Enjoying "The Seven Against Thebes", by Aeschylus

Ed Friedlander MD

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Etruscan tomb relief, Eteocles and
Polynices kill each other Readers of "The Seven Against Thebes" might enjoy this little introduction to the themes and personalities in ths play.

Aeschylus wrote this play for presentation in 467 BC, where it won first prize in the tragedy division of the annual Athenian dramatic contest.

Before Aeschylus, Greek plays featured a single character in dialogue with the chorus. Aeschylus is supposed to have originated the idea of having a second character onstage (Eteocles and the scout, Antigone and Ismene), talking with each other.


"There are many things that are worse than war. They all begin with defeat."

Before we had reliable birth control, population pressures made war between neighboring communities inevitable. Whole towns would be enslaved or exterminated so that the conquerors could expand. The chorus in "The Seven Against Thebes" describes, in vivid detail, what happened to the conquered people.

Real security was offered only by the "empires", i.e., huge protection rackets such as contemporary Persia. In return for keeping peace, empires would bleed communities of their resources. And even this security was only temporary, since empires themselves often were at war with each other. When Aeschylus wrote this play, the Athenians and Spartans had just successfully resisted Persia's attempts at domination. The Greeks felt that this represented a triumph for a freer way fo life. In Sparta, independence was maintained by an extremely disciplined military culture. Athens, by contrast, experimented with democracy and cultural innovation. The question, "What is the best form of government?" was on everybody's mind.

We don't know how much of Aeschylus's play about the Greek town of Thebes is history. But the story of "The Seven Against Thebes" was extremely popular in classical times. It seems reasonable to think that people remembered that Thebes once withstood a massive onslaught by her neighbors, with the common pretense of it being a war of royal succession.

We don't know whether there were really seven allies, or whether this has something to do with the fact that Thebes supposedly had seven gates in her fortifications. Of course it is only required to breach one gate. Whether it is wiser to have everybody attack a single gate, or to have seven different commands attack seven different gates (thus leaving soldiers under their own national commanders, and spreading the defenses thin), would be a question for a professional military leader.

Lamada production According to the classic story, the two sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polynices, had agreed to alternate as king year by year. Of course, this was a monumentally bad idea. In the era of primitive city-states, it guaranteed that the government would be unstable, and invited foreign attack. But for some reason, the town went along with it.

Eteocles ruled for the first year. As the end of the year approached, Eteocles let it be known that he would remain king. He had a stable government, and he thought it was not in the interest of his city (or his own interest) to give Polynices his turn.

Polynices took advantage of the situation. By making promises, he gathered an alliance of the surrounding Greek towns ("the Argives") to take Thebes and replace Eteocles's administration permanently. Those who allied against Thebes hoped to gain control of it at little cost.

There are many versions of "The Seven Against Thebes", including the names of the "seven" leaders. Some say that Oedipus's curse had something to do with it. (Perhaps it was the curse on Oedipus, or as Sophocles suggesed in "Oedipus at Colonus", it was retribution because the two boys hadn't helped their father when he was blind and homeless.) But the basic story is the same.

The Action

Plate from Rom Mitt Ergan (1986)

As the play opens, the armies from the surrounding towns have laid siege to Thebes, i.e., they have surrounded it and are waiting to starve the people out. So far, things in the city are stable. Eteocles greets a group of citizens and bluntly reminds them that he is their king. He is responsible for the survival of the community, whether times are good or bad. If thing go well, Eteocles will give credit to God / Zeus. If anything goes bad, everybody will blame him, because he is the king. His psychics just told him that the other Greeks (the Argives) are planning to attack. He calls on all men, even youngsters and old able-bodied men, to take up arms, to fight hard, trust God, and not be afraid.

The scout comes in and confirms that enemy arming and preparing for battle. Eteocles piously calls on the gods to keep the city from being destroyed and its people from slavery. As if bargaining, he adds that a prosperous country honors the gods. And he begs the personified curse of Oedipus not to destroy the city. Notice that Eteocles does not ask that his own life be spared.

Lamada production The chorus of women comes in. They are very frightened by the sound of the attacking army. They talk about running off to pray to save them from slavery. (A victorious army would kill the men and take the younger women as sex slaves.) As they call on the various gods, they also hear the battle progressing.

Eteocles comes in and is very angry with the chorus. Etiocles turns out to be quite the misogynist. He talks about not liking to live with women, since when things go well they are bossy, and when things go badly they go hysterical. Their agitation is bad for morale, and he tells them to get off the street and be quiet.

The chorus says they're just afraid. Eteocles makes pious talk about the gods, but urges them to honor "Obedience, the mother of Success and wife of Rescue." In other words, it's more important for you to due your part as citizens, even if it just means keeping your mouth shut. Eteocles says the sacrificial bloodletting is being done by the soldiers -- killing the enemy. The chorus agrees to quiet down, and Eteocles goes to prepare defensive positions.

The chorus continues to pray to the various gods. They mention vividly what will happen to young unmarried girls -- they will be raped and dragged off. The city and surroundings will be looted and people slaughtered.

Next we are treated to a catalogue of "The Seven Against Thebes."


(Emblem on shield)

Protid Tydeus

(Moon and stars)

Tydeus's psychic will not let him cross the river yet.

This Tydeus had brought Eteocles the request from Polynices to let him take his turn as king, as promised. Tydeus was mugged for his efforts.

Tydeus was the father of Diomedes, the Trojan War hero. Tydeus is mentioned as being buried at Thebes in the Iliad.

Melanippus Brave fighter, one of the few survivors of the race that sprang from the dragon's teeth
Electran Capaneus

Unarmored man with torch

He is big talker.

Other old legends have it that he was killed by lightning for his ungodly talk while climbing the Theban wall, that his wife burned herself with his body, and that he was raised by Aesclepius. The business about his being killed by a thunderbolt perhaps comes from the chorus's expressed wish in this play.

Polyphontes Others say that this was the name of the herald of Laius, who Oedipus killed.
Neistan Eteoclus

Armed warrior climbing a ladder

He is whirling his horses. Megareus Creon's son
Onca Hippomedon

(Smoke-breathing Typhon)

He is raving. Hyperbius Has Zeus on his shield. Zeus defeated Typhon.
North Parthoenopaeus

(Sphinx eating a Theban)

He is from Arcadia in Argos. Actor Brother of Hyperbius
Homoloid Amphiaraus


He is a good fighter and a decent man. He is also a psychic. He criticized Tydeus for deciding to attack instead of lay siege. He calls Tydeus a bloodthirsty fool.

Amphiaraus knows he will die today.

Lasthenes Hates foreigners. Quick eyes. Young man with an old man's wisdom.
Seventh Polynices

Lady Justice restoring Polynices

He is praying to the Theban gods. Eteocles Brother will fight brother.

Eteocles has already chosen the best people to fight each previous champion. So Eteocles is left to go out against his brother.

The next passage is rich with ideas. The chorus is horrified by Etiocles's choice to fight his own brother, since family killing family seems to be the family's curse. Brother killing brother is an evil, ungodly thing. Eteocles says that if you're going to have do something terrible, you can at least do it without dishonor.

The chorus says Etiocles's emotions are getting the best of him. (What do you think?) Instead, Eteocles says he sees God's hand here, the fitting end to his family story, a chance to make everything right.

According to Eteocles, since "the gods" no longer care for him, then Eteocles can at least die with dignity and grace. He says, "The gods, it seems, have already banished us from their care, yet they admire the grace we offer them when we perish. So then, why should we cringe and shy away from deadly fate?"

The chorus begs Eteocles to reconsider -- perhaps destiny will change. The chorus calls on him to be cautious. The difficult line is nikên ge mentoi kai kakên timai theos (they-are-winning but to-bad-people payment-for-value the-gods) Smyth translates this as "Any victory, even a cowardly one, is nonetheless held in honor by God." Morshead translates it as "Yet the god loves to let the weak prevail." Ask your teacher which one is better. Eteocles replies, "A soldier must not think that."

Again, the chorus asks how he can kill his own brother. Eteocles replies, "When it is the gods who give you evils, you cannot flee them."

The chorus sings about the horrors of the curse of the house of Oedipus. A messenger comes in. At the first six gates, the Theban defender won. But Apollo took charge at the seventh gate, and fulfilled the curse. Eteocles and Polynices killed each other.

Antigone and Ismene come in with the bodies of Eteocles and Polynices. They mourn. A herald comes in and announces that Polynices's body is not to be buried, but left for scavengers, like roadkill. There will be no memorial service.

    Many of the Greeks had the idea that if your body was not given the burial ritual, your soul could not find a place in the afterlife.

Antigone announces that she will bury Polynices. An argument follows. Here are the main points.

The government says...

  • The city is very angry with Polynices.

  • Polynices placed the city of Thebes at peril, and his army would have slaughtered and raped the good people of the city.
  • The gods were evidently not on Polynices's side, either.

Lamada production Antigone says...

  • It's ungodly not to bury the dead.
  • Polynices was wronged first, by Eteocles's broken promise
  • Polynices has suffered enough.
  • If the gods did not care about Polynices, then it's all the more reason that Antigone should care
  • .

    Antigone's famous act of civil disobedience was celebrated in Sophocles's wonderful play of the same name.

The chorus says the city's decree is harsh and it may change its mind, but for now they are going to the victory celebration and the funeral of Eteocles, whose leadership saved the city.


Soldiers often find comfort and equilibrium in believing that what will happen to them is predestined. What's most telling about Eteocles is his combination of fatalism and bravery.

  • Eteocles says that since in war we must do things that we hate, it might as well be done bravely.
  • Eteocles says that "when it is the gods" who make terrible things happen, there is no running away.
  • And Eteocles says that since "the gods" have abandoned him, he will live out his life and death with dignity and courage, and sacrifice himself for his city.
Eteocles's speeches describe the tragedy of his times, and of the human condition. Aeschylus frames evil in terms of "the gods" and "the curse of Oedipus." Many of the Greeks must not have really believed in "the gods", and "the curse of Oedipus" happened to somebody else. But the tragedy of "The Seven Against Thebes" is the human tragedy of the ancient world -- the cycle of poverty, war, injustice, and oppression.

Dying bravely in defending his city, Eteocles -- good soldier and effective leader -- finds his personal meaning for life and his answer for death.

To think about: Could Eteocles be what we could call today a "secular humanist", one who does not believe in "the gods" and blames religion for society's problems? There must have been such people in freethinking Athens. Is this a theme of the play? You decide!

For the business about "tragic flaws", see my notes on Oedipus.

Image Cluster: Horses

    I strongly suspect that the dominance of the Indo-European languages from Ireland through India by the time of Aeschylus resulted from the original Indo-European people (the Kurgan folks?) being the first to domesticate the horse. Not yet proved.

They were extremely important to the Greeks, in war and peace.

  • The chorus describes the enemy charging on horseback, raising a dust cloud.
  • The chorus is terrified by the sounds of the bits in the mouths of the charging horses.

  • The scout describes the dust flying up like snowflakes as the horses charge.
  • The chorus prays to Poseidon as god of horses and the ocean.
  • The scout describes Tydeus as resembling a horse chomping at the bit.
  • In one of the most vivid passages, the chorus points out that women who are taken off as sex slaves are dragged by the hair like horses by the reins.
Image Cluster: The Ship of Government

Lamada production Comparing running a government to guiding a ship must have been old even in Aeschylus's day.

  • Eteocles guides the state, from the stern where he can watch everybody and still see where they're going.
  • The scout begs Eteocles, as helmsman of the ship, to keep the city safe.
  • Eteocles tells the frightened chorus that as helmsman, he cannot be made to leave his post.
Image Cluster: Blood Ritual

The ancient world saw blood as the life-power and used it in ceremonies, perhaps attributing magical powers to it. Originally "bless" meant to sprinkle with the blood of sacrifice. Today, marines get in trouble for "blood-pinning", and so forth.

  • The Seven Against Thebes kill a bull on a black shield and all dip their hands in the blood, swearing to take the city or die trying.
  • The chorus and Eteocles both talk about how the gods enjoy sacrifices. These included the blood of animals.
  • Eteocles says that the sacrifice being rendered now to the gods is his army killing the enemy. He calls human blood "the food of Ares". Of course Ares was the god of battle.
Image Cluster: Earth

Lamada production Aeschylus presents the earth as the great mother of all, the source of all good things, what we are fighting for, and so forth.

  • Eteocles begins by calling on Zeus and Earth, as if they are the supreme powers.

  • Eteocles calls on the citizens to defend not only the city, but the soil that gave them life.

  • The Seven Against Thebes swear either to take the city or fertilize the soil with their blood.

  • The chorus sings about how the looters will carry off the earth's gifts of food.

  • Melenippus sprang from the earth, as a son of the dragon's teeth, and he will defend Mother Earth.

  • The horses' saliva spatters the Theban plain.

  • The chorus sings about the sounds of enemy hoofbeats over the soil.

  • Amphiaraus says he will enrich the earth. (This line may have given rise to the story that Zeus opened the earth to swallow him.)

  • The earth drinks the blood of the brothers.

  • Will Polynices rest in earth?

What's It All About?

Lamada production If you paid attention to the emblems on the shields, you'll see Aeschylus's point.

  • The first is the moon and stars, uninvolved in the conflict.
  • The second is an unarmored man, with a torch to burn Thebes.
  • The third is an armored man climbing a ladder, more elaborate than simply grabbing a torch.
  • The fourth is a monster, the enemy of Zeus ("God").
  • The fifth is the sphinx, the monster who had eaten the Thebans, shown doing so once again.
  • The sixth is a blank. Each of the previous shields has been more horrible than the last. The blank shield abruptly says "No!" to hatred, slaughter, and lawlessness.
  • The seventh shield is Justice. Government by fair laws. What is right.
In the "Agamemnon / Libation Bearers / Furies" sequence, Aeschylus tells the civilized people of Athens a very important story. It's about the founding of the first court of justice, supposedly at Athens. This court made obsolete the old system of revenge. Instead of people like Clytemnestra and Orestes having to take the law into their own hands, they could go to court. This was an established institution, stronger and more durable than any one person or office-holder.

After they repelled the Persian attack, the people of Athens thought that they could develop institutions that would make the future better than the past had been. The Athenian experiment was not perfect. But it was a foundation of the system of law and of thought that has brought us the unparalleled health, safety, and freedom that we enjoy today.

Readers of the Iliad remember the shield of Achilles, which bore pictures of a happier life. In Aeschylus, the sequence of shields looks to an era where stable institutions would prevent terrible events like those in "The Seven Against Thebes".

And why does the play conclude with Antigone's expression of compassion and spirituality? "The Seven Against Thebes" ends with the hope that human beings can rise above hatred and revenge and find meaning in love and kindness, rather than simply killing and dying bravely.

It's a message for us, too.

To include this page in a bibliography, you may use this format: Friedlander ER (1999) Enjoying "The Seven Against Thebes" by Aeschylus Retrieved Dec. 25, 2003 from http://www.pathguy.com/7thebes.htm

For Modern Language Association sticklers, the name of the site itself is "The Pathology Guy" and the Sponsoring Institution or Organization is Ed Friedlander MD.


The Seven Against Thebes -- a personalized, modern account
The Seven Against Thebes

Lamada production Statius's Thebiad [my link is down] is sympathetic to Polynices. Unlike the historical Eteocles (or whoever actually led Thebes during the war), Statius wrote in an era where there was enough law to have allowed a shared government.

Some of the pictures are from a U. of Sydney archeology site which is presently down.

Antony & Cleopatra -- just getting started
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King Lear
La Belle Dame Sans Merci
The Lady of Shalott
A Midsummer Night's Dream
Moby Dick
Oedipus the King
Prometheus Bound
Romeo and Juliet -- just a short note
The Book of Thel
The Knight's Tale
The Seven Against Thebes
The Tyger
Twelfth Night
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I'm Ed. You can visit me at my own page and follow the links from there to my autopsy page, my notes on disease (the largest one-man online medical show, helping individuals around the world), my Adventure Gaming sites, or any of the other sites.

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Brown University, Department of English -- my home base, 1969-1973.


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Is your instructor a proponent of a side in the culture war? If so, here's how to make him/her happy and still tell the truth!

  • Religious Right: Point out how "the gods" of the ancient world were capricious and needed to be manipulated and appeased, and didn't object of their worshippers treated other people abominably. It is no wonder that there was no peace or love when the theology was so warped. Eteocles's answers to the spiritual questions of his day are so sad.
  • Politically Correct Left: Point out how badly women and the poor were treated in this ancient society, and how Aeschylus depicts this for his audience. Notice that the women have feelings and piety and contrast with the nasty men. The earth is our mother.
  • Scientific Rationalist: Point out that Etiocles doesn't really believe in "the gods", and that everything in this story happened for a valid reason, and that science has enabled us to control our population and use our resources so that we do not have to kill each other just for living space.

In another of the many versions of "The Seven Against Thebes", Tydeus attacked Ismene, daughter of Oedipus. This is depicted on this Etruscan vase. There's a sphinx on the other side.