Euripides

, a celebrated tragic poet, the contemporary and rival of Sophocles, was born of a creditable | Athenian family; especially on his mother Clito’s side, whom Suidas reports to have been nobly descended, though Aristophanes in jest calls her a cabbage-seller, and Valerius Maximus has recorded it in earnest. He was born in the island Salamis, whither his father and mother had fled, with a great many other eminent families of Athens, upon the formidable invasion of Greece by Xerxes: and his birth is supposed to have happened in the first year of the 75th olympiad, 480 years before Christ. His name is supposed to have been formed from the Euripus, or narrow sea, in which the battle of Salamis was fought, and the Persians defeated. It is said, that while his mother was with child, her husband Mnesarchus consulted the oracle of Apollo, to know what he might hope for; and that he received in answer, that the child who should be born to him would reach the summit of glory, and gain the honour of the sacred garland. Mnesarchus merely interpreting this promise of the oracle, that his son should win the prize in the Olympic games, took care to educate him in the same manner with those whom the Greeks designed for athletae or wrestlers: but Euripides, though he made so good a progress in these feats of the body, as to gain the crown at the Athenian sports in honour of Ceres and Theseus, had always a more laudable ambition: and therefore, while his father was labouring to have him perfect in the paltcstra, became a constant auditor of Anaxagoras in philosophy, and Prodicus in rhetoric; and diverted his leisure hours by studying painting, which some will have to have been at first his profession. It is not probable, that Euripides learnt morality of Socrates, as Gellius reports: Socrates was ten or twelve years younger than Euripides, and therefore is more likely to have profited by him; but it is certain that fchey were friends, and Socrates is thought to have been consulted by him in the composition of his dramas. Socrates very rarely frequented the theatre, except when the pieces of Euripides were represented. In the character of Palamedes, Euripides is supposed to have delineated that of his friend, and some verses are quoted addressing the Greeks as having slain the best and wisest of thir nation, which the audience are said to have applied to the fate of Socrates, and to have burst into tears at the recollection of their crime. This, however, seems rather to savour of conjecture, and if the Athenians were ever thus affected, it must have been at some | representation of the play subsequent to the death of Socrates, who survived Euripides some years, and therefore, in the character of Palamedes could have only alluded to his death, as the probable result of the jealousy and rashness of the Athenians.

The occasion of his applying himself to dramatic poetry was the extreme danger his master Anaxagoras had incurred by his philosophy: who, under the accusation of despising the public gods, was banished from Athens by the fury of the mob, and narrowly escaped with his life. Euripides was then eighteen; but his works will evidently shew, that he did not afterwards lay aside the study of morality and physics. He wrote a great number of tragedies, which were highly esteemed both in his life-time and after his death: and Quintilian, among many others, doubted whether he was not the best of the tragic poets. “Sophocles and Euripides,” says he, “have far excelled Æschylus in tragedy. Many people question, which of these two poets in their different manner deserves the preference but, as thisbears no relation to what I am now writing upon, I shall leave it undetermined. However, there, is np one but must own, that Euripides will be of much more use to those who are intended to plead: for his diction, which is censured by such as think there is more sublimity in the grave, majestic, and sonorous style of Sophocles, comes nearer to that of an orator. He likewise abounds with moral reflections; and is almost equal to the sages, when he treats on the same subject with them. In his manner of reasoning and replying, he may be compared to the most renowned orators at the bar. He charms all, when he attempts to raise the passions; and, when he would raise pity, he is inimitable.” Quintilian has here specified three of the most prominent characteristics of Euripides, his disposition to philosophize, the rhetorical cast of his style, and the power of touching the passions, which, notwithstanding frequent insipidity, he sometimes exercises in a high degree. The philosophy of his master Anaxagoras may be often traced in his writings, as has been proved by Valckenaer in his learned diatribe on the fragments of Euripides, some chapters of which are devoted to the illustration of this subject.

It has been wondered, that the Roman poets should celebrate Sophocles, Æschylus, and Thespis, as Virgil, Propertius, and Horace have done, yet should make no | mention of Euripides: but the reason assigned for this omission is, that the syllables which compose his name were not suited to hexameter verse, and not that they thought him inferior, at least to Æschylus and Thespis. Varro relates, that out of the seventy- five tragedies written by him, five only gained the victory yet observes, that most of those who conquered him were wretched poetasters. He was probably defeated by that private interest and intrigue, which frequently pronounces the fate of compositions; and the basest arts, we are told, were employed, in order to procure the favour of the judges. In the mean time, his pieces were prodigiously applauded; and nothing can better demonstrate the high esteem they were in, than the service they did to the Athenians in Sicily. The Athenian army under the command of Nicias suffered all the calamities of unsuccessful war, and the victors made a most cruel advantage of their victories; but although they treated the Athenian soldiers with so much inhumanity, yet they are said to have spared such as could repeat any verses of Euripides. “We are told,” says Plutarch, “that many, who returned safe to their country, kindly saluted Euripides, declaring that they had been restored to their liberty, for teaching their victors such verses of his as they remembered; and that others, who roamed up and down, had meat and drink given them, in return for singing his verses.

It was almost impossible for two great poets, such as Sophocles and Euripides, who were contemporary, and aspired to the same glory, to love one another, or to continue long in friendship; and Athenseus relates several particulars of their enmity, which are no way honourable to them. Yet Sophocles discovered a great esteem for Euripides, when he heard of his death, and caused a tragedy to be represented, in which he himself appeared in a mourning habit, and made his actors take off their crowns. Aristophanes took great pleasure in ridiculing Euripides in his comedies, which perhaps might give him more uneasiness than his quarrel with Sophocles.

About a year after the Sicilian defeat, Euripides left Athens, and went to the Macedonian court, to which king Archelaus, who was fond of learned men, invited them by acts of munificence, gave them a gracious reception, and often raised them to very high honours. Euripides, if Solinus may be credited, he made his prime minister. Kpthing can, be a more express proof of the high esteem, | Archelaus had for him, than his resenting some personal insults of one Decamnichus offered to Euripides. Our poet was seventy-two years of age when he went to that court, and had passed but few years there, when an unhappy accident concluded his life. He was walking in a wood, and, according to his usual manner, in deep meditation; when unfortunately meeting with Archelaus’s hounds, he was by them torn to pieces. Every account gives him the same end, though it differs from the rest in some minute circumstances. Some indeed relate that he was pulled to pieces by women, to revenge the honour of their sex; but this is a fable, copied from that of Orpheus, who is said to have been destroyed by Bacchanals. It is not certain, whether his death happened by chance, or through envy of some of the courtiers. The anthor of an epigram in the Anthology denies all these accounts, and ascribes his death to a decay of nature. Archelaus, however, buried him with great magnificence; and not contented with solemnizing his funeral obsequies, he also cut his hair, and assumed all the marks of grief. The Athenians were so moved with his death, that the whole city went into mourning; and one of his friends, named Philemon, declared that, could he be persuaded that the dead enjoy a sense of things, he would hang himself, in order to be with Euripides. The Athenians also sent ambassadors to Macedonia, to request of Archelaus that his body might be removed to his native country; but the king refused their demand, and erected in memory of the poet a noble monument in the vicinity of Pella, his chief city. Disappointed of this, the Athenians testified their respect for Euripides by a cenotaph on the road leading from the city to the Pirjcus. Thucydides the historian is said to have written an epitaph on him, to this purpose “All Greece is the monument of Euripides the Macedonian land possesses his bones, for there he reached the boundary of his life. His country is Athens, the Greece of Greece. Having afforded general delight by his muse, he enjoys the recompense of general praise.” That he was the friend of Socrates, may be thought a circumstance which strongly testifies the virtues of his private character. He seems not to have possessed the social qualities which distinguished his rival Sophocles. Both Euripides and his fellow-disciple Pericles are said to have imitated the austere manners of their master Auaxagoras. An ancient noet, Alexander | /tolus, quoted by Gellius, says of him, that he was morose in social intercourse, averse from laughter, and even during the festivity of the banquet, ignorant how to promote hilarity; but that whatever he wrote he tempered with the sweetness of honey, and the charms of the Sirens. He has been charged with a professed antipathy to the fair sex. This should seem to be contradicted by his having been twice married; but it appears that he was unhappily married in both instances, and may from his own experience have contracted some degree of prejudice against the sex in general. Yet although he seems eager to take every opportunity of uttering a bitter or malignant sentiment against women, Sophocles is said to have observed, that the hatred which he expressed against them was confined to the stage. And even there our countryman, Barnes, observes that if he has described some females with all the vices incident to human nature, yet he has delineated many others with all the virtues that can adorn their sex. He was near seventy-five years old when he died; and, notwithstanding some aspersions recorded by Athenaeus, he was, according to the best accounts, a man of great gravity and severity in his conduct, and regardless of pleasures.

He is, of all writers, the most remarkable for having interspersed moral reflections and philosophical aphorisms in his dramatic pieces; and, it is generally thought, he has done it too frequently. Though he had the fate of Anaxagoras before his eyes, yet he was not always so well guarded in his maxims as he should have been. He Hazarded one, relating to the sanctity of an oath, in his Hippolytus, which brought him in danger: “My tongue has sworn, but still my mind is free.” For this verse he was impeached of impiety, as teaching and defending perjury; but it does not appear that he was punished for it. The answer he made to the accuser is left on record by Aristotle: “that it was a very unreasonable thing to bring a cause into a court of judicature, which belonged only to the cognizance of a theatre, and the liberty of a public festival; that, when these words were spoken on the stage, there went along with them some reason to justify them, and that he was ready to justify them, whenever the bill should be preferred in the right place.” Another time, Seneca informs us, he incensed the audience highly, by making Bellerophon dogmatize too gravely in favour of avarice; Kg highly, that they would have driven the actor from the | stage, if Euripides himself had not appeared, and besought them to have a little patience, by assuring them, that they would soon see the unhappy end of the miser, whose maxims had so strongly disgusted the audience. Plutarch relates, that at another time such offence was taken at the two first verses of his Menaiippus, which seemed to doubt the existence of Jupiter himself, that he was forced to change them: and others have concluded him to be an atheist, from impious speeches uttered in his plays. His error seems to have been his giving a turn, more offensive than necessary, to those impious sentiments which he was obliged to put into the mouths of his vicious characters. His editor Barnes observes, that, to support the character of Sisyphus, ha was obliged to make him reason as an atheist; and that therefore Plutarch had no just cause to suspect there the artifices of an author, of giving vent to his own thoughts under another man’s name. “I wonder very much,” says Barnes, “what it was could make so great a man believe, that Euripides had delivered his sentiments craftily in the person of Sisyphus; and that this should be our tragic poet’s opinion, since no man ever had a deeper sense of religion than Euripides, as is manifest from numberless passages in his works; and it very justly suited the character of Sisyphus to speak impiously, as I observed on Bellerophon.” He used to shut himself up in a gloomy cave, and there compose his works. This cave was in the isle of Salamis, and Aulus Gellius had the curiosity to go into it. He composed his verses with great difficulty. He one day complained to the poet Alcestis, that in the three last days he had been able to write but three verses, though he had laboured with all his might. Alcestis observed, with an air of high vanity, that he had written an hundred with the utmost ease. “Ay, but,” says Euripides, “you don’t consider the difference: your verses are made to live no longer than these three days, whereas mine are to continue for ever.” The works of Euripides, as well as Sophocles, were transmitted to king Ptolemy, when he was founding the Alexandrian library, a circumstance thus related by Galen: “King Ptolemy,”, says he, “sent to the Athenians to borrow the original manuscripts of Sophocles, Æschylus, and Euripides, in order to transcribe them for his library; laying down in their hands fifteen talents of silver, by way of security. Upon receipt of the books, he look care to have them written out on the fairest | parchment, and set off with the richest ornaments: and then, keeping the originals, he sent the copies to Athens, with this message, viz. that the king had desired the city to accept of those books, and of the fifteen talents which he had left in their hands: that they had no reason to be angry, since, if he had neither sent them the originals nor the copies, he had done them no injury, inasmuch as they themselves, by taking a security, supposed it a sufficient reparation for the loss.

There are now extant but nineteen of his tragedies, and part pf a twentieth though according to Suidas he composed ninety-two according to others, seventy-five only; but Barnes found the titles of eighty-four. It seems to be generally agreed, that in the construction of his plots, and the delineation of his characters, Euripides is inferior to Sophocles his introductory prologues are inartificial, and too much impair the interest of the catastrophe his incidents are frequently improbable, and he sometimes throws parts of his subject into long and tedious narratives; but yet his beauties are more striking than his faults, and he was in the highest sense a poet, and by the ancients was placed at the head of the tragic writers. Besides his plays, five letters are ascribed to Euripides, three of which are addressed to king Archelaus, and the two others to Sophocles and Cephisophon; but these are consigned by Bentley to the same condemnation with the epistles of Phalaris, and other forgeries of the ancient sophists.

The earliest edition of any part of the works of Euripides was printed at Florence, about the end of the fifteenth century. It is a small volume in 4to, printed in capital Jetters, and containing only the Medea, Hippolytus, Alcestis, and Andromache. This was followed by the princeps or Aldine edition, Venice, 1503, 8vo, containing eighteen tragedies, but not taken from very good manuscripts. Three editions, printed at Basil by Hervagius, 1537, 1544, and 1551, 8vo, were chiefly taken from the Aldine copy. To the last is annexed the Electra, first published by P. Victorius, at Florence, 1545. The edition of Oporinus, Basil, 1562, fol. contains the nineteen tragedies, with the Latin version of Stiblinus, and the notes of Brodaeus on several of the tragedies. A small edition was published by Canter, at Antwerp, 1571, 12mo, the Qreek only, which is correct, and was the basis of several of the subsequent editions. This edition was reprinted at | Heidelberg, 1497, 2 vols. 8vo, with a Latin version, and the commencement of the imperfect play (the Danae) found in a ms. of the Palatine library. The notes of Æmilias Portus, printed separately, are frequently annexed to it. Joshua Barnes’s magnificent edition appeared at Cambridge, 1694, and still maintains considerable estimation; but there is no editor to whom Euripides is more indebted than to Dr. Musgrave, whose edition was printed at Oxford, 1778, 4 vota 4to. Beck’s edition, Leipsic, 1778 1788, 3 vols. 4to, contains a reprint of that of Barnes, with a collation of Musgrave’s edition, and his notes. An account of the editions of the separate plays may be seen in our authorities. By the laudable labours of Mr. Wodhull and Mr. Potter, the English language can now boast of two good poetical translations of Euripides. 1

1

Gen. Dict. Atheneum, vols. IV. and V. Dibdin’s Classics. —Saxii Onomast.