by Pierce Nahigyan
Seven there were that joined their arms, and of their company of kings and heroes one alone remained. Adrastus had watched Polyneices, misbegotten son of Oedipus and rightful ruler of Thebes, slay his own brother in single combat. Eteocles fell upon the threshold of Thebes’ first and mightiest gate, but not before he had smote Polyneices in turn. Brothers fell as one sundered standard, so alike in form and bearing, the younger within, the elder without. Their battle had decided nothing and the war of the Seven (now Six) against Thebes resumed. And whether the Thebans’ victory was owed to the prophesied death of young Menoeceus or (as the weary Adrastus suspected) the Thebans’ mighty walls, the outcome was incontestable. Thebes’ seven gates were unbreached, the company of Polyneices slain but for the King of Argos.
King Creon, who wept over the body of his slain Menoeceus, decreed that no man as raised arms against his city would ever receive proper burial. Death enforced his proclamation, put to the test when Antigone, Polyneices’ own sister and a princess, buried her brother as was her right. She invoked Justice, but the gods heard her not. Perhaps they chose to let their judgment smolder. Antigone was put to death, and in the fields of Thebes kings and warriors were left to the jaws of birds and beasts.
Adrastus sought out Theseus, who of all Greeks was most wise. He did not beg the former king for revenge, merely the wisdom to find the most virtuous course in a war whose end lingered in damned shadows. His comrades lay unhonored and befouled and no matter the righteousness of their cause their due was sacred, his heart broken, his hands shackled by a king grieving in his own right.
The tears of mothers ushered Theseus to Thebes. “Athens is a city ruled by laws,” he told Creon. “As her emissary but not her master I speak for her people, and I say unto you, let us honor the laws of all Greeks and return the dead from whence they came. Let dust become dust once more. These men as you have felled are your conquered foes. The honor of victory belongs to you. Lifeless now, their bodies belong to the Earth.”
But Creon’s heart was petrified. He sent the noble Athenian away, telling him he would do as he pleased. The warriors would rot in his fields for a generation as a warning to all who threatened Thebes.
Theseus returned with an army and conquered. But though the Thebans threw up their arms in capitulation, threw down their swords, begged for mercy, none could foresee Theseus’ abiding reason. Steadfast, more merciful even than their entreaties, Theseus demanded of his soldiers that no citizen be harmed. “We came not to destroy,” he promised, “but to reclaim our dead.”
It is said that Theseus himself washed the bodies of the five slain heroes and kings, but there was no need. Adrastus had brought their generals, their men-at-arms. Together the remnants of the Seven’s army dressed their chieftains and bid them farewell.
To Capaneus and Eteocles and Hippomedon, Parthenopaeus and Tydeus, Adrastus spoke of their honor and their merit. Amphiarus, who was not of the Seven but who fell by Adrastus’ side, the King of Argos singled out for his most pious bravery. A prophet, Amphiarus knew Adrastus alone would survive the siege of Thebes. Though reluctant, he went to war, for no man may defy the gods. Even doomed, Amphiarus fought as a man alive.
A decade hence the Epigoni, the “After-Born,” set out to avenge their dead fathers. Having watched their bodies burn beneath the walls of Thebes young sons grew swiftly to manhood. They were hard, angry men, souls aflame from embers snatched from their fathers’ pyres. Before departing on their war Adrastus sought out one whose valor shone brighter than his flaming heart, the son of Tydeus, Diomedes. The King of Argos beseeched the young man, “Do not reignite this war with old hates. Let the already dead suffice for all-seeing Justice. Let the justice of Theseus stand.”
Diomedes merely smiled his infamous smile and took up his spear. He pointed to the far horizon and said, “King, your words are gentle and even-tempered. The hammers of wars have flattened you. I am still hot and sharp, and for my father I shall reave Thebes and finish his doomed war.”
“If doomed it is,” said Adrastus, “why pursue this wild cause?”
Diomedes peered into the distance, as if in the low sun’s bloody mouth he saw the future and all her terrible wonders.
Thebes was destroyed by the Epigoni, her treasures looted, her sepulchers defiled, her people scattered. Her seven gates enclose nothing more than ash and the seat of a king long since devoured by the dogs of Justice, these words carved into its stone: Lex talionis.