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Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: A Look at Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes

Edwin Wong

Independent Scholar

The worst-case scenario in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes happens if Eteocles and Polyneices confront one another at the seventh gate. Because of the multitude of permutations possible with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is a low-probability event. The resulting miasma, however, makes it a high-consequence event. I argue that Seven against Thebes provides an important lesson in risk management by bringing about, against all odds, the low-probability, high-consequence outcome. The lesson is that we are in the most danger when we are the most confident.

By repeated references to gambling, dice, and chance, Aeschylus encourages us to consider the likelihood of the worst-case scenario in terms of probability. Lottery images abound. First, the attackers draw lots to determine their stations (55-6, 375-6). Second, Eteocles invokes Hermes as the god of chance and lots when he comments on the matchup at the fourth gate: “Hermes has brought them together with good reason” (508). Commenting on another matchup, Eteocles says: “Ares will decide the outcome with dice” (414). Third, Eteocles alludes to an ominous throw in dice games (6+1) when he says that he will assign six defenders “with himself as seventh” (Roisman, 22n.15). Gambling references invite audiences to ask themselves what the odds of the worst-case scenario are.

What are the odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate? The odds are 1:49, or roughly two percent: the probability, therefore, is low. Although Aeschylus’ audience lacked modern probability theory and a way to compute the exact odds, Aristotle makes it clear that they could indeed differentiate between likely and unlikely outcomes (Cael. 292a29). Because of all the possible permutations with seven defenders, seven attackers, and seven gates, Aeschylus’ audience would recognize that, in a random setting (i.e. one where captains are posted to their gates by lot), the likelihood of the brothers meeting at the final gate is low.

Eteocles’ confidence is also bolstered, paradoxically, by another low-probability event. The matchups from gates one through six, being random, should favour neither brother. But what happens is that the matchups, when taken in aggregate, overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. The odds, for example, that an opposing captain at gate four bearing the device of Typhon on his shield will be matched up against a defender bearing the device of Zeus (who defeated Typhon) is 1:16. But even though this (and other) matchups are unlikely, they do take place. The fortuitous matchups bolster Eteocles’ confidence.

Eteocles interprets the fortuitous matchups as a sign that the gods are on his side because randomness in ancient Greece was anything but random: randomness was a manifestation of an underlying order in the cosmos. The lot, imbued with numinous significance, was expected to reveal the grand design. When the Achaeans, for example, were looking for a champion to duel Hector, they drew lots. Ajax’ lot, as though by design, “jumps out” of the helmet (Hom., Il. 7.181-3). So too the Olympians drew lots to see who would rule the sky, the seas, and underworld (Apollod., Bibl., 1.2.1). They decided by lot because fate or destiny revealed itself through randomness. Thus, when Eteocles sees the random matchups from gates one through six going his way, his confidence goes up.

Against all expectations, however, Aeschylus brings about the worst-case scenario: both brothers are called to the seventh gate. By bringing about the low-probability, high-consequence event against all odds, Aeschylus dramatizes risk: the most unlikely outcomes can have the most serious repercussions. As risk dramatized, Seven against Thebes may be read as a lesson in risk management. Its lesson is that, like Eteocles, we are in the most danger when we feel the most confident. In today’s age where confidence in technology and progress may lead to the downplay of manufactured risks (whether environmental, nuclear, biological, or financial), ancient tragedy can still offer moderns an important lesson.

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Agency in Drama

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