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Greek Tragedy

An introduction and listing.

33 of the plays by the Greek tragedians Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, are extant in fairly complete form. They are listed here in approximately chronological order. The 11 surviving comedies of Aristophanes, some of which provide detailed comments on the tragedies and their authors, are also listed. Links are given to the texts on the Perseus server at Tufts.

Introduction to the tragedies

Extant Greek tragedy represents the output of a very short period of history, from about 480 BC, when Aeschylus's early plays were performed, to the last plays of Sophocles and Euripides at the end of the fifth century. The two later tragedians wrote their early plays in the fifty years from 480, the end of the war with Persia, to 430, the start of the Peloponnesian War with Sparta which was to destroy Athens as an independent city-state. This fifty years (pentekontaetia) was the age of Pericles, when Athens was at its peak. It is worth noting that the mature plays of Sophocles and Euripides were written against a background of constant war.

The Social Context

In the fifth century, Greek tragedy was performed only at the wine festivals: the country Dionysia and Lenaia (both in December) and the Great Dionysia (in March), which was also a major political event, as the tribute from client city states was exhibited and war orphans were paraded before the performances.

The scale of the theatre compares with modern sporting arenas: the Athenian Theatre of Dionysus could hold perhaps 18,000 people, though Plato (Symposium 175e) implies that there were 30,000 spectators. It is still disputed whether women and children were present, though the current view is that they were.

The productions were organised as competitions, and precise dates are known only when the play is recorded as having won a prize. Poets submitted tetralogies of three tragedies and one satyr play. The chief official of the city, the archon, selected three, and appointed a choregos to finance and organise the chorus for each. This choregia counted as a civic duty, comparable to paying for a troop of soldiers or equipping a trireme. The chorus was composed of ephebes, youths who had reached the age of 18. The poets produced the productions themselves, and may also have acted in them: Athenaeus (The Sophists at Dinner I.21.e - about 200AD) states that Aeschylus acted in his own plays, and describes Sophocles' proficiency in music and dancing.

While the performances were part of the cult of Dionysus, the extent to which they were religious events is disputed. What is clear is that the plots (with the exception of the Bacchae) generally involve mythic but not religious stories. Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics 1111a8-10) implies that the plays of Aeschylus reveal secrets from the Eleusinian or Orphic mysteries. There was a tradition, mentioned by Plutarch (Symposium 1.1, 615) and the Suidas, that the seriousness of tragedy led to a reaction from audiences that it had 'nothing to do with Dionysus', so that in the time of Aeschylus the custom of having tragic choruses dressed as satyrs was reintroduced, for the burlesque form of tragedy, the satyr play.

Satyr plays might be considered a subdivision of tragedy, as they were written by the tragedians and performed together with the tragedies. Only one has survived in its entirety: the Cyclops of Euripides. While being a dramatic re-working of a Homeric story (from Odyssey Book 9), it has thematic similarities with the same poet's Hecuba. A substantial part of Sophocles' Ichneutai ('Trackers') has also survived: it may be a parody of Ajax. Its theme (the theft of Apollo's cattle by the infant Hermes) was later recounted by Ovid (Metamorphoses 2.676-707). Tony Harrison's play The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus (1990) recounts its theme and textual history.

Comedy has even less certain origins. Aristotle (Poetics 1449a) believed it originated in phallic processions which were a feature of Dionysian ritual, and its name is reminiscent of the bands of revellers (komoi) noted above. The comic competitions were established around the time of Aeschylus. The poets competed separately from the tragedians. Their themes were highly topical: Aristophanes' plays satirize many aspects of the contemporary Athenian society, including the writing and performance of tragedy.

The stories

Aristotle (Poetics 1453a) noted that, while 'in the beginning the poets chose stories (muthoi) at random, now the best tragedies are constructed around a few houses', arguing that this was motivated by the requirements of plot. Another reason may have been literary tradition. Athenaeus (The Sophists at Dinner 8.347e) commented that Aeschylus described his tragedies as 'slices (temache) from the great banquets of Homer'. While not all the plots of extant tragedies are Homeric, most are derived from traditional stories. They do not, however, necessarily treat the stories from the same perspective, and the consequent redefinition of tradition is a notable feature of tragedy.

Rewriting might involve reworking the same story: it is known that Euripides wrote two versions of Hippolytus, and we are fortunate to have a version of the same Homeric story (from the Odyssey) by each of the three great tragedians: the Choephoroi of Aeschylus, and the Electra plays of Euripides and Sophocles.

The three tragedies which each poet presented at a competition were not necessarily on a related subject: only Aeschylus is known to have written trilogies on a single theme, like the Oresteia. The Theban plays of Sophocles, though sometimes performed now as a trilogy, were written for different competitions.

The language

The language is blank verse throughout, in comedy as well as tragedy. The language is quite varied: the messenger speeches, which reported the main action (which was normally not depicted), are self-consciously archaic and highly formal, while the dialogue can be remarkably colloquial. In tragedy, the episodes (the spoken sequences), are composed in iambic trimeter lines, which are similar to, but longer than, the Shakespearean line (by one iambic foot). Aristotle regarded the iambic as a natural conversational rhythm (Poetics 1449a). It is less formal than the Homeric dactylic hexameter, and was originally used in satirical lampoons (iamboi).

As well as speeches, the episodes usually include passages of stichomythia ('line-speech'), dialogic exchanges in which the actors speak in alternate lines. Such highly formal dialogue can highlight confrontation, as in the 'tapestry scene' in Agamemnon 931-943; a balanced argument, as at Eumenides 587-608; or simply be a dramatic way to tell a narrative, as at Ajax 38-51. Euripidean stichomythia is generally rather mannered, and uses many techniques of rhetorical debate. Some of the effects of stichomythia can be seen from the Shakespearean use of the form, as at Love's Labours Lost V.2, Richard III IV.4, and 3 Henry VI III.2.

The choral odes are written in a wide variety of metres, in mostly shorter lines. They were composed in a different dialect from the spoken passages: an artificial form of Doric rather than Attic Greek (perhaps for historical reasons, since the choral forms out of which tragedy developed may have been composed in it. Its most distinctive feature is the use of the vowel alpha instead of eta). Anapaestic lines were normally chanted during the first entry of the chorus, as a marching rhythm, and were also used at moments of high tension between episodes. During the odes, the chorus danced as well as singing. The musical accompaniment was provided by a flute-player (auletes: as the instrument probably had a reed, it's nowadays often translated as 'pipe').

The dramatic function of the chorus has been one of the most disputed topics in subsequent commentary on tragedy, and one of the most difficult aspects to realise in performance. The contrasting views of Schlegel and Nietzsche on its artistic function are noted in a discussion of the influence of tragedy elsewhere on this server.

The tragedians used sung and spoken verse in distinctive ways. Aeschylean odes may be very long: nearly half the Agamemnon is sung. They are noted for their powerful and unpolished imagery: Aristophanes (Frogs 823-4) depicts Aeschylus as 'hurling bolted words, tearing them away like boards'. Euripidean odes are often very short (mostly about 40 lines), and Aristotle criticised them (most commentators would say unjustifiably) as interludes, with little relation to the plot (Poetics 1456a). They are often very beautiful: Plutarch (Lysander 15.3) recounts that the Spartan army did not destroy Athens in 404 because they were moved to pity by the singing of the first chorus of the Electra (432-486). The third stasimon of the Bacchae (862-911) is another lovely, almost Marvellian, nature poem. A distinctive feature of Sophoclean tragedy is the frequent use of choral interchanges (kommoi) between the chorus and one of the actors, rather than purely choral odes, so the chorus is particularly highly integrated in the language of the drama.

Textual Transmission

As noted above, Greek tragedies were in the fifth century mostly performed as new works, with only the works of Aeschylus being permitted revivals. However, in the fourth century, revivals (especially of Euripides) became common, presumably from acting copies. In 330 BC, the Athenian orator Lycurgus established an official edition of the three tragedians. This was the basis for editions produced by the scholars of the Alexandrian Library in the third and second centuries BC (according to Galen, in his commentary on the Hippocratic On Epidemics Book 3, Ptolemy III borrowed the official Athenian copy, and never returned it). Seven plays each by Aeschylus and Sophocles and ten by Euripides were preserved in this way. Nine more Euripidean works were fortuitously preserved from part of a complete alphabetical edition (which is why those plays all have titles beginning with Eta, Iota, or Kappa in Greek: Helene, Elektra, Herakleidai, Herakles, Hiketides, Iphigeneia He En Aulisi, Iphigeneia He En Taurois, Ion, Kuklops).

The oldest surviving complete texts are mostly Byzantine (from the 9th century AD). The scholars concentrated on three plays of each tragedian: the 'Byzantine triad' (Aeschylus: Persians, Seven Against Thebes, Prometheus; Sophocles: Ajax, Electra, Oedipus the King; Euripides: Hecuba, Orestes, Phoenician Women). The oldest texts are papyri found at Oxyrhynchus in upper Egypt, some of which date from the 1st and 2nd century BC. Substantial fragments of the Euripidean tragedy Hypsipyle, the Sophoclean satyr play Ichneutai (Trackers), and Menander's comedy Dyscolus (The Bad-tempered Man) were discovered there (as well as work by Aristotle, Callimachus, Homer, and Pindar).

Greek tragedy as we know it represents the original literary canon: the extant plays are those which the Alexandrian scholars thought were the best, and listed as kanones ('rods' or 'rules'). The work of other tragedians (such as Ion of Chios, Critias, and Agathon) is discussed by Aristophanes, Aristotle, and other ancient commentators, and some fragments of their work survive.

Further information on the transmission of Classical texts may be found in:
Knox, B.M.W. and Easterling, P.E. (1985) 'Books and Readers in the Greek World', Cambridge History of Classical Literature, Volume 1, Cambridge: CUP
Reynolds, L.D. and Wilson, N.G. (1991) Scribes and Scholars: A Guide to the Transmission of Greek and Latin Texts, Oxford: Clarendon


Dates are given before the titles, in brackets if they are estimates. Many dates are approximate, especially with the plays of Sophocles, most of which are arranged using indirect historical evidence and stylistic criteria. Aeschylus preceded the other tragedians by a generation, though was still writing when Sophocles produced his first tragedies, and Sophocles was born about 15 years before Euripides. The plays of Sophocles are here listed before those of Euripides, but the overlap is important: for example, it is generally thought that the Electra of Euripides predates the play of the same name by Sophocles, which may be a reaction to it. An overlap should also be noted for the comedies of the rather younger Aristophanes: most of his extant plays date from the same period as the plays of Sophocles and Euripides.

Information on dating is derived from the standard reference work:
Lesky, A. (1972) Die tragische Dichtung der Hellenen, 3rd edition, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht,
published in English as:
Lesky, A. (1983) Greek Tragic Poetry, tr Dillon, New Haven: Yale University Press

Sophocles (Sophokles) c495 - 406 BC

Wrote over 100 plays, won 1st prize 18 times. Seven of the completely-extant plays ascribed to him are listed here, plus the incompletely-preserved Trackers. (Links to the Greek and English texts)

(c445)	Ajax (Aias)
(c442) Antigone
(?) Women of Trachis (Trachiniai)

[The 30-year Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta began in 430]

(c430) Oedipus the King (Oidipous Turannos) [Oedipus Rex]
(c412) Electra (Elektra)
409 Philoctetes (Philoktetes)
401 Oedipus at Colonus (Oidipous Epi Kolonoi)
(?) Trackers (Ichneutai): satyr play

Aristophanes c448 - c380 BC

Wrote about 44 comedies. 'Frogs' and 'Women at the Festival' contain satirical analyses of the tragic writing (and the personalities) of Aeschylus and Euripides. (Links to the Greek and English texts)

425 Archarnians
424 Knights (Hippeis) [Equites]
423 Clouds (Nephelai) (Nubes]
422 Wasps (Sphekes) [Vespae]
421 Peace (Eirene) [Pax]
414 Birds (Ornithes) [Aves]
411 Lysistrata (Lusistrate)
410 Women at the Festival (Thesmophoriazusai)
405 Frogs (Batrachoi) [Ranae]
392 Women at the Assembly (Ecclesiazusai)
388 Wealth (Ploutos) [Plutus]

| Top of Page | Bruce Fraser, May 1997. Revised 2010, links checked 4th March 2016 | Page Up |