Euripides' Medea as Historical Commentary

Some things known to Euripides' audience may clarify Euripides' purpose in writing the Medea as he did.

From myth:

Medea's love for Jason was caused by Aphrodite because Jason could not have recovered the golden fleece without her help. The love which Aphrodite sends is incurable; as a rule the gods do not care about mortals whom they use. Compare the Hippolytus, in which Aphrodite wishes to punish Hippolytus so she makes his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him. The goddess spends a line or two regretting that the innocent Phaedra must suffer and be destroyed, but says that the fate of a mortal is not as important as the honor due to a god.

Medea did not kill her children. The Corinthians killed them (in versions of the story earlier than Euripides).

Medea did flee to Athens to King Aegeus. They had a child (whom Medea did not kill), named Medos. He is the eponymous founder of the Medes (who, for Greeks, were synonymous with Persians). Medea left Athens with this child after Theseus arrived, and after she had unsuccessfully tried to do away with Theseus.

From contemporary political history:

Herodotus' History of the Persian war was published sometime between the 440's and 420's; Herodotus mentions incidents from the Peloponnesian war. There is much foreshadowing in his tragic history of the effect which possession of the empire will have on the Athenians, or on any others. In the Greek campaign which ends his history (the taking of Sestus in book 9.114-121), the Athenians behave more barbarically than the Persians.

In 432, just prior to the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war, the Athenians began a siege of Potidaea, a Corinthian colony, when that city tried to secede from the Athenian alliance. Helping the people of Potidaea were 2000 volunteers from Corinth and the rest of the Peloponnesus, led by a Corinthian general named Aristeus. The Athenian siege of Potidaea was one of the causes of the war. (Thucydides 1.56-65, 2.67, 70)

The Medea was produced in 431.

From contemporary social history:

Euripides' Medea was regarded as a dangerous person not so much because of what she did to her children - especially since this is not original to the myth - but because she defended the rights of women and deplored their treatment by men. This was anathema in fifth-century Athens. In the play she is supported by the conspiratorial silence of the Corinthian women, although it is their king who is at risk. Euripides' female characters were not the ideal females of the Periclean funeral oration: they were radicals with very dangerous ideas.

In Aristophanes' comedy The Frogs, produced in 405, the god Dionysus journeys to the underworld to bring back Euripides, who had died the previous year. Once there, Dionysus learns that his desire to recover Euripides is challenged by Aeschylus on the grounds that he would serve the god's purpose for Athens better and would give the people better advice. Sophocles, who had also died before the play was produced, played the perfect gentleman and did not ask to be returned to the living but let Euripides and Aeschylus fight it out. In the end, Dionysus chose Aeschylus. Why do you think Dionysus wanted to bring back a poet, to teach the people some wisdom? Comic poets were more blatant in their political commentary and advice, but they had greater freedom with their story lines. Tragic poets had political opinions which they expressed by the timing of their productions (e.g. Euripides wrote the Trojan Women right after the Athenian destruction of Melos in 416), by manipulating the details of the myths, and by the resultant symbolism.

Last updated: 14 October 2004
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