Euripides’s Heracleidae is as much a play about the nobility of Athenian patriotism, as it is a warning to a city at war. It was most likely written during the Peloponnesian War, perhaps between 430 B.C. and 429 B.C. Thucydides writes of an occasion in which five members of the Peloponnesian League were seized by allies of Athens in Thrace, and immediately transported to Athens to be put to death without trial. It was a far cry from the reasons to celebrate the nobility and superiority of Athens during the Persian Wars.
Euripides’s Heracleidae, sometimes called the “Children of Heracles”, tells the ancient story of Heracles’s offspring. Background: King Eurystheus, a ruler of Mycenae, was the cause of great pain for Heracles. There was an age-old disagreement between Zeus and Hera over who would defeat the remaining titans from the old order to bring about the reign of the twelve Olympians. Hera believes it to be Eurystheus, Zeus believed it to be Heracles (though a more ancient form of the myth has these two reversed as Heracles’s name implies “Hera’s fame”). As a result of this conflict, Heracles had to undertake the famous “Twelve Labors”, for which Eurystheus was frequently made to look foolish and fearful, hiding in a wine jar. Later, after the death of Heracles, Eurystheus still resented the way he was debased and attempted to kill the descendants of Heracles before they could exact revenge on him for the trouble he brought upon the family.
In Euripides’s tragedy, the Heracleidae are chased all the way to Athens, led by Heracles’s friend and nephew, Iolaus. They beg for refuge from Theseus’s son and king of Athens, Demophon. However, a herald from Eurystheus claims them as runaway slaves and property of Eurystheus. Athens decides to claim the children of Heracles as their own but first Demophon consults an oracle who proclaims that they must sacrifice one person to Persephone if they are to win the battle with Eurystheus. Demophon is distraught and denies them safe haven, until one young woman, Macaria, a daughter of Heracles, steps up and offers to sacrifice herself. Thus, a battle between the forces of Athens and the forces of Eurystheus ensues and Eurystheus is captured in the battle (in most traditional sources of the myth, Eurystheus is killed in battle) and brought before the people. The people of Athens do not wish to execute him, but Alcmene, mother of Heracles, wishes him to be dead in a fit of vengeance, so and he is led away and the play concludes.
At the beginning of the tragedy, the sympathies of the audience are clear: the children of Heracles are being wrongly hunted by King Eurystheus, and the people of Athens are noble in their wish to protect the downtrodden. However, our tragic pity is inverted at the end of the play. When Eurystheus is finally captured, we hear his voice for the first time. He describes his pious devotion to the god, Hera. He understands the anger at him. He is revealed to be a much more sympathetic character, while Alcemene, mother of Heracles, becomes a vengeful character. The play may be read as a warning to the Athenians, during their regrettable actions during the Peloponnesian War against the enemies of Athens. In true Euripidian fashion, the audience finds sympathies with the stranger, the foreigner. Euripides, the brooding intellectual recluse, looks for justice beyond the bounds of the city in the hopes of discovering a more universal justice.