You are here

Euripides’ Ion: Monody as Agon

Claire Catenaccio

This paper presents Euripides’ innovative use of monody as the vehicle for a contest of ideas in Ion. Within the play, the debate about the nature of Apollo is carried on primarily through the juxtaposition of competing accounts. There is no formal agon, where opposing arguments may be brought into direct conflict. Rather, the cases for and against the musical god are presented in musical form, through the monodies of Ion and Creusa. In the two monodies, Euripides couches the legalistic exposition typical of agonistic rhesis within the emotionality of lyric song.

In setting the two songs against one another, I hope to contribute to a growing body of scholarship on Euripides’ use of monody in his late plays. Csapo has demonstrated that over the course of his career Euripides increasingly composed music to be delivered by actors, rather than by the Chorus; Hall has argued that social distinctions within tragedy were reflected in different modes of musical expression, and that singers in Euripides are generally “the ‘others’ of the free Greek man in his prime. These studies of larger trends in musical form must be supported by detailed analyses of individual plays, such as the one offered here.

The solo lyric mode of the two monodies in Ion demands that they be interpreted in apposition, despite the scenes that separate them. First I will briefly demonstrate the ways in which similarities of meter, diction, imagery, and theme focus attention on the disparity between the radically different points of view espoused by the singers. Ion’s monody praises a benevolent god in a peaceful, ordered world. Creusa – although she has not heard Ion’s monody – denies and contradicts this song of praise, offering in its place a vision of a pitiless deity and a world arbitrary and full of pain. The attitudes presented in the monodies are diametrically opposed; each singer offers a position which is absolute and internally consistent.

Second, I will present the ways in which this musical agon characterizes the figures of Ion and Creusa by the competitive presentation of their world-views. As Mastronarde has discussed, any contest of arguments in tragedy raises questions about the sufficiency of language and of human constructs within a given play. Here the medium of lyric song confers power and authority on the characters’ attempts to define the nature of Apollo. The further action of the play is built upon the logical tension between the attitudes of Ion and Creusa, which demands some degree of resolution. Music raises the argument beyond the level of logic and allows for empathic identification. Only through the exchange of songs, can the characters, and the audience, come to an understanding that incorporates both the beauty and the harshness of the god. 

Finally, this paper points to the complex web of meta-theatrical allusion created by the two songs. Monody connects mother and son to each other, but also to Apollo in his role as the god of music. The privileged connection that Ion and Creusa have to Apollo is underscored by the very act of singing. Both monodies formally resemble the paean, Apollo’s particular genre; the refrain of Ion’s monody explicitly invokes Apollo by his cult title Παιάν (125-128 = 141-143), while Creusa employs the traditional structures of a praise hymn ironically to set off her scathing indictment of the god. Monody allows Ion and Creusa to approach the god directly through his own preferred modality. 

Monody in Ion, therefore, serves various ends: for agonistic debate, for the development of character, for the synthesis of competing points of view, and for the achievement of a meta-theatrical perspective on performance. 

Session/Panel Title


Session/Paper Number


© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy