Back to top

The Captive Woman's Lament in Greek Tragedy

The Captive Woman's Lament in Greek Tragedy

A study of captive women's laments that shows how classical dramatists used empathy to pierce the barrier between the Greek and barbarian worlds.

Series: Classics and the Ancient World Endowment

February 2006
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
Add to cart
199 pages | 6 x 9 |

The laments of captive women found in extant Athenian tragedy constitute a fundamentally subversive aspect of Greek drama. In performances supported by and intended for the male citizens of Athens, the songs of the captive women at the Dionysia gave a voice to classes who otherwise would have been marginalized and silenced in Athenian society: women, foreigners, and the enslaved. The Captive Woman's Lament in Greek Tragedy addresses the possible meanings ancient audiences might have attached to these songs. Casey Dué challenges long-held assumptions about the opposition between Greeks and barbarians in Greek thought by suggesting that, in viewing the plight of the captive women, Athenian audiences extended pity to those least like themselves. Dué asserts that tragic playwrights often used the lament to create an empathetic link that blurred the line between Greek and barbarian.

After a brief overview of the role of lamentation in both modern and classical traditions, Dué focuses on the dramatic portrayal of women captured in the Trojan War, tracing their portrayal through time from the Homeric epics to Euripides' Athenian stage. The author shows how these laments evolved in their significance with the growth of the Athenian Empire. She concludes that while the Athenian polis may have created a merciless empire outside the theater, inside the theater they found themselves confronted by the essential similarities between themselves and those they sought to conquer.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. Men's Songs and Women's Songs
  • Chapter 2. Identifying with the Enemy: Love, Loss, and Longing in the Persians of Aeschylus
  • Chapter 3. Athenians and Trojans
  • Chapter 4. The Captive Woman's Lament and Her Revenge in Euripides' Hecuba
  • Chapter 5. A River Shouting with Tears: Euripides' Trojan Women
  • Chapter 6. The Captive Woman in the House: Euripides' Andromache
  • Conclusion: The Tears of Pity
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

Casey Dué is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Houston.


What a pitiful sorrow it would be to hurl this primordial city down to Hades, the slave and quarry of the spear in the crumbling ash, destroyed and losing its honor at the hands of Achaean men and through the will of the gods, with its women overcome and taken into slavery—oh! oh!—young and old women alike, pulled by the locks of their hair, as if they were horses held by the mane, their veils all ripped and torn. The city, emptied, wails in many different voices of lament for its lost population. I am afraid in advance of the heavy doom that is to be.

—Aeschylus, Seven Against Thebes 321-32


Laments of captive women play a substantial role in the Greek literature that has come down to us. In the extract from Seven Against Thebes that I cite above, the chorus of Theban women lament in anticipation of disaster, envisioning with perfect clarity the simultaneous destruction of their city and the capture and rape of its women. That disaster is never in fact realized, since the Thebans are in the end victorious, but the laments of the chorus make clear what is at stake in the siege. The laments of the extant tragedies that deal with the Trojan War are similarly preoccupied with the plight of the captive Trojan women, who, foreign and enslaved, would in all other circumstances be completely without a voice in Greek society.


This appreciation for the consequences that war brings about for women has a long history. In book 8 of the Odyssey, Odysseus is famously compared to a lamenting woman, fallen over the body of her husband, as she is being dragged away into captivity.


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP]

(Odyssey 8.521-31)

The renowned singer sang these things. But Odysseus
melted, and wet the cheeks below his eyelids with a tear.
As when a woman laments, falling over the body of her dear husband
who fell before his city and people,
attempting to ward off the pitiless day for his city and children,
and she, seeing him dying and gasping,
falling around him wails with piercing cries, but men from behind
beating her back and shoulders with their spears
force her to be a slave and have toil and misery,
and with the most pitiful grief her cheeks waste away,
So Odysseus shed a pitiful tear beneath his brows.


The simile is so striking because the generic woman of the simile could easily be one of Odysseus' own victims. As Gregory Nagy has demonstrated, the simile picks up the narrative of the fall of Troy precisely where Demodokos' song is interrupted, with the fight raging near the house of Deiphobus (Odyssey 8.516-20). Although the woman of the simile does not actually speak, the language of the simile has powerful associations with the lamentation of captive women elsewhere in epic, with the result that the listener can easily conjure her song.


An equally striking simile is applied by Achilles to his own situation in Iliad 9:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP]

(Iliad 9.323-27)

Like a bird that brings food to her fledgling young
in her bill, whenever she finds any, even if she herself fares poorly,
so I passed many sleepless nights,
and spent many bloody days in battle,
contending with men for the sake of their wives.


As we will see, Achilles too draws on the suffering of captive women in order to articulate his own sorrow, as he struggles against his mortality and the pleas of his comrades that he return to battle. By using a traditional theme of women's laments, that of the mother bird who has toiled to raise her young only to lose them, Achilles connects on a visceral level with the women that he himself has widowed, robbed of children, and enslaved.


The setting of the Iliad is the Trojan War, a war in which Greeks besiege and ultimately destroy a foreign city. The poem is remarkable for the way that its preoccupation with mortality and the human condition extends even to the enemy. The killing of Hektor by the central figure of the Iliad, Achilles, is a great victory for the Greeks, and yet the camera immediately shifts, as we witness the gut-wrenching reactions of Hektor's mother, father, and wife to his death. Similarly, the Iliad ends not with the funeral of Achilles, who is doomed to die very soon, but instead with the funeral of Hektor. Achilles' own short life and imminent death resonate throughout the laments that are sung for his deadliest enemy. In the words of Simone Weil, who was struck by the equity of compassion with which the suffering of the Greeks and Trojans is narrated: "The whole of the Iliad lies under the shadow of the greatest calamity the human race can experience—the destruction of a city. This calamity could not tear more at the heart had the poet been born in Troy. But the tone is not different when the Achaeans are dying, far from home."


The enslavement and sexual violation of women and the death of husbands are realities of war that are neither condemned nor avoided in epic poetry. As Michael Nagler has shown, the taking of Troy is explicitly compared in the Iliad to the tearing of a woman's veil and hence characterized as a rape. In Iliad 11, Diomedes mocks Paris for the minor wound that he has inflicted on him:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP]

(Iliad 11.389-96)

I don't care—it's as if a woman or senseless child struck me.
The arrow of a worthless coward is blunt.
But when I wound a man it is far otherwise. Even if I just graze his skin,
the arrow is piercing, and quickly renders the man lifeless.
His wife tears both her cheeks in grief
and his children are fatherless, while he, reddening the earth with his blood,
rots, and vultures, not women, surround him.


The horror that Diomedes describes, which culminates in the enemy being left an unlamented corpse that will be eaten by vultures, will in fact be the fate of countless Trojans. And yet the Iliad is not without lamentation. The Iliad ends with the haunting songs of women who are soon to be the Greeks' captive slaves—widowed, foreign, old and young, they are the antithesis of the Greek citizen ideal, the ultimate other. But the grief they initiate is a communal grief, a communal song of mourning that on the surface laments Hektor, but is even more fundamentally Achilles' own song of sorrow.


Although there were many Greek tragedies about the Trojan War, it happens that the three surviving plays most appropriate for this study are all by Euripides. This is mostly an accident of survival. The Trojan War with its aftermath was a popular subject for tragedy, and we know the titles of many lost tragedies that must have featured captive women—Sophocles' Aikhmalotides ("The Captive Women") is a particularly suggestive example. Other lost plays that may have featured the laments of captive women include Aeschylus' Myrmidons, Award of the Arms (Hoplôn Krisis), Thracian Women, and Salaminian Women; Sophocles' Polyxena, Phrygians, Eurysakês, and Cassandra; and Agathon's Fall of Troy.


Why were the Greeks (especially the Athenians) so fascinated with the plight of the captive Trojan women, their own victims in the war that serves as the cornerstone of Greek literary and artistic traditions? Although some might read this fascination as a simple manifestation of colonial imperialism, in this book I have chosen to pursue a different point of view. By analyzing the place of the laments of captive women in the tragedies that they occupy, I hope to show that the Athenians had a particular appreciation, inherited from epic, of the universality of wartime suffering, to the extent that they could explore their own sorrows by experiencing that of their enemies. At the same time, the Athenians maintained a very complex relationship with the Trojan War, such that at various points in the history of the fifth century the Athenians could distance themselves from the Greek collective and interpret the significance of the sack of Troy from the perspective of the defeated Trojans.


Recent work by scholars coming from a variety of specialties within our field has begun to show that the opposition between Greek and barbarian, while undoubtedly an important theme of Greek artistic and poetic traditions, is not as strong a motif as the belief in the shared humanity of Greeks and foreigners. This is especially true of the Athenian treatment of Trojans in epic, drama, and art, but can even be extended to the Persians, as I will discuss in detail in chapter 2. This equalizing and even conflation of Greek and foreigner is central to the very artistic traditions in which one would most expect to find oppositions: a Panhellenic poem about a united Greek expedition against an Asian city, the exploration of Athenian civic identity in tragedy, and the building program that celebrates Athenian victory and continuity in the face of the Persian sack of the city.


This line of argument directly confronts the predominant view among classicists and historians of the ancient world that sees Athenian exploration of their civic identity in the oppositions that are constructed in much of the Greek artistic and intellectual tradition between man and woman, master and slave, Greek and foreigner, and, finally, the eulogy of a state funeral and the wild lamentation of women. The songs of captive women that occupy so much of Greek literature conflate all of these oppositions. In her conclusion to a recent book on the representation of women in Greek tragedy, Foley articulates the traditional view and then qualifies it:


Unquestionably, ancient Greece left a legacy to later Western culture that reinforced symbolic links between female, "nature," domestic/private, emotion/the irrational, and passivity and male, culture, public, rational/the self-controlled, and activity. Greek conceptions of the self and of models of human achievement were also structured in our documents from a male point of view, with women, barbarians, slaves, and children serving to define less fully human alternatives. . . . At the same time, tragedy offers a dialogue in which women, slaves, barbarians, and even divinities are represented in a complex and powerful public performance.


As Foley perceives, the categories of male, female, Greek, barbarian, slave, and free become blurred in Greek tragedy as often as they are sharply drawn. This blurring is due in part to the nature of the genre, at least part of whose function is to question and hold up for criticism by inversion and exaggeration the institutions that are central to civic life.


But there is more to the captive woman's lament than that. The plight of the captive woman is not simply a recurring theme by which Athenians explore and then ultimately reinforce their collective (and superior) identity. The emotions of tragedy ensure that Athenians at times identify with and at others react with pity to those who should be least like them, uniting all oppositions for the duration of the performance and perhaps even beyond it. Aeschylus' Persians is a tragedy that should not be a tragedy if we are to assert a rigid distinction between Greeks and barbarians. After all, the plot consists of the defeat of the Persians at Salamis, a great Athenian victory. The lamentation of the Persians upon defeat takes up a significant portion of the play. The Persians is a tragedy precisely because the Athenians had the capacity to see themselves in the Persians.


As with the question of Greeks and barbarians, the prominence of women's songs in a medium that is composed and performed by and for men is surprising and poses serious challenges for the modern critic. In the case of women's laments the foundational work of Margaret Alexiou, The Ritual Lament in the Greek Tradition, shows that for this one category of feminine speech, at least, continuities can be traced from the oral epic poetry of the Iliad and Odyssey to Archaic and Classical Greek lyric and drama all the way through to modern Greek funeral lament. This is a crucial point. The representation of women in tragedy is one of the most discussed issues in classical studies, and recent work has had mixed results. Little evidence survives that can inform us about women's speech or song in "real life." All we have are the representations of women in men's literature, and the picture that this literature provides is demonstrably distorted. Nevertheless, the work of Laura McClure and others has gone a long way toward demonstrating useful ways in which the speech of women in tragedy and other genres can be analyzed.


In this book I do not attempt to evaluate or prove a theory about the relationship between the historical reality of Archaic and Classical Greek funeral laments and the stylized representations of lament in Greek tragedy. Rather I am more interested in the way that the captive woman's lament functions as a theme in Greek epic and then tragedy, with its own particular conventions, resonance, and emotional impact. In chapter 1, however, I will address the relationship between women's song traditions and men's representations of those song traditions in the light of new comparative evidence.


A Taxonomy of Tragic Lament


What are the features of lament, and how do we see them expressed or represented in Greek tragedy? The Greek lament tradition has in fact over the past several decades attracted a great deal of attention from both classicists (who focus on the laments that survive in Archaic and Classical Greek literature) and anthropologists (who trace the continuity of ancient traditions in modern Greek communities, traditions that have persisted over perhaps more than 3,500 years). The seminal work of Margaret Alexiou was the first to explore the continuity of this tradition. In recent years laments have been interpreted as powerful speech-acts, capable of inciting violent action. Many scholars have pointed out that in the context of lament, women can voice subversive concerns, and speak in ways that they cannot under any other circumstances. It is in fact one of the central aims of this book to point out the many instances in which women in tragedy use the "language of lament" to manipulate their listeners and achieve various goals.


For classicists who study ancient Greek laments, there are a number of formal examples that survive in Homeric epic and tragedy. As will become clear, however, in this book I do not restrict my analysis to formal laments for the dead. The laments of tragedy are for the most part divorced from funerary ritual, in the sense that tragedy rarely presents to the viewer an actual funeral. But there is of course a great deal of calamity and death in tragedy, and the conventions of Greek funeral lament are at the heart of the poetry of tragedy. Aeschylus' Persians, for example, consists mainly of a series of laments for the Persian war dead and for Persia as a nation. Other tragedies have a similar structure, particularly those for which the chorus is a group of captive women, or those that revolve around the death of a central hero. Lamentation and funeral ritual are both incorporated into and transformed by tragedy, as Charles Segal has shown:


All of the three extant tragedians incorporate within their plays the rites of lamentation that we know from archaic poetry and from other premodern societies. All draw heavily on the function of song in an oral culture to give ritualized expression to intense emotion and to provide comfort, solace, and security amid anxiety, confusion, and loss. By absorbing the cries of grief into the lyricism of a choral lament, the tragic poet is able to identify the emotional experience of suffering with the musical and rhythmic impulse of dance and song.


Segal argues that while tragedy is heavily indebted to earlier poetic forms of commemoration and expression of suffering, it is also "radically new" in that it transforms whatever it uses and synthesizes genres and rituals in new ways.


Formal laments for the dead in the Greek tradition generally conform to a three-part pattern, which consists of a direct address, a narrative of the past or future, and then a renewed address accompanied by reproach and lamentation. In tragedy, these three elements are both combined and isolated from one another in countless ways to express immeasurable sorrow. Any one of the three parts may evoke the genre, emotions, and rituals of lament, thereby contributing to the overall atmosphere of sorrow and evoking the pity of the audience. Just as lamentation in tragedy is generally separated from the rites of an actual funeral, so also the poetic structure, traditional themes, and language of lament can be manipulated and employed with great effect in nonritual contexts.


Alexiou's study identifies three basic categories of Greek ritual laments: those for gods and heroes, those for the fall of cities, and those for the dead. Although the protagonists of tragedy are indeed heroes in the cultural and religious sense of that word, I would argue that the laments of tragedy are most closely related to laments for the dead. This is probably because tragedy does not for the most part represent the worship of heroes onstage, but rather their prototypical suffering and death. As in epic, the laments of tragedy are sung by family members for family members, as though this were the first time that the hero was ever lamented. In this way, what is a lament for the dead onstage becomes a lament for the hero on the part of the audience.


But whereas the majority of the laments of tragedy are a special combination of lament for the dead and lament for the hero, the laments of captive women span all three categories. Captive women lament their fallen city as much as they lament their husbands, brothers, and sons. The spectacle of Troy and its sack dominates the odes that Trojan women sing. As Shirley Barlow has noted, the odes "manage to create, through a series of brilliant images, the extraordinary physicality and intimacy of that place—its houses, its acropolis, its gates, its temples, its altars, its graven images." Not all words spoken by captive women in these plays are formal laments, but they are infused with the traditional imagery, metaphors, and themes of laments for fallen cities and laments for the dead.


Alexiou shows that the lament for the fall of cities, an important Byzantine poetic tradition, particularly after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, was already a traditional form of song in classical times. The following passages from Aeschylus' Persians are adduced by Alexiou to demonstrate some of the features of this kind of lament:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP]

(Persians 1002-3)

XERXES: Gone then, are the army's leaders.
CHORUS: Gone, alas, unnamed!


(Persians 1008-9)

XERXES: We are stricken with misfortune through the ages.
CHORUS: We are stricken—it is too clear.


In these passages we find the use of the perfect tense, which conveys the idea that prosperity, happiness, and the city itself have vanished. We may compare Trojan Women 582: [Greek text] ("Happiness has gone, Troy has gone"). The antiphonal structure exhibited here is a fundamental feature of these laments and indeed all Greek laments. In both the Hecuba and the Trojan Women there are multiple exchanges between Hecuba and the chorus, as well as between Hecuba and the other protagonists. In the Andromache, Andromache and her young son lament their impending deaths in a similar antiphonal exchange.


An anonymous tragic fragment about the defeat of the Persians is cited by Alexiou to demonstrate another important feature of laments for the fall of cities, and that is a series of questions, usually beginning with "where?":


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP]

Where are those majestic things? Where is Kroisos,
great lord of Lydia, or Xerxes, who yoked
the deep neck of the sea of Hellespont?
All are gone to Hades' and Lethe's halls.


Questions beginning with "where?", accompanied by an answer in the perfect tense, are the mark of laments for fallen cities, but questions are a common feature of laments for the dead as well. The mourner asks how she can begin to express her grief, or reproaches the dead by asking why he has left her or why he has abandoned his family. The captive woman's lament combines these themes, as the city, husbands, and children are mourned together, and the mourner expresses fear and anxiety about her own future in captivity and longs for death.


As a stunning example of the combination of themes and emotions that converge in the captive woman's lament I cite again the antiphonal choral passage from the Trojan Women mentioned above:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP]

(Trojan Women 577-97)

ANDROMACHE: The Achaean masters are leading me away.
HECUBA: Woe is me! ANDROMACHE: Why do you sing my own song of lament?
HECUBA: Alas! ANDROMACHE: Alas for this pain—
HECUBA: Oh Zeus! ANDROMACHE: and disaster!
HECUBA: Children! ANDROMACHE: We were once your children.


HECUBA: Happiness has gone, Troy has gone!
ANDROMACHE: Miserable! HECUBA: And the nobility of my children is gone!
ANDROMACHE: Alas! Alas! HECUBA: Alas for my
ANDROMACHE: evils. HECUBA: Pitiful is the fortune
ANDROMACHE: of the city HECUBA: which is now smoldering.


ANDROMACHE: Please come, my husband—
HECUBA: You call for one who is in Hades,
and my son, unhappy woman!
ANDROMACHE: please come as defender of your wife!


ANDROMACHE: You, the outrage of the Achaeans,
HECUBA: the eldest of my
children by Priam.
ANDROMACHE: Take me to Hades.


ANDROMACHE: Great is my longing [pothoi]— HECUBA: Wretch, we suffer this pain—
ANDROMACHE: for the city that is gone. HECUBA: pain lies on top of pain.


Here Andromache and Hecuba lament the city of Troy, Hektor, their children, and their own suffering in a dizzying antiphonal exchange. The complex combination of themes and emotions is signaled by the structure, in which Andromache and Hecuba at some points complete each other's sentences, and at others interrupt with a completely different syntax.


As I will argue in chapter 2 with reference to the Persians, the word pothos invoked by Andromache here conveys several ideas at the same time. In the first instance, the longing might be assumed to be that of a wife for her husband. At the same time the audience experiences or at least is reminded of longing for the absent hero. But in the next line, Andromache completes the thought, and the pothos becomes a longing for the city of Troy.


Just as tragedy makes use of the initial questions of traditional laments to express the desperation of captive women, so also do captive women narrate the past in order to articulate the contrast between their past and present experiences. In the Hecuba, for example, Polyxena laments herself as she expresses her willingness to die:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP]

(Euripides, Hecuba 349-57)

Why is it necessary for me to live? I whose father was lord
of all the Phrygians? This was the most important thing in life for me.
Then was I nursed on fair hopes
to be a bride for kings, the object of considerable rivalry among suitors,
to see whose home and hearth I would make my own;
and over the women of Ida I was queen—I, the unfortunate one!—
a maiden marked amid women and girls,
equal to the gods, save for death alone.
But now I am a slave.


Polyxena's lament is striking precisely because it is not a lament for the dead. Lamenting women often describe the plight in which the dead man (be he husband or father) has left them, speculating on the miseries that await them. As Michael Herzfeld has shown in his work on modern Crete, Greek women traditionally do this in an attempt to gain sympathy and make a place for themselves in the living community, now that they no longer have the protection of the man who has died. But Polyxena is here narrating her life story in anticipation of her own death; she no longer has a place in the living community.


Andromache too narrates her life experiences, combining her story with the desperate questions and longing for death that are likewise traditional components of laments for the dead:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP]

(Euripides, Andromache 399-407)

I endured the sight of the Hektor's death by dragging from a chariot,
and of Ilium piteously burning.
I myself embarked on an Argive ship as a slave,
dragged by my hair. And when I arrived in
Phthia, I became the bride of Hektor's killers.
How, then, is life sweet for me? Where can I look?
To my present or my past fortunes?
I had one child left to me, the light of my life,
and those to whom these things seem best intend to kill him.


Captive women frequently lament themselves in anticipation of death and disaster, because lament is the only medium through which women have a sanctioned public voice, the one weapon they have with which to defend themselves in desperate circumstances. Here, Andromache's words are addressed to Menelaus (who is threatening to kill her and her son) and to the chorus of Greek women of Phthia. The chorus' reaction is telling: [Greek] ("Upon hearing [her words], I pity her," 421). Compare the chorus' reaction to Andromache's earlier, more rational (and masculine) arguments: [Greek] ("You have said too much for a woman speaking to men," 364). We can see that whereas her previous reasoned arguments failed, the emotionally powerful and traditional form of lament has gained for Andromache not only the approval of the Greek chorus, but even their sympathy.


Euripides' surviving tragedies that deal most directly with the sack of Troy theme feature captive women not only as protagonists but also as the chorus. In the Hecuba and the Trojan Women, the suffering of Hecuba as an individual is balanced against the suffering of the Trojan Women as a collective in the choral odes. Thus the plays comprise a series of laments by Hecuba, interspersed with choral odes that are themselves laments and exemplify many traditional aspects of the genre. In Euripides' Trojan Women, the captive women who make up the chorus of the drama call upon the Muse and propose to sing a new kind of song about Troy:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP](Trojan Women 511-21)

Sing for me, O Muse, the story of Troy, a mournful song in new strains, with tears; for now I will cry out a song for Troy, telling how as a wretched captive of war I was destroyed by the four-footed beast that moved on wheels, when the Achaeans left at our gates that horse, loud rumbling to the sky, with its trappings of gold and its freight of warriors.


What follows is an account of the fall of Troy, told from the perspective of the now-captive Trojan women. When the wooden horse was brought into Troy, everyone rejoiced with songs (529). At night choruses of young women danced and sang to Phrygian tunes from the Libyan pipe (544-47) and torches were lit in the houses (548-50). The chorus then goes on to recount how they were in the palace dancing and singing in honor of Artemis when they heard the "bloody shout" (551-57):


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP] (Trojan Women 557-67)

Beloved infants threw their arms around the garments of their mothers, terrified; Ares was emerging from his place of ambush. It was the work of the maiden Pallas. Phrygians were slaughtered at the altar, and among the bed linens headless desolation offered up a crown of young women to raise sons for Greece, and sorrow [penthos] for the land of the Phrygians.


In this book I argue that in the Greek tradition women have always sung songs about wars and the deeds of heroes. But when they tell the tale of Troy, the song is one of penthos, not kleos. Here the chorus recounts events that were narrated in an epic tradition now lost to us, the Ilioupersis ("Sack of Troy"). This song allows its Greek audience to visualize the events through the eyes of the other side. For the duration of the song the audience experiences as a Trojan, and even more extraordinarily, as a woman, first the euphoria of believing the war to be over and then the horror of the sack of the city. In men's songs about Troy, heroes kill their warrior opponents, and both men win kleos. In women's songs, children are terrified, husbands are slain, and women are raped and taken captive. Just as the protagonists of the Trojan War plays such as Hecuba, Polyxena, and Andromache tell the tale of Troy through lament, so too do the choruses of these plays offer an alternative version, a new song about the fall of Troy, told from the point of view of the women who survived it.


In the Hecuba, a no less extraordinary account of the sack is sung and danced by the chorus:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP] (Euripides, Hecuba 914-42)

It was in the middle of the night my ruin came, in the hour when sleep steals sweetly over the eyes after the feast is done. My husband, the music over, and the sacrifice that initiates the dance now ended, was lying in our bridal-chamber, his spear hung on a peg, with never a thought of the throng of sailors encamped upon the Trojan shores.

I meanwhile was braiding my hair in a headband before my golden mirror's countless rays, so that I might lay down to rest in my bed; when through the city rose a din, and a cry went ringing down the streets of Troy, "O sons of Hellas, when, oh! when will you sack the citadel of Ilium, and seek your homes?"

Up sprang I from my bed, with only a tunic about me, like a Dorian girl, and sought in vain, ah me! to station myself at the holy hearth of Artemis; for, after seeing my husband killed, I was hurried away over the broad sea; with many a backward look at my city, when the ship began her homeward voyage and parted me from Ilium's shore; until alas! I succumbed to grief.


The perspective of this ode is even more intimate than that of the Trojan Women. The chorus describes how they were in their bedrooms, preparing for bed. The feast and dancing are over and the weapons have been hung up on their pegs when the shouts begin. At this moment, the chorus, describing their state of undress when Troy fell, make an extraordinary comparison: they were dressed only in their tunics (monopeplos, 933), "like a Dorian girl." In describing that moment of shock and horror in which the Trojan women spring from their marriage beds, realize what is happening, and seek refuge with Artemis, the chorus compares themselves to a Greek girl—momentarily collapsing the distinction between Greek and Trojan amidst the chaos of a city under assault.


This choral ode from the Hecuba has as much in common with traditional laments for the dead as it does with laments for the fall of cities. This kind of song, common to both captive female protagonists and choruses in Greek tragedy, combines grief for the loss of one's home with the helplessness and anxiety about the future traditionally expressed in laments for individuals. In this way the captive woman's lament merges two traditions and becomes a category in its own right, with its own conventions and emotional force.


This category of lament is itself closely tied to a similar and overarching phenomenon in Greek tragedy: women who lament themselves. As Alexiou has pointed out, Cassandra, the suppliant women of Aeschylus, Jocasta, Antigone, Deianeira, Alcestis, Hecuba, Polyxena, Medea, Phaedra, Andromache, and Iphigeneia all perform laments for themselves in anticipation of death or disaster. Of these, Cassandra, Hecuba, Polyxena, and Andromache are captive Trojan women. Medea, it could be argued, casts herself in the role of the captive woman in order to gain sympathy and indulgence from Jason while she formulates her revenge. Several of the remaining women on the list in fact commit suicide, the culmination of the helplessness to which their lamentation gives voice. In this way tragedy reinvents the characteristic wish for death on the part of the mourner, and turns the mourner into the lamented dead.




So far I have stressed the traditional form of Greek laments and the way that the captive woman's lament in Greek tragedy manipulates this form in order to speak out and elicit the sympathy of the other characters and the audience. As we will see in the ensuing chapters, the traditional content of laments for the dead—including traditional metaphors, imagery, and themes—is likewise incorporated into the songs of captive women. Many laments in the Greek tradition are also love songs or songs about the loss of love. Erotic imagery and reflections on marriage are intertwined with grief and sorrow, thereby uniting the traditional concerns of Greek women in a single but constantly shifting emotional dynamic. The tragedians develop these traditional themes of love, loss, marriage, and death in the tragedies that feature women as protagonists precisely because these are the themes particularly associated with women's song traditions. As I have argued elsewhere, captive women fulfill one of two paradigms: they are either unmarried women who have lost their fathers, or married women who have lost their husbands. The first group, represented by such figures as Polyxena and Cassandra, are depicted as being on the verge of marriage or else eminently marriageable; they narrate their girlhood and lament the marriage they should have had. The second group consists of women who have been married but are often depicted as young brides, cruelly separated from their newly wed husbands. All use the language of lament to speak out about their own suffering and the consequences of war for women.


Marginal Figures and Choral Authority


The central importance of the chorus for the theme and plot of any given drama is underscored by the titles assigned to these tragedies by our sources, which frequently name the play after the composition of the chorus (e.g., the Libation Bearers of Aeschylus or the Trachinian Women of Sophocles). Choruses comprising captive women are a relatively common feature of Greek tragedy. It is therefore important to consider the significance of choral identity and the function of choruses in general if we are to assess the thematic impact in tragedy of captive women and their laments.


Current scholarship on the chorus of Greek tragedy is very much divided, however, in its interpretation of the nature of the chorus itself and its relationship to the audience. Many scholars emphasize the role that the chorus plays in reacting to events onstage on behalf of the audience. They are the physical, cognitive, and emotional link between the world of the heroes in the drama and the world of the fifth-century Athenian audience; the audience therefore experiences the action and suffering of the drama by way of the chorus. In recent years, however, there have been several studies that seek to undermine the authority of the chorus by emphasizing its marginality and frequent lack of knowledge or agency within the plays. John Gould writes: "[the members of the chorus] express, not the values of the polis, but far more often the experience of the excluded, the oppressed, and the vulnerable."


The former view of the chorus must therefore account for the extraordinary disparity between the Athenian citizen audience and the marginal identity of the chorus of most dramas. For choruses of captive women, we must ask how characters who are wholly opposite to the Greek citizen male could speak to the values of those in the audience or teach the young men portraying them. It is in fact the disparity between the chorus member and the character of the captive woman he becomes in performance that is one of the more extraordinary aspects of the captive woman's lament.


The most obvious category separating the Athenian audience and many tragic choruses is gender. Helene Foley points out that female choruses outnumber male ones by 2 to 1 in extant tragedy. Claude Calame, moreover, has demonstrated some of the many continuities (as well as the discontinuities) involved in the incorporation of choruses of young women from Archaic and aristocratic festival contexts into the world of the City Dionysia. The impersonation of the choral dancing of adolescent females by adolescent males seems to have been a crucial element in the experience of being a chorus member.


The choral singing and dancing of young men in tragic choruses is only one component of tragedy's engagement with feminine modes of discourse, however, and is part of a larger structure. The classic study in English of the feminine and the theater is Froma Zeitlin's Playing the Other (1996), which draws on her own earlier pathfinding work and that of other scholars such as Nicole Loraux and Jean-Pierre Vernant. In her analyses of several individual works of epic, tragedy, and comedy, Zeitlin articulates the theory that Greek tragedy uses the feminine to explore the masculine, and does so under the aegis of the god Dionysus, who is the god most clearly associated with the crossing of boundaries and the impersonation of the other. The experience of "playing the other" belongs to both the actors onstage and the spectators in the audience, and it is by no means confined to the playing of female roles by male actors. The tragedies of Euripides offer the most complete exploration of the phenomenon:


[T]he distinctive features of Euripidean theater . . . may lend support to my suggestion about the intimate relations between the feminine and the theater. Thus, I see the distinctive traits in Euripidean drama as various and interlocking functions of one another: his greater interest in and skill at subtly portraying the psychology of the female characters and his general emphasis on interior states of mind as well as on the private emotional life of the individual, most often located in the feminine situation. We may add to these his particular fondness for plots of complex intrigue (usually suggested by women) that use strategies of trickery, deceit, contrivance, and devising (dolos, apatê, technê, mêchanê) and that, with their resort to disguise and role playing, are an explicit sign of an enhanced theatricality. Finally, we may include more generally Euripides' thematic concern with metaphysical questions of reality and illusion in the world.


By viewing plays with these plots the audience becomes inextricably involved in tragedy's exploration of the feminine, even if only temporarily:


In the end tragedy arrives at closures that generally reassert male, often paternal (or civic), structures of authority, but before that the work of the drama is to open up the masculine view of the universe. It typically does so, as we have seen, through energizing the theatrical resources of the female and concomitantly enervating the male as the price of initiating actor and spectator into new and unsettling modes of feeling, seeing, and knowing.


Here I am less interested in the experience of the professional first, second, and third actors who act out the plot and more interested in that of the nonprofessional chorus members. What is their connection to the feminine aspects of Greek drama, and to the experience and emotions of the audience? One well-known if not universally accepted answer has been proposed by John Winkler, who emphasized the ephebic dynamic of the chorus. He noted that chorus members were typically young men at the age at which they would undergo military training, and he pointed out the many similarities between what we know of the choreography of the chorus and military formations and drills. Winkler argued that the focus of the City Dionysia was in fact the ephebes, and that the festival was a kind of civic initiation, or in Winkler's words, "a social event focused on those young warriors." He saw the training involved in choral dancing to be rigorous and highly disciplined. The ephebes who danced in the chorus became a representative subgroup of the ephebate as whole, making a display of the military training that they were in the process of undergoing.


Although Winkler argues that the experience of dancing in the chorus was a kind of rite of passage, he cautions that it was not exactly so, because not all ephebes danced in the chorus: "More accurately, they were representative of those actually undergoing social puberty: only a select group of the best ephebic singer-dancers could actually perform." Winkler notes that because of this he has not emphasized in his discussion what he calls the most obvious connection to rites of passages, the fact that sometimes these ephebes played the role of women. He argues that the experience of being in the audience is as important as performing onstage, and that in any case, the chorus need not be women. Here I take some exception to Winkler's argument. While it is true that not all choruses are women, the choruses of two-thirds of the surviving tragedies are. Since the same chorus danced all four plays that were entered by each playwright, the vast majority of all choruses would have danced the role of a woman.


But Winkler is right that the category of woman is only one of many interlocking categories of marginality that constitute the composition of tragic choruses. Building on Winkler's work, Gregory Nagy has shown that it is the playing of any number of marginal characters that is the crucial dynamic:


The chorus members in the seasonally recurring Athenian dramatic festivals are to be understood, at least from the ritual point of view, as citizens-in-the-making. At the moment of their performance, the rank-and-file chorus members are marginal to society as chorus members. They are notionally precivic, not yet civic. Moreover, they act out mostly marginal members of society in the world of heroes, such as old men, young girls, prisoners of war. Their acting out such roles conforms to the ritual function of the chorus as an educational collectivization of experience. Their experience of paideia "education" in the chorus is like a stylized rite of passage, or initiation, which leads from the marginality of precitizenship into the eventual centrality of citizenship.


Thus when ephebes sing and dance the role of the captive Trojan women, their marginal status is overdetermined. They are women and slaves and foreign: they are as marginal as they can possibly be.


In her work on marginal figures in Greek tragedy, Mary Ebbott has demonstrated that the overdetermined marginality of choruses and other dramatic characters participates in an ongoing exploration in tragedy of the self by way of the other. She points out, however, that the oppositions set up between self and other are not as strictly maintained as is often asserted:


When marginal figures such as foreigners, slaves, and bastards function as the Other through which the central Self is explored, there is an interaction between these usually separate categories. In different genres we may see the strict oppositions that I have enumerated between insiders and outsiders, but while these outsiders create, mark, and signify difference in tragedy, they also break down difference. The boundaries they define they also cross, and these seemingly contradictory actions co-exist. . . . The Self is explored through the Other, but is not subsumed by the Other. Instead, there is this interaction between the two.


Ebbott's formulation applies to the tragic experience as a whole. Main characters, chorus members, and, through them, audience members participate in this crossing of boundaries as the centrality of Athens is explored by way of the margins.


Learning Lessons from the Trojan War


Nagy's equation of participation in the chorus with education is a formulation that is at least as old as Plato's Laws 654a: [Greek], or, as Simon Goldhill paraphrases in his own discussion of the educational dynamic of choral performance, "lack of training in singing, dancing, and poetry is synonymous with lack of education." This education is much more than training in the skills of singing and dancing: "the poet and his poetry constitute a way of transmitting the cultural heritage of a society." This simultaneous commemorative and didactic function is arguably the primary role of tragedy in Athenian society, even if we acknowledge, as we should, that the work and creative processes of the poet are far more complicated than that role might suggest. That tragedy is in some sense didactic is perhaps not a surprising statement. But defining the nature of the lesson that tragedy seeks to teach is indeed a difficult task.


Sometimes the chorus makes specifically Athenian connections in their song that perhaps provide a clue to their function. When Hecuba's daughter Polyxena goes off to her death earlier in the Hecuba, this is the song of her fellow captive women:


[Greek text omitted from online excerpt. —UTP] (Euripides, Hecuba 444-83)

CHORUS: Breeze arising from out the deep, breeze that escorts swift, seafaring ships to harbors across the surging sea! Where will you take me, the child of sorrow? To whose house shall I be brought, acquired to be his slave? To some haven in the Dorian land, or in Phthia, where they say the Apidanus river, father of fairest streams, makes the land fat and rich?

Or to an island home, sent on a voyage of misery by oars that sweep the sea, leading a piteous life in halls where the first-created palm and the laurel tree put forth their sacred shoots for dear Latona, as a memorial of her divine birth-pains? And there with the maidens of Delos shall I hymn the golden headband and bow of Artemis their goddess?

Or in the city of Pallas, the home of Athena of the beautiful chariot, shall I upon her saffron robe yoke horses to the car, weaving them on my web in brilliant varied shades, or [shall I weave] the race of Titans, whom Zeus the son of Kronos lays to their unending sleep with his bolt of flashing flame?

Woe is me for my children! Woe for my ancestors, and my country, which is falling in smoldering ruin amid the smoke, sacked by the Argive spear! While I upon a foreign shore am called a slave, leaving Asia, Europe's handmaid, and receiving in its place the chambers of Hades.


Here the chorus members wonder where they will be taken and what their lives will be like. The ode is remarkable in that it combines the questions and traditional themes of sorrow typical of the captive woman's laments with the far away locations of an escape song. But equally striking are the references to Athenian institutions and song traditions. The Ionian festival in honor of Apollo on Delos had special significance for the Athenians. And in the second strophe the chorus alludes to the festival of the Panathenaia in Athens, imagining that they might be weavers of the Panathenaic peplos. This is an unrealistic speculation, of course—only the most highborn of Athenian citizen women and girls were chosen for this task. In the Trojan Women, the chorus goes even further: they hope that of all places in Greece they will be taken to Athens, "the famous and blessed land of Theseus."


Such passages, which praise Athenian institutions and religious traditions, do not necessarily blur the distinction between Athenian and Trojan—a phenomenon that I explore throughout this book—but may in fact have the opposite effect. In chapters 4 and 5 I argue that these passages highlight Athenian participation in the Trojan War on the side of the Achaeans, and thus ask the Athenian audience to contemplate the plight of their historical victims, as well as those of the current war. That the actions of the Athenians are not outright condemned is clear from these very same passages, which portray Athens as holy and famous and powerful. This is how Athens imagines that it is seen in the eyes of others, including those of its enemies and victims in war. The passages then are a testament to the complexity of tragedy as a civic institution, in that they combine an awareness of Athens' prominence and power with a respect for the helpless victims of war.


Euripides' Hecuba and Trojan Women were produced within a relatively brief period of history, however, and I have understood them to be reflective of a particular time period, the height of the hostilities known collectively as the Peloponnesian War. It is appropriate that the mixture I have outlined in this book of pride and self-reflection, pity for the victims of war, and fear for their own potential losses be experienced and transmitted to the audience by a group of young men who in their dancing and singing as a chorus represent the Athenian ephebate. These young men will be the very ones soon fighting for Athens, and they will be in a position to either sack cities in victory or lose their lives defending their wives, mothers, and children. In this way the educational, initiatory, civic, and personal aspects of the choral experience come together most acutely in the role of captive women during this time period.


If we step back and look at the fifth century B.C. as a whole, we see that Athens moved gradually from several decades of defensive hostilities against the Persians to increasingly aggressive control over an empire and finally to war with rival Greek powers. As I argue throughout this book, the plight of the captive women of Troy as a theme must likewise have evolved in its significance over the course of the century even as tragedy itself evolved as a civic institution. Earlier in the century, a chorus of captive women of Troy was employed by Aeschylus as the incarnation of vengeance. The captive Trojan women who lament at the tomb of Agamemnon in the Libation Bearers become the terrifying, vengeful Erinyes of the Eumenides. When the Oresteia was produced in 458 B.C., Athens was gaining strength but still recovering from the Persian sack; much of the Acropolis would have still been in ruins or awaiting rebuilding.


In chapter 3 I argue in support of the thesis of Gloria Ferrari that the Athenians of the mid-fifth century B.C. could identify easily with the Trojans as a people whose homes and temples had been destroyed by an invading army. The vengeful laments of the chorus of Trojan women in the Libation Bearers may well have resonated with the Athenian audience on that level. For the chorus of young men playing the role, the lamentation and anger of the Trojan women within the already Atheno-centric construct of the Oresteia could have instructed them in the history of their city, inspired in them a determination to make Athens a world power, and initiated them into manhood through the experience of playing the ultimate other.


A generation after the Oresteia, the Trojan War had not lost its programmatic centrality in Athenian myth, literature, and art, but the lessons to be learned from that war had changed. Whereas once the Athenians could distance themselves from the sackers of Troy and the atrocities they committed, by the third quarter of the fifth century B.C. Athens had become a major sea power and had acquired an empire. The fact that now Athens had become the sacker of cities and a world power makes the deployment of the captive woman's lament on the tragic stage all the more remarkable. Nevertheless, as I investigate the place of the captive woman's lament in Athenian tragedy, I hope to show that the exploration of sorrow through the eyes of the enemy is at the heart of ancient Greek literary, performative, and artistic expression. In doing so I rely on the work of a number of scholars who in the past decade have examined Greek lament, women's speech and the representation of women in Greek tragedy, the Greek construction of the barbarian, and the fall of Troy in Greek poetry in art, as well as those who have produced critical editions of the plays that I discuss. It is my hope that in assembling these manifold and illuminating resources for an exploration of the captive woman's lament I not only demonstrate the importance of this group of songs for our understanding of tragedy, but also offer new insight into the Athenian conception of their own identity and their relationship with the Trojan past.



Available for Kindle
Available on Google Play
Available on Kobo
Available for Nook
Available on the Apple Store

This book may also be available on the following library platforms; check with your local library:
3M Cloud Library/bibliotheca
UPCC/Project Muse