The Argive army was camped by the Asopos River, not so far from Thebes, for the night when Amphiaraos fell asleep during his turn at the watch. Tydeus was the one who found him sleeping, and began to shout vile insults at the older man for his dereliction of duty.
“You should be glad I slept,” Amphiaraos said as he raised himself back to his feet. “I have been sent a vision that is surely our only hope of survival.”
“Let’s hear it, then,” Adrastos said. He knew very well how powerful his brother-in-law’s abilities as a seer were.
“Oedipus, slayer of the Sphinx, double-heir to the throne of Cadmos, called upon the avenging Furies when he heard of the deal his sons had struck over his throne. If any of us wish to survive, then no man must shed blood–either his own or another’s–over this quarrel save the two sons of Oedipus. Once even one man has died, we will all fall prey to the Furies of Oedipus, who lies, even now, dying in a ditch.”
“My father, dying in a ditch?” Polynices replied, horrified. “That can’t be! My sisters are with him!”
“As they are,” Amphiaraos agreed, “but they have not the power to save him, nor the strength to lift him.”
“You obviously don’t know my sisters,” Polynices chuckled. “Antigone could move mountains for Father.”
“I’m sure that portion of his vision was metaphorical,” Adrastos interjected hastily.
“It was not,” Amphiaraos insisted.
“The important thing is that we must not ignore this message from the gods,” Adrastos continued. “We should send someone to negotiate with Eteocles. If he won’t agree to return the throne, perhaps he will at least agree to single combat, preventing the need for bloodshed and siege.”
“That would be best,” Polynices agreed. “I don’t want to kill my own subjects, after all. But I don’t think Eteocles will listen to me.”
“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” Adrastos said. “As this is an Argive army, the messenger should not be from Argos, lest the Thebans attack him before he can speak.” He looked at Tydeus. “Will you go and negotiate with Eteocles on Polynices’ behalf?”
“Of course I will. His son and mine share common blood, so of course we have common purpose in this. I want Diomedes to grow up with relations he can be proud of, not pathetic exiles like me.”
“I must protest this choice!” Amphiaraos exclaimed. “The son of Oineus lacks the temperament of a diplomat! If he says the wrong thing–”
“Athene watches over me,” Tydeus growled. “You said so yourself, seer! With the protection of the goddess of wisdom, how can I go wrong?”
“She favors you in war, not in wisdom,” Amphiaraos pointed out coldly.
“Should I go in your place, uncle?” Parthenopaios asked Tydeus.
“Stop calling me that!” Tydeus shouted. “You’re older than I am!”
“But your brother Meleager was my father,” Parthenopaios replied calmly.
“And he died years before I was even born,” Tydeus sighed. “All right, I’m leaving before this lout says anything else. And don’t let him follow me!”
Parthenopaios tried to object to his uncle’s heartless words, but Tydeus wasn’t listening, as he often didn’t, and soon he was well along the road on his way to Thebes.
When Tydeus arrived in Thebes, he found that all seven gates stood open and unguarded: clearly, Eteocles had not expected his brother to march on the city to reclaim his throne! Had Tydeus found an opportunity to do away with his brother-in-law’s brother, he might have done so and chanced the consequences to himself, but he found no such opportunity. When he arrived in the heart of the city, he found the leaders of the Thebans all gathered for a feast in the palace of Eteocles.
“Welcome, stranger,” Eteocles said, as Tydeus entered the hall. “Sit, join our feast! We have had an excellent harvest, and are thanking the gods for their generosity.”
Tydeus almost accepted the offer of hospitality; the food looked good and smelled better, and he was quite hungry. But if he ate as a guest, then he could no longer join in the fight, if fighting there was to be! He shook his head. “I’ve come here to ask you to reconsider your rash decision earlier.”
“What rash decision?” Eteocles asked, genuinely confused.
“You had sworn an oath that you would trade off your throne with your brother after a year, but when he arrived to make the trade, you refused,” Tydeus reminded him. “I am here to offer you one last chance to keep your word.”
“If he had kept his, I would have kept mine,” Eteocles replied, shaking his head. “He took our father’s fortune with him when he left. If he wanted the throne, he had to buy it by trading the fortune for it. That was the deal. But he frittered away our father’s fortune, and expected the throne for nothing. How could I call myself a king if I handed over my subjects to someone so irresponsible?”
“He said it was your messengers who took the gold,” Tydeus pointed out coldly.
“I sent no such messengers,” Eteocles insisted. “Come, see for yourself.”
The king rose, and led Tydeus through the palace to the treasury hall. It was nearly empty.
“When we were children, this room was filled with silver and gold vessels, with carved gems, and with golden trinkets from dozens of lands, from further south than Egypt, further north than Scythia and further east than Lydia. Now look at it! My brother took all those fine things with him more than a year ago, and I haven’t set eyes upon a single piece of it since,” Eteocles told him.
As Tydeus followed Eteocles back to the feasting hall, he tried to figure what he should do now. There were too many men in the palace for him to have any opportunity to kill Eteocles, and even if he did, that alone might not be enough to assure Polynices would be accepted to the throne. So when they returned to the feast, Tydeus issued a challenge to the assembled lords, that he would compete against them all in any sport they wished, and when he defeated them all, then maybe Eteocles would understand the power of the warriors assembled by his brother to regain his throne, and would agree to hand it over peacefully.
The Thebans laughed at Tydeus’ challenge, but accepted it none the less.
After the feast was over, and the Thebans had finished digesting their food, they assembled to compete in games. When it came to throwing of the discus or spears, Athene stood behind her champion, invisible to the eyes of all, and exhaled just a tiny bit of divine breath, making his throw greatly further than even that of the strongest Thebans. In the footrace, she weighed down his opponents while making his limbs lighter, and in contests of sword and shield, she deflected blows gently to his shield, assuring that Tydeus won every contest with ease.
But still Eteocles would not hand over his throne to his brother, and Tydeus left in a fury.
“Surely he is the greatest champion in my brother’s army,” Eteocles concluded, as soon as the exiled Calydonian had left the palace. “I fear for our fate if he fights against our own army.”
“The scouts report an Argive army near the Asopos,” one of his own champions, Melanippos, told him. “None of them looked terribly threatening, according to the report.”
“Argos has tried to invade us before and always failed,” Polyphontes agreed, “but perhaps we shouldn’t take any chances. They weren’t led by a son of Oedipus before.”
“Agreed,” Eteocles sighed. “I hate to be so duplicitous, but Tydeus must not be allowed to rejoin my brother’s army. He’s on foot, and doesn’t know the land. Send fifty men on horseback by the short route to ambush him before he can reach the Asopos.”
Men were quickly armed for battle, and set out on the fastest horses in all of Thebes. As soon as they departed, all seven gates were closed up tight, and guards were set upon them.
The horsemen reached the ambush spot well ahead of Tydeus, who was so angry that he was walking slowly, kicking at dirt and rocks along the path as he went. They might have taken him unaware if his patron goddess hadn’t sent one of the pebbles Tydeus kicked flying just right to ring off the shield of one of the hidden warriors.
Tydeus drew his sword and took his shield off his back to face the enemy in combat. They set upon him in waves of five or ten, but all fell to his blade with surprisingly little aid from Athene. She did, after all, favor him because of his great prowess on the field of battle!
When only one of his fifty opponents still breathed, Tydeus sheathed his sword, and glared down at his wounded foe. “Get back to Thebes, coward, and tell your craven king what happened here! And if I, the smallest man in our army, can defeat your champions so easily, how easily will we take your city? If Eteocles has any wisdom at all, he’ll throw open the gates and let us in without a fight!”
The sole survivor began crawling as best he could onto the back of the nearest horse–never an easy task!–but Tydeus didn’t wait for him, and mounted the finest-looking of the horses…then grabbed the reins of as many more as he could, and set to riding back to the camp.
The others were astonished to see him riding up with so many horses, and covered in blood, but Amphiaraos spat curses at him. “Now we’re all doomed, because you went and killed those men!” he shouted. “Have you never any thoughts for anyone but yourself?!”
“If your so-called vision was true, then you’d still have been doomed if I’d let them kill me,” Tydeus pointed out coldly.
“If you hadn’t made enemies of them when you were supposed to be negotiating a peaceful resolution, they wouldn’t have attacked you on the road in the first place!” Amphiaraos retorted.
“Enough arguing,” Adrastos sighed. “It won’t change anything. We need to plan for the battle. Polynices,you know Thebes far better than any of us could ever hope to. Which gate is the weak point? Which is least likely to be well guarded?”
Polynices laughed. “This is why you’ve never taken Thebes before for all your trying. There is no weak point, and not one of the gates will be underguarded. Each will have a champion in charge of its defense, and the common troops will flock to whichever gate needs them most. But they’ll scatter if their leader is defeated. Therefore, we must split our army seven ways, and lay siege to each gate at the same time. The common troops will be forced to spread themselves thinly to meet our challenge, and we have more troops than they do.” He laughed. “The battle will truly be about our seven champions against their own. And how could their champions match up to us?”
“At least this plan will have the advantage of killing us all efficiently,” Amphiaraos sighed. “I shouldn’t like to die slowly when I could die quickly. Though I should prefer to be swallowed whole by the earth than to die at the hands of some brute, in any event.”
“Don’t talk about defeat right before a battle!” Capaneus roared. “You’ll curse us yourself at this rate! Talk about winning, no matter the cost!”
“The gods have already made their decision in this matter,” Amphiaraos replied, shaking his head. “There is no defying the will of the gods, no matter how we should struggle. We will only make things worse for ourselves.”
“I’ll defy anything I want!” Capaneus insisted. “I’ll tear down the walls of Thebes, even if Zeus himself wills me to fail! Nothing will stop us from defeating our flimsy foes!”
“If he’s going to call down the wrath of Zeus upon his head, may I please ask to be fighting on the opposite side of the city from him?” Amphiaraos asked, looking at Adrastos. “I should hate to be caught in the effects when the Thunderer strikes him down for his blasphemy.”
Adrastos laughed uncomfortably, knowing all too well that Amphiaraos was rarely wrong about anything.
But Polynices laughed gladly, thinking it was only a joke. “Come, I’ll hand out the gates to our champions,” he said. “I know what the terrain is around each gate; I can best judge who will far best where. Tydeus, you should have no trouble taking the Gate of Proitos. Capaneus, you should take the Gate of Electra, where the shrine of Artemis stands. You’re an excellent hunter, so I’m sure the goddess will be on your side.”
“I won’t refuse the aid of a goddess, but I won’t need it, either,” Capaneus laughed. “No Theban will ever defeat me.”
“Too true,” Amphiaraos muttered under his breath.
“The Neis Gate…” Polynices paused, and frowned. “Honestly, it’s unlikely we’ll have any chance of taking it. It sticks. Hard to get it open again once it’s closed. The defenders will probably just fire their bows from the walls. Father,” he said, turning to address his father-in-law Adrastos, “you should take charge of our forces at that gate, but keep clear of bow range. Your troops are more the reserve than anything else. A man of your years shouldn’t be entering combat if he doesn’t have to, after all.”
“You’ve very considerate,” Adrastos replied, just as glad that he wasn’t as likely to die as everyone else.
“As to the Gate of Athene, I think you should take that one, Hippomedon,” Polynices continued, turning to look at Capaneus’ brother. “You’ll do well there.”
“I’ll show the Thebans that I’m no lesser a man than my brother,” Hippomedon replied, sagely not repeating his brother’s blasphemous over-confidence.
“By the Northern Gate stands the tomb of Amphion, who ruled with his brother Zethus before my grandfather Laius.” Polynices sighed sadly. “I hope I shall fare better than those sons of Zeus. But they were abandoned on the mountainside and raised up by those who found them…so to fight near his tomb it is only right for the abandoned son of an abandoned mother, surely,” he continued. “Fight to make even your mother proud, Parthenopaios.”
“One can hardly tell the difference between him and his mother,” Amphiaraos grumbled.
“If I can fight even half as well as my parents in the battle to come, then the Thebans will fall before me like timid beasts of the forest,” Parthenopaios assured Polynices.
“The Homoloian Gate is one of the most important, and will require both a strong spear and the wisdom to use it properly, so only you can hope to take it, Amphiaraos,” Polynices continued.
The seer sighed sadly. “Too near by half to Capaneus, but I suppose I have no choice if I’m to fight at all. But I should rather be safely back in Argos than here on this suicide.”
“Then why not run home, coward?” Tydeus laughed.
“Is it cowardice to wish to avoid a death plainly written before your eyes?” Amphiaraos retorted. “Apollo sent me that vision to give us a chance to prevent our own deaths. We are fools to have ignored it, and you are–”
“All right, enough of that!” Polynices snapped. Then he sighed deeply. “I’ll take the seventh gate myself.”
“Who will their champions be?” Adrastos asked.
“I couldn’t say,” Polynices admitted. “There are no warriors in the city who can stand up to us, though, surely! We’ll be sitting upon a field of victory by this time tomorrow. We’ll be feeding ourselves with the finest delicacies in my brother’s palace.”
“By this time tomorrow, we’ll be feeding the crows,” Amphiaraos sighed. His only comfort, as he reflected on his impending demise, was that he had made certain arrangements before he left…
They continued their planning for some time longer, but very little else could be decided, and eventually the warriors settled in to rest for the last time before beginning their assault on Thebes.
Because of Tydeus’ fight the day before, the Thebans were ready for them. Each gate stood defended by a mighty champion, and each champion’s strength matched his opponent’s weakness. Several of the Argive champions were struck down within moments of joining the battle.
But not Capaneus. His opponent never touched him. For as he charged towards the gate, a bolt of thunder flew down from the heavens and struck him, incinerating him instantly, and striking terror into the hearts of the entire Argive force. Was Zeus himself aligned against them, they wondered. How could they win if the king of the gods wished them to fail?
Amphiaraos was fighting from his chariot, wanting to keep well away from his opponent, Lasthenes, though he knew that under normal circumstances he was the stronger man. As he was driving his team across the battlefield, slaying many Theban troops, he was astonished to see the goddess Athene rushing across the field, carrying a small vial that radiated a golden light.
He knew there was only one thing that could be in that vial, and only one mortal on those fields that Athene might give it to. Disgusted and horrified to think of the crude and brutal Tydeus being gifted with ambrosia and immortal life, Amphiaraos urged his steeds to travel even faster, and he took the shorter route across the field, reaching Tydeus before Athene could.
There, before the Proitid Gate, Amphiaraos saw Tydeus lying, mortally wounded, with his foe, Melanippos, lying nearby, also badly wounded, but not yet dying. Hastily, Amphiaraos drew his sword, sliced off the head of Melanippose, then flung it at Tydeus.
Caught up in the brutal fits of battle, Tydeus brought the head of his killer to his lips and began to eat its brains.
The goddess Athene stopped short at that sight, and flung down her vial of ambrosia in revulsion.
But as Thanatos arrived to sever Tydeus’ life at last, the veil blocking the gods from his sight slipped, and he saw the goddess looking at him with disappointment. Brought back to his senses by the sight of his divine patroness, Tydeus begged her to give his infant son the gifts he had failed to live up to. Gratified that he had so quickly learned from his mistake, Athene promised to fulfill his dying wish.
By now, Amphiaraos’ pursuer was upon him, and he once more urged his horses onwards. Adrastos saw him approaching, and was just ordering his men to go aid his brother-in-law when the surface of the earth opened up before him, swallowing up Amphiaraos, chariot and all, before closing again, as though nothing had happened.
Terrified by the fates of Capaneus and Amphiaraos, Adrastos turned his horse and began to ride back to Argos as fast as he could, heedless of whether or not his troops were following him.
The only duel still going when Adrastos turned to flee was the one between the twin sons of Oedipus. They fought and fought, but were so evenly matched that for every wound one inflicted on the other, the other inflicted a similar wound on him. They fought and fought and fought, until each welled up the last of his strength for one last mighty thrust of his sword, and each brother pierced the other’s heart, and both brothers fell dead before the seventh gate of Thebes.
The people of Thebes didn’t know what to do with their king and his brother both dead. In their grief, they turned to the king’s elderly uncle, Creon, asking him to take the throne, at least until they could find out if their former king, Oedipus, still lived.
It was the very next day that two mournful maidens approached the city, carrying betwen them an urn. Horrified at the piles of corpses lying around the gates, the maidens stopped beside a woman who wept over a particularly brutalized corpse.
“What happened here?”
“My poor husband!” the woman moaned, looking up from the sliced-up body. The maidens were shocked to realize that the body was that of their brother Polynices. The woman, their sister-in-law Argeia, explained what had caused the battle, and how the people of Thebes had turned to Creon to rule them after the battle. “As the new king, Creon’s first decree was that the men who had died defending Thebes should have the finest funerals and funeral pyres that the city could provide them, and proper tombs befitting great heroes. But then he said that those who had tried to despoil the city are to be left unburied outside the city, food for the crows and wolves!” she wailed. “His own flesh and blood, and he won’t allow my Polynices to be properly buried!”
“I can’t allow that!” Antigone exclaimed. “You keep the crows away a little longer. I’ll speak to Creon. I won’t allow my brother to be treated so shamefully!”
Antigone and Ismene hurried into the throne room, where Creon was delighted to see them. “My son has been pining for you,” he added, smiling at Antigone.
“How can you speak of such trivial matters while you’re allowing Polynices to rot in the sun?!” Antigone demanded.
“He committed treason against Thebes, and killed his own brother,” Creon pointed out. “But where is your father? He will agree with me, I’m sure, when you–”
“He’s right here, and no longer able to give his opinion of anything,” Antigone informed him, as she and Ismene put down the urn before his feet. “Nothing remains but bones and ashes.”
Creon stared down at the urn in uncertainty. He had hoped he would be able to hand the throne back to Oedipus, since Tiresias had confirmed that he had been purified of his blood guilt. But if Oedipus was now dead…either Creon had to keep the throne, or he had to wait until Haimon married Antigone, and then hand it over to him.
“Your command is an offense against the gods,” Antigone insisted. “Allow my brother and the men of Argos to be buried.”
“I will not take orders from a mere girl,” Creon growled. “Anyone who attempts to bury them will face execution for treason!”
The girls left the throne room again. Ismene was weeping for their brothers, saddened by their inability to bury Polynices, but Antigone was not ready to give up. “I’m going down to help our sister-in-law with Polynices’ body. Signal me from the wall when they prepare Eteocles for the pyre.”
“Just do it, Ismene!” Antigone snapped, then hurried out of the city and explained her plan to the mourning Argeia.
Near dusk, Ismene signaled them from the wall, and Antigone and Argeia carefully lifted Polynices’ body between them, and carried it up to the funeral pyre where Eteocles’ body was to be consumed. Ismene distracted the guards, and the two mourners laid Polynices’ body upon the pyre, and covered it with a cloth. Just in time, they stepped away from the pyre and hid in the shadows as the mourners brought Eteocles and laid him upon the pyre.
As the pyre was lit, the cloth was burned away, revealing that Polynices was lying beside his brother, just as they had as infants. Everyone was shocked, but most of the Thebans were secretly relieved that the king’s brother was not being left out for the wolves, but Creon was enraged that his commands were being disobeyed.
He had Antigone, Ismene and Argeia locked up, and after the pyre had burned down and the bones of the brothers laid to rest in a single urn–since they couldn’t tell which bones belonged to which brother, they had no other choice!–Creon had the three women dragged into the throne room so that he could condemn them to death for their violation of his decree.
But he had not gotten halfway through his lengthy speech on the subject when Tiresias hobbled into the room. Seeing the blind seer, Creon scowled, and stopped his speech, glaring at the sightless old man. “If you’re going to tell me that the gods wish these disobedient wenches spared…” he threatened.
“I’m sure the gods don’t care about them one bit,” Tiresias cackled. “But the gods have been rejecting our sacrifices ever since you decreed that the Argive dead should be left unburied. Argos is under Hera’s protection, you know. You don’t want to earn her hatred.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, the gods demand that you allow the dead of both armies equal burial. Otherwise Thebes will be even more cursed than it was when the patricide sat upon the throne,” Tiresias informed him. “If you want to receive any further prophecies from me, you’d better do as the gods demand. Otherwise, I’ll be leaving Thebes forever. I’m not about to put up with yet another curse.”
Creon sighed sadly. “Very well,” he conceded. He’d seen enough tragedy by now to know not to fight the will of the gods. “Send out men to gather up the Argive bodies for burial,” he told one of the men of the court.
“Please, ask him to let me go back to Argos to raise up my infant son,” Argeia pleaded with Tiresias.
Tiresias frowned. He knew her son’s fate, and he didn’t like it. But he doubted the gods would let him change it. “It’s not right to separate a son from his mother so young,” he told Creon. “And I suspect the gods would wish her son to be raised up properly.” If nothing else, he reflected, it might make the boy less cruel when the time came…
“Very well, she can go back to Argos,” Creon sighed, “but she must swear never again to return to Thebes, not even to mourn at her husband’s grave!”
Sadly, Argeia gave her word, then quickly fled the throne room, with only a whispered word to Antigone to assure her that she and her sister would be welcomed in the home of Adrastos at any time.
The throne room fell silent then. Antigone stood straight up, still glaring defiantly at Creon. He felt that she was daring him with her eyes, asking him to have her put to death. As much as he detested her interference, he wasn’t quite sure if he had the nerve to carry it quite that far…
Sorry for the dangling ending. Thing is, Antigone has too many fates. The version everyone knows, the one in the play by Sophocles, was probably at least half invented by Sophocles. (To the extent that in older versions, Haimon was killed by the Sphinx! So her betrothed used to die before she was even born!) So I left it unclear, and people can decide for themselves if Creon put her to death or let her marry his son after all. (Well, okay, actually, I doubt she’d still be willing to, even if she did live. But that’s another matter entirely.)
I feel like I left out more than I included here. This story is just much too complex for a single post like this one.