Book V of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War opens at the conclusion of the truce between Athens and the Spartans. Cleon leads the Athenians in an attack on Thrace. A double surprise attack is launched against Cleon and the Athenians by Brasidas of Sparta. The attack catches Cleon off guard and kills him en route, as well as Brasidas.
After this cataclysmic juncture, both sides desire peace. Athens fears further revolt from its allies. Spartan men and their land/economy begin to suffer. New leadership (King Pleistoanax in Sparta, and Nicias in Athens) desperately desires peace. Thucydides called Nicias the “most fortunate general of his time” (5.16). Many of their allies did not agree with the yearning for peace, nevertheless they make a treaty, allying Sparta and Athens for fifty years. Thus ends the “first war” spanning ten years.
Thucydides digresses from this juncture to discuss the nature of the peace being a mere interval in the ongoing hostilities, rather than a true peace. He mentions his own age being old enough to reflect on the activities and his exile for twenty years after his command of Amphipolous as mentioned earlier. As a result of his exile to the Peloponnesus he was able to see things with far more clarity. The city in motion lacks clarity absent the benefits of hindsight.
Hostilities resume in the war following the fifty year truce. Alcibiades leads a faction of Athenian allies in diplomacy against Sparta. The Spartans are barred from the Olympic games. Sparta battle the Argives, allies of the Athenians. The Melians choose to remain allied with the Spartans, despite Athenian warnings of ruin. Eventually the Melians are defeated: the men all killed, and the women and children enslaved. Athens settles the Melian country.
For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.
Euripides’s Hecuba is perhaps the most bleak of the Greek tragedies. It takes place shortly after the sack of Troy by the Achaeans. The few remaining Trojans have been either killed or enslaved by the Greeks. Hecuba, Queen of Troy and wife of Priam, has been captured and enslaved by Odysseus. Like Job, the her life has had a complete reversal of fortune: her husband Priam was killed by Achilles’s son Neoptolemus, her famous son Hector was killed in battle by Achilles along with her other son Troilus, her son Paris was killed by Philoctetes, her son Deiphobus was mutilated during the sack of Troy, her son Helenus the seer was taken as a slave by Neoptolemus. Her youngest son, Polydorus who appears as a ghost at the outset of the play, was killed by an ally of Troy, the Thracian King Polymestor. Polydorus was sent by Priam just prior to the sack of Troy to Thrace to hideaway with a large pile of gold so that he might survive. However Polymestor betrayed Priam and slaughtered Polydorus, leaving his body floating in the surf, and he took the gold.
Additionally, Hecuba lost several daughters: her daughter Cassandra the seer was taken as a concubine of Agamemnon and was slaughtered by his wife Clytemnestra out of jealousy upon his return home, as detailed in Aeschylus’s masterful Agamemnon, part of the Oresteia cycle. Her last remaining child, Polyxena, was taken by Odysseus and slain upon the grave of Achilles.
In total, Hecuba lost eight children either directly or indirectly as a result of the Trojan War.
The first part of the play concerns this latter tale of Polyxena being reunited with her mother and then promptly taken away for her throat to be slit on the grave of Achilles. Odysseus hears Hecuba’s pleas to release her, but says that he is powerless to the politics of the situation – Odysseus has already promised the Achaeans the sacrifice of a Trojan princess if the conquered Troy. Everybody laments the situation but nobody can prevent the death of Polyxena. Hecuba bemoans her station in life, a fallen Queen with nothing and no one. Her sorrow quickly turns into action.
In what we may call the second part of the play, Hecuba seeks revenge on Polymestor, King of Thrace, for killing her youngest son and stealing his gold. Agamemnon willingly grants her request and deals justice to Polymestor, who notes the impending doom for Hecuba before he is lead away. Lastly, as a note of foreshadowing, Agamemnon is eager to leave to return home to normalcy, however readers of Aeschylus will recall that Agamemnon returns home to a trap that is laid against him by his own wife.
As is common in Euripides, the world of Hecuba is devoid of the gods. Humans, alone, must bear the weight of their great downfall. Outside of Job, truly few other humans have reached the depths of despair where Hecuba find herself. Her world is a life of loss with no hope of redemption. Instead, politics becomes the primary vehicle by which men may find hope. But even politics is insufficient as men like Odysseus the great tactician, and Agamemnon the warlord, are powerless to the necessity imposed on them by political circumstances. Surely, the Hecuba represents the darkest depths to which a human being might fall, from royalty to slavery, with no hope of recourse to the gods, family, or politics. Hecuba’s will is meaningless and powerless as she has lost everything worth holding onto in life, with absolutely no possibility of redemption, while the deliverance of death has come for all but herself.
For this reading I used the William Arrowsmith translation.
Thirty years prior to Euripides’s first performance of Helen at the Dionysia in 412 BC, Herodotus of Halicarnassus echoed a controversial theory of the story of the Trojan War. In Book II of his famous Histories, or “Inquiries”, Herodotus suggests that Helen of Sparta, wife of Menelaus, was not actually taken to Troy, but was instead transported by the gods to Egypt. In her stead, they created a phantom, or “eidolon,” that looked and acted like Helen. Recall the story of Paris, son of Priam, choosing Helen as the most beautiful woman of the ancient world, over and against a jealous Aphrodite.
This was supposedly the true account of Helen, the “face that launched a thousand ships.” According to Herodotus, who gathered this story from his travels around Egypt, Homer was aware of this account but he did not include it in the epics. The story was also echoed by Hesiod and Stesichorus, the latter of whom penned an apologia to Helen for his earlier brow beating criticism. And Stesichorus was not alone. All throughout the ancient world, Helen was criticized as the femme fatale whose renowned beauty instigated the greatest war of the ancient world.
Euripides plays on this ancient prejudice and he employs the Herodotean account of Helen in his romantic tragedy Helen. He opens the play, much like Iphigenia in Tauris with the leading female, Helen, stranded alone in Egypt, under the control and protection of Memphis. She laments her status as the cause and blame of the Trojan War. Suddenly, Teucer, a Greek exile, washes ashore and tells her of how Menelaus is believed dead because he never returned home from war. All this time, totaling 17 years, Helen has remained faithful to Menelaus. Shortly thereafter, Menelaus himself appears in Egypt and is reunited with Helen. Together, they devise a plot to escape back to Sparta.
Why is this account of Helen’s story important? Two points. First, this is the first time we hear Helen’s account of her station in life. It is common to note Euripides’s use of many female characters, like Helen, Iphigenia, or Medea, but there is greater depth to the play than simply a need to balance representation of genders. Helen is blamed by all of Greece for an act she did not commit. And she is doubly cursed because she is trapped in Egypt. For example:
“Women and friends, what is this destiny on which I am fastened? Was I born a monster among mankind?… And so my life is monstrous, and the things that happen to me, through Hera, or my beauty is to blame. I wish that like a picture I had been rubbed out and done again, made plain, without this loveliness, for so the Greeks would never have been aware of all those misfortunes that now are mine.” (255-265)
And second, the story is significant because if ‘Helen of Troy’ was a mere phantasm, then what was the purpose of fighting the Trojan War? There was nothing to gain. This is the most pitiable perspective of the Trojan War, reiterated by the most tragic of the poets.
Lastly, consider the context in which the play was presented. It was late winter at the urban Dionysia. The wildly unsuccessful Sicilian Expedition (415-413 BC) was fresh in the minds of the Athenian audiences, when Athens came to the aid of Sicily as it was under attack from Syracuse, allies of Sparta. The relative peace of the Peloponnesian War had ended. Alcibiades led the expedition but was recalled midway through. In the end, the Athenians were embarrassingly defeated. All surviving soldiers were either enslaved or killed, as noted by Thucydides, and Sicily was destabilized and forced to submit to a tyrant in order to repel the forces of Sparta. It was a turning point in the war.
For Euripides, Helen is an exploration into the pity and meaninglessness of war by revising the official Homeric account of the greatest war in the ancient world. It is a conciliatory work toward the hope of a once again unified Greece. By making Helen the central tragic figure of the play, Euripides removes any blame on Sparta for their responsibility in spawning Helen, the fire that ignited the Trojan War.
For this reading I used the Richmond Lattimore translation.
The hero Theseus was rumored to have instilled the democratic sensibilities in Athenians during the Bronze Age when he brought the twelve districts of Attica (an area capable of housing twelve different cities) together and in so doing he limited the rule of the kings. He recognized certain families as Eupatrid, or “well born” and created the Council of Areiopagos. However Athenian democratic law can be traced to the Archon, Solon. Solon’s leadership as an Archon grew due to increasing tensions between rich and poor, making it so that all debts were canceled and that people could not be sold into slavery as collateral if they could not pay their debts.
This new class system, divided into four categories, lasted for two hundred years before the aristocracy overthrew the democracy. Peistratos convinced the Athenians to give him a bodyguard which he used to take the Acropolis and establish a tyranny, tracing his lineage back to Neleus, the father of the Homeric hero Nestor. He was exiled three times but returned and died a tyrant until his sons established their tyrannies: Hipparchos was killed and Hippias ruled an oppressive tyranny until he was banished and Kleisthenes of the Alkmeonid family took over as king and established new laws, including the famous ostracism laws where the Athenians would banish one man from Attica for ten years.
Over the years, Athens became increasingly more democratic with committees chosen by lot, voting eligibility opened up to the third class, and the public regularly reviewed the activities of public officials through the council of five hundred. The golden age of Athens was not long lasting, however the memory of it has endured largely due to the great writers like Plato and Aristotle, along with Herodotus and Thucydides, who kept alive the spirit of Athenian excellence, while maintaining a healthy skepticism towards the corrosive tendencies of a democratic regime.