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Seven Against Thebes

Aleksander Krawczuk

Odysseus reports what he has seen in the land of the dead:


While we exchanged such words, women began to approach, commanded by the noble Persephone; wives and daughters of heroes all. A great crowd of them edged towards the black blood, and I considered how best to speak to them. And I thought this best in my heart: I drew my sword, which I had at my side, and with it, I prevented them from drinking all at once. Thus, they had to approach one by one, and one by one, each told me her story. This is how I got to know them all.

The first to arrive was Tyro…

Then I saw Antiope, the daughter of Aesopus, who had boasted that Zeus had had her in his power and who had born him two sons, Amphion and Zethus. They founded their capital in seven-gated Thebes and ringed her with fortifications, for otherwise, though brave, they could not have defended her in the middle of the Theban plain.

Then I saw Alcmene, the wife of Amphitryon, who had given birth to brave Heracles, the lion-hearted, having conceived him in Zeus’s arms.


The Odyssey, Book Nine





There were several men in the room, but the messenger immediately turned towards Kharon, the host, because he knew him personally:

“They left Athens yesterday as if going on a hunt. They even took dogs with them. There are only seven of them, but they are the youngest. Now they are in the forest of Kithairon, near the border. They can’t stay in the mountains because it’s winter. They will be here tonight. But they must know on which door to knock, at whose house. They can’t just wander openly around the city.”

There was a moment of embarrassing silence. It was clear that no one was in a hurry to receive the seven men now trembling with cold among the mountain crags. All those gathered in the house of Kharon had joined the plot of their own free will, but it was as if they only now understood the business was not child’s play but a serious matter of life and death.

At length, Kharon broke the silence, saying simply:

“Let them come to me.”

The messenger left the house at once and headed back for the hills.

The range of Kithairon rose to the south of Thebes and was clearly visible from the city. The mountain's peak was bare, but its steep, undulating slopes were covered with thick fir. Even walking without any particular haste, one could reach its protective shadow in no more than three hours.

Kharon and his guests also walked out into the street. Theocritus squeezed the hand of Caphisias and pointed with his gaze towards Kharon, walking in front of them. He whispered:

“Just think: Kharon is not even a philosopher! He's certainly not as well educated as my brother Epaminondas. And yet he is willing to take all kinds of risks for the sake of the fatherland! But this is how matters stand with Epaminondas: you’d think he has possessed all virtues and that he stands head and shoulders above all common men; yet, our plot does not interest him at all, or perhaps he seems unwilling to risk his head. Perhaps he is waiting for an easier opportunity to show his mettle and to impress us with his learned courage!”

Caphisias was upset to hear this:

“You are all too eager, my dear Theocritus. We are all acting as we have decided best. From the first, Epaminondas was against our plans, and he still repeats constantly: I will go with you only if you can find a way to free our fatherland without spilling the blood of our fellow countrymen. This he considers the central point: that no one has the right to kill anyone without a court decision, not even in the name of freedom. And there is some logic to this, no doubt. After all, we fight against tyrants because they violate the law, imprison our citizens at will, and persecute anyone who dares express his own opinion. They ignore laws and the public opinion; or, what is even more revolting, claim to be acting in their defense, using the good of the state as their excuse. Supposedly, they know it best and only defend the society against the anarchy which must surely flow from any excess of personal freedom. Shall we then, we, the defenders of freedom, begin our work with the crimes of tyrants: violence, murder, and lawlessness?

“Yet, most of us believe that nothing can be done without resorting to violence. And this is certain: after all, it would be naïve in the extreme to think that the tyrant government will give up without a fight merely through philosophical argument! This is why Epaminondas is patiently awaiting that moment at which he will be able to aid us effectively without violating his principles regarding the correct rules of political struggle.

“I have to admit, I myself have my doubts as to how matters will now develop. When things come to a head, we won’t be able to control our people. Yes, some will only attack our oppressors, but others? They are all hotheads! They won’t rest until they have bathed the whole city in blood, and while at it, they will probably deal with a few personal enemies, too!”

Speaking in this manner, they walked quickly through the winding streets towards the house of Simmias.

Simmias had only recently returned to his native Thebes; but he did not go out of the house because he had gravely cut his thigh and was still bedridden. Instead, young men often gathered in his house to discuss philosophy. Simmias had once been the student of Socrates and Philolaos. He had visited many countries and had learned the customs and beliefs of many nations. He could talk about all these things most engagingly.

But the true purpose of these frequent and well-attended visits was altogether different. In order to hide it, members of the government were also sometimes invited, especially Archias himself. And so it sometimes happened that the arch-tyrant sat among the youth without realizing that he was, in fact, surrounded by plotters thirsting for his blood. He was very pleased to see that the young seemed more fascinated by the subtle problems of philosophy than by current political events.

As the walkers arrived at the foot of the castle hill, Cadmea, they noticed a few men descending down its slope towards them. Archias himself was among them, and so was Lysanoridas, the commander of the Spartan garrison. And Phyllidas, the government secretary.

All conversations ended abruptly.

Archias gestured to Theocritus and led him toward the Spartan commander. The three walked some way towards the small hill on which the temple of Amphion stood. There, they stopped and began to discuss something with great animation.

Meanwhile, the hearts of the others froze: has someone betrayed the plot? Perhaps Theocritus had betrayed them? Perhaps he was even now reporting that the seven had left Athens and were already in Kithairon?

Phyllidas approached Caphisias and began to tease him:

“And how goes it with your gymnastics? Are you still practicing with the same enthusiasm?”

Then he pulled him aside and whispered:

“What’s with our friends? Will they keep their promise? Will they come?”

Phyllidas, though he was very close to the government, was also part of the plot. For some time, early on, he even acted as a messenger between the Theban group and the exiles in Athens because, on account of his office, he was able to travel to Athens freely and meet all sorts of people without causing undue suspicion. It was an important function: the Theban government had its informers everywhere, even abroad. And it was in Athens, after all, that one of the most active members of the exiled opposition had recently been assassinated. Everyone guessed this was done on the secret instructions of the Theban government, who’d sent the killers in order to paralyze other exiles with fear.

Caphisias reported the truth as he knew it:

“Yes, they will soon be here.”

Phyllidas was pleased:

“Which means that the evening party at my place has been timed perfectly. Archias is supposed to attend. I’ll get him drunk, and all will go smoothly.”

Caphisias beamed:

“Excellent! But you must also make sure that some other members of the government are present.”

Phyllidas opened his arms in a gesture of helplessness:

“I’m afraid this will be difficult, maybe even impossible. Archias hopes (and I have been feeding this hope) that he will meet a certain lady from a good home at my house. This is why he does not want too many witnesses around—he wishes to hide the affair even from his own lieutenants. With those who do not come, we shall have to deal separately. We will surely find some way. After all, there is at most a dozen of them: all the others, even the most eager supporters and spies, will either flee or else keep mum, glad to be left alive.”

Caphisias sighed because he foresaw many complications. Indeed, if Archias expected to meet a certain lady at the party, then it would not be possible to stage a manly boozing bash. He said:

“Well, let it be, then, since we cannot do it otherwise. By the way, any idea what those two are chatting to Theocritus about?”

“Apparently, there have been lately some evil omens and inauspicious auguries concerning Sparta... Theocritus is considered a great authority on auguries. I think they are consulting him.”

Meanwhile, the others moved on, and Theocritus soon rejoined his friends. Before he was able to reassure them with as much as a word, Pheidolaos approached. He greeted them and said:

“Simmias asks that you wait in front of his house before going in. He is talking to Leontiades. He’s hoping to change Amphiteos’ death penalty to exile. Personally, I have no hope: Leontiades is as ruthless as Archias himself. Still, we must try.”

Theocritus was pleased to see Pheidolaos. And, as the group walked slowly towards the philosopher’s house, he asked about something which seemed to interest him a great deal:

“You arrive in the nick of time, as if by appointment! Because I was just thinking how much I’d like to hear about whatever you have found in Alcmene’s tomb in Haliartus. I believe you were present when the tomb was opened, and Alcmene’s remains moved to Sparta on the instructions of Agesilaus?”

But Pheidolaos denied it energetically:

“Of course, I was not! And I was furious at my compatriots for having so readily, and so submissively, agreed to relinquish the remains of Alcmene to the Spartans! After all, Alcmene was the mother of Heracles! But my advice was ignored, of course. All the same, I do know what was found in the grave. Besides various stones, there were: a small copper armband, two clay amphorae filled with what seemed to be petrified earth, and a bronze tablet inscribed with many strange runes. They were totally indecipherable, and once the tablet was cleaned, they stood out very clearly.

“They were very odd in shape, foreign as if Egyptian or some such. This is why King Agesilaus of Sparta had a copy made and sent to Egypt for decipherment. He asked the pharaoh to show it to his priests—thinking that maybe they could read it. But I think that Simmias could tell you more about it since he was in Egypt at the time and in contact with various Egyptian priests. As for the opening of the grave itself, I can only say: I was right to oppose the outrageous Spartan demands. The residents of Haliartus bewail their former decision now that two great natural disasters befell them this year: first, their crops failed; then Lake Copais, on whose shores the city stands, flooded over. These are most certainly not coincidences, but divine punishment for having allowed the tomb of Heracles’ mother to be disturbed!”

Theocritus meditated for some moments and then said:

“But the Spartans themselves will not avoid divine retribution. They will meet with some great misfortune. This much follows clearly from all auguries. I have just heard about it from the commander of the garrison, Lysanoridas. He is leaving for Haliartus just now. He will ritually close up the tomb of Alcmene and offer propitiatory sacrifices to her and to Aleus. Such were the orders of the Delphic oracle. We shall see whether that has any effect. (In fact, nobody knows who this Aleus was, whose tomb was dug up along with Alcmene’s. Some say he came from Crete and that his real name was something else).

“Then, when he returns here, Lysanoridas will have another task: he must find the tomb of Dirce. I do not think he will find it. No one in Thebes knows where it is. The place was known only to those holding the office of the commander of the cavalry because an ancient custom required the hipparch[1] to take his successor to Dirce’s tomb at night. The two made sacrifices there, then covered up their traces and departed by different routes. Now, all those who had once held that office are either exiled or fled of their own volition, wisely expecting that to happen, which is inevitable with governments resting not on the confidence of their citizens but on the strength of foreign garrisons. Only two former commanders of cavalry remain in the city, but our rulers will not dare ask them, knowing full well what kind of a reply they would get.

“Thus, the present Theban government can be seen... not to know Theban traditions! Some dozen men sit on Cadmea, guarded by the Spartan garrison, and pass amongst themselves the ancient symbols of power, the seal and the spear. But none of them have the least clue about the true nature of the customary rituals which attend their investiture! And let's not even mention the tomb of Dirce!”


These conversations took place on an overcast December day in the year—according to our calendar—379 B.C. How have such lively echoes of their conversations managed to reach our ears?

The conversations given in the preceding chapter are based on the opening chapters of a story entitled On the Protective Spirit of Socrates (Περί του Σωκράτους δαιμονίου in Greek, De genio Socratis in Latin, sometimes rendered in English as On the Sign of Socrates). It was written by the Greek writer Plutarch around the year 100 A.D.

Of course, one immediately asks:

A great deal of time had passed between the year 379 B.C. and the year 100 A.D.—nearly five hundred years! How could Plutarch know about the events of that day in such great detail?

Well, Plutarch, it turns out, could have known a great deal about it. He was born, and he lived almost all of his life in the small town of Chaeronea. This town is only several hours’ journey away from Thebes and lies in the same country, Beotia. Plutarch was a great lover of history, and he researched the history of his own country especially well. He collected and studied ancient artifacts and possessed various documents, records, and memoirs now lost. He found among them many relating to the events of 379 B.C. because what happened in Thebes that month greatly impacted the subsequent history of all of Greece.

However, we must admit that Plutarch took great liberties with his sources because his interests lay not so much in establishing what really happened but in presenting his own philosophical, religious, and ethical views. This was the case with The Protective Spirit of Socrates also. There, he put in the mouths of various characters certain secret, mystical teachings; and the actual historical events were for him only a kind of stage setting for these divagations. On the other hand, nearly all the people mentioned in the story are historical and known to us from other sources. So perhaps their conversations are only partly fiction but partly based on some old materials? We shall never know.

Whenever we return in these pages to the day on which the Theban plotters awaited the arrival of the seven, our guide shall be Plutarch. Our guide but not our oracle: we shall treat his story with some liberty ourselves, taking care only to preserve the main outline of the plot and the conversations. In short, we shall treat Plutarch just as he had treated his sources. Besides, Plutarch was not omniscient: we shall have to correct and round out some of his statements.

We have, in fact, already made a small correction when we said that there were seven plotters in the forest of Kithairon; because Plutarch says that there were not seven but twelve. But the historian Xenophon, a contemporary of these events, states with some emphasis that the number of the young men who had set out from Athens over the Kithairon against the city of Thebes was, in fact, seven.

Perhaps you will smile: it might seem but a small thing, an irrelevant little detail. But in truth, matters stand differently. For, if there had indeed been seven of them, then, in the eyes of the contemporaries, the matter took on a deeper meaning; indeed, a deeply symbolic meaning because it would not have been the first expedition of seven against Thebes, but—the third! True, the first two belonged to a very distant past. They had taken place a dozen centuries earlier, but they were famous all across Greece and were to remain so for centuries, especially the first of the two. They were told and retold by poets. The figures and actions of the seven leaders were acted out on stage. Sculptors and painters represented their various episodes in magnificent works of art. Moreover, some of the heroes of the first group of seven attained glory equal to gods: they had their own temples and priests, revealed the future through oracles, and received bloody sacrifices. At one time, only the Trojan War was more famous than the first expedition of seven against Thebes. Who knows, then? Perhaps Plutarch intentionally changed the number of the members of the expedition from seven to twelve in order not to remind his countrymen of the old, famous myths so as to free himself to dedicate his time to other, different themes which interested him more?

Someone might well say:

“It is all true. But the first expedition owed its fame, undying throughout classical antiquity, precisely to the fact that it was merely a myth! Its story, and its heroes, are no more than fiction; or, at most, a poetic transformation of ancient beliefs, symbols, or rituals. So why compare it with the later one, of 379 B.C., which was historical and concrete?

Yet, in antiquity, people thought otherwise. The first two expeditions against Thebes were considered historical facts; just as were the Trojan War, the expedition of the Argonauts, the somber fate of the ruling house of Mycenae, and the labors of Heracles, who had freed the world of monsters. Yes, people did admit that these myths took some liberty with historical facts. And they did debate the reliability of many details of the stories since they were often told in different versions. But no one in antiquity doubted that in former times there had lived men who had performed miraculous works and who’d risen in stature way above their succeeding generations and who had been close to gods. Those times were referred to as the Heroic Age. People pointed out castles that these heroes had built, meadows and mountains where they had fought, and tombs where they had been buried. And people named their descendants—children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren—down to the times well illuminated by recorded history.

And thus, when on that December day of the year 379 B.C., our group of plotters advanced towards the house of Simmias the Philosopher, aware that, in the forest of Kithairon, their seven companions were already waiting, they would have reflected that this was already the third expedition of seven against Thebes. And all would have thought about the two earlier ones, casting back their minds towards the Heroic Age.

What was that Heroic Age to them, and how did they feel about it?

They thought about it like all Greeks—with great respect. Their attitude to it was much like ours to antiquity: it was, in their eyes, a great, closed period, closed but still alive thanks to literature, art, and religion. And just as between us and the period of Greek antiquity, there lies a long period of darkness, known as the Middle Ages; so were the Greeks of antiquity cut off from their Heroic Age by a stretch of many centuries of great poverty and ignorance, which had followed the fall of the heroes.

Yes, the Heroic Age had fallen. In fact, it had been destroyed. This happened—all Greeks agreed on this—as a result of a great migration of peoples known as The Return of the Heraclides. Later Greek scholars calculated when that happened: by our reckoning, it would have been the twelfth century B.C. Again, a similarity to the end of the period of antiquity suggests itself: a migration of peoples destroys the centers of high civilization in Western Europe, dark clouds envelop the continent, but a memory of a brilliant past remains, like glowing coals in ashes, out of which a renaissance will one day take place.

But what shall we say about the Age of Heroes? Did it really occur? Are the myths really a reflection of great events, adventures, and struggles of men of flesh and blood? Can we accept the first and second expeditions of seven against Thebes as the same kind of historical fact as the events of 379 B.C.? How do we find an answer to these questions?

We shall have to return to these questions time and again. For the moment, let us remember that we have left our plotters in front of the house of Simmias the Philosopher, chatting about Alcmene, whose grave the Spartans had dug up, and Dirce, whose tomb they wanted to find. These two women had lived in the Age of Heroes, some ten centuries earlier. Yet, when Theocritus mentioned their names, his interlocutors did not need any explanations because the stories of these women belonged to the best known in Thebes and, indeed, in the whole of Greece.


[1] The commander of the cavalry

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