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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 349

Eurpides's Children of Herakles (Heracleidae) opens at the Temple of Zeus in Athens. Iolaus, the aged friend and nephew of Herakles and guardian of the deceased hero's younger children, supplicates the goddess Athena for protection against the wrath of Eurystheus, the king of Argos. The king seeks to murder the children, fearing that they'll take revenge on him when fully grown for his many acts of cruelty toward their father.

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Suddenly, Copreus, a herald of Eurystheus, arrives, throws the old man to the ground, and seizes the children. Demophon, the king of Athens, is quickly summoned and, horrified by this treatment of Iolaus and the children, announces that he is putting them under his protection. Angered by the loss of his prey, Copreus threatens to return from Argos with an army.

When Demophon consults the oracle on how best to proceed, he receives an unwelcome augury: a maiden of noble birth must be sacrificed to the goddess Persephone in order to guarantee victory in the forthcoming battle with Eurystheus. Facing a painful dilemma and unwilling to sacrifice his own daughter to defeat an enemy, Demophon has a reluctant revelation, which rekindles the fears of Iolaus.

However, when Macaria, one of the daughters of Herakles, learns of the prophecy, she offers herself as a sacrificial victim, realizing that this will not only spare the lives of her siblings but will also prevent the death by lottery of an innocent young Athenian woman.

On the day of battle, Hyllus, a grown son of Herakles, arrives leading an auxiliary force. After Eurystheus refuses the young man's challenge to single combat, Iolaus prays to Zeus that he might, only for this day, regain the strength of his youth, to take revenge against his tormentor. His prayer answered, he defeats and captures the Argive king. Eurystheus accepts an inevitable death sentence, but his request that he be buried near the Pallenian temple of Athene is rejected by Alcmene, the sanguinary mother of Herakles. She demands that his body be thrown to the dogs, that no trace of him remain in the city of Athens.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 595

Iolaus, the aged warrior friend of the dead Herakles, together with Alcmene and the Herakleidae, the children of Herakles, have for years been wandering over Greece seeking a refuge from Eurystheus, king of Argos. No city dares to take them in against the command of the powerful Argive ruler. At last the wanderers arrive in Athens. There, while resting at the temple of Zeus, they are immediately confronted by Copreus, the herald of Eurystheus, who demands that they proceed at once to Argos and submit to death by stoning. Iolaus staunchly refuses, and when Copreus seizes the children a violent conflict ensues and Iolaus is thrown to the ground.

The chorus of aged Athenians immediately summons their king, Demophon, who is warned by Copreus that his refusal to surrender the Herakleidae to the Argives will surely result in war. In response to Iolaus’s plea, Demophon offers his protection on the grounds that the children of Herakles are gathered around the altar of Zeus, that they are bound to him by ties of kinship, and that the honor and freedom of Athens are at stake. Copreus sullenly departs, after warning that he will return with an army and punish Athens for its insolence. The grateful Iolaus praises the Athenians for their willingness to aid the helpless in an honest cause, but he refuses to leave the temple until the issue with Argos is settled.

The Argive host appears, led by Eurystheus himself. Demophon, who consults a variety of public and private oracles, comes to Iolaus with the news that victory depends upon the sacrifice of some royal maiden and that he cannot in good conscience slay his own daughter. When the distraught Iolaus offers to surrender himself to Eurystheus, Demophon points out that the Argive king desires only the children.

Macaria, daughter of Herakles, emerges from the temple to offer herself, insisting that she be chosen even after Iolaus proposes that the victim be selected by lot. After she is led away, a servant of Hyllus, son of Herakles, enters to announce that Hyllus arrives with an army to aid the Herakleidae. The elated Iolaus summons Alcmene from the temple to hear the good news. He is so overjoyed that in spite of his age he insists on donning armor and setting off to take part in the battle.

Later a servant brings Alcmene tidings of victory and describes how, after the cowardly Eurystheus refused single combat with Hyllus, the rejuvenated Iolaus plunged into the fray and took Eurystheus prisoner. Alcmene is astounded that Iolaus did not kill him on the spot. When guards bring the bound Eurystheus before her, she demands his immediate death.

The messenger of Demophon cautions her that such an act will violate Athenian custom, but the vengeful Alcmene swears that she herself will kill Eurystheus if necessary. The Argive king explains that he never had any personal quarrel with the Herakleidae and that he was forced to do as he did by the divine power of Hera, the deity of Argos. Nevertheless, he will not ask for mercy; in fact, since an old oracle predicted it, he is quite willing to submit to death if his body will be buried at Pallene, where in the future his spirit can protect his former enemies. The bloodthirsty Alcmene then demands that he be taken away from the city, slain, and cast to the dogs. Observing that, so long as Eurystheus is not killed within Athens, no stain of guilt will come upon the city, the chorus leads him away to be executed.

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