Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.04.22

Henry J. Walker, Theseus and Athens. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. x + 224. $39.95. ISBN 0-19-508908-1.

Reviewed by Eric Robinson, University of North Florida,

The author begins with a simple but intriguing question: how could Theseus, legendary king, develop into a role model for citizens of the Athenian democracy? The heroic myths about him hardly suggest any sort of egalitarian political program, and fifth-century Athenians were certainly aware of the anachronism of imputing to his heroic age the establishment of a fully democratic constitution at Athens. Walker's exploration of this issue results in the book under review, a study of the origins of the myth and cult of Theseus, his popular acceptance as an Athenian national hero, and his often contradictory portrayals in the literature of fifth-century Athens. Not all of the work's arguments persuade, and historical matters do not always receive adequate treatment, but on the whole W.'s study is a valuable and much-needed one.

The first chapter, "Myth and Ritual: Hero Worship in Greece and the Origins of the Theseus Myth," attempts to unravel the knotty problem of where, when, and how the figure of Theseus originates. After a brief discussion of Greek hero cults generally, Walker advances the argument that the myths about Theseus stem from Attica, specifically from the region around Aphidna. In this W. challenges the arguments of Herter, who maintained the pan-Ionian character of the early Theseus and emphasized the hero's birth in Troezen, not Attica. W. (following Nilsson) finds Herter's arguments to rest on very weak grounds: the association of Theseus with Thessaly and Troezen is no older -- and certainly seems less strong -- than those which make him an original Attic hero, specifically from the northeast region. Moreover, hardly any traces of the Theseus myth or cult survive from the Ionian cities of Asia Minor, which would be surprising if he was a pan-Ionian hero from the earliest times. W. goes on to discuss the history of the myth and cult of Theseus. Elements of the story appear to be quite old, such as the fights with the Minotaur and the Centaurs, and his abductions of Helen, Ariadne, and Persephone. Representations of the Minotaur occur on eighth-century tripods from Olympia; Theseus appears fighting the creature first on pottery from the next century. The Homeric epics refer to this and the other early episodes. W. defends such passages as genuine, though some have thought them Athenian interpolations. As for the early hero's character, W. notes: "The archaic Theseus is, therefore, an abductor of women, all of whom are vegetation goddesses, and he is a fighter against monsters, all of whom are half-human and half-animal." (16) The earliest Athenian artistic representations of him come in the first half of the sixth century, when many of the above episodes appear on Attic vases. The evidence we have for Theseus' cult comes from the city of Athens, not the Attic countryside. W. explains this by pointing out that while the legend may have originated in northeast Attica, the worship of Theseus "is a product of the newly united state of Athens." (21) A Theseion was built in Athens in the sixth century or before (archeologists have not located it yet), and ancient authors attest several different shrines within the city. By the end of the sixth century Theseus becomes a far more popular subject for vase-painters, and new episodes begin to appear: the Marathonian Bull, the rape of the Amazonian queen Antiope, and his eventful journey as a young man from Troezen to Athens.

The increasing popularity of Theseus as an Athenian hero in the sixth (and on into the fifth) centuries forms the subject of the next chapter, "Benevolent Dictators and the Paradox of a Democratic King." A number of scholars have given a central role to the Peisistratid tyrants for promoting the veneration of the hero. W. seeks to refute this interpretation, looking rather to the era of the new democracy established after the overthrow of the tyrants to explain the flourishing of the Theseus myth. He notes the paucity of direct evidence for a sixth-century Theseid (supposedly commissioned by the Peisistratids) or for the likening of Peisistratid activities to events from Theseus' life, and argues extensively (though less convincingly) against the very notion that the Peisistratids would want to promote and associate themselves with the hero. His strongest argument is that the artistic representations of Theseus multiply most impressively only after the expulsion of Hippias. The discussion is a provocative one, and W. does well in highlighting the weaknesses of the case for promotion by the tyrants. Yet he seems too confident in entirely dismissing this possibility in favor of "democratic" adoption of Theseus, especially since this is clearly a case where both can be true -- one need not deny a Peisistratid role in order to assert a later, more far-reaching national embrace of the hero. W.'s further argument is not without difficulties. After pointing out important additions to the legend around the turn of the century (representations of the cycle of adventures around the Saronic Gulf as if to rival the labors of Heracles; grand depictions on the Athenian Treasury at Delphi; his part within Pherecydes' Attic mythography), W. goes on to suggest that the Spartans and their hostility to the democratic government of Cleisthenes resulted in popular promotion of Theseus: "From now on, the Spartans became the champions of oligarchy, and they started to look upon the new government of Athens as their greatest enemy.1 This is why the Athenians turned now more than ever to the figure of Theseus." (53) The problem here is that the ideological association of Sparta with oligarchy and Athens with democracy, and the sponsoring of each constitution abroad by its respective patron, lies well in the future. Not until the era of the Peloponnesian war can we say with any confidence that such a state of affairs existed. At the turn of the fifth century Athens and Sparta may have shared hostility (which could indeed have been a factor in Athenian artistic representations of Theseus instead of Heracles), but to make clashing oligarchic and democratic ideologies central to such a change is almost certainly anachronistic. Hardly mentioned by W. is another, perhaps more compelling reason to suspect official promotion of Theseus by supporters of the Cleisthenic reforms: the obvious comparability of Theseus' legendary synoecism with Cleisthenes' new integration of city and countryside by reorganizing the basis of citizenship and the tribes. The chapter closes with a discussion of (the now well-established) figure of Theseus under democratic leaders from Cimon to Pericles.

After this discussion of the origin and promotion of the myth, W. turns to individual interpretations of those surviving literary texts from the fifth century which feature Theseus. This task takes up the rest of the book, and leaves behind questions about the interaction of the myth and political leadership at Athens. Indeed, no single theme unites these literary discussions, aside from the broad subject of the portrayal of Theseus through the fifth century. Chapter three concentrates on Poems 17 and 18 of Bacchylides. W. finds here that Theseus can be seen as the prototypical fifth-century Athenian, skillful and clever, and as the marginalized ephebic youth coming of age and needing to prove his paternity and his worth in the city of his father. Athenian rituals of initiation which involve the Theseus story are discussed in this context. The next chapter, "The Hero-King," covers the earlier plays of Euripides: the Hippolytus, Madness of Heracles, and a few lost plays. W. sees a movement in these dramas from the original, heroic Theseus, a proud and violent warrior-monarch who seems greater than the polis, to a suitably reformed civic leader. "[Euripides'] tragedies are an examination of the difficult transition an archaic hero will have to go through before he can be accepted and internalized by the Athenian democracy." (136) This transition is fully realized in the Suppliant Women, the focus of chapter five ("The Democratic Ruler"). In this play we initially find a logical, cold-hearted monarch, but one who rapidly discovers a sympathy for the suppliants and encourages the people to act nobly and help them, rather than choose a safer course. Theseus is revealed to be less a king to the people than an advisor or spokesman in a democracy; the demos holds the true power, as is spelled out in the hero's own declarations (lines 349-55) and his debate with the Theban herald (lines 403-50). Some of these lines contradict attitudes he voiced earlier in the play. We are reminded afterwards of Theseus' heroic stature by his aristeia on the battlefield, but he is no longer arrogant or inhumane. Further maturity and nobility of spirit is displayed by the Theseus of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, surveyed in chapter six. Again, he is the civilized, god-fearing defender of suppliants, though a true king rather than Euripides' democratic leader. Sophocles uses him as the embodiment of the Athenian ideal of noble character. The last chapter, "Theseus Enters History," briefly considers our hero's portrayal in the works of Thucydides, Hellanicus, and other historians. Thucydides represents him positively as the author of Athens' original synoecism; Hellanicus seems to have written about the original wild adventurer, in contrast to the treatments of fourth-century Atthidographers, who tend to rationalize or whitewash this hero of Athens.

This book should be considered a success overall, for it provides a readable, comprehensive treatment of a subject that deserves attention, and advances a number of defensible and interesting readings of both literature and history. The volume is attractively produced and suffers from very few technical errors.2 Yet problems do exist which ought not go unmentioned. The book would have benefited from a concluding chapter to tie together the whole. Intriguing or provocative themes brought out in one chapter find no place in those that follow; and after the last several chapters, with their separate surveys of Theseus in various works of literature, it is difficult for the reader to come away with any clear sense of the synchronic or diachronic significance for Athens of the Theseus myths, or indeed if any such significance is to be discerned. A few pages of summary and reflection at the end might address this confusion, and could also serve to relate the last several chapters of the book (the literary analyses) with the earlier study of the legend's origin and promotion. As it is, the volume towards the end gives the impression of a rather narrowly focused commentary on Theseus' appearance in various Athenian literary works.

More troubling is the insufficient treatment of some important historical matters. At times, the author appears either not to appreciate fully the complexity of an issue, or to deal with it hastily. We find an example in the discussion (pp. 149-151) of the political attitudes of Theseus in the early lines of the Suppliant Women. W. claims that Euripides presents as undemocratic the hero's initially harsh attitude towards the suppliants. The argument is compressed and not easy to follow, but W. seems to conclude this because Theseus is made to speak contrary to supposedly existing presumptions that democracies should 1) have enlightened foreign policies, 2) ignore class distinctions, and 3) avoid excessive patriotism based on pride of citizenship. But none of these ideas was accepted in the Athenian or any other Greek democracy. Violent and cruel foreign adventures were practiced by them as often as by other poleis, and Greek commentators never argued that the nature of democracy somehow worked against this; democracy may grant final power in the state to the mass of the free citizens, yet this does not require that class distinctions be ignored -- indeed, one need only think of the property qualifications at Athens for holding certain offices, and for liturgies and the eisphora, to understand the importance of class in determining a citizen's expected contribution to the state; and democracies need not have been any more free with citizenship grants to non-natives than any other polis, as Pericles' law of 451 demonstrates.3 Only modern observers' democratic ideals tend to be outraged by such practices.

W. makes in passing other questionable historical assertions: e.g., the city-state developed in the eighth century (3, 47); hoplites were "wealthy" (56); Cleisthenic Athens was a "secular state" (54, 61); the Athenians could have preserved their empire by operating more moderately and "making it more acceptable to their allies" (179). These fleeting statements (quoted here away from their context, of course) are not necessarily wrong, but are certainly debatable and cry out for explanation in text or footnotes, especially when used to buttress further arguments. Footnotes also sometimes lack depth, as when W. discusses the supposed nonexistence of a "democratic theory" in Athens (62-3). Does the absence of surviving polemical works extolling democracy mean none ever existed? How might we reconstruct an Athenian democratic ideology? These are issues which historians continue to wrestle with, but regarding them W. refers only to a few pages of Loraux's Invention of Athens, omitting important and more recent studies such as Ober's Mass and Elite in Democratic Athens, Farrar's Origin of Democratic Thinking, or Raaflaub's "Contemporary Perceptions of Democracy in Fifth-Century Athens," in Aspects of Athenian Democracy.

The above criticisms, offered by an historian with a particular interest in ancient democracy, are not intended as a general indictment. It is perhaps inevitable that such an ambitious work, which seeks to combine artistic, historical, and literary analyses over an extended period of time, will pass over some matters hastily or run afoul of controversies in different scholarly specialties. Theseus and Athens covers a broad subject intelligently and informatively, and has much to offer readers from the advanced undergraduate to the professional level. It is a welcome book.


  • [1] W. footnotes here P. Lévêque and P. Vidal-Naquet, Clisthène l'Athénien (Paris, 1964), 48-9, who make a similar point about Sparta and oligarchies.
  • [2] The following are the only such flaws this reader noticed: "weaons" for "weapons" on p. 49, and the out-of-sequence listing of Mylonas' article on p. 212 in the bibliography.
  • [3] W. makes only passing attempts to substantiate these supposed ancient democratic beliefs -- they are not central to his thesis. No source is offered for the first (humane foreign policy). For the second (no class distinctions), W. refers to one notoriously problematic passage, Thuc. 2.37.1, and uses the debatable translation of "class" for meros. As for Athenian pride of citizenship, he acknowledges the problem of Pericles' citizenship law, but tries to counter its implications by pointing to the Cleisthenic expansion of the citizenship (itself a controversial matter, and in any case dealing only with inhabitants of Attica) and the reputation of the Theseion as a slave refuge.