Anti-War Sentiments in Trojan Women
In the year 415 B.C.E., the Greeks had been fighting a long and bloody war with Sparta for over a decade. It was in this year that Euripides, a well-known playwright, wrote Trojan Women, a tragedy about the women of Troy directly following the fall of Troy. It is commonly thought that he wrote this play in response to the massacre at the island of Melos that had occurred just a year prior to the play’s publication. The Athenian army had sailed to Melos, demanded their surrender, and when they refused, laid siege to the city. A few months later, the Athenian army took the city, slaughtered the men, and sold the women and children into slavery. This was not an isolated incident in any way. This occurred often both on the side of Sparta and Athens. Many people were sick of it, Euripides included. He then wrote Trojan Woman, probably in response, which follows Hecuba, the Queen of Troy; Cassandra, a prophet whom no one believes; Andromache, Hecuba’s daughter-in-law; and Helen, the woman whom the Trojan War is over. While there is no plot in the traditional sense, the story follows the women’s downward arc into further despair as worse and worse events keep happening. Euripides was clearly displaying an anti-war attitude in this play.
Perhaps the most obvious way in which the play is anti-war is the way that the women’s grief and mourning in portrayed. They are all mourning because they have all lost their families, their homes, and their hopes for the future. Hecuba lost her husband and her children. Cassandra lost her father and her siblings. Andromache lost her husband, and by the end of the play, she has lost her son as well. Helen lost her husband. Hecuba in particular spend a lot of time in this play mourning what she has lost. As she says at the beginning of the play, “What is there that I do not mourn in my misery? / Country, children, husband-all are gone” (41). In this, she touches on what all Trojan women are feeling at that time: grief. They have lost everything. Their city is in ruins and will be burnt to the ground at the end of the play. Their friends and families have been buried. They see no real future for themselves. They will all be sold as slaves to the Greek victors, and they are afraid. The first half-chorus says to Hecuba, “Fear darts through the hearts of the Trojan women, / who bewail their slavery / inside these dwellings” (42). These women are scared of being sold. This fear manifest in them doing things outside the status-quo. They sing mourning hymns in the public square. They beat their chests in grief. These were not publicly accepted mourning behaviors. Euripides was cleverly showing that war brought grief and grief brought unwelcome changes.
Not only do the women experience constant grief, they also have their hope being whittled away scene by scene. At the start of the play, they are trying to find the bright side of slavery. The chorus sings:
I have heard it said that the holy land of Peneus,the lovely plain at Olympus’ base,abounds in wealthand generous fertility.To go there is my second choiceafter the sacred and holy land of Theseus (44).
In this passage, the women are coming up with a Greek island that they wouldn’t mind being allotted to. They are thinking that if they’re going to be slaves, they want to be slaves on a pretty island. This is a pretty hopeful outlook for them. As the play goes on, they lose that hopefulness. They are split up and some get allotted to men that they find awful. When Hecuba finds out that she has been allotted to Odysseus, she sings, “An evil fate has destroyed me. All is over for me, / a wretched woman who has met / with the most unhappy allocation of all” (47). She hates who she has been assigned to. This level of hope just continues to sink. Hecuba finds out that her daughter Cassandra will be forced to marry King Agamemnon and her youngest daughter Polyxena has been killed to appease Achilles’ ghost. When she finally gets a chance to be hopeful about the future, those hopes are almost immediately dashed. The young Astyanax who could have one day returned to Troy to rebuild was ordered to be thrown “from the towers of Troy” (Talthybius 59). There was no future for him or for any of them.
While there was an obvious feeling of anti-war in the way the women were treated, Euripides wrote a much more subtle anti-war sentiment into the fate of the Greeks. He wrote them as victorious but unaware of what their future held. They would not remain victorious for long. As Cassandra prophesizes to her mother and the women of Troy, she will “lay waste to [Agamemnon’s] house,” and Odysseus will “live through ten years on top of the ten here” and “go to Hades while he is still alive” (48-50). Agamemnon will die and Odysseus will wish he had. These are not the prophecies of winners. In fact, the future looks bleak for the whole Greek army. At the start of the play, Athena joins Poseidon in Troy to discuss the revenge that she wishes to inflict on the Greeks. “I want… to give the Achaean army a bitter journey home… And you for your part must make the Aegean sea roar with huge waves and whirlpools and fill the hollow bay of Euobea with corpses” (40). Athena clearly wants the Greek army to suffer. From mythology, we know that she succeeds in her endeavor. This is anti-war in that it paints both sides of the conflict as losers. The Greeks may have destroyed Troy, but they themselves are killed by the gods. In this sense, the war seems pointless. This was probably what Euripides was trying to get at. It didn’t matter who won the conflict; thousands upon thousands of people died on both sides.
It could be argued that the Greeks go home losers not because of war itself but because of the gods. During that time period, the gods were everything. The people believed that the gods controlled everything as they pleased. They were called upon whenever things didn’t go right or whenever someone wanted guidance or luck. Hecuba herself calls upon them after Cassandra makes her speech. “O you gods! I know that I am invoking fickle allies, but even so it makes some sense to call upon the gods whenever one of us meets with misfortune” (51). She calls them “fickle” which is in line with the beginning of the play where Athena changes from the side of the Greeks to the side of the Romans. She also believes that they can help. In this play, the gods have no intention of helping. Athena only wants revenge because she was “outrageously insulted” (40). Ajax raped Cassandra on the altar of Athena’s temple, and he was not punished by the Greek army at all. The fault then lies with the Ajax and the army. If he had not raped Cassandra or if he had been punished, they could have gone back to Greece victorious. Instead, they had a bitter journey home and lost many men along the way. While the gods may have caused this, they were not totally at fault. The army had a share of the blame. Their actions, or inactions, had serious consequences.
The Greeks suffered greatly while fighting the city of Troy and those who fell were buried without their rites or families. This was a really big deal at the time. If a person was buried improperly, it was thought that they could never achieve peace in the underworld. Cassandra reminded her mother that the Greeks lost much during the war by saying, “[The Greeks] were not shrouded in robes by their wives’ hands but they lie in a foreign land… And there is no one who can let fall an offering of blood upon the earth at their graves…” (49). This would most likely have been an emotional topic for the audience. The idea that someone could die in a foreign land, not be buried properly, and wander forever would not just have been horrifying in abstract thought, it was their reality. They were at war when this play was first performed and it would have reminded the audience that some of their family members were being probably buried this way. Euripides would have known this and kept it in mind while writing. He was reminding them of an unpleasant aspect of war that they could not forget.
The other side of the coin on the issue of burials is that the defending side was buried honorably and provided a way to gain recognition. Cassandra points this out in her speech. “As for the Trojans, first of all-and this is the noblest fame-they died for their fatherland, and the corpses of any whom the spear took were carried to their homes by their friends. The earth of their native land embraced them and they were shrouded by the hands of their families as was proper. And all the Phrygians who did not die in battle lived with their wives and their children day after day.” (49). In this passage, Cassandra states the ways that the Trojans were better off than the Greeks, getting to see their families every day and being buried by their friends and families. They also had the chance to die for their fatherland. She expands on this point further with the following quote, “And listen to the truth about Hector, whose story seems so tragic to you. He has departed this life with the reputation of the noblest of men, and it was the coming of the Achaeans that caused this. If they had stayed at home, who would have known of his courage?” (49). Here she paints the coming of the Greeks in a positive light. At least then, people knew of Hector’s courage. This is true not only of Hector but of many other soldiers as well. The war offered them the chance to become something great and show off their true colors. This is a positive aspect of war. Cassandra counters this argument herself, though, just a few lines later. “[A]nyone who is sane should avoid war” (49). Here she is saying that although there are positives that can be found in war, it would be insane to think that one should seek war out just for these positives. War is a terrible thing and she is simply trying to see the bright side of it. That doesn’t make war itself a bright thing. In addition to that, these arguments would not have appealed to the Greeks of Euripides’ time. They were not the defenders in the war they were fighting and so they did not have the benefits that the Trojans’ did. Their men were not home every night. They most likely could not bury them all themselves. As it wasn’t relevant to them, the Greeks probably did not even register this as a pro-war idea in the play.
Euripides wrote the tragic story of the women left alive at the fall of Troy. He wrote of their attempts at hope and their downfalls. He brought them down time and time again from the news of Polyxena’s murder to Cassandra’s impending marriage with Agamemnon to Astyanax’s death sentence. This is the story of not just the women of Troy but of all women who left alive in the aftermath of war. His play leaves no doubt in my mind what the message that he was trying to convey was, and he seems to have said it best through one of his own characters as no writer can write without leaving some parts of himself in the story. “Yes, anyone who is sane should avoid war” (Cassandra, 49).