Monday 8 February 2016

Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus

"You citizens of Cadmus, he must speak home
that in the ship's prow, watches the event
and guides the rudder, his eyes not drooped in sleep."

Produced in 467 B.C. and winning first prize in the City Dionysia drama competition, this play is assumed to be the last of a trilogy of plays which dealt with the Oedipus cycle, the other two being called Laius, and Oedipus, both lost, as was the concluding satyr play, The Sphinx.  Driven mostly by dialogue, this play requires some background history to add some further insight.

Oedipus, king of Thebes, received exile for unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother.  In return, he placed a curse on his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, that they should divide the nation, each ruling in alternate years. However, after the first year of rule, Eteocles, enjoying his prominence, refuses to relinquish the throne to his brother, causing Polynices to raise a foreign force of Argives, led by the famous "seven", to regain his inheritance.  It is at this point that the play begins.

Eteocles & Polynices (1725-30)
Giovanni Battista Tiepolo
source Wikimedia Commons
Unlike Aeschylus' earlier plays, The Persians and The Suppliant Maidens, which begin with a lyrical introduction, Eteocles begins this play with a dramatic patriotic rhetorical speech, appealing to the men of the city to take up arms and defend their honour against the Argives.  A messenger arrives announcing that the Argive army is ready to attack and the Theban army prepares to meet them.  Yet a litany of Theban women's voices rise above the spectacle, invoking the gods for protection and lamenting the possible repercussions of the battle.  Eteocles loses his patience. These women are unnerving the populous with their pleas to gods and images of doom.  Heaven deliver him from women's excesses!  And so begins an exchange between them, with Eteocles counselling practicality and proper, balanced emphasis on divine guidance, and the women accentuating the importance of invoking the gods favour. Eteocles demands silence, but the women continue to speak, quite astutely, with regard to the situation, until finally they obey his command.

The messenger enters, and so commences a trialogue between him, Eteocles and the Theban women, the former announcing the Argive heroes, and Eteocles proclaiming the Theban defenders, while the women laud their warriors and invoke divine favour.  Of course, the Argive warriors are the "Seven" against Thebes and each of these attackers has an emblem on his shield.  Curiously, the Argive attacker at the sixth gate, Amphiaraus, is counselling temperance to his leader, proclaiming murder if they continue.  He expects to die a prophet in the land.

Argive                  Attacker's              Gate                 Theban 
Attacker               Emblem                                           Defender

Tydeus                 Moon &                 Proetid            Melanippus

Capaneus            Naked man          Electra            Polyphontes
                                   w/ Torch

Eteoclus              Warrior                  Neïs                Megareus

Hippomedon      Smoking                Onca                Hyperbius
                               Typhon                 Athena

Parthenopaeus Sphinx eating      North               Actor
                                 a Theban

Amphiaraus       None                      Homoloian     Lasthenes

Polyneices          Justice                   Seventh           Eteocles

From Eteocles, there is an impious and sacrilegious glory in war, and an obvious antipathy towards the gods, instead proclaiming a complete reliance on men and their ability.  Eteocles does not discount the gods, but does not place an importance on them.  With a curse upon his family, the gods have turned their back on him, and thus, he does likewise.  Now brother will fight against brother, the curse culminating through human choice, although they make it appear as though they have been stripped of their free will by the curse.  The chorus of Theban women have not ceased their beseeching:

"O dearest son of Oedipus, do not
be like in temper to this utterer
of dreadful sayings.  There are enough Cadmaeans
to grapple with the Argives:  such blood is expiable.
But for the blood of brothers mutually shed
there is no growing old of the pollution."

In the psychology of Eteocles, he cannot escape his fate, in spite of the women pleading for him to use his free will to choose, horrified at his willingness to shed familial blood.  As Eteocles goes to face his destiny, the chorus of women seem to reevaluate its outlook, focusing on the curse as a lament of fate.  When the messenger returns with news of the battle, his proclamation can be of no surprise.  Brother has, in fact, slain brother, and the curse is brought to fruition.  Even though the city is saved, there is no celebration.  Instead, the bodies are carried in, followed by Antigone and Ismene, their sisters, their lamentations of shivering intensity.  The tragedy is a "double sorrow".

Eteocles and Polyneices (1799)
Giovanni Silvagni
source Wikimedia Commons

Finally, a Herald arrives to announce an honourable burial for Eteocles, since he fought for his city, upholding his ancestors, but in contrast, Polyneices will be cast out to the dogs for bringing a foreign force to attack his city, casting dishonour on his head.  With great resolve, Antigone proclaims that in spite of the edict, she will give her brother a proper burial.  They banter back and forth, the Herald laying her further actions as her own responsibility.  In the end, the chorus divides, half to bury Polyneices, and the other half going the way of Justice.

Originally, The Seven Against Thebes ended with a melancholy mourning for the two brothers, but with the popularity of Sophocles' Antigone, the ending was re-written fifty years after his death to make a smooth transition between the two plays. While the Seven Against Thebes is not considered as refined or as seamless as Aeschylus' masterpiece, The Orestia, nevertheless, it contains many wonderful components to its structure.

The battle for the city of Thebes is also presented in Eurpides' The Phoenician Women.

Translated by David Greene


  1. You know this drama has been lying in my shelves for ages...I mean ages..a professor back in my grad school days, gifted some of us some Greek plays before he left for his tenure in England. I received this one and I am ashamed to say it (Hang my head in shame!) that I am yet to get around to it! But your review fortifies me and I will surely read it very soon as part of my read-drama-effort this year! There is something very noble and honorable in the Greek literature...I feel it even more strikingly as we wade through Ovid!

    1. The play is sometimes called rather unexciting because the scene doesn't change and it's only a number of characters talking, but I found the roles of each of the characters fascinating. The worldview of Eteocles compared with the chorus of Theban women brings up all sorts of questions, and I didn't even get into the pictures on the shields. What do they mean? Is there some sort of pattern to them? Why does shield 2-5 show something to do with war, yet shield 6 has a break (blank) and shield seven is Justice? I don't know yet, but so much to think about! :-)

  2. Greek plays are so interesting in that on the one hand, they seem to hold to a certain moral code, but on the other, their moral code differs from the Christian one in that they were such believers in fate and no sense of mercy even to their children. I mean why curse your own children and destroy a kingdom. What about the greater good? It's sad. It also makes me grateful to have a Christian paradigm which offers hope.

    1. If I remember correctly, Sharon, I believe Oedipus cursed his sons because they did not support him when he was exiled. I know in Oedipus at Colonus, they are only interested in the location of his soon-to-be death, because they were told by the oracle, that the outcome of the brothers' dispute would depend on it. They are obviously completely concerned with power, with little regard for family or simple moral principles. The Greek mindset can seem bleak, but you often can catch a little glimpse of something else shining through. That's why, in spite of the apparent hopelessness, you can often feel uplifted. And you can always feel like you've learned something, or examined an issue that is relevant today. Those are part of the reasons why I like the Greeks so much.

  3. Just call me a 'back door' ancients reader! I learned about the themes and storyline of "Antigone' via a French book "Le Quatrieme Mur". It was a wonderful introduction to Sophocles! I'm still following your progress but haven't much to say about your reading choices due to my own lack of 'ancient' reading. Good luck and good reading!

    1. I thought that you liked your 'ancient' reading when you attempted it, you just need it in smaller doses ....???

      I wish I could read 'Le Quatrieme Mur" (Is that The Fourth Wall?) Sigh! Your French books are out of my scope, so we both have something the other is well-versed in and from a distance, we learn from each other. So we each get exposure to a era or a language that wouldn't otherwise happen. That's something to celebrate, I think! :-)

  4. Small doses...that could be the answer. I was overwhelmed by long, so in tense. It put me off starting anything new. Yes, sharing each others reading experiences is the key issue. 4e Mur was impressive and think the writer suffers from post traumatic stress disorder due to his war corr years. This book was a way of 'writing off' his experiences. Very clever to link it all to Antigone and WW II. Oke, must keep reading...big list to finish this year!

  5. This was my first Aeschylus play. I do struggle with him, and though I liked reading this well enough it's partly, I have to admit, because I was trying to treat it as a Sophocles spin-off to make it a little easier on myself! Shameful, I know.

    Looking forward to reading Prometheus Bound fairly soon :)

    1. I know that you're trying to read the plays in a sort of interconnected schedule, but I do think you benefit from reading one dramatist at a time. You can then pick up certain idiosyncrasies that are unique to them, or certain reoccurring themes or habits. I feel that I have much more of a grasp of him, reading the three in a row. I'm really enjoying seeing the balance between the men and women in the plays and them transferring what I'm reading culturally. It's giving me a better idea of the women's understood place in history.

      As for reading one dramatist at a time, I'm deviating from my own advice, trying to read some plays along with a group on GR (I'm already behind), so I'll be getting a taste of Aristophanes, Euripides and Sophocles, right in the middle of Aeschylus.

    2. I'm basically trying to do that with Euripides right now. I think, starting off, it did help reading by theme as it were than author, but I've decided to move on a little. For one reason I agree with you, and for another it does open things up even more. That said, I may mix Euripides up a little with Aristophanes - just for the light relief :) Do want to return to Aeschylus as well... These are the three Greeks on my mind right now - Euripides, Aristophanes, and Aeschylus. :)