Reichberg, “Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace”

9781108730167Next month, Cambridge will release what looks to be a definitive study of the Just War theory of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas on War and Peace, by Gregory Reichberg (Peace Research Institute Oslo). The book’s description from the Cambridge website speaks for itself:

Inquiring ‘whether any war can be just’, Thomas Aquinas famously responded that this may hold true, provided the war is conducted by a legitimate authority, for a just cause, and with an upright intention. Virtually all accounts of just war, from the Middle Ages to the current day, make reference to this threefold formula. But due in large measure to its very succinctness, Aquinas’s theory has prompted contrasting interpretations. This book sets the record straight by surveying the wide range of texts in his literary corpus that have bearing on peace and the ethics of war. Thereby emerges a coherent and nuanced picture of just war as set within his systematic moral theory. It is shown how Aquinas deftly combined elements from earlier authors, and how his teaching has fruitfully propelled inquiry on this important topic by his fellow scholastics, later legal theorists such as Grotius, and contemporary philosophers of just war.

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:


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.

Whatever is destroyed is regretted

Funerary plaqueca. 520–510 B.C.; Archaic, black-figureGreek, AtticTerracottaRogers Fund, 1954 (54.11.5) photography by mma, Digital File DT200607.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 12_2_11
Attic Funerary Plaque (Metropolitan Museum)

Theseus at war

Theseus and the Theban herald part; the outbreak of war is imminent.  As he leaves, the herald taunts Theseus, who refuses to be angered.  One who holds himself out as the “punisher of injustice” cannot undertake to wage war from the passion of anger.  Euripides models Theseus as a self-disciplined, as well as a just, warrior.  And as Theseus sets out, he invokes the aid of “all those gods/Who respect justice.”  His piety complements his justice and his moderation.

The chorus of Argive women awaits news of the battle anxiously.  Suddenly, an Argive messenger arrives.  He had been taken prisoner in the Argive campaign against Thebes, having served under Capaneus, one of the seven Argive leaders, “whom Zeus blasted with a lightning-flash.”  (More on Capaneus later.)  Now he has escaped in the confusion of battle.  He brings the Argive women news of Theseus’ victory.  (Note that he does not address Adrastus, his king.)  The women are elated, hailing Theseus as a demi-god:  he is not only the son of Aegus, but also “the son of Zeus.”  (Perhaps the latter description is meant to tells us something about the tyrannical constitution of Argos:  Athens is a republic of equals, and denies the possibility of semi-divine leaders; if they did exist, they would be dangerous to the city.  See Walker, Theseus and Athens).

The messenger gives a detailed account of the battle.  He says that once the two opposing armies faced off, Theseus made a final bid for peace.  The Athenian herald announced to the Thebans “We have come to bring/Those bodies home for burial, in accordance with/The law of all Hellenic states.  We have no wish/For further bloodshed.”  Theseus goes to war only as a last resort.  The Theban King Creon remains silent.  Then battle is joined.

It is a hard and bitter struggle.  The messenger’s descriptions of the horrors of the battle is reminiscent of The Iliad in its unsparing and gruesome detail.  At a critical moment, Theseus demonstrates his generalship.  He rallies his troops: at his call, “[c]ourage flared up in every heart.”  The Athenians break the Theban line.

Athens buries the dead

The population of Thebes is in despair.  Thousands expect Theseus to capture their city. “But Theseus,/With the way clear before him, would not enter the gates.  ‘I have not marched from Athens to destroy this town,’/He said, ‘but to demand the dead for burial.’”  The campaign ends with the recovery of the Argive bodies, not with the sacking of Thebes.  The requirement that if a war is to be just it must be “proportionate” is plainly met.  See Christopher Greenwood, The Relationship between jus ad bellum and jus in bello (1983).

Theseus buries most of the recovered Argive bodies on the high cliff of Eleutherae, on Athenian soil, just across the border from Theban Boeotia.  Athens had annexed Eleutherae, which had once been part of Boeotia, in the sixth century. But this borderland site seems to have been contested between Athens and Thebes, and perhaps changed hands from time to time.  By burying Argive soldiers there, Theseus reinforces Athens’ claim to it.  See John Camp, The Archaeology of Athens (2004).

But Theseus does not bury the remains of the Argive leaders who were the “Seven against Thebes.”  He brings those bodies (or such as are still near Thebes) back to Athens for a ceremonial funeral.  Who has taken those bodies, Adrastus asks the messenger; surely a slave would be reluctant even to lift them?  To Adrastus’ astonishment, the messenger answers that Theseus has tended to the bodies himself, washing away the blood-stains of their wounds, preparing their Read more

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.

The Virtuous Democratic Statesman at War

The figure of Theseus

This is an opportune moment to discuss the character of Theseus, as Euripidestheseus-statue-gallery portrays him. By the fifth century, the image of Theseus had become, in a word, that of the consummate Athenian statesman, warrior and gentleman — the founder of the city’s democracy but also the epitome of its aristocratic qualities.   In the image of Theseus, Athens saw the best and finest presentation of itself. “Of all Greek heroes, Theseus . . . has the greatest claim to enshrine all the best qualities of the Athenian citizen, not least in his championship of the demos, celebrated by poets and painters alike of the classical period.” John N. Davie, Theseus the King in Fifth Century Athens (1982). (For a more recent and very full treatment, see Sophie Mills, Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire (1997)).

By the time Euripides’ Suppliants was produced, Theseus had been richly and variously mythologized; but he had become, unmistakably, an Athenian national figure (unlike Heracles, with whom he had been associated, but who remained a Greek hero). He was famed for having killed the Minotaur, a monster that was half-man and half-bull, and who devoured sacrificial offerings of young Athenians. By that act, Theseus liberated Athens from being forced to pay (human) tribute and came to represent the forces of civilization against barbarism. His legendary deeds were commemorated by the fifth century lyric poet Bacchylides, who in one fragment says that “a god impels him, so that he can bring justice down on the unjust,” and that he journeys seeking “splendor-loving Athens.” Theseus also seems to have been the central figure in a lost epic poem.

From the late sixth century onwards, Theseus begins to appear frequently in Athenian vase painting, and the imagery depicting him there resembles that of the Athenian tyrannicide Harmodius, suggesting that Theseus was linked to the emergence of the young Athenian democracy. Euripides goes so far as to say in The Suppliants that he was the true founder of the Athenian democracy. By the fourth century, the belief that associated Theseus with the foundation of the democracy seems to have been widespread: the celebrated painter Euphranor showed him in the company of Demos (the People) and Demokratia (the Democracy). By fabricating this link, Athens’ artists and myth-makers gave the city’s democracy a royal pedigree. See Henry J. Walker, Theseus and Athens (1995); Martin Robinson, A Shorter History of Greek Art (1991).

Athens also memorialized and honored Theseus in its public buildings. The


Theseion, was a hero shrine in the center of Athens, built to house his body. According to the later writer Plutarch’s Life of Theseus, “now he lies buried in the heart of the city, . . . and his tomb is a sanctuary and place of refuge for runaway slaves and all men of low estate who are afraid of men in power, since Theseus was a champion and helper of such during his life, and graciously received the supplications of the poor and needy.” In the comic poet Aristophanes’ The Knights (l. 1312), the Theseion is also represented as a place of refuge. Gradually, Theseus’ shrine came to be seen as a place of refuge for suppliants of all kinds.

Athens’ fifth century tragic poets exalted Theseus to new levels. “[I]n the hands of the tragedians . . . Theseus grew in stature as a statesman and king until, in the [Suppliants] of Euripides and Oedipus Coloneus of Sophokles he appears as a humane and articulate representative of democracy” (Davie). Indeed, he becomes the personification of the city itself: “Where he is representative of Athens in tragedy, Theseus embodies Athenian civilization in all its manifestations, so that he is usually less an individual character with his own fate than a symbol of Athenian virtue. . . . [H]e is amply endowed with all four cardinal Greek virtues, and other characters can simply look on and admire.” (Mills). Later Athenians singled out the justice of Theseus’ intervention on behalf of the Argive suppliants for special praise. In his Funeral Oration, the Athenian speaker Lysias commended Theseus for deploying Athens’ military might for the selfless and humanitarian purposes of upholding Greek laws and of ending Thebes’ outrages against the gods.  See Lys. 2.7-10,

Theseus’ colloquy with the Athenian herald

Returning now to the play, we pick up the action after Theseus has received the Assembly’s assent to his expedition against Thebes. Theseus addresses two heralds – the first, Athenian, the other, Theban – in succession. (Functionally, both heralds serve as ambassadors.) Theseus instructs the Athenian herald to appeal “graciously” to Creon, King of Thebes, to surrender the unburied Argives; if Creon refuses, the herald is to tell him that war with Athens will ensue.

Theseus gives his (intended) ambassador specific instructions what to say and how to say it. Greek cities commonly, but not invariably, limited the discretion of their diplomatic representatives in that way. See, e.g., Herodotus, Histories, Book VII, c. 148 (ambassadors to Argos say what “they have been instructed” to say). As one scholar notes, the practice of sending an ambassador with instructions was especially advantageous for a democracy, because that procedure “ensured that the will of the people would not be thwarted by their envoys.” Anna Missiou-Ladi, Coercive Diplomacy in Greek Interrstate Relations (1987). Theseus’ instructions may reflect a preference for democratic diplomatic practice.

Theseus’ colloquy with the Theban herald

As Theseus is giving these instructions, a second herald, the Theban, appears. The Theban brusquely demands to speak with the “king absolute” of Athens. Theseus corrects him sharply: “This state is not/Subject to one man’s will, but is a free city. The king here is the people, who by yearly office/Govern in turn.” (Euripides is obviously being anachronistic here.) The Theban herald rejoins with a stinging critique of Athenian democracy, and Theseus answers with a defense of it.

Some critics find this constitutional colloquy intrusive (or even a later interpolation), see, e.g., G.M.A Grube, The Drama of Euripides (1941) (finding the debate to be a “flagrant irrelevancy”). But Euripidean drama was renowned for its intellectual qualities: later ancients called him “the philosopher of the stage,” see C. Collard, Euripides (1981), and even in his own lifetime, the comic poet Aristophanes satirized his efforts to educate the Athenian public, see John Dillon, Euripides and the Philosophy of His Time (2004). The debate between Theseus and the Theban herald in fact deepens the argument of what is essentially a drama of ideas. In particular, it raises the possibility that Athens’ military intervention was just because, in part, of the decisional procedures that led to it.

The constitutional argument

The clash between the Theban herald and the Athenian democrat-king mirrors the great fifth and fourth century debate in Greece between the proponents and opponents of democracy. (Herodotus presents a version of the debate in the form of a dialogue among three Persian nobles, one of whom advocates democracy, the second oligarchy, and the third, monarch. Histories Book III, cc. 80-83; see generally Josiah Ober, Political Dissent in Democratic Athens: Intellectual Critics of Popular Rule (1998). For the Theban, whose city (he says) “lives under command/Of one man,” it is obvious that a democratically governed city cannot make coherent or intelligent public policy. “Experience gives/More useful knowledge than impatience. Your poor rustic,/Even though he be no fool – how can he turn his mind/From ploughs to politics?”

The Theban’s argument parallels that of the fourth century writer known as “Pseudo-Xenophon,” who is his tract On the Constitution of Athens maintained that “among the best people there is minimal wantonness and injustice but a maximum of scrupulous care for what is good, whereas among the people there is a maximum of ignorance, disorder, and wickedness; for poverty draws them rather to disgraceful actions, and because of a lack of money some men are uneducated and ignorant.” (E.C. Marchant trans.). Some critics take the Theban’s anti-democratic speech to be “good Euripidean doctrine” that “Theseus does little or nothing” to refute. (See L.H.G. Greenwood, Aspects of Euripidean Tragedy (1953)). This, I think, is clearly wrong.

The essence of Theseus’ answer is that Athenian democracy depends on the equal protection of the law, and therefore serves the ends of justice. “Equal laws” mean that the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, are subject to the same laws and can all seek their protection. (The Pseudo-Xenophon contends that this is untrue, alleging that Athens’ laws are designed to promote the interests of the worse-off.) Further (although this is more implicit than explicit), Theseus’ argument suggests that a domestic policy that protects the city’s lower classes through equal laws is congruent with a foreign policy that gives precedence to the claims of Greek customary international law over the claims of power and force:

          A state has no worse enemy than an absolute king.

          First, under such a ruler there is no common law.

          One man holds the whole law in his own grasp; that means

          An end to equality. When laws are written down,

          Both poor and rich possess their equal right; the weak,

          Threatened or insulted by a prosperous neighbor, can

          Retort in the same terms; the humble man’s just cause

          Defeats the great.

Just as the written law of Athens protects the weak from the strong, so Athens itself, by enforcing the common (if unwritten) laws of the Greeks, will vindicate the rights of Argos that a more powerful Thebes is violating. Democracy, it appears, leads naturally to humanitarian intervention, or to what we call “the responsibility to protect.” Both in its domestic arrangements and in its foreign policy, Athens as a democracy is deeply committed to the rule of law. By contrast, in violating the common law of the Greek city states, Thebes is rejecting the idea of equal justice, and “is behaving toward the other states of Greece just as a despot . . . behaves toward the other citizens of his [city].” Walker, Theseus and Athens.

Theseus also defends Athens’ constitution on the grounds that deliberative democracy tends to produce policy decisions of a higher quality than autocracy. Specifically, he argues that that is true of the question of initiating wars:

          Further: the people, vested with authority,

          Values its young men as the city’s great resource.

          An absolute king regards them as his enemies;

          The best of them, and those he thinks intelligent,

          He kills off, being afraid of rivals to his throne.

          How can a city grow in strength, when all its young

          And bold spirits are mown down like fresh stalks in spring?

As Plato will later argue, see The Republic, Book IX, 578a-579c, the “absolute king” or tyrant is governed by fear of internal enemies; and that fear may cause him to project violence outward against foreign states. Thus, the absolute king will tend to make decisions, especially concerning war, that are destructive of the common good. By contrast, Theseus argues, a democracy will address the question of war far more carefully, because the decision rests in the hands of its citizens – and it is their lives, or those of their children, that will be at stake. Here again we may cite Pseudo-Xenophon, who says that in Athens, “it is the people who man the ships and impart strength to the city; the steersmen, the boatswains, the sub-boatswains, the look-out officers, and the shipwrights — these are the ones who impart strength to the city far more than the hoplites, the high-born, and the good men.”

Theseus also argues that Athens’ democratic system makes the city richer,

Theseus in discussion
Theseus in discussion

because under a tyranny the common people have no incentive to work and save: “Why should a man win wealth and substance for his sons/When all his labour only swells a tyrant’s hoard?” Herodotus had earlier made exactly the same point about Athens (Histories Book V, c. 78): once Athens had rid itself of its tyrants, the Athenians “became by far the best of all. . . . [T]hey were deliberately slack when repressed, since they were working for a master, but after they were freed, they became ardently devoted to win achievements for themselves as individuals” (The Landmark Herodotus (Robert B. Strassler ed., Andrea L. Purvis trans. (2007)). And in fact, recent research confirms the unusual prosperity of ancient Athens. See Mogens Herman Hansen & Thomas Heine Nielsen, An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis (2004).

The Theban herald, however, denies that democratic decision-making is rational. From his perspective, it is impaired by a cognitive or emotional deficiency from which every voter suffers: no voter thinks that he will be a casualty. In other words, democracies take undue risks because their voters discount risk too much: they are therefore war-prone.

          For when an issue of war hangs on the people’s vote,

          Then no one reckons that his own death may be involved;

          This mournful prospect he assigns to someone else.

          If Death stood there in person while men cast their votes,

          Hellas would not be dying from war-mania.

Moreover, the Theban argues, if democracies were rational, they would consistently prefer peace to war, since the benefits of peace are obviously greater:

          All men know, which of two arguments

          Is more valid; we know what good, what evil is;

          How far peace outweighs war in benefits to man;

          Peace, the chief friend and cherisher of Muses; peace,

          The enemy of revenge, lover of families

          And children, patroness of wealth. . . .

 And more pointedly, he says to Theseus:

          A wise man’s love is owed first to his children, then

          To his parents; and to his native land, which he should strive

          To build, not to dismember. Whether on land or sea,

          A rash leader is a risk; timely inaction, wise.

It is, of course, entirely natural that the Theban ambassador should urge on Athens the advantages of peace: if he is persuasive, his city will be spared an Athenian invasion. Nonetheless, there is obvious appeal in his arguments.

But Theseus remains unpersuaded. Euripides invites us to think that Athens occupies a midway position between Argos and Thebes. Argos by its aggressiveness has initiated a foolish and unjust war, which it has lost. Thebes counsels peace, but the peace for which it calls is stained by the Theban injustice of not allowing the Argives to repatriate their dead. There is an unjust peace, exactly as there is an unjust war; and an unjust peace is an unstable one. Athens is positioned as the mean between these two opposites: it wages war justly, to undo the effects of an unjust war that has led to an unjust peace.

Politics and Pity

His Mother's Son
Listen to Your Mother

Theseus and Aethra

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

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

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

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

          Shrink from exhorting you, when pride of power denies

          Dead men due burial and the rites of decency,

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

          And stop them undermining the established laws

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

          Free, honourable respect for universal rights. . .

          You’ll march with Justice on your side.

Theseus is persuaded:

          To avoid a dangerous task

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

          Chosen and claimed this character among the Greeks,

          To be always the punisher of injustice. So,

          I cannot now refuse this task. . . .

          I will go and redeem their dead,

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

          Shall gain the same end.

The place of pity in politics

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

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

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

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

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

The Justice of Athens

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

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

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

Save from dishonour the laws of mankind.

You reverence Justice;

Injustice you despise;

To those in distress you bring deliverance.

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

I desire that all my citizens

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

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

Have given them reason.

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

Taking It to the People

Democracy and deliberation

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

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

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

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

Peering below the surface?

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

The Words of Kings, Queens and Gods


The opening scene of The Suppliants consists primarily of a series of three colloquies: first, between the suppliant Argive women and their king, Adrastus on the one side, and King Theseus’ mother Queen Aethra on the other; then, after Aethra has explained to Theseus the nature of the suppliants’ wishes, between Theseus and Adrastus (supported by the chorus of Argive women); and finally between Theseus and his mother. (A secondary chorus of boys, sons of the fallen Argive warriors, is mentioned in passing. This chorus remains silent until the end of the play.) These colloquies are followed by a brief address by Theseus to the Argive women and then a speech by their chorus.

Aethra and the suppliants

The action begins with Theseus’ mother Aethra at prayer to Demeter. She asks blessings on herself, her son Theseus, the city of Athens, and her native city Troezen, a small town in the Peloponnese named for her grandfather. Aethra’s recollection of her non-Athenian birthplace indicates that she will be sympathetic to the pleas of the foreign women who surround her. Her sympathy for them is further engaged by the facts that like them, she too is elderly and the mother of a son.

Aethra explains who the Argive women are and why they have come:

         Round the gates

         Of Cadmus’ walls [i.e., at Thebes (RJD)] their seven noble sons lie dead.

         Adrastus led them against Thebes, resolved to gain

         For his exiled son-in-law Polyneices the due share

Of Oedipus’ inheritance [i.e., succession to the crown of Thebes, of which Oedipus had been King (RJD)].  And when these mothers

        Desired to bury those who had fallen by the sword,

        The victors, dishonouring the gods’ law, turned them back

        And would not let them take up their dead bodies.

The Argive women are joined by Adrastus, who had led the disastrous expedition against Thebes in which the mothers’ seven sons had been killed. Adrastus too is a supplicant.  He implores Aethra to intervene with Theseus to persuade him to undertake, “whether by negotiation or by force of arms,” to recover those bodies and assist in their burial. Aethra sends for Theseus to have him decide “either to banish this distressful company/Out of the land, or loose their suppliant constraint/By rendering some holy service to the gods.” From Aethra’s pious point of view, the Thebans’ refusal to permit the Argive warriors to be buried plainly “dishonors the gods’ law,” and to rectify that violation would be to perform “some holy service.” Aethra’s speech and conduct remind us of the specifically religious sanctions that underpinned Greek customary international law. (See Polly Low, Interstate Relations in Classical Greece (2007) (religion was “arguably the most important controlling mechanism” for enforcing Greek customary law); see also Gregory Crane, Power, Prestige, and the Corcyrean Affair in Thucydides I (1992) (underscoring Corcyra’s breaches of religiously sanctioned customary law as causes of its war with Corinth, and thus of the Peloponnesian War).

Theseus and Adrastus

Theseus has hastened to the shrine, after having heard wailing and fearing some accident to his mother. (This initial display of solicitude for his mother is revealing; we shall see more of his consideration for her later in the play.)  She Read more

The Unwritten Laws of Greece

Gettysburg, 1863
Gettysburg, 1863

The Spectacle of Death

Ancient Greek cities were frequently at war with each other, and death took its toll. Male citizens must often have been battle-hardened veterans, accustomed to the spectacle of battlefield carnage. Families and near relatives, who took part in washing the corpses and readying them for burial, must also have become sickeningly familiar with the look of violent death. The Greek preoccupation with the honorable interment of the combat-dead may have stemmed from a desire to hold the horror of such spectacles at a certain remove.  It must surely have been hard to forget such sights as those that the First World War poet Siegfried Sassoon described in his Counter-Attack:

           The place was rotten with dead; green clumsy legs

          High-booted, sprawled and groveled along the saps

          And trunks, face downward, in the sucking mud,

          Wallowed like trodden sand-bags loosely filled;

          And naked sodden buttocks, mats of hair,

          Bulged, clotted heads slept in the plastering slime.

          And then the rain began, — the jolly old rain!

The Fifth Century: Sophocles

By the fifth century, the Greeks had come to conclude that an enemy’s battle-dead were entitled to respect and should not be mistreated. In Miasma (1983), an important work on Greek religion, the Oxford classicist Robert Parker summarized the outcome that had been reached by the fifth century:

The individual’s right to receive burial was, of course, supported by powerful social and supernatural sanctions. The ‘common law of the Greeks’ agreed with the ‘unwritten, unshakeable laws of the gods’ in insisting that even the body of an enemy should be given up after battle for burial.

The “Antigone”

The “unwritten, unshakeable laws of the gods” to which Parker alludes are those expounded in the great speech of Antigone, in the play of that name by the fifth century Athenian tragic poet Sophocles. (Sophocles’ Antigone is fashioned from the same body of mythic material as Euripides’ Suppliants.) Antigone, daughter of King Oedipus of Thebes and sister of his son Prince Polynices, wishes to bury her brother’s remains after he has died at the hands of their brother Eteocles, whom Polynices has himself killed in their battle at one of the seven gates of Thebes. While Creon, Eteocles’ successor as King of Thebes, gives honors to Eteocles’ remains, he refuses to allow Polynices to be buried. Antigone defies Creon’s orders and attempts to bury Polynices. Challenged by Creon as to whether she had disobeyed him, she replies:

          Of course I did. It wasn’t Zeus, not in the least,

          Who made this proclamation—not to me.

          Nor did that Justice, dwelling with the gods

          Beneath the earth, ordain such laws for men.

          Nor did I think your edict had such force

          That you, a mere mortal, could override the gods,

          The great, unwritten, unshakable traditions.

          They are alive, not just today or yesterday:

          They live forever, from the first of time,

          And no one knows when they first saw the light.

Antigone, ll. 499-508 (Robert Fagles trans.).


Bear in mind that Polynices was not merely a fallen enemy warrior but also (in Creon’s view) a rebel, a regicide and a fratricide, a leader in an invading foreign army and a pretender to the crown of Thebes. Refusing him burial might therefore arguably be seen as a permissible exception to the obligation to grant burial which, as Parker notes, was “never absolute,” and which allowed Greek cities to cast away the bodies of at least some criminals.  The city’s treatment of corpses, as Parker shows, was “one of the means by which men could hurt, humiliate, or honour one another, express contempt or respect;” hence, “the theme could be of central importance in great works of literature.”

In the Antigone, as Hegel famously argued (Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art, Pt. II, sec. 2, c. 1), Sophocles revealed the very essence of tragedy, which arises when “the ethical substance” is “divided against itself,” or in other words when there is an irreconcilable collision between two valid and compelling norms: here, the right of the family to bury its dead as against the State’s prerogative to punish those who disloyally take up arms against it. Antigone argues: “Death longs for the same rites for all;” and Creon answers, “Never the same for the patriot and the traitor” (ll. 384-85).

As legal scholar Martha Nussbaum (following Hegel) has pointed out, both major protagonists in The Antigone have unduly narrow and unreflective moral views. Surely the claims of the city do not always count for more than those of the family; for what is a city but an association of families? On the other hand, is not Creon right to say that our country is our safety (l. 211)?  See The Costs of Tragedy: Some Moral Limits of Cost-Benefit Analysis (2000),

In the end, however, it is Antigone, not Creon, whose claim prevails in Sophocles’ drama: Creon’s treatment of Polynices’ brings pollution and plague to Thebes.   Nature itself rises up against the violation of the unwritten and unshakeable laws. The blind prophet Tiresias tells Creon that the birds of the sanctuary where he sits, which used to hover at his hands, began to scream madly and to rip each other apart with flashing talons. The fires over which the sacrifices were offered would not light; the birds, gorged with blood and fat, drop scraps of Polynices’ body on the altar. Prophecy becomes impossible; the city’s link to the gods is entirely severed. And the fault, Tiresias tells him, is Creon’s:

And it is you—

Your high resolve that sets this plague on Thebes.

The public altars and sacred hearths are fouled,

One and all, by the birds and dogs with carrion

Torn from the corpse, the doomstruck son of Oedipus!

And so the gods are deaf to our prayers, they spurn

The offerings in our hands, the flame of holy flesh.

No birds cry out an omen clear and true-

They’re gorged with the murdered victim’s blood and fat.

Take these things to heart, my son, I warn you. . .

Where’s the glory, killing the dead twice over?

Antigone ll. 1123-40.

Readers of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Two Towers may recall the last march of the Ents, an ancient race of tall, human-like trees, against the fortress of Saruman at Isengard, which they destroy. There too, nature itself rises up against the unholy forces that would violate it.

Oedipus the King

Sophocles also addresses the subject of the “unwritten” and “unshakeable” laws of the gods in a Chorus in Oedipus the King. (Rémi Brague suggest that Sophocles is writing here in response to the Sophists who had attacked the divine origin of those laws. See The Law of God: The Philosophical History of an Idea (English trans. 2007 (2005)). Although the context here is that of Oedipus’ violations – parricide and incest – not that of burial, the lines reinforce the action and speeches of the Antigone:

Great laws tower above us, reared on high

          Born for the brilliant vault of heaven—

          Olympian Sky their only father,

          Nothing mortal, no man gave them birth,

          Their memory deathless, never lost in sleep:

          Within them lives a mighty god, the god does not grow old. . .

          God, my champion, I will never let you go.

 Oedipus the King, ll. 957-971 (Robert Fagles trans.).

 What were these laws, variously called “unwritten laws,” “common laws” or laws “of the gods”?  Edith Hall of King’s College, London, finds that they “constituted simultaneously an expression of the most fundamental and ancient taboos, and a didactic charter of ‘decent’ behavior which was invested at times with a sanctity far greater than the strict observance of ritual. . . [T]hese laws seem to have enshrined such integral taboos as the killing of guest or host, family member or suppliant, incest, and the failure to bury the dead.” See Inventing the Barbarian: Greek Self-Definition through Tragedy (1989).

In grasping that the norm forbidding the non-burial of the dead was, for the Greeks, of the same magnitude as the prohibition on incest, we can understand Euripides’ Suppliants more deeply. The cause that drove King Theseus and Athens to war against Thebes touched a matter of the utmost sensitivity for the Athenian audiences that watch Euripides’ drama.

Divine law or human law?

The questions whether the laws in question were divine (without beginning or end) or human (customary), and whether they applied universally or only to the Greeks, were debated in fifth and fourth century Athens. In the Rhetoric (though not elsewhere), Aristotle drew this distinction, and in a passage that refers to the Antigone, see Rhetoric 1373b, places on one side the law that is proper to a particular city (which may or may not be written) and the universal law, which is according to nature (“kata phusin”).

We see signs of both views in The Suppliants, and perhaps they had not yet been fully distinguished. (Indeed, they are arguably not distinguishable when fully thought through.)  King Theseus describes the norm about burial as “the law of all Hellas” (Philip Vellacott trans.)), but he also speaks of it as “this ancient, divine ordinance.” Aethra, Theseus’ mother, at first characterizes them as “the gods’ law,” but later calls them “the established laws/Of all Hellas.” Other Euripidean dramas also leave the question in some doubt. In The Hecuba (l. 1247 (E.P. Coleridge trans.)), the Greek King Agamemnon says to the Thracian Polymester, “Perhaps among you it is a light thing to murder guests, but with us in Hellas it is a disgrace,” implying that the norms surrounding guest-friendship are characteristic of (a higher) Greek civilization, but are not universal. The latter view – if indeed it is Euripides’ – would seem to resemble the post-Enlightenment non-foundationalism of the late Richard Rorty.

So much for the treatment of the warrior burial norm in Sophocles. In the next installment, we shall consider evidence of that norm in the historians Herodotus and Thucydides.

Mistreating the Enemy’s Body: The Judgment of Zeus

Zeus Did Not Approve
Zeus Did Not Approve

Essential as it was in the classical Greek world to honor the citizen-soldiers who had died for the city, it was also considered important, indeed commanded by the customs of war, to bury the bodies of enemy soldiers who had died in combat, or at least to permit the enemy recover and bury them himself. The custom was not, of course, universally followed, and indeed some have argued that the practice of the world that Homer dramatizes was contrary to it. But by the fifth century, and certainly by the time Euripides’ Suppliants was staged, the practice had congealed into a customary norm. So compelling was that norm, in fact, that it was taken to be a defining mark of Hellenism and of civilization.   We cannot begin to understand the moral universe of The Suppliants until we grasp the centrality of this norm and the horror that attended its violation.

The Iliad

The obvious starting place is Homer’s Iliad. The Greek hero Achilles, seething with anger at the insult offered him by the Greek king Agamemnon, has withdrawn from combat, leaving the Greek forces to their own devices. Without Achilles, the war goes badly for the Greeks. They send an embassy to Achilles, offering compensation for Agamemnon’s offense, appealing to his fellow-feeing for his erstwhile comrades-in-arms, and seeking to persuade him to rejoin them in the struggle against Troy. Achilles will not be mollified. But his loyal comrade and intimate friend Patroclus persuades Achilles to permit him to enter the fray, bearing Achilles’ armor, so that the Trojans may be deceived into thinking that Achilles himself has returned to fight them. Achilles agrees, but only after setting strict limits to how and when Patroclus may fight. Disobeying Achilles’ instructions, Patroclus is speared and killed by the Trojan prince, Hector. On learning of Patroclus’ death, Achilles’ grief and remorse have no limits. The loss of Patroclus, Achilles says, wounds him as much as the killings of his own father or son would: “Nothing could more afflict me: fame relating the foul deed/Of my dear father’s slaughter, blood drawn from my sole son’s heart/No more could wound me. Cursed man, that in this foreign part/(For hateful Helen) my true love, my country, sire and son,/I should thus part with.” (Iliad Book XIX, ll. 318-22).

Achilles composes his differences with Agamemnon and the Greeks and rejoins the battle against the Trojans. He seeks Hector out for single combat. Hector’s mother Queen Hecuba implores her son to withdraw into the safety of the walled city of Troy, warning him that Achilles will defeat and kill him, leaving his unburied body for the dogs: “our tears shall pay thy corse [corpse] no obsequy./ Being ravish’d from us, Grecian dogs nourish’d with what I nursed” (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 74-75). Despite knowing Achilles to be far stronger and more powerful, Hector, fearing shame more than death, remains outside the city, to confront the vengeful Achilles. Hector proposes to Achilles that whichever of them kills the other do no outrage on the defeated man’s dead body:

Let vows of fit respect pass both, when conquest hath bestow’d

          His wreath on either. Here I vow no fury shall be show’d

          That is not manly, on thy corse; but, having spoil’d thy arms,

          Resign thy person; which swear thou. (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 219-22).

Although Homer characterizes Hector’s terms as “fair and temperate,” Achilles angrily refuses them: he says that he and Hector can no more reach an agreement than lions and men, or wolves and lambs, could.   Achilles can only urge Hector to feel what he himself feels: “Hunger for slaughter, and a hate that eats thy heart to eat/Thy foe’s heart” (Iliad Book XXII, ll. 232-33). Achilles’ anger transports him to the levels of a beast and a cannibal: in his wrath, he tramples down the barriers between the civilized and the barbaric, the human and the bestial, the cooked and the raw. He is waging a war for the utter annihilation of his enemy, a war without mercy or limits, war in the form that Clausewitz was later to call the “pure concept” of war. (See On War, Book One, c. 1, sec. 23, in which Clausewitz says that “the pure concept” of war is that of “a complete, untrammeled, absolute manifestation of violence”).

The degradation of Hector’s body

Achilles slays Hector, pierces the dead body’s “Achilles’ tendons,” straps the body to the back of his chariot, hauls it back to the Greek camp, and drags it in the dust twelve times around Patroclus’ funeral pyre. Addressing the dead Patroclus, Achilles boasts:

Hector lies slaughter’d here

Dragg’d at my chariot, and our dogs shall all in pieces tear

His hated limbs. Twelve Trojan youths, born of their noblest strains,

I took alive, and (yet enrag’d) will empty all their veins

Of vital spirits, sacrific’d before thy heap of fire. (Iliad Book XXIII, ll. 16-21.)

Then Achilles lays Hector face down in the dust before Patroclus. This, Homer says, was shameful, “unworthy” of Achilles.

Despite Hector’s death and the degradation of his body, Achilles’ thirst for revenge remains unslaked: “with Hector’s corse his rage had never done” (Iliad Book XXIV, l. 16). Even the gods begin to pity Hector. Apollo denounces Achilles Read more

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.”