The Words of Kings, Queens and Gods


The opening scene of The Suppliants consists primarily of a series of three colloquies: first, between the suppliant Argive women and their king, Adrastus on the one side, and King Theseus’ mother Queen Aethra on the other; then, after Aethra has explained to Theseus the nature of the suppliants’ wishes, between Theseus and Adrastus (supported by the chorus of Argive women); and finally between Theseus and his mother. (A secondary chorus of boys, sons of the fallen Argive warriors, is mentioned in passing. This chorus remains silent until the end of the play.) These colloquies are followed by a brief address by Theseus to the Argive women and then a speech by their chorus.

Aethra and the suppliants

The action begins with Theseus’ mother Aethra at prayer to Demeter. She asks blessings on herself, her son Theseus, the city of Athens, and her native city Troezen, a small town in the Peloponnese named for her grandfather. Aethra’s recollection of her non-Athenian birthplace indicates that she will be sympathetic to the pleas of the foreign women who surround her. Her sympathy for them is further engaged by the facts that like them, she too is elderly and the mother of a son.

Aethra explains who the Argive women are and why they have come:

         Round the gates

         Of Cadmus’ walls [i.e., at Thebes (RJD)] their seven noble sons lie dead.

         Adrastus led them against Thebes, resolved to gain

         For his exiled son-in-law Polyneices the due share

Of Oedipus’ inheritance [i.e., succession to the crown of Thebes, of which Oedipus had been King (RJD)].  And when these mothers

        Desired to bury those who had fallen by the sword,

        The victors, dishonouring the gods’ law, turned them back

        And would not let them take up their dead bodies.

The Argive women are joined by Adrastus, who had led the disastrous expedition against Thebes in which the mothers’ seven sons had been killed. Adrastus too is a supplicant.  He implores Aethra to intervene with Theseus to persuade him to undertake, “whether by negotiation or by force of arms,” to recover those bodies and assist in their burial. Aethra sends for Theseus to have him decide “either to banish this distressful company/Out of the land, or loose their suppliant constraint/By rendering some holy service to the gods.” From Aethra’s pious point of view, the Thebans’ refusal to permit the Argive warriors to be buried plainly “dishonors the gods’ law,” and to rectify that violation would be to perform “some holy service.” Aethra’s speech and conduct remind us of the specifically religious sanctions that underpinned Greek customary international law. (See Polly Low, Interstate Relations in Classical Greece (2007) (religion was “arguably the most important controlling mechanism” for enforcing Greek customary law); see also Gregory Crane, Power, Prestige, and the Corcyrean Affair in Thucydides I (1992) (underscoring Corcyra’s breaches of religiously sanctioned customary law as causes of its war with Corinth, and thus of the Peloponnesian War).

Theseus and Adrastus

Theseus has hastened to the shrine, after having heard wailing and fearing some accident to his mother. (This initial display of solicitude for his mother is revealing; we shall see more of his consideration for her later in the play.)  She explains to him who the women and what they are seeking, and points him to King Adrastus. Adrastus kneels to Theseus (a stylized posture of supplication), and entreats his and Athens’ help. A “Socratic” dialogue between the two kings ensues.

Theseus asks why Adrastus has come to Eleusis. Why have the Thebans refused Argos’ “pious demand” for the return of the bodies? (Adrastus’ answer: “Victors do not know what suffering is.”). What does Adrastus want from Athens? (“To bring home these Argive sons.”). Why does Argos not recover them by itself? (“We are defeated.”). Is Adrastus acting for himself alone in asking for Athens’ help? (No: “All Argos” begs for it.) And then, critically: was Argos’ expedition against Thebes itself just?

The Seven against Thebes


Athenian audiences who had seen Aeschylus’ tragedy Seven against Thebes (first produced in 467) would have seen the Argive campaign represented there in a most unfavorable light. The sympathies of Aeschylus’ audiences would surely have been engaged on the side of Polyneices’ brother Eteocles (both sons of Oedipus), who is doomed to fight, kill and be killed by Polyneices in hand-to-hand combat before the gates of Thebes. Departing for his fateful encounter with his brother, Eteocles comprehensively denounces Polyneices for a lifetime of injustice:

Neither when he escaped the darkness of the womb, nor when he was     growing, nor when he reached adolescence, nor when his chin was gathering hair, did Justice ever set eyes on him or hold him in any honour; nor now, surely, when he does harm to his own fatherland, is she standing close by him, I imagine. Truly Justice would be utterly false to her name if she consorted with a man with so utterly audacious a mind. Trusting in this, I will go and stand against him myself.

Seven against Thebes (Penguin books, Alan H. Sommerstein trans.).

But Oedipus’ curse is not to be thwarted. Eteocles, the elder brother, assumes the crown at Thebes and, in Aeschylus’ version, is its rightful ruler. In Euripides’ version of the story in The Phoenician Women, Eteocles is in the wrong: having agreed to rotate the throne annually with Polyneices, he reneges on his promise. In Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, Polyneices is the elder brother.

Polyneices leaves Thebes and makes his way to Argos, where King Adrastus marries him to one of his daughters. Then, hoping to place his new son-in-law on the throne of Thebes, Adrastus marches against it. (Ironically, Aeschylus depicts Polyneices entering the fray with the figure of Justice on his shield.) Adrastus has decided on war despite the warning of the Argive prophet Amphiaraus, whose judgment Aeschylus shows us we can trust.   In the decisive battle, the Argives are defeated, giving rise to the actions that are the subject of Euripides’ Suppliants. (For a penetrating discussion of Aeschylus’ play, see Thomas Rosenmeyer’s Seven against Thebes: The Tragedy of War; for discussion of the variant patterns of the legend of Polyneices and Eteocles, see H.D. Cameron, Studies on the Seven Against Thebes of Aeschylus (1971)).

Was Argos’ expedition unjust?

The exchange between Adratus and Theseus in The Suppliants is less explicit in condemning the Argive expedition than Aeschylus’ play is.  But Euripides provides many indications that Argos was acting unjustly. Indeed, Adrastus will later admit that the invasion was unjust: he will say, “when Eteocles/Offered us peace on fair conditions, we refused”. Here, Adrastus explains that he was prompted to marry one of his daughters to Polyneices and another to a second, foreign fortune-seeker, Tydeus, because of an “obscure oracle” that the god Apollo had given to him.

Apollo had instructed Adrastus to give his daughters “to a lion and a boar.” Adrastus had interpreted the oracle to refer to Polyneices and Tydeus because they had both arrived at Argos in exile at the same time, and had fought each other there “like two savage animals.” (Tydeus, like Polyneices the son of a king, had been banished from his native Calydon for having killed a kinsman.) Adrastus welcomes these two violent, “savage” fugitives, not merely into his city, but into his own household, giving them his daughters in the hope that through these new sons-in-law he will extend the power of Argos.

Apollo the Crooked One

Adrastus seems to have been at fault in applying Apollo’s oracle to Polyneices and Tydeus. But is the fault truly in Adrastus, or rather in the god Apollo? Like Adrastus, Aethra’s father has married her into a foreign family – that of the Athenian, Aegus. And, Aethra tells us, her father Pittheus did so in obedience to the oracle of Loxias (“Loxiou manteumasin”).

“Loxias” is another name for Apollo, meaning “the Crooked One,” i.e., one who speaks to mankind in riddles. See H.W. Parke, Apollo and the Muses, or prophecy in Greek verse (1981). Why has Pittheus interpreted Apollo’s prophecy correctly, while in a similar case, Adrastus has not? Are humans willful in misinterpreting the gods, or are the gods mischievous when communicating with mortals? The question of the intelligibility of the gods pervades the play. As Plato would later have Socrates say in The Apology (23a), the oracle of the god is a “riddle” – and therefore a divine test for mortals.

War as child’s play

In any case, Adrastus had miscalculated by invading Thebes. Again, impiety may have clouded his judgment. First, he admits to Theseus that he had not “consult[ed] prophets, and observe[d] altar-flames,” before launching his expedition against Thebes. Worse still, he has not heeded the warning of the prophet Amphiaraus not to embark on the campaign (a failure also emphasized in Seven against Thebes). In short, he has misconstrued the oracle of Apollo, plunging recklessly and impiously into a failed war of conquest.

When Theseus demands that Adrastus explain why he “ignore[d] the gods,” Adrastus can only say, weakly, “the young men clamoured at me, and I lost my head.” In other words, he has lurched into war because of a frenzy among the very group of his subjects whose ambition and recklessness he, who calls himself “old,” ought to have controlled. Theseus, who is later said to be “still young,” rebukes him for having been “misled by young men, who love popularity/Above all else; multiply wars unscrupulously,/And corrupt our citizens.”

Perhaps Theseus is being too ungenerous to the young. In On the Slain Collegians, one of his poems of the Civil War, Herman Melville, better known for his short stories and novels, writes:

                  Youth is the time when hearts are large,

                  And stirring wars

                 Appeal to the spirit which appeals in turn

                 To the blade it draws.

                 If woman incite, and duty show

                 (Though made the mask of Cain),

                 Or whether it be Truth’s sacred cause,

                 Who can aloof remain

                 That shares youth’s ardor, uncooled by the snow

                 Of wisdom or sordid gain?

In any case, Adrastus is not deterred by the rebuke. He implores Theseus’ assistance in recovering his lost dead. Making the ritualized submission of a suppliant, he calls on Theseus: “Great king of Athens, chief in power through all Hellas,/I am ashamed to fall thus on the ground, and clasp/Your knees in supplication.” He contrasts the power and wealth of Athens with his own misfortunes:

          Wisdom will prompt the rich man to regard the poor,

          And the poor man to look with emulation towards

          The rich, to keep alive love of prosperity;

          So, those whom pain has spared should look on misery.

          (For gods are cruel, and men pitiable; but we

          Most pitiable of all men.)

Theseus’ theology of optimism

Perhaps provoked by Adrastus’ slur on the gods, Theseus responds in a lengthy speech that propounds a benign, perhaps even a rationalistic, theology. One critic says that here Theseus shows the world to be “a well-ordered whole, the life of which must be safeguarded, for the good of man, by wholesome, rational laws. Man’s existence is secure as long as he conforms to them. This conception is at the basis of the whole play.” (G. Zuntz, The Political Plays of Euripides (1953)). (At the end of the play, as we shall see, Theseus’ optimistic beliefs about the gods seems to be upended by the unexpected appearance of the goddess Athena, who overrules his arrangements for the Argives and ordains the renewal of the cycle of war.)

Much of Theseus’ speech is an unpitying denunciation of Adrastus’ follies. For Theseus, Adrastus allowed himself to be “enslaved to Apollo’s riddle – as if belief in gods/Urged it.” But the gods, for Theseus, are neither cruel nor unintelligible. “Even such things as are obscure/And hard to judge” – this must surely refer to Apollo’s references to a lion and a boar – “prophets have skill to expound, whether/By scanning fires, or entrails’ folds, or flight of birds.” Though critics dispute the meaning of the latter verse, I think it must allude to Adrastus’ foolish decision to interpret Apollo’s oracle himself, instead of being guided by the warning of the prophet Amphiaraus, who stands above and outside dynastic struggles and who opposes Adrastus’ war. Divine oracles are not self-interpreting, nor can we trust ourselves to interpret them when our passions are engaged or our selfish interests are in play. But we can trust prophets who interpret them impartially and with divine authority. The gods do not deceive us; we deceive ourselves. As a fragment of Heraclitus says, “the god of Delphi neither declares the truth nor conceals it, but points to it” (D-K fr. 93).

Greek piety and war


Adrastus’ failure to follow the religious customs to which Theseus refers was a grave omission. The Greeks took these rituals seriously, although some cities were apparently more scrupulous than others: Sparta stood at the extreme of piety, while Argos, Adrastus’ city, seems to have had something of a reputation for neglecting the rules. (Among other things, the Argive women have arrived at Eleusis in mourning garb, which is inappropriate for the feast Aethra was celebrating.) Thebes also had a bad reputation among other Greek cities: Thucydides has speakers from Athens’ ally Plataea argue to the Spartans that Thebes had invaded their city – in an act that effectively started the Peloponnesian War – not only in violation of a peace treaty, but also at a holy time of the month. That misconduct, they say, justified Plataea under “the law of all nations,” which makes it “lawful to repel an assailing enemy,” to obtain vengeance against Thebes. History of the Peloponnesian War, Book III, c. 56.

Sparta’s piety is well attested. That city regularly consulted the oracle before embarking on war, even when the war was one she wanted; she even had special officials, called the “Pythoi,” for that purpose. Sparta followed this practice in her wars against Tegea (580), Argos (494), and the Persians (480). And Sparta also paid heed to portents and omens before battle: an eclipse of the sun precluded King Cleombrotus from attacking the Persians after the naval battle at Salamis in 480, and in 479, at the battle of Plataea, the Spartan commander refused to engage the enemy and exposed his troops to Persian fire until, after repeated attempts, he succeeded in obtaining a favorable response from the sacrifices (see Herodotus, Histories, Book IX, c. 62). Even the supposedly “rationalistic” Athenians delayed their retreat from Sicily in 415 because of the unfavorable omen of a lunar eclipse, deciding to wait until the soothsayers permitted them to go. Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book VII, c. 50.) (The delay led to a disastrous end to their invasion of the island). In Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, the Argives show their impiety by crossing the ford of Ismenos and beginning their attack on Thebes even though the “priest” Amphiaraus sought to prevent them “because the omens are not propitious” (line 462 (Anthony Hecht and Helen Bacon trans.)).

What should Adrastus have done before invading Thebes? Although the description concerns a later incident, the historian Xenophon (a pious military man who was keenly interested in pre-battle rituals) discusses the procedure that the Spartan commander Agesipolis followed in waging war on Argos (Hellenika, Book IV, vii, 2). As Agesipolis was poised to invade (after having performed favorable sacrifices at the Argive border), Argos manipulated the dates of its sacred months and declared the period to be a holy truce, thus precluding an invasion. In light of this claim, Agesipolis refrained from attacking at first, but consulted the oracle of Zeus at Olympia, who told him that he could disregard a holy truce “unjustly declared,” and then confirmed that judgment by consulting the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, who concurred. Agesipolis’ conduct provides a standard for how these things were to be done – and Adrastus fell far short of that standard. Theseus demonstrates his, and Athens’, piety, and underscores Adrastus’ unconcern for the gods, by revealing Adrastus’ failure to follow the appropriate religious customs before going to war. (On these matters, see M.D. Goodman & A.J. Holladay, Religious Scruples in Ancient Warfare (1986); see also Robert Parker, Sacrifice and Battle (2000) in War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2000) (Hans van Wees (ed.)); Michael H. Jameson, Sacrifice Before Battle (1991) in Hoplites: The Classical Greek Battle Experience (Victor Davis Hanson (ed.))).

Having thoroughly chastised Adrastus, Theseus rejects his plea for intervention and bids him farewell. But the matter is not closed. The Argive women acknowledge that Adrastus was “at fault. The young men acted as young men/Will always act; but this man – you should pardon him.” And Adrastus raises the stakes for Theseus by calling the gods, Earth and Demeter to witness that Theseus had declined to hear the “prayers/Uttered in the gods’ names.” The chorus of Argive women intensifies its pleading: “Will you send away/Out of your land old, helpless women, and refuse/All we so justly ask?” But Theseus is unrelenting.

Jus ad bellum and jus in bello

Implicit in the Argive mothers’ case, it seems to me, is a distinction that has since become fundamental to international humanitarian law – the distinction between jus ad bellum, or the rules governing the justice of initiating war, and jus in bello, or the rules for conducting a war, once begun. The substance of the Argives’ argument seems to be that the injustice of Argos’ campaign against Thebes does not entitle Thebes to flout the standards that apply in conducting war of any kind, just or unjust. For the Argive mothers, jus in bello is autonomous: questions about the justice or injustice of acts of war have to be decided independently of whether the war in which those acts were committed was justly undertaken. If jus in bello is so autonomous, then he can argue that Athens can use violence, if necessary, to correct Thebes’ abuses of it, and still comply with the jus ad bellum itself. Some legal scholars believe that the jus ad bellum/jus in bello distinction did not emerge until centuries later – roughly, in the early modern period, as an accompaniment to the rise of the modern state. See François Bugnion, Jus ad bellum, jus in bello and Non-international Armed Conflicts (2004). It seems, however, that Euripides has anticipated this legal development.

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