67. Rhesus by Euripides (c.437 BC)

Plot : On the plains of Troy, Hector is eager to take the fight to the Greeks and burn their ships. He sends out a scout (Dolon) to see what the large number of campfires at the Greek camp means : he thinks they are getting ready to sail home. Meanwhile Rhesus of Thrace arrives with his army to support Hector, after years of delay. Initially Hector boasts that he is on the point of defeating the  Greeks without this late effort from this ally, but agrees to let Rhesus and his army take part on the battle the following day.

Odysseus and Diomedes are also out scouting the Trojan encampment. They capture Dolon and torture information from him, including the camp password. Failing to find Hector, the pair are led by Athena to Rhesus who they kill. Confusion runs through the Trojan camp, but Hector insists on going ahead with his assault on the Greeks come morning.

Nearly missed out on this play – it should have been read back in February. This time I read the Oxford University Press edition Rhesos, translated by Richard Braun (ISBN 0195020499)

My thoughts: Firstly it should be said that some scholars dispute Euripides’ authorship of this play. If he did write it, then they believe it was an earlier play than the other surviving works, and would have been written between 445 and 435 BC.

Secondly it may be incomplete or unfinished as it is relatively short and there is not the usual prologue to set the scene. Also unusual are (i) the night time setting, (ii) the on-stage fight between Odysseus and Diomedes and the Trojan sentries, and (iii) the appearance of the Goddess Athena mid-play rather than at the end where instead we have the appearance of a second immortal, one of the Muses (Rhesus’ mother) to explain matters.

Hector is very different from his portrayal in Homer’s Iliad. Here he is hot-headed and impulsive, yet easily swayed by the arguments of others, even the lowly sentries and shepherd.

Rhesus  seems a blustery coward showing up late to fight for Troy in time for a share in the spoils, with his poor excuses of delay, but The Muse reveals to us that she had warned him that answering Hector’s call would lead to his death, and his bravado masks his fear of facing this.

Odysseus is still the sly pirate as he had been seen in many of the later tragedies, but his ability to disguise himself and slip in and out of the Trojan camp and city almost at will is held in some degree of awe by the Trojans.

Favourite lines/passages:

Dolon claims the right to Achilles’ deathless horses if he succeeds in spying out the Greek camp

“When a man stakes his life on dice some God tosses, the prize should be worth more to him than life”                                                                                                                   Dolon, page 31.

And one of the Trojan soldiers yearns for the life before the war, which we know he’ll never see again…

“When will this ancient Troy again toast rowdy troops of friends and lovers

Door to door, dawn to dark?

When will the round-the-table romp of rival vintages return,

The revelers’ beakers and clashing tunes and the lovers’ singing?”      Third soldier, page 39.

Personal rating: 5. Not a bad story with some multiple storylines coming together.

Next:  So we reach the end of the works of Euripides and indeed the last of all the great Greek tragedies. As a whole they are well worth reading and considering, but I doubt I will read them again soon. On to other other areas of Greek writings, notably their philosophy and science. But first some comedy with Aristophanes and The Frogs.

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