Euripides deals with events that come between Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone in Sophocles’s Theban plays, and he expands on a major theme of Antigone, the links between the rights of a citizen, death in war, and the rights of female relatives to bury a male family member who died on the battlefield. There are aspects specific to Ancient Greece, but the role of burial and ceremony for the dead, and the links with the way a community is defined by war have cross historical significance. The centrality of women in providing funeral rites, particularly for battlefield deaths, their role in petitioning in the play, and the real exclusion of women from public life in the Athens of that time, bring tension in plays such as Antigone and The Suppliant Women. The events described by Euripides follow the battle between the sons of Oedipus, Polyneices and Eteocles, for control of Thebes. As Sophocles suggests, both sons die and Creon is left in power. As in Antigone, women want their male relatives to be buried. However, Antigone does not appear in The Suppliant Women, and Euripides does not refer to the women of Thebes at all. The suppliant women are the mothers of men of soldiers from Argos who fight for Polyneices, and die in the assault on Thebes. Creon forbids the burial of these men, just as forbids the burial of Polyneices in Antigone, bringing him into conflict with his niece, and Polyneices’ sister, Antigone. The women of Argos have come to Athens because they cannot find anyone else to tae up their cause. Significantly they have unsuccessfully asked for help from Sparta. This is significant because Sparta was the most powerful state in Greece, along with Athens. Sparta, and its allies, fought a Thirty Year War with Athens, and its allies, known as the Peloponnesian War. Sparta was not just an alternative power source, it also offered an alternative ideology to that of the Athenian democracy, with regard to how many people would participate in politics along with liberties of speech, trade, culture and so on.
The main contrast in the play is between Athens and Thebes, which stands in for the Athenian/Spartan rivalry. Athens is represented as if it was the democracy of the time the play was written. The play refers to a largely mythical archaic past, which if it has any clear historical location would be that of Mycenaean Bronze Age Greece, represented by Homer, attributing to Athens the characteristics of its later democracy. The biggest distinction from Athens of the time of Euripides is that there is a king, Theseus, in the play, but he rejects the idea of absolute power, saying than citizens share power in Athens and alternate in power. The women emphasise the freedom to speak freely in Athens, which includes the right to make requests of the most important person in Athens. This probably reflects the origins of free speech in Athens, and other Greek states, In the right of citizens to petition kings for favours. Over time kings declined in power and citizens’ assemblies made the decisions, becoming the places where feee speech was exercised.
The women emphasise the inferiority of women to men, and the need for women to act through men. This is why they have to petition King Theseus. That is the only way they can have their sons buried. The happiness of their lives has been greatly disturbed by the loss of children, and they need the consolation of the recognition of the sons as part of human community, through the right to proper burial with appropriate ceremonies. Theseus is at first unwilling to take up an issue concerning what happens in another Greek state, but finds that what Creon has done is against the law of the Greeks. There was not unitary legal system of the Ancient Greeks, states had their own laws and courts. However, Athens demanded that its courts have authority in allied states. What partly underlies Euripides’ account of Theseus’s generosity in defending the rights of those women from Argos, is a justification of the powers that Athens exercised over its allies, which alarmed other Greek states.
Theseus assumes that there is law for all Greeks, presumably thinking of the kind of divine law that Antigone opposed to Creon’s laws, in Sophocles’ play Antigone. He is disturbed during his discussion with the women that Argos was so willing to go to war with Thebes and that the daughters of the king had married foreigners under religious advice. Though Theseus believes there is Greek law, he also believes in the very self-contained existence of Geek states, where foreigners do not have power, and do not marry into important families. Theseus/Euripides seeks a balance in religion, between ignoring the sacred and giving too much importance to supposedly sacred sources which argue against good judgement. There might be an implicit criticism of the Spartans in there,as the Spartans were famously religious, and even delayed their entry into the war against Xerxes’ invasion of Greece in 480 BCE for religious regions.
All of these comments by Theseus build up the idea of Athens as the moral core of Greece, which is entitled, and even duty bound, to enforce justice throughout the Greek world. Theseus expressed views about the correct government of Argos, and other cities. The government should not be dominated by the very rich, who are only concerned with money, or the very poor, who are only concerned with jealously of those with more money. The city’s government should rest on those in the middle who are capable of good judgement. Theseus is concerned that Argos has been undermined by the over enthusiasm of its wealthy citizens for war as a chance to make money. Theseus’s views extend to human life in general, which he says has been improved over time through writing, agriculture the building of cities, and other fundamentals of human society. He has an idea of the special status of humanity compared with other animals, which is maybe the source of his views about the rights of all humans, or at least all Greeks, to have certain things recognised, such as dignified burial of the dead.
A messenger comes from Thebes who represents the views of Creon. The Theban Herald is not used to the idea that the king is not absolute. Theseus has to explain to him that he does not have absolute power. The Herald is shocked by this and by the idea that citizens can have a role in political decisions. Creon’s view is that there must be a strong ruler who can ignore the ignorant mob, and make wise decisions the people could not make. At this point, it is possible that Euripides was expressing any reservation he might have himself about Athenian democracy. Athenian writers like Plato feared that democracy led to chaotic conflict between citizens, which would collapse into tyrannical one person rule. In taking responsibility for protecting the women of Argos, Theseus as leader of Athens is taking leadership in Greece from the most powerful state in the epics of Homer. Something like this happens in the Oresteia of Aeschylus. The idea that Athens takes over from Argos, whose King Agamemnon was leader of the alliance of Greek states against Troy, provides a mythical foundation for Athenian domination in the Greece of that time, and for its superiority over Sparta. The Spartan monarchy is important in Homer. It is Menelaus who loses his wife Helen to Paris, prince of Troy, and it is his brother Agamemnon who commands the Greek forces, which probably explains why Athenian tragedians were so concerned to imagine a leading role of Athens in the archaic myth time of Greece.