Theseus at war
Theseus and the Theban herald part; the outbreak of war is imminent. As he leaves, the herald taunts Theseus, who refuses to be angered. One who holds himself out as the “punisher of injustice” cannot undertake to wage war from the passion of anger. Euripides models Theseus as a self-disciplined, as well as a just, warrior. And as Theseus sets out, he invokes the aid of “all those gods/Who respect justice.” His piety complements his justice and his moderation.
The chorus of Argive women awaits news of the battle anxiously. Suddenly, an Argive messenger arrives. He had been taken prisoner in the Argive campaign against Thebes, having served under Capaneus, one of the seven Argive leaders, “whom Zeus blasted with a lightning-flash.” (More on Capaneus later.) Now he has escaped in the confusion of battle. He brings the Argive women news of Theseus’ victory. (Note that he does not address Adrastus, his king.) The women are elated, hailing Theseus as a demi-god: he is not only the son of Aegus, but also “the son of Zeus.” (Perhaps the latter description is meant to tells us something about the tyrannical constitution of Argos: Athens is a republic of equals, and denies the possibility of semi-divine leaders; if they did exist, they would be dangerous to the city. See Walker, Theseus and Athens).
The messenger gives a detailed account of the battle. He says that once the two opposing armies faced off, Theseus made a final bid for peace. The Athenian herald announced to the Thebans “We have come to bring/Those bodies home for burial, in accordance with/The law of all Hellenic states. We have no wish/For further bloodshed.” Theseus goes to war only as a last resort. The Theban King Creon remains silent. Then battle is joined.
It is a hard and bitter struggle. The messenger’s descriptions of the horrors of the battle is reminiscent of The Iliad in its unsparing and gruesome detail. At a critical moment, Theseus demonstrates his generalship. He rallies his troops: at his call, “[c]ourage flared up in every heart.” The Athenians break the Theban line.
Athens buries the dead
The population of Thebes is in despair. Thousands expect Theseus to capture their city. “But Theseus,/With the way clear before him, would not enter the gates. ‘I have not marched from Athens to destroy this town,’/He said, ‘but to demand the dead for burial.’” The campaign ends with the recovery of the Argive bodies, not with the sacking of Thebes. The requirement that if a war is to be just it must be “proportionate” is plainly met. See Christopher Greenwood, The Relationship between jus ad bellum and jus in bello (1983).
Theseus buries most of the recovered Argive bodies on the high cliff of Eleutherae, on Athenian soil, just across the border from Theban Boeotia. Athens had annexed Eleutherae, which had once been part of Boeotia, in the sixth century. But this borderland site seems to have been contested between Athens and Thebes, and perhaps changed hands from time to time. By burying Argive soldiers there, Theseus reinforces Athens’ claim to it. See John Camp, The Archaeology of Athens (2004).
But Theseus does not bury the remains of the Argive leaders who were the “Seven against Thebes.” He brings those bodies (or such as are still near Thebes) back to Athens for a ceremonial funeral. Who has taken those bodies, Adrastus asks the messenger; surely a slave would be reluctant even to lift them? To Adrastus’ astonishment, the messenger answers that Theseus has tended to the bodies himself, washing away the blood-stains of their wounds, preparing their Read more