Gods, gods, where are you? Euripides on War
“How can the light of Dawn smile down upon our deaths? As we die upon our blasted streets, how can she smile?”
The intolerable indifference of the sun, the gods and the conquering Greeks to the agony of the defeated Trojans forms the razor’s edge of Euripides’ The Women of Troy, in which he damns his countrymen for celebrating war.
Euripides wrote the play during the disastrous Peloponnesian War, when the belligerent Athenians tried to conquer Sparta and a host of other city-states and colonies, to their own eventual undoing. The play is widely regarded as a blistering critique of the Athenian capture of the island of Melos.
Thucydides describes the Athenian incursion against the independent state of Melos in The Peloponnesian War. The Melians rebuked the Athenians for their aggression, warning that the gods would protect them, as their cause was just. The Athenians replied “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can.” (1)
The Athenians attacked the island, and Thucydides recounts “[T]he siege was now pressed vigorously, and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and settled the place themselves.” (2)
Euripides tells the immortal tale of the Greek victory at Troy through the eyes of the terrified Trojans:
Now loud and clear the story shall be told
Of that wheeled horse that brought the Argives in,
Made Troy a ruin, and me a slave.
On towering legs, bridled with gold,
Stuffed with swords that rang to the sky,
They left it near our city’s gate.
Up to the Trojan Rock we rushed, and stood
Shouting, ‘The war is over! Come,
Bring in the wooden horse for an offering
To the Daughter of Zeus, Pallas, Lady of Troy!’
Then what girl would stay behind?
When even the old men left their chairs,
And with laughing and singing all laid hold
Of that hidden death that had marked them down. (3)
The action takes place in the bloody aftermath, as the women of Troy frantically mourn their butchered husbands, fathers and sons before being divided by lots for lives of servitude and rape.
Andromache, widow of the Trojan hero Hector, is told that her young son Astyanax, not yet ten, is to be thrown from the city battlements:
Now accept this decision, and be sensible.
Don’t cling to him, or tell yourself that you have some strength,
When you have none; but bear what must be like a queen.
You have no possible source of help. See for yourself:
Your city is destroyed, your husband dead; you are
A prisoner. Shall we match our strength against one woman?
We can. I hope, therefore, you will not feel inclined
To struggle, or attempt anything unseemly…. (4)
Andromache escorts her son to his violent death:
You are crying. Do you understand? You tug at my dress,
Cling to my fingers, nestling like a bird under
Its mother’s wing. No Hector will come now to save
Your life, rise from the grave gripping his famous spear;
No army of your father’s family, no charge
Of Phrygian fighters. You must leap from that sickening
Height, and fall, and break your neck, and yield your breath,
With none to pity you. (5)
“Gods, gods, where are you?” Hecabe cries out in dismay, but she knows that no one will save her from the darkness (6). She is powerless, captive, helpless as her great city burns to ash.
“How gloriously,” says Menelaus the Greek, “the sun shines on this happy day!”
1) Thucydides, 5.105. From The Landmark Thucydides; A Comprehensive Guide to the Peloponnesian War. trans. by R. Crawley, ed. by R. B. Strassler. Free Press. 1996.
2) Thucydides, 5.116
3) Euripides. The Women of Troy. from The Bacchae and Other Plays. trans. by Philip Vellacott. Penguin Books. 1973. pg. 107
4) Euripides, pg. 114
5) Euripides, pg. 115
6) Euripides, pg. 131