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The Seven Against Thebes

Among the legendary tales of Greece, none of which are strictly, though several are perhaps partly, historical, none—after that of Troy—was more popular with the ancients than the story of the two sieges of Thebes. This tale had probably in it an historical element, though deeply overlaid with myth, and it was the greatest enterprise of Grecian war, after that of Troy, during what is called the age of the Heroes. And in it is included one of the most pathetic episodes in the story of Greece, that of the sisterly affection and tragic fate of Antigone, whose story gave rise to noble dramas by the tragedians Æschylus and Sophocles, and is still a favorite with lovers of pathetic lore.

As a prelude to our story we must glance at the mythical history of Œdipus, which, like that of his noble daughter, has been celebrated in ancient drama. An oracle had declared that he should kill his father, the king of Thebes. He was, in consequence, brought up in ignorance of his parentage, yet this led to the accomplishment of the oracle, for as a youth he, during a roadside squabble, killed his father not knowing him. For this crime, which had been one of their own devising, the gods, with their usual inconsistency, punished the land of Thebes; afflicting that hapless country with a terrible monster called the Sphinx, which had the face of a woman, the wings of a bird, and the body of a lion. This strangely made-up creature proposed a riddle to the Thebans, whose solution they were forced to try and give; and on every failure to give the correct answer she seized and devoured the unhappy aspirant. Œdipus arrived, in ignorance of the fact that he was the son of the late king. He quickly solved the riddle of the Sphinx, whereupon that monster committed suicide, and he was made king. He then married the queen,—not knowing that she was his own mother.

This celebrated riddle of the Sphinx was not a very difficult one. It was as follows: "A being with four feet has two feet and three feet; but its feet vary, and when it has most it is weakest."

The answer, as given by Œdipus, was "Man," who

"First as a babe four-footed creeps on his way,

Then, when full age cometh on, and the burden of years weighs full heavy,

Bending his shoulders and neck, as a third foot useth his staff."

When the truth became known—as truth was apt to become known when too late in old stories—the queen, Jocasta, mad with anguish, hanged herself, and Œdipus, in wild despair, put out his eyes. The gods who had led him blindly into crime, now handed him over to punishment by the Furies,—the ancient goddesses of vengeance, whose mission it was to pursue the criminal with stinging whips.

The tragic events which followed arose from the curse of the afflicted Œdipus. He had two sons, Polynikes and Eteocles, who twice offended him without intention, and whom he, frenzied by his troubles, twice bitterly cursed, praying to the gods that they might perish by each other's hands. Œdipus afterwards obtained the pardon of the gods for his involuntary crime, and died in exile, leaving Creon, the brother of Jocasta, on the throne. But though he was dead, his curse kept alive, and brought on new matter of dire moment.

Oedipus and Antigone

It began its work in a quarrel between the two sons as to who should succeed their uncle as king of Thebes. Polynikes was in the wrong, and was forced to leave Thebes, while Eteocles remained. The exiled prince sought the court of Adrastus, king of Argos, who gave him his daughter in marriage, and agreed to assist in restoring him to his native country.

Most of the Argive chiefs joined in the proposed expedition. But the most distinguished of them all, Amphiaraüs, opposed it as unjust and against the will of the gods. He concealed himself, lest he should be forced into the enterprise. But the other chiefs deemed his aid indispensable, and bribed his wife, with a costly present, to reveal his hiding-place. Amphiaraüs was thus forced to join the expedition, but his prophetic power taught him that it would end in disaster to all and death to himself, and as a measure of revenge he commanded his son Alkmæon to kill the faithless woman who had betrayed him, and after his death to organize a second expedition against Thebes.

Seven chiefs led the army, one to assail each of the seven celebrated gates of Thebes. Onward they marched against that strong city, heedless of the hostile portents which they met on their way. The Thebans also sought the oracle of the gods, and were told that they should be victorious, but only on the dread condition that Creon's son, Menœceus, should sacrifice himself to Mars. The devoted youth, on learning that the safety of his country depended on his life, forthwith killed himself before the city gates,—thus securing by innocent blood the powerful aid of the god of war.

Long and strenuous was the contest that succeeded, each of the heroes fiercely attacking the gate adjudged to him. But the gods were on the side of the Thebans and every assault proved in vain. Parthenopæus, one of the seven, was killed by a stone, and another, Capaneus, while furiously mounting the walls from a scaling-ladder, was slain by a thunder-bolt cast by Jupiter, and fell dead to the earth.

The assailants, terrified by this portent, drew back, and were pursued by the Thebans, who issued from their gates. But the battle that was about to take place on the open plain was stopped by Eteocles, who proposed to settle it by a single combat with his brother Polynikes, the victory to be given to the side whose champion succeeded in this mortal duel. Polynikes, filled with hatred of his brother, eagerly accepted this challenge. Adrastus, the leader of the assailing army, assented, and the unholy combat began.

Never was a more furious combat than that between the hostile brothers. Each was exasperated to bitter hatred of the other, and they fought with a violence and desperation that could end only in the death of one of the combatants. As it proved, the curse of Œdipus was in the keeping of the gods, and both fell dead,—the fate for which their aged father had prayed. But the duel had decided nothing, and the two armies renewed the battle.

And now death and bloodshed ran riot; men fell by hundreds; deeds of heroic valor were achieved on either side; feats of individual daring were displayed like those which Homer sings in the story of Troy. But the battle ended in the defeat of the assailants. Of the seven leaders only two survived, and one of these, Amphiaraüs, was about to suffer the fate he had foretold, when Jupiter rescued him from death by a miracle. The earth opened beneath him, and he, with his chariot and horses, was received unhurt into her bosom. Rendered immortal by the king of the gods, he was afterwards worshipped as a god himself.

Adrastus, the only remaining chief, was forced to fly, and was preserved by the matchless speed of his horse. He reached Argos in safety, but brought with him nothing but "his garment of woe and his black-maned steed."

Thus ended, in defeat and disaster to the assailants, the first of the celebrated sieges of Thebes. It was followed by a tragic episode which remains to be told, that of the sisterly fidelity of Antigone and her sorrowful fate. Her story, which the dramatists have made immortal, is thus told in the legend.

After the repulse of his foes, King Creon caused the body of Eteocles to be buried with the highest honors; but that of Polynikes was cast outside the gates as the corpse of a traitor, and death was threatened to any one who should dare to give it burial. This cruel edict, which no one else ventured to ignore, was set aside by Antigone, the sister of Polynikes. This brave maiden, with warm filial affection, had accompanied her blind father during his exile to Attica, and was now returned to Thebes to perform another holy duty. Funeral rites were held by the Greeks to be essential to the repose of the dead, and Antigone, despite Creon's edict, determined that her brother's body should not be left to the dogs and vultures. Her sister, though in sympathy with her purpose, proved too timid to help her. No other assistance was to be had. But not deterred by this, she determined to perform the act alone, and to bury the body with her own hands.

In this act of holy devotion Antigone succeeded: Polynikes was buried. But the sentinels whom Creon had posted detected her in the act, and she was seized and dragged before the tribunal of the tyrant. Here she defended her action with an earnestness and dignity that should have gained her release, but Creon was inflexible in his anger. She had set at naught his edict, and should suffer the penalty for her crime. He condemned her to be buried alive.

Sophocles, the dramatist, puts noble words into the mouth of Antigone. This is her protest against the tyranny of the king:

"No ordinance of man shall override

The settled laws of Nature and of God;

Not written these in pages of a book,

Nor were they framed to-day, nor yesterday;

We know not whence they are; but this we know,

That they from all eternity have been,

And shall to all eternity endure."

And when asked by Creon why she had dared disobey the laws, she nobly replied,

"Not through fear

Of any man's resolve was I prepared

Before the gods to bear the penalty

Of sinning against these. That I should die

I knew (how should I not?) though thy decree

Had never spoken. And before my time

If I shall die, I reckon this again;

For whoso lives, as I, in many woes,

How can it be but he shall gain by death?"

At the king's command the unhappy maiden was taken from his presence and thrust into a sepulchre, where she was condemned to perish in hunger and loneliness. But Antigone was not without her advocate. She had a lover,—almost the only one in Greek literature. Hæmon, the son of Creon, to whom her hand had been promised in marriage, and who loved her dearly, appeared before his father and earnestly interceded for her life. Not on the plea of his love,—such a plea would have had no weight with a Greek tribunal,—but on those of mercy and justice. His plea was vain; Creon was obdurate: the unhappy lover left his presence and sought Antigone's living tomb, where he slew himself at the feet of his love, already dead. His mother, on learning of his fatal act, also killed herself by her own hand, and Creon was left alone to suffer the consequences of his unnatural act.

The story goes on to relate that Adrastus, with the disconsolate mothers of the fallen chieftains, sought the hero Theseus at Athens, and begged his aid in procuring the privilege of interment for the slain warriors whose bodies lay on the plain of Thebes. The Thebans persisting in their refusal to permit burial, Theseus at length led an army against them, defeated them in the field, and forced them to consent that their fallen foes should be interred, that last privilege of the dead which was deemed so essential by all pious Greeks. The tomb of the chieftains was shown near Eleusis within late historical times.

But the Thebans were to suffer another reverse. The sons of the slain chieftains raised an army, which they placed under the leadership of Adrastus, and demanded to be led against Thebes. Alkmæon, the son of Amphiaraüs, who had been commanded to revenge him, played the most prominent part in the succeeding war. As this new expedition marched; the gods, which had opposed the former with hostile signs, now showed their approval with favorable portents. Adherents joined them on their march. At the river Glisas they were met by a Theban army, and a battle was fought, which ended in a complete victory over the Theban foe. A prophet now declared to the Thebans that the gods were against them, and advised them to surrender the city. This they did, flying themselves, with their wives and children, to the country of the Illyrians, and leaving their city empty to the triumphant foe. The Epigoni, as the youthful victors were called, marched in at the head of their forces, took possession, and placed Thersander, the son of Polynikes, on the throne. And thus ends the famous old legend of the two sieges of Thebes.