“The Suppliants” by Euripides

What Causes the Fall of States?

Adrastus, King of Argos, led a war against Thebes, on behalf of his son-in-law Polynices, to regain the rule of Thebes from the latter’s brother Eteocles. He was defeated, the young men of Argos were killed, and he came to Athens as a suppliant to seek help from King Theseus to obtain their corpses for burial.

Euripides’ account of the tragedies of Argos reminds me of the fall of Athens as recorded by Thucydides in “The Peloponnesian War”. The young Athenian nobleman Alcibiades, seeking military distinction and wealth, proposed the disastrous Sicilian Expedition (415- 413 BC), which was the beginning of the end for Athens.

Younger men, who court distinction, and add war to war unrighteously, destroying their fellow-citizens; one aspires to lead an army; another would seize the reins of power and work his wanton will; a third is bent on gain, careless of any ill the people thereby suffer.

“The Suppliants” was first performed in 423 BC. Either Euripides was prescient in his political vision, or he identified a recurring theme in the decay and fall of states, i.e., the lust for domination, by military or financial power. The passage immediately following could have been a comment on the current Occupy movement.

For there are three ranks of citizens; the rich, a useless set, that ever crave for more; the poor and destitute, fearful folk, that cherish envy more than is right, and shoot out grievous stings against the men who have anything, beguiled as they are by the eloquence of vicious leaders; while the class that is midmost of the three preserves cities, observing such order as the state ordains.

Lamentation of the Bereaved

Iphis lost both his son Eteoclus and son-in-law Capaneus in the war. His daughter Evadne hurled herself onto her husband Capaneus’ burning funeral pyre and died with him.

“Why do mortal men not have this, to live their youth twice over, and twice in turn to reach old age? …For I, seeing others with children, longed to have them too, and found my ruin in that wish. Whereas if I had had my present experience, and by a father’s light had learned how cruel a thing it is to be bereft of children, never should I have fallen on such evil days as these.

What remains for such a hapless wretch as me? Shall I to my home, there to see the desolation of the many halls and the blank within my life? or shall I go to the house of that dead Capaneus? sweet indeed to see in days gone by, when my daughter was alive. But she is lost and gone, she that would ever draw down my cheek to her lips, and take my head between her hands; for nothing is there more sweet unto an aged father than a daughter; our sons are made of sterner stuff, but less winning are their caresses.

Oh! take me to my house at once, hide me in darkness, to waste and fret this aged frame with fasting! What shall it benefit me to touch my daughter’s bones? Old age, resistless foe, how do I loathe your presence! Them too I loathe, whoever desire to lengthen out the span of life, seeking to turn the tide of death aside by food and drink and magic spells; those whom death should take away to leave the young their place, when they no more can benefit the world.”

Quotes:

“I did not choose you, king, to judge my affliction, but came to you to cure it;”

References:

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