Achilles and the Apobates Race in Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis

2018.03.26 | By Thomas Scanlon

An exploration of the figure of Achilles in Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis in relation to its historical context, particularly the Peloponnesian War.

The Chorus

§1. In the parodos of Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis the chorus of Chalcian women describe Achilles among a list of Greek heroes at Aulis waiting to set sail for Troy (206–230). Achilles appears in this relatively long passage as running in armor along the beach and staging an impromptu race with a chariot driven by Eumelus.

206      τὸν ἰσάνεμόν τε ποδοῖν
λαιψηροδρόμον Ἀχιλῆα,
τὸν ἁ Θέτις τέκε καὶ Χείρων
ἐξεπόνησεν, εἶδον
210      αἰγιαλοῖς παρά τε κροκάλαις
δρόμον ἔχοντα σὺν ὅπλοις:
ἅμιλλαν δ᾽ ἐπόνει ποδοῖν
πρὸς ἅρμα τέτρωρον
215      ἑλίσσων περὶ νίκας.
ὁ δὲ διφρηλάτας ἐβοᾶτ᾽,
Εὔμηλος Φερητιάδας,
ᾧ καλλίστους ἰδόμαν
χρυσοδαιδάλτους στομίοις
220      πώλους κέντρῳ θεινομένους,
τοὺς μὲν μέσους ζυγίους
λευκοστίκτῳ τριχὶ βαλιούς,
τοὺς δ᾽ ἔξω σειροφόρους
ἀντήρεις καμπαῖσι δρόμων,
225      πυρσότριχας, μονόχαλα δ᾽ ὑπὸ σφυρὰ
ποικιλοδέρμονας: οἷς παρεπάλλετο
Πηλεΐδας σὺν ὅπλοισι παρ᾽ ἄντυγα καὶ σύ-
230      ριγγας ἁρματείους.

Achilles swift as the wind
and fleet footed,
he whom Thetis bore and Cheiron
brought to perfection,
him I saw on the beach, alongside the seashore
running in full armor.
And he toiled on foot in a challenge
against a four-horse chariot
turning the post for victory.
Eumelus, grandson of Pheres,
the driver, kept shouting, as
I saw his most splendid
foals decked with rich gold work on their bits
and stricken with the goad,
the middle yoke horses
dappled with white-streaked coats
and the exterior trace horses
facing the turning posts of the course
red-haired and piebald
with solid-hoofed fetlocks. Alongside these sprang
the son of Peleus in his armor beside the edge and
wheel sockets of the chariot.[1]

§2. The passage I have just quoted and translated evokes, I argue here, the Athenian apobates contest, a chariot-race-cum-running event restricted to Athenian participants and one that epitomizes the Athenian Panathenaia.[2] Dionysius of Halicarnassus (7.73.3) describes the apobates races as hai tōn hippōn hamillai, ‘the contests of horses’. I further maintain that the apobatic allusion is significant here in highlighting the strong, principled, and unwavering character of Achilles in contrast to an elite opponent. The episode contains a critique of the late fifth century political context. Achilles’ hamilla (ἅμιλλα), ‘contest’ or ‘challenge’ of the parodos,[3] is not, strictly speaking, an apobates race, in which, typically, each contestant rides in a chariot and then dismounts to run to the finish. Yet the Athenian audience would probably have seen it as evocative of that event. Why else would Euripides offer such an extended description of an odd challenge? To my knowledge, there is no report of any such unconventional man-versus-chariot race, either formally or informally, in ancient Greek history, myth, or literature.[4] The contest comes in the parodos at the end of a list of games and contests in which the other Achaean heroes take part. Some scholars suggest that the list is a quasi-Homeric catalogue (for example, Michelini 1999/2000:46). But the theme of contests is striking here, perhaps setting the stage for a motif of “the games people play,” political and otherwise. Protesilaus and Palamedes play draughts, the latter being the legendary inventor of board games (Euripides Iphigeneia in Aulis 194–199; Sophocles Fr. 479 [Palamedes]; Pausanias 2.20.3; Gantz 1993:604). Diomedes is “delighting in the pleasures of the discus.” Alongside are the other likely discus throwers, Meriones, Odysseus, and Nireus (199–205); all of these except Nireus compete prominently in the Funeral Games for Patroclus (Iliad 23).[5] We might even extend the contest motif to the opening of the parodos, in which the Judgement-of-Paris ‘beauty contest’ (ἔριν μορφᾶς, 183–184) is mentioned.[6] In sum, the names and activities of the heroes offer the audience of the drama a kind of foreshadowing of the roles of many main characters in the Iliad and in the Trojan War, while the contest motif itself highlights the gamesmanship among the main characters in the immediate drama, fellow warriors competing with one another.

§3. In the last and most prominent position of the list comes Euripides’ description of the famously fleet-footed Achilles against an expert charioteer. The format of this ad hoc contest is, to our knowledge, unique.[7] The dramatist might have instead had Achilles also racing in a chariot in this match. His opponent is Eumelus of Pherai, whose horses are said by Homer to be the best in the army, except for those of Achilles himself (Iliad 2.770). Eumelus is otherwise mentioned in the Iliad only in the catalogue of ships (2.711–715; 2.763–767) and in the chariot race of the Funeral Games of Patroklos (23.288–565), where it appears he would have won, if not for Athena’s causing his chariot to wreck. He crosses the finish line miserably, ‘dragging his fine chariot and driving ahead his horses’ (ἕλκων ἅρματα καλὰ ἐλαύνων πρόσσοθεν ἵππους), a sight that arouses the pity of Achilles (Iliad 23.533–534). On one level, by having Achilles run, the dramatist illustrates to the chorus the hero’s ‘swift-footed’ epithet. But the man-versus-horses contest could be chosen for reasons more thematically crucial. First, it portrays Achilles as a hoplite warrior and athlete of considerable strength and self-sufficiency against a rival in a highly ornate vehicle. Note also in the choral passage the emphasis on the golden bits and bridles on the horses and their impressive animal beauty and strength—the vehicle and horses of the elite vying against a hoplite infantryman who in Euripides’ day represented the broader class of the demos. Finally, as mentioned above, the mixed contest is evocative of the apobates race. Euripides deliberately deconstructs the traditional event, but simultaneously alludes to it in view of its associations with Achilles and with the race on the Parthenon frieze, as will be explored below.

The Historical Context

§4. This drama was staged in 406/405, traditionally said to be produced by Euripides’ son after the recent death of the poet. The drama depicts the painful tensions that arise between personal devotion to one’s family and its occasional conflict with perceived public duty. Agamemnon in the end yields to the prophet’s directive that Iphigeneia must be sacrificed to ensure winds for the Greeks’ passage to Troy. But the commander’s reasoning is motivated less by a noble desire to serve collective honor and victory than by personal fear and a self-serving calculation (Siegel 1981). Agamemnon rationalizes that if he does not sacrifice his daughter, the army would still rise up and its leaders would eventually kill both himself and his family. It is political pragmatism that wins out.

§5. Euripides’s drama, I suggest, reflects contemporary fatigue with the Peloponnesian War, and with its cruel human costs. The drama is a critique of the unstable contemporary politics behind the decisions of military command.[8] One prominent historical Athenian figure who embodied such vacillation and calculation was Alcibiades. At the time of writing the drama, Euripides had in the last few years witnessed “the ups and downs of Alcibiades’ checkered career” (Marr 1970, 53). The locus classicus suggesting Euripides’ and Athenians’ view of Alcibiades generally is Aristophanes’ Frogs 1422–1432, which, though seen through the lens of fantasy/fiction, presents a widely shared opinion, put plausibly in the voice of Euripides. When the god Dionysus asks Euripides and Aeschylus, as a test of their wisdom, their judgement of Alcibiades, Euripides replies

μισῶ πολίτην, ὅστις ὠφελεῖν πάτραν
βραδὺς πέφυκε μεγάλα δὲ βλάπτειν ταχύς,
καὶ πόριμον αὑτῷ τῇ πόλει δ᾽ ἀμήχανον. (1427–1429)

I hate any citizen whoever to help his fatherland
is by nature slow, but swift to do great harm,
profitable for himself, but ineffective for the state.

§6. Alcibiades’ command at the Athenian defeat at the battle of Notium in winter 407/406 may have been a particular inspiration for a commentary on leadership, if Euripides had been alive to witness that event. Euripides may have died in late 406 and the Frogs was performed by January 405 (Marr 1970:53n3). But disputed chronology aside, Euripides had observed the whole restless political life of Alcibiades, which easily invited hatred as well as parody. Euripides’ Agamemnon may have represented the generic type of self-serving leader, of which Alcibiades was the best representative from among the many such Athenian figures in this turbulent period.[9]

§7. If Agamemnon embodies an Alcibiades-like leader, there is furthermore in Iphigeneia in Aulis a sharp contrast between Agamemnon’s character and that of Achilles. There is also of course strong resonance with and a prefiguring of the feud between the two heroes in Iliad 1 (Sorum 1992:532; Michelini 1999/2000:48). In the drama, Achilles is used as a political pawn by Agamemnon, who invents, unbeknownst to Achilles, a marriage of that hero with Iphigeneia as a pretext to have the girl sent to Aulis. Achilles is enraged at the ruse when he becomes aware of it, and he soon swears to Clytemnestra that he will defend the vulnerable victim from being sacrificed, even if he must stand up to the entire Greek army (801–974; 1346–1368). In the event, Achilles relents, but only after Iphigeneia herself willingly accepts the necessity of her role as sacrificial victim (1369–1432).

§8. Achilles is, in his own words, a guileless man of “uncomplicated character” (τοὺς τρόπους ἁπλοῦς) and has a “free nature” (ἐλευθέραν φύσιν) that is not beholden to authority that is duplicitous or goes against ethical principles by sacrificing an innocent maiden (919–974; Michelakis 2002:103–104). He knows how to act with moderation in all circumstances (920–921). Providing a kind of character reference, he alludes to his being ‘raised in the house of Cheiron, a most pious man’ (ἐγὼ δ᾽, ἐν ἀνδρὸς εὐσεβεστάτου τραφεὶς Χείρωνος; 926–927), which pointedly recalls the earlier choral passage mentioning Cheiron’s education of the hero (208–209) while also underlining the aspect of strength connoted by the word ‘man’ (andros). The education of Achilles by Cheiron is mentioned briefly in Homer (Iliad 11.830–32). It is first narrated at some length by Pindar in Nemean 3.43–63, dated to about 475, where Achilles’ training and valor are emphasized (Michelakis 2002:175–177). There is also a tradition of gnomic sayings of Cheiron to youths, attributed to Hesiod (Robbins 1993:15). In sum, Achilles represents in this drama a free-thinking, straightforward, ethically honest, and strong man.[10] Cheiron teaches him not only physical skills, but imparts the values of a man who is closer to nature and not politically manipulative (Luschnig 1988:65, 67–68).

§9. Achilles thus stands in sharp contrast to Agamemnon, whose choices are governed by what others think or tell him to do and whose actions are motivated by hybris (Iphigeneia in Aulis 961). Agamemnon knows what is right to do for his family, yet bends to the eros-like desire of the restless army for the campaign (Lush 2015:212–214; Iphigeneia in Aulis 808, 1264). In the historical parallel, on which see further below, it may be more than coincidence that Alcibiades was also strongly identified with Eros and had the image of the god on his shield (Wohl 1999; shield: Plutarch Alcibiades 16.1–2). There may have been for Euripides no exact model for this drama’s Achilles among contemporary leaders, but Alcibiades stands out as a plausible inspiration for Agamemnon. Achilles is here a salutary counterpart to Agamemnon. The tension between the two heroes, a focal point of the action throughout the drama, is foreshadowed by the vignette in the parodos that describes the contest between the simple but skilled runner and his rival with an extravagantly outfitted chariot team. The social tension of the drama reflects a contemporary war-weariness and the distrust of generals like Alcibiades at the time of the production of the drama.

Achilles and the “Apobatic Moment” on Vases

§10. If Euripides here alludes to the apobates race, the question is what that allusion contributes to the drama. There are two potential associations: Achilles himself as a warrior depicted on vases in an apobates pose as he drags Hector’s corpse (Nagy 2005; Nagy 2013), and the apobates race on the Parthenon frieze, which may commemorate the sacrifice of a maiden, with parallels to Iphigeneia, for the sake of her city (Connolly 2014). We examine each association as follows.

§11. Gregory Nagy draws our attention to what he terms the “apobatic moment” for Achilles, portrayed primarily on two black-figure (ca. 520–510 BCE) vases, “Boston Hydria” Fig. 1, and “Münster Hydria,” Fig. 2.[11]

Figure 1. Black-figure hydria: Achilles dragging the body of Hector.  Attributed to the Antiope Group.  Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 63.473.
Figure 1. Black-figure hydria: Achilles dragging the body of Hector. Attributed to the Antiope Group. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 63.473.

 

Figure 2. Black-figure hydria: Achilles dragging Hector around the tomb of Patroclus.  Attributed to the Leagros Group. Münster, Wilhelms-Universität, 565.
Figure 2. Black-figure hydria: Achilles dragging Hector around the tomb of Patroclus. Attributed to the Leagros Group. Münster, Wilhelms-Universität, 565.

 

§12. The vases date from the period when the program of the Panathenaia was reorganized under the Peisistratid tyrants. The festival included both the new apobates race, on which see further below, and also performances of the Iliad and Odyssey. The images on the two hydriai represent the moment when Achilles dismounts from the chariot after dragging the body of Hector.[12] At this “apobatic moment,” when “his fury finally runs out,” he looks directly at the agonizing figures of Hector’s parents, Priam and Hecuba (Nagy 2005:316). The gesture, Nagy argues, signals the moment when the hero can again engage in pity and with his own humanity (Nagy 2005:315). This narrative apobatic moment is exceptional, not the normal leap of the Homeric hero charging into battle, but the leap of the hero moving to acknowledge the divine wish for him to release the body of Hector, to show mercy. Though in the parodos of Euripides’ drama the impulse of Achilles to run against a chariot is a demonstration of playful prowess, in the broader narrative Achilles’ motivation is to show pity for the daughter of Agamemnon and to shield her from a sacrificial death. Therefore the depictions of Achilles both on the hydriai and in Euripides’ chorus and drama generally associate the hero with apobatic skill and with a display of compassion.

§13. Achilles is further depicted in the dismounting from the chariot after dragging Hector on numerous other vases from the late sixth century, many of which are reviewed by Nagy (2013:7§§15–82). I illustrate only two here as examples of the pattern. One is a lekythos of about 490 BCE, from Delos. Here Achilles drives the chariot while men in armor run alongside—Greek companions presumably; a small, winged warrior figure (or “homunculus”: Nagy 2013:7§23) floats above the corpse of Hector, his spirit (psyche); there is a serpent under the chariot, a chthonic creature guarding the tomb and/or perhaps signaling the underworld destination of Hector (Fig. 3).[13]

 

Figure 3. Lekythos; Louvre CA 601; Stähler no. 7.
Figure 3. Lekythos; Louvre CA 601; Stähler no. 7.

 

§14. Another vase, a lekythos from Delos, also depicts Achilles dragging Hektor’s body near the tomb of Patroclus (Fig. 4).[14]

 

Figure 4. Lekythos: Delos, B 6137.546; Stähler no. 13.
Figure 4. Lekythos: Delos, B 6137.546; Stähler no. 13.

 

§15. Though neither of these vases illustrates Achilles’ interaction with Priam or Hecuba, as do the hydriai discussed above, the second does include the hero stepping down from the chariot with Hector in tow and ending the performance of his fury. The vases therefore reinforce the point that it was not unusual to associate Achilles with the special apobatic pose, and arguably they illustrate him ending his fury upon the intervention of the gods (via Iris).

§16. The direct relevance to the Euripidean choral passage is that Achilles is familiarly seen in images of running by a chariot, and the pose signals the point when the hero ended his rage and began to display compassion. But for Euripides, the image of Achilles is taken beyond the hero jumping from a chariot to his status as a man of swiftness and not in need of formal conveyance.

The Apobatic Race, the Maiden, and the Parthenon Frieze

§17. Other studies offer parallels, and arguably productive intertextual allusions to the Euripidean passage, including the sacrificial death of a maiden and the apobatic race (Connelly 2014; Connelly 1996). In these, the concern is the topic of the frieze on the Athenian Parthenon. In brief and with selective reference to the present topic, Connelly argues that the frieze represents scenes related to the legendary King Erechtheus, his celebration of a victory over the Thracian King Eumolpus, a victory celebration involving the first apobatic race, and the sacrifice of his maiden daughter.

§18. It is proposed that the central figure of a youth holding a cloth object on the east frieze of the Parthenon is in fact Praxithea, the daughter of King Erechtheus, who is preparing to sacrifice his child to save Athens in a war, a sacrifice done in obedience to the Delphic oracle (Connelly 2014:136; Connelly 1996:57). There is a parallel drawn between Praxithea and Iphigeneia, each of whom, particularly in Euripides’ dramas, portrays a parthenos willing to be sacrificed for the greater good (Connelly 2014:144–145). The Persian Wars, in this argument, encouraged Athenians to respect self-sacrifice and heroism for the collective good. The continued proliferation in stories of human sacrifice during the Peloponnesian War recognizes “the burden of loss and sacrifice shared by the women of Athens during those troubled times” (Connelly 2014:145). While the parallel of sacrificing a maiden to save the community is a plausible one supported by other mythical examples, I suggest that Euripides’ late fifth-century version of the myth goes beyond the portrayal of a girl honorably suffering self-sacrifice for the good of the city. Euripides’ view is a complex one, in part honoring the noble spirit of the self-sacrifice, but simultaneously being highly critical of the indecision and self-serving political motivation of the leader, Agamemnon. Once Agamemnon has cunningly convinced Iphigeneia of the pragmatic need for her sacrifice, Achilles (and Clytemnestra) accede to the choice (Rabinowitz 1993:50–51). We set aside here the controversial question of how the drama ended, whether the girl was actually sacrificed, or whether she was saved at the last instant when Artemis substituted a deer for her and whisked the girl to safety. For our purposes, it does not matter which ending was the original one. Rather our concern is how the narrative arrives at a point of willing self-sacrifice, especially how the two major male heroes behave: Achilles, in my view, quite nobly, and Agamemnon according to a rationalized expediency.

§19. There is a further parallel between Praxithea and Iphigeneia, namely that each is destined to a pseudo-marriage that actually entails death. Praxithea is to “marry death,” in the vivid Greek metaphor for girls who die unmarried. Women who died before marriage were buried in their wedding dress, a peplos. And mythical virgins going to their deaths sometimes dressed in wedding finery, as Cassandra in Euripides’ Trojan Women or Iphigeneia in his Iphigeneia in Aulis (Connelly 2014: 172–173). We recall also, in Euripides’ Hecuba, that the maiden Polyxena is sacrificed on the grave of Achilles, freely and nobly acceding to the circumstances (548–552). Scholars have duly noted the ironic parallels between Euripides’ Polyxena and Iphigeneia: a noble Trojan maiden is sacrificed to Achilles to allow the Greeks to return home, and a noble Greek princess falsely betrothed to Achilles is slain to allow the Greeks to sail for Troy (Rabinowitz 1993:54–62). In sum, the motif of a maiden who must marry death to serve the city is a link between the Iphigeneia of our drama and the Praxithea of the Erechtheus myth, and is possibly resonant with a theme of the Parthenon frieze. In Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis, the linking of Achilles with maiden sacrifice introduces another aspect, namely the characterization of Achilles as a heroic groom for the maiden.

§20. In the case of Polyxena, the sacrifice of the captive Trojan would-be-bride is freely accepted by the victim. Achilles as would-be-groom links Polyxena with Iphigeneia, but Polyxena’s death serves the Greek cause, and not that of her own city. Achilles, then, in Euripidean drama and in Greek myth, both is and is not a groom, in two roles that are highly unconventional and virtually chiastic. He is unwittingly named as groom of the maiden Iphigeneia before her sacrifice, but he survives her. Then, in Euripides’ Hecuba (produced 425–420), Achilles’ ghost demands Polyxena to be sacrificed as bride on his tomb as price for the Greeks’ departure (35–44). Achilles is primarily the great warrior and never becomes a real husband. As with many heroes, his relations with women are troubled, but in the Iphigeneia in Aulis he takes on a protective role for his would-be bride, and in Hecuba, he demands the bride as a well-deserved, posthumous prize. Like both maidens, Achilles is “married to death,” never as living groom to living bride.

§21. A Hydria now in Berlin illustrates the sacrifice of Polyxena at the tomb of Achilles, with the spirit of the hero over the tomb (Fig. 5; Nagy 2013:7§§88–91, Image Q).

 

Figure 5. Hydria: Berlin, Antikensammlung F1902; painting on the body of the vase.
Figure 5. Hydria: Berlin, Antikensammlung F1902; painting on the body of the vase.

 

§22. The image offers a neat visual counterpoint to the scenes of Achilles dragging the corpse of Hector near the tomb of Patroclus, but here a scene is shown in which “the pose of the homunculus signals a story that has a negative outcome, since the cruel act of executing the princess will not be stopped: in the end, the executioners of Polyxena will not obey the moral imperative of showing pity” (Nagy 2013:7§90). It is also noteworthy that a scene of chariot racing in quadrigae is depicted on the neck of the Berlin hydria, while in the lower scene a four-horse chariot that presumably delivered the maiden to the scene of her death is visible to the left. The lower scene shows direction ending in death, while the chariot race shows the action of life, perhaps to honor Achilles at his funeral games.

§23. Though the thesis interpreting the Parthenon frieze does not discuss Achilles at much length, it allows a different tie to the Euripidean passage under examination, namely, it directly associates the sacrifice of Praxithea to the apobates chariot race on the Parthenon frieze. Both the sacrifice and the race depict the first Panathenaia Festival legendarily established by Erechtheus, father of Praxithea; the original apobates contest was part of that festival (Connolly 2014:196–199). The practice of a warrior leaping from a chariot to engage in battle was of course derived from the scenes of Homeric epic (and perhaps Bronze Age practice?), and was long obsolete by the fifth-century when the Parthenon was built (Nagy 2015:3§77). Moreover, “the athletic events of apobatic charioteering, from the standpoint of the corresponding charter myth, could be re-enacting wartime events that happened in the mythologized era of heroes” (Nagy 2015:3§78).

§24. We acknowledge that the interpretation of the total frieze of the Parthenon has been a battleground of scholarly disagreement, though a majority favors the view that the scenes in some way reflect the contemporary procession which characterized the Panathenaic Festival. One can take the apobates race as representative, metonymically, of the festival contests; a number of other scholars take the central scene on the east frieze of a youth holding a cloth object as “the culmination of the annual Panathenaic procession in giving a new peplos to the statue of Athena Polias” (Osborne 1994:149; Connelly 2014:158–162, reviewing past interpretations). Jenifer Neils and Peter Schultz (2012) have examined afresh the apobates race and observed that

the emphasis of this scene then shifts from the race to the victory and reinforces the presence of nike in the iconographic program of the Parthenon … the victor may be identified as belonging to the foremost Athenian tribe, Erechtheis (Neils and Schultz 2012:195).

These authors date the historical invention of the apobates race within the Panathenaia to about 510 BCE, based on its earliest appearance as a race on a vase of that date by Nikosthenes (Neils and Schultz 2012:203, citing a pyxis, Rome, Villa Giulia, inv. no. 20749). They find corroborating evidence in

the series of Haimonian lekythoi depicting the apobates race that flooded the market in the first quarter of the fifth century. The sudden appearance of this new theme on a series of inexpensive oil vessels might indicate the popularity of a new contest inserted at this time into the Panathenaic program (Neils and Schultz 2012:203).

The frieze therefore celebrates and elevates this event, not only as a spectacular and popular contest, but also as the one most honored by Athenians who traced its origin to Erechtheus. I find the Neils-Schultz view convincing but think one could take it a bit further, allowing for ritual and myth in the depictions. The fact that the victor is identifiable as being from the tribe of Erechtheus could also be taken as an image that simultaneously represents a contemporary contest and alludes to the original legendary chariot race (taking contemporary costumes as representing the Erechtheid ancestors).

§25. Nagy (2015) has proposed a middle way in much more elaborate terms than can be adequately summarized here. In short, he suggests that the apobates race and the peplos scene can simultaneously represent contemporary Athenian festival practice and legendary origins in the time of Erechtheus. Not only is the maiden holding the peplos on the Parthenon east frieze the legendary daughter of Erechtheus, but also, “the sacrificial death of the mortal little girl in the myth points to her role as the sacred surrogate of the biggest of all girls, the immortal Parthénos [Athena], in the ritual of the Panathenaic Procession” (Nagy 2015:3§51). In a similar way, the chariot racing can represent both current ritual and received legend: “the stop-motion picturing of apobatic chariot scenes in the Parthenon Frieze captures not only moments of participation in the Panathenaic Procession but also moments of actual engagement in apobatic chariot racing—and even in the warfare of chariot fighting”—that is, the war chariots could also refer to “the mythological war waged by the Athenians against Eumolpos and his horde of Thracians” (Nagy 2015:3§77).

§26. Nagy (2005) further reminds us that the two hydriai that depict Achilles’ “apobatic moment,” his leaping from the chariot that is dragging Hector’s corpse, are roughly contemporaneous with an eventful period in Athens’ political and cultural history: the establishment of the Panathenaia by the Peisistratids, their formalizing of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey, the initiation of the performance of the epics and of the apobates race at the Panathenaia, and then, not long after, the end of the Peisistratid tyranny in 510 BCE, and the initiation of democracy in 508 by Cleisthenes. The two vases illustrate how Achilles himself is the figure in common with the performance of the epics and the holding of the apobates race. In sum, “The apobatic moment for Achilles as athlete goes back to this era in the evolution of Homeric poetry as performed at the Panathenaia” (Nagy 2005:316).

Euripides, Chariots, Achilles, and Alcibiades

§27. Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Aulis, in my view, continues Achilles’ “apobatic moment” more than 100 years after these vase images were produced. The sacrifice of Iphigeneia may furthermore be seen as a parallel to the maiden with the peplos on the Parthenon frieze, completed about 25 years earlier. We have suggested above that the Euripidean Achilles is what can only be described as a quasi-apobates, in which he is the runner versus the chariot of Eumolpus, the simple athlete versus the elite vehicle. The contest in the parodos, we suggested, symbolically prefigures the tension between Achilles and Agamemnon over the fate of Iphigeneia in which Achilles represents the upright, anti-elite man rejecting duplicity and resisting the sacrifice of an innocent girl, while Agamemnon stands for shifting, self-serving, elite leadership.

§28. The trends of Greek vase paintings in the period of Euripides’ drama support the impression that chariots and equestrian pursuits were likely seen as more elitist. T. B. L. Webster (1972:175–195) observes that scenes of hoplites with chariots are at their peak in the sixth century BCE, but that depictions of charioteers as warriors or as athletic victors disappear sharply in the mid-fifth century. Webster and Neils/Schultz also show that the enthusiasm for vases depicting the apobatic races began around 510 BCE and peaked in the early fifth century (Webster 1972:195; Neils and Schultz 2012:203). Thereafter the apobatic images on vases drop off. Though the reason for the downturn in the market for equestrian vases is not clear, it may be a result of the diminished influence of the knights and the elite, and the rise of greater meritocratic and democratic powers; we can see “opposition to equestrian display in competitive contexts [in the first third of the fifth century] as yet another delayed effect of Cleisthenes’ revolution” (Golden 1998:175). Horses and chariots were sponsored by tyrants, kings, and the (often old-monied) very wealthy, while track-and-field events, though not particularly for middle classes either, were viewed by the people generally as less elite (Kyle 2014:162–168; Christesen 2012:164–183 on the democratizing value of sport in sixth and fifth century Greece).

§29. We note that Euripides wrote an epinician ode for Alcibiades’s Olympic victory in the four-horse chariot race in 416 (Plutarch Alcibiades 11.2), a very extravagantly financed Olympic entry (actually involving his sponsorship of seven chariots to stack the odds). Alcibiades was censured by other Athenians for his hybristic venture and his general lifestyle (Thucydides 6.15 and 6.28; Isocrates Team of Horses 32–35; Pseudo-Andocides Against Alcibiades 29). Regarding Euripides’ relation to Alcibiades, we can speculate that the ode was written for a significant sum, and that Euripides, like his fellow citizens, later scorned the highly ambitious, on-and-off leader and his “bellicose policies” (Bowra 1960:69). As discussed above, Aristophanes’ Frogs, though a satiric comedy, neatly summarizes a plausible Euripidean ambivalence toward Alcibiades (1427–1429).

Conclusions

§30. The role of Achilles in Euripides Iphigeneia in Aulis, then, evidences intertextual echoes with a number of key texts: of course Achilles in Homer’s Iliad; the popularity of hippic events and the equestrian elite in the late sixth to early fifth centuries BCE, especially as seen in vases depicting both apobatic races and Achilles stepping off a chariot; and the highlighting of the apobatic race in the Panathenaia and on the Parthenon frieze. The elite image of horse events and their decline on vases by the mid fifth century therefore helps to explain Euripides’ removal of Achilles from the warrior chariot in Iphigenia in Aulis 206–230 in order better to portray him as an antagonist to Agamemnon. I have suggested Alcibiades as a contemporary figure important to Euripides, a type of ambivalent leader who may have influenced the representation of Agamemnon in the drama. I propose that Achilles represents in this drama the simple, direct, and more ethically consistent leader who opposes Agamemnon and sympathizes rather with the innocent civilian victim of war. The formation of Achilles’ character by Cheiron, as the drama emphasizes, is one indication of his exemplary “free nature.” Achilles’ own ambiguous relation in Greek myth to the noble maidens Iphigeneia and Polyxena as their would-be groom highlights his role as the non-domesticized hero, the consummate warrior who will fight to win a maiden, but never actually wins her. In Euripides’ drama, his very fight demonstrates his capacity for pity at human suffering in the face of war. The vase paintings studied above that show Achilles dismounting after dragging the corpse of Hector may prompt viewers to recall the pity shown by the Greek hero. The visual images of the Parthenon frieze, on the other hand, may be understood to reflect both the actual Panathenaic festival where a peplos is offered to the divine maiden Athena Polias, and a legendary scene that prefigures the later festival and includes sacrifice of Erechtheus’ maiden daughter. In its motif of the sacrifice of the maiden, Euripides’ tragedy has resonances with both views of these images, while being identical to neither. The drama has very different points to make that express the dramatist’s weariness with the costs of war and with the duplicity of the leaders who carry them out.

 


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Notes

[1] My translation, here and throughout.

[2] For key studies of the apobates contest, see Kyle 1987:188–189; Reed 1990; Szemethy 1991; Kyle 1992:89–91; Decker 1996; Crowther 2004; Golden 2008: 45; Kyle 2014: 154–155.

[3] The most common word for ‘contest’ in war and sport is agōn; hamilla is a softer term, often for ‘challenges’—informal, mental, oratorical, or interpersonal. Euripides favors the word hamilla, which he uses 19 times in all his dramas, occasionally of armed warriors meeting individually, but not usually of violent challenges nor of formal festival contests unless otherwise noted: Helen 356, 387 (Pelops vs. Oenomaus at Olympia), and 1155; Phoenician Women 1261; Iphigeneia in Aulis 212; Iphigeneia in Tauris 411 and 1147; Hippolytus 1141; Medea 546, 557, and 1182; Herakles 813; Electra 95; Bacchae 552; Andromache 127 and 215; Hecuba 226; Trojan Woman 621; Suppliants 429. It is relatively rare in other authors, for example, three times in Sophocles, and once in Aeschylus (Prometheus Bound 129) three times in Thucydides: 6.32.2, which uses hamilla of the impromptu boat-race among Athenian triremes leaving Athens for Sicily; 7.71.3 (implied comparison of the naval battle at Syracuse to a contest with spectators); 8.6.2 (political controversy at Sparta). Also it refers to impromptu contests in the three uses in Polybius: 3.98.10; 6.39.8 (friendly rivalry among Roman soldiers); 6.47.8 (comparison of constitutions).

[4]There is the biblical tale (1 Kings 18:44–46) of Elijah arriving ahead of King Ahab in his chariot on a 14-mile run to a city. There have been formal modern races of a human versus a horse, most famously the Man-versus-Horse Marathon, a 22-mile race held annually since 1980 in Llanwyrtyd Wells, Wales, UK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_versus_Horse_Marathon (accessed 10 October17). In 1936 after the Berlin Olympic Gold medalist, Jesse Owens, was barred from amateur athletics when he alienated the president of the International Olympic Committee, Avery Brundage, Owens was sadly forced to resort to stunts of running against horses.

[5] Nireus is an odd inclusion here, mentioned only once in the Iliad (2.673–675) where he is said to be second only to Achilles in beauty among the Greeks at Troy, ‘but a man of poor strength’. See Atchity 1978.

[6] I thank Ingomar Weiler, Professor Emeritus of the University of Graz, for pointing out the contest motif throughout the chorus, and for other suggestions.

[7] Michelakis (2002:121) has suggested that Achilles’ running in armor may be simultaneously reminiscent of the traditional ‘hoplite race’ (hoplitodromos) and of the apobates race, but the other associations with the apobates and Achilles, reviewed below, make the apobates reference more likely.

[8] Markantonatus 2011: 193–194 observes that the drama is critical of dysfunctional commanders.

[9] Lush’s study (2015) emphasizing the power of popular authority as a prime motivation for the action in the drama is consistent with this analysis, which identifies Agamemnon’s vacillation at the whim of popular pressure as a main theme.

[10] Michelakis 2002:103 sees the references to an education by Cheiron as emphasizing Achilles’ simplicity. Other authors find Achilles motivation as self-centered or flawed (Burgess 2004:48–51; Lush 2015:228; Simmons 2006:212), yet, in the present view, Achilles’ personal motivation and his more general ethical principles can and do operate simultaneously.

[11] Nagy 2005. Boston Hydria: Boston Museum of Fine Arts 63.473; CVA Boston 2, pl. 082; Vermeule 1965; Münster Hydria: Stähler 1967. See also Nagy 2013, ch. 7, “The sign of the hero in visual and verbal art.”

[12] Anderson 2009:160–161 interprets Achilles as mounting (not dismounting from) the chariot on the Boston hydria, but he also observes that Achilles’ turn to gaze at Priam and Hekabe alludes to the ultimate compassion for the father’s grief. See also Friis Johansen 1967:151.

[13] https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lekythos_funerary_vase_(detail)_depicting_Achilles_dragging_Hektor’s_body_by_chariot,_Delos,_sixth_century_BC.jpg.

[14] http://www.nybooks.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/delos-detail.jpg.



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