Episode 31: The Requiem at Athens

Sophocles’ Theban Plays, 2 of 3. Oedipus at Colonus, out of the ashes of the Peloponnesian War, is a story about a man who has lost everything but his own dignity.

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Sophocles’ Three Theban Plays, Part 2: Oedipus at Colonus

Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 31: The Requiem at Athens. This is the second of three episodes on the three Theban plays of Sophocles. In this episode, we’re going to cover the play Oedipus at Colonus, produced in the mid spring of 401 BCE, at the theater of Dionysus in Athens, a few years after the death of its author. If you’re just jumping in, you might want to begin with episode 30, which tells the story of Oedipus from the beginning.

The life of the playwright Sophocles stretched through the most famous and spectacular period of history in ancient Athens. Sophocles’ life spanned the Persian Wars at the beginning of the 400s, the rise of Athens to preeminence in the Aegean world in the middle of the 400s, and then the slow and violent decline of Athens in the last three decades of the 400s, during the Peloponnesian War. Sophocles wrote 123 plays, and three out of the seven that survive now are the Theban plays being covered in this podcast. Between 441 BCE and the end of his life – for a period of over forty years, Sophocles returned to the story of Oedipus and his children. During the darkest, most harrowing months faced by the Athenian people, Sophocles found in the old stories of Oedipus something that spoke to him, and explained the increasingly bleak course of his civilization’s history. Oedipus at Colonus, the work we’re going to explore today, was probably the last play Sophocles ever wrote. It was the old man’s swan song, his last parting gift to Athens, his requiem for a passing empire. Like any requiem, Oedipus at Colonus is dark and reflective. But also like any requiem, Oedipus at Colonus moves beyond the darkness of loss and searches for a way to move forward, to bury the ugliness of the past and then lay the first few small paving stones of a new age. [music]

Review: The Events of Oedipus the King

You remember Oedipus, don’t you? Last time, we heard his origin story, and rise and fall in the previous episode on Sophocles’ earlier play, Oedipus the King. Oedipus’ parents heard a prophecy that he’d kill his father and marry his mother. They sent him to the countryside to die, but a shepherd spared his life, and young Oedipus wound up in Corinth. There he was raised to be a bright young man by the king and queen of Corinth, until an oracle told him his fate – his still unavoidable fate – that he would kill his father and marry his mother. Oedipus would not accept this. He fled Corinth, and went north into Boeotia, where in the countryside a band of travelers attacked him, and he killed them in self defense. Going further to the north, Oedipus reached the city of Thebes, where a monster called the Sphinx was asking hapless passerby a riddle and killing them when they couldn’t answer it. Oedipus solved the riddle, and saved the city, and the next part of his life began.

The grateful Thebans, whom Oedipus had saved from the Sphinx, urged Oedipus to marry their widowed queen, Jocasta. He did so, and Oedipus thereafter became a respected monarch, caring for his subjects and conducting himself with great intelligence and kindness. Oedipus had two sons and two daughters, and the city of Thebes seemed fated to prosper under unrivaled leadership. Only, this prosperity wasn’t to be. The play Oedipus the King tells the story of a long, dreadful day during which Oedipus – from his brother-in-law, Creon, from the seer Tiresias, and from a pair of old shepherds – a day during which Oedipus discovered that the old prophecy had come true. He had killed his father in the Theban countryside, and then married his widowed mother. A plague had come over Thebes, and it had struck the city because of the king’s unclean secrets. With all of their unwitting dark history exposed, Oedipus and Jocasta could no longer rule the city. The queen hung herself. And Oedipus ripped out his own eyes with a brooch from his wife and mother’s dress. And the play ends, for the most part, with a message about the inevitability of divine oracles, and a lamentation for poor, heroic Oedipus, who’d tried to evade the threads of fate, but had really been coiled in them all along.

Now, if it’s been a while or you didn’t catch the previous episode, I want you to remember that Oedipus is not a villain. He isn’t evil, or guilty, or reprehensible. He isn’t, like Agamemnon in the Iliad or Antinous in the Odyssey – Oedipus isn’t overly prideful, or crude, or lustful, or anything like that. He’s a hero who, according to the will of the gods, had to suffer an abominable fate, a figure more like Job than Agamemnon. As with Job, when Sophocles’ audience sees Oedipus’ unmerited suffering, we see a figure helpless amidst forces far beyond his control. The greatest tragedy of Oedipus is that what happens to him – maybe not the specifics of killing the father and marrying the mother, which I have to think is rather unusual – but that what happens to Oedipus – his earnest efforts to determine his own fate, and his simultaneous woeful powerlessness in the midst of the flux of the cosmos – this is the fate of all of us.. [music]

The Setting and Characters of Oedipus at Colonus

So, we’ll begin the play momentarily, but let’s talk about setting, characters, and situation for a minute so that we’re all up to speed. Thank goodness, this isn’t one of those Shakespeare deals with twenty characters and four of them dressed up as someone else and four of them having the same name and all that. Nope, Athenian tragedy is powerful in its simplicity.

Oedipus and Antigone by Franz Dietrich

Franz Dietrich’s Oedipus and Antigone.

So some years have passed since the events of Oedipus the King. And now Oedipus is no longer king – he’s been exiled, and has come to a place called Colonus. Colonus was a real place – a village just northwest of central Athens, where there was a temple to Poseidon and a grove of sacred trees dedicated to some of Athens’ local deities. The play is set in this grove at Colonus. And the play, from end to end, has a very keen sense of place. Just remember that Oedipus has left his home city of Thebes after being exiled, and has traveled about fifty kilometers, or thirty-two miles southeast, of Thebes to seek refuge in the region of Athens.

Now, it will also be helpful at this point to remember that Oedipus has four kids – two boys and two girls. He’s much closer with the girls, and his youngest daughter, Antigone, is with him for the entirety of the play you’re about to hear. Antigone is strong, loyal, and willful, and she seeks above all else to support her family, even when that family is splintering apart. Oedipus’ older daughter, Ismene, is also an important character. Finally, Oedipus’ older son, Polynices, is going to make a consequential appearance, asking his father’s support in a military conflict against Oedipus’ younger son, Eteocles. You don’t need to have all that memorized upfront – just remember from the get go that Oedipus has two sons and two daughters, and they’re going to show up in this and the next Theban plays.

I’m going to be quoting occasionally from the E.F. Watling translation, published by Penguin Books in 1974. This translation is published together with the other two in a volume titled The Theban Plays, which I highly recommend. And as always,if for some reason you want to track down a quote, you can always geek out with full episode transcriptions, footnotes and references, and recommendations for further listening and reading at literatureandhistory.com.

Alright, folks. I have to admit, I’m especially personally fond of this play, and I’m proud to bring you Oedipus at Colonus, the final work of the grandmaster dramatist Sophocles of Athens. [music]

Oedipus and Antigone Arrive at Colonus

A clearing stood in the wilderness near Athens – a place where a grove of trees broke off, and grass and flowers, sheltered from the Mediterranean sun by the canopy overhead, grew in the cool shade. In this clearing rose an old statue of a horseman, weathered by rain, with fallen leaves gathered into the hollows of his saddle and atop the statue’s plinth. From this spot, one path led to the city of Athens, and another deeper into the woodlands, until forest trails faltered and the Aegean Sea stretched into the distance.

Along the pathway from the woodlands east of Athens came a pair of very different figures. Oedipus, now no longer king of anywhere, had lost his former grandeur. His hair was white, and his eyes blind from when he’d torn them out. The former ruler wore tattered garments – ones that showed that his life since being king of Thebes had not been a prosperous one. Still, one blessing remained to the fallen king Oedipus. His youngest daughter, Antigone, remained at his side. As they entered the clearing where the play takes place, Oedipus asked his daughter Antigone where they were, and whether he could sit down for a little while.

Antigone said she could see the walls and towers of a city, but they were still a ways away. But she added,
Here, where we are,
There is a kind of sacred precinct, overgrown
With laurel bushes, olive, and wild-vine;
And it is full of the voices of many nightingales.
There is a seat of natural rock. Sit down and rest.
You have come a long way, father.1
They weren’t there for long before a countryman came down the path and greeted them. Oedipus and his daughter Antigone, the countryman advised them, were on sacred ground. He said that people might object to Oedipus sitting on the historic rock next to the statue of the horseman. The horseman, Oedipus and Antigone were informed – the horseman was called Colonus. And the wooded area all around them was called Colonus. Looking around the grove, perhaps a bit self consciously, the countryman admitted that Colonus wasn’t really a spectacular or world renowned place, but that the people who lived around it were proud to call it their home. The countryman told them that the ruler of the neighboring city of Athens was called Theseus, and then went to summon some more locals to help blind old Oedipus and decide what was to be done with him.

When the stranger left, Oedipus gave his thanks to the grove’s deities – whoever they were – for guiding him there and letting him repose on the evidently sacred rock in the clearing’s center. But then he broke off. Men were coming from the neighboring communities of Colonus to see the blind old stranger who’d intruded on their sacred grove. Oedipus and Antigone hid. [music]

The Elders of Colonus Question Oedipus

Oedipus and Antigone (Eckersberg)

Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg’s Oedipus and Antigone (1812).

The old men of Colonus came cautiously into the grove. The old men of Colonus, by the way, are the chorus of the play Oedipus at Colonus – we’ll be hearing a lot out of them. Someone, the elders of Colonus said, had intruded there. Oedipus gave up his hiding place readily. Seeing the ragged form of Oedipus, the locals of Colonus felt a mixture of pity and apprehension. He had certainly seen great sorrow, they said. But just as importantly, how could a man – a man who was obviously by his appearance cursed – how could such a man be allowed in a sacred grove? The elders of Colonus asked Oedipus to move to the grove’s side and sit there, and Oedipus, with Antigone’s help, respectfully complied.

When the elders of Colonus asked Oedipus who he was, he hesitated, but, at Antigone’s bidding, revealed his identity. Oedipus told them who his father was. And their reaction was immediate disgust and execration. Oedipus had to leave, they said. He had to leave immediately.

But Antigone interceded on her poor old father’s behalf. She begged the old men for their mercy. Hearing that the elders of Colonus didn’t want any part of Oedipus’ curse, Oedipus himself spoke up. Athens, he said, was a city of justice, wasn’t it? Further, in all of his legendary sins, Oedipus said, he hadn’t known what he was doing – he’d been trying to do the right thing. His sins were all in the past, he said – if he were brought into the fold of Athens he’d prove a blessing. The elders of Colonus said they understood, and resolved that Oedipus would soon speak to King Theseus.

Ismene Arrives

Antigone saw a new figure approaching from nearby, but it wasn’t the legendary king Theseus. It was Antigone’s older sister Ismene. Ismene hugged Antigone, and the sisters also embraced their ragged father. Ismene had come to see her father and her sister, she said, because all was not well back in Thebes.

Oedipus fumed. He had always been closer with his daughters than his sons, and suspected the worst. Oedipus thanked his eldest daughter Ismene for bringing him news at the risk of peril to herself, and asked what had taken place.

Now Oedipus, again, had two sons. And Ismene said that after Oedipus had left, initially at least, the two sons had sought peace and closure. The two songs wanted to turn the city’s power over to Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law, and begin a new era there. That would have been a good plan. But then things had begun to sour. Because each son, independently, had decided he did not want to relinquish power to Creon. And now, the young men were each in pursuit of their father’s vacant throne.

What had happened, Ismene said, had happened fast. Now, remember that Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law, was the level-headed person who’d assumed leadership of Thebes after Oedipus gouged his eyes and fled from the scene at the end of Oedipus the King. At this juncture in the three Theban plays, we don’t have a really strong feeling about Creon, other than that he’s probably a capable, rational leader – a person who can steer Thebes away from the plagues and curses of the house of Oedipus and back to health and prosperity.

It was thus with disappointment and horror that Oedipus learned that his two sons were vying for the throne of Thebes. The paternal curse of Oedipus’ line – self-assuredness and egocentricity, seemed to have been folded deeply into his two boys, since they were both his sons, and his half-brothers. So Ismene told Oedipus the unsettling details about the two young men. The elder son, Polynices, had usurped the throne from Creon. But the younger son, Eteocles, had led a coup that banished Polynices, and Polynices was out at the city of Argos, raising a force to attack Thebes. It was, obviously, a terrible mess – two coups in rapid succession, two pigheaded brothers lusting for sovereignty, and an already traumatized city facing more chaos and infighting. For Oedipus, who’d only wanted to spend his remaining years peacefully on the outskirts of Athens, the news was particularly devastating.

Now, said Ismene, there was a complexity to the recent events that affected Oedipus himself. However cursed, Oedipus was still a legend to the Thebans. Although Oedipus could never be allowed back on Theban soil, some Thebans still wanted him buried on the borders of their territory. If Oedipus’ grave were desecrated – if the grave of Thebes’ preeminent and most famous citizen were marred, it would be an even further curse to the city. An oracle from Delphi, Oedipus’ oldest daughter Ismene added, had told the Thebans that Oedipus’ being buried far abroad would be a curse to the city. Side note, by the way. Yes, this is strange to modern ears, and you heard it correctly. The Thebans want to bring Oedipus back to the proximity of their city so that they won’t suffer his curse – and not be buried far afield, in another city, because of the words of the supreme oracle of Greece. A central idea of Oedipus at Colonus is that the region that receives the remains of the famous doomed hero – Deadipus the King, if you will – that whichever region gets Oedipus’ body will have better fortunes. So, let’s keep going.

Oedipus was not happy about any of this. His sons had destroyed his home city with acts of self-aggrandizing violence, and all anyone wanted of him was for him to croak and be six feet under just outside of the Theban city limits. Even for a man so humbled by fate as Oedipus, these continued disappointments brought bitter anger to the surface. He owed nothing to Thebes, he said. His daughters had been the only ones who’d stood by him. He would stay in the region of Athens, he said – and his grave there would serve as a source of fortune and strength to the Athenians.

The elders of Colonus understood, and indeed believed that Oedipus’ resting place might be a source of good fortune to Athens. They elders told Oedipus that if he wanted to remain around Athens he needed to complete a cleansing ritual – one involving holy water from a fresh spring, lamb’s wool, a mixture of water and honey, and olive branches. If Oedipus did this, he would win the favor of the local deities of Athens for trespassing in their sacred grove. His oldest daughter Ismene was dispatched to commence the sacred rite. [music]

Theseus Welcomes Oedipus to Athens

The sacred grove was silent for a moment after Ismene’s departure, but then the chorus asked to know more about Oedipus’ sufferings. They wanted to know about his misdeeds and the exact nature of them. Oedipus said that everything they’d heard – the murder, the incest – it was true. And yet his tenor had changed since his time in Thebes. His personal history still disgusted him, and yet he now felt himself a victim as much as a perpetrator. “I tell you. . .” he said, “I have endured / Foulest injustice; I have endured / Wrong undeserved; God knows / Nothing was of my choosing” (86). Oedipus emphasized that when he’d killed his father, his father and his father’s men had been trying to murder him. When he’d married his mother, it had been a prize from the citizens of Thebes for solving the Sphinx’s riddle. He had sought none of it out – quite the opposite.

At the end of this dialogue, a retinue led by king Theseus of Athens arrived. The legendary Athenian king looked at the tattered outlander respectfully.
[S]ad Oedipus, [he said,]
Compassion bids me ask you with what suit
To Athens or to me you here present yourself. . .
Speak freely.
There is no circumstance that you can tell
So lamentable that I should shut my ears to it.
I do not forget my own upbringing in exile,
Like yours, and how many times I battled, alone,
With dangers to my life, in foreign lands.
I could not turn from any fellow-man,
Coming as you come, or deny him help.
I know that I am a man; in the day to come
My portion will be as yours, no more, no less. (88)

A statue of Theseus at the World Museum Liverpool

Oedipus thanked the Athenian king Theseus for his kindly open mindedness. Oedipus said he sought burial in Athenian territory – and Athens, as a result, would have the fortune and blessing foretold by the Oracle at Delphi. Theseus said of course Oedipus was welcome to be there. Theseus did express apprehension when he heard the whole story – that also, the Thebans would want Oedipus’ body, according to the words of the Oracle – and yet Theseus said Oedipus was welcome to stay in Athens – while he lived and after. Theseus invited Oedipus back to the city, but Oedipus said he would not come. He would remain in the grove and await the Theban emissaries who’d try to bring him back.

Oedipus expressed trepidation when the great Athenian king Theseus turned to leave, but Theseus guaranteed Oedipus’ safety. Theseus promised that anyone who tried to abduct poor old Oedipus would have to deal with the Athenians. And with this assurance, Theseus left Oedipus in the grove to await the Thebans who would soon seek him out. [music]

Creon Confronts Oedipus

With King Theseus gone, Oedipus and Antigone were left alone in the glade with the elders of Colonus, who spoke lovingly of the beauties of their woodland home. Then Antigone saw a newcomer approaching. It was Creon – Antigone’s uncle and Oedipus’ brother-in-law. And Creon had with him a sizable escort.

Creon said he intended no harm to anyone. He was there to try and persuade Oedipus to return to Thebes – Creon said came on behalf of everyone. Creon explained he was sad to see poor Antigone there with her father, both reduced to such poverty. And he asked them both to come home.

But Oedipus would have none of it. Oedipus reminded his brother-in-law Creon of events that had once unfolded between them. These events took place in between the first and second of Sophocles’ three Theban plays. What had happened, evidently, was that Oedipus had begged Creon to banish him, but Creon had refused. Only later, once Oedipus was exhausted, and had decided he would stay in Thebes after all – only then – Creon had insisted that Oedipus leave. Creon, Oedipus said, had no regard for family ties or loyalty.

Oedipus concluded that Creon couldn’t be trusted, and that Creon used people. Oedipus laid his curse on Thebes, and made clear that he’d remain in Athens. Only, there was one problem. Creon revealed that the Thebans had caught Oedipus’ older daughter Ismene. And then, shockingly, right there in the sacred glade, Creon’s men seized Antigone – against the anger and protestations of the elders of Colonus.

Creon said he had taken Antigone and Ismene for the sake of the city of Thebes. And he would now have Oedipus, too. Whatever laws of Athens protected Oedipus from being apprehended, he had to take the king back to Thebes, because the oracle had told the Thebans so. And just as Creon moved against the frail objections of the elderly chorus, a much more powerful adversary arrived onstage. It was Theseus. [music]

Theseus and Oedipus Accost Creon

Oedipus was intensely relieved to see the ruler of his adopted homeland. Oedipus told Theseus everything – Creon had stolen his two daughters and was dragging them all back to Thebes. Theseus told his men to get horses and men everywhere on the roads between Athens and Thebes – they’d get the foreigners out of their lands and get poor Oedipus’ daughters back. And then, Theseus turned to Creon. He said Creon had insulted him, and disgraced Thebans everywhere with his trespassing and his aggression. Theseus said that if Creon continued to keep the girls, then he, Theseus, would keep Creon himself, and he made clear to the adopted ruler of Thebes that this would not be a good thing.

So, after receiving these threats, Creon made a case for his actions. He had not suspected, he said, that Athens would show such affection to a man capable of incest and the murder of his own father. Oedipus didn’t have the rights of asylum – he especially hadn’t had a right to curse Creon himself. But Theseus didn’t have a chance to reply, because Oedipus, overwhelmed by long unspoken words, exploded into speech.
Is it my grey head [he asked]
Or yours that is more insulted by such talk –
A stream of vile abuse – of murder and incest
And all the events that have thrust themselves upon me?
The gods so willed it – doubtless an ancient grudge
Against our house. My life was innocent. . .
How can you hold the unwitting act[s] against me?
. . .I am not condemned,
And shall not be, either for my marrying
Or for my father’s murder, which your spite
Persists in casting in my teeth. (102)
Did Creon want to talk about crimes? Asked Oedipus. Did he really want to talk about crimes? How about callously slandering his own sister, who had also had no choice in her ill-fated marriage? How about tracking down an old blind man, and kidnapping both of his daughters, and threatening to apprehend him by force? Oh, Oedipus said, he himself was quite innocent – everyone in Greece knew his grotesque secrets – his whole life was splayed out for everyone – but they also knew he’d had no choice. Creon, however, Oedipus said – Creon was a perpetrator in an alien land, a pitiless man who twisted knives in wounds. And Theseus agreed. He said he’d take Creon with an armed escort in search of the kidnapped women, and he promised Oedipus to find Ismene and Antigone. Thereafter, Theseus exited the glade with Creon. [music]

Theseus Returns with News of Polynices

Some time passed in the thicket. The chorus sang a song of hope – hope that brave Theseus, together with the help of Athens’ deities, would be able to recover Oedipus’ dear girls. And soon enough, Theseus did appear with Ismene and Antigone, and the girls rushed over to their father. Oedipus said he had nothing without them, and one of Antigone’s short lines – just a fragment, reveals plenty about their relationship. “All we have shared together” (105) she gasped to her father and sister, indicating that whatever the world thought about them, and however unnatural their relations, they had been through it as a trio – the early happiness, the hideous fall from prosperity, the ignominy and stilted horizons – and after all of it, the undying love and sense of family. Oedipus said he hoped he wouldn’t be apart from them again. He thanked Theseus with all his heart, and the Athenian king only said he was a man of his word.

Theseus said, however, that something strange had happened that day. Uh. Something strange beyond the scope of rescuing the daughter slash sisters of a cursed blind foreign king from his opportunistic brother-in-law so that the king would concede to being buried in the Athenian countryside and thus offer Athens a sort of magical blessing upon his demise. I guess that was all in a day’s work for King Theseus. Anyway, king Theseus said that while he’d been returning from the rescue operation, he’d seen something strange. He’d seen a Theban at an altar of Poseidon – and this Theban had said he was from Argos, and he wanted to see Oedipus. This Theban was Oedipus’ son, Polynices, who’d gone to Argos to raise an army against his brother.

Now, you may have forgotten this detail from earlier, but Oedipus hadn’t. The Theban out in the countryside, again, was Oedipus’ warmongering son, Polynices. Polynices had been in the midst of two overthrows of power in Thebes – one in which he (Polynices) had taken power from Creon, and one in which Polynices had had his own throne taken from him by his brother, Eteocles. Oedipus said he did not want to see his son Polynices. Oedipus had instructed his sons to share power, they’d failed, and now they were just another black mark on his legacy.

Ismene and Antigone urged Oedipus otherwise, though. Whatever had happened, the wayward Polynices was still Oedipus’ son. Oedipus conceded that he would see the boy, and the chorus began a famous song as Theseus went to fetch Oedipus’ son. Here’s the key parts of this – uh – rather depressing – choral song, which is made on the occasion of poor old Oedipus reuniting with his fractious and violent son. The chorus said,
Say what you will, the greatest boon is not to be;
But, life begun, soonest to end is best,
And to that bourne from which our way began
Swiftly return. [We, together with Oedipus, are like]
A rock in a wild north sea
At [the] winter’s height,
Fronting the rude assault
Of all the billows of adversity
That break upon his head from every side
Unceasing – from the setting sun,
From dayspring, from the blaze of noon,
And from the pole of night. (109)
And that again is the E.F. Watling translation, published in a volume called The Theban Plays by Penguin. So the chorus compared the miseries of Oedipus to the unremitting punishment of a rock battered by waves and weather at sea. This comparison does paint a picture of life as unceasingly hard – but at the same time it valorizes humankind as capable of withstanding dismal and punishing experiences and not faltering. Anyway, little side track there on the dark optimism of Sophocles at the end of his life, but let’s get back to the events of Oedipus at Colonus.

Polynices Asks for His Father’s Blessing

Antigone was the first to see the latest newcomer to the leafy grove at Colonus. He was crying, she said – it was her dear brother Polynices. Polynices observed that his old father looked haggard indeed, and he begged forgiveness for abandoning Oedipus. Oedipus’ son Polynices said he knew he’d been heartless, and he asked them for mercy. Oedipus, however, didn’t reply. He would not speak to his son, for Polynices had broken his promise to share power, and he’d taken the throne for himself, and now would try and take it back with a foreign army. Oedipus had nothing to say to him.

Polynices explained himself. He’d merely been taking his birthright, he said. He was the older brother, and son of the king. But his younger brother Etocles had stolen the throne and exiled him, and now he’d raised an army with men of Argos, an army led by seven captains that had encircled Thebes and would presently take it back.

The thing was, Polynices said, he needed Oedipus’ blessing, according to the words of an oracle. Polynices himself, he said, was an exile, just like Oedipus. He was the rightful heir to the throne. Wouldn’t the blind old man grant Polynices his approval?

The chorus urged Oedipus to speak to his son, and finally, the Oedipus did. Oedipus said his son was a villain, and that Polynices had driven Oedipus himself from their home. Oedipus told his son that it was disgraceful to pretend to be saddened by Oedipus’ poverty when Polynices himself had compelled Oedipus to become a moneyless exile.

Oedipus said Polynices and his brother were of no concern to him – the unflagging love and support of Antigone and Ismene made them his real sons. And Thebes, said Oedipus, would not fall to Polynices and his power grubbing allies. Polynices and his brother would die. And old Oedipus then made ever clearer what he wished.
You have no father here, vile brute!
And take this malediction in your ears;
May you never defeat your motherland;
May you never return alive to Argos;
May you, in dying, kill your [brother],
And, killing, die by him who shares your blood.
This is my prayer.
In the name of the Father of Darkness, and the bottomless pit
Where he shall house you; in the name of the Goddesses
Whose ground we stand on; in the name of the Lord of Destruction
Who flung you into mortal strife. Now go:
And tell it out in all the streets of Thebes,
And tell your trusty friends, what benefactions
King Oedipus has bestowed upon his sons. (113)
Baschet, André Marcel - Ödipus verurteilt Polyneikes - 1883

Marcel Baschet’s Oedipus Condemns Polynices (1883).

Wow. Damn. Now that’s what I call a curse. Now, the modern part of me wants Oedipus to be nice and forgiving. Say something understanding and humanistic, like, “You know what, son, as your father, I can tell you I’ve made a lot of mistakes. How about you bring your brother down here and we have some olives and maybe some bread and talk about how we can resolve this?” But, you know, Athens in the year 401 BCE wasn’t exactly a city that had resulted from kindness and compromise. It was more a time and place of Hades and darkness and blood dribbling curses. Well, more on that later. Polynices, needless to say, was not happy at his father’s imprecation that he would not win the war. Polynices begged his sisters to remember him and to see to it that he had a proper burial.

And then Antigone took the role that maybe Oedipus should have. Antigone asked Polynices to call off his army. What was with all the fighting, anyway? No one needed to fight anyone! He was going to die, and his brother, too – couldn’t he just stop it? Couldn’t Polynices be the man who stopped the long history of violence between family members – between fathers and brothers that had plagued Thebes for a generation? Could Polynices be a force of reason and –

Nope, he said. He couldn’t. It was time to be killed in an utterly pointless war against his own brother. This was, Polynices said, the right thing to do. Antigone tearfully bid her brother goodbye, for the last time. And the audience is left with a strong sense that in Oedipus’ lineage, the intelligence gene definitely, definitely passes on to women and not men. [music]

Oedipus Goes to His Grave

The chorus heard thunder rumbling beyond the canopy of leaves. An ominous air fell over the darkening glade, and the men of the chorus felt their scalps prickling. Only Oedipus knew what it was. He asked them to find Theseus, because he sensed that he was being summoned to die. Theseus was brought in.

Oedipus said he wanted to give Theseus – and the city of Athens – his blessing before he died. He had promised, and Theseus had offered him plenty of help. Oedipus said he would need Theseus to lead him to a secret gravesite – a gravesite that no one would know but the king, but that nonetheless would provide strength to generations of future Athenians. Only Theseus would know the location, and Theseus would only tell his heir the site of the hidden grave, and the secret would be passed down for generations in just this fashion. Oedipus led Theseus into a denser part of the woods, pausing one last time to feel the light on his skin, and then the two men vanished.

The elders of Colonus – the play’s steadfast chorus – wished for a gentle passing for Oedipus, and wished that he’d go like one falling into gentle sleep. Soon, a messenger arrived with news. Oedipus had passed away. He’d gone into a deep chasm, in a basin of rock. He’d removed his ratty clothes, and Ismene and Antigone had bathed him and dressed him appropriately. He told the girls that he loved them more deeply than a parent had ever loved a child, and got Theseus’ assurance that the girls would be well taken care of. After this, King Theseus and Oedipus had gone off a little ways. No one had seen just how Oedipus had died, but the messenger telling the story theorized about it.

The messenger said no thunder, nor tidal wave had destroyed Oedipus. He said that maybe a friendly divine spirit had opened the earth, and Oedipus had gone to his rest with no pain – that after a lifetime of strife and sadness, Oedipus had enjoyed a gentle and long postponed passing. [music]

Antigone and Ismene Plan for the Future

Soon Antigone and Ismene returned to the clearing at Colonus. The two sisters took pride in the fact that they’d helped their poor father bear his ancestral curse. But still, the loss of the hero was palpable. “I never knew how great the loss could be,” said Antigone, “Even of sadness; there was a sort of joy / In sorrow, when he was [here] at my side. / Father, my love, in your shroud of earth / We two shall love you for ever and ever” (122). The girls didn’t know just how to proceed. Antigone wanted to see their dead father’s grave, but was forbidden. They wondered what was next. Where would they go?

King Theseus appeared. When asked, he said that indeed he could not show the girls their father’s final resting place – he’d made a sacred promise, after all. Antigone, showing the wisdom and heroism of her father, said she understood. She and her sister, Antigone said, still wanted to do some good in the world. Antigone asked Theseus to return her and Ismene to Thebes, where perhaps they could save some lives in forestalling the war between their brothers. Theseus said the girls would have their wish. They’d be brought to Thebes, where – everyone hoped – they might prevent their brothers from perishing in an avoidable war. And that’s the end. [music]

The Compositional Order of the Three Theban Plays

So that was Oedipus at Colonus. And the next play in the three Theban plays of Sophocles moves fully to the younger generation – to Oedipus’ children. The play Antigone, which is next, is about the titular character going to Thebes – upon her father’s death she travels northwest to the other city to try and mitigate the war brewing between her two brothers. Now, you might be wondering something. Didn’t I say a bit earlier that Oedipus at Colonus was probably Sophocles’ last play – and that it was produced after his death? So what about the third Theban play? Did he write that baby in Hades and have it brought up to the surface, or something?

The real answer isn’t quite so exciting. Sophocles actually wrote the play Antigone, first. So the third play in the sequence was produced in 441 BCE, the first in the sequence was produced in 429 BCE, and then the final one – Oedipus at Colonus – in 401 – Sophocles wrote them in the order of 3, 1, 2. But historically, and biographically for Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus was the end of the sequence. He closed his own career with a play about the death of the hero whose story he’d been thinking about for four decades. Now, last time, we saw how much about Oedipus the King reflected the situation in Athens in 429 BCE – both involve plagues, and dire prophecies that self-determining figures try to ignore, and sudden turns of fate in which greatness turns to rot and ruin. And when we look not at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War, but at the end, we can see that Oedipus at Colonus is just as much about the burial and last rites of Athens’ glory days as it is about the death of King Oedipus.

Violence and Mass Execution During the Later Peloponnesian War

Sometimes, we think about civilization breaking down. We think about ducking into bunkers, and we think about delicately knit international relations splintering into panicked slaughter, and democracies and other collectives with electoral systems being taken over by demagogues and military strongmen. We think about periods of history when men and women hardened by years of war become capable of unthinkable atrocities. There are many reasons why the story of the Peloponnesian War has always fascinated us. But maybe the biggest of all is that it is a meticulously documented case study of how fast, and how far humanity can deteriorate into a morass of clannish violence and greed.

I want to tell you, now, a bit about the history of the late Peloponnesian War – that nearly three decade conflict between Athens and Sparta that saw just this sort of descent into chaos. We can begin squarely in the middle of the war, with something that took place during the summer 416 BCE. At this juncture, a temporary truce between Spartan and Athenian forces was slowly coming apart, and Athens was again on the war path. Seeking low hanging fruits, Athenian forces sailed to the south central Aegean island of Milos, which was a financial, but not military supporter of the Spartan alliance. And again Athens was fighting this Spartan alliance. So Athens demanded summary surrender. The citizens of Milos refused, not wanting to cede their tidy little island nation to the people of Athena. And Thucydides writes,
Reinforcements afterwards arriving from Athens in consequence. . .the siege was now pressed vigorously; and some treachery taking place inside, the Melians surrendered at discretion to the Athenians, who put to death all the grown men whom they took, and sold the women and children for slaves, and subsequently sent out five hundred colonists and inhabited the place themselves.2
Now, Thucydides tells of this massacre without comment. The Melians mounted a resistance, and so they were killed and sold into slavery. And the lack of editorial commentary on this event, deep within the Peloponnesian War, tells us a sad truth. By 416, such massacres had become common.

Map Peloponnesian War 431 BC-en

The territories and battles of the Peloponnesian War. This war dominated the later life of Sophocles, and the careers of Euripides and Aristophanes.

Back in 425, Athenians had brokered an armistice between the democratic inhabitants of the island of Corcyra and a group of oligarchs from nearby who opposed them. Athens compelled the oligarchs to surrender by promising that they’d be brought safely to Athens for a fair trial. But the oligarchs were instead handed over to their democratic nemeses on the island of Corcyra, and they were tortured and massacred while Athens’ generals stood by.3 During the next campaign season, when Athens took control of a city called Thyrea on the Peloponnese land mass, they found the city full of people from the island of Aegina. The Aeginetans were Athens’ ancestral enemies, and so an ethnic cleansing took place to rid Greece of these old Athenian rivals.4 The following year, once Athens had taken the city of Scione, a town in the northwestern Aegean, its citizens were also summarily executed and sold into slavery.5 Athens wasn’t alone in its policy of mass execution. A few years later, in the summer of 418, Sparta sacked the city of Argos and one of its neighboring towns, and the Spartan king had all male citizens of this community killed. These mass executions, by the time of the first one I mentioned – the one at Milos in 416 BCE, were standard operating procedure during the 27-year conflict between Athens and Sparta. To put it in perspective, Herodotus’ History tells of innovative, brilliant Athens fighting off the despotic Persian invaders from the 490s until the 470s – fighting to win freedom for the city of Athena, and for all of Greece. But a generation of Greeks – Sophocles’ generation, at the end of their lives saw the sovereignties purchased with the bloodshed of the Persian Wars turning into an endless quagmire of Peloponnesian campaigns. What was won at the beginning of the 400s – democracy, empire, and a stability that permitted intellectual and artistic advancement – all this that was won at the beginning of the 400s was being lost at the end of the 400s, campaign after campaign, mass execution after mass execution.

This is the paradox of reading Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War – in its pages, Thucydides, the most lucid, impartial, perceptive, and intellectual historian of antiquity, tells of a civilization devolving into genocides, diasporas, and disorganized, boondoggling campaigns.

The biggest of these campaigns, and the one most catastrophic to Athens, was called the Sicilian Expedition. This expedition took place between 415 and 413. What happened was that in 415, taking a cue from some prominent hawkish citizens in Athens, the Athenians dispatched a large fleet to the distant island of Sicily in order to besiege and conquer its most prominent city, Syracuse. Expecting victory, the Athenians found themselves facing a consolidated Sicily that refused to go the way of the little island of Milos. For a year, Athenian triremes prowled the waters around Syracuse. An Athenian celebrity general defected to Sparta, and due to his efforts, and those of Sparta and Sicily together, Athens’ ships were eventually trapped in the harbor at Syracuse, and two of the city’s generals were executed.

This was the end of Athens’ naval supremacy, which, if you remember from the previous show, was its only real advantage in the war. Now if you take a class on Ancient Greek history, in the section in which they cover the Peloponnesian War, the failed Sicilian Expedition of 415-413 is the moment that most of us agree made a general Athenian victory very unlikely. The Spartans understood the significance of Athens’ defeat in the harbor of Syracuse. During the next campaign season Spartans made a bold move, constructing a base within sight of the walls of Athens, so that they could besiege the city and pillage its suburbs year round. Farming in the environs of Athens was thus impossible, and with diminished naval strength, Athens had to be cautious with how it brought food in from its colonial territories.

This same year – 413, saw another disaster for Athens. 20,000 slaves, who had historically worked Athens’ famous silver mines, escaped and they defected to the Spartan camp. Just as bad, Persian governors in the west of present day Turkey began rallying and pushing against Athenian imperial interests. Although Athens did manage to defeat Sparta near the Black Sea, the general pattern, as Persian money pressed into the coffers of both forces, was a slow decline on the part of Athens. The last battles of the Peloponnesian War were fought at sea. De facto rules of engagement by this point, for both sides, involved drowning entire crews of captured ships, or, just as ghastly, cutting off right hands or right thumbs of prisoners of war so that they could no longer man oars or swing swords.6 Before the atrocities of war could grow even worse, in 405 BCE, a Spartan navy, funded by Persian gold, destroyed the vast majority of the Athenian fleet and took tens of thousands of prisoners. Athens was finished. The city surrendered in 404, opening its gates and ending a war that had taken 27 years, hundreds of thousands of lives, and had accomplished almost nothing for any of its participants. [music]

The End of 5th-Century Athens

The Spartan leader, upon Athens’ defeat, did march into the city. And he did see to it that Athens’ navy was utterly reduced to splinters. But Spartan leadership did not mandate an execution of Athenian citizenry, nor enslavement of them, nor a forced relocation. Instead, Sparta put power into the hands of thirty Athenian elites – elites who had for a long time sought an end to democratic rule in Athens. These thirty elites, soon called the Thirty Tyrants, wanted to purge Athens of all democratic capabilities and make Athens into a plutocracy controlled by a small handful of families. In a reign of terror that followed, the search for democratic members of the population led to thousands of executions. Torture was used as a method to elicit confessions regularly.7 But like other reigns of terror in history, capital punishment and brutality were tricky tools in practice, and a pro-democratic coup ended in the arrest of the Thirty Tyrants. Thus, the year between 404 and 403 in the city of Athens, although nominally the war was over, was another long season of bloodshed. At its end, though, finally, in 403 BCE a general amnesty was declared, for all in the city except for the Thirty Tyrants and a small handful of others. With these despots finished, the city’s wealth vanished, its great navy stolen and destroyed, its suburbs pillaged and burned, its livestock and crops mostly gone, its treasures looted, and its sense of geopolitical predominance surely shattered, Athens began to bandage its wounds. Athens began to think – worriedly, and hesitatingly, about how to rebuild and continue on in a world after the atrocities of the Peloponnesian War. And it was just during this period that Sophocles’ grandson, again in the spring of 401 BCE, staged his grandfather’s final play, Oedipus at Colonus [music].

Purgation and Catharsis: The Ties between Oedipus at Colonus and Athenian Survivors

So you know the story of Oedipus at Colonus, now. And you know the general tenor and timeline of the Peloponnesian War. I think it will be pretty easy to see how the two can be related to one another. The main idea of this episode is in its title: Episode 31: The Requiem at Athens. And Oedipus at Colonus is a requiem – a death song, for a poor, fallen hero – a man who, like the city of Athens, ascended to great heights, and, also like the City of Athens, sunk to terrible lows. The play, to the elderly Athenians who watched it in 401, must have been especially powerful. These old citizens, like Sophocles himself, and like poor, broken Oedipus, had in the midst of their collective glory discovered just how fast, and how far confidence could fall into chaos, and prosperity into poverty. And so it’s easy to see how we can think of Oedipus at Colonus as a requiem for the Athenian civilization of the 400s BCE.

But that’s not the whole story. Oedipus at Colonus isn’t just a production about the death of an old hero, and a passing civilization. Oedipus at Colonus, to its original audience, would have been a cathartic play, a play about purification, and putting to rest. The hero we meet in Oedipus at Colonus is no longer apologetic for the life that he’s led. He’s not proud, but at the same time he knows that a series of events out of his control led him into his infamous crimes. And I think that he Athenians in the Theater of Dionysus in 401 BCE – these Athenians had to live with the misdeeds that they’d committed, and suffered, over the course of the Peloponnesian War – these Athenians would have felt a special camaraderie with the fallen Oedipus. There would have been people in the audience who had participated in mass executions, and mutilations, and the selling of innocent women and children into slavery. There would have been Athenians, listening to old Oedipus’ speeches, who would have been deeply inspired by the old man’s desire to retain what dignity he had as a human being and move on. Just like the war scarred Athenians of the year 401, old Oedipus has blood on his hands. Just like the war scarred Athenians in the year 401, old Oedipus has limped to Athens to try and eke out a living in poverty and infamy. And just like the war scarred Athenians of the year 401 must have, Oedipus looked at his past and saw that a long and inexorably complicated series of events far beyond his comprehension had led him to his suffering and failure. If the admission of powerlessness is a source of horror in the earlier play Oedipus the King, in Oedipus at Colonus, the admission of powerlessness underneath the forces of fate and the cosmos is a source of liberation, and the restoration of personal dignity. And so I think that the Athenians of 401 BCE would have watched the story of Oedipus’ final hours and found a message of purgation, or cleansing. Whatever they’d done, they had done under the promptings of the infernal machine of the Peloponnesian War. They would be forever maimed by it, like Oedipus. But also like Oedipus, they had been caught up in something terrible and gigantic, and they deserved, no doubt, some measure of pardon. [music]

An Elegy for Sophocles and His Generation

The play was also of course an elegy for Sophocles himself. It was an elegy for the generation whose fathers had won Marathon and Salamis against the Persians and whose sons and grandsons had lost the empire to the Peloponnesian League. It’s hard to imagine how much the 90-something year writer, who had given his people 123 plays, must have seemed like a living institution as the 400s drew to a close. The story of a peaceful burial of great Oedipus was also the story of Sophocles himself, a figure who, because he lived so long, had been a part of his city’s crimes as well as its glories – maybe more than any other living Athenian.

Oedipus at Colonus is, then, a play about closure – the closure of the war, the end of a great epoch of civilization, the end of Sophocles himself. And it performs this closure most poignantly by transforming the hero Oedipus from an untouchable anathema into a saintly figure whose blessings can secure the fortunes of an entire city. As the play draws to a close, Oedipus becomes a sort of sacrificial victim, or a martyr, whose burial will put to rest the sins of an entire generation. It’s of course no coincidence that he’s buried near Athens and not Thebes, as Thebes was a Spartan ally during the Peloponnesian War. So, during the cautious reconstructive months of the spring of 401 BCE, as the play Oedipus at Colonus ended – with its great leading character tucked into Athenian soil – somewhere in a peaceful, hidden spot in the woods lost forever to time – as the great requiem of Oedipus at Colonus ended, its original audience might have felt some of their own sins cleansed.

We won’t be seeing Oedipus again. No thanks to Freud, most of us only remember a tagline when we think about Oedipus, but I’d like you to remember something else. I think that the Ancient Greeks thought of him as something like this. If you were in a war, and you rushed out across no man’s land in a group, into a storm of gunfire, and somehow – I don’t know how – but somehow you knew that one person out of your group was going to be hit – but you knew that you still had to make a run for it – you would know that amidst the bullets, and shooters, and mud, you’d have very little control over anything. And you would go out, and one of you would fall – and it would all happen so fast – all in a red haze of fear and that coppery taste of blood and adrenaline in your mouth, and you’d look back and see him going down. You’d see his poor big, startled, worried eyes, all beautiful and full of memories – just like anyone’s eyes – and you’d keep running – and make it to wherever it was you were going. But that look – the look of the person who didn’t make it – the person who did get hit – and who knows what else afterwards – that look would stay with you forever. And I think that to the Ancient Greeks, Oedipus was something like that. He was the one – the one just as good as anyone else – who due to the random pulsations of cosmic forces or gods or whatever – the one who ended up in trouble, who didn’t make it out, whose eyes you can never forget. And in that way, Oedipus’ anguish is the anguish of Job, and Christ, and every figure in all our stories, and all our history, who suffers – while the rest of us, for whatever reason, get away. [music]

Onward to Antigone

Whew. Bit of a sad one, that. A brewing war, a dead innocent, a future generation cast loose into uncertainty. Oh, boy. But, of course, beautiful, too. Because however much he suffers, old Oedipus passes away with great dignity, in the company of the daughters he loves.

And speaking of daughters, it’s high time we have a heroine. We’ve met some pretty amazing women in Greek literature – brave Andromache in the Iliad, tough Penelope in the Odyssey, deep, grave, intelligent Helen in both epics, and conflicted, brilliant Clytemnestra in Aeschylus’ The Libation Bearers. But we need us a female main character.

Shakespeare kills off Cordelia around the same time of King Lear.8 But Sophocles has Antigone outlive her old father far past the end of Oedipus at Colonus. In the next episode, we’re going to travel with Antigone back to the city of Thebes, and with Sophocles, back in time to the year 441 BCE, before the Peloponnesian War ever started. We know that brave Antigone, at the end of Oedipus at Colonus, is heading home to try and prevent the war brewing between her two brothers. Will this brave, loyal, smart, astute woman be able to stave off the fighting in the north, and help restore order? Will she shock us all, and become the leader in the bloodletting? Or will something else altogether take place? It’s Ancient Greek drama, folks, and anything can happen! Join me next time for the final great Theban play of Sophocles, the story of Antigone. Thanks for listening to Literature and History, and I’ve got a new comedy song coming up if you want to hear it. If not, see you soon!

Still here? Alright, well, me, too. So I got to thinking about Oedipus’ sons, Polynices and Eteocles. Aeschylus wrote a whole play about these two, and later we’re going to do a whole show on a Roman epic called the Thebaid, which is all about Oedipus’ warring sons. Polynices and Eteocles, two sons of King Oedipus, are willing to drag thousands of soldiers to their deaths just to decide who gets to be king. And this kind of thing – succession disputes – and moreover civil wars that result from two or three men who all want to be the big daddy – this kind of crap has set us back thousands of years as a species. I got to thinking about that, and I wrote this song, in which a prince, who’s had his throne usurped by his brother, asks his people to support him on a military campaign – and he gets – well, quite a different response than the one he anticipated. So this tune is titled “An Unpersuasive Call to Arms.” Thanks for listening to the show, staying on to hear me goof off at the end of it, and we’ll wrap up the Theban plays very soon.

1.^ Sophocles. The Theban Plays. Translated by E.F. Watling. New York and London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1974. Kindle Edition, p. 71. Further references to this text are noted parenthetically.

2.^ Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Richard Crawley. London: J.M. Dent & Sons, LTD., 1914, p. 401.

3.^ See Kagan, Donald. The Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin Books, p. 154, or Thucydides 4.48.5.

4.^ See Kagan, p. 159 or Thucydides 4.57.5.

5.^ See Kagan, p. 203.

6.^ See Hale, John. Lords of the Sea: How Athenian Trireme Battles Changed History. Gibson Square, 2014, Chapter 16.

7.^ Aristotle’s Athenian Constitution tells this story in Chapter 35.

8.^ Often in scholarship, as you might guess, Oedipus and Antigone are compared to King Lear and young Cordelia. The parallels between Oedipus at Colonus and Shakespeare’s later romances are extensive – The Tempest and King Lear have strong father-daughter friendships. These two plays, along with A Winter’s Tale, feature prominent natural settings – the island of Caliban, the stormy moors, and the pastoral scene of A Winter’s Tale‘s enormous (I would say interminable) fourth act. King Lear, particularly, shows a storied old ruler betrayed by some children and venerated by others.