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Summaries of Essays

Euripides' Bacchae

Kassandra & Women's Place

Classical Critical Model

Plato's Symposium

Homer's Helen of Troy

Shakespeare's "Good" Women

Enterprise Bargaining

Dionysus the Theatre God

Aristophanes' Frogs

Women in Ancient Times

Euripides' Bacchae and the Nomos versus Physis Antithesis


'You know not what you are saying, what you do, nor who
You are.'

[Dionysus to Pentheus, Bacchae, 506-7]

The above quote strikes to the very heart of the Bacchae. Dionysus very calmly(1) says these words to Pentheus, as the Theban king, in his characteristic rage, orders that the god be bound. This work by Euripides is the tragedy of a man who had no self-knowledge, who lived in denial of his own self, who acted on motivations he did not understand and who, ultimately, was destroyed by this self-deception. The purpose here is to examine this play in terms of the ancient Greek philosophical antithesis of nomos versus physis. It is a useful framework within which to conceptualise the Bacchae; through the way in which Euripides seems to have employed the antithesis on a psychological level to depict the conflict within the play, and within Pentheus, it seems that he believed that a successful civilisation and a balanced individual must recognise the importance of both forces.

Throughout the history of its reception, Euripides' Bacchae has summoned a vast array of interpretations. To some it was considered a play representing Euripides' last minute recantation of his atheistic(2) views. Others still saw it as a definite embrace of atheism (Decharme, 1968, pp.62-64; Dodds, 1929, p.102). What seems to be a constant is that Euripides' play is concerned with some kind of world view. It is quite possible that Euripides considered the concepts of nomos versus physis when he composed the tragedy, as they were a major philosophical topic of his time(3). However, regardless of whether they were a conscious theme for the poet, it is argued here that they present us with perhaps one of the best ways of coming to some conclusion about what has often been termed by scholars, "the riddle of the Bacchae" (Norwood, 1908).

The Sophists and Nomos versus Physis

What is known as the enlightenment of ancient Greece began in Ionia in the 6th century BCE, but as an intellectual flowering, it really gathered momentum during the Classical Age in Athens in the 5th century. It was during this same period that Euripides was born and lived his life (Decharme, 1968, p.5 & Dodds, 1951, p.180ff).

Many great philosophers moved to Athens during the period of the enlightenment. In the early part, the main focus of their meditations was "scientific", though the theories also impacted on other issues. As the Periclean period of the Classical Age began, a new movement of thinkers, the sophists, also began to influence life in Athens. They were professional teachers who charged fees for the tuition of the sons of the upper classes. Right through this classical period, the question of ethics was often at the forefront. By "ethics" the Greeks meant "how does one lead the good life"(4). With the Bacchae, it seems Euripides is adding his conception of how to lead the "good life".

One of the origins of the nomos-physis distinction was with a group of early Greek philosophers known collectively as the ethnographers. It was their study of the various cultures of their time (that they were able to visit) and the focus upon how culture was a subjective phenomenon that the sophists later fastened upon. The value judgements of the latter on nomos were more critical than those of the ethnographers; not only was nomos subjective, but as such it was a yoke on the natural freedom of people. Many sophists were therefore openly hostile to nomos because it imposed an unnatural restraint on the individual in the pursuit of his(5) self-interest. Presumably, through their use of such rhetorical language, these sophists found many followers amongst the upwardly mobile sections of ancient Greek society(6).

The concepts of nomos and physis entered the ethical debate (Rankin, 1983, p.79f). By reading any commentaries on ancient Greek philosophical beliefs in the 5th century, it becomes rapidly obvious that definite and consistent modes of employment of these terms did not really exist. Indeed, the terms had a variety of applications by different sophists/philosophers, which resulted in conflicting definitions for both terms (Dodds, 1951, p.182f). However, they do have literal definitions that are relatively constant, and a range of related ideas that came to be associated with them (Rankin, 1983, p.80f & Kerferd, 1981, p.111f):

conventional law,
societal norms
natural law,
natural urges
civilisation, the polis
emotional & sexual moderation
rational thought
emotional & sexual excess
irrational thought
non-Greek, barbaric

A way of considering this antithesis is as follows:

By PHYSIS: a person is perfectly in the right to fulfil his/her natural urges like revenge, desire for gain, mountain-dancing, etc. (if he/she can);

By NOMOS: A person's natural urges are subject to what the social/conventional laws allow, like laws or norms against murder, corruption, excessive dancing, etc.

In the question of ethics and the conduct of one's life to attain the maximum good/virtue/benefit, there were those who argued that a life governed by nomos was best. Others still, including many of the sophists, argued that the life of physis was the best way to live.

As Dodds has noted (1951, p.183), and of interest here, is how the antithesis was applied to the concept of ethics, questioning the credibility of "moral and political obligation", and on the psychological level, regarding the bases of individual behaviour.

Bronze Dionysus, Argive

IMAGE: Dionysus
Argive, c.460-4,500 BCE
Bronze, height 22.5cm
From Olympia
The Louvre

Links to the Text of The Bacchae

A simple version of the text of the play can be accessed at: Simple Bacchae text. This is an African university site. The test is presented in prose translation/arrangement on the one Web page.

A more complex text of the play with lots of further links can be accessed from the Perseus Project site at: Complex Bacchae text. The Perseus Project site is an enormous place. There are "reams" of classics resources here, both text and image archives. It is of particular value in the provision of hypertext links to primary text resources, sorted by subject. Don't be surprised if you end up spending a lot of time here. However, some other links in this site lead there by way of intermediary sites which summarise available materials in a manner more relevant to this site.

The text in the original Ancient Greek can also be accessed via the Perseus site: Ancient Greek text.

Links to Information Regarding the Ancient Greek God Dionysus

The University of Victoria in Canada has a very useful site on Classical Mythology. Of particular interest here, it provides information on text references to particular gods and also provides a thorough collection of images. This collection includes many images of Dionysus or related themes. Many but not all of the images are derived from links to the enormous Perseus Project website. A brief description is provided for each image file under the god, which means one can be selective in viewing them: Images of Dionysus.

To view the University of Victoria’s index of textual sources for Dionysus: Textual references for Dionysus.

Iconographic attributes for various gods are also provided by the University of Victoria: Dionysus' Iconography. Scroll down the alphabetical listing of gods to "Dionysus".

Further image resources for Dionysus can be found at More Dionysus. This site is published by the University of Haifa, Israel, and is set up in a similar way to that of the University of Victoria, ie. the links leads to a list of the images with a brief description, therefore you need only view the images that seem relevant to you.

Links to Information Regarding Modern Productions of The Bacchae

To view some modern maenads in a contemporary production of the play: The Bacchae Intoxicates the Audience

The text with interesting stage directions for a modern interpretation of The Bacchae can be found at Mee's Bacchae. The description of what the character of Dionysus should look like at the top of the site is of particular interest. It underlines the impression that Dionysus represents the fringe elements of mainstream society, something not totally acceptable to the dominant culture.

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Created: January 2001
Last modified: August 28, 2003
Author: Brigid Marasco, e-mail: brigid@b-muse.net
Copyright © Brigid Marasco 2001, 2002, 2003. All rights reserved.
URL: http://www.b-muse.net/bacchae1.htm