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Marble portrait of a bearded man. - click to view larger image
Head from a statue of Euripides

PATRICIA KARVELAS: χρὴ τῶν ἀγαθῶν διακναιομένων πενθεῖν ὅστις χρηστὸς ἀπ᾽ ἀρχῆς νενόμισται.

When the virtuous are ruined, the good join in their suffering.

With these words, Euripides captures the spirit of tragedy. Watching heroes suffer on stage, you inevitably and vicariously feel their pain. Only those who are dead inside feel nothing.

You are staring into the eyes of a genius. This marble head is a portrait of one of the 3 great writers of tragedies in Athens, the poet and playwright, Euripides. It is a copy taken from an original full-size bronze statue that was produced in the 3rd or 2nd century BCE. The head is reasonably intact and has been shaped so that it could be inserted into a statue.

Statues of the tragedians were popular amongst the elite who used them to decorate their gardens and villas as a sign of their cultural sophistication. Although statues of Euripides were produced shortly after his death, we know of none produced during his lifetime. As a result, these statues of literary figures tend to be imaginative reconstructions based on biographic information and what the sculptors thought they looked like. This is a face that has looked deep and unflinching into the human soul.

Although only moderately successful during his lifetime, Euripides enjoyed considerable fame following his death in around 406 BCE. A radical innovator who experimented with plot, staging, and music, he wrote some of our best-loved tragedies, such as Medea, Bacchae, and Trojan Women. Even today, Euripides is the artist to whom we turn when we want to explore some of humanity’s darkest emotions or gravest moral dilemmas. Each year his plays are staged in numerous theatres all over the world. The setting may be updated to contemporary times, but the truths contained in his plays are eternal.

It was Euripides’ skill as a dramatist that possibly saved Athens from destruction. At the end of the Peloponnesian War, the great war between Athens and Sparta, Athens was soundly defeated. The Spartan allies, led by the city of Thebes, called for the complete razing of the city. However, according to one version, at this proposition one of the other allies started to sing the chorus from Euripides’ play Electra. The assembled throng were so moved by the beauty of the work that they lost all interest in wiping out Athens, thinking that it would be a crime to destroy a city which had produced such poets.

Disclaimer and Copyright notice
This is an edited transcript typed from an audio recording.
The National Museum of Australia cannot guarantee its complete accuracy.

© National Museum of Australia 2007–21. This transcript is copyright and is intended for your general use and information. You may download, display, print and reproduce it in unaltered form only for your personal, non-commercial use or for use within your organisation. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth) all other rights are reserved.

Date published: 17 December 2021

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