My soul seeking the fair land of home - Some Meanderings
And ashore I stand for days so long,
My soul seeking the fair land of Greece
Yet, to my laments the wave but responds
As echo of dull roars from afar.
And I remain, as ever, a stranger here.
(J. W. von Goethe, Iphigenie auf Tauris, part of the entrance monologue)
Crossing the northern seas
Und an dem Ufer steh ich lange Tage
Das Land der Griechen mit der Seele suchend.
Doch gegen meine Klagen bringt die Welle
Nur dumpfe Töne brausend mir herüber,
Und immer bin ich, wie im ersten, fremd.
Iphigeneia, swept away by the goddess Artemis to Tauris (the Crimea), seeks for Greece, but I'm sure some Romans will have felt like her, far away from home, under a strange sky, when they disembarked at Arbeia or Segedunum, their east coast forts in Britannia.
Euripides wrote his play Iphigeneia in Tauris
about 414 BC, and the educated Roman upper class who all spoke Greek, knew it from the time their teachers made them memorise parts at school. Though Euripides' Iphigeneia never expressed her feelings in the words the famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) puts in her mouth in his play Iphigenie auf Tauris
, which generations of German kids had to memorise, "Out into your shadows, rustling trees / O'the ancient, hallowed, branch-entwined cove...."
"Heraus in eure Schatten, rege Wipfel / Des alten, heilgen, dichtbelaubten Haines...". I still remember the part, though it's thirty years since I played it at school. And dang, did Iphigenie get a lot of lines. But you have to give Goethe that, he wrote beautiful verses.
The story ties in with the war of Troy. Iphigeneia is Agamemnon's daughter, sacrified for good wind to Troy but saved (Euripides, Iphigeneia in Aulis
). Meanwhile, the Greek win the war and Agamemnon returns home only to be killed by his wife Klytaimnestra and her lover Aigisthos. Whereupon Agamemnon's son Orestes kills his mother (and her paramour, but that doesn't count) and is promptly persecuted by a score of Erynnies, nasty revenge goddesses. Half mad, he runs through the better part of Greece, accompanied by his friend Pylades, until some oracle tells them he'd find healing in Tauris.
Starts play: Iphigeneia's job in Tauris is to sacrify human captives, and of course, Orestes and Pylades get caught. After lots of dialogue and little action, she recognises her brother and flees with him. The king, one Thoas; can only howl curses after the ship, until Artemis tells him to shut up.
Goethe keeps the score of Euripides' play, but changes some parts, especially the end. In his version, Iphigenie talks Thoas into letting them go. Everyone in his play is so very nice and human, except the priest Arkos, and even he isn't really bad, more like annoying. It's the language that makes up for the lack of action, though I must admit, it's one of the few Goethe playes I like, besides Faust
and the very Shakespearian Götz von Berlichingen
. Arriving at a distant shore
OK, back from my meandering memories to the Romans. Even though Euripides' play does not have the exact words, it has the feelings, and I can imagine a Roman officer quoting suitable parts from Iphigeneia
while standing at the shore of the Mare Germanicum, the North Sea.
BTW, Goethe's close friend Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) - whom you might remember from the Maria Stuart
posts - translated Iphigenia in Aulis
. He translated Macbeth
as well, and that should be worth a post some time. (Translation of the German lines in this post by me.)