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.

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