Tragic Thebes and the Athenian Imagination

Stephen A. Nimis

Miami University of Ohio

In a well-known article, Froma Zeitlin argued that Thebes is a kind of anti-Athens, the "other" of Athens on the tragic stage.  In this paper I will examine closely the theme of mythic origins in the choral odes of Euripides' Phoenician Women and compare it with the famous ode to Athens in Euripides' Medea 824-47.  The handling of the theme of autochthony in these two plays makes an explicit contrast between the utopia of Athenian autochthony and the dystopian autochthony of Thebes:  the former producing harmony and equality, the latter producing fratricide and incest.  The theme of Athens' autochthony is most prominent in Euripides' Ion and Erechtheus, and its centrality in Athenian ideology has been detailed by N. Loraux and others.  Moreover, it has been noted by scholars that Euripides makes a conscious link to the events of the Erechtheus in the Phoenician Women.  I will argue that Medea's third stasimon implies a comparison with Theban origins as well, and that these plays together produce a consistent message by Euripides about the dilemmas of Athenian institutions by contrast with Thebes.  The presentation will focus on Medea 824-47 and Phoen. 818-33 and I will argue that the latter is a companion piece to the former, echoing specific themes of gender, origins and reproduction, and the institutional issues that accompany those ideas.

Arthur, M. 1977. "The Curse of Civilization: the Choral Odes of the Phoenissae." HSCP 81.163-85.

Bremer, J. M. "Euripides' Phoenissae 830-832," Mnemosyne 33 (1980), 278-87.

Loraux, N. The Children of Athena: Athenian Ideas about Citizenship and the Division between the Sexes, tr. C. Levine. Princeton, 1993.

------------  Born of the Earth: Myth and Politics in Athens, tr. S. Stewart. Ithaca, 2000.

Lusching, C.A.E. "Phoenisse: On Ares' Crowns," in The Gorgon's Severed Head (New York, 1995), 160-240.

Mastronarde, D. Euripides' Phoenissae. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994.

------------  ed. Euripides: Medea.  Cambridge, 2002.

Parry, H. "Lines 830-832 of Euripides' Phoenissae." Phoenix 21.1 (Spring 1967), 20-6

de Romilly, J. "Phoenician Women of Euripides: Topicality in Greek Tragedy." Bucknell Review 15 (1967), 108-32.

Zeitlin, F. "Theater and Self and Society in Athenian Drama," in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? (Princeton, 1990), 130-67.


Back to 2006 Meeting Home Page