Biography of Euripides, Third of the Great Tragedians


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Euripides was an ancient writer of Greek tragedy — the third of the famous trio (with Sophocles and Aeschylus).

He wrote about women and mythological themes, like Medea and Helen of Troy. He enhanced the importance of intrigue in tragedy. Some aspects of Euripides' tragedy seem more at home in comedy than in tragedy, and, indeed, he is considered to have been a significant influence on the creation of Greek New Comedy. This comic development comes after the lifetime of Euripides and his contemporary, the most familiar writer of Old Comedy, Aristophanes.

Life and Career

A contemporary of the second of the tragedy trio, Sophocles, Euripides was born around 484 B.C. to his parents Mnesarchus or Mnesarchides (a merchant from the Athenian deme of Phlya) and Cleito. It is believed he might have been born on Salamis or Phlya, although that may be a coincidence of the inventive methods used to date his birth.

[see: "Euripides and Macedon, or the Silence of the 'Frogs,'" by Scott Scullion; The Classical Quarterly (Nov. 2003), pp. 389-400]

Euripides died in 406, possibly in Macedonia. Euripides' birth was anecdotally related to have been on the day of the Battle of Salamis.

Euripides' first competition might have been in 455. He came in third. His initial first prize came in 442, but out of about 92 plays, Euripides won only four more first prizes — the last, posthumously. Despite winning only limited acclaim during his lifetime, Euripides was the most popular of the three great tragedians for generations after his death. After the ill-fated Sicilian expedition, those Athenians who could recite Euripides were saved from slave-labor in the mines, says Plutarch, according to David Kawalko Roselli, in "Vegetable-Hawking Mom and Fortunate Son: Euripides, Tragic Style, and Reception," Phoenix Vol. 59, No. 1/2 (Spring-Summer, 2005), pp. 1-49. Aeschylus may have visited Sicily — where Euripides would be well known — to produce his play Women of Aetna, in the late 470s. Euripides may have gone to southern Italy to produce Melanippe Captive, according to Scullion. In David Kawalko Roselli's review of Why Athens? A Reappraisal of Tragic Politics. Edited by D. M. Carter, he mentions that Anne Duncan ("Nothing to Do with Athens?

Tragedians at the Courts of Tyrants,”) thinks Euripides (like his predecessor Aeschylus) was following his 'market' to Italy.


Ancient sources on Euripides include the seemingly most reliable Philochorus, an annalist of the third century B.C., another third century figure, Satyrus (fragments of his life of Euripides were among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri vol. ix) [source: Gilbert Murray], Apollodorus (2nd century B.C. at Alexandria), and Plutarch, and from Medieval times, the Suda. Aristophanes provides biographical anecdotes about Euripides [source: Roselli].


Euripides may have died in Athens. Ancient writers from the third century B.C. (starting with a poem by Hermesianax [Scullion]) claim Euripides died in 407/406, not in Athens, but in Macedonia, at the court of King Archelaus. Euripides would have been in Macedonia either in self-imposed exile or at the king's invitation. Gilbert Murray thinks the Macedonian despot Archelaus invited Euripides to Macedonia more than once. He had already corraled Agathon, the tragic poet, Timotheus, a musician, Zeuxis, a painter, and possibly, Thucydides, the historian.

An improbable variety of explanations for his death shows how controversial Euripides was: "He is said to have been killed by hunting dogs, either accidentally let loose on him or deliberately set on him by enemies or rivals, or torn apart by women." This could be a doublet of Euripides' own Bacchae, a tragedy written while in exile. The story had a variety of forms, with Hermesianax' (earliest) version showing a punishing Aphrodite acting like a latter-day Artemis punishing Actaeon [Scullion].


Where Aeschylus and Sophocles emphasized plot, by adding an actor each, Euripides added intrigue. Intrigue is complicated in Greek tragedy by the constant presence of the all-knowing chorus.

Euripides also created the love-drama. New Comedy took over the more effective parts of Euripides' technique. In a modern performance of Euripides' tragedy, Helen, the director explained it was essential for the audience to see immediately that it's a comedy.


Another Euripidean tragedy that portrays women and Greek mythology, and seems to bridge the genres of tragedy, is a satyr play and comedy called Alcestis.

A buffoonish Hercules (Heracles) comes to the house of his friend Admetus. Admetus is mourning the death of his wife Alcestis, who has sacrificed her life for him but won't tell Hercules who has died. Hercules overindulges, as usual. While his polite host won't say who died, the appalled household staff will. To make amends for partying at a house in mourning, Hercules goes to the Underworld to rescue Alcestis.

Euripides' "Bacchae"

Tragedies that he had written shortly before death that had never been performed at Athens' City Dionysia were found and entered into the contest for 305. Euripides' plays won first prize. They included The Bacchae, a tragedy that informs our vision of Dionysus. Unlike Medea, no deus ex machina comes in to save the child-killing mother. Instead, she goes into voluntary exile. It is a thought-provoking, grizzly play, but in the running for Euripides' most excellent tragedy.


During his lifetime, Euripides' innovations met with hostility. To Euripides, traditional legends portrayed the moral standards of the gods unsuitably. The gods' morality was shown to be lower than that of virtuous men. Although Euripides portrayed women sensitively, he nonetheless had a reputation as a woman-hater. Rabinowitz indirectly explains this paradox.

One of the points you may have noticed in the summary facts about Euripides is that there is a mother listed. Usually, the mother is ignored, but in the case of Euripides, his mother is mentioned in Aristophanes' Acharnians because character Dicaepolis asks character Euripides for rags and some chervil from his mother. Chervil was considered famine-food [Roselli], and Euripides' mother is portrayed as a vegetable seller. It was portrayed as disgraceful to be brought up by such a woman.

Aristophanes on Euripides

Euripides' contemporary, the comic poet Aristophanes (c. 448-385 B.C.) criticized Euripides for innovating and lessening the hauteur of tragedy, his morals, and his attitudes towards women. Some of these complaints are like those leveled against Socrates. Specifically, Aristophanes criticized Euripides because he:

  1. Put beggars in rags on stage
  2. Was determined to make tragedy less lofty
  3. Was a decadent poetic innovator
  4. Was a misogynist
  5. Subverted received morality
  6. Held unorthodox religious views

Surviving Tragedies of Euripides

  • Alcestis (438 B.C.)
  • Medea (431 B.C.)
  • Heracleidae (c. 430 B.C.)
  • Hippolytus (428 B.C.)
  • Andromache (c. 425 B.C.)
  • Hecuba (c. 424 B.C.)
  • The Suppliants (c. 423 B.C.)
  • Electra (c. 420 B.C.)
  • Heracles (c. 416 B.C.)
  • The Trojan Women (415 B.C.)
  • Iphigeneia in Tauris (c. 414 B.C.)
  • Ion (c. 414 B.C.)
  • Helen (412 B.C.)
  • Phoenician Women (c. 410 B.C.)
  • Orestes (408 B.C.)
  • Bacchae (405 B.C.)
  • Iphigeneia at Aulis (405 B.C.)

Euripides Quotes

"There are three classes of citizens. The first are the rich, who are indolent and yet always crave more. The second are the poor, who have nothing, are full of envy, hate the rich, and are easily led by demagogues. Between the two extremes lie those who make the state secure and uphold the laws." Euripides - The Suppliants

* Gilbert Murray Euripides and His Age; 1913