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 biers and covering them with veils. Normally, the washing of the bodies would have been done by the closest relatives of the dead, so Theseus’ actions may signify a sense of kinship with them. See R.B. Gamble, Euripides ‘Suppliant Women’: Decision and Ambivalence (1970). (At the end of Sophocles’ Ajax, Ajax’s brother Teucer and young son Eurysaces gently lift his still warm corpse to prepare it for the cleansing rites before burial.) Adrastus thinks that this is a task for slaves and so shameful for Theseus: a king must not do the work of a slave. The Argive messenger, with the forthrightness of a democrat, tells his king that there is nothing shameful here at all. Theseus’ graceful and compassionate action is incomprehensible to the Argive tyrant, but worthy of a democratic leader.
Even though Theseus does not appear on the stage in this part of the play, Euripides displays his virtues, in accordance with the civic ideology of Athens. He is self-controlled, brave, pious, compassionate and just. Adrastus seems merely a foil.
Adrastus swings back and forth erratically. The defeated tyrant seems to be whipsawed by his emotions, a creature of impulse and mood. He utterly lacks the steadiness and consistency of Theseus, who is indeed flexible enough to change his mind, but in response to reason and persuasion. When Adrastus learns of Theseus’ victory, he deplores the errors that have led to two wars:
O Zeus, why do they say our wretched human race
Has wisdom? Once Argos to us
Seemed irresistible, we ourselves superior
In numbers and in youth; so when Eteocles
Offered us peace on fair conditions, we refused,
And then we were defeated. Next, the tables turned,
Victorious Thebes acts like a poor man newly rich,
Grows insolent; and in turn insolence leads the whole
City of Cadmus [i.e., Thebes (RJD)] through stupidity to ruin. . .
O foolish states, who have the power by conference
To avert disaster, yet choose the ordeal of blood!
For a moment, it looks as if Adrastus has achieved a measure of insight into his (and Creon’s) destructive folly in leading their cities into war. He even acknowledges that, as a matter of justice, Thebes was in the right when he attacked it. (See C. Collard, The Funeral Oration in Euripdes’ Suppliants (1972), who argues that this speech “marks Adrastus’ moral rehabilitation.” Yet when Theseus returns bearing the bodies of the Argive war dead, Adrastus is again enflamed against Thebes, and perceives no justice in its cause:
Bring to their grave these bodies marked with blood.
They did not deserve this death,
Nor did those who slaughtered them deserve
The victory Fate bestowed.
Later, he will swing back again, to something approaching pacifism:
O wretched race of mortals! Why must men get spears
And spill each other’s blood? Stop! Lay this rage to rest;
Live quiet with quiet neighbors, and preserve your towns.
Life is a brief affair; such as it is, we should
Seek to pass through it gently, not in stress and strain.
Adrastus’ plea for peace, like that of the Theban herald, is flawed. Both ignore the possibility of an unjust peace and the necessity, in some circumstances, of a just war. It is fantasy to suppose that we can “live quiet with quiet neighbors.” In this mood, Adrastus wants to escape from history. The ending of the play shows the impossibility of that wish.
The funeral orations of Adrastus and Theseus
A funeral oration must be delivered over the dead Argive bodies before they are immolated. That office should seemingly fall to Theseus, but he delegates it to Adrastus. Perhaps Theseus hopes to encourage Adrastus to become more reflective. But I suspect that Theseus has a different purpose: he has no wish to praise the Argive dead, because he thinks that most of them were evil-doers who encouraged and enabled Adrastus to prosecute his unjust war. In any event, Adrastus will eulogize the fallen Capaneus, Eteoclus, Hippomedon, Parthenopaeus and Tydeus; Theseus reserves for himself the eulogies over Amphiaraus and Polyneices (neither of whose bodies is present). See Euripides: Supplices, vol. II at ll. 794-954 (Christopher Collard (ed. & comm.) (1975)).
Theseus invites Adrastus to “speak to my young citizens/As a wise elder.” (This is Philip Vellacott’s translation; but the Greek text is confusing and may be corrupt, see Ian C. Storey, Euripides: Suppliant Women (2008)). Although Adrastus is indeed an elder, nothing so far in either his speech or his conduct has shown him to be “wise.” Indeed, Theseus had previously accused Adrastus of “unwisdom” (line 220). Perhaps Theseus thinks now that by being forced to speak, Adrastus will acquire wisdom. If so, he will be disappointed. (Contrast Zuntz, Political Plays, who finds “humane wisdom” in Adrastus.)
One other subtle clue to the meaning of the funeral orations may be provided by Theseus’ request to Adrastus to speak of the dead Argives’ “(physical) courage” or “bold enterprise” (“eupsychia”). But earlier in the play, Theseus has told Adrastus that by heeding these same young men’s clamor for war, he had sacrificed “sound judgment” (“euboulia”) to eupsychia. By framing his invitation as he does, Theseus seems to be implying that Adrastus could not extol the dead warriors’ euboulia, because they (and Adrastus?) had none. At best, Adrastus could praise only their physical courage or battle-daring. In his speech, however, Adrastus does not even do that. Indeed, it will appear, as events unfold, that both Adrastus and Argos have a defective conception of courage. (Note that Euripides’ commentators have differed widely in their interpretations of Adrastus’ speech. For an overview, see Storey.)
By inviting Adrastus to speak to the young, Theseus is asking him to instruct them in virtue. Euripides seems to have been interested in education; indeed, his plays can often be seen as efforts to educate the broad Athenian public, in their civic responsibilities. The comic poet Aristophanes, satirizing Euripides in his play The Frogs, has him say that a tragedian should be admired for “giving advice,” because they “improve the people in the cities. Euripides was reportedly a friend of the sophist and teacher Protagoras, who is said to have read his book On the Gods in Euripides’ house. (For what it is worth, we also know that Protagoras was in Athens in 422, within the range of dates in which The Suppliants was produced.) Although Protagoras’ writings survive only in fragments, one of them (D-K B 3a) says that “teaching requires nature and discipline” and that “it is necessary to learn beginning from youth.” Euripides seems to have agreed.
Capaneus and the four other fallen Argives
In Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, Capaneus is depicted as a “new breed of giant” who “boasts of something beyond the power of man.” For, he says, he “will sack the city [of Thebes]/whether the gods wish it or not./And not even Zeus,/striking the earth with giant-slaying lightnings/shall get in his way.” (Ll. 523-31 (Hecht & Bacon trans.)). Zeus’ flashing and thunder, he says, are like “the quiet warmth of noon” — nothing to fear. He bears a shield with the device of “a naked man/armed with a flaming torch/who is crying out in golden letters/’I shall burn the city.’” For his presumption and blasphemy, Zeus’ thunderbolt burned him up him as he attempted to scale the walls of Thebes. (Euripides describes the end of Capaneus in The Phoenician Women (ll. 1175-85)). Capaneus’ reputation for blasphemy survives in later literature. In Canto XIV of The Inferno (ll. 43-72), Dante places him among the blasphemers, those who are damned for having committed “violence against God.” In the manner of his death, Capaneus reveals the power, not the powerlessness, of Zeus.
We have encountered Capaneus in The Suppliants twice before Adrastus eulogizes him. In both cases, his blasphemy and Zeus’ punishment for it have been recalled. The Theban herald has singled him out as proof of Argos’ injustice in making war on his city: “Was it, then, unjust punishment – the thunderbolt/That scorched the scorner Capaneus as he set his ladder/Against our gates, and swore he’d sack Thebes whether the gods/Liked it or not?” Later, the Argive messenger who has escaped from Thebes had served under Capaneus and recalls his end: “Zeus blasted [him] with a lightning-flash.” And after the funeral orations, Theseus will refer to Capaneus as the one “whom the fire of Zeus struck down.” Likewise the chorus will recall him as Zeus’ “victim, overpowered by the fierce lightning-flame.” Euripides plainly means his audience to be well aware of the blasphemer’s fate.
It is understandable that the just Theseus would not wish to praise the blasphemer Capaneus. But what does Adrastus say of him in his funeral oration? That he was rich but not arrogant, frugal, a good friend, frank, approachable and conscientious. In other words, he gives us banalities. Likewise, he will praise Eteoclus for his aversion to incurring debts, Hippomedon for his love of nature, Parthenopaeus for his indifference to suitors, Tydeus (very briefly) for his excellence in the “debate of shields.” Note that only Tydeus, the kin-slayer who had incited Adrastus to war, is commemorated principally as a warrior, and that that encomium is extremely short.
Some critics suggest that Adrastus’ emphasis on lauding the domestic virtues of the fallen warriors is an indirect way of indicating their military ones, by “denying them other forms of enjoyment,” but this seems implausible to me. T.B.L. Webster, Tragedies of Euripides (1967). Theseus had asked Adrastus to speak to Athens’ young citizens about the fallen Argives because Adrastus had personally witnessed their exploits at Thebes, and Theseus had not. But Adrastus passes over both Capaneus’ battle deeds, and his fiery death, in silence. (And so too for the others, excepting Tydeus.) Given the opportunity to instruct the youthful citizens of Athens even in the kind of daring that befits a warrior, Adrastus throws it away. Still less does Adrastus use the occasion to educate the young in the ways of Zeus: he is lacking in the wisdom and piety that would have shown Zeus’ justice and power in Capaneus’ manner of death.
Adrastus concludes by claiming that “courage” is teachable, as (he alleges) the lives of these warriors have shown:
Every man trained in brave deeds will feel ashamed
To prove a coward. Courage is teachable, just as
A child is taught to speak and hear matters as yet
Not understood. Things learnt in youth are often stored
Till old age; therefore give sound training to the young.
Which is precisely what Adrastus has failed on this occasion to do.
Another reading of Adrastus’ funeral speech
Having said that, I should add that the critics have disagreed vehemently over the interpretation of Adrastus’ speech. So let me suggest the possibility of a radically different reading.
Perhaps Adrastus is praising the fallen soldiers in the unexpected way he does because he has undergone a change of heart and is now genuinely dedicated to the cause of peace. What he has witnessed in the aftermath of his ill-fated war has given him wisdom. So rather than eulogizing the martial qualities of these fierce warriors, he chooses instead to tell the young warriors-to-be who are listening to him that they should emulate their amiable and domestic virtues. Adrastus might have found a model for this in Homer.
In Book VI (ll. 390-494) of The Iliad, Homer gives us the unforgettable scene of a conversation between Hector and his wife Andromache, in which Andromache unsuccessfully tries to persuade Hector to stay in the city of Troy and defend its walls from the Greeks, rather than venturing out into the plain, where the full force of the Greek army will seek to kill him. Hector gently wards her off, then holds out his arms to fondle their baby Astyanax. The child is terrified of his father’s bronze helmet with its horse-hair crest, causing Hector to laugh, lay the helmet aside, and comfort and kiss the little one. Homer shows us the intimate and tender side of a warrior: Hector is here a loving husband and father.
Is Adrastus attempting to say something similar here?
“Whatever is destroyed is regretted”
We can take this kind of interpretation even deeper. In her remarkable essay, The Iliad: Or, The Poem of Force, written in 1939, Simone Weil remarks that in Homer, “Whatever is destroyed is regretted.” It is an extraordinary insight.
Often, after describing the death of a warrior, Homer will attach what amounts to a brief, poignant epitaph that recalls something of the dead man’s life apart from the war. This might be only half a verse, almost a throw-away thought. Homer wants us to see, even if fleetingly, that something of inestimable value has perished in this hero’s death. So, e.g., in telling us of the struggle over the dead body of Cebriones (Book XVI, ll. 774-6 (R. Lattimore trans.)), Homer says:
They fought on
Hard over his body, as he in the turning dust lay
Mightily in his might, his horsemanship all forgotten.
His horsemanship all forgotten (“lelasmenos hipposynaon”).
Or take the death of Pedaios in Book V, ll. 70-5 (Lattimore):
Who, bastard though he was, was nursed by lovely Theano
With close care, as for her own children, to pleasure her husband.
Now the son of Phyleus, the spear-famed, closing upon him
Struck him with the sharp spear from behind the head at the tendon
And straight on through the teeth and under the tongue cut the bronze blade,
And he dropped in the dust gripping in his teeth the cold bronze.
So Pedaios, the proof and flowering of Theono’s love for her husband – she took the boy in and raised him as if he were her own – goes down to a horrifying death, a bronze spear sticking out through his mouth.
Of all these brief epitaphs, the most famous occurs, fittingly, in the last line of The Iliad (Lattimore):
Such was the burial of Hektor, breaker of horses.
Could it be, then, that Euripides has Adrastus mark the passing of the fallen Argive warriors in a similar way? Is Adrastus trying to remind his hearers of the hidden value that the world has lost in these men’s deaths – a value we might otherwise overlook?
We might surmise that Adrastus knows that the youngsters he is addressing need no encouragement to pursue martial virtue: after all, he has himself been talked into war by young men and knows that the desire for war is in their nature. (If that is his thinking, Athena will confirm it at the end of the play.) Therefore, in attempting to hold up role models to them, he will emphasize, not the heroism of the fallen Argives in battle, but rather what those who knew and loved them will most miss.
Which of the two interpretations is truer? It is hard to say.
Amphiaraus and Polyneices
Now it is Theseus’ turn to speak. But his funeral oration is extremely brief: six lines. He commemorates two of the fallen: the prophet and priest Amphiaraus, and Polyneices, claimant to the throne of Thebes. The body of the “noble” Amphiaraus is not even there, Theseus notes: he has already received his eulogy “from the gods themselves, who seized him and/Entombed him with his chariot in the depths of earth.” No further praise is needed for Amphiaraus, who had warned Adrastus and Argos against their ill-omened war. Zeus himself has buried him.
Then there is Polyneices, the instigator of the war. Theseus can hardly praise him – and in truth he does not. Instead he refers to him as “the son of Oedipus,” as if the wrongs that Polyneices has committed should be attributed to the curse his father laid on him, rather than to his own bad choices. Further, Theseus says that when Polyneices was on his journey from Thebes to Argos, he had come to Athens and was Theseus’ guest. Theseus implies that by having extended hospitality to Polyneices, as Greek custom prescribed, he had given him all that was his due. Theseus speaks no ill of Polyneices, but his silence implies condemnation.
The funeral procession of Athenians and Argives is beginning to move towards the funeral pyres. The body of Capaneus will be buried separately, near Demeter’s temple: it is “sacred,” because burned by the holy fire of Zeus. (Death by lightning seems to have signified an “extraordinary status in the underworld.” Walter Burkert, Greek Religion (English trans. 1985 (1977))).
Suddenly the chorus sees Capaneus’ wife Evadne on a high rock that towers above the temple. She stands giddily above the pyre of her dead husband. She announces that she has come “running in wild frenzy” to immolate herself on Capaneus’ pyre. She is arrayed in a “triumphal garb.”
Soon she is followed by her father Iphis. He is closely connected to two of the fallen Argives: Eteoclus is his son, Capaneus his son-in-law. He comes seeking Evadne, who has abruptly left home, “resolved to die beside her husband.”
What is Evadne planning, Iphis asks. “I am come here for a noble victory,” she says. Over whom? “Over every wife and daughter under the sun.” How so? Not “in skills and crafts of Pallas, or in wide judgment,” but “in courage.” Evadne thinks that by leaping into the flames of Capaneus’ pyre, she will demonstrate that she has more courage than any other woman in Greece. And so she plunges to her fiery death.
The meaning of the Evadne scene
Critics of The Suppliants have found the episode of Evadne’s suicide perplexing, and some have seen it as overwrought or distracting. Gilbert Norwood goes so far as to consider the episode “a replica of an Indian suttee,” and for that reason places its composition at some point after the conquests of Alexander the Great – about a century after the 420s, to which the play is usually dated. See Gilbert Norwood, Essays on Euripidean Drama (1954). J.W. Fitton considers the scene “almost an excrescence,” while also affirming that “its emotional intensity makes it the high point of the play.” J.W. Fitton, The Suppliant Women and the Herakleidai of Euripides (1961). D.J. Conacher goes so far as to say that “the play seems to undergo a curious disintegration after the triumph of Theseus over the Thebans.” He also regards the Evadne episode as “an extreme, and rather intrusive, dramatization of the grief which the Chorus expresses for the dead Chieftains.” Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure (1967).
I agree that the return of Theseus marks the main inflection point of the play. The action leading up to Athens’ victory at Thebes shows war in its best light — war as an unwanted but indispensable means of securing justice. But Euripides also wants to show us the dark side of war, even of a war that is most imbued with justice. The “disintegration” that he shows us after Theseus’ triumphant return is simply the ordinary afterlife of war in peace. For the first time, the play begins to assume the lineaments of tragedy.
Moreover, the suicide of Evadne occurs very soon after Theseus, with Adrastus’ consent, has ruled that the Argive mothers may not see or hold their dead sons’ disfigured bodies. We have noted that Greek culture reflected the (male) judgment that public grieving by women had to be repressed: women’s lamentations over the bodies of their soldier dead would, it was feared, disturb the public order, loosen the bonds that fastened the male citizen-soldier to the city, and reinstate the claims of the household and family. Now those “female” emotions break out uncontrollably — and with passionate, searing intensity. Evadne’s suicide is the return of the repressed.
War is not over when it’s over
The title of Ann Jones engrossing book – War Is Not Over When It’s Over: Women Speak Out From The Ruins of War (2010) – expresses Euripides’ intentions here perfectly. Jones’ book is a prolonged meditation on the persisting effects of wars that are thought to be “over” on the lives of their survivors, particularly women. Their sufferings are shown in interviews and photographs. Jones speaks from personal knowledge, recalling the brutality that her father, a veteran of the First World War (a “good” war), inflicted on her mother and herself when she was growing up. She says, “when my father attacked my mother or me, he was often angry about something altogether different. He laid into us – me especially – because I was there. But the response? The techniques? Those were things he had learned in the army. In fact it must have been his success in learning to act so swiftly, so effectively, so violently that made him a hero and earned him the highest medals of three allied countries.” Born in 1937, Jones is a victim in 2010 of a war that was “over” in 1918.
That, I submit, is how we should see the suicide of Evadne. Argos’ war on Thebes was not “over” even after Athens’ just judgment on the two states, even as her husband’s body was finally being laid to rest. There can be, Euripides is saying, no “closure.” The trauma of war has no end.