The Unwritten Laws of Greece

The Spectacle of Death

Ancient Greek cities were frequently at war with each other, and death took its toll. Male citizens must often have been battle-hardened veterans, accustomed to the spectacle of battlefield carnage. Families and near relatives, who took part in washing the corpses and readying them for burial, must also have become sickeningly familiar with the look of violent death. The Greek preoccupation with the honorable interment of the combat-dead may have stemmed from a desire to hold the horror of such spectacles at a certain remove.  It must surely have been hard to forget such sights as those that the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon described in his Counter-Attack:

           The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs

          High-booted, sprawled and groveled along the saps

          And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,

          Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;

          And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,

          Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.

          And then the rain began, — the jolly old rain!

The Fifth Century: Sophocles

By the fifth century, the Greeks had come to conclude that an enemy’s battle-dead were entitled to respect and should not be mistreated. In Miasma (1983), an important work on Greek religion, the Oxford classicist Robert Parker summarized the outcome that had been reached by the fifth century:

The individual’s right to receive burial was, of course, supported by powerful social and supernatural sanctions. The ‘common law of the Greeks’ agreed with the ‘unwritten, unshakeable laws of the gods’ in insisting that even the body of an enemy should be given up after battle for burial.

The “Antigone”

The “unwritten, unshakeable laws of the gods” to which Parker alludes are those expounded in the great speech of Antigone, in the play of that name by the fifth century Athenian tragic poet Sophocles. (Sophocles’ Antigone is fashioned from the same body of mythic material as Euripides’ Suppliants.) Antigone, daughter of King Oedipus of Thebes and sister of his son Prince Polynices, wishes to bury her brother’s remains after he has died at the hands of their brother Eteocles, whom Polynices has himself killed in their battle at one of the seven gates of Thebes. While Creon, Eteocles’ successor as King of Thebes, gives honors to Eteocles’ remains, he refuses to allow Polynices to be buried. Antigone defies Creon’s orders and attempts to bury Polynices. Challenged by Creon as to whether she had disobeyed him, she replies:

          Of course I did. It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least,

          Who made this proclamation—not to me.

          Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods

          Beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men.

          Nor did I think your edict had such force

          That you, a mere mortal, could override the gods,

          The great, unwritten, unshakable traditions.

          They are alive, not just today or yesterday:

          They live forever, from the first of time,

          And no one knows when they first saw the light.

Antigone, ll. 499-508 (Robert Fagles trans.).

Bear in mind that Polynices was not merely a fallen enemy warrior but also (in Creon’s view) a rebel, a regicide and a fratricide, a leader in an invading foreign army and a pretender to the crown of Thebes. Refusing him burial might therefore arguably be seen as a permissible exception to the obligation to grant burial which, as Parker notes, was “never absolute,” and which allowed Greek cities to cast away the bodies of at least some criminals.  The city’s treatment of corpses, as Parker shows, was “one of the means by which men could hurt, humiliate, or honour one another, express contempt or respect;” hence, “the theme could be of central importance in great works of literature.”

In the Antigone, as Hegel famously argued (Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Pt. II, sec. 2, c. 1), Sophocles revealed the very essence of tragedy, which arises when “the ethical substance” is “divided against itself,” or in other words when there is an irreconcilable collision between two valid and compelling norms: here, the right of the family to bury its dead as against the State’s prerogative to punish those who disloyally take up arms against it. Antigone argues: “Death longs for the same rites for all;” and Creon answers, “Never the same for the patriot and the traitor” (ll. 384-85).

As legal scholar Martha Nussbaum (following Hegel) has pointed out, both major protagonists in The Antigone have unduly narrow and unreflective moral views. Surely the claims of the city do not always count for more than those of the family; for what is a city but an association of families? On the other hand, is not Creon right to say that our country is our safety (l. 211)?  See The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis (2000),

In the end, however, it is Antigone, not Creon, whose claim prevails in Sophocles’ drama: Creon’s treatment of Polynices’ brings pollution and plague to Thebes.   Nature itself rises up against the violation of the unwritten and unshakeable laws. The blind prophet Tiresias tells Creon that the birds of the sanctuary where he sits, which used to hover at his hands, began to scream madly and to rip each other apart with flashing talons. The fires over which the sacrifices were offered would not light; the birds, gorged with blood and fat, drop scraps of Polynices’ body on the altar. Prophecy becomes impossible; the city’s link to the gods is entirely severed. And the fault, Tiresias tells him, is Creon’s:

And it is you—

Your high resolve that sets this plague on Thebes.

The public altars and sacred hearths are fouled,

One and all, by the birds and dogs with carrion

Torn from the corpse, the doomstruck son of Oedipus!

And so the gods are deaf to our prayers, they spurn

The offerings in our hands, the flame of holy flesh.

No birds cry out an omen clear and true-

They’re gorged with the murdered victim’s blood and fat.

Take these things to heart, my son, I warn you. . .

Where’s the glory, killing the dead twice over?

Antigone ll. 1123-40.

Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers may recall the last march of the Ents, an ancient race of tall, human-like trees, against the fortress of Saruman at Isengard, which they destroy. There too, nature itself rises up against the unholy forces that would violate it.

Oedipus the King

Sophocles also addresses the subject of the “unwritten” and “unshakeable” laws of the gods in a Chorus in Oedipus the King. (Rémi Brague suggest that Sophocles is writing here in response to the Sophists who had attacked the divine origin of those laws. See The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea (English trans. 2007 (2005)). Although the context here is that of Oedipus’ violations – parricide and incest – not that of burial, the lines reinforce the action and speeches of the Antigone:

Great laws tower above us, reared on high

          Born for the brilliant vault of heaven—

          Olympian Sky their only father,

          Nothing mortal, no man gave them birth,

          Their memory deathless, never lost in sleep:

          Within them lives a mighty god, the god does not grow old. . .

          God, my champion, I will never let you go.

 Oedipus the King, ll. 957-971 (Robert Fagles trans.).

 What were these laws, variously called “unwritten laws,” “common laws” or laws “of the gods”?  Edith Hall of King’s College, London, finds that they “constituted simultaneously an expression of the most fundamental and ancient taboos, and a didactic charter of ‘decent’ behavior which was invested at times with a sanctity far greater than the strict observance of ritual. . . [T]hese laws seem to have enshrined such integral taboos as the killing of guest or host, family member or suppliant, incest, and the failure to bury the dead.” See Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (1989).

In grasping that the norm forbidding the non-burial of the dead was, for the Greeks, of the same magnitude as the prohibition on incest, we can understand Euripides’ Suppliants more deeply. The cause that drove King Theseus and Athens to war against Thebes touched a matter of the utmost sensitivity for the Athenian audiences that watch Euripides’ drama.

Divine law or human law?

The questions whether the laws in question were divine (without beginning or end) or human (customary), and whether they applied universally or only to the Greeks, were debated in fifth and fourth century Athens. In the Rhetoric (though not elsewhere), Aristotle drew this distinction, and in a passage that refers to the Antigone, see Rhetoric 1373b, places on one side the law that is proper to a particular city (which may or may not be written) and the universal law, which is according to nature (“kata phusin”).

We see signs of both views in The Suppliants, and perhaps they had not yet been fully distinguished. (Indeed, they are arguably not distinguishable when fully thought through.)  King Theseus describes the norm about burial as “the law of all Hellas” (Philip Vellacott trans.)), but he also speaks of it as “this ancient, divine ordinance.” Aethra, Theseus’ mother, at first characterizes them as “the gods’ law,” but later calls them “the established laws/Of all Hellas.” Other Euripidean dramas also leave the question in some doubt. In The Hecuba (l. 1247 (E.P. Coleridge trans.)), the Greek King Agamemnon says to the Thracian Polymester, “Perhaps among you it is a light thing to murder guests, but with us in Hellas it is a disgrace,” implying that the norms surrounding guest-friendship are characteristic of (a higher) Greek civilization, but are not universal. The latter view – if indeed it is Euripides’ – would seem to resemble the post-Enlightenment non-foundationalism of the late Richard Rorty.

So much for the treatment of the warrior burial norm in Sophocles. In the next installment, we shall consider evidence of that norm in the historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

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