Notebook, 1993-


[From: Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]

Between History and
Legend - The Seven Against Thebes

The Greeks gave very special significance to curses pronounced by parents upon their offspring. A probable historical event such as the expedition of the seven hero chieftains against Thebes with their Argive hosts was cloaked [p. 95] in the mist of legend which began with the curse of a father, Oedipus, pronounced upon his sons Eteocles and Polynices. They were denounced by Oedipus on account of being abandoned by them when he blinded himself.

Grounds for the expedition was the violation of the agreement between Eteocles and Polynices whereby each was to rule Thebes alternately and to quit the city for a year at a time. After the expiration of the year, Eteocles refused to surrender power to Polynices and the latter as a consequence departed for Argos where Adrastus reigned. At Argos, he quarreled with Tydeus, son of Oeneus, and they came to bows. Adrastus intervened, and made them his sons-in-law by giving as brides his first daughter Argeia to Polynices and his other daughter Deipyle to Tydeus. At the same time Adrastus undertook to restore both of them in their respective cities, for Tydeus too had been living in exile.

The army which assembled at Argos for the expedition against Thebes was commanded by Adrastus, Polynices, Tydeus, Capaneus, Hippomedon, Amphiaraos, and Parthenopoeus.

Amphiaraos did not wish to join the march, for as a seer he had foreseen the death of all the leaders except Adrastus in the Theban war. But he was forced to accompany the army on account of his wife Eriphyle who had urged him to go, and in view of the promise he had given Adrastus to the effect that in the event of any quarrel between them, he would seek Eriphyle's advice and follow her command. But Adrastus had also instructed his sons to slay their mother when they grew into manhood and then to march against Thebes.

On the way to Thebes, the army halted at Nemea where Lycurgus was king. Lycurgus had a son by name Opheltes who was put in charge of the nurse Hypsipyle to raise the child. Hypsipyle was the daughter of king Thoas of Lemnos, where when all the women slew their husbands [see expedition of the Argonauts], she hid her father, and when she became queen she had congress with Jason. Later, however, when the women of Lemnos discovered Thoas, they slew him and Hypsiple was sold into slavery. Thus she came to be a servant of Lycurgus.

Now when the seven heroes stopped at Nemea with their army, they encountered [p. 96] Hypsipyle and the thirsty soldiers asked her to lead them to a spring for water. Hypsipyle laid her charge down on the grass in order to lead the soldiers to the spring and during her absence the child was killed by a snake. Lycurgus thereupon wished to slay Hypsipyle, but was hindered from doing so by Adrastus, Tydeus and Amphiaraos. In honour of the dead child they instituted the Nemean games in which the seven leaders took part. Adrastus won the chariot race, Capaneus came first in the foot race, Tydeus took the honours in boxing, Amphiaraos in the jump, and the discus, Polynices won the wrestling laurels, and finally Parthenopoeus gained the victory in archery.

When the army ultimately reached the outskirts of Thebes, the Argives sent Tydeus to the city in the hope of coming to terms with Eteocles regarding Polynices's rights to the throne. Tydeus entered Thebes alone and challenged the Thebans to a match, and succeeded in overcoming them for he was protected by Athena, and when on his return to the camp fifty Thebans laid an ambush for him, he slew them all except for Maeon whom he spared to return to Thebes to relate to Eteocles and the other Thebans what had taken place.

In view of the failure of peace negotiations to the dispute, the seven captains of the Argives launched the attack against the city, each leader posting himself with his troops at one of each of the seven gates of the city. Against them were posted seven chosen Thebans. One of their number, Melanippus, the son of Creon, took his own life on account of the prophecy of Tiresius who had foreseen victory for the Thebans in the event of the young man's death. But his death did not benefit the Thebans immediately. They were driven right back to their gates when they attempted a sortie, and the hero Capaneus had already climbed the wall by a scaling ladder and presumptuously boasted that even the lightning of Zeus would not drive him back, when the flaming bolt of the enraged god smote him down and dashed him to pieces.

Because the armies had suffered severely, both Argives and Thebans agreed that the originators of the quarrel, Eteocles and Polynices, should fight out their difference in single combat. Both brothers fell and hostilities were resumed soon thereafter. In this bitterly fought battle, all the assailants met their death except Adrastus who was saved by the speed of his black-maned charger Areion who was the offspring of Demetra and Poseidon. Adrastus fled to Athens and asked Theseus to intervene in order to bury the bodies of his companions who had fallen before the walls of Thebes. Theseus heard his plea and marched against Thebes which he conquered, then compelled the Thebans to surrender the dead Argives to their kin.

The war of the Seven against Thebes was a subject which inspired the Greeks, both poets and tragedians alike. Thus there is the "Thebaid", an epic poem in seven thousand verses, and the tragedies "Seven against Thebes" of Aeschylus, and the "Phoenician Women" of Euripides. The vase painters never tired of portraying the single combat between Eteocles and Polynices. As regards the "Thebaid", it should be added that only fragments have survived, but we know about it from the comments of Pausanias who described it as incomparable literature and that it was a source of inspiration for the Tragedians. Although Pausanias maintains that it's author in accordance with Callinicus, the elegaic poet, was Homer, in all probability the "Thebaid" was written either before the establishment of the Olympic games, that is to say, a considerable time before the age of [p. 97] Homer, or, in accordance with another belief, shortly after the poet of the Iliad and Odyssey. There is another "Thebaid" of which only fragments survive composed by Antimachus of Colophon who lived in the latter part of the 5th c. B.C. which is an imitation of the original identified as "cyclic" poetry to distinguish it from the later work. The theme of both epics was the struggle before Thebes and the central hero in both was Amphiaraos. [pp. 95-98]

[Kyriazis, Constantine D. Eternal Greece. Translated by Harry T. Hionides. A Chat Publication.]



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