Monday, September 14, 2009
ca. 27 B.C.–14 A.D.; Augustan
Pentelic marble; H. 56 5/16 in. (143.03 cm)
Euripides, the youngest of the three great Greek tragedians (after Sophocles and Aeschylus) spent the last year of his life in Macedon as a guest of the king, Archelaus, dying there in 408 BCE. His play The Bacchae took first prize at the festival in Athens after his death.
Euripides was known for his use of strong, complex female characters. In the Poetics, Aristotle writes that Sophocles portrayed people as they ought to be but Euripides portrayed them as they were.
Performances of The Bacchae bookend The Golden Mean. It's a darkly funny, violent play that features the god Dionysus descending in human form to humiliate a priggish king for his disrespect. The god persuades the king to dress as a woman and sneak in to observe his mother and her friends engaged in Bacchic rites. The women uncover the deception but in their frenzy fail to recognize their king and rip him to pieces. His own mother carries his head home, believing she's killed a mountain lion, and only slowly recovers to realize she's dismembered her own son.
The play was a court favourite in Pella, and I open the novel with a performance of it for the royal family. Aristotle befriends the play's director, a fictional character named Carolus, who encourages the young Alexander's interest in the theatre. The novel ends (neatly, I hope!) with Philip's murder at a performance of The Bacchae , part of celebrations for his daughter's wedding.
The image above is of a dancing Maenad or Bacchante, a female follower of Dionysus (Bacchus). Notice her thyrsus, a long stick wrapped with ivy symbolizing her fidelity to the god, and her gorgeously flowing robes.