A Fantasy of Justice: Revenge and the Other in Greek Tragedy

Janek Kucharski

When it comes to extant Greek tragedy, Euripides enjoys the dubious honour of being the first to introduce the figure of a melodramatically wicked villain into the Western dramatic tradition. This is a character molded out of pure evil, with no nuance, no background to understand his wickedness, nor any redeeming features. Examples include Menelaus in the Andromache and Lycus in the Heracles, but pride of place should be given without hesitation to Polymestor in the Hecuba, the “barbarian” king of Thrace.[1] This Polymestor killed Polydorus, the son of the eponymous heroine, who was his guest-friend (xenos), in which he violated one of the most fundamental and defining tenets of ancient Greek morality. As if this weren’t enough, he savagely mutilated his body and threw him into the sea, thus denying him a proper burial. And to top this all, the motivation behind the murder was greed, which eventually became also the cause of his undoing.[2] For all intents and purposes, he is barbarian savagery (agriotēs) incarnate.

Attic kylix depicting a Greek hoplite looming over a Persian warrior, 5th cent. BC (National Archaeological Museum of Athens, Greece).

Not all “barbarians” were perceived this way by the Ancient Greeks. A distinctly different pattern of textualizing the non-Greek “Other” focused not on his uncivilized savagery, but on excessive opulence, on a luxuriousness that verged on effeminacy. The keyword embracing all these traits is habrosynē, a term applied freely during the Archaic Period (c.800–479 BC), without any derogatory connotations, to the aristocratic elites of Greece. But in the decades following the Persian wars (490–479 BC), the term was redefined to denote the un-Greek nature of the eastern, Asiatic barbarian. A figure most effectively encapsulated in the image of the palace eunuch, a character, to quote Edith Hall, “wily, subservient, luxurious, and emasculated.”[3] There were other ambiguities and nuances in the Greek perceptions of the barbarian Other – or “schizophrenic visions”, as Hall puts it. They were spacious enough to accommodate images of noble alterity, or otherness, such as “idealized peoples”, “harmonious relations with heaven”, “mystics”, “sages”, or “intellectual skills” (146–7).

Map of the Persian Wars. A full-screen version can be viewed here (credit Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikipedia).

Such nuances are the building blocks from which the figure of Polymestor’s antagonist is crafted: Hecuba, the barbarian queen of Troy and the vengeful mother of the hapless Polydorus. Tapping into the Thracian’s greed, she lures him into a trap, where she and other captive women from Troy mutilate him by blinding, and murder his two sons. This grisly episode is concluded with a mock trial, presided over by Agamemnon, the insecure leader of the victorious Greeks, who eventually sides with Hecuba and dismisses Polymestor’s pleas to punish the Trojan queen for her terrible revenge.

Moving back a few years, to an earlier Euripidean tragedy, we find another child-killing avenger: Medea, an expatriate barbarian princess. Her story is rather well-known, so I consider myself relieved from the duty of summarizing it here. But I would like to emphasise one important motif that is frequently overlooked, especially by those who are quick to construct this tragedy as one of passion and jealousy. I mean the oaths that Jason made to Medea to enlist her help in the trials he faced in Colchis, oaths which he subsequently broke when he found a new love interest (21, 161, 492–5, 1392). I will return to this matter below.

Medea at the urn, Anselm Feuerbach, 1873 (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria).

In both these tragedies the revenge involves innocent third parties – the children of the offender, who in the case of Medea are also her own. We are naturally repulsed by such acts of violence, so we tend to construct them appropriately, i.e. as the revenge of the Other, the barbarian Other. Hecuba’s vengeance is “an example of ‘barbaric’ justice”, an “act ostensibly more barbarian than Greek”, something “appropriate to a barbarian”; Medea could kill her children “because she is a foreigner”, and this act of infanticide is a “reminder” of her “barbarous” nature.[4] The texts of the tragedies come to our aid: the barbarian status of both Medea and Hecuba is more than once explicitly emphasized (e.g. Medea 536–8; Hecuba 328–30). After all, they are both non-Greek: Hecuba is a Trojan queen and Medea a Colchian princess. Most revealingly, Medea is said to have perpetrated acts that no Greek woman would do (1339–40), while Hecuba adds to her child-killing revenge mutilation by blinding, a kind of punishment habitually associated with the “barbarians”.[5] All this is a rather straightforward way of constructing and appreciating the Otherness of their vengeance. A total alterity. Greeks vs Others. Such are the terrible things “appropriate to barbarians” – because they are lacking in both culture and law. Because they are not Greek.

This approach has not gone unchallenged. It has been pointed out that there is nothing “unusual or un-Greek” about killing the children of an offender.[6] Yes, Medea’s infanticide can hardly be justified in terms of law and custom, and the critics were right to steer clear of these dangerous waters. But Hecuba, who after all does not kill her own children, was easier to defend; it has been said that “the action taken against Polymestor is made to look compatible with fifth-century Athenian concepts of justice and legal procedure” – that by Ancient Greek standards Hecuba’s revenge “would not seem intolerably harsh”, nor would it “exceed the bounds prescribed by custom”.[7]

Hecuba blinding Polymestor, Giuseppe Maria Crespi, c.1710 (Musees Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, Belgium).

I am not persuaded by these theories. Killing an offender along with his family is indeed attested in Greek (and Athenian) history, but only in episodes of lynching, in paroxysms of mob justice during periods of war and upheaval.[8] There is nothing lawful or customary about them. Collective disenfranchisement (atīmiā) and perhaps in exceptional cases outlawry, along with an otherwise problematic mention of a certain Theoris “executed along with her family” – exhaust our knowledge of lawful punishment of children along with the offender.[9] Vicarious punishment, that is punishment of innocent parties instead of the wrongdoer, decidedly lay outside the legal horizon of the ancient Athenians.

Only the gods were not constrained by such limitations of human justice. Divine punishment was indeed frequently visited upon otherwise innocent descendants of the offender in his stead. And the problem of inherited guilt – guilt by descent – is frequently explored in extant tragedy, of which the case of Oedipus is by far the most revealing example. The workings of such divine justice are seen most clearly in the case of Jason. Towards Medea he may very well have been an ungrateful and irresponsible scoundrel, but in the eyes of the gods he was in the first place an oath-breaker (168–71, 208–10, 492–3).

Roman sarcophagus depicting the story of Medea and Jason, mid-2nd cent. AD (Altes Museum, Berlin, Germany).

Oaths were indeed a vital element of everyday dealings in classical Athens.[10] Curiously enough, however, they were never enforced by law. A person who broke a pledge could not be simply taken to court on account of that. This was a matter between him and the gods. And the gods took this matter very seriously, as we already learn from Hesiod: they made the perjurer pay for his offence with his progeny (Works and Days 280–5). In classical Athens swearing on the destruction (exōleia) of one’s house, family and children was a standardized formula of the “greatest and mightiest oath” one could take.[11] This exōleia is precisely what happened to Jason in the Medea.[12] And this is why the chorus of this play, although mortified by Medea’s infanticidal plans, nevertheless concludes that “on this day the daimōn seems to be justly visiting many evils upon Jason” (1231–2). The killing of the children is thus seen not only as human revenge, but also as divine justice. Horrifying from the former point of view, it provides a perfect paradigm of the latter. And the liminal figure, standing at the threshold of these two orders, the agent of this inhuman and yet divine vengeance, is the barbarian Other.

The Hecuba presents us with yet another template of divine punishment, though one not so neatly consistent with what we know about its ‘workings’. Polymestor killed his guest-friend (xenos), thus violating one of the fundamental common laws of Greece.[13] Yet again, however, the Athenian system of justice administration provided no specific legal remedy for such an offence. Killing one’s guest-friend could be labelled a gross act of impiety (asebēma),[14] but the perpetrator of such an act would be at best liable to nothing more than a standard prosecution for homicide. And since a xenos was by definition a foreigner, bringing his killer to justice (a prerogative almost exclusively for the family of the victim), although not impossible, would have been all the more problematic. Other than that it was, again, a matter between the perpetrator and the gods.

But why the children? Is there any particular reason for having Polymestor’s sons killed, aside from the gods’ general tendency to involve innocent third parties in the punishment they dispense? Here Herodotus provides us with an illuminating parallel: the “greatest revenge” (megistē tisis) of Hermotimus of Pedasa (8.105–6). This Hermotimus was captured by a certain Panionius of Chios, who made it his business to castrate young boys and sell them as eunuchs. Having suffered this fate at his hands, Hermotimus managed nonetheless to acquire considerable standing at the court of the Persian king, Xerxes. Eventually he got hold of Panionius, and, as the story has it, forced him to exercise his trade on his four sons, who subsequently were made to do the same to their father. Although his vengeance seems gruesomely over-the-top, there is an undeniable logic behind it – in fact, a strict talionic principle.[15] Just as Hermotimus was denied progeny, and his entire line wiped out in advance, so too is that of Panionius. Hermotimus could have, of course, achieved the same by simply killing them all, but this would have upset the talionic symmetry of his revenge.

The revenge of Hecuba (detail), silk tapestry, Chinese-Portuguese workshop, Macau, early 17th cent. (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons, France).

A similar principle lies at the heart of Hecuba’s revenge. As we are told quite explicitly, Polydorus was the last hope of the Trojan queen, the last anchor of her household (79–82). In revenge for taking it away, she deprives Polymestor of his own offspring, and thus of the possibility of perpetuating his line. Perhaps – as suggested by Freud for Oedipus – we may accordingly consider his blinding as an act of symbolic castration, but this is not necessary. Polymestor, though alive, is done for. Just like Hecuba upon seeing the body of her son (683), he too is “utterly destroyed, and even more than that” (1121). The tit-for-tat logic informs Hecuba’s revenge even in its details; just like Polydorus (716–20), so too Polymestor’s children are literally “rent apart” (diamoirasai) (1075–7). And just like Polydorus was denied his burial rites, so too will the bodies of Polymestor’s children be thrown away as a feast for dogs (1077–8).

I believe it is no mere coincidence that both these episodes – Hermotimus and Hecuba – are presented in distinctly barbarian trappings (eunuchs and their habrosunē, Thracians and their agriotēs). Such Otherness provided the necessary distance for exploring the ultimate fantasy of justice, which on the purely human level could not be accommodated within the narrow constraints of established laws. Neither Hermotimus nor Hecuba is censured in the relevant texts; their revenge may have indeed been exhilarating, all the while remaining thoroughly un-Greek. For all the thrills it offered, talio was essentially alien to the Athenian legal thought: it could serve as an edifying example, just like some crime-specific punishments quoted by the orators, yet it firmly belonged “to a quasi-mythical and paradigmatically lawful land”, the domain of the Other.[16] Both Herodotus and the Hecuba present us with similar specimens of perfect justice – one to applaud and abhor at the same time – and are accordingly effectuated through the agency of the Other, the vengeful barbarian.

Janek Kucharski teaches Ancient Greek language and literature at the University of Silesia in Katowice, Poland. He also studies them, devoting most of his time to Athenian tragedy and rhetoric.


1 “Barbarian” derives from Greek βάρβαρος, an inherently negative term that inscribes the unintelligible speech – bar bar – of non-Greek-speaking peoples.
2 See Sophocles’ lost Tereus fr. 587 Radt: φιλάργυρον μὲν πᾶν τὸ βάρβαρον γένος, “the entire barbarian race is money-loving” (tr. D. Fitzpatrick and A.H. Sommerstein).
3 Edith Hall, Inventing the Barbarian. Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (Oxford UP, 1989) 157.
4 Quotations from, respectively, Hall (as n.3) 159; Chris Collard, Euripides Hecuba (Aris & Phillips, Warminster, 1991) 30; Charles Segal, Euripides and the Poetics of Sorrow (Duke Univ. Press, Durham, NC, 1993) 231; Denys Page, Euripides Medea (Oxford UP, 1938) xxi; Desmond Conacher, Euripidean Drama (Univ. of Toronto Press, 1967) 197.
5 “The blinding of Polymestor… would have been more of a shock to Euripides’ Athenian audience…: mutilation of the living or dead is a barbarian practice which decent Greeks do not indulge in;” Judith Mossman, Wild Justice: A Study of Euripides’ Hecuba (Oxford UP, 1995) 190.
6 Mossman (as n.5) 188.
7 Quotations from, respectively, Ra’anana Meridor, “Hecuba’s Revenge,” American Journal of Philology 99 (1978); Anne Burnett, Revenge in Attic and Later Tragedy (Univ. of California Press, Berkeley, CA, 1998) 169; Justina Gregory, Euripides Hecuba (Oxford UP, 1999) xxxiv.
8 The Persian wars (Herodotus 9.5, 9.120; Demosthenes, On the Crown 204); civil war in Thebes, 379 BC (Xenophon, Hellenica 5.4.12); civil war in Miletus, 6th century BC (Athenaeus, The Learned Banqueters 12.524a).
9 On Theoris: Pseudo-Demosthenes, Against Aristogeiton 79; on hereditary atīmiā and other forms of collective disenfranchisement see Mogens Hansen, Apagoge, Endeixis and Ephegesis (Odense Univ. Press, 1976) 71–2.
10 See Alan Sommerstein and Judith Fletcher, Horkos: the Oath in Greek Society (Liverpool Univ. Press, 2007); Alan Sommerstein and Andrew Bayliss, Oath and State in Ancient Greece (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2013); Alan Sommerstein, Isabelle Torrance (eds.), Oaths and Swearing in Ancient Greece (De Gruyter, Berlin, 2014).
11 Antiphon, On the Murder of Herodes 11; see also e.g. Lysias, Against Eratosthenes 9; Demosthenes, Against Meidias 119; Against Aristocrates 67.
12 Anne Burnett, “Medea and the Tragedy of Revenge,” Classical Philology 68 (1973) 13–22.
13 For which see Gabriel Herman, Ritualized Friendship and the Greek City (Cambridge UP, 1987) 118–28.
14 As does Aeschines in Against Ctesiphon 224, where he reproaches Demosthenes for having his guest-friend killed.
15 talio, or the lex talionis, refers to the principle of exact reciprocity: an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.
16 Victoria Wohl, Law’s Cosmos (Cambridge UP, 2010) 310; on talionic punishments and Greek culture see Trevor Saunders, Plato’s Penal Code (Oxford UP, 1994) 77–87.