59. The Phoenician Women by Euripides (410 BC)


Sons of the doomed Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, agree to share the throne of Thebes in yearly cycle. Younger brother Polyneices agrees to go into exile for the first year, but on his return to claim his turn on the throne, Eteocles denies him and sends him away. Polyneices returns with the Argive army to force the issue.

Iocasta, their mother, and mother/wife of Oedipus, tries to intercede between her sons, and she calls them to both meet with her under truce before the battle starts to attempt one final reconciliation. But the family curse must reach its tragic conclusion.

I read the Penguin Classics version in Orestes and other plays translated by Philip Vellcaott (ISBN 0140442596)

My thoughts

Again a Greek play named after the Chorus rather than the protagonists, this story is set just prior to, during and after the events already covered in Aeschylus’ play Seven against Thebes, but fleshes it out with more characters and background.

Creon’s unyielding refusal to allow Antigone to show Polyneices’ body due burial rites is now seen in context of his grief over his own son Menoeceus’ sacrifice to save Thebes and his anger that Antigone refuses to marry his other son Haemon. He also banishes Oedipus from Thebes, to ensure no further calamity will strike the city, and sets the old blind wreck of a once powerful man on his final wanderings (which I expect will be seen in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus)

The most interesting part of the siege of Thebes is the dilemma which faces Polyneices. He has been betrayed by his brother, and the only way to regain his share of the throne, is to attack his own city with a foreign army who will then expect their share of plunder if they are victorious. Yet his cause is repeatedly recognized by most as just – his allies the Argives, some of the Thebans and even the Phoenician slave women.

Another factor repeated in many of these tragedies is the suffering of the innocent for the deeds of their ancestors. Oedipus was innocent of the crimes of his father (which started when he ignored the Gods and begot a son). Oedipus saves Thebes from the ravages of the Sphinx, yet is doomed to marry his own mother, give her sons and daughters who are his own siblings, blind himself, then strike out in anger to curse his sons that results in their death.

Menoeceus, innocent and noble son of Creon must also die to protect Thebes as a result of the actions of his ancestor in killing Ares’ dragon. From that serpent’s teeth sown in the ground, the men of Thebes are fabled to have sprung.


Moving away from the relentless curse and the tragic results to all, the story of the Sphinx was worth pursuing.

“… begotten by a snake from Hell, …… half-beast, half-maiden, a monster of terror, of ranging wings and claws red with raw flesh …. snatched up young men from the farms, and carried then aloft, carried them away, chanting your sinister music, a song of doom and despair filling the land with deadly pain…. while dread wings hovered above.”                                                                                                                  Chorus, page 272

Not done justice by the artist in the painting above 🙂

Of course Oedipus arrives to solve the Sphinx’s riddle, defeating her and winning the throne of Thebes and the hand of his unknowing mother in marriage.  The riddle was: “What walks on four feet in the morning, two in the afternoon and three at night?”

(If you haven’t come across this before, give it some thought before resorting to Google)

Personal rating : 5

Also in that year : Athens has managed to reverse the tide of war and destroy the Peloponnesian fleet at Cyzicus.

Next : Philoctetes by Sophocles

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