Septem  TFF Series Septem, Part I:  vv. 1-77

Before considering any deeper matters of theology or politics, let us take a run through the play.  If you have read my earlier series on Greek tragedy, you will not need to be told that the early tragedies of Aeschylus were performed by two actors and a chorus of 12 Athenian citizens at the Greater Dionysia.  The actors in this play mostly speak their lines, while the chorus and its leader enter with a chant in anapests, take up their position and sing and dance a lyric song, but can also engage in spoken dialogue.

Many later tragedies begin with a prologue spoken by a god, but Aeschylus plunges straight in with a speech given by King Eteocles (played by the Protagonist, or first actor) to a silent chorus.  We in the audience, having heard some of the stories as we grew up and having already seen the first two plays of the trilogy, are not given much introduction.  Thebes is about to reach the height of its crisis.

Eteocles tells his people—the citizens of Cadmus—that they have reached a point where all must man up and do their duty.  As king, he must be vigilant and be prepared to meet every challenge, while they, depending on age and condition, must be ready to risk all in defense of their city, and not just their homes and public buildings but the shrines of the gods and the gods themselves “that their worship may never be blotted out.”  Their protection must extend to the very land of Thebes—Ge the Mother—who has given them sustenance.  

We Athenians, in hearing these lines, will think not only of the Theban legend of the Spartoi, the “sown men” who sprang forth out of the soil, when Cadmus planted the dragon’s teeth but also of similar Athenian legends about their early kings, often depicted as humanoid snakes, who sprang directly from the soil of Attica.  It was the Athenians’ greatest boast that, while most other cities had been overrun by aliens who displaced the older population, the people of Athens were autochthonous, in the double sense that they were never conquered and restocked and that they were sprung from the soil itself.  (Our word autochthonous comes from a Greek word that means something like belonging to or coming from the land (chthon) itself.)

Eteocles, portrayed as a responsible ruler, shows himself to be the model commander as he dispatches his people to the battlements and proceeds to meet with the scout (the deuteragonist, second actor) he has sent out.  

The scout makes his report that the invaders (coming from Argos) are led by seven great champions, who have made a sacrifice of bull’s blood  and sworn by the gods of war that they will take the city or die in inflicting great slaughter.  He advises Eteocles to take urgent measures to ward off the looming disaster.

Eteocles’ response to the Scout is extremely puzzling.  He calls for divine aid, first from the gods who guard Thebes, and second from the Curse (ara) and the mighty Revenge Fiend (Erinys) of his father Oedipus.  There is, of course, a general curse on the family, going back at least to grandfather Laius, but Oedipus cursed his sons.  There are various versions of his motive.  In the most popular, he curses them for giving him the “cold shoulder”, that is an inferior cut of meat at the table.  Whatever the motive, calling on the curse and Fury is a peculiar sort of prayer, unless one scholar is correct in conjecturing that Oedipus’ curse was that the sons would divide their inheritance by the sword, and since Eteocles is now defending the city, these supernatural forces of darkness can be invoked as allies.

Even stranger is Eteocles’ description of Thebes as a city whose people speak Greek.  At this point, I just want to highlight it as significant, so that when the language question comes up again, you will seize upon it.

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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

8 Responses

  1. Kellen Buckles says:

    I was happy to see your link to Loeb’s Weir Smyth version at Having finished the gutenberg offering of John Stuart Blackie’s 1850 verse translation I compared Blackie’s jarring “ditty” to Weir Smyth’s. To illustrate (@ ca 822):

    Or shall drops of swelling pity
    To a wail invert my ditty?
    O wretched, hapless, childless princes!
    should I rejoice and shout in triumph for the unharmed safety of the city,
    or should I lament our leaders in war,
    now wretched, ill-fated and childless?

  2. Jacob Johnson says:

    I would not have caught the significance of the detail about the language. Otherwise, I suppose calling for help and cursing an enemy are somewhat expected things for an embattled king to do. I suppose I am missing a facet(s) of the story which make the actions Eteocles seem more puzzling. I am aware of the basic outline of the Oedipus-themed trilogy, but not in detail. I plan on reading Douglas Young’s translation, when I have time, of that.

  3. Joshua Teske says:

    A few questions struck me as I re-read the beginning of the play. Is there a particular reason Ploynices seeks aid from Argos? Would Argos have a particular motivation (historical rival) to be at war with Thebes? Aside from the particular attention to their shields and emblems, what’s significant about seven champions and why those specific ones?

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The outline of the story goes back at least to epic poems of two centuries earlier and were probably folk legends for many centuries. Some of the Argive champions were famous in their own right, e.g., Tydeus and Amphiaraus

  5. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    As for language, in the Bronze Age stories they would have all spoken some form, of Mycenaean Greek and in Aeschylus’ time, the Thebans spoke Boeotian and the Argives Doric Greek. It is a mystery but I believe there is an obvious answer both to this passage and to the hysterical women’s talk of aliens.

  6. David Wihowski says:

    A question, since I do not know Greek and must work from the online Herbert Weir Smyth translation: In about line 22 “And so, until today, God has been favorably inclined, for though we have long been under siege, the war has gone well for the most part through the gods’ will.” And further on “God” is referred to in the singular. Since this predates any of the more “monotheistic” ideas of later Greek philosophy, does “God” refer to Zeus or someone else? Or is this just a difficulty of translating from the Greek?

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    The Greeks used the singular in the Fifth Century in several different ways. Most simply, it could be used to refer to a divine agent whose identity was not known for sure or to a major god whose identity could be taken for granted in certain contexts, as in discussing the Delphic Oracle, one assumed the god was Apollo. Aeschylus, though almost undoubtedly a polytheist, did believe that Zeus, as King of gods and men, was the mover of great events. There was also developing a sense that while the personalities of the divinities were diverse, there was also a sense of divine authority that unified them. This is much harder to document, but this is the age when philosophers and poets alike are reaching, not so much for monotheism, as for a hierarchy.

    Suppose someone tried to catechize Aeschylus and explained with some condescension that Christianity is a monotheism. He would have replied, but the power of your one great God is expressed in three separate persons with names and titles: God the Father, the Son and Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Ghost and Comforter. He might then add that the beings we call “angels” would have been regarded by most Greeks as gods, and some of the Saints, e.g.. the Blessed Virgin, the Apostles Peter and Paul, who could intercede with some face of the Trinity, could also be regarded as on par with the heroes Heracles and Asclepius who had been made divine.

    The mind of Aeschylus is a compound of religion and philosophy, but it is not mythological as in the fantasies of Ovid and handbooks on the subject.

  8. David Wihowski says:

    Thank you, Dr. Fleming. This is something along the lines of what I was feeling, but my lack of depth in Greek literature made me very uncertain that I was close to any sort of truth in the matter.