Euripides Biography

At a Glance

Euripides was the bad boy of Ancient Greek tragedy, a rebellious “upstart” who rejected many of the formal structural elements of drama during his time. Significantly reducing the emphasis of the chorus in his plays, Euripides instead shifted the focus to the characters themselves. This less-rigid approach gave him the freedom to explore character psychology more deeply, which eventually allowed to create three-dimensional, rounded figures, especially women such as the tragic heroine of his play Medea. Though ahead of their time in golden age Athens, his plays have since been embraced by modern audiences. And despite the notable work of his contemporaries Aeschylus and Sophocles, it is Euripides who gets the credit for giving Greek tragedy—and ultimately all drama—a human face.

Facts and Trivia

  • Euripides is the author of The Cyclops, the only satyr play to survive in its entirety. Short, ribald, and comic, satyr plays were part of a tetralogy—a set of four plays that also included three tragedies.
  • Euripides was frequently lampooned by the comic playwright Aristophanes. Euripides figured prominently in Aristophanes’ The Frogs, in which he and Aeschylus are brought back from the dead to debate which of them was the better dramatist. Naturally, Aeschylus won.
  • Euripides’ works still appeal to even the avant-garde. His Alcestis was reimagined as a kind of performance art piece by theatrical experimenter Robert Wilson in 1986.
  • Of all of the tragedians who competed in the City Dionysia, a dramatic festival hosted in ancient Athens, Euripides won the fewest prizes.
  • Although Euripides was underappreciated by his contemporaries, history has been on his side. Of the three major Greek tragedians (Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides), the rebellious bad boy has had the largest number of complete plays to survive.


(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111201545-Euripides.jpg Euripides (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek playwright{$I[g]Greece;Euripides} Ranking with Aeschylus and Sophocles as a master of Attic tragedy, Euripides was the most “modern” of the great Greek tragedians, often criticizing traditional mythology and realistically working out the logical implications of ancient legends.

Early Life

Little is known of the life of Euripides (yew-RIHP-uh-deez) because few records were kept in his time. Philochorus, a careful annalist who lived in the early third century b.c.e., wrote a biography of Euripides, fragments of which have survived; it is long on anecdotes but short on dates. What is reasonably certain is that Euripides’ father, Mnesarchos, was an affluent merchant and that his mother, Cleito, was of aristocratic descent. When he was four years old, the great naval Battle of Salamis, in which the Greeks defeated the Persians, caused Euripides’ family to flee the small town of Phlya for Athens. When the boy was eight, the ruined walls of Athens were rebuilt, after the Greeks had decisively defeated Persia on land as well as sea. Freedom had triumphed over despotism—only temporarily, as Euripides was to discover.

In 466, Euripides became officially a “youth,” whereupon the state conscripted him for garrison duty in the frontier forts of Attica. Full military service ensued when he was twenty. He distinguished himself as an athlete, did some painting and sculpting, and undoubtedly participated in what may have constituted the greatest intellectual awakening in Western history. As the mother-city of the Ionian territories, Athens had become the harbor for a great influx of artists, poets, historians, philosophers, and scientists fleeing Persian repression. Euripides is known to have been involved with the Sophists, particularly Protagoras, author of the doctrine that “Man is the measure of all things” and a skeptic about the universal validity of science or religion. Euripides may also have associated with Anaxagoras, a philosopher concerned with theories of the mind; Archelaus, Anaxagoras’s pupil; Diogenes of Apollonia; and Socrates. Sophocles was his contemporary; undoubtedly, the tragedians knew each other’s works, but no evidence exists that they socialized with each other.

Euripides had his first play produced in 455, competing at the Great Festival of Dionysius one year after the death of Aeschylus and thirteen years after Sophocles’ first victory. Titled Peliades (daughters of Pelias), it was a trial run of his later Mēdeia (431 b.c.e.; Medea, 1781); the manuscript is not extant.

Life’s Work

Altogether, Euripides wrote 92 plays, of which 88 were entered in the Dionysian contests, although he won on only four occasions. Seventeen of his plays survive, compared with 7 out of 80 for Aeschylus and 7 out of 123 for Sophocles.

His earliest extant play is a tragicomedy, Alkēstis (438 b.c.e.; Alcestis, 1781), based on a folktale. It was placed fourth in a set of Euripidean plays, in the position usually accorded a comic satyr play, but its comic elements are minor. In this play, Admetus, a Thessalian king, has his young wife Alcestis agree to die in his place. The visiting Heracles, however, wrestles with Death and forces him to yield his beautiful victim. Euripides exposes the underside of this romantic legend: Admetus behaves as a warmly courteous host to Heracles and weeps over his “dead” wife, but essentially he is a coward. He lacks the courage to die at the time appointed for him, instead complacently allowing his wife to replace him. Moreover, he fails to admit his selfishness even to himself.

Euripides’ next surviving drama was Medea, his most famous work. Athenians watching the first performance would have known the drama’s mythic background: Medea, a barbarian princess and sorceress related to the gods, helped Jason the Argonaut to steal the Golden Fleece and even murdered her own brother so that she and Jason could safely escape pursuit. In the play’s action, Medea’s beloved Jason has tired of his dangerous foreign mistress and agreed to marry the daughter of Creon so that he can succeed to the throne of Corinth. Desolate and maddened, Medea pretends reconciliation with Jason’s bride and sends her a poisoned robe that fatally burns both her and Creon. Medea proceeds to kill her two children by Jason and then sails away on a magic dragon-chariot sent by her grandfather Helius, god of the sun. Euripides’ treatment of Jason and Medea renders their personalities in a rather modern fashion: He is calm, self-confident, and rational, but cold; she is devoted and kind, but her rage at being rejected transforms her into an elemental incarnation of vengeful hatred. Their arguments constitute brilliant fireworks of articulated feelings and clashing temperaments.

Hippolytos (428 b.c.e.; Hippolytus, 1781) is more restrained and economical. It was his second version of the Phaedra-Theseus-Hippolytus plot; the first has been lost. Framing the drama are a prologue spoken by Aphrodite and an epilogue spoken by Artemis. The tragedy consists of the conflict between them, as Phaedra is identified with love and lust, Hippolytus with chastity and a consequent neglect of Aphrodite’s charms. The scorned Aphrodite causes Phaedra, Theseus’s newest wife, to fall hopelessly in love with her stepson Hippolytus. Refused by him, she writes a letter falsely accusing him of having raped her; then she commits suicide. On reading the letter, Theseus curses Hippolytus, and Poseidon fulfills the malediction by having a monster fatally wound the young man. It is Artemis who reveals the truth to Theseus so that father and son can at least be reconciled before Hippolytus’s death. Though Euripides magnificently celebrates the frustrated passion of his heroine, he permits the play to end in rhetorical commonplaces as Hippolytus and Theseus first argue, then forgive each other.

From a structural perspective, the most innovative achievement of Hippolytus is the freedom Euripides grants his characters to change their minds: Phaedra first resolves not to reveal her love, then does so; the nurse gives her mistress conflicting advice; and Hippolytus first decides to reveal his stepmother’s lust to his father, then chooses not to do so. In his focus on the unpredictability of his characters’...

(The entire section is 2636 words.)

Euripides Biography

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

The manuscript tradition of Euripides contains an ancient Life of Euripides, clearly a composite of several sources, including Philochorus, a fourth century b.c.e. Attic historian, and Satyros, a third century Peripatetic biographer, fragments of whose own Life of Euripides exist on papyrus. Unfortunately, however, much of the ancient biographical tradition about Euripides is derived from ancient comedy, especially from that of Aristophanes, whose Thesmophoriazousai (411 b.c.e.; Thesmophoriazusae, 1837) and Batrachoi (405 b.c.e.; The Frogs, 1780) both contain caricatures of Euripides and who is therefore suspect as a historical source.

The problem of source reliability starts with Euripides’ parentage. The comic tradition that Euripides’ father, Mnesarchus (or Mnesarchides), was a shopkeeper and his mother, Clito, a greengrocer, is apparently contradicted by ancient statements that Euripides’ mother belonged to a noble family and that Euripides himself was granted honors worthy of high rank, including those of dancing at Athens in the sacred dance to Delian Apollo and of being a fire bearer in another cult of Apollo. Euripides is said to have been born on the island of Salamis, but he was a member of the Athenian deme of Phlya, where he may have held a local priesthood of Zeus. His date of birth is variously given as either 485 or 480 b.c.e., the later date being based on the persistent ancient tradition that the playwright was born on Salamis on the very day of the battle in which Aeschylus may have fought and after which Sophocles as a youth is said to have danced in the victory celebration. Apparently, Euripides’ ties with Salamis were strong, for he is said to have composed many of his plays in a solitary cave on the island.

The ancient Life of Euripides states that, as a youth, Euripides studied painting and was trained as an athlete because of a misinterpretation of an oracle stating that he would someday win “crowns in contests at Athens.” Although Euripides may, as some sources suggest, have won some early athletic victories at Athens, his real victories were to be won in the dramatic competitions at Athens’ Greater Dionysia.

Euripides is linked intellectually with many of the great thinkers of his day. The ancient Life of Euripides lists among his teachers Anaxagoras, whose doctrines can be seen in Hippolytus, The Trojan Women, and elsewhere; Protagoras, who is said to have read his treatise “On the Gods” in Euripides’ house; the Sophist Prodicus; and even Socrates, who was at least fifteen years Euripides’ junior and whom Aristophanes called a collaborator in Euripides’ dramatic compositions. As a fifth century b.c.e. Athenian, Euripides certainly came in contact with all these men, but none of them is likely to have a formal student-teacher relationship with Euripides. The influence of the tragedian Aeschylus and the poet Timotheus on Euripides’ dramatic development has already been mentioned. The poet may also have had some connections with the historian Thucydides. A memorial inscription dedicated to Euripides is ascribed to Thucydides, although it is sometimes attributed to Timotheus.

The story of Euripides’ two unhappy marriages, first to Melito and then to a Choerile or Choerine, daughter of Mnesilochus, is too clearly entangled in comic tradition to be historical. According to the Life of Euripides, the second wife committed adultery with a certain Cephisophon, who is described both as a house slave and as a literary collaborator with Euripides. The playwright is said to have written his scandalous first Hippolytus in reaction to his wife’s infidelity. Actually, both unhappy marriages and his traditional misogyny may be a comic exaggeration of Euripides’ depiction of evil women in such plays as the first Hippolytus and Medea.

Euripides had three sons: Mnesarchides, a merchant; Mnesilochus, an actor; and Euripides the younger, a tragic poet who produced Iphigenia in Aulis and The Bacchae posthumously for his father.

Euripides appears to have led a very quiet life except for his dramatic career. The only public duty attributed to him, an ambassadorship to Syracuse, is generally discounted today. Euripides may have been friendly with the Athenian politician Alcibiades. An epinician ode to Alcibiades is perhaps attributable to the dramatist, and unmistakable strains of Athenian patriotism are notable in such plays as Medea and The...

(The entire section is 1943 words.)

Euripides Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Almost nothing is known for certain about the life of Euripides (yew-RIHP-uh-deez). While a number of ancient authors claim to supply information about his life or to comment upon his character, much of what these authors say has been based upon legends. At their worst, tales about Euripides have been corrupted by how the poet was depicted in ancient comedy and satire. Even at their best, these stories are often merely anecdotes misremembered or invented by the author’s admirers long after his death.

Not even Euripides’ birthplace is known for sure. Most ancient sources suggest that Euripides was born on Salamis, an island off the coast of Athens. Yet this tradition seems to be part of an ancient legend connecting...

(The entire section is 777 words.)

Euripides Biography

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

In the works of Euripides, the traditional stories of Greek tragedy were reinterpreted in light of the philosophical theories current in the late fifth century b.c.e. Gods in Euripides’ works usually personify human emotions and resemble only in outward form the highly anthropomorphic deities of Homer and Sophocles. Kings and nobles from the remote past speak in the language of the Athenian law courts. Ordinary people are also frequently introduced into Euripidean tragedy and are central to the plot.

Throughout the eighteen surviving plays of Euripides, it is possible to trace his evolution as an artist. Early works such as the Medea and the Hippolytus contain, despite...

(The entire section is 171 words.)

Euripides Biography

(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Euripides (yew-RIHP-uh-deez) was the last of the three great Attic tragedians. Conservatives, represented mainly by the comic poets, complained that he debased tragedy by introducing ragged heroes, immoral women, and the subversive casuistry of the sophists. Euripides himself was not, as they allege, of low birth and unhappy in his marriages, though he may well have been a bookish recluse. He was more obviously concerned than were his predecessors with current political and social problems—one can trace his growing disillusionment with the Peloponnesian War from the Andromache to the Trojan Women—but he never held public office, won only four prizes, and was ready to leave Athens for Macedonia (c. 408

(The entire section is 988 words.)

Euripides Biography

(Drama for Students)

The life of Euripides, one of the great tragic playwrights of Classical Greece, spans the ‘‘Golden Age’’ of 5th century B.C. Athens....

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Euripides Biography

(Drama for Students)

As far as historians can tell, Euripides was born in the Greek city-state of Athens around 484 B.C. to parents affluent enough to provide...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Euripides Biography

(Drama for Students)
A bust of Euripides Published by Gale Cengage

Although historians can only piece together the biography of a man who lived before detailed biographical information was reliably recorded,...

(The entire section is 411 words.)