Greeks vs. Barbarians

The majority of my work outside of class this past week was spent re-reading Iphigenia, reading Rhesus, and also re-reading Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. The two plays that we read in class so far were familiar to me, and I spent time comparing them to my past notes collected from all my minor classes in Classics. Euripides after Aristophanes is my favorite Greek poet, for the way he utilizes tension among his characters. However, what I most often forget when I am reading is how the tensions and themes in his plays are connected to a broader context in fourth century Athens. Something that as an audience in modern times we constantly have to remind ourselves. The ideas brought forth in Euripides especially in that of Rhesus parallel writings of the time.

For example, the theme I focused on in the majority of my notes was the idea of Greeks versus Barbarians or Greek society in the ancient world. In my previous classes and study of antiquity, I learned about how historians and Greek writers compared Greece to the rest of the Meditteranean. Greeks viewed themselves as a perfect balance in diet (not too much meat, grain, green), weather (ideal rainfall, perfect wind, temperature), perfect look/complexion not too dark or light as well as hair and eye color. The Greeks spoke Greek to them the superior language and those that did not were barbaric. While all people were barbaric for not speaking Greek. There was a scale of the uncivilized which is referenced in Euripides’ plays, but also in the myths of Homer. Some barbarians were too organized, too flashy or lived in a society that was too luxurious, thus allowing for a person’s passions to not be controllable. They would be like the Trojans a society far too complex and ruled by one, Priam, or worst of all like Paris, a person who succumbed to the madness of Eros soiling a Greek woman. While other barbarians also easily susceptible to Eros were too primitive. They did not understand the Greek principles of democracy. Both are important in the context of the fourth century Athens. The Trojans representing the opposition to an oligarchy or a monarchy, something that was very “not Greek.” Barbarians that were too primitive could not see the value in freedom or democracy.

Another critical discussion of barbarians in the context of the Trojan War as characters in fourth-century plays was the Peloponnesian War. It was a call to unify Helles once again and end the war. In Rhesus, the two barbaric armies can recognize they are barbarians, but still kin, and they unite for the cause of fighting against the Greeks writers such as Euripides are calling for an end. This is similar to Herodotus writing about the Persian War as an attempt to remind Greece of their past unity that fought off the barbaric Persians from destroying all of Helles or Aristophanes in Lysistrata.

  1. How does the character of Rhesus compare with the character of Achilles in the Iliad and Iphigenia at Aulis?
  2. Rhesus is not mentioned in the play until line 276 and is not named until 280. What has the playwright done thus far to prepare you for his entrance onto the stage?

Both Achilles and Rhesus have goddesses for mothers and their mothers’ know their fates and have to watch them die, their mother’s mourning becomes a part of the play/poem and adds to the tension between the characters because they are goddesses. Rhesus’ mother in her lament for her son says that Achilles death will be much worse and is deeply angered at Athena because Athena is the patron goddess of Athens and she is a Muse that inspires such greatness from her city. While Achilles’ mother seems to have accepted her son’s fate, she knew about it much longer and seems to have had time to prepare.

Achilles and Rhesus are the champions of their sides. If Rhesus was not killed he would have destoryed the already struggling Greeks side, who did not have Achilles because of his fight with Agamemnon. While Achilles mênis after Hector slays Patroclus allows him to experience such divine anger that it brings about the fall of Troy and Hectors demise. They also both defy/outshine their commanders. Hector in Rhesus is extremely overconfident just as Agamemnon is overconfident in Book one of the Illiad and while Rhesus ends up slain in his sleep he still recieves glory because he came to help a friend in a fight when needed and he was said to be a great worry that would have defeated the Greeks and saved Troy even if he was killed before he could do it. While Agamemnon’s overconfidence drives Achilles to no longer fight and it takes the death of Patroclus to make him return so Achilles recieves glory for bringing the fall of Troy but also avenging him.

Before Rhesus even speaks or appears Euripides builds suspense, and a sense of false hope for the Trojan side. Hector is confident upon hearing that the Greeks are burning fires that they are preparing to leave Hector feels that the war is either won or almost there. As the talk continues and the Sephard appears with news of an arriving ally army that claims to be able to diminish Greek troops. Hector takes it as an insult why would an ally show up when the battle is won, but also who could possibly defeat the enemy? There is sucspision and tension before Rhesus appears and allows for his entrance to become one of mystery.

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