Seven Against Thebes (6)


Alcmene on the pyre.
From a crateros of Paestum (c.a. 350-325 B.C.)
, British Museum


The Spartans were still only looking for the tomb of Dirce, but they had not only found, but also dug up the grave of Alcmene, or so Pheidolaos had told the plotters while they stood before the gates of Simmias’ house. But there was no agreement regaring that tomb: whether it was the real tomb of Alcmene, or whether even Alcmene herself had been buried anywhere at all. Thebans themselves told her story as follows:

"Alcmene spent two different periods of her life in our town. She lived here as the wife of Amphitryon, in a house whose ruins still remain near one of the gates. Here she’d been seduced by Zeus, wearing the form of Amphitryon himself, and here she gave birth to her famous son, Heracles. Later, she returned to Thebes following her son's martyrdom and his ascent to Olympus. She died here at very senior age. On the day of her death, Zeus dispatched Hermes who placed in her tomb a heavy rock, raised the dead woman, and carried her off to the far West. There, in the Blissful Isles where there is no snow, no tempest, and where it does not even rain, and only a delicate breeze off the ocean stimulates the residents, Alcmene married Radamanthes; he had once ruled justly over Crete but now rules over the land of the dead. This is how Zeus rewarded the woman whom he had seduced all those years back, and whose son had saved the world from so many terrible trials. Meanwhile, the descendants of Alcmene, the Heraclids, came to her funeral from the distant Peloponnesus which they then ruled. They took her casket upon their shoulders, but as it seemed unusually heavy to them, they opened it and saw only a rock. They set it up in a grove, behind the city, and since that day we worship it as if it were divine."

But many Greeks denied this legend. They claimed that Zeus raised Alcmene to Olympus and that there she resided along with her demi-god son, Heracles.

The residents of Haliartus presented the matter yet differently. This town lies some three hours to the east of Thebes, on the shores of Lake Copais. The Haliartians claimed:

"Alcmene spent her old age in our town. It was here that Radamanthes married her. Exiled from his native Crete he lived among us under the assumed name of Aleus. We have a proof of these ancient connections with the distant island: both here and there the precious bush named styrax blooms. It yields a beautifully scented resin. It was Radamanthes who had brought it here. After many years’ of harmonious life with Alcmene, he reposed here, in a tomb near our city walls."

There was no way to reconcile all these tales; or to decide which one was true. But no one was surprised at it, since yet other localities claimed to possess the tomb of Alcmene. Besides, who would waste his time trying to determine the precise truth content of local tales? The business became important only thanks to certain political and military developments.

As you recall, the conversations of our plotters took place in December 379 B.C. Sixteen years earlier, in the autumn of 396 B.C., Spartans had suffered a painful defeat in a battle against Thebans at the foot of… Haliartus. There they left behind hundreds of their dead. In Sparta investigations began whose purpose was to establish the causes of the defeat: after all, until now it was Spartans who were the greatest military power of all Greece! Pride did not allow Spartans to admit that their defeat may have been brought on by the stupidity of their generals and their foolhardy certainty of their own invincibility. Surely, they argued, the cause of their defeat must lie deeper! It is simply unthinkable that it may have been caused by human hand! Finally, after much research, they have found this:

"Gods and heroes have been displeased by Sparta, because her kings, though they trace their descent from Heracles, failed, over all these centuries, to bring to the fatherland the ashes of the venerable mother of Heracles. This is why they have been dealt a painful defeat precisely at the foot of Haliartus, in the vicinity of Alcmene’s grave."

The Spartans decided to cure their century-old failure as soon as they seized control of the lands of Thebes and Haliartus.

In the year 382 B.C. two mutually-hateful men became the rulers of Thebes: Ismenias, who sided with democrats and Athens; and Leontiades, an oligarch and a conservative. Soon the latter found himself on the defensive. To save himself, he made a secret pact with a Spartan army which passed nearby, on its way north. There was a holiday in Thebes at the time in honor of Demeter; it was called Tesmophoria. Per ancient custom, on that day women ascended the castle hill, Cadmea, in order to perform rites at the goddess’ hilltop shrine while men left the castle so as not to interfere with the rites. Thus, all officers left Cadmea for a day, and even the guards on the walls and at the gates were removed. The Spartans entered the city at noon, when everyone took cover from the merciless midday sun and the streets were practically deserted. They marched calmly right through the middle of the city and seized the castle hill without opposition. As soon as this happened, Leontiades entered the council building at the main city square, where the terrified council members were already assembling. He said:

“The occupation of Cadmea by Spartans should be no cause for concern for anyone. Spartans arrive as friends. They have no hostile intentions towards anyone. Only the warmongers among us need to fear. As for me, I shall act according to the ancient precepts of our holy laws. They allow the polemarchos to arrest without court order any citizen accused of a crime for which the law demands the penalty of death. Rabble-rousing and inciting dangerous wars certainly belong to such crimes. This is why I hereby arrest Ismenias as an enemy of law and order!”

There were many among the councilmen, who – supposedly out of rational calculation, but in fact out of fear – immediately seconded Leontiades. Later, Ismenias was sent to Sparta and there sentenced to death while in Thebes, tyrants and Spartans began to rule. Archias took the place of Ismenias as polemarchos. All opposition was terrorized: who did not manage to flee, was imprisoned, sometimes killed. The largest number of exiles went to Athens.

Once Spartans fortified themselves in Thebes and Haliartus, they dug up Alcmene’s tomb. Its contents revealed that it did date to prehistorical times; the amphorae filled with petrified earth had probably contained ashes of the dead, or perhaps of sacrificial animals; but the true mystery lay in a bronze tablet covered with strange script whose signs looked to some to be Egyptian. This is why the Spartan king Agesilaus sent a copy of it for decipherment to Egypt. The two countries were at that time on good terms and often exchanged embassies.


The book's Polish readers in 1968 would have had no doubt how to interpret this story: Athens -- a democracy, was the US, the exiles -- the Polish government in London, Sparta was Russia and Leontiades and his ilk-- the Polish communist party.


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