Think Forward.

Bluwr X Commons: Plutarch

Plutarch (c.AD 46 – after AD 119) was a Priest at the Temple of Apollo in Delphi as well as a Greek Platonist philosopher, biographer, historian and essayist. He is remembered primarily for his biographical work: Lives, in which he relates the lives of prominent Greeks and Romans.



I. As in books on geography, Sossius Senecio, the writers crowd the countries of which they know nothing into the furthest margins of their maps, and write upon them legends such as, "In this direction lie waterless deserts full of wild beasts;" or, "Unexplored morasses;" or, "Here it is as cold as Scythia;" or, "A frozen sea;" so I, in my writings on Parallel Lives, go through that period of time where history rests on the firm basis of facts, and may truly say, "All beyond this is portentous and fabulous, inhabited by poets and mythologers, and there is nothing true or certain." When I had written the lives of Lykurgus the lawgiver and Numa the king, it appeared to me natural to go back to Romulus also, as I was engaged on the history of times so close to his. So when I was reflecting, in the words of Aeschylus, it occurred to me to compare the founder of the fair and famous city of Athens with him, and to contrast Theseus with the father of unconquered glorious Rome. Putting aside, then, the mythological element, let us examine his story, and wherever it obstinately defies probability, and cannot be explained by natural agency, let us beg the indulgence of our readers, who will kindly make allowance for tales of antiquity. II. Theseus appears to have several points of resemblance to Romulus. Both were unacknowledged illegitimate children, and were reputed to descend from the Gods. "Both warriors, well we all do know," and both were wise as well as powerful. The one founded Rome, while the other was the joint founder of Athens; and these are two of the most famous of cities. Both carried off women by violence, and neither of them escaped domestic misfortune and retribution, but towards the end of their lives both were at variance with their countrymen, if we may put any trust in the least extravagant writings upon the subject. III. Theseus traced his descent on the father's side from Erechtheus and the original Autochthones, while on the mother's side he was descended from Pelops. For Pelops surpassed all the other princes of the Peloponnesus in the number of his children as well as in wealth; and of these he gave many of his daughters in marriage to the chief men of the country, and established many of his sons as rulers in various cities. One of these, Pittheus, the grandfather of Theseus, founded Troezen, which is indeed but a little state, though he had a greater reputation than any man of his time for eloquence and wisdom. The nature of this wisdom of his seems to have been much of the same kind as that which made the reputation of Hesiod, in the collection of maxims known as the 'Works and Days.' One of these maxims is indeed ascribed to Pittheus: "Let promised pay be truly paid to friends." At any rate, this is what Aristotle the philosopher has recorded; and also Euripides, when he speaks of Hippolytus as "child of holy Pittheus," shows the prevailing opinion about Pittheus. Now Aegeus desired to have children, and the Oracle at Delphi is said to have given him the well-known response, forbidding him to have intercourse with any woman before he reached Athens, but not appearing to explain this clearly. Consequently, on his way home, he went to Troezen, and asked the advice of Pittheus about the response of the God, which ran thus: Pittheus clearly perceived what the oracle must mean, and persuaded or cheated Aegeus into an intrigue with Aethra. Afterwards, when he discovered that he had conversed with the daughter of Pittheus, as he imagined that she might prove with child, he left behind him his sword and sandals hidden under a great stone, which had a hollow inside it exactly fitting them. This he told to Aethra alone, and charged her if a son of his should be born, and on growing to man's estate should be able to lift the stone and take from under it the deposit, that she should send him at once with these things to himself, in all secrecy, and as far as possible concealing his journey from observation. For he greatly feared the sons of Pallas, who plotted against him, and despised him on account of his childlessness, they themselves being fifty brothers, all the sons of Pallas. IV. When Aethra's child was born, some writers say that he was at once named Theseus, from the tokens placed under the stone; others say that he was afterwards so named at Athens, when Aegeus acknowledged him as his son. He was brought up by his grandfather Pittheus, and had a master and tutor, Konnidas, to whom even to the present day, the Athenians sacrifice a ram on the day before the feast of Theseus, a mark of respect which is much more justly due to him, than those which they pay to Silanion and Parrhasius, who have only made pictures and statues of Theseus. V. As it was at that period still the custom for those who were coming to man's estate to go to Delphi and offer to the god the first-fruits of their hair (which was then cut for the first time), Theseus went to Delphi, and they say that a place there is even to this day named after him. But he only cut the front part of his hair, as Homer tells us the Abantes did, and this fashion of cutting the hair was called Theseus's fashion because of him. The Abantes first began to cut their hair in this manner, not having, as some say, been taught to do so by the Arabians, nor yet from any wish to imitate the Mysians, but because they were a warlike race, and met their foes in close combat, and studied above all to come to a hand-to-hand fight with their enemy, as Archilochus bears witness in his verses: So they cut their hair short in front, that their enemies might not grasp it. And they say that Alexander of Macedon for the same reason ordered his generals to have the beards of the Macedonians shaved, because they were a convenient handle for the enemy to grasp.


VI. Now while he was yet a child, Aethra concealed the real parentage of Theseus, and a story was circulated by Pittheus that his father was Poseidon. For the people of Troezen have an especial reverence for Poseidon; he is their tutelar deity; to him they offer first-fruits of their harvest, and they stamp their money with the trident as their badge. But when he was grown into a youth, and proved both strong in body and of good sound sense, then Aethra led him to the stone, told him the truth about his father, and bade him take the tokens from beneath it and sail to Athens with them. He easily lifted the stone, but determined not to go to Athens by sea, though the voyage was a safe and easy one, and though his mother and his grandfather implored him to go that way. By land it was a difficult matter to reach Athens, as the whole way was infested with robbers and bandits. That time, it seems, produced men of great and unwearied strength and swiftness, who made no good use of these powers, but treated all men with overbearing insolence, taking advantage of their strength to overpower and slay all who fell into their hands, and disregarding justice and right and kindly feeling, which they said were only approved of by those who dared not do injury to others, or feared to be injured themselves, while men who could get the upper hand by force might disregard them. Of these ruffians, Herakles in his wanderings cut off a good many, but others had escaped him by concealing themselves, or had been contemptuously spared by him on account of their insignificance. But Herakles had the misfortune to kill Iphitus, and thereupon sailed to Lydia and was for a long time a slave in that country under Omphale, which condition he had imposed upon himself as a penance for the murder of his friend. During this period the country of Lydia enjoyed peace and repose; but in Greece the old plague of brigandage broke out afresh, as there was now no one to put it down. So that the journey overland to Athens from Peloponnesus was full of peril; and Pittheus, by relating to Theseus who each of these evildoers was, and how they treated strangers, tried to prevail upon him to go by sea. But it appears that Theseus had for a long time in his heart been excited by the renown of Herakles for courage: he thought more of him than of any one else, and loved above all to listen to those who talked of him, especially if they had seen and spoken to him. Now he could no longer conceal that he was in the same condition as Themistokles in later times, when he said that the trophy of Miltiades would not let him sleep. Just so did the admiration which Theseus conceived for Herakles make him dream by night of his great exploits, and by day determine to equal them by similar achievements of his own. VII. As it happened, they were connected, being second cousins; for Aethra was the daughter of Pittheus, and Alkmena the daughter of Lysidike, and Lysidike and Pittheus were brother and sister, being the children of Pelops and Hippodameia. So Theseus thought that it would be a great and unbearable disgrace to him that his cousin should go everywhere and clear the sea and land of the brigands who infested them, and he should refuse to undertake the adventures that came in his way; throwing discredit upon his reputed father by a pusillanimous flight by sea, and upon his real father by bringing him only the sandals and an unfleshed sword, and not proving his noble birth by the evidence of some brave deed accomplished by him. In this spirit he set out on his journey, with the intention of doing wrong to no one, but of avenging himself on any one who offered wrong to him. VIII. And first in Epidaurus he slew Periphetes, who used a club as his weapon, and on this account was called the club-bearer, because he laid hands upon him and forbade him to proceed farther on his way. The club took his fancy, and he adopted it as a weapon, and always used it, just as Herakles used his lion's skin; for the skin was a proof of how huge a beast the wearer had overcome, while the club, invincible in the hands of Theseus, had yet been worsted when used against him. At the Isthmus he destroyed Sinis the Pine-bender by the very device by which he had slain so many people, and that too without having ever practised the art, proving that true valour is better than practice and training. Sinis had a daughter, a tall and beautiful girl, named Perigoune. When her father fell she ran and hid herself. Theseus sought her everywhere, but she fled into a place where wild asparagus grew thick, and with a simple child-like faith besought the plants to conceal her, as if they could understand her words, promising that if they did so she never would destroy or burn them. However, when Theseus called to her, pledging himself to take care of her and do her no hurt, she came out, and afterwards bore Theseus a son, named Melanippus. She afterwards was given by Theseus in marriage to Deïoneus, the son of Eurytus of Oechalia. Ioxus, a son of Melanippus, and Theseus's grandchild, took part in Ornytus's settlement in Caria; and for this reason the descendants of Ioxus have a family custom not to burn the asparagus plant, but to reverence and worship it. IX. Now the wild sow of Krommyon, whom they called Phaia, was no ordinary beast, but a fierce creature and hard to conquer. This animal he turned out of his way to destroy, that it might not be thought that he performed his exploits of necessity. Besides, he said, a brave man need only punish wicked men when they came in his way, but that in the case of wild beasts he must himself seek them out and attack them. Some say that Phaia was a murderous and licentious woman who carried on brigandage at Krommyon, and was called a sow from her life and habits, and that Theseus put her to death.


X. Before coming to Megara he slew Skeiron by flinging him down a precipice into the sea, so the story runs, because he was a robber, but some say that from arrogance he used to hold out his feet to strangers and bid them wash them, and that then he kicked the washers into the sea. But Megarian writers, in opposition to common tradition, and, as Simonides says, "warring with all antiquity," say that Skeiron was not an arrogant brigand, but repressed brigandage, loved those who were good and just, and was related to them. For, they point out, Aeakus is thought to have been the most righteous of all the Greeks, and Kychreus of Salamis was worshipped as a god, and the virtue of Peleus and Telamon is known to all. Yet Skeiron was the son-in-law of Kychreus, and father-in-law of Aeakus, and grandfather of Peleus and Telamon, who were both of them sons of Endeis, the daughter of Skeiron and his wife Chariklo. It is not then reasonable to suppose that these, the noblest men of their time, would make alliances with a malefactor, and give and receive from him what they prized most dearly. But they say that Theseus slew Skeiron, not when he first went to Athens, but that afterwards he took the town of Eleusis which belonged to the Megarians, by dealing treacherously with Diokles, who was the chief magistrate there, and that on that occasion he killed Skeiron. This is what tradition says on both sides. XI. At Eleusis Theseus overcame Kerkyon of Arcadia in wrestling and killed him, and after journeying a little farther he killed Damastes, who was surnamed Prokroustes, by compelling him to fit his own body to his bed, just as he used to fit the bodies of strangers to it. This he did in imitation of Herakles; for he used to retort upon his aggressors the same treatment which they intended for him. Thus Herakles offered up Busiris as a sacrifice, and overcame Antaeus in wrestling, and Kyknus in single combat, and killed Termerus by breaking his skull. This is, they say, the origin of the proverb, "A Termerian mischief," for Termerus, it seems, struck passers-by with his head, and so killed them. So also did Theseus sally forth and chastise evildoers, making them undergo the same cruelties which they practised on others, thus justly punishing them for their crimes in their own wicked fashion. XII. As he proceeded on his way, and reached the river Kephisus, 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 Kronion, which is now called Hekatombeion, that he came to his own city. On entering it he found public affairs disturbed by factions, and the house of Aegeus in great disorder; for Medea, who had been banished from Corinth, was living with Aegeus, and had engaged by her drugs to enable Aegeus to have children. She was the first to discover who Theseus was, while Aegeus, who was an old man, and feared every one because of the disturbed state of society, did not recognise him. Consequently she advised Aegeus to invite him to a feast, that she might poison him. Theseus accordingly came to Aegeus's table. He did not wish to be the first to tell his name, but, to give his father an opportunity of recognising him, he drew his sword, as if he meant to cut some of the meat with it, and showed it to Aegeus. Aegeus at once recognised 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 Aegeus dwelt; and the Hermes to the east of the temple there they call the one who is "at the door of Aegeus." XIII. But the sons of Pallas, who had previously to this expected that they would inherit the kingdom on the death of Aegeus without issue, now that Theseus was declared the heir, were much enraged, first that Aegeus 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. XIV. Now Theseus, who wished for employment and also to make himself popular with the people, went to attack the bull of Marathon, who had caused no little trouble to the inhabitants of Tetrapolis. He overcame the beast, and drove it alive through the city for all men to see, and then sacrificed it to Apollo of Delphi. Hekale, too, and the legend of her having entertained Theseus, does not seem altogether without foundation in fact; for the people of the neighbouring townships used to assemble and perform what was called the Hekalesian sacrifice to Zeus Hekalus, and they also used to honour Hekale, calling her by the affectionate diminutive Hekaline, because she also, when feasting Theseus, who was very young, embraced him in a motherly way, and used such like endearing diminutives. She also made a vow on Theseus's behalf, when he was going forth to battle, that if he returned safe she would sacrifice to Zeus; but as she died before he returned, she had the above-mentioned honours instituted by command of Theseus, as a grateful return for her hospitality. This is the legend as told by Philochorus.


XV. 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 XVI. Philochorus says that the Cretans do not recognise this story, but say that the Labyrinth was merely a prison, like any other, from which escape was impossible, and that Minos instituted gymnastic games in honour of Androgeus, in which the prizes for the victors were these children, who till then were kept in the Labyrinth. Also they say that the victor in the first contest was a man of great power in the state, a general of the name of Taurus, who was of harsh and savage temper, and ill-treated the Athenian children. And Aristotle himself, in his treatise on the constitution of the Bottiaeans, evidently does not believe that the children were put to death by Minos, but that they lived in Crete as slaves, until extreme old age; and that one day the Cretans, in performance of an ancient vow, sent first-fruits of their population to Delphi. Among those who were thus sent were the descendants of the Athenians, and, as they could not maintain themselves there, they first passed over to Italy, and there settled near Iapygium, and from thence again removed to Thrace, and took the name of Bottiaeans. For this reason, the Bottiaean maidens when performing a certain sacrifice sing "Let us go to Athens." Thus it seems to be a terrible thing to incur the hatred of a city powerful in speech and song; for on the Attic stage Minos is always vilified and traduced, and though he was called "Most Kingly" by Hesiod, and "Friend of Zeus" by Homer, it gained him no credit, but the playwrights overwhelmed him with abuse, styling him cruel and violent. And yet Minos is said to have been a king and a lawgiver, and Rhadamanthus to have been a judge under him, carrying out his decrees. XVII. 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 Aegeus, 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 Aegeus finding that his prayers and entreaties had no effect on his unalterable resolution, proceeded to choose the rest by lot. Hellanikus 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 Aegeus, 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 Phereklus the son of Amarsyas, according to Simonides. But Philochorus says that Theseus had one Nausithous sent him from Skirus of Salamis, to steer the ship, and Phaeax to act as look-out, as the Athenians had not yet turned their attention to the sea. One of the youths chosen by lot was Menestheos the son of Skirus's daughter. The truth of this account is attested by the shrines of Nausithous and Phaeax, which Theseus built at Phalerum, and by the feast called the Kybernesia or pilot's festival, which is held in their honour. XVIII. When the lots were drawn Theseus brought the chosen youths from the Prytaneum, and proceeding to the temple of the Delphian Apollo, offered the suppliants' bough to Apollo on their behalf. This was a bough of the sacred olive-tree bound with fillets of white wool. And after praying he went to sea on the sixth day of the month Munychion, on which day even now they send maidens as suppliants to the temple of the Delphian Apollo. And there is a legend that the Delphian oracle told him that Aphrodite would be his guide and fellow-traveller, and that when he was sacrificing a she-goat to her by the seaside, it became a he-goat; wherefore the goddess is called Epitragia.