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...
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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 night attack and, under cover of darkness, to scale the walls and overwhelm the defenders. Eteocles exhorts all Theban men, young and old, to stand bravely at their posts and to repel the attackers.
While he speaks, a spy reports to Eteocles that Polynices and his Argives have sworn to raze the city, their vows made with clasps of hands stained by blood dripping from the head of an ox sacrificed in solemn ritual. The spy also brings word that Polynices and the six Argive heroes drew lots to determine the city gates against which each of the seven would lead his band of attackers.
Upon hearing the spy’s report, the Theban women call upon the gods and goddesses to protect Cadmus’s sacred city from the onslaught of the besiegers. Eteocles rebukes the frightened women and declares that they are wasting their time with appeals to the gods at a time of imminent peril. He asserts that the Thebans must depend on their own courage and strength, not upon the unpredictable gods. Angrily he dismisses the women to attend to their children and weaving; they are to leave all other matters to their husbands and fathers.
Eteocles then chooses the six outstanding warriors of Thebes who will, with himself, defend the seven gates of the city against the seven Achaean warriors who swear each to take a gate of the city by storm. The king chooses the defending heroes carefully. Theban Melanippus will oppose Argive Tydeus; Polyphontes, Capaneus; Megareus, Eteocles of Argos; Hyperbius, Hippomedon; Actor, Parthenopaeus; and Lasthenes, Amphiaraus. Polynices is to be the seventh hero leading the attack against the seventh gate, so Eteocles announces that he will stand as his brother’s opponent. Their combat, prince against prince, brother against brother, will determine the destiny of their ill-fated house.
Hearing his words, the Theban women again begin their wailing lament and warn him against the sin of...
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