The art and literature of Greece and Rome were dominated by the myths and legends of the early Greek Epic Cycle of the seventh or sixth century BC. Among these were the Iliad, Homer’s great poem about the Bronze Age war between Greece and Troy, and the Cypria, containing the myth that inspired Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis. Often in these poems, the members of the Atreides family of Argos—Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their children Iphigenia, Orestes, and Elektra, as well as Agamemnon’s brother Menelaus and his wife Helen—confront the intolerable demands of the gods, which play out in human dramas of palace intrigue, lust, murder, and revenge.

One of the myths in the Cypria inspired the tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis, written by Euripides (ca. 480–406 BC) and being performed in the Outdoor Theater at the Getty Villa from September 7 to 30. The play is co-produced by the Court Theatre of Chicago, directed by Charles Newell, and translated by Nicholas Rudall. Of the 90 plays Euripides wrote, only 19 survive. Iphigenia in Aulis, first performed in 405 BC, is today considered to have been one of his best.

That Iphigenia in Aulis and other Greek plays were re-staged for audiences beginning sometime in the fourth century BC is apparent in the historical record through inscriptions and works of art. A fourth-century BC vase from Apulia and a first-century AD fresco from Pompeii, currently displayed together in the Emotions exhibition at the Acropolis Museum in Athens, are evidence for the sustained Greco-Roman fascination with the tragic story.

The Plot

The Trojan War was waged between Greece and Troy for the return of Helen, Menelaos’s wife, who had eloped with Paris, a son of Troy’s king Priam. Iphigenia in Aulis opens with the Greek armies stalled at Aulis, waiting for the wind to fill their sails for the journey to Troy. The seer Calchas has pronounced that Artemis will not allow the winds to rise until Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek forces, sacrifices his own daughter, Iphigenia.

Marble head of a middle-aged man with wavy hair and a curly beard

Portrait Head of Euripides, AD 100s, Roman after an original by Lysippos. Marble, 13 3/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 79.AA.133. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The play turns around the necessity for Greece to destroy Troy, the moral dilemmas that arise from that need, and the struggle to appease the violent, and seemingly whimsical, demands of a god. Although it is the will of Artemis that is the cause for the situation in which the Greeks find themselves, the action of the play takes place entirely in the human domain. Its emotional impact depends upon the twisting moral arguments of the principals—Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, Iphigenia, Menelaus, and Achilles—as, first one way then another, they move inexorably toward the sacrifice of Iphigenia. Ultimately, she takes on the responsibility and willingly gives her life for Greece in front of the entire army.

It is possible that Iphigenia’s self-sacrifice for Greece did not come from the original tellings of the myth and may have been invented by Euripides. Indeed, the traditional mythical version of the story ended quite differently. An epilogue to the ancient text of Iphigenia in Aulis gives this alternate version. Near the end of the text (at line 1532), a messenger arrives to tell the grieving Clytemnestra an astounding tale of “awe and wonder.” At the moment of Iphigenia’s sacrifice, he relates, “they [the Greeks] saw the apparition which a god had sent but no man had foreknown”: a deer lay on Artemis’s altar, panting its last breath and achieving “deathless glory” for the Greeks. That is, Iphigenia did not die; at the moment of sacrifice, Artemis exchanged a deer for the girl and whisked her away to Tauris, where she served out her life in the goddess’s temple. (Euripides had already written a play about that: Iphigenia among the Taurians, produced in 413 BC.)

Scholars are fairly certain that this epilogue was not written by Euripides—it may have been added by his son after the elder poet’s death—and our translator Nicholas Rudall stays with the Euripidean script, ending with the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

The Play’s History

Color photo of the Acropolis taken from a helicopter, showing ruins of an ancient theater

Aerial view of the Acropolis in Athens, with the theater of Dionysos in the foreground. Photo courtesy of and © Prof. Dr. Hans R. Goette

Iphigenia in Aulis was first presented at a ten-day religious festival honoring Dionysos in his namesake theater in Athens. This famous theater, located on the slope of the Acropolis beneath the Parthenon, was rebuilt in wood by Pericles as part of his fifth-century BC renovation of the Acropolis.

Each spring Athens hosted choral and theatrical performances in this theater, culminating in a series of grand tragedies that have come to define our Western concept of drama. Three playwrights presented a trilogy of plays over three consecutive days; each trilogy was accompanied by a satyr play, a bawdy farce starring half-man, half-horse satyrs as the dramatis personae. The citizenry of Athens—perhaps as many as 20,000—attended.

A committee of city officials named one playwright the winner. Together with The Bacchae and the lost Alcmeon in Corinth, Iphigenia in Aulis won first prize when it was produced (probably by Euripides’s son, also named Euripides). This was a posthumous success for the man called by Aristotle “the most tragic of poets.”

Iphigenia in Aulis Portrayed in Greek and Roman Art

As part of the ceremonies surrounding an important religious event, the original plays presented at the Dionysian festivals were written and designed for a single performance. Eventually—whether because of the popularity of the poet or the play itself—the plays were allowed to be re-staged.

Iphigenia in Aulis was likely remounted in one or more theaters of Magna Graecia (southern Italy and Sicily), where the poetry of Euripides was greatly admired, by the middle of the fourth century BC. Many of the theaters in these wealthy communities—places like Syracusa in Sicily and Metaponto in southern Italy—still survive, attesting to the economically robust and sophisticated cultures that commissioned and staged theatrical productions from the Greek mainland. The strength of the local theater culture attracted famous Greek actors and poets, who were imported for special occasions. Aeschylus himself died in Gela, Sicily.

The local Greeks and the indigenous populations, such as the Peucetians, also commissioned Athenian and South Italian vases for their funeral banquets and burials. Significantly, because of the absence of literary evidence from this period, scenes on these vases are often the only proof we have for dramatic productions of the ancient myths and legends.

Detail of an ancient Greek red-figure vase showing a young woman being led to sacrifice

Volute krater (detail), about 370–350 BC, attributed as close to the Iliupersis Painter. Terracotta, 69.5 cm high. The British Museum, 0103.21AN130312001. Photo © The Trustees of the British Museum, licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

One such vase is a monumental volute krater (a vessel with handles for mixing wine and water) made in Apulia and found in Basilicata that evokes the climactic scene from Iphigenia in Aulis. It is attributed to the workshop of a vase painter called the Iliupersis Painter, whose oeuvre is identified with large, elaborate vases made for the burials of the local elite.

The moment of the sacrifice is represented on the front of the vase. Figures important to the narrative surround a central white altar; bucrania (bull’s skulls festooned with garlands) hang above, signifying that the space is sacred. Behind the altar, Agamemnon, identified by his scepter, extends a knife toward a young woman, Iphigenia, at right. To the left, a temple acolyte proffers ritual foods; behind him, the woman in elaborate dress is likely Clytemnestra. Artemis and Apollo appear in the upper register, as gods typically do on these vases. The goddess’s stance repeats the pose of Iphigenia just beneath her. Behind the girl, the profile of a deer with hoofs raised frames Iphigenia’s profile, an astonishing depiction of the magical exchange of animal for human at the moment of sacrifice. Representing the original ending of the story as transmitted by tradition and the surviving ancient text, this vase can be seen to provide evidence for local interest in the legend—and possibly the performance—of Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulis.

A carved gem on a gold chain showing a grid of four theatrical masks and the word Euripides in Greek letters

A large cameo gem in the collection of the Getty Villa demonstrates the value the Romans assigned to the poetic heritage of Euripides. Cameo with four masks engraved in Greek with the name “Euripides,” first century AD, Roman. Sardonyx, 1 1/8 in. high. The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2001.28.7. Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

The Roman poetic tradition was heavily influenced by the Greeks, and the Romans inherited their fascination with the charged relationship between mortals and their gods. Romans were also passionate about the Trojan War: after all, they were descended from Aeneas, who fled Troy on the night it was finally sacked by Agamemnon’s army.

The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii attests to these aspects of Roman culture, as the walls of its atrium and peristyle preserve scenes largely inspired by the Iliad, including a fresco of the sacrifice of Iphigenia.

In the fresco shown below, the defenseless, nude figure of Iphigenia is carried to her sacrifice by two men, her arms melodramatically raised in desperation towards her father, who stands to the left with his head bent and his hand covering his face. This cloaked figure of Agamemnon copies a famous pose from the fourth-century BC Greek painter Timanthes’s depiction of the king in his fresco of the final scene from Iphigenia at Aulis. Understanding the difficulty of capturing the king’s grief-stricken expression, Timanthes avoided the predictable and created a masterpiece by using a visual metaphor: the fabric of the cloak weighs heavily on the king’s frame as does the moral weight of his responsibility in the death of his daughter.

Calchas the prophet stands to the right, gazing upward in the traditional pose of a seer seeking divine inspiration. And flying into the scene at the upper left comes Artemis ex machina, bringing the deer that will save Iphigenia.

Wall painting in blues and reds showing a young nude woman being carried against her will by two women, while her father turns away and weeps

Fresco from the House of the Tragic Poet, Pompeii, depicting the Sacrifice of Iphigenia. Naples Archeological Museum, 9112. Source: Wikimedia Commons

That we see Iphigenia in Aulis and other myths and legends revisited as subject matter in diverse works of art speaks to their social, religious, and political resonance across centuries and cultures. The distinguished philologist Bernard Knox suggested why when he wrote about the significant role myth and the art of tragedy played in ancient life:

Tragic myth…was a people’s vision of its own past, with all that such a vision implies for social and moral problems and attitudes in its present…. It was rich in religious significance, for its interweaving of human action and divine purpose explored the relation of man to his gods. And the political, moral, and religious questions it raised were given a passionate intensity and a powerful grip on the emotions by their grounding in the loves and hates of family life. —Bernard Knox, Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater, 23

Further Reading

For translations from the play consulted for this post and a description of some of its textual problems, see the translation and the introduction to the play by Charles R. Walker in Euripides V: Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, The Cyclops, Rhesus (The Complete Greek Tragedies), 3rd ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2103). See particularly “Iphigenia in Aulis: Introduction,” vol. 5, esp. 87ff. For a more detailed discussion of the play and its political dimensions, see the most recent introduction, translation, and commentary by Christopher Collard and James Morewood in Iphigenia at Aulis (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017).

Bettina Bergman, “The Roman House as Memory Theater: The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii,” Art Bulletin, 76, no. 2 (June 1994), 225–256.

Iphigenia, directed by Michael Cacoyannis (1977; Los Angeles: MGM, 2007). The classic film by one of Greece’s most distinguished directors stars Irene Pappas as Clytemnestra.

Bernard Knox, “Second Thoughts in Greek Tragedy” and “Euripides’s Iphigenia in Aulide 1–163 (in that order),” in Word and Action: Essays on the Ancient Theater (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979), 231–249, 275–294. The first, a famous essay on Euripidean poetry by a distinguished classics scholar of the twenty-first century, discusses the topos of the changing of minds in Iphigenia in Aulis (p. 243). The second essay is a highly detailed reading of some of the thornier philological aspects of the text as it has been transmitted.

Pliny, Natural History, trans. H. Rackham (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1952), 315. See 35.36.73 for the Timanthes story.

Barry Unsworth, The Songs of the Kings: A Novel, (London: W.W. Norton & Company, 2003). A masterful retelling of the ancient tale from a Booker-award-winning author. Reviewed by Hilary Mantel, “The Hour Before Dawn,” in The New York Review of Books, October 9, 2003.