Medea was first performed in 431 BC at the City Dionysia festival. Here every year three playwrights competed against each other, each writing a tetralogy of three tragedies and a satyr play (alongside Medea were Philoctetes, Dictys and the satyr play Theristai). In 431 the competition was among Euphorion (the son of famed playwright Aeschylus), Sophocles (Euripides' main rival) and Euripides. Euphorion won, and Euripides placed last.
While Medea is considered one of the great plays of the Western canon, the Athenian audience did not react so favorably, and it placed third out of the three competing plays at the Dionysia festival of 431 BC. A possible explanation is found in a scholium to line 264 of the play, which asserts that Medea's children were traditionally killed by the Corinthians after her escape; Euripides' apparent invention of Medea's filicide might have offended its audience just as his first treatment of the Hippolytus myth did. That Euripides and others took liberties with Medea's story may be inferred from the 1st century BC historian Diodorus Siculus: "Speaking generally, it is because of the desire of the tragic poets for the marvellous that so varied and inconsistent an account of Medea has been given out." A common urban legend claimed that Euripides put the blame on Medea because the Corinthians had bribed him with a sum of five talents.
In the 4th century BC, South-Italian vase painting offers a number of Medea-representations that are connected to Euripides' play — the most famous is a krater in Munich. However, these representations always differ considerably from the plots of the play or are too general to support any direct link to the play of Euripides – this might reflect the judgement on the play. However, the violent and powerful character of princess Medea, and her double nature — both loving and destructive — became a standard for the later periods of antiquity and seems to have inspired numerous adaptations.
With the rediscovery of the text in 1st-century Rome (the play was adapted by the tragedians Ennius, Lucius Accius, Ovid, Seneca the Younger and Hosidius Geta, among others), again in 16th-century Europe.
In 20th-century modern literary criticism, Medea and its "universal themes of revenge and justice in an unjust society" have provoked differing reactions from differing critics and writers.