Image Missing

We turn to the gods
but the gods turn us;
we turn to the gods
and are torn apart.














About the Book

A new god has come to Thebes – Dionysus, god of wine and ecstasy – and the women are streaming out of the city to worship him on the mountain, drinking and dancing in wild Bacchic frenzy. The king, Pentheus, is furious, denouncing this so-called ‘god’ as a charlatan, an insurgent – but no mortal can deny a god and no man can ever stand against Dionysus. How the god exacts his terrible revenge, drawing Pentheus to his own destruction, is as devastating now as it was in the fifth century BC. This stunning translation, by the award-winning poet Robin Robertson, reinvigorates Euripides’ masterpiece for contemporary readers, bringing the ancient verse to fervid, brutal life.

About the Author

Euripides is thought to have been born around 485 BC in Attica. Along with Aeschylus and Sophocles, he is one of the three great Ancient Greek tragedians whose work is still enjoyed today. His most famous works are Medea and The Bacchae. Euripides died in 406 BC.

Robin Robertson has received the E.M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Petrarca-Preis and all three Forward Prizes. His translation of Medea appeared in 2008 and he has published five books of poetry, most recently Hill of Doors (2013).

Also By Robin Robertson


A Painted Field

Slow Air


The Wrecking Light

Hill of Doors


Camera Obscura

Actaeon: The Early Years


The Deleted World



32 Counties


Love Poet, Carpenter


for James Lasdun



Translated and Introduced by Robin Robertson



We know next to nothing about Euripides: an approximate date of birth – 485–480 BC – and a probable date of death – 407 or 406 BC. It is thought he was born on the island of Salamis, west of Athens, that he spent most of his life in the township of Phyla, north of Mt Hymettus, near the capital, and that he died in Macedonia.

The one accurate ancient source we have is the Didaskalia: a compilation of Aristotle’s lists of the plays produced at the Dionysian festival in Athens. This provides the names of the dramatists, the plays, the principal actors and the prizes awarded. Euripides is recorded as the author of ninety-two plays (of which only nineteen survive), but he won the first prize only four times, and once posthumously for the Bacchae. Whether this was due to the high quality of the contemporary competition or Athenian hostility to his work is hard to say.

The life of Euripides coincided with the great period of Athenian culture when the empire was consolidated and the city was established as the cultural hub of the Greek-speaking world. Beginning with the Greek victories over the invading Persians at Marathon (490 BC) and Salamis (480 BC), this fertile half-century ended with the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War in 431 BC, the year his Medea was first performed. This war between Athens and Sparta lasted twenty-seven years and ended in Athenian defeat in 404 BC. At some time between the catastrophic naval campaign in Sicily (415–413 BC) and the end of the war, Euripides left Athens for voluntary exile in Macedonia. Tradition has it that he met a grotesquely violent end: torn apart either by dogs – like Actaeon – or by women – like Pentheus. Three new plays were found after his death: the Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis and a third tragedy, which has subsequently disappeared. All three were staged at the Great Dionysia, probably in 405 BC.


In the fifth century BC, epic poetry was the conventional art form and tragedy was a relatively recent Athenian invention, originating – according to Aristotle – in the dithyrambs: choral songs in honour of Dionysus. The three great exponents of the new form were Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and they quickly established the ground rules: a mythological subject matter that used the tight focus of the family (and its associated duties and transgressions, loves and loathings) to develop wider civic implications in the state – while still allowing the drama to fall, in the end, under the inevitable sway of the gods.


The Bacchae was first performed in the huge open-air theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the Athenian acropolis, as part of the Great Dionysia – a competitive drama festival held every spring, in honour of the god, before an audience of between 15,000 and 20,000 people, predominantly male, sitting in the semicircular rows of stepped seats in the theatron. There was a raised wooden stage, at the back of which was a single-storey stagebuilding, a skênê, which represented a house, temple or palace, with a large circular area below, known as the orchêstra, where the Chorus sang and danced. There were three points of entry to the acting area: from the skênê, and from two entrances – or eisodoi – to the right and left of the stage. The dramatists also had two mechanical features at their disposal: the ekkyklêma, a wheeled platform on which a tableau of actors could be grouped, and the mêchanê, a crane on which a god could arrive or depart.

There were usually three speaking actors, who were all male, and masked, the masks allowing them to assume different characters. The Chorus, made up of twelve to fifteen male performers, had an importance in Greek tragedy that is now largely lost to us. The Chorus had a central role: their dancing and their sung choral odes provided not just a counterpoint to the drama, but some of the finest lyric poetry. They generally represented the decent objective view: fellow citizens and interested spectators, offering an ethical and religious commentary on the action of the play. We find their relatives in Shakespeare, in moral touchstones such as Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra or Kent in King Lear. In the Bacchae, however, the Chorus is specified as ‘Asian Bacchae’ and they take an unusually partisan position, with their odes commenting more directly on events than previously. Almost all the dramatic action takes place offstage and is reported by an eyewitness or messenger, and is then reflected on by the Chorus.


The theatre audiences of Athens were highly sophisticated, and would have come to these plays with a full grounding in the great corpus of Greek myths. The word mythos means, literally, ‘story’, and these stories were regarded as morality tales of the ancestors. As contemporary readers are now increasingly unfamiliar with classical mythology, and therefore the background to the play and its characters – the story of Cadmus building Thebes and his disastrous dynasty; the character of Tiresias, the blind seer; the miraculous birth of Dionysus, the death of his mother and his revenge on Thebes – it is worth rehearsing those stories here.

Thebes, Cadmus and Harmonia

Cadmus was the son of the Phoenician king Agenor and his wife Telephassa, and brother of Europa. When Zeus took the form of a bull and abducted Europa, Agenor sent his three sons in different directions to try and find her. Eventually, the Delphic Oracle told Cadmus to abandon the hunt for his sister and instead follow a cow with a white mark like a full moon on both her sides. Where she lay down to rest he must build a city.

The cow took Cadmus to a place in Boeotia, and Cadmus decided to sacrifice her to Athene. He sent some of his men to fetch water from a nearby spring, not realising it was guarded by a dragon, said to be an offspring of Ares. When they did not return, Cadmus went to the spring, only to find them being devoured. After a long fight, the dragon was killed and, on Athene’s instructions, Cadmus sowed half its teeth in the ground. Immediately, armed men sprang from the earth. Cadmus threw a stone into their midst and, each thinking he was being attacked by the others, they fought among themselves until only five were left standing. These warriors, the Spartoi (‘Sown Men’), were the ancestors of the noble families of Thebes.

As a punishment for killing the dragon, Cadmus spent eight years in the service of the god Ares. At the end of this time he was granted the hand of Harmonia, the daughter of Ares and Aphrodite. Cadmus then founded his city and called it Cadmeia, later renaming it Thebes, and was assisted by Echion, one of the Spartoi, who subsequently married one of Cadmus’s daughters, Agave. Cadmus would later cede his kingdom to Agave’s son, Pentheus.

The dynasty of Cadmus and Harmonia was doomed. Their four daughters – Ino, Agave, Autonoe and Semele – were persecuted by Hera, the vindictive wife of Zeus. Agave would become the mother of Pentheus, the ill-fated king; Autonoe’s only son would be the hunter, Actaeon, who chanced upon the goddess Artemis bathing and was punished by being transformed into a stag, and who was then torn apart by his own hounds. In some stories, Ino was driven mad and killed herself; in others she survives to join her sisters, Agave and Autonoe, in the Dionysian rites on Mt Cithaeron which form the bloody focus of the Bacchae. The fourth daughter, Semele, does not appear in the drama as she has already been killed, while carrying Zeus’s son (and the central figure of this play) Dionysus.


The companion to the aged Cadmus in the BacchaeBacchae’sOdysseyThe Waste Land