Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes

Thomas J. FlemingJustice is the central preoccupation of Greek moral and political thought. The basic word is dike, a cosmic principle that makes things right, from which is derived such words as dikaios, just, and dikaoiosyne, the quality of being just. Dike, justice, means originally something like the way things have always been, are now, and ought to be. Homer’s Achilles makes Agamemnon swear that he has not had intercourse with Briseis as is the dike of men and women. But dike comes to mean normative custom and thus the power that can make wrongs right. The simplest form of this is revenge.

Like earlier Greek poets, Solon had observed that good men do not always prosper and that bad men sometimes die happy in bed. The judgment of dike then must be visited upon their children. Greeks also believed that guilt and justice could be collective: Priam of Troy did wrong in not forcing his son to give Helen back to Menelaus, and his entire city, not just his family, has to suffer. Justice belongs not to the individual, in other words, but to family, kin, and the community.

However, justice is ultimately in the hands of the gods and the divine forces of fate and necessity and revenge who set limits on human ambition. When Xerxes bridged the Hellespont, lashed the sea, and tried to obliterate the distinction between Europe and Asia, the Greeks were made the agents of divine vengeance just as Agamemnon had been the agent of Zeus’s vengeance against the Persians. This is more or less the approach taken both by the historian Herodotus and by the dramatist Aeschylus in his play the Persians.

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.

Seven Against ThebesCimon’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. His 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.

I shall pause here to allow a few days to look over the play. In reading it, I want you 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.

Why should Laius have been forbidden to have children? In the original folk tales, there may simply 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 with the story of the doe in the Agamemnon—with a guiltless fault. There was a story, perhaps used by Aeschylus, that Laius had committed a sexual crime by raping 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: He does not want to share a home or dwell with women. This would seem to be a repudiation of marriage. A homosexual angle might also clarify the 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. This detail is specially interesting since we are told that Aeschylus is the first to have made Achilles and Patroclus into homosexual lovers. I do not want to push this argument 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 that is emphasized 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.

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