reasons we can do this as the audience is that Euripides shows us what manner of man Jason is. Jason comes to persuade Medea not to make trouble, and he’s a bastard of a kind instantly recognisable today. Jason tells Medea that his new bride’s father will exile her and their sons, but he is doing this for her own sake and that of the children. She should understand, he explains. He has been a foreigner, a guest in Corinth. Now wealth and power is within his grasp. Surely, she wants this, he asserts. Really, he assures her, it will be in her long term interests to accept exile. After all they have been through, how can she grudge him this? Above all, he tells her, don’t make a scene. Go quietly, or it will make trouble for me.

            Medea says ‘yes’ to him. We, the audience and the chorus, know she has already poisoned a golden dress. Now she sends her two little sons to Jason’s new bride, to make a present of the dress and ask the princess to let them stay in the palace. They are to promise that their mother will leave.

            Charmed, the princess of Corinth is a decent sort and says yes, the boys can stay. She puts the dress on, next to her beautiful skin, and burns alive in excruciating pain.

            The little boys flee to their mother. She welcomes them, and then takes them into the palace offstage. From there, we hear their cries, and hear them beg their mother for mercy as she kills them. There is a silence.

            Jason enters the stage. And then comes the moment of transgression, which is also a theatrical moment of great power. Medea appears on the roof of the palace, with the bloody bodies of her two sons, in a chariot drawn by two dragons. Instead of punishing her, Zeus, the High Sky God, has decided to rescue her.

            Greek stages had a ‘machine’, a sort of enormous wooden forklift, for just such moments. As Medea is about to fly off. Jason looks up. A broken man, but dignified, he begs to be allowed to bury his sons with proper rites.

            Medea says no, she is going to fly away fast and bury them by herself. Then she will fly to Athens, she says, where she has already arranged asylum. Jason, she says to him, you will die soon enough. You’ll be hit on the head by a timber of your own Argo.

            Medea leaves in her chariot. The play is over.

            We have been led, throughout, to think that we are watching the tragedy of a wronged woman driven to madness. We have believed, as every audience who has ever seen this play has believed, that we can empathise with her, but she will be punished, as murderous women drowning in sexual pain are always punished in the theatre.

            But no. Medea receives mercy, while her husband and sons receive none. We have been invited, by a great poet who understands sexual pain in his heart and his groin, to take the side of the murderous ex-wife. She, and we, are pardoned.

            This was not just a few lines in a text. This was a historical moment. The free men of Athens, and some free women, were watching this play together. As any actor knows, an audience breathes together. This was a moment when the men saw themselves, and the women they knew, in their deepest feelings. They saw, and felt, together, what Euripides was saying. Many of those men loved Euripides. Many hated him. Many felt both emotions at once. For he was saying to them, in this play and almost a hundred others – this is what inequality looks like, this is what it does, and this is what it feels like.

            Ever since, almost all critics have been repelled by what Euripides was saying. Or they wilfully failed to understand it. The feminist classicist Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, writing in 1993, expressed such reservations this way: ‘Given the realities of child abuse in our own time, however, I find it problematic simply to applaud Medea’s infanticide and escape. The difference here is both personal (I am a mother and find the vision of Medea troubling) and moral (do we want to endorse infanticide as a solution?)’[13]

            Yet Euripides put his finger on the contradictions in the deep political and emotional lives of his audience. This is what drama does, when it moves us most and moves us one. But this was a cry, a truth, which still left slavery and patriarchy in place. Sixteen years later, after seventeen years of war, Euripides would go further in his transgression.

The War

            When Medea was first performed, Athens was in its first year of the long war with Sparta. This was a conflict between the two most powerful cities in Greece. But it was more than that. It was a class war that engulfed the whole of the Greek world.

            Athens was the home of the new democracy. Sparta was the very model of class oppression. Nine tenths of the people of Sparta were helots, the original inhabitants of the land whom the Spartans had conquered. Their relation to the wealthy Spartan landowners was somewhere between slaves and serfs. One tenth of the population were the Spartans proper. And the sons of proper Spartans left home at the age of seven to live in a men’s house, to be taught stoicism and the arts of war. Writing five centuries later, but with many sources at his disposal, the historian Plutarch said that Spartan boys were not reckoned to have become men until they had gone out at night, alone, and killed a helot. Perhaps this was a slur, but it shows how the Spartan elite were viewed, and how they were to be feared.

            Spartan women of the elite led markedly different lives from other Greeks. Boys of the elite spent a lot of their lives training and competing in sports, and so did the girls. The ancient sources say the girls trained naked like the boys, and competed naked in public. They ran, threw the javelin and the discus, and wrestled with other girls. Spartan women, too, had a reputation with other Greeks for choosing their own lovers. It was widely believed, for example, that the queen of Sparta had an affair with the Athenian Alcibiades, and that he was the father of one of her children.  The point of this story is that nothing happened to Alcibiades, who continued to live in Sparta.[14]

            There is a warning for us in this example. Gender can mark out inequality in many ways. That does not have to mean that the more unequal society is, the more unequal men and women are. In Sparta the equality and sexual freedom of upper class women was one way of marking and reinforcing the inequality of Spartan society. Spartan men were warriors, in constant readiness to fight the helots, who did in fact rise in a great revolt in the mid-460s. Plutarch reports the legend that Spartan mothers, seeing their sons off to war, would say ‘Come back with your shield or on it’. These were big, heavy shields, and a man who ran from battle had to throw his away. But if a man died, he was carried home to his mother on his shield. The mother whose son died in battle was supposed to rejoice and dance in public.

            Besides Athens and Sparta, there were hundreds of small city states in the Greek world, which included what is now Greece, Cyprus, the Aegean coast of Turkey, and colonies in Sicily and southern Italy. During the war, each of these states was split between two parties. The party of the Demos wanted to ally their city with Athens, and the party of the wealthy few wanted to ally themselves with Sparta. In city after city, the balance of power swung from the wealthy few to the Demos, and back again. The fortunes of war brought now this city, and now that one, under the control of Athens or Sparta. This was a civil war in all the Greek world, and a class war. That is why the war lasted so long and was so bitter. The key issue that could not be negotiated was which class won.

            In Athens too people were bitterly divided. The wealthy were found on both sides, but most were sympathetic with Sparta. The intellectual leader of this reaction was the philosopher Socrates. For this he would be eventually sentenced to death by a jury of free Athenians. Socrates’ pupil, Plato, has left us many dialogues that tell us what Socrates argued. And Plato himself went on to produce the most influential defence of oligarchy and dictatorship ever written.

            Thucydides, who wrote the standard history of the war, occupied a somewhat more nuanced position. He had been one of Athens’ nine elected generals. Early in the war, in 423, he had failed to bring the fleet he commanded to the relief of a city allied with Athens and threatened by Sparta. The majority of Athenians assumed this had happened because he was a traitor, and the Assembly exiled him from the city for twenty years. When Thucydides eventually came to write his history, he had reason to hate the Athenian demos. He said, though, that he tried to write a neutral history, taking neither side. But if he had to choose who was responsible for starting the war, he would have to say that it was because Athens threatened Sparta.

            Precisely because of the ambiguity of his position, Thucydides has meant many things to many people in the years since. In the mid-nineteenth century Grote in Germany and Mill in Britain saw in his description of Athens the democracy they wanted for their own countries. In America, Cold War specialists in international relations valued him for his realism and in Trump’s White House MacMaster, Mattis and Bannon revered him. This range was possible precisely because he took a balanced position between the brutal dictatorship of the wealthy and the democracy of the many – with perhaps a slight tilt toward dictatorship.[15]

            The majority of free Athenians were in the other camp, and for democracy. So were the two great tragedians then living, Sophocles and Euripides. (Aeschylus had died just before the war began.) This was not an accidental balance. Philosophers and historians wrote for small numbers of educated and wealthy men. Playwrights wrote for mass audiences.[16]

            These were still agricultural societies, and war happened only in the spring and summer, and ceased in time for the harvest. But year after year, now here, now there, the war continued. The strength of Sparta was their heavily armoured soldiers. Only reasonably wealthy men could afford such armour. The strength of the Athenians lay in their ships, galleys rowed by oarsmen who were free peasants, and not slaves.

            In seventeen years of war, feelings, hatreds, loyalties and griefs hardened. In the winter of 416, something extraordinary happened which led Euripides to write another astonishingly transgressive play, The Women of Troy, against slavery, patriarchy, empire and the gods themselves.[17]

            On the island of Melos in the Aegean Sea, the party of the wealthy few was in control. The Athenian alliance was a coalition against the wealthy few in every city. It was also, at the same time, an empire. The wealthy and the merchants of Athens were kept on side by glory and riches of the empire. Each city in the alliance and empire was required to pay tribute to Athens each year, and it was no small sum.

            This tribute was at the heart of a contradiction in Athenian democracy. At this period, the villages of Athens did not produce enough grain to feed the people of Athens. Nor could Athens, on her own, build the ships and feed the sailors of her navy. The shortfall in grain was made up by tribute from all the cities in the Athenian alliance. In effect, the Athenian citizens had to exploit their allies to survive. The people who benefitted from the glory, art and military might of the democracy would go hungry without that tribute. Equality between free men in Athens depended on imported food grown by and taken from other free men in other cities.[18]

            The islanders of Melos refused to pay the tribute. The envoys of Athens arrived on the island to negotiate. They demanded to be allowed to address the people in an assembly. The wealthy who ruled Melos refused – the Athenians could speak to a council of the few. Both sides knew that if the Athenians could appeal to the demos of Melos, they would get their way.

            The Athenians told the Melian elite that Sparta could not save them, because Melos was an island and the navy of Athens ruled the sea. The wealthy Melians were obdurate. The Athenians sacked the city, killed every man, raped the women, and then enslaved the women and children. It was a warning to every city in or out of the alliance that might dare to stand against Athens.

            A few months later Euripides produced his play, The Women of Troy, at the festival of Dionysus. It was a sustained scream against the atrocity on Melos. But remember, the festival was also a collective event for free Athenian men. In the front ranks of the audience there were reserved seats for the sons of the men who had died in war for Athens. The generals had reserved seats too. Some of the envoys who had threatened Melos would have been in that audience, and many men who had raped and killed in the sack of the city. In our own day, political theatre or cinema is aimed at and made for homogenous and predictable markets, a selected audience with shared political opinions. What Euripides did with Women of Troy was something far less safe.

            The play was not directly about Melos. Instead, it was about the sack of Troy, in what is now Turkey, by a Greek army centuries before. Every Athenian understood the story of Troy through the two book-length poems of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. These poems had been composed centuries after the war with Troy, but centuries before 415 BCE. Together, they were the national epic of the Greeks.

            Even if the play was not directly about Melos, everyone understood what it was about, and that it was a relentless attack on the national myth of the Greeks as well. For one thing, Euripides’ play starts from the point of view of the enemy. It opens with an old woman in rags, lying on the ground. High above, on the roof of the nearby building, the God Poseidon tells us that this figure is Hecuba, the Queen of Troy. The city has been sacked by the Greeks, her husband and sons killed. The Greek warlords and warriors are drawing lots to decide who gets which woman of the Trojan royal family as his slave.

            Poseidon is the God of the Sea, and he has been patron of the Trojans for the ten long years of the war. Then Athena arrives on the roof. She has been patron of the Greeks and is the god of Athens. The scene is set for a poetic confrontation of great powers.

            But this is Euripides, and almost immediately Athena says, in effect, have you got time for a quick chat?

            Poseidon says, in effect, ‘Sure, we’re both gods here’.

            They proceed to fix the future, like two politicians carving up a deal behind the scenes, in quick, informal and friendly lines. Athena is outraged that a Greek warrior has raped one of the Trojan captives at her altar. She wants the Greeks punished now, and asks Poseidon to raise a great storm to scatter and drown the Greek fleet on their way home.

            Poseidon says sure, he can do that.

            As the gods talk, the old woman is huddled on the ground below them. This quick scene tells us several things. First, the general sack of Troy will do the Greeks no good. Rape and mass murder is the road to ruin. It also shows the deep disrespect Euripides has for the gods who lord it over the earthly hierarchy. To be sure, the gods of ancient Greece were not the embodiment of goodness. They were lustful, cruel, vengeful, vain, and endlessly competitive, but also sometimes kind and merciful, wise and healing. They were like the powerful human men and women of Greece, and so they are depicted in all the poems and plays. But Euripides’ disdain for the gods here is something special. His enemies said of him that he did not believe in the gods at all, and they were probably right.

            The two gods leave, and Hecuba wakes up. From here on the play is lamentation after lamentation. Hecuba learns that her daughter Polyxnea has been a human sacrifice at the tomb of the Greek warrior, Achilles. Then Hecuba’s daughter Cassandra arrives, dancing with insane joy, shouting to Hymen, the goddess of marriage. Cassandra has been cursed and blessed by the god Apollo with life-long virginity and the ability to see the future. She has just learned that she is to be given as a slave to Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces. He will rape her and keep her as his secret mistress. And she will go home with him to Argo, where his enraged wife will murder both her husband and Cassandra herself as they arrive. Cassandra knows all this, and rejoices in being able to see the death of the man who sacked her city.

            Cassandra leaves and Hecuba’s daughter-in-law Andromache arrives. She has just learned that she has been given as a slave to the son of Achilles. Her husband, Hecuba’s son, Hector, was killed by Achilles in open battle. Andromache tells Hecuba she is being torn apart. She is grieving for the memory of Hector. But she wants to please her new master, for she fears the degradations she will face if she does not.

            Hecuba tells Andromache to forget Hector as best she can, and use her smiles. It is kind advice, not easily given.

            A Greek messenger arrives to collect Andromache’s small son, Hecuba’s grandson. Both Andromache and Hecuba realise the Greeks will kill the boy. As the last surviving male of the royal house of Troy, he would grow up to a rallying point for the revival of the old kingdom. But this is Euripides, so there is an extra dollop of monstrosity. The messenger takes the boy to the top of a tall tower, the only one still standing among the flames in the sacked city, and throws his body to the ground.

            Then the messenger comes back to Hecuba, bearing the child. He tells her they must hurry, as the Greek ships are about to depart. But the messenger feels for Hecuba, and to save time he has quickly washed the body of the child in a river he crossed on his way. Now they have just time to bury her grandson. And then she turns, the flames of her home rising behind her, to go down to the beach and the ships of the conquerors. That’s the end.

            There are two things this plot summary cannot convey. One is the beauty, and the starkness, of the poetry that takes us into the world and suffering of Hecuba. The other is the constant presence of the threat of rape. Much of this is explicit. But Elizabeth Craik has argued convincingly that there is also a constant barrage of metaphors and symbols which recall sex, penetration and violation.[19] It is certainly possible that much of this was also exciting for the men in the audience, and that the feel of the play was what we would now call ‘rapey’.

            But evoking that excitement, like evoking the flames of the burning city, would also increase the force and reality of the play. Any depiction of rape in film or television now faces the same dilemma. To empty out the sexuality is also to diminish and whitewash the cruelty. But to give the sexuality free rein is to titillate, to be pornographic, and to side with the rapist. In the end, it comes down to a matter of intention. And Euripides’ intention is not in doubt.

            Women of Troy is often described as an anti-war play. This it is not. Euripides supported the war with Sparta. To be of the peace party would have been to side with Sparta, the dictatorship and the slavers. His play is something else, a scream against the gods and the powerful, against massacre and rape, and against patriarchy and slavery. It is an intervention, with every ounce of poetry he possessed, into a raging debate in his city.

The Critics

            And what has been the fate of Euripides’ long lamentation for the dispossessed, the enslaved, and the women? How have the ideological police buried the lives of the dead?

            Euripides wrote more than a hundred plays, returning obsessively to his wronged women, bitter slaves and stories of women’s desire. In his generation, and in the centuries that followed, they were performed many times, in cities across the Greek world. We can assume that this happened because Greek audiences found the plays held meaning for their own lives. In ancient times, he stood in public estimation alongside Aeschylus and Sophocles.

            More recently, however, teachers of classics have had a problem with his plays. For the last two centuries classics has been taught at the ancient universities and private schools of America and Europe. Ancient Greek was lumped with Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, that vast prison camp which dominated the Mediterranean for centuries. Greek and Latin were taught as a discipline that prepared boys to take part in the imperial service of Britain and America.

            As part of that project, since about 1815 most classicists have had three missions. One has been to sever the world of ancient Greece from the Mediterranean civilisations of which it was a part. The second was to justify empire. The third, and most difficult, was to tame the women of the Greek plays.

            Martin Bernal argues that until 1800 it was obvious to all the scholarly world that Greek culture was intimately connected to the greater, and older civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Persia. This was clear enough in the gods they shared, if by different names, in their legends, art, mathematics, trade and medicine. After all, the Greeks had been island traders for centuries.

            After 1800, the European empires began to replace Ottoman Turkish rule in parts of the Near East and North Africa. This went hand in hand with the invention of a new ideological complex called ‘Western Civilisation’, which is said to have begun in Greece, but now excluded not just Mesopotamia and Egypt but also the Biblical Lands of the Near East. The Greek historian Herodotus had been long seen as a central authority on the eastern Mediterranean. He had to be rubbished for what were now treated as lies, fancies and tall stories, all of which in fact pointed to cultural unity with North Africa and the Middle East.

            We take the argument above from Martin Bernal’s books on Black Athena, a stunning multi-volume account of the many roots of Greek civilization. Bernal’s title is provocative, and misleading. It is not that Athenians were black, but that they were part of a much wider world we might now call multi-racial, except that people did not think about races in the same way back then. Much subsequent scholarship has confirmed the broad thrust of Bernal’s argument. [20]

            However, we must be careful here. For if there was nothing unique about ancient Greece, there is still something very special about that short period of the democratic revolution in Athens. Those years, in that city, produced an explosion of learning, thought, drama and art unmatched in any one city, in any one century elsewhere in Greece, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Persia or Europe. It is hard to mistake the creativity that exploded there because of a political revolution. That flowering included both the thought of reactionaries and revolutionaries. After that flowering was strangled, the creative impulse, knowledge and accumulated poetry remained part of the heritage of the Ancient Near East.

            So this posed a second problem for the classicists. If classical civilization was the justification of empire, then Rome, Socrates, Plato, Homer and Thucydides were grist to the mill. But the tragedians, and above all Euripides, were not. Greek history had to be rewritten to balance Athens with Sparta. Classicists explained that Sophocles Antigone might seem like a scream of rage by a rebel girl, but that one must understand the point of view of the tyrant who buried her alive. He represented the forces of progress, and was only defending the rule of law. In Oedipus the Tyrant the title character is a bully who destroys his own life by threatening a shepherd and a blind old transsexual seer with torture. That became the understandable flaw of pride in an otherwise admirable hero.[21]

            Euripides posed an even greater problem. Most classicists took their cue from a comedy by Aristophanes, Frogs. Not all classicists, though. Here is Gilbert Murray, writing about Euripides a century ago:

One fact is especially clear, the restless enmity of the comic writers. Of the eleven comedies of Aristophanes which have come down to us three are largely devoted to Euripides, and not one has managed altogether to avoid touching him. … The attacks are sometimes rough and viscous, sometimes acute and searching, often enough they hide a secret admiration. And the chief enemy, Aristophanes, must, to judge from his parodies, have known a large number of Euripides’ ninety-two plays by heart, and been at least half fascinated by the object of his satire. However that may be, the hostility of the comic writers had evidently a general hostility behind it. Our tradition states this definitely and the persistency of the attacks proves it. You cannot go on constantly deriding on the stage a person whom your audience does not wish to see derided.[22]

            Aristophanes wrote Frogs almost at the end of the war with Sparta. After 415 BCE the balance of the war swung steadily against Athens, and the wealthy few inside Athens grew more powerful. In 408 Euripides was (probably) either banished or went into exile to stay alive. He moved then to Macedon, on the northern edge of the Greek world, and died there two years later. The year after his death, 405 BCE, the Spartan army was camped on the plains of Attica when Aristophanes staged Frogs. In that play Dionysus, the god of wine, sex and theatre descends into the underworld of Hades to bring back a poet to save Athens in its hour of greatest need. The God finds the two great dead poets, Aeschylus and Euripides, and sets up a comic competition to see which of them he will bring back to life.

            Any modern reader will find disconcerting the byplay of literary criticism the popular audience is expected to follow. They were expected to have an easy acquaintance with arguments about metre, metaphor, prosody, dialect and register. But despite all that learning, Aristophanes is stacking the deck. There are jokes about Aeschylus. But the attack on Euripides in unrelenting. Euripides’ characters show the great and powerful in rags. They speak the coarse language of the streets. Euripides does not believe in the gods. His mother sold greens in the market. His wife cheated on him. The women in his plays are monsters and whores. The women of Athens all hate him for the shame he has brought upon them. And on and on.

            Aeschylus, by contrast, represents all the old virtues of Athens, of warfare and warriors, of dignity and archaic language. 

            At the end, the god asks a political question. Alcibiades was in reality, at that moment in 405, just outside the borders of Athens, asking for admission to the city. He had been one of the leading politicians of Athens, a rich man, a close friend to Socrates and the wealthy few, an elected general who had turned traitor and gone over to the Spartans. Now he wanted to come home, perhaps to save the city, perhaps to deliver it into the arms of Sparta, perhaps both.

            Dionysus asks: Should we let Alcibiades into the city?

            Euripides gives a wordy, poetic reply which means ‘Never’.

            Aeschylus gives a wordy, poetic reply which means sometimes you have to compromise. Dionysus immediately saves Aeschylus and takes him back to the light.

            Euripides is left, restrained, distraught, struggling desperately against eternal Death. Ha-ha-ha. 

The Voices of Women?

            One last point. Euripides was a man. And for all his skill in in depicting women with great depth of feeling, we still need to ask: Where are the actual voices of women and slaves in democratic Athens?

            The conventional version of Greek womanhood that has come down to us is of a modest creature, spending most her time at home, making sure the slaves clean, do the shopping and draw the water. This is indeed the picture drawn by the some of our sources, who tell us what the women of the wealthy ought to do.

            However, the women of the tragedies did not stay in the house. Medea’s first line in the play is, ‘I have come out of the house.’[23]

            We have no actual records of the voices of women and slaves in Athens. We have Sappho, the writer of love poems, whose work is particularly important because it shows us a proud, public Lesbianism. But she lived two centuries before democracy, on an island far from Athens, in a different sort of polity. There are the fables of Aesop from the same time as Sappho. He was (probably) a freed slave, possibly an African, whose stories gently mock the arrogant and powerful. Then four centuries after democratic Athens, we can hear the voices of humble and oppressed men – a carpenter, a tent maker, fishermen and small peasants – in the New Testament, written in ‘Market Greek’, the pidgin of the eastern Med.

            In which case, whence come Jocasta, Clytemnestra, Cassandra, Helen, Athena, Electra, Antigone, Medea, Hecuba and all the rest of the passionate, screaming, unbearably eloquent, bull headed, strong willed, murderous women, driven by justice, who stride through almost every Greek tragedy? These women are, above everything else, loud. We do not hear such voices again on stage until the operas of Verdi and Puccini, written for women to sing in revolutionary times.

            Where did Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides find such women? Where else, but in their mothers, sisters, lovers, wives, in the marketplace and the fields. Remember Euripides’ unfaithful wife – tradition holds, in fact, that both his wives cheated on him. Medea’s sexual pain may well also have been his. But remember also his mother, selling greens in the market. We are hearing, through the heightened language of poetry, the loud voices and inner emotional lives of real Greek women.

[1] Great thanks to Katherine Harloe, Nick Evans and Betty Moxon for careful readings of this article. The mistakes are my own.

[2] I. F. Stone, The Trial of Socrates (London: Jonathan Cape, 1988).

[3] David Kawalko Roselli, Theater of the People: Spectators and Society in Ancient Athens (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2011). The controversy over women in the audience has a long history, but Roselli’s summary is convincing: women were there.

[4] Alfonso Moreno, Feeding the Democracy: The Athenian Grain Supply in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries BC (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), gives a reasonable summary of the population figures. See also Ellen Meiksins Wood, 1989, Peasant-Citizen and Slave: The Foundations of Athenian Democracy (London: Verso, 1989), who takes issue with G. E. M. De Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World: From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (London; Duckworth, 1981).

[5] Richard Seaforth, Dionysos (London: Routledge, 2006).

[6] Helene P. Foley, 2001, Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001).

[7] Translation adapted from Euripides, Medea and Other Plays, translated by Philip Vellacott (London: Penguin, 1963), 24-25.

[8] Gilbert Murray, 1913, Euripides and His Age, Kindle, location 205.

[9] Adapted from Euripides, 1963, 25.

[10] David Braund and Gocha Tsetskhladze, 1984, ‘The Export of Slaves from Colchis’, Classical Quarterly, 39 (1): 114-125.

[11] Translation adapted from Euripides, 1963, 26.

[12] Jennifer March, ‘Euripides the Misogynist?’ in Euripides, Women and Sexuality, ed. Anton Powell (London: Routledge, 1990), 32-75, p. 35; and Emily McDermott, Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder, (Pittsburgh: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989), chapters 1 and 2. March’s article elegantly demolishes the idea that Euripides was sexist.

[13] Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women (Ithica: Cornell University Press, 1993), 154.

[14] Paul Cartledge, ‘Spartan Wives: Liberation or License?’, in Spartan Reflections (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 106-126.

[15] See particularly the chapters by Katherine Harloe and Neville Morely, Elizabeth Potter and Richard Lebow in Katherine Harloe and Neville Morley, eds, Thucydides and the Modern World: Reception, Reinterpretation and Influence from the Renaissance to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); and Michael Crowley, ‘Why the White House is Reading Greek History’, Politico, 21 June 2017.

[16] Josiah Ober, Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens: Rhetoric, Ideology, and the Power of the People, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1989) is a fascinating exploration of the intermediate case. He shows how men of the elite in the Athens of the next century crafted their words and arguments to convince juries of ordinary free men.

[17] N. T. Croally, Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) is useful here.

[18] Moreno 2007.

[19] Elzabeth Craik, ‘Sexual Imagery and Innuendo in Troades’, in Euripides, Women and Sexuality, ed. Anton Powell (Routledge: London, 1990), chapter 1.

[20] Martin Bernal, 1991, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilisation: Volume One – The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985, 2nd edition, (Vintage: New York, 1991); Bernal, Volume Two – The Archaeological and Documentary Evidence (London: Free Association Books, 1992); and Bernal, Black Athena Writes Back, Durham: Duke University Press, 2001).

[21] In this interpretation they were, of course, following Aristotle, the student of Plato and tutor of Alexander the Great.

[22] Murray 1913, Location 190.

[23] Margaret Williamson, ‘A Woman’s Place in Euripides’ Medea’, in Powell 1990, 16-31.

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