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Professor J. Rufus Fears
Lecture One
Scope: Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, is an ideal introduction to our course. To the
Athenians of the classical era, Theseus was not legend but historical fact. He founded Athens as
a unified nation established the prototypes of the most characteristic Athenian political and
religious institutions. To Theseus, the Athenians owed their love of liberty and democracy and a
foreign policy based on giving aid to the weak and helpless. In pursuit of such noble goals,
Theseus traveled to the far corners of the Greek world and won eternal fame through his
encounters with the Minotaur, Amazons, the Golden Fleece, and Oedipus. As is the case with the
Founding Fathers of other nations, such as George Washington, the truth of such stories may be
less important than the fact that the Athenians believed them to be true and used them to
establish criteria for judging the character for judging the character of their political leaders.
The Founding Fathers of the United States believed that history was the single most
useful discipline, because we can learn from the lessons of the past.
A. For the American Founding Fathers, ancient Greek and Roman history was
especially instructive, because it shows us how democracy was born, how it
flourished, and why it failed.
B. They also believed that biography was the most engaging means of approaching
history, including the illuminating biographies of the Bible, Herodotus, and
The classical model for the study of history through the biographies of great
individuals is Plutarch (ca. 46 – after 127 A.D.).
A. Plutarch was a Greek by birth and culture and a Roman citizen who spent much
time in Rome. He was well regarded by the Emperor Hadrian and held the high
imperial office of procurator of the province of Achaea (Greece).
B. He lived in his hometown of Chaeronea, was very active in its civic life, and was
a priest of the oracle of the god Apollo at Delphi.
C. Plutarch represents the renaissance of Greek intellectual and artistic life under the
Roman Empire.
D. He was a philosopher who sought to make ethics understood and useful for nonacademics.
E. His writings include:
1. Moralia (Moral Essays)
2. Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans
F. His Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans is a compendium of biographies of
statesmen, generally pairing and comparing a Greek with a Roman.
1. Plutarch understood that biography is the most instructive way of
teaching history.
2. His focus on political history and biography reflected the classical Greek
and Roman view that politics is the essence of human existence. “Man,”
Aristotle said, “is a political animal.”
3. His purpose was to shape the moral character of his reader rather than
simply present facts.
4. In political terms, his goal was to echo a central theme of Roman
emperors: The Roman Empire continued and renewed the glory days of
5. As a biographer, Plutarch was widely read and made excellent use of
numerous sources. He was factually accurate.
G. He was a very influential biographer.
1. He was regarded as a classic in late antiquity and throughout the
Byzantine period.
2. Translated into French and English in the Renaissance, he influenced such
diverse figures as Shakespeare, Rousseau, Emerson, and President
Theseus was the national hero of Athens and the founding father of its most
characteristic institutions and values. He was a myth (we say myth, but we must
remember that to the ancients, this was regarded as history).
A. The unacknowledged son Aegeus, King of Athens, Theseus was raised in the city
of Troezen. He belonged to the generation before the Trojan War. Thus, Theseus
might be dated, in our terms, to roughly 1300 B.C.
B. He was also reputed to be the son of Poseidon, god of the sea.
C. At the age of sixteen, Theseus passed the test prescribed at birth for him by his
father and set off for Athens to find his father.
D. On his journey, Theseus began his career as a savior of Greece from monsters and
evil doers.
E. Arguably the most well-known myth about Theseus is his encounter with the
F. He eventually arrives in Athens and is recognized by his father.
G. As king, Theseus unified Attica.
1. He established a democracy and reigned as its constitutional monarch.
2. He established the tradition that in matters of foreign policy, Athens used
its power to defend the weak and helpless: Oedipus is given shelter at
Athens by Theseus.
3. Theseus was overthrown by a revolt led by Menestheus, the descendant of
an earlier king.
4. Theseus was murdered in exile on the island of Scyros by King
H. Shortly after the Persian Wars, in 476, the Athenian general and statesman Cimon
brought the bones of Theseus back to Athens, where a shrine was built to him and
he was worshipped.
I. As the national hero of Athens, Theseus attracted involvement in other legends, to
wit, his adventures with Hercules, Medea, the Amazons, and Jason and the
Historical elements linked to Theseus include:
A. The unification of Attica;
B. The rise of Athens as a major power in the Bronze Age;
C. Minoan Crete;
1. The discoveries of Sir Arthur Evans (1851 – 1941);
2. The palace at Knossos;
3. The bull symbolism at Knossos;
4. The labyrinth at Knossos.
Athenians of the fifth century B.C. used the deeds and values ascribed to Theseus as a
standard for setting policy and judging their own actions as a democracy. In that
sense, Theseus was the Athenian counterpart to George Washington.