Seven Against Thebes was the third play in a 467 b.c.e. trilogy that also included the tragedies Laius and Oedipus, both of which are now lost. At its first performance, Seven Against Thebes would have provided a climax, summarizing themes that the poet had been developing through two previous tragedies. In this way, Seven Against Thebes would have been similar to the Eumenides (458 b.c.e.; English translation, 1777) in presenting the final results of a curse that had long afflicted a particular family.
The political situation of Athens in Aeschylus’s own day had an important effect upon Seven Against Thebes. First, though the tragedy is set in Thebes and deals exclusively with Theban characters, neither the word “Thebes” nor “Thebans” appears anywhere in the tragedy. Aeschylus is careful always to replace these terms with the Homeric expressions “city of Cadmus” and “Cadmeans,” recalling the name of the mythical founder of Thebes. Aeschylus did that because Thebes had gone over to the enemy in the Persian Wars. Direct reference to the city was thus likely to offend his audience. The recent end of the Persian Wars also helps to explain why the chorus refers to the invading army as “foreign-tongued” (line 170, one of Aeschylus’s characteristic compound adjectives), even though, according to legend, this army was composed of Argives and Thebans. Athens had recently emerged victorious over a “foreign-tongued” enemy, and the audience would naturally associate an invading army with alien speech.
The passions roused by the Persian Wars explain why Aeschylus sees the conflict between Eteocles and Polyneices as less morally ambiguous than did his successors. Both Sophocles, in the Antigon (441 b.c.e.; Antigone, 1729), and Euripides, in the Phoinissai (409 b.c.e.; The Phoenician Women, 1781), presented the two brothers as each having right on their sides, at least to some degree. Yet Aeschylus had fought in a battle caused by the treason of Hippias, the exiled tyrant of Athens who had led the Persians to Marathon. Unlike Sophocles and Euripides, therefore, Aeschylus could not present treachery to one’s native city as justifiable for any reason. That is why only Eteocles’ point of view is presented in this play and the audience is shown only the tragedy of a warrior who dies defending his country.
Since the original audience’s memories of the Persian Wars were still fresh, the issues addressed by the Seven Against Thebes would have been particularly interesting when the play was first performed. Those issues, and the sheer grandeur of Aeschylus’s language and the costumes worn by his characters, would also have made the play seem less “static” than they do when it is read today. It is sometimes said that the central episode of this tragedy, in which each of the seven generals of the invading army is first described and then paired with a defender of the city, resembles the catalog passages of epic poetry rather than the tense drama of most Greek tragedy. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that there is tension in this scene as Eteocles misses one opportunity after another to avoid meeting his own brother in battle. It should also be remembered that Greek audiences, far more than later audiences, enjoyed vivid description for its own sake and would have delighted in Aeschylus’s account of the armor and blazons of the seven enemy generals.
After the ruin and exile of Oedipus, the king of Thebes, his sons, Eteocles and Polynices, fall into dispute, each brother claiming supreme authority in the city. The quarrel leads to a bloody civil war in which Eteocles is victorious. Banished from Thebes, Polynices goes to Argos. There he musters an army, led by six famous Argive heroes, for the purpose of returning and recapturing the city, which is restless under his brother’s rule.
Thebes is besieged by the Argive warriors camped about its walls. Eteocles, consulting a seer, learns that his brother’s army is planning to make a surprise...
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