Seven Against Thebes by Aeschylus won first prize for the Athens City Dionysia Festival is 467 B.C.E. The play was originally the third part of a trilogy the first two plays being Laïos and Oedipus and of which we only have tiny fragments. In the version of Oedipus we know, Oedipus marries his mother but they have know children. In Aeschylus’ version, they have children, Eteoklês and Polyneikês.
In Seven Against Thebes, Eteoklês and Polyneikês play out the conclusion of the curse of Laïos. Apparently, the Oracle had told Laïos that if he wanted to save Thebes he should have no children. He had Oedipus and, hoping to avoid the curse, sent the baby out to be exposed. We all know what happens next. Oedipus inherits his father’s curse, his Erinys, and by marrying his mother and having Eteoklês and Polyneikês, he in turn passes on the curse to them. The curse finally ends in Seven Against Thebes when the two brothers kill each other.
Eteoklês and Polyneikês are twins and like so many twin stories, one, Eteoklês, is the good twin, the other, Polyneikês, is the evil twin. Eteoklês inherits the rule of Thebes and Polyneikês is sent away into exile. But Polyneikês wants Thebes for himself, so he eventually makes his return with an army.
The play opens with Eteoklês calling his city to arms as his brother’s army approaches. He knows what is in store, that he will have to face his brother and they will die. However, in his prayers, he does not plead to the gods for his own life, only that they spare his city:
O Zeus and Earth our mother
and the city’s gods, and you,
Fury, spirit Curse of my father Oedipus,
for you are powerful,
spare my city at least,
tear us up root and branch, homes, temples,
the victim of enemy hands!
Afte his prayers he exits and in comes the Chorus of Theban Women in a chaotic frenzy running around and screaming in fear, praying to the gods, whose statues are in the Acropolis where the scene is set, begging them to remember their rich offerings and sacrifices and all the city has done to honor them. Eteoklês returns and immediately chastises them for their cowardice, calling them “vile, insupportable creatures.” He then continues laying on the misogynist rhetoric and accuses them of being a danger to the city, of lowering the morale of the men who are preparing to fight. He tells them to shut up and go inside. To the women’s credit they do not go meekly but put up a bit of an argument.
While the men may fight and die, at least the men die with honor and do not have to suffer the aftermath. The men do not have to be divided up as spoils of war, raped and hauled off to serve in the houses of the enemy. Eteoklês continues to be harsh with the women. He has no sympathy or pity. Eventually the women must obey their king, and while they do not leave the stage, they retire to the background to observe and comment on Eteoklês choices to defend the Seven gates of Thebes.
The rest of the play is the Scout telling Eteoklês who his brother has chosen to attack each gate. The Scout tells the name of the warrior, his character, his armor and what emblem is on each man’s shield. Eteoklês then names a warrior from Thebes and explains why this man is so much better in character and honor and therefore more favored by the gods. And finally at the seventh gate is Polyneikês who Eteoklês goes out to meet.
We do not see the battle nor do we get a play-by-play. The brothers kill each other and Thebes is saved. The opposing army retreats and the bodies of the brothers are brought in on litters. The Chorus of Women cry and mourn, but most importantly they sing:
At the gate where
at each others’ hands,
stands only the
triumphs over them,
and the Curse has
I sort of liked this play better than The Persians at least on paper. There was more intensity on the page, more sense of movement of threat and doom. The introduction to the play talks copiously about the Greek concept of areté, an ideal of heroic honor, and how in each stage of the play Eteoklês moves closer and closer to that fulfilling that ideal until he achieves it in his death. The whole idea of areté is an interesting historical and cultural belief, but I can’t say that I really understand it. Nor can I say I really understood how is played out in Seven Against Thebes. Lucky for me though, the play can be enjoyed even without worrying about Eteoklês’ honor.