Chapter 13. Euripides: Sparagmos of an Iconoclast

Euripides was closer than either of the other two major tragedians to a blame poet, so it is not surprising that his vita conforms to the exclusion pattern quite closely. [1] His plays had satirical aspects: he was especially noted for his critique of war (The Trojan Women) and for his attacks on women. [2] According to the Vita, he was misogunēs, “a hater of … women” (23). Influenced by his first wife’s promiscuity, he wrote “Hippolytus, in which he loudly proclaims the shamelessness of women” (24). When Euripides’ second wife is unchaste “he became all the readier to speak ill of women. But the women wanted to kill him …” (24–25). [3]
He “jeered at [eskōpte] women in his poems” (29). [4] “Because of his mockery [dia tous psogous]” the women at the Thesmophoria plot to kill him, but give up the plot out of respect for the Muses (30). This is certainly an elaboration from Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae. Hermesianax tells us that “he won the hatred [misos] of all men by his barking concerning all women.” [5]
Satyrus describes him as “simply disdaining everything that was not high and lofty.” [6] When the musician Timotheus is rejected by the Athenians, Euripides “ridicules” (katagelasai) the audience for their lack of taste, and saves Timotheus from suicidal depression. [7]
Thus his Vita portrays him as unpopular: “he was treated with ill-will [ephthoneito] by the Athenians,” though a favorite of foreigners. [8] Satyrus writes: “Everyone became his enemy [apēkhthont’], the men because he was so unpleasant to talk to, the women because of his abuse [psogous] of them in his poetry. He ran into great danger from both sexes.” [9] We have already seen that Athenian women reportedly plotted to kill him, though they relented out of respect for the Muses, and because he promised to stop his attacks. He was also a favorite target of the comic poets. “The comic poets too attacked him and tore him to pieces [diasurontes] in their envy” (Vita 35). [10] Their animalistic, artistic violence presages his eventual death.
There are traditions that he was subjected to legal harassment. Aristotle tells us that a Hygiaenon opposed the dramatist in a trial for an exchange of properties, and accused him of impiety, in that Euripides had allegedly recommended perjury in a play.
ὥσπερ Εὐριπίδης πρὸς Ὑγιαίνοντα ἐν τῇ ἀντιδόσει κατηγοροῦντα ὡς ἀσεβής, ὅς γ’ ἐποίησε κελεύων ἐπιορκεῖν “ἡ γλῶσσ’ ὀμώμοχ’, ἡ δὲ φρὴν ἀνώμοτος.” ἔφη γὰρ αὐτὸν ἀδικεῖν τὰς ἐκ τοῦ Διονυσιακοῦ ἀγῶνος κρίσεις εἰς τὰ δικαστήρια ἄγοντα· ἐκεῖ γὰρ αὐτῶν δεδωκέναι λόγον, ἢ δώσειν εἰ βούλεται κατηγορεῖν.
So with Euripides’ reply to Hygiaenon, who, in the action for an exchange of properties, accused him of impiety in having written a line encouraging perjury—[Hippolytus 612] “My tongue has sworn: my heart is unsworn.” Euripides said that his opponent himself was guilty in bringing into the law-courts cases whose decision belonged to the Dionysiac contests. “If I have not already answered for my words there, I am ready to do so if you choose to prosecute me there.”
Aristotle Rhetoric 3.15 (1416a3) (test. 59K), translation by W. Roberts, modified
This is early, quite sober evidence, though one wonders what asebeia had to do with antidosis, whether it was actually part of the charge, or whether it was supportive character defamation. But it is significant that the charge haunts Euripides in a law case. Lefkowitz characteristically argues against the historicity of this reference, suggesting that such stories resulted from emphasis on Plato’s trial, or from Old Comedy. [11] But Aristotle was born only twenty-two years after Euripides’ death; one wonders if the philosopher, himself a shrewd and sober critic, would be susceptible to complete fantasy after such a short period of time.
According to a third-century AD papyrus, Euripides is also brought to trial once by Cleon because he portrayed the madness of Heracles; [12] and once by Cleon for general impiety, according to Satyrus (39.X). [13] In favor of the possible historicity of this event, Dover lists, 1, that there were elements in Euripides’ plays that could give rise to the charge of impiety, and 2, that if anyone was capable of prosecuting a dramatist, Cleon was, as the prosecution of Aristophanes by Cleon after the Babylonians showed. We might add 3, the comparative earliness of Satyrus’ biography, and 4, the parallel from Aristotle. Against the historicity of this event, Dover argues that Satyrus is “an extremely disreputable source,” because he reported the attack on Euripides by women at the Thesmophoria as history. This argument has some weight, but it would be strengthened if he could suggest a similar source for the Cleon story.
Euripides’ response to this unpopularity was withdrawal, both physical and psychological. “He was rather proud and pardonably stood aloof from the majority, showing no ambition as regards his audience” (34). He is described as looking “sullen and pensive and stern, a hater of laughter …” (23). “He wore a long beard and had moles on his face” (12). [14] These details add up to a kind of ugliness. Once “a boorish lad said out of ill-will that Euripides had foul-smelling breath.” This, surprisingly, is paralleled by an early source. In Aristotle we find Euripides scourging a Dechamnichus: “for the poet had been irritated at some remark made by Dechamnichus on the foulness of his breath.” [15] Again, the earliness of this tradition prevents us from immediately dismissing it as ahistorical. Euripides is one of the few figures in the classical tradition noted for bad breath. [16] Whether Aristotle’s reference has historicity or not, the fact that such a story would be promulgated shows that the dramatist had enemies, and that they had a sympathetic audience.
The poet leaves the city, lives in a “grim and gloomy cavern” (speluncam … taetram et horridam), [17] in Salamis, “fleeing the crowd,” φεύγοντα τὸν ὄχλον (22), and writes his tragedies there (22; 25). [18]
One wonders how much, if any, historical validity there is in all of this. While one must subject this vita to a thorough skeptical critique, one should also allow for the presence of occasional kernels of historicity embedded in it. Euripides, though he was certainly popular on the whole, [19] may have had bitter moments of disfavor and unpopularity; he may have been sullen in appearance, or he may have grown sullen; and he may have withdrawn from his public. The withdrawal and the unpopularity would have encouraged each other. His marriages may have been disillusioning failures. All of these elements are common among writers and thespians throughout history. Often artists fall out of fashion after successful careers, which makes comparative neglect all the more difficult to accept. P. T. Stevens, who rejects most of the romantic aspects of the vita, allows the possibility that Euripides “was much less successful, less sociable, and less popular than Sophocles, and by comparison showed a certain aloofness and reserve of manner” and that “like most well-known men, he had his ups and downs in popular favour.” [20] The contemporary attacks by Aristophanes show that Euripides, if judged one of the three best tragedians, was still a popular target; [21] and the traditions of unpopularity and harassment are found as early as Aristotle, which suggests that we should be very cautious about rejecting them entirely.
If some of these elements are historical, the biographers would have heightened them through the idiom of well-worn anecdote shading into archaic legend, taking cues from his writings or from Aristophanes on occasion. Lefkowitz writes an insightful chapter on Euripides, pursuing the thesis that his vita was derived from the tragic hero of his plays. This is convincing in some ways, though she probably goes too far, especially when we examine his violent death. However, by my thesis, the Euripidean tragic hero and the Euripidean vita would have derived, in part, from the same mythical source. The Euripidean heroes and heroines have a tendency toward self-sacrifice, and Bremmer and Burkert treat them in the context of the legendary scapegoat (in which young princes or princesses sacrifice themselves for the good of the community); [22] Euripides’ vita was merely a poetic outcome of the scapegoat—as it were, the Aesopic line of development. Here again there is nothing to prevent separate development with contamination, that is, the Euripidean biographical traditions deriving from myth, but also being influenced by the Euripidean tragic hero.
Euripides completed his withdrawal by leaving Attica altogether, like Aeschylus, an interesting parallel (and perhaps a wandering theme). Murray calls it a “voluntary exile.” [23] When the dramatist was attacked by the comic poets and his audience, “he ignored it all and departed to Macedonia and the court of King Archelaus” (ὑπεριδὼν δὲ πάντα εἰς Μακεδόνας ἀπῆρε πρὸς Ἀρχέλαον τὸν βασιλέα … , 35). According to Satyrus (39.XV.25), the “native ill-will” of his fellow-Athenians (ἐπιχωρίωι φθόνωι τῶν πολιτῶν), as well as attacks by other dramatists, grieves the poet, and, though there is a gap in the text, this probably is a reason for his leaving Athens. A statement by Philodemus, probably applicable to Euripides, suggests this: “in grief, because almost all Athenians were rejoicing over him, he departed to Archelaus.” [24]
In Macedonia the playwright suffers his violent, odd, ironic death: “Some time later he was taking his rest in a grove that stands before the city. When Archelaus went out for a hunt and the young hounds, let loose by the huntsmen, came upon Euripides, the poet was torn in pieces [diesparakhthē] and devoured and eaten [katabrōtheis].” [25] This is a literal, physical expression of the line from the Vita: “The comic poets too attacked him and tore him to pieces [diasurontes] in their envy.” As Lefkowitz points out, this is also how a Euripidean hero would die. [26]
One significant variant of this story has two envious poets bribe the keeper of the king’s dogs to set them loose on the dramatist. [27] Euripides being torn apart by poets (literally: poet-directed dogs) is just that much closer to literal expression of his victimization by the comedians. In another significant variant, the king’s servant hates Euripides because the dramatist had slandered (ek tinōn diabolōn) his master. [28] So, if only in folkloric elaboration, Euripides is killed expressly because of his abusive proclivities.
The mythical resonances of the sparagmos death are obvious: Orpheus, Dionysus, Pentheus, and Actaeon are all torn to pieces. Actaeon, of course, is even torn apart by dogs. [29] In Hyginus, furthermore, Euripides’ death is sacralized by taking place in a temple of Artemis. Ovid further tells us that a “crowd of dogs, guardians of Diana” tear Euripides apart. [30]
The attacks Euripides suffered from women are expressed in another detail from the Vita: the poet is killed by the children of a female dog who had been sacrificed by villagers; Euripides prevented the villagers from paying reparation to the king for the crime (21). But in another version of the death found in the Suda, Euripides is actually torn apart by women: ὑπὸ γυναικῶν νύκτωρ διασπασθῆναι. [31] This provides a link to Orpheus, as well as being appropriate to his misogynist reputation.
There is no chance of historicity in any of these deaths, as his murderers are too closely related to his traditional critics in life, whose attacks probably have some realistic basis (as Aristophanes’ attacks show). But Euripides’ sparagmos still has a significant mythic power, as its widespread popularity shows.
Euripides, predictably, is given great honor after his death: Sophocles appears at the theater dressed in black and has his actors perform crownless; and now the Athenians weep (20). The dramatist is given a cenotaph at Athens and a tomb in Macedonia, and both are struck by lightning (19). The motif of two monuments to a hero being struck by lightning is strikingly mirrored in hero cult: the athlete Euthymos has two of his statues struck by lightning on the same day, which occasions a Delphic consultation and hero cult offered to the living man as a result. [32] The cenotaph is also found in hero cult. [33] It seems odd that the great religious iconoclast [34] should end up a semideity of sorts, receiving cultic honor, but perhaps he earned this distinction by his sparagmos.
As has been noted previously, poets whose lives have attracted the special themes of this study (judgment, exile, execution) often are interested in the ideology of the scapegoat. This is also true of Euripides—the theme of freewill sacrifice for the community is a repeated motif in Euripides’ plays. [35] These scapegoats are following the “legendary” pattern, with princes and princesses giving themselves up to death willingly. Often these sacrifices are prescribed by divine injunction.
Thus, in Euripides’ life we find the ugliness of the poet, his satiric attacks on women and war, his persecution by his native townsmen and fellow dramatists; he is brought to trial, and finally leaves Athens in a sort of “voluntary exile” to escape these troubles. In Macedonia, he dies a cultic death, and receives hero cult. [36] We can see the Aesopic-Archilochean pattern behind the tragedian’s vita. [37]


[ back ] 1. Vita, see Kovacs 1994, test. 1; Meridier 1925:1–5. For translations, see Paley 1872:lx–lxii (Vita1–44); Lefkowitz 1981:163–169 and Kovacs 1994 (whose translation I use, unless noted otherwise). Satyrus The Life of Euripides in Papyrus Oxyrhynchus 9.1176(1912)(test.4K), is quite early, a manuscript from the third century BC;s ee Arrighetti1 964, but cf. are view by S. West 1966; vonArnim1913:3–13; Stevens 1956. See also Sudas. v. Euripides (test.2K), Arrighetti 1964:97;Westermann 1845:141; a life by Thomas Magister(test.3K), Westermann 1845:139–140; Aulus Gellius Attic Nights 15.20 (test.5K); Hermesianax 7.61–68 (test.64K), in Powell 1925:105, ad Athenaeus 13.598d–e. Also Piccolomini 1888:116–121; Delcourt 1933; Stevens 1956; Goossens 1962:660–662; Dover 1976:29,42–46; Lefkowitz 1981:88–104; Lefkowitz 1984; Franco1986.
[ back ] 2. Vita 29–30; 23–25. See also Hermesianax 7.61–68. See above, chapter 6 (Hesiod), Semonides fragment 7, for misogynist blame.
[ back ] 3. Ἱππόλυτον, ἐν ᾧ τὴν ἀναισχυντίαν θριαμβεύει τῶν γυναικῶν. … εἰς τὴν κατὰ τῶν γυναικῶν βλασφημίαν ἐθρασύνετο. αἱ δὲ γυναῖκες ἐβουλήθησαν αὐτὸν κτεῖναι …
[ back ] 4. ἔσκωπτε δὲ τὰς γυναῖκας διὰ τῶν ποιημάτων.
[ back ] 5. καὶ πάντων μῖσος κτώμενον ἐκ συνοχῶν / πάσας ἀμφὶ γυναῖκας … Trans. Gulick, using Headlam’s “by his barking” (ex hulakōn). Kovacs prefers ex onukhōn, Jacobs’s suggestion, thus, “full to his fingertips of hatred against all women.”
[ back ] 6. Fr. 39.IX: ἁπλῶς ἅπαν εἴ τι μὴ μεγαλεῖον ἢ σεμνὸν ἠ[τι]μακώς. Cf. Lefkowitz 1981:166n7.
[ back ] 7. Satyrus fr. 39.XXII, cf. Stevens 1956:90.
[ back ] 8. Vita 27: ὑπὸ γὰρ Ἀθηναίων ἐφθονεῖτο.
[ back ] 9. Satyrus fragment 39.X: ἀπήχθοντ’ αὐτῶι πάντες, οἱ μὲν ἄνδρε[ς] διὰ τὴν δυ[σ]ομιλίαν, α[ἱ δὲ] γυναῖκε[ς δ]ιὰ τοὺς ψ[ό]γους τοὺς ἐν τοῖς ποιήμασιν. Cf. Lefkowitz 1981:168n12; Franco 1986:115.
[ back ] 10. Translation by Lefkowitz, Ἐπέκειντο δὲ καὶ οἱ κωμικοὶ φθόνῳ αὐτὸν διασύροντες. Aristophanes’ Frogs is the most famous example. Cf. Vita 32: “The poets of Old Comedy derided him for being the son of a vegetable-seller” (τοῦτον οἱ τῆς ἀρχαίας κωμῳδίας ποιηταὶ ὡς λαχανοπώλιδος υἱὸν κωμῳδοῦσι). According to Lesky, he is “the chief object of the indignation and ridicule of the conservatives … Comedy is full of it” (1966:361). See Prato 1955.
[ back ] 11. Lefkowitz 1987. Cf. Momigliano 1971:66–77.
[ back ] 12. Papyrus Oxyrhynchus. 2400, a list of subjects for rhetorical exercises (test. 60K), cf. Dover 1976:29; Stevens 1956:88. Stevens (who dates the papyrus in the second century AD) incorrectly suggests that the three events on the list are purely imaginary. As Dover notes, “The other two items … of this list refer to historical events, and the author of the list probably regarded the prosecution of Euripides also as historical.”
[ back ] 13. Cf. Dover 1976 on the Cleon prosecution; also Stevens 1956:88; Lefkowitz 1981:110; Lefkowitz 1987.
[ back ] 14. Translation by Lefkowitz, πλέον τι φρονήσας εἰκότως περιίστατο τῶν πολλῶν, οὐδεμίαν φιλοτιμίαν [ back ] περὶ τὰ θέατρα ποιούμενος. . . . σκυθρωπὸς δὲ καὶ σύννους καὶ αὐστηρὸς ἐφαίνετο καὶ μισόγελως … ἐλέγετο δὲ καὶ βαθὺν <τὸν> πώγωνα θρέψαι καὶ ἐπὶ τῆς ὄψεως φακοὺς ἐσχηκέναι.
[ back ] 15. Vita 28: μειρακίου δέ τινος ἀπαιδευτοτέρου στόμα δυσῶδες ἔχειν ὑπὸ φθόνου … Aristotle Politics V.10 (1311b30f) (test. 61K): ὁ δ’ Εὐριπίδης ἐχαλέπαινεν εἰπόντος τι αὐτοῦ εἰς δυσωδίαν τοῦ στόματος.
[ back ] 16. See also Satyrus fragment 39.XX; Stobaeus, Anthology 41.6.
[ back ] 17. Philochorus, fourth century BC, ad Aulus Gellius Attic Nights 15.20.5 (test. 5K); cf. Satyrus fragment 39.IX.
[ back ] 18. For the cave as a stereotypical feature in the lives of thinkers, see Stevens 1956:88n9.
[ back ] 19. See Stevens 1956:91–92; Lefkowitz 1987:151; Franco 1986:119.
[ back ] 20. Stevens 1956:93.
[ back ] 21. Cf. Prato 1955.
[ back ] 22. Bremmer 1983b:307n43; Burkert 1979:71n29; Larson 1995. Cf. the legendary scapegoats in chapter 1, above.
[ back ] 23. Murray 1913:166.
[ back ] 24. On Vices X, col. XIII (in Jensen 1911:22): ἀχθόμενον αὐτὸν επὶ τῶι σχεδὸν πάντας ἐπιχαίρειν πρὸς Ἀρχέλαον [ἀπ]ελθεῖν.
[ back ] 25. Vita 21: χρόνῳ δὲ ὕστερον Εὐριπίδης ἐν ἄλσει τινὶ πρὸ τῆς πόλεως ἠρέμει. Ἀρχελάου δὲ ἐπὶ κυνηγέσιον ἐξελθόντος, τῶν σκυλάκων ἀπολυθέντων ὑπὸ τῶν κυνηγῶν καὶ περιτυχόντων Εὐριπίδῃ, διεσπαράχθη καταβρωθεὶς ὁ ποιητής.
[ back ] 26. Vita 35, see above. Lefkowitz 1981:96. This is true to an extent; Pentheus suffers the sparagmos, for instance. But other details of Euripides’ death find no parallel in his writings. There is no trace of the “freewill” theme, so common in Euripides’ writings (see below), in his death legend. The earliest reference to this death is the third-century BC Hermesianax, writing perhaps a century and a half after Euripides’ actual death. See also Diodorus 13.103.5, diaspasthēnai. On various versions of the dog death, see Arrighetti 1964:146–147.
[ back ] 27. Suda s.v. Euripides. “Arrhibaeus of Macedon and Crateuas of Thessaly, who were poets and hostile to him” (ἐτελεύτησε δὲ ὑπὸ ἐπιβουλῆς Ἀρριβαίου τοῦ Μακεδόνος καὶ Κρατεύα τοῦ Θετταλοῦ, ποιητῶν ὄντων καὶ φθονησάντων αὐτῷ …). Another, less significant, detail has Euripides pursuing the king’s housekeeper when he is overtaken by the dogs (Suda; Hermesianax 7.61–68).
[ back ] 28. “Plutarch” Alexandrine Proverbs (at Leutsch and Schneidewin 1961 Suppl., IIIa, p. 14n26, Crusius), quoted in Arrighetti 1964:146.
[ back ] 29. The story of Actaeon is attested as early as Hesiod’s Ehoiai, fragment 217A M-W, see Gantz 1991:478–481. A version of the tale in Euripides’ Bacchae (337–340) has Actaeon destroyed by Artemis because he boasts that he is the best hunter, which reminds us of Marsyas and Thamyris, see ch. 16 below. On a more “historical” level, Lucian (see Suda s.v., cf. Lefkowitz 1981:90n12) and Heraclitus (see Diogenes Laertius 9.3–5; Fairweather 1973) were purportedly torn apart by dogs. Diogenes the Cynic dies after being severely bitten by dogs, an ironic death (Diogenes Laertius 6.77; Suda s.v. Diogenes, cf. Fairweather 1973:235). Cf. Pausanias 9.38.4 and Visser 1982:409n21 for Actaeon in hero cult myth.
[ back ] 30. Hyginus Fables 247: “Euripides, author of tragedies, was destroyed in a temple” (Euripides tragoediarum scriptor in templo consumptus est); Ovid Ibis 595, cf. La Penna 1957 ad loc. “And as a crowd of vigilant dogs, guardians of [the temple of] Diana, did to the tragic bard, so may they tear you to pieces also” (Utque coturnatum vatem, tutela Dianae, / Dilaniet vigilum te quoque turba canum). See above, on Hesiod, chapter 6, for the death localized at a temple.
[ back ] 31. Suda s.v. Euripides (test. 2K). Cf. Nestle 1898, especially 135, 138–142.
[ back ] 32. Callimachus fragment 99 Pf., at Pliny Natural History 7.47.152; Pausanias 6.6.4–6; Aelian Historical Miscellanies 8.18; Fontenrose 1968:79; Clay 2004:134–135. For the more general theme of sacrality and lightning, see above, chapter 3 (Archilochus). For Euripides’ monuments struck by lightning, see also Anonymous, in Palatine Anthology 7.48.
[ back ] 33. Pausanias 6.23.3.
[ back ] 34. The question of Euripides’ religious views is, of course, extremely complex. See Rohde 1925 II:459.
[ back ] 35. Schmitt 1921; Roussel explicitly compares Euripides’ heroes to the pharmakos (1922: 225–240); Nancy 1983; Foley 1985; O’Connor-Visser 1987, with further literature, pp. 5–18.
[ back ] 36. There is at least a hint of the consecration motif in Euripides’ biography, for an oracle prophesied to his father that his boy would win at a contest which awarded crowns. As often happens, the oracle was misunderstood, and Euripides was trained to be an athlete before he found his dramatic vocation (Vita 3; Aulus Gellius Attic Nights 15.20.2). The oracle to the father of the poet prophesying a poetic vocation for the son is of course an Archilochean theme. See above, chapter 3.
[ back ] 37. Thus we find the following themes in Euripides’ biographical traditions: 4, worst; 4d, ugly; 7, trial; 10a, exile (with 8a, ambivalent volition); 10b, death in far country; 12a, death at cult site; 22, blame poetry/satirical (attacks on women and militarists); 24, conflict with political leaders.