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In Greek mythology, the Heracleidae (Ancient Greek: Ἡρακλεῖδαι) or Heraclids were the numerous descendants of Heracles (Hercules), especially applied in a narrower sense to the descendants of Hyllus, the eldest of his four sons by Deianira (Hyllus was also sometimes thought of as Heracles' son by Melite (naiad).) Other Heracleidae included Macaria, Lamos, Manto, Bianor, Tlepolemus, and Telephus. These Heraclids were a group of Dorian kings who conquered the Peloponnesian kingdoms of Mycenae, Sparta and Argos; according to the literary tradition in Greek mythology, they claimed a right to rule through their ancestor. Since Karl Otfried Müller's Die Dorier (1830, English translation 1839), I. ch. 3, their rise to dominance has been associated with a "Dorian invasion". Though details of genealogy differ from one ancient author to another, the cultural significance of the mythic theme, that the descendants of Heracles, exiled after his death, returned after some generations in order to reclaim land that their ancestors had held in Mycenaean Greece, was to assert the primal legitimacy of a traditional ruling clan that traced its origin, thus its legitimacy, to Heracles.

Hercules with his son Telephus, one of the Heracleidae



Heracles, whom Zeus had originally intended to be ruler of Argos, Lacedaemon and Messenian Pylos, had been supplanted by the cunning of Hera, and his intended possessions had fallen into the hands of Eurystheus, king of Mycenae. After the death of Heracles, his children, after many wanderings, found refuge from Eurystheus at Athens. Eurystheus, on his demand for their surrender being refused, attacked Athens, but was defeated and slain. Hyllus and his brothers then invaded Peloponnesus, but after a year's stay were forced by a pestilence to quit. They withdrew to Thessaly, where Aegimius, the mythical ancestor of the Dorians, whom Heracles had assisted in war against the Lapithae, adopted Hyllus and made over to him a third part of his territory.

After the death of Aegimius, his two sons, Pamphilus and Dymas, voluntarily submitted to Hyllus (who was, according to the Dorian tradition in Herodotus V. 72, really an Achaean), who thus became ruler of the Dorians, the three branches of that race being named after these three heroes. Desiring to reconquer his paternal inheritance, Hyllus consulted the Delphic oracle, which told him to wait for "the third fruit", (or "the third crop") and then enter Peloponnesus by "a narrow passage by sea". Accordingly, after three years, Hyllus marched across the isthmus of Corinth to attack Atreus, the successor of Eurystheus, but was slain in single combat by Echemus, king of Tegea. This second attempt was followed by a third under Cleodaeus and a fourth under Aristomachus, both unsuccessful.

Dorian Invasion

At last, Temenus, Cresphontes and Aristodemus, the sons of Aristomachus, complained to the oracle that its instructions had proved fatal to those who had followed them. They received the answer that by the "third fruit" the "third generation" was meant, and that the "narrow passage" was not the isthmus of Corinth, but the straits of Rhium. They accordingly built a fleet at Naupactus, but before they set sail, Aristodemus was struck by lightning (or shot by Apollo) and the fleet destroyed, because one of the Heracleidae had slain an Acarnanian soothsayer.

The oracle, being again consulted by Temenus, bade him offer an expiatory sacrifice and banish the murderer for ten years, and look out for a man with three eyes to act as guide. On his way back to Naupactus, Temenus fell in with Oxylus, an Aetolian, who had lost one eye, riding on a horse (thus making up the three eyes) and immediately pressed him into his service. According to another account, a mule on which Oxylus rode had lost an eye. The Heracleidae repaired their ships, sailed from Naupactus to Antirrhium, and thence to Rhium in Peloponnesus. A decisive battle was fought with Tisamenus, son of Orestes, the chief ruler in the peninsula, who was defeated and slain. This conquest was traditionally dated sixty years after the Trojan War.

The Heracleidae, who thus became practically masters of Peloponnesus, proceeded to distribute its territory among themselves by lot. Argos fell to Temenus, Lacedaemon to Procles and Eurysthenes, the twin sons of Aristodemus; and Messene to Cresphontes. The fertile district of Elis had been reserved by agreement for Oxylus. The Heracleidae ruled in Lacedaemon till 221 BC, but disappeared much earlier in the other countries.

This conquest of Peloponnesus by the Dorians, commonly called the "Dorian invasion" or "Return of the Heraclidae", is represented as the recovery by the descendants of Heracles of the rightful inheritance of their hero ancestor and his sons. The Dorians followed the custom of other Greek tribes in claiming as ancestor for their ruling families one of the legendary heroes, but the traditions must not on that account be regarded as entirely mythical. They represent a joint invasion of Peloponnesus by Aetolians and Dorians, the latter having been driven southward from their original northern home under pressure from the Thessalians. It is noticeable that there is no mention of these Heraclidae or their invasion in Homer or Hesiod. Herodotus (vi. 52) speaks of poets who had celebrated their deeds, but these were limited to events immediately succeeding the death of Heracles.

In Euripides' tragedy

The story was first amplified by the Greek tragedians, who probably drew their inspiration from local legends, which glorified the services rendered by Athens to the rulers of Peloponnesus.

The Heracleidae are the main subject of Euripides' play, Heracleidae.[1] J. A. Spranger found the political subtext of Heracleidae, never far to seek, so particularly apt in Athens towards the end of the peace of Nicias, in 419 BCE, that he suggested the date as its first performance.[2]

In the tragedy, Iolaus, Heracles' old comrade, and his children, Macaria and her brothers and sisters have hidden from Eurystheus in Athens, which was ruled by King Demophon; as the first scene makes clear, their expectation is that the blood relationship of the kings with Heracles and their father's past indebtedness to Theseus, will finally provide them sanctuary. As Eurysttheus prepared to attack, an oracle told Demophon that he would win if and only if a noble woman was sacrificed to Persephone. Macaria volunteered for the sacrifice and a spring was named the Macarian spring in her honor.


  • Connop Thirlwall, History of Greece, ch. vii
  • George Grote, History of Greece, pt. i. ch. xviii
  • Georg Busolt, Griechische Geschichte, i. ch. ii. sec. 7, where a list of modern authorities is given


  1. ^ It is the first of two surviving plays by Euripides where the family of Heracles are suppliants (the second being Heracles Mad).
  2. ^ J. A. Spranger, "The Political Element in the Heracleidae of Euripides" The Classical Quarterly 19.3/4 (July 1925), pp. 117-128.

External links

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.


Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

The Heracleidae
by Euripides in the year ca. 429 B.C.E., translated by E. P. Coleridge

Dramatis Personae

  • IOLAUS, friend of Heracles
  • COPREUS, herald of Eurystheus
  • DEMOPHON, King of Athens
  • MACARIA, daughter of Heracles
  • SERVANT, of Hyllus, son of Heracles
  • ALCMENA, mother of Heracles
  • EURYSTHEUS, King of Argos
  • ACAMAS, brother of DEMOPHON
  • Younger sons of Heracles


Before the altar and temple of Zeus at Marathon. IOLAUS, an old man, and the children of Heracles are seen on the steps of the altar.

The Heracleidae

IOLAUS: I hold this true, and long have held: Nature hath made one man upright for his neighbours' good, while another hath a disposition wholly given over to gain, useless alike to the state and difficult to have dealings with, but for himself the best of men; and this I know, not from mere hearsay. For I, from pure regard and reverence for my kith and kin, though might have lived at peace in Argos, alone of all my race shared with Heracles his labours, while he was yet with us, and now that he dwells in heaven, I keep these his children safe beneath my wing, though myself need protection. For when their father passed from earth away, Eurystheus would first of all have slain us, but we escaped. And though our home is lost, our life was saved. But in exile we wander from city to city, ever forced to roam. For, added to our former wrongs, Eurystheus thought it fit to put this further outrage upon us: wheresoe'er he heard that we were settling, thither would he send heralds demanding our surrender and driving us from thence, holding out this threat, that Argos is no meal city to make a friend or foe, and furthermore pointing our to his own posterity. So they, seeing how weak my means, and these little ones left without a father, bow to his superior might and drive us from their land. And I share the exile of these children, and help them bear their evil lot by my sympathy, loth to betray them, lest someone say, "Look you! now that the children's sire is dead, Iolaus no more protects them, kinsman though he is." Not one corner left us in the whole of Hellas, we are come to Marathon and its neighbouring land, and here we sit as suppliants at the altars of the gods, and pray their aid; for 'tis said two sons of Theseus dwell upon these plains, the lot of their inheritance, scions of Pandion's stock, related to these children; this the reason we have come on this our way to the borders of glorious Athens. To lead the flight two aged guides are we: my care is centered on these boys, while she, I mean Alcmena, clasps her son's daughter in her arms, and bears her for safety within this shrine, for we shrink from letting tender maidens come anigh the crowd or stand as suppliants at the altar. Now Hyllus and the elder of his brethren are seeking some place for us to find a refuge, if we are driven by force from this land. O children, children, come hither! hold unto my robe; for lo! I see a herald coming toward us from Eurystheus, by whom we are persecuted, wanderers excluded from every land. A curse on them and him that sent thee, hateful wretch! for that same tongue of thine hath oft announced its master's evil hests to these children's noble sire as well.

COPREUS, the herald of EURYSTHEUS, enters.

COPREUS: Doubtless thy folly lets thee think this is a good position to have taken up, and that thou art come to a city that will help thee. No! there is none that will prefer thy feeble arm to the might of Eurystheus. Begone! why take this trouble? Thou must arise and go to Argos, where awaits thee death by stoning.

IOLAUS: Not so, for the god's altar will protect me, and this land of freedom, wherein we have set foot.

COPREUS: Wilt give me the trouble of laying hands on thee?

IOLAUS: By force at least shalt thou never drag these children hence.

COPREUS: That shalt thou soon learn; it seems thou wert a poor prophet, after all, in this.

COPREUS seizes the children.

IOLAUS: This shall never happen while I live.

COPREUS: Begone! for I will take them hence, for all thy refusals, for I hold that they belong to Eurystheus, as they do indeed.

He throws IOLAUS to the ground.

IOLAUS: Help, ye who long have had your home in Athens! we suppliants at Zeus' altar in your market-place are being haled by force away, our sacred wreaths defiled, shame to your city, to the gods dishonour.


LEADER OF THE CHORUS: Hark, hark! What cry is this that rises near the altar? At once explain the nature of the trouble.

IOLAUS: See this aged frame hurled in its feebleness on the ground! Woe is me!

LEADER: Who threw thee down thus pitiably?

IOLAUS: Behold the man who flouts your gods, kind sirs, and tries by force to drag me from my seat before the altar of Zeus.

CHORUS chanting: From what land, old stranger, art thou come to this confederate state of four cities? or have ye left Euboea's cliffs, and, with the oar that sweeps the sea, put in here from across the firth?

IOLAUS: Sirs, no island life I lead, but from Mycenae to thy land I come.

CHORUS chanting: What do they call thee, aged sir, those folk in Mycenae?

IOLAUS: Maybe ye have heard of Iolaus, the comrade of Heracles, for he was not unknown to fame.

CHORUS chanting: Yea, I have heard of him in bygone days; but tell me, whose are the tender boys thou bearest in thine arms?

IOLAUS: These, sirs, are the sons of Heracles, come as suppliants to you and your city.

CHORUS chanting: What is their quest? Are they anxious, tell me, to obtain an audience of the state?

IOLAUS: That so they may escape surrender, nor be torn with violence from thy altars, and brought to Argos.

COPREUS: Nay, this will nowise satisfy thy masters, who o'er thee have a right, and so have tracked thee hither.

CHORUS chanting: Stranger, 'tis but right we should revere the gods' suppliants, suffering none with violent hand to make them leave the altars, for that will dread justice ne'er permit.

COPREUS: Do thou then drive these subjects of Eurystheus forth, and this hand of mine shall abstain from violence.

CHORUS chanting: 'Twere impious for the state to neglect the suppliant stranger's prayer.

COPREUS: Yet 'tis well to keep clear of troubles, by adopting that counsel, which is the wiser.

LEADER: Thou then shouldst have told the monarch of this land thy errand before being so bold, out of regard to his country's freedom, instead of trying to drag strangers by force from the altars of the gods.

COPREUS: Who is monarch of this land and state?

LEADER: Demophon, son of gallant Theseus.

COPREUS: Surely it were most to the purpose to discuss this matter somewhat with him; all else has been said in vain.


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