In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Euripides’ Bacchae

  • Introduction
  • Texts, Commentaries, and Translations
  • General Interpretation
  • Psychoanalytical Approaches
  • Staging and Audience
  • Location
  • In Myth and Art
  • Chorus and Choral Odes
  • Characters
  • Religion and Ritual
  • Divine Punishment and Violence
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Humor
  • Imagery and Symbolism
  • Reception, Reperformances, and Adaptations

Classics Euripides’ Bacchae
Fiona McHardy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 March 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0333


Produced posthumously along with Iphigenia at Aulis and Alcmaeon in Corinth and awarded first prize at the City Dionysia in 405 BCE, Euripides’ Bacchae is one of his most well-known and influential tragedies. One of the most significant aspects of the play, attracting religious, gendered, psychological, philosophical, and metatheatrical readings, is the appearance as a major character of the god Dionysus seeking to establish his cult in the city of Thebes. Dionysus is simultaneously an outsider, setting off from Lydia with his band of Asiatic maenads, and a son of the city, conceived by Semele, a member of the Theban royal family, and born out of his father Zeus’ thigh after the death of his mother. Worshipping Dionysus brings ecstasy and joy, experienced through revels, music, and dancing, yet there is also a vengeful and destructive side to the god. He seeks to punish his maternal aunts for their lack of belief in his divine parentage and drives them from the palace onto the mountains along with the other Theban women. At the same time, the Theban elder Cadmus, Dionysus’ maternal grandfather, and the prophet Tiresias attire themselves in Bacchic garb and head for the mountains in a show of respect for the god. But Cadmus’s grandson Pentheus, the ruler of the city, is hostile to the establishment of Dionysus’ cult and refuses to accept the outsider. In the course of the play, Pentheus confronts Dionysus and attempts to constrain him by force to reassert his control over the city. Yet it is impossible for a mortal to defeat a god. Intrigued by news of the women’s Bacchic revels on the mountains, Pentheus is persuaded by Dionysus to disguise himself as a maenad and visit the mountains to observe the women. A messenger reports the terrible news of Pentheus’s death, torn apart as if he were an animal in a Bacchic ritual, by his mother and her two sisters. The play culminates with a powerful scene in which Agave returns to the palace carrying the head of her own son, believing it to be the head of a mountain lion they have killed. During the scene her father Cadmus gradually helps her to see that she has in fact dismembered her own son. The play concludes with the exile of the remaining members of the royal family.

Texts, Commentaries, and Translations

Diggle 1994a, an Oxford Classical Text (OCT), is the standard Greek text. A useful article of the author’s textual notes on Bacchae appears in Diggle 1994b. For commentaries in English, see Dodds 1960 and Seaford 1996. Kovacs 2002 and Seaford 1996 provide side-by-side Greek text and translation into English. Roux 1970–1972 offers a commentary in French which accompanies Roux 1970–1972, a text and translation in French. A thorough discussion of syntax together with analysis of problem passages appears in Rijksbaron 1991. Davie 2005 and Arrowsmith, et al. 2013 both offer highly respected translations into English. For other notable English translations, see Perris 2016 (cited under Reception, Reperformances, and Adaptations). Winnington-Ingram 1948 (cited under General Interpretation) includes a prose translation into English. At the end of Stuttard 2016 (cited under General Interpretation), the editor provides a lively English translation intended for performance.

  • Arrowsmith, W., C. R. Walker, R. Lattimore, M. Griffith, G. W. Most, and D. Grene, eds. 2013. Euripides V: The Bacchae; Iphigenia in Aulis; The Cyclops; Rhesus. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Volume 5 of the Complete Greek Tragedies contains a translation of the Bacchae by William Arrowsmith. The third edition includes careful updating of the translation originally published in 1959 by co-editors Griffith and Most.

  • Davie, J. 2005. The Bacchae and other plays. London: Penguin.

    English translation by John Davie with introduction by Richard Rutherford. A readable prose translation with extensive interpretative notes.

  • Diggle, J. 1994a. Euripidis fabulae. Vol. 3. Oxford Classical Texts. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Greek text with critical apparatus. The text appears in the third volume of Diggle’s edition of all of Euripides’ extant tragedies. Included in this volume are Helena, Phoenissae, Orestes, Bacchae, Iphigeneia Aulidensis, Rhesus.

  • Diggle, J. 1994b. Bacchae. In Euripidea: Collected essays. By J. Diggle, 442–489. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

    Textual notes on Euripides’ Bacchae.

  • Dodds E. R. 1960. Bacchae. 2d ed. rev. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Highly regarded Greek text and commentary with informative introduction. Dodds’s discussion of the text underpins much of the scholarship which postdates it, but his comments on Dionysiac religion have largely been superseded by Henrichs, Seaford, and others. Revised edition, the first edition was published in 1944.

  • Kovacs, D. 2002. Euripides. Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, Rhesus. Loeb Classical Library 495. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    Greek text with facing English translation. Sixth volume of Euripides’ plays translated by Kovacs for the Loeb Classical Library.

  • Kovacs, D. 2003. Euripidea tertia. Mnemosyne Supplementa, 240. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

    Third volume of textual notes on Euripides’ plays. Includes notes on Iphigenia in Tauris, Ion, Helen, Phoenissae, Orestes; Bacchae, Iphigenia in Aulis, Rhesus.

  • Rijksbaron, A. 1991. Grammatical observations on Euripides’ Bacchae. Amsterdam: Gieben.

    Commentary style approach, focusing on the language of the play, especially its syntax.

  • Roux, J. 1970–1972. Les Bacchantes. Vols. 1 and 2. Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

    Volume 1 published in 1970 consists of Greek text and French translation, with introduction in French. Volume 2 published in 1972 provides a commentary in French accompanying the text. A useful supplement to Dodds.

  • Seaford, R. 1996. Euripides Bacchae. Warminster, UK: Aris and Phillips.

    Greek text with facing English translation that aims to be close to the text. The introduction and commentary focus especially on ritual elements, in particular discussion of mystery cult as well as the play’s political dimension.

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