Ancient Greek Tragedies

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Antigone and the body of Polynices
The word “tragedy” is derived from the Greek words “tragos” (“goat”) and “ode” (“song”), a reference to the costumes worn by actors in the chorus dressed as satyrs. Aeschylus introduced the idea of tragedy, but he did not involve his characters in a conflict. Instead the main character in his plays was a solitary hero wrestling with himself or with destiny. In his early plays action centers around a chorus. In his later plays a tragic hero appears. Aeschylus is also "famous for his knottiness, his clotted images and riddling compound words."

Many of Aeschylus’ plays were trilogies. The only one that remains, “The Oresteia,” consists of three parts: “Agamemnon” , “Choephori” and “Eumenides” set during the Trojan Wars. He also wrote “Persae” , a victory song connected with the defeat of the Persians, and “Prometheus Bound” , a classic retelling of the Prometheus myth. [Recommended Books: “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus, new translation by Ted Hughes (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999) and “The Oresteia” by Aeschylus, a brash and slangy translation by Anne Carson (Faber & Faber, 2009).

Sophocles developed more complex plots and introduced more characters and more philosophical themes. He is considered the most Greek of the Greek playwrights. His plays include “Oedipus” (see below), “Ajax” and “Electra” .

Greek tragedies tackled very complex moral issues: the role of crime and justice in society (Aeschylus's “The Oresteia” ), the nature of moral responsibility (Sophocles' Oedipus plays), the character of the divine (“The Bachae” ) and the conflict between individual and society (Sophocles' “Antigone” ). Tragic heros often were brought down by a “tragic flaw” in the character.

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “Little is known about the origins of Greek tragedy before Aeschylus (?525/24–456/55 B.C.), the most innovative of the Greek dramatists. His earliest surviving work is Persians, which was produced in 472 B.C. The roots of Greek tragedy, however, most likely are embedded in the Athenian spring festival of Dionysos Eleuthereios, which included processions, sacrifices in the theater, parades, and competitions between tragedians. Of the few surviving Greek tragedies, all but Aeschylus' Persians draw from heroic myths. The protagonist and the chorus portrayed the heroes who were the object of cult in Attica in the fifth century B.C. Often, the dialogue between the actor and chorus served a didactic function, linking it as a form of public discourse with debates in the assembly. To this day, drama in all its forms still functions as a powerful medium of communication of ideas. [Source: Colette Hemingway, Metropolitan Museum of Art, October 2004, ]

According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Mythology supplied the content for the tragedy plays which were perhaps more akin to operas than modern plays. Although works of art and some surviving artifacts give us an idea of the range of ancient Greek musical instruments, there is no consensus on how the music sounded. Imagine staging Phantom of the Opera two millennia from now with the lyrics spoken not sung and lacking music and choreography to get a sense of the difficulty of really understanding and appreciating the impact of these ancient performances. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

Websites on Ancient Greece: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks; Canadian Museum of History; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; ;; British Museum; Illustrated Greek History, Dr. Janice Siegel, Department of Classics, Hampden–Sydney College, Virginia ; The Greeks: Crucible of Civilization ; Oxford Classical Art Research Center: The Beazley Archive ;; Metropolitan Museum of Art; The Ancient City of Athens; The Internet Classics Archive ; Cambridge Classics External Gateway to Humanities Resources; Ancient Greek Sites on the Web from Medea ; Greek History Course from Reed; Classics FAQ MIT; 11th Brittanica: History of Ancient Greece ;Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy;Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Aristotle on the Structure of a Tragedy

Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote in “The Poetics”: ““Again, Tragedy is the imitation of an action; and an action implies personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought; for it is by these that we qualify actions themselves, and these- thought and character- are the two natural causes from which actions spring, and on actions again all success or failure depends. Hence, the Plot is the imitation of the action- for by plot I here mean the arrangement of the incidents. By Character I mean that in virtue of which we ascribe certain qualities to the agents. Thought is required wherever a statement is proved, or, it may be, a general truth enunciated. Every Tragedy, therefore, must have six parts, which parts determine its quality- namely, Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle, Song. Two of the parts constitute the medium of imitation, one the manner, and three the objects of imitation. And these complete the fist. These elements have been employed, we may say, by the poets to a man; in fact, every play contains Spectacular elements as well as Character, Plot, Diction, Song, and Thought. [Source: Aristotle, “Poetics,” 350 B.C. translated by S. H. Butcher]

“But most important of all is the structure of the incidents. For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality. Now character determines men's qualities, but it is by their actions that they are happy or the reverse. Dramatic action, therefore, is not with a view to the representation of character: character comes in as subsidiary to the actions. Hence the incidents and the plot are the end of a tragedy; and the end is the chief thing of all. Again, without action there cannot be a tragedy; there may be without character. The tragedies of most of our modern poets fail in the rendering of character; and of poets in general this is often true. It is the same in painting; and here lies the difference between Zeuxis and Polygnotus. Polygnotus delineates character well; the style of Zeuxis is devoid of ethical quality. Again, if you string together a set of speeches expressive of character, and well finished in point of diction and thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect nearly so well as with a play which, however deficient in these respects, yet has a plot and artistically constructed incidents. Besides which, the most powerful elements of emotional interest in Tragedy- Peripeteia or Reversal of the Situation, and Recognition scenes- are parts of the plot. A further proof is, that novices in the art attain to finish of diction and precision of portraiture before they can construct the plot. It is the same with almost all the early poets.

“The plot, then, is the first principle, and, as it were, the soul of a tragedy; Character holds the second place. A similar fact is seen in painting. The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait. Thus Tragedy is the imitation of an action, and of the agents mainly with a view to the action.

“Third in order is Thought- that is, the faculty of saying what is possible and pertinent in given circumstances. In the case of oratory, this is the function of the political art and of the art of rhetoric: and so indeed the older poets make their characters speak the language of civic life; the poets of our time, the language of the rhetoricians. Character is that which reveals moral purpose, showing what kind of things a man chooses or avoids. Speeches, therefore, which do not make this manifest, or in which the speaker does not choose or avoid anything whatever, are not expressive of character. Thought, on the other hand, is found where something is proved to be or not to be, or a general maxim is enunciated.

“Fourth among the elements enumerated comes Diction; by which I mean, as has been already said, the expression of the meaning in words; and its essence is the same both in verse and prose. Of the remaining elements Song holds the chief place among the embellishments The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry. For the power of Tragedy, we may be sure, is felt even apart from representation and actors. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.”

Aristotle on Plots: Like a Beautiful Living Organism

Oedipus sphinx
Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote in “The Poetics”: ““Of all plots and actions the episodic are the worst. I call a plot 'episodic' in which the episodes or acts succeed one another without probable or necessary sequence. Bad poets compose such pieces by their own fault, good poets, to please the players; for, as they write show pieces for competition, they stretch the plot beyond its capacity, and are often forced to break the natural continuity. [Source: Aristotle, “Poetics,” 350 B.C. translated by S. H. Butcher]

“But again, Tragedy is an imitation not only of a complete action, but of events inspiring fear or pity. Such an effect is best produced when the events come on us by surprise; and the effect is heightened when, at the same time, they follows as cause and effect. The tragic wonder will then be greater than if they happened of themselves or by accident; for even coincidences are most striking when they have an air of design. We may instance the statue of Mitys at Argos, which fell upon his murderer while he was a spectator at a festival, and killed him. Such events seem not to be due to mere chance. Plots, therefore, constructed on these principles are necessarily the best.

“These principles being established, let us now discuss the proper structure of the Plot, since this is the first and most important thing in Tragedy. Now, according to our definition Tragedy is an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude; for there may be a whole that is wanting in magnitude. A whole is that which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.

“Again, a beautiful object, whether it be a living organism or any whole composed of parts, must not only have an orderly arrangement of parts, but must also be of a certain magnitude; for beauty depends on magnitude and order. Hence a very small animal organism cannot be beautiful; for the view of it is confused, the object being seen in an almost imperceptible moment of time. Nor, again, can one of vast size be beautiful; for as the eye cannot take it all in at once, the unity and sense of the whole is lost for the spectator; as for instance if there were one a thousand miles long.

“As, therefore, in the case of animate bodies and organisms a certain magnitude is necessary, and a magnitude which may be easily embraced in one view; so in the plot, a certain length is necessary, and a length which can be easily embraced by the memory. The limit of length in relation to dramatic competition and sensuous presentment is no part of artistic theory. For had it been the rule for a hundred tragedies to compete together, the performance would have been regulated by the water-clock- as indeed we are told was formerly done.

“But the limit as fixed by the nature of the drama itself is this: the greater the length, the more beautiful will the piece be by reason of its size, provided that the whole be perspicuous. And to define the matter roughly, we may say that the proper magnitude is comprised within such limits, that the sequence of events, according to the law of probability or necessity, will admit of a change from bad fortune to good, or from good fortune to bad.

Aristotle Types on Plots

Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote in “The Poetics”: ““Plots are either Simple or Complex, for the actions in real life, of which the plots are an imitation, obviously show a similar distinction. An action which is one and continuous in the sense above defined, I call Simple, when the change of fortune takes place without Reversal of the Situation and without Recognition. [Source: Aristotle, “Poetics,” 350 B.C. translated by S. H. Butcher]

“A Complex action is one in which the change is accompanied by such Reversal, or by Recognition, or by both. These last should arise from the internal structure of the plot, so that what follows should be the necessary or probable result of the preceding action. It makes all the difference whether any given event is a case of propter hoc or post hoc.

“Reversal of the Situation is a change by which the action veers round to its opposite, subject always to our rule of probability or necessity. Thus in the Oedipus, the messenger comes to cheer Oedipus and free him from his alarms about his mother, but by revealing who he is, he produces the opposite effect. Again in the Lynceus, Lynceus is being led away to his death, and Danaus goes with him, meaning to slay him; but the outcome of the preceding incidents is that Danaus is killed and Lynceus saved.

“Recognition, as the name indicates, is a change from ignorance to knowledge, producing love or hate between the persons destined by the poet for good or bad fortune. The best form of recognition is coincident with a Reversal of the Situation, as in the Oedipus. There are indeed other forms. Even inanimate things of the most trivial kind may in a sense be objects of recognition. Again, we may recognize or discover whether a person has done a thing or not. But the recognition which is most intimately connected with the plot and action is, as we have said, the recognition of persons. This recognition, combined with Reversal, will produce either pity or fear; and actions producing these effects are those which, by our definition, Tragedy represents. Moreover, it is upon such situations that the issues of good or bad fortune will depend. Recognition, then, being between persons, it may happen that one person only is recognized by the other- when the latter is already known- or it may be necessary that the recognition should be on both sides. Thus Iphigenia is revealed to Orestes by the sending of the letter; but another act of recognition is required to make Orestes known to Iphigenia.

“Two parts, then, of the Plot- Reversal of the Situation and Recognition- turn upon surprises. A third part is the Scene of Suffering. The Scene of Suffering is a destructive or painful action, such as death on the stage, bodily agony, wounds, and the like.

“The parts of Tragedy which must be treated as elements of the whole have been already mentioned. We now come to the quantitative parts- the separate parts into which Tragedy is divided- namely, Prologue, Episode, Exode, Choric song; this last being divided into Parode and Stasimon. These are common to all plays: peculiar to some are the songs of actors from the stage and the Commoi.”

Aristotle on the Perfect Tragedy

Aristotle (384-323 B.C.) wrote in “The Poetics”: ““A perfect tragedy should, as we have seen, be arranged not on the simple but on the complex plan. It should, moreover, imitate actions which excite pity and fear, this being the distinctive mark of tragic imitation. It follows plainly, in the first place, that the change of fortune presented must not be the spectacle of a virtuous man brought from prosperity to adversity: for this moves neither pity nor fear; it merely shocks us. Nor, again, that of a bad man passing from adversity to prosperity: for nothing can be more alien to the spirit of Tragedy; it possesses no single tragic quality; it neither satisfies the moral sense nor calls forth pity or fear. Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible. There remains, then, the character between these two extremes- that of a man who is not eminently good and just, yet whose misfortune is brought about not by vice or depravity, but by some error or frailty. He must be one who is highly renowned and prosperous- a personage like Oedipus, Thyestes, or other illustrious men of such families. [Source: Aristotle, “Poetics,” 350 B.C. translated by S. H. Butcher]

production of Trojan Women

“A well-constructed plot should, therefore, be single in its issue, rather than double as some maintain. The change of fortune should be not from bad to good, but, reversely, from good to bad. It should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character either such as we have described, or better rather than worse. The practice of the stage bears out our view. At first the poets recounted any legend that came in their way. Now, the best tragedies are founded on the story of a few houses- on the fortunes of Alcmaeon, Oedipus, Orestes, Meleager, Thyestes, Telephus, and those others who have done or suffered something terrible. A tragedy, then, to be perfect according to the rules of art should be of this construction. Hence they are in error who censure Euripides just because he follows this principle in his plays, many of which end unhappily. It is, as we have said, the right ending. The best proof is that on the stage and in dramatic competition, such plays, if well worked out, are the most tragic in effect; and Euripides, faulty though he may be in the general management of his subject, yet is felt to be the most tragic of the poets.

“In the second rank comes the kind of tragedy which some place first. Like the Odyssey, it has a double thread of plot, and also an opposite catastrophe for the good and for the bad. It is accounted the best because of the weakness of the spectators; for the poet is guided in what he writes by the wishes of his audience. The pleasure, however, thence derived is not the true tragic pleasure. It is proper rather to Comedy, where those who, in the piece, are the deadliest enemies- like Orestes and Aegisthus- quit the stage as friends at the close, and no one slays or is slain.

“Fear and pity may be aroused by spectacular means; but they may also result from the inner structure of the piece, which is the better way, and indicates a superior poet. For the plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt to pity at what takes Place. This is the impression we should receive from hearing the story of the Oedipus. But to produce this effect by the mere spectacle is a less artistic method, and dependent on extraneous aids. Those who employ spectacular means to create a sense not of the terrible but only of the monstrous, are strangers to the purpose of Tragedy; for we must not demand of Tragedy any and every kind of pleasure, but only that which is proper to it. And since the pleasure which the poet should afford is that which comes from pity and fear through imitation, it is evident that this quality must be impressed upon the incidents.

“Let us then determine what are the circumstances which strike us as terrible or pitiful. Actions capable of this effect must happen between persons who are either friends or enemies or indifferent to one another. If an enemy kills an enemy, there is nothing to excite pity either in the act or the intention- except so far as the suffering in itself is pitiful. So again with indifferent persons. But when the tragic incident occurs between those who are near or dear to one another- if, for example, a brother kills, or intends to kill, a brother, a son his father, a mother her son, a son his mother, or any other deed of the kind is done- these are the situations to be looked for by the poet. He may not indeed destroy the framework of the received legends- the fact, for instance, that Clytemnestra was slain by Orestes and Eriphyle by Alcmaeon- but he ought to show of his own, and skilfully handle the traditional. material. Let us explain more clearly what is meant by skilful handling.


“The action may be done consciously and with knowledge of the persons, in the manner of the older poets. It is thus too that Euripides makes Medea slay her children. Or, again, the deed of horror may be done, but done in ignorance, and the tie of kinship or friendship be discovered afterwards. The Oedipus of Sophocles is an example. Here, indeed, the incident is outside the drama proper; but cases occur where it falls within the action of the play: one may cite the Alcmaeon of Astydamas, or Telegonus in the Wounded Odysseus. Again, there is a third case- [to be about to act with knowledge of the persons and then not to act. The fourth case] is when some one is about to do an irreparable deed through ignorance, and makes the discovery before it is done. These are the only possible ways. For the deed must either be done or not done- and that wittingly or unwittingly. But of all these ways, to be about to act knowing the persons, and then not to act, is the worst. It is shocking without being tragic, for no disaster follows It is, therefore, never, or very rarely, found in poetry. One instance, however, is in the Antigone, where Haemon threatens to kill Creon. The next and better way is that the deed should be perpetrated. Still better, that it should be perpetrated in ignorance, and the discovery made afterwards. There is then nothing to shock us, while the discovery produces a startling effect. The last case is the best, as when in the Cresphontes Merope is about to slay her son, but, recognizing who he is, spares his life. So in the Iphigenia, the sister recognizes the brother just in time. Again in the Helle, the son recognizes the mother when on the point of giving her up. This, then, is why a few families only, as has been already observed, furnish the subjects of tragedy. It was not art, but happy chance, that led the poets in search of subjects to impress the tragic quality upon their plots. They are compelled, therefore, to have recourse to those houses whose history contains moving incidents like these.Enough has now been said concerning the structure of the incidents, and the right kind of plot.”

Famous Ancient Greek Playwrights

Greece's most famous dramatists — Aeschylus (525-426 B.C.), Sophocles (496-406 B.C.), Aristophanes (450-357 B.C.) and Euripides (485-406 B.C.) — are associated with the Golden Age of Greece. They were based in Athens and competed frequently in the drama contests. Aeschylus won the prize thirteen times and Sophocles won it 20 times, defeating Aeschylus once and losing to Euripides on another occasion. Teachers and scholars of drama often talk about the four greatest playwrights of all time with three being Greek — Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides — with only Shakespeare allowed to join them. [Source: "The Creators" by Daniel Boorstin,μ]


Little is known about the lives of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Based on the content of their plays, some scholars have suggested that Sophocles and Euripides were gay. Of the 92 plays written by Euripides only 18 remain, and of the 122 by Sophocles and 82 by Aeschylus only seven from each playwright are with us today. No works exist by Agathon, described as most innovative Greek playwright and the only one who didn't adapt well known stories.μ

Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the earliest of the three great Greek tragic dramatists (the others are Sophocles and Euripides). He introduced the second actor into the play. He is thought to have written 80-90 plays, of which 7 survive. They include “The Suppliants” (prob. 463 B.C.) And Oresteia trilogy (458 B.C.) According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Aeschylus (525-456 B.C.) was the earliest and, some say, the greatest dramatic poet. He introduced the Second Actor transforming, in effect, monologue into dialogue and he reduced the size of the chorus, moving from an unwieldy 50 to a more manageable and numerically-desirable 12. When he was asked to write his epitaph he chose not to mention his glorious writing career but instead pointed out his presence and his contribution at the defining Battle of Marathon. Several of his plays survive, such as: The Persians, Prometheus Bound and The Oresteia. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]

Sophocles (496-406 B.C.) was the second of the great tragic poets. He wrote over 100 plays, but only seven complete ones survive, including Oedipus the King and Antigone. According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Sophicles was a product of the Age of Pericles (they were close friends) and his career overlapped that of Aeschylus and Euripides. Aristotle considered him to be the best ever in his field. He introduced the Third Actor, an innovation which enlarged the scope and dramatic impact of the play. |


Oedipus Phorbas
Oedipus, the King of Thebes, is the most famous tragic Greek character. He killed his father and married his mother and solved the riddle of the sphinx , and gave Freud a name for one of his complexes. Sophocles wrote a trilogy that covers Oedipus and his children: “Oedipus the King,” “Oedipus of Colonus” and “Antigone”.

The Oedipus story begins with Oedipus's father, King Laius learning from an oracle that his son will kill him. He therefore has his newborn son's feet pierced and bound up and left on Mount Cithaeron to die of exposure. A shepherd finds the child, names him Oedipus, meaning swollen feet, and takes him to the King of Corinth, who rears him like a son. When Oedipus is told by an oracle that he will murder his father, he leaves Corinth, thinking its king is his father.

On his journey Oedipus comes across a charioteer, whose servant rudely orders Oedipus out of the way. Oedipus get angry and kills the servant and his msater, without realizing the master is his real father, Ling Laius. Around this time a terrible sphinx appears in Thebes and tells anyone who can not answer the riddle of the sphinx — What animals walks on all fours in the morning, two at noon and three at night? — will be devoured. Oedipus figures out he answer — man as a crawling baby, upright adult an old man with a cane. Afterwards the sphinx kills herself by leaping off a cliff.

As a reward Oedipus is made King of Thebes and marries his mother. Not long afterwards Oedipus learns the truth: he was killed his father and married his mother. Horrified, he puts out his eyes while his mother hangs herself with her veil. Oedipus becames an outcast but is cared for until his death by his sister Antigone. Antigone is presented as paragon of self sacrifice, which comes out more graphically in her own play.

Oedipus Rex

Oesdipus Rex, also known by its Greek title, Oedipus Tyrannus or Oedipus the King, is the first of Oedipus trilogy. ,It begins with Oedipus’s father Laius being left an orphaned minor by his father Labdacus Amphion and Zethus rule Thebes (Build the Cadmeia) and exile Laius. Laius goes to live in Elis (PISA) with King Pelops (son of Tantalus son of Zeus). He becomes very good friends with young Chrysippus, youngest child of King Pelops Laius and Chrysippus run away together (or Laius rapes Chrysippus). Pelops curses Laius. [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class]

Laius returns to Thebes and becomes King. marries his cousin (?) Jocasta, but they are childless Laius goes to Delphi and intends to ask Apollo's advice; Apollo announces that Laius will have a child who will kill him. Laius and Jocasta have a baby son (Oedipus) whom they plan to kill. The royal shepherd is ordered to dispose of the child on Mt. Cithaeron. Instead he gives Oedipus to the royal Corinthian shepherd.

The Royal Corinthian Shepherd takes the child back to the childless king and queen of Corinth (Polybus and Merope), who adopt him. At about the age of 18, at a dinner party, one of Oedipus' friends makes a rude remark about his not being a real Corinthian but only adopted. Oedipus is shocked and shamed, and goes off to Delphi to ask Apollo about the truth. Apollo tells Oedipus he is doomed to kill his father and sleep with his mother.

Oedipus kills his father (within hours, at The Three Ways). He Oedipus kills the Sphinx on the way from the Three Ways to Thebes Oedipus is received at Thebes as a national hero, and invited to marry the recently widowed queen Jocasta. Oedipus and Jocasta have four children: Eteocles and Polyneices, Antigone and Ismene.

As the first Oedipus play (Oedipus Rex) opens, there is sterility and a plague at Thebes; Oedipus sends to Delphi to ask Apollo what is wrong. Apollo sends a reply that they should find King Laius' murderer and then either kill him (retaliation, vengeance) or expel him from Theban territory. A messenger arrives from Corinth to announce that the King of Corinth is dead. Oedipus learns that he is not the son of the King of Corinth but a Theban. The Royal Theban Shepherd (who gave Oedipus to the Royal Corinthian Shepherd) is summoned and tells Oedipus who his parents really are. As this is happening, Jocasta runs off stage and hangs herself in her bedroom (like Phaedra). Oedipus runs after her, to kill her, but is too late. Shamed at his ancestry and predicament, he blinds himself.

Oedipus of Colunus

After consultation, it is decided to expel Oedipus from Thebes. His two sons Eteocles and Polyneices, agree, as does his brother-in-law (Uncle) Creon. Daughter Antigone goes with Oedipus. Oedipus comes to Colonus in Attica, to a Grove of the Furies. He is given hospitality by King Theseus. Apollo reveals to the Thebans that whoever possesses the person of Oedipus is fated to win a war at Thebes. Eteokles, king of Thebes, sends Uncle Creon to get Oedipus back. Polyneices, King-elect of Thebes (in exile in Argos), comes looking for Oedipus. [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class]

Oedipus is given sanctuary at Colonus (a country district in Athens, about ten miles outside of town along the main road to Eleusis). At Colonus there is a Grove of the Furies, a shrine of Demeter, and a shrine of Poseidon. King Theseus, who happens to be coming to the shrine of Poseidon to sacrifice, personally intervenes when Uncle Creon tries to kidnap Oedipus. Oedipus curses his sons for their callousness and self-interest..Polyneices, who accepts the curse and the inevitability of his death, asks his sister Antigone (who is also his aunt) to be sure that he is given a proper burial. She takes an oath to do so. Thunder and portents are heard from the sky: Oedipus knows that it is his last moment on earth. Oedipus dies.


Antigone and Oedipus

It is decided that the brothers will share the throne of Thebes, alternating one year each. Eteocles goes first, and is supported by Uncle Creon. The elder brother Eteocles refuses to resign the kingship to Polyneices at the end of the first year of the Royal Condominium. A civil war breaks out, with Polyneices trying to recruit an army from Argos (Aeschylus, The Seven against Thebes). [Source: John Adams, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), “Classics 315: Greek and Roman Mythology class]

The war at Thebes — the Seven Against Thebes — results in the self-sacrifice of Creon's son Menoecius; (b) the deaths in combat of both of Oedipus' sons. Antigone returns to Thebes to fulfill her oath and family obligations. But in the meantime Uncle Creon has been made tyrannos of Thebes (in some versions he is only Regent, for Eteocles' infant son Laodamas), and he issues an edict that he will punish with burial alive anyone who dares to bury the body of the traitor Polyneices (an act of hybris on his part, as well as taking an oath without realizing its consequences).

Protests come from the Theban elders and from Creon's own son Haemon. Antigone and Haemon (who were betrothed a long time before) fall in love. Antigone buries Polyneices, and is found out by Creon. Antigone is buried alive. Haemon hides in the cave ahead of time, intending to break out when the walling-in is done, and then to run away with Antigone and live happily ever after. Antigone has not been so informed, and therefore hangs herself as soon as she is put in the cave. When Haemon discovers this unhappy fact, he commits suicide too.

King Creon has a sudden change in heart and orders Antigone released. But he finds her dead, and his son too. A messenger tells Queen Eurydice (Creon's wife) that her son is dead. She curses Creon, goes into the Royal Marriage chamber, and hangs herself. Theseus invades Thebes and forces Creon to allow the burial of the various Argive dead. Creon's daughter Megara marries the son of Alcmene and Amphitryon (really of Zeus) Herakles. Creon is assassinated by L ykos the Younger, a descendant of the Lykos of Thebes who was the successor in the kingship immediately after Labdacus. Lykos was killed by Herakles. Laodamas ruled Thebes until it was destroyed by the Epigonoi. Creon's son Lycomedes served in the Trojan War.


Euripides (c.485-406 B.C.) was a younger contemporary of Sophocles, and third of the great tragic playwrights. He introduced deus ex machina as a plot device. According to the Canadian Museum of History: “Euripides was a prolific playwright crafting 92 plays of which seventeen survive including Medea, The Trojan Women and The Children of Herakles. He found the chorus to be a distraction and minimized its role. He also introduced a new element ( the prologue) which provided the audience with a preview of what is about to happen. Success came to Euripides late in life and that may have made him somewhat introspective and antisocial. [Source: Canadian Museum of History |]


According to Encyclopædia Britannica: “Euripides (480-406 B.C.), the great Greek dramatic poet, was born in 480 B.C., on the very day, according to the legend, of the Greek victory at Salamis, where his Athenian parents had taken refuge; and a whimsical fancy has even suggested that his name-son of Euripus-was meant to commemorate the first check of the Persian fleet at Artemisium. His father Mnesarchus was at least able to give him a liberal education; it was a favourite taunt with the comic poets that his mother Clito had been a herbseller.... At first he was intended, we are told, for the profession of an athlete,- a calling of which he has recorded his opinion with something like the courage of Xenophanes. He seems also to have essayed painting; but at fiveandtwenty he brought out his first play, the Peliodes, and thenceforth he was a tragic poet. At thirty-nine he gained the first prize, and in his career of about fifty years he gained it only five times in all [Source: Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece, Fordham University]

“Throughout life he had to compete with Sophocles, and with other poets who represented tragedy of the type consecrated by tradition. The hostile criticism of Aristophanes was witty; and, moreover, it was true, granting the premise from which Aristophanes starts, that the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles is the only right model. Its unfairness, often extreme, consists in ignoring the changing conditions of public feeling and taste...The infidelity of two wives in succession is alleged to explain the poet's tone in reference to the majority of their sex, and to complete the picture of an uneasy private life. He appears to have been repelled by the Athenian democracy, as it tended to become less the rule of the people than of the mob. Thoroughly the son of his day in intellectual matters, he shrank from the coarser aspects of its political and social life. His best word is for the small farmer, who does not often come to town, or soil his rustic honesty by contact with the crowd of the marketplace.”

“About 409 B.C. Euripides left Athens for Pella, on the invitation of King Archelaus, to the Macedonian court, where Greeks of distinction were always welcome. In his “Archelaus” Euripides celebrated that legendary son of Temenus, and head of the Temenid dynasty, who had founded Aegae; and in one of the meagre fragments he evidently alludes to the beneficent energy of his royal host in opening up the wild land of the North. It was at Pella, too, that Euripides composed or completed, and perhaps produced, the Bacchae. Jealous courtiers, we are told, contrived to have him attacked and killed by savage dogs.

Euripides’s Plays

Euripides had even more characters than Sophocles and focused on more human issues. He won less drama prizes than Sophocles and Aeschylus in part because his works were so emotional and disturbing. He invented a pulley and crane system that lowered and raised the gods in and out of the action. Once the crane was used to portray Socrates as being so lost in thought he was floating in the air.

Euripides wrote “The Women of Troy” , “Hippolytus” , “Iphigenia ay Aulis” , “The Bachae, Medea “ and “Hecuba” . One of the surprising things about them is how relevant they remain in their commentary on war and the human condition even though they were written more than 2,400 years ago. Nearly all of his works were written during the tragic 27-year-long Peloponnesian War and themes of many his plays deal with tragic lessons he learned from the conflict.

The Times of London theater critic Benedict Nightingale wrote: “Want to know about the limitations of reason as they’re being painfully demonstrated by nationalist demagogs, feral children, crazed cults, suicide bombers and assorted other fanatics? Try... “The Bachae” ...When Euripides writes of war, usually taking Troy as a paradigm, his scepticism, scorn for politicians and horrified mistrust of the human animal reality hits home...”The Trojan Women” , a long howl of grief...may be the greatest of all anti-war plays.”

Many of Euripedes works feature scheming and cruel women. Medea kills her husbands and their children to avenge an infidelity. Hecuba blinds a king and murders his children to avenge the death of her own child.

Dionysius in the Bacchae by Euripides

Dionysos mask
Euripides wrote in “The Bacchae,” 677-775: The Messenger said: “The herds of grazing cattle were just climbing up the hill, at the time when the sun sends forth its rays, warming the earth. I saw three companies of dancing women, one of which Autonoe led, the second your mother Agave, and the third Ino. All were asleep, their bodies relaxed, some resting their backs against pine foliage, others laying their heads at random on the oak leaves, modestly, not as you say drunk with the goblet and the sound of the flute, hunting out Aphrodite through the woods in solitude. [Source: Euripides. “The Tragedies of Euripides,” translated by T. A. Buckley. Bacchae. London. Henry G. Bohn. 1850. “Your mother raised a cry, standing up in the midst of the Bacchae, to wake their bodies from sleep, when she heard the lowing of the horned cattle. And they, casting off refreshing sleep from their eyes, sprang upright, a marvel of orderliness to behold, old, young, and still unmarried virgins. First they let their hair loose over their shoulders, and secured their fawn-skins, as many of them as had released the fastenings of their knots, girding the dappled hides with serpents licking their jaws. And some, holding in their arms a gazelle or wild wolf-pup, gave them white milk, as many as had abandoned their new-born infants and had their breasts still swollen. They put on garlands of ivy, and oak, and flowering yew. One took her thyrsos and struck it against a rock, from which a dewy stream of water sprang forth. Another let her thyrsos strike the ground, and there the god sent forth a fountain of wine. All who desired the white drink scratched the earth with the tips of their fingers and obtained streams of milk; and a sweet flow of honey dripped from their ivy thyrsoi; so that, had you been present and seen this, you would have approached with prayers the god whom you now blame.

“We herdsmen and shepherds gathered in order to debate with one another concerning what strange and amazing things they were doing. Some one, a wanderer about the city and practised in speaking, said to us all: “You who inhabit the holy plains of the mountains, do you wish to hunt Pentheus' mother Agave out from the Bacchic revelry and do the king a favor?” We thought he spoke well, and lay down in ambush, hiding ourselves in the foliage of bushes. They, at the appointed hour, began to wave the thyrsos in their revelries, calling on Iacchus, the son of Zeus, Bromius, with united voice. The whole mountain revelled along with them and the beasts, and nothing was unmoved by their running.

“Agave happened to be leaping near me, and I sprang forth, wanting to snatch her, abandoning the ambush where I had hidden myself. But she cried out: “O my fleet hounds, we are hunted by these men; but follow me! follow armed with your thyrsoi in your hands!” We fled and escaped from being torn apart by the Bacchae, but they, with unarmed hands, sprang on the heifers browsing the grass. and you might see one rending asunder a fatted lowing calf, while others tore apart cows. You might see ribs or cloven hooves tossed here and there; caught in the trees they dripped, dabbled in gore. Bulls who before were fierce, and showed their fury with their horns, stumbled to the ground, dragged down by countless young hands. The garment of flesh was torn apart faster then you could blink your royal eyes. And like birds raised in their course, they proceeded along the level plains, which by the streams of the Asopus produce the bountiful Theban crop. And falling like soldiers upon Hysiae and Erythrae, towns situated below the rock of Kithairon, they turned everything upside down. They were snatching children from their homes; and whatever they put on their shoulders, whether bronze or iron, was not held on by bonds, nor did it fall to the ground. They carried fire on their locks, but it did not burn them. Some people in rage took up arms, being plundered by the Bacchae, and the sight of this was terrible to behold, lord. For their pointed spears drew no blood, but the women, hurling the thyrsoi from their hands, kept wounding them and turned them to flight—women did this to men, not without the help of some god. And they returned where they had come from, to the very fountains which the god had sent forth for them, and washed off the blood, and snakes cleaned the drops from the women's cheeks with their tongues.

“Receive this god then, whoever he is, into this city, master. For he is great in other respects, and they say this too of him, as I hear, that he gives to mortals the vine that puts an end to grief. Without wine there is no longer Aphrodite or any other pleasant thing for men. I fear to speak freely to the king, but I will speak nevertheless: Dionysus is inferior to none of the gods.”

Pentheus said: “Already like fire does this insolence of the Bacchae blaze up, a great reproach for the Hellenes. But we must not hesitate. Go to the Electran gates, bid all the shield-bearers and riders of swift-footed horses to assemble, as well as all who brandish the light shield and pluck bowstrings with their hands, so that we can make an assault against the Bacchae. For it is indeed too much if we suffer what we are suffering at the hands of women.”

Dionysus said: “Pentheus, though you hear my words, you obey not at all. Though I suffer ill at your hands, still I say that it is not right for you to raise arms against a god, but to remain calm. Bromius will not allow you to remove the Bacchae from the joyful mountains.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, The Louvre, The British Museum

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Greece ; Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Hellenistic World ; BBC Ancient Greeks ; Canadian Museum of History ; Perseus Project - Tufts University; ; MIT, Online Library of Liberty, ; Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Live Science, Discover magazine, Times of London, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Encyclopædia Britannica, "The Discoverers" [∞] and "The Creators" [μ]" by Daniel Boorstin. "Greek and Roman Life" by Ian Jenkins from the British Museum.Time, Newsweek, Wikipedia, Reuters, Associated Press, The Guardian, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “History of Warfare” by John Keegan (Vintage Books); “History of Art” by H.W. Janson Prentice Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.), Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated October 2018

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