The War for the Throne of Thebes
is chronologically the sequel to Oedipus
at Colonus, in that Polyneices, the exiled son of Oedipus, has raised seven
armies and plans to take the throne of Thebes from his younger brother Eteocles.
Seven Against Thebes is the story of that battle.
is the first and only play we’ll read written by Aeschylus. Aeschylus was born
in 525 BC and was the oldest of the three great tragic playwrights. Aeschylus
was a large, grumpy man with big eyebrows who had fought and been honored in
many battles. His brother died in the battle of Marathon against the Persians.
Aeschylus was born and raised at Eleusis, his family among the nobility although
he seems not to have been initiated into Demeter’s Mysteries. During the
presentation of one of his tragedies he was accused of revealing the secret of
the Mysteries and was chased from the stage. Aeschylus hid in the temple of
Dionysus to escaped being killed. He was tried with the penalty of death
hanging over his head but was acquitted on the grounds that he’d never been
initiated and therefore could not have know the secret. He died in self-imposed
exile in Sicily where the bizarre story was told of him being killed by an eagle
that dropped a tortoise on his head.
more ancient nature of Seven Against
Thebes is evident in its presentational, less dramatic form. It is not as
plot driven as are the plays by Sophocles and Euripides. The tragedy is set
within the walls of Thebes and opens with a call to arms by King Eteocles,
followed by the description of an oath taken by the seven generals from Argos
whose armies are attacking Thebes. Walter Burkert describes the part oaths
played in antiquity in his book Greek
Religion. (See pages 250-4.) Not only did the ancients
recognize the sacredness of the oath but also the sacredness of the skill in
taking it. This “skill at the oath” is presented in Norman O. Brown’s book
titled Hermes the Thief:
at the oath” means guile or cunning in the use of the oath and derives from
the primitive idea that an oath was binding only in its literal sense; a cunning
person might legitimately manipulate it to deceive, as occurs often
enough in Greek mythology. In the Homeric Hymn, when Hermes uses just such an
oath to deny that he has stolen Apollo’s cattle, he is said to show “good
the generals from Argos, who take the oath before the gates of the walled city,
will not try to get out of it. They will fight to the last. Each of the seven
sends his army against one of the gates, as selected by lot.
Archaeology of Thebes
tragic poets didn’t always give the same names to the seven gates. See Symeonoglou’s
Topography of Thebes.
There you’ll find a table listing the different names
and sources (page 35). The gates were the beginnings of roads to nearby cities
(See the attached map This is a
remarkable book for anyone interested in modern Thebes).
Still today the roads generally follow the ancient pathways. Many of the temples
mentioned in the ancient text have been discovered as well as the palace, the
House of Cadmos. Notice in particular the Observatory of Teiresias, which is
mentioned several times by the tragedians and is discussed by Symeonoglou on
page 131. What I particularly like about his book is that you have an
archaeologist talking about the relationship between the myths and the ruins of
the ancient sites.
Read (1) Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes,
(2) the excerpt from Walter Burkert’s Greek
Religion on the Oath, (3) Hillman’s Oedipus
Variations, and (4) as much of Symeonoglou’s The Topography of Thebes as you wish. I realize this is a lot of
reading and the only real required reading is Seven Against Thebes.
of Seven Against Thebes.
knew about war. He was honored for his bravery at the battle of Marathon (490
the Persian invasion and his brother died there. He also fought in the Battle of
Salamis (480 BC, described in Aeschylus’ The
Persians) ten years later and perhaps the Battle of Plataea the following
year. Aeschylus' treatment of women here is characteristic of that in several of Aeschylus’ tragedies. In his Seven Against
Thebes, the Chorus of Theban women plays a central role. Eteocles is
constantly berating them for their hysterical outbursts. Take special note of
them, and we’ll see how his treatment of women differs with that of Euripides in The Phoenician Women which we’ll read next.
is really an interesting character here. If we look at Dionysus and Oedipus,
they both were born at Thebes, raised elsewhere and returned to establish
themselves. In both cases, this resulted in the death of the king. Now
Polyneices, who has also been in exile, returns to attempt to depose the ruling
king. In this way, Polyneices is both Dionysus and Oedipus.
central metaphor, one present in Seven
Against Thebes, The Phoenician Women
and Antigone, is the double image.
Just as both Dionysus and Oedipus were twice-born and thus had dual natures,
Polyneices and Eteocles are presented symbolically as two sides of the same
Oedipus personality. Many scholars have noted their central unity, and when the
two kill each other it is by a two-fold blow, a single blow that kills both
simultaneously. This would lead one to believe they are symbolically one person, the two
versions of Oedipus, the alien one and the domestic, engaged in mortal combat.
When one dies, so must the other.
further manifestation of this dual theme is that of Kadmos and Harmonia: he a
foreign element from the Orient, she a local goddess, a daughter of Ares (to
whom Thebes belongs) and Aphrodite.