Euripides’ Athens: Art, Cult, and Leadership

  Citation with persistent identifier: Athanassaki, Lucia. “Euripides’ Athens: Art, Cult, and Leadership.” CHS Research Bulletin 7 (2019).


This is a book-length project that investigates the political implications of Euripides’ dialogue with cult, iconography and architecture, mainly but not exclusively Athenian. In the first part of this report (‘Art and Politics in Euripides’ Plays’) I offer an overview of my findings before starting my fellowship at the CHS, published in several articles. In the second part (‘Euripides’ Athens: Art, Cult and Leadership’) I report on the progress I made during the four months of my residence at the CHS and specifically (a) on the plays I have selected for inclusion, i.e. Heraclidae, Hippolytus, Suppliant Women, Erechtheus, Heracles, Troades, and Ion; (b) and on the main themes/angles of analysis: focus on Athenian art and cult, i.e. (i)  on the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the temple of Athena Nike, statues and a number of other cultic sites of the Acropolis; (ii) Pericles’ Odeon; (ii) the Theseion, the Painted Stoa and the Hephaesteion; (iv) the temples of Poseidon and Athena at Sounion. In the third part (‘Methodology’) I outline my approach, i.e. monuments as visual ‘intertexts’ that the poet shares with his audiences, and its difference from other treatments.


In October 2017 I applied to the Center for Hellenic Studies jointly with Katerina Ladianou for two different, but related projects: mine entitled ‘Art and Politics in Euripides’ Plays’, hers ‘Cult and Characterization in Euripides’. We both made substantial progress during our residency. My project began several years ago, but my research was considerably slowed down by my four-year term as Dean of School of Philosophy (2014-18). As is clear from this report, the time I spent at CHS (January 31-May 22 2019) was very productive. I succeeded in narrowing down the topic, I decided on which plays to focus, and I completed a paper now in submission (Athanassaki forthcoming).

The report is divided into three parts: in the first (‘Art and Politics in Euripides’ Plays’) I offer an overview of the findings and the status of my research before I started my fellowship. In the second (‘Euripides’ Athens: Art, Cult and Leadership’) I report on my progress during the four months of my residence at the CHS, on the plays I have selected for inclusion and on the main themes that have emerged and will be discussed in my book. In the third part (‘Methodology’) I outline my approach and its difference from other treatments.

1. Art and Politics in Euripides’ Plays

This was a provisional title covering work that I published before my fellowship began and research in progress, focusing on the political implications of Euripides’ dialogue with cult, iconography and architecture, mainly but not exclusively Athenian.

Part of my research was already published before I started my fellowship. Specifically I had explored the political implications of Euripides’ dialogue with Athenian and Delphic monuments in Ion (Athanassaki 2010 and 2012), Troades (Athanassaki 2018), Cresphontes (2018) and Erechtheus (Athanassaki 2019). Here I present a brief synthesis of some of the conclusions I reached in those studies that are relevant to the project as was meanwhile defined.

Ion is the obvious focus of all studies that explore the influence of the visual arts on Euripides. The dramatic significance of Euripides’ reversal of the pediments of the temple of Apollo has been well and thoroughly discussed in a number of studies.[1] In two articles on Ion I explored the political significance of Euripides’ dialogue with Athenian civic iconography and monumental architecture, focusing on the Gigantomachy on the metopes of the façade of the Parthenon and the Odeon which was adjacent to the theatre of Dionysus. With regard to the Gigantomachy I drew attention to the importance of three artifacts, all crucial for the action and Gigantomachy related, i.e. the pedimental Gigantomachy, Creusa’s bracelet, and Creusa’s unfinished handiwork. I argued that through his focus on Gigantomachy, Euripides showcases collective Athenian obsession with violence as a spectacle and as a model of action (Athanassaki 2010). In contrast, the similarities of the magnificent pavilion that Ion constructs in Delphi with Pericles’ Odeon, which was within the field of vision of much of Euripides’ audience, points to another important Athenian trait, megaloprepeia that characterizes the modus operandi of Athenian leaders, i.e. Cleisthenes, Cimon, Pericles, Alcibiades and Nicias (Athanassaki 2012).

In Troades I argued for Euripides’ dialogue with Cimonian poetry and monumental iconography, namely Bacchylides’ dithyrambs for the Athenians (c. 17 and 18) and the wall-paintings of the Theseion and the Painted Stoa that point up the collaboration of Poseidon and Athena in securing Athenian/Ionian thalassocracy in defensive action (Athanassaki 2018a). Unlike civic iconography, Troades showcases the wrath of Athena and her collaboration with Poseidon in order to punish all Achaeans for their hybristic behavior and indifference to accountability.  Contrary to readings that interpret Troades as Euripides’ response to Athenian cruelty on Melos, I suggested that Euripides’ addressees are the Greeks at large:  through his dialogue with Cimonian literature and monumental art Euripides reminds his audience of a different period when all Greeks joined forces against Persian aggression in self-defense in order to preserve their freedom. The evocation of a time of collaboration of all Greeks for a common cause is in sharp contrast with the dramatic action that draws attention to hybris and lack of accountability. In this grim reality the pact of Athena and Poseidon to punish all Achaeans is a sobering message concerning the fragility of thalassocracy and the danger of conflict.

In Cresphontes, probably performed in 424, the Chorus of Messenians sing and dance a hymn to Peace, which Aristophanes parodies in his Georgoi, probably the following year, and evokes some years later in his Peace, performed shortly before the Peace of Nicias. I have argued that probably Euripides and Aristophanes joined forces on the Athenian stage in order to promote peace. Taking my lead from the colossal statue of Peace that Aristophanes staged in the homonymous play, I argued that in promoting the cult of Peace on the Athenian stage both Euripides and Aristophanes offered an alternative to contemporary public monumental discourse that promoted Victory, such as the dedication of Paeonius’ colossal statue of Victory at Olympia by the Messenians and the completion of the temple of Athena Nike in Athens at the same time (Athanassaki 2018b).

In Erechtheus, performed circa 422, Euripides is also in dialogue with contemporary art and cult. As many have suggested, the play responds to the Athenians’ decision to erect a new temple, the Erechtheion, which united ancient cult sites in a splendid building completed in the last decade of the 5th century and marked an upgrade in Poseidon’s cult. I have argued that Euripides’ response to the new temple should also be read against the representation of the contest of Athena and Poseidon over the patronage of Athens on the West pediment of the Parthenon. Its comparison with Erechtheus and the Erechtheion brings out an important difference of perspective: whereas the Parthenon foregrounds the two gods’ effort to win the tutelage of Athens, Athena’s command to institute a cult of Erechtheus-Poseidon on the Acropolis reverses the perspective and shows what mortals should do for the gods, Poseidon in particular.  The similarities and differences between Erechtheus and Troades are remarkable and will be explored further in the present project. Both plays evoke the earthquake of 426 that caused extensive damage in the Ceramicus and seems to have affected the Parthenon. Both feature Athena and Poseidon, but in Erechtheus Athena both prevents Poseidon from destroying her city and instructs her priestess and citizens how to honor the god of the sea.

2. Euripides’ Athens: Art, cult and leadership

At the CHS I read and discussed with Katerina Ladianou several plays. Our collaboration was particularly fruitful for many reasons and not least because, thanks to our extensive reading, I was able to select which plays to include in my discussion, i.e. to focus my research on Euripides’ ‘Athenian’ plays. My new working title is ‘Euripides’ Athens: Art, cult, and leadership’ and I have chosen for extensive discussion Heraclidae, Hippolytus, Suppliant Women, Erechtheus, Heracles, Troades, and Ion. My readings of the plays already published will be refocused and enriched by new finds and arguments. Hereafter I discuss briefly some of the main themes that have emerged and dictated the focus on Athenian art, cult and leadership:

(a) Athens: having worked on Ion and Erechtheus my next step was to turn to the plays that feature Athens,  namely Heraclidae, Hippolytus, Suppliant Women, and Heracles. Despite the fact that in Heraclidae and Suppliant Women the action takes place in out-of-the city sanctuaries, Marathon and Eleusis respectively, in Hippolytus in Troezen, and in Heracles in Thebes, Athens looms large in all these plays through the evocation of its civic institutions, cultic sites and civic art. The same is of course true for Erechtheus localized on the Acropolis. Ion takes place in Delphi and Troades in Troy, but in both plays Athens is very much on the minds of the dramatis personae, who evoke a number of civic locales, temples and other buildings. In constitutional terms Athens is represented on the whole as an enlightened monarchy with the exception of Suppliant Women where it is anachronistically depicted as a democracy. Monarchic or democratic, in the end Athens is presented as the best place one could be, despite the threats and criticisms leveled against her by her enemies and sometimes her friends.

(b) Art and cult: Civic iconography was a rich source of inspiration for Euripides. My study focuses on Athenian cultic sites and monuments, but iconography in Panhellenic sanctuaries is discussed whenever relevant. Specifically, my discussion centers on  (i) the Parthenon, the Erechtheion, the temple of Athena Nike, statues and some other cultic sites on the Acropolis; (ii) Pericles’ Odeon; (iii) the Theseion, the Painted Stoa and the Hephaesteion; (iv) the temples of Poseidon and Athena at Sounion.

I pay special attention to the presence and absence of gods, their synergy or their working at cross-purposes, and the cultic honors they receive within and outside the dramatic reality. My  discussion focuses on (i) Aphrodite and Artemis; (ii) Athena and Apollo; (iii) Poseidon and Athena. Other deities such as Hera, Hermes, Hephaestus are also discussed.

(c) Leadership: discussion on leadership focuses (i) on the portraits of individual Athenian leaders, i.e., Erechtheus, Ion, Theseus, Acamas and Demophon with special emphasis on their relationship with the gods and their attitude towards cult and ritual; and (ii) on the leadership of Athens in the Greek world.

3. Methodology

My study takes account of and builds selectively on a range of scholarly works that focus on the interrelationship of material culture and public poetry, on the politics of visual arts[2], on viewing habits and the experience of viewing[3], but differs from other scholarly treatments (e.g. Zeitlin 1994, Stieber 2013) both in its approach and its focus. In studying Euripides’ dialogue with the visual arts I use an approach that I developed in my earlier work on Pindar and Bacchylides: taking my lead from textual references to monumental iconography and architecture I consider the poet as a viewer inspired by visual representations which serve as a point of departure for the creation of his own version.[4] To give just one example, the pediments of the Alcmaeonid temple of Apollo in Delphi offer Euripides the stimulus for his own take on the pedimental sculptures. The Gigantomachy, which the Chorus of Athenian women describe, decorated the West Pediment and was therefore invisible from the entrance of the temple where they stood. On this reading, this is an intentional choice: Euripides reversed the pediments because he wanted to show Athenian preoccupation with violence. Euripides could of course count on the familiarity of many in his audience with the Alcmaeonid temple of Apollo. Visitors to the sanctuary would have had plenty of opportunity to familiarize themselves with the temple where cultic activities took place. Others would have heard descriptions, since the contractors and the sculptor(s) were well-known Athenians.

I consider monumental iconography as a visual ‘intertext’ that the poet shares with his audience. Since these visual ‘intertexts’ were on public display, Euripides’ audience had access to them and, consequently, he could count on his audience’s familiarity with them. I examine both explicit and implicit evocations of civic iconography and buildings: e.g. I consider explicit the Ion’s evocation of the Alcmaeonid temple of Apollo in Delphi, and implicit the Troades’ evocation of the representation of the Iliou Persis in the Stoa Poikile.  The audience in the theatre of Dionysus was not of course exclusively Athenian, but it is reasonable to assume that a great part were familiar with Athenian monumental iconography which at Euripides’ time must have been one of the city’s greatest attractions. Xuthus’ idea that Ion can join him in Athens as a viewer (theates) is one of the many indications that Athens was a prime tourist destination in the 5th century. Mutatis mutandis the same was true for the Panhellenic sanctuaries. Euripides could count on his audience’s familiarity with famous iconography in Delphi, Olympia, etc. Not all of course would have a keen interest in iconography, but Euripides’ depictions of male and female viewers in a number of plays (e.g. Ion, Andromache, Iphigeneia in Aulis) indicates that he could count on a considerable number. Moreover, his audience would include artists, i.e. potters, painters, sculptors, architects, who would have both the interest and the expertise to appreciate Euripides’ dialogue with material culture. The ancient anecdote that Euripides begun his career as a painter, whether true or not, shows that his preoccupation with the visual arts was not lost on his readers. I do not think it was lost on his original audiences.

Like drama, civic iconography reflected, responded, and had the power to shape society’s values and beliefs. Due to its stability, monumentality and privileged location either in sacred or prime civic space it constituted a major civic discourse. The many covert or overt references to monumental iconography and sculpture that we find in Euripides’ and Aristophanes’ plays indicate that poets engaged in vivid dialogue with the visual arts. Aristophanes’ choice to put a colossal statue of Peace on stage at a time that sculptors and architects were preoccupied with Victory in Athens and beyond is an eloquent example of the political dimension of the dialogue of verbal and visual civic discourses. What Aristophanes did was to appropriate the rival medium in order to add a powerful visual dimension to his verbal message.

I use the term politics mostly in its broad sense, i.e. concerns of the polis that are either longstanding or are triggered by events contemporaneous with the composition of the plays. Momentous historical events that must have been on the poet’s and his audiences’ mind are also taken into account.[5] This study, however, does not look for knee-jerk reactions to such events in the plays. On the contrary, my focus on Euripides’ dialogue with civic buildings, some of which were significantly older than the plays,  indicate that the poet consciously adopted a long-term perspective. My investigation so far has shown that Euripides invited his audiences to adopt the same long-term perspective. To give just one example, in Ion the poet gives center-stage to the Alcmaeonid temple in Delphi in the beginning of the play and later to the pavilion Ion constructs which, as already mentioned, evokes the Periclean Odeon (Athanassaki 2012). The evocation of these two buildings reflect time-honored Athenian traditions of leadership characterized by megaloprepeia and cosmopolitanism, offer useful perspectives to look intelligently at the contemporary rivalries concerning public displays of megaloprepeia (of which the rivalry between Nicias and Alcibiades was the best known) and to see where and how megaloprepeia had got out of hand.

When I started looking at Euripides’ dialogue with civic iconography and architecture and its political ramifications I did not suspect its extent and sophistication both where one might expect it, e.g. the Ion, Erechtheus, Heracles, and where one might not, e.g. the Troades. The research that I have conducted at CHS this spring offers further support to my thesis.


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———. 2010. ‘Performing Myth through Word, Deed, and Image: The Gigantomachy in Euripides’ Ion.’ In Mito y Performance. De Grecia a la Modernidad. Quinto Coloquio Internacional. Acta, ed. A. M. Gonzalez de Tobia, 199-242. La Plata (Universidad Nacional de la Plata).

———. 2011. ‘Pindar’s Seventh Pythian, the Alcmaeonid Temple, and the Politics of Performance.’ In  Archaic and Classical Choral Song: Performance, Politics & Dissemination, ed. L. Athanassaki and E. L. Bowie, 221-54. Berlin (De Gruyter).

———. 2011a. ‘Giving Wings to the Aeginetan Sculptures: The Panhellenic Aspirations of Pindar’s Olympian Eighth.’ In Aegina: Contexts For Choral Lyric Poetry, ed. D. Fearn, 257-293. Oxford (Oxford University Press).

———. 2012. ‘A Magnificent Birthday Party in an Artful Pavilion: Lifestyle and Leadership in Euripides’ Ion (on and offstage).’ In Donum natalicium digitaliter confectum Gregorio Nagy septuagenario a discipulis collegis familiaribus oblatum, ed. V. Bers, D. Elmer, D. Frame, and L. Muellner. Washington DC (Center for HellenicStudies).

———. 2012a. ‘Performance and Reperformance: The Siphnian Treasury Evoked.’ In Reading the Victory Ode, ed. P. Agócs, C. Carey, and R. Rawles, 134-157. Cambridge (Cambridge University Press).

———. 2016. ‘Dramatic and Political Perspectives on Archaic Sculptures. Bacchylides’ Fourth Dithyramb (c. 18) and the Athenian Treasury in Delphi.’ In The Look of Lyric: Greek Song and the Visual, ed. Α. Lardinois and V. Cazzatto, 16-49. Leiden (Mnenosyne Suppl.).

———. 2016a. ‘Pindarum quisque studet aemulari: Greek and Roman civic performance contexts in Pindar’s Fourth and Fifth Pythians and Horace’s Odes 4.2.’ In Le poète lyrique dans la cité antique, ed. B. Délignon, Nadine Le Meur, and O. Thévenaz, 131-158. Lyon (Edition de l’Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3).

———. [=Αθανασάκη, Λ.] 2017. ‘Η τραγωδία του Ευριπίδη και το καλλιτεχνικό της συγκείμενο. Μεθοδολογικά ζητήματα.’ In Μεθοδολογικά ζητήματα στις κλασικές σπουδές. Παλαιά προβλήματα, νέες προκλήσεις, ed. Ε. Ταμιωλάκη, 207-224. Herakleion: Crete University Press.

———. 2018a. ‘Talking Thalassocracy in 5th-century Athens: From Bacchylides 17th and Cimonian Monuments to Euripides’ Troades.’ In Paths of Song: The Lyric Dimension of Greek Tragedy, ed. R. Andujar, T. Coward, and Th. Hadjimichael. De Gruyter (Trends in Classics) Berlin.

———. 2018b. ‘The Cult of Peace on the Athenian Theatre during the Peloponnesian War: from Euripides’ Cresphontes to Aristophanes’ Peace and Beyond.’ Illinois Classical Studies 43.1:1-24.

———. [=Αθανασάκη, Λ.] 2019. ‘Λατρεία, τέχνη και πολιτική στον Ερεχθέα του Ευριπίδη.’ In Αρχαίο δράμα και λαϊκή ηθική, ed. E. Papadodima, 85-108. Athens: Κέντρον Ερεύνης της Ελληνικής και Λατινικής Γραμματείας της Ακαδημίας Αθηνών.

———. Forthcoming. ‘Charms of autocracy, charms of democracy: Euripides’ Athenian leaders in the light of civic iconography.’ In Theatre and Autocracy, ed. E. Csapo, E. Paillard, J. Stoop, and P. Wilson.

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———. 2008. The Politics of Greek Tragedy. Bristol: Phoenix Press.

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———. 1992. ‘Theseus in Kimonian Athens: The Iconography of Empire.’ Mediterranean Historical Review 7:29-49.

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[1] See in particular Zeitlin 1994; Athanassaki 2010 and 2012 with references to earlier scholarship.

[2] W. Miller 1929-32; Webster 1939; Shapiro 1989, 1992; Zeitlin 1989, 1994; Francis 1990; Ferrari 1997, 2000; Steiner 2002; Taplin 2007, Stieber 2011.

[3] Elsner 1991; Osborne 2000; Marconi 2009.

[4] Athanassaki 2009, 2011; 2011a; 2012a, 2016, 2016a, 2017.

[5] Overview of recent sociopolitical approaches to Greek tragedy, see Carter 2008: 22-58. For the significance of Athens see the articles in Carter 2011.