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The Death of Socrates…and the State that Killed Him

by on July 25, 2017

by Anya Leonard

According to the Oracle at Delphi, Socrates was the wisest of them all. It is usually considered unwise, however, to publicly attack the political class and humiliate their intellect, capability and righteousness. This is particularly true when the government is in a weakened and, therefore, volatile position. Why then would Socrates, nobel pillar of wisdom, stand up to a system that would eventually, inevitably, murder him?

The old philosopher was not the first to provoke the hostilities of the state at the wrong time…nor would he be the last.

One only has to think of the modern day dissenters, the infamous ‘whistleblowers’, to know the powers that be do not like to be exposed. If an individual has the gumption to reveal undesired truths, uncomfortable realities, the state will react…swiftly and with its own brand of “justice.” In the case of our contemporaries, that may mean being indefinitely detained without trial or cooped up in the ecuadorian embassy. For Socrates, it resulted in a sham indictment and a death sentence for a 70 year old man.

Like our modern examples, Socrates committed an error of inconvenient honesty in a declining empire. For this, he would pay the ultimate price.

Socrates portrait

Bust of Socrates

The trial of Socrates took place in the year 399 B.C. – a mere 5 years after the fall of Attica by Spartan spear and pluck. The Golden Age of Athens came to a brutal and disappointing end. Socrates himself had been unpopular for a substantial amount of time already, and yet no one saw him as a legitimate threat until after the Peloponnesian war had done its damage.

In 423 B.C., for instance, Aristophanes authored his famous satirical play, The Clouds. It was produced a full 24 years before the trial of Socrates. Here the playwright unfairly characterized Socrates as a despised Sophist, one charging a fee for his services. He also drew the philosopher as, ironically, a pre-socratic thinker, questioning the earth below him and the sky above. But no one threw Socrates in jail then. The poet, politicians and craftsmen had been humiliated but, critically, the state’s safety was not yet at stake. It is the failing empires, self-conscious at their weakening power, that happily suspend justice to muffle dissenting voices.

Which makes us ask once more, why would Socrates, or anyone, speak against such a crumbling authority?

Bradley Manning, who today stands accused of releasing damning and dishonorable pictures and videos of his own government, may have furnished a response to a similar question in an online chat:1

“If you had free reign over classified networks…” he is said to have written, “and you saw incredible things, awful things… things that belonged in the public domain, and not on some server stored in a dark room in Washington, DC … what would you do?

“God knows what happens now. Hopefully worldwide discussion, debates, and reforms… I want people to see the truth…because without information, you cannot make informed decisions as a public.”

Julian Assange, the controversial figure behind online transparency activist group, Wikileaks, identified a similar goal:

“You have to start with the truth. The truth is the only way that we can get anywhere. Because any decision-making that is based upon lies or ignorance can’t lead to a good conclusion”. 2

It appears the pursuit of truth, the desire to follow what one believes is good, is nothing new.

We can’t know for sure, of course, but it seems that Socrates was spurred on by similar feelings, at least according to Plato’s description of the final trial. In Plato’s earliest dialogue, The Apology, written shortly after Socrates’ execution, the student rises to his mentor’s defense. He ensured that Socrates’ attackers look petty and capricious, while the philosopher king appears noble, diafiant and unwavering.

The piece begins with Socrates pledging to speak clearly, truthfully and without the high flown speech, for which his opposition is famous. Importantly, he does not apologize, though the name of the text would suggest as much. The title actually derives from the Greek word “apologia,” which translates as a defense, or a speech made in defense. The dialogue concerns Socrates attempt to defend himself and his conduct, not to say sorry.

The philosopher sets himself apart immediately and without compromise. He then proceeds to explain the root of the situation: The delphic oracle had essentially crowned him the smartest man. In disbelief, Socrates set out to prove this wrong by finding men more intelligent than himself. What he found, however, were pompous busybodies who enjoyed speaking at length on things they did not know. Socrates found that through a series of questions, he could easily reveal their ignorance, something no one’s pride takes easily. Eventually he concluded that yes, he could be the wisest man, simply due to the fact that he knows that he knows nothing.

Socrates then address the charges against him – that he had corrupted the youth and acted impiously. With albeit imperfect logic, he proceeds with the elenchus, or cross-examination, against Meletus, the man primarily responsible for bringing Socrates before the jury. If the youth have been corrupted, then why are his pupils here on his side, along with their relatives? Importantly, he references Plato as one of his pupils.

Socrates then makes the analogy that he is a gadfly and the state is a fat and lazy horse. A bloated thoroughbred that has enjoyed too many comforts and would sleep forever, if the gadfly did not do its duty the keep the horse awake.

At no time does Socrates plead for mercy, ask for forgiveness or beg the judges for leniency. Eventually the ballot is cast and, by a close margin, Socrates is found guilty. After a little deliberation the sentence is set: death.

Still, even now, Socrates stays true to his position, defiant in his apologia and sure of his virtue. When asked why he should follow any pursuit that may result in death, Socrates responded:

“You do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man.” 3

But if one were to imagine that Socrates was unwise by confronting a goliath much larger than him, they would prove to be the foolish one. The truth is that Socrates never wanted to face the political body. That is why he didn’t join the public life. Instead, he always spoke to individuals. Facing the government would only mean death.

“…for you may be quite sure, men of Athens, that if I had undertaken to go into politics, I should have been put to death long ago and should have done no good to you or to myself. And do not be angry with me for speaking the truth; the fact is that no man will save his life who nobly opposes you or any other populace and prevents many unjust and illegal things from happening in the state.”4

And so, Socrates chose to address the individual rather than purposefully face the state…until, of course, the state found him. Maybe this is why Socrates reached the ripe old age of 70. As for Julian Assange and Bradley Manning, it’s too early to tell.

Socrates did, ultimately, accept the punishment of death. There is no reason to fear what we do not know, he argued. A point that might have comforted him as he marched into the great unknown beyond this life. Perhaps, reflecting on the years he had already lived, Socrates welcomed a memorable end.

Maybe it is the death of socrates that makes his life, his search for truth, so well known…the sort of pursuit that can inspire individuals thousands of years on.

 

1. http://firedoglake.com/merged-manning-lamo-chat-logs/
2. “Julian Assange, monk of the online age who thrives on intellectual battle”. The Guardian. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2010/aug/01/julian-assange-wikileaks-afghanistan) 2010-08-01. Retrieved on 2010-08-01.
3. 28b, The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/
4. 31d – 31e, , The Apology by Plato http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/

The Death of Socrates … and the State that Killed Him was written by Anya Leonard

The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part One

by on July 18, 2017

Reconstruction of Athens

Athens in its Golden Age

You couldn’t imagine two cities less alike. Athens was a powerful democracy where citizens spent their days reclining and discussing politics and culture.

Sparta was a ruthless oligarchy where individuals were born and bred to fight. Athens controlled a large, mostly coastal territory with its commanding navy, while Sparta was infamous for its authoritative army. The former had its own empire; the latter ran the Peloponnesian League. In ethnicity and dialect, too, the Athenians were Ionian, the Spartans Dorian.

Sparta versus Athens

The Navy versus the Army

The Peloponnesian War was bound to happen… eventually.

The two great cities were too contrary, too dominant to stand in the other’s shadow. They were enemies. Man, throughout time, has found causes, large and small, over which to wage war. Jealousies, grudges and human nature, ever open to corruption and debasement, push him to the battlefield.

The Peloponnesian war was no exception.

It was a war that forever changed the Ancient Greek world. It took down the mightiest city-state, Athens, and established Sparta as the superior power. Costly campaigns plunged the Peloponnese into a deep poverty, from which they never really recovered. The war itself was a shift from the earlier, smaller battles to full-out warfare across the region, initiating atrocities never before seen. It marked the end of the fifth century BC and the Golden Age of Athens.

This war, while greater than previous skirmishes, was not entirely anomalous. The two immensely powerful city states had been at each other’s throats for years in the first Peloponnesian war. They only managed a respite from the violence with the ‘Thirty Years Peace’ treaty in the winter of 446/5 BC. That peace accord, however, didn’t really last long.

Thucydides, the great historian and the source for most of the information on the Peloponnesian war, spelled it out clearly: “Peace is an armistice in a war that is continuously going on.”
the_peloponnesian_war__431___404_bc__by_hms_endeavour-d5a56fn
Trouble started brewing as early as 440 BC when some of the Athenian allies started to revolt. Sparta wanted to take advantage of its weakened enemy, which would have triggered a major assault. It was held off, however, by another key player, Corinth. But the calmness proved fleeting. Alliance breaks, wavering warships, stringent trade sanctions, mutinies and betrayals across the region all threatened to erode the thin veneer of Grecian stability.

And then Athens infuriated Corinth, their original saviors. Strategically placed warships stopped the Corinthians from capturing Corcyra, a powerful sea colony not yet allied to either side. This did not sit well with the budding city-state. The insults, however, did not stop there. Afterwards Athens instructed Potidaea, a tributary ally of Athens but a colony of Corinth, to become submissive to the Athenian Empire. Essentially, they were ordered to tear down their walls, send hostages to Athens, dismiss the Corinthian magistrates from office, and refuse the magistrates that the city would send in the future. Now Corinth was really angry.

Eventually, in 423 BC, Sparta summoned the members of the Peloponnesian League to air their grievances with Athens. A debate ensued with the Athenians (who were present…though not invited). The Corinthians accused Sparta of not having the gumption to challenge the growing Athenian empire, goading them on to fight. The Athenians, for their part, retorted that unleashing Sparta’s military might could have undesired consequences. In the end, a Spartan majority voted and declared that Athens had broken the peace agreement… essentially declaring hostility.

And this is how the war began, with a whine and not a bang.

——

To read Part Two of the Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals, click HERE.

“The Peloponnesian War Summary of Battles and Betrayals – Part One” was written by Anya Leonard

The Probing Philosopher Kings

by on July 6, 2017

by Anya Leonard

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates

One might wonder why Socrates never wrote anything down. Such a brilliant philosopher… wouldn’t he want to impart his wisdom to future generations? Surely he would aspire to inspire others who weren’t necessarily within ear shot? But no. He didn’t author a single word. He wanted people to think for themselves, rather than just mimic his ideas. For Socrates it was all about the method. It was about being able to arrive at one’s own ideas independently.

Plato, however, did write, and he recorded both his and Socrates’ thoughts. He didn’t forget his teacher’s lesson though, and so often composed dialogues that demonstrate the critical process of thinking and questioning, rather than present a definitive, conclusive answer. In this way, Plato encourages us to keep thinking.

As a child, Plato probably would not have envisioned the life he was going to lead. His family’s lot, steeped in aristocracy and influence, was of the political class. His father Ariston supposedly could trace his ancestry to the King of Athens and the King of Messenia. Not to be outshone by her husband, Plato’s mother, Perictione, rubbed shoulders with the likes of Solon, a famous lawyer and lyric poet. In addition, her brother and uncle we part of the thirty tyrants that ruled over Athens after the deafening defeat at the hands of Sparta. Plato was very proud of his distinguished family tree, and often glowingly referred to them in his dialogues.

Considering his family’s affluence and prestige, it is not surprising that Plato received the best education, instructed by the most distinguished teachers at the time. His most influential mentor, of course, was Socrates himself. He met him when he was but a youth. Socrates was considered an ugly man who did not possess much wealth or prominence. He might have been seen as a strange intellectual bedfellow for the well-to-do Plato. However, the old man had a remarkable power of discourse and an ability to bring down the most grandiose of gentlemen.

The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates

Socrates was Plato’s mentor and became his protagonist. His execution in 399 would have certainly affected the budding boy and shake his confidence in a political system that allowed such a tragedy. The fall of Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war also would have been a momentous episode in Plato’s life. As well as the ensuing dictatorship which failed miserably due to the inevitable corruption of the 30 chosen oligarchs. It’s no wonder then the quick thinking Plato abandoned the family trade and choose philosopher over politics. It was Socrates, the probing philosopher, who changed Plato’s course to the world of debate, dialogues and discovery.

Bust of Plato

Bust of Plato

His career, once selected, was very successful. He wrote, traveled, set up an academy dedicated to thinking and questioning. He even tried to shape a dictator in Syracuse to become one of the Philosopher kings. Unfortunately, it didn’t work. And then, as all mortal men do, he died, at the ripe old age of 80. Recognised at the brilliant man he was, forever imparting not only wisdom, but a way of trying to understand the world.

We’ll never know exactly where Socrates ended and Plato began. What ideas, ultimately, belonged to the teacher or to the student? All we can know and be grateful for, is that Plato had the audacity to write them down, so that even now we can continue to question.

Check in in next week for a look at Plato’s Apology. You can view the whole text here beforehand for free: http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/apology-by-plato/

Danae’s Destiny

by on June 9, 2017

Picture of DanaeDestiny was unkind to poor Danae, or Danaê, depending on the spelling. She, like Oedipus and many other tragic Greek heros, never decided her destiny. The various gods in her life did it for her. What she wanted never came into play. Instead, the tides of fate tossed her and her son through a strange and spectacular tale.

It all started with her father, King Acrisius of Argos, who was disappointed with the lack of a male heir. He journeyed to the oracle to shed some light on the situation, but came away with a frightening prophecy. Apparently the son of his daughter will kill him.

Danae and the Brazen TowerDetermined to not let this happen, he locked Danae away, either in a subterranean cave, if you consult one story, or a bronze tower, if you rely on another. Clearly, the king fancied himself smart enough to circumvent fate. Zeus, however, had other plans and certainly wasn’t going to let a thing like walls get in his way.

So the god of gods decided to visit poor Danae in her father’s prison in the form of a shower of gold. Silver just wouldn’t do. In this magical element he managed to impregnate the girl and she gave birth to a baby boy named Perseus.

Now Danae’s father was faced with a tricky situation. The prophesied patricidal child was apparently part Olympian and the royal grandfather-to-be definitely didn’t want to incur the wrath of an entity who is famous for throwing lightning bolts around. So king Acrisius concluded the best thing to do was to put mother and child into a wooden chest and throw said ‘vessel’ into the sea, leaving their life or death to fate. Not quite Grandad of the year, but at least their blood was not on his hands.

Once again the gods had Danae’s back. Poseidon was in cahoots with Zeus and calmed the seas for the pair. Eventually they found their way safely to the island of Seriphos, where they were taken in by the fisherman Dictys, the brother of King Polydectes. The surrogate father raised young Perseus to manhood but the island’s ruler clearly had a thing for his mother. The feelings were not returned, however, and Danae kept resisting his unrequited advances.

King Polydectes decided, however, that if he got rid of her overly protective son, he could have his way with Danae. Once the interfering bastard boy was old enough, the king sent him on a deadly mission.

Perseus with the head of Medusa

Perseus with the head of Medusa

So where did he send this inconveniently half divine youth? To the foreign land of the Grey Ladies, with orders to slay the hideous, snake-haired Gorgon Medusa.

Yet again, those divinities sitting on Olympus indulged in some human meddling. Athena lent him a shield that could repel the infamous stone changing gaze of Medusa. Perseus managed to use his gift so well that he not only survived, but killed the old hag and even rescued fair Andromeda (his future wife) on his way home.

The original father killing prophesy, however, somehow, still came true. After his success, Perseus participated in a sport competition in Larissa and accidentally killed his real grandpa with a flying javelin.

Too ashamed to return to Argos after stupidly murdering his predecessor and king of the country, Perseus, the rightful heir, gave the kingdom away and took over his kingdom of Tiryns, founding Mycenae and Midea there.

Now, let’s look to a more symmetrical, possible turn of events. In another version, Perseus sought revenge for sea chest dwelling days. He returned to his homeland glorious, carrying the head of medusa. Her powerful gaze, unaffected by decapitation is used on grandfather Acrisius to convert king, and court, to less than organic material.

In the end, Perseus takes his rightful place in the kingdom, all while his mother is aside him. Only then Danae reigns as the queen she is meant to be, finally.

Sophocles Antigone: One Woman Against the State

by on May 15, 2017

by Anya Leonard

Portrait of Antigone

Antigone. Painting by Frederic Leighton, 1882.

“My nature is to join in love, not hate” – ‘Antigone’ in Sophocles Antigone.

Maybe it’s no surprise then that this individual found herself on the wrong side of the state. The powers that be probably didn’t appreciate either, that this adversary came from the oppressed class, one of the current underdogs of their society – a woman.

And what happens to a newly crowned king when such an opponent threatens him before his authority sets in? Does he take considered actions and reason out the situation? Does he look at the crisis from all points of views and contemplate what is best for the city he rules? In the case of Creon in Sophocles Antigone, the answer is a resounding no.

A man, who at other times had been the voice of reason, grows tyrannical and obsessed with his own law. He represents an unstable nation-state that figures itself higher than all other laws, both natural and religious. And those who oppose his unjust rulings, who struggle against unfair governance, are destroyed.

All that is left then, is the consideration, the weighing in, of the risk and reward of standing up to the state.

The story is the last in the Oedipal myth series, though the first written by Sophocles. It continues on from Aeschylus’ Seven Against ThebesOedipus, the original self-blinded, ill-fated character, who committed both patricide and incest, is dead and gone. His two sons have fought to take the throne and have both died by the other’s sword. However, one man was protecting the seven-gated city of Thebes, while the other was attacking it.

This is where the problem begins.

Antigone and her dead brother

Antigone and Ismene mourning for their brother

The former goes down with hero status. The latter, fighting with foreign friends, does not. He should be consumed by the crows and denied a proper burial, or so says Creon, the next of kin and therefore King. He publicly decrees as such, labeling the lad as an enemy of the state. Unfortunately for him, Antigone does not agree. As sister to the foregone fighters, she feels it is her duty, under the traditions and divine laws, to see that the condemned soldier sleep beneath the earth.

She initially attempts to recruit her sister Ismene. They secretly meet outside the city walls, outside the law itself, to concoct a plan so their brother’s soul can find peace. The second sister, however, fears death, men and the regal rule that threatens a stony demise. She does not commit and therefore finds herself disowned by her stubborn kin.

And so, Antigone, in defiance of those who rule her, steals away and sprinkles the thirsty dust on her deceased relation. The thought of his corpse, exposed to the elements and prey for fowl, digs into a core cultural concept of respect for the dead. No doubt, this imagery, so horrific, was Creon’s design. It is a reminder to all the citizens of what will happen if they challenge the state.

Once the forbidden rites are revealed, a poor sod, a sentry, is sent with the task to inform King Creon. The monarch is not happy. He threatens and thrashes out at the watchman, promising him a fatal punishment if he does not find the culprit.

A trap is set. The body is washed of its earth and put out on display while the soldiers keep a lookout, under threat of death. Sure enough, Antigone takes the bait, incensed at what has happened. This time the sentry, knowing he is off the hook, happily returns to the enraged ruler with the unforeseen outlaw.

Antigone stands strong in front of the tyrant. She does not deny a thing, for what would her defiance mean if she did? The epitome of a heroine she faces her opponent unflinchingly, uncompromisingly and condemns his injustices. She tells him what no other has the gumption to say, that his law is not right. His law is an affront to decency and to the Gods. He has no ruling over the dead.

Her punishment: death. Ismene tries to turn herself in, so she may die with her sister, but Antigone has none of it. Not out of sisterly love, but because she did not actually help to bury the brother and does not deserve the honor. The two are taken away nonetheless.

At this time Creon’s son, heir and future, enters. Haemon is also betrothed to Antigone, and the chorus reveals to us that it is of mutual love. He begins speaking to his father out of respect, promising loyalty and agreeing with his dad. At one point, however, he discloses a rumor running in town. “The city mourns for this girl; they think she is dying most wrongly and most undeservedly for all womankind, for the most glorious acts”.

Antigone burying her brother

Antigone in front of the dead Polyneices by Nikiforos Lytras

Here we start to see Creon fully unravel. He develops into the epitome of a dictator and misogynist, reviled by his own son. The king chooses the state over what is right. He chooses oppression over a minority. He rants, “we must stand on the side of what is orderly; we cannot give victory to a woman. If we must accept defeat, let it be from a man; we must not let people say that a woman beat us.”

One might question if the opponent were male, would the retribution be so harsh? Nothing offends an overreaching ruler like the rise of the underclass. It these people who have to fear tyranny the most. Something many still face today.

An argument ensues between father and son, one that has the modern reader cheering for the wise youth, who demands regard for his actions, not his age. The despot declares his judgment alone should rule the city. Haemon retorts he would be a fine dictator of a desert and reminds his predecessor “there is no city possessed by one man only.” But the old monarch rebuffs with the argument that king and country are one… and his.

Furious, Haemon promises his father will never see him again and quickly leaves.

Now Creon knows he does not have the public support he initially sought. The communal stoning he originally promised won’t do. Instead, he decides to entomb Antigone, so she can be with Hades, the God of death. Ismene, however, is let go.

Once the deed has been done, the old blind prophet, Theiresia enters. Castigating the king for putting the dead above the ground and the living below, he warns him it will be his demise. Eventually and after many bitter words, Creon listens to reason and attempts to undo his mistakes. Unfortunately he is too late.

Antigone and Creon

Antigone and Creon

The violence ensues off stage. While Creon resignedly buries the fallen warrior, Antigone, forlorn by her fate, hangs herself. Haemon finds her, attempts to assassinate the king and then falls on his sword. Reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, he cradles the woman he loves as he passes away.

But death doesn’t stop there. Finding out about her son’s end, the wife of Creon also expires by her own hand. At this point, the fallen ruler fully realizes what he has done and despondently quits the stage.

They don’t call it a tragedy for nothing.

But what can we take away from these grisly endings? The overbearing sovereign and the young woman who stood up to him? She may have met a sad ending, but she also took her oppressor with her. She, as a woman, represented the underclass, but nonetheless, faced an unlikely fight and stood up to an absolutist.

Perhaps then, it is not shocking that modern history has used this powerful text of resistance. One of the most famous examples is Jean Anouilh’s 1944 Paris version ofAntigone, which was produced during world war two. It was potent play for his countrymen during the Nazi occupation. It was reminder to remain strong and defiant, because, in the end, the conflict between the state and the individual was as relevant then as it is now.

Antigone was written by Sophocles around 441 b.c. It is the third, sequentially of Sophocles’ Theban plays. You can read the full story here: http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/antigone-by-sophocles/

Staying with the individual versus the state theme, we will move onto Plato. Tune in next week for a look into his Apology. You can view the whole text here beforehand for free: http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/apology-by-plato/

The Unlucky Seven Against Thebes

by on May 4, 2017

Seven warriors killing seven other soldiers in front of seven gates. You’d think that story would forever condemn the number to enmity. But Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes makes no comment on the conspicuous symmetry of the legend’s numeral element. Maybe the seven city portals warranted warriors to both attack and protect them. Unfortunately if you are seeking legitimacy in the next installment of the Oedipal series, you probably won’t find it. In fact, the seven Theban gates have never been found. This would lead us to believe that the number was entirely made up… Or stolen from a different story.

We can’t know for sure, of course, but there are some pretty eerie parallels between Seven Against Thebes and a little old myth found in an Akkadian epic text. It’s a story of Erra the plague god, and the Seven (Sibitti), called upon to destroy mankind, but who withdraw from Babylon at the last moment. Does this sound like Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes?

The Seven against Thebes

It is a play that has only a few action points, but ones that match quite closely to the Fertile Crescent edition. Of course with the Greek adaptation, there’s a thorough back story regarding an infamously unlucky king.

In Seven Against Thebes, poor Oedipus is long gone, but his bad luck isn’t. His unfortunate descendants have inherited his prejudicial fate. The same destiny that brought the ruined royal to bed his ma and slaughter his pa, now drives his two sons to destroy each other.

We saw this coming in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus when son number one, Polynices, came out of the wood works begging his blind father to help him out. The heirs were suppose to split the throne, alternating years in power, but offspring number two, Eteocles, refused to play nicely. He exiled his older brother and greedily grabbed the Kingdom of Thebes for himself. Oedipus told his son to buzz off and leaves him with this curse: The two boys will fall from each others’ sword.

This is where Seven Against Thebes begins. Polynices, with a severely bruised ego, amasses a foreign army to take back his hometown. This act of attack immediately assigns the elder child into the ‘villain’ character, rather than the selfish younger son who kicked him out in the first place.

And so, Aeschylus writes Eteocles as his hero. We only see the story from his side. The play begins with him, the current Theban king, listening to a spy describe his brother’s oncoming army. Eteocles then assigns his own soldiers to each of the seven gates to combat their counterparts.

The reader falls into the rhythm of impending doom. The chorus bewails the women, who will be taken as slaves if the city falls. Eteocles tells the ladies to stop crying and deal with it. The modern reader may wonder why we are suppose empathize with this character.

Eventually king, spy and chorus discuss the last warrior. It is the brother Polynices. Fulfilling destiny, Eteocles appoints himself as the seventh combatant. Oedipus’ final malediction come true as, sure enough, the two brothers kill each other. Fortunately for the city’s inhabitants, the war does not continue without each army’s leader.

Eteocles and Polynices
In the original version, the drama comes to end when the boys’ bodies are brought on stage to a mourning chorus. In the Sophocles compatible edition, written 50 years later after the success of the subsequent play, a messenger appears and announces a prohibition against burying Polynices. Then, as a perfect lead in to the last installment of the Oedipal series, Antigone, the rebellious daughter announces her intention to defy this edict.

So what can we attribute to Aeschylus? Is the story original or just the manner of the storytelling? The ‘mytheme’, the original, unchangeable element, is of the horrible seven bringing potential devastation, which is prevented at the very last minute. This concept traditionally seems to be based on Bronze Age history in the generation before the Trojan War. You can see it in the Iliad’s Catalogue of Ships, where the only remnant Hypothebai (“Lower Town”) subsists on the ruins of Thebes.

But Aeschylus did do something very unique. He added another character. To us now, that may not seem very impressive, but at the time it was completely revolutionary. Previously, the chorus danced around a glorified orator. Then the “Father of Tragedy” came onto the stage, and there was interaction, tension, conversation and essentially the real beginning of drama.

Seven Against Thebes was written by Aeschylus around 467 b.c. The trilogy won the first prize at the City Dionysia. Its first two plays, Laius and Oedipus as well as the satyr play Sphinx are no longer extant. You can read the full story here:http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/the-seven-against-thebes/

Make sure to read the next installment of the Oedipal myth for next week’s essay. We’ll go back to Sophocles to read his renowned version of Antigone. You can view the whole text here for free: http://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/antigone-by-sophocles/