Iphigenia in Aulis

by Euripides

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Euripides’s play offers a story of filial loyalty and sacrifice of one’s personal well-being—and even one’s life—for the greater good of family and society. Iphigenia’s father must make a difficult decision after a seer recommends that he sacrifice his daughter so that he and his brother can wage war. Her nobility ultimately relieves him of the burden of making this difficult decision.

Iphigenia’s father is Agamemnon and his brother is King Menelaus. The play provides some backstory to the more well-known classical tales of the Trojan War. Just before Iphigenia in Aulis begins, Menelaus’s wife, Helen, has been abducted by Paris, who takes her from Greece to his native Ilium (Troy). Menelaus enlists his brother’s help to retrieve her; they raise an army and ready the troops to sail from Aulis. However, there is no wind and they remain becalmed. Seeking a solution, they consult a seer named Calchas. His opinion is that the goddess of virginity, Artemis the Huntress, needs appeasing. A virgin girl is the suitable sacrifice, and Calchas tells Agamemnon he is required to sacrifice his daughter. Once accomplished, the winds will return and they can set sail.

Agamemnon is at first unwilling to accept this pronouncement, but he feels duty bound to keep his word to his brother. Once he agrees, he writes to Clytemnestra, his wife and the girl’s mother, that Iphigenia is to marry the great warrior-hero Achilles before the troops sail, and that she must bring their daughter to Aulis for the wedding, which she does.

It seems for a while that the father’s reflections will cause him to call off the sacrifice, as he realizes this is a lot to do for his brother. After he and Menelaus argue about valor and duty, both men decide they have to go through with the plan. Agamemnon rationalizes that the armies, which are ready for a fight, will believe in the seer’s message. If he backs out, the armies might see him as weak and condemn his sacrilege in defying divine will.

Still not being honest with his wife, Agamemnon tries to convince her not to attend the wedding but return to Argos. When Clytemnestra queries Achilles about his plans, he tells her the truth. Enlisting the great hero’s backing, she also gains support from her son, Orestes; they beg Agamemnon to spare Iphigenia. When he suggests the idea to the armies, Odysseus and his troops threaten to stone him to death. Even as Achilles and his men start to back Agamemnon’s forces, Iphigenia decides the issue for herself. She proves to be the noblest hero when she voluntarily gives up her life.

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