Euripides’ Heracleidae (c. 430 BCE) begins with Iolaus, the old friend of the now late Heracles (and technically his nephew), explaining the plight of Heracles’ small kids (the “Heracleidae”), repeatedly expelled from city after city as Eurystheus, king of Argos and Mycenae and longtime enemy of Heracles, seeks to kill them so as to preclude eventual revenge from the sons. Iolaus and the little Hercs have taken refuge now at the altar of Zeus at Marathon, but Copreus, a lackey of Eurystheus, tries to take the kids and throws Iolaus down.

Demophon, son of Theseus and king of Athens, arrives and sides with Iolaus and the kids, horrified at the treatment of the old man. Copreus is threatening: “I know that you / Are in the habit of declaring for / The underdog by choice. I warn you. Don’t” (123). Eventually, after threats of physical violence escalate, Copreus leaves but says he will return with an army.

Demophon promises to provide refuge for the Heracleidae. The oracles are consulted, however, and although “In most respects / They varied a great deal, … in one thing / They tally every one” (131): the sacrifice of a “Young lady of resectable descent” (131) to Demeter’s daughter Persephone is required for success. Demophon won’t sacrifice his own child and knows he cannot force any Athenian to. One of Heracles’ daughters, Macaria, comes forth to offer herself. Iolaus would rather donate his own life, being an old man, but Macaria explains eloquently why she should consider this an honor. Iolaus recommends a lotto among the sisters, but Macaria insists, “I won’t be butchered as a gambling debt” (136).

Iolaus and Alcmene, Heracles’ mother, learn that Hyllus, the oldest of the children, has arrived with reinforcements to battle Eurystheus’ army. Iolaus insists on joining the war. An attendant reports that Hyllus called for a single combat with Eurystheus but that the latter refused. The battle broke out, and when Iolaus saw Eurystheus,

he prayed
To Zeus and Hebe, to get back his youth
For just a day, and take a full revenge.
Then came the most astounding thing of all!
Two stars shone on the yoke. They threw a dark
Cloud over the whole car, and people who
Should know say they were Hebe and your own
Great son. Then the haze lifted to disclose
A young fellow with husky biceps….

The rejuvenated Iolaus captured Eurystheus. Alcmene rejoices, “now I know my son is really with / The gods, although I had my doubts before” (149). She adamantly wants no mercy for Eurystheus, the “filthy scum” (151). The Chorus tries to explain Athens’ more civilized legal process vs. the execution of its prisoners of war. Eurystheus coolly refers to the “Scourge” that “Hera saddled [him] with,” seems to have respected Heracles, and says, “I don’t particularly want to die / Or mind it either, and that’s how things stand” (153-154). He prophesies that his spirit will protect Athens from the descendants of the Heracleidae if they kill him and bury him “Before Athena’s own Pallenian shrine” (155). Alcmene wants his body thrown to the dogs, and the Chorus ends with “I want to make sure that our kings are cleared / Of all responsibility in this” (153).

* * * * *

Thucycdides reports a Peloponnesian War incident from about 430 or 429 BCE in which envoys on their way to the king of Persia were seized, brought to Athens, and “put to death on the day of their arrival, without trial and without permission to say some things they wished to say” (qtd. 111). Eurystheus originally died in battle, killed either by Hyllus or Iolaus, but Euripides seems to be commenting on the topical matter by having him brought in as a prisoner of war and executed.

Euripides has aged Iolaus considerable too, for less transparent reasons.

Work Cited

Euripides. The Heracleidae. Trans. Ralph Gladstone. Euripides: Four Tragedies. Ed. David Grene and Richard Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. 109-155.


Orpheus: Greek Plays