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 which 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
  • 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
    • His friendship with Perithous
      • Did involve him in the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs
    • Seizure of Helen
      • Ends up in prison to the King of Molossus
      • Heracles frees him
  • 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.

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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