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A Risk Theatre Reading of Aeschylus’s SEVEN AGAINST THEBES

Aeschylus’s tragedy Seven Against Thebes, winner of the Dionysia in 467 BCE, separates the impulse of patriotism into its constituent ideologies, emotions, and behaviours. In Seven, the spark of patriotism is kindled by the opening flourish of bugle calls. When, through the pathetic fallacy, homeland becomes motherland, the spark becomes a flame. Then, calling the gods and the fervour of religion under its banner, the flame becomes a fire. Finally, by drawing a line between us and them, the fire becomes a blaze. Individuality is seared away, revealing the archetypes behind the human mask, the ancient compulsions that speak through the heraldic devices emblazoned on the warriors’ arms. Aeschylus, by dramatizing a city besieged, presents a perfect prism which refracts the intense blaze of patriotism into a scintillating rainbow of ideologies, emotions, and behaviours that, while touching every facet of the human experience, is bound together by the biological imperatives underlying human nature.

Although remembered today as the father of tragedy and the eldest of the big three of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, Aeschylus was a soldier and a patriot. He fought in the four major engagements of the Persian Wars, where a motley consortium of bickering city-states checked the Persian Empire. In 490 BCE, he distinguished himself in the hoplite ranks at Marathon, where his brother, Cynegirus, perished. He fought in 480 at Artemisium and Salamis, and at Plataea in 479 when freedom came to Greece (Herodotus 6.114).

In the second century CE, the travel writer Pausanias visited Athens. He was surprised to learn that Aeschylus’s patriotism took such pride of place that the poet neglected to recollect his other achievements on his epitaph:

Aeschylus, who had won such renown for his poetry and for his share in the naval battles before Artemisium and at Salamis, recorded at the prospect of death nothing else, and merely wrote his name, his father’s name, and the name of his city, and added that he had witnesses to his valor in the grove at Marathon and in the Persians who landed there. (1.14.5)

The Athenians, however, remembered him as a poet and a patriot. The fifth century had been the Athenian century, the century where backwoods Athens had risen against empire only to itself become empire. Towards the end of the century, however, Athens was fighting for survival, exhausted by plague, stasis, and the Peloponnesian War. In 405 bce, Aristophanes’s comedy Frogs was produced. The nostalgic play reflects on Athens’s heyday, when civic poets promoted civic virtues, taking the city from peak to peak. In its reflections, it intertwines Aeschylus’s poetry with his patriotism.

In Frogs—which is named after the chorus of frogs that inhabit the lake at the entrance to the underworld—all the great tragic poets are dead. The tragic poets were the ones who had inculcated the Athenians with a sense of virtue and responsibility by holding the reflecting mirror of Achilles, Patroclus, and the role models of myth before the youth. In the logic of Frogs, Athens could be saved if a poet-saviour could be brought back from the dead. Dionysus, the god of tragedy, goes to the underworld where he judges a poetic agon between the two leading candidates: Aeschylus and Euripides. He will bring the winner back to life. Though a comedy, the urgency for a saviour was real. Athens stood on the brink. If it seems strange to ask a poet to save the city, remember that then, the division of labour was less pronounced. If moderns lived like the ancients, singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams would also be a field commander, four-star general Colin Powell would write Broadway hits, and playwright Caridad Svich would be Pope. Those were different times.

In their contest, Euripides’s ghost establishes the qualities that poets bring to the table. They offer “skill and good council” and “make people better members of their communities” (1009-10). Aeschylus responds with Seven:

EURIPIDES. And just how did you train them to be so noble?

DIONYSUS. Speak up, Aeschylus, and don’t be purposefully prideful and difficult.

AESCHYLUS. By composing a play chock-full of Ares.


AESCHYLUS. My Seven Against Thebes; every single man who watched it was hot to be warlike. (1019-22)

When Frogs was produced, the real Euripides had been dead a year and Aeschylus fifty. Sixty-two years separated Seven from Frogs. Despite the recency bias in Euripides’s favour, Aeschylus prevails. In real life, however, Aeschylus was not coming back. Six months after Frogs, Athens fell. That, in the fantasy of Frogs, Aeschylus could be imagined as such a saviour, however, testifies to the enduring vision of nobility in Seven, a play which set fire to the flames of patriotism, the most patriotic of plays by the most patriotic of poets. In the character of Eteocles, Aeschylus gives us a patriot’s portrait of a patriot.


Seven begins with Thebes, the city of seven gates, under siege. After an initial ranging of powers, the enemy mounts a final, all-in assault. In his war room atop the acropolis, Eteocles coordinates the defense. His is a master class in statecraft.

In his opening address to the Thebans, Eteocles delivers his vision of patriotism. Patriotism begins with a contradiction. While god is responsible for success, Eteocles himself is responsible for failure:

ETEOCLES. For if we win success, the God is the cause

but if—may it not chance so—there is disaster,

throughout the town, voiced by its citizens,

a multitudinous swelling prelude

cries on one name “Eteocles” with groans. (4-8: Grene translation)

Eteocles’s “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic defies logic. It appears lopsided because Eteocles is pursuing two strategies that, considered singly, are at odds, but, considered together, amplify one another. His first strategy is to motivate the Thebans by rousing their blind and irrational hopes. Hope, as Aeschylus notes in another play, is one of the sapiens’s two greatest possessions:

CHORUS. Did you perhaps go further than you have told us?

PROMETHEUS. I caused mortals to cease foreseeing doom.

CHORUS. What cure did you provide them with against that sickness?

PROMETHEUS. I placed in them blind hopes.

CHORUS. That was a great gift you gave men.

PROMETHEUS. Besides this, I gave them fire. (Prometheus Bound 249-54)

Though despair whispers the day is lost, blind hope never surrenders. What is more, by invoking “god” and “success” together, Eteocles amplifies blind hope with the sum of his compatriots’ faith, their religiosity, and all their beliefs in providence. This is no longer blind hope, but a seeing hope kindled by religious fervour. They are on the acropolis. They see the temples, monumental projections of power. The emotion of hope coupled with the human predisposition to belief is a winning combination.

If the gods take credit for success, it stands that they should take the blame for failure. Anthropologist James George Frazer records many such instances in The Golden Bough. In one example, during a six month drought, the Sicilians abused the statue of Saint Angelo, their patron rainmaker. They stripped him, reviled him, put him in irons, and threatened him with drowning and hanging (86). In another example, he records how the Chinese would alternately praise or censure their gods. Compliant gods were raised to a higher level of divinity by imperial decree. Recalcitrant gods, however, were deposed and stripped of the rank of deity (85). Eteocles, however, takes an asymmetric approach to the assignment of praise and blame. Why?

Eteocles recognizes that an effective leader cannot transfer the risk of failure to others. Leaders who transfer risk are perceived by their constituents to lack skin in the game. Agamemnon in Homer’s Iliad illustrates the shortcomings of a skinless leader. Although Agamemnon apologizes to Achilles for inciting their ruinous quarrel, he transfers the underlying blame to Zeus, Fate, and the Erinys (19.87). “They made me do it,” he says. What a daft apology. So too, Agamemnon points the finger at Zeus when, facing mounting losses, he proposes to evacuate Troy. Though god was responsible for their setbacks, this is not something he can say. He is immediately rebuked by a junior commander, and to the resounding thorubus of his joint chiefs of staff (9.17-51). Unlike Agamemnon, Eteocles recognizes that leaders who wish to unify their peoples must bear responsibility. His second strategy, therefore, involves shouldering the blame.

By holding himself accountable, Eteocles aligns his interests with his constituents’ interests. He has skin in the game. The principle of skin in the game finds that, the higher the personal cost of failure, the more one is incentivized to perform. Knowing that, if their ship of state goes down, Eteocles goes down with them, is a great reassurance to his constituents.[1] They expect that Eteocles, in saving his own skin, will save them all.

In the final examination, Eteocles’s “heads the god wins; tails Eteocles loses” heuristic, while lopsided, works in real life. It activates the emotion of hope, engages the mind’s predisposition to religious belief, and unifies leaders and constituents by giving leaders skin in the game. Patriotism is the mood of an animal under stress, the outpourings of a human nature for which reason is a last resort. Patriotism prefers blind hopes, fast heuristics, deep-seated beliefs, and other strategies predating novel reason.

In the second half of his state of the union address, Eteocles states the motherland doctrine. For a patriot, the concept of homeland is too small to fire hearts. It must be amplified by the pathetic fallacy. The pathetic fallacy is a literary device that attributes human qualities onto inanimate nature. By personifying the land into a motherland, Eteocles adds urgency to the defensive effort. They fight for mother earth, the original mother:

ETEOCLES. Help Earth your Mother.

She reared you, on her kindly surface, crawling

babies, welcomed all the trouble of your nurture,

reared you to live in her, to carry a shield

in her defense, loyally, against such needs as this. (16-20)

Filial devotion due a biological mother is transferred onto the home range. The land is alive, suckling its babes. Every Theban who has drank her milk is her debtor. By turning mother’s milk into an intoxicating wine, Eteocles takes kinship, the most fundamental of relationships for sapiens and other social animals, and appropriates it for homeland security.

Patriotism is one of the most dynamic and encompassing forces of the human mind. By vesting human hopes onto the gods, the quality of patriotism engages the human predisposition towards religious belief, itself a primal calling going back at least sixty-thousand years to the Neanderthals, who buried their dead in elaborate funerary rites (Rendu et al. 81-6). Likewise, by transforming the home range into the myth of the motherland, patriotism repurposes for its own objectives the behaviour of altruism and fundamental notions of kinship and family. Social organization, emotions, behaviours, cult, and mythology, however, are only the starting points of patriotism, which is so much more. There is still to consider in- and out-groups, the higher ideologies, self-sacrifice, and monumental art, of which Seven itself is a bright example.

Us and Them

In Seven, there are two sets of us and them, one inside the gates, one at the gates. The first set of us and them are represented by Eteocles and the defenders of Thebes, on the one hand, and the chorus, on the other hand. The second set of us and them are represented by the two sets of seven captains: one defending and the other besieging Thebes. Eteocles’s goal is to unify “us” inside the gates and destroy “them” outside the gates. After his opening speech, he encounters the first them: the chorus of Theban women. They are making their way to the temples on the acropolis.

The chorus are terrified. They have seen “the wave of warriors, with waving plumes,” the “Horse of the White Shield / well equipped, hastening upon our city,” and “the jagged rocks they hurl / upon our citizens” (89-90, 112, 299-300). They have heard trampling hoofs, whirring spears, and screeching axles bruiting impending rapine, rape, and ruin (84, 153, 155). They come to prostrate themselves:

CHORUS. Shall I kneel at the images of the Gods?

O Blessed Ones, throned in peace,

It is time to cling to your images.

We delay and wail too much. (96-9)

Frazzled, the chorus say their raggedy prayers. Some turn to Zeus. “Zeus, Father Omnipotent! all fulfilling!” says one, “Let us not fall into the hands of the foeman!” (118-9). “Cypris, who are our ancestress,” says another, “turn destruction away” (140-1). After addressing the deities individually, they address the divine collective:

CHORUS. O Gods all sufficient,

O Gods and Goddesses, Perfecters,

Protectors of our country’s forts,

do not betray this city, spear-won,

to a foreign-tongued enemy. (166-70)

As the chorus say their broken prayers, Eteocles falls on them, rebuking them with strong words. To Eteocles, the chorus are either with him or against him:

ETEOCLES. You insupportable creatures, I ask you,

is this the best, is this for the city’s safety,

is this enheartening for our beleaguered army,

to have you falling at the images

of the city’s gods crying and howling,

an object of hatred for all temperate souls? (181-6)

The chorus protest: they were afraid; they ran to the gods; their actions fall in line with custom (211-6). Eteocles and the chorus engage in a stichomythic, back and forth exchange:

CHORUS. I am afraid: the din at the gates grows louder.

ETEOCLES. Silence! Do not speak of this throughout the city.

CHORUS. O Blessed Band, do not betray this fort.

ETEOCLES. Damnation! Can you not endure in silence?

CHORUS. Fellow-citizen Gods, grant me not to be a slave.

ETEOCLES. It is you who enslave yourselves, and all the city. (249-54)

Many years later, the great magician Faustus, having achieved world dominion, perhaps at too great a price, was looking for another way. He calls on God. “I do repent,” he says, “and yet I do despair” (Marlowe, Doctor Faustus 5.1.69). His is a negative prayer filled with self-doubt, spoken from the point of view of the damned. God spits it out. Eteocles’s quarrel with the chorus is precisely this: their prayers are negative prayers, spoken from the loser point of view. “Grant me not to be a slave” and “do not betray this city,” though prayers, lack skin in the game. Vanquishers have their prayers and the vanquished theirs. The chorus’ prayers are those of the vanquished.

Eteocles gives them a better prayer, one with skin in the game, one that partakes and has a share of victory. It begins by invoking the gods as the city’s allies, a joyous paean of thanksgiving promising them hearths flowing with the blood of sacrificed sheep and slaughtered bulls, their altars adorned with the foe’s spoils (264-79). Although they need time to adjust, the chorus rejoin Eteocles’s in-group.

The exchange between Eteocles and the chorus illustrates how patriotism overwhelms reason. Patriotism is like the instinct that jumps back from the snake even before the higher mental processes establish the nature of the serpent threat. So too, the chorus’ initial position may have been innocuous, and Eteocles’s binary arguments fallacious. But first survival: there will be time for logic after, if they live. In crises, instinct comes before reason and morale before logic. Eteocles, by unifying the city, checks off another box on the patriot’s rulebook. But there is still another them: the barbarians at the gates.

Patriotism strips humans of their personality and individuality. Once patriotism separates a man from his multitudes, what is left behind is a type, a caricature, a sign and representation of the raw biological forces animating the man. In the sequence leading up to the play, Eteocles had sent a Messenger to spy on the Argive camp. The Messenger, having learned the identities of the seven attacking captains, returns. As he relays the information to Eteocles, he systematically deindividuates the foe until all that is left of the man is his shield device, the proud advertisement blazoned on his shield. Deindividuation is part and parcel of patriotism’s process.

Stripped of his humanity, a man becomes an abstract representation. Polyneices is become the idea of justice, advertising on his shield a woman identifying herself as Justice leading a man—ostensibly himself—home (642-9). Others expose their animality. Tydeus stands ready to strike like a serpent (381). In Hippomedon and Parthenopaeus, the madness of the chthonian powers, hateful to civilization and the bright gods, breaks out. One has the fire-breathing monster Typhon blazoned on his shield, the other the Sphinx (493, 541). Through their devices, the two captains are reduced into savage personifications of madness and unreason. Others become caricatures of blasphemy. At the third gate, Eteoclus carries a shield on which:

A man in armor mounts a ladder’s steps

to the enemy’s town to sack it. Loud

cries also this man in his written legend

“Ares himself shall not cast me from the tower.” (466-69)

Capaneus goes further. He will sack the city “with the Gods’ good will or ill” (425-9). Parthenopaeus vaunts that he will sack Thebes “in despite of Zeus” (532). In this deindividuated world of patriotism where the abstract symbolic device stands in for the person, even a blank shield is a sign. Amphiaraus’s lack of a shield device signifies how “He is best not at seeming to be such / but being so” (591-2).

Patriotism is frugal, and typology is a sort of mental frugality. One is never oneself, but a sign, a sign of justice, a sign of animality, a sign of darkness and evil. Shield devices, vaunts, and even names are signs. Parthenopaeus, whose name means “the maiden one,” represents war’s rite of passage where a boy becomes a killer (532-8). Once the crowd have become types, it is easier to categorize them into in- and out-groups, the former bent on multiplying its seed and the latter on destroying it. Binary mentalities are a survival heuristic, practiced not only by the sapiens, but also by their animal precursors from ant colonies to baboon troops. Patriotism is not such a new thing. Patriotism started long ago.

Patriotism also demands that the defending captains become types. One defender is a sentry “hostile to strangers” (“Echthroxenos;” 621). Patriotism has distilled Lasthenes into that one quality. It is sufficient. Such is also the fate of Melanippus and Polyphontes, who are reduced into their elemental qualities. The former hates “insolent words” and the latter is “a man of fiery spirit” (410, 447). Other defenders are likewise stripped down. In a roll call of sons, one defender is the “son of Astacus,” another “Creon’s son,” and a third the “son of Oenops” (408, 474, 505). By emphasizing genealogy, Eteocles gives his troops skin in the game: sons must equal fathers. When even skin in the game is insufficient, he gives them land in the game: two defenders—Melanippus and Megareus—are born from the race of sown men, the original founders of Thebes who sprang up autochthonous, from the soil itself. In becoming types, they put on the uniform of patriotism.

In the narrative of us and them, not only human reason, but human madness breaks out. The invaders, though Argives speaking a common language, are called “a foreign-tongued enemy” (170). The unreason of patriotism in bending the truth may be motivated by hidden biological prime movers. Anthropologists have identified in early hunter-gatherers evidence of a binary mentality cleaving sapiens into in- and out-group members. The Nyae Nyae, for example, a group of !Kung hunter-gatherers living in the Kalahari desert “speak of themselves as perfect and clean and other !Kung people as alien murderers who use deadly poisons” (Wilson 92).

Patriotism may be, speculates biologist Edward O. Wilson, a behaviour encoded into our genes through eons of evolution, allowing the sapiens who exhibited such impulses to multiply. In this light, patriotism is a hypertrophy and cultural outgrowth of an innate tribalism that unites kin groups into bands (82-92). Too little patriotism, and Thebes falls. Too much patriotism, and nationalism and racism rise, stalling the spread of culture and information. Patriotism, like so many other all-too-human impulses, is on the spectrum. Lasthenes, with his Stone Age xenophobia, makes a good sentry. His value in peacetime, however, may be debatable. The limitation of biology is one of the issues with building a space age society from genes adapted to Stone and Heroic Age environments.

A Delivery Mechanism

Like a megaton bomb, the dramatic payload of Seven sits idle until Aeschylus devises an appropriate vehicle with which to target his audience. The outcome of Seven is part of myth. Myth is a great spoiler: the theatregoers know myth through and through. To make the theatregoers “hot to be warlike,” Aeschylus needed a powerful delivery system to sidestep the audience’s knowledge. In chance and the random element, Aeschylus found a far-shooting ballistic rocket whereby he could take an outcome, known to all the theatregoers, and explode it in the face of the play’s unsuspecting characters.

By making chance responsible for the fated outcome and by subjectively and objectively suppressing the odds of the fated outcome happening, Aeschylus brings myth to life. The audience, until the last second, sits in thrall, wondering how to reconcile what they know must happen with the contradictory data presented on stage. The greatness of drama lies in the dramatic sleight-of-hand in making the inevitable seem to have been impossible.

The fated outcome is that Eteocles and Polyneices will die by mutual fratricide. This is civil war. Polyneices returns to reclaim the throne. The play is structured so that the fated outcome takes place only if both brothers are assigned the seventh gate. Chance enters the play through the gate assignations. The seven attacking captains—one of whom is Polyneices—and the seven defending captains—one of whom is Eteocles—are all assigned their gates by lot.[2]

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event happening is the product of its constituent probabilities. The odds of rolling snake eyes, or two ones on a pair of six-sided dice are 1:36 (1:6 * 1:6). On that analogy, the likelihood of the fated outcome happening is 1:49, as each of the brothers has a 1:7 chance of being assigned the seventh gate. The probability, therefore, of the fated outcome happening is exceedingly low. In random simulations with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, 48 out of 49 times the fated outcome will be averted.

Aeschylus begins his suppression of the fated outcome by dealing the captains their assignations by random lot. Though his audience lacked access to modern probability theory (which arose in the Italian Renaissance with the work of gambler-mathematician Gerolamo Cardano), they grasped the fundamental notion of intuitive probability.[3] Ancient Greek had a term eikos which denoted probability or likelihood in the modern sense (“Eikos”). “To succeed in many things, or many times, is difficult,” writes Aristotle, “for instance, to repeat the same throw ten thousand times with dice would be impossible, whereas to make it once or twice is comparatively easy” (On the Heavens 292a).

Aeschylus’s audience would have understood that, from the randomness built into the gate selection process, the fated outcome would have been implausible. That Aeschylus encourages his audience to think about probability can be seen in the play’s aleatory references. Hermes is invoked in his capacity as the god of lots who brings captains together for mortal combat (508).[4] Ares throws dice to single out the quick from the dead (414). Even specific throws are alluded to. “I will take six men, myself to make a seventh,” says Eteocles as he initiates the defense. “The number 6 + 1,” notes Roisman, “was considered an unlucky throw in the six sided dice” (22). Seven is a most probabilistic play, aleatory and ludic, a game of chance and a game of death.

Through the lottery device, Aeschylus begins to suppress the fated outcome. Then, in a wonderful marvelous masterstroke, he discounts the odds of the fated outcome from 48:1 against to 25,401,599:1 against. Never did the waters of artistic imagination rise so high as when he painted the inevitable as nigh impossible. To dam back possibility’s flood, he engineered an architectural marvel: the monumental shield scene.

The shield scene consists of seven matched speeches between Eteocles and the Messenger, each separated by an intervening prayer from the chorus. The Messenger has been collecting intelligence. He has seen the seven hostile captains draw lots to determine their gate assignations, has seen their shield devices, has heard their vaunts. He informs Eteocles of the threats. As the Messenger identifies each captain, Eteocles draws a lot to assign a defender. Having assigned the defender, he analyzes the tale of the tape.

In this peculiar battle, men do not fight. Because patriotism has reduced men into types and abstractions, it becomes a proxy battle where signs and representations clash. By examining the clash of representations, Eteocles can see whether the gods are on his side. Chance has brought the combatants together, but chance is not random. The casting of lots was a means of divination. Through the crack of chance, the gods reveal their will.

The tale of the tape at the first six gates favours Eteocles beyond any reasonable doubt. If the enemy has Typhon blazoned on his shield, he is, through a strange synchronicity, paired against a defender sporting the image of Zeus (511-20). In mythology, Zeus tamed Typhon. If the enemy is a blasphemer, he just happens to be paired against a defender “honoring the throne of Modesty” (409). If the enemy appears to be sprung from the race of giants, he is, against all odds, paired with a defender who has the “favor of Artemis / and of the other Gods” (449-50). As the giants fell, so too, in this new Gigantomachy, the gods will prevail.

In addition to the overwhelming objective indications of victory, every subjective indication also points away from the fated outcome: enemy morale is such that they have already sent home memorial tokens (49-50); the enemy’s sacrifices are unfavourable (379); infighting plagues the enemy ranks (382-4). While every Theban—from Eteocles to the soldiers, women, old men, and young boys stand united—the enemy stands divided. The certainty that the foe is doomed rises to a pitch when the Messenger announces that, at the sixth gate, the best of the Argives—the prophet-warrior Amphiaraus—lays into Polyneices, telling him that his leading a foreign army home is an abomination to the gods. What is more, Amphiaraus says that he expects to be struck dead, such is the sacrilege of their expedition (571-89).

At this moment, time stands still. The odds of the fated outcome were unlikely. The pairings at each of the gates portend victory. The enemy is divided. Eteocles basks in the moral certainty of victory. It is almost a foregone conclusion. The chorus capture the moment of jubilation. In the beginning of the shield scene, the chorus, although undergoing rehabilitation, were still singing the fall of Thebes. Their prayers at the initial gates talk of success, but also of dying friends, ravishment, and fear (420-2, 455-6, 565). In other words, negative prayers. At the sixth gate, however, they find their stride in a devastating triumphant prayer calling on Zeus to “strike down and slay” the foe (629-30). The halcyon moment, however, is brief. The Messenger proceeds to the seventh gate, telling Eteocles his brother awaits. Eteocles, having dispatched the other captains, suddenly realizes the gods call him to die.

What are the odds that Eteocles would be encouraged by six perfect pairings only to be cast down in the end? In other words, what are the odds that Melanippus confronts Tydeus at the first gate, Polyphontes confronts Capaneus at the second gate, and that all the pairings took place as they did up to Lasthenes confronting Amphiaraus at the sixth gate? According to the law of permutations, the formula for the number of unique arrangements possible with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial 7!  (7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1) or 5040. Since there are seven attackers and defenders, to find out how many permutations exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. By suppressing the odds of the fated outcome to a nonce quantity, Aeschylus animates the myth. Never again in the millenniums afterwards, neither in Greece nor in the lands that practice the art of playwriting, has a playwright dared to dramatize a deed so explosively blowing apart the possible and the probable.

Though Aeschylus’s audience lacked a working theory of combinations and permutations, the Greeks did have a term sumplokē “intertwining, complication, or combination” to denote this sort of combinatorial analysis (“Sumplokē”). “Xenocrates asserted,” says Plutarch, “that the number of syllables which the letters will make in combinations is 1,002,000,000,000” (Moralia 733a). Plutarch also records that the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus, postulating the number of illnesses that arise from the different combinations of food and drink on the body, turned to a combinatorial analysis. Through an analogy, Chrysippus calculated that, from ten simple propositions (representing different foods and drink), over a million compound combinations (representing different ailments) were possible (732f). Chrysippus and Xenocrates’s attempts demonstrate that Aeschylus’s audience would have been able to infer the enormous range of possibilities in seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders. If their calculations are indicative, Aeschylus’s audience, if anything, would have grossly overestimated the possible permutations, making the play even more dramatic in its rebel probability.

The thrill of drama, is not, as Aristotle claimed, to bring about the probable outcome, but, is rather the opposite, to bring about the most improbable outcome, the one that is 25,401,599:1 against (Poetics 1451a; Wong 206-17). Here is no pity and fear, but rather wonder and awe, wonder at how, each time a pair of captains who are not the brothers goes to the gates, the fated outcome seems subjectively further away, but is objectively closer—although 25,401,600 permutations had been available at gate one, only four permutations remain at gate six—and awe for how Eteocles—like Caesar at the Capitol or Myron Scholes and Robert C. Merton at the Nobel Prize ceremony—stood highest when closest to the fall.[5] As Aeschylus brings the hammer down on Eteocles, however, he also exalts him. The highest form of patriotism is self-sacrifice: it separates run-of-the-mill from purple-hearted patriots. Though Eteocles dies, in dying Aeschylus vouchsafes him patriotism’s crowning glory.

The Ancient Quarrel between Poetry and Philosophy

In the closing decades of the fifth century, poetry, tragedy, and myth were under attack. “There is an ancient quarrel,” says Plato, drawing up the lines of battle, “between poetry and philosophy” (Republic 607b). With the rise of rationalism, it was time for the old poets to make way for the new educators of Greece, the philosophers. The fallible heroes of the old myths would make way for Socrates, Plato’s new and improved hero. The time had come for the sword of reason to shine:

[Socrates speaking] And so, Glaucon, when you happen to meet those who praise Homer and say that he’s the poet who educated Greece, that it’s worth taking up his works in order to learn how to manage and educate people, and that one should arrange one’s whole life in accordance with his teachings, you should welcome these people and treat them as friends, since they’re as good as they’re capable of being, and you should agree that Homer is the most poetic of the tragedians and the first among them. But you should also know that hymns to the gods and eulogies to good people are the only poetry we can admit into our city. If you admit the pleasure-giving Muse, whether in lyric or epic poetry, pleasure and pain will be kings in your city instead of law or the thing that everyone has always believed to be best, namely reason. (Republic 606e-607a, emphasis added)

As Plato mobilized philosophy, others, seeing a chance to make their mark, joined the assault. The historians, led by Thucydides, attacked the stories used by the tragedians as fake myth. While the poets “exaggerate the importance of their themes” and teach by using examples from the distant and unverifiable past, the historian would instruct by providing examples filtered through the rational apparatus of the historical method (1.21-22). Gods, oracles, and omens—so often the prime movers in tragedy—are replaced with the scientific apparatus of cause and effect, eyewitness testimony of what really happened, and the careful consideration, corroboration, and weighing of evidence. At the end of the fifth century, the winds of change were blowing wild.

Whenever myth engaged with the forces of rationalism, myth was driven back. In myth, the Trojan War was the greatest of wars. Thucydides examines it with the historical method (1.10). It emerges diminished. It may have well have been fought by village peoples. Rationalism advanced and myth fell back. Thucydides has Pericles, his new world hero, say that Homer is redundant (2.41). Rationalism advanced and myth fell back. Ion, a professional reciter of poetry, considers himself an educator, educating his audience on health, war, and the many other themes sung by rhapsodes. Ion, however, runs into the hero-philosopher Socrates in Plato’s dialogue Ion. Using the Socratic method, Socrates deconstructs his expertise. It turns out that neither Ion nor the poets know anything. They have nothing to teach. Rationalism advanced and myth fell back.

Rationalism invaded the prerogative of poetry as the teacher of Greece, and poetry fell back. Rationalism pooh-poohed poetry’s fake myth, its tall tales and childish gods, and poetry fell back. Poetry had made too many concessions, was in a full retreat, smarting from the sword of reason. But it had one advantage. Poetry charges the thunders of the heart. It gives its admirers something to believe in, a proof. Rationalism here falls short. It may explain how we came to be, but not why we came to. It is silent on our ultimate purpose. Knowing this secret, Aristophanes mounted a powerful rearguard action in Frogs, calling on art and the author of Seven rather than the new rationalists to save the city.

The crowning moment of Seven, the moment that makes patriots “hot to be warlike,” is Eteocles’s reaction to learning that his brother is at the seventh gate. He is out of captains. He sees the writing on the wall. “I’ll go myself,” he says, “bring me my greaves” (673, 675). Though he realizes the gods call him to die, he wants for himself “no crying and no lamentation” (656). The chorus, knowing that neither brother can hope to emerge from the confrontation alive, reason with him, telling him to save himself:

CHORUS. Go not you, go not, to the seventh gate.

ETEOCLES. No words of yours will blunt my whetted purpose.

CHORUS. Yet even bad victory the Gods hold in honor.

ETEOCLES. No soldier may endure to hear such words.

CHORUS. Do you wish to reap as harvest a brother’s blood?

ETEOCLES. If Gods give ill, no man may shun their giving. (714-9)

In his final words, he tells the chorus that he feels the “whetted purpose” thundering in his heart. This is proof enough. He will fulfil his duty by making the highest sacrifice, the “admirable offering” gods and mortals alike will envy:

ETEOCLES. We are already past the care of Gods.

For them our death is the admirable offering.

Why then delay, fawning upon our doom? (703-5)

Patriotism gives patriots something that the logicians and rationalists never could: something greater than life to live and die for. Patriotism takes the raw biological basis of human nature, hidden from plain view by the mediating apparatus of consciousness, and codifies it in its strictures. It takes the primordial murmurings of tribalism and the irrational emotions of gentle altruism and hateful aggression, and unites them under a common banner. It then harnesses the myriad impulses which draw the sapiens into ever higher levels of social organization—from nomadic life to life in hamlets, cities, and megalopolises—to give the patriot something to believe in.

The patriot, with his tribalism, hears the murmuring song singing new syllogisms, singing of the beauty of kinsfolk and the ugliness of those who dwell beyond the gates. With these new syllogisms, the patriot lays down patriotism’s doctrine, beginning with in- and out-membership groups. To draw himself up to a higher perfection, the patriot takes the other, and turns the other into a sign and representation of all that he must, in his highest moment, overcome. In his fever, the patriot desires no mediocre other, but rather the highest type of other, the most gargantuan other against which he can assay his rising strength. He transforms the other into a bogeyman adorned with blasphemy, the dark images of the night, the eye of the full moon, the serpent’s hiss, and all the other trappings inimical to kin and civilization. Against this error of nature, the patriot girds his kin together in a tight embrace. To withstand such a powerful foe, the patriot himself enlists higher powers, builds shrines to the gods and talks of motherland and fatherland, talks of how the land and the folk are bound by ancient, inviolable, and reciprocal bonds.

Surrounded by powerful and holy monuments, spires reaching up into heaven like the arms of god, the patriot begins to see that he himself is part of the proof, is the son of a line of heroes in a patrilineal and matrilineal succession going back to the crack of time. He himself dissolves into a symbol and representation, the mortal instrument of an immortal purpose. Armed now with high ideology, the patriot now has proof of his goodness, of how his people were meant to persevere, the chosen ones tilling the chosen soil. Heeding the higher calling of country, god, and people, the patriot validates the desultory dross of life and drinks in the sense of belonging and purpose so foreign to the logicians and the rationalists who could only see the wisdom of the sapiens, but not the underlying biology firing the human fuse.

Now, eternally justified, the patriot is himself life’s proof. Having reached this exalted state, there is left but one act whereby he perfects life. To the rationalist who talked of virtue, there was no difference between virtue in theory and in practice. To the patriot, there is. Talk is cheap, insufficient skin. To die performing great heroic deeds is to have the highest skin in the game. It is the patriot’s finest hour, the hour of the affirmation of the highest existence.

In this curious battle, the outcome is exactly as Eteocles predicted. The city is saved. In fact, on the Theban side, there is only a single casualty. In the closing scene the Herald makes a proclamation:

HERALD. Our Lord Eteocles for his loyalty

it is determined to bury in the earth

that he so loved. Fighting its enemies

he found his death here. In the sight

of his ancestral shrines he is pure and blameless

and died where young men die right honorably. (1006-11)

In his burial, in the dirges and the wailing, it is accomplished. Eteocles’s sepulchres and monuments stand as inviolable proofs of his patriotic apotheosis. Though dead, he is born posthumously in Seven to light the way for all tomorrow’s standard-bearers. Patriotism, having enlisted human emotions and behaviours into its service, now calls out to one of the highest constructs of the human mind—art—to justify its eternal claim.

To rational minds, Seven dramatized the clash between the magic of the opposing shield devices. Eteocles, like a seer, interprets the combatants’ vaunts and shield devices. By the science of hermeneutics, he deciphers—and perhaps even manipulates—the hidden signs animating the cosmos. For these reasonable interpreters, Eteocles came close to mastering hermeneutics. To them, Seven is a tragedy of Eteocles’s discourtesy to the chorus and his hubris in thinking he could master the gates. To the interpreters, however, who feel the comprehensiveness of the human experience, for those whom not only the higher and evolved sensibilities, but also the lower and primal drives of the triune brain declare themselves, Seven dramatizes the myriad impulses which together constitute patriotism, hot to endure all time’s slings and arrows. To these other interpreters, Seven is a kaleidoscope of patriotism, reflecting all its changing patterns and colours, from its animal origins to its highest expressions in art, architecture, and culture. Gate by gate, Eteocles is stripped of his personality until, at the seventh gate, all his individual qualities have withdrawn behind patriotism’s mask. He is no longer man, but an incarnation of duty, the great intoxicated patriot, drunk on valour of the ages. Seven, in this more unified view, is a tragedy of the paradox of patriotism, the mystery of how one becomes greatest when one becomes nothing. We do not, perhaps, exist for our own sake, but for the sake of perpetuating the generations of leaves on the tree of life.

In this comprehensive view, patriotism is greater than either the philosophers or the mythographers have imagined. Patriotism is a human expression of the animal behaviour of territoriality, practised by each of the social animals from ants and hyenas to baboons and chimpanzees. As animals mark their home range in elaborate rituals, so too the sapiens mark their territories with doors, locks, gates, gatekeepers, walls, and banners in the sky. Patriotism in this last examination is a biological imperative, is the will to power driving natural selection. To ensure the survival of the species, it will mingle reason with unreason, self-preservation with self-sacrifice, and base ideologies with the highest of the arts and sciences. In the art of Seven, a patriot’s portrait of patriotism, the ancient calling calls out.

Seven reminds us that you can take the individual out of the country, but not the country out of the individual. Though part of our highest ideologies and mental constructs, patriotism is also felt in the blood. Nowhere is this more evident than in the legacy of Seven, where generations of youths, ardent for desperate glory, fulfilled biology’s gnarled imperative: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.


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Aristotle, et al. Poetics, On the Sublime, On Style. Translated by Stephen Halliwell, W. H. Fyfe, and Doreen C. Innes, Loeb-Harvard UP, 1995.

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Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor. “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes.” Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, edited by Douglas Cairns, Classical P of Wales, 2013, pp. 39- 80.

Homer. The Iliad of Homer. Translated by Richmond Lattimore, U of Chicago P, 1951.

Kidd, Stephen. “Why Mathematical Probability Failed to Emerge from Ancient Gambling.” Apeiron, vol. 53, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-25.

Lowenstein, Roger. When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management.             2000. Random House, 2011.

Marlowe. The Complete Plays. Edited by J. B. Steane, Penguin, 1969.

Pausanias. Description of Greece: Books 1-2. Translated by W. H. S. Jones, Loeb-Harvard UP,   1918.

Plato. Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper, Hackett, 1997.

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Rendu, William, et al. “Evidence supporting an intentional Neandertal burial at La Chapelle-        aux-Saints.”Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 111, no. 1, Jan. 2014, pp. 81-6.

Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes.” L’antiquité        classique, vol. 59, 1990, pp. 17-36.

Sumplokē.” A Greek-English Lexicon, compiled by Liddell, Scott, and Jones, 9th ed., Oxford UP, 1996.

Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life. Random House,    2018.

Thucydides. History of the Peloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner, Penguin, 1972.

Wilson, Edward O. On Human Nature. 25th anniversary ed., Harvard UP, 2004.

Wong, Edwin. The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Friesen, 2019.

[1] For examples of negative incentives, see Taleb 12-15..

[2] That the attackers draw lots to determine their gate assignations is confirmed by the Messenger (56-7, 377, 424, and 456-9). How Eteocles assigns the defenders’ assignations is unclear. When assigning the defenders, Eteocles uses the future tense three times (“I will station,” 408, 621, 672), the perfect tense two times (“he has been sent,” 448, 472), the aorist passive once (“he was chosen,” 505), and the present tense once (“here is the man,” 554). Previous conjectures that have arisen to explain the tenses fall into three broad categories: 1) Eteocles had decided all the assignations prior to meeting the Messenger, 2) Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, after hearing the Messenger’s reports, and 3) Eteocles decided some assignations before and some during his meeting with the Messenger. I follow Herrmann 58-62. In his bold conjecture, Herrmann argues that an important stage direction has been lost: each time the Messenger relays the assailant at the gate, Eteocles draws a lot to determine the defender. Not only does Herrmann’s conjecture solve the problem of the tenses (he can draw the lot and easily switch between tenses), it also adds dramatic vitality to the action.

[3] On why the ancients failed to develop a theory of probability, see Kidd 1-25. Kidd argues convincingly that probability theory failed to develop because ancient games of chance involved communal probabilities: probability theory does not grant the ancient gambler any advantage. Only when games of chance individualized risk did the first mathematician-gamblers begin exploring probability in earnest.

[4] On Hermes as the god of lots, see Apollodorus 3.10.2 and Aristophanes, Peace 364-6.

[5] Scholes and Merton received their Nobel Prizes as their hedge fund, Long-Term Capital Management, began its collapse. Its fall triggered one of the largest financial meltdowns of the modern era. See Lowenstein 96-120.

This is one in a series of risk theatre readings. Others are available: MacbethOthello, and All My Sons. Thanks for reading.

Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

CAMWS Classical Association of Middle West and South Presentation

116th Virtual Annual Meeting

May 26-30, 2020

Edwin Wong

Thursday, May 28 Session 10, Section A: Greek Drama 4

Abstract Link: https://camws.org/sites/default/files/meeting2020/abstracts/2028AeschylusSeven.pdf

Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes, Probability, and a New Theory of Tragedy

I’d like to tell you about my new theory of tragedy called “risk theatre.” In risk theatre, risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action. To illustrate it, I’ll use a play full of gambling references and high-risk action: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes.

Drama, I argue, dramatizes risk. Comedy dramatizes upside risk. Tragedy dramatizes downside risk. Tragic heroes are gamblers who gamble with something other than money. They make delirious bets that trigger devastating low-probability, high-consequence outcomes. Audiences ask: “How did such a good bet go awry?”

To begin a risk theatre read, look for a bet where much is at stake. High stakes entertain. When you go to the casino, you don’t go to watch nickel and dime bets. You go to watch the heroes at the no-limit tables who lay down dignity, honour, or compassion, the milk of human kindness. You go to experience the emotions of anticipation and apprehension: anticipation for the magnitude of their wagers and apprehension for how they blow up. Even though heroes are smart, swift, and well-accoutered, they lose all. To see how they had every expectation of being crowned the ivy, yet lose all evokes wonder.

What’s the bet in Seven? As civil war rages, Eteocles bets the gods are on his side. It’s a high-risk bet, as Thebes’ existence hangs on the line. It’s a good bet, as he’s defending native shrines from foreign aggressors. Why wouldn’t the gods be on his side?

How will Eteocles know the gods are on his side? In this play, seven attacking captains are posted by lot—in other words randomly—to Thebes’ seven gates. Eteocles, in turn, draws seven lots to post seven defenders. By drawing lots, he entrusts the outcome to the gods. If the gods smile, the matchups will be favourable. If the gods turn away, the matchups will be unfavourable. Through the crack that is probability and chance, the gods reveal their intent.

I follow Fritz-Gregor Hermann’s conjecture that a stage direction instructing Eteocles to draw lots on stage was lost in transmission. Hermann’s conjecture solves the problem of the tenses, as Eteocles shifts between the future, perfect, present, and aorist when announcing the defenders. Before, commentators were divided: some thought he decided the postings prior to the shield scene. Others thought he decides during the shield scene. And yet others thought he decided some before and some during.

If Eteocles draws lots on stage he can easily shift between tenses because he can be speaking before he draws the lot (“I will announce the winner”), as he’s drawing the lot (“I see the winner is”), or after he’s seen the lot (“A winner has been chosen”). Not only does the conjecture rehabilitate the shield scene, rebuked for being static, but it also heightens the suspense. Drawing lots is dramatic in itself, a device Aeschylus would revisit in the Oresteia.

Do the random matchups favour Eteocles? In aggregate, yes. Take the first gate, where the attacker shouts out impieties. Eteocles just happens to draw a defender who is “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” Or, take the fourth gate where the attacker bears an image of Typhon on his shield. By a strange synchronicity, Eteocles draws a defender who has Zeus—Typhon’s slayer—emblazoned on his shield. Eteocles, pleased at this stroke, invokes Hermes, the god of luck, saying: “Hermes, by divine reason has matched this pair (625).” Through the crack in randomness, the gods reveal their will.

Additional subjective cues hearten Eteocles. There’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they prepare their obituaries. One of their captains says: “I’m going to die.” Dark omens hang over them. They harangue one another. Contrast this with the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city. They start by singing the fall of Thebes. But, by the first stasimon, they sing the ode to joy. From the matchups to the unfolding action, Eteocles has subjective reasons to believe.

Eteocles also has objective reasons to believe. With seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, the worst-case scenario is buried deep in the odds. The worst-case scenario happens if he confronts his brother at the seventh gate. At the final gate, substitutions would no longer be possible, as all the captains are posted. Kindred blood would spill. It’s the worst-case scenario because there’re rituals to purify spilt blood, but no rituals to purify spilt kindred blood.

We can use this play to prove the theory of risk theatre because, with seven attackers, seven defenders, and seven gates, all the possible permutations of the attackers and defenders fall under the rules of probability. When Birnam Wood came to Dunsinane Hill, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. When the detective on the trail of regicide finds out that he himself was the regicide, we felt it was a low-probability, high-consequence event, but failed to quantify it. Because of Seven’s unique construction, it’s the one play in the entire canon where we may calculate the odds of what did, and did not happen. With these odds, we may prove the risk theatre hypothesis. Let’s do math.

Mathematically, the likelihood of a compound event is the product of its individual probabilities. The odds of rolling snake-eyes, or two ones on six-sided dice, is 1:36, or 1:6 * 1:6. On that analogy, the odds of the worst-case scenario are 1:49, the product of Polyneices’ odds (1:7) and Eteocles’ odds (1:7) of going to the final gate. The probability of the worst-case scenario happening is exceedingly low, about 2%. Most of the time—in fact, 48 out of 49 times—the worst case scenario is averted. Of course, Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize what happens most of the time, but the lowest-probability, highest-consequence event. And that is exactly what risk theatre theory predicts.

If 1:49 odds aren’t enough to entice you, if you say, “I need, at minimum, 1:1000 odds to be convinced that risk is the dramatic fulcrum of the action,” then I offer you this. The odds of the brothers meeting at the seventh gate are 1:49, to be sure, but that figure hardly reflects the chance of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did. The play, argues Gilbert Murray and others, is structured so that the matchups from gates one to six bolster Eteocles’ confidence with the result that, when he falls, he falls from a greater height. The play would be less if the captain with the Typhon device encounters anyone but the captain bearing Typhon’s slayer. The question we need to ask, then, is: what are the odds of all the matchups taking place exactly as they did? This fascinating question has not been asked until today.

According to the law of permutations, the formula to find how many unique arrangements there are with seven captains at seven gates is seven factorial (7!) or 7 * 6 * 5 * 4 * 3 * 2 * 1, which equal 5040. Since there are seven attacking and seven defending captains, to find out how many unique pairings exist at seven gates, multiply 5040 by 5040. With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders 25,401,600 permutations are possible. The odds, therefore, of Eteocles being raised up from gates one to six only to be struck down at gate seven are 25,401,599:1 against. Aeschylus has transformed the fated outcome, known to all, into an exceedingly improbable event. This is exactly what the theory of risk theatre predicts.

If Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill couldn’t convince you, if the uncanny reunion of Oedipus with the Corinthian messenger and the shepherd couldn’t convince you, then I hope today’s reading convinces you that the function of tragedy is to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence risk events. I give you over twenty five million reasons to believe.

This concludes my reading. Tragedy starts with a bet. An all-in bet with much at stake. It’s a good bet with a high likelihood of success. But the hero’s expectations are dashed when, against all odds, the unexpected happens. Tragedy functions by suppressing the subjective odds of the fated event happening so that, when it happens, the audience is dumbstruck. Fate suppressed rages and explodes.

To take risk theatre from page to stage, I founded the world’s largest competition for the writing of tragedy with Langham Court Theatre, one of Canada’s oldest and most respected theatres. Every year, winners receive over $11,000 in cash and a trip to Victoria which culminates in a workshop and staged reading. Congratulations to Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean for winning the inaugural competition with his play In Bloom, a story of a well-meaning journalist who crosses the line. The website is at risktheatre.com.

Risk theatre is inaugurating a new tragic age in drama and literature that will rival fifth century Athens and the English Renaissance. Aeschylus’ Seven leads the charge as risk theatre’s paradigm play. “Risk” dominates today’s headlines and, to understand risk, we return to the ancients who began by dramatizing the consequences of what happens when more things happen than what we think will happen.

Risk theatre is literary theory’s finest hour in the 21st century because it recalls something that has been forgotten so long, namely, that risk is the dramatic pivot of the action. I challenge you to use it on all your favourite works, whether they’re novels, history, biography, opera, or films, and I promise you you’ll never read a work of literature the same way. Please tell everyone about this bold new tool of interpretation and ask your local library to carry my book: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy: Gambling, Drama, and the Unexpected. Review copies are available at Classical JournalAmerican Drama and Theatre (JADT), and The Bryn Mawr Classical Review. An audiobook version, performed by Greg Patmore of Coronation Street, is also available.

Thank you, and welcome to the new tragic age.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes

Thanks to Professor LB and the Department of Greek and Roman Studies for setting up this seminar. And thanks to all the students and faculty who came out on a cold and snowy Friday afternoon. Great turnout (we packed the conference room) and very receptive audience for this homecoming lecture. Judging from the discussion period that followed the presentation, there’s a sharp band of students at UVic! My old roommate TS from the happy days of UVic undergrad (who’s know Professor TS of English Literature) received a research grant to fly out to hear the talk, so that was extra fun! The core of this presentation was delivered at the APA earlier this year. This version has been revised to take into account the feedback from APA which was: hammer home the point that the gate assignations are random. The preconceived (and likely mistaken) notion that Eteocles decides the assignations remains very strong with readers of the play. If the assignations are random (as I argue), the play is actually quite fun, dramatic, and full of suspense. If the assignations are decided and preordained (as others argue), the play is quite static. Which would you rather have? BTW the image on the poster is from the Exekias Vase and it depicts Achilles and Ajax playing dice. Probably a high-stakes game as they have their spears handy just in case!

Exekias Vase




Low-Probability, High-Consequence Events in Greek Tragedy: Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes


I present to you a question: does it seem that tragedy in general—not just Greek tragedy—goes out of its way to dramatize low-probability, high-consequence outcomes? Low-probability refers to events are that are unlikely, events that are 1000:1 against, events such as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. In Shakespeare’s play, the witches tell Macbeth that nothing can harm him until Birnam Wood removes to Dunsinane Hill. It’s highly unlikely that the trees will take up their roots and hike up the hill. But when the troops camouflage themselves under Birnam Wood, the high-consequence event unfolds. Macbeth is caught flat-footed. All is lost.


We see something similar in Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. The messenger comes out of left field to tell Oedipus that he’s inherited the Corinthian throne, and, oh, by the way, your parents aren’t who you think they are. How do I know that?—well, I saved you when you were a babe and your real parents had exposed you. Who are my real parents?—well, you have to ask the shepherd. What are the odds of a messenger, and not any messenger, but this messenger coming to Thebes at this exact moment? It’s as likely as Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane Hill. But it happens, and the outcome has high consequences, as Oedipus goes from being a king to an outcast.


This presentation is on how tragedy dramatizes low-probability, high-consequence events. But there’s one problem: how do we know that an event in tragedy is unlikely? Something has to happen, and anything that happens is, in a way, unique. How do we quantify the odds of what takes place against what did not take place?


Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes is the one unique play where it’s possible to quantify the odds of what didn’t happen. In Seven, seven attacking captains lay siege to seven-gated Thebes. One brother, Polyneices, marshals the attack. Inside Thebes, the other brother, Eteocles, coordinates the defence. The worst-case scenario occurs if the brothers meet at the seventh gate. They would shed kindred blood and miasma would result. If they go to different gates, the worst-case scenario is averted. Or, if they find themselves at a gate prior to the seventh gate, Eteocles could substitute another captain in his place. But the worst-case scenario occurs if they’re both at the final gate, as substitutions are no longer possible.


With seven gates, seven attackers, and seven defenders, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario? Let’s look at this this way. What are the odds of rolling a six on a six-sided die? There’re six equally probable outcomes, so the answer is 1:6. Now what are the odds of rolling two sixes? The outcome of two independent rolls is the product of their individual probabilities. 1:6*1:6=1:36. Now, if there are seven gates, and the assignations are random, there’s a 1:7 chance that Eteocles goes to the seventh gate. The odds of Polyneices going there are the same, 1:7. So we multiply the odds together and find that, the odds of the worst-case scenario is 1:49. Now, what are the odds of the worst-case scenario not happening? The answer is 48 out of 49 times. See how Aeschylus doesn’t dramatize the likely scenario, but rather the worst-case scenario which is 48:1 against. Thanks to Seven, we can quantify how tragedy goes out of its way to deliberately dramatize low-probability, high-consequence events.


But—how do we know that the process of assigning gates to the attackers is random? Easy. The scout tells us:


As I was leaving

they were casting lots (klhroumevnou~), each to divine by fortune

against which of our gates he would lead his battalions (77-9, trans. Hecht & Bacon)


Since the attackers draw lots, it stands that Polyneices’ chance of going to the seventh gate is 1:7. How do we know that the process of assigning gates to the defenders is random? That’s harder. It’s not explicit. Eteocles tells us at the conclusion of the first episode that:


I will go and assign six men, myself the seventh,

all fully armed oarsmen,

against the champions at the seven exit-points of the city. (357-60)


Now, when he says that he “will assign six men, myself the seventh” he doesn’t necessarily mean he’s stationing himself at the seventh gate. So why say this odd phrase?—“assign six men, myself the seventh.” I like Roisman’s explanation: “it is an image of bad luck, since the number 6 + 1 [in dice games] was considered an unlucky throw.”[1] I want to seize and expand this point. There’s something ludic about this play; it exudes a sort of gambling hall or lottery atmosphere. We’ve already talked about how the attackers draw lots and the unlucky 6 + 1 gambling reference. Let’s add to this. For instance, Eteocles remarks as he dispatches Melanippus to face Tydeus that: “The chances of battle are as dice (kuvboi~) in the hands of Ares (511).” What other gaming references are there? Well, when Eteocles interprets the matchup between Hippomedon and Hyperbius, he says: “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair (624).” Hermes, as Hecht and Bacon note, is invoked in his capacity as the god of luck and fortunate coincidence. Finally, the scout tells us after the brothers die that “they have shared out by lot (dievlacon) their full inheritance (1039).” The lottery image, along with the ship of state image, are the two dominant metaphors of this play. Because of the lottery imagery, I’m convinced that a random process must be involved in how Eteocles assigns the defenders. After all, why would he say that “Hermes, by divine reason, has matched this pair” unless they were brought together under Hermes’ tutelage as the god of lots? And why would the scout say that the brothers “have shared out by lot their full inheritance” unless a lottery process was involved in the assignations?


I want to share with you that Seven was the first Greek tragedy I read. When I first read it, I thought for sure that Eteocles decides the assignations on the spot, during the shield scene itself. The scout would report and he would say: “Oh, I just have the right guy to neutralize him.” In hindsight, that’s a very modern reading as that’s how a general would decide today. But how would this fit in with the lottery images? It doesn’t. Later I read Zeitlin’s Under the Sign of the Shield where she points out that Eteocles clearly says he’s going to decide the assignations before he meets the scout.[2] But then I thought: “Eteocles decides?—then what’s the point of all the lottery and gambling images?” Then I heard Weckler and Wilamowitz’ argument that some assignations are done before, and some during. While this solves the problem of the tenses, as during the shield scene sometimes Eteocles says “I shall station,” and at other times “He has been chosen,” it seems unnecessarily complicated. Because of the lottery references, I was ready to say that Eteocles decides by lot before he meets the scout. But when I recently read Herrmann’s conjecture, I was immediately convinced: he conjectures that Eteocles decides by lot during the shield scene itself.[3] Herrmann’s conjecture is brilliant. When Eteocles says that he’s going to assign the men before the scout comes, he’s putting their names in the helmet. As for the tenses, as he picks up the lot he can be saying “I will appoint” or “He has been already appointed.” Furthermore, Herrmann’s conjecture gives Eteocles something dramatic to do during the shield scene and, what is more, it means that, the defender assignations, like the attacker assignations, are random. Because all the assignations are random, all the possible matchups at each of the gates exist only as a probability until the moment when the lots are drawn. Because all the outcomes exist as probabilities, we can quantify the exact odds of what takes place against what did take place to verify how tragedy engages audiences with low-probability, high-consequence scenarios.


Could Aeschylus and his audience have worked out that the worst-case scenario is averted 48 out of 49 times? No. Sambursky, a historian of science, finds that the lack of both algebraic notation and systematic experimentation held the Greeks back from discovering the laws of probability.[4] The laws of probability would not develop until Cardano starts counting up the number of throws possible with dice two millennia later. But we know that the Greeks were able to understand the concept, if not the math of combinatorial analyses. Xenocrates, for example, mistakenly calculates that, by mixing together the letters of the alphabet, 1,002,000 unique syllables are possible.[5] Despite not being able to compute the exact odds, Aeschylus and his audience would have recognized that the odds of the brothers meeting at the highest gate was an exceedingly low-probability affair.


Besides the objective remoteness of the worst-case scenario, what subjective cues give Eteocles hope things will go his way? First, there’s the enemy’s disarray. Their morale is so low that they’re already dedicating memorial tokens to send back home. One of their captains says outright that he’s going to die. They also attack before their seer gives the signal. And there’s infighting between their captains. Contrast this with the improving morale of the chorus of Theban women, who function as a barometer of morale within the city: they start off in panic, but by the first stasimon, Eteocles wins them over. Many indications give Eteocles subjective hope.


The surest indication that things will go his way comes in the shield scene. In the shield scene, the scout describes, gate by gate, the attacking captain’s appearance, demeanor, and shield device. Eteocles, in turn, draws the lot to determine the defender and interprets the tale of the tape. Since chance is a reflection of god’s will, you can tell from the random matchups which side heaven favours. In the game of knucklebones, for example, rolling the Aphrodite throw (1, 3, 4, and 6) was considered a propitious sign from the goddess. So, to make up an example, if the bad guy carries a brutal monster on his shield, and your guy happens to be carrying a shield depicting a peasant farmer, that’s heaven telling you: “Your guy’s going to die.” So, how do the matchups work out? Well, in aggregate, the matchups overwhelmingly favour Eteocles. For example, the attacker at the fourth gate sports a Typhon device and he happens to be matched up against the defender bearing the Zeus shield: in myth Zeus had tamed Typhon. Or, as it happens, the attacker at the first gate who shouts out impieties is matched up with a defender who just happens to be “a noble man who honours the throne of Reverence (503).” So, gate by gate, as Eteocles sees the matchups unfolding, he grows more confident.


Objectively, the worst-case case scenario is buried deep in the odds. Subjectively, everything’s going his way. He’s unified the city. The matchups look better and better. But what’s happening? The odds of the worst-case scenario go up gate by gate each time the brothers’ lots don’t come up. At the first gate, the worst-case odds are 1:49. At the second gate, they go up to 1:36. By the sixth gate, they’ve escalated to 1:4. See what’s happening? Paradoxically, as he becomes more confident, he’s actually in greater danger, till the point when he’s most confident, at that point he’s in the greatest danger. Even as the situation becomes subjectively better, objectively things are becoming much worse. At the sixth gate, with his cheeks flush with the glow of wine and his hair all but adorned in ivy, as he dispatches Lasthenes to confront Amphiaraus, he seals his own doom in a stunning twist of fate. When the scout announces Polyneices stands at the seventh gate, the low-probability, high-consequence event comes to pass. The event was objectively low-probability because the odds that it happens is 48:1 against. The event was subjectively low-probability because everything was going his way. Tragedy is an engine that makes even foredoomed outcomes exciting by discounting the odds of the inevitable taking place.


I think these low-probability, high-consequence events are commonplace throughout tragedy. Take Sophocles’ Oedipus rex. Like Eteocles, Oedipus has played his hand well. Everything’s going his way. “Don’t worry,” says the Corinthian messenger, “you’re really not from Corinth. You’re going to be king of two cities.” At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event happens and Oedipus loses all. Or take Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Like Eteocles, Macbeth has played his hand well. “Nothing can harm you,” say the witches. At the point of maximum confidence, the low-probability, high-consequence event unfolds: Birnam Wood. Can you see a general trend?—at the point of maximum confidence, an unexpected, low-probability event unfolds with high consequences.


This way of looking at tragedy I call risk theatre. To me, tragedy’s function is to warn us that at our point of maximum confidence, we are, paradoxically, in the gravest danger. In this way, tragedy speaks to our confident age, an age of both great risk and great reward. While I was writing this, an article appeared in Wired magazine on November 16 on gene editing.[6] In the US, the entomologist Akbari is working on a gene drive, a way to supercharge evolution by forcing a genetic modification to spread through an entire population. With the gene drive, he can take flight away from mosquitoes and vanquish malaria—promising, of course, minimal disruption to ecosystems. And on November 17, USA Today reported that in Italy, Doctor Canavero was getting ready to do the world’s first head transplant on a human being.[7] What could go wrong?—they had already done the procedure on a dog. Akbari and Canavero are confident, and have the best-laid plans. But so did Oedipus, Eteocles, and Macbeth. In today’s technological age of manufactured risk, tragedy ought to and should be seen as a theatre of risk, as we moderns have a moral obligation to come to terms with the low-probability, high-consequence ramifications of our actions. And what better place to explore these than through drama? We emerge from risk theatre with eyes wide open. And I think, if you look at tragedy as a theatre of risk, it will guide you well because you’ll be better apprised that the things that hurt you come where you least expect. I’ll finish by saying that I’ve written a book on risk theatre and that I’m in high-level talks with theatres to produce new tragedies based on this exciting concept. Thank you for listening, and I welcome your feedback on risk theatre, the theatre that guarantees low-probability outcomes, every time.


Edwin Wong


[1] Roisman, Hanna M. “The Messenger and Eteocles in the Seven against Thebes,” in L’antiquité classique, vol. 59, 1990, 22.

[2] Zeitlin, Froma I., Under the Sign of the Shield, 45.

[3] Herrmann, Fritz-Gregor, “Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes, in Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought, ed. Douglas Cairns, Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013, 58ff.

[4] Sambursky, “On the Possible and the Probable in Ancient Greece,” Osiris 12 (1956) 35-48.

[5] Plutarch, Quaestiones convivales 733a.

[6] Molteni, Megan, “This Gene-Editing Tech Might be too Dangerous to Unleash,” Wired, November 16, 2017.

[7] Hjelmgaard, Kim, “Italian Doctor Says World’s First Human Head Transplant ‘Imminent’,” USA Today, November 17, 2017.