Theseus and the Athenian Empire

To what extent were mythological stories about Theseus used to contextualise, justify and explain the imperial behaviour of democratic Classical Athens?

At the end of the Persian Wars, a large number of nation states, led by Athens, formed an alliance to protect the Greek world against Persian encroachments. This involved the regular payment of tributes, moderated by Athens, which were collected and kept on the island of Delos – hence the name for this alliance, the Delian League.

In 454BC, however, the Athenians, influenced by Pericles, decided to move the tribute treasury of the Delian league from the island of Delos to Athens itself. This heralded the beginning of what is referred to as the Athenian Empire, which basically involved a blatant direct shift from the original concerns of the alliance towards more Athenocentric concerns, including the betterment of Athens itself.

Imperialism in Athenian culture

Lots of Classical Athenian culture deals with these issues, whether directly or analogically. Some attempts were made – especially within the tragic genre – to develop and communicate the influence of the imperialist ideology of the period.

In the Funeral Oration of Pericles, Athens was depicted as the cultural and intellectual centre of the Greek world, at a level above all other Greek cities in its Greek-ness. But this supposed brilliance brought with it responsibility: Athens was the “school of Hellas” (Thucydides Peloponnesian War 2.41.1), thus accountable for the protection and education of the Greek world.

It was with this overview of moral superiority that the Athenians could justify their expanding imperial behaviour in the 5th century BC. Unlike lots of other empires throughout history, it was not possible for the Athenians to insinuate any fundamental racial or cultural differences from their fellow Hellenic settlements in their moves to subjugate them – and so instead they chose to portray a cultural supremacy. Being Greek was the height of humanity, and the Athenians were the most Greek of all Greeks (e.g. Isocrates Speeches and Letters 4.50).

Theseus as the Athenian ideal

Much of this ideology is notably embodied within the character of Theseus, the legendary king of Athens. The behaviour of Theseus often epitomises the cardinal ideals of Greek morality as defined by Plato (Republic 4.427e): wisdom, bravery, sobriety and justice. Objective fairness of judgement and a wide reaching generosity are intrinsic to both the character of Theseus and the character of Athens itself.

Again in the Funeral Oration of Pericles, Athenian imperial policy is vindicated by the claim that “in generosity we [the Athenians] are singular, acquiring our friends by conferring not by receiving favours” (Thucydides Peloponnesian Wars 2.40.4). This is immediately comparable to the actions of Theseus in openly welcoming his allies, such as Adrastus, the King of Argos, in Euripides’ Suppliants (513).

Theseus relationship with other Greeks

The Athenians seemed conscious that this crafted responsibility to interfere with the rest of the Greek world could perhaps be seen as (at the least) bothersome and disruptive, or (at the worst) invasively aggressive. This reactive imperial concern managed to disperse through the literature.

In the Suppliants, a Theban herald declares to Theseus, “To meddle is always your custom, and your city’s too” (Euripides Suppliants 576). Of course, contextually, Theseus was making the fair and even admirable choice to “meddle” in arranging the burial of the abandoned dead Argive soldiers following their battle against Thebes – and so, as in most other cases, this criticism of Athens is presented as missing some crucial judgement, and making a mistake in condemning the behaviour.

Support for intervention in general is inferable from the words of the Chorus of old men in Euripides’ Heracles Furens (266): “And yet do I take too much upon myself because I help those I love after their death, when most they need a friend?”, here referring to their just and honourable wish to help the children of Heracles through their encounters with the cruel tyrant Lycus. Even though these old

men in the Chorus are Theban and not Athenian, their actions represent and legitimise the wider notion that true wisdom always has the right and duty to intervene – a right which surpasses the freedom for independence.

Theseus as the ideal Athenian citizen

The image of Theseus was repeatedly used in the Athenian Agora during the Classical period and

earlier in various legendary scenarios. Here, as elsewhere, it is apparent from Theseus moral conduct within his depictions that not only was Theseus utilised as an idealised manifestation of Athenian,civilisation and its imperial policy, but also as a model of the perfect Athenian,individual, to which any young citizen might try to aspire.

This dual role of Theseus – as a paradigm of both the city and its citizens – mirrors the traditional identification of a polis with its citizen body rather than with the territory it controlled. The

exploitation of this identification perhaps brought a greater sense of patriotism and support for this notion of Athens as the dominant Greek city, as defined by its imperial culture.

Theseus in sculpture

Mythological scenes involving Theseus were also used to decorate the Temple of Hephaestus and Athena Ergane, most notably scenes of his Eight Labours, which borrowed heavily from the imagery of Heracles’ Twelve Labors.

Indeed Heracles and Theseus are elsewhere connected, as in some relatively early depictions on the Athenian Treasury at Delphi. This link with the greatest of the Hellenic heroes obviously served to confirm Theseus’ prominent position in the mythological world – but also, during the Athenian Golden

Age, Theseus actually began to surpass Heracles’ standing.

In Euripides’ Heracleidae, Theseus’ son Demophon gave sanctuary to the sons of Heracles in Athens – and in doing so the city could be designated as the saviour of the sons of Heracles, Heracles being the “saviour of mankind” (Demosthenes Speeches 60.8). Thus Athens once again apparently helping the wider world beyond itself.

This dramatic creation has clearly been driven by the imperial mindset of the time: it contextualised the moral right and duty of Athenians, as the most superior Greeks, to shepherd the weaker cities under their wing. The descendants of Heracles, however, were also destined to found the kingship of Sparta – and so the Heracleidae story also highlighted Athens’ one-upmanship over its biggest Hellenic rival: unless Athens had protected the sons of Heracles, Sparta would never have existed.

Earlier legends?

Of course, some of these stories of Theseus can be dated to before the Persian wars, and thus to before any specific ideas of Athenian imperialism. In this sense, it is possible to see how Athenian literary and mythological culture in some ways facilitated the development of the Empire, as well as vice versa – or at least how the two entities were mutually dependent and interconnected.

Interestingly, in the politically minded contemporary comedies of Aristophanes, although criticism was sometimes levelled at the management of the Empire, and perhaps the corruptibility of its particular leaders, there was never any objection aimed at the actual justifications for imperial behaviour. It seems that nobody doubted the brilliance of Athens.

Imperial ideology

Although in many of the examples given above it is not possible to say that imperialism was the dominant force in the conception of each particular cultural phenomenon, or that without the Empire these phenomena might not exist, it is possible to say that without the imperial ideal they would have been fundamentally different.

With varying themes, it is possible to find associations with imperial ideology in the most prominent aspects of Athenian culture: the domineering opulence of its architecture loudly proclaimed the trappings of its superiority, whilst the restrained and principled dignity of some of the representative characters in dramatic plays confidently proclaimed the right to argue for this very superiority.

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