Trojan Women by Euripides was first produced in 415 BCE. Athens had just captured Melos. All the men of Melos the Athenians deemed capable of bearing arms were killed and all the women and children became slaves. It is probably no accident that Euripides wrote and produced Trojan Women when he did, a play in which all the women are enslaved and a young boy is murdered. The play was also the third in a trilogy. The first play was Alexandros, another name for Paris, the man who absconded with Helen to Troy and started the whole war. The second play was Palamedes. Agamemnon sent Palamedes to Ithaca to get Odysseus who had promised to defend the marriage of Helen and Menelaus. Odysseus apparently never forgave Palamedes for making him join the Trojan War and after the war he played a trick so Palamedes was accused of being a traitor and killed. A bit of misplaced anger there. But that is Odysseus for you who doesn’t come off very well in any Euripides play.
Every Greek tragedy begins with a monologue and in Trojan Women it belongs to Poseidon. Poseidon is sad about Troy’s destruction since it was he and Apollo who had built the city when Zeus made them serve King Laomedon for a year. He tells us that he is abandoning Troy because there is no one left to honor the gods. At the end of the play Hecuba resigns herself to sailing away from Troy when she calls upon the gods and then wonders why she even bothers since they don’t hear her. Poseidon also sets the scene for the play, Hecuba face down on the ground outside the tent where she and other important women of Troy are being held. She has no idea her youngest daughter Polyxena has beens sacrificed at the tomb of Achilles (but in the play Hecuba, it is all about Hecuba negotiating for Polyxena’s life, among other things).
But before we get to Hecuba and the Trojan women, in comes Athena wanting to broker a deal with Poseidon. Athena was on the side of Greece during the war and Poseidon has just been blaming her and Hera for the destruction of Troy. Athena is pissed because the Greeks have been performing atrocities, defiling temples and tombs, and they need to be punished for going too far. And so Poseidon agrees to make their various voyages home anything but smooth. In the play that follows we get a sense of the atrocities — Priam was murdered in a temple, Cassandra, a daughter of Hecuba and priestess of Apollo, was hauled out of the temple and raped, and Astyanax, the young son of Hector and Andromache, is thrown from the walls of Troy because Odysseus convinces the Greeks that the toddler might grow up to take up arms against them one day.
The women can do nothing but cry and wait their fate. They know they will be slaves but they do not yet know whose. The men are just then drawing lots for them. It turns out Hecuba now belongs to the hated Odysseus, Andromache will be made to go with Achilles’ son, and Cassandra belongs to Agamemnon.
Upon hearing the news of her fate, Cassandra has a marvelous long moment of frenzied prophecy, which, of course, no one believes. But while the other women think they have no hope, that they can do nothing, Cassandra in her prophetic madness, knows what will be in store for her and Agamemnon when they arrive home. One of the reasons Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon is because he brought home Cassandra. And so the prophetess likens herself to a Fury and can’t wait to set sail and exact revenge even though it means her death too. As she says goodbye to Hecuba she tells her,
Do not shed a tear. O my dear fatherland and my brothers beneath the ground and our father who begat us, it will not be long before you greet me. I shall come among the dead as a victor. I shall have laid waste the house of the sons of Atreus, the men who destroyed us.
Later in the play Menelaus shows up to claim Helen who has been in the tent with the Trojan Women. Menelaus wants to put her to death immediately but Helen argues persuasively in her favor in spite of Hecuba’s fierce and convincing arguments against her. Helen says the whole thing was not her fault, that the fault belongs to Paris. Hecuba insists otherwise. But Helen wins mostly I think because Menelaus still loves her and really, how dumb would it be to fight a war for ten years on the pretext of getting your wife back and then killing her.
There is a neat little detail in the middle of the play. Cassandra has just been taken away and Hecuba gives a long grief-filled speech before collapsing on the ground again. Chorus then comes in and begins to sing…
Sing, O Muse,
a new song about Ilium,
a funeral dirge accompanied by tears.
What a clever echo to the opening of Homer’s Iliad:
Sing, O Muse,
of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus,
that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans.
Yes, it is traditional to open epic poems by calling on the Muse, but I can’t imagine Euripides wrote that song for the chorus not knowing that the words would resonate with Homer’s poem.
Trojan Women is actually a reread for me. I first read it back in 2007 before I embarked on reading through Greek tragedy. I liked it then, but I liked it even better this time around.
The next Euripides play I plan to read is Andromache which takes place several years later after she and Achilles’ son have had a child together.