Classical Mythology: King Theseus Wants a Wife

King Theseus Wants a Wife

With the death of Aegeus, Theseus assumed the throne of Athens. As king, Theseus used this “bully pulpit” to convince the independent demes (townships) surrounding Athens to join formally in an organized commonwealth. Pointing the way toward democracy, Theseus also ceded some of his own powers as king to this commonwealth.

The reign of Theseus was also marked by limited expansionism. He incorporated the city of Megara—once ruled by his uncle Nisus, but lost in a war with Crete—into the Athenian federation. He also established dominance over Eleusis by seating Hippothoon—like Theseus, a son of Poseidon (by Alope, daughter of the slain Cercyon)—on the throne. Through these actions, Theseus expanded the borders of the Athenian empire all the way across the isthmus to Corinth.

Attack of the Amazons: Antiope

Though his greatest acts of heroism already lay behind the young king, Theseus did not shy away from adventure after attaining the throne of Athens. Some say he joined the Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece (see Crimes of Passion: Jason, Medea, and the Argonauts). If so, he did not distinguish himself in this adventure. He also took part in the Calydon boar hunt (see Achilles: The Angry Young Hero), though here too he failed to make a significant mark.

Theseus did contribute significantly to the victory of Heracles over the Amazons (see The Labors of Heracles). Antiope, one of three Amazonian queens, fell in love with Theseus. Betraying her sisters, she obtained Queen Hippolyta's girdle for Heracles and escaped with her new lover.

Mythed by a Mile

Naysayers insist that Theseus did little to help Heracles obtain the precious girdle, if indeed he accompanied Heracles at all. These stories insist that Theseus abducted Antiope, perhaps while with Heracles or during the course of an entirely separate adventure.

The Amazons pursued Theseus and Antiope to Athens, where they engaged in a costly four-month battle. Hippolyta, defeated in battle, escaped to Megara, but died there.

Antiope, whether as captive or consort, lived with Theseus long enough to give him a son, Hippolytus. The cause of her death, however, remains in dispute. Some say an Amazon warrior killed Antiope as she battled side by side with Theseus. Others hold that an Amazonian ally of hers, Penthesileia, accidentally shot her with an arrow while battling the other Amazons. Some even insist that Theseus himself killed Antiope when she attacked the guests at his wedding to Phaedra.

Forbidden Love: Phaedra

Phaedra was the sister of Ariadne. Their brother Deucalion, who succeeded their father Minos as king of Crete, apparently shrugged off the ill treatment of Ariadne. In reaching a peaceful resolution of the hostilities between Crete and Athens, Deucalion agreed to allow Theseus to marry Phaedra.

The king and his new queen had two sons: Acamas and Demophon. Theseus intended these sons to succeed him in ruling Athens. So he sent Hippolytus, his son by Antiope, to Troezen, where Theseus intended him one day to succeed Pittheus.

Seeing the birth of Acamas and Demophon as establishing a clear line of succession to the throne of Athens, Theseus's uncle Pallas attempted one last time to seize the kingdom. Theseus vanquished Pallas and his sons, killing them all. For this immoderate defense of his throne, Theseus condemned himself to one year in exile. With Phaedra at his side, Theseus headed to Troezen to join his son and his grandfather.

In Troezen, Phaedra fell deeply in love with her stepson. But Hippolytus had no interest in women, especially his stepmother. The young man scorned the rites of Aphrodite. A chaste virgin himself, he devoted himself to hunting and to worship of the virgin goddess Artemis.

Phaedra could not keep her love to herself. She revealed her love to her nurse, who in turn told Hippolytus—but only after getting the young man to swear an oath of secrecy. Hippolytus, disgusted, spurned his stepmother's love, but true to his word, remained silent.

Read All About It

Hippolytus, a drama by Euripides, offers a detailed account of the tragic story of Hippolytus and Phaedra. The Roman playwright Seneca told a similar story in his Phaedra.

Rejected, Phaedra hanged herself after writing a suicide note in which she accused Hippolytus of raping her. Theseus refused to listen to his son's version of the story. He not only banished Hippolytus, but called for his son's death by invoking one of three curses that his father Poseidon had once given him.

As Hippolytus rode away along the coast in his chariot, a bull rose out of the sea and spooked his horses. The horses upset the chariot and dragged Hippolytus, who had become tangled in the reins, to his death.

The goddess Artemis later appeared before Theseus. From her, he learned that his son had been innocent. Aphrodite had set the whole affair in motion to punish Hippolytus for neglecting her.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Classical Mythology © 2004 by Kevin Osborn and Dana L. Burgess, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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