Aristoteles gives credit to Euripides for being a great dramatic poet. In fact, he was one of the very best, digging deep into the human soul and the core values of Greek society.
Euripides lived in the fifth century BCE in Athens, the model Greek polis which, in so many ways, defined the Greeks. The time of Euripides was both the best and the worst of times for ancient Greeks. This was part of the era we know as the golden age of Greece.
In the beginning of the fifth century BCE, the Greeks defeated the Persian Empire, an epic victory for the survival of Greek and Western civilization. Out of that triumph, the Athenians in particular rose to unprecedented heights of prosperity and civilization, the culmination of which was etched in the building of the Parthenon.
For a while, it seemed as if democratic Athens would unite the hundreds of Greek poleis into one country. However, Athenian ambition precipitated the Peloponnesian War, a savage conflict from 431 to 404 BCE, off and on for 27 years, pitting Greek against Greek and wrecking much of the country.
It was in that explosive atmosphere that Euripides wrote “The Trojan Women,” a play to condemn war in his time and for all time.
In times no less explosive, I went last year to see “The Trojan Women” in the made-up Greek world of the Getty Villa in Malibu, California. The evening was beautiful, a full moon that looked to be a foot in diameter lighting the sky.
The performance was satisfactory, at times even emotional, though removed from the Greek context of both “The Trojan Women” and the hard facts behind the play: the reality of war in Athens and the ancient memories of the Trojan War. Euripides is so good and the story of “The Trojan Women” so powerful and timely – an eternal indictment of war – that seeing the play – in spite of certain clumsy innovations in the staging – was an unforgettable experience, even though our leaders – like those of ancient Athens – continue to fail to get the message.
“The Trojan Women” portrays the acts of the victorious Greeks after the fall of Troy. Just as during the Peloponnesian War, Athens and Sparta severely punished their defeated enemies, sometimes killing all males and selling women and children into slavery. The victorious Greeks in the Trojan War killed all Trojan males and shared the children and women among themselves.
The play opens with the gods Poseidon and Athena striking a deal to punish the departing Greeks because the Greeks “ruined, sacked, and gutted Troy” and the Greek general Ajax raped Kassandra, priestess of Apollo, in the temple of Athena. Poseidon agrees to shake the Aegean, making their homecoming most unhappy. Athena says the Greeks must be taught a lesson – to respect the gods and use her sacred temples with fear.
Hecuba, the queen of Troy, is the protagonist. She is the defeated Troy, now a slave lamenting the enormous loss of her country and family. Her husband Priam is dead; her sons Paris and Hector are dead; her daughter Kassandra is destined to be a concubine of Agamemnon, commander-in-chief of the Greek army; her daughter Polyxena was sacrificed on the tomb of Achilleus; her daughter-in-law Andromache and Andromache’s infant son, Astyanax, were assigned to Neoptolemos, son of Achilleus.
Hecuba expresses Euripides’ visceral hatred for war. Euripides hoped his play would speak indirectly to the leaders of Athens to bring the slaughter of the Peloponnesian War to an end. The leaders of Athens, in fact, saw “The Trojan Women” in 415 BCE, but the tragic play made no difference in their determination to continue with the catastrophic conflict. The wars in both Athens and Troy were deleterious, transforming soldiers and politicians into monsters.
Hecuba tries to calm her deranged and prophetic daughter Kassandra, who threatens to kill Agamemnon. Kassandra predicts sure death for Agamemnon and her own death. In addition, she curses Odysseus, whose wooden horse opened the wall of Troy to the Greeks. She hates Odysseus because he is taking Hecuba as his slave. Kassandra prophesies the ten-year misfortunes of Odysseus in his effort to return home to Ithaca.
Finally, Kassandra denounces the Greeks for fighting a war over the thoughtless adventures of a woman – Helen, daughter of Zeus and the most beautiful woman in the world, married to one of the Greek kings, Menelaos. Helen abandoned Menelaos for Paris, brother of Kassandra. Menelaos was brother of Agamemnon. The two brothers convinced the kings of Greece they had to avenge the “abduction” of Helen: hence, the Trojan War.
Hecuba also advises Andromache to forget Hector and prepare herself for a new life with Neoptolemos.
That option is shattered by the Greeks’ decision to throw Astyanax off the walls of Troy, thus ending once and for all the house of Priam in Troy. This unexpected ferocity wipes out whatever humanity was left among the victors and defeated. Hecuba and Andromache howl in anguish. The Greek messenger Talthybios apologizes to the lamenting women for a decision he considers monstrous.
Andromache calls the Greeks barbarians. Indeed, she is so angry that she also blames the gods for her misfortune.
The killing of Astyanax is the culmination of the violence of the Trojan War, the lesson Euripides is teaching us about the barbarian nature of war. The Chorus of old men sees Talthybios returning, his men carrying the tiny body of Astyanax on the shield of Hector. They tell Hecuba and Andromache: “This is Astyanax, dead, thrown without pity from the walls of Troy by the Danaans [Greeks] who murdered him.”
The rest of the play continues with the heartbreaking cries and tears of Hecuba as she buries Astyanax. All around her, Troy is on fire. Like Andromache, she is at the depths of despair, even attacking the gods for making her life so miserable. She mocks the Greeks for becoming insane, putting their strength in their spears rather than in their minds.