The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 1/Theseus Founds Athens

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THESEUS FOUNDS ATHENS

B.C. 1235

PLUTARCH

The founding of the city of Athens, apart from the mythological lore which ascribes its name to Athené, the goddess, is credited by the Greeks to Sais, a native of Egypt. The real founder of Athens, the one who made it a city and kingdom, was Theseus; an unacknowledged illegitimate child. The usual myth surrounds his birth and upbringing.
King Ægeus, of Attica, his father, had an intrigue with Æthra. Before leaving, Ægeus informed her that he had hidden his sword and sandals beneath a great stone, hollowed out to receive them. She was charged that should a son be born to them and, on growing to man's estate, be able to lift the stone, Æthra must send him to his father, with these things under it, in all secrecy. These happenings were in Troezen, in which place Ægeus had been sojourning.
All came about as expected. Theseus, the son, lifted the stone, took thence the deposit and departed for Attica, his father's home. On his way Theseus had a number of adventures which proved his prowess, not the least being his encounter with and defeat of Periphetes, the "club-bearer," so called from the weapon he used.
Theseus had complied with the custom of his country by journeying to Delphi and offering the first-fruits of his hair, then cut for the first time. This first cutting of the hair was always an occasion of solemnity among the Greeks, the hair being dedicated to some god. It will be remembered that Homer speaks of this in the Iliad.
One salient fact must be borne in mind in Grecian history, which is that it was a settled maxim that each city should have an independent sovereignty. "The patriotism of a Greek was confined to his city, and rarely kindled into any general love for the common welfare of Hellas."[1]
A Greek citizen of Athens was an alien in any other city of the peninsula. This political disunion caused the various cities to turn against each other, and laid them open to conquest by the Macedonians.

As he [Theseus] proceeded on his way, and reached the river Cephisus, men of the Phytalid race were the first to meet and greet him. He demanded to be purified from the guilt of bloodshed, and they purified him, made propitiatory offerings, and also entertained him in their houses, being the first persons from whom he had received any kindness on his journey.

It is said to have been on the eighth day of the month Cronion, which is now called Hecatombaion, that he came to his own city. On entering it he found public affairs disturbed by factions, and the house of Ægeus in great disorder; for Medea, who had been banished from Corinth, was living with Ægeus, and had engaged by her drugs to enable Ægeus to have children. She was the first to discover who Theseus was, while Ægeus, who was an old man, and feared every one because of the disturbed state of society, did not recognize him. Consequently she advised Ægeus to invite him to a feast, that she might poison him.

Theseus accordingly came to Ægeus's table. He did not wish to be the first to tell his name, but, to give his father an opportunity of recognizing him, he drew his sword, as if he meant to cut some of the meat with it, and showed it to Ægeus. Ægeus at once recognized it, overset the cup of poison, looked closely at his son, and embraced him. He then called a public meeting and made Theseus known as his son to the citizens, with whom he was already very popular because of his bravery, It is said that when the cup was overset the poison was spilt in the place where now there is the enclosure in the Delphinium, for there Ægeus dwelt; and the Hermes to the east of the temple there they call the one who is "at the door of Ægeus."

But the sons of Pallas, who had previously to this expected that they would inherit the kingdom on the death of Ægeus without issue, now that Theseus was declared the heir, were much enraged, first that Ægeus should be king, a man who was merely an adopted child of Pandion, and had no blood relationship to Erechtheus, and next that Theseus, a stranger and a foreigner, should inherit the kingdom. They consequently declared war.

Dividing themselves into two bodies, the one proceeded to march openly upon the city from Sphettus, under the command of Pallas their father, while the other lay in ambush at Gargettus, in order that they might fall upon their opponents on two sides at once. But there was a herald among them named Leos, of the township of Agnus, who betrayed the plans of the sons of Pallas to Theseus. He suddenly attacked those who were in ambush, and killed them all, hearing which the other body under Pallas dispersed. From this time forth they say that the township of Pallene has never intermarried with that of Agnus, and that it is not customary amongst them for heralds to begin a proclamation with the words "Acouete Leo," (Oyez) for they hate the name of Leo because of the treachery of that man.

Shortly after this the ship from Crete arrived for the third time to collect the customary tribute. Most writers agree that the origin of this was, that on the death of Androgeus, in Attica, which was ascribed to treachery, his father Minos went to war, and wrought much evil to the country, which at the same time was afflicted by scourges from heaven (for the land did not bear fruit, and there was a great pestilence, and the rivers sank into the earth).

So that as the oracle told the Athenians that, if they propitiated Minos and came to terms with him, the anger of heaven would cease and they should have a respite from their sufferings, they sent an embassy to Minos and prevailed on him to make peace, on the condition that every nine years they should send him a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens. The most tragic of the legends states these poor children when they reached Crete were thrown into the Labyrinth, and there either were devoured by the Minotaur or else perished with hunger, being unable to find the way out. The Minotaur, as Euripides tells us, was:

    "A form commingled, and a monstrous birth,
    Half man, half bull, in twofold shape combined."

So when the time of the third payment of the tribute arrived, and those fathers who had sons not yet grown up had to submit to draw lots, the unhappy people began to revile Ægeus, complaining that he, although the author of this calamity, yet took no share in their affliction, but endured to see them left childless, robbed of their own legitimate offspring, while he made a foreigner and a bastard the heir to his kingdom.

This vexed Theseus, and determining not to hold aloof, but to share the fortunes of the people, he came forward and offered himself without being drawn by lot. The people all admired his courage and patriotism, and Ægeus finding that his prayers and entreaties had no effect on his unalterable resolution, proceeded to choose the rest by lot. Hellanicus says that the city did not select the youths and maidens by lot, but that Minos himself came thither and chose them, and that he picked out Theseus first of all, upon the usual conditions, which were that the Athenians should furnish a ship, and that the youths should embark in it and sail with him, not carrying with them any weapon of war; and that when the Minotaur was slain, the tribute should cease.

Formerly, no one had any hope of safety; so they used to send out the ship with a black sail, as if it were going to a certain doom; but now Theseus so encouraged his father, and boasted that he would overcome the Minotaur, that he gave a second sail, a white one, to the steersman, and charged him on his return, if Theseus were safe, to hoist the white one, if not, the black one as a sign of mourning. But Simonides says that it was not a white sail which was given by Ægeus, but "a scarlet sail embrued in holm oak's juice," and that this was agreed on by him as the signal of safety. The ship was steered by Phereclus, the son of Amarsyas, according to Simonides.

When they reached Crete, according to most historians and poets, Ariadne fell in love with Theseus, and from her he received the clew of string, and was taught how to thread the mazes of the Labyrinth. He slew the Minotaur, and, taking with him Ariadne and the youths, sailed away. Pherecydes also says that Theseus also knocked out the bottoms of the Cretan ships, to prevent pursuit. But Demon says that Taurus, Minos' general, was slain in a sea-fight in the harbor, when Theseus sailed away.

But according to Philochorus, when Minos instituted his games, Taurus was expected to win every prize, and was grudged this honor; for his great influence and his unpopular manners made him disliked, and scandal said that he was too intimate with Pasiphaë. On this account, when Theseus offered to contend with him, Minos agreed. And, as it was the custom in Crete for women as well as men to be spectators of the games, Ariadne was present, and was struck with the appearance of Theseus, and his strength, as he conquered all competitors. Minos was especially pleased, in the wrestling match, at Taurus's defeat and shame, and, restoring the children to Theseus, remitted the tribute for the future.

As he approached Attica, on his return, both he and his steersman in their delight forgot to hoist the sail which was to be a signal of their safety to Ægeus; and he in his despair flung himself down the cliffs and perished. Theseus, as soon as he reached the harbor, performed at Phalerum the sacrifices which he had vowed to the gods if he returned safe, and sent off a herald to the city with the news of his safe return.

This man met with many who were lamenting the death of the king, and, as was natural, with others who were delighted at the news of their safety, and who congratulated him and wished to crown him with garlands. These he received, but placed them on his herald's staff, and when he came back to the seashore, finding that Theseus had not completed his libation, he waited outside the temple, not wishing to disturb the sacrifice. When the libation was finished he announced the death of Ægeus, and then they all hurried up to the city with loud lamentations: wherefore to this day, at the Oschophoria, they say that it is not the herald that is crowned, but his staff, and that at the libations the bystanders cry out, "Eleleu, Iou, Iou!" of which cries the first is used by men in haste, or raising the pæan for battle, while the second is used by persons in surprise and trouble.

Theseus, after burying his father, paid his vow to Apollo, on the seventh day of the month Pyanepsion; for on this day it was that the rescued youths went up into the city. The boiling of pulse, which is customary on this anniversary, is said to be done because the rescued youths put what remained of their pulse together into one pot, boiled it all, and merrily feasted on it together. And on this day also the Athenians carry about the Eiresione, a bough of the olive tree garlanded with wool, just as Theseus had before carried the suppliants' bough, and covered with first-fruits of all sorts of produce, because the barrenness of the land ceased on that day; and they sing,

    "Eiresione, bring us figs,
      And wheaten loaves, and oil,
    And wine to quaff, that we may all
      Rest merrily from toil."

However, some say that these ceremonies are performed in memory of the Heracleidæ, who were thus entertained by the Athenians; but most writers tell the tale as I have told it.

After the death of Ægeus, Theseus conceived a great and important design. He gathered together all the inhabitants of Attica and made them citizens of one city, whereas before they had lived dispersed, so as to be hard to assemble together for the common weal, and at times even fighting with one another.

He visited all the villages and tribes, and won their consent, the poor and lower classes gladly accepting his proposals, while he gained over the more powerful by promising that the new constitution should not include a king, but that it should be a pure commonwealth, with himself merely acting as general of its army and guardian of its laws, while in other respects it would allow perfect freedom and equality to every one. By these arguments he convinced some of them, and the rest knowing his power and courage chose rather to be persuaded than forced into compliance.

He therefore destroyed the prytanea, the senate house, and the magistracy of each individual township, built one common prytaneum and senate house for them all on the site of the present acropolis, called the city Athens, and instituted the Panathenaic festival common to all of them. He also instituted a festival for the resident aliens, on the sixteenth of the month, Hecatombaion, which is still kept up. And having, according to his promise, laid down his sovereign power, he arranged the new constitution under the auspices of the gods; for he made inquiry at Delphi as to how he should deal with the city, and received the following answer:

    "Thou son of Ægeus and of Pittheus' maid,
    My father hath within thy city laid
    The bounds of many cities; weigh not down
    Thy soul with thought; the bladder cannot drown."

The same thing they say was afterward prophesied by the Sibyl concerning the city, in these words:

    "The bladder may be dipped, but cannot drown."

Wishing still further to increase the number of his citizens, he invited all strangers to come and share equal privileges, and they say that the words now used, "Come hither all ye peoples," was the proclamation then used by Theseus, establishing as it were a commonwealth of all nations. But he did not permit his state to fall into the disorder which this influx of all kinds of people would probably have produced, but divided the people into three classes, of Eupatridæ or nobles, Geomori or farmers, Demiurgi or artisans.

To the Eupatridæ he assigned the care of religious rites, the supply of magistrates for the city, and the interpretation of the laws and customs sacred or profane; yet he placed them on an equality with the other citizens, thinking that the nobles would always excel in dignity, the farmers in usefulness, and the artisans in numbers. Aristotle tells us that he was the first who inclined to democracy, and gave up the title of king; and Homer seems to confirm this view by speaking of the people of the Athenians alone of all the states mentioned in his catalogue of ships.

Theseus also struck money with the figure of a bull, either alluding to the bull of Marathon, or Taurus, Minos' general, or else to encourage farming among the citizens. Hence, they say, came the words, "worth ten," or "worth a hundred oxen." He permanently annexed Megara to Attica, and set up the famous pillar on the Isthmus, on which he wrote the distinction between the countries in two trimeter lines, of which the one looking east says,

    "This is not Peloponnesus, but Ionia,

and the one looking west says,

    "This is Peloponnesus, not Ionia."

And also he instituted games there, in emulation of Heracles; that, just as Heracles had ordained that the Greeks should celebrate the Olympic games in honor of Zeus, so by Theseus' appointment they should celebrate the Isthmian games in honor of Poseidon.


Footnotes[edit]

  1. Smith.