Eteocles and Polynices: Cursed Brothers and Sons of Oedipus

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Eteocles and Polynices

Eteokles und Polyneikes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770)
Eteokles und Polyneikes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696–1770). PD Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Eteocles and Polynices were the sons of the classic Greek tragic hero and Theban king Oedipus, who fought each other for the control of Thebes after their father abdicated. The Oedipus story is part of the Theban cycle and told most famously by the Greek poet Sophocles.

After decades of ruling Thebes, Oedipus discovered he had been at the mercy of a prophecy cast before his birth. Fulfilling the curse, Oedipus had unwittingly killed his own father Laius, and married and fathered four children by his mother Jocasta. In rage and horror, Oedipus blinded himself and abandoned his throne. As he left, Oedipus cursed his own two grown sons/brothers, Eteocles and Polynices had been left to rule Thebes, but Oedipus doomed them to kill each other. The 17th-century painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo shows the fulfillment of that curse, their deaths at each other's hand.

Owning the Throne

The Greek poet Aeschylus told the Eteocles and Polynices story in his award-winning trilogy on the topic, Seven Against Thebes, In the final play, the brothers fight each other for possession of the throne of Thebes. At first, they had agreed to rule Thebes jointly, by alternating years in power, but after his first year, Eteocles refused to step down.

To gain the rule of Thebes, Polynices needed warriors, but Theban men within the city would only fight for his brother. Instead, Polynices gathered a group of men from Argos. There were seven gates to Thebes, and Polynices selected seven captains to lead the charges against each gate. To fight them and protect the gates, Eteocles selected the best-qualified man in Thebes to challenge the specific Argive adversary, so there are seven Theban counterparts to the Argive attackers. The seven pairs are:

Argive and Theban opponents

  • Tydeus vs Melanippus
  • Capaneus vs Polyphontes
  • Eteoclus vs Megareus
  • Hippomedon vs Hyperbius
  • Parthenopeus and Actor
  • Amphiaraus vs Lasthenes
  • Polynices vs Eteocles

The battles end when the two brothers kill each other with swords.

In the sequel to the battle between Eteocles and Polynices, the successors of the fallen Argives, known as the Epigoni, win control of Thebes. Eteocles was buried honorably, but the traitor Polynices was not, leading to their sister Antigone's own tragedy.