Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes- War’s Spectators
Seven Against Thebes is a war play that shows no war. Rivaling the Homeric epics in its descriptions of the beauty and horribleness of warfare, the play instead shows its audience the helpless spectators of a military invasion- not unique in tragedy, but still a neat trick. War is a natural dramatic theme, but here it’s a spectacle that Aeschylus dare not show, and as such, it’s considerably more horrifying than nearly any visual depiction of battle.
Aeschylus’s play deals with some of the same themes as his Persians, particularly those blasphemies committed during war; in this case, though, the war itself is fratricidal, and thus unnatural and perverse. Happily, he avoids the problem of repetition that bothered me in Persians by pitting the women of Thebes against their ruler and asking whether Eteokles will be loyal to his polis or his genus. There’s simply a lot more going on here.
Three generations saved the city of Thebes- Laius went to the oracle in response to a threat, Oedipus saved the city from the Sphinx, and Eteokles has the task of saving it from invasion. Conversely, three generations brought a curse upon the city: Laius by having a son after the oracle forbade it; Oedipus in fulfilling that curse and, in turn, cursing his sons for abandoning him in old age- a serious transgression of Greek law- and now Eteokles is fated to slay and be slain by his brother in fratricidal battle. Is he a heroic figure, in defending his city from attack? Or a transgressor of natural law in killing his brother? The battle, and thus the play, never quite resolve this.
As the play begins, Eteokles portrays himself as the city’s defender, commandeering the ship of state and rallying the young men to fight for Thebes. News arrives of seven warriors swearing a vow by the blood of a bull to raze the city or die trying. These are six Argive warrior chieftains gathered by his brother Polyneikes to capture the throne from Eteokles, who should by means have surrendered it already- a detail that Aeschylus leaves out. Is he interpreting the story so that Eteokles bears less blame? Note that Aeschylus instead emphasizes the curse on the brothers, making us more sympathetic to Eteokles than we might be otherwise. After all, he’s really defending his own power lust.
The invading chieftain alliance parallels that of the Iliad and these are also archaic warriors: Tydeus, Capaneus, Eteoclus, Hippomedon, Partheopaeus, Amphiarus and even Polyneikes are described in terms similar to the heroes of Homer, and their “war” is hand-to-hand combat in the Homeric style, instead of large military clashes of the sort Aeschylus took part in.
The descriptions of the warriors make them sound more like beasts. Aeschylus details their ferocity and hints at their alien barbarism: that is, he makes them sound like Persians. They speak a different tongue, threaten the city’s altars, blaspheming indifferently, have golden shields (gold being associated with foreigners), and threaten slavery in the “barbarian” style. After the Persian War, a common trope was the emphasis on Greek “freedom” over barbarian “slavery”, a somewhat hypothetical distinction, given that the Greeks owned slaves as well.
It’s not hypothetical for the Chorus of Theban women though. Their panicked fears about losing their families and being taken in slavery give rise to many of the most powerful speeches in the play. If the city falls, their entire world will be lost; the madness of invasion is described aptly in the line, “The Spirit of Havoc then overmasters a whole people and pollutes all piety with his mad breath.” Remember also that these are, again, suppliants and maidens- they would have been about thirteen years old and virgins, and they consider the prospect of being concubines for foreign invaders worse than death. Their hysteria is, at least, understandable. They are begging the gods to save them.
Eteokles’s angry reaction to the Chorus, insisting that they clam up and stop frightening everybody, was once read as reasonable, but is clearly excessive. His misogynist condemnation of all women offends us, but I think Aeschylus intends us to see him as going too far in his anger, foreshadowing his angry battle at the end. When he says the women should leave the blood sacrifices to the men and stay inside the home, the audience would have realized that he’s dead wrong- women quite often made sacrifices and prayers while the men battled- the Iliad offers several examples. Eteokles has clearly lost sight of piety, which is understandable given the lousy hand the gods dealt him- in one of my favorite lines he asks the very reasonable question- why should he be pious to the gods when he’s already fated to die by his brother’s hand? His rage at women-as-such might also stem from his disgust over Jacosta’s incest. But his rage and impiety seals his fate. And, finally, remember that the prophecy of the Theban women is dead to rights- it’s his hotheaded temper that ensures he dies along with his brother.
Finally, note the strange parallel between the Chorus and Eteokles in their excessive emotions- we can’t blame the women for their hysteria, which Aeschylus seems to see as natural; but we absolutely blame Eteokles for being carried away with his anger. Warriors are expected to hack away at and kill one another, but not in a fit of rage. The warrior ethos is rooted more in mastery of the self than mastery of others. Eteokles sins against the gods while doing their work.
In the end, the defeat of the seven is a divinely-guided act. The deaths of so many rulers are a bloody tragedy, but there’s still hope that the gods protect the city.* Just as in the Persians, there is the idea that a war itself might be blasphemous, but the gods still pick the victors. A passage like, “And might of Zeus- Caedmeia’s realm- who in chief did save/ From the alien wave/ Which threatened to overwhelm”, clearly evoked memories of victories over the Persians for the contemporary audience. For us, it’s a bit less comforting: not so much for its xenophobia, as for the soothing certainty that the gods bless our martial bloodletting. Maybe men really do undertake all the blood sacrifices.
Endnotes: * I agree with the dominant interpretation that the ending in which Antigone and Ismene appear and promise to bury Polyneikes is at odds with the rest of the play and was almost surely a later addition.
I’m also happy to report that we have covered all the (complete) plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. Euripides is up to bat.
- The Persians
- The Suppliant Maidens
- The Oresteia (Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, and Eumenides )
- Prometheus Bound (authorship disputed)