The Argument for Athens’ Democracy

Theseus and the “democratic peace” thesis

In his colloquy with the Theban herald, Theseus is not, I think, advocating any form of the “democratic peace” thesis (on which see Michael W. Doyle, Kant, Liberal Legacies, and Foreign Affairs (1983)). Certainly Theseus is not claiming that democratic Athens is reluctant to go to war: as we have seen, fifth century Athens was more or less continually at war. Nor is he even claiming that Athens is unlikely to make war with other Greek democracies: that claim too is unsupported. (From 415 to 413, democratic Athens was at war with democratic Syracuse.) See Eric Robinson, Reading and Misreading the Ancient Evidence for Democratic Peace (2001).

Theseus and the claim that democracy is epistemically superior

What Theseus is saying, I think, is that democracies will make better decisions

Well, perhaps not.
Well, perhaps not.

about war than non-democratic states, both because more sources of information will be consulted, and also because the arguments for and against war will be more fully and critically examined. The historian Christian Meier, in his Athens: A Portrait of the City in Its Golden Age (English trans. 1998 (1993)) tells us that “Athenian democracy followed two fundamental principles: First, all decisions were to be made as openly as possible and on the basis of public discussion, with the deliberating bodies being as large as feasible. Second, as many citizens as possible were to take part in the political process and also hold office. Organized groups of aristocrats were thus prevented from using their influence in the appointment of public officials. In general, political manipulation by small groups was not to be tolerated.”

The Athenians often extolled the virtues of democratic deliberation. In his funeral oration (Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 40), Pericles says that the Athenians “weigh what we undertake, and apprehend it perfectly in our minds; not accounting words for a hindrance of action, but that it is rather a hindrance to action to come to it without instruction of words before.” Moreover, Pericles argues (with an eye to Sparta) that Athens’ proclivity for deliberation does not prevent it from showing courage and daring when in arms: “For also in this we excel others; daring to undertake as much as any, and yet examining what we undertake; whereas with other men, ignorance makes them dare, and consideration dastards.” Indeed, Pericles claims, the kind of knowledge Athens acquires through deliberation is a necessary condition of the virtue of courage, rightly considered: “they are most rightly reputed valiant, who though they perfectly apprehend both what is dangerous and what is easy, are never the more thereby diverted from adventuring.”

Thucydides himself may have been more skeptical of the merits of deliberative

Democratic deliberation
Democratic deliberation

democracy than Pericles (as Thucydides represents him) was. Thucydides’ account of the Athenian Assembly’s debates over the fate of the city of Mitylene, which had rebelled against Athens in wartime, is illustrative. After suppressing the revolt, the incensed Athenians had voted in a moment of fury to put the entire male population of Mitylene to death, and dispatched a vessel to convey their decision to the commander of their forces at the city. The next day, in a more sober and reflective mood, they decided to reconsider their hasty decree. Thucydides gives us the opposing speeches of Cleon (who advocated carrying out the original order) and Diodotus (who wanted it rescinded). See Thucydides, Book III, cc. 37-48. In a close vote, the Assembly decided to rescind the decree and spare those Mityleneans who had had nothing to do with the revolt. Luckily the vessel they dispatched to countermand the original order arrived before the first one did.  Thucydides seems to want to illustrate both the pitfalls of the Assembly’s decision-making (it can act from passion and without consideration, and even its amended decree is extremely harsh) and also its desirable features (it provides a workable procedure for error-correction).

In this light, we can see the colloquies of the opening scenes between Theseus and the suppliants, and then between Theseus and Aethra, as modeling the debates of the Athenian assembly. The colloquies show us a process in which information is gathered and assessed, arguments and counter-arguments (including women’s) are heard, and appeals to the emotions of pity and pride are admissible along with considerations of national interest. And certainly the policy outcome – intervention against Thebes – seems to be better than the defective outcomes produced by one-man rule in Argos and Thebes.

If this interpretation is right, Euripides will be anticipating, through Theseus, a defense of deliberative democracy that Aristotle would later set forth: that it incorporates epistemically superior decision procedures. (More recent authors speak in this connection of “the wisdom of crowds.”)  Aristotle says that when many different people

of whom each individual is not a good man, . . . meet together [they] may be better than the few good, if regarded not individually but collectively, just as a feast to which many contribute is better than a dinner provided out of a single purse. For each individual among the many has a share of excellence and practical wisdom, and when they meet together, just as they become in a manner one man, who has many feet, and hands, and senses, so too with regard to their character and thought. Hence the many are better judges than a single man of music and poetry; for some understand one part, and some another, and among them they understand the whole.

Quoted and analyzed in Jeremy Waldron, The Wisdom of the Multitude:  Some Reflections on Book 3, Chapter II of Aristotle’s Politics (1993). Waldron interprets Aristotle to be saying here that “the many acting collectively may be a better judge than the few best not only of matters of fact, not only of social utility, but also and most importantly of matters of ethics, value, and the nature of the good life.” It is this very claim to epistemic superiority that critics of Athenian democracy like the Pseudo-Xenophon will deny: “Someone might say that they ought not to let everyone speak on equal terms and serve on the council, but rather just the cleverest and finest.”

Modern scholars on democracy’s epistemic advantages

Modern scholars have developed interesting defenses of democracy that harken back to these Greek debates, arguing that the Athenian experience supports the claim that democracy as a decision procedure offers epistemic advantages over alternative processes. See Josiah Ober, Democracy and Knowledge:  Innovation and Learning in Classical Athens (2008). The philosopher Elizabeth Anderson, e.g., using a model of democratic decision-making derived from John Dewey, contends that democracy should be seen as akin to experimentally-based scientific investigation. Ideally, democracy pools widely distributed information from the many diverse knowers who participate in it, subjects their different claims to shared deliberation and critique, reaches public policy conclusions on that basis, permits dissent, ensures accountability, and makes policy changes after getting feedback. These characteristics promote sound policy choices and give democracies a competitive edge over other systems. See Elizabeth Anderson, The Epistemology of Democracy (2006). In particular, democratic procedures arguably give democracies a competitive advantage in waging war.  In Why Societies Need Dissent (2003), the legal scholar Cass Sunstein points to evidence that the superior performance of the American and British democracies over the Germany, Italy and Japan was owed to the fact that the public and press in a democracy are free to review, debate and criticize the government’s actions, while in totalitarian systems, criticisms and suggestions are both unwanted and unheeded, and the streams of information and authority run from the top on down. (To be sure, the superior wartime performance of the Stalinist Soviet Union cannot be explained in this way.) Democracies are therefore more likely to make adaptations and correct errors when it is useful to do so.    

Further, both Euripides’ Theseus and modern researchers are saying that once democracies go to war, they will tend to prosecute it more determinedly, because the citizens who fight it have done so of their own accord, and because they rather than their overlords stand to enjoy the rewards of victory. “Making decisions about the city was . . . an essential part of being a citizen, and those who made the decisions had also to be ready to die for them on the battlefield” (Sophie Mills). There is substantial support for this view: in Democracies at War (2002), Dan Reiter and Allan C. Stam amass the evidence that

democratic elites [are] far less likely than other kinds of states to enter into war impulsively, and thereby avoiding risky and costly military adventures. On the battlefield, democratic political culture imbues democracies’ citizens with individual attributes that serve both the citizens and the state well in war as well as in peace. More often than not, the sons of democracy outfight the sons of tyranny by showing better individual initiative and leadership than their counterparts raised in and fighting for autocratic regimes.

Finally, Theseus is saying that democracies will make war with less wastage of life – or at least, with less wastage of its own citizens’ lives – because the citizens and the decision-makers are one and the same. Modern democracies behave similarly: in the 1999 war in Kosovo, the NATO democracies attempted to wage a “zero-casualty” war – meaning, that their forces would suffer no casualties.

Theseus and the Theban Herald, Round Two:  Why Athens fights

Theseus’ debate with the Theban herald is not over: there remains the question of explaining to Thebes why Athens will fight.

The core of Theseus’ argument is, of course, that Athens will fight to uphold the laws and customs of Greece. But Theseus is not content simply to refer to those laws; instead, he undertakes to show their rationality. Some readers take this to indicate that Euripides was a rationalist or humanist who did not credit the divine authority of the laws. That may be so, but there is a simpler explanation for this turn of the drama: the Thebans already know that they are violating a religious prescription (an action they consider justified by Argos’ impiety in attacking them). Theseus’ effort to display the rationality of the laws therefore addresses an aspect of the situation that Thebes has insufficiently considered. In any case, here is what Theseus says:

I claim the right to fulfill the law of all Hellas

In burying those dead bodies. Wherein lies the offence?

If you were injured by those Argives – they are dead.

You fought your foes with glory to yourselves, and shame

To them.  That done, the score is paid.  Permit their bodies

To hide below ground, and each part to return there

Whence first it came into this light; breath to the sky,

Flesh to the soil.  For we have in our own bodies

But a life-tenancy, not lasting ownership;

At death, the earth that bred us must receive us back.

Do you think that you hurt Argos by not burying them?

Far from it; this is a hurt done to the whole Hellene race,

When dead men are denied their proper rites, and left

 Unburied.  Should such practice become general,

Brave men would shrink from battle.  And do you, who hurl

At me these threatening speeches, tremble at dead men

Unless they lie unburied?  What fear troubles you?

Do you think that from their graves they’ll undermine your town,

Or in their earthy chambers beget sons, from whom

Vengeance will haunt you? . . .

Yield us the bodies to inter;

We wish to give them pious rites.  If you will not –

In plain terms, I will come with arms and bury them.

It never shall be published through the Hellene lands

That I and this city of Pandion, called upon

To uphold this ancient, divine ordinance, let it die.

Theseus is invoking the ideal of “helping the wronged” – an ideal that held a powerful attraction for Athens and its public. Matthew Christ, in The Limits of Altruism in Democratic Athens (2012), argues that “the Athenians were drawn to the notion that they were a noble people who were always prepared to intervene on behalf of fellow Greeks in distress and to save them from their oppressors.” Abundant evidence supports this view. For instance, in his funeral speech, Pericles argues that Athens intervenes on behalf of other Greeks states disinterestedly, without a view to its own gain – and thereby earns their esteem and gratitude (which, incidentally, serves its interests):

we purchase our friends, not by receiving, but by bestowing benefits. And he that bestoweth a good turn, is ever the most constant friend; because he will not lose the thanks due unto him from him whom he bestowed it on. Whereas the friendship of him that oweth a benefit, is dull and flat, as knowing his benefit not to be taken for a favour, but for a debt. So that we only do good to others, not upon computation of profit, but freeness of trust.

It is true, as Christ also shows, that this ideal, despite its attractiveness as a matter of Athens’ self-image, did not appreciably affect its relationships with other cities: his analysis shows that Athenian intervention in practice was regularly based on strategic considerations, not on compassion. It is also true that what Athens presented to itself and to its allies as “humanitarianism” could be a cloak for imperialism: in arguing for going to war on behalf of Athens’ Sicilian allies, Alcibiades is reported to have told the Assembly that Athens acquired its empire precisely through (ostensibly) benign intervention:

the way whereby we, and whosoever else hath dominion, hath gotten it, hath ever been the cheerful succouring of their associates that required it, whether they were Greeks or barbarians. (Thucydides, Book VI, c. 18)

But within the dramatic world of The Suppliants, such strategic thinking does not appear. The only hint of it I can discern occurs near the end of Theseus’ exchange with the Theban herald, when the latter accuses both Theseus and Athens of “busy-bodiness” or “meddlesomeness” (prassein poll’) and Theseus replies that that habit makes Athens very prosperous (poll’ eudaimonei). “Busy-bodiness” can occupy the same semantic field as “interventionism,” as when the Athenians tell the Camarineans in Sicily that they have come as allies to the cities on that island that have suffered injustice (adikoumenois) from Syracuse, and that they are intervenors (polla prassein) and liberators because they have much to guard against on Sicily themselves (Book VI, c. 87, 2). But if Euripides is implying a connection between interventionism and imperialism, he does not develop it in this play.

A final note

One final note on Theseus’ speech. In seeking to explain the rationality of the Greek laws relating to the burial of the combat-dead, Theseus remarks that if the custom of permitting the bodies of the defeated side were not upheld, “brave men would shrink from battle.” That may well have been true in classical Greece. In describing the retreat of the beaten and demoralized Athenian army from Sicily, Thucydides tells us that the soldiers were struck “both with fear and grief” in seeing their dead comrades lying unburied on the ground (Book VII, c. 75). Something similar might even be true nowadays. I once asked the grandfather of one of my students, who had taken part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, what he remembered most about that day. He recalled first his own “fear and grief” at seeing the dead bodies of other GIs stacked up.

There is a subtle, ironical consequence to Theseus’ argument, however. If the custom of burying the combat-dead is not honored, then men will be reluctant to fight – and so the chances of future war will be less. On the other hand, by enforcing the war code, Theseus will be making future wars more likely. The code thus seems to be a way of perpetuating the institution of war, not of limiting or ending it. We shall see other ironies of a similar kind as the drama nears its conclusion.

At the sanctuary of the goddess Demeter

The opening scene of The Suppliants is set in the holy ground of the sanctuary ofDemeter the goddess Demeter in Eleusis. The Eleusinian Demeter was a grain goddess, whose Great Mysteries were celebrated annually in September, when the autumn rains were expected to renew the life of the earth. At the climax of the mysteries, a reaped ear of wheat was revealed. Grain was stored in underground rooms in the sanctuary. By placing the play at this site, Euripides is invoking the idea of civilization, which the Greeks associated with the practice of agriculture. Thus, in the description of the shield of Achilles in Book XVIII of The Iliad, the cultivation of wheat is tied to prosperity and the rise of kingship: “at a furrow’s end the king stood pleas’d at heart,/Said no word, but his scepter show’d. And from him, much apart,/His harvest-bailiffs underneath an oak a feast prepar’d” (ll. 506-08). According to Athenian legend, the demi-god Triptolemus, to whom a temple at Eleusis was dedicated, was a favorite (perhaps even the son) of Demeter and is depicted in her company in many Athenian vase paintings. Triptolemus, whose name seems to mean “thrice-ploughed” or “thrice-sown” and who presided over the sowing of grain and the milling of wheat, was credited with inventing the plough and spreading the cultivation of agriculture. Hence he was thought to have originated civilization, which resulted from his discoveries. Sophocles wrote a lost play called Triptolemus. See Susan B. Matheson, The Mission of Triptolemus and the Politics of Athens (1994).

There are many echoes of these legends in The Suppliants. One critic goes so

Demeter, Triptolemus, Persephone
Demeter, Triptolemus, Persephone

far as to suggest seeing the entire play “as a kind of fertility ritual ensuring Athenian and Argive prosperity.” See D.J. Conacher, Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure (1967). The Athenian king Theseus praises “whatever immortal power” it was whose wisdom “[g]ave us earth’s fruit for food and, lest supply should fail/Sends rain to nourish growing plants, and fertilize/The womb of earth.” (Here and hereafter, I use Philip Vellacott’s Penguin Classics translation of the play). And in the speech that opens the play, Aethra, Theseus’ mother, tells us that she has come to Demeter’s shrine at Eleusis “to make sacrifice,/For a good harvest, at this holy shrine, where first/Bristled above the soil the fruitful ears of [wheat].” Aethra is there, apparently, to officiate as Athens’ Queen Mother at the feast of the Eleusinian Proerosia, when the first fruits are gathered. The founding hero of the festival was Triptolemus; it commemorates the beginnings of agriculture. See Noel Robertson, New Light on Demeter’s Mysteries: The Festival Proerosia (1996). Note that Aethra claims that Athens is the place where grain “first” appeared.

Furthermore, the sanctuary at Eleusis was emblematic of Athenian prestige and glory. The Eleusinian Mysteries “were for a thousand years one of the crowning glories of Athens, the pride of her statesmen, poets, and orators, a focal point of piety which though intimately civic was at the same time panhellenic.” Francis R. Walton, Athens, Eleusis, and the Homeric Hymn to Demeter (1952). Many of Athens’ greatest leaders, including Pericles, were associated with renovations of the sanctuary. The accusation against the Athenian politician and general Alcibiades, that he and his friends had profaned the Eleusinian rites, charged him with an extremely serious offense, fed into suspicions that he intended to overthrow the democracy, and prompted him to demand that he be put to death if tried and found guilty. See Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book V, cc. 28-29. The fourth century Athenian orator Isocrates, in celebrating Athens’ contributions to the world, significantly put first two gifts of Demeter, “the greatest [gifts] in the world—the fruits of the earth, which have enabled us to rise above the life of the beasts, and the holy rite [i.e., the Eleusinian mysteries (RJD)] which inspires in those who partake of it sweeter hopes regarding both the end of life and all eternity.” Panegyricus, IV, 28.

Eleusis and panhellenism

Although Eleusis was located on Athenian territory and although the rites celebrated there were used to serve Athens’ self-presentation, the sacred precincts had a panhellenic as well as a specifically Athenian significance. Athens claimed “to be connected to all of Greece through the panhellenic and beneficial institutions” at Eleusis. Barbara Goff, Aithra at Eleusis (1995).

Athens attempted to be at once exclusionary and engaged in relation to the rest of Greece. After a law of Pericles adopted in 451, Athens excluded from citizenship all those who were not born of Athenian parents on both sides. But Athens was happy to open the city to foreigners, and non-Athenians (like the Argive women in the play) were free to worship at Eleusis. Indeed, the shrine at Eleusis, along with those at Dodona, Delos and Samothrace, was one of the four great “common shrines” of Greece, with unrestricted access to all. And sometime in the 420s (i.e., around the time The Suppliants was written), Athens issued the so-called Aparkhai decree, which ordered the city’s allies, and invited other Greek states, to send offerings of corn and barley annually to Eleusis. Athens seems to have been promoting Eleusis as a common religious center for the whole of Greece. See Ian Rutherford, State Pilgrims and Sacred Observers in Ancient Greece (2013).

Eleusis and the legends associated with the site thus functioned as a kind of bridge to other Greek cities. In Xenophon’s Hellenika (Book VI, c. 3.4-6), the Athenian envoy Kallias reminds the Spartans that “the first foreigners to whom Triptolemus, our ancestor, revealed the secret rites of Demeter and Kore were Herakles, your founder, and the Diskouroi, your citizens; and he first gave the seeds of the fruit of Demeter to the Peloponnese” (The Landmark Xenophon’s Hellenika, Robert B. Strassler (ed.), John Marincola (trans.)). Through Eleusis and its cult, Athens claimed to be the source and provider of benefits, both material and spiritual, to the whole of the Greek world. It sought to be (as we might say) the supplier of international public goods for the other Greek cities (and hence entitled to a hegemonic role in their affairs). Panhellenic values will loom large in the play: Athens goes to war against Thebes for the sake of upholding panhellenic law and custom.

The rites of supplication

By situating the beginning of the play at a sacred site, Euripides has also Suppliantsunderscored the social and religious significance of the actions of the Argive King and women in “supplicating” Athens. “Supplication” (“hiketeia”) was an important and distinctive social practice in ancient Greece. It was highly ritualized and was enacted through stylized symbolic gestures, such as kneeling and clasping or touching the beard, chin, hands or knees of the person to whom the supplication is made. The two main forms of supplication were a face-to-face encounter between a human being and a god (or another human), and an appeal through contact with the altar or sacred precincts of a god. See John Gould, Hiketeia (1973). Supplication of the first kind is illustrated by King Priam’s visit to the camp of Achilles in Book XXIV of The Iliad, ll. 414 et seq., when – following the instructions given by the god Hermes — he kisses Achilles’ hand and beseeches him to release to him the body of his son Hector. The action of The Suppliants, which takes place at a shrine, illustrates the second form, although it includes significant elements of the first. (For example, the Argive women cling to the knees of Theseus, clasp his hand and touch his beard.) Theseus himself describes the Argive women and their king as “formal suppliants.”

Suppliants were under the special protection of Zeus. In Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women (l. 1, l. 438), Zeus is said to “guard suppliants.” In Sophocles’ Ajax, the archer Teucer, fearing for the life of the son of his brother Ajax after Ajax’s death, bids him to assume the posture of a suppliant next to his father’s body and places a curse on any evil-doer who may seek to harm the lad. In Book IX of the Odyssey (ll. 303-05), Odysseus appeals to Polyphemus to bear in mind that he is a suppliant, guarded by Zeus of the Strangers, who will punish disregard of his rights. “[A]ll suppliants were placed under Zeus’ protection, and those who harmed a suppliant or violated the established rules were liable to divine sanctions.” Nonetheless, whether to yield to a suppliant’s pleas was in the discretion of the more powerful person to whom the appeal was made. Angeliki Tzanetou, City of Suppliants: Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (2012).

As suppliants at the Eleusian sanctuary, the Argive women and king occupy a liminal position between the gods and men: they stand at the border where humanity encounters the divine, and so demonstrate the “extra-territoriality of the sacred” (Gould). Moreover, they are powerless, but their very powerlessness invests them with the mystery and aura of the supernatural. (The blind, aged, ruined, destitute Oedipus, also portrayed as a suppliant in Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus, exerts the same kind of power when seeking refuge from Thebes at the village of Colonus, near Athens.) Their speech, gestures and posture demonstrate their shameful vulnerability; but they also pose an implicit threat to the more powerful, because it would be shameful not to pity those who are so wretched, especially when the supplication is enacted in a public space. “The suppliant is by definition weak and defenceless; yet he carries within him the threatening power of what is ‘beyond’” (Gould). Moreover, the Argive women are foreigners, strangers to Athens; and yet they assert some claim to its protection, as if they were members of the city’s community. Supplication, in short, was “a ritual one of whose functions is to bring an aberrant human being within the norms of the social order and to mitigate or resolve the crises which result when the community or its representative agent is confronted with what is ‘outside’” (Gould).

Just as the unburied sons are “outsiders” at Thebes, lying on its soil but given no place in its social order, so the suppliant women are “outsiders” at Athens. But Euripides will show that Athens, unlike Thebes, has the humaneness and the courage to take the outsiders “in.” As Sophocles’ Oedipus will say of Athens, it must show itself to be “that rock of reverence all men say it is,/the only city on earth to save the ruined stranger,/the only one to protect him, give him shelter.” Oedipus at Colonus, ll. 277-79 (Robert Fagles trans.).

Note, though, the counterpoint later in the play (after Athens’ victory at Thebes). Although the Argive mothers get their sons’ bodies back, they will still lament their deaths and, strikingly, they will still remain “outsiders.” Just as their unburied sons occupied a liminal place between the living and the dead, so too will their bereaved mothers:

Now in childless misery

I tread the lonely road to old age;

Numbered neither with the dead nor with the living

I inhabit the world of the outcast.

The Argive mothers

War is unfamiliar to most of us. But we should not mistake the depths of the Argive mothers’ agony. In our own time, we need only consider the anguish of the Argentine “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.” Beginning in 1977, a group of mothers marched every Thursday around the central square of Buenos Aires, demanding that the government inform them of the fates of their children, who had “disappeared” by the tens of thousands in the political violence of the 1970s and early 1980s against left-wing activists. Until they discovered what had happened to their children, the mothers’ grief could not be assuaged: they marched for over thirty-five years.

For reasons that I cannot claim to fathom, it is a balm to such suffering to learn WWI Memorialthe fate of a child who has gone missing in war, and still more to be able to hold that child’s remains, visit that child’s grave, or at least know the place and circumstances of his or her death. In his moving and powerful account of how Britain and her Empire dealt with the burial of their dead soldiers after the First World War, David Crane writes of the yearning that thousands of parents across the Empire felt to identify or to visit the sites where their sons had died or been buried:

In 1931, an Australian mother was found sobbing at the grave on Gallipoli of a son who she had thought among the missing. ‘If only I could see your grave, I would die happy,’ another Australian, the mother of Jack Fothergill, killed on the first day of the Gallipoli landings in 1915, wrote . . . eight years later.

Empires of the Dead (2013).

While reflection on experiences that are, like these, nearer in culture and time to us may help us understand the Argive mothers’ sorrow, it seems that we would still have not touched the full depth of their agony. Greek epic and tragedy seem to have had a unique pathos and poignancy on this matter. In her Mothers in Mourning (1998 (French ed. 1990)), the French classicist Nicole Loraux calls attention to the fact that in Greek literature, the sight of a son’s corpse is presented as the cause of a peculiarly intense, as it were physical, anguish for his mother, activating in her what Loraux calls a “body-memory.” “Suddenly present with a heart-rending accuracy, the grief and the memory of the intimacy of these bodies produce excessive pain for the body-memory of mothers. Euripidean tragedy has much to say about this sensual intensity that expresses itself only on a background of loss.” Here in The Suppliants, the Argive women plead for the recovery of their sons’ bodies so that they can once more hold and touch them: “Out of the depth of pain I cry to your [Aethra’s] son/To give my dead into my arms,/ That I may embrace and mourn the body that I bore.” And later: “Give me my son;/ Let my arms hold him fast;/ Let my embrace rest and enfold him.”

Loraux connects this longing with the scene in Book XXII of The Iliad in which Hector’s mother Hecuba implores him not to fight Achilles: she knows, not only that Achilles will kill her son, but also that he will take his body, and so deprive her of the comfort that she has often imagined that she would eventually have in holding his body in the mourning ritual. Hecuba tells Hector (in Loraux’s translation) (ll. 86-7):

If he kills you, I shall no longer be able to weep

Over your bier, dear child, whom I myself begat.

Loraux comments: “As if mourning necessarily were part of a mother’s fate from the very beginning, Hecuba has so much anticipated the vision, both dreaded and strangely comforting, of Hector’s prothesis [the part of the Greek death ritual in which the body is laid out and ritually cleansed (RJD)] that the mother panics . . . foreseeing the loss of her son and of his dead body [my italics (RJD)], as well as of the comfort brought on by ritual. . . . Hecuba thus evokes . . . the ritual that has been imagined so often and will not take place.” The bond between the mother’s body and her son’s, ruptured by his death, must be reknitted in the funeral ritual by her holding and mourning over his body, or her grief and loss are redoubled.

And this, Euripides shows us, will become the final, exquisite agony of the Argive mothers. For Theseus, despite eventually recovering their sons’ bodies and bringing them back to Athens, will deny them the one last chance to hold them; and Adrastus will concur. Between them, the two kings, guardians of the civil order, will set limits to the grieving of the women:

ADRASTUS: Is it wrong for a mother’s hand to touch her son?

THESEUS:   They are disfigured; the sight would be too great a shock. . . [W]hy inflict distress on these women?

ADRASTUS [To the CHORUS]: Wait patiently. Theseus is right.

The civic ideology of ancient Athens had little patience with women’s mourning. In Sophocles’ Ajax (ll. 579-80), the hero says to his concubine Tecmessa, “make no laments before the house. God, what a weepy thing is woman” (Richard Jebb trans.). Even Pericles’ funeral oration pays little concern to women: Pericles remarks near the end (Book Two, c. 45) that a woman’s part is simply not to be talked about. But Euripides’ play lets the Argive mothers speak, if not mourn.

Democratic War

A violation of the Greek norm that enjoins dishonoring the bodies of an enemy’s

Thebans at war
Thebans at war

battle-dead is at the core of Euripides’ Suppliants. Correcting that violation is what appears to give Athens just cause to wage war against the violator, Thebes, which will not permit the burial of the soldiers from Argos who died in battle before Thebes’ gates. We have thus far tracked the development of this norm from Homer through Sophocles, with sidelong glances at other Greek authors. We have seen that the norm was upheld as early as Homer, although it permitted exceptions. We have also seen that the norm was sometimes characterized as unwritten, divine in origin and everlasting in duration, and sometimes as a custom binding in the Greek world only and a special mark of its superior civilization.

In what follows, we shall briefly review other sources of evidence for the norm: the early fifth century historian Herodotus, who was born in Halicarnassus, now in Turkey but then in Greek Ionia, and the later fifth century Athenian historian Thucydides. Both writers strongly confirm the existence of the norm. We shall conclude this section with an analysis of the special place of this norm to fifth century, democratic Athens, and to the Athenian audiences of Euripides’ play.


By the time Herodotus wrote, it would seem that the burial norm in question had


become well entrenched. In Book IX of his Histories, an inquiry into the wars between the Greek city states and the neighboring Persian Empire, Herodotus recounts a conversation after the Greek victory over the Persians in the battle of Plataea between one Lampron, a leading figure in the Greek city of Aegina, and Pausanias, a Spartan general. Seeking to ingratiate himself to Pausanias, Lampron proposed that Pausanias cut off the head of the fallen Persian Mardonius and impale it, just as Mardonius had earlier done to Leonidas, the uncle of Pausanias. This, Lampron said, would both avenge Leonidas and deter other barbarians from attacking Greece. But Pausanias was repelled by the suggestion. He said to Lampron:

Aeginetan, I thank you for your goodwill and forethought, but you have missed the mark of right judgment. First you exalt me and my fatherland and my deeds, yet next you cast me down to mere nothingness when you advise me to insult the dead, and say that I shall win more praise if I do so. That would be an act more proper for barbarians than for Greeks and one that we consider worthy of censure even in barbarians.

(Book IX, 79, 1) (emphasis added) (A.D. Godley trans.).

Herodotus further illustrates the norm in a story that concerns Onesilos, the younger brother of the King of Salamis in Cyprus, who was killed while besieging the city of Amathous. Herodotus tells us (Book V, cc. 114) that the Amathousians cut off his head and hung it up over their city’s gates. In time bees swarmed into the hollow skull and honeycombed it. The Amathousians consulted an oracle about it, who advised them to take down the head, bury it, and worship Onesilos as a hero every year. It would seem that the Amathousians had wronged Onesilos by displaying his severed head and had to make recompense by offering him worship.


A single episode from Thucydides’ History will suffice. This occurs after the


battle of Delium in November 424, in which the Athenians were defeated by the Thebans. See The Peloponnesian War, Book IV, cc. 97 et seq. As was customary for the side that had been defeated, the Athenians requested a truce after the battle so that they might reclaim and bury their dead. The victorious Thebans at first refused, arguing that because the Athenians had transgressed the law by occupying and fortifying the consecrated site of a temple, they would not permit them to gather in their dead until they evacuated the temple. The Athenian defense, which is not of direct concern to us here, is an extended and sophistic application of the doctrine of “necessity” in war (on which see Clifford Orwin, Piety, Justice, and the Necessities of War: Thucydides’ Delian Debate (1989). For our purposes, the critical facts are that the Athenians affirmed, and the Thebans did not deny, that but for the alleged Athenian sacrilege, the Thebans should have granted a truce and allowed the Athenians to recover their dead. Moreover, after driving away the Athenians, the Thebans did in fact permit the Athenians to retrieve the bodies, thus underscoring the legitimacy of the Athenians’ claims.

Several scholars have viewed this episode after the battle at Delium as the inspiration for Euripides’ Suppliants, thus dating the play close to 424 (perhaps 423). That may be so, although the evidence is inconclusive. Other scholars, observing that the play ends with an alliance between Athens and Argos, date the play to around 421, seeing it as a celebration of the treaty that Athens and Argos concluded that year. (See L.H.G. Greenwood, Aspects of Euripidean Tragedy (1953); for the treaty, see Thucydides, Peloponnesian War, Book V, cc. 44, 47.) This too cannot be proven. In her valuable Theseus, Tragedy, and the Athenian Empire (1997), Sophie Mills notes that “since an alliance was made between Argos and Athens in 421 (and renewed in 416), it is likely that the alliance of the play is also intended to link the myth with contemporary politics for the audience;” but she also points out that “although the language of Euripides’ treaty strongly resembles that of historical treaties, its actual terms differ significantly from those of the treaty of 421.”

What matters more for us is that by the time The Suppliants was produced, the Greeks considered it to be among the most fundamental norms of war to allow an adversary to collect and to bury its battle-dead. The justice of a war depends in large part (though not entirely) on the justice of the cause for which it is undertaken. If Euripides means us to think that Athens made war on Thebes to uphold this norm, then that war would seem to have had a just cause.

War and democratic Athens

Moreover, we are now also in a position to see the particularly compelling nature of the norm for Euripides’ audience in democratic Athens. To an extent that most Americans would find hard to understand (even though our country has been almost constantly at war since 1941), the Athenian imagination was saturated with the idea, and usually the fact, of war. W.R. Connor, in an article on Greek warfare cited earlier, remarks that for fifth century Greeks, “war was more than tactics, strategy and gore; it was linked to almost every aspect of their social organization and to their rich imaginative life.” And with its rulership over a large, tribute-paying overseas empire, democratic Athens was especially war-prone. David Pritchard writes of fifth century Athens:

War now dominated the politics of the city and the lives of thousands of upper- and lower-class citizens. Foreign policy was the mainstay of political debate, with war and peace being a compulsory item on the agenda [of Athens’ assemblies]. Fifth-century Athenians waged war more frequently than ever before: they launched one or more campaigns in two out of every three years on average and never enjoyed peace for more than a decade. . . By the 450s military service was also perceived as the duty of every citizen, which the Athenian demos appears to have taken very seriously.

When our Athenian authors wrote or spoke of war, they spoke with first-hand knowledge. Thucydides was a general, as was Sophocles; Socrates had fought at the battle of Delium. Over 70% of adult, male Athenian citizens were available for active service, and about 30% of militarily active citizens served in the hoplite infantry (Pritchard). At the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, Pericles (in Thucydides’ account) stated that Athens was fielding 13,000 hoplites and deploying another 16,000 men to guard the city’s forts and walls. At the time, the adult male population of the city is estimated at about 60,000. And not only did many Athenian citizens experience combat; high numbers of those citizens were killed in action, and many more risked being killed.

For Athenian citizens and their families, therefore, war was woven into the fabric of ordinary life. They debated it; waged it; endured its hardships; and died in or from it. And for those reasons, the city’s practices regarding the burial of its citizen battle-dead were of the utmost importance to all of them. The city’s commemoration of those dead flooded and enriched its citizens’ imaginations. Its funerary practices lay at the center of the web of reciprocal claims and obligations that bound the citizens and the city to each other. Athens might ask you to give your life for it; but in return it promised you an afterlife of undying glory in its collective memory. Every Athenian soldier whom Pericles praised in his Funeral Oration had died, he argued, a beautiful death, worthy of a Homeric hero:

For having every one given his body to the commonwealth, they receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre; not wherein they are buried so much, as wherein their glory is laid up, upon all occasions both of speech and action to be remembered for ever. For to famous men all the earth is a sepulchre: and their virtues shall be testified, not only by the inscription in stone at home, but by an unwritten record of the mind, which more than of any monument will remain with every one for ever.

With this understanding of the Greek war convention in mind, let us consider the play itself more closely. In the following installments, I will review and analyze the action of the drama. The next posting will discuss the significance of the setting of the play at the shrine of the goddess Demeter at Eleusis, and will describe the institution of “supplication.” Thereafter, postings will successively cover the opening scenes leading up to the entry of the Theban herald; Theseus’ colloquy with the Theban herald; the scenes culminating in the report of Theseus’ victory at Thebes and his return to Athens; and from then on up to the play’s conclusion, including the appearance of the goddess Athena.

The Burials of Greek Warriors

The ancient Greeks paid unusual homage to the bodies of soldiers – their own tomb-unknown-soldier-marble-sculpture-dying-ancient-greek-hoplite-warrior-holding-his-shield-spear-athens-greece-42949806city’s, or occasionally those of another – who had fallen in battle, and surrounded their funerals with solemn and impressive rituals. Thus, in the seventh book of Homer’s Iliad, the Trojan prince Hector challenges the invading Greek army to select its finest warrior to fight with him man-to-man, and so decide the outcome of the Trojan War by single combat. Hector promises that if he prevails and kills the Greek challenger, he will give him an honorable funeral and burial, so that the fame both of the Greek hero and of Hector himself will endure. The Elizabethan poet George Chapman, in a translation celebrated in Keats’s On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer, renders Hector’s speech as follows:

. . . if I can slaughter him

         (Apollo honouring me so much), I’ll spoil his conquered limb,

         And bear his arms to Ilion, where in Apollo’s shrine

         I’ll hang them, as my trophies due; his body I’ll resign

         To be disposed by his friends in flamy funerals

         And honour’d with erected tomb, where Hellespontus falls

         Into Aegeum, and doth reach ev’n to your naval road,

         That when our beings in the earth shall hide their period,

         Survivors sailing the black sea may thus his name renew:

         “This is his monument, whose blood long since did fates imbrue,

         Whom passing far in fortitude, illustrious Hector slew.”

         Thus shall posterity report, and my fame never die.

Much of the latter part of The Iliad is in fact occupied with detailed descriptions of funeral practices, including the elaborate feasting, games, gift-giving, ceremonies and sacrifices that Achilles staged in honor of his fallen comrade Patroclus and the building of the monumental mound that he erected as Patroclus’ temporary burial site. Among other things, Achilles slaughtered “twelve Trojan youths, born of their noblest strains,” to the memory of Patroclus (Iliad Book XXIII, l. 19). And we should recall that the conclusion of The Iliad is a warrior’s burial: it marks the funeral rites of Hector, tamer of horses (Iliad Book XXIV, l. 711).

But in the world Homer describes, such practices are reserved for heroes and lords like Patroclus. Ordinary soldiers killed in battle seem simply to have been cremated (see Iliad Book I, l. 52). Thus, Homer has the Greek king Agamemnon say that corpses should be given to the flames promptly after death, and the Greek army acts accordingly, gathering in both bodies and fuel (Iliad Book VII, ll. 417-32).   (The twelve young Trojans whom Achilles sacrificed were left unburied.)

The archaic tradition regarding burial is reflected in later Greek writing. In the seventh century, the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus, much revered in his native city (the Spartan army sang his poems on the way to battle), wrote in one elegy:

he that falleth in the van and loseth dear life to the glory of his city and his countrymen and his father, with many a frontwise wound through breast and breastplate and through bossy shield, he is bewailed alike by young and old, and lamented with sore regret by all the city. His grave and his children are conspicuous among men, and his children’s and his line after them; nor ever doth his name and good fame perish, but though he be underground he liveth evermore, seeing that he was doing nobly and abiding in the fight for country’s and children’s sake when fierce Ares brought him low.

Under Tyrtaeus’ influence, Spartan soldiers wrote their names on small sticks so that if they were killed, their bodies could be readily identified. See Diodorus Siculus, Book VIII, c. 27.

The funeral rites of Athens

Fifth century, democratic Athens, however, stands out for the remarkably full honors that it extended to ordinary citizen-soldiers.

The historian Herodotus relates the tale of the Athenian statesman Solon, who claimed that the happiest of all men was one Tellus, chiefly because of the manner of his death in battle and subsequent burial (Histories, Book I, 30):

Tellus was from a prosperous city, and his children were good and noble. He saw children born to them all, and all of these survived. His life was prosperous by our standards, and his death was most glorious: when the Athenians were fighting their neighbors in Eleusis, he came to help, routed the enemy, and died very finely. The Athenians buried him at public expense on the spot where he fell and gave him much honor.

Later Athenian authors tell us more about such funeral honors. Indeed, these honors occupied a central position in the city’s civic life.

In Plato’s curious dialogue Menexenus, perhaps intended as a playful comment on the Athenian practice of solemnizing the burial of dead with funeral orations, Socrates is made to say:

O Menexenus! Death in battle is certainly in many respects a noble thing. The dead man gets a fine and costly funeral, although he may have been poor, and an elaborate speech is made over him by a wise man who has long ago prepared what he has to say, although he who is praised may not have been good for much. The speakers praise him for what he has done and for what he has not done — that is the beauty of them — and they steal away our souls with their embellished words; in every conceivable form they praise the city; and they praise those who died in war, and all our ancestors who went before us; and they praise ourselves also who are still alive, until I feel quite elevated by their laudations, and I stand listening to their words, Menexenus, and become enchanted by them, and all in a moment I imagine myself to have become a greater and nobler and finer man than I was before. And if, as often happens, there are any foreigners who accompany me to the speech, I become suddenly conscious of having a sort of triumph over them, and they seem to experience a corresponding feeling of admiration at me, and at the greatness of the city, which appears to them, when they are under the influence of the speaker, more wonderful than ever.

No doubt the most famous passages in Greek literature to describe the honor Periclesthat is due to a city’s fallen soldiers are found in Thucydides’ rendition of the Funeral Oration delivered by the Athenian leader Pericles over those who died at the outset of the Peloponnesian War (431 BC – 404 BC), in which Athens and Sparta contended for supremacy in Greece. Less well known than Pericles’ speech, however, is Thucydides’ introduction to it, which describes the Athenians’ customary practices on such solemn occasions. Let us consider Thucydides’ remarks here. (Whether Thucydides’ description is wholly accurate is considered in Mark Toher’s 1999 paper, On “Thucydides’ Blunder”.

In Thomas Hobbes’ translation:

Having set up a tent, they put into it the bones of the dead three days before the funeral: and every one bringeth whatsoever he thinks good to his own. When the day comes of carrying them to their burial, certain cypress coffins are carried along in carts, for every tribe one, in which are the bones of the men of every tribe by themselves. There is likewise borne an empty hearse covered over, for such as appear not, nor were found amongst the rest when they were taken up. The funeral is accompanied by any that will, whether citizen or stranger; and the women of their kindred are also by at the burial, lamenting and mourning. Then they put them into a public monument, which standeth in the fairest suburbs of the city [the Ceramicus (RJD)]; in which place they have ever interred all that died in the wars, except those that were slain in the field of Marathon: who, because their virtue was thought extraordinary, were therefore buried there-right. And when the earth is thrown over them, some one thought to exceed the rest in wisdom and dignity, chosen by the city, maketh an oration, wherein he giveth them such praises as are fit: which done, the company depart.

In his splendid book Burial and Ancient Society: The Rise of the Greek City-State (1987), Ian Morris observes that Thucydides “presented death in battle as the apotheosis of citizenship, and, interestingly, the burial of the war dead is the only context we know of where funeral games took place in fifth-century Athens. Three inscribed bronze vases given as prizes in these games . . . are known.”

Athenian burial practices and its democracy

David Pritchard adds to our understanding of Athens’ funeral rites for its dead warriors in his essay The symbiosis between democracy and war: the case of ancient Athens (2010).  The tombs in which the dead warriors were placed “were adorned with statues of lions and friezes depicting groups of generic hoplites and cavalrymen vanquishing their enemies, both of which signified the aretê [virtue or, more specifically, courage (RJD)] of those being buried.” Further, “each tomb displayed a complete list of the year’s casualties, including citizen sailors, which was organised [into the ten Athenian] tribes. . . . [T]hese casualty lists gave the same space to the name of every citizen, regardless of what his military rank and social class had been.” Pritchard observes that this austere form of remembrance “reinforces the impression that the principle of democratic equality . . . strongly shaped [the Athenians’] honouring of the war dead.” He notes that a surviving fragment of Euripides’ lost play “Erechtheus” says that those who “die in war they share a common tomb with many others and an equal fame” (added emphasis) (J.O. Burtt trans.).

Further, Athens’ dead combatants were not only equal, in the city’s eyes, in nobility and courage; they were also beyond death, perpetuated in the renewed and everlasting life of the city. W.R. Connor, in his 1988 article Early Greek Land Warfare as Symbolic Expression, calls attention to this aspect of the tribal war memorials:

The final commemoration . . . is a memorial consisting of names, just names, name after named, arranged by tribe. . . . These, unlike the battlefield trophaion [the trophy or victory marker erected on the field after a battle (RJD)], are intended to be permanent. As the impermanence of the trophy marks the transitoriness of human relationships, the inscribed names of the dead mark the endurance that comes from comes from the merging of the individual into the community.

Some conclusions

Reflection on the ancient texts and practices will lead us to several conclusions about the significance of the burial of a city’s own battle-dead.

First, we see (at least in democratic Athens) the heroization of the common soldier-citizen. Ordinary men who die fighting for their city can now enter the honor-world that in Homer is reserved for lords and heroes. If, as Eva Brann has suggested, the Iliad itself can be seen as a “tremendous war memorial” because it records the names, descent and homelands of the many leading warriors who died in its battles, so the Athenian mortuary list of names raises those it commemorates to the same heroic level. (See Eva Brann, Homeric Moments (2002)). Even a poor man, Plato remarks, receives “a fine and costly funeral” and an “elaborate speech.” And Thucydides tells us that Athens also honors its unknown soldiers: the funeral procession includes “an empty hearse covered over” to commemorate them. Furthermore, the families of those who have fallen are ennobled along with them. Democratic America, with its simple and egalitarian national cemeteries, its Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its unadorned memorial listing the names of those who died in the Vietnam War, should readily grasp these points.

Athens may have been a democracy but, as Pericles argued in the Funeral Oration, it was a democracy of a singularly aristocratic kind, in which poverty and obscurity were not insuperable barriers to the achievement of honor by those who would serve the city. The ordinary citizen, Pericles says, “is not put back through poverty for the obscurity of his person, as long as he can do good service to the commonwealth” (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 37). And even if some of the dead were worthier of praise than others, Pericles insists that all must be honored equally: “even such of them as were worse than the rest, do nevertheless deserve, that for their valour shown in the war for defence of their country they should be preferred before the rest” (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 42). All the deaths that are being commemorated were honorable: “choosing rather to fight and die, than to shrink and be saved, they fled from shame, but with their bodies stood out the battle; . . . [and so] left their lives not in fear, but in opinion of victory” (id.).

Second, we should note the extraordinary sense of identity and common purpose that exists between the democratic city and those who fight for it. Thucydides has the Athenian general Nicias tell his soldiers that of themselves they make the city: “wheresover you please to sit down, there presently of yourselves you are a city” (Peloponnesian War, Book VII, c. 77). The city’s fate and their fates are the same, and even after death, they will live in the continuing and indestructible life of the city. The burial rites encapsulate the city’s promise, not only that it will remember its battle-dead, but also that it will recover their remains and inter them before the eyes of those they died defending. Everyone who has “given his body to the commonwealth,” Pericles affirms, will “receive in place thereof an undecaying commendation and a most remarkable sepulchre” (id. at Book II, c. 43).

Indeed, we might go even further. Robert Hertz, a pupil of the great nineteenth century sociologist Emile Durkheim, argued in the spirit of his teacher that we should conceive of the emotions aroused by a death and the rites by which death is marked, not simply as individual or private matters, but as social facts. (For an excellent summary of Hertz’s ideas, see Douglas J. Davies, The social triumph over death (2000). Hertz pointed out that the person who had died was not merely a biological individual but also “a social being grafted upon” that body. Hence the death of that individual represented a threat to the social order, and its destruction “is tantamount to a sacrilege” against that society. Society had to meet this threat somehow. It did so, Hertz argued, in a two-phased sequence of mortuary rituals: first, a phase of “disaggregation,” represented by the temporary disposal of the corpse; then by a phase of “reinstallation” or “secondary burial,” from which the society reconstituted itself and emerged triumphantly over death. In that final, reconstitutive ceremony, mourning came to an end and the departed soul was taken to have been incorporated into a social order of the dead that was continuous with the order of the living. The burial rites, in short, affirmed order as against the threat of disorder, and the unending life of the society as against the death of its individual members. As Morris summarizes this approach, “the funerary process re-presented society as pure and unblemished, in a perpetual youthful bloom through the preservation of the beautiful corpse, and its subsequent reduction to a permanent state via cremation.”

Finally, the burial rites renew and magnify the city, not only in the eyes of its own citizens, but also in those of the foreigners who watch the spectacle. Plato’s Socrates says that if there are foreigners present at a funeral speech, he experiences “a sort of triumph over them,” while they “seem to experience a corresponding feeling of admiration at me, and at the greatness of the city.” Pericles too notes in his oration that it will be “profitable to the whole company [of his audience], both of citizens and strangers,” to hear the battle-dead praised and, more especially, to hear the democratic constitution of Athens described (Peloponnesian War, Book II, c. 3).

(Note: For those who may be interested in exploring these topics further, volume IV of Kendrick Pritchett’s monumental The Greek State at War (1985) provides a wealth of information).

The Just War in Greek Tragedy: Euripides’ “Suppliants”

Woman and Skull
American Woman Writes a Thank You Note for Souvenir Japanese Skull, Life Magazine, 1944

I am very grateful to the editors of this website for offering me the opportunity to return to its pages. I would like to use the opportunity to pursue what I hope will be a fresh approach to the just war tradition. I plan to explore just war thinking through an extended consideration of Greek tragedy – specifically, Euripides’ Suppliants (or Suppliant Women).

Just war theory has undoubtedly become the predominant account of the morality of war in contemporary secular thought. As Michael Walzer, who has done so much to stimulate the development, has observed, ever since the War in Vietnam, American debates over the morality of war have been structured in terms of Just War theory. See Michael Walzer, The Triumph of Just War Theory (and the Dangers of Success) (2002). So firm is its hold that it was not surprising to hear President Obama consider it at some length in his 2009 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, or to read that his Administration claims to be following it in its military activities, including drone warfare. (For critical discussion, see this piece. Likewise, just war theory has long been the mainstream tradition in Catholic and other Christian thought about peace and war.

The Just War Canon

Part of the explanation for the dominance of just war theory is the pedigree that scholars have assigned to it. In most standard accounts, such as Alex Bellamy’s excellent Just Wars: From Cicero to Iraq (2008), the tradition of just war thinking begins with the Roman politician, orator and thinker Cicero, is Christianized by St. Augustine, is then reconfigured by St. Thomas Aquinas, and afterwards is handed down through the early modern Spanish scholastics and their secular successors, including Hugo Grotius and Emer de Vattel to the modern period. In this narrative, the tradition waned in the “positivist” period of international law in the nineteenth century, but was revived in the aftermath of the First World War, see Cornelius van Vollenhoven, Three Stages in the Evolution of the Law of Nations (1919), and then came into its own in this country with writers of the Cold War period such as Paul Ramsey, see The just war: Force and political responsibility (1968) and others.

In my judgment, this standard narrative is at best incomplete, at worst false. If nothing else, it fails to account for the centuries-long gap between Augustine and Aquinas. As Philip Wynn has recently argued in a monumental work of scholarship, Augustine on War and Military Service (2013), Augustine’s writings on the justice of war are scattered and episodic, reflecting more his pastoral concerns as a bishop than his intellectual preoccupations as a systematic theologian. Moreover, as I have argued myself, the long interval between Augustine and Aquinas, Christian thought and practice concerning war and peace was not filled by continuing reflection on, and elaboration of, a just war doctrine stemming from Augustine. Instead, Christian thought exhibited several different tendencies, one of which emphasized the sinfulness of all wars, including just ones, and required returning warriors who had taken life in their campaigns to confess their sin and do penance for it. See Robert Delahunty, The Returning Warrior and the Limits of Just War Theory (2014). Just war theory, with purported roots in Augustine, was in fact largely the creation of canon lawyers working for the Papacy in the great eleventh century Reform (or Revolution) undertaken by Popes such as Gregory VII (Hildebrand).   Later scholars have accepted as legitimate the pedigree that these canonists confected for just war doctrine.

A Different “Canon”

There is, moreover, another important, but largely neglected, stream of Western thought about just war that flows outside the current canon. I would hesitate to say that these other writings constituted a “tradition,” but they certainly equal the current just war canon in terms of antiquity, depth, and the distinction of their authors. This body of thought and reflection is found primarily in works of literature and history, rather than in theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, or statecraft. In this counter-canon (to call it that), the Roman historian Sallust would loom as large as Cicero does in the current canon, and Shakespeare would be as important as Aquinas or Grotius. In this series of postings, I will argue that the Athenian tragic poet Euripides, writing in the late fifth century BC, deserves inclusion in any canon of great Western writers on the subject of justice in war.

I am not, of course, arguing that one can find the term “just war,” or any near equivalent, in the writers of drama and history whom I have in mind. (For that matter, it is not so easy to find occurrences of the term in any ancient writers, including Cicero.) What I am saying is that the concept of a just war can be identified there, and that the application of that concept is studied in ways that can be of profound interest. To be sure, dramatists and historians pursue their studies in ways that are necessarily different from those of philosophers or lawyers, whose function it is to frame general rules. The former are essentially concerned with individual situations, and their presentation of the issues is concrete and unsystematized. To use Wittgenstein’s distinction, they show rather than say. But the very complications that are added by fixing on the unique and unrepeatable can deepen and enrich our reflections on the morality of war.

The Relevance of “The Suppliants”: Humanitarian Intervention

I am not especially concerned with whether Euripides’ play is relevant to contemporary concerns or not, but in fact it is.

Written (likely) sometime in the late 420s, The Suppliants is the product of wartime conditions. Athens and its great rival Sparta had gone to war for hegemony in Greece some years earlier, in 431. The end of the conflict came only in 404, long after any plausible date for the play. The war saw the collision of two very different types of system: Sparta was a conservative, land-based power of a somewhat autocratic cast, Athens had been a popular democracy for decades (an unusual political régime in the ancient world), a naval power, and a commercial hub, the center of a sea-based empire. Euripides’ drama is not overtly about the Peloponnesian War (though many readers have heard echoes of it in the play), but about a mythic conflict many centuries before, between Athens under its legendary King Theseus and the city-state of Thebes, long a rival and often an enemy of Athens.

In the play, Theseus and Athens are persuaded to intervene militarily against Thebes on behalf of a third Greek city state, Argos. Argos has gone to war against Thebes in support of a claimant to the Theban throne. Argos’ war, as the play will reveal, was impious and unjust. Argos has been defeated, and many of the warriors in the Argive expeditionary force have been killed in battle before the gates of Thebes. The Greek war convention called for the defeated side to request a truce so that it could recover the bodies of its battle-dead and bury them; the victorious side was expected to grant the truce and permit the recovery of the dead bodies. Thebes had denied the Argive request, and the bodies of the Argive soldiers remained unburied. Led by Adrastus, the King of Argos, the bereaved mothers of the unburied Argive soldiers come as “supplicants” to Athens, seeking its intervention against Thebes, whether by arbitration or, if need be, by war, to recover their sons. After considerable delay and debate, Theseus and Athens finally agree to march on Thebes. Their campaign is bloody and closely fought, but successful, and the bodies are recovered and brought back to Athens. That might seem a natural point at which to end the play, but Euripides has several surprises left for us, including the spectacular suicide of the widow of one of the Argive soldiers (a scene without precedent in Greek tragedy) and the unexpected appearance of the goddess Athena, a dea ex machina, at the end, who issues orders that countermand those just given by King Theseus.

The action of the drama poses, in stark form, the core questions arising from armed military interventions for humanitarian purposes. In recent decades, the United States has repeatedly faced the same question: in Kosovo; in Libya; in central Africa (against the Lord’s Resistance Army); and currently in Syria. Euripides forces his audiences and his readers to ask themselves what humanitarian interventions ultimately achieve, and whether they resolve conflict or only perpetuate it. Further, the play provokes reflection on the question of the motivations for humanitarian intervention: is the intervening power truly acting altruistically or for the sake of some international common good, or does intervention usually stem from hegemonic or imperialistic motives? (On the contemporary debate, see Michael W. Doyle, The Question of Intervention: John Stuart Mill & the Responsibility to Protect (2015)).

The treatment of the bodies of dead enemy combatants

There is a second issue dramatized by the play that holds contemporary interest – though our concern with it seems less than that of the Greeks. This is the question of the treatment of the bodies of enemy warriors who have been killed in battle.

Our contemporary war convention is clear and emphatic in its rules for the treatment of battle-dead soldiers. Article 15 of the First Geneva Convention of 1949, requires the “Parties to the conflict” “particularly after an engagement” “to search for the dead and prevent their being despoiled.” Article 17 further provides that the Parties to the conflict “shall further ensure that the dead are honourably interred, if possible according to the rites of the religion to which they belonged.” As the 1952 Commentary by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) notes, the Articles refer to the “Parties to the conflict,” thus making it plain that these obligations apply to both sides.

The ICRC Commentary also emphasizes the respect with which the dead bodies must be treated:

The dead must also be looked for and brought back behind the lines with as much care as the wounded. It is not always certain that death has taken place. It is, moreover, essential that the dead bodies should be identified and given a decent burial. When a man has been hit with such violence that there is nothing left of him but scattered remains, these must be carefully collected.

Similar prescriptions have also been laid down in religious teaching, and have long formed part of the customs and practices of war. Consider, e.g., early Islam. “Following the desecration of his own uncle by enemy soldiers, Mohammad (570-632) banned the mutilation of the dead. Following suit, Abou Bekr (571-634), explicitly told his soldiers going out to fight enemies that ‘see that none deals with treachery. You shall mutilate none.’ The scholar Abd al-Rahman al Awza’i (704-74) reiterated this rule against mutilation of the enemy dead.” Alexander Gillespie, A History of the Laws of War, vol. I (2011). Or consider the customs of war in early modern Europe. Shakespeare closes his Richard the Third with lines intended to show the magnanimity of the victor:


What men of name are slain on either side?


John Duke of Norfolk, Walter Lord Ferrers, Sir Robert Brakenbury, and Sir William Brandon.


Inter their bodies as becomes their births.


Notwithstanding the clear prescriptions of international law and military custom, the norm in question has often been violated, even by democratic armies fighting in recent wars. For whatever reasons, men at war often experience an overpowering desire to dishonor, despoil or mutilate the bodies of the enemy soldiers they have killed. Short of that, they or their governments may refuse to release the bodies of enemy battle-dead. The norms against such practices have to be powerful indeed, because the urges that they attempt to control are so compelling themselves.

Instances of violations are plentiful. In 2012, photographs and a video of four US Marines in Afghanistan urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban fighters. An outcry ensued, and the military promised a criminal investigation. In 1967, a US Army sergeant was court-martialed after photographs came to light in which he was shown holding the decapitated heads of two enemy corpses. The Army declared the mutilation of dead enemy bodies to be “subhuman” and “contrary to all policy.”

The United States military is of course not alone in this. Israeli human rights groups have complained of their government’s policy of refusing to return bodies of Palestinians killed in bomb attacks they initiated or in conflict with the Israeli army. And in the civil war in Syria, both ISIS forces and those fighting them appear to have mutilated enemy combatants’ dead bodies.

Moreover, there is nothing new about these practices, nor are they common only in developed societies. In Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior (1967), Peter Nabokov presents the autobiography of Two Leggings, a celebrated nineteenth century Native American. Towards the end of his story, Two Leggings reminisces about the joys of warrior life. He recounts the fate of a dead Sioux whom he had killed the day before:

Riding over into the bushes, I found the Piegan’s body. After scalping his whole head I cut it into four parts, giving one to White Eye, one to Short Bull, and keeping the other two. Also I carried away his rifle. We discovered that they were Sioux and not Piegans. . .

When we returned to our camp we drove the captured horses through the tipis and I carried my scalp pieces tied to the end of a long pole. Soon the camp was alive, men brought out their drums, and the women began the scalp dance. . . .

Everyone joined in. For several days there was feasting and dancing. I was invited everywhere and told the story over and over again.

We were happy.


Why this happens is not well understood. Frances Larson, an anthropologist at Durham University in England, has studied the question of mutilation in her fascinating book Severed: A History of Heads Lost and Heads Found (2014). During the Second World War in the Pacific, American servicemen regularly mutilated the corpses of dead Japanese soldiers, often decapitating them and preserving their skulls as trophies. “It was not particularly hard to find human heads on display during the Pacific Campaign of the Second World War. . . Skulls were hung from bulletin boards and lashed to the front of US tanks and truck cabs as macabre mascots.” Later inquiries seem to confirm the anecdotal evidence. “One forensic report estimated that the heads were missing from 60 per cent of the Japanese dead repatriated from the Mariana Islands in 1984. And a Japanese priest who visited Iwo Jima regularly in the decades after the war to conduct services for the dead reported that skulls had been taken from many of the remains . . . . Customs officials in Hawaii, the gateway home for returning American troops, routinely asked soldiers whether they had any bones in their bags.”   Larson’s book illustrates her narrative with remarkable images and photographs, one of which, taken from Life magazine, shows an attractive young American woman gazing smilingly on a Japanese soldier’s skull. She is writing a “Thank you” note to her Navy boyfriend for sending the souvenir to her. Around the time the photograph was first published, a Pennsylvania Congressman presented President Franklin Roosevelt with a letter-opener fashioned from the arm bone of a Japanese soldier. (Roosevelt returned it.)

Legal warnings accomplished little if anything. The War Department pronounced the desecration of the Japanese dead to be a “grave violation of law and decency.” US Navy commanders in the Pacific theater threatened servicemen with “stern disciplinary action” if any of them were caught taking enemy body parts as souvenirs. But the harvesting of heads, teeth and fingers continued.

What causes such behavior? Larson refers to the work of another anthropologist, Simon Harrison’s Dark Trophies (2012), for a possible explanation. Harrison has argued that “trophy-taking tends to take place when men’s virility and power is expressed through hunting metaphors,” as when the military tracks “kills” and “body counts.” And a possible explanation is that such trophies have “conferred status” on their owners. Larson herself suggests what seems to me more plausible explanations. “[I]n the field of battle they performed many different functions. As heterogeneous as the soldiers who acquired them, they could symbolize fury or fear. Some were treated like hunting trophies, but others were transformed into tokens of love, mascots, pseudo-scientific specimens or playthings. And they were as likely to inspire moments of introspection as they were to encourage displays of bravado: after all, a human skull is the shell of a person that sits deep within us all. It is little wonder that soldiers, so close to death in more ways than one, were drawn to human skulls.”   Taking enemy skulls “helped soldiers regain a sense of empowerment, because the trophy head, held aloft, is an assertion of control in the chaos of battle. The same could be said of the executioner who holds up a traitor’s head on the scaffold: order is declared anew.”