Euripides: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Sarah Burges Watson

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Athenian tragedian from the deme Phlya, who, according to the Suda Suda s.v. 'Euripides' composed 92 tragedies. The Parian marble FGrHist 239 A50, 239 A63 gives his dates as 485-407/6 BCE. The latter accords with Aristophanes’ Frogs, performed in January 405, Euripides having died a little before Sophocles in the previous year (see Kovacs 2001: 4-6; Scullion 2003: 390-1).


Several fourth-century and Hellenistic authors wrote about Euripides’ life, notably Philochorus, Heraclides Ponticus, Hermippus, and Duris of Samos. This material is not extant, but we have extensive papyrus fragments of a life in dialogue form by the late-third-century biographer Satyrus Satyr. Vit. Eur. (see Schorn 2004). The lives of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides formed the sixth book of Satyrus’ biographical compendium, which also included philosophers, orators, and statesmen. In addition, transmitted with manuscripts of Euripides’ plays, is an Origins and Life of Euripides Genos IaGenos IbGenos IIGenos IIIGenos IV (henceforth Genos). Its narrative is not continuous: sections Ia and III are thought to derive from the same Hellenistic archetype, which Ib may summarize; sections II and IV contain material from Satyrus (see Schorn 2004: 27-31). The lives of Euripides in Aulus Gellius Gell. NA 15.20 and the Suda seem to use the same Hellenistic archetype as the Genos and incorporate additional material. Thomas Magister’s Life of Euripides Thom. Mag. Vit. Eur. (13th-14th C AD) is derived from the Genos as we have it. Testimonia are collected by Kannicht 2004 and Kovacs 1994 (with English translation). On the late-antique letters ascribed to Euripides, see Gößwein 1975, Knöbl 2008, Hanink 2010a.

Negative versus Positive Receptions

Euripides’ Hellenistic biographers drew most of their material from his tragedies and from comedy (Kovacs 2001: 2-4; Schorn 2004: 27-31, 37-46; Lefkowitz 2012: 87). In Aristophanes’ Wasps Ar. Vesp. 61, abuse of Euripides appears in a list of hackneyed topics which the poet promises to avoid. In fact, Aristophanes is the source of almost all the surviving Old Comic material about Euripides. He brought the tragedian onstage in Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae (‘Women Celebrating the Thesmophoria’) and Frogs and supplies the biographical tradition with abundant detail, including failure with women/misogyny Suda s.v. 'Euripides' 3Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.12-13Genos III.2Genos IV.1Thom. Mag. Vit. Eur. 5), having sties on his eyes Ar. Ran. 1246-7, and being ‘sour to talk to’ Genos III.1Thom. Mag. Vit. Eur. 4) (in variants Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.20Genos III.5Ar. Pol. 5.10.1311b.30-4 on the latter theme, Euripides suffers from bad breath). This manifestly negative strand in Euripides’ biography makes him the misanthropic antitype of the charming, aristocratic Sophocles. The polarity is explored in several anecdotes Ath. Deip. 13.5.557eAth. Deip. 13.81-2Stob. Flor. 2.30.10 (see Guide to Sophocles; Davidson 2012: 42-3). Its most influential source is Frogs Ar. Ran. 76-82, 768-94, 889-94, 1491-5, in which Euripides is the favourite of underworld reprobates; a sophistic opportunist who, in contrast to the pious Sophocles, lacks the grace and magnanimity to concede to his elders/betters. Like Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds, he prays to newfangled gods; the chorus accuses him of Socratic chatter and casting aside mousikê.

This narrative of Euripides’ atheist intellectualism and consequent unpopularity was accepted in antiquity and promoted by German scholars—above all, Nietzsche (see Henrichs 1986; Guide to Aeschylus)—but should not be regarded as historical (cf. Kovacs 2001: 14-15, with bibliography). Euripides won comparatively few victories (five) in the Athenian dramatic contests and stories of outrage at his impiety Arist. Rhet. 3.15.1416a.28-35Ar. Th. 446-52Plut. Quomodo adul. 4.19eAët. 1.7.1 in 'Plut.' Plac. 1.880dePlut. Amat. 13.756bcDiog. Laert. 9.54 (Protagoras)Ar. Nub. 1364-72Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.10 were clearly plausible. But even if his relationship with the Athenians was ambivalent, he was sufficiently popular to receive a chorus whenever he wanted one. Indeed, his notoriety may be interpreted as an indication of classic status (see Revermann 1999-2000: 451-2). Aristophanes does not disguise his admiration; Cratinus Schol. Pl. Apol. 19c accused him of ‘Euripidaristophanizing’ (cf. Satyrus 8.2 Satyr. Vit. Eur. 8.2). In the Frogs, Dionysus’ descent to Hades is originally inspired by a passion for Euripides.

Dionysus’ passion is echoed by the fourth-century comic poet Philemon Genos IV.3; in the centuries following his death, Euripides was immensely popular (Lucas 1923; Funke 1965-6). We know of two fourth-century comedies entitled ‘The Euripides-Lover’ (T 199a Kannicht). In the Poetics Arist. Poet. 13.1453a.22-30, 18.1456a.25, 25.1460b.32, 25.1460b.32, Aristotle refers frequently to Euripides, whereas Aeschylus is scarcely mentioned. He ranks Sophocles highest of the Athenian tragedians and criticizes Euripides’ use of the chorus and the realism of his characters, but praises his conversational style and calls him the most tragic of the tragedians.

In Satyrus Satyr. Vit. Eur. 8.2, Euripides is said to have brought tragedy to its natural fulfilment. His biography is de-/re-constructed accordingly. Schorn (2004: 56-63) argues that Satyrus portrays Euripides as the magnanimous man of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, who is similarly disdainful of the masses. Satyrus Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.16-17 and Genos Ib Genos Ib.3 accuse the comic poets of driving the talented Euripides away from Athens out of jealousy. Hanink (2008, 2010b) and Revermann (1999-2000) argue that the story of Euripides’ emigration was part of an attempt by Hellenistic kings to appropriate the tragedian for Macedonia’s cultural heritage. The story may also reflect Old Comedy’s problematic status within the context of Hellenistic monarchy as the genre which embodies freedom of speech (see Guide to Aristophanes; Hunter 2009: 78-106). Aristotle censures Old Comedy for its malicious invective; Hellenistic critics follow suit. In Satyrus Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.3-4, the references to invective form part of a political discussion about the ‘universal thoughtlessness of the Athenians’; Euripides is described as the progenitor of New (invective-free) Comedy (cf. Dio of Prusa, p. 633; Satyrus 39.7).


Genos Ia Genos Ia.1, the Suda Suda s.v. 'Euripides' 1, and Thomas Magister Thom. Mag. Vit. Eur. 1 say that Euripides was born in the year of the battle of Salamis (480 BCE). Plutarch Plut. Quaest. conv. 8.717b and Timaeus commented on this synchrony, which reflects the tendency of biographers to link their subjects to historical events. Theophrastus Ath. Deipn. 10.424e said that Euripides poured wine for the dancers of Apollo in Phlya; both this office and that of fire-carrier for Apollo Zosterios (Genos Ia Genos Ia.4) suggest noble lineage. According to the Suda Suda s.v. 'Euripides' 1, Philochorus ‘demonstrated’ that Euripides was well-born. He is probably also the source for the Suda’s story that his parents were resident aliens of Boeotia and then Attica. Another version of this tale Nic. Dam., FGrHist 90 F 103 (v) ap. Stob. 4.2.25 p. 159, 4 Hense makes them debt-fugitives, like Hesiod’s father (see Guide to Hesiod). Aristophanes Ar. Ran. 840; Schol. Ran. 840; Ach. 457; Schol. Ach. 457; Ach. 478; Th. 385-7, 455-6 frequently jokes that Euripides’ mother sold vegetables, perhaps exploiting the incongruity between his perceived fixation with beggarly characters and his highfalutin ideas, both parodied in the Acharnians (393-489). The biographical tradition does not mention any traditional, aristocratic training in music; Euripides starts his career as an athlete, following a misunderstood oracle Genos Ia.2Gell. NA 15.20.2Delphic Oracle, 418 Parke/Wormell. His further education Diog. Laert. 9.54 (Protagoras)Diog. Laert. 2.45 (Socr.)Strab. De arch. 8, praef. 1Orig. C. Cels. 4.77Diog. Laert. 2.10Schol. Eur. Or. 982 p. 193, 19 SchwartzSchol. Pind. Olymp. 1.91a p. 38, 10 DrachmannDiod. Sic. 1.7.7'Dion. Hal.' Rhet. IX β΄ 11 p. 346 Us.-R.Philocor., quoted in Diog. Laert. 9.55 (Protagoras)Suda s.v. 'Euripides' 2Genos Ia.2Genos Ib.2Gell. NA 15.20.4Thom. Mag. Vit. Eur. 2 is with philosophers. Hence his appeal to Pheidippides, newly weaned from Socrates’ think-tank in Aristophanes’ Clouds Ar. Nub. 1364-72.


Genos III Genos III.2 takes Euripides’ Hippolytus as proof of the poet’s misogyny, caused by his wife’s infidelity. Being cuckolded again by his second wife, Euripides’ slander of women intensifies, at which point the Athenian women attempt to kill him in a cave on Salamis where he was said (by Philochorus Gell. NA 15.20.5) to have composed his poetry. The story in Genos IV Genos IV.1 and Satyrus Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.12 is closely related to that in Genos III, but the adulterer is named as Euripides’ slave Cephisophon, who allegedly composed his lyrics and is mentioned several times Ar. Ran. 944; Schol. Ran. 944; Ran. 1407-9; Schol. Ran. 1408; Ran. 1451-3 by Aristophanes. The women attack Euripides at the Thesmophoria (a festival of Demeter), making clear the source of the story—Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae, in which the women of Athens formulate a plan to punish Euripides for vilifying them. The play opens with a ‘Euripidean’ prologue; Euripides contrives a scheme to persuade the effeminate tragedian Agathon (Euripides’ lover in some sources Plut. Reg. et imp. apophth. (Archelaus 1-3) 177aAel. VH. 2.21) to infiltrate the women’s assembly and defend him—a task which ultimately falls to his kinsman Mnesilochus. Once exposed, Mnesilochus attempts to evade death by using a series of ingenious Euripidean plotlines. Euripides, (surprisingly) true to his word, eventually saves him, appearing as a kind of Euripidean deus ex machina. A truce is finally made; Euripides promises never to criticize women again.

Aristophanes’ comedy playfully explores the cliché—on which all ancient biography depends—that a poet’s output reflects his nature (Thesmophoriazusae 167 Ar. Th. 167). The women’s judgments are formed on the basis of tendentious interpretations of Euripides’ plays (see Austin/Olson li-lxviii). Misreading Euripides is taken to hilarious extremes when Euripides and Mnesilochus re-enact a scene from the Helen, whose plot, in fact, re-habilitates the femme fatale (on the Helen, see Allan 2008). A running commentary is provided by the priestess Critylla, who reveals her inability to distinguish fiction and ‘reality’.

In Satyrus 39.13, Euripides’ misogyny is taken for granted and scrutinized on Socratic lines, being judged irrational and comical. This analysis, however, is followed by the statement ‘But it is worth considering…’, at which point the papyrus breaks off. The next column—perhaps 20 narrow (3 cm) lines later (cf. Hunt 1912: 125)—begins with a story illustrating that the high-minded person sees through slander (39.14). Furthermore, Satyrus seems to have deconstructed the process of ‘creating Euripides’ from his plays. In 39.9, Euripides’ retreat to the Salaminian cave is said to illustrate his disdainful nature, but this assertion is followed with the observation that Euripides’ character mirrors his own poetic creations. Reversing the method of Chamaeleon, who extrapolated biographical facts from poets’ plays, Satyrus begins from the fact, uses it as an illustration of the character-trait and then cites verses which lay bare the process of the story’s formation.

‘The Philosopher of the Stage’

In Genos Ib.2 Genos Ib.2, Euripides’ disregard for the many is explained as a consequence of his training in philosophy Sext. Emp. Math. 1.288Clem. Al. Str., an inference from his tragedies. The principal source of the link with Socrates Genos Ia.3Diog. Laert. 2.18, 2.22, 9.11Cic. Tusc. disp. 4.63Ael. VH 2.13Delphic Oracle 420 P-W (H3 R (3) Fontenrose)Plut. Alcib. 11.196bAr. Ran. 1491-5 is Aristophanes. Philochorus Diog. Laert. 2.44 rejected the interpretation of a line from the Palamedes as a rebuke to the Athenians about Socrates’ death. Satyrus re-interprets the Socrates connection in a positive light. Lines from the Danae are read as admiration for Socrates’ immunity to greed Satyr. Vit. Eur. 38.4. In another fragmentary passage Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.2, Euripidean verses concerning the gods’ ability to see the hidden deeds of men are said to have a Socratic ‘under-meaning’. These interpretations sound like a riposte to charges of impiety. Aelian Ael. VH. 2.13, who accepts Plato’s view that Aristophanes’ Clouds contributed to Socrates’ death and is vehemently hostile to the comic poet, says that Euripides was the only tragedian whom Socrates thought worth watching. As Nietzsche saw, there seems to have been dialogue and competition between the reception of Aristophanes on the one hand, and that of Socrates and Euripides on the other; their fortunes being inversely proportional.


In contrast to Sophocles, who is ‘most Athens-loving’, Euripides is ‘most loved by foreigners’ (Genos III Genos III.5; see Bing 2011). Plutarch Plut. Nic. 29.542cd and Satyrus Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.19 say that Athenians captured in the Sicilian expedition were saved from death/enslavement by quoting Euripides. According to Hermippus Genos III.5, the Sicilian tyrant Dionysius I (cf. Guide to Aristophanes) requested Euripides’ writing equipment after his death. The story of Euripides’ emigration to Macedonia is a Hellenistic fabrication based on Euripides’ Archelaus (Lefkowitz 2012: 91; Scullion 2003). Tragedy, which (like comedy) is so closely connected with Athenian democratic ideology, represents a challenge for transposition to a foreign monarchic context. The emigration story contrasts Euripides’ positive experiences under royal patronage with his negative treatment in Athens (see Hanink 2008, 2010b). In Satyrus Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.16-18, it follows a discussion about the poet’s vicious treatment in comedy. Euripidean verses are interpreted as an expression of disdain for the ill-will of the masses, a renunciation of Athens, and an equation of king Archelaus with Zeus. One of the interlocutors expresses skepticism. The slight of the poet’s lowly beginnings is finally redressed; his high-mindedness is rewarded with royal favour. An alternative biography is constructed on the basis of new allegorical readings—and a wink at the entire biographical tradition.


The story of Euripides’ mauling by royal hunting dogs Satyr. Vit. Eur. 39.20-1Genos Ib.3Genos IISuda s.v. 'Euripides' 4Gell. NA 15.20.9 blends the fates of Actaeon and Pentheus (see Lefkowitz 2012: 93). In the Suda and Aulus Gellius the king’s dogs are set on him by jealous rivals, re-enacting his fate at the hands of the comic poets. The Suda also gives a version in which Euripides is dismembered by women whilst en route to an adulterous assignation. Genos Ia Genos Ia.11 says that all the Athenians grieved at his death and Sophocles brought his actors onstage in mourning. A cenotaph in Athens was inscribed with a Thucydidean epigram Genos Ia.10Thom. Mag. Vit. Eur. 6. According to Aulus Gellius Gell. NA 15.20.9, a request for the return of the poet’s bones to Attica was vehemently rejected by the Macedonians. These stories may be interpreted as further indications of late-learning on the part of the Athenians. Both tombs are said to have been struck by lightning Plut. Lyc. 31.5.59bcGenos Ia.10; an indication of extraordinary favour from the gods. Two epigrams ascribed to Ion of Chios A.P. 7.43A.P. 7.44 describe the poet’s relocation to (Macedonian) Pieria by the Muses. They promise him imperishable glory, equal to that of Homer.


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