Historical Introduction

Matthew Arnold

IN the foregoing Preface the story of Merope is detailed: what is here added may serve to explain allusions which occur in the course of the tragedy, and to illustrate the situation of its chief f personages at the moment when it commences.

The events on which the action turns belong to the period of transition from the heroic and fabulous to the human and historic age of Greece. The hero Hercules, the ancestor of the Messenian Aepytus, belongs to fable: but the invasion of Peloponnesus by the Dorians under chiefs claiming to be descended from Hercules, and their settlement in Argos, Lacedaemon, and Messenia, belong to history. Aepytus is descended on the father’s side from Hercules, Perseus, and the kings of Argos on the mother’s side from Pelasgus, and the aboriginal kings of Arcadia. Callisto, the daughter of the wicked Lycaon, and the mother, by Zeus, of Areas, from whom the Arcadians took their name, was the grand-daughter of Pelasgus. The birth of Areas brought upon Callisto the anger of the virgin-Goddess Artemis, whose service she followed: she was changed into a she-bear, and in this form was chased by her own son, grown to manhood. At the critical moment Zeus interposed, and the mother and son were removed from the earth, and placed among the stars: Callisto became the famous constellation of the Great Bear; her son became Arcturus, Arctophylax, or Boötes. From him, Cypselus, the maternal grandfather of Aepytus, and the children of Cypselus, Laias and Merope, were lineally descended.

The events of the life of Hercules, the paternal ancestor of Aepytus, are so well known that it is hardly necessary to record them. It is sufficient to remind the reader, that, although entitled to the throne of Argos by right of descent from Perseus and Danaus, and to the thrones of Sparta and Messenia by right of conquest, he yet passed his life in labours and wanderings, subjected by the decree of fate to the commands of his far inferior kinsman, the feeble and malignant Eurystheus. Hercules, who is represented with the violence as well as the virtues of an adventurous ever-warring hero, attacked and slew Eurytus, an Euboean king, with whom he had a quarrel, and carried off the daughter of Eurytus, the beautiful Iole. The wife of Hercules, Deianeira, seized with jealous anxiety, remembered that long ago the centaur Nessus, dying by the poisoned arrows of Hercules, had assured her that the blood flowing from his mortal wound would prove an infallible love-charm to win back the affections of her husband, if she should ever lose them. With this philtre Deianeira now anointed a robe of triumph, which she sent to her victorious husband he received it when about to offer public sacrifice, and immediately put it on: but the sun’s rays called into activity the poisoned blood with which the robe was smeared: it clung to the flesh of the hero and consumed it. In dreadful agonies Hercules caused himself to be transported from Euboea to Mount Oeta: there, under the crags of Trachis, an immense funeral pile was constructed. Recognizing the divine will in the fate which had overtaken him, the hero ascended the pile, and called on his children and followers to set it on fire. They refused; but the office was performed by Poeas, the father of Philoctetes, who, passing near, was attracted by the concourse round the pile, and who received the bow and arrows of Hercules for his reward. The flames arose, and the apotheosis of Hercules was consummated.

He bequeathed to his offspring, the Heracleidae, his own claims to the kingdoms of Peloponnesus, and to the persecution of Eurystheus. They at first sought shelter with Ceyx, king of Trachis: he was too weak to protect them; and they then took refuge at Athens. The Athenians refused to deliver them up at the demand of Eurystheus: he invaded Attica, and a battle was fought near Marathon, in which, after Macaria, a daughter of Hercules, had devoted herself for the preservation of her house, Eurystheus fell, and the Heracleidae and their Athenian protectors were victorious. The memory of Macaria’s self-sacrifice was perpetuated by the name of a spring of water on the plain of Marathon, the spring Macaria. The Heracleidae then endeavoured to effect their return to Peloponnesus. Hyllus, the eldest of them, inquired of the oracle at Delphi respecting their return; he was told to return by the narrow passage, and in the third harvest. Accordingly, in the third year from that time, Hyllus led an army to the Isthmus of Corinth; but there he was encountered by an army of Achaians and Arcadians, and fell in single combat with Echemus, king of Tegea. Upon this defeat the Heracleidae retired to Northern Greece: there, after much wandering, they finally took refuge with Aegimius, king of the Dorians, who appears to have been the fastest friend of their house, and whose Dorian warriors formed the army which at last achieved their return. But, for a hundred years from the date of their first attempt, the Heracleidae were defeated in their successive invasions of Peloponnesus. Cleolaus and Aristomachus, the son and grandson of Hyllus, fell in unsuccessful expeditions. At length the sons of Aristomachus, Temenus, Cresphontes, and Aristodemus, when grown up, repaired to Delphi and taxed the oracle with the non-fulfilment of the promise made to their ancestor Hyllus. But Apollo replied that his oracle had been misunderstood; for that by the third harvest he had meant the third generation, and by the narrow passage he had meant the straits of the Corinthian Gulf. After this explanation the sons of Aristomachus built a fleet at Naupactus; and finally, in the hundredth year from the death of Hyllus, and the eightieth from the fall of Troy, the invasion was again attempted, and was this time successful. The son of Orestes, Tisamenus, who ruled both Argos and Lacedaemon, fell in battle; many of his vanquished subjects left their homes and retired to Achaia.

The spoil was now to ho divided among the conquerors. Aristodemus, the youngest of the sons of Aristomachus, did not survive to enjoy his share. He was slain at Delphi by the sons of Pylades and Electra, the kinsmen of the house of Agamemnon, that house which the Heracleidae with their Dorian army dispossessed. The claims of Aristodemus descended to his two sons, Procles and Eurysthenes, children under the guardianship of their maternal uncle, Theras. Temenus, the eldest of the sons of Aristomachus, took the kingdom of Argos; for the two remaining kingdoms, that of Sparta and that of Messenia, his two nephews, who were to rule jointly, and their uncle Cresphontes, were to cast lots. Cresphontes wished to have the fertile Messenia, and induced his brother to acquiesce in a trick which secured it to him. The lot of Cresphontes and that of his two nephews were to be placed in a water-jar, and thrown out. Messenia was to belong to him whose lot came out first. With the connivance of Temenus, Cresphontes marked as his own lot a pellet composed of baked clay; as the lot of his nephews, a pellet of unbaked clay: the unbaked pellet was of course dissolved in the water, while the brick pellet fell out alone. Messenia, therefore, was assigned to Cresphontes.

Messenia was at this time ruled by Melanthus, a descendant of Neleus. This ancestor, a prince of the great house of Aeolus, had come from Thessaly, and succeeded to the Messenian throne on the failure of the previous dynasty. Melanthus and his race were thus foreigners in Messenia, and were unpopular. His subjects offered little or no opposition to the invading Dorians: Melanthus abandoned his kingdom to Cresphontes, and retired to Athens.

Cresphontes married Merope, whose native country, Arcadia, was not affected by the Dorian invasion. This marriage, the issue of which was three sons, connected him with the native population of Peloponnesus. He built anew capital of Messenia, Stenyclaros, and transferred thither, from Pyles, the seat of government: he at first proposed, it is said by Pausanias, to divide Messenia into five states, and to confer on the native Messenians equal privileges with their Dorian conquerors. The Dorians complained that his administration unduly favoured the vanquished people: his chief magnates, headed by Polyphontes, himself a descendant of Hercules, formed a cabal against him, in which he was slain with his two eldest sons. The youngest son of Cresphontes, Aepytus, then an infant, was saved by his mother, who sent him to her father, Cypselus, the king of Arcadia, under whose protection he was brought up.

The drama begins at the moment when Aepytus, grown to manhood, returns secretly to Messenia to take vengeance on his father’s murderers. At this period Temenus was no longer reigning at Argos: he had been murdered by his sons, jealous of their brother-in-law, Deiphontes: the sons of Aristodemus, Procles and Eurysthenes, at variance with their guardian, were reigning at Sparta.

Merope - Contents    |     Persons of the Drama

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