BMCR 2007.03.06

Heracles and Euripidean Tragedy

, Heracles and Euripidean tragedy. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xi, 229 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780521851268 $80.00.

Originally a 1994 Cambridge Ph.D. dissertation, the book of Thalia Papadopoulou (from now, P.) deals with a new, overall interpretation of the play. In the introduction (“Introduction: Heracles in perspective”, pp. 1-8), P. points to the relevance of semi-divine status of Heracles, in order to focus on the ambivalence of the hero in the myth as well in the plot. A short history of the presence of Heracles in choral and dramatic poetry and philosophical literature follows.1

In the first chapter (“Ritual and violence”, pp. 9-57), P. underlines the “extreme ambivalence” of Heracles, who shares human and divine nature. This ambivalence and its central position in the interpretation of the play has not been properly understood by previous approaches, which tend to define an idealized or hybristic hero; in P.’s opinion, the study of ritual and related themes in the play shows that, even in the first part, we have to deal with a double-sided hero whose wildness and violence, usually at the service of his ‘civilizing’ effort, can suddenly turn out to be infamously murderous. A good part of this chapter is devoted to ritual in tragedy and to the examples of its violent interruption. Treading in H.P. Foley’s footsteps ( Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides, Ithaca 1985), P. considers sacrifice as a key theme of HF. However, whereas Foley “emphasizes the Euripidean presentation of an ideal Heracles throughout Heracles“, P. insists on his ambivalence. Another important theme is the so called ‘Achillean’ revenge against Lycus, Eurystheus and his family, which contributes to reveal the ambivalent status of the hero throughout the play: the excess that marks Heracles’ plan of revenge seems to announce in advance the madness. Also, P. joins Bierl2 and others in pointing out the allusions in this play to Dionysos and to the mysteries. The god is a symbol of boundless, violent power, and here references to him give off a strange, disquieting feeling even during the triumphal return of the hero.

In the second chapter (“Madness and the gods”, pp. 58-128), P. argues that “the presentation of Heracles’ madness is traditional. . .and it is also conventional in the description of the symptoms” (p. 128), but what is peculiar is that the insanity is not because he kills someone but because the victims are his family, not the enemies. After the madness and the subsequent return to ‘normality’, he honors his human status, refusing Zeus’ fatherhood. Heracles fiercely attacks the faulty gods, but this does not cause the divine universe to fall down; instead, the intervention of Iris and Lyssa shows that “the religious context remains intact” ( ibid.), and the behaviour of Heracles after the madness only demonstrates the human incapacity for understanding the divine universe and its rules.

In the third chapter (“Arete and the image of Athens”, pp. 129-189), P. considers the “issues regarding Heracles’ arete and the presentation of Athens” (p. 187). In the first part of the play, Megara, Amphitryon and Lycus argue about arete and man’s behaviour. Megara is willing to act following the arete of Heracles and to face voluntary death as a possible solution to the present desparate situation. This solution will be suitable to Heracles too after the madness, but he refuses to submit to suicide. P. rightly underlines that his decision comes after the dissociation from the gods, who caused his fall. Arete is also the main theme of the debate between Amphitryon and Lycus. Heracles’ arete is symbolized by the bow, the civilizing weapon used not only in the ponoi but also during his murderous madness (and this fact becomes another mark of the hero’s ambivalence). The filia between Heracles and Theseus is a token of their common arete : Athens’ king is the only one who helps his old friend in gratitude for his help in Hades. Even if the role of Athens is central, the drama is always about Heracles and his humanization:3 his choice of ‘enduring life’ (cf. the problematic v. 1351) is a message of hope given by a wrecked hero to human beings. In the end (pp. 190-194), P. summarizes her thoughts by pointing out “the development of the image of Heracles, from the invincible hero of the labours to the courageous bearer of suffering” (p. 194).

From the beginning, the book already arouses reader’s curiosity with a startling (to me, at least) claim: “the underestimated subtlety and the critical history of the play justify writing a whole book on Heracles” (p. 1; likewise p. 3, p. 190, etc.). Actually, P.’s assertion is easily contradicted just opening the book and looking at the footnotes: bibliographical references concern virtually every subject and every sentence. Even if some recurring claims of originality are understandable in a Ph.D. dissertation (as much as a thorough evaluation of secondary literature), they are less at home in a published book, especially if they are not always convincing. In my opinion, what seems to distinguish P.’s treatment of the play from other studies is properly the category of ambivalence,4 to which P. tries to harmonize previous interpretations5 and the text of the play. Discussions about the constitutio textus hardly occur,6 and exegetical problems are also rarely discussed.

Some minor observations and bibliographical addenda.7

P. x: Fragments of Euripides are always cited from Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta ed. A. Nauck (2nd ed. Leipzig 1889), with the Supplementum of B. Snell (Hildesheim 1964), but sometimes (see p. 123 n. 173, 167 n. 117) P. makes reference to the numbering of the “still forthcoming” Kannicht’s edition, which was actually published the year before P.’s book ( Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, V/1-2, Göttingen 2004).

P. 16 n. 24: about the authenticity of the substitution scene at the end of IA, cf. also M.L. West, “Tragica, V”, BICS 28, 1981, 61-78.

P. 20: this reference to Pisander of Rhodes, fr. 10 Bernabé, is a mere repetition from p. 6.

P.16 n. 37: here and elsewhere it is difficult to find the reason why P. does not observe chronology in citing authors and works.

P. 41 n. 102: for [Eur.] Rhes., cf. now the Budé edition of F. Jouan (Paris 2004) and the review of M. Fantuzzi, BMCR 2006.02.18; the view of W. Ritchie ( The authenticity of the Rhesus of Euripides, Cambridge 1964) was countered by E. Fraenkel in his review ( Gnomon 37, 1965, 228-241). Pp. 41f.: in addition to the Iliadic precedent of the river Scamander, one can compare HF 568-573 with the battle between Telephus and Achaeans along the Kaïkos (cf. Pind. I. 5,41f. P. Oxy. LXIX 4708 fr. 1,8f. and Ep. Alex. adesp. 3 [ Telephi epyllium ], 15 Powell).

P. 46: P.’s interpretation of vv. 494f. is a good example of her hunting for ‘subtlety’, but the text of the “desperate appeal” of Megara to Heracles does not seem to hint at the foundation of the Athenian hero-cult (vv. 1331-1333) any more than does Amphitryon’s incitement to Megara (v. 497) to ‘continue to win over those are below’—both are simply relating to the underground journey of the hero. Pp. 50f.: on the relationship between Heracles and the Dionysiac world, see Eleonora Rocconi, “Eracle “mainomenos” e “katauloumenos”: note sulla rappresentazione tragica della follia”, Rudiae 11 (1999) 103-112.

P. 59: to the survey of literary madness one could add the useful Euripide. Oreste, introd., trad. e note di E. Medda, Milano 2001, 5ff.; Ph. Charlier, “Les folies d’Héraclès: rage, fureur et délire chez le héros thébain d’Euripide et Sophocle”, MedSec n.s. 15/3 (2003) 595-613; and Jennifer Burns Clarke Kosak, Heroic measures: Hippocratic medicine in the making of Euripidean tragedy, Leiden-Boston, Mass. 2004. For the accommodation of modern psychiatric terminology to mental disorders in ancient Greek literature, cf. F. Ferrari, “Saffo: nevrosi e poesia”, SIFC 19 (2001) 3-31; Id., “Sindrome da attacco di panico e terapia comunitaria. Sui frgg. 31 e 2 V. di Saffo”, in I lirici greci. Forme della comunicazione e storia del testo 47-62 (edd. Maria Cannatà Fera and G.B. D’Alessio, Messina 2001) with the review of F. Condello, Eikasmós 13 (2002) 390-401. For psychological terminology in Eur., see also Shirley Darcus Sullivan, Euripides’ use of psychological terminology, Montréal, Québec 2000.

P. 92 n. 104: the proverbial HF 1240 ἅπτηι κάτωθεν οὐρανοῦ δυσπραξίαι will be unlikely to have “some sort of relation to the ancient belief that Heracles touched the sky when he was admitted to Olympus”; for the irony, cf. Od. 15,329 = 17,565 (cited by Maria Serena Mirto in Euripide. Eracle, introd., trad. e note di M.S. M., Milano 1997, 255 n. 134).

P. 95: about the crux of v. 1304, cf. now P.J. Finglass, “Eur. HF 1303f.”, Eikasmós 17 (2006) 117-120.

P. 97 n. 110: here as elsewhere we have too vague reference to ancient authors and works (see also pp. 78 n. 60, 107 n. 132, 152 n. 69).

P. 112 n. 146: P.’s book has no interest in philological details: e.g., her discussion about Eur. fr. 223,2 K. (= 48 Kambitsis) relies on a text given as sound, but the lacuna at the beginning of the papyrus can have other supplements that make her interpretation pointless (cf. Kannicht p. 305).

P. 114 n. 149: on Euripides’ Bellerophon, cf. also Il Bellerofonte di Euripide, ed. M. Curnis (Alessandria 2003).

P. 115: on the meaning of ὀρθῶς (v. 1345, lectio given by the indirect tradition) see now J.V. Bañuls Oller, “Eurípides, Heracles v. 1345”, in María José García Soler (ed.), Τιμῆς χάριν. Homenaje al profesor Pedro A. Gainzaráin (Vitoria 2002) 69-80; the related topic of ὀρθότης ὀνομάτων has been discussed by Bond 401 ad l. before H.E. Yunis ( A New Creed. Fundamental Religious Beliefs in the Athenian Polis and Euripidean Drama, Göttingen 1988, 161-166).

P. 142 n. 42: the problem concerning a possible older version of HF does not rely only on the assumed allusions in Aristophanes’ Wasps (cf. S. Beta, “Madness on the comic stage: Aristophanes’ ‘Wasps’ and Euripides’ ‘Heracles'”, GRBS 40, 1999, 156f.), but above all on the puzzling evidence of P. Hibeh 2.179: cf. lately R. Janko, “More of Euripides’ ‘Hercules bis’ in P. Hibeh 179”, ZPE 136 (2001) 1-6.

P. 146 n. 55: “on complaints about old age in tragedy” see also L. Paganelli in Senectus: la vecchiaia nel mondo classico I 145-167 (ed. U. Mattioli, Bologna 1995).

P. 151: a different interpretation of the symbolic function of the bow is in H. Hamamoto, “Amphitryon’s representation of the hoplite: Euripides’ Heracles 190-194”, JCS 50 (2002) 56-66.8


1. This brief survey does not consider the popularity of Heracles in comedy (the only reference is to Ar. Av. 1574-1590): see e.g. F. Jouan, “Héros comique, héros tragique, héros satyrique”, in Aristophane. La langue, la scène, la cité (edd. P. Thiercy and M. Menu, Bari 1997) 215-228.

2. See A.F.H. Bierl, Dionysos und die griechische Tragödie: politische und metatheatralische Aspeke im text (Tübingen 1991) 140-145.

3. This is one of the major subjects in G. Burzacchini, “L’umanizzazione dell’eroe: struttura e fortuna dell’ ‘Eracle’ di Euripide”, in Studi sulla tradizione classica per Mariella Cagnetta, (ed. L. Canfora, Roma-Bari 1999) 61-102. See also Id., “‘flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo’ (Verg. Aen. VII 312): furores e guerra nel Lazio (con osservazioni sull’influsso di Euripide nel VII canto dell’Eneide)”, AAVM 70 (2002) 19-61.

4. See ead., “Herakles and Hercules: the hero’s ambivalence in Euripides and Seneca”, Mnemosyne 57 (2004) 257-283.

5. A typical sentence (p. 13): “Foley corroborates Girard’s observation, by referring to Douglas’ analysis etc.”.

6. With the obvious exception of v. 1351 (see p. 176 n. 139). For a recent example of the consequences of philological discussions on general interpretation of HF, see A. Pardini, “L’addio di Eracle ad Anfitrione (Eur. Herc. 1420)”, QUCC 64 (2000) 101-105.

7. See now Anna Schriefl, “Euripides, Herakles 1970-2000”, Lustrum 47 (2005) 319-364, 718f., a very useful survey, to which can be added inter alia J. Irigoin, “Histoire critique de la tradition des Héracles d’Euripide ou La paille et la poutre”, in L’Antico e la sua Eredità (ed. U. Criscuolo, Napoli 2004) 9-20, and the first item of G. Burzacchini, supra n. 3.

8. Some misprints: p. 11 add a full stop after “silent”; p. 20 read ” θύειν, ‘to sacrifice'”; p. 64 read “outburst”. Repeatedly there is no space between the last letter of a Greek word and the diacritics before capitals, there is no proper sign for cruces, and the apostrophe is split from the preceding letter.