The War Cycle

We are coming to the end of Euripides’ great drama.  The final scenes naturally divide into two parts.  First, the chorus of the sons of the fallen Argive warriors enters, bearing the urns in which their fathers’ ashes are gathered.  They engage in a colloquy with their grandmothers.  The episode ends with a brief exchange between the two kings, Theseus and Adrastus, in which they exchange farewells.  Second and unexpectedly, the goddess Athena appears on stage.  She peremptorily issues two sets of instructions:  first, to Theseus, to forbid the Argives to return with the remnants of their dead warriors until they swear to accept certain terms to the advantage of Athens, in accordance with ceremonies she prescribes; and then, to the Argive sons, to enjoin them to renew the war with Thebes once they come of fighting age.  Theseus pledges to obey the goddess; the Argive women’s chorus also agrees and departs; and so the play ends.

Cycles of peace and war

The drama has come full cycle.  It began with the prayers of Aethra in the sacred precincts of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis – a divinity associated with peace, abundance, agriculture and civilization; a mother who mourned the disappearance of her daughter Kore; and a foundress of Athens.  It ends with the appearance of another goddess, Athena, who is associated with war: “she is a warmonger from the moment she is born shaking her armour and making her war cry.”  Susan Deacy, Athena (2008).  In one of the Homeric Hymns to Athena (ll.2-3), it is said that Athena, together with the war god Ares, “makes her business the works of war, the sack of cities and the shouting and the battle.”    She is often depicted with a helmet, shield and spear, is childless and a virgin, and was not born of a mother, but of Zeus.  (In Aeschylus’ Eumenides, in casting her vote to acquit the matricidal Orestes, she says, “No mother gave me birth,/I honour the male, in all things but marriage./Yes, with all my heart I am my Father’s child.”) (Robert Fagles trans.)  Like Demeter, Athena is associated with agriculture, civilization and the founding of Athens; but she gave the Athenians the olive tree, not grain. Demeter’s shrine at Eleusis is suffused with panhellenic ideals; Athena is the patroness of a particular Greek city, Athens.  (The forces that Theseus deploys against Thebes in the panhellenic cause are nonetheless called “the army of Pallas [Athena].)”  The play opens with Aethra praying that Demeter grant “prosperity” or “good fortune” (“eudaimonein”) to Theseus and Athens; it ends with Theseus asking Athena to deal with the city so that it may live “in safety” or “securely” (“asphalos”). (Notice that Theseus’ more modest request is suited to harsh, wartime conditions.)  The world of human action shown in the play occupies the space between the opposing poles of these two goddesses.

During the course of the drama, we have moved from the aftermath of war to a peace that is preparatory to war; then to war; and finally to a peace that is again the aftermath of war and again a preparation for war’s renewal.  As if to mark the stages of this pattern, it appears that the same actor would have played, successively, Aethra, Evadne, and Athena.

War, it seems, is a recurring and inescapable part of the cycle of human existence, and peace a mere respite from it: there is a season to harvest the wheat crop, but there is also season for reaping human bodies.  The Argive messenger has described Theseus in battle as brandishing his mace so that “necks, helmets, heads/ [were] mowed down or lopped.”  Now the buried bodies of the Argive warriors have been sown and will yield a crop of avenging warrior sons.

Even if the gods are just (as part of the Argive women’s Chorus problematically assumes, while it anxiously awaits news of the fate of Athens’ forces at Thebes), “[y]et justice calls to justice, blood to blood.”  The pattern of violence and counter-violence is never-ending; war has the repetitive character of a blood feud.

The war cycle and revenge

The war cycle feeds on revenge.  The Greeks never underestimated the power of that motive.  Greek historians frequently cited the desire for revenge as a cause of interstate war, and vengeance wars do indeed seem to have been a feature of Greek foreign affairs.  See J.E. Lendon, Homeric vengeance and the outbreak of Greek wars, in Hans van Wees (ed.), War and Violence in Ancient Greece (2000). The revenge motive also operated on the individual level as well.

In the Iliad, Homer has Achilles say that revenge is “much more sweet than liquid honey” (Book XVIII, l. 102).  In his Rhetoric, Book II, c. 2, Aristotle cited this passage of Homer, saying “anger is always accompanied by a certain pleasure, due to the hope of revenge to come. For it is pleasant to think that one will obtain what one aims at; now, no one aims at what is obviously impossible of attainment by him, and the angry man aims at what is possible for himself. Wherefore it has been well said of anger, that ‘Far sweeter than dripping honey down the throat it spreads in men’s hearts.’”  Odysseus’ son Telemachos, listening to the story of how Orestes avenged his father’s death, desires to act similarly:  “what a stroke of revenge that was!  All Achaeans/will spread Orestes’ fame across the world,/a song for those to come./If only the gods would arm me with such power/I’d take revenge.”  Odyssey, Book III, ll. 230-35 (Robert Fagles trans.).  In Sophocles’ Ajax, Athena invites Odysseus to gloat at the spectacle of his maddened foe Ajax, saying “Is not the sweetest mockery the mockery of enemies?” (Jebb Trans.).  Herodotus speaks of one Hermotimus, castrated as a child by Panionius of Chios, who, after a successful career as a eunuch at the Persian court, re-encountered Panionius years later, persuaded him to bring his whole family to a feast, and there compelled Panionius to castrate all four of his sons there, after which he forced those sons to castrate their father.  Thus, Herodotus says, Hermotinus managed to exact “the greatest revenge for an injustice.”  Book VIII, cc. 105-06 (Strassler ed.).

Reflecting on his native Montenegro, the Yugoslav writer Milovan Djilas said:

Revenge is its greatest delight and glory.  Is it possible that the human heart can find peace and pleasure only in returning evil for evil? . . . Revenge is an overpowering and consuming fire.  It flares up and burns away every other thought and emotion.  It alone remains, over and above everything else. . . . Vengeance is not hatred, but the wildest, sweetest kind of drunkenness, both for those who must wreak vengeance and for those who wish to be avenged.

Quoted in Jon Elster, Norms of Revenge (1990).

Euripides implies that it lies beyond human power to end the war cycle.  Here, there is to be no final resolution to the blood-letting, unlike the ending of Aeschylus’ Eumenides, where Athena appeases the avenging Furies, the helpers of justice, persuades them to reside in Athens, and institutes a court of law.  (Other societies also managed to escape in a similar way from the retaliatory spiral of the feud to law, see Michelle Daniel, From Blood Feud to Jury System:  The Metamorphosis of Cherokee Law from 1750 to 1840 (1987)) Euripides’ implacable Athena permits no such escape route.  The contrast with the Eumenides is clear:  “for Euripides, unlike Aeschylus, there is no triumphant finale to this chain of fatalities; no development of justice; only a traumatic repetition of follies.”  J.W. Fitton, The Suppliant Women and the Herakleidai of Euripides (1961).

Here, even when divine justice intervenes in human affairs, it is to order the war cycle to be resumed, not to bring it to a halt. “Peace is the moment when history catches its breath in order to hurl itself once more into war.”  Janine Chanteur, From War to Peace (1992 (French ed. 1989)).  The gods belie Theseus’ theological optimism: he tells us that divine power has separated mankind from “brutishness” (“theriodous”); but Athena promises the young Argives that they will become “lions’ whelps.”  A conflict that began with Apollo’s prophesy about a lion and a boar will return with Athena’s prophesy to the lions’ cubs.  Theseus seems to have misunderstood the gods’ intentions as much as Adrastus did: the gods speak as they must, but we hear what we will.

The Sons’ Chorus

The suicide of Evadne and the lament of Iphis are followed directly by a procession of the sons of the dead Argives, bearing their fathers’ ashes in urns.  Their entrance may well have reminded Athenian audiences of the traditional ceremony in which the orphans of Athens’ own war dead were led into the orchestra before the performance of tragic plays in festival of the Great Dionysia. The Cambridge classicist Simon Goldhill explains this pre-play rite:

In Athens, if a boy’s father died fighting for the state, the boy was brought up at state expense, and at the end of this maintained childhood was presented with armour and weapons by the state, to take up his place in the state’s fighting forces. . . .  These ‘ephebes’ or the class of ‘young males about to become proper men’, were paraded in the theatre in their military equipment.  A herald announced the boy’s father’s name and made a moving speech which expressed in glowing terms how the fathers had done their duty, and how their boys, now to be men, would also fulfill their military obligations to the state.  The boys then took a stirring oath of loyalty to the state.  They promised by a long list of the gods of the state to stand by their comrades wherever they were placed in the line, and declared that they were prepared to fight and die for the city as their fathers had done before them.  Then they took up their special seats, reserved for them.

Love, Sex and Tragedy (2004).  It would be easy for the Athenian ephebes, watching their “Argive” counterparts on the stage, to see this part of the play as specifically intended for them.  (We should also remember that Euripides himself had become an ephebe in 466 and was given a spear and shield for the occasion.)

To this point, the sons’ chorus has been silent.  Now they speak, exchanging words with the chorus of their grandmothers.  The sons mourn their fathers, the women, their sons.  Then the sons say:

            Father, your son mourns for you;

            Do you hear? Shall I one day,

            Shield in hand, avenge your death?  God grant it!

            Justice for my father’s blood –

            It will yet come, with the favour of God.

The women’s chorus responds — somewhat enigmatically, perhaps because the text may be uncertain.  In Vellacott’s translation, the women say:

            This wrong sleeps not yet.

            Why must we always weep?

            I have had enough of disasters and misery.

If this translation is correct, the women seem to be expressing dismay at their grandsons’ declared intention of seeking revenge.  The women have had enough of war and killing:  they have lost their sons, are wretched, and want no more deadly violence.  Remember, however, that these same women (or some of them) have earlier said that “blood calls to blood.”   Do they want the war cycle to be breached, or have they instigated its renewal themselves?

The sons are adamant:

 The day will come when Asopus [a river near Thebes (RJD)] gleams in  welcome

          As I march bronze-clad at the head of a Danaid army

          To avenge my father’s death. 

          It seems to me that I still see you, father. . .

Not for these young Argives are the sentiments that Rudyard Kipling expressed in his poem The Settler, written in 1903 to mark the end of the Boer War.  Kipling’s “Settler” (both meanings must be intended) sought to bridge the divide between the victorious English and the defeated Dutch:

             And when we bring old fights to mind,

            We will not remember the sin –

            If there be blood on his head of my kind,

            Or blood on my head of his kin –

            For the ungrazed upland, the untilled lea

            Cry, and the fields forlorn:

            “The dead must bury their dead, but ye –

            Ye serve an host unborn.”

In Kipling, the future bids old enemies to bury the past; in Euripides, the future, in the person of the sons, resurrects the past.  Herman Melville’s war poetry expresses the mood of these youngsters far better than Kipling’s:  “All wars are boyish, and are fought by boys/The champions and enthusiasts of the state.” (The March into Virginia (1861)).

After the choruses, Theseus and Adrastus exchange parting words.  Theseus tells the Argives to bear Athens’ gift of the dead bodies “always in thankful memory . . . repeat this story to your sons,/And they to theirs in turn.  Teach them the honour due/To Athens; let them recall in perpetuity/Kindness received.”  Adrastus replies graciously, “Our gratitude will not grow old.”  Then, as suddenly as Evadne did and in the very same place, Athena appears above the shrine.

The judgments of Athena

The goddess Athena’s connections to war and strategy on the one hand, and to Athens on the other, were extremely strong. Joan Bretton Connelly writes that as her legends developed, Athena “becomes a fierce advocate for the land of Attica.  She is a shrewd architect of military strategies designed to protect it and a warrior goddess prepared to defend it with all her might.”  The Parthenon Enigma (2014).  The first thing that worshippers who approached Athens’ Acropolis would see was the temple of Athena Nike [“Victory”]:

Temple of Athena Nike

Construction of this lovely Ionic temple was begun in the mid-420s, around the time The Suppliants was produced.

When worshippers then entered the sacred space on the Acropolis, they would discover “the astonishing excess of military booty, trophies, and treasures that would dazzle [them] once inside, culminating in a treasure trove of dedications within the Parthenon itself.”  (Connelly).  And within the Parthenon, the great sculptor Pheidias’ bronze statue of Athena presided:

Athena

This was the statue named as Athena “Promachos” (“Fighting in the front rank, and leading her people to victory”), where the virgin goddess was worshipped as a warrior.  Athena brought victory to Athens, and victory brought wealth.

Athena’s message here is abrupt and peremptory:  “Theseus, I am Athena; listen to my words.”  She orders him not to permit the unconditional return of the bodies to Argos.  Instead he must make the Argives swear an oath never to march against Athens in arms, and to take up arms in Athens’ defense if she is attacked.  Athens is under no reciprocal obligation:  the promise of non-aggression binds Argos only; the defensive alliance is to be one-sided.  Argos’ oath is to be sanctified by a blood sacrifice.  (Again, we see Greek international law resting on supernatural sanctions.)  Theseus is to slay three sheep and to capture the blood that runs off in a bronze tripod that the hero Heracles took at Troy and that Theseus has been storing.  After the sacrifice Theseus is to inscribe the Argives’ oath in the hollow of the tripod and present it to Apollo’s temple at Delphi, so that all of Greece may be witness to Argos’ pledge.  Theseus is also to bury the knife that he will use in sacrificing the sheep and bury it in the earth near the seven pyres of the fallen Argives, so that if an Argive army encroaches on Athenian territory and reaches this crossroad, it will be reminded of the city’s oath (and take the route to Thebes instead).  The buried knife will be a lasting reminder to Argos of the buried dead whom Athens had restored to it.

Athena’s instructions to Theseus recall the bitter wisdom of Bias of Priene, whom the Greeks considered one of their seven sages, and whose maxims were often quoted.  Bias cynically counseled mistrust: he advised his listeners to love their friends as if they would one day hate them.  In the Rhetoric (1389b13-25), Aristotle cites Bias’ maxim, saying that old men, who know that “most things turn out badly,” tend to agree with Bias.  Theseus is still young, and he trusts Argos as if it would always remain a friend to Athens.  Athena demands that Theseus, as king, think like an old man instead.

Athena and the young Argives

Then Athena turns to the Argive sons.  “When you reach manhood you shall sack the city of Thebes/In vengeance for your fathers’ blood.”  The young Aigialeus, the son of King Adrastus, is to take his father’s place as commander-in-chief.  (It is as if Adrastus, who is standing by, is already dead.)  Diomedes, the son of the kin-slaying fugitive Tydeus, is to accompany him.  The young soldiers are to hurl their bronze-armed forces against Thebes as soon as they are of age. They shall be the “lions’ whelps,” and they will sack the city.  (Recall that Theseus had spared Thebes from that calamity.)  The term for “sacking” the city is repeated twice, as if to emphasize the importance of that action, an extreme of violence that was rare in classical Greece:  sacking is “[c]ognate to the Homeric practice of mutilation of the body” (Lendon).  They must do this in order to avenge (“ekdikazontes”) their fathers; the word for “avenging” has the word “justice” (“dike”) as its root.  “This is how things must be,” Athena declares (Euripides:  Suppliant Women (James Morwood ed. & trans. 2007).)  They will be called “The After-Comers,” and they will be remembered in heroic poetry sung throughout Greece.  Their expedition against Thebes (unlike Adrastus’ one) will have the gods’ blessing (“sun theoi”).   She does not say whether Thebes in its turn will seek revenge.

Two kings, the just warrior Theseus and the unjust warrior Adrastus, stand before the goddess, humbled and abashed.  Theseus at once promises to obey, telling Athena “by your voice/Alone I am saved from error.”  He will make Adrastus take the oath Athena prescribes.  Adrastus is silent.  So thoroughly has Adrastus been marginalized that the Argive women, not he, promise to give the oath to Theseus and Athens (even though Athena has said that Adrastus as King had the authority to make the pledge).  Indeed, it is possible that Adrastus has neither seen nor heard Athena, who has not addressed him.  (In the Ajax, Odysseus hears but does not see Athena, Ajax both sees and hears her, and Tecmessa neither sees nor hears her.)  The Argive women thank Theseus, and the play ends.

Can war be “just”?

In these scenes, the question of war’s “justness” seems to shrink in significance;

Ixion on his wheel

Ixion on his wheel

what matters about war is its inevitability.  It seems that we do not, after all, choose it; it comes to us.  Like Lear towards his end, Theseus, Adrastus, indeed all of humanity, are “bound/Upon a wheel of fire,” King Lear, Act, IV, scene 7; and that wheel is war.  One commentator suggests that Athena’s promise to bless the sons’ future war against Thebes is “needed to ensure that an act of war can function as justice,” but that seems plainly wrong to me.  See Rebecca Futo-Kennedy, Athena’s Justice (2009).  The divinely-guided war that Athena ordains will surely be less just than the purely human war ordered by Theseus.  Athena, who brings a just resolution to violence in the Eumenides, is here the renewer of revenge.  She is like the gods in Book IV of The Iliad who, after debating whether to perpetuate the fragile truce that the Greeks and Trojans have made or to stir up war again, decide on war, and chose Athena as the instrument for tricking the Trojan archer Laodocus into targeting Menelaus and breaking the truce.  Let humans try to establish peace if they can; their efforts are useless.  The mind of the gods is on war, and they will thwart our plans.

Pursuing the logic of this interpretation to its limit, we could be led to think that war, as Euripides dramatizes it here, is a necessity of nature, not an activity subject to human control, and hence is “beyond good and evil.”  To ask whether a war is just or not would be like asking whether a drought or a plague or an earthquake or a crop infestation was just or not.  War is a recurring, ineliminable feature of human existence, necessitated by the basic circumstances, forces, passions and drives that structure and constrain our lives, or by what men otherwise once called “the gods.”

Justice and the order of nature

Let me briefly explore a still bolder interpretative possibility.  This is that even if Euripides is saying that the question whether any particular war is just has at best limited significance, nonetheless war as an institution or practice is just.  Moreover, he might even be taken to be saying that even if war is a necessity of nature.  How might he have reached that startling conclusion?  At the risk of being extremely imprudent, let me offer this suggestion.

In a brilliant and influential essay, the Princeton historian of philosophy Gregory Vlastos argued that several “pre-Socratic” Greek thinkers taught, in various ways, that nature was maintained in a state of self-regulating, dynamic equilibrium by the unceasing conflict of equal, opposing forces.  See Equality and Justice in Early Greek Cosmologies (1947).  At various times, one of the forces would prevail, and its opposite would recede; then the receding force would in its turn prevail, and the force that had once prevailed, would recede.  Thus, summer would give way to winter, and after its season, winter would give way to summer.  The continuous balancing and rebalancing of opposing forces would produce a healthy equilibrium: the onset of winter would prevent the lassitude and indolence that would be caused by an endless summer, the return of summer would relieve the harshness and asperity of an unending winter.  These ineluctable regularities or laws established, not only a natural pattern, but an immanent cosmic justice.  By “invading” summer, winter would do summer an “injustice;” but the subsequent return of summer would constitute winter’s “reparations” for that injustice; and so on in turn.  Indeed, justice is assured by the facts that all of the opposing forces are equal in strength, all take precedence in turn, and all exist in subjection to a “common law.”  The resemblances to a democratic polity’s understanding of “justice” are not accidental.  The “commonwealth of nature,” as Vlastos calls it, is the democratic city projected onto the plane of nature as a whole.  Cosmic justice is ensured by cosmic equality.

Vlastos sees this philosophical concept of nature in several of the pre-Socratics, including in this fragment quoting Anaximander (Vlastos’ trans.):

And into those things from which existing things take their rise, they pass away once more, according to just necessity; for they render justice and reparation to one another for their injustices according to the ordering of time.

Vlastos argues that this physico-moral conception of nature eventually became “the common property of classical thought.”  We can also discern its influence on Greek tragedy, as in these lines that Sophocles gives to Ajax in the play of that name:

Things of awe and might submit to authority. So it is that winter with its snow-covered paths gives place to fruitful summer; night’s dark orbit makes room for day with her white horses to kindle her radiance; the blast of dreadful winds allows the groaning sea to rest; and among them all, almighty Sleep releases the fettered sleeper, and does not hold him in a perpetual grasp.

(R. Jebb (trans.)).

Now it is very likely that Euripides, who was personally acquainted with some of the pre-Socratic thinkers, was both aware of this conception and influenced by it.  He might, e.g., have heard about it from Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, who was only fifteen years older, a close friend and adviser of Pericles, a long-time resident of Athens and, reputedly, Euripides’ teacher.  While we cannot be certain of this, we do know that Anaximander’s ideas were still being discussed in Athens (by Aristotle) well after Euripides’ death.

Granting these assumptions, it is possible to surmise that Euripides is saying that the endless cycle of war and peace is a manifestation of cosmic justice. War purges away the staleness and tedium of a protracted peace; peace relieves the terror and cruelty of war.  There is no “just war.”  But because war is natural, and what is natural is just, so war is just.

What should we conclude?

What are we to make of this strangely beautiful, perplexing play, and particularly of its unexpected conclusion?  Why, in the warm afterglow of Theseus’ and Adrastus’ mutual promises of lasting amity and good will, does Athena suddenly appear, speaking in the cold voice of power politics?  (Fitton describes her here as “the conscienceless voice of State Power.”)  Why does she insist that the mere obligations of gratitude are insufficient?  What accounts for her peremptory demand for political rationality and realism, for one-sided treaties ratified by blood-sworn oaths, in place of reliance on the ties formed by friendship and generosity?  Is Euripides saying that realpolitik alone must be the guide to the conduct of international affairs, and that the memory of past benefits conferred is as likely to create resentment as affection?  Is Euripides contrasting the strength and self-confidence of the pre-war Athens with an Athens weakened, wary and coarsened after years of war?  Is the final image he gives us one, not of a benign and civilized Athens, but of a harder and more cynical city?

The play’s conclusion raises even deeper and more intractable questions than these – questions that go, not to fifth century Athens alone, but to the nature of war and peace as such.  How should we read the play as a whole?  Is it, as some critics have argued, an encomium on war-time Athens?  Or, as others have said, is it a denunciation of war and imperialism?  Is it blueprint for just war, or a demonstration that war cannot secure either peace or justice, even for a little while?  Is it a vindication of Theseus’ rational theology, or a proof of the opacity of the gods’ intentions?  An argument for human self-reliance and the exercise of intelligence in the face of an indecipherable universe, or an acknowledgement of human helplessness and the futility of action?  A plea for civilization, humaneness, and international law, or the bleak recognition that the defense of civilization must itself engender atrocity?  A disparagement of human justice, but an affirmation of cosmic justice?

Must we choose between these alternatives, or may we affirm them all?  We cannot be sure even as to that.  To call the play “dialectical” is only to scratch its surface.  Euripides’ greatness is to leave us with questions that are as urgent as they are unanswerable.

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