Trojan Women

views updated

Trojan Women

The Trojan Women, in mythology, are the royal women of Troy (Hecuba/Hekabe, Andromache, Cassandra/Alexandra, Polyxena) and their female subjects—all of whom are devastated by the sack of their city and loss of their men in the Trojan War. They become innocent victims of a war fought over another woman, Menelaus's wife, Helen, who was abducted by Hecuba's son Paris/Alexandros. Homer's Iliad foreshadows their fate when Nestor exhorts each Greek to return home only after "he beds down with a faithful Trojan wife, payment in full for the groans and shocks of war … borne for Helen" (2.355-356); later, Agamemnon tells Menelaus to leave no Trojan male alive, not even the "baby boy still in his mother's belly" (Fagles's translation, 6.58-59).

During the Peloponnesian War, Euripides dramatized the enslavement of Troy's remaining population in his tragedies Trojan Women and Hecuba, which together inspired Seneca's Trojan Women (mid-first century ce). From victims of slaughter and rape to advocates, seers, denouncers, and enactors of revenge, the women, especially Hecuba, paint a complex picture of gender roles and scripts within the narrative of devastation and loss. Hecuba stands at the center of Euripides's Trojan Women (415 bce). Troy's queen, wife of Priam, and mother of numerous ill-fated children, Hecuba not only lost her sons Hector and Paris in the ten-year siege but saw Priam butchered during Troy's capture (cf. Virgil, Aeneid 2.506-558). In Trojan Women, she learns that her daughter Polyxena was sacrificed at Achilles's tomb; that her grandson Astyanax, Hector's child by Andromache, will be thrown from the walls of Troy; and that she herself has become slave to the despicable Odysseus. Despite her losses, however, Hecuba consoles and counsels family and subjects. Though shamed by the ravings of her daughter Cassandra, priestess and accursed prophet of Apollo, Hecuba attempts to soothe her as Cassandra correctly predicts that her enforced "marriage" to Agamemnon will ensure his death at the cost of her own (Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1072–1447). Hecuba urges her daughter-in-law Andromache to win the affection of Neoptolemus, who chose her as concubine, by retaining her celebrated "wifely" virtues in hope of a brighter future. (In Euripides's Andromache [c. 426 bce], Andromache later bears him a son. After Neoptolemus's death, she marries Hector's brother Helenus; then, according to Pausanias [1.11.1-2], returns to Asia Minor with Pergamus, founder of Pergamum and her son by Neoptolemus.) In front of Menelaus, Hecuba challenges her daughter-in-law Helen to debate the cause of the war. Helen blames everyone but herself, even Hecuba, who while pregnant with Paris had dreamt she would bear the firebrand igniting Troy (see Euripides's fragmentary Alexandros, 415 bce). In response, Hecuba demonstrates Helen's lust and greed so successfully that Menelaus promises to execute her (but cannot). Hecuba buries Astyanax, laments as Troy is set afire, and courageously boards the Greek ships with the other Trojan women.

In Euripides's Hecuba (c. 424 bce), Hecuba never reaches Ithaca. On the Thracian coast, the ghost of Hecuba's youngest son, Polydorus, informs her that he was slain by Troy's former ally, Polymestor, in whose care both he and treasure had been entrusted. After Polydorus's corpse is discovered, Agamemnon lets Hecyva meet privately with the treacherous king: she and her Trojan women murder Polymestor's sons, then blind him. Euripides ends his (apparently invented) tale of crime and revenge by predicting Hecuba's transformation into a howling bitch drowned at sea (1259–1273). Whether Euripides's innovation or not, her metamorphosis emphasizes both a savage defense of her young and the dehumanizing effects of war. The association between Hecuba's grave and Cynossema ("Dog's Tomb"), a sailors' landmark opposite Troy, suggests some relationship between Hecuba/Hekabe and Hekate—the dreaded Anatolian goddess linked with dogs, fish, ghosts, and the protection of children.


Croally, N. T. 1994. Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Euripides. 1992. "Euripides III: Hecuba, Andromache, The Trojan Women, Ion." In The Complete Greek Tragedies, ed. David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Seneca. 1966. Seneca: Four Tragedies and Octavia—Thyestes, Phaedra, The Trojan Women, Oedipus, Octavia, trans. E. F. Watling. New York: Penguin Classics.

Tierney, Michael, ed. (1946) 1979. Euripides's Hecuba. Dublin: Browne and Nolan.

                                             Adele J. Haft