A Defense of Nomos in The Suppliants

There are only four surviving plays from Aeschylus aside from those included in the Oresteia trilogy. Each Aeschylean play is a part of a whole, that is, part of a larger and more complete trilogy. The Suppliant Maidens was once thought to be the earliest surviving Greek play in its totality, however that assertion is now being called into question.

At any rate, The Suppliant Maidens (sometimes simply referred to as The Suppliants) is part of a trilogy, the latter of which have not survived. It tells the story of daughters of Danaus (the Chorus) who fled Egypt for Argos for “abhorring impious marriage with Egypts’ sons” (9-10). They go to seek refuge from their father, Danaus. As is typical of a tragic play, the story begins en media res. Shortly after the daughters arrive at their father’s home, the King of Argos, Pelasgus, appears asking why the barbarians are at hand. The daughters persuade the king that they must be allowed to stay, and the king persuades the Argives to fight against the Egyptians. The play ends on the eve of battle, as the Argives retreat behind their walls and fend off an Egyptian herald who brings a warning to return the daughters to Egypt.

A common theme we encounter in Aeschylus is the question of justice, especially in an international context. Is it just for the Argives to return Danaus’s daughters to Egypt to marry their Egyptian cousins? If not, why not? And, is it worth the high cost of war? Ultimately, the Argives preserve their nobility by defending their customs and laws (nomos) over against the foreign and barbaric customs of the Egyptians. The custom of marriage is superseded by the custom of treating their women with grace and respect, their honor being a virtue worth fighting and dying for. The question of the just war is a consistent theme. If the Argives had not chosen to fight on behalf of their women, and their customs, what would be worth fighting for? Is the transactional question of “worth” in matters of war, even a question worth asking?

The most obvious analog to this play is The Iliad, the great war poem of the classical world. Lamentably, today the poem lies unread and forgotten by many. At any rate, in the The Iliad we find the Argives far away on distant shores, playing the opposite role of The Suppliant Maidens. In The Iliad, they are compelled to the shores of Ilium to recapture Helen and bring her back to Menelaus, as she has been unjustly taken away by Paris, though her heart appears to be with young Paris and not Menelaus. The Trojans defend their actions, to the ultimate destruction of Troy. Is there consistency between the Argives in The Iliad  and those in The Suppliant Maidens? It would seem so. In The Iliad, Paris violated nomos and illegally stole another man’s wife. This violation was worth defending for the whole of the Argives, in protection of their substance and preservation of their tenuous alliances, as well. In The Suppliant Maidens, the daughters are unwed and come willingly back to their father, in honor of their custom not to marry their cousins. King Pelasgus, a weak King, reluctantly agrees to war only after the people have spoken. The cause is, therefore, noble.

For this reading I used the Seth Bernardete translation as part of the David Grene and Richmond Lattimore edition.

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