Theseus was among the great heroes of the classical Greek world. Sometimes considered the founder of the city of Athens, in myth and legend he was more accurately the person responsible for its early development and growth. He was also, like most classical heroes, fundamentally flawed. We owe much to Plutarch for his lengthy biography comparing Theseus’ life with that of Romulus, founder of the city of Rome.
For a long time, the life of Theseus was as celebrated a series of myths as those of Heracles, Jason or Aeneas. In about 1340-41, Giovanni Boccaccio wrote a very long (almost 10,000 line) epic poem Teseida, or The Theseid, which in turn inspired The Knight’s Tale in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
Paolo da Visso (1431–1481) painted these three scenes from Boccaccio’s epic on the front of a cassone – the visual equivalent of Plutarch’s account of the adventures of Theseus.
Like Perseus, Theseus had complicated origins. His mortal father, Aegeus the king of a much smaller Athens, had been childless, but following the prophecy of the oracle at Delphi, the King of Troezen got him drunk and packed him off to bed with his daughter Aethra. She was instructed in a dream to leave Aegeus asleep, and to go to a nearby island, where she was also impregnated by the god Poseidon. Theseus, who is presumed to have been conceived that night, was thus considered to have double paternity, by god and man, a common qualification for the heroes of myth.
Aegeus returned to Athens, after burying his sword and sandals under a massive rock. He told Aethra that when his son grew up, she should tell him to move the rock, as a test. If he succeeded, then he should take the sandals and sword as evidence of his paternity.
When Theseus was old enough, his mother Aethra showed him the rock, and gave him Aegeus’ instructions. Theseus moved the rock, found the sandals and sword, and then undertook an epic journey overland to visit his father in Athens.
One of the earliest depictions of the young Theseus is Laurent de La Hyre’s Theseus And His Mother Aethra (1635-36). This shows the lad lifting a heavy pillar to reveal a pair of shoes and a sword.
In one of his rare collaborative paintings, Nicolas Poussin worked with Jean Lemaire to tell this fragment of the story in Theseus Recovering his Father’s Sword (c 1638). They draw a marked contrast between the two actors: Theseus, destined to be a great hero, looks rough and brutish, while his mother Aethra wouldn’t look out of place standing in for the Madonna.
Nicolas-Guy Brenet’s rather more sketchy Aethra Showing her Son Theseus the Place Where his Father had Hidden his Arms (1768) adds a river god for good measure, and has Aethra giving Theseus marching orders to go find his father.
Antonio Balestra’s Theseus Discovering his Father’s Sword (c 1725) makes Theseus look a little less enthusiastic to follow his mother’s directions.
Aethra told her son to travel by sea to take the sword and sandals to his father in Athens, but he chose to travel overland instead. His inspiration for this was the adventures of Heracles.
Like his hero, Theseus had a series of adventures on this journey. He first killed Periphetes, who had wielded a large club at him; impressed by this club, he took it and killed another opponent, Sinis, raped his daughter and made her pregnant. Theseus went out of his way to meet the fearsome Crommyonian Sow, which he also killed. Coming to the borders of Megara, Theseus met Sciron, whom he threw down a cliff to his death, and killed another two people before reaching the city.
Theseus found Athens, and his father’s court, in disarray, with the king cohabiting with the sorceress Medea, who had promised to cure his lack of children. Aegeus was still unaware of Theseus’ true identity, but invited him to a banquet, at which Medea acting in conspiracy with the king tried to get Theseus to drink a goblet laced with the poison aconite.
Luckily for Theseus, just before he was going to drink from the goblet, he drew his father’s sword, making as if to carve the meat with it. Aegeus recognised the sword, realised that his guest who was just about to drink poison was his son, and knocked the goblet from Theseus’ hand to stop him from touching it with his lips.
In Antoine-Placide Gibert’s Theseus Recognised by his Father (1832), the three principal actors are arranged almost linearly across the canvas. Just left of centre, Theseus stands, his head in profile, the fateful cup in his left hand, and his father’s sword in his right. The king is just right of centre, looking Theseus in the eye, and appearing animated if not alarmed. At the far right is Medea, her face like thunder, sensing that her plot to kill Theseus is about to fall apart.
Hippolyte Flandrin’s Theseus Recognized by his Father (1832), which beat Gibert’s painting for the Prix de Rome that year, has a more neoclassical look, as if influenced by Jacques-Louis David. With a view of the Acropolis in the background, this shows the moment immediately after Aegeus has recognised his son, and the cup of aconite lies spilt on the table. Theseus, conspicuously naked, stands in the middle of the canvas, his father’s sword held rather limply in his right hand. Aegeus stands to the left of centre, talking to his son quite emotionally.
But of all the characters shown in this painting, it is Medea who is the most fascinating. Stood at the far left, she appears to be on her way out. She is po-faced, and looks as if she has come not from Greece, but from central Asia, perhaps.
Aegeus then declared Theseus to be his heir and successor as King of Athens. This was opposed by the sons of Pallas, who tried to attack the city. Theseus was tipped off by one of their men, surprised his opponents, and killed them all. Like his hero Heracles, Theseus then set out to deal with the problem posed by the Marathonian Bull, captured it, and drove it through the city of Marathon before sacrificing it to Apollo.
In tomorrow’s article, I’ll show what happened with a different bull, the Minotaur, on Crete.