So I was thinking recently of the marvelous shields throughout Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes (aka Septem Contra Thebas, aka ἑπτὰ ἐπὶ Θήβας). The Septem was part of the prolegomena to my dissertation, where I looked at Polyneikes’ homecoming to Thebes, which only truly happens at his death. I spent a lot of time with the play, mostly with Polyneikes’ shield, but the other shields are also really fascinating. I was talking to a friend about all this recently, and found that I was interested in exploring the rest of the shields in the play.
Also, if you don’t know the reference to stasis from the title, Greek στάσις literally means “a standing up, a setting up” (from ἵστημι, “to stand up, to make stand”), but often means “sedition, discord” (per LSJ, “a party formed for seditious faction”). I always think of civil war when I think of stasis, so I found it fitting. In any case…
All of the eponymous “Seven” have shields generally representing their character and goals in the campaign, but only one of the defenders, Hyperbios, gets a brief sketch of his shield represented, mostly as a counterpoint to the attacker Hippomedon’s shield.
If you don’t know many of the heroes mentioned, defenders and attackers alike, these are old-school Greek heroes, a generation or so before the Trojan War. Most are generally known via patronymics (Diomedes, son of Tydeus, Τυδεΐδης), but others are more obscure (Kapaneus, Hippomedon), at least to me. I feel like I’ve heard about Amphiaraos a little more often, though. Keep in mind that the sons of the Seven, the “Epigoni” (ἐπίγονοι, “those born after”), tried to mount an attack against Thebes later on as well, following in their father’s footsteps. The fairly well-known Diomedes was part of that group, but I don’t remember the others at the moment.
In any case, I find the shields in the Septem fascinating. My favorite in terms of sheer hubris is Kapaneus’, but I also have a soft spot for Polyneikes’, of course. Tydeus’ shield, which comes first in the sequence, is actually quite beautiful. Let’s get to the shields.
Tydeus’ shield is depicted first (Th. 387-94):
ἔχει δ’ ὑπέρφρον σῆμ’ ἐπ’ ἀσπίδος τόδε,
φλέγονθ’ ὑπ’ ἄστροις οὐρανὸν τετυγμένον·
λαμπρὰ δὲ πανσέληνος ἐν μέσῳ σάκει
πρέσβιστον ἄστρων, νυκτὸς ὀφθαλμός, πρέπει.
τοιαῦτ’ ἀλύων ταῖς ὑπερκόμποις σαγαῖς
βοᾷ παρ’ ὄχθαις ποταμίαις, μάχης ἐρῶν,
ἵππος χαλινῶν ὣς κατασθμαίνων μένει,
ὅστις βοὴν σάλπιγγος ὁρμαίνει κλύων.
[Tydeus] has this arrogant sign on his shield,
A wrought sky blazing with stars;
And in the middle of the shield, the bright full moon,
Eldest of the stars, the eye of Night, shines forth.
So beside himself from his arrogant armor,
He shouts beside the riverbanks, in love with battle,
Like a horse struggling with might against the bit
Who is eager when he hears the blast of the war-trumpet.
What a fascinating, gorgeous shield. A star-filled sky, and the moon, the “eye of Night,” as the centerpiece. So cool. I confess I haven’t paid much attention to this before. I’m all about Kapaneus’ shield, which we’ll get to a little later, or Polyneikes’, as I mentioned earlier, but yeah.
Here is Kapaneus’ introduction and his shield (A. Th. 423-34):
Καπανεὺς δ’ ἐπ’ Ἠλέκτραισιν εἴληχεν πύλαις,
γίγας ὅδ’ ἄλλος, τοῦ πάρος λελεγμένου
μείζων, ὁ κόμπος δ’ οὐ κατ’ ἄνθρωπον φρονεῖ,
πύργοις δ’ ἀπειλεῖ δείν’, ἃ μὴ κραίνοι τύχη·
θεοῦ τε γὰρ θέλοντος ἐκπέρσειν πόλιν
καὶ μὴ θέλοντός φησιν, οὐδὲ τὴν Διὸς
† Ἔριν πέδοι σκήψασαν ἐμποδὼν σχεθεῖν
τὰς δ’ ἀστραπάς τε καὶ κεραυνίους βολὰς
μεσημβρινοῖσι θάλπεσιν προσῄκασεν·
ἔχει δὲ σῆμα γυμνὸν ἄνδρα πυρφόρον,
φλέγει δὲ λαμπὰς διὰ χερῶν ὡπλισμένη·
χρυσοῖς δὲ φωνεῖ γράμμασιν ‘<Πρήσω πόλιν.>‘
And Kapaneus was assigned to the Elektran gate,
This other giant man, larger than any mentioned before,
And the boast was not any a man would think,
But he made terrible threats against the towers — Fortune forbid them!
For whether the god wills it or not, he says that he will sack the city,
And strife with Zeus, even if it fell on the ground, would not stop him;
He compares lightning and thunderbolts to noonday heat.
He has a shield-device, an unarmed torch-bearing man;
A torch blazes, equipped in his hands;
And with golden letters he speaks: “I will burn the city.”
Kapaneus’ shield screams hubris by its very nature, and if I remember correctly, Kapaneus is felled by one of Zeus’ thunderbolts later on for his hubris. You bet against the gods and you’ll nearly always lose. But what arrogance, and what an image: the man with a torch threatening to burn the city, and his words in golden letters, a nice touch.
Eteoklos’ (not Eteokles, prince and main defender of Thebes) shield is next (A. Th. 465-69):
ἐσχημάτισται δ’ ἀσπὶς οὐ σμικρὸν τρόπον·
ἀνὴρ [δ’] ὁπλίτης κλίμακος προσαμβάσεις
στείχει πρὸς ἐχθρῶν πύργον, ἐκπέρσαι θέλων.
βοᾷ δὲ χοὖτος γραμμάτων ἐν ξυλλαβαῖς,
ὡς οὐδ’ ἂν Ἄρης σφ’ ἐκβάλοι πυργωμάτων.
And [Eteoklos’] shield was fashioned in no small way;
A heavily-armed man marches to a ladder’s ascent
Towards the enemy’s tower, wishing to sack it.
And this man shouts in syllables of words
That not even Ares could hurl him from the fenced walls.
Interestingly enough, Eteoklos’ name is etymologically identical to Eteokles, the rightful ruler of Thebes (ἐτεός, “true, genuine” + κλέος, “glory, renown”), but they are diametrically opposed. It would be interesting if Eteokles and Eteoklos were stationed at the same gates, but no — it has to be brother against brother, the spectre of fratricide permeating the entire play.
Hippomedon’s shield is next (A. Th. 489-98):
ἅλω δὲ πολλήν, ἀσπίδος κύκλον λέγω,
ἔφριξα δινήσαντος· οὐκ ἄλλως ἐρῶ.
ὁ σηματουργὸς δ’ οὔ τις εὐτελὴς ἄρ’ ἦν
ὅστις τόδ’ ἔργον ὤπασεν πρὸς ἀσπίδι,
Τυφῶν’ ἱέντα πύρπνοον διὰ στόμα
λιγνὺν μέλαιναν, αἰόλην πυρὸς κάσιν·
ὄφεων δὲ πλεκτάναισι περίδρομον κύτος
προσηδάφισται κοιλογάστορος κύκλου.
αὐτὸς δ’ ἐπηλάλαξεν, ἔνθεος δ’ Ἄρει
βακχᾷ πρὸς ἀλκὴν θυιὰς ὥς, φόβον βλέπων.
At the mighty disk — I mean the circle of the shield —
I shuddered when he whirled it around; I will not say otherwise.
The device-maker was not some worthless man
Who put the work of art on the shield:
Fire-breathing Typhon pouring forth through his mouth
Thick black smoke, gleaming with fire-light.
The encircling hollow of the hollow shield
Was made fast with wreathes of serpents.
He himself raised the war-cry, possessed by Ares,
And like a Bacchant, raves for battle, looking terrible.
Typhon, the ancient enemy of Zeus, features prominently on this shield. No one wants to be Zeus’ enemy, so clearly Hippomedon is cast as the “bad” guy. Of course, too, the Greeks were terrified of serpents and other things associated with the underworld. Hippomedon is even compared to a Bacchant, a raving mad female worshipper of Bacchus (= Dionysos), which is interesting.
Hyperbios, one of the defenders, actually has his shield described next (A. Th. 509-14):
ἐχθρὸς γὰρ ἁνὴρ ἀνδρὶ τῷ ξυστήσεται,
ξυνοίσετον δὲ πολεμίους ἐπ’ ἀσπίδων
θεούς· ὁ μὲν γὰρ πύρπνοον Τυφῶν’ ἔχει,
Ὑπερβίῳ δὲ Ζεὺς πατὴρ ἐπ’ ἀσπίδος
σταδαῖος ἧσται, διὰ χερὸς βέλος φλέγων·
κοὔπω τις εἶδε Ζῆνά που νικώμενον.
For one man will be engaged with the other as an enemy,
And both will bring the enemy gods into conflict on the shields,
For the latter [Hippomedon] has fire-breathing Typhon,
But Zeus Father sat upright on Hyperbios’ shield,
Making the bolt flash in his hand;
And no one yet, anywhere, has seen Zeus conquered.
Yet Hyperbios is set up as the righteous counterpoint to Hippomedon; Zeus himself blazes forth on his shield, a worthy challenger to Typhon. Zeus beat Typhon once before, so why not again? And again, Zeus hasn’t ever been conquered, as Aeschylus notes at the end of that passage. As above, so below; the gods are arrayed in conflict, and so too are the mortals bearing their images.
Next is Parthenopaios (A. Th. 537-49 [the line numbers get weird here]):
Παρθενοπαῖος Ἀρκάς· ὁ δὲ τοιόσδ’ ἀνὴρ
μέτοικος, Ἄργει δ’ ἐκτίνων καλὰς τροφάς.
[πύργοις ἀπειλεῖ τοῖσδ’ ἃ μὴ κραίνοι θεός]
οὐ μὴν ἀκόμπαστός γ’ ἐφίσταται πύλαις·
τὸ γὰρ πόλεως ὄνειδος ἐν χαλκηλάτῳ
σάκει, κυκλωτῷ σώματος προβλήματι,
Σφίγγ’ ὠμόσιτον προσμεμηχανημένην
γόμφοις ἐνώμα, λαμπρὸν ἔκκρουστον δέμας,
φέρει δ’ ὑφ’ αὑτῇ φῶτα Καδμείων ἕνα,
ὡς πλεῖστ’ ἐπ’ ἀνδρὶ τῷδ’ ἰάπτεσθαι βέλη.
ἐλθὼν δ’ ἔοικεν οὐ καπηλεύσειν μάχην,
μακρᾶς κελεύθου δ’ οὐ καταισχυνεῖν πόρον.
Is the Arkadian Parthenopaios, and such a man,
A resident foreigner, paying back Argos nobly for his upbringing.
[He threatens these towers; may the god forbid them!]
Oh indeed, he does not, at any rate, stand near the gates unboastful.
For he was wielding the shame of the city on his brass-forged
Shield, the rounded defense of his body:
The Sphinx who eats men raw, cleverly fastened upon it
With bolts, body brilliant and embossed,
Under herself she carries a single Kadmeian man,
Such that most of our bolts will be shot against this man.
It seems that he came not to peddle in war,
Nor to put to shame the voyage of his long journey.
If you’ve not read Sophokles’ Oedipus Tyrannos/Rex, this may not make a lot of sense. Parthenopaios is especially hubristic and cruel here to carry this shield, as it is the “shame of the city” (τὸ … πόλεως ὄνειδος). Why is it the shame of the city? Because Oedipus, who came to Thebes and eventually defeated the Sphinx, who was menacing and cursing the city, with riddles, eventually caused the ruin of the city itself. How? By (unwittingly) slaying his father and (unwittingly) marrying his mother. Oedipus’ curse on his family starts the whole action of the Septem and the strife between his sons.
It’s cunning, as well, because “most of our bolts will be shot against this [Kadmeian] man.” This illustrates perfectly the absurdity of this whole campaign: it is civil war, plain and simple: Kadmeian against Kadmeian. Kadmos, of course, was the founder of Thebes, way back when, way before Oedipus and his family. Brother is destroying brother, literally. Not only does the Sphinx eat men raw, but so too does civil war.
The seer Amphiaraos’ shield, very plain, is next (A. Th. 590-95):
τοιαῦθ’ ὁ μάντις ἀσπίδ’ εὐκήλως ἔχων
πάγχαλκον ηὔδα· σῆμα δ’ οὐκ ἐπῆν κύκλῳ.
οὐ γὰρ δοκεῖν ἄριστος, ἀλλ’ εἶναι θέλει,
βαθεῖαν ἄλοκα διὰ φρενὸς καρπούμενος,
ἐξ ἧς τὰ κεδνὰ βλαστάνει βουλεύματα.
τούτῳ σοφούς τε κἀγαθοὺς ἀντηρέτας
πέμπειν ἐπαινῶ. δεινὸς ὃς θεοὺς σέβει.
The seer, free from care, holding the shield
All-bronze, spoke such things, but a device was not set upon his shield,
For he did not wish to seem, but to be, wise,
Reaping a deep furrow throughout his mind,
From which wise resolutions came to light.
I recommend to send wise and valiant opponents against this man.
Terrible is one who reveres the gods.
Amphiaraos’ shield is the tamest of all of them, really. He wishes to “be” rather than to “seem” wise (cf. videri quam esse, “to seem rather than to be” — remember that from the set of The Colbert Report?). Good advice, too: don’t mess with someone who reveres the gods, since, presumably, the gods will be on his side. Watch out for this guy! Fun fact: Amphiaraos’ name means “twice-cursed” or “cursed on both sides” (ἀμφί, “around, on both sides; both” + ἀράομαι, “to pray, curse [‘pray against'”).
Polyneikes, Eteokles’ brother himself, is the seventh attacker (A. Th. 639-48):
τοιαῦτ’ ἀυτεῖ καὶ θεοὺς γενεθλίους
καλεῖ πατρῴας γῆς ἐποπτῆρας λιτῶν
τῶν ὧν γενέσθαι πάγχυ Πολυνείκους βία.
ἔχει δὲ καινοπηγὲς εὔκυκλον σάκος
διπλοῦν τε σῆμα προσμεμηχανημένον.
χρυσήλατον γὰρ ἄνδρα τευχηστὴν ἰδεῖν
ἄγει γυνή τις σωφρόνως ἡγουμένη.
Δίκη δ’ ἄρ’ εἶναί φησιν, ὡς τὰ γράμματα λέγει·
“Κατάξω δ’ ἄνδρα τόνδε καὶ πόλιν
ἕξει πατρῴαν δωμάτων τ’ ἐπιστροφάς.”
Mighty Polyneikes shouts such things and
Calls upon his family gods of his fatherland to be watchers
In every way of his prayers.
He holds a new-made, well-rounded shield,
One with a double device fastened upon it.
For some woman, going forth moderately, leads
A warrior man, of beaten gold to see.
For she says that she is Justice, as the letters say:
“I will recall this man, and he will have his ancestral city
And free range of his house.”
I spent a lot of time working on this particular shield for my dissertation, actually, so I am quite fond of it, as I mentioned earlier. Not only does Polyneikes pompously think that “Justice” is on his side, but he believes she will lead him home, recall him, and restore him to the throne. Talk about presumptuous! Polyneikes is recalled here, but he doesn’t truly “return” to Thebes until he’s dead (for which cf. Sophokles’ Antigone).
What do you all think of the shields in the Septem? Cool? Boring? Euripides’ Phoenissae covers a lot of the same story, but differently. I haven’t read it but would like to at some point. Anyways, I wanted to share all this with you and thought it would be cool.
Thanks for reading!