Seven Against Thebes

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Seven Against Thebes












Seven Against Thebes was first staged in 467 B.C., as part of a tetralogy that includes Lauis, Oedipus and the satyr play, Sphinx. The first two plays in the trilogy have been lost, as has the satyr play. Seven Against Thebes, the story of the conflict between Eteocles and Polyneices, the sons of Oedipus, won Aeschylus a first prize at its initial performance. Aeschylus could count on his audience knowing the story depicted in the tragedy without his having to fill in a lot of details. Epic poems told the story of the Oedipus tragedy and the battle for Thebes, and Greek audiences would know these stories very well. The challenge was not in the details of the story but in the poetic depiction. Aeschylus is celebrated for the poetic beauty of Chorus, and indeed, in the Chorus has a major role, with more lines than any other character. The sounds of battle, which are often heard in the background, and the weeping of the Chorus, and later of the sisters, emphasize the tragedy that is unfolding, but these same elements also illustrate the strengths of Aeschylus’s tragedy. The conflict between fate and justice is important for the Greek audience, for whom battle and honor are important characteristics of Athens’s strength. Aeschylus was a deeply religious man who was concerned with ethics, hubris, and with justice. The Oedipus tragedy is very concerned with these issues and thus it provides a natural choice for Aeschylus’s trilogy. Many early Greek poets saw themselves as the purveyors of moral and ethical wisdom. It is clear that with SevenAgainst Thebes, Aeschylus is fulfilling this role for his fifth-century B.C. audiences.


Aeschylus was born in 525 B.C., probably in Eleusis, just outside Athens. Few details are known of his childhood, but Aeschylus entered his first dramatic competition, the Dionysia, in 500-501 B.C. He enjoyed his first real success as a playwright in 484 B.C., but Aeschylus was more than a dramatist; he was also a soldier, having fought in several of the battles that marked the wars between Athens and Persia. The relative peace that followed these battles allowed Aeschylus time to focus on his plays.

The first of his tragedies appears to have been performed around 500 B.C. Aeschylus presented his tragedies as trilogies, each grouping having a common theme. The drama trilogy was then followed by a satyr drama, a comedy involving a mythological hero. Aeschylus is credited with introducing the second actor into Greek drama and with reducing the size of the chorus. These innovations allowed for a greater complexity of plot and dialogue. Aeschylus also made use of more frightening masks and costumes than had previously been used. He also introduced limited scenery. Aeschylus is said to have written between 80-90 plays; however, only seven are known to have survived. His plays won many awards at drama competitions, including several first prizes. Most dramatists were also actors, and so Aeschylus probably acted in his own plays.

Because of his own experience in battle, Aeschylus’s battle scenes are particularly vivid, easily evoking the terror and sounds of death. Aeschylus died in 456 B.C., having lived through the greatest period of Greek theatre. He set a formidable example for other dramatists, such as Sophocles and Euripedes. After his death, Aeschylus received many honors, and is now known as the Father of Greek Tragedy. The seven plays that survive today are The Persians {All B.C.); Seven Against Thebes(467 B.C.); The Suppliant Women(c. 463 B.C.); the three parts of the Orestia trilogy, Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and Eumenides(458 B.C.); and Prometheus Bound(undated).


Seven Against Thebes opens with Eteocles calling forth every man in the city, whether child or aged, to the fight and the threat, which is at hand. Everyone must be ready to defend the city in battle. At that moment, the Scout enters with news that the enemy is just outside the walls and is preparing for battle. There are seven commanders ready to attack the seven gates of Thebes. After delivering the news, the Scout departs, and Eteocles prays to Zeus for his favor in the battle to come. The Chorus, which has entered as the Scout has related his news, begins a lament as they hear the approach of the armies. They beg their gods to protect them and their city. Eteocles hears the Chorus’ fearful pleadings as he enters and chastises them for their fear, which he says will not help their beloved Thebes. Instead, Eteocles promises that the Chorus will be stoned to death for their mindless fear, as their fear will incite the city’s residents into an instinctive fear of their own, which will disable and defeat the city. But the Chorus is not appeased, and they continue with their warnings as Eteocles warns them of the risk they create with their wailing. Eteocles again warns the Chorus to remain inside and to hold back their panic. At their continued warnings and fearful exclamations, Eteocles responds with attacks on the nature of women, their weaknesses, and their fears. Finally the Chorus promises to restrain their fear and remain silent, and Eteocles again prays to the gods, with promises of sacrifices and trophies if Thebes is successfully defended. After Eteocles leaves the stage, the Chorus continues to voice their worry at the coming battle and the risk they face if they are taken and become slaves.

When the Scout enters, he brings news of who will lead the attack at each of the city’s gates. At the news of each opponent’s assignment, Eteocles assigns one of his men to defend that particular gate. When Eteocles is told that his brother, Polyneices, will lead the attack on the seventh gate, Eteocles decides that he will defend that gate. At this news, the Chorus warns Eteocles that he should not shed his brother’s blood, but Eteocles is beyond listening to warnings. He acknowledges the curse of his father, Oedipus, but Eteocles says that fate will determine the outcome, and if the gods are determined that he shall be destroyed, then this will happen. The chorus is dismayed at Eteocles departure and cry out that if each bother slays the other, there will be no family to see to a proper burial. The Chorus then begins to remind the audience of the story of Oedipus and the curse that followed his father, himself, and now his sons. At that moment, the Scout again enters with the news that Thebes has crushed her enemy, and the city is victorious. Six of the seven gates have withstood the onslaught of the enemy’s armies, but the battle at the seventh gate has ended in tragedy. Both Eteocles and Polyneices are dead, each at the others hand. The Scout reminds the Chorus that the city must mourn the death but also celebrate the end of the curse. The Chorus asks is they should mourn these deaths or celebrate the triumph of Thebes’ victory. With the arrival of the brother’s bodies, the Chorus acknowledges the tragedy that has unfolded. The bodies are followed closely by Ismene and Antigone, who have come to bury their brothers. The Chorus addresses the sisters, with grief and with sadness at the resolution of the curse. The two sisters respond to the Chorus with their own grief, as they lament the curse that damned both brothers. As Antigone wonders where they will bury the brothers, a Herald enters with an announcement that the council has met. The council has determined that Eteocles is a hero and will be accorded an honorable burial. However, Polyneices would have laid waste to Thebes, and thus, his corpse is to lie unburied, to be picked apart by the birds of prey. Antigone promises that she will bury her brother, as she will not be bound by the Theban council’s ruling. A brief argument with the Herald ensues, but Antigone will not be threatened, and finally, the Herald leaves to report to the council. The play ends with the Chorus divided. Half will accompany Eteocles to his grave; half will accompany Polyneices to his burial.



Antigone is a sister to Eteocles and Polyneices. She appears briefly at the end of the play to mourn the deaths of her brothers. When she learns that Polyneices is to be denied a proper burial, she vows to oppose the state and follow her own conscience. She is brave enough to argue with the Herald and to promise defiance of the council’s edict. Antigone exits at the play’s conclusion with Polyneices’ body, intent on burying him.


The chorus of Theban maidens sings sections of the play. Their purpose is to explain events or actions that occurred previously and to provide

commentary on the events that are occurring. As the play opens, the Chorus learns of the impending battle and attempt to seize the city. The Chorus is afraid that Eteocles will lose the battle and the city will be captured. Because they fear they will be made slaves, the Chorus is very loud in their lamentations. But finally, Eteocles manages to quiet them, but not without considerable effort and threats. When the Chorus learns of Eteocles’ plan to defend the seventh gate against his brother Polyneices, they warn Eteocles that brothers should not shed one another’s blood. They also worry that the brothers will have no family to attend to their burials. The Chorus functions to tell or remind the audience about the curse of Oedipus. They also serve to share in the sister’s grief at the brothers’ deaths.


Eteolcles, ruler of Thebes, is one of the surviving sons of Oedipus. As the play opens, he is preparing for battle. Eteocles is angered at the worries and fears displayed by the Chorus. He responds with threats to have them all killed if they cannot control their fear. When Eteocles learns that his brother will lead the attack at the seventh gate, Eteocles decides to lead the battle at that gate, himself. Eteocles ignores the warnings of the Chorus, pointing out that fate will determine his success.


  • There are no specific film productions of Seven Against Thebes. However, Seven Against Thebes does have a central role in an Italian film from 1998, Rehearsal For War, directed by Mario Martone. In this film, which depicts the war in Yugoslavia, theater rehearsals of Aeschylus’s tragedy serve to illustrate the tragedy that is unfolding in the streets outside the theater.
  • The Oresteia, is a film production of Aeschylus’s trilogy, consisting of three videocassettes (230 minutes). It was directed by Peter Hall for the National theater of Great Britain and was a production of Channel 4 (1990, 1983).

Eteocles is stubborn and unwilling to listen to the concerns of the Chorus. He dismisses their worries as the hysteria of women, who have little worth. When Eteocles is killed, the council rewards his bravery with an honorable burial.


The Herald appears at the play’s conclusion to bring word of the council’s decision regarding the funerals of Polyneices and Eteocles. When Antigone announces that she will bury her brother in violation of the council’s decree, the Herold argues with her. He leaves to tell the council of Antigone’s plans after it becomes apparent that she will defy their edict.


Ismene is another sister to Eteocles and Polyneices. She appears at the end of the play to mourn her brothers’ passing. She is not as strong at Antigone, nor as willing to defy the council’s edict.


Polyneices is the second of Oedipus’ sons. His body is seen at the end of the play, and he has no lines to speak, but his presence in leading the attack on the seventh gate is a significant cause of the deaths that follow.


The Scout (also called the Spy) has infiltrated the enemy camp, and it is he who brings news to Eteocles of the impending battle. The Scout’s return with news that Polyneices will lead the attack on the seventh gate leads to Eteocles’ decision to defend that gate. Without such precise information, Eteocles might have assigned another warrior to defend the seventh gate.


See The Scout


Anger and Hatred

Anger and hatred are emotions that can control the protagonist and blind him to his obligations and choices. Eteocles is a victim of his own anger. When told by the Scout of the planned attacks on the city gates, Eteocles quite rationally assigns one of his warriors to each gate, each matched to the skills of the attacker. But when the Scout relates that Polyneices is to attack the seventh gate, Eteocles assigned himself to defend that gate. The rational decisions, which provided the best possible defenses for the city, are forgotten in the hatred that he feels for his brother. Because Eteocles is blinded by his hatred, he and his brother die, and only the seventh gate is not successfully defended.

Choice and Fate

Eteocles recognizes that the gods are in control of his destiny. When the Chorus begs Eteocles not to meet his brother, Polyneices, in battle, Eteocles says that fate has already determined his future: “Why kneel to Fate when sentenced to death already?” This surrendering to fate allows Eteocles a way to escape responsibility for his actions. He may make bad choices, as he does when he decides to fight his brother, but he is not responsible, since the he is only fulfilling his destiny. This approach to fate relegates the gods to little more than puppet masters, who simply pull man’s strings, and it means that man need not reason, need not be responsible, and need not search for a greater purpose in life. It is all decided by the gods anyway.


Death has a significant role in Aeschylus’s play because death is the fulfillment of the curse that doomed Laius, Oedipus, Eteocles, and Polyneices. But death does not result in the end of the tragedy. Seven Against Thebes ends with the decree that Eteocles is to receive a hero’s funeral, but Polyneices, his brother, is to remain unburied, a target for the vultures to pick apart. His sister, Antigone will not allow the council’s edict to stand unchallenged, and follows her brother’s body offstage, where the audience knows she will attend to his burial. Antigone’s defiance of what she will call man’s law (to distinguish it from god’s law), will result in her death and the deaths of many more people. The deaths of Eteocles and Polyneices do not end the curse, as it should, but instead leads to more deaths and a continuation of the tragedy.

Human Laws versus Divine Laws

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, God is a powerful, though forgiving and beneficent creator. Man views his relationship with God in a cause and effect manner, in which good deeds and faith are rewarded with God’s grace. But early Greek men had a different relationship with their gods. There were many gods, and man’s relationship with these gods was marked by the arbitrary nature of each god. Whether or not a man was good, honest, or brave had no bearing on how the gods treated him. Instead, man’s treatment depended on how the gods were feeling at any given time. If the gods were warring amongst themselves, they would quite likely inflict some revenge upon men, rather than on the offending deity. This very arbitrary nature of the gods meant that men could not determine their own fates, nor could they even assume responsibility for their own behavior. The relationship with the gods was without rules and dependent solely on whim. This created a very unstable and precarious world in which to live. The effects are clearly seen in this play when the two sons of Oedipus are doomed, even though the initial curse that governs their lives was promised to their grandfather, Laius.


In Greek life honor is the virtue that governs man’s actions. As in the opening, Eteocles is calling upon all men, regardless of age, to join him in defending Thebes from the invaders. That all men would do so, unquestionably, is a function of honor. For Eteocles, honor is the one strength he thinks he possesses. He knows that the gods control his fate,


  • The story of Oedipus’ tragedy is an very old one and one that was the subject of several tragedies. Try to research this story and determine its origin and source. How old is the Oedipus tragedy? Under what circumstances did it originate?
  • Spend some time looking for Greek art that represents the Oedipus tragedy. What kind of things are depicted in art of 5th-century B.C. Greece?
  • Research the role of early Greek drama in Greek life. What lessons might 5th-century Greek men learn from this play?
  • Research 5th-century B.C. Greek society. What is the role of women in this society? Is Eteocles’ reaction to the Chorus typical of the way men address the concerns of women?
  • Eteocles ignores the Chorus’s warning, citing fate as the controlling factor in his destiny. What is the role of fate in the Classical Greek belief system?

and that the familial curse controls his destiny, but Eteocles finds his strength in honor, the only thing he can control. Eteocles’s reply to the Chorus’ pleadings against fighting Polyneices, is a statement that, “when misfortune and dishonor join as one, no worth fame results.” There is no dishonor, he says, when evil intervenes, but there is dishonor in not succeeding. Eteocles is willing to die for his honor, as were many other Greek heroes.



Audience is the people for whom a drama is performed. Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Aeschylus writes for an audience interested in drama as entertainment, but this is also an audience that would expect the playwright to include important lessons about life. Aeschylus also views this moral lesson as an important role for the dramatist and so he emphasizes important lessons in his plays. In there are lessons about the role of honor and of destiny, as well as lessons about hatred and facing death.


A character is a person in a dramatic work. The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multifaceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. “Characterization” is the process of creating a lifelike person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation. In the characters have names that depict their characters. For instance, Polyneices means “full of strife,” a name that reveals his role in the play.


In ancient Greek drama, a chorus consisted of a group of actors who interpreted and commented on the play’s action and themes, most often singing or chanting their lines. Initially the chorus had an important role in drama, as it does in Seven Against Thebes, but over time its purpose was diminished, and as a result, the chorus became little more than commentary between acts. Modern theater rarely uses a chorus.


A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy. Seven Against Thebes is a traditional Greek drama, and as such, provides important lessons for men about their relationship with the gods.


Genre is a French term that means “kind” or “type.” Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy or romance. Seven Against Thebes is a Greek tragedy.


This term refers to the pattern of events. Generally plots have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes connected together. The plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; but themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of is the battle for Thebes, which results in the deaths of two brothers. But the theme is how fate and destiny and the will of the gods must be fulfilled.


The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The primary location for is the battle for Thebes. The action occurs within the city as Eteocles prepares his city for the impending attack.


Theater was an important part of Greek life, since it illustrated for the audience important lessons about morality and the function of the gods. The time during which Aeschylus was writing was known as the High Classical Period. During this period, the Greek city-states flourished, although war was a constant factor of Greek life. The Persian Wars, which occurred in 490 B.C. (First Persian War) and 480 B.C. (Second Persian War), were a contemporary event in Aeschylus’s life, who had fought during the wars himself. The victory of Athens over the invading Persians was an important one, since the Persian force was significantly larger. The Athenian naval victory over the Persians provided the basis of Aeschylus’s play, But most theater was based on the ancient myths and the conflicts between man and gods. The theater was considered an important enough feature of Athenian life that the state paid the actor’s salaries. Wealthy patrons paid


  • c.467 B.C. : The Greeks triumph over the Persians and defeat the invasion of their country. The Persian force was significantly larger than the Athenian forces, and this victory infuses the Greeks with pride.

    Today: Greece, which has been dominated by military coups and turmoil with neighboring Turkey since the end of World War II, is no longer considered a dominant military force.

  • c.467 B.C. : The Greek poet Pindar moves to Thebes, where he composes lyric odes to celebrate triumphs at the Olympic games.

    Today: Today’s athletes are also celebrated for their victories, but the celebrations often focus on advertising contracts and endorsement contracts that make the athletes very wealthy. Few have poems written about them.

  • c.467 B.C. : Alfalfa is grown by the Greeks, who were introduced to this grain by the Persians, and use this grain to feed their livestock.

    Today: Grain is still useful as a by-product of war. Although the United States spent many years seeking military and economic victory over the Russians, when victory was assured, the United States began shipping wheat to the Russians to supplement their meager harvests.

  • c.467 B.C. : The dramatist Sophocles becomes a major competitor of Aeschylus for the annual drama prizes at the Dionysus competition. The prizes are sought after, and for several years both dramatists will continue to challenge the other for the greatest plays.

    Today: Drama competition continues with prizes for film and theater eagerly sought each spring. Winners of the Best Film at the Academy Awards or the Best Play at the Critic Circle Awards are assured of accolades and monetary rewards that will ease the production of subsequent work.

for the other expenses, staging the production and feeding everyone associated with the play. There were government officials to maintain order, but the audience attended because it was a serious civic obligation to attend. Of course, the plays were very entertaining, as was the competition between playwrights, which was also important.

Theater had its beginnings in Athens at religious festivals, which later began to include public competitions in drama. The drama contests were held outside in huge amphitheaters, with the Dionysus competition being held in a theater that seated 17,000 people. In this competition, considered to be the largest and most prestigious, three playwrights were chosen to present a total of twelve plays. The playwrights, actors, and choruses all competed for prizes. Women were involved only as spectators, boys played women’s roles and men wrote the plays. Originally, theater began with just choruses that sang hymns or narrative lyrics. Over time, the first actor appeared. He was masked and entered into a dialogue with the chorus. Aeschylus introduced a second actor to the play, and this enabled him to create a more complex plot. The chorus, which consisted of six to twelve young men, wearing long, flowing robes and identical masks, also joined the actors. The two actors wore different masks, and oftentimes, elaborate costumes. They also wore platform shoes that made them taller and more imposing. Costumes were decorated and sometimes revealed the social status or position of the character. The sources for plays were past and sometimes more recent wars, but might also include familiar Homeric epics and stories of how gods treated mankind. Oftentimes, there was an emphasis on the power of gods, as well as their ability to use trickery. Other topics included man’s response to fate or the hopelessness of man’s dreams in the face of gods’ desires. The story of Oedipus and his sons tells of how one mistake with a god can lead to disaster for all subsequent generations.

Plagues and famines were frequent problems for people of the ancient eastern Mediterranean world. These disasters were usually blamed on the gods, since people had no real understanding of how weather patterns functioned or of the earth’s geological movement. Early Greeks believed that the gods were responsible for weather disasters, outbreaks of disease, or the occasional volcano erupting, and they believed these events signaled a punishment from the gods. The Greeks believed in an orderly world, one in which the gods determined their well-being or success. When a significant disaster occurred, these early Greeks looked toward the one thing they could control, their behavior, for answers. In the Oedipus myth, Laius defied the gods. It was appropriate that he was punished, and it was not unusual for this punishment to be extended to all his offspring. Their acceptance of the punishment is seen in Eteocles’s acceptance of his forthcoming death. It is determined by the gods as a fit punishment. It does not matter that Eteocles was not even born when his grandfather received the god’s curse. The injustice of his death is not even a factor for the audience. This is the way Greek life functioned. Everyone in the audience would be aware of this story cycle, and they would be acutely aware that their own survival depended on pleasing the gods. Eteocles is fulfilling his duty and fulfilling a destiny determined long before his birth.


Seven Against Thebes depicts the third story in the Oedipus trilogy. The first story in the trilogy tells of the curse that is visited upon Laius, which threatened Thebes if Laius had any offspring. In the second tragedy, Oedipus cannot escape his father’s curse, and fulfills it with the murder of his father and marriage to his mother. When Oedipus discovers that he has fulfilled the prophecy, he blinds himself and promises that his sons will have to do battle over his property, thus setting up the actions of the third part of the trilogy, the fight between Eteocles and Polyneices. The story of Antigone and of her insistence on following her conscience, which she places before the laws of the state, is also the subject of a tragedy, Sophocles’s Antigone.

We do not know how Aeschylus’s audience reacted to Seven Against Thebes, but we can assume that the reaction was favorable, since he received a first prize for the trilogy, of which it is a part. It is important to remember that Greek drama was not nightly entertainment, but was a part of festivals, which were staged only a few times during the year. Plays were not intended to hold up a mirror to life, but the playwright did hope that his play would touch the audience, forcing them to consider the implications of the behavior depicted on stage. Audiences listened very intently to the actors and the Chorus, even reacting with fear to an actor’s persona, costuming, or mask. Tragedy was intended to teach a lesson, reveal a moral truth, or create an emotional response in the audience, such as pity or fear. In a particularly effective tragedy, the play would produce a catharsis of these emotions in the audience. The audience would learn that sometimes these emotions are destructive, and therefore, they would attempt to avoid them in their own lives. In Seven Against Thebes, Eteocles teaches the audience that hatred is destructive in its blindness. Eteocles and Polyneices should have united in strength; instead they opposed one another and so both died.

Aeshcylus’s plays are not often produced, since many directors find his works difficult to stage before a modern audience. However, there is still an occasional production, as one would expect, in Greece, such as a recent presentation of Seven Against Thebes in Athens in August 1995. Occasionally, productions are attempted elsewhere, as in a 1994 staging at the Macunaima Drama School in Sao Paulo, Brazil. There was also a 1996 staging at the Stagecraft theater in New Zealand. Of the latter production, a review by John Davidson mentions the difficulty in staging Aeschylus. In this performance, the director included a lecture on the mythical background and a staged conversation between Oedipus and Antigone, in which the two discussed their family history. These devices preceded the performance, but Davidson argues that “a straightforward delivery of the essential features of the story would probably have been more useful.” Davidson also noted that the Chorus was unequal to the role, lacking emotional force. In spite of the problems of the performance, Davidson credits the actors playing Eteocles and the messenger as particularly effective. One addition that pleased the reviewer was a pageant of Theban champions, whose shields matched the descriptions delivered by the messenger. A too-small theater and uneven acting, according to Davidson, could not diminish the glimpses of the “raw power of Aeschylus.” We cannot compare modern productions and the audience’s response to how a Greek audience might have responded to this tragedy. By the time the ancient Greek audience witnessed Seven Against Thebes, they had been following this familial tragedy through productions of the first two parts of the tetralogy. Since the first two plays have not survived, a modern audience will never experience these plays in their entirety. Nor is a modern audience as familiar with the myths that lie behind the trilogy. Aeschylus’s audience was informed and attentive, with the events on stage having a meaning for the audience that is lacking in a modern audience. Davidson noted in his review that this production of was followed by a staging of The Persians with a production of Agamemnon planned the following year. Occasionally an audience is lucky enough to experience Aeschylus’s work, and for a few moments, they are transported back to ancient Greece.


Sheri E. Metzger

Metzger has a Ph.D., and specializes in literature and drama at The University of New Mexico, where she is a Lecturer in the English Department and an Adjunct Professor in the University Honors Program. In the following essay, she discusses Aeschylus’s depiction of women, as observed in the interactions between Eteocles and the Chorus in Seven Against Thebes.

A modern audience is at a distinct disadvantage in studying Aeschylus’s Seven Against Thebes. This tragedy is the third play in the tetralogy; thus to see or read only the third play is a bit like walking into a film as it nears its completion. The audience is in time for the denouement, the resolution of the plot, but the important information, the reason these events occur, is missing. The first two plays of Aeschylus’s series relate the events of Laius’ curse, the birth and abandonment of Oedipus, his discovery of his destiny, and his attempts to avoid his fate. Aeschylus’s Laiusand Oedipus provide the background for the third play, the reasons behind Eteocles’ decision to fight his brother, and they help establish why Polyneices would consider attacking his brother, who was also his twin. That missing information may also help illuminate Eteocles’ harsh treatment of the Chorus in Seven Against Thebes. In truth, the cold, merciless manner in which Eteocles addresses the Chorus is more a function of his personal family tragedy, than a reflection of the way women were treated in Aeschylus’s fifth-century B.C. Athens.

The female Chorus, with their loud laments and cries of fear, represent all women, and women have failed Eteocles. His relationship with his mother, who is also his sister, is enveloped in shame and destruction. Eteocles identifies all women with the woman who betrayed him.

The brief fragments of the first two plays in this trilogy offer little information as to the specifics of their content. The Oedipus narrative, his father, Laius’ story, and the tale of the destruction of Eteocles and Polyneices were familiar legends to Aeschylus and to other Greek playwrights. Sophocles also used these legends as source material in his play, but we cannot know exactly what aspects of the legends Aeschylus chose as a focus. There are many different renditions, with slight changes, including different reasons why Oedipus cursed his own sons. It is sometimes reported that the curse resulted from the sons offering their father an inferior cut of meat. This might appear to be an insignificant cause to a twentieth century reader, but hospitality was a serious issue to ancient Greeks, since a traveler’s life might depend on the level of hospitality received. Indeed, the initial curse on Laius and his offspring resulted from a violation of the laws regarding hospitality. The curse warned Laius that he should remain childless so that he might save the city of Thebes. But should he have a child, the gods prophesied that the son would murder his father and marry the mother. The son, Oedipus, did, in fact, murder his father, though unknowingly, and he did wed his mother, again unknowingly. As a result of his union with his mother, Jocasta, Oedipus fathers two sons who are destined to destroy one another: Eteocles and Polyneices. This is the story told in the first two plays of Aeschylus’s trilogy. As a result of these events, the relationship with his mother/sister, Jocasta, may lie behind Eteocles’ animosity toward the female Chorus.

When Seven Against Thebes opens, his past and the family curse are recent events for Eteocles. The play opens with the sounds of battle, and as J. D. Conacher observes in his study of Aeschylus’s early plays, Aeschylus: The Earlier Plays and Related Studies, these are the sounds of “one of the great ’battle plays’ in Western literature.” All the battles occur offstage, and yet, their presence is so intrusive that the sounds of the fierce battle fill the stage and theatre with tension. The Chorus is frightened, nearly reduced to hysteria as they imagine the battle


  • Prometheus Bound, by Aeschylus (undated), is the story of how Prometheus is punished for disobeying the god Zeus.
  • The Persians, by Aeschylus (472 B.C.), is a history play that recounts an event from the Greek and Persian Wars.
  • Oedipus Rex, by Sophocles (c. 430-426 B.C.), is the story of one man’s attempts to escape his fate. This play tells the story of the events that precede Seven Against Thebes.
  • Antigone, by Sophocles (c. 441 B.C.), is a literary and mythical sequel to Seven Against Thebes. This tragedy also deals with the problems of excessive pride and stubbornness. It also delves into the responsibility that all men have to bury the dead.
  • Bacchae, by Euripides (c. 405 B.C.), is often regarded as a condemnation of religious excess.

drawing closer, the threat more immediate. The cries of the Chorus, the images they create with their pleas to the gods, are intermingled with images of battle. Together, these noises pull the audience into the scene, involving them through sounds almost as realistic as the actual presence of war. Conacher points out that this use of sound and image creates for the audience,“something of the terror of the offstage battle preparations.” These sounds of the approaching army, according to Conacher, are what most frighten the Chorus. Aeschylus establishes through sound the noise and confusion of battle, and by transporting the audience into the sounds of battle, he passes that fear and tension to the listening spectators. Thus, when Eteocles enters to confront the Chorus, his attack appears even harsher. Eteocles addresses the Chorus as “you stupid creatures,” and expresses the hope that “Whether it’s hard times or good old happy days, / don’t put me in with the women.” It is the Chorus that Eteocles addresses as “bossy” and “mindless,” and who he accuses of bringing aid to the enemy with their fear. This hysteria is what Eteocles says happens when “a man lives with a woman.” He continues with a reminder that war and battles and sacrifices to the gods are the dominion of men, and women ought not to tell men what to do. Conacher mentions that this scene provides great theatre, with the contrast between “the strength and masculinity of the protagonist and the terror of the female Chorus.” This is what Conacher labels a “piteous spectacle,” which depicts the terror that awaits women in the face of war. The female Chorus has sound reasons for their fright, but Eteocles is unmoved by these images of feminine doom. In fact, Eteocles reacts with particularly fierce brutality to the Chorus’ fear.

Of interest in this exchange between Eteocles and the Chorus is the threat of death that he adds to his chastisement to be silent. Anyone who fails to support him will be stoned to death, and Eteocles interprets the Chorus’s fear as lack of support or belief in him. In her essay, “Language, Structure, and the Son of Oedipus,” Froma L. Zeitlin suggests that Eteocles’ ambivalence toward the Chorus is a manifestation of his relationship with his parents, particularly with his mother, Jocasta. Zeitlin first reminds her readers that “the women in the parodos [the ode] speak both for the city and for the family, sanctioning the norm by their appeals to the gods of both genders who hold sway in Thebes.” Thus, the Chorus is fulfilling what females in this society are expected to do: voice their concerns for the well-being of the city and pray to their Greek gods for protection. And yet, their fulfillment of this duty compels Eteocles to threaten the Chorus with death. Zeitlin acknowledges that in chastising the Chorus, Eteocles may only be fulfilling his role as king of Thebes, maintaining order and protecting the best interests the population. But Zeitlin also suggests that Eteocles” ’misogynistic tirade against all women for all time demonstrates precisely the status of Eteocles as a child of an incestuous union.” As the child of such a union, Eteocles has felt the abhorrence his parent’s marriage has produced. The Chorus, too, is aware of the deviation from norms, since their pleas in the play’s opening are for protection from the pillaging, and thus the rape and abduction that is too often the fate of women during war. As Zeitlin notes, “war and incest both interrupt the normal exchange of women, one in excessive exogamy, one in excessive endogamy.” Consequently, women are deprived of the normal marital relationship they might reasonably expect, and instead, are forced to either mate with their captors or unite within their immediate family or tribe. The Chorus is aware of this risk to their chastity, and since their response to the implied threats of the battle is appropriate, it is worth considering why Eteocles’ response to the Chorus’ fear, including the threat of death, is so extreme.

During the fifth century B.C., women in Greece enjoyed extraordinary freedoms. According to Thomas R. Martin’s study, Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic times, Athenian women contributed to almost all aspects of Greek society, except in the political forum. Women contributed to their society in several ways, including the bearing of legitimate children, whose parentage was especially important. Greek women earned significant freedoms once they had supplied the desired, legitimate heirs. Women earned respect, Martin says, by obeying society’s norms. There was significant pressure on both men and women to ensure that a woman’s reputation remained chaste and pure. The events that surrounded Eteocles’ birth, when revealed, resulted in a complete breakdown of the accepted social norms. Oedipus, having blinded himself, fled in exile from the city, and Jocasta killed herself. The shame of these events was significant, and not surprisingly, Eteocles reacts in a crisis situation with a condemnation of all women.

The modern audience can never know what Aeschylus had in mind when he provided Eteocles with such a cruel condemnation of all women. Since Greek society valued women and encouraged their role as significant contributing members of society, Eteocles’ attack would be out of character for most Greek men. But Eteocles is not any ordinary citizen. He is a victim of his father’s curse, his parent’s incest, and his mother’s shame. The female Chorus, with their loud laments and cries of fear, represent all women, and women have failed Eteocles. His


relationship with his mother, who is also his sister, is enveloped in shame and destruction. Eteocles identifies all women with the woman who betrayed him. He will shortly fulfill the prophecy and his destiny; he will die, as will his brother. A rational response to the Chorus’ hysteria is, perhaps, not to be expected.

Source: Sheri E. Metzger, in an essay for Drama For Students, Gale, 2001.

David H. Porter

In the following essay, David H. Porter examines the parallelism of the play, believing that the main movement of the play “finds imitation at virtually every level.”

There are many unresolved questions about Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. Does the play fall into two imperfectly linked sections, the first dealing with the conflict between Thebes and the Argive invaders, the second with the effects of Oedipus’ curse on his sons? Does Eteocles act with freedom of choice, or is he merely the unwitting agent of the curse? Does he make his selection of defenders as the play actually unfolds, or has he already made this selection before he appears for the great central scene? What is the precise nature of the curse which Oedipus has cast upon his sons? Is Eteocles’ death to be seen as a sacrifice willingly undertaken in order to save the city? Are we to accept as genuine those portions which at the end of the play introduce Antigone and Ismene and the subject of Polyneices’ burial? What was the relationship between the Seven, originally the final play of a trilogy, and the two plays which preceded it, the Laius and the Oedipus?


On one matter, however, most critics agree—the basic movement of the play. The emphasis in the first half is clearly on the invasion that threatens Thebes—a public danger posed by the enemy outside the walls; the emphasis in later scenes is just as clearly on the curse that threatens two individuals—a private, family danger, one that grows, as it were, straight out of the soil of Thebes. The movement of the play is thus a movement from the war to the curse, from the collective to the individual, from the external to the internal, the foreign to the native, the public to the private, the polis to the genos. In the early scenes the chorus’ lengthy odes express their hysterical fear over the threat of invasion, sacking, and rape at the hands of the foreign invaders, while in the equally long later odes their fears are for the fate of Eteocles and his family. Their concern at first is over the possibility that they themselves may become victims of war, at the end that Eteocles and his brother may become victims of the curse. One verbal motif, to which I shall return later, aptly sums up this dominant movement of the play as a whole. At the start we hear a great deal about the foreigners who are attacking the city; later, the foreigner repeatedly mentioned is the Chalybian stranger, that mysterious and haunting embodiment of the curse of Oedipus; thus we move from numerous foreigners threatening a whole city to a single Theban-rooted xenos who threatens the royal family.

There are other basic movements in the play, of course, and to one of these we shall return later in this chapter. But the most obvious and deeply ingrained is the progression just identified, a movement which finds imitation at virtually every level of the play—within larger and smaller inner components, in the relationships between balancing sections, in imagery and verbal motifs. This ubiquitous parallelism of movement serves many functions in the Seven, as we shall see in the remainder of this chapter, among them, of course, that of contributing to the coherence of a play some have judged lacking in unity.

In what follows I shall analyze the play section by section, first showing how each section as a whole reflects the play’s basic movement and then commenting on other reflections within those sections. I divide the play into five major parts [with line numbers referring to the original Greek text]: 1-77 (Eteocles’ opening speech and his exchange with the messenger); 78-286 (the parodos and Eteocles’ dialogue with the chorus); 287-791 (the great central scene, including the balancing odes which enclose the selection scene); 792-821 (the short dialogue between the messenger and the chorus); 822-1004 (the lamentation over the death of the two brothers).

The first major section of the play, 1-77, contains both a clear reflection of the basic movement in the scene as a whole and also several smaller, more subtle imitations within. The focus at the beginning and through most of the scene is on the collective enemy outside the city: note the emphasis on the size of the invading force, on the collective nature of the defense, and on the public nature of the threat (it is the city and the land which are threatened) From this stress on the war, its public nature, and the numerous individuals who will be involved, Aeschylus moves at the end to clear, if not yet emphatic, suggestions of the narrowing of focus that is to come—to Eteocles’ explicit (and somewhat surprising) mention of his father’s curse; to the herald’s emphasis on the degree to which Eteocles himself must now take charge.. .; and to Eteocles’ personal acceptance of the responsibility placed upon him.

In passing we should note that in the two early sections (1-77, 78-286) the focus on the public, external menace of war dominates while the theme of the curse and Eteocles’ personal involvement sounds only distantly and at the very end of the scenes, whereas in the last sections (792-821, 822-1004) the public issue of the city’s safety appears at the start of scenes only to be swiftly overwhelmed by the now-dominant theme of the curse and its impact on Eteocles and Polyneices; in the great central panel (287-791) the two contrasting themes receive equal stress. This gradual shift of emphasis from scene to scene is, of course, yet one more reflection of the overall movement of the play.

As I have mentioned, even within the first section there are hints, albeit slight, of this same larger movement. Eteocles’ address to the assembled Cadmeians and his generalizing hostis move rapidly, as will the play, to a focus on his own involvement; his description of the external threat to the city and his commands to the citizens as a group lead to his statement of his own, individual role; the messenger’s speech itself moves from description of the invader to injunctions aimed primarily at Eteocles himself; and the messenger’s focus on the foreign enemy is answered by Eteocles’ emphasis on the native gods and land of Thebes, a movement that foreshadows the play’s overall shift of focus from a foreign danger to an indigenous, earth-rooted curse.

The next section, 78-286, similarly contains parallel motion on several levels at once. Again it begins with the public, external threat of a large army. In the parodos the women as a group express their collective concern for the land as a whole, stressing the multitude and the foreignness of the invaders (multitude; foreignness) and repeatedly emphasizing the gods’ obligation to protect the state. From this emphasis in the parodos on the many, the foreign, and the state, the last lines of the scene move to Eteocles, the Theban individual who by his own actions will bring the curse upon himself:

I will take six men, myself to make a seventh and go to post them at the city’s gates, opponents of the enemy, in gallant style, before quick messengers are on us and their words of haste burn us with urgency.

The scene thus ends, appropriately, with a far more ominous sounding of the “Eteocles theme” than that heard at the conclusion of the first section.

Several features within this elaborate section help foreshadow these final lines with their emphasis on Eteocles. For one thing, with the king’s arrival at 181 attention shifts from an external to an internal danger. For just as the play as a whole moves from the threat of foreign war to the threat of the native curse, so this section moves from the danger posed by the foreign invader (in the parodos) to the danger posed by the Theban women.. . . Furthermore, whereas the women feared for the city, Eteocles perceives the women’s hysteria as a threat not only to the city but also to himself, a fact emphasized by the very confrontation here between the many women and the one man. In the scene as a whole the opening section thus focuses on the external danger, the final section on Eteocles’ own participation; and the intervening discussion effects a gradual and skillful transition from the many to the one, the foreign to the Theban, the public to the private.

There are again inner parallels as well. The parodos creates the illusion of an army that is coming ever closer, an illusion obviously related to the way in which, in the play, the focal danger moves from outside Thebes to within Thebes; and the chorus’ cries contain another distant variation on the same theme in the repeated movement from description of foreign invaders to invocation of native divinities. With the central section of the scene we move from the domination of the many (i.e., the women) to the domination of the one (i.e., Eteocles), a shift underscored by the almost precise numerical balance of 181-202 (22 lines), which stress the collective danger posed by the many, with 264-286 (23 lines), which express Eteocles’ reestablished dominance. Still smaller components also reflect the same pattern: Eteocles’ speech at 181-202 moves from description of the collective threat posed by the women to emphasis on his own necessary dominance, the stichomythia at 245-263 from the women listening to the sound of the enemy to them listening to Eteocles, and Eteocles’ final speech from his statement of what the women must do to his statement of what he will do.

As we might expect, the play’s great central scene contains the climax not only of the play’s action but also, both qualitatively and quantitatively, of its parallelism. Virtually every aspect of this vast scene displays clear reflections of the play’s larger movement. On the most obvious level, one so obvious that little need be said about it, there is the movement from the chorus which opens the section to the chorus which closes it, with the former focusing almost exclusively on the collective danger of foreign war, the latter almost exclusively on the threat of the Theban curse to Eteocles and Polyneices (cf., for example, the fear of the army at the start of the first ode, with the fear of the curse at the end of the second)

We may note also that these two contrasting odes exemplify almost perfectly the principles which were our theme in the Introduction: the centrifugal thrust of balanced opposites on the one hand, the centripetal pull of motivic links and parallel structure on the other. For although the two odes point to the two contrasting themes of the play, they are bound together by numerous verbal motifs and by a clear parallelism of structure . . . .

The climax of the relationship between the two odes comes in their final sections. ... Both the events and the language in this section of the earlier ode carry strong connotations of Oedipus. Thus domaton stugeran hodon is reminiscent of the journey on which Oedipus met and killed Laius, a journey which we know was explicitly mentioned in the previous plays... , and the references to murder similarly recall the parricide; the description of new-born babes crying as they are torn from breasts reminds us of Oedipus’ exposure, an event not explicitly mentioned in the ode at 720 f. but one certainly suggested by ekbolan, a word used in Euripides of an exposed child and a word which in the Seven corresponds metrically to Oidipoun in the antistrophe; the comparison of rapine in the city to the pouring of fruit on the ground not only parallels Oedipus’ spewing of his curse on his sons but also reminds us of the frequent fertility language associated with Oedipus and his family...; the “bitter eye” of the stewards. . . Oedipus’ recalls destruction of his own eyes...; the wretched eunan of the captive maids recalls the wretched marriage of Oedipus (athlion gamon; and the final description of the fate of women captured in war is phrased so ambiguously as to suggest the marriages of both Oedipus and Laius:

elpis esti nukteron telos molein pagklauton algeon epirrothon.

Finally, the lines which begin this whole section of the first ode suggest Oedipus in a remarkable way:

Man stands against man with the spear and is killed. Young mothers, blood-boltered, cry bitterly for the babes at their breast.

While the overtones of Oedipus and his family in the ode at 287 f. are fresh in mind, we should note that this ode itself contains yet one more inner reflection of the overall movement of the play. Just as the play moves from the war to the curse, from the danger to Thebes to the danger to the children of Oedipus, so this ode begins with the women’s response to the war but moves to a conclusion filled with rich reminiscences of the curse and its effect on Oedipus and his family. Furthermore, the ode’s progression from the women’s generalized concern for the city to their more specific concern for themselves reflects in microcosm the play’s movement from public concerns to private.

The principal function of the ode at 720 f. is to conclude as emphatically as possible the great movement from war (287 f.) to curse (653 f.) which shapes the central scene of the play. If, however, this ode as a whole contains only subtle hints of the play’s dominant rhythm, its brief passages about Laius and Oedipus contain clear imitations in that both first focus on the safety of the city, then turn their attention to the family curse.

In the central episode itself, that involving the matching of the seven pairs of antagonists, the overall parallelism to the play’s basic movement is again so apparent as to require little comment. Just as the play as a whole moves from a focus on Thebes’ foreign enemies to a focus on a Theban curse, so in the earlier parts of this episode the war and the danger to the state are uppermost in Eteocles’ mind, but from 653 on the curse clearly dominates his thinking.. . . This shift of focus is not unprepared: in different ways Parthenopaeus and Amphiaraus, the last two champions before Polyneices and Eteocles themselves, begin to shift the emphasis from the collective to the individual, from the war to the curse, from a foreign threat to a native one, and from the state as a whole to Eteocles in particular.

Parthenopaeus, unlike the previous Argive champions, carries on his shield a distinctively Theban emblem, the Sphinx, an emblem which, moreover, has a special relevance to the curse-laden royal house of Thebes. He is also described in the language of fertility that is usually reserved for the Theban Spartoi and their kings.. .. In addition, Parthenopaeus is more fully individualized than are the four previous champions. With him, and with Amphiaraus, we begin to focus less on a collective invasion and more on certain individuals, a movement which will reach its climax in the close-up focus on Eteocles and Polyneices at the end of the scene.

Amphiaraus brings us still closer. Again there is the distinctively Theban agricultural imagery, this time in greater profusion. Furthermore, Eteocles recognizes in Amphiaraus a kindred spirit, and the king’s words about him bear an ominous, if hidden, relevance to himself:

In all man does, evil relationships are the worst evil.. . (tr. Dawson)

Finally, to underline the relationship, Amphiaraus, like Eteocles, is a man fighting a losing battle against a Theban-born curse.

Thus as we move from the threat of foreign invasion to that of the native curse, the foreign invaders begin to take on Theban characteristics, a movement that reaches its destination in the seventh Argive champion, Polyneices, who is not only himself a Theban but also, like Eteocles, the specific target of the curse. At the same time, Eteocles is becoming increasingly involved on a personal as against a merely strategic level, a movement that effectively begins at 282, that accelerates in the responses to Parthenopaeus and Amphiaraus, and that leads ultimately to the impassioned outburst at 653 f. At the end of the central scene, as at the end of the second section of the play, Eteocles is at center stage in dispute with the chorus, the one against the many, his mind focused on a danger that is Theban rather than foreign. This danger now, however, is not the collective danger of the Theban women’s hysteria but the personal danger of the Theban curse.

I have already spoken of several of the smaller parallels within parallels that this great central scene contains. Suffice it to add that in the descriptions of the various pairs of opponents at the gates there are still more parallels: the movement within each pair, as within the play as a whole, is from foreign to Theban; and just as Eteocles’ public generalship and even his words diabolically recoil upon himself in personal disaster, so, through Eteocles’ verbal manipulations, the public mission and the emblems and words associated with it recoil upon each Argive champion in turn.

For two reasons I shall deal but briefly with the concluding sections of the play. First, the text of these last portions is corrupt and in dispute at so many points that at best one can do no more than suggest their general movement. Second, while these scenes do contain clear reflections of the play’s basic rhythm, these reflections do not possess the many-layered complexity found in the earlier sections.

As already mentioned, the dominant theme in these last scenes is that of the curse, just as the dominant theme in early scenes was that of the war. At the beginning of each section there is, however, a clear, if short-lived, recurrence of the war theme. Thus the fourth section (792-821) begins with the messenger’s explicit reference to the city’s victory in war (792 f.), a theme that soon gives way to his and the chorus’ preoccupation with the curse-determined death of the brothers; and the long choral passage beginning at 822 similarly opens its lamentations over the brothers and the curse with a clear glance at the new-found safety of the city (825 f.)

Source: David H. Porter, “The Magnetism of Destruction: Aeschylus’ Seven, “’ in Only Connect: Three Studies in Greek Tragedy, University Press of America, 1987, pp. 1-44.

Froma I. Zeitlin

In this essay, Zeitlin discusses autochthony in relation to Eteokles, as well as the structure and identity of his role in the play.

III. Mythos—Polis/Genos: Autochthony/Incest

The climax of the drama, after the seventh shield, when the two codes, that of the city and that of the family, diverge, does not constitute a sudden reversal, as many have suggested, a substitution of one set of terms for another, but is rather the culmination of a process which has governed the logic of the text from the beginning. The relations of oppositions and homologies which underlie the text are strained to their limits by the inherent but unnatural contradiction of genos and polis exemplified in the person of Eteokles who is always both the ruler of Thebes and the son of Oedipus. Thus the text resonates throughout in both registers, each voice dominant now in one part and recessive now in another. At times these voices reply to each other antiphonally; at times, they join in unison. This tension between the two codes is demonstrated on the structural level of plot in the complex relationship between the two major episodes, that with the women of Thebes inside the city and that involving the shields of the men outside. These two scenes are both opposites and doublets of each other. As a confrontation between two opposing attitudes, the first scene is, in fact, a rehearsal of the other; it is also its dynamic mover, since the conflict provokes from Eteokles his promise to include himself as the seventh combatant in the approaching battle.

Limitations of space do not permit the analysis of the role of the women of the chorus who carry the largest burden of the text, with whom and through whom Eteokles activates the doom which awaits him. Here I would point only to the operation of the sexual code, which, through its various inversions, establishes the proper norm for the city. That norm insists upon a dual allegiance—to the general collective of the group as exemplified in the unifying myth of autochthony (origin from one, the mother earth) and to the individual family in its exogamous union of male and female (origin from two). The women in the parodos speak both for the city and for


the family, sanctioning the norm by the nature of their appeals to the gods of both genders who hold sway in Thebes.

Eteokles, however, invokes only the myth of the autochthonous origin of Thebes. He appeals to this myth on the one hand, as a good general might, to serve the interests of patriotic ideology. For the resort to the myth of birth from the mother earth serves as a reminder of the absolute duty of her hoplite sons to defend their city. On the other hand, autochthony is a dangerously seductive model for Eteokles: first, he is not truly a Spartos, but the son of Jocasta and Oedipus, and hence he is not fully an insider in the city. His identification with the Spartoi therefore implies a potential misrecognition of himself and his own origins. Second, and conversely, since autochthony, like incest, posits a single undifferentiating origin, Eteokles all too easily transposes the pattern from one domain to the other and runs the risk of contaminating the city’s myth of solidarity with the negative import of his own story.

For the city, single autochthonous origin is only a point of origin, one which precedes the next stage when different families are founded in Thebes. Ares, as the chorus indicates in the parodos, is the deity who makes this transition possible. For he faces in both directions, first, as the founder of Thebes through his connection with the Sown Men; second, as the consort of Aphrodite with whom he united to engender Harmonia who, in turn, was given to Kadmos. For the chorus, on the other hand, the city has two primordial mothers: Gaia (earth) and Aphrodite promator.

Return to the notion of a single origin excludes the circulation of females as signs of exchange who guarantee continuing differentiation within the system. Eteokles, when he attempts to silence the unruly women at the altars and insists upon the rigid antithesis between the sexes, is perhaps performing his proper military role in the interests of group morale and demanding from the women only what the social conventions expected from them. But the addition of his misogynistic tirade against all women for all time demonstrates precisely the status of Eteokles as child of an incestuous union, who knows only how to repress the “speaking signs” that are essential to the city for its genealogical diversity in favor of a homogeneous commonality ruled by a single principle.

The import of this repression is emphasized when the chorus in the first stasimon evokes the polar opposite of incest/autochthony, namely, the vision of the forcible rape and abduction of the city’s women by the alien attackers. This is exogamy in its most negative form as unlawful appropriation of women which accompanies and is homologous with the pillaging of the goods of the city and its homes. When the violence of strife has entered the city, both extremes, that of excessive distance and that of excessive closeness, are correlated in the hidden mantic message of the choral ode. For war and incest both interrupt the normal exchange of women, one in excessive exogamy, one in excessive endogamy.

within the city
single origin: same
unlawful appropriation
within the city/without the city
orderly exchange
lawful marriage
without the city
unlawful appropriation.

Eteokles’ flight from woman, a refusal both of genealogy and generation, substitutes asexual autochthony for hypersexual incest, and replaces the biological mother with the symbolic mother of the collective city. But his antithesis of either/or cannot stand. Polarity is also analogy, for in the language of the Greek city, the woman imitates the earth and the earth imitates the woman. Each term lends to the other the appropriate metaphorical quality by which literal and symbolic stabilize one another in an integrative system of values. An attack upon one is, in truth, equivalent to an attack upon the other. Eteokles’ dissociation of the two is paradoxically only the sign of their inherent relationship, since incest is the hidden paradigm of autochthony. The denial of this analogical connection between mother and earth can only encourage a false claim to autonomy; it will therefore establish a system in which reciprocal relations must take the form of antithetical violence, whether with the women inside or the warriors outside.

That analogy is already at work, for the curse of Oedipus was precipitated by the sons’ neglect of trophe, the nurture they owed in return for their trophe, the same trophe owed in the language of autochthony to the mother earth as her Dike. The terms of the father’s curse, when fulfilled, will perfect the paradigm, for the sons, as citizens of Thebes, will repeat the violation of trophe, this time against the mother earth, by Polyneikes’ attack against it and by Eteokles’ willingness to pollute the earth with fratricidal blood.

Eteokles’ single adherence to polis in his appeal to the myth of the city’s single origin can and does confirm a positive political ideology for the group. But when construed also as a defense against genos, Eteokles’ appeal also reconnects genos to polis by invoking now the negative paradigmatic force implied by the terms of the origin myth. For when the brothers reenact the crimes of the father against one another for possession now of their father’s goods and of his city, they are, at the same time, reenacting the regressive aspect of the city’s founding myth, which first led to destruction before it culminated in solidarity. The fratricide of the sons of Oedipus follows the model of the Sown Men, who, springing up in autochthonous birth from the dragon’s teeth in the soil of Thebes, slew one another in mutual combat, with the exception of five who survived to establish families in Thebes and to profit from the prestige of their indigenous origins. The city is saved, not for the first time, but for the second, when Laios proves to have died without issue. And the second time proves a repetition of the first time, when Eteokles is enrolled at last among the Spartoi only after his death. Autochthony, in its ambiguities in the political and mythic codes, is therefore the sign that Eteokles will function as the bridge between a defective model of city and a defective model of family; he will serve as a negative mediator between the two. His is a monocular gaze whose partial vision will betray him in the reading of the signs on the warriors’ shields.

IV. Hero: Structure, Sign, and Identity

If we can speak of the power of the family over its offspring as a “genealogical imperative,” in the case of the family of Laios we can speak of a negative “genealogical imperative,” which now decrees not life but death to its progeny and which regulates the text from its beginning to its end. From this perspective, Eteokles’ defensive strategy, one might say, is dedicated both to preserving the integrity of the walls that protect the besieged city of Thebes and to preserving his unique singular identity. The encroachment of “no difference” heralds the fall into plurality with his brother and hence back into genealogy as the son of Oedipus.

On the one hand, Eteokles, who characterizes himself as “one” (heis), at the beginning of the play, only to juxtapose the term W\\h.polus(“many”), prophesies more truly than he knows that he alone, as the son of Oedipus, will be separated out from the many, those citizens of Cadmos’ city whom he addresses. On the other hand, once the distinction between the two brothers fails, so does the line between singular and plural. Thus Eteokles will quite literally be absorbed into the pluralizing name of Poly-neikes. In other words, he will prove to be singular with regard to his fellow citizens and plural with regard to his brother when the two identities merge.

The potential loss of Eteokles’ name carries a double jeopardy. In general terms, a name is the guarantee of identity and of existence, of difference from others in the world at large and at home. Surrendering one’s name is a dangerous act, even in the interests of survival, as Odysseus well knows when he reasserts his name at his peril after he names/unnames himself as Outis, “No One,” in the cave of the Cyclops. The name also attests to the legitimacy of the father’s prerogative to name his progeny and to inscribe the bearer of that name together with his patronymic in the continuing line of the family.

In specific terms, maintaining a stable relation between signifier and signified in the name, Eteokles (truly famed, full of kleos), offers another hope in the face of the shadow of negation that broods over the family. For the alternative to generation as the guarantee of immortality through the continuance of genos is the winning of individual kleos, of singular heroic renown in battle so as to survive through the memory of tradition on the lips of men. In the economy of praise and blame which structured archaic Greek society, Eteokles (kleos x fame x praise) and Polyneikes (neikos x strife x blame) are lexical signs of the opposition itself. This dichotomy opposes positive (presence of praise) to negative (absence of praise), memory to oblivion, clarity to obscurity, the brightness of fame (to be named) to the darkness of ill repute (anonymity); in short, opposes immortality to extinction. But the fulfillment of the curse through fratricidal combat must inevitably defeat Eteokles’ claim to moral and personal identity which his name represents and which he had hoped his virtuous allegiance to the city would protect. Instead, the deflection of heroism to fratricidal combat fulfills the hidden, sinister significance of his name, i.e., “truly bewept,” or “true cause of weeping” [klaio= weep, lament]. Thus, as Bacon persuasively argues, Eteokles’ own name, like that of his father, functions as a riddle and prophecy of his fate, namely a death without kleos that will be truly bewept. The last stage of the drama will efface his name when both brothers are jointly characterized as Polynei&m, the plural form of the singular, Poly neikes. The name, Polyneikes, already contains within itself the notion of plurality (“much,” “many”), and the grammatical plural redoubles, as it were, the annulment of Eteokles’ name and identity.

Thus, in broadest terms, Eteokles’ best defense against the curse of his father and on behalf of his own name is attention to language and control of the discourse. The best defense against the collapse into “no difference” is attention to the maintenance of the binary opposition. And, in thematic terms, as we have seen, the best defense against genos is exclusive adherence to polis.

No other play is as generous and as repetitive in establishing the competing codes and values at work in the system according to the fundamental dichotomies which regulate Greek thought: male/ female, enemy/friend, Greek/barbarian, inside/outside, self/other, man/god; and there is none that specifically elevates the task of making and unmaking binary oppositions to the level of a crucial and explicit action of the drama.

Binary opposition informs both the structure and content of the two major episodes in the play, the first when Eteokles encounters the unruly Theban women of the chorus, and the second, the centerpiece of the drama, the shield scene. There, through seven paired speeches between himself and the scout, Eteokles seven times pairs enemy with defender until the “barrier of the antithesis” that guarantees the opposition begins to break down when brother faces brother at the seventh gate. Polarized difference then yields to doubling homology, as the double progeny of a doubly seeded womb meet in a duel and collapse their single selves into the grammatical category of the dual. The enemy brothers thus act out on the synchronic level of fraternity (i.e., of the same generation) their status as offspring of the diachronic collapse of generational distinction that the two original acts of the father represented, i.e., parricide and incest. The erotic vocabulary of passion (eros) and desire (himeros) used to characterize Eteokles’ eagerness to confront his brother in mortal combat, suggests the merger of Eros and Thanatos—the conflation of the two transgressions that engendered the two brothers.

The shield scene, located strategically at the midpoint of the drama, acts as a model system that condenses, climaxes, and hypostasizes the problems of structure and language that inform the play from the beginning when war establishes the legitimacy of the polar opposition, and Eteokles, as the ruler of Thebes, determines to speak the proper words (legein ta kairia). Throughout, the privileged field of combat is the semantic field. The speech act is truly performative.

Semiotics, the study of the system of signs and how they communicate, can provide a hermeneutical tool for analyzing the synergetic system of relations that comprises Aeschylus’ distinctive world view. In Aeschylean drama, nothing can come into existence before its name has been uttered. Concept is fully embedded in image, and figure is inseparable from idea. Conflict in the Seven is literally war, while the antithesis is a pairing of opponents with antithetical names. Homology is the identity of kin (homoios/homaimori), the oxymoron is the enemy brother. Moira as fate is literally moira as portion, since the destiny of the brothers is the apportioning of the father’s patrimony, and the equal moira of death will prove to be the equal moira of land for their interment. Above all, the shield devices, semata, are signs, iconic emblems, that speak and move within a system that is not only tactical (military), but syntactical (linguistic). Language is therefore action and action is language through which the “genealogical imperative” of the accursed family at last asserts itself. Eteokles will create a text which claims linguistic competence in the “langue,” i.e., the public language of civic values, which will insure the victory of Thebes over Argos, but through which his own “parole” will “speak itself,” the language upon which his personal identity rests, and which once discovered in wits signification, will constitute the language of curse and oracle.

Here then in the shield scene is a coded demonstration of the science of signs and how they operate within the social system in regard to the special status of tragic language in its necessary and intrinsic ambiguity. This demonstration, in turn, raises the more general question of language as a means of communication and as a guarantee of identity and truth. Literature has been defined as “a language, but a language around which we have drawn a frame” by which we “indicate a decision to regard with a particular self-consciousness the resources language has always possessed.” From this formalist point of view, the language of the shield scene is doubly marked: first, by the artful frame of formal design which characterizes the scene within the larger structure of the literary text of the play, and second, by reason of its explicit oracular activity.

Oracles, by their nature and the mode of their operation, inevitably direct attention to the problematics of language and reality and point to the potential slippage in the sign between signifier and signified. Once personal identity becomes equivalent to the proper name and once oracle and riddle, as forms of speech, translate the problems of personal identity into those of the linguistic sign, the decipherment of language claims first priority as the hermeneutic way into those fundamental human issues which the dilemma of Oedipus (or his progeny) best represents. In a semiotic perspective, the case of Eteokles to an even greater extent than that of Oedipus, exemplifies the “power of the signifier to be both instrument of power and through the deception inherent in it, a cause of misfortune” and destruction. What then are the rules of the semiotic game? How and why do they function as they do?

Source: Froma I. Zeitlin, “Language, Structure, and the Son of Oedipus,” in Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’ “Seven against Thebes,” Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1982, pp. 13-52.

William G. Thalmann

Thalman looks at several facets of the city in Seven Against Thebes and regards the brothers’ relationship as a microcosm of the city.

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Source: William G. Thalmann, “Imagery I: The City,” in Dramatic Art in Aeschylus’s “Seven against Thebes,” Yale University Press, 1978, pp. 31-61.

Helen H. Bacon

Hecht and Bacon provide a brief history and summary of the play and the characters in this essay.

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Source: Anthony Hecht and Helen H. Bacon, Introduction to Seven against Thebes, in Seven against Thebes, by Aeschylus, Oxford University Press, 1973, pp. 3-17.

T. G. Tucker

Tucker introduces the play by discussing its structure, as well as the history of the time.

Though we do not demand of a modern drama that it should convey a definite moral or political lesson, and though we should not be too exacting in this respect when we deal with the corresponding form of art in antiquity, it is nevertheless a notorious truth that the early Greek poet, and not least the dramatic poet, was commonly regarded—and regarded himself—as an exponent of religious, ethical, and political wisdom. In its primary purpose a tragedy was doubtless a composition of art, intended for the public entertainment on its more serious side; but it was meanwhile expected of the tragedian that he should ’improve the occasion’ and play the part of teacher to the audience. The stage Euripides is not expressing simply his individual opinion, when he maintains in the Frogs of Aristophanes that poets can only claim admiration.. . .

The traditional [sophia/wisdom] of the poet is to show itself not merely in the varied lore for


which he has to thank Mnemosyne, the mother of the Muses, but also in the [gnomai/opinions and paraineseis/exhortations] which are to be expected of his more profound thought and keener insight. His function is not only [To poiein/make poetry], but also [To chresta didaskein/teaching good things]. Most obviously valuable, and most readily appreciated, was wise admonition applied to contemporary circumstance. When Athens was in sore straits just before the end of the Peloponnesian war, Dionysus seeks to bring back a tragic poet from Hades.. . . And, when Aeschylus has been chosen and is departing to the upper world, the prayer is made that he may be the means of suggesting

[.. . good plans of good and great things for the city.]

In writing the Septem Aeschylus duly performs this function of admonisher. But while the general and permanent moral lesson involved in the fate of the sons of Oedipus is obvious, there was also conveyed a special political lesson with a contemporary reference, a lesson so little obtruded that it has apparently escaped the notice of commentators. When Dionysus asks in the Frogs

[and what did you do, Aeschylus, that you taught them to be so noble. Speak!]

the poet is made to reply

[I made drama—full of Ares... . ]

that drama being

[.. . the Seven against Thebes, and when each and every man saw it, he would have loved to be destructive.]

And doubtless something might be caught of that aura of valour which so peculiarly pervaded the piece, and which suggested to Gorgias this apt description ’full of martial spirit.’ Besides dramatically enforcing his invariable warning against [hybris/pride] and [To agan/excess] in any shape, Aeschylus does indeed stimulate Athenian manhood with the desire [daioi einei/to be destructive]. But he meanwhile ’improves the occasion’ in behalf of a debated public policy, or one which at least required the spur. This was the policy initiated by Themistocles, continued by Cimon, and accomplished by Pericles; namely, the policy of fortifying Athens with such completeness that it might thenceforth be secure against assault, whether from barbarian or from hostile Greek. To suppose this purpose included in the ’wisdom’ of the play is no idle fancy. The date of the Septem is B.C. 467. The date of the commencement of Cimon’s wall of the Acropolis is B.C. 468. Themistocles had previously built the new (if hasty) (peribolos/enclosure] of Athens, had fortified the Peiraeus, and had probably devised a larger scheme, which was delayed, and doubtless in part discredited, by his fall and exile in B.C. 472. There were no doubt financial difficulties also. The spoils of the battle of Eurymedon supplied Cimon with the means to accomplish the work upon the Acropolis which is associated with his name. According to Plutarch he also commenced the building of the Long Walls, although the actual carrying out of that supremely important work was left for Pericles (B.C. 460-458).

It is manifest that for some time before and after the production of the Septem the question of the nature and extent of the fortifications of Athens was one of chief public prominence. Nor could it be otherwise. In B.C. 480 not even the Acropolis, much less the larger city, had been defensible against the Persians. The Athenians had been compelled to take refuge within their ’wooden walls.’ In the following year Mardonius had completed the destruction of the city. No one knew when such an experience might be repeated. Nor was assurance against the Peloponnesians much greater than that against Persia. Far-sighted statesmen with the large conceptions of a Themistocles or a Cimon perceived what was necessary. But, as on similar occasions ancient and modern, the more far-sighted the conception, the more difficulty may be found in persuading the body politic to adopt it comprehensively. Especially is this the case when the execution involves heavy financial burdens. That the Athenians required no little pressure of persuasion is manifest, first, from the delay in carrying out the full scheme (whether it be due to Themistocles or to Cimon), second, from such indications as that afforded by Plato, who refers to a speech delivered by Pericles in favour of building the Long Walls. For the sake of brevity historians speak of Themistocles or Cimon or Pericles as doing this or that; yet these greater men were but agents of the will of the people, even though they may first have been the moulders of that will. It was but human nature that the eagerness displayed immediately after the Persian invasion should diminish as the younds of that invasion healed.

In the Septem Aeschylus is indubitably lending his aid to the formation of public opinion in support of the Cimonian policy of fortification. He is insisting upon the text ’Trust in the gods, but see to your walls.’ Though the scene of the action is in Cadmea, the language is carefully adapted to Athens. If Athena Onca is implored to hold her protection over the Cadmea, it is easy to grasp the allusion to Pallas Athena of the Acropolis,.... If she is to guard her [heptapylon hedos/seven-gated dwelling place], the Athenian would at once think of the [ennea pylon/nine-gated one]. These are occasional reminders, but at frequent intervals throughout the play the importance of the defences is emphasised. The Cadmeans are bidden to man the [purgomata/fenced walls]. . . and there to take their stand.. ..

The Scout bids Eteocles

[And you, as a diligent rudder-turner of a ship, fortify the city, before the blasts of Ares rush down like a storm.]

To the Chorus the tutelary gods are [gas tasde purgophylakes/tower-guards of this land]; they are besought not to ’betray the bulwarks.’ When the Chorus surrenders itself on the Acropolis to a helpless passion of supplication, Eteocles bids it offer a prayer more to the purpose....

The Chorus itself in a [stasimon/song of the chorus ] of some length describes vividly the fate of a captured city; how it is enslaved, befouled with smoke, and reduced to ashes. The allusion to the burning of Athens by the Persians is unmistakable. And this havoc, it is said, occurs when ’the defences fail’ (332). The boasts and threats of the Achaean champions are addressed to the [purgoi/towers ] of the besieged town, and, in answer, the Chorus prays that the enemy may never get within gate or wall, but may perish [prosthe pylan, purgon ektosthen/in front of the gates, outside of the towers ]. After the failure of the assault the Scout reports

[And the city is both in calm weather and has not taken on any bilge-water from the many blows of the wave.]

It would have been impossible for the poet to communicate his lesson more plainly without violating (as Euripides is so apt to do) the canons of dramatic art.

The action of the play is simple, and requires no further analysis than that which is supplied in the commentary. Whereas Homer infused into his epic [mimesis/imitation or representation] a dramatic life, on the other hand the dramatic [mimesis/imitation or representation] of Aeschylus, especially in its earlier stages, is wont to retain much of the epic character. Apart from its choruses the Septem is in a large measure epic put upon the stage. There is much description, there would be considerable scenic effect, but there is little action in the modern sense. As a study of [praxeis, pathe, and ethe/actions, sufferings, and customs] the play is apt to strike the reader as somewhat slender. Of the [melopeiia] we have no information, but it would necessarily count for much. In [opsis/appearance] it may be readily imagined that the play would not be lacking. We have the burghers in the opening scene, the distracted Chorus amid the images, the armed champions, the funeral procession and the dirge, besides the dancing and acting. When we have supplied these to the best of our ability, we are called upon to allow for sundry differences between the Greek point of view and our own in regard to a dramatic creation and its performance. Our own conception of ’action’ is not the same as the Greek conception of [praxis/action]. A passage of [elengchos/rebuke], or a scene of argument in which a certain mental [pathos/feeling] is produced, removed, or changed, is sufficient in its ’action’ for the Athenian, who loved these altercations, so long as the degree of [dianoia/thought] exhibited on either side was sufficiently keen or solid to maintain his intelligent admiration. Meanwhile he experienced a lively appreciation of the dexterity or beauty of the language employed. ’Action’ also is the ’keening’ over the bodies of the slain brothers. To the Greek, with his lively sympathies and his ready response to a call upon his emotions, this formed an interesting chapter in the [mimesis biou/imitation of life] of the stage. It was not merely that he took—as one modern sarcastically remarked of another—’a melancholy pleasure in the contemplation of a funeral.’ It was that the attendant ceremonial of death and burial was to him a thing of real significance, for the simple reason that he entertained strong views of the vital importance of such duty to the dead.

If the function of tragedy is to evoke keen sensations of [eleos kai phobos/pity and fear], we must estimate the success of a piece, not by the standard of our own social, moral and religious conceptions, but by that of the Athenians in regard to the same matters. If it seems easy for us to realise the tremors which might pass through an audience when the Chorus depicts the miseries of slaughter, desolation, and enslavement in a captured city, we still can hardly experience them with the same liveliness as a people who recognized their literal truth and to whom they were more or less imminent possibilities. If we can understand a shudder of horror at the impending slaughter of brother by brother, we nevertheless cannot experience it with precisely the same acuteness as a people who regarded the tie of blood from a far more superstitious standpoint, and to whom the Erinyes were dreadful and ever-present realities. The curse of a father is to us a deplorable and shocking thing from the point of view of sentiment, but we cannot regard it, like the Athenians, as an embodied and operative power which can work madness in the brain and relentlessly and irresistibly achieve its dire object. To a people accustomed to the enigmas of oracles and prophecies, prone to look for their fulfilment with awe, and keen to feel the irony when the language was interpreted by the event, there were thrilling sensations of apprehension and premonition which are scarcely realisable by a sceptical modern reader, to whom such riddling rede is apt to present itself in a less venerable light. The refusal of burial to Polyneices is to us a cruel and disgusting action, possible only to a stage of civilisation from which we have emerged. To the Athenian such a prohibition came nearer home; it moreover amounted to perpetual damnation of the departed spirit, and the situation is therefore one of much more crushing grief to Antigone and her sympathisers than we can now realise without considerable effort. To us therefore, who have little regard for Erinyes or Curses or cryptic utterances, who have minimised the interest and importance of obsequies, and who have shifted to a different plane our conceptions of the claims of kinship, the Septem must lose much of its tragic force. The particular motives of pity and fear which it employs, though not without their effect upon ourselves, have lost not a little of their edge. They have at least lost the peculiar quality of poignancy which they would possess for a Greek of the early part of the fifth century B.C. Not only do we miss much that the piece actually contained, together with the acting, [the orchesis/dancing, the melopoiia/making of lyrical music, and the opsis/appearance];

we have also been taught by the romantic drama to look for something at which classical tragedy does not aim, to wit, rapidity of action in a plot more ’complex,’ and subtlety of characterisation probing to greater depths of ’philosophy,’ than even the writer of the Poetics would have contemplated. One thing, however, which no competent reader can miss is the Aeschylean power of language, with its extraordinary specific gravity, its magnificent compression, and its brilliant figurativeness, by means of which the poet brings into the modest compass of a little over a thousand lines enough matter to have furnished forth as many more in many another writer.

The epic character of the play appears especially in the descriptions of the several Achaean champions with their accoutrements and their utterances. It is chiefly here that modern criticism, proceeding on a priori principles as to what is or is not dramatic, raises some question. Have these descriptions a legitimate place in drama? If so, are they seasonable in the mouth of the Scout? Is it, moreover, possible for the Messenger to have seen and heard all that he reports? It is not easy to act the [lytikos/solver to these problemata/problems], if we are to apply to ancient drama the strictest canons of modern realism. But though we are not called upon to undertake this impossible task, in view of the accepted conventions of the Greek stage, it may at least be answered that the criticism is largely misconceived. It is an entirely false notion that the Scout and the King are wasting time in talk while the enemy may be taking advantage of the situation. A point so obvious is not one which would escape so experienced a playwright as Aeschylus. At the very beginning of the Messenger’s report we are told that the operations of the enemy are suspended

[And the seer does not allow him to cross the Ismenus passage, for the sacrifices are not coming out good.]

It is characteristic of Aeschylus that he does not elaborate this excuse. He is too good a dramatist to add ’and therefore I may proceed to give my account at leisure.’ We may, if we choose, regard the device itself as not particularly convincing. Yet Aeschylus believed it to be sufficiently so for his audience. Here, as elsewhere, he credited that audience with the quick intelligence which accepts few words in place of many. Doubtless he often took that intelligence too readily for granted. But whether the device be an entirely natural one or not—and there is at least nothing irrational in it—if it is once granted, criticism falls to the ground. For how long, after all, does it take the Messenger to make this report and for Eteocles to answer it with his dispositions? The whole scene until Eteocles himself departs occupies 345 lines. Comprised in these there is no interval, and the time thus ’wasted’ amounts to neither more nor less than it would take to deliver that number of lines upon the stage. It is not even the space of time which a modern critic spends in reading and pondering the lines, but the time which he might take, as a Greek of the date of Aeschylus, in uttering and acting them. This would be measured in minutes. To the spectators almost no time would appear to elapse. There are several single scenes in Shakespeare which are as long, and some which are longer. It can hardly be contended that the delay is rationally out of proportion to the justification offered for it.

Of two passages of Euripides which are supposed to be aimed at this scene in the Septem, one will be found on examination to have no such reference whatever. In the Supplices Theseus says to Adrastus.

[And I will not ask you one thing, lest I bring laughter on myself, whom each of these is joined with in battle or has received the wound from a troop of enemy spearmen. For these words are empty, both those of the ones hearing and those of the one speaking, who, having gone in battle when a close-packed troop of spearmen is coming before his eyes, has reported clearly who is good.]

But what application has this passage to the Messenger’s descriptions in our play? Euripides is simply ridiculing the man—probably too frequently in evidence at Athens—who pretends to know the full details of a fight in which he has been himself engaged. As every veteran acknowledges, the field of observation in a battle is limited to the soldier’s own immediate neighbourhood, and sometimes he can render no very clear account even of his own experiences. But the Scout in the Septem has nothing to tell of any fight in which either he or anyone else has been concerned. It should be obvious that to force the lines into a criticism of his fellow-dramatist is to do an injustice to Euripides.

More relevant might seem the passage in the Phoenissae, where Eteocles says

[And these things will be: having come to the seven-gated city, I will arrange troop commanders before the gates, as you say, setting equals opposite equal enemies, and it would be a great waste of time to say the name of each while the enemies are sitting under the very gates, but I go, in order that I may not leave my hand idle, and may it happen for me.... ]

Though this particular [rhesis/saying or speech] is rightly suspected to contain a number of interpolations, and though it might be hoped, for the artistic credit of Euripides, that the dramatically unnatural—because obviously forced—passage [onoma.. . chera] is one such, we need not avail ourselves of that suspicion. It is enough to remember that the Phoenissae is of exceptional length, and that the poet has crowded into it (if it is all his) an unusual variety of matter. His lines here are no reflection whatever upon Aeschylus; they are a defence of himself. If anyone is criticised, it is the audience, which looked for such detail and description, but which Euripides does not this time propose to satisfy. The playwright is aware that he cannot spare room for this matter, and he accounts to the audience for the omission. The tone is not one of sarcasm, but of apology: I cannot name them now; it would take time, and the enemy are pressing us.’

It is sometimes further objected that the descriptions themselves are merely picturesque, and therefore undramatic. The same criticism would sweep away many a fine passage of Shakespeare. Aesthetic dogmatism is of little value unless founded on the facts of experience. That the Athenian audience was intensely interested in such descriptions pure and simple might doubtless be put down to that [astheneia/weakness] to which it was subject. The keen interest itself is beyond doubt. The same taste is met by Euripides. And if the strangeness to the modern reader lies not so much in the descriptions of the warriors as in the details of their shields and blazons, it is precisely here that the Greek appreciation was especially lively. How deeply ingrained in the Greek constitution was the love of skilful workmanship and of the contemplation of masterpieces in any kind, can scarcely be more conclusively shown than in the prominence given to verbal pictures of such things from epic times downwards. The shield of Achilles in the Iliad and in the Electra of Euripides; the shield of Heracles in the Scutum of the pseudo-Hesiod; the sculptures of Delphi in the Ion; the breastplate of Agamemnon in Homer, the bowls in Theocritus, the [basket] of Europa in Moschus, the [diplax/double-fold] of Jason in Apollonius Rhodius, the chest of Cypselus in Pausanias, are a few of the instances in point. It was part of epic convention that a shield of more or less miraculous workmanship should be described, with a combination of sheer joy in decorative art and naive wonder at the marvel of craftsmanship. The earliest Hellenic invaders of Greece could never sufficiently admire the technical productions of their ’Aegean’ predecessors or of oriental workmen. As warriors they would be especially concerned with such work upon shields, breastplates, and daggers. They would be eager to possess, and, if they possessed, they would hugely prize, accoutrements so distinguished. Their bards would magnify the possibilities of skill and dream dreams of wonderful inlaying and colour-toning. They would vie with each other in equipping their heroes with a shield of which, as of Nestor’s, [kleos ouranonhikei/fame reaches heaven]. Of the shield of Achilles in the eighteenth book of the Iliad, Leaf remarks that ’though of course beyond the power of early Greek, as of any human art, to execute, it yet requires to explain it only such works of art and technique as we know to have been accessible to the Greeks, at least in foreign imports, in pre-Homeric times.’ He illustrates by the dagger-blades found by Schliemann at Mycenae.

Exquisite inlaying was realised in fact, and so far there is nothing unreal in such instances as II. 18.474, where Hephaestus blends bronze, gold, silver and tin.. . . Nor is the tour de force in Scut.233, of the Gorgon’s head in a net, beyond execution. Greater marvels, such as of moving reliefs, belong to the fancy of a later age.

Above all it was the shield which lent most scope both for the execution and the display of such work, and hence no epic is complete without its highly-wrought ’shield.’ Vergil cannot fail to supply his Aeneas with one of the type. It is practically certain therefore that both Aeschylus and Euripides are led to their descriptions primarily by the Thebais. Pindar had evidently found similar matter in the Epigoni. Nevertheless the artistic and technically wonderful emblazoning of shields was no mere convention of epic. Later times knew and admired such accoutrements among contemporaries, although miracle had been compelled to give place to more sober possibilities. We should take the sense literally when Mamercus writes.

[And we captured these shields, painted purple and overlaid with gold, ivory and amber by means of these worthless little shields.]

The contemporaries of Aeschylus were connoisseurs in work of the kind glanced at by Pindar.... If therefore Aeschylus takes the hint for describing the shields from the epic Thebais, he is by no means to be charged with introducing matter into his play for no better reason than that it happened to exist in the epic. Rather he introduces it for the same reason which led the epic writer to employ it first, namely, because to the audience of the drama, as to the audience of the epic, it caused a whole-hearted delight.

Doubtless the question of dramatic fitness is not settled by this consideration. Though the descriptions may please the audience, are they sufficiently in place when addressed by the Scout to Eteocles? In other words, would a messenger in ancient Greece conceivably render a report in such manner and kind? We may venture to hold that Aeschylus is incapable of a gross irrelevance. It is not merely that the Scout is himself carried away by the characteristic Greek gusto for the technical wonders which he has seen (although no Greek would be surprised at such behaviour on his part); it is also that his descriptions of the blazonry are part of his descriptions of the men. They mark the special temper and character, the insolence or self-assertion, which Eteocles is to confront. In effect the Messenger says in each case ’Such is the man; such are his boasts in word or blazon; it is for you to choose his antagonist.’ In each case the king proceeds to select the opposing champion, and he either chooses him with some special reference to the blazon or draws some augury of victory from the temper which it betrays.

In one point we are apparently asked to accept a physical impossibility. It is difficult to convince ourselves that any scout could possibly see and hear all that the [angelos/messenger] reports. There are seven champions at seven different gates, and the Scout has observed them all at close quarters, heard their words, and even noted their expressions. He would presumably do this in making a circuit of the walls. In the Phoenissae Euripides employs the rather crude device of making his [angelos/messenger] the bearer of the [xunthemwa/signal or agreement] to the various [lochoi/bands of armed troops] concerned with the several gates. To name such a procedure is however, only to bring out its difficulties. Aeschylus, with more tact, glides over the exact proceedings of the [kataskopos/scout or spy]. We may be sure that, during the time of the performance, scarcely anyone among the audience would raise the question. It is one which only occurs after consideration or to the critical student. For the practical playwright this acceptance for the time being was sufficient. But while admitting that there is some violation of strict probabilities, we must again remember that pause in the assault which affords the Messenger time for observation. We must also remember the comparative smallness of the epic city. Nor are we, of course, to regard all the reported actions and utterances of the champions as synchronous. The Scout began his observations with the first approach of the Argives, and they would not all reach their gates at the same moment. These considerations do not indeed achieve an entire rationalising of the situation, but they go no little distance towards removing any very gross or palpable irrationality. As to the mere hearing and seeing of the besiegers by the besieged there is no difficulty whatever. When Sulla was besieging Athens taunts were hurled upon him from the walls. The same thing occurred to Maximinus before Aquileia. A proximity possible at such dates and in the siege of such cities was still more possible at the siege of a smaller town in epic days.

Source: T. G. Tucker, Introduction to The Seven against Thebes of Aeschylus: The Play of Aeschylus, in The Seven against Thebes of Aeschylus: by Aeschylus, Cambridge University Press, 1908, pp. xlii-lv.


Conacher, D. J., Aeschylus: The Earlier Plays and Related Studies, University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Davidson, John, review of “Aeschylus’s Septem,” in Didaskalia Vol. 4, No. 1, Spring, 1997.

Martin, Tomas R., Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times, Yale University Press, 1996.

Slavitt, David R., and Palmer Bovie, Aeschylus, 2, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.

Zeitlin, Froma L., “Language, Structure, and the Son of Oedipus,” in Under the Sign of the Shield: Semiotics and Aeschylus’s “Seven Against Thebes,” Edizioni dell’Atenceo, 1982, pp. 13-52.


Ashby, Clifford, Classical Greek theater: New Views of an Old Subject, University of Iowa Press, 1999.

This text is an examination of Greek theater, based on architectural evidence. The author has traveled extensively and examined many of the remaining theater sites in Greece, Southern Italy, and the Balkans.

Bovie, Palmer, and Frederick Raphael, eds., Sophocles, 1: “Ajax,” “Women of Trachis,” “Electra,” “Philoctetes,” University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

This book provides original and fresh translations of several of Sophocles’ tragedies. The Penn Greek Drama Series intends that their new translations should make reading Greek drama accessible to any reader.

Gressler, Thomas H., Greek Theater in the 1980s, McFarland & Company, 1989.

This is a study of theater in modern Greece. The author focuses on the social and cultural influences on theater, discusses the history of theater, and provides a look at productions and the restoration of theaters.

Griffith, R. Drew, The Theater of Apollo: Divine Justice and Sophocles’s “Oedipus the King,” McGill Queens University Press, 1996.

This is a reinterpretation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex that focuses on Apollo’s role in bringing about this tragedy. This book also attempts to recreate the play’s original staging.

Rehm, Rush, Greek Tragic Theater, Routledge, 1994.

This book is helpful to readers who want to understand how Greek tragedy works. This author looks at performances of several plays and encourages readers to consider the context in which the plays were performed.

Walton, J. Michael, Living Greek Theater, Greenwood, 1987.

This text focuses on the staging and performance of Greek theater. The author attempts to integrate classical theater and modern theater, while providing a great deal of information about a number of the most important plays from this period.

Wise, Jennifer, Dionynsus Writes: The Invention of Theater in Ancient Greece, Cornell University Press, 1998.

This author discusses the relationship between literature and theater by examining the influences of a newly emerging literary world on drama. This text also provides some interesting ideas about the role of the oral tradition on theater.

Zelenak, Michael X., Gender and Politics in Greek Tragedy, Peter Lang, 1998.

This book offers some insight into the status of women in Greek culture and theater and provides interesting analysis of many women characters from Greek drama.