E-mail me at mcclainm@optonline.net Visit my Facebook page View my LinkedIn profile

Heracleidae (Children of Heracles)

by Euripides

Summary by Michael McClain
March 13, 2012
Based on a translation by Ralph Gadstone


Iolaus, the aged comrade of Heracles, arrives outside the temple of Zeus at Marathon with Heracles' young sons seeking the protection of the king of Athens. He tells the boys that their older brothers are seeking refuge elsewhere while their sisters are inside the temple with their grandmother Alcmene. They are being driven from city to city by Heracles' nemesis, Eurystheus, who continues to harass them even after the death of their father.

Eurystheus' herald, Copreus, tracks them down and insists that they return to Argos as his prisoners. When Iolaus refuses, a fight breaks out. This catches the attention of the local citizens who intervene on behalf of the old man. As Copreus protests, the Athenian king Demophon arrives to see what is causing the commotion. Copreus demands that the boys be handed over to him, threatening war if the Athenians refuse.

Iolaus pleads for protection, arguing that Eurystheus has no right to order them back to Argos. He appeals to the Athenian tradition of protecting the weak and cites a family connection between Demophon and the boys — Pelops' son Pittheus was the father of Aethra, who was the mother of Demophon's father, Theseus. The boys' father Heracles was the son of Zeus and Alcmene, the daughter of Pelops, which makes them near cousins. Besides, Iolaus adds, since the boys' father saved your father from the depths of hell, it would be a disgrace for you not to defend them. Swayed by the old man's arguments, Demophon orders Copreus to leave. He goes, but not before threatening an invasion.

As Demophon leaves to prepare his defenses, the citizens of Marathon assure the old man that he will be protected. Demophon returns, however, with the news that all the oracles have agreed that the Athenians cannot win unless they offer a young noble woman as a sacrifice to Persephone. Demophon is not willing to sacrifice one of his daughters, nor is he prepared to ask any of the Athenians to sacrifice theirs.

Iolaus's unhappy cries bring Heracles' daughter Macaria out of the temple. Acknowledging that normally women should stay silent, she asks the old man what he is crying about. When he tells her about the demand for sacrifice, she volunteers to give her life for the sake of her brothers and sisters, adding that it is not right for the family of Heracles to ask the Athenians to go to war for them without being willing to face death themselves. When Iolaus suggests that she and her sisters draw lots to determine who should be sacrificed, she refuses. She asks Iolaus to look after the boys and to make sure she has a decent funeral, then leaves for the sacrifice praying that death will bring an end to her troubles. The citizens reflect on the fickleness of fate and Macaria's nobility as Iolaus falls into a faint.

A servant arrives to announce that Heracles' son Hyllus is outside Marathon with his army. Iolaus summons Alcmene from the temple to hear the news, and the servant tells them that Hyllus has joined forces with Demophon to fight the Argives. Although the servant and Alcmene think it ludicrous, Iolaus insists on joining the battle. He totters off to the front with the aid of the servant. The citizens ask Zeus and Athena to endorse their cause by granting them victory.

A herald arrives with news that the Athenians have won and everyone Alcmene cares about is alive. Alcmene is so delighted that she promises the herald his freedom. He describes the Athenian victory. After the battle lines were drawn, Alcmene's grandson Hyllus stepped in front of the troops and challenged Eurystheus to one-to-one combat, but Eurystheus refused. The armies charged, their commanders urging them on. The momentum swung back and forth until the allies finally broke through the Argive ranks. Grabbing the reins of a chariot, a rejuvenated Iolaus drove through the enemy's lines and disappeared from the herald's view; but the herald heard that as Iolaus raced forward, two bright stars — representing Hebe and Heracles — shown on the yoke of his chariot. With the gods' help he ran down Eurystheus and made a prisoner of him. The fortunes of the two men are now completely reversed.

Alcmene rejoices in the victory, but wonders why Iolaus did not slay Eurystheus rather than send him back to Marathon. The herald tells her that Iolaus wanted her to see her enemy face to face. As he departs he reminds Alcmene of her promise to set him free. The citizens celebrate by thanking the gods and singing the praises of Heracles.

A soldier arrives with Eurystheus in chains. Hyllus and Demophon are raising a memorial to Zeus, he tells her, but they wanted her to have the pleasure of seeing their enemy in disgrace. Alcmene heaps insults on Eurystheus for his treatment of his son, but when she threatens to kill him on the spot, the citizens prevent her, citing the ancient Athenian laws prohibiting the execution of prisoners of war. Refusing to beg for his life, Eurystheus says that Hera forced him into his ongoing battle with Heracles and his descendants. He concludes his defense by reminding the Athenians that slaying him now would cause pollution.

Alcmene tells the Athenians that they do not need to execute Eurystheus, because she will do it for them. Eurystheus tells the citizens of an old oracle of Apollo. They will bury his body before the shrine of Athena, he says. When the next generation of Argives attacks Athens, his body will protect them. Undeterred, Alcmene orders the guards to take Eurystheus away. "When you've killed him, throw him to the dogs," she tells them. The citizens agree, telling the guards to finish the deed before the kings return so they will have no responsibility for Eurystheus's death.

Texts on line:

translation by ,

translationby R. C. Jebb

Greek text