His Mother's Son
Listen to Your Mother

Theseus and Aethra

We have reached a turning point in Euripides’ drama.  Theseus, king of Athens, has rejected the pleas of the suppliants from Argos to intervene on their behalf against the city of Thebes, and to recover the dead bodies of their sons, which still lie exposed and unburied before that city’s walls. Theseus seems to be willing to allow Thebes’ offense against the laws and customs of Greece to stand; he will not deploy Athens’ military power or even its diplomatic efforts on behalf of the Argives.

At this point, Theseus’ mother, Queen Aethra, personally supplicates him on the Argives’ behalf. She appeals partly to his personal sense of honor, partly to his concern for his reputation and that of Athens, partly to his duty to uphold the claims of justice and law.

In general, women in classical Athens were allowed no role in public political discourse. See Paul A. Rahe, The Primacy of Politics in Classical Greece (1984). Despite that, Theseus (pointedly unlike King Creon in The Antigone) is willing, not only to hear her out, but to be persuaded by the force of her reasoning. Aethra says:

          This, my son, is for your honour; nor do I

          Shrink from exhorting you, when pride of power denies

          Dead men due burial and the rites of decency,

          To force them to their duty by the might of arms,

          And stop them undermining the established laws

          Of all Hellas. This one bond makes all cities one:

          Free, honourable respect for universal rights. . .

          You’ll march with Justice on your side.

Theseus is persuaded:

          To avoid a dangerous task

          Is not my nature. I have, by honourable deeds,

          Chosen and claimed this character among the Greeks,

          To be always the punisher of injustice. So,

          I cannot now refuse this task. . . .

          I will go and redeem their dead,

          If I can, by persuasion; if words fail, the sword

          Shall gain the same end.

The place of pity in politics

In his illuminating essay Pity and Politics (2005) (in Pity and Power in Ancient Athens, Rachel Hall Sternberg (ed.)), David Konstan has read the colloquy between Theseus and Aethra in light of Athenian conceptions of the place of pity in politics. The Greeks viewed pity not to be raw emotion, but to incorporate an intellectual component – to involve the exercise of moral judgment. Pity was not simply a response to suffering or misfortune as such, but only to undeserved hardship. So understood, Theseus’ refusal (before Aethra’s intervention) to take up the cause of the Argives was not a matter of his obtuseness or insensitivity, as some critics suppose. Rather, it reflected Theseus’ judgment that the sufferings Adrastus had brought on himself and his city were deserved, because they flowed from an unjust (and unsuccessful) war. Pity would have been out of place.

Aethra’s intervention might then be read as an exercise in persuading Theseus to reconsider that judgment. After all, the Argive women had nothing to do with Adrastus’ campaign of aggression. Moreover, Argos’ aggression had been fully punished by its defeat; for Thebes to deny the Argive warriors the burial rites customarily given to the fallen was to not to exact justice but to commit injustice. By persuading Theseus to reconsider his incomplete understanding of the Argive case, Aethra would have opened the valves of pity in his heart.

In fact, however, that is not Konstan’s analysis. Rather, he argues that Aethra persuades Theseus by convincing him that both Athens’ and his own reputational interests are at stake. She is making her case, in other words, in terms of public, political rationality. There is no “hint that Theseus’ change of heart has been inspired by pity. He has been convinced to help the Argives on the grounds that doing so will enhance his reputation and that of Athens, and will also vindicate a divinely sanctioned custom of the Greeks. This is a politically sober, if high-minded, motive.”

Konstan’s interpretation seems correct to me. But by accepting it, we do not impeach the justice of Athens’ armed intervention. Perfect altruism is not to be expected in the world of statecraft. But concern for the international order and the common good of nations may be, and in fact is, found.  Moreover, states may seek to maintain a certain reputation for themselves because of a profound sense of self-identity: they may intervene protectively on behalf of strangers at some material cost to themselves because of a strong conviction that that is the kind of State they are. International Relations theorists have noted that “the search for moral prestige and credibility” can function as a cause of humanitarian intervention, and that this purpose, though no doubt related to more “materialist” power political aims, is still distinguishable from them. See, e.g., Oded Löwenheim, “Do Ourselves Credit and Render a Lasting Service to Mankind”: British Moral Prestige, Humanitarian Intervention, and the Barbary Pirates (2003).   As Euripides presents the matter, that is the case with Athens here.

Other interpreters err, in my judgment, either on the side of too much cynicism or on the side of too much idealism.   Either they seem to think that states are simply incapable of acting disinterestedly, or they think that states can only be supposed to have acted disinterestedly if altruism was their sole motive. For an overly cynical interpretation, see Ann N. Michelini, Political Themes in Euripides’ Suppliants, (1994) (“Even the strong moral motivations and apparent altruism in Theseus’ involvement in the Theban-Argive quarrel are characteristic of imperialism, since high principle is a necessary support for intervention that is not justified by traditional interests or obvious needs.”). But that is to say that the only considerations that can motivate states are unqualifiedly material ones – and that is false. For the idealist error, see J.W. Fitton, The Suppliant Women and the Herakleidai of Euripides (1961) (“If this were a Just War, it would be inspired by high motives; in fact the straight appeal of Adrastos fails and the motivation appears to be a tangle of national pride, personal egoism and maternal compulsion”). But a Just War can be inspired from a mixture of motives, and here it seems that the defense of panhellenic values is the crucial one.

The Justice of Athens

By representing Theseus as initially unwilling, despite the Argives’ pleading, to intervene in Argos’ quarrel with Thebes, Euripides has underscored the justice of Athens’ eventual war. Unlike Argos’ expedition against Thebes, Athens’ war is not undertaken rashly and without due deliberation. Rather, its intervention is a reluctant one. After questioning Adrastus closely about his expedition against Thebes and concluding that it was an impious war, Theseus was at first unwilling to lend him support or to associate himself with an unjust aggressor, even if that aggressor has in turn been wronged. Further, Theseus vows to attempt (and does attempt) to resolve the quarrel peaceably “by persuasion,” so that armed intervention is a last, not first, resort. Athens is also going to war as “the punisher of injustice,” not for narrowly self-interested reasons. Its cause – to uphold “the established laws of all Hellas” – seems unquestionably just.

Even if its reputational interests are also at stake, Athens’ chief motive is to see justice done, established law upheld, wrongs righted. And the Chorus acclaims Athens for doing precisely that:

Come, city of Pallas [Athens (RJD)], come to a mother’s aid;

Save from dishonour the laws of mankind.

You reverence Justice;

Injustice you despise;

To those in distress you bring deliverance.

Moreover, Theseus is portrayed as an exemplary ruler, not as a tyrant (as, it would seem, Adrastus was). Theseus is open to reason and argument; he yields when his mother’s case convinces him. Further, after making his decision to intervene, he announces that he will seek democratic ratification for it from the Athenian popular assembly:

I desire that all my citizens

Shall give their free assent; they will uphold my wish,

But their hearts will be stronger in this cause, if I

Have given them reason.

In consulting his people, Theseus acts like King Pelasgus of Argos in Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women, who declares “though I am ruler, I will not do this thing without the consent of my people, lest hereafter, if any evil befall, the people should say, “You honored aliens and brought ruin upon your own land.”” (l. 397, H.W. Smyth trans.).

Taking It to the People

Democracy and deliberation

Those who hold that democratic procedures and informed deliberation improve the quality of public decision-making, or who hold that democracies are more likely than autocracies to choose the “right” wars to fight, will take note of Theseus’ invitation to debate.  Certainly, unlike the impulsive and grasping Adrastus, he does not take his city to war only because of the urging of hot-blooded or opportunistic young men. That is not the Athenian way, which is to be open, consultative, considered. Notice too that Theseus has earlier asked Adrastus if he is seeking Athens’ help with, or without, the backing of the people of Argos. (On the other hand, we should also notice that Theseus does not offer the Assembly the opportunity to reject his decision for war: he calls the Assembly to explain his reasons and have it ratify his decision.)

Furthermore, Theseus, who is young himself, combines the prudence of age with the vigor of youth, while Adrastus, who is old, has shown both the folly of youth and the weakness of age. In Aeschylus’ The Persians, the ghost of the prudent Shah Darius bemoans the rashness of his son and successor, Shah Xerxes, who has arrogantly led his army and navy to disaster in Greece. “My son Xerxes,” Darius says, “is a young man who thinks young thoughts and does not remember my injunctions” (ll. 781-83; Edith Hall trans.). Theseus comports himself as a young Darius, Adrastus as an old Xerxes.

Indeed, we should contrast Theseus’ treatment of the suppliant Argive women and their king with Adrastus’ treatment of Polyneices and Tydeus, both of whom were strangers to Argos and both of whom were presumably suppliants seeking Adrastus’ protection. Adrastus welcomed them both and indeed married them into his family, even though Polyneices was under his father’s curse and Tydeus had killed a kinsman, an act that the Greeks regarded as “utterly abominable” (Parker, Miasma). If Theseus seems too harsh initially in not yielding to the pleas of the wronged stranger/suppliant women who seek his aid, he does at least act far more prudently than Adrastus had when Polymeices and Tydeus arrived at Argos.  His conduct towards both sets of foreign visitors displays the reserve that characterizes a wise statesman.

In all these respects, Theseus and Athens appear to be acting bravely, prudently, moderately and above all justly. Euripides seems to be showing us the blueprint for a just war, or more specifically of a “good” humanitarian intervention. Although problematic under contemporary international law, armed humanitarian intervention for the Greeks was not merely permissible, but in some circumstances normatively mandatory. The core characteristic of such actions, as the Greeks understood them, is present here: “helping, protecting, or saving the wronged.” Indeed, the phrase “to help the wronged” (boethein tois adikoumenois) became the watchword for such interventions. See Polly Low, Interstate Relations in Classical Greece (2007).

Peering below the surface?

In later postings, I shall argue that Euripides is also presenting a subtler, darker and more complicated picture – though his intentions become clearer only after the Athenian victory at Thebes in announced. As I read the play, that announcement marks a decisive reversal in the drama: the underside of war, even of an immaculately just and lawful war, will be revealed. It is as though we are shown the hidden side of a carpet whose cunning surface beauty and artistry we have admired. But that is for later; in the following postings, I pursue the analysis of the action of the play.

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