Euripides, “Hecuba” and Crimes during Wartime
After a war, for the conquered, comes unfathomable fate. The ceasefire is rarely absolute when directed at the losers and the terms of surrender are harsher for those who have no other choice but surrender. Atrocities are not uncommon and the winners often want to leave the losers in a position where they can’t seek vengeance in the future, whether by disarming them, occupying them, or enslaving them. As W.H. Auden noted, “on earth indifference is the least/ We have to dread from man or beast.” Justice is blind. Often so is vengeance.
The Trojans suffered greatly for a wanton woman; the five year war described in the Iliad ended in the burning of the city and the enslavement of the survivors. Euripides sympathizes with those survivors, depicting them in the play Hecuba as the wretched victims of their deeply-flawed Achaean masters, who are so indifferent (and likely exhausted) in their domination that a modern audience might miss that ‘their new hegemony is the true ‘setting’ of the play. In an unmistakably pointed inversion of mythology, Euripides portrays Odysseus as a blowhard and a creep, while Agamemnon does right almost in spite of himself; making it more painful to realize that his wife Clytemnestra will butcher him as soon as he arrives home. Consider the context: Euripides writes the play in 424 BCE, when the Peloponnesian War starts going badly for Athens; this year, Demosthenes and Hippocrates fail to take Megara and Thucydides is blamed after the capture of Amphopolis. He portrays the Greek heroes as callous and arrogant, Greek slavery as inhuman and corrupting, and the gods as unresponsive.
As in the Bacchae, Euripides is horrified by the possibilities made actual by the dismantling of the social order. He details, with great accuracy, how morality and interpersonal relations are destroyed by the chaos unleashed in war. Hecuba and Priam, the Trojan nobility, asked their friend, Polynestor of Thrace, to protect their son Polydorus until the war was ended. They made the mistake, however, of entrusting a great treasure to the boy. As the war has ended with their downfall, all bets are off. A cliché holds that a man’s true character is revealed in situations in which his life is at stake; but we often discover just as much about his nature when a great deal of money is on the line. Polymestor is undone by that perennial motive: the hope of committing a seemingly perfect crime in order to gain great wealth, killing the boy for the money. Any number of noirs begin the same way.
But one of the frequent themes in tragedy and noir is that there is a moral order to the world- no crime is perfect or goes unpunished. Hecuba and the Trojan women lure Polynestor to Troy, slaughter his sons, and poke out his eyes. There is something so horrific in a mother killing children that the image, which appears frequently in Greek tragedy, is harder to find outside of the Greek context. A major theme here is the pitiless vengeance of wronged women. As in Medea, Euripedes takes a special delight in describing the cruelty of the Trojan women as they caress and coo over the boys, stroking their hair before calmly gutting them before their father. He is a master artist of the femme fatale. Here, they are victorious. Polymestor is beaten by a woman and a slave. And Agamemnon recognizes this as justice.
Let’s compare this, again, to the Oresteia (458) of Aeschylus, in which Athenian justice, and civilization, is heroically founded on the execution of a demonic woman, Clytemnestra. Thirty-four years later, in Euripides, the heroism is gone and female fury ascendant at a time of social collapse. Like Medea, Hecuba gets away with child-murder; here, though, she is fully in line with the moral order. Agamemnon declares the murders she orchestrated to be just, although it does her little good.
Euripides portrays the suffering of the Trojan women with greater sympathy than he has for those who suffer at their hands. Hamlet wonders, when he sees a hack actor weeping for her, “What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba,/ That he should weep for her?” But the snowballing betrayals she endures are enough to make anyone weep for her. Women in Euripides are as coldly sadistic as any fetish fiction dominatrix, but they suffer just as greatly as they inflict suffering. One wonders how anachronistic it would be to describe him as a feminist.
In the end, the vengeance of the Trojan women is justified by the climate of vengeance into which the Greeks have brought them. While the Trojan women are cruel, their cruelty is the last gasp of a dying culture; that of the Greeks is the hubris of a culture with a newfound taste for conquest. Euripides seems to be saying that a high culture of conquest upends the moral order in a way that creates a spoiler’s paradise for those with immoral capacities. But the moral order always reasserts itself with violence.