Episode 30: Two Legs in the Afternoon

Sophocles’ Theban Plays, 1 of 3. Oedipus the King is one of literature’s great stories. It’s also a haunting window into the fears of war torn Athens in 429 BCE.

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Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays, Part 1: Oedipus the King

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 30: Two Legs in the Afternoon. This is the first of three episodes on the three Theban plays of Sophocles. Today, we’re going to explore Sophocles’ play Oedipus the King, first performed in the city of Athens, probably during the dark, terrifying spring of 429 BCE – during a year in which Athens fell from its commanding position as the sovereign city of the Aegean world, and into the meat grinder of the Peloponnesian War.

A lot of people know about Oedipus from the work of the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud. A lot of people know the terrible secret at the center of Oedipus’ identity. But far fewer people know this. Oedipus the King, like the Iliad and the Odyssey, is a story about an old figure from folklore. But unlike the Iliad or the Odyssey, the story of Oedipus the King neatly parallels very specific, and very singular events in the history of one city – the city of Athens. If you read Oedipus the King alone, it is a marvelous, structurally flawless story. But if you braid Oedipus’ tragedy together with the story of what was happening behind the siege walls of Athens in the 420s, you have a moment in which literature so perfectly embodies the sentiments – the horrors and fears – of a time and place, that after you hear this show, you’ll never forget Sophocles’ most famous play, or the faltering, shocked and mortified civilization embodied by the story of Oedipus the King. [music]

The Three Settings of Oedipus the King

So, what’s going to follow will be a summary of Oedipus the King, and then some historical analysis of the play’s events. But before we do this, I want to give you some context.

Oedipus Sphinx BM Vase E696

A red figure lekythos (or oil container) showing Oedipus slaying the Sphinx. From Attica (e.g. around Athens) and dated between 420-400 BCE, this lekythos was created during the last decades of Sophocles’ life, and might have been inspired by his plays.

Ancient Greece had a vast store of circulating stories – stories most often delivered orally, in metered verse, and accompanied by the lyre and aulos, or double flute. This means that when ancient Athenians went to the theater to see a play, and the play was about some common ancestral tales, they already knew the main characters of the production, and the general storyline, and they had certain expectations about how things were going to shake out. You and I don’t have that background. So we need to do a bit of prep work from time to time, like we did with Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and Aeschylus’ Oresteian trilogy, if you happened to catch those earlier episodes.

We’ll start with the setting. I want you to picture, in your mind, an equilateral triangle, point up, like a cartoon drawing of a mountain. Got that equilateral triangle in your mind? Okay. We’re going to lay this triangle down onto a map – the southeastern part of mainland Greece. The top point of the triangle is the main setting of Sophocles’ three Theban plays – as you might guess, the city of Thebes. Thebes is at the top of our triangle. Not to be confused with the Egyptian city of Thebes on the middle Nile, the Greek city of Thebes was centrally located in a beautiful stretch of inland lake country in a strategic mountain pass. Thebes’ location and natural resources almost always made it a power player in the era of Greek city states. Thebes was, according to legend, founded by a legendary dragon slayer named Cadmus, and Thebes was known as the birthplace of Hercules. So, that’s Thebes – big, prosperous city, east central part of mainland Greece, top of our triangle.

Let’s move clockwise around our equilateral triangle. The bottom right point is the city of Athens. Athens is about thirty two miles or fifty kilometers southeast of Thebes. The second play of the three Theban plays takes place down around Athens. Also, all of Sophocles’ Theban plays were first staged in Athens. So the two points of our equilateral triangle so far are, top, Thebes, and then right, Athens, the settings of the first and second plays.

Now, to continue clockwise through this equilateral triangle, the lower left corner is the city of Corinth, about the same distance – thirty-two miles or fifty kilometers, west of Athens. Corinth isn’t a huge part of the plays, but it’s where the main character, Oedipus, grew up. Extremely important events in the play you’re about to hear take place in the countryside between Thebes, top of the triangle, and Corinth, lower left of the triangle. So that’s the setting of the three Theban plays – Thebes on top, Athens on the right, Corinth on the left, and a few hundred square miles of rocky, occasionally forested mountains and clearings in between. Thebes, Athens, and Corinth.

So we’ve got the setting – great! Now, let’s talk about the timeframe. The Theban plays take place during the legendary reign of a king called Theseus. Theseus appears in the second of the three Theban plays, and Theseus was the mythical founder of Athens. We’re not going to meet him for a while, though, and so the only thing you really need to remember about timeframe is that Sophocles’ three Theban plays take place in some unspecified period of remote antiquity – a general time of myth and legend when cities were being founded and kingships were being set up, and that kind of thing. Okay. Setting, check. Timeframe, check. Now, the whole first play takes place at the top of that triangle, in the city of Thebes. I want to introduce you to that city’s three most important citizens.

Oedipus, Creon, and Jocasta

The city of Thebes, at the beginning of the three Theban plays, was ruled by a king called Oedipus. His speeches, his personality, and his actions dominate the first two of the three Theban plays. Let’s talk about Oedipus.

Oedipus is, whatever his fate and whatever you already know about what is going to happen to him – Oedipus is, within the Theban plays, unequivocally a great hero. He is fantastically intelligent. And as a king, he is fair and equitable. He does not shirk his duty, and he doesn’t ever duck responsibility for his actions. When his city is in trouble, he is a man of action, using every possible resource to make life better for his citizens. Oedipus trusts, above all things, in his ability to decide his own fate, and the fate of his city. He trusts the clarity of his intellect. Against the words of soothsayers and priestesses, Oedipus believes, and has believed from a young age, that he and his kingdom are responsible for the course of their own fates. Yet in spite of his great confidence, he admits when he is wrong, and accepts criticisms when they are justified. Oedipus was, to the Athenians who watched his play in the 420s, a model of the city’s greatest leaders – a figure capable of carving his civilization’s place into the annals of history. I think people who start reading the Theban plays knowing the ending forget that. Oedipus is a wonderful person.

Now, Oedipus has a brother-in-law. And this brother-in-law is called Creon. Creon is what we literature folks call a “foil,” meaning that his qualities generally contrast with Oedipus’ qualities, and when the two stand side by side, each is made clearer by the other. Creon, thankfully for the citizens of Thebes, is also a good, responsible, civic-minded leader, almost always acting with the commonwealth in mind. But in contrast to the supremely intelligent, passionate Oedipus, Creon is more cautious and conservative – more of a salty traditionalist than an audacious innovator. While Creon will eventually become an antagonist in the second and third Theban plays, in today’s play, he’s simply Oedipus’ pragmatic brother-in-law. We never actually hear this in the plays themselves, but I suspect that under the rule of brash, brilliant Oedipus and his more tempered brother-in-law Creon, the city of Thebes must have enjoyed matchless leadership.

Jocaste BnF Français 599 fol. 21v

Jocasta, from a manuscript of Boccaccio’s De mulieribus claris, 1488-1496.

Between Oedipus and Creon is Oedipus’ wife and Creon’s sister. Her name is Jocasta. In the pages of the play Oedipus the King, Jocasta proves an affectionate wife, a woman with a great deal of emotional strength, and also one capable of being unusually calm and practical in the midst of severe trauma. After all, Jocasta is no stranger to trauma. The Theban queen, as the play opens, has lost her first husband to brigands a couple of decades earlier. We can thus understand Queen Jocasta as a resilient person who believes in second chances and can continue to hope in the face of great loss.

So those three folks are the ones you need to know before the curtain lifts – brilliant King Oedipus, reliable brother-in-law Creon, and strong, resilient Queen Jocasta. And you should know one more thing. That thing is the story of how long before Sophocles’ plays take place, Oedipus had faced down a wicked monster, and saved the city of Thebes. Now this story – the older story, of how young Oedipus faced down one of the scariest creatures in Greece and lived to tell about it – it’s not just a disconnected episode. Sophocles’ original audience would have had it in mind and drawn connections between specific moments of Oedipus the King, and the older tale of Oedipus, and the Sphinx. [music]

The Sphinx: Both Riddler and Prophet

At some juncture during the earlier reigns of Jocasta and her previous husband, Laius, a monster called the Sphinx had come to Thebes and stationed herself near the city. There, the Sphinx was a terror. The name “Sphinx” comes from the Greek word “sphingein,” which means “to squeeze” or “to strangle.” And the Sphinx that lurked in the environs of the city of Thebes, at least before Oedipus arrived, was a great torment to the city. When people came near her, whether locals or passerby, she would pose them a very difficult riddle. No one could answer it, and so, living up to her name, the Sphinx would strangle them, and then eat them.

Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes, Red Figure Kylix, c. 470 BC, from Vulci, attributed to the Oedipus Painter, Vatican Museums (9665213064)

This red figure Kylix, dated to around 470 BCE and thought to be from Vulci (an Etruscan city on the west coast of Italy north of Rome), captures one of the Oedipus cycle’s most iconic images – Oedipus encountering the Sphinx. Photo by Carole Raddato.

The Sphinx harrowed the city of Thebes right up until the time King Laius was killed by brigands and the young hero Oedipus came to the city. It was a gloomy hour for Thebes – the king was gone, the citizens were being eaten alive, and yet, Oedipus, upon arriving there, didn’t immediately flee. Instead, Oedipus sought the monster out – this horror with the body of a lion and the head of a woman – and Oedipus told the creature to go ahead and hit him with that famous riddle.

And so the Sphinx asked Oedipus the most famous riddle in literature. “What,” she asked, “walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening?” You know the answer to this one, don’t you? It’s not some weird kind of centipede. Nor something that lost two of its legs around lunch time and had one surgically reattached around dinnertime. Nope. The answer that Oedipus gave was, “man.” People crawl, or walk on four legs in the morning of their lives. They walk on two legs during the noontime of their years on earth. And they use a cane – or, proverbially, they walk on three legs, during the evening of their lifetimes. Oedipus’ answer was correct. The Sphinx – I guess out of divine compulsion or shame or something – hurled herself from a rock to her death. And the city of Thebes was saved. And one more thing – although this will definitely be distracting, I have to offer you a little etymological gem. The word Sphinx, again, comes from the Greek word “sphingein.” So, too, does the word “sphincter.” And so, Oedipus quickly did away with the murderous Sphinx, a being which had been a royal you know what, and the Thebans welcomed him with open arms.

But let’s wait just a minute before we leave this probably familiar little stretch of ancient folklore. The riddle of the Sphinx hangs over all three of the Theban plays. It’s a sort of dark cloud central to the play’s themes. And from its words comes the main idea of this episode. The main idea of this show is in its title: Episode 30: Two Legs in the Afternoon. While the Sphinx is handily dispatched long before the Theban plays begin, her dark riddle appears throughout the plays – in metaphors and allusions, and fragments, and in a general truism that pervades ancient Greek literature from Homer onward. This truism is that while men and women – and even civilizations – may reach high summits of achievement, their roots lie in humble beginnings, and their destinies – all alike – are to falter and decline. The great Oedipus, who strode into the city a conquering hero, would eventually, no matter what, grow feeble, and hobble with a cane. And just the same, as Sophocles entered his mid-sixties and staged the play Oedipus the King, the Athenian empire, which had once thundered along on its two legs, began to show signs of feebleness and decrepitude. So the riddle of the Sphinx, although the monster was dispatched, contains a dark truism that we should recall is at the core of Sophocles’ masterwork, Oedipus the King.

Alright, cool. You know the setting – that triangle in the southeast of mainland Greece with Thebes on top, Athens to the right, and Corinth to the left. You know the three most pivotal characters – King Oedipus, steady brother-in-law Creon, and resilient Queen Jocasta. And you know that in the background of this play there will hang a somber riddle – four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening – a riddle that ultimately drives home the frailty and impermanence of the human condition.

I’ll be quoting occasionally from the E.F. Watling translation, published by Penguin Books in 1974. Watling is a talented translator of both Greek and Latin, and we’ll be seeing more of his work from time to time in episodes to come. With this all set up, I think we’re ready to head into what is likely Ancient Greece’s most famous tragedy. Ladies, gentlemen, brigands, sphinxes, the story of Oedipus the King. [music]

The Plague and the Dark Secret

The city of Thebes had once known grandeur, and bright horizons. But those days were far behind it. A sickness had fallen over the city of Thebes. The citizens were starving. Famine, and blight, and death were devouring the townspeople, and, having nowhere else to turn, they had come to the palace. The Theban citizens knelt on the palace’s stone steps, huddled close to its altars in pairs and trios, gaunt and pocked with their illnesses. Pitiful in their helplessness, the citizens awaited their leader. And soon enough, the king appeared through the doors. His name was Oedipus.

“I have not thought it fit to rely on my messengers,” he said. “What is the matter? Some fear? Something you desire? / I would willingly do anything to help you; / Indeed I should be heartless, were I to stop my ears / To a general petition such as this.”1 A priest explained the situation. Oedipus, this priest said, knew that things were dire. And everyone knew that Oedipus was the first among mortals in wisdom and ability. Wasn’t there some way Oedipus could help them?

Oedipus said he felt for each and every one of his subjects. He said he, also, was suffering greatly, because while they had their own griefs, he had the griefs of the whole city piled on him, causing him to weep and spend his days in bleak contemplation. King Oedipus told the citizens of Thebes that he hadn’t been idle. In fact, he’d already dispatched his brother-in-law, Creon, to the oracle at Delphi. There, Creon would learn the secret of what could help the Thebans, and their king.

And just then, moments later, a stir in the assembled townspeople drew King Oedipus’ attention. Someone had just arrived. It was Creon, fresh from his consultation with the oracle at Delphi. Creon strode up the palace steps, crowned with a wreath of fragrant bay leaves. He was King Oedipus’ brother-in-law, a shrewd and perceptive man who is a major character in the plays that Sophocles wrote about King Oedipus and the city of Thebes.

Immediately, Oedipus asked his brother-in-law Creon what Creon had learned at Delphi. What was the dark secret that had caused Thebes so much pain and strife? Why were they suffering? Creon was cautious, and asked the king if Oedipus really wanted it aired before a popular assembly. Oedipus said he did, and so Creon replied,
This, then, is the answer, and this the plain command
Of [Apollo] our lord. There is an unclean thing,
Born and nursed on our soil, polluting our soil,
Which must be driven away, not kept to destroy us. (28)

There had, Creon said, been a murder not too long ago. The king, Laius, had been killed in the countryside by an unknown assailant. Apollo wanted the king’s killer brought to justice. This was the only way that the blight would be lifted from the city. [music]

Tiresias and the Mystery of the Old King’s Death

King Oedipus asked his brother-in-law Creon about the killing, which had happened over a decade ago. There had been one survivor, who had said that the king’s party had been infiltrated and killed by robbers, but this account had never been investigated. When King Laius had died, the city was so busy with another crisis that no investigation had gone into the murder. Oedipus said that it was time for the investigation to take place. He was a man of action, and now that he had a way forward, he would take it. They would sort out the identity of the killer, bring him to justice, and lift the awful pestilence from the city of Thebes. Oedipus promised that he would do absolutely anything and everything in his power to make sure that the former king’s killers were apprehended. With these words, Oedipus wheeled and reentered the palace.

A priest assured the assembled citizens that Oedipus would be successful in his inquiries. Heartened by the king’s words, the poor and starving citizens dispersed. They were soon replaced by a different assembly – a chorus of elders from the city of Thebes who will remain a fixture throughout the rest of the play. The old men of Thebes wished earnestly that Athena and Apollo would answer their prayers. Their city was crippled by an epidemic, and the streets reeked with death. The casualties of the plague had become so commonplace that no one even wept over the deaths of children. The old men of the chorus begged Artemis, Dionysus, and other gods to help them. Couldn’t the gods at least stop the deaths that crippled the city?

But no gods arrived to help. Instead, a moment later, Oedipus once again came through the palace doors. He said it was time to sort out the mystery of the former king’s death. He had heard word of the survivor, after all. “If any one of you,” Oedipus said to the Theban elders, “knows whose hand it was / That killed [king] Laius. . .Let him declare it fully, now, to me” (31). Oedipus promised clemency to the perpetrator. Twice Oedipus asked the elders, and twice they were silent, until finally the king promised them that anyone who was purposely keeping the murderer’s identity a secret was, as far as he was concerned, condemned and banished from contact with other citizens and shelter in the city.

Even with this warning, though, the old men of Thebes had nothing to add – only, they recommended that Oedipus summon a great seer, Tiresias. Oedipus said that he had done just this – twice. There had been some rumor that the old prophet had been killed on the way to Thebes, but then, soon enough, the prophet Tiresias appeared.

Tiresias was a blind man, and he had to be escorted in by attendants. Oedipus hailed the old prophet Tiresias, and asked him to help them solve the riddle of the plague that had fallen over Thebes. Tiresias was incomparably wise, wasn’t he? Tiresias would help. Only, the old man’s demeanor was strange. Tiresias told Oedipus that he’d best just go home – and they’d bear their burdens in silence. But Oedipus remonstrated on behalf of the entire city. Tiresias held the secret to their salvation, after all! How could he withhold it? But the old man was obstinate. Tiresias said that in order to spare Oedipus, he refused to tell the king anything, and that that was final.

At this, king Oedipus fumed. The fate of the whole city of Thebes hinged on the inexplicable obduracy of the old prophet. There was only one explanation. Oedipus’ eyes darkened. He said that Tiresias himself was responsible for the city’s miseries – Tiresias was at the heart of some twisted plot.

And this accusation, finally, compelled Tiresias to reveal what he knew. Tiresias looked at Oedipus with hard eyes, and divulged his secret. “You,” he said, “are the cursed polluter of this land. . .The killer you are seeking is yourself. . .I know, as you do not, that you are living / In sinful union with the one you love” (35).

At this, the elders of Thebes remained silent on the palace steps. Oedipus himself was unmoved by Tiresias’ words. The old man was deluded, he said. He was blind – just as he lived in darkness his prophecies were occluded. No, it was worse! Old Tiresias was in league with Oedipus’ brother-in-law Creon! That was it! Yes! Tiresias had none of the gift of prophecy. Who, Oedipus reminded the old prophet, had solved the riddle of the Sphinx? He had! He, Oedipus had solved the riddle of the Sphinx with the native power of his own brain, and not some supposed magical gift of prophecy. And thus, he, Oedipus, was king! If Tiresias weren’t so old and feeble, Oedipus said, Tiresias would pay dearly for his scheming and plotting, and what we might call, “propheteering.”

The two figures stood there on the palace steps, strong Oedipus, a king in his prime, and withered Tiresias, stooped but still in possession of an unyielding self certainty that only aggravated the king further. The confrontation between the two might have become physical, but the chorus of Theban elders intervened. They asked Oedipus and Tiresias to calm down and reconsider the words they’d spoken in anger.

This might have caused caution between the two men. Such consequential matters, after all, might best be discussed behind closed doors. However, the king and the prophet continued their altercation, and as tempers rose, Tiresias revealed what he knew.
The killer of Laius – [he said,] that man is here;
Passing for an alien, a sojourner here among us;
But, as presently shall appear, a Theban born,
To his cost. He that came seeing, blind shall he go;
Rich now, then a beggar; stick-in-hand, groping his way
To a land of exile; brother, as it shall be [known],
And father at once, to the children he cherishes; son,
And husband, to the woman who bore him; father-killer,
And father-supplanter.
Go in, and think on this.
When you can prove me wrong, then call me blind. (38)

With these words, the famous old seer Tiresias left the grounds of the palace. [music]

Oedipus Accuses Creon of Treason

A growing unease gripped the old men of the chorus. These men were not so willing to discount the oracles of Tiresias. There was a rotten secret in Thebes, they said – something disgusting and concealed – some stranger lurking in a cave or forest, hearing constantly deathless voices accusing him of things that he’d done. They couldn’t believe that such putrefaction lay hidden somewhere in their city – but then – the words had been spoken by a prophet, hadn’t they? Then, through the palace doors came Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law, and again generally a steady, civic-minded character in the first of the three Theban plays. Creon was not happy. Creon had heard that he’d been slandered – by the king himself. The chorus confirmed it – yes, Oedipus had accused Creon of being a traitor in league with a false prophet. As Creon fumed, Oedipus came out through the palace doors again. Instantly, he was on the attack. He demanded to know how Creon dared to even come near him. Creon, said Oedipus, was plotting against his life – but, Oedipus said, he was no fool. Creon was the fool – to pursue the crown of Thebes with no money and no allies! King Oedipus and his brother-in-law Creon conversed heatedly. Oedipus again accused Creon of manipulating the prophecies of Tiresaias. Yet Creon objected. He had a great position, he said. He was honored by the king and the queen. Why in the world would he want to swap his comfortable place in the Theban government for the less stable and much more difficult rank of king? Creon said he was happy where he was – he had a position of leadership and was held in universal favor. He had no reason to vie against Oedipus. Creon told Oedipus to ask anyone, or any oracle, for the truth of his motives. He was the king’s honest friend, and time would show Oedipus the truth. Still, Oedipus remained fixated on the notion that Creon was bent on betraying him. Banishment wouldn’t be good enough for the traitor, said Oedipus. He would see Creon dead. As the two seemed about to come to blows, the queen appeared through the palace doors. [music]

Queen Jocasta and the Old Prophecy

Queen Jocasta, whose previous husband had been killed by an unknown assailant in the countryside, did not intend to lose any more family members to violence. Jocasta told her husband and her brother that they should be ashamed by their open bickering. Jocasta heard Oedipus’ accusation and quickly rallied to the support of her brother. Hearing the objections of his wife Jocasta piled on top of the objections of the chorus, king Oedipus conceded that Creon would not be harmed or banished. “Then let him go,” said Oedipus, “even though it mean my death / Or exile in disgrace. Your voice [Jocasta], not his, / Has won my mercy; him I hate forever” (44). And so condemned thusly, Creon left the palace.

Jocasta did not halt her peacemaking efforts. With Creon absent, Jocasta asked the chorus and the king why in the world such grievous charges had been leveled against her brother. Oedipus explained his theory. Creon, he said, had convinced Tiresias to tell everyone that Oedipus had killed the previous king! It was absolutely absurd, said Oedipus – he’d never even met Jocasta’s previous husband, Laius.

And Jocasta agreed that the prophet’s allegations were bizarre. Moreover, queen Jocasta said, all prophecies were absurd. As a matter of fact, she had an example. A prophecy had come to her and Laius – again the former king – a prophecy had come to the couple that Laius would be killed by his own child. And what a stupid prophecy it had been, as Laius had been murdered by foreign brigands. Sure, she and Laius had had a child, but they’d driven metal spikes through its ankles and left it to die on the side of a mountain. Their child was dead, and the prophecy certainly hadn’t come true, Jocasta concluded. The warnings of prophets, ergo, were a lot of drivel.

Jocasta proclaimed all of this in a long speech, and to repeat the gist of queen Jocasta’s speech, just because it’s really important, Jocasta’s previous husband King Laius heard a prophecy that he’d be killed by his own son. Thankfully, they’d acted to prevent the prophecy from coming true. Queen Jocasta and King Laius had taken their son, put metal spikes through his ankles, and left him to die. Hah! Who wouldn’t be made fully at ease by this unapologetic tale of infanticide? Prophecies didn’t inevitably come true, Jocasta indicated. If you were willing to be reasonable, and kill your own children in order to avert them, you really had nothing to worry about.

Now, surprisingly, hearing his wife’s tale of preemptive baby killing didn’t immediately set Oedipus’ mind at ease. Quite the opposite, in fact. “My wife,” he said, “what you have said has troubled me. / My mind goes back. . .and something in me moves. . .” (45).

He began asking her questions about the story she’d told. The old king – Laius – he’d been killed at a place where three roads met, hadn’t he? Yes, Jocasta confirmed. And in what country? She told him. And how long ago was this? She told him this, too. What had Laius looked like? Oedipus asked. Why, he’d had silver hair, and had a frame similar to Oedipus’. How many men had been with him? Five had, she said. Being asked, Jocasta said that a single survivor – a shepherd, had returned, reporting that robbers had attacked Laius and his entourage. But this shepherd had since fled the city. When asked, Jocasta said she could arrange for the servant to be brought to the palace for questioning.

Oedipus was stricken. Oedipus stammered and said he had to talk to this servant, and Jocasta demanded to know what in the world was causing him so much strife. And so king Oedipus began his story.[music]

The Autobiography of King Oedipus

The king’s earliest memories were of his mother and father – the king and queen of Corinth. (Corinth, again, is about 35 miles southwest of Thebes.) Oedipus had been a promising young man in the court of Corinth, until one day, a drunken stranger told young Oedipus that he wasn’t his father’s son. Oedipus asked his parents, and they denied the rumor, and yet Oedipus couldn’t get it out of his head. He went to Delphi, and heard a prophecy so spectacularly awful that it had changed the course of his life. The prophecy he’d heard while a young man at Delphi was that he would marry his own mother, and kill his father.

Joseph Blanc Le meurtre de Laïus

The Death of Laius (1867) by Joseph Blanc. Photo by VladoubidoOo.

The oracle caused him to flee far from Corinth – far to the north, crossing mountains and plains by starlight. No such thing would happen with his parents. He’d never see them again. Out in the country, in a place where three roads conjoined, a carriage driver had threatened young Oedipus, and struck him. Oedipus struck back. And then, from the carriage, a silver haired man had attempted to crush his head with a prod. Oedipus had retaliated with a staff, and the older man fell out of the carriage. When the others had attacked him, Oedipus had killed them all.

Oedipus looked at his wife. The net seemed to be closing. If it had been Laius – if it had – then Oedipus was an abomination – his marriage was an abomination. “Can it be,” Oedipus said, “but some monstrous god / Of evil that has sent this doom upon me?. . .May I be sooner dead / And blotted from the face of earth, than live / to bear the scars of such vile circumstance” (48). He had only one chance, said Oedipus. And this was the possibility that the lone shepherd who had survived the killing of Laius and his men had a single detail correct. This detail was that there had been multiple attackers, or robbers – and – Jocasta emphasized immediately – yes – he had said this – there had been multiple robbers. Jocasta seized on this detail – surely it proved that all such divinations were false, and that prophecies had not come true. The shepherd’s story would prove them wrong. The couple went into the palace to arrange for the shepherd’s summons.

Now, there’s a funny quirk in the story here, by the way. Queen Jocasta and King Laius, if you remember the Queen’s story, pierced the baby’s ankles with a rivet. It is a – uh – rather strange thing that it occurs to neither Oedipus nor Jocasta to take a quick gander at Oedipus’ ankles. Or that the fact that his name means “swollen foot,” after the way that his ankles are misshapen after being mutilated when he was a baby. But that’s not the path that they take. Ignore the tangible physical evidence right at hand – or at foot, I guess – and await the possibly inaccurate recollections of a missing sheepherder. Bulletproof. Anyway, let’s move on. [music]

The Corinthian Shepherd Turned Messenger

Alone on the steps, and unnerved by all the dark truths that seemed to be emerging the chorus of old Theban men hoped for faith to continue going on. They said that pride led to sacrilege. They prayed that Zeus would help sort out the horrors that had befallen the city, because the prophecies of Apollo had been called into question. As they ended on a bleak note, Queen Jocasta came out of the palace. She carried a flowery branch in one hand, and incense in the other.

The queen said Oedipus was in a state of shock – there was nothing – at the moment – that could be done to comfort him. Jocasta prayed to Apollo, “Save us from the curse of this uncleanness, save! / We are afraid, seeing our master-pilot distraught” (50). As Jocasta made offerings to Apollo at the altars on the palace steps, a messenger arrived.

He was from Corinth, he said. And he had great news. Oedipus was now to be the king of Corinth. His father, the aging king of Corinth, had passed away of natural causes. Jocasta was elated. Oedipus hadn’t killed his father, after all! She sent word for him and he came back out onto the steps. Jocasta told him the news, and Oedipus was greatly relieved. He took the opportunity to dismiss the validity of prophecy again – his father in Corinth had died, and he’d had no hand in it – the false prophecy from Delphi was as dead as the dead King of Corinth.

Yet in spite of this decisive pronouncement, Oedipus said he was still apprehensive. His mother remained alive down in Corinth, after all. The dark prophecy hadn’t quite been done away with. The messenger from Corinth was puzzled. Oedipus should come home, he said. He should have come home a long time ago. After all, said the messenger, there had never been a danger of his killing his father in Corinth, or marrying his mother there, since the king and queen of Corinth weren’t his real parents.

Oedipus stared at the messenger. Why, then, he asked, had he ever – why had anyone ever believed that he was the son of the King of Corinth? “I will tell you,” said the Messenger. “You were given to [the King of Corinth] – by me” (53). [music]

The Tale of the Two Kind Shepherds

The messenger then told his story. He said found Oedipus in a hollow – a concavity of rock in the mountains where trees had sheltered the little baby from the wind. Back in those days, the messenger said, he’d been a shepherd. And he’d found the baby with metal rivets through his ankles, which was why the shepherd had named him “Oedipus,” which, again, means “swollen-foot” in Greek. And Oedipus admitted that he still bore the strange marks of the ankle injuries.

The injured baby Oedipus hadn’t just been left there to die. In fact, one of old King Laius’ servants was there in the hollow, and this servant had given the injured baby to the Corinthian shepherd. Where was this servant? Oedipus asked. Could he still be found in Thebes? And the messenger from Corinth said that indeed the man could. This Theban servant of King Laius who had once given baby Oedipus away was the very same one who, later, years after, had seen the killing of King Laius in the countryside and escaped to tell about it. The man, Oedipus said, had to be found! He was the missing piece of the puzzle – the one that held all the answers.

Only Jocasta’s demeanor had changed. She was pale as a ghost. “What does it matter. . .?” she asked Oedipus. “It makes no difference now. . .Forget what he has told you. . .It makes no difference” (54). Oedipus said of course it made a difference – he’d caught wind of the truth and would pursue it at any cost. And Jocasta pleaded that if Oedipus wanted to live, he needed to stop right there – she had already suffered enough.

But Oedipus would not hear it. He said that even if the truth were ugly, it needed to come out. The chorus fretted about Oedipus – who was he, actually – was he even a human child? But in the midst of their ruminations, Oedipus and the chorus saw someone approaching – a final stranger to complete the hidden portions of the king’s history.

The Theban Shepherd and Witness

It was the Theban shepherd – the old man who, according to rumor, had given Oedipus away to the Corinthians and also witnessed the killing of King Laius and lived to tell about it. The old man was questioned, and he revealed that long ago he had known the another old man – the Corinthian, back when they’d each had flocks of sheep in the borderlands between Thebes and Corinth. When asked, though, the old Theban shepherd everyone had been looking for was reluctant to talk about swapping the baby Oedipus all those years ago.

The old Theban shepherd again and again told the assembly they should leave the matter to rest – that no good would come of the information he had. But Oedipus was relentless in his pursuit of the truth. He threatened the old man with death and had him held by the arms. After extensive questioning, the old Theban shepherd revealed the full story. The baby, he said, was the son of King Laius and Queen Jocasta. They’d given it to him, so that he’d kill it. But, said the shepherd, he couldn’t kill the baby. Even knowing the prophecy that the baby would kill its father – even knowing this – the shepherd said couldn’t take an innocent life. He’d believed that the baby would be taken far away, and never see its parents. But instead it had come home.[music]

The Truth Dawns on Oedipus

Oedipus was shattered. Everything, he said, had been brought into the light and he no longer wanted any light. Muttering that his birth, and his marriage, and his killings had all been the blackest sins, Oedipus went back into the palace, and the two old shepherds so pivotal to his story also left. The old men of Thebes voiced a gloomy lamentation – Oedipus, they said, was a parable for all humanity, for he’d moved with such certainty – such strength and surety – and yet he’d been powerless to resist the fate ordained to him. There was nothing else to be said about it. The whole kingdom would have to live with the darkness.

And then, an attendant came out onstage. Gruesome things, he said, had happened in the palace. The queen had taken her own life. After wailing bitterly that she’d made a husband with her husband, and that she’d begotten children with her child, Jocasta had hung herself. Oedipus had stormed into her bedchambers to find her hanging in a noose, swaying back and forth. Seeing his mother and wife dead, Oedipus rushed up to her corpse in desperation.
Her dress [said the attendant] was pinned
With golden brooches, which the King snatched out
And thrust, from full arm’s length, into his eyes –
Eyes that should see no longer his shame, his guilt,
No longer see those they should never have seen,
Nor see, unseeing, those he had longed to see,
Henceforth seeing nothing but night. . .To this wild tune
He pierced his eyeballs time and time again,
Till bloody tears ran down his beard – not drops
But full spate a whole cascade descending
In drenching cataracts of scarlet rain. (61)

That again is the E.F. Watling translation, published by Penguin in 1974. The messenger continued his story. Oedipus, he said, was still alive. Oedipus wanted his citizens to look on him, and understand the full depths of his shame. And so the palace doors opened one last time, and Oedipus came out onto the stage, his face a gory mess, red holes in the places where his eyes had been. It was all night him thereafter, he said. Lights out. He did not want to see a world of unmitigated ugliness. Nothing lay ahead for him. Death, he said, would have blessed him long ago if it had taken him. He was the husband of his mother – his sons were also his brothers – and there was nothing ignominious of which he was not guilty.

How could he ever face his parents in the afterlife, he asked? How could he look at his children? Or at the proud towers of Thebes, or the scrutiny of its citizens? Oedipus stumbled down the palace steps, leaking blood and groping at the chorus, recollecting the full extent of his immoralities. He said he’d speak no more of any of it, and asked them to drown him in the deepest part of the ocean. The chorus withdrew from the terrifying and blood splattered visage of the king.

And then Creon appeared. Creon said he wasn’t there to mock Oedipus’ suffering. The poor king should be brought inside. Such inhuman misery shouldn’t be brought before the public, Creon said. Oedipus thanked his brother-in-law for his gentleness, and forgiveness. He said he hoped that Creon would make arrangements, and that Jocasta would have a suitable burial. As for himself, Oedipus said, it was time for him to leave Thebes for good. He was the core of the city’s curse. He’d go to the mountains – to the very mountain where his parents had wanted him to die. And he’d stay there until death took him.

Bénigne Gagneraux, The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods

Bénigne Gagneraux’s The Blind Oedipus Commending his Children to the Gods (1784).

His two boys, he said, would be fine. But the girls – the girls – he’d loved them deeply and had always spent time with them. His two daughters, Ismene and Antigone, were there, and he heard them crying. In the midst of his great grief he could be nothing less than honest. The two girls, Oedipus said – they would have hard lives. They would have trouble finding husbands who could overlook the grotesque circumstances of their births. He begged Creon to take care of the girls, and the other man wordlessly clasped his hand in assent. Oedipus was overcome at his brother-in-law’s forgiveness. And Oedipus said to his daughters, “[I]n your prayers ask this: that you may live / Not more nor less than well, and so live better / Than did your father” (67). Creon told Oedipus it was time to part from the girls, and, reluctant but satisfied, the broken, blinded king went back into the palace, his rule ended. The Chorus voiced a final speech, praising the great heroism and intelligence of Oedipus, and saying that Oedipus was proof that grandeur gave way to misfortune, and that the only stability and serenity granted to mortals was the peace that came to them with death. And that’s the end. [music]

Another Tale of Hubris Chastised?

Well, I hope you liked that. And I hope that if you’ve never read it or watched the play, you get a chance to do so. The philosopher Aristotle thought that Oedipus the King was the most superb of all Greek plays, particularly because of its construction. Aristotle wrote that a “plot ought to be so constructed that, even without the aid of the eye, he who hears the tale told will thrill with horror and melt with pity at what takes place. This is the impression we. . .receive from hearing the story of. . .Oedipus.”2 The pages of Oedipus the King, when you read them yourself – they’re like a funnel – a perfectly designed funnel – from line to line and scene to scene, things get progressively more constricted. Characters appear and fill in more and more of the story, until all the facts are laid bare, and you feel, like Oedipus, that some giant, ineluctable force beyond human control is compelling the play to its dark conclusion.

You remember the Sphinx’s riddle – four legs in the morning, two legs in the afternoon, and three legs in the evening? The main idea of this episode – again its title, “Two Legs in the Afternoon,” is that in his prime King Oedipus was a powerful, brilliant leader who sought the truth against the warnings of the people he knew. On the two legs of his magnificent adulthood, Oedipus defeated the Sphinx, sired heirs, and brought Thebes to great heights of prosperity. But this prosperity didn’t last. The dead Sphinx’s riddle is also a curse. In one of the play’s more famous lines, the old prophet Tiresias warns Oedipus, “He that came seeing, blind shall he go; / Rich now, then a beggar; stick-in-hand, groping his way / To a land of exile.” Tiresias foresees the eyeless, withered Oedipus, reduced to the three legs of his final years, and the play ends in just this way. The king is blind, powerless, and defunct.

So what does it mean? Is it just another story about hubris being punished by vastly superior forces – another story of Gilgamesh seeking eternal life against all odds, or Adam and Eve trying to gain the knowledge of the gods, or the careening heights of the Tower of Babel, or proud Prometheus pursuing fire, or arrogant Agamemnon wronging his wife and his best warrior? Is Oedipus the King just a tale of a self-assured man on two legs in the afternoon of his life whose reckless pursuit of the truth leads to his destruction? Is that it? Yet another story of hubris chastened by supernatural power?

Well, yeah. Or, let’s say that we can at least partly understand Oedipus the King as one of a number of major works of world literature about exceptional men and women who reach too far, and are punished for their actions. But that’s not the end of the story. Far from it. [music]

Golden Age Athens and the Riddle of the Sphinx

It’s time to talk about what was happening in Athens in the 420s – the place and time when Oedipus the King saw its world premiere. As we move through our eleven shows on Ancient Greek Theater, we’re going to be zipping all over the 400s BCE. Today, we’ll focus on the 420s. But before we get there, let’s take thirty seconds and look at the 400s BCE as a whole, in some – sort of – Golden Age Athens bullet points – the same ones we went over a few episodes back, only with a special emphasis on Oedipus the King.

Bullet point one. At the beginning of the 400s, the Greco-Persian wars took place – from about 499 until 479. These were the wars in which the battle of Thermopylae took place, the great naval battle at Salamis in 480, and the decisive victory at the battle of Plataea the next year. When the Athenians won the battle of Salamis, a sixteen-year-old Sophocles was selected to lead a ceremonial procession. He was chosen because he seemed to his elders to embody the spirit of Athenian youth. Victory in the Greco-Persian wars meant that the city of Athens was no longer crawling along on four legs in the morning of its young democracy. The Greco-Persian wars caused the Athenian system to mature, and to mature quickly. So, bullet point one, again, the Greco-Persian wars raged for the first twenty years of the 400s BCE before leading Greek city-states, to the shock of the Persian empire, emerged triumphant.

Next bullet point. Throughout the middle of the 400s, Athens became the preeminent authority in the Aegean world. It built an enormous empire. Athens was the controlling power of an organization called the Delian league, a naval confederation which nominally protected outlying areas of the Aegean but almost always served the interests of Athens itself. Athens’ silver mines caused the city to become fantastically rich. You could say that the middle part of the 400s was the blazing bright afternoon of the city of Athens, during which it marched on two legs around the provinces of its empire, squishing tax revenue out of islanders and smashing triremes into anyone who opposed it. So, again, second Golden Age Athens bullet point, the summit of Athens’ prominence was the mid-400s.

Okay, third bullet point. The Peloponnesian War. This twenty-seven year war began in 431 and involved all the major powers in the Aegean. Now, the history of this war is quite complicated. The preeminent historian on the subject, Donald Kagan, includes at least four hundred thousand maps in his three volume history of the Peloponnesian War. That’s a slight exaggeration, but we’ll talk a lot about this war a lot in the next handful of shows, because it dominated the life of Aristophanes, and the later lives of Sophocles and Euripides. But to stick to bullet point form, I’ll tell you this. On the left side of the Peloponnesian rumble were Sparta, Corinth, Thebes, and some other heavyweights. On the right side were Athens and its colonies in the rim of the Aegean. To be historically accurate, you could say that everyone involved in this war lost. But nominally, in late April of 404, Athens surrendered, and Sparta assumed control over the city. Of course it wasn’t the curtain close for all Athenian history. But for the generation who’d seen Athens’ glory during the middle 400s, the surrender to Sparta seemed like the end of their history – perhaps even like the city had become an old, feeble man, who could, in the twilight of his years, only hobble with a cane. So that third bullet point, from the years of 431 to 404, the Peloponnesian war ground the Greek world into pulp.

Now, that’s the history of Golden Age Athens in three bullet points. Greco-Persian Wars, Athenian Empire, and Peloponnesian War – morning, noon, and evening. Sophocles was at the middle of it all. Sophocles was born in 496 – many sources say he was the son of a sword manufacturer, or some other kind of prosperous businessman, and that he received a fine education. And Sophocles died in 405 BCE, just before the end of the Peloponnesian War. So our writer for today had the unique opportunity, over the course of his unusually long ninety years of life, to see the youth, adulthood, and decline of Athens’ first phase of democracy. And Sophocles himself was a major part of this democracy. Sophocles is said to have produced 123 plays (although just seven of them survive now) – and these 123 plays caused him to win the Dionysia eighteen times. One of these victories, in 441 BCE, caused Sophocles to be elected to the position of general, and he helped spearhead a campaign against the nation of Samos in the eastern Aegean that same year. By the way you did hear that, didn’t you? Sophocles got elected to the position of general, for writing a good play. It would be like if we Americans said, “Hey, Lin-Manuel Miranda, great job on the musical Hamilton, bro! – here’s an aircraft carrier – get out there and take on the enemy.” That would be very strange for everyone involved. Anyway, so Sophocles was a super-duper important Athenian who witnessed almost the entire rise and fall of Athens throughout the 400s – the era of the city’s four legs, and two legs, and three legs. Now, let’s zoom in a little bit to the beginning of that last part, and talk more about the 420s.

The Parthenon: Emblem of Ancient Athens’ High Noon

Atop the Acropolis in Athens, there stands a structure called the Parthenon. This structure, dedicated to Athena, is built out of twenty thousand tons of marble. The Parthenon’s nearly five storey columns tower above the city of Athens, and its crown and frieze are even taller. The temple is nearly 23,000 square feet, or 2,200 square meters, in size. If you stand at the bases of its columns and look upward, you can still see a miracle of ancient architecture that’s part of the Parthenon’s design. Now, architecture constructed at strict right angles, when you look at it from the ground, can appear slightly bent to our eyes. But, in ancient times, a network of delicate bends and cambers are built into the Parthenon in order make its vast columns appear utterly, majestically straight, and immune to the distortions of human perception.3

The Areopagus, or rock of Mars, in present day Athens, with the Acropolis and Parthenon in the background. Photo by Templar52.

When the Parthenon was first constructed between the years of 447 and 432 in Athens – when citizens like Sophocles watched this august monument rise from the rubble of the Acropolis – they knew that the Parthenon was an emblem of their civilization. It was daring in its size and scope. It was peerless in its technical sophistication. And in its decorations and finery, it had few rivals in the ancient world. The Parthenon was stocked full of gorgeous marble sculptures, carved by the chisel of Phidias, one of the greatest artists in human history. And the Parthenon’s frieze – that’s the rim around the top of the temple, and its tympanum, or the triangular area at the top of each end, had truly unique designs. The Acropolis’ frieze and tympanum were not covered with carvings of Gods or mythical beings. The Acropolis’ exterior was instead covered with sculptures of the Athenian citizens themselves, idealized to appear timelessly beautiful as they gazed out over the city’s rooftops.4 The Parthenon, and the vivid, graceful and lifelike sculptures all around it, told the story of Athens in the middle part of the 400s. In 432, the Parthenon’s decorations were finally finished, promising a glorious future. And the next year, in 431, the Peloponnesian War began, promising something else. Let’s talk about the Peloponnesian War in just a little more detail.

The Beginning of the Peloponnesian War

As proper historians on the subject, like Donald Kagan, John Hale, Thomas Martin, and, of course Thucydides – as real historians on the Peloponnesian War tell it, this war’s causes span backward to a generations old rivalry between Athens in the southeastern part of mainland Greece, and Sparta down to the southwest, on the giant landmass of the Peloponnesian Peninsula. It was an old rivalry that occasionally flared up into war. Greece, perennially, just wasn’t big enough for the two civilizations, or the egos of its leaders.

Over the course of the mid-400s, Sparta saw Athens rise to various achievements like the Parthenon. Sparta saw Athens grow an empire at a blindingly fast rate. Sparta saw Athens become exceptionally wealthy by means of its silver mines and overseas colonies. And most of all, Sparta saw Athens controlling the oceans of the eastern Mediterranean. The Athenians were the greatest mariners the world had yet known. Sophocles and his people were so saturated with the notion of themselves as rowers, and navigators, and shipbuilders that in the play you’ve just heard, Jocasta calls King Oedipus “our master-pilot,” as though a kingdom is fleet of ships, and its king the admiral. So Sparta saw Athens tightening its grip on the Aegean world and filling Greece’s waterways with its ships. And Sparta acted.

The war began as many wars do. Large powers were squabbling over a small place. Specifically, in 430 BCE, Athens allied itself with the small island of Corcyra against the forces of Corinth, one of Sparta’s allies. A naval battle near the mouth of the Adriatic Sea saw Athens lose narrowly, and after these hostilities, Spartan and Athenian allies began consolidating into opposing camps.

Things quickly grew worse. In the northern Aegean, on the other side of the Greek mainland, there was a city called Potidaea. Potidaea was within Athenian territory, but its allegiances were to Corinth, again, a Spartan ally. Athens sent fleets north, to Potidaea, to protect its interests in the region. And to the Spartans, these two acts of maritime aggression in the same year were a sign that something they’d long suspected would happen was finally taking place. Athens, it seemed, was trying to cut pieces away from Sparta and its allies. Something had to be done.

Spartan authorities issued an ultimatum. Athens, Sparta said, had to immediately end the siege at Potidaea. Athens, Sparta said, had to relinquish control over the island of Aegina, an important city just south of Athens. And, Sparta demanded, Athens had to lift a boycott against the city of Megara, a Spartan ally – a boycott which crippled Megara’s commercial abilities at sea. If Athens didn’t meet these demands, the Athenians would face Spartan phalanxes – the military engine of a civilization that prized bravery and strength in battle above all other qualities. Nobody wanted to go to war with Sparta. But nobody wanted to go to war with Athens, either. Athenian fleets could move faster than any other armed force in the ancient world. Send a land army against them and they’d be sacking your home city as soon as you were a few days out. And the Athenians were rich – rich beyond compare.

For two years, neither side struck. Sophocles and his countrymen watched the year of 431 draw to a close. Both Athens and Sparta were thinking logically. Athens didn’t want to give any up any of its client states or imperial territories. And Sparta didn’t want Athens to continue snatching up territories all over the Aegean Sea. But while each city, over these two years, remained cognizant of its own interests, a gritty refusal to compromise – particularly on the part of Athens, caused tensions to swell, and animosities to entrench. Athens, and its much loved and decorated ruler Pericles, would not lift its commercial restrictions over the Spartan ally, Megara. And Athens persisted in its siege against Potidaea in the northern Aegean. And the balance of power trembled.

And then a regional scuffle finally fanned the flames of all out war. Some citizens of Oedipus’ home city, Thebes, attacked a small town nearby called Plataea. Now, in peacetime, such hostilities might have been a regional scuffle. They might have seemed typical within the perpetual squabbling of Greece’s unruly city states. But Thebes was a Spartan ally. And Plataea was an Athenian ally. In 430, in response to the violence in the north, Sparta finally dispatched its armies to make war on Athens. And there were far more than three hundred Spartans, this time. [music]

Summer of 430: The Periclean Strategy

Athens’ strategy during the opening months and then years of the war was fairly unique within ancient military history. And scholars of Ancient Greek Theater generally agree that this strategy, and the effect that it had on the lives of the Athenian people, helped shape the play Oedipus the King. So, what was this strategy?

1784 Bocage Map of the City of Athens in Ancient Greece - Geographicus - AthensPlan2-white-1793

Piraeus and Athens, with the Long Walls. The year that Oedipus the King was staged, Athenians and the rural folk from nearby were confined to this small area.

Athens, in addition to its great theater of Dionysus, and its vast Acropolis, and the spectacular new Parthenon that had just been finished at the outset of the Peloponnesian War – Athens had some other unique construction projects, including one I haven’t told you about, yet. I want you to picture a bone – like a dog bone – with nubs on each end, but narrower in the middle. It stretches from the southwest to northeast. This was the shape of Athens during the Peloponnesian War. Athens had strong fortifications that kept it safe on all sides. And just as importantly, a corridor called the Long Walls led from the city center in the northeast – the upper right hand nub of the bone, down to the shipyards in the southwest – the lower left hand nub of the bone.

Military technology at this particular juncture in ancient history had not evolved to a point at which a land army could break through the walls of Athens. And the Athenians could never be starved out, because they had fully armored access to the oceans, the blue highway that could bring in all the vast resources of their empire. The reasoning of the Athenian ruler Pericles was simple. Let the Spartan butchers come. Let them form their lines up outside the city and butt their helmets against the walls. They’d never get inside. And meanwhile, Athens had gigantic stores of wealth, and it could move around the oceans with impunity, obliterating Spartan allies along the coast while the main Spartan force scratched their spears on the unbreakable walls of Athens by day and snuggled by their camp fires at night. Pericles’ plan – the Athenian plan, was to use agile naval power and the greater financial resources of the Athenian Empire to wear down Spartan resolve with minimal cost to the people of Athens.

It was a great strategy. Almost everything worked as planned during the campaign season of 430. Athenians even moved their livestock to the large island of Euboea, which could be defended with a naval force. That year, the Spartans arrived as they’d threatened to. They knew they couldn’t breach the walls of Athens, and so they torched the countryside around the city, burning farms and groves, looting treasure that had been left behind during the general evacuation to the city. Athenians, as had been their plan, slashed away at the coastal cities of the Peloponnese, making it clear that hostilities against their countryside would not go unanswered.

Athens emerged from the first year of the war strong. Its treasury was still stocked, and its vessels still roamed the Aegean. It had even begun the design of vessels that could transport horses, so that a cavalry could join the Athenian infantry that was blasting all around the ocean in triremes. Nonetheless, there were still some problems that Athens, and particularly its leadership, faced. One ruler – again Pericles – had been the architect of the plan to hide behind the walls and use the city’s navy to lash out against Sparta and its allies. One problem with this plan was that Athens became overcrowded, and citizens from outlying areas had to watch during the summer of 430 as their orchards, and vineyards, and ancestral homelands went up in flames. During this first year of the siege, the Athenian citizenry was keenly conscious that it had placed all of its livelihood – everything it had – in the strategies of Pericles, and the leadership of Athens.

Still, though the city was overcrowded and a cross section of the citizenry was growling about losing their homes and farms, things looked good for Athens. The Parthenon still stood proudly atop the Acropolis, an emblem of the daring, innovative spirit of the city. Though it had seen smoke from the burning farms and groves, the frieze of stone Athenians around the Parthenon’s topmost rim, like the Athenians themselves, stood proud and resolved as the first campaign season of the Peloponnesian War drew to a close. Only, then something happened that no one in all of Greece could have predicted. [music]

Horror Behind the Siege Walls

When plagues and epidemics come, people tend to react in a certain way. It was the case with the Antonine Plague that ravaged the Roman Empire in the second century CE, and the plague that almost wiped out Justinian and the Byzantine Empire in the 540s and the Black Death that climaxed in the 1340s and killed half of Europe. The plague that came to Athens in 430 BCE was no exception. In the second year of the Peloponnesian War, through Athens’ shipyards came grain shipments from faraway Egypt. These shipments brought something with them – it may have been an early outbreak of the bubonic plague, or typhus, smallpox, or measles. Whatever it was, in the years that it ravaged Athens, the plague killed a third of the city’s hoplites. Citizens and soldiers alike were carted into mass graves. And everywhere, Athenians, just as later Romans and Christians did, wondered whether their gods had abandoned them to total annihilation.

Being a plague, maybe you’d think that it struck all of Greece, and the Spartans suffered as many losses as the Athenians. But they didn’t. The Spartans were not crammed together behind siege walls. The Spartans didn’t import their grain from the Nile – they used their own grain from the vast fields of the Peloponnese. The plague seemed to be a scourge on Athens itself.

Thucydides, the Athenian historian from whom we get most of our facts about the Peloponnesian War, suffered from the plague, but he survived it. Athens’ leader Pericles, however, died of the plague in 429. Ever since Pericles become involved in public life in the late 470s, for over 40 years, Pericles had been the first citizen of Athens – he had in many ways been the master builder who’d engineered the city’s meteoric rise to prominence. His death meant that Athens had lost one of the greatest leaders and administrators in human history. Within the walls of Athens, as they suffered the chest pains, and open sores, and bloody vomiting of the plague, the Athenian citizens must have felt his loss especially keenly.

Pericles had been the son of a politician and noblewoman. The men who replaced him were of less favorable birth – a livestock dealer, a silver mining magnate, and a man who manufactured leather.5 They were self made men of the new era, and, while certainly respectable in their own way, they lacked the unique pedigree and accomplishments of the newly dead Pericles. So as the plague roiled through Athens, and as Sparta and its allies sharpened their weapons for another year of war, as Athenians saw their greatest citizen pass and looked into the murk of an uncertain future – it was in this year, 429 BCE, when Oedipus the King was probably staged for the first time.6

The play Oedipus the King was staged during the precise moment when the inveterate glory of Athens showed sudden signs of being fatally wounded. And the entirety of the play, with its perfectly compressed design, can be thought of as an outcry of fear and uncertainty at the sudden misfortunes that had confronted the Athenian people in the black spring of 429 BCE.

Oedipus the King even opens with a plague. The city of Thebes, just like the city of Athens in 429, is blighted with sickness. Citizens are dying. Horrible carnage reeks in the streets. And there is a pervasive sense that something – something beyond merely the plague – is wrong in the city – some unclean thing that goes against the world’s natural order. Just as Oedipus has a dark and blasphemous secret, the citizens of Athens must have wondered about their dead or dying leader’s strategy. Had it really been a good plan to hide behind the walls while the smoke of their abandoned farmlands roiled overhead all year? Wasn’t the Athenian plague, like the Theban plague in Sophocles’ play, evidence that something had gone gruesomely wrong?

Well, in spite of the calamities that they faced, the Athenians of 430 didn’t lose hope. The Thebans in Sophocles’ play possessed a courageous leader – a man of action and ingenuity. And the Athenians in Sophocles’ audience, though they were losing or had just lost Pericles – Sophocles’ audience was still surrounded by glory as well as death. Just a hundred meters behind them, the blindingly beautiful Parthenon held the glow of the afternoon sunshine, its supernaturally straight columns extending into the blazing blue sky. And the Long Walls that led out to the shipyards – these walls had let in the plague, but they still remained Athens’ best hope of winning the war. Out on the blue waters of the Aegean, the Athenians were still sovereign. Weren’t they?

The experience that Oedipus himself has during Oedipus the King was the experience of the Athenian citizen of 429 BCE. Both had experienced peerless successes. Both marched sovereign through the lands of Greece on the two legs of their afternoon grandeur. Both showed courage and intelligence in the face of danger. And both Oedipus himself, and the Athenians of 429 BCE were at a point – all of a sudden – made aware that a rotting, inescapable darkness could and might well overtake them, regardless of the seeming splendor and spotlessness of their history up to that point. That looming, thunderous, ever-increasing dread that fills Oedipus the King, that clinches and compresses and strangles from scene to scene – while to modern readers this sense of inevitable fate might make the plot of the play rather predictable – to Sophocles’ original audience the slow, suffocating action of the plot must have been dreadfully powerful.

History shows us that plagues always cause an intensity of religious sentiment. What happened in Athens in 430 and 429 was no exception. There was the usual forked sentiment that either there were no gods at all, since all devotion to them had proved in vain, or maybe that the plague’s sufferers had done something wrong to have the plague sent against them. Whatever the Athenians believed about their gods, the destruction wrought by the plague made the city a chaotic, amoral jumble. Thucydides writes that:
“The sacred places. . .were full of corpses of persons that had died there, just as they were; for as the disaster passed all bounds, men, not knowing what was to become of them, became utterly careless of everything, whether sacred or profane. All the burial rites before in use were entirely upset.”7

Thucydides adds that so many corpses needed to be burned that it wasn’t uncommon for a ceremonial funeral pyre to be interrupted by a stranger throwing a second, or even third corpse onto the one already burning. People, Thucydides writes, began to wonder about an old prophecy, a prophecy which, as Thucydides quotes is, was that “A Dorian war [or a war with Sparta] shall come and with it death” (133). And as for the Spartans, they had heard a prophecy, too – and they had been told that “if they put their might into it, victory would be theirs, and. . . [w]ith this oracle events were supposed to tally” (134).

So think about that. The audience who went to watch the play Oedipus the King, which was about a dark prophecy made upon the birth of a child, were thinking about a similar dark prophecy that had been uttered against their city. A war with Sparta, they had been told, would come. And that war would, however many shiny gilded statues and fluted columns were built atop the Athenian Acropolis – that war would do them in. Surely, as they watched Sophocles’ play about the unfolding of Oedipus’ prophecy in Oedipus’ plagued city, some of the Athenians were thinking about their own prophecy, which seemed to be coming true behind the suffocating walls of their own city.

Oedipus is kind of a tug of war between two different views of time. One of them is the older one – the Homeric worldview I talked about back in Episode 14 – this notion that time and fate are an Ouroboros serpent, perpetually devouring itself, with humankind caught powerless in the gorgeous violence of its spin cycle. But a newer view of time seemed to be the Athenian one of the 400s BCE – the view of the history of a city-state that had risen from the four legs of its childhood and, through brilliant leadership and technological innovation, muscled itself into the position of sovereign over the Greek world. One needn’t succumb to the bludgeoning of fate, the fortunes of Athens seemed to prove. One could determine one’s own fate.

The truth of Oedipus’ prophecy – that he would kill his father and marry his mother – is in constant discussion throughout Oedipus the King. The shepherd who gives Oedipus over to the Corinthians doesn’t believe it. Oedipus himself believes he has the ability to control his own destiny. Jocasta, later in the play, once Oedipus’ Corinthian father dies, gleefully announces that the prophecy was all fake. But we, and Oedipus, soon learn the truth. Everything that the oracle said at his birth comes true. And analogously, as they watched the closing scenes of Oedipus the King around the spring equinox of 429 BCE, Athenians inclined to belief in prophecy would have drawn a very clear conclusion. Oracles were real. Men – and whole civilizations – walked on four legs, then two legs, then three legs. The Ouroboros serpent turned, and it ate everything. There were no exceptions. [music]

Sophocles, Doubt, and Agnosticism

There’s just one more twist I want to offer you before we leave this most famous of Ancient Greek Plays. The great classics scholar Bernard Knox writes that the end of Oedipus “is a tremendous reassertion of the traditional religious view that man is ignorant, that knowledge belongs only to the gods.”8 That seems to be the whole thrust of the play, doesn’t it? Don’t be overly prideful or question divine mandate, an oracle of Delphi is the word of Apollo, men are weak but gods are all-knowing, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah. But wait. There are some problems with this approach. Problems that make Oedipus the King an even more delicious and complex piece of theatrical history.


The philosopher Democritus. We talk more about Democritus, Epicurus, Lucretius, and the history of atomic materialism in the ancient world in later episodes.

Unlike most other works of Greek tragedy, there aren’t actually any gods onstage in Oedipus the King. For a play that seems to make a towering statement about the inevitability of divine prophecy, this is a bit strange. But actually prophecy – and indeed religion in general – had many dissidents during the mid to late 400s in Athens. Thucydides, who tells us about the prophecies that had been uttered that Athens would fall – Thucydides dismisses these prophecies as superstition. During the 400s great temples to gods – like the Parthenon – were erected in Athens. But new schools of thought were also born. The purportedly vast works of the philosopher Democritus proposed mechanistic, atomic causes to events in the universe. The work of sophists like the radical philosopher Protagoras painted a relativistic view of the universe and favored agnosticism over the traditional religions of Athens.

So atomic materialism, and agnosticism, were alive and well in living in Sophocles’ Athens. It was a theologically diverse city where something like modern physics was already making inroads. And this one – this is the kicker. The events of Oedipus the King do not spin into motion because foolish mortals don’t believe in prophecy. Every single person in the play – especially Oedipus himself, believes in the danger of the prophecy uttered against him. Because he believes in this prophecy – exactly because he believes that the Oracle at Delphi is a source of truth, Oedipus flees from Corinth. His doom does not come from flagrant disrespect of prophecy. It comes instead from reverence and dread toward prophecy. There are other, similar stories in Greek mythology about sons prophesized to kill fathers – sons who believe the prophecies and unwittingly fulfill them.9 You can walk away from Oedipus the King with the notion that prophecy comes true. But you can just as easily walk away from it with the notion that people make terrible things happen in a godless world because they act on bizarre oracles that would otherwise have no basis in reality.

Well, we’re not going to figure out whether or not Oedipus the King drives home the idea of divine prophecy, or whether the play undermines this divine prophecy. The main idea of this episode has been that in the war torn, plagued, and still somehow promising pressure cooker of the city of Athens in 429 BCE, as those Athenians sat in the Theater of Dionysus with the lavish and exquisite Parthenon just a hundred meters behind them, they must have felt that simultaneous sense of doom and grandeur, of powerlessness and self determination that pervades every page of Oedipus the King. In the late afternoon of their city’s first phase, they abruptly wondered if they, like the damned king in the play, would soon fall into a long gloom of evening, hobbling along on three legs until they were overtaken by dusk. [music]

Moving on to Oedipus at Colonus

You know, of all the things posterity could have taken from this great play, it’s funny and a bit sad that the only thing people seem to remember about it is its tagline – that it’s about a man who kills his father and marries his mother. That tagline is the one thing that people seem to remember about this play – not the overall themes of supernatural prophecy, or the human condition, or all the ties the plays has to the siege and plague at Athens and the unfolding of the Peloponnesian War. Sigmund Freud, who’s brilliant sixty percent of the time and bananas the other forty, is probably partly responsible, having come up with the idea of the Oedipus complex in his 1899 book The Interpretation of Dreams.

But as we’ve seen today, the story of Oedipus is complex enough without the Oedipus complex. And next time, we’re going to see what happened to the fallen hero and his four children. The story of Oedipus at Colonus, written at the end of the Peloponnesian War and produced the year after Sophocles died, explores how hope, and strength, and will, and love can persist even the midst of devastating defeats. The very last of Sophocles’ 123 plays, Oedipus at Colonus is the swan song of Classical Athenian drama. Like its predecessor, it is the story of a whole generation’s experience – a generation that found itself like blind, wandering Oedipus, in the midst of a new and unrecognizable reality that threatened to forget about it. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and if you want to hear a song, I’ve got one for you. Otherwise, I’ll see you very soon.

Still listening? Alright, great. So I got to thinking, as usual, about how to take a great work of literature and squish it into a ludicrous little musical number. In this case, I got to wondering about what Oedipus’ story would sound like, if somebody set it to some heavy beats and made it into a hip hop song. So I recorded the following ditty, which is simply called “Oedipus the King,” in which the titular character raps about his roots, his experiences, and, eventually, his misfortunes. This one, I have also made into a YouTube cartoon, with some special little inside jokes in it – if you happen to need a comedic cartoon that tells the whole story of Sophocles’ Oedipus the King in just a few minutes, check out literatureandhistory.com. In fact, as a reminder, all of this podcast’s songs get posted there under Episodes > Songs, or up at the little YouTube icon on the far upper right, so if you ever want to track one down or maybe share the fun with a friend or colleague, the songs are easy to find on the podcast website, and in the show notes in the app that you’re playing this with, right now. Anyway, here’s “Oedipus the King,” made into a song. I hope you enjoy my little tribute to this great masterpiece, and next time we’ll continue with the real story.

1.^ Sophocles. The Theban Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. New York and London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1974. Kindle Edition, p. 25. Further references to this text are noted parenthetically.

2.^ Aristotle. The Poetics of Aristotle. Translated and with notes by S.H. Butcher. London and New York: Macmillan and Company, 1902, p. 49.

3.^ See Thomas R. Martin. Ancient Greece: From Prehistoric to Hellenistic Times. New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2000. Kindle Edition, Locations 1770-1776.

4.^ Ibid, locations 1785-1789.

5.^ Lysicles, Nicias, and Cleon, respectively.

6.^ See Knox, Bernard. “The Date of the Oedipus Tyrrannus of Sophocles.” American Journal of Philology 77 (2): 1956, pp. 133-147.

7.^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, LTD., 1914, p. 132.

8.^ Quoted in Sophocles. The Three Theban Plays. Translated by Robert Fagles and with an Introduction and Notes by Bernard Knox. New York: Penguin Classics, 1984. p. 153. I usually agree with Knox, but the unqualified nature of this statement invites analysis.

9.^ The story of Althamenes, son of Minos, who unwittingly kills his father Catreus on the island of Rhodes, is very similar. See Apollodorus of Athens; Pseudo-Apollodorus. The Library of Apollodorus Delphi Ancient Classics. Kindle Edition, Location 4622. The same compendium (Location 2218) tells the story of Perseus’ grandfather Acrisius, who head a prophecy that his grandson would kill him, and subsequently imprisoned his daughter Danae in a bronze box where, to her father’s misfortune, she was impregnated by Zeus, who appeared as a shower of gold.