Seven Against Thebes

Septem  TFF Series

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.

The period of the Persian Wars and the aftermath were a period of intense political activity at Athens. In one generation, Athenians had expelled the tyrants, completely reorganized their commonwealth, and beaten back two Persian invasions. Such success was bound to inspire confidence in the Athenian commonwealth, a confidence that would lead to hybris and ruin.

Since the lowest classes were needed to man the fleets that chased the Persians out of the Aegean, skillful and ambitious politicians who were determined that Athens should create a thalassocracy—that is, a naval empire—played upon the pride and resentments of the poorer classes. Xanthippus, Ephialtes, and Xanthippus’ son Pericles were determined to eliminate every check on the power of the Athenian assembly, but they were resisted by rival representatives of the old nobility.

This period of social and political conflict is the backdrop for the literary career of one of the greatest writers of the Greek language: Aeschylus. Aeschylus’ first surviving play, the Persians, produced in 472 is a meditation on Persian hybris and the divine vengeance they brought upon themselves. It is also a great celebration of the Athenian victory at Salamis. Could anyone have foreseen in 472 that Athens, in the next 50 years, would commit the same follies as the Persians? Aeschylus may not, but 14 years later in his greatest work, the trilogy known as the Oresteia, he explicitly compares the crimes of Agamemnon the sacker of Troy with the crime of the Asian king Priam and his son Paris.

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes was produced in 467, only 11 years after Xerxes returned to Persia, having failed to conquer mainland Greece, though a few Persian garrisons remained until 465. The menace was still serious, however, and Athens had spent the previous decade in sweeping the Persians out of the Aegean and establishing her own empire. But hearing that the Persians were mustering another invasion force in Asia Minor, Athens in 467 sent Cimon son of Miltiades, with a fleet and 5000 hoplites. Cimon decisively defeated the Persians by land and sea.

The political picture was rapidly changing at Athens. Relations with Sparta had begun to grow tense, and Themistocles—the political genius who organized Greek resistance to Persia—had been ostracized in 472. But, perhaps unexpectedly, the leading position did not go to anyone in the Alcmeonid clan but to the young arch-conservative, Cimon son of Miltiades, who had generously collaborated with Themistocles during the wars. When other conservative aristocrats wanted to put their trust in the hoplites and rejected Themistocles’ strategy of evacuating Athens, the young Cimon, whose father had defeated the Persians at Marathon in 490, led a procession of young nobles to the acropolis where they dedicated their bridles—the symbols of their knighthood—to Athena.

Cimon’s policies were clear: war with Persia, peace with Sparta, and a maintenance of the successful status quo established by Cleisthenes the Alcmaeonid: a balanced constitution in which both the people and the aristocrats were able to carry out their proper functions, freed from the dictatorship of the mob and the oppression of an oligarchy. Under Cimon’s leadership, Athens became mistress of the Aegean, and was at peace both with her allies and with the Spartan alliance.

Cimon's very success antagonized the democrats led by Ephialtes and Pericles, and Pericles prosecuted him for bribery, during the scrutiny after his return from his victorious campaign on the Eurymedon. Cimon was acquitted and might have stayed in power had he not made the mistake of going to the aid of the Spartan allies during the Messenian Revolt. But it is also possible that he was doomed by the emergence of a new kind of politics based as much on demagoguery as on personal influence. As an Alcmeonid aristocrat who pandered to the mob, Pericles could make both techniques work for him, and he may well have viewed poor Cimon—a brave and honorable man–as a political simpleton.

Cimon, who argued strongly for maintaining the alliance with Sparta, was at the height of his success and influence in Athens, when Aeschylus was writing his play, a work that Aristophanes appropriately described as “full of Ares.” I do not know which, if any side, Aeschylus took in the political struggle between Cimon and the Alcmeonids Xanthippus and his son Pericles. Pericles had produced the Persians, a play that seems to celebrate Themistocles and his victory at Salamis. And some progressive-minded historians have hastily assumed that this proves the existence of a three-way alliance of Aeschylus, Themistocles, and Pericles against Cimon and the conservatives. However, the Alcmeonids seem to have been against resistance to Persia, and the tales we hear of Themistocles’ corruption probably emanate from Alcmeonid sources. Pericles may well have wanted to change his image by acting as choregus for Aeschylus, as is often said, but it is just as likely that he was picked accidentally to produce the Persians, or, if there was a political scheme, Pericles might well have wanted to redeem his family’s reputation from the charge that they had been pro-Persian, as they most probably had been.

We do know that Aeschylus was of a Eupatrid family from Eleusis, that is, he came from the most distinctive small town in Attica, with a deep religious tradition—the Eleusinian Mysteries—a place remote from the class struggles going on in Athens itself. He probably fought at Salamis and possibly at Plataea, but it is certain that he and his brother fought at Marathon under Cimon’s father, Miltiades. For the hoplite class and landed aristocracy, Marathon was the defining moment in Greek history and proved that it was farmer-soldiers, not the rabble who rowed in the fleet, that saved Athens. It seems likely that Aeschylus, like many landed aristocrats of his day, took the side of unity: the unity of the Athenian people against the barbarian invader, and the unity of all the Greeks who had resisted the invasion. In the Seven Against Thebes, he seems to suggest that it is better for the Athenians to rally against the enemy than to quarrel among themselves. This had been the policy of Themistocles and later of Cimon. But it was surely not the policy of Xanthippus and his son Pericles.

The whole play breathes the spirit of martial defiance, and though there are not many scholars who would agree with me, I think the enemy is still Persia. Why else emphasize the foreign tongue of the Argive attackers? Yes, Greeks were very sensitive to their dialect differences that sharply distinguished Spartans from Athenians, but what Athenian cares about the differences between Argives and Thebans? The panic-stricken chorus of women pray that gods will not allow the enemy to devastate a land that speaks the tongue of Greece (72-72) and later, not to abandon the city to an alien-speaking army (170). I am not suggesting that Aeschylus intended the audience to make an immediate connection, rather that he was framing his dramatic struggle in terms that would resonate with them: wild and impious aliens attacking a civilized city.

Let us turn to the story of the play, which draws upon the same mythological material as Sophocles Theban plays. The Seven is the third play of trilogy, a set of three plays, in this case, as in the Oresteia, forming a coherent and interrelated whole. Laius, king of Thebes, disobeys Apollo’s injunction against having children and exposes his son Oedipus, and the grown Oedipus, after killing an unknown stranger in a quarrel arrives in Thebes and in ignorance marries his mother. He eventually realizes that he has fulfilled the oracle by killing his father and marrying his mother and, after blinding himself, he curses his children, particularly his two sons Eteocles and Polynices, who may or may not have done something additional to offend him. Eteocles expels Polynices, who goes to Argos, marries king Adrastos’ daughter, and assembles an army, led by himself and six other champions, to attack and sack Thebes. The city is defended by Eteocles and six chosen champions. All 14 heroes fall in battle killing each other.

Why should Laius have been forbidden to have children.  In the original folk tales, there may have been no good reason or merely some symbolic offense, like Agamemnon’s sin in killing a deer sacred to Artemis, which led to her demand that Agamemnon sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia.  But Aeschylus, probing the mystery of life, would not have been content—as he was not content in the Agamemnon.  There was a story, probably used by Aeschylus, that Laius had committed a sexual crime by raping or Chrysippus, the son of Pelops, who was the ancestor of Agamemnon and Menelaus.  In this popular version of the story, Laius was the inventor of pederasty, and a curse on his procreation would seem to be a perfectly natural divine response.

Eteocles’ misogyny may be conventional but it is expressed in unusual language: does not want to share home or dwell with women.  Would seem to be a repudiation of marriage.  A homosexual angle might also clarify puzzling order he announces that whoever disobeys—whether “woman, man, and whatever in between” will be stoned. Commentators either express bewilderment or explain the phrase as a meaningless rhetorical attempt to make a list of three, but it is far from impossible that Aeschylus is indeed suggesting that the family of Laius recognizes an intermediate category. Stoning was a public penalty of great severity, inflicted on deserters. 

That is apparently the point of a fragment plausibly attributed to the Myrmidons, Aeschylus’ play about Achilles and the death of Patroclus.  The Greek commanders threaten to stone Achilles for desertion, but the hero insists on his own dignity at the expense of the army.  Especially since we are told that Aeschylus is the first to have made Achilles and Patroclus into lovers.  I do not want to push this too far, but it is not impossible that Laius, a sexual predator, has bequeathed a curse on his family that involves both sex and violence.  Indeed, the women fear that if the city is conquered they will be forced to serve the enemy as concubines.  There is nothing unusual in such a fear, but it is a significant point in this play [363-68].

The curse plays an active role in the play.  Eteocles has the temerity to invoke it as a god right after Zeus, Earth, and the gods who protect the city: “Curse, the powerful vengeance spirit of my father..”  This seems an unusual invocation, but Eteocles takes a pragmatic, even impious approach to religion.  Worship and prayer are all very well, but success is what counts, and too much public hysteria might undermine morale, he tells the frightened women. 

In reading the play, try to pay attention not just to the story but to the treatment of the one significant character on stage, Eteocles, and to what we learn of the character of his offstage brother. Those of you who have read Antigone and participated in that discussion will quickly perceive how different are Aeschylus’ interests from Sophocles’. Sophocles was a pious man and a good citizen, but Aeschylus seems to live in a world where divine forces are less remote and where the civic order of the city is both strengthened and attacked by the supernatural.

The center of the play is unlikely to appeal to moderns. The scout describes each of the 7 enemy champions who are attacking the 7 gates of Thebes, and Eteocles, in turn, describes the Theban champion he will send against the foe. Though the action may seem to us more of an emblematic pageant, for Athenians it would have been powerful. They liked catalogues of ancient heroes, and this set of descriptions is a symbolic battle scene, rather like a verbal ballet. There is also a ritual element, as Eteocles counters the enemies’ shield symbolisms with his own. Note that the enemies challenge even the gods in their boasts. The exception is the pious and just seer Amphiaraus, who questions the piety of Polynices’ enterprise.

Eteocles is surprised when at the end of the list he hears his brother named, since he has reserved himself for last. There is no hint that Polynices’ cause is unjust. He seeks revenge on Eteocles who has dishonored and banished him. The emblem on his shield is not an hysterical threat, but a modest maiden Justice leading him back to his own city. Eteocles, recognizing the operation of the curse, still claims that his cause is just, that Polynices had not behaved justly in the past. What, if anything, this refers to we do not know. He is horrified by the coming conflict—but Polynices has already said that any outcome, including his own death, will be good if he can kill Eteocles. He certainly is living up to his name, Much-Strife. In a naturalistic play, Eteocles might have been expected to be able to count and to have avoided the duel with his brother, but I don’t think that objection is terribly relevant here.

The Scout, who has reported on the enemy champions, urges him not to be “like in temper to his brother,” implying that his decision to meet Polynices is comparable to his brother’s desire to kill him. Eteocles’ answer—better to die honorably now than attempt to forestall the curse—is unconvincing. He is taking upon himself the equal blame for killing his brother. No religious arguments will work with him, since he believes that the gods have abandoned him and his family; all they can do for the gods is die. [702-4]. When the chorus of women tell him to be persuade by women (712], as little as he likes it, we see the point of the opening scene of panic: He is all War, and there is no concern for what might be called the softer “family values.”

The chorus sings a terrifying ode on the curse, the god that is unlike all other gods. It is the curse they see acting in Eteocles and not simply desire to die honorably defending his city. The last line of the song is Erinys, the curse-fiend. These chthonic demons, who appear already in Homer, probably represent the ghost or the curse of a person murdered unjustly. In Hesiod and Solon, inherited guilt may seem unfair, as Theognis complains, but Aeschylus is careful to show that those who are led to their doom by a curse have freely acted in such a way as to deserve it. Laius committed a crime, so did Oedipus in rashly killing a stranger who turned out to be his father, and now Eteocles and Polynices of their own free will decide to fight each other. (Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones compares Eteocles with Agamamemnon: Both are brave heroes, but both fulfill the curse on their race.)

When the women find out that the brothers have fulfilled the curse by killing each other, they do not know whether to celebrate the fact that the city is safe or lament the fratricide, and they sing a dirge over the corpses, with the boys’ sisters. For Greeks there is hardly a greater crime, unless it be killing a parent, and the chorus sing that their enmity is now sunk in the grave [937], and the sisters make no distinction in their lamentations between the two brothers.

Most scholars believe that Aeschylus ended his play at this point, perhaps with a brief choral conclusion. The final scene, portraying civil strife between those who wish to bury Polynices and those who oppose burial, anticipates both Euripides’ Phoenissae and Sophocles’ Antigone. I haven’t decided. It certainly is troubling to end a trilogy on so divisive a note—somewhat like end of Agamemnon, the first play of the Oresteia.

This is not a one-dimensional play, but looked at in moral and social terms, Aeschylus’ trilogy shows what happens when family relations are out of joint: The entire city suffers. There is also a hint that mere bellicosity is not enough. Eteocles, for all his courage, is as much accursed as his brother, with whom he collaborates to fulfill the curse. The city has been saved, but at a terrible cost. The curious thing, to me, about the theme of this and so many other plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, is the emphasis on the inescapable burden of blood-ties. Some progressive historians would like us to believe that Cleisthenes’ reforms had unsettled the old foundations of city life.  Aeschylus obviously missed the point in this play—and in the Oresteia.

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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

2 Responses

  1. Vince Cornell says:

    I’ve started reading the play – I’m so hopeless I had to look up why Eteocles kept referring to Thebes as Cadmus. In fact, I’m not sure how to pronounce Eteocles, and that’s even after I tried looking it up. In my translation (H. Weir Smyth), at the end of Eteocles’s first speech, just before the Scout begins, he’s talking about how happy he will be to receive the scouts’ reports and say, “When I have heard their report I shall in no wise be ensnared by strategem.” That line originally confused me and I wondered if it was something like Horatio Nelson’s “Never mind the maneuvers and just go straight at ’em” philosophy. Rereading it again and writing it out, though, it seems obvious to me that he’s talking about not being ensnared in any Argive strategem.

    I’d never heard the idea that Laius partook in unnatural events which is what lead to the curse that destroyed his offspring. Back in high school when we briefly covered Oedipus Rex it was simply a discussion of “look how cruel the fates are and how the Greeks believed fate governed everything.” It wasn’t much of a discussion. But, in the teacher’s defense, I wasn’t much of a student. Seeing some logic behind the origin of what turns into quite a big mess changes how I see Oedipus as well as his own children. It makes me think of the warning in Scripture that great sin will fall down upon the subsequent generations.

  2. Avatar photo Thomas Fleming says:

    Perhaps I should have added more background. Cadmus was a Phoenician who, in one of the two foundation stories of the city, established Thebes. If you look up the stories of his children and grandchildren, they’re pretty awful. He is the one who sowed the soil with dragon’s teeth and produced the Spartoi (the sown) whose progeny made up a large part of the Theban population. He also imported Phoenician letters and thus invented the Greek–the first true–alphabet.

    The general rule–followed, perhaps, as much in the breach as in the observance–is to convert Greek words/names to Latin and then follow the Latin accent. The problem is no one, without knowing Greek, knows which vowels are long, which short. Eteocles–“he of true fame”–has four vowels, all short but the last. But in accenting the second “e” in English, we almost inevitably make it long, so: Eh-TEE–o-clees. His brother is Po (sort of as in pot)–lee-NEYE–sees.

    The sin of Laius, which seems to be in Sophocles, may not be in Aeschylus, but on my interpretation it makes sense. Whatever can be said of the Greeks, they were not fatalists. I once attended a lecture on Chesterton in which the speaker contrasted the Greeks as fatalists with Catholics who believe in free will. He was not at all pleased when I quoted a brilliant insight from GKC himself that while characters in tragedy are always going on about fate, destiny, and necessity, they act as if they have free will. Exactly. From Homer on, the answer they would give the Calvinist-Arminian debate over predestination and free will, would be “Yes” to each.

    The later Greek proverb that character is destiny is certainly appreciated by Homer, who makes Paris a sex-obsessed pretty boy who is exactly the type to pick Aphrodite as his patroness and run off with another man’s wife, while Athena choses as her favorites the intelligent and brave Odysseus and the brave and self-controlled Diomedes. For most Greeks, the familiar dichotomy of fate and free will or nature/nurture would have seemed dull-witted. And right they were.