The Tragedy of Mob-Rule: Iphigenia in Aulis

Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis was produced in conjunction with the Bacchae and the Alcmaeon at the Dionysia in 405 BC, shortly following Euripides’s own death. It was produced by his relative, Euripides the Younger.

It tells the story of the Greeks en route to Troy. Agamemnon is forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to Artemis to gain favorable winds in sailing to Troy. Agamemnon recounts the story of how he met his wife Clytemnestra, via the myth of Leda and Helen, and then later how Menelaus, Helen’s husband, invoked the ancient oaths they swore when Helen was carried away by Paris – the origins of the Trojan War. He continues by explaining how he got into trouble with Clytemnestra. He sent a letter home persuading her to send their daughter Iphigenia to marry Achilles, the great warrior. If she did not send Iphigenia, Achilles would not sail and they would surely lose the war. The play begins in deception.

Calchas, the seer, reports that they must sacrifice Iphigenia in order to proceed. Agamemnon attempts to send a letter home to Clytemnestra but he is prevented by his brother Menelaus. He sees his fate. If he does not sacrifice Iphigenia, Odysseus and others will turn the mob of the army against him. He decides that he must sacrifice Iphigenia. He asks Menelaus to distract Clytemnestra and the armies while he performs the terrible sacrifice, for Clytemnestra arrives with their daughter at Aulis for her marriage to Achilles. By chance she meets Achilles separately, but he responds in confusion about his pending nuptials with Iphigenia. Once the plot is laid bare, Achilles vows to defend Iphigenia and prevent her slaughter, however the mob says otherwise. They demand her death, including his own men the Myrmidons. In the end, Iphigenia goes willingly to her own death. Here are her closing words:

“O Dayspring
Torch of God
And glorious light!
To another world I go
Out of this place
Out of time
To dwell.
And now, and now,
Beloved light

The play is about the tragedy of mob rule – in this case the armies of Greece form a mob, demanding the death of Iphigenia so they may go to raze the city of Troy. As is standard for Euripides, he inverts the Homeric heroes. Agamemnon, Menelaus, and Achilles are all victims of the politics of mob-rule, incapable of standing up in the face of injustice. The only heroes in the play are tragic heroes: Clytemnestra has been fooled and now must sacrifice her own daughter, and Iphigenia decides, in the end, to go willingly to her own death. Iphigenia is rebranded as a saint, not unlike Joan of Arc, whereas Aeschylus had portrayed her as an unwilling sacrifice in his Agamemnon.

As is common in Euripides, we find little redeeming or life-affirming qualities in the characters – all the great heroes are brought low, a daughter is sacrificed, and a mother must watch in horror after being deceived by her own husband. In following the story of the house of Atreus, we know this act of sacrificing Iphigenia will bring further doom to Agamemnon and his offspring.

For this reading I used the Charles R. Walker translation.

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