The Next “Book”: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Part I Introduction

After slogging through the vast wars of Poles, Cossacks, and Tartars, a short play of Aeschylus should provide some contrast--though the play is a good deal grimmer in its implications than Sinkiewicz's novel.  Since the Septem  (the conventional Latin title is Septem Contra Thebas) it is not among the most popular of ancient plays, I'll offer several reasons why it should be read seriously.

First, the Septem, written and performed in 467 B.C.,  is perhaps the earliest surviving tragedy that is likely to appeal strongly to readers without a strong background in the classics.  The Persae (472), which appeared five years earlier, is a patriotic celebration of the Greeks' victory over Xerxes' invasion, and I never found many students who could see past the historical elements into the heart of the play.

Second, the Septem was a very popular work when it was first performed, and it remained popular with readers and schoolmasters.  Aristophanes celebrated it as great work of Athenian virility--a play full of Ares, and it was included in the Greek curriculum as part of the so-called Byzantine triad of the Septem, the Persae, and the Prometheus Vinctus.

The author was in fact a veteran of the Persian Wars, and in the epitaph which he is said to have composed for himself, he refers only to his military and not his literary prowess.

"Beneath this stone lies Aeschylus, son of Euphorion, the Athenian, who died in the wheat-bearing land of Gela; of his noble prowess the grove of Marathon can speak, and the long-haired Persian knows it well."

How did he know he was going to die in Sicily at the court of the great tyrant?  Perhaps he did not, but the epitaph still tells us what Greeks thought of him.  Herodotus tells us that his brother Euphorion died at Marathon trying to prevent a Persian ship from escaping.

Tragedy existed before Aeschylus.  It grew out of the tradition of Greek narrative song pioneered, we are told, by Stesichorus and Ibycus and later practiced by his contemporaries Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides.  Athens was not the cultural capital of Greece when Aeschylus was born (c. 525), and we know rather little of his most distinguished predecessor Phrynichus.   The Athenian innovation was the addition of the hypokrites, which probably means something like "interpreter," a speaker who probably played the part of the hero and perhaps also gave a prologue to set the scene.

There would have been some conversation between the "actor" and the chorus or chorus leader, but it was Aeschylus' addition of the second actor that turned a choral lyric with soloist into something we recognize as drama.  Later in Aeschylus' career, his younger rival Sophocles added a third actor, an innovation that Aeschylus adopted and used to some effect in the Oresteia.

Before taking up the play itself, we should be clear about what a tragedy is or was.  First of all, it was, as I have said, a choral lyric narrative song performed by a chorus of 12 male citizens who were not professionals plus 1, 2, or 3 actors.  Most were performed at the  festival Greater Dionysia, a religious celebration organized and subsidized by the Athenian community and its institutions.  An aspiring dramaturge submitted a text of three tragedies plus a satyr play (usually a work of knock-down broad humor) to the appropriate official (one of the archons), and at the end of the Festival, the three competitors were ranked first, second, and third.

The three tragedies were often (perhaps typically) on related themes, though not always or even often so interconnected as the plays of Aeschylus' Oresteia.  The Septem was part of a trilogy on the house of Oedipus.  The other two plays concerned Oedipus and Oedipus' father Laius.

Aeschylus was known for the magnificence of his style and the power of his productions.  His language is always challenging in Greek and difficult to render into English.  Because of his power and occasional obscurity, he might be compared with Shakespeare, and in magnificence, I sometimes think of Richard Wagner as one of his better imitators, albeit a much shallower writer.

I know of no passable translations of the Septem, but among the worst of the bad lot is the Greene and Lattimore translation from the belly of the University of Chicago.  The old Loeb by Weir Smythe is better than many, but to be fair, I'd rather try to square the circle than translate Aeschylus or Pindar.  Their grandeur is in a realm beyond the reach of all but the best English writers at their grandest.  It has been years since I looked at Anthony Hecht's version done in collaboration with the scholar Helen Bacon.  Hecht was, for all his faults, something of a poet, and perhaps I'll get a cheap copy from ABE.

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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

7 Responses

  1. Jacob Johnson says:

    I’m looking forward to starting into this tonight. The version I have is translated by G.M. Cookson, part of the “Britannica Great Books” from the fifties, but I ordered the Greene and Lattimore version for ten dollars. I’ll read the former until the latter gets here.

  2. Joshua Teske says:

    My first reading was Weir Smythe’s version in Loeb. This time around I’m reading E.D.A. Morshead’s translation, unless you advise against it. I may have other translations, but not Hecht.

  3. Allen Wilson says:

    I’ve ordered a second hand Smyth Loeb from ABE. It’s sure to arrive about the time the discussion concludes. Meanwhile I’ve downloaded the Smyth translation from Internet Archive.

  4. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    ” I know of no passable translations of the Septem, but among the worst of the bad lot is the Greene and Lattimore translation from the belly of the University of Chicago. “

  5. Jacob Johnson says:

    Herein lies an example of the problem of “speed reading.” Given the exigencies of thirty minutes labor “down the tubes,” perhaps this can be turned around by contrasting the low with the higher.

  6. Todd Inman says:

    Have you seen the Stephen Sandy translation in the David Slavitt edited Penn Greek Drama series?

  7. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    No, I have not. The one or two things I read of Sandy’s were the flat New Yorkerish stuff one would expect from the student of Macleish, and I don’t know that he had more than an undergraduate’s smattering of Greek. I used to know David Slavitt, liked him personally and found some of his poetry amusing, but as a translator, he makes everything sound like David Slavitt. Aeschylus is tough to translate into any modern idiom, but flat modernism is absolutely the worst imaginable. I’ll try to find an hilarious parody of Aeschylus from AR Godley–I think I have his little book, “Second String” floating around the house.