Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.07.06

Sophie Mills, Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1997.  Pp. ix, 293.  ISBN 0-19-815063-6.  $87.00.  

Reviewed by John Gibert, Classics, University of Colorado (
Word count: 2854 words

Much has been written about the transformation of Theseus, a relatively minor figure in early Greek myth, into a hero to match the ambitions and power of late-archaic and classical Athens. Despite agreement on many points, gaps in the record leave plenty of room for speculation and controversy. Recent work has paid special attention to ideology, especially under the radical democracy and the empire, as the process of adaptation continued in venues such as public art, funeral orations, and tragedy. After covering much of this ground in the first two chapters of her book (originally a 1992 Oxford thesis), Sophie Mills proceeds to chapter-length studies of the four extant tragedies in which Theseus appears (Eur. Supp. and Her., Soph. OC, and Eur. Hipp., in that order); a final chapter surveys Theseus in fragmentary tragedy. The work achieves a high professional standard, with appropriate documentation and sensible, balanced judgments throughout. M. well combines the scattered and difficult evidence for myth, literature, and art with other reflections of history, politics, and ideology over a long period. The reliable and accessible discussions of the first two chapters will be of particular use to scholars.

The first chapter, "Images of Theseus before Tragedy", traces the oldest elements of the legend and shows how Athenians began to sanitize and enhance it in the late archaic period, because "a national hero such as Theseus is useful as an embodiment of the best qualities of the nation in its own eyes" (25). Chapter 2 surveys the developed "Athenian Image of Athens" under the empire. M. argues that a basically consistent picture emerges from nearly all the sources. While she acknowledges a general debt to Nicole Loraux on funeral orations, she faults her for not exploring further the relationship of funeral orations to other genres (48 n. 14). M.'s view of this relationship is that "the funeral speeches contain an extreme and highly formalized version of an ideology which, in a less extreme form, pervades mainstream Athenian thought about Athens and Athenian identity" (52). This is because it is hard to believe that the ideal image of Athens "could have been so prevalent and consistent in literature without having had some influence in real life." It might as well be said at once that M. finds the same ideal image in all the tragic representations of Theseus, with the partial exception of Euripides' Hippolytus plays. A final section of this chapter contrasts Thucydides' unsentimental depiction of the realities of human nature and power with the "mainstream" ideology studied so far and concludes (85): "Thucydides' cynicism and desire to expose the falsehood of popular ideology should therefore not be used as an indication of what the average Athenian generally felt about the empire."1

The chapter on Euripides' Suppliants discusses the play's possible relationship to the Battle of Delium in 424 and the ideal characteristics of Theseus as wise king and proto-democrat. M. essentially vindicates the judgment of an ancient writer that the play is an encomium of Athens. She fairly represents the work of older scholars who argued that irony undermines the patriotic rhetoric on the play's surface (e.g. Fitton, Gamble), but she concedes little or nothing to their position. She counters first that irony would impede pathos, second that it is especially hard to view Aethra through "the distorting lens of irony," and above all that the ironists' picture of Athens is simply too negative to credit to a poet writing for the Athenian tragic festival in the late 420s (89-90). She does allow that the play, as a tragedy, possesses "inherent pessimism and ambivalence" (122), qualities especially evident in its latter half, when the focus shifts decidedly away from Theseus and the Athenian ideal. It hardly needs to be said that this method of isolating Theseus and Athens from pessimism and ambivalence will not satisfy everyone. Moreover, recent critics have devoted more attention to the play's contexts of religion and gender, and while the readings they have produced are not ironic in the older manner, they would call for some modification of the "straight" reading M. offers. Helene Foley, for example, is interested in the partial failure of the Thesean-Athenian ideal to control female disorder and lamentation.2

After what has been said so far, there are perhaps few surprises in M.'s interpretations of Euripides' Heracles and Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, though they are interesting and well-argued. In separating Theseus sharply from such pessimism and ambivalence as there may be in Suppliants, M. had noted that "The Athenian ideal is obviously un-tragic" (122). In a similar vein, she observes that neither Heracles nor Theseus is very easy to incorporate in tragedy. In the case of Heracles, Euripides must re-shape the tradition to obtain a suitable protagonist. As for Theseus, because he "is a more completely humanized figure than Heracles, it is easier to fit him into a genre which deals with the civil and domestic questions of life in the polis" (138). Again, on OC, "Theseus is a noble king, but he does not, and cannot, have the tragic experience and knowledge that Oedipus has" (173). But if the Athenian ideal gets in the way of making Theseus a typical victim of tragic suffering, the tragedians willingly adapt legends so that the national hero confers benefits on the likes of Heracles and Oedipus, just as the Athenian state liked to imagine itself as conferring benefit on other Greek states, and this "is a position vastly preferable to that of accepting help from others" (135; cf. Sect. 2.4, esp. 63-5).

The Theseus of Euripides' Hippolytus stands in a different tradition. He "is entirely dissociated from the fifth-century Athenian imperial sentiments which have been so important in defining him up until now" ("until now" in M.'s discussion, that is: note that Hipp. is taken out of chronological order); and "This Theseus is simply a different character from the Theseus of the plays we have seen so far" (187). The latter may be an appropriate approach to literary interpretation, but if so, one wonders about the strategies adopted by M. over the next 35 pages. "This chapter attempts to show how Euripides manipulates traditional material and plot structures to provide Theseus with every excuse for what he does in the Hippolytus Stephanephoros" (192-3). If Theseus looks bad (and by and large M. concedes that he does), he could have looked worse, and on some scores did look worse in the lost play. In her search for "mitigating circumstances," M. looks for reasons why a negative portrayal of Theseus might have been more acceptable before and in 428 than later, as the Peloponnesian War dragged on. She occasionally hints that the "actively blameworthy" Theseus of the lost play (205) was a failed experiment that Euripides was moved to correct in the second, though she readily concedes that rehabilitating Theseus was not a "primary aim" of the surviving play and cites with approval Jasper Griffin's rather different explanation of Euripides' unusual second treatment of the same legend. I doubt whether a defense of Theseus gets at anything very important about Euripides' play, but anyway it ought to have been briefer. M.'s argument includes some misplaced emphasis and special pleading (e.g. 215-16 on the contest).

The chapter on Hippolytus incorporates a reconstruction of the lost play, insofar as this is necessary to determine Theseus' role. M.'s final chapter does the same for other lost plays: Aeschylus' Eleusinioi, Sophocles' Aegeus and Theseus, Euripides' Aegeus, Theseus, and Alope, and Euripides' or Critias' Peirithous. M. mostly confines herself to safe conclusions, and there are few modifications of the picture she has painted so far. Where she engages in speculation (always clearly marked as such), the constant dangers are circularity and, as in her treatment of Hippolytus, defensiveness.

I have not dwelt on the particular virtues Athenians liked to ascribe to themselves and Theseus. I would now like to mention one that is well discussed by M. but could perhaps be developed further. The virtue is epieikeia, which scholars render variously as fairness, decency, humanity, reasonableness, mildness, magnanimity, or clemency. The most relevant ancient sources are Thucydides (esp. 3.40.2 and 48.1, cited 77 n. 122), the fragment of Gorgias' funeral oration (82 B 6 DK, cited 78 and 110), and Soph. OC 1125-7 (fully discussed 178-9). These and other passages strongly suggest that the term is indeed an important one for Athenian self-definition, and M. deserves credit for emphasizing this.3 The word epieikeia is spread liberally throughout her text (the index gives 23 page references) and becomes shorthand for a whole cluster of concepts. At 77-8, an important discussion, epieikeia is grouped with oiktos "pity" and peitho "persuasion". In other places it commingles with virtues like humility, intelligence, moderation, tolerance, and understanding of a morally complex situation. Since M. relies rather heavily on the word, she might have said more: (1) A. W. H. Adkins drew the Greek vocabulary of epieikeia into his theory of the historical development of Greek values. For him it is a "quiet" virtue and accordingly most highly prized in the 4th century and later. (2) In some authors (not until the 4th century?), epieikeia is appropriated to the upper class and becomes quasi-technical in the context of party politics. (3) Aristotle uses the adjective epieikes in three distinct ways in the Poetics: (a) of tragic protagonists, in what appears to be close to the usual sense, (b) of spectators with good taste (opp. phauloi), and (c) of the kind of protagonist who should not suffer a reversal from good fortune to bad. This last is a well-known puzzle, because it conflicts with (a) and because the required sense (roughly "excelling in virtue and justice", for reasons given by Lucas on 1452b34-6) is unparalleled. The relevance of these points may be limited for chronological or other reasons (e.g. Adkins may be wrong), but I still see potentially interesting points of contact with M.'s ideas -- on Theseus' unsuitability as a tragic protagonist, for example. They also raise the issue of competing ideologies. (M.'s Athens is mostly undifferentiated.)

In one or two places, M.'s preferred gloss on epieikeia, "flexibility", may obscure important distinctions. By "flexibility" she means both the avoidance of rigidity in applying justice and susceptibility to persuasion. But in drama these may be very different things. The ambivalence of peitho has been well studied (as M. knows) by Buxton and others, and so has the resistance to it by certain character types prominent in tragedy. Theseus' moderation in Her. and OC must be distinguished, I think, from his unique susceptibility to persuasion in Eur. Supp. Similarly, it is confusing to say that Thucydides' Diodotus urges flexibility, while conceding that he disavows epieikeia (77 n. 122). Finally, I doubt whether epieikeia, for all its importance, captures what crucially separates Theseus within OC from a character like Oedipus.4

M.'s command of primary sources is good, and I noticed few mistakes or omissions. To the passages listed in 9 n. 33, add Eur. Hec. 122-9. At 149 n. 90, I think M. means not Eur. Ion 480-3 but 1480-3 (though 1479-80 are most apt). By "Kannicht and Snell 1985" (cited 262 n. 131), she means "1981", i.e. TrGF 2 (adespota), which is not in the bibliography. "Sappho, ap. Serv. Aen. 6.21" (cited 14 n. 47) should include the designation "fr. 206". On 259, M. writes "Since the publication of Snell's edition of the fragments of the minor tragedians, a dialogue between Heracles and Peirithous which should come from the same part of the play has been found." This text is included as F 4a in Kannicht's addenda to the corrected edition of 1986, p. 349-51. Likewise, the relevant portion of POxy 2452 should be identified as "Sophocles F 730g" at its first mention (13 n. 46). In her later, full discussion of this fragment, M. acknowledges the doubt as to its authorship, but the reader gets no cross-reference here, and indeed M. is very sparing with these. For example, 148 n. 86 (on Heracles) should refer to 115 n. 118 (on Suppliants) and to 72-3 (on Thucydides). Eur. Supp. 576-7 is quoted on 68-9, 101 n. 47, and 121-2 and cited again at 143 n. 67; only the second of these has a cross-reference. Three times M. observes that the portrait of Minos in Bacchylides 17 is negative even though he is the Ceans' ancestor (39 n. 170, 85 n. 156, 194); no cross-reference links them. These and similar repetitions are only missed opportunities, whether to cut or to make connections. One is different: at 75 n. 114, M. finds in Thuc. 5.105.2, where "the Athenians claim they are doing what the gods do, because they are following the law of the stronger," a shocking twist; the text has stated that "mainstream thought undoubtedly liked to believe" that the gods were just. But at 151 n. 107, the same passage is cited against the suggestion of Matthiessen (correct the spelling) "that a more optimistic view of the gods' justice was a part of Athenian democratic thought about the gods." Neither note refers to M.'s section on "Thucydides and the Ideal Athens" (79-96), where there is further discussion of these matters.

M. cites an impressive array of secondary sources, but a few additions are called for. On the murals of the Theseion and the Stoa Poikile (41 n. 175), add D. Castriota, Myth, Ethos, and Actuality (Madison 1992), 33-63 and 76-89, respectively. On Her. 1340-6 (156-7), add H. Yunis, A New Creed (Göttingen 1988), 139-71. For [Pl.] Min. 321a (225 n. 7), a reference to M. Heath, The Poetics of Greek Tragedy (Stanford 1987), 8-9 would be apt. There are relevant articles by H.A. Shapiro not cited by M., esp. "Theseus in Kimonian Athens: The Iconography of Empire," Med. Hist. Rev. 7 (1992) 29-49 (and works cited ibid. 39 n. 42).

M. notes (ix) that she was able to take only selective notice of publications that reached her after 1993; this seems early for a book that appeared late last year. It is too bad that the references to Theseus in the visual arts could not have been updated to the LIMC format favored for figures whose names come earlier in the alphabet. Vol. 7, with the entry for Theseus by J. Neils and S. Woodford, appeared in 1994. The work on Eur. Supp. and ideology cited above (n. 2) bears directly on M.'s argument, as does M. Blundell, "The ideal of Athens in Oedipus at Colonus," in Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis, 287-306. Blundell contends that Theseus in OC represents not just what Athenians wanted to believe about themselves c. 406, but a departure from the Periclean ideal towards a vision of Athens that Sophocles would have associated with his own youth in the immediate aftermath of the Persian Wars, and this in such a way as to "convey a tacit reproach to contemporary Athens" (303).

There are very few misprints in the English. In the Greek, however, I noted over 50. One does not know who is responsible for these, but it is clear that none affects M.'s understanding of a passage.

Finally, while no one expects that the last word will ever be said on a subject as rich as the changing depictions of Theseus and their relationship to the Athenian imagination, many readers of this review will have wondered immediately about the place of this book in relation to Claude Calame's Thesée et l'imaginaire athénien (Lausanne 1990) and Henry Walker's Theseus and Athens (New York: Oxford, 1995). Indeed, Toni Bierl began a review of the former in this journal by asking whether a monograph was needed after Hans Herter's RE article (1973) and Frank Brommer's book (1982). He based his affirmative reply largely on Calame's innovative method and broad range. Calame's focus on the details of cult and religious mentalité means that the question is in fact more pressing with regard to Walker and M. Their books are closely similar in structure and aim and radically different in style and outlook. Walker touches on more aspects and depictions of the Theseus myth, while M. is more selective and analytical. Where Walker probes deeply for contradiction and elaborates subtle details within works, M. is more likely to trace simple, consistent elements and ground them as far as possible in external contexts. Above all, where Walker is intrigued by the Athenian adaptations of a seemingly unpromising hero and believes that the resulting tensions are an important key to understanding Theseus throughout his long career, M., who certainly agrees that the uses of Theseus change over time, believes that synchronically, and especially at the height of the Athenian empire, he is presented in a strongly positive light and in just the guise that was most satisfying and reassuring to Athenians. These are fundamentally different orientations towards the material, and each produces valuable insights. It would have been difficult, and not necessarily desirable, to rebut Walker's arguments one by one, or even to attempt a synthesis. Anyway, that is not the book M. set out to write. On its own terms, Theseus, Tragedy and the Athenian Empire makes a strong contribution.


1.   By relegating Thucydides to the margins, M. tries to meet one objection to her view of "mainstream ideology", or even to the idea that such a thing exists. Tragedy in particular invites further questioning on these issues: see now Christopher Pelling in C. Pelling, ed., Greek Tragedy and the Historian (Oxford 1997), 224-35 (including 230-4 on Eur. Supp., a discussion that has little in common with M.'s).
2.   H. Foley, "The politics of tragic lamentation," in A. H. Sommerstein et al., eds., Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis (Bari 1993), 101-43, esp. 117-29. See also, in the same volume, E. Krummen, "Athens and Attica: polis and countryside in tragedy," 191-217, esp. 203-8; and B. Goff, "Aithra at Eleusis," Helios 22 (1995) 65-77. On Supp. and ideology, see Pelling (previous note), and for more on the religious dimension, as well as a subtle inquiry into the relevance of Delium, A. M. Bowie, "Tragic filters for history: Euripides' Supplices and Sophocles' Philoctetes," in Greek Tragedy and the Historian, 39-62.
3.   M. acknowledges J. de Romilly's meticulous study of epieikeia in La douceur dans la pensée grecque (Paris 1979), 53-63, but she goes well beyond de Romilly in situating the term in a specifically Athenian discourse. Only OC 1127 uses it of Theseus, but M.'s case is still strong.
4.   For Oedipus, M. invokes Knox' heroic temper model, which posits intransigeance as one of the defining features of Sophoclean heroes. I argued in Change of Mind in Greek Tragedy (Göttingen 1995) that these matters are not as simple as they are usually said to be. I would have been glad to have the benefit of M.'s insights on epieikeia when I wrote.

Read Latest
Index for 1998
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:25:48, Friday, 03 April 2009