A violation of the Greek norm that enjoins dishonoring the bodies of an enemy’s
battle-dead is at the core of Euripides’ Suppliants. Correcting that violation is what appears to give Athens just cause to wage war against the violator, Thebes, which will not permit the burial of the soldiers from Argos who died in battle before Thebes’ gates. We have thus far tracked the development of this norm from Homer through Sophocles, with sidelong glances at other Greek authors. We have seen that the norm was upheld as early as Homer, although it permitted exceptions. We have also seen that the norm was sometimes characterized as unwritten, divine in origin and everlasting in duration, and sometimes as a custom binding in the Greek world only and a special mark of its superior civilization.
In what follows, we shall briefly review other sources of evidence for the norm: the early fifth century historian Herodotus, who was born in Halicarnassus, now in Turkey but then in Greek Ionia, and the later fifth century Athenian historian Thucydides. Both writers strongly confirm the existence of the norm. We shall conclude this section with an analysis of the special place of this norm to fifth century, democratic Athens, and to the Athenian audiences of Euripides’ play.
By the time Herodotus wrote, it would seem that the burial norm in question had
become well entrenched. In Book IX of his Histories, an inquiry into the wars between the Greek city states and the neighboring Persian Empire, Herodotus recounts a conversation after the Greek victory over the Persians in the battle of Plataea between one Lampron, a leading figure in the Greek city of Aegina, and Pausanias, a Spartan general. Seeking to ingratiate himself to Pausanias, Lampron proposed that Pausanias cut off the head of the fallen Persian Mardonius and impale it, just as Mardonius had earlier done to Leonidas, the uncle of Pausanias. This, Lampron said, would both avenge Leonidas and deter other barbarians from attacking Greece. But Pausanias was repelled by the suggestion. He said to Lampron:
Aeginetan, I thank you for your goodwill and forethought, but you have missed the mark of right judgment. First you exalt me and my fatherland and my deeds, yet next you cast me down to mere nothingness when you advise me to insult the dead, and say that I shall win more praise if I do so. That would be an act more proper for barbarians than for Greeks and one that we consider worthy of censure even in barbarians.
(Book IX, 79, 1) (emphasis added) (A.D. Godley trans.).
Herodotus further illustrates the norm in a story that concerns Onesilos, the younger brother of the King of Salamis in Cyprus, who was killed while besieging the city of Amathous. Herodotus tells us (Book V, cc. 114) that the Amathousians cut off his head and hung it up over their city’s gates. In time bees swarmed into the hollow skull and honeycombed it. The Amathousians consulted an oracle about it, who advised them to take down the head, bury it, and worship Onesilos as a hero every year. It would seem that the Amathousians had wronged Onesilos by displaying his severed head and had to make recompense by offering him worship.
A single episode from Thucydides’ History will suffice. This occurs after the
battle of Delium in November 424, in which the Athenians were defeated by the Thebans. See The Peloponnesian War, Book IV, cc. 97 et seq. As was customary for the side that had been defeated, the Athenians requested a truce after the battle so that they might reclaim and bury their dead. The victorious Thebans at first refused, arguing that because the Athenians had transgressed the law by occupying and fortifying the consecrated site of a temple, they would not permit them to gather in their dead until they evacuated the temple. The Athenian defense, which is not of direct concern to us here, is an extended and sophistic application of the doctrine of “necessity” in war (on which see Clifford Orwin, Piety, Justice, and the Necessities of War: Thucydides’ Delian Debate (1989). For our purposes, the critical facts are that the Athenians affirmed, and the Thebans did not deny, that but for the alleged Athenian sacrilege, the Thebans should have granted a truce and allowed the Athenians to recover their dead. Moreover, after driving away the Athenians, the Thebans did in fact permit the Athenians to retrieve the bodies, thus underscoring the legitimacy of the Athenians’ claims.
Several scholars have viewed this episode after the battle at Delium as the inspiration for Euripides’ Suppliants, thus dating the play close to 424 (perhaps 423). That may be so, although the evidence is inconclusive. Other scholars, observing that the play ends with an alliance between Athens and Argos, date the play to around 421, seeing it as a celebration of the treaty that Athens and Argos concluded that year. (See L.H.G. Greenwood, Aspects of Euripidean Tragedy (1953); for the treaty, see Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book V, cc. 44, 47.) This too cannot be proven. In her valuable Theseus, Tragedy, and the Athenian Empire (1997), Sophie Mills notes that “since an alliance was made between Argos and Athens in 421 (and renewed in 416), it is likely that the alliance of the play is also intended to link the myth with contemporary politics for the audience;” but she also points out that “although the language of Euripides’ treaty strongly resembles that of historical treaties, its actual terms differ significantly from those of the treaty of 421.”
What matters more for us is that by the time The Suppliants was produced, the Greeks considered it to be among the most fundamental norms of war to allow an adversary to collect and to bury its battle-dead. The justice of a war depends in large part (though not entirely) on the justice of the cause for which it is undertaken. If Euripides means us to think that Athens made war on Thebes to uphold this norm, then that war would seem to have had a just cause.
War and democratic Athens
Moreover, we are now also in a position to see the particularly compelling nature of the norm for Euripides’ audience in democratic Athens. To an extent that most Americans would find hard to understand (even though our country has been almost constantly at war since 1941), the Athenian imagination was saturated with the idea, and usually the fact, of war. W.R. Connor, in an article on Greek warfare cited earlier, remarks that for fifth century Greeks, “war was more than tactics, strategy and gore; it was linked to almost every aspect of their social organization and to their rich imaginative life.” And with its rulership over a large, tribute-paying overseas empire, democratic Athens was especially war-prone. David Pritchard writes of fifth century Athens:
War now dominated the politics of the city and the lives of thousands of upper- and lower-class citizens. Foreign policy was the mainstay of political debate, with war and peace being a compulsory item on the agenda [of Athens’ assemblies]. Fifth-century Athenians waged war more frequently than ever before: they launched one or more campaigns in two out of every three years on average and never enjoyed peace for more than a decade. . . By the 450s military service was also perceived as the duty of every citizen, which the Athenian demos appears to have taken very seriously.
When our Athenian authors wrote or spoke of war, they spoke with first-hand knowledge. Thucydides was a general, as was Sophocles; Socrates had fought at the battle of Delium. Over 70% of adult, male Athenian citizens were available for active service, and about 30% of militarily active citizens served in the hoplite infantry (Pritchard). At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles (in Thucydides’ account) stated that Athens was fielding 13,000 hoplites and deploying another 16,000 men to guard the city’s forts and walls. At the time, the adult male population of the city is estimated at about 60,000. And not only did many Athenian citizens experience combat; high numbers of those citizens were killed in action, and many more risked being killed.
For Athenian citizens and their families, therefore, war was woven into the fabric of ordinary life. They debated it; waged it; endured its hardships; and died in or from it. And for those reasons, the city’s practices regarding the burial of its citizen battle-dead were of the utmost importance to all of them. The city’s commemoration of those dead flooded and enriched its citizens’ imaginations. Its funerary practices lay at the center of the web of reciprocal claims and obligations that bound the citizens and the city to each other. Athens might ask you to give your life for it; but in return it promised you an afterlife of undying glory in its collective memory. Every Athenian soldier whom Pericles praised in his Funeral Oration had died, he argued, a beautiful death, worthy of a Homeric hero:
For having every one given his body to the commonwealth, they receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre; not wherein they are buried so much, as wherein their glory is laid up, upon all occasions both of speech and action to be remembered for ever. For to famous men all the earth is a sepulchre: and their virtues shall be testified, not only by the inscription in stone at home, but by an unwritten record of the mind, which more than of any monument will remain with every one for ever.
With this understanding of the Greek war convention in mind, let us consider the play itself more closely. In the following installments, I will review and analyze the action of the drama. The next posting will discuss the significance of the setting of the play at the shrine of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis, and will describe the institution of “supplication.” Thereafter, postings will successively cover the opening scenes leading up to the entry of the Theban herald; Theseus’ colloquy with the Theban herald; the scenes culminating in the report of Theseus’ victory at Thebes and his return to Athens; and from then on up to the play’s conclusion, including the appearance of the goddess Athena.