by Celia Luschnig

Almost nothing is known about Neophron beyond what we learn from his brief entry in the Suda (a 10th century Byzantine lexicon of the ancient Mediterranean world):

Neophron or Neophon, of Sicyon, tragic poet. They say Euripides’ Medea is his. He was the first to put on stage child-minders (paidagogoi) and the torture of slaves. He produced 120 tragedies. In later life he was an associate of Alexander the Macedonian and on account of that was a friend to Callisthenes the philosopher…

The three fragments of Neophron’s Medea are conveniently gathered by Page in his edition of the Medea: Denys Page (ed.), Euripides, Medea, Oxford, 1938 (1967): xxxii-xxxiii, with discussion following, xxxiii-xxxvi. The discussion over the relative dating of the two Medeas begins with a statement in the Anonymous Hypothesis to Euripides’ Medea as found in several of the manuscripts; for the text in Greek see among others: Denys Page (ed.), Euripides, Medea, Oxford, 1938 (1967) and E. Schwartz, Scholia in Euripidem, vol. 2, Berlin, 1891 (reprinted 1966):137-9):

With some rearrangement of the parts, Euripides seems to have appropriated the drama from Neophron, according to Dikaiarchos in The Life of Greece and Aristotle in the Commentaries.

On this debate hinges the crucial question of whether Euripides was the first to depict Medea as the murderess of her own children and whether the audience was expecting them to be murdered by someone else (as in other versions): the women of Corinth or the relatives of Creon. The debate continues with the balance currently favoring the priority of Euripides.

For evaluation of Neophron’s contribution, see also: 

  • Emily A. McDermott, Euripides’ Medea: The Incarnation of Disorder, University Park, PA, 1989.
  • Ann N. Michelini, “Neophron and Euripides’ Medea 1056-80, TAPA 119 (1989):115-135.

Fragment 1, comments

In Euripides’ version, Aigeus is just passing through Corinth on his way to consult Pittheus in Trozen about the oracle and happens to meet Medea. Critics at least since Aristotle have found Aigeus’ appearance in the third and central episode of Euripides’ Medea to be illogical or improbable (alogonPoetics 1461b). Neophron’s version, if it was written after Euripides’, would tie up this loose end by giving Aigeus a purpose for being there: he arrives specifically to consult with Medea. Euripides implicitly makes a connection between this episode and Theseus’ birth. Medea, in the Euripidean version, seems to grasp the meaning of the oracle but does not interpret it. Instead she offers her services as an herbalist and/or as a wife or concubine to Aigeus in Athens (where she will bear him a son after the conception of Theseus in Trozen). This sets up the well-known story of Medea in Athens (which Euripides treated in his Aigeus, dated by T. B. L. Webster to “soon after 450” in The Tragedies of Euripides, London, 1967 p. 77, and so well before the Medea of 431 B.C.E.). It also connects that story with her desire to protect the status of her children. This motive is present in Euripides’ play in her reaction to Jason’s unwanted promise to make their children the step-brothers of royal sons by Glauke. It also seems to be the central point of the legend of Medea in Athens in which she makes an attempt on Theseus’ life in order to protect the status of her own son (Medos) by Aigeus. 

Incidentally, Euripides’ version indicates both the isolation of Medea’s house from the civic center of Corinth and Aigeus’ intentional avoidance of Creon. 

For the temporal priority of one version over the other a case can be made on either side:

Euripides knew of Neophron’s version, but deliberately chose not to include an interpretation of the oracle by Medea or a purpose for Aigeus’ visit in the nick of time: to make her sojourn in Athens more ambiguous, to emphasize the importance of irrational chance in life, to show the power of his heroine in promoting her will, to set up his final dramatic spectacle of Medea in her dragon-driven chariot during which Medea informs Jason that she will live with Aigeus (as his wife, 1385 sunoikhsousa), and/or for some other reasons.

Or Neophron fixed a perceived flaw in Euripides’ version by giving Aigeus a reason for passing through Corinth. In the fragments we find nothing about Medea’s projected stay in Athens, although Neophron, like Euripides, makes it clear that Medea and Aigeus were already acquainted with each other.

Fragment 2, comments

Clearly the internal debate and divided self and the address to her thumos (spirit) and her hands in this major fragment of Neophron’s Medea are comparable to Medea’s farewell to her children (1021-80) and to the speech just before she kills them (1236-50) in Euripides’ play. The presence of the children, the use of both first and second person personal pronouns, and the vacillation but final determination are all shared by the two plays. There are also several points of verbal similarity, indicating, perhaps, that one author is referring to the other’s work. Among the most striking are:

The making of plans and the relation of planning to going wrong: Neophron 1-2 and Euripides 1079-80; cf. 1044, 1048; 800.”Making the most dear the most hateful” (Neophron 2-3) reflects, or is reflected by, Euripides 572-4 (cf. Medea 16, 507); and it is a central theme of the Euripidean version and, I believe, of tragedy in general.

The fear of being softened by words is present in Neophron (7) and Euripides 1052 (cf. 291, 316, 776). In Neophron lines 7-8 Medea speaks of herself in the masculine, but it is common for a woman when speaking of herself in the plural to use the masculine, an extension (probably) of the use of the generic, or inclusive, masculine which includes both men and women (see W. S. Barrett, Euripides, Hippolytos, Oxford, 1964 note to line 349).

“Suffering evils” occurs in Neophron (8) and Euripides (88-9, 250).

Both Medeas say of her terrible decision “it is decided” or “it is determined” (dedoktai: Neophron 10, Euripides 1236).

In both plays she sends the children out of her sight: Neophron 10-11 and Euripides 1076-7, 1053.

She addresses her hands or hand in both (Neophron 12, Euripides 1244) and speaks of arming herself (Neophron in 1st person plural, 13 and Euripides in 2nd person singular, 1242).”Unhappy for my boldness”: Neophron 14, Euripides 1028. They use different words for “boldness”, tolmês and authadias, respectively.

See Page’s philological notes (pp. xxxiv-xxxvi) in which the priority of Euripides’ version is suggested on metrical, lexical, and grammatical grounds as well as the more subjective ones of taste and style (since, as Page acknowledges, we know next to nothing of Neophron’s style).

Fragment 3, comments

This fragment corresponds to Medea’s prophecy in Euripides, Medea 1378-1388, in which she rounds off Jason’s failed career by foretelling that he will be struck on the head by a remnant of the Argo. Death by hanging for a heroic age man is indeed “rather bizarre” (xenikoteron). This is often how women die in tragedy (Phaedra in Hippolytus, Jocasta in Oedipus Tyrannus, for example). See Nicole Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman, (tr. A. Fraser), Cambridge, MA and London, 1987 (orig. Paris, 1985) and Ann N. Michelini, “Neophron and Euripides’ Medea 1056-80,” TAPA 119 (1989):115-135. On the other hand, Euripides suggests death by hanging for some of his male characters: in Alcestis, the chorus sings that the death of his wife is enough to make Admetus put his neck into a noose (228-32) and in the Phoenician Women (333) Jocasta tells her son of Oedipus’ attempts to hang himself.