Seven Against Thebes (1)


Kithairon today

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

While we exchanged such words, women began to approach, commanded by noble Persephone: all of them wives and daughters of heroes. A great crowd of them edged towards the black blood and I considered how best to speak to them. And in my heart I thought this way best: I drew my sword, which I had 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, daughter of Asopus, who had boasted that Zeus had had her in his arms, and who had born two sons, Amphion and Zethus. These were the first to found their capital in seven-gated Thebes. They 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 turned towards Charon, the host, because he knew him personally:

“They left Athens yesterday, as if going on a hunt. They even took hunting 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 and bitterly cold. They will be here tonight. But they must know on which door to knock, at whose house. They can’t wander 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 crags of the mountain. All those gathered in the house of Charon had joined the plot of their own, free will, but it seemed that they realized only now that it was not child’s play, but serious business: life and death.

At length Charon broke the silence saying simply:

“Let them come to me.”

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

The range of Kithairon rises to the south of Thebes and is clearly visible from the city. The peak of the mountain is bare, but her steep, undulating slopes are covered with thick fir. Even walking without any particular haste one can reach its protective shadow in no more than three hours.

Charon and his guests also walked out into the street. Theocritus squeezed the hand of Caphisias and pointed with his gaze towards Charon, who walked in front of them. He said in a low voice:

“Just think: Charon is not a philosopher! He was certainly not as well educated as my brother Epaminondas. And yet he is willing to take all kinds of risks for the sake of our fatherland! This is how matters stand with Epaminondas: you’d think he has possessed all virtues and that he is head and shoulders above all common men; but our plot does not interest him at all and he is 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 acting as we have decided was best but Epaminondas was opposed to our plans from the first, and even now he repeats constantly: I would go with you only if you could 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 their citizens at will, and persecute anyone who dares express his own opinion. They belittle 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 crime of resorting to the tyrants’ methods: 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 but 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 because he had gravely cut his thigh and was still bed-ridden. Instead, the young often gathered in his house to discuss philosophy: Simmias had once been the student of Socrates and Philolaus, 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 disguise that purpose, 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 sat there very pleased to think that the young men around him seemed more fascinated by the subtle problems of philosophy than 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; so was Lisandridas, the commander of the Spartan garrison; and Phillidas, the government secretary.

Abruptly, all conversations died.

Archias gestured to Theocritus and led him towards the Spartan commander. The three walked some way towards a 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 has betrayed them? Perhaps he is even now reporting that the seven have left Athens and are already in Kithairon?

Phillidias 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?”

Phillidas, 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 Theban 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. This was important: 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 was murdered. Everyone guessed this was done on secret instructions of the Theban government, which had sent the killers in order to intimidate the other exiles.

Caphisias reported the truth as he knew it:

“Yes, they will soon be here.”

Phillidas was pleased:

“Which means that tonight's party at my house 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.”

Phillidas 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 at my house a certain lady from a good home. 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, happy to be left alive.”

Caphisias sighed, because he expected many complications.Why , if Archias expected to meet a certain lady at the party, then it is will surely not be possible to stage a manly boozing party at Phillidas’s house. 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... some inauspicious auguries touching upon Sparta... And since Theocritus is considered a great authority on auguries, I think they are consulting him.”

Meanwhile, the others parted and Theocritus 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 a little in front of his house before going in. He is talking to Leontiades. He’s hoping to change Amphiteos’ death penalty into exile. Personally, I have no hope: Leontiades is as ruthless as Archias himself; but 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:

“Pheidolaos, you arrive in the nick of time, as if by appointment! You see, I was just thinking how much I’d like to hear about whatever it is that 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 to the Spartans the remains of Alcmene! 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 and two clay amphorae filled with what seemed to be earth petrified over the centuries. There was also a bronze tablet inscribed with many strange runes. They were totally indecipherable, though, once the tablet was cleaned, they stood out very clearly. They were 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 than I, since he was in Egypt at the time and he was in contact with various Egyptian priests. As for the opening of the grave itself, I’ll only add: I was right to oppose those unlawful Spartan demands. The residents of Haliartus bewail their former decision now after two great natural disasters befell them this year: first, crops failed; then Lake Copais, on whose shores the city stands, flooded over. These are most certainly not coincidences, but visible divine punishment for having allowed the tomb of Heracles’ mother to be dug up.”

Theocritus meditated for some moments and then said:

“But the Spartans themselves will not avoid divine retribution. They will be met with some great misfortune, this much follows clearly from the auguries. I have just heard about it from the commander of the garrison, Lisandridas. 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, we do not know 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, according to the same oracle, when he returns here, Lisandridas 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 cavalry, since an ancient custom requires the hipparch to take his successor to Dirce’s tomb at night. They make sacrifices there, then cover up their tracks and walk off in different directions... But today, practically all those who had once held that office are abroad, having either been 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 reply they will get if they do. 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 insignia of power, the seal and the spear, but none of them have the least inkling about the true nature of the customary rituals which attend their investiture! Let us not even mention the tomb of Dirce!”



This book, published in early 1960's exemplifies much Polish writing on the antique, and as such lies in the ancient European tradition of illocution: not speaking about the current political situation directly, this being too risky, and sometimes outright verbotten; but writing ostensibly about the very ancient past, the glorious past of the antique -- a government approved topic for research and publishing because, apparently, it was so far removed from the current realities. But it was not: fourth century Thebes, ruled by a small clique of ruthless tyrants installed by a foreign power and supported by a foreign military contingent, seemed to any Polish reader a lot like post-war Poland. Few readers would have missed the parallels or failed to wonder whether, for example, Epaminondas' reservations about the permitted forms of opposition to tyranny were pertinent. Perhaps this explains Polish post-war preoccupation with the antique -- not merely the human capital invested in the research, but also the general popularity of the topic, the great number of non-fiction and fiction published on the topic, etc. and perhaps also explains why the interest in the antique has waned dramatically since independence.


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