Euripides: “Daughters of Troy”, the Spoilers of War
After few wars have the victors entirely resisted the urge to be as vengeful in peacemaking as they were in war-making. There’s more often the desire to settle all accounts and ‘teach them a lesson they’ll never forget’ (or forgive), with the justificatory ‘hope’ that ‘they’ll never try anything like that again’; the irony being that the more punitive the peace terms are, the more likely the losers will be to return to the battlefield as soon as possible, in order to, once again, settle all accounts. Atonement is something that can be given but not taken. If the victors want to foster a lasting peace, it should be among equals, as opposed to the sort of “peace” once keeps with a kicked dog- for a while anyway.
What’s reasonable in war becomes horrible the day after peace breaks out. This is a lesson Athens was in the painful process of learning in 415 BCE when Euripides wrote Daughters of Troy. The harsh terms inflicted by Athens after the war with Persia had alienated the bodies of the newly-formed Peloponnesian League and led to more war, which would eventually bring the republic low. That same year, Athens subjugated Melos (in much the same way that Troy is subjugated in the play), saw her hermai desecrated, and set out on the ill-fated second expedition to Sicily. It was a low point. Understandably then, Euripides questions both victory as such and the semi-mythical victory that founded the Greek city-states.
He’s looking backwards to comment on the present. Because we’re ourselves so removed in time from these Hellenic texts, it can be easy to forget how backward-looking so many of them already were; most of the surviving tragedies are meditations on the Homeric epics, which were themselves meditations on a former “heroic” era. Hellenic culture is remarkably archaizing, as were all “traditional” cultures. For hundreds of years, nearly everything written is a footnote to the Iliad, the portrait of a world in which life is short, harsh, and violent with its one compensation being enduring honor.
The Iliad was the chronicle of a war that doesn’t make a great deal of sense in retrospect and Homer explains it by way of the gods clouding men’s minds; certainly, other writers pointed out the strangeness of men moving from west to east in order to kill one another over an adulteress. Homer accepts the unreason of it, but the Trojan War, whatever the logic of it, illustrates two truths about wars more generally: they usually begin because one nation does something irrational, and they take place within specific cultural contexts that seek to explain them, often by recourse to abstract principles or divinities, and which in turn shape how they run their course. Very rarely do they make sense outside of their cultural context, which often ends with the war. Wars are therefore both cultural and anti-culture.
It’s possible that Homer captures some of this senselessness by depicting the childishness of all the gods save Zeus. Euripides is more ironic and caustic. Picking up the story after the Iliad, the Daughters of Troy depicts the bitter end to an already bitter war. There is not a shred of glory here. There wasn’t much glory in the Iliad either, truth be told, but there was heroism. Tragedy is the flip side of heroism: we’re thrilled by the hero because his heroic acts illuminate the outer limits of human capacity and inspire us to reach for them; the tragic hero, on the other hand, warns us about what happens when we push beyond those limits so that we won’t be tempted to follow.
The Daughters of Troy shows victory as nearly as ugly as war. Our first image of victory might be the couple kissing in Times Square on VJ-Day. It’s much different when your country has been invaded and destroyed. The end of the Trojan War is tragic all the way down: Troy is in ashes, its men dead and its women soon to be enslaved, the reasons for the war are paltry by comparison to its outcome, and the Greek conquerors are obliviously doomed for blasphemies committed during the war.
It’s a play of few actions; instead, the Trojan women are each given speeches, as if competing in the ‘suffering’ portion of a beauty pageant. They each face the fate of being taken far from their home to serve as concubines to their Greek conquerors. Cassandra will leave with Lord Agamemnon to serve his wife Clytemnestra; she is traditionally thought mad by all around her, with the grim irony being that we know she is actually a prophetess. Her good fortune: she knows as well as we do that she’ll be dead before she can serve anyone. Polynexa. meanwhile, will be offered as a sacrifice to Achilles.
Hecuba will lose her children and, even worse, be given to Odysseus, who is the monster of the piece. His heroism in the Odyssey has always been problematic, given that it’s related by his own account and dishonesty is central to his character; but it was balanced out there by his love for Penelope. Here, he’s as devoid of feeling as any seasoned executioner and the self-preserving aspect of his trickster persona is simply ruthless. Euripides seems to be showing us the warriors dropping their masks as the war ends and what lies beneath is much uglier.
The Greeks come off terribly here. Euripides pointedly echoes lines from the Iliad, depicting the heroes in war as cowards in victory- their scorched earth approach, after all, is rooted in the fear that anything that might grow from Trojan soil could one day choke them.
Particularly cruel is the fate of Astynax: the son of the great warrior Hector is thrown down from the walls of Troy so that he won’t threaten the Greeks as an adult. His death seems the most unwarranted of any child slaughtered in Greek tragedy, a field with some stiff competition- unlike Medea’s children who were killed to injure their father, or Iphigenia who was killed to appease a goddess, Astynax is himself the direct object of hate and fear that he’s done nothing to deserve.
There are gradations of suffering though. Andromache’s speech to this effect, intended to soothe her mother, is one of the most rending in Greek tragedy. Her point is simply that Polynexa was the luckier daughter to have been killed before she was old enough to love a man or hope for a happy marriage. Andromache, in comparison, was a faithful wife who has lost her husband and been promised to a house of the enemy who will detest her for her loyalty to him. Stripped of all hope, for her death would be better.
As if to contrast with the faithful wife, Euripides brings out the war’s catalyst to plead her case; Helen gives a long speech defending her amorous betrayal that has destroyed both Troy and Greece. Euripides doesn’t believe a word of it and it’s a bit tedious because his sarcasm prevents us from believing her either. She’s false hearted and callow. There’s something terrifying about Helen in this play, her beauty is amoral and destructive; yet we see quite clearly, in her duplicitous speech, just how the Trojan nation was burnt to a crisp and the Greek nation was deranged by that beauty. Female sexuality is shown as glamorous, yes, but also a force that can easily destroy the fragile balance of civilization. Ultimately, all the Greeks can do is kill her. Menelaus vows to do so, but we know that his promises will come to nothing. The great warrior is powerless over her sexuality; he might rule the roost, but she rules the rooster.
This is the paradox of patriarchy: we modern legalists note the rigid enforcement of moral codes over one half of the society: Helen is to be put to death for cheating on her husband: and the attendant powerlessness of that half in any legal, political, or social sense, and we’re rightly appalled; but note the overinflated psychological power the female is given- the male-centric hierarchy of two civilizations is completely upended simply because a king was cuckolded. Pietro Aretino, the comedian of Renaissance patriarchy, claimed a pretty bottom was more powerful than all the world’s philosophers, necromancers, alchemists and knights. Of course Menelaus is ultimately powerless over Helen: beauty is power- irrational power and civilization exists in futile defiance of the irrational- this is why, Euripides seems to say, no civilization is ever “sustainable”- rationality is alienation of the mind from the body. The irrational will have its day over us all. The repressed will resurface.
Moreover, many of the Greek tragedies seem to suggest that the irrational and violent traits in man, the need to dominate one another, are innate and inescapable, while leading us inexorably to ruin. The Greek warriors behave the same after the war as they did during the war, and thus become horrible. But how do you switch off a war?