Not to be confused with Aeschylus’s The Suppliants, a story of the founding of Argos, Euripides’s The Suppliants (or also called The Suppliant Women) tells the story of the grieving women of Argos. Their sons have died in battle against Creon of Thebes, but he has denied their proper burial rights leaving their bodies to rot in the streets. The women have come to Athens to beg Theseus to intervene.
The story harkens back to the story of Oedipus: recall when Oedipus left Thebes in disgrace, his two brothers, Polynices and Eteocles, fought over the Thebes and ultimately killed each other leaving Creon, their brother-in-law, to rule the city. The bodies of the invading army of Polynices are the bodies in question in The Suppliants.
At the temple of Demeter, the elder Adrastus and women of the Argives have come to plead to Theseus and his mother Aethra. Theseus initially refuses but is persuaded by the tears of the women. He raises his army and marches on Thebes breaking through its walls, but halting his army and preventing them from looting and razing the city. They have only come for the bodies as promised. When the bodies are returned a curious character, Capaneus, dressed in her wedding gown decides to throw herself on her own husband’s funeral pyre. This is perhaps the most tragic part of the play. In the end, Athena appears, a dea ex machina, and she forges a friendship between Athens and Argos, but foreshadows vengeance upon Thebes for violating the funeral rights of the dead. Theseus pledges to follow the orders of Athena.
The play is an unusually patriotic play. In this way it stands nearly alone in the compendium of Euripides’s works. For example there is a section in the middle of the play in which Theseus furiously debates political philosophy with a herald of Thebes. Theseus, a the sole ruler of Athens, ironically defends democracy against autocracy. I close these brief notes with a passage from Theseus:
“Nothing is worse for a city than an absolute ruler.
In earliest days, before the laws are common,
One man has power and makes the law his own:
Equality is not yet. Written with laws,
People of small riches and the rich
Both have the same recourse to justice. Now
A man of means, if badly spoken of,
Will have no better standing than the weak;
And if the little man is right, he wins
Against the great. This is the call of freedom:
‘What man has good advice to give the city,
And wishes to make it know?’ He who responds
Gains glory; the reluctant hold their peace.
For the city, what can be more fair than that?
Again, when the people is master in the land,
It welcomes youthful townsmen as its subjects;
But when one man is king, he finds this hateful,
And if he thinks that any of the nobles
Are wise, he fears for his despotic power
And kills them. How can a city become strong
If someone takes away, cuts off new ventures
Like ears of corn in a spring field? What use
To build a fortune, if your work promotes
The despot’s welfare, not your family’s?
Why bring up girls as gentlewomen, fit
For marriage, if tyrants may take them for their joy?
A grief to parents? I would rather die
Than see my children forced to such a union.” (428-455)
For this reading I used the Frank William Jones translation.