Reception of Homer by the Tragedians

J.E. Sandys, A History of Classical Scholarship Vol. I:

The Tragic Poets

“The influence of the Homeric poems on the tragic poets of Athens was very considerable. Notwithstanding Aristotle’s statement that ‘the Iliad and the Odyssey each furnish the theme of one tragedy, or of two, at the most’, we find that they supplied Aeschylus with the theme of at least six tragedies and one satyric drama, Sophocles with that of three tragedies (Nausicaa, and the Phaeacians, and possibly the Phrygians), and Euripides with that of one satyric drama, the Cyclops. The unknown author of the Rhesus derived his theme from the Iliad; and Achilles and Hector, with Laertes, Penelope and her Suitors, were among the themes of the minor tragic poets of the fifth and fourth centuries. Aristotle’s statement is practically true of Sophocles and Euripides, but not of Aeschylus, whom he almost ignores in his treatise on Poetry. It is however the fact that, among the tragic poets in general, a far larger number of their subjects were suggested by other poems of the Epic Cycle, namely the Cypria, the Aethiopis, the Little Iliad, the Iliupersis, the Nostoi and the Telegonia.


Aeschylus himself probably regarded ‘Homer’ as the author of all the poems of the Epic Cycle, when he descnbed his dramas as ‘slices from the great banquets of Homer’. In the Frogs of Aristophanes, he is made to confess that it was from ‘Homer the divine’ that his mind took the impress of noble characters like those of the ‘lion-hearted’ heroes, Teucer and Patroclus. The influence of Homer shows itself in many of his picturesque epithets, and in the use of not a few archaic nouns and verbs, as well as in Homeric phrases and expressions, and Homeric similes and metaphors.


Sophocles is described by Greek critics as the only true disciple of Homer, as the ‘tragic Homer’, and as the admirer of the Epic poet. His verbal indebtedness to Homer is less than that of Aeschylus, though, like other dramatists, he borrows certain epic forms and epithets, as well as certain phrases and similes. His dramas reproduce the Homeric spirit. He is also Homeric in the ideal, yet human, conception of his characters, and in the calm self-control, which characterises him even in scenes of violent excitement. Here, as elsewhere, ‘he has caught the impress of Homers charm’. While very few of his dramas were directly suggested by the Iliad or Odyssey, he is described as ‘delighting in the Epic Cycle’. The extant plays connected with that Cycle are the Ajax and Philoctetes.


Of the extant plays of Euripides, the Cyclops alone is directly taken from Homer’s Odyssey, while the Epic Cycle is represented by the Iphigeneia in Aulide, Hecuba, Troades, Andromache, Helen, Electra, Iphigeneia in Tauris and Orestes. The plot of no extant play that was certainly written by Euripides is inspired by the Iliad, but the opening scene of the Phoenissae, where Antigone and her aged attendant view from the palace-roof the movements of the Argive host outside the walls of Thebes, is clearly a reminiscence of the memorable scene in the Iliad, where Helen and Priam watch the Greek heroes from the walls of Troy.”


One thought on “Reception of Homer by the Tragedians

  1. Interesting article. Allow me though to disagree on a few things. Sophocles’ works have little to do with the Homeric approach of the Myths, he has a different style of writing, with clear and ‘straightforward’ messages, almost none in ‘code mode’. On the other hand, Euripides’ works certainly have more similarity with the Homeric style, while Aeschylus is ‘exactly’ -if we’re allowed to be so absolute- in the Homeric spirit; each one of his works ressembles to an Homeric rhapsody. The Homeric work is widely written in code, representing several things at the same time, with the same words. This is not some abstract opinion of mine, but it is clearly written by ancient greek writers. For an example of this, one may search for the book ‘Homeric problems’ by Heraclitus Ponticus (or simply Heraclitus). Sophocles didn’t write in this way, Euripides wrote a lot like this, Aeschylus wrote exactly like this. Cheers!

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