Iphigeneia at Aulis, written in 410 BC, is the last surviving work of the playwright Euripides. First produced four years after his death, the play won first place at the Dionysia.
The play revolves around Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek coalition during the Trojan War, and his decision to sacrifice his daughter Iphigeneia to allow his troops to set sail and preserve their honor by doing battle against Troy. It should be noted that the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles over the fate of a young woman presages a similar conflict between the two at the start of the Iliad.
The Greek force is waiting at Aulis with their ships ready to advance to Troy, but they are unable to sail due to a strange lack of wind. After consulting the seer Calchas, the Greek leaders learn that this is no mere meteorological abnormality but is, in fact, the will of the goddess Artemis, who has stopped the winds because Agamemnon has caused her offense. Calchas informs the general that to placate the goddess he must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigeneia. Agamemnon, despite his horror at this stipulation, must consider it seriously because his assembled troops, who have been waiting at port and are getting increasingly anxious to move forward, may rebel against him if their bloodlust is not satisfied. Therefore, he sends a message to his wife, Clytemnestra, telling her to bring Iphigeneia to Aulis on the pretense that the girl is to be married to the Greek warrior Achilles before he sets off to war.
At the start of the play, Agamemnon is having second thoughts about whether he can go through with the sacrifice of his daughter, and he sends a second message to his wife, telling her to ignore the first missive. However, Clytemnestra never receives this message because it is intercepted by Menelaus, Agamemnon's brother, who is enraged that his brother has changed his mind.
To Menelaus, this is not only a personal blow (it is his wife, Helen, with whom the Trojan prince Paris ran off, and retrieving her is a main pretext for the war), but it also may lead to mutiny and the downfall of the Greek leaders if the rank and file discover Calchas' prophecy and realize that their general put his family above their pride as soldiers.
The brothers debate, and eventually, each changes the other's mind: Agamemnon is now ready to carry out the sacrifice, and Menelaus is convinced that it would be better to disband the Greek army than to have his niece killed. But by this time, Clytemnestra is already en route to Aulis with Iphigeneia and her baby brother, Orestes, making the decision of how to proceed all the more difficult.
Iphigeneia is thrilled at the prospect of marrying one of the great heroes of the Greek army, but she, her mother, and the groom-to-be in the supposed marriage soon discover the truth. Achilles is furious at having been used as a prop in Agamemnon's plan to lure his family to Aulis, and he vows to protect Iphigeneia - as much to save the innocent girl as to take revenge on her father for besmirching his own honor.
Clytemnestra and Iphigeneia try in vain to persuade Agamemnon to change his mind, but the general believes he has no choice. But as Achilles prepares to defend the young woman by force, Iphigeneia has a sudden change of heart and decides that the heroic thing to do is to let herself be sacrificed. She is led off to die, with her mother Clytemnestra distraught over the decision.
However, in an addition to the play, a messenger arrives in the end to inform Clytemnestra that at the last minute, just as Agamemnon was about to kill their daughter, Artemis, apparently appeased, switched the body of Iphigeneia with that of a deer, which was sacrificed in the girl's stead. Iphigeneia was swept off by the gods, thus paving the way for the plot of another of Euripides' plays, Iphigeneia in Tauris.
The story of Iphigeneia at Aulis has had a significant influence on later art. Greek director Michael Cacoyannis based his 1977 film Iphigenia (starring Irene Papas as Clytemnestra) on Euripides' script.
The story also served as the basis for the 2003 novel The Songs of Kings by Barry Unsworth.