Plutarch's Life of Theseus

For this final entry, I would have liked to recommend to you another book in the series Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World, as I have done before for Heracles and Perseus. Unfortunately, this book hasn’t appeared yet, although it will be published at some point in the future. Until that book has been published, I would like to recommend that you read an ancient work instead, namely Plutarch’s Life of Theseus.

Plutarch (ca. AD 46–120) was a Greek historian living in the era of the Roman Empire. He is perhaps best known for the Parallel Lives, a series of biographies of famous people. In most of the Parallel Lives, a famous Greek person is paired with a famous Roman person. Since the ancient Greeks believed the heroes of the past to have been historical, Plutarch wrote a Life of Theseus, which he presented alongside a Life of Romulus.

Theseus was thought to have been responsible for the synoikismos (political unification) of Attica under Athens. You may recall, for example, how Theseus performed various Labours on his way from Troezen to Athens, and how he also became king of Eleusis. Romulus, of course, is famous for being the founder of that other great Classical city, Rome (the traditional date is 753 BC, based on the chronology of Varro – which is not without its problems; see Jona Lendering’s article in Ancient Warfare issue VII.3).

Plutarch starts his biography of Theseus by saying that it’s often difficult to disentangle fact from fiction when dealing with figures from the remote past. He then explains his reasoning behind pairing up Theseus with Romulus (1–2). Plutarch then discuss the events surrounding Theseus’ conception and birth (3–4). Plutarch digresses a bit about hair, citing a famous fragment attributed to the poet Archilochus (5), before discussing the link between Theseus and Poseidon (6) and giving some further details regarding his family in Troezen (7). The Labours of Theseus are discussed (8–11) before he arrives in Athens (12).

There is a brief description of the situation in Athens (13), his slaying of the Marathonian Bull (14), and finally we reach the point where the Cretans come to collect their tribute and Theseus sets off to slay the Minotaur (15–22). Plutarch tells us that the ship that Theseus had used on his voyage was a thirty-oared galley that had been preserved by the Athenians. Over time, they replaced parts that were rotten, so that it’s not entirely clear how much of the ship is still original (23). After becoming king, Theseus set about to settle ‘all the residents of Attica in one city’ (24). He passed some further reforms (25) before embarking on new adventures against the Amazons (26–28). Plutarch then discusses Theseus’ friendship with Pirithous (29–30), and his abduction of the very young Helen when he was already fifty years old (31–34).

Theseus ended up trapped in the underworld, but Heracles appealed to Hades and thus managed to save him. By then, however, he had fallen out of favour and retired to Scyros, where he met his end. But at the Battle of Marathon (490 BC), the Athenians claimed to have seen the spirit of Theseus fight alongside them, and thus ‘were moved to honour him as a demigod’ (35). The Oracle of Delphi instructed the Athenians to rebury the hero’s bones in Attica. They buried him ‘in the heart of the city (…) and his tomb is a sanctuary and place of refuge for runaway slaves and all men of low estate who are afraid of men in power, since Theseus was a champion and helper of such during his life’ (36).

The above was merely a summary of the book. The full text of Plutarch’s Life of Theseus is available on Lacus Curtius, Bill Thayer’s website. Why not give it a read? Plutarch’s writing is nothing if not entertaining, so enjoy!  

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