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“Our bitterest enemies...” An Examination of Thebes’ Role in Athenian Tragedy

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Version 1 2021-11-23, 02:33
posted on 2023-09-22, 01:42 authored by Hugman, James

This thesis concerns itself with the depiction of mythical Thebes in extant Greek tragedy, and how this relates to the tragedians’ view of Athens itself. Throughout the Classical Period, Thebes was one of Athens’ biggest enemy poleis, and this complex relationship is often mirrored in the dramas that feature Thebes and Thebans in principal roles. For the purposes of this thesis, I am limiting my scope to dramas that deal with the “Seven Against Thebes” mythic cycle and, to pare the topic down even further, I am only examining those tragedies that feature either Eteocles, Polynices, or both.  Chapter one deals with Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, where I argue that Thebes is not only presented as a positive force, but actually comes to be identified as a stand-in for Athens. The Thebes of Aeschylus’ play shares many common factors with Athens of the early fifth-century B.C.  Chapter two is about Euripides’ Phoenician Women. The main argument here is that Euripides uses his Theban characters as mouthpieces for his own ideas on political rhetoric, particularly political issues that are of importance to contemporary Athens. Additionally, Phoenician Women’s fragmented, episodic plot and its large cast of characters contribute to an image of Thebes as a disorganised, chaotic polis, and one that is the antithesis of Athens. At the same time, its emphasis on the feminine complicates this picture somewhat; although this contributes to the “anti-Athens” image, whether or not this is a positive thing is unclear.  My third and final chapter concerns Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus and the lack of consistency in its depiction of Theban characters. Polynices and Creon are characterised negatively, but Oedipus and especially Antigone and Ismene appear in a much more positive light. Furthermore, Theseus appears in the OC as a representative of Athens so, fundamentally, the OC is about the relationship between the two poleis, and an exhortation for Thebes to strive to be more like Athens.  My conclusion is that tragedy’s treatment of Thebes is malleable and that there is not necessarily one standard way of depicting mythical Theban characters. At the same time, I also conclude that, no matter how Thebes is represented, there is always an underlying tension regarding how Thebes relates to Athens; the two cities are in a constant state of comparison and contrast.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

CC BY 4.0

Degree Discipline


Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Arts

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Puetz, Babette