Our top ten Greek tragedies in writing
If you're struggling to remember the importance of Greece in Western civilisation, let these 10 classic works bring you back to the source
The Iliad (760 – 710 BC), Homer
Starting a story in the middle of things is a staple of modern literature, crime fiction in particular, that owes plenty to Homer’s epic poem. After an invocation of the Muses, the poem opens “in medias res”, nine years into the Trojan War. Full of poetry, action and memorable characters, the plot gets going when a pair of beautiful maidens, Chryseis and Briseis, are captured by Achaean warriors Agamemnon and Achilles. Nostos, the concept of homecoming which was later expanded on by Homer in the Odyssey, and kleos, glory in battle, are central themes examined by the author.
Antigone (c. 441 BC), Sophocles
More than likely part of a trilogy with Oedipus Rex, civil disobedience and loyalty to family are major themes explored in Antigone. Picking up where Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes ends, Antigone focuses on the aftermath of a bloody civil war that saw two brothers die as they led their sides into battle. Creon, the new ruler of Thebes, decides that one brother will be honoured and the other publicly shamed, his body left on the battlefield as carrion. Antigone is the noble and courageous sister of the brothers, who vows to disobey Creon and bury her brother Polyneices herself.
Prometheus Bound, Aeschylus
The world of Game of Thrones looks peaceful and humane compared to Zeus’s punishment of the Titan Prometheus, who earned the wrath of the god by giving fire to mankind. Condemned to being chained to a rock while an eagle pecks out his liver, only for it to regrow so that the ritual can be carried out day after day, the plight of poor Prometheus brings new meaning to the term ad infinitum. Often cited as the first advocate of social justice, Prometheus was a figure of strength and dignity who defied Zeus for the greater good – to bring advancement to the people. With question marks over its authorship and date, most scholars attribute the work to Aeschylus.
The Odyssey, Homer
The second major epic poem attributed to Homer, the Odyssey has been a huge influence on the literary canon down through the ages, inspiring works from Joyce’s Ulysses to contemporary poetry such as Caribbean poet Derek Walcott’s Omeros (1991). According to scholars, Homer himself was influenced by Near Eastern mythology for his tale of war, adventure, love and return to Ithaca. A decade after the end of the Trojan War, there’s still no sign of Odysseus. As his wife Penelope bats away 108 suitors, her son Telemachus seeks the advice of the gods.
The Oresteia (458 BC), Aeschylus
This trilogy of Greek tragedies follows the cursed family of the House of Atreus. Winning first prize in the Dionysia festival, the first play, Agamemnon, tells the story of the King of Argos who returns home to a cheating wife intent on murdering him for sacrificing their daughter. More revenge in the second instalment, The Libation Bearers, as Agamemnon’s children Electra and Orestes set about punishing their mother for the murder. Justice and consequences loom large in the third play, The Eumenides, as Orestes pays for the sins of the family.
Medea (431 BC), Euripides
Passion, betrayal, justice and vengeance – long before the invention of soap operas, Euripides’s tale of a woman scorned was entertaining the masses. Jason of the Argonauts may have defeated the sleepless dragon and captured the golden fleece, but he never reckoned with the havoc he’d create by leaving his wife Medea for another woman. Lauded as an example of an early feminist text, the play has remained the most frequently performed Greek tragedy through the 20th century.
Oedipus Rex (c. 429 BC), Sophocles
The oft appropriated tragic tale of King Oedipus is perhaps the best known of all the Greek myths. The Athenian tragedy of Oedipus Rex is the second instalment of Sophocles’s series on the unfortunate king, who despite his best efforts to thwart that pesky Oracle still ends up killing his father and marrying his mother. An example of classic tragedy, where the protagonist’s faults contribute to his downfall, Aristotle’s Poetics uses the play as a template to discuss classical structure and plot.
The Bacchae (405 BC), Euripides
Part of a tetralogy that includes Iphigeneia at Aulis and Alcmaeon in Corinth, The Bacchae was written by Euripides while living in Macedonia and was performed posthumously at the Dionysia Festival, where it won first prize. The fury of the gods is again central to this tragedy, as Pentheus, the stubborn but sympathetic King of Thebes, refuses to worship the new god Dionysus. The god of wine, partying and uninhibited joy as you’ve never seen him before.
The Frogs (405 BC), Aristophanes
A comedy for a change, albeit one steeped in literary criticism and classical drama. With the death of Euripides the previous year, Aristophanes has the god Dionysus resurrect the talented dramatist from Hades in an attempt to bolster declining standards of Greek drama. In an early example of metafiction, Euripides is pitted against his rival Aeschylus in an imagined battle to find the best tragic poet of Ancient Greece. Think Gladiators, without the bloodshed.
The Argonautica (c 246 – 221 BC), Apollonius Rhodius
The only surviving Hellenistic epic, this 800 line poem tells the story of Jason and the Argonauts as they journey to faraway Colchis to reclaim the golden fleece. Apollonius gives a scholarly take on the popular myth of the day, with research into geography, ethnography and comparative religion informing the text. A major focus of the poem is the relationship between Jason and Medea – before and after – with Apollonius credited as being one of the first authors to look at “the pathology of love”. Part adventure story, part romance, the poem gave Virgil a model for his Roman epic the Aeneid.