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Ancient Tragedy, Greece and Rome

Andrew Scholtz, Instructor

Ancient Tragedy, Study Guide. . .

Euripides Trojan Women

Text Access

Euripides. 10 Plays. Trans. Paul Roche. New York: Signet Classic, 1998. Print.

Introductory Remarks

Euripides' Trojan Women (Greek, Troades) is like no other ancient play I know. A harrowing exploration of the horrors of war, a play where women outnumber men by a long shot, a tragedy suggesting the utter indifference of fate to justice and human suffering, Trojan Women challenges every expectation and puts our capacity for optimism to the test.

Does, then, the play leave us irredeemable cynics, once we've had our eyes opened to the calamity wrought by men and their idiotic wars? Or what is the "moral" of the play, what "take-away" do we find there? Is it one of hope, and if so, hope for what? Indeed, can we even call it a tragedy if its message is so dire that whatever pity or fear it arouses in us simply cannot be expunged?

Journal Prompts/Questions

CLASS ONE. Imagine yourself either a male or a female Athenian (for this prompt, the gendering of point of view matters) watching this play in 415 BCE, the year of its production. Bear in mind. . .

  • The very recent massacre of all men on the Aegean island of Melos, and the enslavement of all the women there, by Athens. (See further below. . .)
  • The vote recently taken in the Athenian assembly to send an armada to the island of Sicily for the announced purpose of aiding an ally there, but really to launch an invasion of the whole island. (See further below. . .)

What might be going through your mind as you watch this play? How do you relate to the suffering experienced by Trojan women? To the atrocities wrought by Greek men? How do you, a Greek man or woman, respond?

CLASS TWO. At several points in the play, the TRANSLATOR (not Euripides) has speakers refer to their situation as "tragedy," as, for instance, on p. 508, where the original Greek reads, oimoi, literally, "Woe is me!"

So, in a way, I'm asking you if you agree with the assumption that seems to underlie that translation, namely, that tragedy is suffering experienced and reacted to, i.e., that tragedy happens not when we hurt or suffer, but when we externalize/dramatize hurt or pain: "I hurt!" "I suffer!"


In approaching those questions, try to think about this play generically, for instance, in terms of patterns we've been studying up till now, for instance:

  • "Aeschylean" patterns ("tragic formula," "Aeschylean epiphany," metonymic poetics, etc.) — are they there?
  • Aristotelian patterns (complication, resolution, recognition, reversal, pathos, complex versus simple plots, pity, fear, catharsis) — are they there?
  • Your own evolving view of what tragedy is

Play Facts

Playwright: Euripides (born ca. 484, Athens; died 406, Macedonia).

Production Date: March 415, City Dionysia.

Tetralogy: This tetralogy seems to have involved a trilogy of tragedies that arguably were connected thematically, if not as tightly as Aeschylus' Oresteia:

  1. Alexander (lost, about a younger Paris' fateful reunion with his family at Troy. For had Paris been killed, there would have been no Trojan War).
  2. Palamedes (lost, about how the villainous Odysseus framed his Greek rival, Palamedes).
  3. Trojan Women (our play).
  4. Sisyphus (lost satyr play about a devious trickster).

Placed: Second. (We know this from the historian Aelian, who tells us that one Xenocles won first, a fact that Aelian thought ridiculous.)

Characters: Note that, unlike most tragedies, most of the characters are women. Note, too, that none, apart from Helen, is presented as in any way "evil." QUESTION: As a "women's play," how (apart from the fact of its being such) does it differ from other plays you've read for this class?

For more on individual characters, see below, "Glossary/Notes."

Setting, Situation: Just outside the Anatolian (modern Turkish) city of Troy, on the beach where the Greeks have their ships. After ten years of siege interrupted by episodes of battle, and after the deaths of many heroes, both Greek and Trojan (Sarpedon, Hector, Patroclus, Achilles, Paris, and the list goes on), the Greeks have finally won. They have done so through a trick: a wooden horse given as a peace offering to the Trojans, but filled with warriors waiting to take Troy by surprise. Now that the city has been taken, its men slaughtered, its women and children enslaved, we find the women of Troy waiting to be parceled out to the victors. Among them is Hecuba, Trojan queen and mother of Hector; also, Cassandra, Hecuba's prophet daughter, Andromache, Hector's devoted wife, and Helen, she of the "face that launched a thousand ships."

Historical Background: Two events of 415 BCE probably cannot be ignored if we are to interpret this play in context.

  1. Conquest of Melos. In 415, Athens and Sparta were at peace, which gave Athens a chance to turn its attention other kinds of military adventures, including its unprovoked attack on the small and neutral Greek island of Melos. This act of raw aggression the islanders bravely chose to resist. But when they fell in defeat, the conquerors imposed merciless terms on the vanquished: death to all adult males, slavery for all women and children. For Thucydides, the Athenian historian, these events illustrate the capacity for might to trump right.
  2. Sicilian Expedition. Invited by one of the cities on the island of Sicily to assist it in its war with Syracuse, another city on Sicily, Athens in 415 decided to send a vast armada to undertake a vast project: the conquest of the entire island. It was a bold move, to say the least, though one that a few years later would end in utter disaster for Athens. In Thucydides' History, the Sicilian Debate and the invasion that followed serve to illustrate the capacity for vain hope fueled by ambition and greed to overcome reason and lead human beings to their ruin.

Glossary/Notes (alphabetical): Characters, Myths, etc.

Starred entries (*) are characters, whether speaking or non-speaking, in the play.

Achilles. Greek hero, greatest of those to fight at Troy. Killed Hector. Killed by Paris.

Agamemnon. King of Argos in Greece and commander of Greeks at Troy. Brother of Menelaus.

Ajax son of Oileus. Greek who impiously tore Cassandra away from the temple of Athena at Troy.

Ajax son of Telamon. Greek hero second only to Achilles, committed suicide at Troy.

Alexander. Another name for Paris.

Amyclae. Greek city sacred to Aphrodite. Thus emblematic for sexual love.

* Andromache. Wife, then widow, of Hector. Mother of Astyanax. She will slave in the house of Neoptolemus.

Aphrodite. Goddess of beauty and sex.

Apollo, aka Phoebus, Loxias. God of prophecy.

Ares. God of war.

Argos. Greek city, but also a name for Greece as a whole.

* Astyanax. Child of Hector and Andromache.

* Athena. Aka Pallas, Warrior goddess. Enemy of Troy, friend of Greeks - until her temple violated and suppliant Cassandra dragged off by ajax son of Oileus.

Aurora. (Actually, the Greeks has Eos). Goddess of the dawn, fell in love with Trojan Tithonus.

* Cassandra. Daughter of Hecuba and Priam. Seer of Apollo. In this play, dedicated to virginity by Apollo. Cassandra is not believed as a punishment: when Apollo sought to lie with her, she refused him.

Castor. Castor and Pollux, twin brothers of Helen, later to become gods.

* Chorus of Captive Trojan Women.

Deïphobus ("DIE-pho-bus). When Paris killed, Helen's second husband at Troy.

Ganymede. Earlier prince of Troy. Smitten by Ganymede's beauty, Zeus abducted him.

Hecate (pron. "HE-ka-tee"). Virgin goddess of ghosts, magic, brides, etc.

Hector. Greatest of Trojan heroes. Husband of Andromache. Killed by Achilles.

* Hecuba. Queen of Troy, wife of Priam, mother of:

  • Cassandra
  • Hector
  • Paris (aka Alexander)
  • Polyxena

Helen. Born in Sparta, Greece. Daughter of Zeus. Wife of Menelaus. Abducted, taken to Troy by Paris.

Hellas. The Greek name for "Greece."

Hymeneus, Hymen, Hymenal. Hymeneus/Hymen is the name given to a figure invoked as a god of marriage. "Hymenal" thus means marriage- or wedding-related.

Laconia. Spartan territory.

Loxias. See Apollo. Loxias is Apollo's name specifically in his capacity of god of prophecy.

* Menelaus. Husband of Helen. Brother of Agamemnon. King of Sparta. Second in command at Troy.

Neoptolemus. Achilles' son, and Greek hero at the fall of Troy.

Odysseus. Greek hero at Troy, renowned for cunning. The poem about his ten-year-long voyage home from is the Odyssey.

Pallas. A name of Athena.

Panegyric ("pan-EE-gi-ric"). Poem or speech of praise.

Paris (aka Alexander). Prince of Troy, handsome son of Priam. Abducts Helen.

Peleus ("PEE-lee-us"). The father of Achilles.

Pelius. That's a mistake for "Peleus," i.e., the father of Achilles. So "the house of Pelius [sic]" not a house in Sparta, but the palace of Achilles in Thessaly.

Pergamum. Another name for Troy.

Phthia. The region of Greece that Achilles and Neoptolemus come from.

Phoebus ("fee-bus"). See Apollo.

Polyxena ("po-LI-xe-na"). Youngest daughter of Priam and Hecuba. Sacrificed by Greeks on the grave of Achilles.

* Poseidon. Ancient Greek god of the sea, pro-Trojan.

Priam. King of Troy, husband of Hecuba. Father of noble offspring, for which see "Hecuba."

Salamis. Island of Telamonian Ajax, Greek hero.

Scamander. River of Troy.

Simoïs. Another river of Troy.

Sparta. Helen's native city.

* Talthybius. Herald and messenger of the Greeks.

Telamon. Father of the greater Ajax.

Tithonus. An earlier trojan prince, with whom Aurora fell in love.

trojan horse

Trojan Horse. See below, "Wooden Horse."

Troy. City in what is now Turkey. Fought ten-year war with Greeks over Helen.

Wooden Horse. Better known as the "Trojan Horse," it's how the Greeks were finally able to defeat the Trojans. The story goes as follows. After ten long years of fighting and many dead, the cunning Odysseus finally came up with a plan to defeat Troy. Pretending to sail away, the Greeks would leave behind a wooden horse as a "gift" for the Trojans (actually, an offering to the goddess Athena). Hidden inside the horse would be Greek heroes waiting for nightfall to exit the horse and open the city's gates. Though warned by Cassandra and others not to fall for the trick, the Trojans, overjoyed that they had, so far as they could tell, won the war, accepted the gift gladly.


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