Eteocles and the Women

The chorus makes a highly excited--and exciting entrance at v. 78.  Aeschylean choruses typically march in chanting in stately anapests, but here they come in singing and dancing wildly to the dochmiac rhythm.  My own guess is the Greek ear heard dochmiacs as we hear highly syncopated music.  Instead of repeating same or similar elements--iambic, anapaestic, dactylic--or singing in a prevailing though varied rhythm, they are performing a wilder rhythm that seems to cut back against itself.  The basic form is u--u-, often in pairs, but there are many variations.  The first syllable is indifferent, that is it can be long or short; the long syllables can be resolved (with some restrictions) into two shorts, and the pattern can be reversed into the common variant: -uu-u-.  Other metrical units can be inserted, such as: -- and u--.  The whole effect would have verged on a frenzy of excitement.

In their terror, the maidens imagine all the horrors of a city taken by storm, and while the audience would have sympathized with their agitation, Eteocles is right to crack down, but his reaction is extreme, calling them immediately "unendurable" before declaring that neither in good times nor bad would he share a house with womankind.   They argue that they are really begging the gods for help.  He concedes that prayer is appropriate, but (partly on account of their demoralizing theatrics) the city will be deserted by the gods, once it has been taken.  Again, this is extreme.  The attackers are Greeks who worship the same gods, and, while atrocities and impieties may be committed in the course of a sack, Greece is not Babylonia where conquest of a city might mean imposition of the conquerors' gods.

So, two things to note immediately:  Eteocles' hostility to women, and the treatment of the invading army as aliens.  It might stretch the point considerably, but his statement about the gods' desertion might smack of blasphemy, perhaps anticipating Sophocles' portrait of Eteocles' father Oedipus.

Eteocles joins his contempt for women with his dubious religious views by claiming that it is up to men to pray for a city and the woman's job is to stay home and shut up.   But as the women persist in their entreaties, Eteocles becomes even harsher and (256) cries out, "O Zeus,  what a race of women you have granted us!" or "What a breed is this womankind kind you have granted us."  Eteocles has been reacting to the women, but now he takes the lead and they are forced to follow.  He mocks them by making a request.  When they ask what it is, he tells them to do him a the favor of shutting up.

Having secured his point, Eteocles makes his prayer, emphasizing that he is following Greek custom,  to the guardian gods of his country to protect the city.  Since the audience is aware that the attackers include a hero beloved of Athena (Tydeus) and a just and virtuous prophet (Amphiaraus), the emphasis on Hellenism is arresting.

While it is true, as commentators have noted, that treating women as a plague is a convention of Greek literature, whose tale of Pandora parallels our story of Eve, but, I should suggest, Eteocles has become something of the parody of what feminists regard as the toxic male.

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Thomas Fleming

Thomas Fleming is president of the Fleming Foundation. He is the author of six books, including The Morality of Everyday Life and The Politics of Human Nature, as well as many articles and columns for newspapers, magazines,and learned journals. He holds a Ph.D. in Classics from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and a B.A. in Greek from the College of Charleston. He served as editor of Chronicles: a Magazine of American Culture from 1984 to 2015 and president of The Rockford Institute from 1997-2014. In a previous life he taught classics at several colleges and served as a school headmaster in South Carolina

9 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    My first impression was that openly expressing lament to Zeus for that which he had granted was a grave misstep which would probably contribute the misfortune of Eteocles.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Perhaps, but Zeus is not all powerful, and Eteocles is aware that his own destiny partly tied up with the curse-fiend that also plagues the brother he had driven out. While it is true that we should judge Aristotle’s view of tragedy in the light on the texts we have–and not vice versa–the philosopher had seen or read many many times the plays we have read. Let’s take as a rough guess–I am not going to look it up–roughly 350 tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, of which we have about 10%–and throw in the hundreds of plays of writers like Phrynicus (Aeschylus’ predecessor), Achaeus, Ion, Antiphon, Iophon and many others. One of his central points was that a proper tragic hero had to be a noble/serious character, but whose personal limitations–his flaw or mistake–led him to ruin. Here Eteocles is clearly competent and noble, but what is his limitation, flaw, sin that brings him to a bad end?

  3. Kellen Buckles says:

    Would you call the women’s presentation Dionysian? Are we seeing a contrast with what might be the Apollonian viewof Eteocles? (his focus on the proper way to engage in war and entreaty, not of the women’s behaviour.)

    It’s interesting that the woman don’t seem to change much throughout the play; they just tone it down some. I gather they only ceased their clinging to and begging of the gods’ statues.

  4. Allen Wilson says:

    I would almost say that the flaw is intransigence, but I’m not sure I’m really getting it yet. He certainly has refused to keep his side of the bargain with his brother by refusing him his time to rule, and thus has caused the whole mess.

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Kellen, I think it is wise to stay away from 19th century cliches about Dionysian and Apollonian. Athenians would not have understood the dichotomy. It’s a bit like asking, “What do I prefer, love or reason?” The only sensible answer is “Both.” Yes, the crazed Nietzsche, following Rohde, wrote some brilliant observations, but that is not the basis for a sensible discussion of a particular play,

  6. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Let us be careful about what we take for granted. Yes, we all know the story–or rather multiple versions of the story–of Eteocles’ refusal to share power with his brother. The preceding play would have dealt with the revelation of Oedipus’ incestuous marriage, which by itself could curse the sons or cause Oedipus to curse them, whether for their birth, their mistreatment of him, or both. Oedipus’ curse probably was a prophesy that his sons would divide their inheritance by the sword, and the traditional story, that Eteocles refused to turn power over to Polynices after he had ruled for a year is probably taken for granted but obviously is not significant to the story since it is not really an issue in the play. The focus is very much on what kind of a man he is. In his commentary on the play, G.O. Hutchinson describes him as “rendered distinctive by his dry, shrewd, grim turns of phrase; by his contempt for frenzy and wild emotions, by his own self-control, his refusal to be cowed, his manly resolution and confidence…by his ardent concern for his city, and his warm admiration for moral excellence.”

  7. Allen Wilson says:

    Then perhaps he might take his virtues too far? Certainly that seems to be the case when he goes out to fight his brother against what appears to be quite good advice to the contrary.

  8. Allen Wilson says:

    On the other hand, how could he not be the one to go out and face his brother?

  9. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Ah, but that is exactly what he shouldn’t do. When he realizes how he has boxed himself in, that is a moment of horror revealed.