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Dec 14, 2015

Ancient Greece’s Legacy for Liberty: Euripides on the Woes of War

The plays of Euripides condemned war on grounds libertarians should find appealing.

Euripides’ career as a tragic playwright largely coincides with the Peloponnesian War, a lengthy and destructive conflict between Athens and Sparta that convulsed Greece for nearly three decades.1  Two of his tragedies in particular – Trojan Women and Helen – while depicting events from the Trojan War and its aftermath, appear to have deliberate application to the war still being waged in Euripides’ own day, and carry a strong antiwar message. 

Euripides’ Trojan Women, produced in 415 BCE, depicts the brutal treatment of the conquered Trojan population by the victorious Greeks.  The plight of female captives from Troy was a theme Euripides had likewise addressed in his previous plays Hecuba and Andromache; but the condemnation of the Greeks’ conduct is still more savage in Trojan Women, which is generally understood to be a coded critique of the likewise brutal Athenian conquest of the island of Melos earlier the same year, in which the victors massacred all the men while enslaving the women and children.2  The Trojan Queen’s lament for her slain infant grandson, and her rebuke of the Achaeans (Greeks) who slaughtered him for political reasons, must have fallen on uncomfortable ears:

Achaeans!  All your strength is in your spears, not
in the mind. What were you afraid of, that it made you kill
this child so savagely? That Troy, which fell, might be
raised from the ground once more?3

Three years later, in 412, Euripides returned to the Trojan War theme in his Helen.  This play appeared in the wake of Athens’ disastrous defeat in Sicily in 413, in which the Athenians had lost thousands of soldiers and hundreds of ships; Euripides’ emphasis on the horror and futility of war may well have resonated with a demoralized Athenian audience. 

In the standard version of the legend, Helen leaves her Greek husband Menelaus to accompany the Trojan prince Paris – willingly by some accounts, unwillingly by others – thereby precipitating the Trojan War.  But for this play, Euripides draws on a variant tradition in which Helen never went to Troy, but spent the war as a captive in Egypt as the result of a deception woven by the gods, thus rendering pointless the entire Hellene (or Greek) expedition to reclaim Helen from Troy (or Ilium).  Helen explains:

I myself was caught up by Hermes, sheathed away ….
and set down by him where you see me [in Egypt] …
but meanwhile my ill-adventured lord [Menelaus]
assembled an armament to track me down the trail
of my abduction, and assaulted Ilium’s towers.4

Thus Menelaus’s quest was a fool’s errand, and “all his hard fighting was fought for nothing”5  – while Helen herself is mistakenly “cursed by all and thought to have betrayed my lord / and for the Hellenes lit the flame of a great war.”6  The gods’ motive in perpetrating this deceit was to trick the human race into a fruitless war in order to depopulate the earth:

[Zeus] loaded war upon the Hellenic land …
to drain our mother earth
of the burden and the multitude of human kind.7

It would have been with the previous year’s devastating Sicilian defeat fresh in their minds that Euripides’ audience would have heard Helen’s fierce lament for the dead on both sides of the Trojan conflict: 

Ah, Troy, the unhappy,
for things done that were never done
you died, hurt pitifully. …
Mothers who saw their children die, maidens who cut their long hair
for kinsmen who were killed beside the waters
of Phrygian Scamander.
Hellas too has cried, has cried
aloud in lamentation,
beaten her hands against her head
and with the nails’ track of blood
torn her cheeks’ softness.8

Helen’s sentiments are echoed by the chorus of captive women, condemning war as such, and pointing out the lives that could have been saved if the Greeks and Trojans had resorted to negotiation rather than warfare:

I mourn for the hard sorrows
of Helen, for all the suffering,
all the tears of the daughters of Troy
from spears held by the Achaeans ….
And there were many Achaeans who by the spear
and by the stone’s smash have died
and are given, in vain, to Hades.
For these, unhappy wives have cut their long hair.
The chambers of their love are left forsaken. …
Mindless, all of you, who in the strength of spears
and the tearing edge win your valors
by war, thus stupidly trying
to halt the grief of the world.
For if bloody debate shall settle
the issue, never again
shall hate be gone out of the cities of men.
By hate they won the chambers of Priam’s city;
they could have solved by reason and words
the quarrel ….
Now these are given to the Death God below.9

In context, the clear implication is that the ongoing conflict between Athens and Sparta, from which the Athenians were now so cruelly suffering, was likewise a dreadful mistake, fought on shaky pretexts, and one that should equally have been avoided through negotiation.  And Helen follows up with a broader libertarian moral:

God hates violence.  He has ordained that all men
fairly possess their property, not seize it. …
There is the sky, which is all men’s together, there
is the world to live in, fill with houses of our own
nor hold another’s, nor tear it from his hands by force.10

In short, Euripides’ opposition to war is grounded in a general critique of aggression against the person or property of another.


  1. The war ran from 431 to 404 BCE; Euripides’ earliest surviving play, Alcestis, was produced in 438 (though other plays, now lost, reportedly preceded it), and he was still turning out plays at the time of his death in 406.
  2. On the Athenian treatment of Melos, and the might-makes-right arguments (possibly invented by Thucydides) with which the Athenian conquerors purportedly sought to justify it, see Book 5, chapter 17 of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.
  3. Euripides, Trojan Women 1158-1161; Richmond Lattimore translation, in David Grene and Richmond Latimore, eds., Euripides III (University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 198.
  4. Euripides, Helen 44-51; Richmond Lattimore translation, in David Grene and Richmond Lattimore, eds., Euripides II (University of Chicago Press, 1956), p. 192.
  5. Helen 717-718; p. 221.
  6. Helen 54-55; p. 192.
  7. Helen 38-50; p. 192.
  8. Helen 361-374; pp. 205-206.
  9. Helen 1113-1161; pp. 237-238.
  10. Helen 903-908; p. 229.

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