TRADITION has persistently claimed that Euripides was born in 480 B.C., on the very day of the naval battle of Salamis, fought between the Greeks and the Persians. If the tradition be true, then the three greatest of the Greek poets were linked together by an odd circumstance: the eldest helped to win the victory, the second was chosen to lead the triumphal procession, and the third was born on the day the fight occurred.
In early youth Euripides was attracted to the study of philosophy and poetry. He began to write tragedies when he was eighteen, but did not win the first prize until he was about forty years old. He composed upwards of ninety plays, a few of which were satyric dramas, the others tragedies. Only five times in all--four times during his lifetime and once after his death--were his plays victorious. In 431, when he stood third among the competitors, his four offerings included the Medea. Like the Oedipus of Sophocles, this play, though accounted by later critics a masterpiece, failed to receive the first prize.
Euripides fell under the disfavor of his fellow citizens, probably on account of his alleged skepticism concerning the gods. He retired to the court of Archelaus, king of Macedon, by whom he was treated with consideration and affection. At his death he was mourned by the king, who, refusing the request of the Athenians that his remains be carried back to the Greek city, buried him with much splendor within his own dominions. His tomb was placed at the confluence of two streams, near Arethusa in Macedonia, and a cenotaph was built to his memory on the road from Athens towards the Piraeus.
Euripides had a famous library--one of the first to be collected by a private individual. Although he lived most of his life in the midst of the cultured society of Athens, and was in some respects a leader in it, yet he grew bitter and despondent over the fierce rivalries and greedy ambitions which marked the life of the city. He loved the seclusion of his house at Salamis, where it was said that he composed his dramas in a cave.
The plays. Out of the ninety or more plays of Euripides, eighteen have been preserved. The Rhesus, for a long time attributed to him, is thought by most modern scholars to belong to some author of the fourth century. The success of several of the plays was owing, in part perhaps, to the fact that they flattered the pride of the Athenians. According to Plutarch, after the disaster of the Sicilian fleet many of the captured Greeks obtained their freedom, and others who had already escaped got food and shelter by repeating verses from Euripides, who was popular with the Sicilians. He was among the first, if not the very first, to use the theme of romantic love for a tragedy. This was done in the Hippolytus, one of the least bitter and most interesting of his works. The Cyclops is one of the two extant examples of the satyr play, a form which, at the City Dionysia, usually followed the tragedies. Of another work, the Euripidean Helen, Schlegel remarked that it was the merriest tragedy ever written.
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