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Satchmo in Macedon? Re-Framing Euripides' Macedonian "Exile"

Dennis R Alley

Cornell University

           Did Euripides visit the court of the Macedonian king Archelaos sometime around 408? In a persuasive article, Scott Scullion emphatically denied the possibility. Citing Aristophanes’ Frogs’ reticence on the event as evidence against its historicity, he observes: “It would seem incredible that Aristophanes could have resisted the splendid comic opportunities thus offered him, and unaccountable why he should have done so” (Scullion,S. 2003, 393). To Scullion, the story is a scholiastic fabrication appended to Euripides’ biography from the fact that he composed a play titled after the Macedonian king. Yet, the fragments of Euripides’ Archelaos taken in tandem with historical circumstances behind the play suggest another possibility.

            In her commentary on the remains of the Archelaos, Annette Harder noted: “I think it is worth mentioning the possibility that the play was celebrating the Greek ancestry of Archelaos, and at the same time elevating the Macedonians in general, in order to connect them more closely with Athens” (Harder,A. 1985,130). Harder’s view conforms to what political theorists have termed “soft power,” which leverages cultural power for geo-political gain. A famous modern example—Cold War era American State Department jazz tours—offers an instructive parallel for understanding the ancient account. 

            As Penny Von Eschen has seen, the jazz tours were commonly directed to places where American interested required better diplomatic ties—particularly to procure natural resources (Von Eschen, P. 2004). The Jazz Ambassadors played at venues where leading local political and diplomatic figures were likely to attend. After the show, the friendly environment of receptions offered American diplomats an ideal opportunity to network with the aim of exploiting the accessed gained through the jazz performances. 

            Looking to the historical backdrop of Euripides’ visit, we may appreciate how many of the same circumstances were present. Specifically, for the Athenian Empire, Macedonian timber resources were a vital concern. Following the loss of Amphipolis in 422, Athens had been cut off from easily accessible forests demanded to retrofit their battle-weakened navy. The ascent of Archelaos to the throne in 413 presented the prospect of a new, and possibly friendlier administration in forest-rich Macedon. The Athenian exile Andocides, for example, in 411 cited access to the young king Archelaos—his family’s inherited xenos—and the gift of timber it implied as benefactions he offered the city should he be granted his return (Andoc. De Reditu Suo. 11). While the democracy was not taken in by exile’s bid for return, the continued interest and eventual success of Athenian overtures to Macedon are evinced by an inscription from the Athenian Acropolis (dating to 407-6) naming king Archelaos an Euergos and Proxenos. The reason cited for the honor was the king’s gift of timber to the Athenian people (IG. I2, 105, Meiggs-Lewis, 91).

            Significantly, during the timeframe of 411-407, Euripides was not the only culturally prominent Athenian who found his way to the Macedonian court. A recently discovered inscription from Aigai records the architectural contributions of a certain Callimachus to the new royal palace’s construction—likely the famous Athenian architect of the Erechtheon (SEG. 46, 830). Finally, Euripides’ fellow tragedian Agathon is guaranteed to have visited Macedon before the production of Aristophanes’ Frogs, based on a joke in the play (Aristoph. Ran. 82-5). 

            Seen as a part of a concentrated Athenian effort to levy cultural power for political advantage, Euripides’ Macedonian “exile” makes better sense. Not only does this view eliminate the historical problems Scullion and others have observed in the traditional account of Euripides’ indignant decampment, but offers a new way of framing the well-documented foreign activities of Greek poets. On this view, through a clearer understanding of the cultural power poets possessed, we may better appreciate the role internationally famous Greek poets could have played in furthering their polis’ political interests in the wider Greek community.  

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