Translated by E. P. Coleridge
AETHRA, mother of THESEUS
CHORUS OF ARGIVE MOTHERS
THESEUS, King of Athens
ADRASTUS, King of Argos
HERALD, of Creon, King of Thebes
EVADNE, wife of Capaneus
IPHIS, father of EVADNE
CHILDREN of the slain chieftains
Before the temple of Demeter at Eleusis. On the steps of the great
altar is seated AETHRA. Around her, in the garb of suppliants, is
the CHORUS OF ARGIVE MOTHERS. ADRASTUS lies on the ground before the
altar, crushed in abject grief. The CHILDREN of the slain chieftains
stand nearby. Around the altar are the attendants of the
AETHRA O Demeter, guardian of this Eleusinian land, and ye servants
of the goddess who attend her fane, grant happiness to me and my son
Theseus, to the city of Athens and the country of Pittheus, wherein
my father reared me, Aethra, in a happy home, and gave me in marriage
to Aegeus, Pandion's son, according to the oracle of Loxias. This
prayer I make, when I behold these aged dames, who, leaving their
homes in Argos, now throw themselves with suppliant branches at my
knees in their awful trouble; for around the gates of Cadmus have
they lost their seven noble sons, whom on a day Adrastus, king of
Argos, led thither, eager to secure for exiled Polyneices, his son-in-law,
a share in the heritage of Oedipus; so now their mothers would bury
in the grave the dead, whom the spear hath slain, but the victors
prevent them and will not allow them to take up the corpses, spurning
Heaven's laws. Here lies Adrastus on the ground with streaming eye,
sharing with them the burden of their prayer to me, and bemoaning
the havoc of the sword and the sorry fate of the warriors whom he
led from their homes. And he doth urge me use entreaty, to persuade
my son to take up the dead and help to bury them, either by winning
words or force of arms, laying on my son and on Athens this task alone.
Now it chanced, that I had left my house and come to offer sacrifice
on behalf of the earth's crop at this shrine, where first the fruitful
corn showed its bristling shocks above the soil. And here at the holy
altars of the twain goddesses, Demeter and her daughter, I wait, holding
these sprays of foliage, a bond that bindeth not, in compassion for
these childless mothers, hoary with age, and from reverence for the
sacred fillets. To call Theseus hither is my herald to the city gone,
that he may rid the land of that which grieveth them, or loose these
my suppliant bonds, with pious observance of the gods' will; for such
as are discreet amongst women should in all cases invoke the aid of
CHORUS (chanting, strophe 1)
At thy knees I fall, aged dame, and my old lips beseech thee; arise,
rescue from the slain my children's bodies, whose limbs, by death
relaxed, are left a prey to savage mountain beasts,
Beholding the bitter tears which spring to my eyes and my old wrinkled
skin torn by my hands; for what can I do else? who never laid out
my children dead within my halls, nor now behold their tombs heaped
up with earth.
Thou too, honoured lady, once a son didst bear, crowning thy lord's
marriage with fond joy; then share, O share with me thy mother's feelings,
in such measure as my sad heart grieves for my own dead sons; and
persuade thy son, whose aid we implore, to go unto the river Ismenus,
there to place within my hapless arms the bodies of my children, slain
in their prime and left without a tomb.
Though not as piety enjoins, yet from sheer necessity I have come
to the fire-crowned altars of the gods, falling on my knees with instant
supplication, for my cause is just, and 'tis in thy power, blest as
thou art in thy children, to remove from me my woe; so in my sore
distress I do beseech thee of my misery place in my hands my son's
dead body, that I may throw my arms about his hapless limbs. (The
attendants of the goddess take up the lament., strophe 3)
Behold a rivalry in sorrow! woe takes up the tale of woe; hark! thy
servants beat their breasts. Come ye who join the mourners' wail,
come, O sympathetic band, to join the dance, which Hades honours;
let the pearly nail be stained red, as it rends your cheeks, let your
skin be streaked with gore; for honours rendered to the dead are credit
to the living.
Sorrow's charm doth drive me wild, insatiate, painful, endless, even
as the trickling stream that gushes from some steep rock's face; for
'tis woman's way to fall a-weeping o'er the cruel calamity of children
dead. Ah me! would I could die and forget my anguish
(THESEUS and his retinue enter.)
THESEUS What is this lamentation that I hear, this beating of the
breast, these dirges for the dead, with cries that echo from this
shrine? How fluttering fear disquiets me, lest haply my mother have
gotted some mischance, in quest of whom I come, for she hath been
long absent from home. Ha! what now? A strange sight challenges my
speech; I see my aged mother sitting at the altar and stranger dames
are with her, who in various note proclaim their woe; from aged eyes
the piteous tear is starting to the ground, their hair is shorn, their
robes are not the robes of joy. What means it, mother? 'Tis thine
to make it plain to me, mine to listen; yea, for I expect some tidings
AETHRA My son, these are the mothers of those chieftains seven, who
fell around the gates of Cadmus' town. With suppliant boughs they
keep me prisoner, as thou seest, in their midst.
THESEUS And who is yonder man, that moaneth piteously in the gateway?
AETHRA Adrastus, they inform me, king of Argos.
THESEUS Are those his children, those boys who stand round him?
AETHRA Not his, but the sons of the fallen slain.
THESEUS Why are they come to us, with suppliant hand outstretched?
AETHRA I know; but 'tis for them to tell their story, my son.
THESEUS To thee, in thy mantle muffled, I address my inquiries; thy
head, let lamentation be, and speak; for naught can be achieved save
through the utterance of thy tongue.
ADRASTUS (rising) Victorious prince of the Athenian realm, Theseus,
to thee and to thy city I, a suppliant, come.
THESEUS What seekest thou? What need is thine?
ADRASTUS Dost know how I did lead an expedition to its ruin?
THESEUS Assuredly; thou didst not pass through Hellas, all in silence.
ADRASTUS There I lost the pick of Argos' sons.
THESEUS These are the results of that unhappy war.
ADRASTUS I went and craved their bodies from Thebes.
THESEUS Didst thou rely on heralds, Hermes' servants, in order to
ADRASTUS I did; and even then their slayers said me nay.
THESEUS Why, what say they to thy just request?
ADRASTUS Say! Success makes them forget how to bear their fortune.
THESEUS Art come to me then for counsel? or wherefore?
ADRASTUS With the wish that thou, O Theseus, shouldst recover the
sons of the Argives.
THESEUS Where is your Argos now? were its vauntings all in vain?
ADRASTUS Defeat and ruin are our lot. To thee for aid we come.
THESEUS Is this thy own private resolve, or the wish of all the city?
ADRASTUS The sons of Danaus, one and all, implore thee to bury the
THESEUS Why didst lead thy seven armies against Thebes?
ADRASTUS To confer that favour on the husbands of my daughters twain.
THESEUS To which of the Argives didst thou give thy daughters in
ADRASTUS I made no match for them with kinsmen of my family.
THESEUS What! didst give Argive maids to foreign lords?
ADRASTUS Yea, to Tydeus, and to Polyneices, who was Theban-born
THESEUS What induced thee to select this alliance?
ADRASTUS Dark riddles of Phoebus stole away my judgment.
THESEUS What said Apollo to determine the maidens' marriage?
ADRASTUS That I should give my daughters twain to a wild boar and
THESEUS How dost thou explain the message of the god?
ADRASTUS One night came to my door two exiles.
THESEUS The name of each declare: thou art speaking of both together.
ADRASTUS They fought together, Tydeus with Polyneices.
THESEUS Didst thou give thy daughters to them as to wild beasts?
ADRASTUS Yea, for, as they fought, I likened them to those monsters
THESEUS Why had they left the borders of their native land and come
ADRASTUS Tydeus was exiled for the murder of a kinsman.
THESEUS Wherefore had the son of Oedipus left Thebes?
ADRASTUS By reason of his father's curse, not to spill his brother's
THESEUS Wise no doubt that voluntary exile.
ADRASTUS But those who stayed at home were for injuring the absent.
THESEUS What! did brother rob brother of his inheritance?
ADRASTUS To avenge this I set out; hence my ruin.
THESEUS Didst consult seers, and gaze into the flame of burnt-offerings?
ADRASTUS Ah me! thou pressest on the very point wherein I most did
THESEUS It seems thy going was not favoured by heaven.
ADRASTUS Worse; I went in spite even of Amphiaraus.
THESEUS And so heaven lightly turned its face from thee.
ADRASTUS I was carried away by the clamour of younger men.
THESEUS Thou didst favour courage instead of discretion.
ADRASTUS True; and many a general owes defeat to that. O king of
Athens, bravest of the sons of Hellas, I blush to throw myself upon
the ground and clasp thy knees, I a grey-haired king, blest in days
gone by; yet needs must yield to my misfortunes. I pray thee save
the dead; have pity on my sorrows and on these, the mothers of the
slain, whom hoary eld finds reft of their sons; yet they endured to
journey hither and tread a foreign soil with aged tottering steps,
bearing no embassy to Demeter's mysteries; only seeking burial for
their dead, which lot should have been theirs, e'en burial by the
hands of sons still in their prime. And 'tis wise in the rich to see
the poor man's poverty, and in the poor man to turn ambitious eyes
toward the rich, that so he may himself indulge a longing for possessions;
and they, whom fortune frowns not on, should gaze on misery's presentment;
likewise, who maketh songs should take a pleasure in their making;
for if it be not so with him, he will in no wise avail to gladden
others, if himself have sorrow in his home; nay, 'tis not even right
to expect it. Mayhap thou'lt say, "Why pass the land of Pelops o'er,
and lay this toil on Athens?" This am I bound to declare. Sparta is
cruel, her customs variable; the other states are small and weak.
Thy city alone would be able to undertake this labour; for it turns
an eye on suffering, and hath in thee a young and gallant king, for
want whereof to lead their hosts states ere now have often perished.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS I too, Theseus, urge the same plea to thee;
have pity on my hard fate.
THESEUS Full oft have I argued out this subject with others. For
there are who say, there is more bad than good in human nature, to
the which I hold contrary view, that good o'er bad predominates in
man, for if it were not so, we should not exist. He hath my praise,
whoe'er of gods brought us to live by rule from chaos and from brutishness,
first by implanting reason, and next by giving us a tongue to declare
our thoughts, so as to know the meaning of what is said, bestowing
fruitful crops, and drops of rain from heaven to make them grow, wherewith
to nourish earth's fruits and to water her lap; and more than this,
protection from the wintry storm, and means to ward from us the sun-god's
scorching heat; the art of sailing o'er the sea, so that we might
exchange with one another whatso our countries lack. And where sight
fails us and our knowledge is not sure, the seer foretells by gazing
on the flame, by reading signs in folds of entrails, or by divination
from the flight of birds. Are we not then to proud, when heaven hath
made such preparation for our life, not to be content therewith? But
our presumption seeks to lord it over heaven, and in the pride of
our hearts we think we are wiser than the gods. Methinks thou art
even of this number, a son of folly, seeing that thou, though obedient
to Apollo's oracle in giving thy daughters to strangers, as if gods
really existed, yet hast hurt thy house by mingling the stream of
its pure line with muddy waters; no! never should the wise man have
joined the stock of just and unjust in one, but should have gotten
prosperous friends for his family. For the deity, confusing their
destinies, doth oft destroy by the sinner's fate him who never sinned
nor committed injustice. Thou didst lead all Argos forth to battle,
though seers proclaimed the will of heaven, and then in scorn of them
and in violent disregard of the gods hast ruined thy city, led away
by younger men, such as court distinction, and add war to war unrighteously,
destroying their fellow-citizens; one aspires to lead an army; another
fain would seize the reins of power and work his wanton will; a third
is bent on gain, careless of any ill the people thereby suffer. For
there are three ranks of citizens; the rich, a useless set, that ever
crave for more; the poor and destitute, fearful folk, that cherish
envy more than is right, and shoot out grievous stings against the
men who have aught, beguiled as they are by the eloquence of vicious
leaders; while the class that is midmost of the three preserveth cities,
observing such order as the state ordains. Shall I then become thy
ally? What fair pretext should I urge before my countrymen? Depart
in peace! For why shouldst thou, having been ill-advised thyself,
seek to drag our fortune down?
LEADER He erred; but with the young men rests this error, while he
may well be pardoned.
ADRASTUS I did not choose thee, king, to judge my affliction, but
came to thee to cure it; no! nor if in aught my fortunes prove me
wrong, came I to the to punish or correct them, but to seek thy help.
But if thou wilt not, must be content with thy decision; for how can
I help it? Come, aged dames, away! Yet leave behind you here the woven
leaves of pale green foliage, calling to witness heaven and earth,
Demeter, that fire-bearing goddess, and the sun-god's light, that
our prayers to heaven availed us naught.
CHORUS (singing) ...who was Pelops' son, and we are of the land
of Pelops and share with thee the blood of ancestors. What art thou
doing? wilt thou betray these suppliant symbols, and banish from thy
land these aged women without the boon they should obtain? Do not
so; e'en the wild beast finds a refuge in the rock, the slave in the
altars of the gods, and a state when tempest-tossed cowers to its
neighbour's shelter; for naught in this life of man is blest unto
Rise, hapless one, from the sacred floor of Persephone; rise, clasp
him by the knees and implore him, "O recover the bodies of our dead
sons, the children that I lost-ah, woe is me!-beneath the walls of
Cadmus' town." Ah me! ah me! Take me by the hand, poor aged sufferer
that I am, support and guide and raise me up. By thy beard, kind friend,
glory of Hellas, I do beseech thee, as I clasp thy knees and hands
in my misery; O pity me as I entreat for my sons with my tale of wretched
woe, like some beggar; nor let my sons lie there unburied in the land
of Cadmus, glad prey for beasts, whilst thou art in thy prime, I implore
thee. See the teardrop tremble in my eye, as thus I throw me at thy
knees to win my children burial.
THESEUS Mother mine, why weepest thou, drawing o'er thine eyes thy
veil? Is it because thou didst hear their piteous lamentations? To
my own heart it goes. Raise thy silvered head, weep not where thou
sittest at the holy altar of Demeter.
AETHRA Ah woe!
THESEUS 'Tis not for thee their sorrows to lament.
AETHRA Ye hapless dames!
THESEUS Thou art not of their company.
AETHRA May I a scheme declare, my son, that shall add to thy glory
and the state's?
THESEUS Yea, for oft even from women's lips issue wise counsels.
AETHRA Yet the word, that lurks within my heart, makes me hesitate.
THESEUS Shame! to hide from friends good counsel.
AETHRA Nay then, I will not hold my peace to blame myself hereafter
for having now kept silence to my shame, nor will I forego my honourable
proposal, from the common fear that it is useless for women to give
good advice. First, my son, I exhort thee give good heed to heaven's
will, lest from slighting it thou suffer shipwreck; for in this one
single point thou failest, though well-advised in all else. Further,
I would have patiently endured, had it not been my duty to venture
somewhat for injured folk; and this, my son, it is that brings thee
now thy honour, and causes me no fear to urge that thou shouldst use
thy power to make men of violence, who prevent the dead from receiving
their meed of burial and funeral rites, perform this bounden duty,
and check those who would confound the customs of all Hellas; for
this it is that holds men's states together,-strict observance of
the laws. And some, no doubt, will say, 'twas cowardice made thee
stand aloof in terror, when thou mightest have won for thy city a
crown of glory, and, though thou didst encounter a savage swine, labouring
for a sorry task, yet when the time came for thee to face the helmet
and pointed spear, and do thy best, thou wert found to be coward.
Nay! do not so if thou be son of mine. Dost see how fiercely thy country
looks on its revilers when they mock her for want of counsel? Yea,
for in her toils she groweth greater. But states, whose policy is
dark and cautious, have their sight darkened by their carefulness.
My son, wilt thou not go succour the dead and these poor women in
their need? have no fears for thee, starting as thou dost with right
upon thy side; and although I see the prosperity of Cadmus' folk,
still am I confident they will throw a different die; for the deity
reverses all things again.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS Ah! best of friends, right well hast thou pleaded
for me and for Adrastus, and hence my joy is doubled.
THESEUS Mother, the words that I have spoken are his fair deserts,
and I have declared my opinion of the counsels that ruined him; yet
do I perceive the truth of thy warning to me, that it ill suits my
character to shun dangers. For by a long and glorious career have
I displayed this my habit among Hellenes, of ever punishing the wicked.
Wherefore I cannot refuse toil. For what will spiteful tongues say
of me, when thou, my mother, who more than all others fearest for
my safety, bidst me undertake this enterprise? Yea, I will go about
this business and rescue the dead by words persuasive; or, failing
that, the spear forthwith shall decide this issue, nor will heaven
grudge me this. But I require the whole city's sanction also, which
my mere wish will ensure; still by communicating the proposal to them
I shall find the people better disposed. For them I made supreme,
when I set this city free, by giving all an equal vote. So I will
take Adrastus as a text for what I have to say and go to their assembly,
and when have won them to these views, I will return hither, after
collecting a picked band of young Athenians; and then remaining under
arms I will send a message to Creon, begging the bodies of the dead.
But do ye, aged ladies, remove from my mother your holy wreaths, that
I may take her by the hand and conduct her to the house of Aegeus;
for a wretched son is he who rewards not his parents by service; for,
when he hath conferred on them the best he hath, he in his turn from
his own sons receives all such service as he gave to them.
(AETHRA leaves the altar and departs.)
CHORUS (singing, strophe)
O Argos, home of steeds, my native land! ye have heard with your
ears these words, the king's pious will toward the gods in the sight
of great Pelasgia and throughout Argos.
May he reach the goal! yea, and triumph o'er my sorrows, rescuing
the gory corpse, the mother's idol and making the land of Inachus
his friend by helping her.
For pious toil is a fair ornament to cities, and carries with it
grace that never wastes away. What will the city decide, I wonder?
Will it conclude a friendly truce with me, and shall we obtain burial
for our sons?
Help, O help, city of Pallas, the mother's cause, that so they may
not pollute the laws of all mankind. Thou, I know, dost reverence
right, and to injustice dealest out defeat, a protection at all times
to the afflicted. (THESEUS addresses one of his own heralds. As he
speaks, the HERALD from King Creon of Thebes enters.)
THESEUS Forasmuch as with this thy art thou hast ever served the
state and me by carrying my proclamations far and wide, so now cross
Asopus and the waters of Ismenus, and declare this message to the
haughty king of the Cadmeans: "Theseus, thy neighbour, one who well
may win the boon he craves, begs as a favour thy permission to bury
the dead, winning to thyself thereby the love of all the Erechtheidae."
And if they will acquiesce, come back again, but if they hearken not,
thy second message runneth thus, they may expect my warrior host;
for at the sacred fount of Callichorus my army camps in readiness
and is being reviewed. Moreover, the city gladly of its own accord
undertook this enterprise, when it perceived my wish. Ha! who comes
hither to interrupt my speech? A Theban herald, so it seems, though
I am not sure thereof. Stay; haply he may save the thy trouble. For
by his coming he meets my purpose half-way.
THEBAN HERALD Who is the despot of this land? To whom must I announce
the message of Creon, who rules o'er the land of Cadmus, since Eteocles
was slain by the hand of his brother Polyneices, at the sevenfold
gates of Thebes?
THESEUS Sir stranger, thou hast made a false beginning to thy speech,
in seeking here a despot. For this city is not ruled by one man, but
is free. The people rule in succession year by year, allowing no preference
to wealth, but the poor man shares equally with the rich.
THEBAN HERALD Thou givest me here an advantage, as it might be in
a game of draughts; for the city, whence I come, is ruled by one man
only, not by the mob; none there puffs up the citizens with specious
words, and for his own advantage twists them this way or that,-one
moment dear to them and lavish of his favours, the next a bane to
all; and yet by fresh calumnies of others he hides his former failures
and escapes punishment. Besides, how shall the people, if it cannot
form true judgments, be able rightly to direct the state? Nay, 'tis
time, not haste, that affords a better understanding. A poor hind,
granted be he not all unschooled, would still be unable from his toil
to give his mind to politics. Verily the better sort count it no healthy
sign when the worthless man obtains a reputation by beguiling with
words the populace, though aforetime he was naught.
THESEUS This herald is a clever fellow, a dabbler in the art of talk.
But since thou hast thus entered the lists with me, listen awhile,
for 'twas thou didst challenge a discussion. Naught is more hostile
to a city than a despot; where he is, there are first no laws common
to all, but one man is tyrant, in whose keeping and in his alone the
law resides, and in that case equality is at an end. But when the
laws are written down, rich and poor alike have equal justice, and
it is open to the weaker to use the same language to the prosperous
when he is reviled by him, and the weaker prevails over the stronger
if he have justice on his side. Freedom's mark is also seen in this:
"Who hath wholesome counsel to declare unto the state?" And he who
chooses to do so gains renown, while he, who hath no wish, remains
silent. What greater equality can there be in a city? Again, where
the people are absolute rulers of the land, they rejoice in having
reserve of youthful citizens, while a king counts this a hostile element,
and strives to slay the leading men, all such as he deems discreet,
for he feareth for his power. How then can a city remain stable, where
one cuts short all enterprise and mows down the young like meadow-flowers
in spring-time? What boots it to acquire wealth and livelihood for
children, merely to add to the tyrant's substance by one's toil? Why
train up virgin daughters virtuously in our homes to gratify a tyrant's
whim, whenso he will, and cause tears to those who rear them? May
my life end if ever my children are to be wedded by violence! This
bolt I launch in answer to thy words. Now say, why art thou come?
what needest thou of this land? Had not thy city sent thee, to thy
cost hadst thou come with thy outrageous utterances; for it is the
herald's duty to tell the message he is bidden and hie him back in
haste. Henceforth let Creon send to my city some other messenger less
talkative than thee.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS Look you! how insolent the villains are, when
Fortune is kind to them, just as if it would be well with them for
THEBAN HERALD Now will I speak. On these disputed points hold thou
this view, but the contrary. So I and all the people of Cadmus forbid
thee to admit Adrastus to this land, but if he is here, drive him
forth in disregard of the holy suppliant bough he bears, ere sinks
yon blazing sun, and attempt not violently to take up the dead, seeing
thou hast naught to do with the city of Argos. And if thou wilt hearken
to me, thou shalt bring thy barque of state into port unharmed by
the billows; but if not, fierce shall the surge of battle be, that
we and our allies shall raise. Take good thought, nor, angered at
my words, because forsooth thou rulest thy city with freedom, return
a vaunting answer from thy feebler means. Hope is man's curse; many
a state hath it involved in strife, by leading them into excessive
rage. For whenso the city has to vote on the question of war, no man
ever takes his own death into account, but shifts this misfortune
on to his neighbour; but if death had been before their eyes when
they were giving their votes, Hellas would ne'er have rushed to her
doom in mad desire for battle. And yet each man amongst us knows which
of the two to prefer, the good or ill, and how much better peace is
for mankind than war,-peace, the Muses' chiefest friend, the foe of
sorrow, whose joy is in glad throngs of children, and its delight
in prosperity. These are the blessings we cast away and wickedly embark
on war, man enslaving his weaker brother, and cities following suit.
Now thou art helping our foes even after death, trying to rescue and
bury those whom their own acts of insolence have ruined. Verily then
it would seem Capaneus was unjustly blasted by the thunderbolt and
charred upon the ladder he had raised against our gates, swearing
he would sack our town, whether the god would or no; nor should the
yawning earth have snatched away the seer, opening wide her mouth
to take his chariot and its horses in, nor should the other chieftains
be stretched at our gates, their skeletons to atoms crushed 'neath
boulders. Either boast thy wit transcendeth that of Zeus, or else
allow that gods are right to slay the ungodly. The wise should love
their children first, next their parents and country, whose fortunes
it behoves them to increase rather than break down. Rashness in a
leader, as in a pilot, causeth shipwreck; who knoweth when to be quiet
is a wise man. Yea and this too is bravery, even forethought.
LEADER The punishment Zeus hath inflicted was surely enough; there
was no need to heap this wanton insult on us.
ADRASTUS Abandoned wretch!
THESEUS Peace, Adrastus! say no more; set not thy words before mine,
for 'tis not to thee this fellow is come with his message, but to
me, and I must answer him. Thy first assertion will I answer first:
I am not aware that Creon is my lord and master, or that his power
outweigheth mine, that so he should compel Athens to act on this wise;
nay! for then would the tide of time have to flow backward, if we
are to be ordered, as he thinks. 'Tis not I who choose this war, seeing
that I did not even join these warriors to go unto the land of Cadmus;
but still I claim to bury the fallen dead, not injuring any state
nor yet introducing murderous strife, but preserving the law of all
Hellas. What is not well in this? If ye suffered aught from the Argives-lo!
they are dead; ye took a splendid vengeance on your foes and covered
them with shame, and now your right is at an end. Let the dead now
be buried in the earth, and each element return to the place from
whence it came to the body, the breath to the air, the body to the
ground; for in no wise did we get it for our own, but to live our
life in, and after that its mother earth must take it back again.
Dost think 'tis Argos thou art injuring in refusing burial to the
dead? Nay! all Hellas shares herein, if a man rob the dead of their
due and keep them from the tomb; for, if this law be enacted, it will
strike dismay into the stoutest hearts. And art thou come to cast
dire threats at me while thy own folk are afraid of giving burial
to the dead? What is your fear? Think you they will undermine your
land in their graves, or that they will beget children in the womb
of earth, from whom shall rise an avenger? A silly waste of words,
in truth it was, to show your fear of paltry groundless terrors. Go,
triflers, learn the lesson of human misery; our life is made up of
struggles; some men there be that find their fortune soon, others
have to wait, while some at once are blest. Fortune lives a dainty
life; to her the wretched pays his court and homage to win her smile;
her likewise doth the prosperous man extol, for fear the favouring
gale may leave him. These lessons should we take to heart, to bear
with moderation, free from wrath, our wrongs, and do naught to hurt
a whole city. What then? Let us, who will the pious deed perform,
bury the corpses of the slain. Else is the issue clear; I will go
and bury them by force. For never shall it be proclaimed through Hellas
that heaven's ancient law was set at naught, when it devolved on me
and the city of Pandion.
LEADER Be of good cheer; for if thou preserve the light of justice,
thou shalt escape many a charge that men might urge.
THEBAN HERALD Wilt thou that I sum up in brief all thou wouldst say?
THESEUS Say what thou wilt; for thou art not silent as it is.
THEBAN HERALD Thou shalt never take the sons of Argos from our land.
THESEUS Hear, then, my answer too to that, if so thou wilt.
THEBAN HERALD I will hear thee; not that I wish it, but I must give
thee thy turn.
THESEUS I will bury the dead, when from Asopus' land I have removed
THEBAN HERALD First must thou adventure somewhat in the front of
THESEUS Many an enterprise and of a different kind have I ere this
THEBAN HERALD Wert thou then begotten of thy sire to cope with every
THESEUS Ay, with all wanton villains; virtue I punish not.
THEBAN HERALD To meddle is aye thy wont and thy city's too.
THESEUS Hence her enterprise on many a field hath won her many blessings.
THEBAN HERALD Come then, that the warriors of the dragon-crop may
catch thee in our city.
THESEUS What furious warrior-host could spring from dragon's seed?
THEBAN HERALD Thou shalt learn that to thy cost. As yet thou art
young and rash.
THESEUS Thy boastful speech stirs not my heart at all to rage. Yet
get thee gone from my land, taking with thee the idle words thou broughtest;
for we are making no advance. (The THEBAN HERALD withdraws.) 'Tis
time for all to start, each stout footman, and whoso mounts the car;
'tis time the bit, dripping with foam, should urge the charger on
toward the land of Cadmus. For I will march in person to the seven
gates thereof with the sharp sword in my hand, and be myself my herald.
But thee, Adrastus, I bid stay, nor blend with mine thy fortunes,
for I will take my own good star to lead my host, a chieftain famed
in famous deeds of arms. One thing alone I need, the favour of all
gods that reverence right, for the presence of these things insures
victory. For their valour availeth men naught, unless they have the
(THESEUS and his retinue depart. The following lines
between the SEMI-CHORUSES are chanted responsively.)
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS Unhappy mothers of those hapless chiefs! How wildly
in my heart pale fear stirs up alarm!
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS What is this new cry thou utterest?
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS I fear the issue of the strife, whereto the hosts
of Pallas march.
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS Dost speak of issues of the sword, or interchange
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS That last were gain indeed; but if the carnage
of battle, fighting, and the noise of beaten breasts again be heard
in the land, what, alas! will be said of me, who am the cause thereof?
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS Yet may fate again bring low the brilliant victor;
'tis this brave thought that twines about my heart.
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS Thou speak'st of the gods as if they were just.
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS For who but they allot whate'er betides?
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS I see much at variance in their dealings with men.
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS The former fear hath warped thy judgment. Vengeance
calls vengeance forth; slaughter calls for slaughter, but the gods
give respite from affliction, holding in their own hands each thing's
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS Would I could reach yon plains with turrets crowned,
leaving Callichorus, fountain of the goddess!
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS O that some god would give me wings to fly to
the city of rivers twain!
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS So might'st thou see and know the fortunes of thy
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS What fate, what issue there awaits the valiant
monarch of this land?
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS Once more do we invoke the gods we called upon
before; yea, in our fear this is our first and chiefest trust.
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS O Zeus, father to the child the heifer-mother
bore in days long past, that daughter of Inachus!
FIRST SEMI-CHORUS O be gracious, I pray, and champion this city!
SECOND SEMI-CHORUS 'Tis thy own darling, thy own settler in the city
of Argos that I am striving from outrage to rescue for the funeral
(A MESSENGER enters.)
MESSENGER Ladies, I bring you tidings of great joy, myself escaped-for
I was taken prisoner in the battle which cost those chieftains seven
their lives near Dirce's fount-to bear the news of Theseus' victory.
But I will save thee tedious questioning; I was the servant of Capaneus,
whom Zeus with scorching bolt to ashes burnt.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS Friend of friends, fair thy news of thy own
return, nor less the news about Theseus; and if the host of Athens,
too, is safe, welcome will all thy message be.
MESSENGER 'Tis safe, and all hath happened as I would it had befallen
Adrastus and his Argives, whom from Inachus he led, to march against
the city of the Cadmeans.
LEADER How did the son of Aegeus and his fellow-warriors raise their
trophy to Zeus? Tell us, for thou wert there and canst gladden us
who were not.
MESSENGER Bright shone the sun, one levelled line of light, upon
the world, as by Electra's gate I stood to watch, from a turret with
a far outlook. And lo! I saw the host in three divisions, deploying
its mail-clad warriors on the high ground by the banks of Ismenus;
this last I heard; and with them was the king himself, famous son
of Aegeus; his own men, natives of old Cecropia, were ranged upon
the right; while on the left, hard by the fountain of Ares, were the
dwellers by the sea, harnessed spearmen they; on either wing were
posted cavalry, in equal numbers, and chariots were stationed in the
shelter of Amphion's holy tomb. Meantime, the folk of Cadmus set themselves
before the walls, placing in the rear the bodies for which they fought.
Horse to horse, and car to car stood ranged. Then did the herald of
Theseus cry aloud to all: "Be still, ye folk! hush, ye ranks of Cadmus,
hearken! we are come to fetch the bodies of the slain, wishing to
bury them in observance of the universal law of Hellas; no wish have
we to lengthen out the slaughter." Not a word would Creon let his
herald answer back, but there he stood in silence under arms. Then
did the drivers of the four-horse cars begin the fray; on, past each
other they drave their chariots, bringing the warriors at their sides
up into line. Some fought with swords, some wheeled the horses back
to the fray again for those they drove. Now when Phorbas, who captained
the cavalry of the Erechtheidae, saw the thronging chariots, he and
they who had the charge of the Theban horse met hand to hand, and
by turns were victors and vanquished. The many horrors happening there
I saw, not merely heard about, for I was at the spot where the chariots
and their riders met and fought, but which to tell of first I know
not,-the clouds of dust that mounted to the sky, the warriors tangled
in the reins and dragged this way and that, the streams of crimson
gore, when men fell dead, or when, from shattered chariot-seats, they
tumbled headlong to the ground, and, amid the splinters of their cars,
gave up the ghost. But Creon, when he marked our cavalry's success
on one wing, caught up a shield and rushed into the fray, ere that
despondency should seize his men; but not for that did Theseus recoil
in fear; no! snatching up at once his glittering harnes he hied him
on. And the twain, clashing their shields together as they met in
the midst of the assembled host, were dealing death and courting it,
shouting loudly each to his fellow the battle-cry: "Slay, and with
thy spear strike home against the sons of Erechtheus." Fierce foes
to cope with were the warriors whom the dragon's teeth to manhood
reared; so fierce, they broke our left wing, albeit theirs was routed
by our right and put to flight, so that the struggle was evenly balanced.
Here again our chief deserved all praise, for this success was not
the only one he gained; no! next he sought that part of his army which
was wavering; and loud he called to them, that the earth rang again,
"My sons, if ye cannot restrain the earth-born warriors' stubborn
spear, the cause of Pallas is lost." His word inspired new courage
in all the Danaid host. Therewith himself did seize a fearsome mace,
weapon of Epidaurian warfare, and swung it to and fro, and with that
club, as with a sickle, he shore off necks and heads and helmets thereupon.
Scarce even then they turned themselves to fly. I cried aloud for
joy, and danced and clapped my hands; while to the gates they ran.
Throughout the town echoed the shrieks of young and old, as they crowded
the temples in terror. But Theseus, when he might have come inside
the walls, held back his men, for he had not come, said he, to sack
the town, but to ask for the bodies of the dead. Such the general
men should choose, one who shows his bravery in danger, yet hates
the pride of those that in their hour of fortune lose the bliss they
might have enjoyed, through seeking to scale the ladder's topmost
LEADER Now do I believe in the gods after seeing this unexpected
day, and feel my woes are lighter now that these have paid their penalty.
ADRASTUS O Zeus, why do men assert the wisdom of the wretched human
race? On thee we all depend, and all we do is only what thou listest.
We thought our Argos irresistible, ourselves a young and lusty host,
and so when Eteocles was for making terms, in spite of his fair offer
we would not accept them, and so we perished. Then in their turn those
foolish folk of Cadmus, to fortune raised, like some beggar with his
newly-gotten wealth, waxed wanton, and, waxing so, were ruined in
their turn. Ye foolish sons of men! who strain your bow like men who
shoot beyond their mark, and only by suffering many evils as ye deserve,
though deaf to friends, yet yield to circumstances; ye cities likewise,
though ye might by parley end your ills, yet ye choose the sword instead
of reason to settle all disputes. But wherefore these reflections?
This I fain would learn, the way thou didst escape; and after that
I will ask thee of the rest.
MESSENGER During the uproar which prevailed in the city owing to
the battle, I passed the gates, just as the host had entered them.
ADRASTUS Are ye bringing the bodies, for the which the strife arose?
MESSENGER Ay, each of the seven chiefs who led their famous hosts.
ADRASTUS What sayest thou? the rest who fell-say, where are they?
MESSENGER They have found burial in the dells of Cithaeron.
ADRASTUS On this or that side of the mount? And who did bury them?
MESSENGER Theseus buried them 'neath the shadow of Eleutherae's cliff.
ADRASTUS Where didst thou leave the dead he hath not buried?
MESSENGER Not far away; earnest haste makes every goal look close.
ADRASTUS No doubt in sorrow slaves would gather them from the carnage.
MESSENGER Slaves! not one of them was set to do this toil.
(A speech belonging to ADRASTUS has been lost.)
MESSENGER Thou wouldst say so, hadst thou been there to see his loving
tendance of the dead.
ADRASTUS Did he himself wash the bloody wounds of the hapless youths?
MESSENGER Ay, and strewed their biers and wrapped them in their shrouds.
ADRASTUS An awful burden this, involving some disgrace.
MESSENGER Why, what disgrace to men are their fellows' sorrows?
ADRASTUS Ah me! how much rather had I died with them!
MESSENGER 'Tis vain to weep and move to tears these women.
ADRASTUS Methinks 'tis they who give the lesson. Enough of that!
My hands lift at meeting of the dead, and pour forth a tearful dirge
to Hades, calling on my friends, whose loss I mourn in wretched solitude;
for this one thing, when once 'tis spent, man cannot recover, the
breath of life, though he knoweth ways to get his wealth again.
CHORUS (singing, strophe)
Joy is here and sorrow too,-for the state fair fame, and for our
captains double meed of honour. Bitter for me it is to see the limbs
of my dead sons, and yet a welcome sight withal, because I shall behold
the unexpected day after sorrow's cup was full.
Would that Father Time had kept me unwed from my youth up e'en till
now when I am old! What need had I of children? Methinks I should
not have suffered overmuch, had I never borne the marriage-yoke; but
now I have my sorrow full in view, the loss of children dear.
Lo! I see the bodies of the fallen youths. Woe is me! would I could
join these children in their death and descend to Hades with them!
(THESEUS and his soldiers enter, carrying the corpses of the slain
chieftains. ADRASTUS and the CHORUS chant the lament responsively.)
ADRASTUS Mothers, raise the wail for the dead departed; cry in answer
when ye hear my note of woe.
CHORUS My sons, my sons! O bitter words for loving mothers to address
to you! To thee, my lifeless child, I call.
ADRASTUS Woe! woe!
CHORUS Ah me, my sufferings!
ADRASTUS Alas! We have endured, alas!-
CHORUS Sorrows most grievous.
ADRASTUS O citizens of Argos! do ye not behold my fate?
CHORUS They see thee, and me the hapless mother, reft of her children.
ADRASTUS Bring near the blood-boltered corpses of those hapless chiefs,
foully slain by foes unworthy, with whom lay the decision of the contest.
CHORUS Let me embrace and hold my children to my bosom in my enfolding
ADRASTUS There, there! thou hast-
CHORUS Sorrows heavy enough to bear.
ADRASTUS Ah me!
CHORUS Thy groans mingle with those of their parents.
ADRASTUS Hear me.
CHORUS O'er both of us thou dost lament.
ADRASTUS Would God the Theban ranks had laid me dead in the dust!
CHORUS Oh that I had ne'er been wedded to a husband!
ADRASTUS Ah! hapless mothers, behold this sea of troubles!
CHORUS Our nails have ploughed our cheeks in furrows, and o'er our
heads have we strewn ashes.
ADRASTUS Ah me! ah me! Oh that earth's floor would swallow me, or
the whirlwind snatch me away, or Zeus's flaming bolt descend upon
CHORUS Bitter the marriages thou didst witness, bitter the oracle
of Phoebus! The curse of Oedipus, fraught with sorrow, after desolating
his house, is come on thee.
THESEUS I meant to question thee when thou wert venting thy lamentations
to the host, but I will let it pass; yet, though I dropped the matter
then and left it alone, I now do ask Adrastus, "Of what lineage sprang
those youths, to shine so bright in chivalry?" Tell it to our younger
citizens of thy fuller wisdom, for thou art skilled to know. Myself
beheld their daring deeds, too high for words to tell, whereby they
thought to capture Thebes. One question will I spare thee, lest I
provoke thy laughter; the foe that each of them encountered in the
fray, the spear from which each received his death-wound. These be
idle tales alike for those who hear or him who speaks, that any man
amid the fray, when clouds of darts are hurtling before his eyes,
should declare for certain who each champion is. I could not ask such
questions, nor yet believe those who dare assert the like; for when
a man is face to face with the foe, he scarce can see even that which
'tis his bounden duty to observe.
ADRASTUS Hearken then. For in giving this task to me thou findest
a willing eulogist of friends, whose praise I would declare in all
truth and sincerity. Dost see yon corpse by Zeus's bolt transfixed?
That is Capaneus; though he had ample wealth, yet was he the last
to boast of his prosperity; nor would he ever vaunt himself above
a poorer neighbour, but shunned the man whose sumptuous board had
puffed him up too high and made him scorn mere competence, for he
held that virtue lies not in greedy gluttony, but that moderate means
suffice. True friend was he, alike to present or to absent friends
the same; of such the number is not great. His was guileless character,
a courteous address, that left no promise unperformed either towards
his own household or his fellow-citizens. The next I name is Eteoclus;
a master he of other kinds of excellence; young, nor richly dowered
with store, yet high in honour in the Argive land. And though his
friends oft offered gifts of gold, he would not have it in his house,
to make his character its slave by taking wealth's yoke upon him.
Not his city, but those that sinned against her did he hate, for a
city is no wise to be blamed if it get an evil name by reason of an
evil governor. Such another was Hippomedon, third of all this band;
from his very boyhood he refrained from turning towards the allurements
of the Muses, to lead life of ease; his home was in the fields, and
gladly would he school his nature to hardships with a view to manliness,
aye hasting to the chase, rejoicing in his steeds or straining of
his bow, because he would make himself of use unto his state. Next
behold the huntress Atalanta's son, Parthenopaeus, a youth of peerless
beauty; from Arcady he came even to the streams of Inachus, and in
Argos spent his boyhood. There, when he grew to man's estate, first,
as is the duty of strangers settled in another land, he showed no
pique or jealousy against the state, became no quibbler, chiefest
source of annoyance citizen or stranger can give, but took his stand
amid the host, and fought for Argos as he were her own son, glad at
heart whenso the city prospered, deeply grieved if e'er reverses came;
many a lover though he had midst men and maids, yet was he careful
to avoid offence. Of Tydeus next the lofty praise I will express in
brief; no brilliant spokesman he, but a clever craftsman in the art
of war, with many a shrewd device; inferior in judgment to his brother
Meleager, yet through his warrior skill lending his name to equal
praise, for he had found in arms a perfect science; his was an ambitious
nature, a spirit rich in store of deeds, with words less fully dowered.
From this account then wonder not, Theseus, that they dared to die
before the towers; for noble nurture carries honour with it, and every
man, when once he hath practised virtue, scorns the name of villain.
Courage may be learnt, for even a babe doth learn to speak and hear
things it cannot comprehend; and whatso'er a child hath learnt, this
it is his wont to treasure up till he is old. So train up your children
in a virtuous way.
CHORUS (chanting) Alas! my son, to sorrow I bare thee and carried
thee within my womb, enduring the pangs of travail; but now Hades
takes the fruit of all my hapless toil, and I that had a son am left,
ah me! with none to nurse my age.
THESEUS As for the noble son of Oecleus, him, while yet he lived,
the gods snatched hence to the bowels of the earth, and his chariot
too, manifestly blessing him; while I myself may truthfully tell the
praises of the son of Oedipus, that is, Polyneices, for he was my
guest-friend ere he left the town of Cadmus and crossed to Argos in
voluntary exile. But dost thou know what I would have thee do in this?
ADRASTUS I know naught save this,-to yield obedience to thy hests.
THESEUS As for yon Capaneus, stricken by the bolt of Zeus-
ADRASTUS Wilt bury him apart as a consecrated corpse?
THESEUS Even so; but all the rest on one funeral pyre.
ADRASTUS Where wilt thou set the tomb apart for him?
THESEUS Here near this temple have I builded him a sepulchre.
ADRASTUS Thy thralls forthwith must undertake this toil.
THESEUS Myself will look to those others; let the biers advance.
ADRASTUS Approach your sons, unhappy mothers.
THESEUS This thy proposal, Adrastus, is anything but good.
ADRASTUS Must not the mothers touch their sons?
THESEUS It would kill them to see how they are altered.
ADRASTUS 'Tis bitter, truly, to see the dead even at the moment of
THESEUS Why then wilt thou add fresh grief to them?
ADRASTUS Thou art right. Ye needs must patiently abide, for the words
of Theseus are good. But when we have committed them unto the flames,
ye shall collect their bones. O wretched sons of men! Why do ye get
you weapons and bring slaughter on one another? Cease therefrom, give
o'er your toiling, and in mutual peace keep safe your cities. Short
is the span of life, so 'twere best to run its course as lightly as
we may, from trouble free. (The corpses, followed by the CHILDREN
of the slain chieftains, are carried off to the pyre which is kindled
within the sight of the persons on the stage.)
CHORUS (singing, strophe)
No more a happy mother I, with children blest; no more I share, among
Argive women, who have sons, their happy lot; nor any more will Artemis
in the hour of travail kindly greet these childless mothers. Most
dreary is my life, and like some wandering cloud drift before the
The seven noblest sons in Argos once we had, we seven hapless mothers;
but now my sons are dead, I have no child, and on me steals old age
in piteous wise, nor 'mongst the dead nor 'mongst the living do I
count myself, having as it were a lot apart from these.
Tears alone are left me; in my house sad memories of my son are stored;
mournful tresses shorn from his head, chaplets that he wore, libations
for the dead departed, and songs, but not such as golden-haired Apollo
welcometh; and when I wake to weep, my tears will ever drench the
folds of my robe upon my bosom. Ah! there I see the sepulchre ready
e'en now for Capaneus, his consecrated tomb, and the votive offerings
Theseus gives unto the dead outside the shrine, and nigh yon lightning-smitten
chief I see his noble bride, Evadne, daughter of King Iphis. Wherefore
stands she on the towering rock, which o'ertops this temple, advancing
along yon path? (EVADNE is seen on a rock which overhangs the burning
pyre. She is dressed as though for a festival.)
EVADNE (chanting) What light, what radiancy did the sun-god's car
dart forth, and the moon athwart the firmament, while round her in
the gloom swift stars careered, in the day that the city of Argos
raised the stately chant of joy at my wedding, in honour of my marriage
with mail-clad Capaneus? Now from my home in frantic haste with frenzied
mind rush to join thee, seeking to share with thee the fire's bright
flame and the self-same tomb, to rid me of my weary life in Hades'
halls, and of the pains of life; yea, for 'tis the sweetest end to
share the death of those we love, if only fate will sanction it.
LEADER OF THE CHORUS Behold yon pyre, which thou art overlooking,
nigh thereto, set apart for Zeus! There is thy husband's body, vanquished
by the blazing bolt.
EVADNE (chanting) Life's goal I now behold from my station here;
may fortune aid me in my headlong leap from this rock in honour's
cause, down into the fire below. to mix my ashes in the ruddy blaze
with my husband's, to lay me side by side with him, there in the couch
of Persephone; for ne'er will to save my life, prove untrue to thee
where thou liest in thy grave. Away with life and marriage too! Oh!
may my children live to see the dawn of a fairer, happier wedding-day
in Argos! May loyalty inspire the husband's heart, his nature fusing
with his wife's!
LEADER Lo! the aged Iphis, thy father, draweth nigh to hear thy startling
speech, which yet he knows not and will grieve to learn. (IPHIS enters.)
IPHIS Unhappy child! lo! I am come, a poor old man, with twofold
sorrow in my house to mourn, that I may carry to his native land the
corpse of my son Eteoclus, slain by the Theban spear, and further
in quest of my daughter who rushed headlong from the house, for she
was the wife of Capaneus and longed with him to die. Ere this she
was well guarded in my house, but, when I took the watch away in the
present troubles, she escaped. But I feel sure that she is here; tell
me if ye have seen her.
EVADNE Why question them? Lo, here upon the rock, father, o'er the
pyre of Capaneus, like some bird I hover lightly, in my wretchedness.
IPHIS What wind hath blown thee hither, child? Whither thy journey?
Why didst thou pass the threshold of my house and seek this land?
EVADNE It would but anger thee to hear what I intend, and so I fain
would keep thee ignorant, my father.
IPHIS What hath not thy own father a right to know?
EVADNE Thou wouldst not wisely judge my purpose.
IPHIS Why dost thou deck thyself in that apparel?
EVADNE A purport strange this robe conveys, father.
IPHIS Thou hast no look of mourning for thy lord.
EVADNE No, the reason why I thus am decked is strange, maybe.
IPHIS Dost thou in such garb appear before a funeral-pyre?
EVADNE Yea, for hither it is I come to take the meed of victory.
IPHIS "Victory!" What victory? This would I learn of thee.
EVADNE A victory o'er all women on whom the sun looks down.
IPHIS In Athena's handiwork or in prudent counsel?
EVADNE In bravery; for I will lay me down and die with my lord.
IPHIS What dost thou say? What is this silly riddle thou propoundest?
EVADNE To yonder pyre where lies dead Capaneus, I will leap down.
IPHIS My daughter, speak not thus before the multitude!
EVADNE The very thing I wish, that every Argive should learn it.
IPHIS Nay, I will ne'er consent to let thee do this deed.
EVADNE 'Tis all one; thou shalt never catch me in thy grasp. Lo!
I cast me down, no joy to thee, but to myself and to my husband blazing
on the pyre with me. (She leaps into the pyre.)
CHORUS (chanting) O lady, thou hast done a fearful deed!
IPHIS Ah me! I am undone, ye dames of Argos!
CHORUS (chanting) Alack, alack! a cruel blow is this to thee, but
thou must yet witness, poor wretch, the full horror of this deed.
IPHIS A more unhappy wretch than me ye could not find.
CHORUS (chanting) Woe for thee, unhappy man! Thou, old sir, hast
been made partaker in the fortune of Oedipus, thou and my poor city
IPHIS Ah, why are mortal men denied this boon, to live their youth
twice o'er, and twice in turn to reach old age? If aught goes wrong
within our homes, we set it right by judgment more maturely formed,
but our life we may not so correct. Now if we had a second spell of
youth and age, this double term of life would let us then correct
each previous slip. For I, seeing others blest with children, longed
to have them too, and found my ruin in that wish. Whereas if I had
had present experience, and by a father's light had learnt how cruel
a thing it is to be bereft of children, never should have fallen on
such evil days as these,-I who did beget a brave young son, proud
parent that I was, and after all am now bereft of him. Enough of this.
What remains for such a hapless wretch as me? Shall I to my home,
there to see its utter desolation and the blank within my life? or
shall to the halls of that dead Capaneus?-halls I smiled to see in
days gone by, when yet my daughter was alive. But she is lost and
gone, she that would ever draw down my cheek to her lips, and take
my head between her hands; for naught is there more sweet unto an
aged sire than a daughter's love; our sons are made of sterner stuff,
but less winning are their caresses. Oh! take me to my house at once,
in darkness hide me there, to waste and fret this aged frame with
fasting! What shall it avail me to touch my daughter's bones? Old
age, resistless foe, how do I loathe thy presence! Them too I hate,
whoso desire to lengthen out the span of life, seeking to turn the
tide of death aside by philtres, drugs, and magic spells,-folk that
death should take away to leave the young their place, when they no
more can benefit the world. (IPHIS departs. A procession enters from
the direction of the pyre, led by the CHILDREN of the slain chieftains,
who carry the ashes of their fathers in funeral urns. The following
lines between the CHORUS and the CHILDREN are chanted responsively.)
CHORUS Woe, woe! Behold your dead sons' bones are brought hither;
take them, servants of your weak old mistress, for in me is no strength
left by reason of my mourning for my sons; time's comrade long have
I been, and many a tear for many a sorrow have I shed. For what sharper
pang wilt thou ever find for mortals than the sight of children dead?
CHILDREN Poor mother mine, behold I bring my father's bones gathered
from the fire, a burden grief has rendered heavy, though this tiny
urn contains my all.
CHORUS Ah me! ah me! Why bear thy tearful load to the fond mother
of the dead, a handful of ashes in the stead of those who erst were
men of mark in Mycenae?
CHILDREN Woe worth the hour! woe worth the day! Reft of my hapless
sire, a wretched orphan shall I inherit a desolate house, torn from
my father's arms.
CHORUS Woe is thee! Where is now the toil I spent upon my sons? what
thank have I for nightly watch? Where the mother's nursing care? the
sleepless vigils mine eyes have kept? the loving kiss upon my children's
CHILDREN Thy sons are dead and gone. Poor mother! dead and gone;
the boundless air now wraps them round.
CHORUS Turned to ashes by the flame, they have winged their flight
CHILDREN Father, thou hearest thy children's lamentation; say, shall
I e'er, as warrior dight, avenge thy slaughter?
CHORUS God grant it, O my child
CHILDREN Some day, if god so will, shall the avenging of my father
be my task; not yet this sorrow sleeps.
CHORUS Alas! Fortune's sorrows are enough for me, I have enough of
CHILDREN Shall Asopus' laughing tide ever reflect my brazen arms
as I lead on my Argive troops?
CHORUS To avenge thy fallen sire.
CHILDREN Methinks I see thee still before my eye, my father-
CHORUS Printing a loving kiss upon thy cheek.
CHILDREN But thy words of exhortation are borne on the winds away.
CHORUS Two mourners hath he left behind, thy mother and thee, bequeathing
to thee an endless legacy of grief for thy father.
CHILDREN The weight of grief I have to bear hath crushed me utterly.
CHORUS Come, let me clasp the ashes of my son to my bosom.
CHILDREN I weep to hear that piteous word; 'it stabs me to the heart,
CHORUS My child, thou art undone; no more shall I behold thee, thy
own fond mother's treasure.
THESEUS Adrastus, and ye dames from Argos sprung, ye see these children
bearing in their hands the bodies of their valiant sires whom I redeemed;
to thee I give these gifts, I and Athens. And ye must bear in mind
the memory of this favour, marking well the treatment ye have had
of me. And to these children I repeat the self-same words, that they
may honour this city, to children's children ever handing on the kindness
ye received from us. Be Zeus the witness, with the gods in heaven,
of the treatment we vouchsafed you ere you left us.
ADRASTUS Theseus, well we know all the kindness thou hast conferred
upon the land of Argos in her need, and ours shall be a gratitude
that never waxeth old, for your generous treatment makes us debtors
for a like return.
THESEUS What yet remains, wherein I can serve you?
ADRASTUS Fare thee well, for such is thy desert and such thy city's
THESEUS Even so. Mayst thou too have the self-same fortune!
(ATHENA appears from above.)
ATHENA Hearken, Theseus, to the words that I Athena utter, telling
thee thy duty, which, if thou perform it, will serve thy city. Give
not these bones to the children to carry to the land of Argos, letting
them go so lightly; nay, take first an oath of them that they will
requite thee and thy city for your efforts. This oath must Adrastus
swear, for as their king it is his right to take the oath for the
whole realm of Argos. And this shall be the form thereof: "We Argives
swear we never will against this land lead on our mail-clad troops
to war, and, if others come, we will repel them." But if they violate
their oath and come against the city, pray that the land of Argos
may be miserably destroyed. Now hearken while I tell thee where thou
must slay the victims. Thou hast within thy halls a tripod with brazen
feet, which Heracles, in days gone by, after he had o'erthrown the
foundations of Ilium and was starting on another enterprise, enjoined
the to set up at the Pythian shrine. O'er it cut the throats of three
sheep; then grave within the tripod's hollow belly the oath; this
done, deliver it to the god who watches over Delphi to keep, a witness
and memorial unto Hellas of the oath. And bury the sharp-edged knife,
wherewith thou shalt have laid the victims open and shed their blood,
deep in the bowels of the earth, hard by the pyres where the seven
chieftains burn; for its appearance shall strike them with dismay,
if e'er against thy town they come, and shall cause them to return
with sorrow. When thou hast done all this, dismiss the dead from thy
land. And to the god resign as sacred land the spot where their bodies
were purified by fire, there by the meeting of the triple roads that
lead unto the Isthmus. Thus much to thee, Theseus, address; next to
the sons of Argos I speak; when ye are grown to men's estate, the
town beside Ismenus shall ye sack, avenging the slaughter of your
dead sires; thou too, Aegialeus, shalt take thy father's place and
in thy youth command the host, and with thee Tydeus' son marching
from Aetolia,-him whom his father named Diomedes. Soon as the beards
your cheeks o'ershadow must ye lead an armed Danaid host against the
battlements of Thebes with sevenfold gates. For to their sorrow shall
ye come like lion's whelps in full-grown might to sack their city.
No otherwise is it to be; and ye shall be a theme for minstrels' songs
in days to come, known through Hellas as "the After-born"; so famous
shall your expedition be, thanks to Heaven.
THESEUS Queen Athena, I will hearken to thy bidding; for thou it
is dost set me up, so that I go not astray. And I will bind this monarch
by an oath; do thou but guide my steps aright. For if thou art friendly
to our state, we shall henceforth live secure. (ATHENA vanishes.)
CHORUS (chanting) Let us go, Adrastus, and take the oath to this
monarch and his state; for the service they have already done us claims