Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-544b6db54f-mdtzd Total loading time: 0.192 Render date: 2021-10-16T11:41:28.917Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": true, "newCiteModal": false, "newCitedByModal": true, "newEcommerce": true, "newUsageEvents": true }

Article contents

Introduction: Medea in Greece and Rome

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  04 July 2014

A J. Boyle*
University of Southern California
Rights & Permissions[Opens in a new window]


HTML view is not available for this content. However, as you have access to this content, a full PDF is available via the ‘Save PDF’ action button.

Few mythic narratives of the ancient world are more famous than the story of the Colchian princess/sorceress who betrayed her father and family for love of a foreign adventurer and who, when abandoned for another woman, killed in revenge both her rival and her children. Many critics have observed the complexities and contradictions of the Medea figure—naive princess, knowing witch, faithless and devoted daughter, frightened exile, marginalised alien, displaced traitor to family and state, helper-maiden, abandoned wife, vengeful lover, caring and filicidal mother, loving and fratricidal sister, oriental ‘other’, barbarian saviour of Greece, rejuvenator of the bodies of animals and men, killer of kings and princesses, destroyer and restorer of kingdoms, poisonous stepmother, paradigm of beauty and horror, demi-goddess, subhuman monster, priestess of Hecate and granddaughter of the sun, bride of dead Achilles and ancestor of the Medes, rider of a serpent-drawn chariot in the sky—complexities reflected in her story's fragmented and fragmenting history. That history has been much examined, but, though there are distinguished recent exceptions, comparatively little attention has been devoted to the specifically ‘Roman’ Medea—the Medea of the Republican tragedians, of Cicero, Varro Atacinus, Ovid, the younger Seneca, Valerius Flaccus, Hosidius Geta and Dracontius, and, beyond the literary field, the Medea of Roman painting and Roman sculpture. Hence the present volume of Ramus, which aims to draw attention to the complex and fascinating use and abuse of this transcultural heroine in the Roman intellectual and visual world. The present introduction briefly outlines Medea's Greek history before examining in detail her journey through Republican Rome. It concludes with a survey of her imperial configurations and a preliminary framing of the studies which follow.

Copyright © Aureal Publications 2012


1. Jason's ‘quest’ is of the common folktale form of the ‘initiation quest’, in which a young man must overcome dire challenges in order to claim his birthright.

2. Taking possession of the golden fleece is also sometimes configured as one of Aeetes' tasks (Pind. Pyth. 4. 242–6).

3. The main variations in Hesiod/Pindar, Sophocles, Apollonius and Skymnos: summarised by Gantz (1993), 362.

4. The Corinthians' killing of the children is reported by Parmeniscus in the Hellenistic period and by the (difficult to date) Creophylus, but it is most likely to have predated Euripides. Parmeniscus also credits Medea with fourteen children. For testiinonia, see Mastronarde (2002), 50f.

5. Diodorus Siculus 4.54.1-55.2.

6. Naupactia (frags. 6-9 West), Nostoi (frag. 6 West), Cinaethon (frag. 2 West).

7. The Corinthiaca of ‘Eumelus’ (frags. 20, 23 West). The same poem seems to have included the sowing of the dragon's teeth among the tasks performed by Jason at Colchis (frag. 21 West); so, too, the mid-fifth century genealogist, Pherecydes.

8. Scholars frequently construe the whole incident as an attempt to explain ‘a Corinthian cult of [Medea's] dead children, whose tomb was situated in the precinct of Hera’ in Corinth: West ad frag. 23 of Eumelus. See Eur, . Med. 1379–83Google Scholar.

9. The rejuvenation of Jason is also said to feature in Pherecydes.

10. An Etruscan bucchero vessel found in a grave at Cerveteri: LIMC ‘Medeia’ fig. 1—for a commentary, see Smith (1999), 197-202.

11. Griffiths (2006), 23. See Harvard 1960.315 (c.510-500 BCE), London E163 (c.485-70 BCE). For a discussion of some Attic black-figure and red-figure vases depicting incidents in the story of the death of Pelias, see Gantz (1993), i.366f..

12. Two early Corinthian pots (Bonn 860, Samos VM fragments): Gantz (1993), i.359f.

13. The scholia to Horn. Od. 12.69 support the idea of the usurping Pelias. But he seems to be the rightful monarch in several accounts, including Hesiod (Theog. 995), Diodorus Siculus (4.40.1) and Apollodorus (1.9.16).

14. Pelike: VAS 2354 in the Staatliche Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek, Munich; crater: NY.56.17148 = fig. 164 in Boardman (1989). Medea's rejuvenation of the ram remained popular: hydria 480-70 BCE, E163 British Museum.

15. Somerstein (2008), ad loc.; Lloyd-Jones (1996), ad loc. Sophocles' Aegeus may have featured Medea, but the plot is unknown.

16. Lloyd-Jones (1996), ad locc. Sophocles also wrote an Aegeus, but its plot (and whether it featured Medea in any way) is unknown. Medea's murder of her baby brother is first found in Pherecydes, who is the earliest testimony for Medea's abduction of the child and her subsequent dismemberment and scattering of his body. See also Apollodorus 1.9.24 and Gantz (1993), 363.

17. See Lloyd-Jones ad loc.

18. A controversial question. There is no mention in the text of serpents/dragons drawing Medea's chariot. Some scholia suggest that it was drawn by serpents, and post-Euripidean vase painters from c.400 BCE regularly feature a serpent-drawn chariot. But whether either source reflects knowledge of the dramaturgy of the Euripidean play of 431 BCE is most uncertain. See Mastronarde ad Med. 1317.

19. All this assumes that Neophron's Medea postdates that of Euripides: see Page (1938), xxx-vi; Mastronarde (2002), 57-64. In respect of one variant Euripides follows Sophocles' Colchides: Medea's killing of Apsyrtus before departing Colchis (Med. 1334f.).

20. To Neophron is to be attributed the suicide-variant for Jason's death. Neophron's Medea apparently prophesies that Jason will hang himself (see his Med. frag. 3 in Mastronarde [2002], 59f.). At Diod. Sic. 4.55.1 Jason is again said to have killed himself.

21. For post-Euripidean dramatists, see Mastronarde (2002), 64f.

22. See LICM ‘Medeia’ figs. 29-31, 35-37, 39. For the analysis of several vases, see Sourvinou-Inwood (1997) and Mastronarde (2002), 66-69. The former's argument, however, that Medea is in Greek dress throughout the body of Euripides' play and changes to oriental dress for the finale has no basis in the text itself.

23. Just one aspect of the poem's ‘creative reworking of Homer’ (Hunter [1993]: xxiv).

24. See Griffiths (2006), 89f.

25. Also in Apollonius (3.241-44) Apsyrtus is half-brother, not full brother to Medea, being the son of Aeetes and the nymph, Asterodeia, and was born before Aeetes' marriage to Iduia.

26. The third century, too, saw Medea interesting the philosophers. The Stoic philosopher, Chrysippus, was clearly fascinated by Euripides' Medea, from which he seems to have quoted frequently (Diog. Laert. 7.180). He was especially interested in Medea's mental conflict (Med. 1078-80), and inaugurated a debate on the matter which was to continue into late antiquity: see Dillon (1997).

27. For a detailed discussion of all the fragments of this play, see Boyle (2006), 71-78.

28. See Erasmo (2004), 23; Cowan (2010), 43.

29. See Vogt-Spira (2000), 270.

30. The Jocelyn reference is not used here, since line 1 is not printed as an Ennian fragment by Jocelyn, who retains Cicero's habebant. Line 2 is not in Jocelyn, but is based on the discussion in Skutsch (1968), 168f.

31. See Skutsch (1968), to whose excellent remarks on this fragment I am indebted.

32. See Jocelyn (1967), 362.

33. The recent attempt of Gildenhard (2010) to play down the political nature of republican tragedy is unpersuasive.

34. The assignment of this fragment to Ennius' Medea is disputed by Jocelyn (349) on inadequate grounds. Ribbeck (1875), 152, and Warmington (1935-38), i.316, assign it without hesitation.

35. On the theme of cultural isolation and the political resonances of Corinth, see Vogt-Spira (2000), esp. 273f.

36. See Wright (1931), 50.

37. See Fantham (2003), 102; Manuwald (2003), 39f.

38. See Arcellaschi (1990), 103. Hyginus modelled other fabulae on Pacuvius' plays, notably Fab. 8 on the famous Antiopa. For a bold, if tendentious, dramaturgical analysis of Fab. 27 into five acts, see Arcellaschi (1990), 104-06.

39. See Cowan (2010), 46, who cites Helen and Iphigenia in Tauris.

40. See also Livy 8.6.11.

41. Cf. Schierl (2002), 276; Cowan (2010), 46f. Arcellaschi (1990), 144-46, argues for an unproblematic redemption: ‘une complète réhabilitation de Médée en tant que mère et en tant que fille’ (145).

42. See Della Casa (1974), 295; Schierl (2002), 277; Fantham (2003), 111f.; Cowan (2010), 47f. For the account in Fabius Pictor, see Wiseman (1995), 1-4.

43. Cowan (2010), 48, advances the interesting suggestion that the foreigner Medea may serve as a model for understanding problematic figures such as Tanaquil in Roman history.

44. Medea siue Argonautae may have been essentially a dramatisation of Apollonius' account of the murder of Apsyrtus in Argonautica 4. Several of Accius' plays seem little indebted to previous dramatic versions and were perhaps ‘original’ dramatisations, taking their subject matter from existing non-dramatic narratives. See Boyle (2006), 112.

45. For Accius' famed rhetorical fire, see Ov. Am. 1.15.19 and Quint. Inst. 5.13.43.

46. See Baier (2002), 56f.

47. There is also the issue of Accius' ‘conservative’ politics: see Boyle (2006), 123-27. Ramifications of Accius' supposed criticism of the Argonauts for the evaluation of morally problematic behaviour by Roman generals are pursued by Baier (2002), 57-61. Arcellaschi (1990), 185-90, sees Medea as the object of condemnation and the play as a commentary on the fratricidal Mithridates. See also Dangel (1988), 57-60.

48. See Cowan (2010), 50.

49. See Boyle (2006), 260.

50. The three fragments are placed in Act IV by Arcellaschi (1990), 108f.

51. Virgil was later to use Ennius' and Apollonius' Medea in his modelling of Dido.

52. See n.34 above.

53. In the case of Pro Caelio the action expected (and realised) was the acquittal of his client; in the case of his letter to Atticus, the action expected was resistance to Caesar's tyranny. For further citations of Ennius' Medea in Cicero, see De Orat. 214, Tusc. 1.45, ND 3.75, Att. 10.12.1.

54. See Jocelyn (1967), frag, cviii.

55. Neither Klotz (1953) nor Dangel (1995) assigns it to Accius. For discussion see Arcellaschi (1990), 168.

56. ‘It is Accius or Ennius’: Warmington (1935-38), ii.601. The assignment to Ennius' Medea Exul is implausible, since there is nothing in Euripides' Medea (in which Apsyrtus is killed ‘at the hearth’, Med. 1334, i.e., in the palace of Aeetes) to correspond even loosely to this; an assignment to Ennius' other Medea has little to recommend it. The assignment to Accius' Medea sine Argonautae is also implausible, since in Accius' play the murder of Absyrtus takes place on Peuce, whither the adult Absyrtus had taken the Colchian fleet (Ap. Rhod. 4.303ff.). In the fragment Absyrtus is a ‘child’, puerum.

57. See Arcellaschi (1990), 168. Klotz (1953), 343, sensibly assigns the fragment to incertus poeta.

58. For Roman tragedians of the late republic, see Boyle (2006), 143-45.

59. One should also mention the curious variants of the Medea story in the ‘historian’ Diodorus Siculus (mid first century BCE), Book 4.45-56. Some interesting details: (i) Medea is the sister of Circe and the daughter of Aeetes and his niece, Hecate; (ii) Colchis has the practice of sacrificing visiting strangers; (iii) Aeetes is slain by the Argonauts in Colchis; (iv) in Iolcus Medea, disguised as an old woman, first illustrates her powers of rejuvenation by rejuvenating herself (only later by appearing to rejuvenate a ram); (v) Alcestis does not participate in the killing of Pelias; (vi) after the death of Pelias, Jason hands the kingdom to his son, Acastus (cf. Hyg. Fab. 24), and arranges marriages for all Pelias' daughters; (vii) Medea kills two of her sons in Corinth but a third escapes from her; (viii) from Corinth she flees with her handmaids to Heracles in Thebes and later to Aegeus in Athens; (ix) Jason commits suicide; (x) the Corinthians bury the bodies of the slain sons in the precinct of Hera; (xi) Medea is later exiled from Athens on a charge of trying to poison Theseus and moves to Asia where she gives birth to Medus, father of the Medes; (xii) Thessalus, the son of Medea and Jason who survived the infanticide, succeeds Acastus on the throne of Iolcus and calls his people Thessalians. Worth noting, too, are the Philippic Histories (Historiae Philippicae) of Pompeius Tragus, which influenced some late medieval accounts. Pompeius may have been a contemporary of Ovid, but his Histories now survive in the much later Epitome of Justin, and contain the extraordinary variant (Epit. 42.2.12) that Medea and Jason were reconciled after their divorce. Together with Medus, Medea's son by Aegeus, they returned to Colchis, where they succeeded in restoring the deposed Aeetes to his throne.

60. See Courtney (1993), 238-43.

61. Gayraud (1971), 658, cited with approval by Arcellaschi (1990), 219.

62. Pliny HN 35.136, 145. Timomachus' date is problematic. Pliny places him in the late republic, but several scholars regard him as Hellenistic (early third century BCE: see Gutzwiller [2004], 344). Timomachus' celebrated painting is described by the poet of Aetna as follows (595 Good-year): sub truce nunc parui ludentes Colchide nati, ‘now tiny sons at play beneath the savage Colchian’. The description fits Ling (1991), figs. 140 and 146. Ovid's description of a domestic painting of Medea at Tr. 2.526—inque oculis facinus barbara mater habet, ‘and the barbaric mother has crime in her eyes’—fits the Timomachus painting or copies/imitations thereof. Caesar's ‘Medea’ receives a political interpretation from Westall (1996).

63. Cf. Sen. Med. 938f, which may recall the Ovidian line.

64. I see little reason to doubt the authenticity of Heroides 12: see Hinds (1993), and Davis and Williams below.

65. See esp. Hinds (1993), 34-43. Even one of the two surviving fragments of Ovid's Medea (frag. 1) seems clearly alluded to/imitated at Her. 12.75f.

66. E.g. Spoth (1992), 203-05, Hinds (1993), 39-43, Barchiesi (1993), 343-45, and Williams below.

67. Hinds (forthcoming a), section 3; see also Fulkerson (2005).

68. Cited at n.62 above.

69. Oliensis (1997), 189f.; see also Hinds (2007).

70. Interestingly, Diodorus Siculus, too, focuses on the Pelias episode, offering a detailed account of the daughters' failed rejuvenation of their father (430-52).

71. So e.g. Newlands (1997), 180.

72. See the title of Newlands (1997).

73. Dracontius, Rom. 10.16-19, seems to indicate that Medea continued as a popular pantomime subject through to the late fifth century.

74. See Zanobi (2008), 233.

75. There seem to be no allusions to Medea in Silius and perhaps three in Statius: Theb. 4.551, Silu. 2.1.141, Ach. 2.75-77.

76. Martial Epig. 533.1, 10.4.2, 35.5 (Shackleton Bailey). Epictetus (Disc. 1.28.7-9) cites the famous moral and psychological conflict of Eur. Med. 1078f. as exemplum of an act by a whole but self-deceived soul and contends that Medea is thus deserving of pity. Later Platonists, however, saw the conflict as evidence of a divided soul. Epictetus elsewhere describes Medea's decision to kill her children as the ‘collapse of a soul of great vigour’, ἔϰπτωσιϛ ψυχῆϛ μεγάλα ἐχούσηϛ (Disc. 2.17.21). See Dillon (1997), 214-16, who also cites the use of the famous lines by Plutarch, Lucian, Aelius Aristides, Clement of Alexandria, Synesius, Hierocles, Simplicius, and Stobaeus. For Chrysippus, see n.26 above.

77. See, e.g., Cat. 64, Virg. Ecl. 4.31ff., 6.42ff., Hor. Epod. 16.57ff., Sen. Med. 301ff., 578ff.

78. See Hinds (1993), 46.

79. See LIMC ‘Medeia’ figs. 15-17.

80. The stucco reliefs of the ceiling include a representation of Medea placating the Colchian serpent while Jason steals the golden fleece: see Andreae (1978), fig. 342.

81. Ling (1991), 135, reports that ‘a type of Medea contemplating infanticide is known in at least six Campanian paintings’. Vout below counts ‘seven’, as does Schmidt (1992) in LIMC 6.1; they both include a drawing of a Flavian painting no longer extant. For examples, see Vout figs. 1, 4, 9, 14; Ling figs. 140, 141, 146; LIMC ‘Medeia’ figs. 8-11.

82. See Carucci (2010), 53.

83. See above and n.62. For ‘widely replicated’, see Carucci (2010), 54.

84. Antipater of Thessalonica xxix, Philippus lxx-lxxi, in Gow & Page (1968). These epigrams appear with one by Antiphilus, one by Julianus and three anonymous ones—all on Timomachus' ‘Medea’—at Greek Anthology 16.135-41, 143.

85. See Gutzwiller (2004), 366.

86. Antiphilus xlviii, in Gow & Page (1968).

87. For ‘hesitation’, see Gutzwiller (2004), 367f.

88. See esp. the monologue at Sen. Med., 937-44. Gutzwiller (2004), 348, seems unduly restrictive in confining Timomachus' ‘Medea’ to Euripides' text, even though no single scene from that text correlates with the painting. Certainly Antiphilus could have seen a whole host of Medeas in the painting, and even a Hellenistic viewer (if the painting was Hellenistic: see n.62 above) was likely to have seen much more than the Euripidean heroine.

89. See n.76 above. Mention should be made of: (i) the Genealogy or Genealogies of Hyginus (known as Fabulae), which may be Augustan or (more likely) much later, which offer a detailed summary of the Argonautic expedition and the Medea story (Fab. 12-27); (ii) The Library of Apollodorus, which may be pre-Senecan, but is most probably later—the last third of the first book (107-47) devotes itself to the Argonautic voyage and the Jason-Medea saga.

90. See esp. Hall, Macintosh & Taplin (2000).

91. MacDonald (1997).

92. Wolf's Medea was published in 1996; the English translation by J. Cullen in 1998. On the ‘Medea Gene’ see Hurst (2010), who cites Beeman, Friesen & Denell (1992).

You have Access
Cited by

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Introduction: Medea in Greece and Rome
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Introduction: Medea in Greece and Rome
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Introduction: Medea in Greece and Rome
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *