Theseus

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Although Theseus never actually existed, Plutarch, in documenting his life, wants to cull important lessons for Greeks and Romans. Just as Theseus wrestles with villains threatening civilization, Plutarch forces his readers to grapple with the role of virtue in politics, or, less abstractly, the role the virtuous man has to play in his polis: i.e. how to be a citizen rather than a subject. This becomes explicit at the end of Theseus’s life when he ceases to be a good king and becomes a tyrant, stripping citizenship from the Athenians by returning them to subjugation under a king.

Parallel – Romulus

Historical Context – Emergence from the Dark Ages

  • Bronze-Age to Iron Age transition:
    • Dark Ages:
      • What were they?
    • Bronze Age civilizations:
      • Egypt
      • Hittites
      • Sumer/Akkad/Babylonians
      • Minoans and Myceneans (Aegean)
    • Middle Period:
      • As most major civilizations in decline, the smaller civilizations seem to rise and fill in the gaps:
        • Phoenicians
        • Hebrews
        • Arameans
        • Philistines
      • For the Greeks, though, they lose writing and reading and see a mass exodus from the old urban centers of Mycenaean Greece.
    • Iron Age civilizations:
      • Neo-Assyrians
      • Neo-Babylonians
      • Persians
      • Greeks
      • Romans
      • To the present (steel is 98% iron)

Outline

Theseus Statue in Athens
Theseus straps on his sandals in a neighborhood of modern Athens that bears his name.
  • Parentage
  • Comes of age
    • Delphi
    • Theseus’s haircut
  • Sword and Sandals under a rock
    • Sea = safe
    • Land = dangerous
  • Theseus personally cleans up the land around the Saronic Gulf
    • @ Epidaurus (wins his club)
    • On the isthmus of Corinth
    • Crommyonian Sow
    • Wrestles near Eleusis
    • Procrustes
      • Cf. Hercules and how he killed his monsters and fiends
  • Theseus receives first real hospitality at the Cephisus River, just outside of Athens
  • Arrival in Athens
    • Medea!? Poison!?
    • Recognition and Inheritance
    • Revolt!
    • First battle in Athens (neighborhoods named)
  • Bull of Marathon
    • later an important battle fought here under Miltiades
  • Theseus and the Minotaur
    • Plague and Expiation
    • The most “likely” (common?) story
    • Was Minos good/bad?
      • Why does Plutarch have to defend Minos?
    • Alternative stories
      • Vary by geographic region
    • Return: the sail!
    • Philosophical Problems: The Ship of Theseus
  • Theseus unites Athens and Attica
    • Centralizes authority
    • Institutes common feasts
      • Oscophoria
      • Panathenaic Festival
    • Establishes three classes of citizen:
      • Nobles
      • Craftsmen
      • Farmers
    • Gives nobles most power over law and religion
    • Opens Athens as a “commonwealth of all nations” (cf. Romulus welcoming refugees)
  • The many other adventures of Theseus
    • The Amazons
      • Second battle in Athens, more neighborhoods named
    • False marriages
    • False adventures
      • Theseus did NOT participate in
        • Jason and the Argonauts
        • Meleager and the Boar (cf. Iliad Book 9; Ovid Metamorphoses Bk. 7/8)
        • Seven Against Thebes – though he did help bury the dead
    • His friendship with Perithous
      • At Perithous’s wedding, Theseus pulled into the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs
    • Seizure of Helen
      • Ends up in prison to the King of Molossus (Hades?)
      • Heracles frees him (from death?)
      • Isocrates’s Helen a good source on this adventure (Isoc. 10.18-37)
  • Theseus returns to Athens
    • Castor and Pollux
      • brothers of Helen and mythical Spartans
      • causing trouble in Athens
  • Theseus curses the Athenians, giving them what they want (deserve?)
    • Flees to the island of Scyros
    • Dies there (unclear if killed or falls)
Theseus slaying the Minotaur – originally commissioned by Napoleon, but now residing in Vienna.

The End of Theseus?

If you find the end of this life confusing, abrupt, or unsatisfying, take heart from Pausanias, a Greek geographer and travel-writer publishing his work about fifty years after Plutarch. He has this to say about Theseus’s demise:

[4] The accounts of the end of Theseus are many and inconsistent. They say he was kept a prisoner until Heracles restored him to the light of day, but the most plausible account I have heard is this. Theseus invaded Thesprotia to carry off the wife of the Thesprotian king, and in this way lost the greater part of his army, and both he and Peirithous (he too was taking part in the expedition, being eager for the marriage) were taken captive. The Thesprotian king kept them prisoners at Cichyrus.

[5] Among the sights of Thesprotia are a sanctuary of Zeus at Dodona and an oak sacred to the god. Near Cichyrus is a lake called Acherusia, and a river called Acheron. There is also Cocytus, a most unlovely stream. I believe it was because Homer had seen these places that he made bold to describe in his poems the regions of Hades, and gave to the rivers there the names of those in Thesprotia. While Theseus was thus kept in bonds, the sons of Tyndareus marched against Aphidna, captured it and restored Menestheus to the kingdom.

[6] Now Menestheus took no account of the children of Theseus, who had secretly withdrawn to Elephenor in Euboea, but he was aware that Theseus, if ever he returned from Thesprotia, would be a doughty antagonist, and so curried favour with his subjects that Theseus on recovering afterwards his liberty was expelled. So Theseus set out to Deucalion in Crete. Being carried out of his course by winds to the island of Scyros he was treated with marked honor by the inhabitants, both for the fame of his family and for the reputation of his own achievements. Accordingly Lycomedes contrived his death. His close was built at Athens after the Persians landed at Marathon, when Cimon, son of Miltiades, ravaged Scyros, thus avenging Theseus’ death, and carried his bones to Athens.

This translation (from Book I, Chapter 17 of Pausanias’s Descprtion of Greece) is in the Public Domain and provided courtesy of Perseus online, hosted by Tufts University.

Important People

  • Aegeus – Pelops/Erechtheus/Poseidon
  • Aethra – Pittheus
  • Hippolyta
  • Perithous
  • Heracles:
    • Theseus relates to Heracles as Themistocles does to Miltiades. The former always feels overshadowed by the latter, sparking jealousy and enmity.
Theseus triumphant

Important Places

  • Troezen – map and trident coin (cf. Demosthenes is murdered here)
  • Delphi
  • Lydia (where Heracles hides out after murder?)
  • Sphettus, Gargettus, Pallene, Agnus (battle against sons of Pallas – neighborhoods of Athens)
  • Palladium, Ardettus, Lyceum (neighborhoods of Athens – battle against the Amazons)
  • Pnyx (hill in central Athens)
  • Museum
  • Marathon – later site of a famous battle; where Theseus tames a wild bull
  • Crete
  • Phalerum
  • Trachis (where Heracles rests after labors)
  • Epirus (capital of Molossus)
  • Scyros (where he dies)

Helpful Links

Dryden-Clough Translation of Plutarch’s Life of Theseus

Bernadotte Perin Translation

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales begin with the legend of Theseus, well told for younger audiences yet still hitting a lot of Plutarch’s highlights. Available for free at Gutenburg.

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