Plutarch, Theseus 24-28 (Perrin) English

In this passage Plutarch deals with different episodes of the life of Theseus:
- the unification of Attica and the beginning of Athenian democracy (24-25.1-2)
- the annexation of the territory of Megara to Attica (25.3)
- the institution of the Isthmian games (25.4-5)
- the war against the Amazons (26-28).


In these chapters Plutarch quotes many sources: 1) three oracles; 2) the text of an inscription; 3) preserved authors, such as Aristotle, Homer, Plutarch himself, and Pindar; 4) a series of fragmentary historians, as Hellanicus, Andron of Halicarnassus, Philochorus, Pherecydes, Herodorus, Bion, Menecrates, Clidemus, and the author of the Theseid.


By clicking on the name of the sources quoted by Plutarch (in yellow), you can visualize references to different editions; by clicking on the editions (in light blue), you can see the extension of the fragment published in the selected edition. In the case of preserved authors, there is a link to the full text of the source available in Perseus. The pdf icon is a link to the pages of the print editions stored in Internet Archive or Google Books.


Plutarch’s Lives, I, ed. B. Perrin. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1959 pdf_icon


24 (1) After the death of Aegeus, Theseus conceived a wonderful design, and settled all the residents of Attica in one city, thus making one people of one city out of those who up to that time had been scattered about and were not easily called together for the common interests of all, nay, they sometimes actually quarrelled and fought with each other. (2) He visited them, then, and tried to win them over to this project township by township and clan by clan. The common folk and the poor quicly answered to his summons; to the powerful he promised government without a king and a democracy, in which he should only be commander in war and guardian of the laws, while in all else everyone should be on an equal footing. (3) Some he readily persuaded to this course, and others, fearing his power, which was already great, and his boldness, chose to be persuaded rather than forced to agree to it. Accordingly, after doing away with the townhalls and council-chambers and magistracies in the several communities, and after building a common town-hall and council-chamber for all on the ground where the upper town of the present day stands, he named the city Athens, and instituted a Panathenaic festival. (4) He instituted the Metoecia, or Festival of Settlement, on the sixteenth day of the month Hecatombaeon, and this is still celebrated. Then, laying aside the royal power, as he had agreed, he proceeded to arrange the government, and that too with the sanction of the gods. For an oracle came to him from Delphi, in answer to his enquiries about the city, as follows:
(5) “Theuses, offspring of Aegeus, son of the daughter of Pittheus,
Many indeed the cities to which my father has given Bounds and future fates within your citadel’s confines.
Therefores be not dismayed, but with firm and confident spirit
Counsel only; the bladder will traverse the sea and its surges.”

And this oracle they say the Sibyl afterwards repeated to the city, when she cried:
“Bladder may be submerged; but its sinking will not be permitted.”


25 (1) Desiring still further to enlarge the city, he invited all men thither on equal terms, and the phrase “Come hither all ye people,” they say was a proclamation of Theseus when he established a people, as it were, of all sorts and conditions. However, he did not suffer his democracy to become disordered or confused from an indiscriminate multitude streaming into it, but was the first to separate the people into noblemen and husbandmen and handicraftsmen. (2) To the noblemen he committed the care of religious rites, the supply of magistrates, the teaching of the laws, and the interpretation of the will of Heaven, and for the rest of the citizens he established a balance of privilege, the noblemen being thought to excel in dignity, the husbandmen in usefulness, and the handicraftsmen in numbers. And that he was the first to show a leaning towards the multitude, as Aristotle says, and gave up his absolute rule, seems to be the testimony of Homer also, in the Catalogue of Ships, where he speaks of the Athenians alone as a “people.”
He also coined money, and stamped it with the effigy of an ox, either in remembrance of the Marathonian bull, or of Taurus, the general of Minos, or because he would invite the citizens to agriculture. From this coinage, they say, “ten oxen” and “a hundred oxen” came to be used as terms of valauation. Having attached the territory of Megara securely to Attica, he set up that famous pillar on the Isthmus, and carved upon it the inscription giving the territorial boundaries. It consisted of two trimeters, of which the one towards the east declared:
“Here is not Peloponnesus, but Ionia;”
and the one towards the west:
“Here is the Peloponnesus, not Ionia.”
He also instituted the games here, in emulation of Heracles, being ambitious that as the Hellenes, by that hero’s appointment, celebrated Olympian games in honour of Zeus, so by his own appointment they should celebrate Isthmian games in honour of Poseidon. For the games already instituted there in honour of Melicertes were celebrated in the night, and had the form of a religious rite rather than of a spectacle and public assembly. But some say that the Isthmian games were instituted in memory of Sciron, and that Theseus thus made expiation for his murder, because of the relationship between them; for Sciron was a son of Canethus and Henioche, who was the daughter of Pittheus. (5) And others have it that Sinis, not Sciron, was their son, and that it was in his honour rather that the games were instituted by Theseus. However that may be, Theseus made a formal agreement with the Corinthians that they should furnish Athenian visitors to the Isthmian games with a place of honour as large as could be covered by the sail of the state galley which brought them thither, when it was stretched to its full extent. So Hellanicus and Andron of Halicarnassus tell us.


26 (1) He also made a voyage into the Euxine Sea, as Philochorus and sundry others say, on a campaign with Heracles against the Amazons, and received Antiope as a reward of his valour; but the majority of writers, including Pherecydes, Hellanicus, and Herodorus, say that Theseus made this voyage on his own account, after the time of Heracles, and took the Amazon captive; and this is the more probable story. For it is not recorded that any one else among those who shared his expedition took an Amazon captive. (2) And Bion says that even this Amazon he took and carried off by means of a stratagem. The Amazons, he says, were naturally friendly to men, and did not fly from Theseus when he touched upon their coasts, but actually sent him presents, and he invited the one who brought them to come on board his ship; she came on board, and he put out to sea. And a certain Menecrates, who published a history of the Bythinian city of Nicaea, says that Theseus, with Antiope on board his ship, spent some time in those parts, (3) and that there chanced to be with him on this expedition three young men of Athens who were brothers, Euneos, Thoas, and Soloïs. This last, he says, fell in love with Antiope unbeknown to the rest, and revealed his secret to one of his intimate friends. That friend made overtures to Antiope, who positively repulsed the attempt upon her, but treated the matter with discretion and gentleness, and made no denunciation to Theseus. (4) Then Soloïs, in despair, threw himself into a river and drowned himself, and Theseus, when he learned the fate of the young man, and what had caused it, was grievously disturbed, and in his distress called to mind a certain oracle which he had once received at Delphi. For it had there been enjoined upon him by the Pythian priestess that when, in a strange land, he should be sorest vexed and full of sorrow, he should found a city there, and leave some of his followers to govern it. (5) For this cause he founded a city there, and called it, from the Pythian god, Pythopolis, and the adjacent river, Soloïs, in honour of the young man. And he left there the brothers of Soloïs, to be the city’s presidents and law-givers, and with them Hermus, one of the noblemen of Athens. From him also the Pythopolitans call a place in the city the House of Hermes, incorrectly changing the second syllable, and transferring the honour from a hero to a god.


27 (1) Well, then, such were the grounds for the war of the Amazons, which seems to have been no trivial nor womanish enterprise for Theseus. For they would not have pitched their camp within the city, nor fought hand to hand battles in the neighbourhood of the Pnyx and the Museum, had they not mastered the sorrounding country and approached the city with impunity. (2) Whether, now, as Hellanicus writes, they came round by the Cimmerian Bosporus, which they crossed on the ice, may be doubted; but the fact that they encamped almost in the heart of the city is attested both by the names of the localities there and by the graves of those who fell in battle. Now for a long time there was hesitation and delay on both sides in making the attack, but finally Thesesus, after sacrificing to Fear, in obedience to an oracle, joined battle with the women. (3) This battle, then, was fought on the day of the month Boëdromion on which, down to the present time, the Athenians celebrate the Boëdromia. Cleidemus, who wishes to be minute, writes that the left wing of the Amazons extended to what is now called the Amazoneum, and that with their right they touched the Pnyx at Chrysa; that with this left wing the Athenians fought, engaging the Amazons from the Museum, and that the graves of those who fell are on either side of the street which leads to the gate by the chapel of Chalcodon, which is now called the Peiraïe gate. (4) Here, he says, the Athenians were routed and driven back by the women as far as the shrine of the Eumenides, but those who attacked the invaders from the Palladium and Ardettus and the Lyceum, drove their right wing back as far as their camp, and slew many of them. And after three months, he says, a treaty of peace was made through the agency of Hippolyta; for Hippolyta is the name which Cleidemus gives to the Amazon whom Theseus married, not Antiope. But some say that the woman was slain with a javelin by Molpadia, while fighting at Theseus’ side, and that the pillar which stands by the sanctuary of Olympian Earth was set up in her memory. (5) And it is not astonishing that history, when dealing with events of such great antiquity, should wander in uncertainty, indeed, we are also told that the wounded Amazons were secretly sent away to Chalcis by Antiope, and were nursed there, and some were buried there, near what is now called the Amazoneum. But that the war ended in a solemn treaty is attested not only by the naming of the place adjoining the Theseum, which is called Horcomosium, but also by the sacrifice which, in ancient times, was offered to the Amazons before the festival of Theseus. (6) And the Megarians, too, show a place in their country where Amazons were buried, on the way from the market-place to the place called Rhus, where the Rhomboid stands. And it is said, likewise, that others of them died near Chaeroneia, and were buried on the banks of the little stream which, in ancient times, as it seems, was called Thermodon, but nowadays, Haemon; concerning which names I have written in my Life of Demosthenes. It appears also that not even Thessaly was traversed by the Amazons without opposition, for Amazonian graves are to this day shown in the vicinity of Scotussa and Cynoschephalae.


28 (1) So much, then, is worhty of mention regarding the Amazons. For the “Insurrection of the Amazons,” written by the author of the Theseid, telling how, when Theseus married Phaedra, Antiope and the Amazons who fought to avenge her attacked him, and were slain by Heracles, has every appearance of fable and invention. (2) Thesues did, indeed, marry Phaedra, but this was after the death of Antiope, and he had a son by Antiope, Hippolytus, or, as Pindar says, Demophoön. As for the calamities which befell Phaedra and the son of Theseus by Antiope, since there is no conflict here between historians and tragic poets, we must suppose that they happened as represented by the poets uniformly.