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Euripides › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 17 April 2015
Euripides (Jastrow)
Euripides (c. 484-407 BCE) was one of the greatest authors of Greek tragedy. In 5th century BCE Athens his classic works such as Medeia cemented his reputation for clever dialogues, fine choral lyrics and a gritty realism in both his text and stage presentations. The writer of some 90 plays, Euripides was also famous for posing awkward questions, unsettling his audience with a thought-provoking treatment of common themes, and spicing up the story with thoroughly immoral characters. This is probably why Euripides won only a few festival competitions compared to his great tragedian rivals Aeschylus and Sophocles, although he was tremendously popular with the public. The popularity of Euripides' work has never diminished and his plays continue to be performed in theatres today.


Born in Athens c. 484 BCE to a well-to-do family, Euripides was the youngest of the city 's other great tragedy playwrights;Aeschylus and Sophocles. In his youth Euripides also performed as an actor but as his voice was not strong enough to carry to the back of a typical 14,000-seat Greek theatre, he concentrated on his role as a playwright. In ancient Greek tragedy this meant also being producer and director of the play.
A Greek tragedy was typically performed at important religious festivals such as the City Dionysia where three playwrights each wrote three tragic plays and a satyr play to compete for a prize. Tragedy plays were restricted by certain conventions:
  • The theme was mythological with elements of religion and family affairs.
  • A maximum of three actors could have speaking roles (although they could play multiple characters).
  • A chorus consisted of 12 or 15 singers.
  • All actors were males wearing masks.
Nevertheless, despite these restrictions Euripides managed to appeal through the presentation of universal themes of relevance to his audience, themes such as justice versus revenge, the rule of law against the will of the gods, and the struggle between reason and passion. The characters in Greek tragedy were usually society's elite and the story often dealt with matters of state, however, Euripides gave prominent roles to intelligent female characters and included significant parts for more ordinary citizens in his works. This is reflected in a comment attributed to him by Aristophanes in his comedy play Frogs: " I made tragedy more democratic". Euripides also removed the previously prominent roles of Greek gods and generally restricted their appearance to only the beginning or end of his plays.


Tradition holds that Euripides was something of an unpopular recluse who shunned laughter and wrote his plays in a cave near Salamis surrounded by his extensive library. The reality, though, was that audiences loved his innovative productions and controversial themes. Euripides was credited with being on an intellectual par with philosophers and his characters are given great rhetorical skills (sometimes even in sung speeches, previously the exclusive role of the chorus) and plots are made both intricate and unpredictable. Familiar myths are treated with unconventional twists and altered chronologies to freshen the tales and ensure the audience were gripped by the story.
In competitions Euripides was not particularly successful. Indeed, his very first competition trilogy, performed in 455 BCE, came in third and last place. Of his 90 plays only four won first prize, compared to a 50% win rate for Aeschylus and Sophocles. On the other hand, perhaps a more telling statistic is the fact that the Athenians funded his productions over 90 times and so clearly thought his work of merit regardless of their final position at the end of the festival.
Euripides spent his final years at the court of Archelaus, the king of Macedon. The great playwright died there in c. 407 BCE but not before he wrote the now lost play Archelaos which dealt with the mythical founding of the royal dynasty. Several of Euripides' plays were presented posthumously, including the Bacchae. The fact that the celebrated comedy playwright Aristophanes constantly made references to Euripides (and therefore expected his audience to be familiar with his work) illustrates his fame when he was alive. Further, the selection of several of his plays for study material as part of a rounded Greek education meant that Euripides' tragedies lived on for centuries. Their continued study in academia and regular performances in the modern world have only perpetuated the long tradition of Greek tragedy and the name of one of its greatest protagonists.
Greek Tragedy Mask

Greek Tragedy Mask


Of around 90 plays only 18 complete tragedies and one satyr-play survive, the latter being a genre of bawdy comedy which covered stories from Greek mythology and which had a chorus of satyrs, the followers of the god of wine and revelry Dionysos. Another play, the Rhesus, is disputed by scholars as being written by him. Several fragments, some substantial, survive from 9 other plays. Without doubt the most famous play is Medeia, while critics most esteem his Bacchae. Most often the tragic element of the plays derives from the suffering of the main character and their inability, no matter what they try, to improve their situation. In the words of Aristotle : "Euripides is the most intensely tragic of all the poets." ( Poetics, ch. 14).
  • Alcestis (438 BCE) - where Alcestis sacrifices herself to save her husband but is ultimately saved by Hercules from the supernatural figure of Death.
  • Medeia (431 BCE) - where Jason, of the Golden Fleece fame, abandons the title character for the daughter of the King of Corinth with the consequence that Medeia kills her own children in revenge.
  • The Children of Hercules (aka Heraclidae, c. 430 BCE) - with the eternal conflict between power and justice as its central theme.
  • Hippolytus (428 BCE) - where holding one's principles leads to destruction for Phaedra and Hippolytus.
  • Andromache (c. 425 BCE) - where, after the Trojan War and now a slave, Andromache battles with Hermione, the wife of her master.
  • Hecabe (c. 423 BCE) - where the Queen of Troy seeks revenge for the death of her son Polydorus.
  • Suppliant Women (c. 423 BCE) - where the mothers of the Seven Against Thebes appeal to Athens so that the Thebans will allow the proper burial of their sons.
  • Hercules (c. 417 BCE) - dealing with the madness which drove Hercules to kill his wife and children.
  • Electra (c. 417 or 414 BCE) - where Electra and Orestes conspire to destroy their mother.
  • Trojan Women (415 BCE) - with Hecabe again the key character amid a catalogue of Trojan misery.
  • Ion (412 or 410 BCE) - which examines the discrepancies between religious faith and the human condition.
  • Iphigenia among the Taurians (c. 412 BCE) - where Iphigenia and Orestes battle the gods and Fate with a surprisingly happy ending.
  • Helen (412 BCE) - which describes the reconciliation of Helen and Menelaus.
  • Cyclops (412 or 408 BCE) - a satyr play describing Odysseus ' encounter with the Cyclops on his long return journey to Ithaca following the Trojan War. It is the only complete surviving satyr play from Greek theatre.
  • Phoenician Women (aka Phoenissae, 409 BCE) - where a group of innocent women travelling to Delphi are trapped in Thebes.
  • Orestes (c. 408 BCE) - where Orestes kills his own mother and tries, without success, to take revenge on his aunt Helen.
  • Iphigenia at Aulis (after 406 BCE and produced posthumously) - where Agamemnon must sacrifice Iphigenia for the good of the Greek expedition against Troy.
  • Bacchae (after 406 BCE) - in which there is a running conflict between Pentheus, king of Thebes, and a demonic Dionysos.
Incomplete plays, often only fragments of which survive: Telephus, Cretans, Cresphontes, Erechtheus, Phaethon, Alexander, Oedipus, Hypsipyle, and Archelaus.


Below is a selection of extracts from Euripides' works:
O Zeus, what am I to say? Do you watch over men or are we fools, blind fools to believe this, and is it chance that oversees all man's endeavours? Hecabe 488-91
We're fools in love - it's plain enough - clinging to this glitter here on earth because we don't know any other life and haven't seen what lies below. Hippolytus 189-96
My friends, I have decided to act at once. I will kill the children and then quit this land. I will not delay and so deliver them to other hands to spill their blood more eagerly. They must be killed; there is no other way. And since they must, I will take their life, I who gave them life. Come, my heart, put on your armour! Medea 1240-42
As for being a king, it is overrated. Royalty conceals a life of torment behind a pleasant facade. To live in hourly fear, looking over your shoulder for the assassin - is that paradise? Is it even good fortune? Give me the happiness of a plain man, not the life of a king, who loves to fill his court with criminals, and hates honest men for fear of death. Ion 613-18
So here in Egypt I have lived, while my poor husband gathered an army and in pursuit of his stolen wife has sailed to the fortress of Troy. Many souls of men perished for my sake by the river Scamander; and I, the centre of these tragic events, am named with curses, as the betrayer of my husband, who brought upon Greece the pestilence of war. Helen 49-54
Blest is the man who cheats the stormy sea
And safely moors beside the sheltering quay;
So, blest is he who triumphs over trial.
One man, by various means, in wealth or strength
Outdoes his neighbour; hope in a thousand hearts
Colours a thousand different dreams; at length
Some find a dear fulfilment, some denial.
But this I say,
That he who best
Enjoys each passing day
Is truly blest.
Bacchae 902-12
Eros, if too violent, does not bring good reputation
to men, nor virtue. If Aphrodite comes with moderation,
she is a divine, incommensurable gift.
O Goddess, please do not shoot me with the arrow of desire,
the inescapable arrow from your golden bow.
Medea 627-33

Europe › Ancient History

Definition and Origins

by Joshua J. Mark
published on 14 July 2010
Map of Europe in 125 CE (Andrei nacu)
Europe is the second smallest of the seven continents covering roughly 2% of the earth's surface. The name 'Europe' has long been thought to have been derived from the ancient myth of Zeus and Europa. According to this tale, the great god Zeus, seeing the lovely Phoenician princess Europa bathing (or, according to other versions, playing with her handmaidens) by the sea shore, transformed himself into a magnificent white bull and slowly approached her from the sea. So gentle and sweet was this bull that Europa placed garlands of flowers around his neck, petted him and then climbed onto his back when, much to her surprise, the bull ran off across the surface of the seas, abducting her to the isle of Crete. On Crete Zeus and Europa became lovers and she bore him three famous sons. Her family back in Phonecia, distraught at her disappearence, sent her brothers in search of her, each one finally being unsuccessful in his quest but each founding important cities and lending their names to various regions around the Aegean ( Thebes being one example, originally known as Cadmea after Europa's brother Cadmus).
Herodotus, however, does not believe the tale of the Phoenician princess had anything to do with the naming of the continent, writing in Book Four of his Histories, “Another thing that puzzles me is why three distinct women's names should have been given to what is really a single land-mass…nobody knows where it got its name from, or who gave it, unless we are to say that it came from Europa, the Tyrian woman, and before that was nameless like the rest. This, however, is unlikely; for Europa was an Asiatic and never visited the country which we now call Europe.”
Theories regarding the origin of the name 'Europe' range from it being of Greek origin meaning “wide gazing”, a reference to the breadth of the shoreline as seen from sea or from the Phoenician for “evening”, as in the place where the sun would set.Today, as it was in Herodotus' time, no one can say for certain where the name 'Europe' originated. To the ancient Greeks, the Aegean sea and environs were the center of the world. The Phonecians regularly sailed across and up the Atlantic to harvest tin from Europe at Cornwall but, to the Greeks, Europe was a dark continent (in the same way that 19th and early 20th century CE Europeans would later view Africa).
Culture, on even the most basic level, had been on going in Europe since at least 20,000 BCE as evidenced by cave paintings (the most famous being the Cave of Lascaux complex in modern day France) and by 5000 BCE heirarchical societies had begun to emerge and peas were cultivated, evidence of a sturdy agricultural society. Even so, to the Greeks, the people of Europe, more so than any other non-Greeks, were barbarians (from the Greek barbarophonos, “of incomprehensible speech”, a word first coined by Homer in his Iliad, Book II) who banded together diverse tribes such as the Balts, Slavs, Albanians, Italics and, best known, the Celts (who included the Gauls and the Germanic tribes).
By the year 4300 BCE megalithic tombs were in use in Europe, by 3500 farming was wide spread across the face of the continent and by 2000 bronze work was introduced by the Wessex culture of present-day Britain. In 1860 BCE the construction of the impressive and mysterious Stonehenge was begun. Even so, such accompishments were not so impressive to the Greeks nor, later, to the Romans. As late as 78 CE, the Roman historian Tacitus refers to the Britons under the governorship of his father-in-law Agricola as “rude, scattered and warlike people” to whom the Romans, of necessity, had to bring cultivation and civilization. Earlier, Julius Caesar had the same opinion of the Gauls, referring to them as little more than animals in his description of the massacre of the Ubii tribe by the Rhine.
In his The Gallic Wars he devotes as much space to a description of the Alces (elks) of Europe as he does to the Ubii in any important way writing of the elk that “their shape and dappled coat are like those of goats but they are rather larger, have stunted horns and legs without joints” and then goes on to give the earliest narrative we have of what would come to be known as “cow tipping” as the Romans would hunt the elk by pushing them over while they slept standing up and killing them easily because they were too large to raise themselves back up. Even so, it is impossible to argue that Caesar brought nothing of consequence to the people of Gaul and, by extension, Europe. The historian Durant writes,
For three hundred years Gaul remained a Roman province, prospered under the Roman peace, learned and transformed the Latin language, and became the channel through which the culture of classic antiquity passed into northern Europe. Doubtless neither Caesar nor his contemporaries foresaw the immense consequences of his bloody triumph. He thought he had saved Italy, won a province and forged an army; he did not suspect that he was the creator of French civilization.
The Romans brought their civilization, not just to Gaul (later France and part of Italy) but to the whole of Europe, providing innovations such as paved roads, indoor plumbing, fortified cities of great administrative efficiency and culture and, of course, their language, slowly 'civilizing' the disparate tribes of the various European regions. Tacitus writes of the efforts of Agricola in Britain to establish schools to spread the knowledge of Latin and his encouragement of the populace to build temples and to regard personal hygiene as a matter of importance in the use of public baths. Tacitus continues, “By degrees the charms of vice gained admission to British hearts; baths, porticoes and elegant banquets grew into vogue; and the new manners, which in reality only served to sweeten slavery, were by the unsuspecting Britons called the arts of polished humanity.”
Even so, not every Briton appreciated Roman culture equally nor accepted its civilizing touch easily as evidenced by the rebellion of Queen Boudicaa of the Iceni tribe (only the most famous among many) in 60/61 CE which resulted in over 70,000 Romans slain by Britons before she was defeated by Paulinus. Still, for over three hundred years, Roman rule obtained in Europe and, without doubt, contributed greatly to what the various countries of the continent are today.

The Aztec Calendar › Antique Origins

Ancient Civilizations

by Mark Cartwright
published on 25 April 2016
The Aztecs of ancient Mexico measured time with a sophisticated and interconnected triple calendar system which adhered to movements of the celestial bodies, provided a comprehensive list of important religious festivals and sacred dates, and gave each day a unique combination of a name and a number. In addition, both individual days and periods of days were given their own gods, highlighting the Aztec view that time and daily life was inseparable from religious beliefs. The date, every 52 years, when the calendars coincided exactly was regarded as particularly significant and auspicious.
Aztec Sun Stone

Aztec Sun Stone


In the modern world, time is often imagined as a straight line running from a distant past to an infinite future but not so for the Aztecs. As the historian RF Townsend describes,
Time for the Aztecs was full of energy and motion, the harbinger of change, and always charged with a potent sense of miraculous happening. The cosmogenic myths reveal a preoccupation with the process of creation, destruction and recreation, and the calendrical system reflected these notions about the character of time. (127)
For the Aztecs, specific times, dates and periods, such as one's birthday for example, could have an auspicious (or opposite) effect on one's personality, the success of harvests, the prosperity of a ruler's reign, and so on. Time was to be kept, measured, and recorded. It is significant that most major Aztec monuments and artworks conspicuously carry a date of some kind.


The Aztecs used a sacred calendar known as the tonalpohualli or 'counting of the days'. This went back to great antiquity in Mesoamerica, perhaps to the Olmec civilization of the 1st millennium BCE. It formed a 260-day cycle, in all probability originally based on astronomical observations. The calendar was broken down into units (sometimes referred to as trecenas ) of 20 days with each day having its own name, symbol, patron deity and augury:
  1. cipactli - crocodile - Tonacatecuhtli - good
  2. ehecatl - wind - Quetzalcoatl - evil
  3. calli - house - Tepeyolohtli - good
  4. cuetzpallin - lizard - Huehuecoyotl - good
  5. coatl - snake - Chalchiutlicue - good
  6. miquiztli - death - Tecciztecatl / Meztli - evil
  7. mazatl - deer - Tlaloc - good
  8. tochtli - rabbit - Mayahuel - good
  9. atl - water - Xiuhtecuhtli - evil
  10. itzcuintli - dog - Mictlantecuhtli - good
  11. ozomatli - monkey - Xochipilli - neutral
  12. malinalli - dead grass - Patecatl - evil
  13. acatl - reed - Tezcatlipoca / Itztlacoliuhqui - evil
  14. ocelotl - ocelot / jaguar - Tlazolteotl - evil
  15. quauhtli - eagle - Xipe Totec - evil
  16. cozcaquauhtli - vulture - Itzpapalotl - good
  17. ollin - earthquake - Xolotl - neutral
  18. tecpatl - flint knife - Tezcatlipoca / Chalchiuhtotolin - good
  19. quiahuitl - rain - Tonatiuh / Chantico - evil
  20. xochitl - flower - Xochiquetzal - neutral
The 20-day group ran simultaneously with another group of 13 numbered days (perhaps not coincidentally the Aztec heaven had 13 layers). This meant that each day had both a name and a number (eg: 4-Rabbit), with the latter changing as the calendar rotated. After all possible combinations of names and numbers had been achieved, 260 days had passed. The number 260 has multiple significances: it is the approximate human gestation period, the period between the appearance of Venus, and the length of the Mesoamerican agricultural cycle.
Tonalpohualli Mesoamerican Calendar

Tonalpohualli Mesoamerican Calendar

In addition to names and numbers, each day was also given its own deity – one of thirteen day-lords (the levels of heaven) and one from nine night-lords (the levels of the underworld). These were taken from the Aztec pantheon and included Tezcatlipoca, Quetzalcoatl, Tlaloc, Xiuhtecuhtli, and Mictlantecuhtli. Daylight hours also had their own patron birds such as the hummingbird, owl, turkey, and quetzal, and one day had a butterfly patron. On top of that, each group of 13 days was ascribed its own god too. Finally, in yet another layer of meaning, the 20 days were divided into four groups based on the cardinal points: acatl (east), tecpatl (north), calli (west), and tochtli (south).


This all seems rather complicated compared to a modern 7-day week of repeating names but it did have the advantage that every single day of the year had its own unique name and number combination and so could not be confused with any other.For this reason, it was possible for Aztec children to be given the name of the day on which they were born. Records were kept of the days in a book made of bark paper, called a tonalamatl. There was also a class of official diviners who interpreted which dates were the most auspicious for certain events such as marriages, and agricultural chores such as planting particular crops, and which days should be avoided.


The second Aztec calendar was the xiuhpohualli or 'counting of the years' which was based on a 365-day solar cycle. It was this calendar which signified when particular religious ceremonies and festivals should be held. This calendar was divided into 18 groups of 20 days (each with its own festival). These 'months' were:
  1. Atlcahualo – stopping of the water
  2. Tlacaxipeualiztli – flaying of men
  3. Tozoztontli – lesser vigil
  4. Hueytozoztli – great vigil
  5. Toxcatl – drought
  6. Etzalqualiztli – eating maize and beans
  7. Tecuilhuitontli – lesser feast of the lords
  8. Hueytecuilhuitl – great feast of the lords
  9. Tlaxochimaco – offering of flowers
  10. Xocotlhuetzi – the fruit falls
  11. Ochpaniztli – sweeping
  12. Teotleco – return of the gods
  13. Tepeilhuitl – feast of the mountains
  14. Quecholli – a bird
  15. Panquetzaliztli – raising of the quetzal-feather banners
  16. Atemoztli – falling of water
  17. Tititl – unknown significance
  18. Izcalli - growth
Some scholars begin the sequence with Izcalli and so Atlcahualo becomes the second 'month' and so on. There was also an extra period, the nemontemi (literally, 'nameless' days) tagged onto the end of the year which lasted 5 days. These still did not ensure a complete solar accuracy (achieved by our leap-year) and so the calendar did eventually slip out of synch with the seasons, which necessitated the moving of festivals and even re-naming of days. The nemontemi was a strange period of limbo when nobody dared do anything significant but waited for the renewal of the calendar proper. The whole year had a name, one of four possibilities in sequence: Rabbit, Reed, Flint Knife, and House. To distinguish between repeating years they were each given one of 13 numbers, eg 1-House was followed by 2-Rabbit. Thus, when all four names had been used 13 times, one full 52-year cycle had passed.


The tonalpohualli and xiuhpohualli calendars ran simultaneously, as Townsend describes,
They have often been explained as two engaged, rotating gears, in which the beginning day of the larger 365-day wheel would align with the beginning day of the smaller 260-day cycle every 52 years. This 52-year period constituted a Mesoamerican “century”. (127)
The passing of one 52-year cycle ( xiuhmolpilli ) to another was marked by the most important religious event of the Aztec world, the New Fire Ceremony, also known, appropriately enough, as the 'Binding of the Years' ceremony. This was when a human sacrifice was made to ensure the renewal of the sun. If the gods were displeased, then there would be no new sun and the world would end.
Every second 52-year cycle was even more important to the Aztecs as this was when the tonalpohualli and the 52-year cycle coincided exactly. Curiously, although the 52-year periods were important blocks in Aztec history, they were never given an individual name and all dates started afresh at the beginning of a new cycle. This, no doubt, reflected the Aztec cosmos mythology where the world and humanity were being constantly renewed in perpetual cycles of change.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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