His tragedy was widely retold in later antiquity, most fully in Ovid, Metamorphoses 1.750–2.400 and Nonnus, Dionysiaca 38.90–434 (both concentrate on the chariot ride), and summarily in the Scholia on Homer, Odyssey 17.208, Diodorus 5.23, and Hyginus, Fab. 152A, 154, and elsewhere. Evidence for the myth from the archaic and classical periods is scanty, and the fragmentary Phaethon is in fact the only extensive text to survive; there is nothing at all in art until Hellenistic and Roman times (see below). Aeschylus’ Daughters of Helios, which seems to have treated largely the same incidents as Euripides, has disappeared except for a few scattered lines (F 68–73a).
The Phaethon of Euripides and many later accounts is the son of Helios and the nymph Clymene, daughter of Oceanus; but in the earliest, almost isolated occurrence of his name his parents are Eos (Dawn) and Cephalus, and as a beautiful youth he is abducted by Aphrodite and made her temple keeper ([Hesiod], Theogony 986–91, cf. Pausanias 1.3.1). Most scholars (but not Lloyd-Jones 341–3) now accept Diggle’s argument that these discrepant stories are irreconcilable, and that this other Phaethon is a ‘different figure’ (Gantz 31). On all these matters see Diggle (1970), 3–32, 180–220 and (1996), 189–90, 199; Gantz 31–4, 238; LIMC VII.i.350–2; Aélion (1983) I.303–5, 308–9; Van Looy 225–32.
The principal play fragments are preserved on palimpsest parchment, but are intermittently damaged or defective (see Note on the text below); they include two complete choral lyrics, one an evocative dawn song (63–94, overlapped by a papyrus text), the other a wedding hymn (227–44). The few book fragments can almost all be fitted into
or around these fuller remains with the aid of the later sources.
The play’s setting is coloured and affected throughout by the divine: it is Oceanus’ land (111), close to Helios’ stables for his sun chariot (5), and so at the remotest eastern boundary of the mythical world. Strabo 1.2.27, the source of vv. 1–7, says that this closeness is ‘woven into the whole play’. The scene is before the palace of king Merops (a mortal), to whom Clymene is now married (test. ii.1–4 below, and v. 1); she has told neither him nor Phaethon the boy’s true father. The action begins before dawn on the day on which Merops will begin the marriage of Phaethon (95–118) to a goddess (241, cf. 236–7; also 24?). Clymene realizes that on this day she must tell Phaethon about Helios (although she will keep it hidden from Merops); Phaethon distrusts her, but accepts her advice to secure confirmation from Helios by asking for a gift that only a true father would give (1–62, the prologue scene, incomplete and damaged). Merops inaugurates the marriage (63–118, choral entry song and prayers, Merops’ ceremonious entry and announcement; largely undamaged), and a strained discussion between him and Phaethon reveals his determination upon the marriage and Phaethon’s misgivings (119–67 and F 777, parts of the first episode; very badly damaged and defective). Clymene is absent from this episode, and at its end Phaethon leaves to visit Helios. Then a messenger, probably Phaethon’s tutor (see (B) below), reports to Clymene Phaethon’s death in the chariot drive which was Helios’ reluctant gift to him (168–77 and F 786, two book fragments from the second episode). Phaethon’s still smouldering corpse is brought to Clymene (off-stage?: see (C)