Seven Against Thebes
Philip Vellacott, translator
Ancient Greece, c. 467 BCE
In Seven Against Thebes, we have the first surviving play that tells a portion of the story of the house of Oedipus, he of kill-his-father, marry-his-mother fame. Now, though, we are in the next generation. His sons have had a falling out over a failed venture into joint rule and Polyneices has made league with seven kings to attack his home city of Thebes that he might wrest power from Eteocles.
So far, the scale of fortune weights upon our side,
Thanks to the gods, who through this lengthy time of siege
Have given to us the best of the war. But now our prophet,
Who keeps the augural birds and without help of fire
By hearing and reflection tells infallibly
The drift of portents–he, interpreting such signs,
Says that among the Achaeans a supreme attack
Is now this night being planned to overthrow our city.
Then, to the walls! Swarm to the battlements and gates;
Forward, full-armed; man parapets, fill every floor
Of every tower; and in the gate’s mout hold your ground
With courage. Never fear this horde of foreigners!
God will give victory.
As the play opens, Eteocles is encouraging the citizens while the attacking armies approach. The reader knows that all is not well, for the women of Thebes, the chorus, are in despair, imagining the worst that can happen, and cannot manage to take comfort from Eteocles’s assurances. It is almost an adversarial relationship, as Eteocles rails at the women to be silent, to hold their tongues. But they cannot seem to help themselves, their fear is too great. Instead, they offer a striking portrait of the fate of the conquered, specifically the fate of the women. Their fear is understandable, though perhaps more open to question is their lack of faith in their leader.
CHORUS: I am afraid. The crashing at the gates grows louder.
ETEOCLES: Silence! We want no talk like that about the town.
CHORUS: You gods who share our life! Do not forsake these walls.
ETEOCLES: Plague take you! Will you not be patient and hold your tongues?
CHORUS: O gods, we are your people; save us from slaver.
ETEOCLES: It is you who are making slaves of me and of us all.
CHORUS: Almighty Zeus, take aim against our enemies.
ETEOCLES: Zeus, what a give you have us wehn you created women!
CHORUS: Women suffer as men do if their city’s captured
Perhaps this lack stems from their understanding of fate, a concept that pervades the plot and its outcome. A curse hangs over the entire family, since the day of Laius, who failed to take Apollo’s advice. The younger generation have their own curse, uttered by Oedipus against his sons for reasons here unspecified.
CHORUS: Give way now, while there is time.
Even yet the wind of the gods’ enmity,
After so long, may turn,
And favour you with a milder breath;
Though now it rages as before.
ETEOECLES: This rage was kindled by the curse of Oedipus.
How true a prophet is that figure of my dreams
Who comes each night to apportion our inheritance!
CHORUS: Let a woman’s words persuade you even against your will.
ETEOECLES: Say what you have to say, and finish; no long speech.
CHORUS: Go anywhere, I beg you, but to the seventh gate.
ETEOECLES: My will is set; not all your words can blunt it now.
CHORUS: Even unvaliant victory wins the gods’ approval.
ETEOECLES: That is no motto for a man in arms to accept.
CHORUS: Are you prepared to plunder your own brother’s blood?
ETEOECLES: When the gods send destruction there is no escape.
Eteocles’s understanding appears to be that there is no escaping these curses, their fate. Thus, when he learns that he alone is left to defend the seventh gate against his own brother, Eteocles does not attempt to avoid it, no last minute gate-swap, though his solider and the Chorus urge him to reconsider. Perhaps Eteocles, knowing Oedipus’s life story so well, truly believes there is no escaping Fate, so why attempt it. But this does not appear to be a universal sentiment among the characters here and the contrast is striking.
From what little I know about ancient Greece and its culture, the idea of “fate” seems to be recurring throughout their writing and thought. As best I can tell, is not quite the same as the idea of “fate” we have today, and there certainly seems to be the feeling that there is no use fighting against it. Which is what makes the Chorus’s urging of Eteocles to reconsider his plan so notable to me. Perhaps there is an underlying cultural aspect here that I am missing.
Unsurprisingly I’m way behind the semi-official Greek play reading schedule, but also even further behind in writing about them. I read this one back in February, and revisiting the play for this post in the current climate of the war in Ukraine, the fear of the women is all the more striking. These plays are so ancient, and yet remain so resonant.