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Eteocles and the Sound of Silence

Patrick Lambdin

Through a close reading of several passages this paper attempts to establish that Eteocles’ primary motivation throughout Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes is a drive for silence.  Aeschylus centers his play around the interactions of one man, Eteocles the King of Thebes, and his interactions with the women of Thebes as well as with a messenger—who is the only character to see outside the walls of the city and live. This very specific focus on Eteocles allows for the main action of the play to take place within the mind of Eteocles. 

Although Eteocles changes throughout the course of the Seven his desire for silence remains constant throughout the play.  He strives for the silence of the women as has been shown by Winnington-Ingram in his influential "Septem Contra Thebas" (Yale Classical Studies. 25. (1977): 1-45).  He desires victory which would silence the threatening noises of the army outside as discussed in Helen Bacon’s article, “The Shield of Eteocles" (Arion. 3. no. 3 (Autumn 196): 27-38).  He also wishes to avoid the words of the messenger revealing early on an urge to fight the battle of Thebes before hearing the descriptions of the enemy shields (lines 282-287). 

The proposed paper attempts to add to the contributions of the published articles above.  It also hopes to prove and examine a connection between Eteocles’ interactions with the women of Thebes (lines 180-290) and Eteocles’ selection of heroes (lines 375-719).  In both instances Eteocles does not at first engage with the medium that is frightening his audience—the martial sounds worrying the women and the iconography of the shields.  After four attempts to silence both the Chorus in 180-290 and the Messenger’s words in 375-719 Eteocles attempts to interact with the media frightening his interlocutors.  On the fifth attempt to silence the women and the fear the icons on the shields inspire Eteocles actively manipulates the way in which these threats are presented to him. He proposes a new prayer for the women of Thebes to sing—an attempt at manipulation which fails.  Eteocles also manipulates the iconography of Parthenopaeus’ shield.  He does this namely by changing the description of the shield the messenger describes to him, this manipulation of iconography is successful.  Eteocles then is allowed to witness the silence for which he has been driving throughout the play in the blank or “silent” shield of Amphiaraus.  In this long-sought-for silence recognizes in Amphiaraus qualities similar to himself,—namely a good man who is fated to die in the battle—and then chooses himself as the seventh and final champion of Thebes.

When Eteocles goes to fight his brother near the end of the play he believes that it will kill him—enveloping his life, city, and the fate of his cursed family in silence. His death is not just the end of Eteocles life, but rather an end—a final end—to the suffering of the house of Laius, and Aeschylus’ Oedipal trilogy.  On this point, the proposed paper interacts heavily with Friedrich Solmsen’s "The Erinys in Aischylos' Septem." (Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 68 (1937): 197-211).  Eteocles knowingly casts himself into the battle in order to cause his life and the play to end once and for all with silence.

Session/Panel Title

The Matter of Thebes

Session/Paper Number

17.1

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