Justice, Public and Private: Aeschylus, “Seven Against Thebes”

Apologies in advance: line numbers are not exact.

The sons of Oedipus, Eteocles and Polyneices, were cursed by Oedipus for their ill-treatment of him. Polyneices was supposed to rule Thebes, but Eteocles somehow gained rule and banished his brother. So Polyneices, in exile, gets 6 other allies and storms Thebes’ 7 gates. Thebes repels the assault, killing all 7 enemy commanders, but loses Eteocles in the process. This is no insignificant loss, as Eteocles directly engineered the victory and is even responsible, to a degree, for the political education of a good portion of the city.

Each of the enemy commanders had a shield with a different emblem; Eteocles defeats each by selecting the appropriate man to oppose them. Against Tydeus, whose shield has “a fashioned sky afire with stars” upon it, and a “glorious full moon” in the midst, Eteocles opposes a man literally of the earth, Melanippus (ll. 388-390, 410-415). It was said that Cadmus slew a monstrous serpent and the teeth of that serpent, sown, generated some of the Thebans (Orwin 190). One could say that Tydeus has his head wholly in the stars (379-385), whereas men, if they are indeed tied to earth for sustenance and generation, should recognize Earth as the source of justice and utility. If the latter is the case, it would seem Eteocles is the perfect statesman. He would be wholly just in defending his land and exhorting the Thebans to defend theirs: it is the case Tydeus loses.

The other enemies, shields, and counters are as follows. Capaneus’ “device [has] a naked man that carries fire… [and] letters that declare ‘I’ll burn the city'” (432-434). This very crude Prometheus is opposed by one of “fiery spirit,” a “guard” favored of “protecting Artemis” (447-450). Eteoclus, whose name may be that of Eteocles himself, holds one where “a man in armor mounts a ladder’s steps to the enemy’s town to sack it” (466-467, Orwin 191). Written on it: “Ares himself shall not cast me from the tower” (469). Eteocles defeats “himself” by sending out Creon’s son: since Oedipus’ line will cease to rule after the battle, perhaps the counter is too appropriate. Hippomedon fights with a depiction of Typho, a monster of the Earth, who generates some fire but mainly smoke, surrounded by coiling snakes (ll. 490-500, Orwin 191). Against him is placed one who carries Zeus on his shield. Parthenopaeus equips himself with a picture of the Sphinx and a man who might be Oedipus (ll. 539-545). The personal significance of that shield does not matter for Eteocles, for he sends the brother of the one who fights with Zeus embossed to fight him. A “prophet,” Amphiaraus, who fights alongside Tydeus and Polyneices, also questions them and their cause harshly; no emblem is on his shield. A prince “in mind an old man” – perhaps a prudent man – dispatches the prophet (ll. 621-622).

It is Polyneices’ shield for which Eteocles has no answer. Something is faulty with saying the earth alone is the locus of justice. Men do not merely spring from the earth; they are born of women (Orwin 195-6). Yet before Eteocles dispatches men to attack the invaders, he tries to get the women of the city under control. They were too shrill, too fearful, too forthright in their piety. Eteocles demonstrates to them that statesmanship matters, that to plead too violently is not attending properly to the city the gods have helped establish. The shields of those surrounding the city display monsters, non-Olympian forces which threaten to destroy society. But we know Eteocles was not the most sensitive to social graces when exiling his own brother. The question is to what degree Eteocles’ effectiveness in the public realm threatens the very existence of the private. Polyneices’ shield:

He [Polyneices] bears a new-made, rounded shield
and a twofold device contrived thereon:
a woman leading modestly a man
conducts him, pictured as a warrior,
wrought all in gold. She claims she is Justice,
and the inscription reads: I will bring him home
and he shall have his city and shall walk
in his ancestral house. (642-650)

Eteocles is unjust in that he can rule well: to rule by means of merit only is not necessarily legitimate. The character of the injustice attacks the private in this case (Oedipus demonstrates the problem of effective rule and impiety with regards to what is public). Impiety is certainly a problem here, but more pressing is whether the city can make room for the family. After the battle is done, Antigone appears and voices purely familial concern for the burial of Polyneices (Orwin 194). The Chorus of women, after many laments and some arguing, divides thus:

1st half Chorus:

Let the state do or not
what it will to the mourners of Polyneices.
We will go and bury him;
we will go as his escort.
This grief is common to the race
but now one way and now another
the city approves the path of justice.

2nd half Chorus:

But we will go with the other [Eteocles], as the city
and Justice jointly approve.
For after the Blessed Ones and strength of Zeus
he is the one who saved the city
from utter destruction, from being overwhelmed
by the wave of foreign invaders. (ll. 1065-end)

The split and the potentially deadly tension are obvious. But it is the unity which is interesting. “Now one way and now another / the city approves the path of justice” – this is not relativism. Injustice towards individuals, families, groups are things the city aims to prevent. Polyneices, at the end, is attended by justice, at home. The fact of the city, justice as rooted in the soil, has its claim too. But Eteocles is praised for saving the city, not ruling rightfully. The claims of preventing injustice and working imperfectly for justice are reconciled in the women of the Chorus. As proved by the opening, they are not averse to sacrifice, especially not when they see what is right.


Aeschylus, “Seven against Thebes.” tr. David Grene. The Complete Greek Tragedies: Aeschylus II, ed. Grene and Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.

Orwin, Clifford. “Feminine Justice: The End of the Seven Against Thebes.” Classical Philology Vol. 75, No. 3 (July 1980): 187-196

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