Saturday, August 23, 2014

TFBT: Is "Oedipus at Colonus" a Spartan Allegory?

Was Sophocles play “Oedipus at Colonus” an extended allegory about Athens and Sparta’s ongoing conflict? 

Our book club held discussions at Hour 25 on Sophocles' final play; “Oedipus at Colonus”.   The plot centers on what to do with Oedipus, his pollution and the plague it might bring up Thebes.  I discussed this in a previous post or two.   

An active member of our community kaoru9282  pointed out that Sophocles wrote a prequel to this Oedipus at Colonus titled “Oedipus Tyrannous” She wrote, “A year before OT was produced, Athens suffered a terrible plague. Pericles died in that plague.” She further writes of Athens; “In terms of the plague, the historians estimate the death toll to be anywhere from 1/3 to 1/2 of the population, and some even say it was close to 2/3.”  She wondered if the audience would have recognized Pericles in the figure of Oedipus. 

The consequences of Pericles reign in Athens were the plague Kaoru describes, eventual conquest by Sparta and the reign of terror of the Thirty Tyrants.  Oedipus at Colonus  was written  when democracy had been abolished and was produced two years after the Athenians threw off the yoke of Spartan rule. 

The comparison of Pericles to Oedipus,  made me wonder if we should compare Sparta to Thebes.  In the play the Athenians fought the Thebans (off stage); in history the Athens of Pericles fought the Spartans.  In the play Thebes had two kings, historically the Spartan constitution required two kings.  

So is “Oedipus at Colonus” an extended allegory?   Was it written at great risk to the playwright and hence in allegorical form.  Was the poet in fact writing about the animosity between Athens and Sparta?   

Discussing inconsistences within the story line and unexpected comments might lead us to look for deeper significance in places.   


 The all-seeing Eumenides the people here would call them: but other names please elsewhere.” (44)  The mention of the Eumenides rather that Erinyes is unexpected because the worship of the Eumenides was not introduced for another two generations.  (The death of Oedipus, ignited the first of the Theban wars where Tydeus died.  Tydeus’ son Diomedes fought at Troy.  After the Trojan War Agamemnon’s son Orestes, helped institute the worship of the Eumenides.)  Would the audience who’d suffered two generations of persecution from the Spartans recall that Orestes, was a Spartan king? 

Threshold for Descending, 

“Threshold for Descending… which was where Theseus  and Peirithoos had made their faithful covenant “   1591-5  Another inconsistency within the story line which might make us suspicious that the poet is pointing us to something else.

 The faithful covenant that Theseus  and Peirithoos  in their old age was to attain each other new wives.  In the play Theseus is still a viral man.  Sort of odd.  The result of their rash oath was the kidnapping of  an underage princess named Helen, their binding in Hades, a Spartan invasion during their absence lead by the twin princes Castor and Polydeuces to recover their sister. 


“this city (Athens) unscathed by the men born of the Dragon’s teeth.” 1553  Legend has it that Cadmus’ close companions at the founding of Thebes were the men born of the dragon’s teeth he planted at Athena’s suggestion.  These men are called Sparti.  Would the traumatized audience ignore the pun? 

Old Man 

In the opening line of the play Oedipus refers to himself as an old man, “Child of a blind old man, Antigone…”  Old?  He left Corinth a young man, married soon after, has two daughters called maidens rather than women and his first grandchild is still a baby.  He is forty if not younger!  How can Sophocles call Oedipus old?  Easy, if Sophocles is actually talking about Pericles.  Pericles was 66 when he died. 


I have to end my analysis here today.  I am not sure where it leads. Readers please respond with your thoughts.  When time allows I hope to do a word search in the Greek for “ainos” ; a word that often signals a deeper meaning to the text and the “sparti”.


  1. I have thought before about the conspicuous absence of the enemy Sparta from the Athenian tragic stage during the war. Only Euripides' Andromache includes it in open form. And possibly Sophocles' Ajax, with the Spartan Atreides as the villains. I checked the date of this play's production, Wikipedia gives it broadly 450-430. If it is a condemnation of Sparta, this would fix the latest possible date.
    Maybe there was a taboo not to show openly a strong enemy on stage?

    I think Kaoru and you are right about the analogy Athens, Pericles - Thebes, Oedipus in the Oedipus Tyrannos. So maybe Sophocles seriously thought that the "plague" of Athens was caused by a pollution brought about by a bad ruler! It is interesting to compare him with Aeschylus. In the Oresteia, you have seeds of science and technology. Clytemnestra introduces a means of distant communication, and Apollo describes a theory of reproduction, though a very bad one. Sophocles includes in the beginning of the Antigone the wonderful Ode of Man, just to negate it by further development and to glorify brainless obedience to the gods. So Sophocles, though the latter of the two playwrights, has more archaic mentality. He is a religious fundamentalist. Even if some Athenian had discovered and proved the germ theory, Sophocles would never believe it.

    I suppose you are also right about Thebes being an analogy of Sparta in the Oedipus at Colonus. However, I don't see how Thebes could be Sparta and at the same time Oedipus could still be Pericles, the former ruler of Athens. Besides, the audience would hardly be much interested in Pericles now, decades after his death. So I guess now Oedipus is someone else, or maybe just himself. His illogical old age might be just to earn sympathy from the audience and to explain why he was going to die.

    1. Maya,

      Today at Hour 25 we once again discussed Oedipus at Colonus". I shared your observation about "conspicuous absence of the enemy Sparta from the Athenian tragic stage". Your point was well recieved.

      As usual thanks for sharing your observations and thoughts.


  2. I find interesting what Zeitlin wrote about the place of Thebes in Athenian drama:

    "I propose that Thebes functions as anti-Athens, an other place... There Athens acts out questions crucial to the polis, the self, the family, and society, but these are displaced upon a city that is imagined as the mirror opposite of Athens... Within the theater, Athens is not a tragic space. Rather, it is the scene where the theater can and does "escape" the tragic, and where reconciliation and transformation are made possible. Thebes and Athens are, in fact, specifically contrasted to one another in several plays, such as Sophokles' Oidipous at Kolonos and Euripides' Suppliant Women... But Thebes is also the obverse side of Athens, the shadow self, we might say, of the idealized city on whose other terrain the tragic action may be pushed to its furthest limits..."

    I wonder how much of the so-called Theban mythology has any real roots in Thebes and how much has been invented by Athenian playwrights and copied by later authors. You may have an idea about this, after reading the Theban poet Pindar.

  3. M.L. West in "Greek Epic Fragments" cites a scholiast on "Oedipus at Colonus":

    "Eteocles and Polyneices, who customarily sent their father Oedipus the shoulder as his portion from every sacrificial animal, omitted to do so on one occasion, whether from simple negligence or for whatever reason, and sent him a haunch. He, in a mean and thoroughly ignoble spirit, but all the same, laid curses on them, considering he had been slighted. The author of the cyclic "Thebaid" records this as follows: When he realized it was a haunch, he threw it to the ground and said, "Oh, my sons have insultingly sent..."... He prayed to Zeus the king and to the other immortals that they should go down into Hades' house at each other's hands."

    Oedipus - my nomination for Dad of the Year! And I thought Zeus at Mecone was mean!

  4. Isnt that incredible how rude Oedipus is? doomed his sons and daughter with the same breathe.