The oath of the original seven, Flaxman
DESCENDING INTO THE PAST
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 passed between the year 379 B.C. and the year 100 A.D. – nearly five hundred years! How could Plutarch know in such great detail about the events of that day?
Well, Plutarch, it turns out, could have known a good deal about it. He was born, and he lived almost all of his life, in the small town of Cheronea. 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, Beotia, especially well. He collected and studied ancient artifacts and had in his hands 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 had a big impact on the subsequent history of all Greece.
We must admit, however, 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 is how it was with The Protective Spirit of Socrates. There he put in the mouths of various characters certain secret, mystical teachings; the actual historical events were for him only a kind stage-set for his philosophical divagations. On the other hand, nearly all the persons 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 – 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 the events, states with some emphasis that the number of the young men who had set out from Athens across the Kithairon against the city of Thebes was – indeed – 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 were indeed seven of them, then, in the eyes of the contemporaries the matter took on a deeper meaning, a deeply symbolic significance. For 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. 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 their own priests, they 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’d freed the world of monsters. Yes, people did admit that myths have added color to the stories; and they did argue as to the reliability of many details of the stories, since they were often told in different versions. But no one in antiquity doubted that in earlier times there had lived men who have performed miraculous works and who’d risen in stature way above their succeeding generations; men who had been close to gods.
Those times were called the Heroic Age. People pointed out castles which these heroes had built, meadows and mountains where they had fought, and tombs where they had been buried. And in elaborate genealogies, people named their descendants – children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren – down to the times well illumined by recorded history.
And thus, when, on a December day of the year 379 B.C. our group of plotters advanced towards the house of Simmias the philosopher, knowing that, in the forest of Kithairon their seven companions were already waiting, all would have realized that this was the third expedition of seven against Thebes; and all would have thought about the times of the two earlier ones, casting back their minds towards the Heroic Age.
What was it to them, that Heroic Age, 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 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 about which no one could say very much at all for certain because in it men had lived in poverty and stupidity following 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 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, 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. Both these women had lived during the Age of Heroes, at a minimum ten centuries earlier. Yet, when Theocritus mentioned their names, his interlocutors did not need any explanations, because the stories of the lives and deaths of these women belonged to the best known in Thebes, and, indeed, in the whole of Greece.
Perhaps the book's chief theme is this: our relationship to the glorious, mythical past: why we keep retelling same old stories over and over again, and what their antiquity means to us. I am not sufficiently cultural-anthropologically minded to think it matters what ancient stories we tell (presumably the replacement of Seven Against Thebes with, say, Star Wars, makes no real difference); and believe that all human groups tell some sort of ancient stories (certainly all groups which we have studied do) -- and always will. What interests me is the idea that if a group shares a story, that story enables a symbolic form of communication, such as took place in this case when the exiles heading for Thebes recruited the seventh volunteer in order to make their number exactly seven.
Another theme of the book is the loss of the past, the preservation of its memory, and the attempts to revive it: it is interesting, for example, to note certain repeating patterns: to note that the history of the Greek civilization presents us with two different Heroic Ages and two different Renaissances, for example, separated from each other by periods of downfall and forgetting. Histories of Mesopotamia and China present striking similarities: periods of war and chaos followed by painstaking attempts to dig up, catalog and revive the past. It is not our past, of course, and we have nothing to do with the men who went before us, but perhaps it gives us the illusion of immortality to pretend otherwise.
1. You may read the full text of the Plutarch essay here.