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The Lost City of Thebes

by July 19, 2021

By Sean Kelly, Managing Editor, Classical Wisdom
I’m sure like many of you, I’m a huge fan of Greek tragedy. For many people Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex can be their first exposure to the world of Ancient Greek literature, and the Classical world in general. More than two and a half millennia since its first performance, the play itself and its reputation endure undiminished. More than a masterpiece, the play can be an entry point into one of the most compelling branches of Greek myth: the Theban cycle. 
These stories tell the tale of Oedipus and the Riddle of the Sphinx, his warring sons locked in bloody civil war and, of course, his headstrong, rebellious daughter (and half-sister!) Antigone. All these myths center around the ancient city of Thebes, one of the most prominent and important in Greek myth. The city itself was a real place. One of power and might too: the city defeated Sparta, founded cities, and was a key player in ancient politics. 
Yet, the city vanished. What happened? How can a city so important simply disappear? Like the Riddle of the Sphinx, perhaps we can untie this mystery… 
Fortunately for us, acclaimed classicist and historian Paul Cartledge has delved into this fantastic tale in his most recent book –Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece. This sensational work brings the city vividly to life and argues that it is central to our understanding of the ancient Greeks’ achievements—whether politically or culturally—and thus to the wider politico-cultural traditions of western Europe, the Americas, and indeed the world.
From its role as an ancient political power, to its destruction at the hands of Alexander the Great as punishment for a failed revolt, to its eventual restoration by Alexander’s successor, Cartledge deftly chronicles the rise and fall of the ancient city. He recounts the history with deep clarity and mastery for the subject and makes clear both the differences and the interconnections between the Thebes of myth and the Thebes of history. Written in clear prose and illustrated with images in two color inserts, Thebes is a gripping read for students of ancient history and those looking to experience the real city behind the myths of Cadmus, Hercules, and Oedipus.
Make sure to get your own fantastic edition of Paul’s book, Thebes: The Forgotten City of Ancient Greece, HERE.
You can also catch Professor Cartledge LIVE at our Symposium 2021: The End of Empires and the Fall of Nations.
One of the world’s foremost Classicists and the author, co-author, editor or co-editor of more than 30 books, Professor Cartledge illuminates the truth about the Forgotten City of Thebes. This is your opportunity to see Paul Cartledge LIVE – and join in on the Q&A – as he tells us how a city can be outlived by its myths…. 
We hope to see you in August!

Sophocles Antigone: One Woman Against the State

by 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: https://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: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/apology-by-plato/

The Unlucky Seven Against Thebes

by 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:https://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: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/antigone-by-sophocles/

Oedipus at Colonus: The Tale of Two Ancient Deaths

by April 11, 2017

And so it comes to be, that all men must die. Yes, even the old ones. The great poet and dramatist, Sophocles, was approaching his own end when he imagined the glorious finale of the tragic figure, Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus.

This play is thought to be Sophocles’ final one because it was first produced in 401 B.C., four years after his death. And just to add to the confusion, the events that occur in the story are actually second chronologically in the Oedipal myth series. Wedged between the action packed stories of Oedipus Rex and Antigone, this tragedy is more philosophical than the others, paying attention to shifting characters and morality.  It addresses fate full on and creates a triangle of power between the good, the bad and the blind beggar.

In a nutshell, it is the tale of two ancient cities, three kings and the slow, painful process of redemption.

Oedipus Rex, the first episode, finished with its eponymous character banished and blinded. The previously glorious king, who unknowingly committed incest and patricide, boldly bewailed his fate, accepted responsibility and sadly left his kingdom. This contrasts sharply with the enfeebled and humbled Oedipus in the second section of the tragic tale.

But let’s review quickly.

Death of OedipusHe, the one and only Oedipus, arrives in the village of Colonus, which is just outside Athens and also – very interestingly- Sophocles’ birthplace. He is unrecognizable from the monarch he used to be. The ultimate tragic hero is no longer bold, nor decisive, nor very regal. His previous ownership of his actions and destiny has vanished into thin air. He rejects the guilt of his deeds. Acts committed unknowingly make the man innocent, surely?  He is clearly weakened by his many, lonely years wandering.

The first scene of Oedipus at Colonus begins with Antigone, his daughter, helping him walk into a grove, but not just any vegetable patch. This garden happens to be scared, which quickly draws the Chorus to admonish the old man. They are unrelenting until the tragic figure’s identity is revealed. When Oedipus finally figures out where he is, he discloses to Antigone that the oracle predicted this location as the spot of his death. Furthermore, there would be a blessing to the city that buries him.

Upon Oedipus’ request, the king of Athens, Theseus, is summoned to decide whether this unseeing hobo should be expelled once more. Before the monarch arrives, however, Oedipus’ daughter, Ismene, enters and recounts the unfortunate happenings in Thebes. The two brothers, Oedipus’ sons, are fighting for rulership in the wake of their father’s infamous downfall.

Apparently, the youngest scoundrel is in cahoots with Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law/uncle and the eldest is exiled. The first son’s pride is bruised and therefore he amasses an army to take back Thebes.

Theseus enters. Knowing Oedipus’ story, he is empathetic to the unfortunate man. The king grants him protection, even when he understands it will mean war and an uncomfortable confrontation with Thebes. He offers the gift of a proper burial and all praise the glory of Athens.

Creon enters. Full of treachery, deceit and the usual villainy, he attempts to bring Oedipus back to Thebes. He also knows the oracle and wants the prophesied protection his favorite corpse-to-be will bring. He kidnaps Antigone and Ismene and threatens to force Oedipus back. The bully almost has his way until the benevolent Theseus acts and returns the daughters to their father.

But the family feud does not end there. The banished brother appeals to his father for help, but his requests fall on deaf ears and blind eyes. The son was not there for Oedipus when he was exiled, and the father cannot forgive his progeny’s grave disrespect. Oedipus sends him away with a curse that the two boys will kill each other.

Finally, sweet, peaceful death comes. Thunder resounds, signaling that it is time for Oedipus’ final rest. Preparing the rituals, he meets his end in a sacred and secret spot. So special that Theseus only knows it, so the noble king can enjoy the God’s blessings.

And so we have Oedipus’ redemption. After being reviled, shamed and stained, Oedipus is finally sought after. His unimaginable deeds have been forgiven after his years of punishment, and sanctified with a divine gift. Once exiled, now Oedipus has kings beseeching him to come to their city. The blind man who was pleading for protection, eventually, and ironically, leads the king of Athens.

In short, Oedipus began as a noble and strong ruler and became a debased and decrepit vagrant. Finally, as fate would have it, he was restored as a messenger of the gods with divine gift to give.

Oedipus’ full cycle of highs and lows is clearly contrasted with the other two kings, Theseus and Creon, who are positioned as polar opposites, extreme regal examples. The Athenian monarch, Theseus, represents the good, the empathetic and the noble. He, like the city he reigns, is praised by the Chorus and by Oedipus as being fair and just.

In contrast, Creon is a vile, lying, threatening royal who the audience and Oedipus hate and fear. His city Thebes, the long-standing rival of Athens, was considered a place where proper boundaries and identities were not maintained. A place where incest and murder could happen.

However, this depiction of good ole Athena town was no longer true. As Sophocles’ life was drawing to an end, so was the golden age of Athens. The Peloponnesian War, which brought the fair state to its knees, reached its end only a year after the playwright’s death. The surrender in 404 B.C. stripped Athens of its walls, its fleet, and all of its overseas possessions.

Oedipus at Colonus, therefore, was like a swansong. A final ode or maybe glorious nostalgia by a very old man of what once was. Praise for a city coming to its demise. But then again, everyone likes a happy ending. Athens had it, if only fictionally, so why shouldn’t Oedipus? His death is the perfect conclusion. After being seen as so repulsive, he is finally accepted.

But this play was more than that. It was also the philosophical statement and justification that actions unintended are not our fault – the antithesis of Sophocles’ earlier editions and a very clear change of heart.

And so, perhaps, character and writer became one. Oedipus and Sophocles sing praises of the good, come to terms with one’s deeds in life and then, finally, prepare for death.

Oedipus at Colonus was written by Sophocles around 406 b.c. Produced in Athens, Greece. You can read the full story herehttps://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/oedipus-at-colonus/

Make sure to read the next installment of the Oedipal myth for next week’s essay. This time it’s a play written by Aeschylus called The Seven Against Thebes. You can view the whole text here for free: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/the-seven-against-thebes/

Oedipus Rex Moral or Murder?

by March 22, 2017

Oedipus BlindedHe is one of the most tragic heroes ever found in literature; a man so unfortunate in the eyes of the gods, that he eventually blinded himself. He forces the question of fate, of self determination, of questioning society and divinity itself. Some may say this was his fatal flaw, his resistance to the life laid out for him. Others hold this as his most redeemable feature. In today’s world, we praise those who break free of their social ranks, their confined destinies. We look on social structures like the caste system and class determination as an affront to free will. Oedipus had his life prescribed to him from youth, and tried at every opportunity to leave it. Even when all the signs of its truth began to show, he still rebelled against his lot and ignored and resisted it until he could no longer. But is Oedipus Rex moral or a murderer?

Most are familiar with the basics of the story. Oedipus Rex, or King Oedipus, infamously slept with his mother and killed his father. It’s a myth that existed long before Sophocles wrote the play, and has fascinated authors, philosophers, painters, musicians and intellectuals throughout history. Freud, a more contemporary example, is famous for his assessment of the myth with regards to the modern mind. Unfortunately he missed the point, as Oedipus never wanted to have relations with his mother. He did so unknowingly… and when he found out, was horrified to learn of the nature of his deed.

Sophocles’ version, however, is arguably the most famous as well as the most powerful telling of the tale. He knew the story well and wrote repeatedly on the myth, including two other plays, Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus, which rounded out the tragic legend.

Oedipus Rex is the first, chronologically, of these three plays. A good deal of the action, however, happens before the play even begins. Sophocles’ audience would have known the whole Oedipus myth, from start to finish. As a result, Sophocles does not write about the very beginning of the story; he just references key points as reminders.

Sophocles’ play describes Oedipus’ discovery of his origins. Unfortunately for him, the revelation of his not-so-humble beginnings brings to light a history of atrocities that Oedipus had unknowingly committed…acts that uncompromisingly expose some of the most imbedded taboos in western society.
Oedipus mask

But let’s start in the beginning. It all originates with a foreboding oracle. Two regal parents of Thebes receive a note from the gods prophesying that their son will murder one and sleep with the other. Distraught at the news, they hand him over to a servant to bind his feet and leave him to die on a mountain. However, the sight was distasteful to a shepherd who rescued the boy and passed him to a foreigner to be raised in another land. Here the young Oedipus finally had a turn of good luck, as he was given to the childless King and Queen of Corinth and reared as a prince.

Then fate steps in once more. Chided for being adopted, Oedipus consults the oracles to find out if it is true. There he is told of his horrid destiny, that he will kill his father and sleep with his mother. Determined to not let it happen, he leaves town at once. On the way, he fights with a traveller at a crossroad, kills him and thinks of it no more. He enters the town of Thebes and, by luck or intelligence, answers a Sphinx’s riddle and saves the city. The inhabitants are overjoyed and reward this stranger with the late king’s throne and bed. Years later a plague hits the town.

Sophocles begins his tragedy here…

Now Oedipus begins to the learn the truth as it quickly unravels. He appears brash, frantic, and constantly in motion, as if he is trying to keep up with his fate. The audience falls in and out of empathy with him. At one moment he is a great and compassionate king, the next a bully to an old blind man. In turns he switches from tragic to irrational, a sad man fearing what will happen to an overly suspicious monarch enacting unwarranted, unilateral ‘justice’. Once again he flips from a caring and concerned husband to an interrogator, threatening torture and death to an elderly shepherd. It is a rollercoaster of emotion and suspense.

Then the whole sordid story is revealed, that the traveller in the crossroads was his father, that his sore feet are from his childhood bounds, and that the mother of his children is his own flesh and blood. As a result, his wife/mother hangs herself and the wretched Oedipus pierces his eyes before fleeing into exile.

What, then, are we to think of this man? Hero or monster? Menace or martyr? Is Oedipus Rex moral or a murderer?

In each situation, Oedipus is presented with a choice, to let sleeping dogs lie…or find out the real truth. At every juncture, the condemned, but determined man is warned that the truth will be difficult, unpleasant and even harmful. And in each case, Oedipus chooses truth, no matter what may come of it. He chooses the red pill of reality over delusion and the unknown. He remains, until the end, faithful to himself. And when the truth…the full, horrible truth…is revealed, he does not shy away. Oedipus takes full responsibility for his actions even though, at the time, he did not know what he was doing.

No doubt each reader will come to their own conclusion and decide whether they find favor with this extreme individual. In any case, we may well be pressed to find such a noble and honest person nowadays.

Oedipus the King was written by Sophocles around 430 b.c. Produced in Athens, Greece. You can read the full story here: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/oedipus-the-king/

Oedipus Rex Moral or Murderer? was written by Anya Leonard for the inaugural publication of the Classical Wisdom Weekly newsletter. 

Make sure to read the next installment of Sophocle’s trilogy, Oedipus at Colonus , for next week’s essay. You can view the whole text here for free: https://classicalwisdom.com/greek_books/oedipus-at-colonus/

Was Oedipus a Hero?

by June 17, 2015

By Nicole Saldarriaga

I’m fairly sure it would be safe to say that everyone’s heard of Oedipus. If that’s too much of a generalization, I would only amend it to something like “most people” have heard of him—he’s the legendary character of classical tragedy who killed his father, slept with his mother, and fathered children who were also his siblings. It’s the classic story of patricide and incest.


Largely thanks to the work of Sigmund Freud, the name “Oedipus” has become such an accepted addition to our cultural lexicon that you would be able to have discussions about the “Oedipal complex” with people who have never even heard of Sophocles, let alone read his plays about the aforementioned character.

Many people, then, would be surprised to hear that Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus—the last of his three Theban plays—argues that Oedipus’ burial in Athens would bring great benefit and safety to the city. This should immediately raise several eyebrows and one very important question: how can the grave of a man who killed his father, slept with his mother, and begot children who were also his siblings be considered a boon of any kind?

For those of us who need a quick recap, this odd play takes place well after Oedipus discovers the identity of his parents and his own transgressions, blinds himself, and is exiled from Thebes. By this time Oedipus is an old, frail man who has ceaselessly wandered the country with help from his daughter, Antigone.

OedipusOedipus and Antigone

The play begins as Oedipus and Antigone arrive at Colonus, a small village within sight of Athens (and, incidentally, Sophocles’ birthplace). A wandering stranger tells Oedipus and Antigone that they are standing in a grove sacred to the Furies, which immediately agitates Oedipus. We learn that the same oracle who told him he would kill his father and marry his mother told Oedipus that he would die in a place sacred to the Furies, and his grave would be an immense gift to the place in which he is buried.

Thus the question: how could the grave of a man like Oedipus possibly be considered a gift? In fact, as soon as the villagers of Colonus realize who Oedipus is, they want to kick him out of the village! No one wants anything to do with him—and they certainly don’t want to bury him in town.

No one, that is, except Theseus—the legendary king of Athens. He intervenes, offers Oedipus protection, seems to agree that Oedipus’ grave would indeed be a gift to Athens, and promises to bury him.

Okay, what’s going on here? Many of us may pity Oedipus, but it’s difficult to understand why Theseus would befriend him and defend him so wholeheartedly.

Before diving into an examination of Oedipus’ role in Athens, it’s incredibly important to understand the political relationship between Athens and the titular city, Colonus. It is clear that Colonus is separate from Athens, and when Oedipus and Antigone first arrive, they learn from a wandering stranger that the town has its own unique founding myth. However, when asked if Colonus is ruled by a sovereign, the stranger replies that their ruler is Theseus, Athens’ king.

Even before the hundredth line of the play, we’re led to understand that Athens and Colonus are experiencing some political awkwardness.

OedipusMost people want nothing to do with Oedipus

According to legend, Theseus was, at the time of the play, attempting to unite the lesser Attic communities with Athens proper in the hopes of forming a cohesive, powerful city-state. The historian Thucydides, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, says:

“In the days of Cecrops and the first kings, down to the reign of’ Theseus, Attica was divided into communes, having their own town halls and magistrates. Except in case of alarm the whole people did not assemble in council under the king, but administered their own affairs, and advised together in their several townships. But when Theseus came to the throne, he, being a powerful as well as a wise ruler…dissolved the councils and separate governments, and united all the inhabitants of Attica in the present city, establishing one council and town hall. They continued to live on their own lands, but he compelled them to resort to Athens as their metropolis, and henceforward they were all inscribed in the roll of her citizens” (Book 2 Chapter 15).

As readers of Oedipus at Colonus, we are meant to understand that Colonus is still in the process of being absorbed—and this is inherently a complicated process which involves so much more than Theseus declaring himself ruler. For Colonus to be truly united with Athens into one larger city-state, Theseus will have to encourage the people of Colonus to break their natural attachment to the literal, geographical place on which their town was founded. The permanent presence of Oedipus, in the form of his grave, can actually help Theseus achieve the breaking of this bond. To understand how this is possible, we also have to understand how Oedipus has changed since the revelation of his crimes.

By the end of Oedipus the King, Oedipus is so distraught at the realization that he killed his father and slept with his mother that he begs for banishment from Thebes. He appears to completely blame himself for his actions, and says: “I beg of you in God’s name hide me/ somewhere outside your country, yes, or kill me/ or throw me into the sea, to be forever/ out of your sight.” These are obviously not the words of a man who believes he’s done nothing wrong.

However, by the time Oedipus arrives in Colonus, he is singing a different tune. “Do not see me as a lawbreaker,” he says to the Chorus, “that I entreat you.” Oedipus, in this play, argues rather passionately that he is guiltier of suffering than he is of law-breaking. His reasoning? That he can’t be fully guilty because his crimes were committed through ignorance.

Basically, Oedipus argues that he did not know he’d be killing his father when he killed Laius (out of self-defense, he’s careful to emphasize), so he can’t be truly guilty of patricide, and he certainly had no idea that Jocasta was his mother when he married her, so he can’t technically be guilty of incest. In essence, he did commit the crimes, but it wasn’t his fault that he committed them, and this double-ness makes him, in some way, innocent.

Of course, this reasoning isn’t exactly bullet-proof—but the point isn’t really to pick it apart. It’s more important to consider how this sort of reasoning would affect our big question: why is Oedipus’ grave a gift?

Oedipus tells Theseus that for his burial to bring true benefit and protection to Athens, the location must be kept completely secret. He entreats Theseus to describe the gravesite “to no man, ever/ neither where it is hidden nor in what region,/ that doing so may make you a defense/ beyond the worth of many shields.” At first glance, the goal of this secrecy seems purely practical: if the burial location of Oedipus were common knowledge, thieves from another city could steal the body and re-bury it in their own city. The true reason is much more complex, and highly symbolic.

In the ancient world, graves were considered sacred ground, and it was forbidden to walk on them. If Oedipus’ grave, like all graves, is to be sacred ground, and no one actually knows where that grave is, Oedipus’ secrecy makes it impossible not to violate the sanctity of the burial site. Anyone, purely through ignorance, could walk upon his grave and thus commit a crime.

This crime-through-ignorance is a clear echo of Oedipus’ own transgressions, and because of this, his burial site seems to bring a kind of pervading guilt to Athens. But this doesn’t tell us why his grave is considered a gift—or what it has to do with Theseus’s unification project.

If Oedipus’ ignorance makes him in some way innocent, his life reveals to us that we are not responsible for who we get as parents—or what family we’re born into ( I’m sure we all know plenty of people who have expressed this same idea before, usually while they’re angry and talking about never calling home again). Family is, in essence, accidental.

The idea that family is accidental immediately implies that the natural attachment a person will feel for his or her family is, for all intents and purposes, irrational. For example, Oedipus would probably say that it makes more sense to love your sister because she’s a lovely person with whom you’re close than to love her simply because you share the same mother.

Because the mental and emotional processes that attach us to our family are so similar to the processes that attach us to our cities, countries, or general places, this idea that the attachment is irrational is the number one weapon Theseus can use to break the bonds between people and particular place.

Oedipus’ grave, in that case, doesn’t symbolize guilt as much as it symbolizes the irrationality of our attachment to things we didn’t even consciously choose for ourselves.

OedipusOedipus awaits death

This is absolutely critical to Theseus’s plan for a unified Athens. It is not enough for the lesser Attic communities to recognize his sovereignty—they have to feel Athenian. Even if they remain on the same land, in the same houses—even if daily life barely changes—the people of Colonus (and the people of every other town Athens is absorbing) have to become “people of Athens.” Without this kind of mental and political cohesion, Theseus’s imagined city-state would fall apart, and the whole area would be incredibly vulnerable not just to outside attack, but also to internal conflicts between communities. However, this cohesion is impossible if the townspeople don’t first reject their attachments to the land on which they were born.

This is why Theseus chooses to protect Oedipus, and to grant Oedipus’ requests. The permanent (though hidden) presence of Oedipus’ grave and its symbolic meaning does indeed grant Athens a very important boon. By promoting the principles that Oedipus’ life and death represent—disassociation from theaccidental, the rejection of irrationality—Theseus is one step closer to uniting the lesser Attic communities into the wealthy, powerful, and especially cohesive city-state we know Athens became—a city-state whose wealth and power would indeed provide a great deal of protection.

So, in some way, the answer is yes: a man who killed his father and slept with his mother can play a big role in Athens’ survival and success—at least according to Sophocles.

Oedipus maskOedipus’ grave symbolizes the importance of tragedy as an art form and cultural phenomenon

Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the idea of a man like Oedipus can play a role—and that’s really the point, in the end, of the play. Like so many classical tragedies, Oedipus at Colonus ultimately points back to the importance of tragedy, or poetry, itself. Oedipus’ grave may lead citizens to realize the irrationality of their attachments to things over which they had no control, but only because those citizens will know Oedipus’ story. A grave without a story would simply be a plot of land. Athens gets no real benefit from the physical grave alone—all the benefit comes from a combination of the secret grave and the circulation of Oedipus’ tale. The city benefits, then, from the presence of poetry, or tragedy to be specific, and Athens’ particular devotion to tragedy will be one more thing that holds its citizens together—and ultimately sets Athens apart.

In that case, despite his crimes, Oedipus may be a hero in his own right after all.