Iphigenia in Tauris


It was perhaps after the Syracusan disaster that Euripides produced Iphigenia in Tauris—now seen not as a tragedy but more of a romance. There is conflict, but no one dies; there is reunion in a beautiful recognition scene, and joy as brother, sister and cousin set off for home. It has the sound of the sea—and Iphigenia says that the sea washes away all human ills:

θάλασσα κλύζει πάντα τἀνθρώπων κακά

and purification is a recurrent motif in the play.

If the year was 412 BC, it is understandable why Euripides did not write a tragedy in the usual mode, when his fellow citizens had just committed hubris on a barely credible scale, and had been rewarded with nemesis.  Thucydides says that the Syracusan expedition seems to him unequalled in the history of Greece for the glory it brought to the victors and the catastrophe it entailed for the vanquished: ‘for there was no department in which the beaten were not utterly beaten, no misery from which they were spared. Their destruction was total in the fullest sense of the word.’  There was hardly a family in Athens, he says, that had not lost one of their menfolk.

So Iphigenia is a comforting play, resounding with the sea and luminous with sunlight on the cliffs above the waters of Pontus, in front of the temple of Artemis, where Iphigenia has been brought by the goddess to be her priestess, rescued unseen from the sacrificial pyre. And Artemis’s twin, so often the destroyer, has been merciful, sending Orestes across the Black Sea to fetch his sister home.

The atmosphere is partly set by the chorus, who speak their longing for ‘trees, gardens, meadow-flowers that fringe Eurotas by mine home o’ersea’ but now serve on the cliffs at the ‘lovely-pillared fane, whose roofs with red gold burn.’ Who, they ask, are these strangers who have come ‘with pine oars rightward and leftward flinging the surf, and the breeze in the tackle singing?’  How, between the clashing rocks, and the beaches ‘with voices of seas unsleeping, did they speed through the swell by Amphitrite’s strand…?’

It could be no one but Euripides. One student said that it made him uncomfortable: it was a threat to his beliefs (he was a professed atheist at the time). It filled him, he said, with longing, but he did not know what for.

He was not alone. Plutarch says that after the defeat at Syracuse, a few men eventually managed to get home.
‘Some also were saved because of Euripides. For it seems that especially of Greeks abroad, people around Sicily had a longing for his poetry. Time and again they learnt by heart small examples and extracts that visitors brought, and lovingly shared them with one another.
And so, it is said, many men who got safely home greeted Euripides with affection: some related that they had been set free from slavery by imparting as much as they remembered of his works; others that when they were wandering after the battle, they had received food and water by singing parts of his choruses.’  Plutarch, Nicias 29.2-3