There is so much awkwardness in the structure of The Children of Herakles that critics have suggested that important scenes must be missing or that it was not intended as a tragedy but as a substitute for a satyr play. Another suggestion is that since The Children of Herakles was presented in the early years of the Peloponnesian War and glorifies the virtues of the Athenian city-state, Euripides depended upon the high patriotism of the play to carry it.
The Children of Herakles has been generally more criticized than praised. One critic sees it as “all in all the least attractive of Euripides’ plays,” although others have approved of its rapid pace, which moves inexorably toward the powerfully ironic, even satirical ending. The content of the play cannot be divorced form its political context: the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, which had just begun at the time it was produced, probably in 430 or 429 b.c.e. Eurystheus’s promise to defend the city of Athens at the end of the play may be connected with the Spartan invasions of Athenian territory in 431 and 430 b.c.e. Likewise, the illegal execution of Spartan envoys at Athens in the winter of 430-429 b.c.e. may have inspired Euripides to explore the themes of supplication and refuge in a tragedy. These ambassadors were put to death without trial, in flagrant violation of the custom that such persons are not to be harmed.
The play draws upon the large body of myth surrounding Herakles, a hero whose career is marked by misfortune and subjection to the will of sundry gods and mortals. Persecuted by Hera and her agent Eurystheus, Herakles ended his life in agony on a funeral pyre. After his death, his children become the target of Eurystheus, who hunts them down with the same determination that drove him on against their father. Euripides fashions from these traditional elements a play about suppliants seeking asylum, which enables him to make pronouncements about Athenian policy in the war and about war in general.
Plays about suppliants are quite common in Greek drama. They tend to follow a pattern: The suppliants arrive seeking asylum, the pursuer attempts to seize them, the local authorities hear their appeal for sanctuary, a struggle ensues between the providers of asylum and the pursuer, and the suppliants are eventually saved. This pattern can also be seen in Aeschylus’s Hiketides, 463? b.c.e. (The Suppliants, 1777), about the daughters of Danaus, or in Sophocles’ Oidipous epi Kolni, 401
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