Ancient History & Civilisation



About half of Euripides’ surviving works deal with the Trojan war or its aftermath (in Iphigenia in Aulis the prelude). By contrast the mythology of the Theban wars and the house of Oedipus is thinly represented. The Bacchae is indeed set at Thebes, but deals with earlier events; the Suppliant Women treats the issue of the burial of the seven warriors who attack Thebes, but largely from an Athenian perspective: Theseus intervenes to ensure that justice is done. Though the fragmentary evidence shows that the legends of Thebes formed the subject of several other plays (Euripides, like Sophocles, wrote an Oedipus and an Antigone), only in the Phoenician Women do we find a full-blown Theban drama.

Just as the Orestes inevitably looks back to the Oresteian trilogy of Aeschylus, so the Phoenician Women is significantly indebted to the Aeschylean trilogy which culminated in the Seven against Thebes. The first two plays of that trilogy were the Laius and theOedipus: the names make clear enough that the older dramatist followed the disastrous progress of three successive generations of the Theban royal house. The surviving play focuses on the figure of Eteocles, defending his city against invaders supporting his brother Polyneices; the play reaches its climax when Eteocles resolves to confront his brother in battle, and the two men slay one another. Aeschylus’ treatment was majestic and slow-moving: hundreds of lines of the Seven are devoted to the herald’s report of the names and appearance of the attacking warriors, and Eteocles’ responses (cf. Phoenician Women 748–52 and note 37). The action of the Aeschylean play is concentrated, the cast-list small; Oedipus and Jocasta appear to be dead, and in the authentic sections there is no reference to any female offspring. All of this is changed in the Euripidean version: although a single self-contained play, it embraces a variety of related but independently effective scenes, and (through the choral odes) extends the audience’s perspective through much of the mythic history of Thebes.

The myths were flexible. There is a natural tendency for the modern reader to give priority to the surviving versions, but even these are various, and the dramatists were largely free to choose among the diverse traditions, often adding or elaborating. According to the Iliad Oedipus died and was buried at Thebes, whereas tragedy (especially Sophocles) normally assumes that he will be sent into exile when the truth is discovered: Euripides provides a composite version, in which Oedipus lives on at Thebes, resentful and blind, but is finally sent into exile by Creon in an effort to purify the state. In the Odyssey Oedipus’ wife (there called Epicaste, not Jocasta) is said to have killed herself, but in the lyric poetry of Stesichorus she survives and appears to have remonstrated with her sons in a scene which presumably formed the model for the three-way debate in Euripides’ play. As for Antigone and Ismene, the two daughters of Oedipus, they may not have featured prominently in the legend before Sophocles’ famous play (Ismene is indeed never very prominent). Even after Sophocles, their fates could vary: in Euripides’ lost Antigone, the heroine was married to Haemon, the son of Creon, bore his child, and cooperated with him to bury her brother, rather than acting in splendid isolation: it is even possible that divine intervention saved her from martyrdom. Characterization can also be modified: in Aeschylus’ play Eteocles was a sympathetic figure, defender of Thebes in a time of crisis, noble though doomed to die: there is no suggestion that he has wronged his brother or cheated him of his inheritance. By contrast in Euripides’ play he cares for nothing but keeping the throne, and is eager to come face to face with his brother in combat: although Polyneices’ determination to attack his native city is condemned by Jocasta, it is clear that his cause is regarded as just even by those who will suffer if he conquers (154–5, 258–60, 467, 508).

The scope of the play is large, and has been extended further by later additions (see below). There is no ‘hero’ – Eteocles appears only in two scenes, Polyneices only in one. The family group, especially the triad of the two sons and their mother, form a central part of the dramatic structure: Jocasta tries to reconcile the brothers by insisting on a truce and time for debate, but fails: the agon, as usual, only intensifies conflict. Later she again tries to intervene, this time through action rather than words, by hurrying to the battlefield and seeking to prevent the final fratricide: again her efforts end in failure, and her own suicide swiftly follows. In contrast with the accursed royal house is the family of Creon, Jocasta’s brother. The subplot of Creon, Teiresias and Menoeceus, which culminates in Menoeceus’ self-sacrificial suicide to save Thebes from destruction, is probably Euripides’ own invention (it is a story-pattern he particularly favours; see note 49). The heroic nobility of Menoeceus is powerfully opposed to the self-destructive ambition of the warring brothers. Yet although Menoeceus’ sacrifice saves the city, it shatters Creon. Finally there is Antigone. Although some have supposed her entire part a later addition, there is no good reason to doubt that she played a part in Euripides’ design, and it also seems likely that Oedipus’ cameo appearance is authentic: the duet of lamentation near the close of the play is certainly a powerful moment, and may well have formed the finale of Euripides’ original version.

It is clear, however, that the text has been supplemented or interfered with, probably in the fourth century BC. Problems were already detected by ancient scholars, whose comments survive in the scholia or annotations which accompany the play in some manuscripts. The issue was fully examined in the nineteenth century, but as was the fashion in that period, suspicion went too far. A more cautious approach is now prevalent. In the past critics often excised passages which they regarded as unnecessary (the scene involving Antigone and the old servant on the roof early in the play is a good example); but the fact that a scene is not strictly indispensable does not make it spurious. Another notable argument concerns the characterization of Polyneices: efforts have sometimes been made to remove lines which show him to be more self-interested, less patriotic and virtuous, than the critic would prefer (for an example see note 21). But if we find both Polyneices and Eteocles lacking in tragic greatness, that is exactly what we might expect of this playwright, especially in his later œuvre. Elsewhere it has been supposed that certain scenes have been ‘padded out’ to increase a particular actor’s role, or to provide supplementary information (as with the catalogue of the Seven at 1104–40). But the most substantial and by far the most important doubts concern the conclusion of the play. It is almost universally agreed that the ending has been modified in order to connect the play with the well-known stories of Antigone burying her brother and Oedipus dying in Athens, as dramatized by Sophocles. But the adaptation has been crudely done: as the scholia comment, how can Antigone bury Polyneices (1657) if she is to accompany her father into exile (1679) (scholia, note on 1692)? There are other doubtful features, and it seems probable that the genuine text ends at line 1581. Bolder critics would excise extensive earlier portions too (e.g. 1308–34, 1338–53, to eliminate the reappearance of Creon). In this translation the ending has been included, but some further cautionary remarks will be found in the Notes.

These problems should not interfere with the reader’s appreciation of the bulk of the play. Euripides’ conception and structure are still clearly discernible, even if the ending has been extended or altered. Like other Greek tragedies, the Phoenician Women has a particular character of its own: the poet is concerned not only to present a sequence of events but to create a certain atmosphere. The play is rich in allusion to Theban place-names and traditions: in the so-called Teichoskopia (‘Viewing from the Walls’) scene alone, we find references to Dirce’s spring, the tomb of Zethus, Amphion’s walls, the tomb of Niobe’s children. More important is the account of the mythic history of Thebes in the successive choral odes, which evoke a world of monstrous crime, chthonic forces, perversion, doom and hatred. Teiresias’ warnings also contribute to our sense of the race as plagued by misfortune arising from the wrath of the gods. Some have seen this as an expression of anti-Theban sentiment; more subtly, it has been suggested that the representation of Thebes, in this and other dramas, is a kind of crystallization of all that Athens is not, a dark contrast to Athenian light. This works better with the Suppliant Women, where Athens is prominent; here she is not. It is better to see the dark world of the play as the product of Euripides’ powerful poetic imagination at work on the fertile mythical traditions.

The poet’s vision continues to find expression in the traditional dramatic forms, but as in the Orestes, they are expanded and developed in novel ways. The agon involves an exchange of three speeches rather than two (Jocasta makes a vain attempt to persuade both the antagonists), and proceeds to a racy dialogue in trochaic tetrameters, full of interruptions and interjections: the effect is more naturalistic than normal stichomythic dialogues. There is a massive increase of the narrative element: while almost all tragedies have one messenger speech, the Phoenician Women includes four, amounting to almost 300 lines. As always, the drama includes a chorus, but an unexpected one. Whereas the chorus of the Seven against Thebes consisted of women of Thebes itself, the Euripidean chorus are slave-women from Tyre, en route to Delphi: Euripides seems to go out of his way to emphasize their marginality. Although distantly related to the people of Thebes, and embroiled in the conflict which threatens the city, they stand apart from the action, commentators rather than confidantes. The choral odes, though often rather loosely linked to the action of adjacent scenes, are connected with one another thematically: together they provide a ‘history’ of Thebes and its myths, though highly allusive and unchronological. This historical or mythographic tendency extends beyond the choral contribution: the play as a whole includes a host of cross-references to other strands of legend and indeed other plays (thus Teiresias alludes to the episode Euripides had dramatized some years earlier in the Erechtheus: see 852ff. and note 47). By this stage in the century mythology was becoming more systematic, a familiar though still fluid structure of genealogy and relationships: handbooks summarizing and codifying the legends had begun to appear. Euripides is aware of this tendency and makes use of it, though for poetic ends. To this extent the interpolator responsible for the present conclusion was continuing, though less skilfully, the authentic practice of his model.

The Phoenician Women is not a modern favourite. Extended lamentation and narration of battles is not much to modern taste; the legendary background of the Theban conflct is less familiar to the average reader than the war of Troy; the characters are unsympathetic or passive or both. But anyone who wants to understand ancient reception of tragedy needs to come to terms with the fact that this play, together with Hecabe and Orestes, was one of Euripides’ most popular dramas; while anyone considering the impact of Greek drama on Latin literature cannot do better than begin from the influence of this play on Seneca’s tragedies (not only his Phoenician Women but his Oedipus), and still more on Statius’ magnificently macabre Thebaid. When the imitators are figures of such importance, the model deserves closer attention, and the reader who comes to the Euripidean original with an open mind will not find it lacking in dramatic power.


JOCASTA, mother and wife of Oedipus

SERVANT, old tutor of Antigone

ANTIGONE, daughter of Oedipus and Jocasta

CHORUS of captive women from Phoenicia

POLYNEICES, son of Oedipus and Jocasta, exiled by Eteocles

ETEOCLES, brother of Polyneices, ruling in Thebes

CREON, brother of Jocasta

TEIRESIAS, a blind prophet

MENOECEUS, son of Creon



OEDIPUS, son of Laius and Jocasta, former king of Thebes

[The scene is the royal palace at Thebes. JOCASTA enters from the palace. She wears black and her hair is close-cropped in sign of mourning.]

JOCASTA:1 O Sun, whirling2 on your flames with swift steeds, what a curse it brought, the beam you aimed at Thebes that day when Cadmus came to this land, leaving Phoenicia’s sea-swept country!

He took to wife Harmonia, the Cyprian’s child, and in time became the father of Polydorus, whose son, men say, was Labdacus, the father of Laius.

[10] I am the daughter of Menoeceus, and Creon is my brother, born of the same mother. Jocasta is what men call me, the name given by my father, and Laius took me as his wife.

When many years of wedlock with me had brought him no children in these halls, he went and questioned Phoebus, asking for his own sake and mine, that male offspring might bless his house.

But the god replied: ‘O king of Thebes of the noble horses, do not sow your seed for children against the gods’ will; for if you father a son, he will kill you, your own issue, and all [20] your house shall wade through blood.’3 Yet he gave way to passion and, succumbing to Bacchus’ power, fathered a child on me.

And when the babe was born, recognizing his offence and remembering the saying of the god, he gave the infant to herdsmen to expose in Hera’s meadow on Cithaeron’s uplands, after piercing his ankles through with iron spikes, causing Greece to call him Oedipus – Swell-Foot.

But the men who tended Polybus’ horses found the child and, carrying him to the home of their mistress, placed him in her arms. She suckled the fruit of my own womb’s sore labour and persuaded her lord that the child was her own. [30] When he was grown to manhood and his cheeks were a burnished gold, my son, either making the discovery himself or informed by someone else, made the journey to Phoebus’ dwelling, in order to learn his parents’ identity. Now Laius, my husband, also was going there, eager to learn if the child he had exposed was no longer living. They met, the pair of them, at the same place, where the road divides for Phocis. The driver of Laius’ carriage shouted out an order: ‘Off the road with you, stranger! Make way for a king!’ Oedipus in his [40] pride carried on walking and made no reply. The horses’ hooves dashed against his ankles, drawing blood. And then (why should I describe what happened beyond the grim event?) the son killed his father and, taking the carriage, presented it to Polybus who had raised him.

When the Sphinx was ravaging our city, and my husband no longer lived, Creon my brother issued a proclamation that, if any man should read the riddle of that sorceress-maid, he would win my hand in marriage. Now, strangely it happened that Oedipus, my son, read the song of the Sphinx (which led [50] to his receiving the throne as his reward) and, poor wretch, all-unknowing took to wife his own mother, while she who shared his bed shared also his ignorance. To my son I bore two male children, Eteocles and Polyneices the famous and mighty, and two daughters. The one her father called Ismene, the other, the elder, I called Antigone.

But when he learned that his wife and mother were one, Oedipus, having endured the worst of suffering, brought fearful [60] ruin on his own eyes, drenching them in blood with golden brooch-pins.4

Now, when my sons had reached bearded manhood, they kept their father concealed behind closed doors, so that his fate, needing much subtlety of thought to explain away, might be forgotten. He is alive inside the house, but distracted by his fortunes he has hurled most impious curses at his sons, that they should divide this house with whetted swords.5

The pair of them feared that, if they lived together, the gods [70] would bring these curses to fulfilment, and so they entered into an agreement: Polyneices, the younger, should go first into voluntary exile from Thebes, while Eteocles should remain and wield the sceptre here, then alternately they should rule for one year. But once Eteocles was firmly established in his royal office, he would not vacate the throne, and thrust Polyneices away from this land in banishment.

To Argos went Polyneices, and taking to wife Adrastus’ daughter, he has mustered a strong force of spearsmen and brought them here. To these very walls with their seven gates has he come, demanding his father’s sceptre and a share in the [80] land. Seeking to prevent strife, I have persuaded one son to meet the other under truce before they resort to fighting. The messenger I have sent says that he will come.

O Zeus, dwelling in the shining folds of heaven, save us, grant reconciliation to my sons! Wise as you are, you should not leave the same mortal to languish for ever in misery!

[JOCASTA goes back into the palace. The old tutor of Antigone appears on the roof of the palace, followed by ANTIGONE, who climbs a ladder behind the stage-building.6]

SERVANT: Antigone, glorious flower of your father’s house, since your mother has let you leave the women’s quarters for [90] the highest part of the palace, as you had begged, to view the army of Argos, stay there while I scan the pathway, in case some Theban appears walking down there, and we incur criticism – no matter for me, a servant, but you are royal.7 When I know this, I will tell you all I saw and heard from the men of Argos,8 the time I went to your brother with offering of a truce, passing from here to there, and back again from him. [He looks around from the top of the roof.] No, no Theban is approaching the palace. Climb up these old cedar steps and [100] look over the plain, along the waters of Ismenus, past Dirce’s spring to that great gathering of the enemy.

ANTIGONE: Stretch, yes stretch out an old hand to a young one, helping me to climb up off this ladder.

SERVANT: There you are, my girl; grasp it! You have got here in good time: the Argive army’s on the move, as it happens; they’re dividing companies, one from the other.

ANTIGONE: O Lady Hecate, child of Leto, how all the plain flashes with bronze! [110]

SERVANT: Yes, for this is no feeble army Polyneices has brought to Thebes, with the thunder of many horses and countless weapons.

ANTIGONE: Are the gates secure, the brass-clamped bolts fixed true in the walls that Amphion fashioned of stone?

SERVANT: Never fear: all is safe inside the city.

ANTIGONE: Who is the man with the white helmet-crest, who marches at the head of their army, lifting high on his shoulder his shield of [120] bronze?

SERVANT: A captain, my lady.

ANTIGONE: Who is he and what is his family? Tell me, old man, what is his name?

SERVANT: He boasts of Mycenaean birth, and dwells by Lerna’s streams. He is king Hippomedon.

ANTIGONE: Ah, what a proud and terrible sight he makes! He is like an earthborn giant, star-bright, as in pictures, not resembling one of mortal birth! [130]

SERVANT: Do you not see the man, a captain, now crossing Dirce’s stream?

ANTIGONE: How strange and new the fashion of his armour shows! Who is he?

SERVANT: He is Tydeus, son of Oeneus, and the battle-fire of Aetolia lives in his breast.

ANTIGONE: Old friend, is he the man who wedded the sister of Polyneices’ wife? How foreign his equipment appears, half-barbarian!

SERVANT: Yes, my child, all men of Aetolia carry shields, and [140] their skill in throwing the javelin is unequalled.

ANTIGONE: And you, old fellow, how do you know all this so well?

SERVANT: I saw the devices on their shields and remembered them, that time I went to your brother with the offering of a truce. Having noted them, I know the men who wear those arms.

ANTIGONE: Who is he who passes by the tomb of Zethus with his locks flowing, that young warrior with the savage expression on his face, a captain, to judge from the troops surging behind him in full armour?

[150] SERVANT: He is Parthenopaeus, son of Atalanta.

ANTIGONE: Well, I pray that Artemis who ranges the mountains with her mother may destroy him, felling him with her bow, for coming to lay waste to my city.

SERVANT: That’s my prayer too, my child! But they come to Thebes with justice on their side; and I fear the gods may see the truth of their cause.

ANTIGONE: Where is he, the man born of the same mother as myself, to a fate of so much suffering? O my good old friend, tell me, where is Polyneices?

SERVANT: He stands next to Adrastus, near the tomb of Niobe’s [160] seven maiden daughters. Do you see?

ANTIGONE: I see, though not clearly, I see the outline of his figure and likeness of his chest. If only I could fly, a wind-swept cloud, through the air to my brother, and fling my arms at last around his beloved neck, the wretched exile!

See how he shines out in his armour of gold, old man, blazing like the shafts of the rising sun!

SERVANT: He shall come here under truce to the palace, to fill [170] your heart with joy.

ANTIGONE: That man there, old fellow, who is he, the one who stands holding the reins of his white horses?

SERVANT: He is the prophet Amphiaraus,9 my lady, and at his side are victims for sacrifice, whose blood will slake the earth’s thirst.

ANTIGONE: O daughter of Helios with his gleaming belt, Selene, orb of shining gold, how calm and restrained his use of the goad as he drives on his team, tapping each of them in turn! Where is the man who hurls arrogant threats at this city, Capaneus?

SERVANT: There he is, measuring the walls from top to bottom, calculating where to place his scaling ladders. [180]

ANTIGONE: O Nemesis, o you loud-rumbling thunderclaps of Zeus and flaming radiance of his lightning, yours is the power to put the proud utterances of a boastful tongue to sleep! This is the man who claimed his spear would capture the women of Thebes and deliver them up to the daughters of Mycenae, to Lerna’s trident, enslaving them to the spring Poseidon made for love of Amymone. Never, never, o Lady Artemis, golden-haired child of Zeus, may I endure [190] the yoke of slavery!

SERVANT: My child, return to the palace and stay in the cover of your women’s quarters, as you have realized your heart’s desire and seen all you wished to see. For, now that confusion has entered Thebes, a crowd of women is advancing on the palace. Women are prone to finding fault, and once they find slight pretexts for talk, they import others in plenty. It gives women some kind of pleasure to say nothing good of each [200] other.10

[ANTIGONE goes down the ladder, followed by the old tutor. The chorus of female prisoners from Phoenicia enter the orchestra.]

CHORUS [Strophe 1]: Leaving the sea that washes Tyre, I have come from the Phoenician isle11 as the finest offering to Loxias, to serve as a slave to Phoebus12 in his halls, where under the crags of Parnassus covered with shafts of snow he has made his dwelling. Over Ionian seas I sailed, sped by the oar, while Zephyrus’ chariot traversed the unharvested plains13 that flow round Sicily, his breath filling the [210] heavens with loveliest sound.

[Antistrophe 1:] Chosen for Loxias as the fairest blossom of my city, I came to Cadmus’ land, sent here to the towers of Laius, to the towers which belong to the kin of the glorious sons of Agenor.14 Like [220] statues fashioned in gold I have become a handmaiden dedicated to Phoebus. But Castalia’s waters still wait for me to wash in Phoebus’ service the hair that is my maidenhood’s splendour.

[Epode:] O rock that flashes with the gleam of Bacchic torches above the twin-peaked summit that Dionysus haunts, and you, vine, that daily put forth shoots and offer up the fruitful cluster of your [230] grapes; o holy cavern of the serpent, and you, mountain heights where the nymphs keep watch, and sacred mount scattered with shafts of snow, may I forsake Dirce and, free from fear, honour the god, celebrating the immortals in whirling dance, where Phoebus has his vaulted home at earth’s navel!15

[Strophe 2:] But now I see before these walls Ares has come in [240] fury, kindling blood to fire this city – oh, heaven forbid! Griefs are shared by kinsfolk, and Phoenicia’s land will suffer too, if this city of seven towers meets any suffering. Oh, it is true, shared is the blood, shared the children of horn-wearing Io! I share in this tribulation.

[250] [Antistrophe 2:] Around the city a dense cloud of shields blazes in token of bloody battle to come; this shall Ares soon know, if he brings upon the sons of Oedipus the suffering that comes from the Furies. O Pelasgian Argos, I fear your might, and the hand of heaven! For the son who makes his armed assault upon this house is [260] entering a contest where his cause is just.

[POLYNEICES enters and approaches the palace doors cautiously.]

POLYNEICES: All too easily the gatekeepers’ bolts have welcomed me inside the walls. And so I fear that, having me in their net, my captors won’t let me escape without the cost of blood. That’s why I must look all around me, staring now this way now that, for fear of some trickery. This sword that arms my hand will give me the assurance of desperate courage.

Ha! Who goes there? Or it just a sound that alarms me? [270] Everything seems frightening to men on a risky venture, as soon as they set foot in enemy territory. I put trust in my mother, who persuaded me to come here under truce, and yet I do not. But help is close at hand (near by I see the altar-hearth);16 the house is not deserted. Come, let me return my sword to its dark scabbard and question these women who stand beside the palace.

Foreign women, tell me, from what homeland have you come here to a Greek house?

CHORUS-LEADER: Phoenicia is the land that nurtured me, and [280] Agenor’s sons’ sons sent me here to honour Phoebus as the first-fruits won by their spears. The famous son of Oedipus was about to send me to the holy oracle and hearth of Loxias, when the men of Argos came in arms against the city. But tell me in turn, sir, who you are, that you have come to the seven-gated battlements that guard the land of Thebes?

POLYNEICES: My father is Oedipus, son of Laius, and Jocasta, Menoeceus’ child, is my mother; the people of Thebes call me Polyneices. [290]

CHORUS: O kinsman of Agenor’s sons, my royal masters who sent me here in exile, low on bended knee I fall to do you honour, my lord, respecting the custom of my homeland. You have come at last to the land of your fathers!

Ho! Mistress, royal mistress, come quickly from the palace, fling wide its gates!

Do you hear, lady, who gave this man birth? Why are you slow to cross the high-roofed threshold to clasp your son in your arms? [300]

[JOCASTA enters from the palace and sings a monody of welcome.17]

JOCASTA: Maidens of Phoenicia, hearing your cries, I drag my tottering steps here on these old feet. [She catches sight of Polyneices:] O my son, at last, after days past number I see your face! Come to your mother’s breast and hold me in your embrace, stoop to place your cheek on mine, your hair close to mine, your dark locks casting their shadow over my neck! Oh, oh, at last you appear, past hope, past imagining, for [310] your mother to embrace! What should I say to you? How can I recapture the delight of old in every way with hands and words, in the joyful intricacies of the dance, circling now this way, now that?

O child, you left your father’s halls deserted, when a brother’s shameless crime sent you into exile, yearned for by your loved ones, [320] yearned for by Thebes! Therefore have I shorn my white hair in sorrow, abandoning it to grief, and wear no more my robes of white, my son, exchanging them for these dark rags.

But in the palace the blind old man constantly strives to master his tearful longing for the pair of like feather who were severed from the [330] yoke of family love. He hastens to take his own life with bloody sword or noose slung over rafters, groaning in distress at the curses he levelled at his sons. With persistent cries of anguish he hides away in darkness. But you, my child, I hear, are already wedded; yours is the pleasure of fathering offspring in a foreign house and you cherish [340] a foreign kinship. This is a curse on your mother and the son of Laius of old, the plague of an alien marriage! I did not kindle for you the flaming torch customary at weddings, as befits a blessed mother; Ismenus was denied the glory of providing his water for your nuptials, while throughout the city of the Thebans no word was spoken [350] to greet your bride. I curse these woes, whether caused by the sword or Strife or your father or the gods’ will that has staged its revelry in the house of Oedipus! For on my head has fallen the anguish of these sorrows.

CHORUS-LEADER: Offspring exert a strange power over women, won as they are at the cost of painful labour; yes, all womankind love their children.18

POLYNEICES: Mother, I have shown both sense and folly in coming among my enemies. Yet all men are bound to love the land of their birth. The man who disagrees with this is [360] indulging in rhetoric; his thoughts tend elsewhere.

With such misgiving did I come, so much a prey to fear that some treacherous act of my brother’s might cause my death, that I made my way through the town sword in hand and looking all around me. One thing has given me heart, the truce and your own pledge that brought me safe within these ancestral walls. Many a tear I shed as I came, when after so long a time I saw the temples and altars of the gods, the exercise spaces where I received my training, and Dirce’s spring. Banished unjustly from these, I now inhabit a foreign city, and tears flow constantly from my eyes. [370]

But enough – grief ever produces fresh grief – I see you have your head shorn and wear clothes of mourning. Oh, mother, my sufferings are to be pitied! How terrible a thing it is when family members become enemies and there is little hope of reconciliation! What is my old father doing inside the palace, with darkness instead of light in his eyes,19 and what my two sisters? Do they lament my banishment, poor girls?

JOCASTA: Cruelly is some god destroying the family of Oedipus. So it began: I gave birth against the laws of decency, and [380] your father wrongly married me and made you. But what is to be done? The will of heaven must be endured. But how to ask what I want to know without causing you any pain, that is my dilemma. And yet I long to be satisfied.

POLYNEICES: No, ask your question; leave no desire unfulfilled. Your wishes are also what my own heart desires, mother.

JOCASTA: Then first I ask you what I long to know: what is it like to lose one’s native land? Is it a grievous loss?

POLYNEICES: Most grievous; more so in deed than in word.

JOCASTA: What is its nature? What is it that causes an exile distress? [390]

POLYNEICES: One thing above all else: he is denied freedom of speech.

JOCASTA: That’s a slave’s condition you describe, not speaking one’s thoughts!

POLYNEICES: A man has to bear the senseless acts of his rulers.

JOCASTA: What pain, to share in the folly of fools!

POLYNEICES: But to avoid harm one must deny instinct and practise servitude.

JOCASTA: Hopes, they say, give sustenance to exiles.

POLYNEICES: Hopes look with eyes that are fair but their promise is for the future.

JOCASTA: Does time not expose their emptiness?

POLYNEICES: They have a certain charm that makes foul weather seem fair.

JOCASTA: How did you find food before marriage gave you [400] security?

POLYNEICES: Sometimes I had enough each day, sometimes I had not.

JOCASTA: Had you no help from friends and former guests of your father?

POLYNEICES: Enjoy good fortune: friends disappear once prosperity goes.

JOCASTA: Did your noble birth not raise you to high estate?

POLYNEICES: Poverty is a curse; nobility did not feed me.

JOCASTA: A man’s homeland, it seems, is his most precious possession.

POLYNEICES: You could not even say how precious.

JOCASTA: How did you come to Argos? What was your intention?

POLYNEICES: Adrastus had received a certain oracle from Loxias.

JOCASTA: What kind of oracle? What are you saying? I cannot [410] fathom.

POLYNEICES: He said that Adrastus’ daughters should wed a boar and a lion.20

JOCASTA: What did you have to do with beasts’ names, my son?

POLYNEICES: I do not know; the god called me to my fate.

JOCASTA: Wise is the god; how did you win your bride?

POLYNEICES: It was night; I came to the entrance of Adrastus’ palace.

JOCASTA: Looking for a place to rest, as wandering exiles do?

POLYNEICES: Yes, and then it was that another man, also an exile, arrived.

JOCASTA: Who was he? How wretched must he, too, have been!

POLYNEICES: Tydeus, the son, men say, of Oineus.

JOCASTA: Why did Adrastus liken the pair of you to wild [420] beasts?

POLYNEICES: Because we fought over a bed for the night.

JOCASTA: Then the son of Talaus understood the oracle’s meaning?

POLYNEICES: Yes, and gave the two of us his two daughters!

JOCASTA: And is your marriage a happy or unhappy one?

POLYNEICES: To this day I have no fault to find in my wife.

JOCASTA: How did you persuade the army to follow you here?

POLYNEICES: To his two sons-in-law Adrastus swore this oath: he would bring both of us back from exile to our homelands, and first myself. Many chieftains of the Danaans and Mycenaeans are here, rendering me a kindness that is distressing but [430]necessary to me, as it is my native city I march against. I call the gods as my witnesses that unwillingly I raised the spear against relatives all too willing to fight. Now, mother, with you rests the power to cancel these ills, by reconciling kinsmen of one parent and ridding yourself, myself and all Thebes of these troubles. It is an old, old saying but nonetheless I will repeat it: ‘Wealth is honoured most by men and has the greatest influence in human affairs.’ For this have I come here, [440] with countless spears at my back; for a nobleman without wealth counts for nothing.21

CHORUS-LEADER: And here comes Eteocles for this reconciliation. Jocasta, as their mother the task is yours to speak the words that will bring your children to harmony once more.

[ETEOCLES enters with a retinue of servants.]

ETEOCLES: Mother, here I am;22 I have come in deference to your wishes. What is to be done? Let someone explain. For I have stopped my work of marshalling round the walls the tight cordon of defence for Thebes, to hear your mediation, for which you have persuaded me to allow this man inside our walls under truce. [450]

JOCASTA: Enough, Eteocles! Justice is not the result of haste; measured words achieve most in the eyes of wise men. Curb that fearsome glare and those stormy outbursts! It is no Gorgon’s severed head you are looking at; this is your brother you see before you!

And you, Polyneices, for your part turn your face on your brother; if you look him in the eye, you will speak and hear his words more reasonably. I want to give you both some [460] wise advice: when a man comes to meet a friend with whom he has quarrelled and looks him in the eye, he should consider only the reason for their meeting and forget all earlier grievances. You should speak first, Polyneices my son; for you have come with an army of Danaus’ sons, unjustly treated, as you claim. May some god be the judge and reconcile your differences!

POLYNEICES: Truth is simple by nature in the telling, and [470] justice needs no cunning gloss of sophistries. It has a right measure of its own; but the argument that is unjust is sick in nature, and so needs the medicine of clever words. I had regard for my share and this man’s in our father’s house, as I wanted to escape the curses that Oedipus uttered once against us. Willingly I quitted this land, allowing him for one year’s cycle to rule Thebes, so that I myself might rule in turn, claiming my share, and not clash with him in spiteful enmity, [480] doing and suffering wrong, as now has happened.

He gave his seal of approval to this and his oath in the name of the gods; but not one of his promises has he fulfilled, instead enjoying for himself the kingship and my share in the inheritance.

Even now I am prepared to take what is mine and send away my army from this land, to take my house and live in it in turn, and then for the same space of time to yield it to him once more, and not to lay waste my homeland or set against these battlements scaling-ladders for assault. This I will attempt [490] to do, if I fail to have justice. I call upon the gods to witness this – that, though acting in all respects justly, I am being robbed of my homeland unjustly, most impiously. These various points, Mother, I have stated as they stand, not entangled in fine words, and, in the eyes of men both wise and simple, my case, I think, is just.

CHORUS-LEADER: I grant we were not reared in the land of Greece but it seems to me your words are full of sense.

ETEOCLES: If all men agreed on what constituted honour and wisdom, the world would be free of contentious argument. [500] But as it is, nothing is like or equal on earth, except in name; but this naming is not reality.23 Mother, I will disguise nothing in what I say: I would go to where the stars or sun have their risings, I’d go beneath the earth, if only I could, in order to possess the greatest of the gods, Tyranny. This is what is precious, mother, and I have no wish to yield it to another, when I might keep it for myself. It is cowardice to forfeit what is greater and accept what is less. Besides, I count it a disgrace that this man should achieve his ambition by coming [510] here in arms and sacking our land. This would prove a reproach to Thebes, if fear of Mycenaean spears should make me resign the sceptre that is mine for him to wield! He had no right to seek arbitration by coming here in arms; reasoned discussion can achieve all that can be effected by enemy swords. If he consents to live in this land on other terms, he may. But what I hold I shall not willingly resign. When I have the opportunity to rule, shall I ever be a servant of this man? [520]

Therefore come fire, come sword, harness your horses and fill the plain with chariots! I will not yield my throne to him! If it is ever right to do wrong, then for a throne’s sake is wrong most right! In all else should a man fear the gods.24

CHORUS-LEADER: Ignoble actions should not win praise. This is not noble reasoning but an offence to justice.

JOCASTA: Eteocles, my son, not everything about old age is bad; experience can sometimes speak more wisely than youth. [530] Why do you set your heart, my boy, on Ambition, the worst of gods? Do not! She is a goddess who despises justice. Many are the prosperous homes and cities she enters, leaving when her worshippers are ruined. And she is the one you honour in your madness! A nobler course, my child, is to honour Equality,25 who constantly binds friends to friends, cities to cities, allies to allies. Equality is mankind’s natural law, while the less is always enemy of the more, and ushers in the day of hate. Equality established measures and weights for men, [540] and apportioned number. The sightless eye of night and light of the sun pace equally through the year’s cycle, and neither of them resents giving way to the other. The sun, then, and night serve proportion; will you not consent to having an equal share in your own home? Will you not give this man his due? Where is justice then? Why do you give excessive honour to Tyranny, that injustice you call happiness, and rate [550] it so highly? Is it a precious thing, to be the focus of all eyes? No, it is empty! Do you want to have in your home as many troubles as possessions? What is ‘more’? Nothing but a word. Sufficient means are enough to satisfy men of sense. Mortals do not possess their wealth as personal property; we are merely stewards of what the gods bestow; whenever they wish, they take it back again. Prosperity is not constant but lasts for a day.

Come, if I put two propositions before you and ask: ‘Do [560] you want to be king of your city or its saviour?’ will your reply be, ‘King’? But if this man is victorious and the spears of Argos master those of Cadmus’ men, you will see this city of the Thebans brought low, you will see many of its daughters taken prisoner and brutally raped by enemy soldiers. Then this wealth you seek to own will prove costly indeed to Thebes, yet you remain ambitious. So much I say to you.

Now, Polyneices, my words are for you. It was a foolish kindness that Adrastus did you, and a thoughtless journey you [570] made, coming here to sack this city. Consider, if you conquer this land – and heaven forbid you should – how in the name of the gods will you set up trophies of victory to Zeus,26 how, too, will you begin the sacrifice for destroying your homeland, or inscribe the spoils by Inachus’ stream? ‘Having destroyed by fire this city of Thebes, Polyneices dedicated these shields to the gods.’ O my son, never pray to win such glory as this from the lips of fellow Greeks! But if you are defeated and his side triumphs, how will you return to Argos, leaving thousands behind dead?

[580] This is what will be said: ‘What a cursed betrothal you made, Adrastus! How we have been destroyed by one girl’s marriage!’ You risk incurring two evils, my child: to lose Argos and Thebes, stumbling in mid-enterprise. Subdue your excessive desires, both of you, subdue them, I say! When two fools meet, complete disaster is the result!

CHORUS-LEADER: O you gods, avert these woes, I pray, and let the sons of Oedipus reach agreement!

ETEOCLES: Mother, the contest is no longer one of words.27 Time spent here is idly wasted and all for nothing is this goodwill of yours. We cannot reach agreement except on the terms stated, that I should wield the sceptre and be king of [590] this land. Spare me, then, your tedious admonitions and leave me alone! [Turning to POLYNEICES:] And you, sir, get yourself clear of these walls or prepare to die!

POLYNEICES: And who will kill me? Who is so hard to wound that he can plunge his murderous sword into me and not win the same reward?

ETEOCLES: He stands near, not far off; do you see these hands of mine?

POLYNEICES: I do; how cowardly wealth makes a man, as he shamefully clings to life!

ETEOCLES: And yet you have brought an army to face a man with no stomach for battle?

POLYNEICES: Yes; the general who avoids risk is better than the one who courts it.

ETEOCLES: You are a boaster, trusting to the truce that saves you from death! [600]

POLYNEICES: And saves you also! A second time I ask for the sceptre and my share in Thebes!

ETEOCLES: You ask in vain; I will live in the house that is mine.

POLYNEICES: With more than your share?

ETEOCLES: Yes; get out of the country!

POLYNEICES: O altars of my ancestral gods …

ETEOCLES: – that you are here to sack!

POLYNEICES: … hear me …

ETEOCLES: Who would hear you pray – the man who has brought an army against your homeland?

POLYNEICES: … and you dwellings of our gods, riders of the white horses …28

ETEOCLES: – who hate you!

POLYNEICES: … I am being driven from my country …

ETEOCLES: Yes; you came to drive me from it!

POLYNEICES: … unjustly, you gods!

ETEOCLES: Call upon the gods at Mycenae, not here!

POLYNEICES: You are the gods’ enemy …

ETEOCLES: … but not my country’s enemy, as you are!

POLYNEICES: … in driving me away without my proper share.

[610] ETEOCLES: And I will take your life besides!

POLYNEICES: O Father, do you hear how I am treated?

ETEOCLES: He also hears what actions you are taking.

POLYNEICES: And you, Mother?

ETEOCLES: It is sacrilege for you to speak our mother’s name!


ETEOCLES: Go back to Argos and call on Lerna’s waters!

POLYNEICES: I will go, do not trouble yourself; but thank you, Mother.

ETEOCLES: Leave this land!

POLYNEICES: I do leave it; but allow me to see my father.

ETEOCLES: Your request is denied!

POLYNEICES: Well then, my young sisters.

ETEOCLES: You will never see them again.

POLYNEICES: O sisters!

ETEOCLES: Why do you call on them, when you are their bitter enemy?

POLYNEICES: Mother, farewell!

JOCASTA: You see how marvellously well I fare, child!

POLYNEICES: I am your son no longer.

JOCASTA: I was born for sorrows past number!

POLYNEICES: Yes, for this man treats me with contempt.

[620] ETEOCLES: Contempt is what I have had from you!

POLYNEICES: Where will you take your stance before the gates?29

ETEOCLES: Why do you ask me this?

POLYNEICES: I will station myself opposite in order to kill you.

ETEOCLES: I, too, long for this encounter!

JOCASTA: Oh, I cannot bear it! What will you do, my sons?

ETEOCLES: The event will show.

JOCASTA: Shun, o shun your father’s curses!30

POLYNEICES: Let the whole house go to ruin! Soon enough my sword shall be red with blood and leave its idleness. I call to witness the gods and the land that reared me that, dishonoured and pitifully wronged, I am being driven from this land, as if I were a slave and not as much the son of Oedipus as this man. And if, Thebes, any harm befalls you, blame not me but him! For I came unwillingly, and unwillingly am I driven away. [630]

And to you, Apollo, Lord of the Highways, and to your shrine, farewell! Farewell, you friends of my youth! Farewell, altars of the gods, rich in sacrifice! I do not know if I shall ever again address you. Not yet asleep are the hopes in which I trust, that with heaven’s aid I will kill this man and take control of this Theban land.

[POLYNEICES departs to rejoin his army.]

ETEOCLES: Away with you from my country! Truly did my father show divine foreknowledge when he named you Polyneices, ‘man of much strife’,31 since strife is what you are.

[JOCASTA returns to the palace. ETEOCLES and attendants remain on stage.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: From Tyre to this land came Cadmus,32 where a calf unbroken to the yoke sank to its four knees before him, fulfilling [640] the oracle, where the divine word bade him take for his place of dwelling the wheat-bearing plains where the gushing stream of the lovely river waters Dirce’s green pastures, rich land for the plough. Here did his mother in union with Zeus bring forth the Roaring One,33 and the twisting ivy in blessing at once covered his infant [650] form, encircling him in the shade of its green tendrils, for maidens and women of Thebes to honour in the Bacchic dance with shouts of ‘evoe!’

[Antistrophe:] Here was the gory serpent of Ares that kept a cruel vigil, surveying with eyes that flashed everywhere the watery fountains [660] and streams that mirrored the green banks. Cadmus came to fetch lustral water and killed it, hurling a rock with mighty monster-slaying arm at the beast’s blood-stained head. And at the bidding of Pallas, motherless goddess, he cast its teeth into the fertile furrows of the [670] earth. Then from the surface of its soil the earth sent up the sight of armed men whom bloody conflict, iron-tempered, united once more with their mother, earth, soaking with their blood the soil that had shown them to the air’s sunlit breezes.

[Epode:] To you also I call, Epaphus,34 child of Zeus, scion long since of our first mother, Io, to you I call with foreign cries, ah, with [680] foreign prayers! Come, come to this land! Your descendants founded this city and it is in the keeping of the twin-named goddesses, Persephone and Demeter, beloved deity, ruler of all things, and of Earth, nurse of all things. O send the fire-bearing goddesses, defend this land! All things are easy to the gods.

ETEOCLES [to an attendant]: You, there, go and bring Creon, [690] son of Menoeceus,35 brother of my mother Jocasta! Tell him I wish to confer with him on matters that touch my own interest and the city’s before we go to battle and take our place among the spears. But here he is, releasing your feet from their toil; I see him approaching my palace.

[CREON enters.]

CREON: Much ground have I covered in my eagerness to see you, Eteocles, my royal lord; indeed this hunt for you took me round all the gates and guards of Cadmus’ town.

[700] ETEOCLES: I too wanted to see you, Creon; when I met Polyneices to parley with him, I found little scope for agreement.

CREON: I heard he has great designs on Thebes, trusting to his kinship with Adrastus and that man’s army. But we must leave this in the gods’ hands; I am here to tell you of a serious obstacle in our path.

ETEOCLES: What kind of obstacle? I do not understand your meaning.

CREON: We have an Argive soldier as a prisoner.

ETEOCLES: And what news does he have of developments on their side?

CREON: He says the Argive army is about to throw a cordon of warriors round the city and towers of Thebes. [710]

ETEOCLES: Then Cadmus’ men must meet them in the field!

CREON: Where? Does your lack of years keep you from seeing what you should?

ETEOCLES: Beyond the trenches there, that’s where we should fight them, wasting no time!

CREON: Thebes has few troops, but they have many.

ETEOCLES: I know them; their boldness is confined to words.

CREON: Argos has a great name among Greeks.

ETEOCLES: Never fear; I will soon fill the plain with their blood.

CREON: I hope so; but I foresee much effort to achieve this.

ETEOCLES: And so I won’t keep my men penned inside these walls. [720]

CREON: Well, victory lies entirely in good counsel.

ETEOCLES: Is your counsel, then, that I should take a different path?

CREON: Any path, rather than hazard everything on one throw.

ETEOCLES: What if we attack them by night and lay some ambush?

CREON: Only if you get back here in safety, should you fail.

ETEOCLES: Night evens the odds but gives an advantage to daring.

CREON: The darkness of night can spell disaster if things go wrong.

ETEOCLES: Then should I launch my attack when they are at supper?

CREON: You would create some panic, but it’s victory you need.

ETEOCLES: Dirce’s waters are deep to ford when they retreat. [730]

CREON: Nothing is better than taking sound precautions.

ETEOCLES: What if we ride the Argive army down with a cavalry charge?

CREON: There too their troops are fenced round with chariots.

ETEOCLES: What, then, shall I do? Hand over the city to the enemy?

CREON: Certainly not! Consider the matter: you are a man of sense.

ETEOCLES: Well, what counsel is more sensible?

CREON: It’s said they have seven warriors, I have heard …

ETEOCLES: What orders have they been given? That isn’t a strong force!

CREON: Each has been assigned a company to lead against our seven gates.36

ETEOCLES: What, then, should we do? I won’t wait for counsels [740] of indecision.

CREON: You must choose seven warriors to meet them at the gates.

ETEOCLES: Commanding companies or as single combatants?

CREON: Companies, once you have selected the bravest men.

ETEOCLES: I understand; to repel attempts to scale our walls.

CREON: Assign them adjutants; one man does not see everything.

ETEOCLES: Chosen for their courage or good judgement?

CREON: For both; the one without the other has no value.

ETEOCLES: And so I shall; I will go to our seven towers and station captains at the gates, as you advise, seven men of mine [750] to match seven of the enemy. It would be a costly waste of time to tell the name of each, with our foes encamped under our very walls.37 No, I’m on my way; we must not let our hands be idle. I pray that I come face to face with my brother, clash with him in battle and kill him with my spear! But if I meet with any misfortune,38 your task is to see to the marriage of my sister, Antigone, and your son, Haemon. Now, as I [760] leave, I confirm their recent pledge of betrothal. You are her mother’s brother; why need I speak at length? Give her the care she deserves, for your sake and mine. When my father put out his eyes, he incurred the charge of self-inflicted folly. I have no praise for him, and by his curses, if it happens, he will kill us.

There is one thing we have yet to do; we must learn from the prophet Teiresias39 if he has any oracular advice to bestow. I shall send your son Menoeceus, who bears your father’s name, Creon, to bring Teiresias here. He will be glad to come [770] to speak to you, but I have criticized his mantic art to his face before now and so have earned his resentment. I give this command to you, Creon, and to the city: if my powers prevail, the corpse of Polyneices is never to be buried in this land of Thebes, and anyone who does so is to die, even if related by blood. So much have I said to you; now I speak to my servants: bring out my weapons and protective armour, so I may set out now for the trial of might that awaits me, with justice at [780] my side bringing victory. I pray to Precaution,40 most serviceable of deities, that she keep this city safe.

[ETEOCLES leaves with attendants. CREON remains on stage.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: O Ares, bringer of much suffering, why are you so possessed with blood and death, so out of tune with the festivals of the Roaring One?41 Not for the dances where the young in their virgin beauty wear garlands do you toss your locks, singing a song to the flute’s breath as the Graces lead the dance, but with armed warriors you breathe into the Argive host a lust for the blood of Thebes, [790] dancing before your followers a savage dance graced by no music. You do not whirl amid the frenzy of fawnskin and thyrsus but stand in your chariot behind your bridled team of four with clattering hooves, as you rush to Ismenus’ stream with charging steeds, breathing hard upon the Argives, and marshalling in bronze along our walls of stone that armed, shield-bearing host of revellers to oppose the sons of the Sown Men. A fearsome goddess, truly, is Strife, who has devised these sufferings for the kings of our land. [800]

[Antistrophe:] O glen of holy leaves, haunt of many beasts, o eye of Artemis, Cithaeron42 nurturer of snows, never should you have fostered the one exposed to die, offspring of Jocasta, Oedipus, cast out of his home a babe, and marked by pins of gold. I wish the winged maid, that monster of the mountain, the Sphinx, had not come bringing grief to this land with her unmusical song, she who, [810] sent by Hades below the earth to ravage the land of the Cadmeans, once swooped with four-taloned feet on our walls and carried off the sons of Cadmus into the trackless light of the upper air. But now fresh discord, misbegotten by the gods, grows between the sons of Oedipus in their house and in their city. What is shameful is never in its nature honourable; those sons their mother bore against all custom bring pollution on their sire, for she entered the bed of one who shared her blood.

[Epode:] You brought to birth,43 o Earth, of old you brought to birth, as once I heard tell, yes, I heard it from foreign lips in my own home, the race that sprang from the teeth of the crimson-crested serpent, [820] eater of beast, which brought both shame and glory to Thebes. And in time past the great gods came to Harmonia’s nuptials,44 and to the sound of Amphion’s lyre-strings45 high rose the walls of Thebes, high its towers, on the land between the two rivers, where Dirce pours her waters before Ismenus into the plain and makes it green. And Io, our horned ancestress, became the mother of kings from the line of Cadmus. This city, which has known so many blessings from one [830] generation to another, now stands where Ares’ finest garlands may be gained.46

[TEIRESIAS enters, guided by his daughter, with MENOECEUS at his side.]

TEIRESIAS: Lead on, daughter; you are the eyes to my blind feet, as a star is to sailors. Here on even ground set my feet and go first, in case I stumble; your father has lost his strength. Keep safe in your pure young hands these oracular tablets I took, when I had noted the signs from the birds at the holy [840] seat where I divine what is to be. Tell me, young Menoeceus, son of Creon, how long a journey remains for us before we find your father in the city. My knees ache, and with this long trek I have scarcely strength to continue.

CREON: Take heart! You are near your friends, Teiresias, and soon can drop anchor. Give him support, my son; old men and children too young to fly the nest both like to wait for another’s hand to steady them.

TEIRESIAS: Very well; here we are. Now, why this eager summons, Creon?

CREON: I have not forgotten; but put behind you the weariness of your journey: gather your strength and get back your breath. [850]

TEIRESIAS: Well, I am tired; yesterday I travelled here from the land of Erechtheus’ sons.47 There, too, a war was being waged, against Eumolpus’ spearsmen, and Cecrops’ folk were the victors, thanks to me. This golden crown you see me wearing is my reward, the first fruits from the spoils the enemy yielded.

CREON: I count your crown of triumph as a good omen. For, as you know, we are engulfed by the spears of Danaus’ sons, and Thebes faces a great contest. Eteocles our king has already [860] gone in full armour to face the might of Mycenae, and he has ordered me to discover from you what is our best means of saving the city.

TEIRESIAS: Had Eteocles put this question, I should have sealed my lips and withheld my oracles. But to you, since you wish to learn, I will speak. For this land, Creon, has long been sick, ever since Laius in defiance of the gods fathered a son, the wretch Oedipus, who became his mother’s husband.

The bloody ruin of his eyes has been contrived by the gods [870] as a warning to Greece. Oedipus’ sons, wishing to cast a veil at last over this shame, supposing they could outrun the gods, foolishly erred; denying their father either exile or privileges, they turned the man from anguish to rage: racked with illness and their contempt, he vented terrible curses upon them. What did I not do, what words of advice did I not offer the sons of Oedipus, only to earn their hatred?

They are near to death, Creon, each at the hands of his brother. Many men shall fall and lie, one corpse upon another [880] in mingled carnage, Argive and Cadmean together, bringing bitter lamentation to the land of Thebes. You also, poor city, are reduced to rubble, if no one heeds my words. It would be best if none of Oedipus’ brood should inhabit this land as citizens, far less as kings, for they are accursed and will bring destruction on Thebes.

But since evil outweighs good in this case, there remains [890] one other path to deliverance. But to divulge this brings harm to me and pain to those whom destiny allows to bring the city healing salvation; therefore I shall leave. Farewell. I am but one among many and will suffer, if I must, what is to be; there is no alternative.48

[He turns to leave.]

CREON: Wait a moment, old man!

TEIRESIAS: Take your hands off me!

CREON: Stay; what makes you leave in such haste?

TEIRESIAS: Fortune is leaving you, Creon, not I.

CREON: Tell me how the city and its people are to be saved.

TEIRESIAS: You desire this knowledge now, but soon you will not.

[900] CREON : How can I not want to save the land of my forefathers?

TEIRESIAS: Then you wish to hear? You insist?

CREON: Yes; what could I be more eager to know?

TEIRESIAS: Then you will hear my oracles. But first I want to know this clearly: where is Menoeceus, who guided me here?

CREON: He is not far away; there beside you, in fact.

TEIRESIAS: He must leave, and get far from my prophecies.

CREON: He is my true son and will not divulge what he should keep secret.

TEIRESIAS: Then do you want me to tell you in his presence?

CREON: Yes; he will delight in hearing how Thebes can be [910] saved.

TEIRESIAS: Then hear the tenor of my prophecies. You must sacrifice Menoeceus here49 for his country’s good, your own son, as you yourself demand to know fate.

CREON: What are you saying? What have you just said, old man?

TEIRESIAS: You must carry out what the god has revealed.

CREON: You have spoken much evil in few words!

TEIRESIAS: For you, yes, but for your country my words bring great deliverance.

CREON: I did not hear! I did not listen! Thebes, farewell!

TEIRESIAS: This man is no longer the same; he turns away. [920]

CREON: Goodbye – go away! I have no need for your oracles!

TEIRESIAS: Has truth perished because of your ill fortune?

CREON: Oh, I beg you by your knees,50 by your grey hairs!

TEIRESIAS: Why do you stoop as a suppliant to me? Respect evils that are past all remedy.

CREON: Say no more! Do not speak of this to the city!

TEIRESIAS: You order me to do wrong; I will not keep silent.

CREON: What will you do to me? Will you kill my son?

TEIRESIAS: That task will fall to others; my office is to speak out.

CREON : What has caused this curse to light on me and my child?

TEIRESIAS: In that lair where the earth-born serpent guarded [930] the streams of Dirce he must be slain and give his crimson blood as a libation to the earth. For Ares nurses ancient anger against Cadmus, who killed his serpent born of earth, and seeks vengeance. If you do this, you and your people shall have Ares as your ally.

If the land receives fruit for fruit and mortal blood for blood, you will have the goodwill of Earth, who once sent up the golden-helmed crop of Sown Men. One must die from this race, one born a child from the seed of the serpent’s teeth. [940] You are the last in our city of the Sown Men’s line, you and your sons, whose blood is pure on mother’s and father’s side. Haemon’s coming marriage bars him from slaughter, for he is not a virgin. Although he is as yet unwed, he is still betrothed.51

But this young fellow’s life is committed to the city; his death would deliver from harm his ancestral land. Pain and sorrow he will bring to Adrastus and the Argives as they return home, their eyes veiled with death’s blackness, but glory to [950] Thebes. Choose one of these two fates; save either your son or your city. Now you have heard all I have to tell.

Guide me back home, daughter. The man who practises the art of divination is a fool: if the signs he reads spell misfortune, he earns the hatred of those to whom he prophesies, and if pity prompts him to spare them the truth, he betrays the gods’ trust. Only Phoebus ought to speak oracles to men, as he fears no one.

[TEIRESIAS slowly leaves the stage, led by his daughter. MENOECEUS remains standing motionless.]

CHORUS-LEADER: Creon, why are you silent? Why do you [960] not utter a word? This shocks me no less than you!

CREON: What could any man say? It’s clear what my answer should be: never shall I become so desperate as to offer my son in sacrifice for Thebes. The life of every man is filled with love of his children, and no one would consent to his own son’s death. Let no man praise my patriotism as he spills the blood of my children! But I myself, for I have reached the prime of life, am ready to die to save my country.52 Go, [970] child, before all Thebes hears the news, ignore the reckless prophecies of seers and get away, escape from this land at once! For he will go to the captains at the seven gates and tell his tale to the commanders and men in authority there. If we act and forestall him, you are safe; if you delay, we are lost and you die.

MENOECEUS: Where should I run – to what city, which friend?

CREON: As far from this land as your steps can take you!

MENOECEUS: You tell me and I’ll do what you say – that’s the right course!

CREON: Go beyond Delphi …

[980] MENOECEUS: Where should I go, Father?

CREON: To the land of Aetolia.

MENOECEUS: And where after that?

CREON: To Thesprotia.

MENOECEUS: To Dodona’s holy shrine of prophecy?


MENOECEUS: How will this give me protection?

CREON: The god will be your guide.

MENOECEUS: What shall I have for money?

CREON: I will give you gold.

MENOECEUS: Thank you, Father. Now hurry! I will go to your sister, Jocasta, who first nursed me at her breast when I was robbed of my mother and left a lonely orphan. When I have made my farewells, I shall leave and save my life. Come, lose no time! Don’t let your concern delay you![990]

[CREON leaves in haste. MENOECEUS turns to address the CHORUS.]

Women, how well have I stilled my father’s fears by lying to achieve my end! He seeks to rob Thebes of its fate by aiding my escape and so to make a coward of me. In this an old man might be pardoned but no such pardon would be mine, if I betrayed the city that gave me birth. So that you may know, I mean to go and save the city by dying for this land. Think of the shame, if men without compulsion of oracles or of gods shall stand shield to shield and face death unflinchingly, [1000] fighting before these towers for their homeland, while I, having betrayed father, brother and my own city, shall quit the land like a coward, and earn men’s contempt wherever I live!

No, by Zeus who dwells among the stars, by bloodstained Ares who established as kings of this land the Sown Men who once sprang from the ground! I shall go and take my stand on the ramparts’ heights, and there, over the deep and dark dwelling of the serpent where the prophet prescribed, I shall sacrifice myself and so set my country free. My mind is made [1010] up. I go to offer for the city my own life, a gift that honours Thebes indeed, and I shall rid this land of its sickness. If only every man would take all the good he can muster, and lay it at his country’s feet, then fewer evils would beset the people of our cities and henceforth prosperity would bless them!53

[MENOECEUS leaves.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: You came, you came, winged creature,54 offspring of Earth and Echidna that dwells below ground, to prey upon the [1020] sons of Cadmus, you bringer of death and lamentation untold, savage monster, half brute, half maid, with roving wings and talons red with raw victims. You snatched our young men from Dirce’s banks, chanting your hideous dirge over them, bringing a murderous Fury, bringing [1030] bloody anguish upon this land. Blood was his trade, the god who brought this to pass! Moans of mothers, moans of maidens filled the groaning homes. Cries of woe, dirges of woe echoed from one house to another, passing through the city. Like thunder-peals were their [1040] cries of sorrow and pain, each time the winged maiden made another man vanish from Thebes.

[Antistrophe:] In time he came, sent by Pytho’s priestess to this land of Thebes, Oedipus the wretched, a joy to our eyes in that hour but a grief in days to come. For in the triumph of that riddle solved, in a marriage accursed, poor man, he took to wife his mother and so [1050] defiled the city. Through blood he passed into polluted strife, striking down his own children, wretched man, with curses.

Praise we give him, praise, the youth who goes to his death to protect this land of his fathers, leaving grief for Creon but winning for the seven-towered portals of Thebes a crown of victory. May we be [1060] mothers to such a child! May we be so blessed in sons, dear Pallas, who accomplished the bloody death of the serpent, slain by hurling of stones. You fired Cadmus with zeal for the deed, whence some heaven-sent doom has rushed upon this land and laid her bare!

[A MESSENGER enters55 and starts to pound on the palace doors.]

MESSENGER: Hey there! Who keeps watch at the palace gates? Open up! Bring Jocasta from the palace! Hey, inside there! You’re slow to come but answer my call anyway! Hear me, [1070] renowned wife of Oedipus, come out and leave inside your tearful cries of sorrow!

[JOCASTA comes out of the palace.]

JOCASTA: O my friend, my friend, you haven’t brought news of Eteocles’ death, have you? You always marched beside his shield, guarding him from enemy weapons! Is my boy dead or alive? Tell me!

MESSENGER: Alive, have no fear, to free you from this terror.

JOCASTA: And the circuit of walls with their seven towers – still secure?

MESSENGER: They stand unbroken; there has been no sack of Thebes.

JOCASTA: Were they in danger from the Argive spears? [1080]

MESSENGER: They came to the brink itself; but Mycenae’s spears proved no match for the fighting spirit of Cadmus’ sons.

JOCASTA: Tell me one thing, in heaven’s name: have you any news of Polyneices? This too concerns me – if he sees the light of day!

MESSENGER: Up to this point they live, the pair of your sons!

JOCASTA: Oh, the gods’ blessings on you! How did you force the Argives’ spears back from the gates when you were confined within the towers? Tell me, so I may go into the palace and delight the blind old man with the news his city is saved!

MESSENGER: When Creon’s son, who gave his life for his country, had taken his stand on the high tower and thrust the [1090] black-hafted sword through his throat to save the land,56 your son assigned seven companies and seven captains to each of the seven gates, to ward off the Argive spears, and he stationed horsemen in reserve to cover horsemen, and infantry to cover shieldbearers, so that, where the defences failed, help from spearsmen would not be far away. From the soaring towers we saw the army of the Argives with their white shields leaving Teumessus, and as they neared the trench they broke [1100] into a run and closed in on the city of Cadmus. Battle cries and trumpets sounded together, from their side and from our men on the walls.

And first to lead his troops57 against the Neistian Gate, bristling as they were with serried ranks of shields, was Parthenopaeus, son of the huntress. In the middle of his shield he had the emblem of his house, Atalanta subduing the Aetolian bear with her far-darting arrows. Against the Proetean Gate came Amphiaraus the seer, with sacrificial victims in his chariot. He displayed no proud blazon but was [1110] soberly armed with weapons free of emblems. King Hippomedon advanced on the Ogygian Gate with a sign at the centre of his shield: this was the monster that sees all,58 with eyes spangling his whole frame, some wide open as they watched stars at their rising, others sealed as other stars set, as we could see afterwards, once the king had died. Tydeus took his stand at the Homoloidan Gate, his shield decorated by the pelt of a [1120] lion with bristling mane – a veritable Titan Prometheus,59 wielding in his right hand a torch, so as to fire the city. Your own Polyneices was leading the attack at the Crenaean Gate. On his shield the young mares of Potniae leaped and fled in panic – beneath the shield-handle they cunningly spun round on pivots from inside, so they seemed truly possessed by fury. Capaneus with a heart as ready as the war god’s for the fray was leading his company against the Electran Gate. On his [1130] iron-backed shield’s surface was an earth-born giant carrying on his shoulders an entire city that he had levered from its foundations with crowbars, a hint to us of the fate in store for our city. At the seventh gate was Adrastus, and on his left arm he carried a shield filled with a hundred painted serpents, the proud Argive boast of the hydra. And from the midst of our walls these serpents were snatching the children of Cadmus in their jaws. All this I was able to see in detail as I passed from one company commander to another, carrying the password.60 [1140]

At first we pressed our own attack with arrows and javelins hurled from thongs, with slingshots and crashing stones. When the battle was turning in our favour, Tydeus and your son suddenly shouted out: ‘Sons of Danaus’ sons, before their missiles tear us to pieces, make haste, you light-armed troops, you horsemen and charioteers, attack the gates in one body with all your strength!’ When they heard this cry, not one of them held back; they fell in large numbers, blood pouring from their heads, while on our side many were to be seen [1150] tumbling to the ground before the walls, like divers, drenching the thirsty soil with streams of blood.

Then Atalanta’s son, no Argive but an Arcadian, flung himself at the gates like a whirlwind, calling for pickaxes and torches, intent on razing the city to the ground. But his furious assault was checked by the sea-god’s son, Periclymenus, who flung on his head a great stone, a coping-stone from the battlements, vast as a cartload. He shattered his blond head, crushing the bones that knit it together, and dyed red with blood cheeks already flushed the colour of wine. A lifeless [1160] corpse shall he return to his mother the archer-maid, daughter of Maenalus. And your son, when he saw all was well at this gate, passed on to the others, and I followed in his steps. I saw Tydeus with his shield-bearers pressed round him as they hurled their Aetolian javelins at the high, roofless towers, so the defenders quit the clifflike ramparts in panic. But your son rallied them again, like a hunter his hounds, and made them once more man the battlements. We pressed on to other gates, [1170] having saved this one from falling to the enemy.

But how can I describe the fury of Capaneus’ attack?61 On he came with high-necked scaling-ladder in his hands, boasting that not even Zeus’ holy thunderbolt would stop him from destroying the city from its highest towers. As he uttered these words the stones were raining down on him, so coiling himself under his shield he started his climb, passing from one polished rung of the ladder to the next. And just as his head rose above the coping of the ramparts, Zeus struck [1180] him with his lightning. The earth resounded with the crack, filling everyone with terror. Off the ladder he was hurled; his limbs were split apart, scattering everywhere like sling-shot: to the sky his hair, to the earth his blood, while round and round spun his arms and legs like Ixion’s on his wheel; to earth he fell, a corpse sacrificed in fire. When Adrastus saw that Zeus was his army’s enemy, he drew his troops back from the trench.

Our men, too, had seen the favourable sign from Zeus, and they began to charge out – chariots, horsemen, infantry – and [1190] to thrust their spears straight into the heart of the Argive ranks. It was chaos everywhere: men were leaping or tumbling down from chariot-rails, wheels flew upwards, axles were piled on top of axles, corpses on corpses, indiscriminately. Well, for this day we’ve put a stop to their attempts to undermine our walls; but it is up to the gods to determine if this land will be as fortunate in the days to come.

CHORUS-LEADER: It’s a fine thing to gain victory, and if the [1200] gods intend even better fortune for us, may I share in their blessing!

JOCASTA: Fortune and the gods have shown us favour, for my sons are alive and Thebes has escaped destruction. But Creon, it seems, poor man, has reaped the harvest of the shameful marriage I made with Oedipus. He has lost his son, to the good fortune of the city but the bitter pain of his own heart. But resume your report, please: what are these two sons of mine planning to do now?

MESSENGER: Let the future take care of itself; up until now you have enjoyed good fortune.

JOCASTA: Your words make me suspicious: I must not ignore [1210] the future.

MESSENGER: Surely you cannot wish for more than your sons’ safety?

JOCASTA: I can wish to hear if my good fortune will continue in the days to come.

MESSENGER: Let me go; your son is without his armour-bearer now.

JOCASTA: You are concealing some terrible news, hiding it from the light of day!

MESSENGER: I will not tell you bad news after good.

JOCASTA: But you must, unless you fly up into the heavens and vanish!

MESSENGER: Ah, why would you not let me give my good news and leave, instead of telling this tale of woe?62 Your two sons are bent on action that is headstrong and shameful: they [1220] mean to fight it out before both armies in single combat. They have spoken to Argives and Cadmeans together words that should never have been uttered. Eteocles began, standing on a high tower, after ordering his herald to require silence from the armies. ‘Commanders of the land of Greece,’ he said, ‘noblest of Danaan warriors here assembled, and you people of Cadmus, do not squander your lives for Polyneices’ sake or mine. I myself will spare you this danger by fighting my brother in single combat. If I kill him, I will be sole ruler of [1230] my house, but if I lose, I will resign it to him alone. And you, men of Argos, do not give up your lives here but abandon this quarrel and return to your homes; enough soldiers of the Sown Men have fallen in death.’ This is what he said, and Polyneices, your son, rushed out from the ranks with praise for his words.

All the Argives and the citizens of Cadmus roared their approval of this proposal, thinking it a just one. On the ground between the two armies the commanders made a truce on these terms and swore oaths that they would abide by it. [1240] Already the two young men, old Oedipus’ sons, were sheathing their bodies in bronze armour, as friends assisted them – the noblest of the Sown Men’s line helped the champion of Thebes, and the foremost men of Danaus’ people his opponent. There they stood, a resplendent pair in the sunlight, neither showing paleness in his features, longing to cast their spears at one another. Friends on both sides were coming forward from all around to encourage them, speaking words like these: ‘Polyneices, you have the chance to set up a statue of Zeus as a trophy and bring Argos glory!’ And, in turn, for [1250] Eteocles to hear: ‘Now you fight for your city, now you can triumph and make the crown your own!’ These were the words they spoke, as they urged them on to fight. Priests began sacrificing sheep63 and studying the way the victims burned, watching the tips of the flames, whether the bladders burst, or the flames flickered damply, and how high the blaze rose, signifying either victory or defeat for either side. But if you possess some remedy – wise words or enchanters’ spells – go, prevent your sons from entering this fearful contest.64 [1260] Great is the danger and terrible the prize. If you lose your two sons this day, tears will be your lot.

JOCASTA [turning to face the palace doors]: Antigone, come out here, my child, in front of the palace! The gods have willed that you should no more take part in dancing or other maiden pleasures; rather you must join your mother in preventing your two noble brothers, bent on death, from dying at each other’s hands.

[ANTIGONE comes out of the palace in answer to her mother’s call.]

[1270] ANTIGONE: Mother dear, what fresh terror are you proclaiming to friends in front of the palace here?

JOCASTA: O my daughter, your brothers’ lives are close to ruin!

ANTIGONE: What do you mean?

JOCASTA: They have decided to fight one another, spear against spear.

ANTIGONE: Oh, what pain! Mother, what are you trying to say?

JOCASTA: Nothing to cause you joy. Come with me now.

ANTIGONE: And leave the other young women here in the house? Where are we going?

JOCASTA: To the army.

ANTIGONE: I feel embarrassed before a crowd.

JOCASTA: Shame does not become you now.

ANTIGONE: What is it I am to do?

JOCASTA: Bring your brothers’ feuding to an end.

ANTIGONE: How, Mother?

JOCASTA: Falling to your knees with me and begging them. Now you lead the way to the ground separating the armies. [1280] There is no time for delay! Hurry, hurry, Daughter!

If I reach my sons before their spears clash, my life is saved. If they die, I shall share their deaths and lie beside them!

[JOCASTA and ANTIGONE, led by the MESSENGER, leave in haste.]

CHORUS [Strophe]: Ah, ah, my heart trembles, trembles with horror! Through my flesh steals pity, pity for the wretched mother. Which of her two sons shall pierce65oh, how this pains me, Zeus and Earth! – his brother’s neck and make the blood run, shall pierce [1290] his brother’s soul, hacking through his shield with bloody stroke? Oh, misery, misery, which one shall I cry over in grief as dead and gone?

[Antistrophe:] O earth, o earth, two wild beasts, two murderous souls with brandished spear shall soon slaughter a foe that is fallen, fallen! Wretches, ever to think of fighting in single combat! In accents [1300] of my Asian homeland will I raise a mournful cry and pay the dead the doleful tribute of my tears. Fate stands near, and death is close at hand. The sword shall decide what is to be. This slaughter is fated but accursed, and the Furies drive it on.

Yet here I see Creon66 coming with clouded brow towards the palace; I will bring these lamentations to an end.

[CREON enters slowly with bowed head.]

CREON: Oh, agony! What am I to do? Shall I shed tears of mourning for myself, or for the city, enveloped as it is in mist [1310] thick enough to consign it to Acheron? My son has died for his country and is no more. He has won a noble name but one that fills me with torment. Just now I have taken him from the serpent’s steep lair and brought him forth, self-slain, in these arms – oh, what misery! My whole house cries out. I have come, an old man, in search of my sister, old Jocasta, so she may wash my boy who lives no more and lay out his remains. He who yet lives should show piety to the nether god by honouring the dead. [1320]

CHORUS-LEADER: Your sister has left the palace, Creon, and young Antigone her child went with her.

CREON: Where to? With what object? Tell me!

CHORUS-LEADER: She heard that her sons were about to fight it out with the spear in single combat for the throne of Thebes.

CREON: What’s that you say? I was so taken up with my dear son’s dead body that I did not know this.

CHORUS-LEADER: Your sister has been gone a long time. I think the deadly struggle between the sons of Oedipus is [1330] already over, Creon.

[A MESSENGER enters from the battlefield.]

CREON: Oh no, here I see the sign, a messenger who arrives with eyes and features veiled in sadness. He will announce all that has happened.

SECOND MESSENGER: How miserable I am – what words can I utter, what lamentation?

CHORUS-LEADER: We are ruined; this is no cheerful prelude to your speech!

MESSENGER: How miserable – I say it a second time. Great is the burden of sorrow I bear.

CREON: It adds to other woes that have fallen upon our heads. What is your news?

MESSENGER: Your sister’s sons are no longer alive, Creon.

[1340] CREON: No, no! These are heavy griefs you tell of, for myself and the citizens of Thebes. O house of Oedipus,67 did you hear, two sons slain in the same calamity?

CHORUS-LEADER: Enough to make it weep, if it had feelings.

CREON: Oh, this fate crushes me with its terrible weight!

MESSENGER: If only you knew the suffering that comes after this!

CREON: How could it be more ill-starred than this?

MESSENGER: Your sister is dead together with her two sons.

[1350] CHORUS-LEADER: Raise the lament, oh raise it, and with white arms rain down blows on your heads!

CREON: O my poor Jocasta, what an end to your marriage and your life you suffered because of the Sphinx’s riddle!

CHORUS-LEADER: How did the two sons spill each other’s blood as they competed in fulfilment of Oedipus’ curse? Tell me.

MESSENGER: The success our people had before the towers you know already; the circling walls are not so far away. Once they had put on their bronze armour, the warrior sons of old [1360] Oedipus came into the centre of the space between the two armies and there they stood, ready to test each other’s courage in combat with the spear, man to man.

Polyneices, gazing towards Argos, uttered this prayer: ‘Lady Hera, I belong to you, since I took Adrastus’ daughter as my wife, and I live in your land. Grant that I may kill my brother and let me soak my hostile hand in his blood, triumphant!’ A garland of shame he prayed to win, to kill his brother. This terrible prayer caused many men to weep. They looked at [1370] one another, exchanging glances. But Eteocles, looking at the temple of Pallas of the golden shield, spoke this prayer: ‘Daughter of Zeus, grant that this spear of mine may fly from my arm and pierce in triumph the chest of my brother, killing the one who came to sack my native land!’

Now, when the beacon was lit – a signal, like the blast of Etruscan trumpet,68 for the bloody fight to start – they charged at one another most terribly. Like wild boars whetting their savage jaws they closed, their beards wet with slaver. Then [1380] with spears they rushed in, but crouched beneath the rims of their shields, so the blades might be deflected without harm. If one of them saw the other’s eye peering over the rim, he thrust his spear at his face, trying to wound him first. But they kept their eyes so carefully behind the protecting shields that spears were thrust to no effect. Such fear had supporters for their champion that more sweat ran from them than from the combatants.

But Eteocles brushed to one side a stone that got in the way of his foot, and in doing so exposed a limb outside his [1390] shield. Polyneices, seeing the opportunity for delivering a spear-thrust, struck it with his weapon: the Argive spear pierced Eteocles’ thigh, drawing a roar of triumph from all the Danaan troops.

But seeing his enemy’s shoulder exposed in this effort, Eteocles, the first wounded, drove his own spear into Polyneices’ chest, and gave the citizens of Cadmus something to cheer. But the spear-head snapped. Helpless now, he began to retreat, step by step. Then, taking hold of a lump of marble, [1400] he hurled it and broke his brother’s spear in half. The battle was now evenly poised, as both men had lost their spears. Next they grabbed their sword-hilts and moved to the same ground. They clashed with shields and, locked together, raised a loud din of conflict.

Then Eteocles thought of a trick he had learned while sojourning in Thessaly and employed it: disengaging from the [1410] struggle, he moved his left foot back behind the shield, taking care to guard his belly, and stepping out with his right foot he drove his sword through Polyneices’ navel, clean through to his backbone. The poor man bent double, his ribs and stomach coming together, and fell, gushing blood. Eteocles, thinking the victory his, the battle won, threw his sword on to the ground and began stripping off his brother’s armour, his attention on this task, and no longer thinking of any danger to himself. This proved his undoing: Polyneices, though barely breathing, was still alive, and had kept his sword in that terrible [1420] fall; now, with a great effort, he plunged it into Eteocles’ liver, he who had been the first to fall. So both men lie where they fell, next to each other, their teeth gripping the earth, the kingdom yet undivided between them.

CHORUS-LEADER: What a pitiful tale! O Oedipus, how I groan for your sufferings! It seems a god has fulfilled those curses you uttered.

MESSENGER: Hear now the sorrows that followed on these. When her two sons had fallen and were breathing their last, at that moment their mother, poor lady, came up all breathless, [1430] her maiden daughter at her side, and, seeing the pair bleeding with mortal wounds, she cried out in grief: ‘O my sons, I came running to your aid, but here I am, too late now!’ She sank to her knees and began to weep for her children, groaning as she lamented the long hours of nurturing them at her breast, while her comrade in sorrow, their sister, cried out: ‘O my dearest brothers, supporters of our mother in old age, traitors to my marriage!’69 King Eteocles, heaving a deep sigh, heard his mother’s cry, and, stretching out a bloodstained hand, he did not utter any words but spoke to her with tears from his eyes, showing his love. [1440]

Polyneices was still breathing, and, when he saw his sister and old mother, he spoke these words: ‘Our lives are over, Mother. I pity you and my sister here, and my brother, now a corpse. My friend became my enemy, but the bond between us remained. Give me burial, Mother, and you too, sister, in the land of my forebears, and calm the anger of the city, so that I may gain as much of my father’s land as I require, even if my inheritance is lost. Seal my eyes with your hand, [1450] mother’ – he put her hand on his eyes himself – ‘and farewell to you both; darkness now enfolds me.’ At this both men breathed out their wretched lives as one. But when their mother had witnessed this sad end, in her agony she seized a sword from the dead and committed an atrocious act: thrusting the blade straight through her neck,70 she fell between the sons she loved so well, and lies there now, embracing both in death.

The troops sprang to their feet and began to quarrel, our [1460] side claiming victory for my master, theirs for his adversary. The commanders, too, were in dispute. Some were saying that Polyneices had struck first with his spear, others that, since both had died, there was no victory.

While this was going on, Antigone withdrew from the scene of battle and the troops rushed to arms.71 Through some happy foresight the men of Thebes had been sitting next to their weapons, and we immediately attacked the Argives, before they had time to strap on their armour. Not one of them stood his ground. They swarmed all over the plain in [1470] retreat, falling before our spears, so that the ground ran with the blood of their innumerable dead. When the field was ours, some of us set up a statue of Zeus as a trophy, others stripped the Argive corpses of shields and sent them as spoils inside the city walls. Others still are with Antigone, carrying the bodies of the dead here for their families to mourn. For the people of Thebes some of this day’s clashes have ended in utmost joy, others in extreme sorrow.


[1480] CHORUS: No more a mere tale for the ear is the miserable fortune of this house; soon at the palace door can be seen three corpses of those who fell in common death, receiving the lot of a life in darkness.

[ANTIGONE enters, accompanied by soldiers bearing the corpses of JOCASTA, POLYNEICES and ETEOCLES. As the soldiers lay the bodies down and form a guard of honour beside them, Antigone begins to sing and dance a dirge for her loved ones.]

ANTIGONE: Not masking the ruddy glow of my tender cheeks or feeling a maiden’s shame at the crimson beneath these eyes, my blushing face, I am swept along, a bacchant of the dead, as, casting [1490] the diadem from my hair, I drop the soft folds of this saffron dress, and conduct these corpses with many a groan.

Oh, the pain, the pity! O Polyneices, your name proved true,72 and Thebes now counts the cost! Your strife – no, not strife but killing on killing – has destroyed the house of Oedipus, in terrible blood, in grim blood finding its resolution. O house, o house,73what song, [1500] what music of lament can I summon to my tears, my tears?

These bodies of three kindred I bring, a mother and her sons, joyful to a Fury’s heart! Before now did she bring ruin on Oedipus’ house, that day his wisdom solved the riddling Sphinx’s song, past men’s wit to solve, and sealed her lips in death. Ah, what agony I feel!

What woman of Greece or foreign lands, who else among the [1510] nobles of early days has endured such unstinted sorrow out of all the griefs of human bloodshed? Oh, poor soul that I am, how I cry out! What bird, high on the leafy branch of an oak or pine, with her cries of a mother robbed of her chicks matches my song of sorrow? Oh, woe, woe! With cries of pain I mourn for those who lie here, I whose [1520] life henceforth will be an endless libation of tears shed in solitude.

Whose body shall I first grace with the offering of hair shorn from my head? Shall I throw it on my mother’s twin breasts, with their milk now gone, or on my dead brothers’ mortal wounds?

Ah, woe! Leave your house, old Father, with your sightless eyes, [1530] and show, Oedipus, your piteous age, you who have cast a misty darkness on your eyes and live still inside the palace your long-drawn-out life. Do you hear me, you who wander through the halls on aged feet or lie, miserable, on your bed?

[The doors of the palace open and OEDIPUS appears. Slowly, he makes his way forward, tapping the ground with a stick.]

OEDIPUS: Why have you called me out into the light, girl, bedridden as I am, and guiding these blind feet with a stick? Out from my dark [1540] chamber your pitiful tears have roused me, a grey phantom, thin as air, a corpse from the nether world, a winged dream.

ANTIGONE: The news you shall learn, father, is calamitous; no more do your sons see the daylight, no more your wife, who ever toiled, Father – oh, unbearable! – to help that stick guide your blind steps on their way. [1550]

OEDIPUS: No, no! What suffering I bear! I groan, I cry out for all these ills! What manner of fate caused three souls to quit the light of day? Speak, child!

ANTIGONE: These words I say are not to find fault with you nor spoken with malice; they cause me pain: your own spirit of vengeance, laden with sword and fire and wicked conflict, swooped upon your sons – oh, the horror of it, Father!

OEDIPUS: Ah, no!

ANTIGONE: Why do you groan at this now? [1560]

OEDIPUS: I was their father.

ANTIGONE: Your path has been a painful one; but what if you had those bright eyes that once were yours, and could see the sun’s chariot and team, see these bodies of the dead?

OEDIPUS: My children’s pitiful end is clear; but what manner of fate, child, caused my unhappy wife to die?

ANTIGONE: No one was unaware of her tears and cries of woe. She showed her breast to her sons, showed it in suppliant appeal. She found her sons at the Electran gate in a meadow of lotus flowers [1570] thrusting savagely at one another with their spears. Their mother found them, wounded yet fighting still, like lions in their lairs, and saw the crimson libation of blood, already cold, that Ares makes and Hades accepts. Seizing the sword of hammered bronze from the dead, she plunged it in her own flesh and, in bitter grief for her sons, she fell on their corpses. The god who brings this to pass has this day, [1580] father, piled every woe upon our house.74

CHORUS-LEADER: This day has initiated a tide of suffering for the house of Oedipus. May our lives be blessed with happier fortune!75

CREON: Cease now from lamentation, for it is time to think of burial. Listen, Oedipus, to these words. Sovereignty over this land was given to me by your son, Eteocles, when he gave your daughter, Antigone, in wedlock to Haemon, together with a dowry. I will not, therefore, permit you to continue living in this land. For Teiresias’ words were clearly spoken: [1590] the city would never prosper while you inhabited this land. Come, take your leave;76 I say this not to insult you or because I wish you harm, but in fear that your avenging spirit may cause some blight to fasten on Thebes.

OEDIPUS: O fate, how you marked me out from my very birth for wretchedness and suffering, more than any other mortal man! Why, even unborn, before I entered the light from my mother’s womb, Apollo told Laius in an oracle that I would become my father’s murderer. Oh, what misery is mine! [1600] When I was born, the father who made me tried to kill me, thinking me his natural enemy; he was fated to die at my hands. He exposed me, a baby thirsting for the breast, as food for beasts, a pitiful morsel. But there I was saved – Cithaeron should be cast into the bottomless pit of Tartarus for failing to destroy me! No, some god granted that I should serve Polybus as my master.77 I killed my own father through heaven’s perversity and bedded my poor mother, then fathered sons [1610] who were my brothers and destroyed them, inflicting on my sons the curse I had inherited from Laius. I was not born so lacking in sense that I cannot discern a god’s hand at work in these acts I devised against my eyes and my sons’ lives.

Very well; what, then, must I do, miserable creature that I am? Who will accompany me and serve as guide to my sightless steps? This woman who has died? She would, if she were living, I have no doubt. This handsome pair of sons? I have no sons. Am I still young enough to make a living for myself? How? Why, Creon, are you killing me so ruthlessly? [1620] You will be killing me, if you banish me from this land. Not that I will show myself so base as to wind my arms round your knees;78 I will not prove traitor to my onetime noble birth, even if I am to suffer for this.

CREON: I welcome your refusal to touch my knees; and I on my side cannot allow you to live in this land.

As for these dead men, the one must be carried now into the house, but the other, who came with strangers to sack this city, his home, the dead Polyneices, throw him out, unburied, beyond the borders of this land. To all Cadmus’ people this [1630]proclamation shall be made: whoever is caught either placing a wreath on this corpse or covering it with earth, shall have death for his reward. It is to be left alone,79 without grace of tears or burial, as food for birds. And you, Antigone, end your dirges for these three dead and go inside the palace. Conduct yourself as a young maid should, as you wait for the coming day, when you will enter Haemon’s bed.

ANTIGONE: O Father, what manner of suffering do we wretches lie in! I groan for you more than for the dead. It is not [1640] that some of your hardships are painful, others less so; you were born to misery all the days of your life. [Turning to Creon:] But I have a question for you, my newly royal lord: why do you treat my father here so insultingly by sending him away from this land? Why do you make laws against a wretched corpse?

CREON: This was Eteocles’ decision, not my own.

ANTIGONE: A foolish one, and you are a fool for giving it your approval!

CREON: How so? Is it not right to carry out orders once issued?

ANTIGONE: No, not if they are wicked and spoken in malice.

[1650] CREON: Well, is it not right that this man be given to the dogs?

ANTIGONE: The ‘right’ you bring to bear on him has no basis in custom.

CREON: It has, if he was no enemy of Thebes yet behaved towards her as an enemy.

ANTIGONE: Did he not pay for this with his life?

CREON: Let him now pay also with his burial.

ANTIGONE: What was his offence in coming to claim his share in the land?

CREON: This man shall not have burial, let me assure you!

ANTIGONE: I shall bury him, even if Thebes forbids it.

CREON: Then you shall bury yourself too, next to his corpse.

ANTIGONE: When there is a bond between them, it is glorious for two to be buried together.

[1660] CREON [to soldiers]: Take hold of her! Carry her into the palace!

[ANTIGONE throws herself on POLYNEICES’ corpse.]

ANTIGONE: NO! I will not let this dead man go!

CREON: Your wishes, young woman, run counter to the god’s decree.

ANTIGONE: This, too, has been decreed: do not treat the dead with contempt.

CREON: No one, I say, shall pile moist dust round this man.

ANTIGONE: Oh, yes, Creon! I beg you by his mother Jocasta here!

CREON: You waste your effort; you will not gain your wish.

ANTIGONE: Well, give me leave to wash his corpse.

CREON: This is also forbidden to Thebes’ citizens.

ANTIGONE: Then let me bandage his cruel wounds!

[1670] CREON: You shall in no way do honour to this corpse.

ANTIGONE: O my dearest brother! Your lips at least I’ll press with mine!

CREON: This lamentation will not cast a shadow over your marriage.

ANTIGONE: What? I am to marry your son? Never, while I live!

CREON: You have no alternative whatever; how will you avoid the marriage?

ANTIGONE: That night shall find me one of the daughters of Danaus!80

CREON: Do you see how bold she is with her insults?

ANTIGONE: This blade be my witness, this sword I swear by!

CREON: Why are you so desperate to be rid of this marriage?

ANTIGONE: I will share exile with this most wretched of fathers.

CREON: Your character is noble but not without folly also. [1680]

ANTIGONE: I will share his death as well, to make my meaning clearer to you.

CREON: Then away with you! You will not be the murderess of my son! Leave the land!

[CREON leaves,81 accompanied by soldiers.]

OEDIPUS: O daughter, this show of spirit earns my praise!

ANTIGONE: How could I marry and leave you alone in exile, Father?

OEDIPUS: Stay and enjoy good fortune; I shall submit to my hard lot.

ANTIGONE: And who will look after you in your blindness, Father?

OEDIPUS: I shall fall where fate decides and there on the ground I shall lie.

ANTIGONE: Where is Oedipus, the glorious master of riddles?82

OEDIPUS: He is no more; the same day that made me prosper brought me to ruin.

ANTIGONE: Then must I, too, not share in your misfortune? [1690]

OEDIPUS: Exile with a blind father brings shame to the daughter.

ANTIGONE: No, father, to a virtuous daughter, it brings renown.

OEDIPUS: Then lead me forward now, so I may touch your mother.

ANTIGONE: There, put your hand on her, dear old woman!

OEDIPUS: O my mother, my most miserable wife!

ANTIGONE: How pitiful she is, lying there, surrounded by all her woe!

OEDIPUS: Where does Eteocles lie, where Polyneices?

ANTIGONE: They lie stretched out in front of you, Father, side by side.

OEDIPUS: Put my blind hand on their wretched faces.

[1700] ANTIGONE: There, hold with your hand your dead sons.

OEDIPUS: O my dear fallen sons, piteous children of a piteous father!

ANTIGONE: O Polyneices, name I love most dearly!

OEDIPUS: Now Loxias’ oracle is being fulfilled, my child.83

ANTIGONE: In what way? Surely you won’t tell me of further sorrows to come?

OEDIPUS: I am to die, an exile, in Athens.

ANTIGONE: Where? What Attic refuge will give you welcome?

OEDIPUS: Sacred Colonus, where the god of horses84 has his dwelling. But come, assist your blind father here, since you are determined to share this exile.

[ANTIGONE and OEDIPUS now sing a dirge together.]

[1710] ANTIGONE: Forward into pitiful exile! Stretch out your dear hand, old Father; I am the escort you have, as a ship has a breeze to blow it on its way.

OEDIPUS: There, child, my journey is begun. Guide my feet, poor girl!

ANTIGONE: I do, I do, of all Thebes’ maidens the most wretched.

OEDIPUS: Where do I place my old foot? Where carry my stick, child?

[1720] ANTIGONE: Here, here walk with me, here, here place your foot, with the strength of a dream.

OEDIPUS: Ah, how wretched an exile is this, having to flee my country in old age! Oh, what terrible, terrible suffering I endure!

ANTIGONE: You speak of suffering, of suffering? The goddess of retribution does not see men’s wickedness, far less punish their foolish crimes!

OEDIPUS: I am he who scaled the heights of wisdom in triumph and [1730] solved the virgin maid’s dark riddle!

ANTIGONE: You hark back to the shameful time of the Sphinx? Have done with recalling successes of earlier days. The sorrowful fate awaiting you, father, is to die somewhere after enduring banishment from your native land. I shall leave behind my maiden friends and their tears of regret, and turn my back on the land of my forebears, a wanderer most unlike a maid!

OEDIPUS: Ah, you have a noble heart! [1740]

ANTIGONE: Because I have shared my father’s suffering, it will win me fame. I am to be pitied: both you and my brother are roughly used; he is bundled from his home, a wretched corpse unburied! But, though it means I must die for it, Father, I shall shroud him in dark earth.85

OEDIPUS: With prayers around the altar receive the honour of your fellow maids!

ANTIGONE: Enough of my lamentation, I am sated with my sorrows. [1750]

OEDIPUS: Go to where the Roaring One has his trackless dwelling with his maenads on the mountain slopes.86

ANTIGONE: For the god I once dressed in the fawnskin Cadmus’ daughters wear, and on those slopes I danced in Semele’s holy band of worshippers, offering the gods a favour that wins no return.

OEDIPUS: O you citizens of a land renowned,87 look at me, Oedipus! I am he who discovered the famous riddle and achieved greatness. Unaided I destroyed the power of the murderous Sphinx, and now without honour I am hounded [1760] from my homeland, a pitiful creature! Yet why do I mourn for this and shed fruitless tears? I am mortal and so must endure the stern will of heaven.

[OEDIPUS, with ANTIGONE supporting him, now moves slowly off.]

CHORUS: O Victory, most holy, support my life and do not cease from giving me your crown!88

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