Plutarch’s Lives in Paint: 1a Theseus, from the flight to Naxos

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Rape of Hippodame (Lapiths and Centaurs) (1636-38), oil on canvas, 182 × 290 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

In the first half of this summary of the biography of Theseus given in Plutarch’s Lives, I traced his story from birth to his killing of the Minotaur on the island of Crete. To accomplish the latter, he entered into a pact with Ariadne, daughter of King Minos, that they would marry.

There are conflicting stories as to what happened next, but Theseus and Ariadne departed from Crete, ending up on the island of Naxos, where Theseus abandoned her and sailed on. This has been depicted by many painters.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Ariadne on Naxos (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Lovis Corinth’s Ariadne on Naxos (1913) is one of his most sophisticated and masterly mythical paintings, inspired by the first version of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1912). The left third of the painting (detail below) shows Ariadne lying in erotic langour on Theseus’ left thigh. He wears an exuberant helmet, and appears to be shouting angrily and anxiously towards the other figures to the right.

Lovis Corinth (1858–1925) Ariadne on Naxos (detail) (1913), oil on canvas, 116 × 147 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.
John William Waterhouse (1849–1917), Ariadne (1898), oil on canvas, 151 x 91 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

John William Waterhouse paints the moment that Ariadne (1898) starts to wake, as Theseus’ ship has just sailed. As she hasn’t yet realised that she has been abandoned, she lies back at ease. On and under the couch are a couple of leopards, a clear reference to the imminent arrival of Dionysus, although his chariot is more usually drawn by lions or tigers.

Having called in briefly at Delos, Theseus and his ship returned to Athens. In their delight and celebration, though, they forgot to hoist the white sail to indicate accomplishment of their mission. Seeing their ship with its black sail still set, King Aegeus threw himself from a cliff in despair, and died.

Theseus’ return to Athens thus brought an odd mixture of celebration at his success, and lamentation at the death of Aegeus. Their ship was carefully preserved as a monument to Theseus’ accomplishment, and he set about transforming and growing the city by settling all the citizens of Attica in it. He promised government without a king, by means of democracy, making himself its commander in war and the guardian of its laws. He also had its currency struck into coins, and instituted the Isthmian (Olympic) Games.

Later, Theseus led a campaign into the Euxine Sea, where he took the Amazon leader Antiope captive, which led to the Amazons waging war on Athens. After three months of fighting, the sides agreed a peace treaty through Hippolyta.

Theseus had taken Antiope as his bride, and by her had a son named Hippolytus, or Demophoön. Antiope then died, and Theseus married Phaedra, who fell in love with her stepson Hippolytus, who had sworn to lead a chaste life so rejected his stepmother’s advances. Phaedra then wrote a note to Theseus claiming that Hippolytus had raped her and, in some versions, committed suicide.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin (1774–1833), Phaedra and Hippolytus (1815), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, Musée des Beaux-Arts, Bordeaux, France. The Athenaeum.

Pierre-Narcisse Guérin’s Phaedra and Hippolytus of 1815 tells this story. An angry Theseus sits beside an alarmed Phaedra, on whose lap is a sword. Whispering secrets into Phaedra’s ear is her old nurse. At the left is Artemis, who holds up her left hand as if to stop Theseus’ thoughts.

Theseus must here be angry because of Phaedra’s lie about her rape by Hippolytus, and Artemis must be trying to tell him of Hippolytus’ chastity. Phaedra and her nurse must be discussing the situation, perhaps that Hippolytus has vowed not to reveal who told him of Phaedra’s love for him; the sword on Phaedra’s lap could perhaps be ready for her intended suicide.

Theseus became a close friend of Peirithoüs when the latter drove Theseus’ cattle away from Marathon; although the two looked as if they would come to blows, they ended up admiring one another’s boldness and swearing to friendship. When Peirithoüs married Deidameia, he invited Theseus to the wedding in the country of the Lapiths.

Unfortunately, Peirithoüs also invited some centaurs to the feast, and when they had too much to drink, they started to carry off the Lapith women. The Lapiths killed many of the centaurs on the spot; others died in the subsequent war between the Lapiths and centaurs. Theseus fought alongside the Lapiths both at the wedding and afterwards.

Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640), The Rape of Hippodame (Lapiths and Centaurs) (1636-38), oil on canvas, 182 × 290 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, Madrid, Spain. Wikimedia Commons.

Peter Paul Rubens’ The Rape of Hippodame (Lapiths and Centaurs) (1636-38) shows an early part of the action at the wedding. At the right, Eurytus the centaur is trying to carry off Hippodame (Deidameia), the bride, with Theseus just about to rescue her from the centaur’s back. At the left, Lapiths are attacking with their weapons, and behind them another centaur is trying to abduct a Lapith woman.

When Theseus was fifty, he became involved in what was, perhaps, his most disreputable act, the abduction and rape of Helen, the daughter of King Tyndareüs, and later best-known as Helen of Troy. She “was not of marriageable age” at the time.

Perhaps inevitably, Plutarch relates conflicting accounts. The version which Plutarch considers to be the most credible is that Theseus and Peirithoüs visited the temple of Artemis in Sparta, where they saw the young Helen dancing, abducted her, and fled the city. Once the two friends had left their pursuers behind them, they made a pact that one should have Helen as his wife, and would then help the other to get another wife.

They drew lots, and Theseus won the young Helen. He took her to his mother Aethra, and made a friend guard the two women in secrecy. Theseus then returned to Peirithoüs, to assist him in obtaining Cora, the daughter of the king of the Molossians. That went badly wrong, leaving Theseus a prisoner of the king, and Peirithoüs was killed by the king’s fearsome dog Cerberus.

Meanwhile, back in Athens, Helen’s brothers Castor and Pollux, the Dioscuri or Tyndaridae, were looking for their missing sister. At first, the Athenians rightly denied all knowledge of Helen, but one, Academus, had learned of her captivity, and told the Dioscuri of her whereabouts. Castor and Pollux took a force off to where Helen was being held by Theseus’ friend, killed many of their guards, and took Theseus’ mother and friend captive.

Léon Cogniet (1794–1880), Helen Delivered by Castor and Pollux (1817), oil on canvas, dimensions not known, École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts, Paris. By VladoubidoOo, via Wikimedia Commons.

This rescue is shown well in the painting of Helen Delivered by Castor and Pollux which secured Léon Cogniet the Prix de Rome in 1817.

In return for her son’s offence, Aethra, mother of Theseus, was made a slave of Helen, and was not freed until after the fall of Troy many years later. Heracles visited the king of Molossia who was holding Theseus captive, and pleaded successfully for his release. Theseus returned to Athens, where he dedicated much of the city to Heracles in gratitude for his rescue.

Athens had changed a great deal since Theseus had last been there, and he was constantly under fire from dissenters. He therefore sent his children to Euboea, and travelled to the island of Scyros where his ancestors had held estates. Theseus applied to the king there to have those estates restored to him. Instead, that king took him up to a high point of those lands, threw Theseus down a cliff, and killed him.

Later, the high priestess at Delphi told the Athenians to locate Theseus’ remains and give them an honourable burial in Athens. This was done, and Theseus was commemorated on the eighth day of every month, eight being a good number as it is “the first cube of an even number and the double of the first square, fitly represents the steadfast and immovable power of this god, to whom we give the epithets of Securer and Earth-stayer.”

At the start of his biography of Theseus, Plutarch warned that he had raped women and worse. At a conservative estimate, Plutarch’s account credits Theseus with five murders of men and one of the Minotaur, and at least two rapes, and possibly one rape of a minor. He also duped Ariadne into what she thought would be marriage, abducted Antiope and possibly raped her, and seems to have been a serial bigamist with at least three other marriages to his name.

Such was the Greek hero of the time.


Whole text in English translation at Penelope.