previous next


The Philoctetes of Euripides was produced in 431 B.C.1,
The Philoctetes of Euripides.
—some forty years or more, perhaps, after that of Aeschylus. Euripides combined the epic precedent with the Aeschylean by sending Diomedes along with Odysseus to Lemnos. A soliloquy by Odysseus opened the play2. The astute warrior was in a highly nervous state of mind. ‘Such,’ he said in effect, ‘are the consequences of ambition! I might have stayed at Troy, with a reputation secured; but the desire of increasing it has brought me here to Lemnos, where I am in great danger of losing it altogether, by failing in this most ticklish business.’ He then explained that, when the Atreidae had first proposed the mission to him, he had declined, because he knew that all his resources of persuasion would be thrown away on Philoctetes, the man to whom he had done a wrong so terrible. His first appearance would be the signal for an arrow from the unerring bow. But afterwards his guardian goddess Athena had appeared to him in a dream, and had told him that, if he would go to Lemnos, she would change his aspect and his voice, so that his enemy should not know him. Thus reassured, he had undertaken the task. We note in passing that Euripides was here indirectly criticising Aeschylus, who had assumed that Odysseus could escape recognition. The device of Athena's intervention was borrowed from the Odyssey, where she similarly transforms her favourite at need. But Euripides, in his turn, invites the obvious comment that such a device was more suitable to epic narrative than to drama3.

Continuing his soliloquy, Odysseus said that, as he had reason to know, a rival embassy was coming to Philoctetes from the Trojans, who hoped by large promises to gain him for their side. Here, then, was a crisis that demanded all his energies. At this moment, he saw Philoctetes approaching, and, with a hasty prayer to Athena, prepared to meet him. Philoctetes limped slowly forward,—clad (according to Dion's paraphrase) in the skins of wild beasts which he had shot4. On finding that his visitor is a Greek from Troy, Philoctetes pointed an arrow at him5 But he was quickly appeased by learning that the stranger was a cruelly wronged fugitive,—a friend of that Palamedes whom the unscrupulous malice of Odysseus had brought to death on a false charge of treason6. ‘Will Philoctetes befriend him?’ ‘Hapless man!’—was the reply —‘the ally whom you invoke is more forlorn than yourself. But you are welcome to share his wretched abode, until you can find some better resource.’ Philoctetes then invited his new friend into his cave.

Presently the Chorus entered,—composed, as in the Aeschylean play, of Lemnians. They began by excusing themselves for their long neglect of the sufferer. This was another glance at Aeschylus, whose Lemnians had made no such apologies. As the judicious Dion says, however, that was perhaps the wiser course. But Euripides had a further expedient for redeeming the character of the islanders; he introduced a Lemnian called Actor, who had occasionally visited the sick man7. The climax of dramatic interest must have been marked by the arrival of that Trojan embassy which Odysseus had foreshadowed in the prologue. It came, probably, before the seizure of the bow, and while, therefore, Odysseus was still disguised. Two verses, spoken by him in the play, run thus:—

ὑπέρ γε μέντοι παντὸς Ἑλλήνων στρατοῦ αἰσχρὸν σιωπᾶν βαρβάρους δ᾽ ἐᾶν λέγειν8.

Such words would be fitting in the mouth of a Greek speaker who pretended to have been wronged by his countrymen. They suggest a context of the following kind;—‘(Although I have been badly treated by the Greek chiefs,) yet, in the cause of the Greek army at large, I cannot be silent, while barbarians plead.’ The leader of the Trojan envoys—perhaps Paris—would urge Philoctetes to become their ally. Then the appeal to Hellenic patriotism would be made with striking effect by one who alleged that, like Philoctetes himself, he had personal injuries to forget. This scene would end with the discomfiture and withdrawal of the Trojan envoys. It may be conjectured that the subsequent course of the action was somewhat as follows. Philoctetes was seized with an attack of his malady; the disguised Odysseus, assisted perhaps by the Lemnian shepherd, was solicitous in tending him; and meanwhile Diomedes, entering at the back of the group, contrived to seize the bow. Odysseus then revealed himself, and, after a stormy scene, ultimately prevailed on Philoctetes to accompany him. His part would here give scope for another great speech, setting forth the promises of the oracle. Whether Athena intervened at the close, is uncertain.

This play of Euripides struck Dion as a masterpiece of declamation, and as a model of ingenious debate,—worthy of study, indeed, as a practical lesson in those arts. When he speaks of the ‘contrast’ to the play of Aeschylus, he is thinking of these qualities9. With regard to the plot, no student of Euripides will be at a loss to name the trait which is most distinctive of his hand. It is the invention of the Trojan embassy,—a really brilliant contrivance for the purpose which he had in view. We cannot wonder if, in the period of classical antiquity during which controversial rhetoric chiefly flourished, the Philoctetes of Euripides was more generally popular than either of its rivals.


1 Argum. The Medea, Philoctetes and Dictys formed a trilogy, with the Theristae as satyric drama.

2 Dion's 59th discourse bears the title “ΦΙΛΟΚΤΗΤΗΣ. ΕΣΤΙ ΔΕ ΠΑΡΑΦΡΑΣΙΣ”. It is simply a prose paraphrase—without preface or comment—of the soliloquy and the subsequent dialogue, down to the point at which Philoctetes invites Odysseus to enter his cave. Although it would be easy to turn Dion's prose into iambics (as Bothe and others have done), it is evident that, at least in several places, the paraphrase has been a free one. The whole passage, in its original form, cannot have been much shorter than the “πρόλογος” in the play of Sophocles.

3 In the Ajax, Athena makes Odysseus invisible to the hero (v. 85); but Ajax is already frenzied; and the scene is short.

4 Dion or. 59 § 5 (Odysseus speaks): “δοραὶ θηρίων καλύπτουσιν αὐτόν”. (Cp. Ar. Ach. 424.

5 Ib.§ 6 “ΦΙ..τούτων δὴ τῆς ἀδικίας αὐτίκα μάλα σὺ ὑφέξεις δίκην. ΟΔ. ἀλλ᾽ πρὸς θεῶν ἐπίσχες ἀφεῖναι τὸ βέλος”.

6 By this reference to his own base crime, the cynicism of the Euripidean Odysseus is made needlessly odious. The Sophoclean Odysseus merely authorises his young friend to abuse him (64 f.).

7 Dion or. 52 § 8 “ Εὐριπίδης τὸν Ἄκτορα” [MSS. “Ἕκτορα”] “εἰσάγει ἕνα Λημνίων ὡς γνώριμον τῷ Φιλοκτήτῃ προσιόντα καὶ πολλάκις συμβεβληκότα”. Hyginus Fab. 102(in an outline of the story, taken from Euripides) says:—“quem expositum pastor regis Actoris nomine Iphimachus Dolopionis filius nutrivit.” Schneidewin, supposing that Hyginus had accidentally interchanged the names, proposed to read, “pastor regis Iphimachi Dolopionis filii nomine Actor.” Milani (Mito di Filottete p. 34) obtains the same result in a more probable way when he conjectures, “pastor regis Iphimachi nomine Actor Dolopionis filius.” As he remarks, Euphorion, in his “Φιλοκτήτης” (on which see below, § 18), introduced a “Δολοπιονίδης” (Stobaeus Flor. 59. 16). And Dion's description of Actor as “ἕνα Λημνίων” would apply to a shepherd better than to a king. Ovid, however, seems to make Actor king of Lemnos (Trist. 1. 10. 17): Fleximus in laevum cursus, et ab Actoris urbe | Venimus ad portus, Imbria terra, tuos. The best MSS. there have Actoris: others, Hectoris.

8 The first of these two verses is preserved by Plut. Mor. 1108B, who from the second v. quotes only “αἰσχρὸν σιωπᾶν”. The second v. was made proverbial by Aristotle's parody (“αἰσχρὸν σιωπᾶν Ἰσοκράτην δ᾽ ἐᾶν λέγειν”). That the original word was “βαρβάρους” appears from Cic. de orat. 3. 35. 141; where, as in Quintil. 3. 1. 14, it is called ‘a verse from the Philoctetes.’ That this was the play of Euripides, is a certain inference from the fact of the Trojan embassy.

9 Or. 52§ 11 “ὥσπερ ἀντίστροφός ἐστι τῇ τοῦ Αἰσχύλου, πολιτικωτάτη καὶ ῥητορικωτάτη οὖσα κ.τ.λ.” So, again, he speaks of the “ἐνθυμήματα πολιτικά” used by Odysseus: of the “ἰαμβεῖα σαφῶς καὶ κατὰ φύσιν καὶ πολιτικῶς ἔχοντα”: and of the whole play as marked by “τὸ ἀκριβὲς καὶ δριμὺ καὶ πολιτικόν”. The word “πολιτικός” is here used in the special sense which Greek writers on rhetoric had given to it. By “πολιτικὸς λόγος” they meant public speaking as distinguished from scholastic exercises,—especially speaking in a deliberative assembly or a law-court. See Attic Orators, vol. I. p. 90. Dion's reiteration of the word marks his feeling that the rhetorical dialectic of Euripides in this play would have been telling in the contests of real life. And hence the play is described by him as “τοῖς ἐντυγχάνουσι πλείστην ὠφέλειαν παρασχεῖν δυναμένη”,—‘to those who engage in discussion.’ For this use of “ἐντυγχάνειν”, cp. Arist. Top. 1. 2, where dialectic is said to be profitable “πρὸς τὰς ἐντεύξεις”: and Arist. Rhet. 1. 1. 12, with Cope's note.

hide References (4 total)
  • Cross-references in notes from this page (4):
    • Aristotle, Rhetoric, 1.1.12
    • Euripides, Orestes, 52
    • Aristophanes, Acharnians, 424
    • Plutarch, Adversus Colotem, 1108b
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: