Looking for good reading material? Check out this list of ten lesser known Greek tragedies you probably haven’t read (or even heard of!).
You’ve heard of Medea, Antigone, and Oedipus Rex. But did you know that there are over 30 tragedies surviving from classical Athens?
If Greek tragedy is new to you, check out my post on best tragedies to start with. But if you’re already familiar with the big hits, this post is for you.
The plays are listed in rough chronological order. That is, in order of when they were written and first performed at Athens.
Fame is a fickle thing, and some of my favorite Greek tragedies receive little attention. So, without further ado, let’s dive right in to the best Greek tragedies you haven’t read – but definitely should.
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Aeschylus’ Persians has the distinction of being the only surviving historical tragedy. The play dramatizes the aftermath of the Battle of Salamis, which occurred in 480 BCE and marked a turning point in the Persian Wars.
At Salamis the Greeks, led by the Athenians, defeated the Persian navy at sea and forced a Persian retreat. Aeschylus wrote Persians in 472 BCE, a mere 8 years after the event.
The play takes place at the Persian capital, Susa, and highlights the Persian perspective. We see the queen mother, Atossa, worrying about her son Xerxes away at war. We hear a messenger’s account of the catastrophe at Salamis and then see Xerxes himself return in rags.
Persians is unique in its historical material and in its choice to focus on the defeated Persians. This play definitely deserves a read, especially if you are interested in the interplay between art and history.
Sophocles’ Women of Trachis
Sophocles’ Women of Trachis is sometimes called by its Greek name Trachiniae. This under-appreciated Greek tragedy tells how the great hero Heracles meets his end.
Heracles is away at war while his wife Deianeira awaits him at home in Trachis. Deianeira already feels that her husband is neglecting her, so when she hears that he has fallen in love with a younger woman, she takes drastic action.
Deianeira’s attempt to regain Heracles’ love has catastrophic results. In the end, no one gets what they want – this is a tragedy, after all. But mythology lovers will sympathize with Deianeira’s plight and appreciate the angsty account of Heracles’ final hours.
Alcestis is arguably the most popular of the lesser known tragedies on this list. It is also a tragicomedy, combining elements of two genres: tragedy and comedy.
The god Apollo has made a deal with the Fates so that his devotee Admetus can avoid an untimely death. The catch is that Admetus has to find someone to die in his place. The only person willing is his wife, Alcestis.
At the beginning of the play Alcestis is fading fast. Shortly after her death Heracles shows up and, after much hilarity, he heads to Hades to rescue her.
Alcestis is a one-of-a-kind Greek tragedy, and you don’t want to miss it! This play has a bit of everything, ranging from Alcestis’ noble (or foolish?) self-sacrifice to Heracles’ drunken carousing.
This quirky play doesn’t get as much attention as other accounts of the troubles within Agamemnon’s family. But I love it for its bizarre scenarios, its thinly veiled mockery of Aeschylus, and its philosophical musings.
If you have read Aeschylus’ Oresteia, then you know how Clytemnestra killed her husband Agamemnon after he returned from the Trojan War. Euripides’ Electra picks up the tale after Agamemnon’s murder.
Agamemnon’s daughter Electra lives in a hovel in the countryside with her farmer husband. Marriage to a commoner is meant to disgrace her, but she dreams of her brother Orestes’ return and longs to get revenge on her mother.
Electra’s marriage to the farmer creates a unique atmosphere and a chance to reflect on class relations. Definitely check out Euripides’ innovative twist on this myth!
If you know anything about Heracles, you know that the goddess Hera persecutes him constantly. In this heart-wrenching Greek tragedy, Hera enacts the ultimate revenge: she makes Heracles kill his family.
In the first half of this play, we meet Heracles’ wife Megaera, his children, and his elderly father. They face danger from a hostile king, but when Heracles returns, everything seems to be okay.
That’s when Lyssa, the personification of Madness, appears and the true tragedy occurs. Euripides deals with one of the most difficult Heracles myths and tackles the question of divine injustice head-on.
Heracles is definitely one of the lesser known Greek tragedies, but it is thought-provoking and deserves your time. So add it to your to-read list!
One of my very favorite Greek tragedies you haven’t read (but should) is Euripides’ Ion. This fascinating play dramatizes a local Athenian legend.
The god Apollo rapes and impregnates Creusa, an Athenian princess, and she in her fear of scandal exposes her baby. Apollo saves his son, unbeknownst to Creusa, and makes him a temple attendant at Delphi. Fast forward a few decades, and Creusa is married and unable to have children.
The real drama begins when Creusa and her husband visit Delphi to inquire about their infertility. Creusa has no idea that her infant son has grown up into Ion, the temple attendant. A whirlwind of misunderstandings and murderous plots ensues that ultimately – shockingly – ends happily.
What I like about this play is that Creusa is furious at Apollo. She blames him for his assault and for all the pain it has caused her. Even though Apollo “fixes” things in the end, one is left with a less-than-positive picture of him.
Helen is famed as the woman whose beauty started the Trojan War. But did you know Helen never really went to Troy? In fact, she was in Egypt for the whole duration of the war!
Or at least, that’s what Euripides tells us in his play Helen. In this light-hearted reworking of the Trojan War myth, Helen waits in Egypt and laments the fact that everyone believes her to be unfaithful.
Then Helen’s husband Menelaus arrives in Egypt. He brings with him a “phantom Helen”, the fake Helen that was at Troy all along. The two Helens, a very confused Menelaus, and a conniving Egyptian king make for a delightful romp through classical mythology.
Euripides’ Phoenician Women
I wrote my senior thesis on Euripides’ Phoenician Women, so maybe I’m biased, but I think it’s pretty cool. If you’re familiar with Sophocles’ Theban plays, then you know all about how Oedipus accidentally married his mother Jocasta.
Phoenician Women tells the story of Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, who fight over who should be king of Thebes. When the play starts, Polyneices is leading an army to attack Thebes and take the crown from his brother.
Jocasta desperately tries to prevent her sons from fighting, but a final duel on the battlefield is inevitable. Read this tragic account of how power and greed tear apart an already unlucky family!
Earlier in this post we met Orestes’ sister, Electra. This highly unconventional play picks up after Orestes and Electra have killed their mother Clytemnestra in revenge for her murder of their father.
Orestes is the rightful king of Argos, but the people aren’t sure what to think of him after the matricide. To make matters worse, Orestes is tormented by Furies and gradually goes insane.
As Orestes and Electra face execution for their crime, they hatch a desperate plot: kill Helen and kidnap her daughter Hermione. Of course things don’t go as planned.
Orestes showcases Euripides’ creativity and willingness to play with traditional myths. If you are familiar with the “canonical” story of Agamemnon’s children, then you will love this radical reimagining!
Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis
Iphigenia in Aulis was unfinished at the time of Euripides’ death. Consequently it was his son (or nephew) who polished it up and presented it to Athens. Despite the somewhat unedited state, this play won’t disappoint.
We have already heard about how Clytemnestra killed her husband Agamemnon after his return from the Trojan War. Well, Iphigenia in Aulis goes ten years into the past and gives us the backstory: why was Clytemnestra so bitter?
The Greeks can’t set sail for Troy because of unfavorable winds, so they are stuck at the port of Aulis. The solution: sacrifice Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to Artemis.
Agamemnon lures Iphigenia to Aulis on false pretenses, but of course the truth soon comes out. Clytemnestra fights to save her daughter from slaughter, as does a charmingly naive young Achilles.
There is so much to unpack in this play and it gives a window into the minds of both Agamemnon and Clytemnestra. If you have ever wondered about Iphigenia and her fate, you won’t want to miss this account!
Go read some Greek tragedies!
I hope you enjoyed this list of awesome lesser known Greek tragedies – and that you now have some new reading material. For physical copies, I have recommended throughout this post the University of Chicago Press’s Complete Greek Tragedies series.
The translations are excellent and there are additional reading aids that provide information on the historical and cultural context. As an added bonus, various plays come in each volume. So you are getting multiple ancient works at once! (For instance, Helen, Phoenician Women, and Orestes all come in the same volume.)
You can view all my favorite editions of Greek tragedies in one place on my Bookshop Greek tragedy list.
And now, one final note. If you’re wondering why there is so much Euripides on this list, there are two reasons.
First, more plays of Euripides survive than plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles combined. This means that there is more Euripides to choose from. And it means that the extant plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles tend to be better known. This list focuses on Greek tragedies you probably haven’t heard of, much less read.
Second, Euripides tends to be more “modern” and approachable. I know Euripides is my favorite Athenian dramatist because of his lively scenarios and wide range of characters. Women get way more speaking time in Euripides!
So go explore whichever of these lesser known Greek tragedies you haven’t read. You won’t regret it!
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