Heroes and Anti-Heroes

21 Theseus

Theseus, nude and holding a sword, drags the minotaur by the horn out of the columns of the labyrinth. Athena, with helm, spear, and aegis, stands beside Theseus.
Athena, Theseus, and the Minotaur, red-figure kylix (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples)

Birth and Early Adventures

Aethra, Aegeus, and Pittheus

The following content is adapted by T. Mulder from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Theseus, like Heracles had a presumed mortal father and an actual divine father. He was the son of Aethra, the daughter of Pittheus, who was king of Troezen (a small town in the northeastern Peloponnese of modern-day Greece).

Aegeus, who was the king of Athens, was having trouble producing an heir, so he went to the Oracle of Delphi to ask for help. The Pythia (the priestess of Apollo at the Oracle of Delphi) said, “The bulging foot of the wineskin, O best of men, loosen it not until you have reached the height of Athens.” As was typical with these oracles, the meaning was cryptic.

On his way home to Athens, Aegeus stopped off at Troezen to ask his wise friend Pittheus what the oracle meant. In ancient Greece, wineskins were made from a whole  goatskin, and one foot of the goatskin was used for the spout. When the Pythia said, “Don’t open the foot of the wineskin,” she was literally saying, “Don’t uncork the wine.” The foot of the wineskin also resembled a penis and was a phallic symbol. So the Pythia was actually advising Aegeus not to have sex with any woman until he returned home, since the next woman he had sex with would bear him a son.

Pittheus realized the meaning of the oracle, but instead of telling Aegeus, he got Aegeus drunk and had him sleep with his daughter, Aethra. He did this because Aegeus was the very powerful king of Athens, and Pittheus wanted his future grandson to become king of Athens. The god Poseidon also had sex with Aethra later that same night, which Aegeus did not know, and so Theseus’ parentage was ambiguous.


A satyr, nude and ithyphallic with a laurel crown and holding a horn, sits on a large wineskin.
A satyr riding a wineskin, tracing from red-figure kylix from ca. 500 BCE (accessed via Laurie Annie/the Boston Museum of Fine Arts)

The Road to Athens

Theseus grew up in Troezen with his mother Aethra. When he was old enough and strong enough, Aethra sent him to Athens to be reunited with Aegeus. Theseus travelled to Athens overland on a notoriously dangerous road. On the road, he encountered many bandits, marauders, and beasts, all of whom he handily defeated, thereby making a heroic name for himself and making the road to Athens safe for all future travelers.

On the road, Theseus killed Periphetes, Sinis, the Crommyonian Sow, Sciron, Cercyon, and Damastes. These encounters are called the “Six Labours” of Theseus.


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 3 and Epitome (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century BCE

The Bibliotheca gives the story of Theseus’ conception and birth as well as his early labours. Whereas Heracles was a panhellenic (meaning ‘all of Greece’) hero who completed twelve famous labours, Theseus was a more localized, Athenian hero who completed six labours on the road to Athens. This selection from the Bibliotheca describes the six labours of Theseus and also the origin of the Minotaur, the half bull/half human creature whom Theseus faces in his most famous adventure.


[3.15.6] After the death of Pandion his sons marched against Athens, expelled the Metionids [sons of Metion], and divided the government in four; but Aegeus had the whole power. The first wife whom he married was Meta, daughter of Hoples, and the second was Chalciope, daughter of Rhexenor. As no child was borne to him, he feared his brothers, and went to Pythia [ Delphi ] and consulted the oracle concerning the begetting of children. The god answered him:

“The bulging foot of the wineskin, O best of men, loosen it not until you have reached the height of Athens.”

Not knowing what to make of the oracle, he set out on his return to Athens.

[3.15.7] Journeying by way of Troezen, he lodged with Pittheus, son of Pelops, who, understanding the oracle, made him drunk and caused him to lie with his daughter Aethra. But in the same night Poseidon also had intercourse with her. Now Aegeus charged Aethra with the task that, if she gave birth to a male child, she should raise it, without telling whose child it was; and he left a sword and sandals under a certain rock, saying that when the boy could roll away the rock and take them up, she was then to send him away with them.

But he himself [pb_glossary id="1424"]Minos[/pb_glossary] came to Athens and celebrated the games of the Panathenian festival, in which Androgeus, son of Minos, vanquished all competitors. He was the one whom Aegeus sent against the bull of Marathon, and who was killed by said bull. But some say that as he journeyed to Thebes to take part in the games in honour of Laius, he was waylaid and murdered by the jealous competitors. But when the news of his death were brought to Minos, as he was sacrificing to the Graces in Paros, he threw away the garland from his head and stopped the music of the flute, but nevertheless completed the sacrifice; and so down to this day they sacrifice to the Graces in Paros without flutes and garlands.

[3.15.8] But not long afterwards, being master of the sea, he attacked Athens with a fleet and captured Megara, then ruled by king Nisus, son of Pandion, and he slew Megareus, son of Hippomenes, who had come from Onchestus to the help of Nisus. Now Nisus perished through his daughter’s treachery. For he had a purple hair on the middle of his head, and an oracle said that when it was pulled out he would die; and his daughter Scylla fell in love with Minos and pulled out the hair. But when Minos had made himself master of Megara, he tied the damsel by the feet to the stern of the ship and drowned her.

When the war stretched on and he could not conquer Athens, he prayed to Zeus for revenge on the Athenians. And the city was visited with a famine and a pestilence, and the Athenians at first, in obedience to an ancient oracle, slaughtered the daughters of Hyacinth (Antheis, Aegleis, Lytaea, and Orthaea) on the grave of Geraestus, the Cyclops; now Hyacinth, the father of the damsels, had come from Lacedaemon and lived in Athens. But when this was of no avail, they inquired of the oracle how they could be saved; and the god answered them that they should give Minos whatever satisfaction he might choose. So they sent a message to Minos and left it to him to claim his compensation. And Minos ordered them to send seven youths and the same number of damsels without weapons to be food for the Minotaur. Now the Minotaur was confined in a labyrinth, in which he who entered could not find his way out; for many a winding turn shut off the secret outward way. The labyrinth was constructed by Daedalus, whose father was Eupalamus, son of Metion, and whose mother was Alcippe; for he was an excellent architect and the first inventor of images. He had fled from Athens, because he had thrown down from the acropolis Talos, the son of his sister Perdix; for Talos was his pupil, and Daedalus feared that with his talents he might surpass himself, seeing that he had sawed a thin stick with a jawbone of a snake which he had found. But the corpse was discovered; Daedalus was tried in the Areopagus, and being condemned fled to Minos. And there Pasiphae having fallen in love with the bull of Poseidon, Daedalus acted as her accomplice by contriving a wooden cow, and he constructed the labyrinth, to which the Athenians every year sent seven youths and as many damsels to be food for the Minotaur.

[3.16.1] Aethra bore to Aegeus a son Theseus, and when he was grown up, he pushed away the rock and took up the sandals and the sword, and hastened on foot to Athens. And he cleared the road, which had been plagued by evildoers. For first in Epidaurus he slew Periphetes, son of Hephaestus and Anticleia, who was surnamed the Clubman from the club which he carried. For being crazy on his legs he carried an iron club, with which he murdered the passersby. That club Theseus wrested from him and continued to carry around.

[3.16.2] Second, he killed Sinis, son of Polypemon and Sylea, daughter of Corinthus. This Sinis was surnamed the Pine-bender; for inhabiting the Isthmus of Corinth he used to force the passersby to keep bending pine trees; but they were too weak to do so, and being tossed up by the trees they perished miserably. In that way also Theseus killed Sinis.

[E.1.1] Third, he killed at Crommyon the sow that was called Phaea after the old woman who bred it; that sow, some say, was the offspring of Echidna and Typhon.

[E.1.2] Fourth, he slew Sciron, the Corinthian, son of Pelops, or, as some say, of Poseidon. He in the Megarian territory held the rocks called after him Scironian, and compelled passersby to wash his feet, and in the act of washing he kicked them into the deep to be the prey of a huge turtle.

[E.1.3] But Theseus seized him by the feet and threw him into the sea. Fifth, in Eleusis he slew Cercyon, son of Branchus and a nymph Argiope. This Cercyon compelled passersby to wrestle, and in wrestling killed them. But Theseus lifted him up on high and smashed him to the ground.

[E.1.4] Sixth, he slew Damastes, whom some call Polypemon. He had his dwelling beside the road, and made up two beds, one small and the other big; and offering hospitality to the passersby, he laid the short men on the big bed and hammered them, to make them fit the bed; but the tall men he laid on the little bed and sawed off the portions of the body that projected beyond it.

So, having cleared the road, Theseus came to Athens.

[E.1.5] But Medea, being then married to Aegeus, plotted against him and persuaded Aegeus to beware of him as a traitor. And Aegeus, not knowing his own son, was afraid and sent him against the Marathonian bull.

[E.1.6] And when Theseus had killed it, Aegeus presented to him a poison which he had received the same day from Medea. But just as the drink was about to be administered to him, he gave his father the sword, and on recognizing it Aegeus knocked the cup from his hands. And when Theseus was thus made known to his father and informed of the plot, he expelled Medea.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus3.html


Bacchylides, “Ode 18” (trans. D. A. Svarlien, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek victory ode, ca. 476 BCE

In a Greek ode for a victorious Athlete, written around 476 BCE, the poet Bacchylides dramatizes the young Theseus’ journey to Athens after he has completed his six labours.

King of sacred Athens, lord of the luxuriously-living Ionians, why has the bronze-belled trumpet just now sounded a war song? [5] Does some enemy of our land attack our borders, leading an army? Or are evil-plotting robbers, against the will of the shepherds, [10] rustling our flocks of sheep by force? What is it that tears your heart? Speak; for I think that you of all mortals have the aid of valiant young men at your disposal, [15] son of Pandion and Creusa.


Just now a herald arrived, having come by foot on the long road from the Isthmus. He tells of the indescribable deeds of a mighty man. That man killed overweening [20] Sinis, who was the greatest of mortals in strength; he is the son of Lytaeus the Earth-shaker, son of Cronus. And he has slain the man-killing boar in the valleys of Cremmyon, and reckless [25] Sciron. He has closed the wrestling school of Cercyon; Procoptes has met a better man and dropped the powerful hammer of Polypemon. [30] I fear how this will end.


Who is the man said to be, and from where? How is he equipped? Is he leading a great army with weapons of war? [35] Or does he come alone with only his attendants, like a traveler wandering among foreign people, this man who is so strong, valiant, and bold, who has overcome the powerful strength [40] of such great men? Indeed a god propels him, so that he can bring justice down on the unjust; for it is not easy to accomplish deed after deed and not meet with evil. [45] In the long course of time all things come to an end.


The herald says that only two men accompany him, and that he has a sword slung over his bright shoulders ((lacuna))[1] . . . and two polished javelins in his hands, [50] and a well-made Laconian hat on his head with its fire-red hair. A purple tunic covers his chest, and a woolen Thessalian cloak. [55] Bright red Lemnian fire flashes from his eyes. He is a boy in the prime of youth, intent on the playthings of Ares: war and battles of clashing bronze. [60] He is on his way to splendor-loving Athens.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.01.0064%3Abook%3DDith%3Apoem%3D18


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 7 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

In his Latin epic poem, the Metamorphoses, from the first century CE, Ovid dwells on the first meeting between Theseus, his father Aegeus, and Aegeus’ third wife, Medea (recall that Medea fled to Athens after killing her children in Corinth). Ovid describes the origin of the poison that Medea attempts to use to kill Theseus.


[404-424] “Now Theseus came to Athens, Aegeus’s son but as yet unknown to him. He, by his courage, had brought peace to the Isthmus between the two gulfs. Medea, seeking his destruction, prepared a mixture of poisonous aconite [monkshood/wolf’s bane] that she had brought with her from the coast of Scythia. This poison is said to have dripped from the teeth of Cerberus, the Echidnean dog. There is a dark cavern with a gaping mouth, and a path into the depths, up which Hercules, hero of Tiryns, dragged the dog, tied with steel chains, resisting and twisting its eyes away from the daylight and the shining rays. Cerberus, provoked to a rabid frenzy, filled all the air with his simultaneous three-headed howling, and spattered the green fields with white flecks of foam. These are supposed to have congealed and found food to multiply, gaining harmful strength from the rich soil. Because they are long-lived, springing from the hard rock, the country people call these shoots, of wolf-bane, ‘soil-less’ aconites. Through his wife’s cunning Aegeus, the father, himself offered the poison to his son, as if he were a stranger. Theseus, unwittingly, had taken the cup he was given in his right hand, when his father recognised the emblems of his own house, on the ivory hilt of his son’s sword, and knocked the evil drink away from his mouth. But she [ Medea ] escaped death, in a dark mist, raised by her incantations.

[425-452] Though the father was overjoyed that his son was unharmed, he was still horrified that so great a crime could have come so close to success. He lit fires on the altars, and heaped gifts for the gods. His axes struck the mountainous necks of oxen, their horns tied with the sacrificial ribbons. They say that was the happiest day that dawned in the city of Erectheus.[2] The statesmen celebrated among the people, and they sang verses, made even more inspired by the wine.

‘Great Theseus, admired in Marathon,

for the blood of the Cretan bull,

your act and gift made Cromyon’s fields

safe [ from the Crommyonian Sow ] for the farmers plough.

Epidaurus’ land saw you defeat

Vulcan’s club-wielding son [ Periphetes ],

and the banks of the River Cephisus

saw evil Procrustes brought down.

Eleusis, sacred to Ceres the Mother,

witnessed Cercyon’s fall:

Sinis, you killed, a man of great strength

twisted to evil art,

who could bend pine-tree trunks to the earth,

and tear men’s bodies apart:

and Sciron is done for, and safe paths reach

Megara’s Lelegeïan wall:

though the ocean denied his bones a grave,

and the land denied the same,

till, long-time hurled, they hardened to cliffs,

and the cliffs bear Sciron’s name.

If we wanted to count your years and your honours,

the deeds would exceed the years:

to you, the bravest, we empty our wine-cups,

and offer our public prayers.’

The palace echoed to the people’s applause and the prayers of friends, and there was no sad place in the whole city.”


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph7.php#anchor_Toc64106443

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved

The Minotaur

The Tribute to Minos

After being reunited with his mortal father at Athens, Theseus learns that the Athenians are being forced to send young men and women as human sacrifices to King Minos of Crete, to be fed to the king’s half human/half bull son, the Minotaur. He volunteers to be one of these youths. His intention is to kill the beast and free Athens from its obligation to King Minos. Theseus gets help from Ariadne, the daughter of King Minos, in navigating the labyrinth in which the Minotaur lives.


Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca, Book 3 and Epitome (trans. J. G. Frazer, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek mythography, 2nd century BCE

[content warning for the following source: suicide (E.1.10, E.1.19), sexual assault (E.1.20-23)]
Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, gives the background for the Minotaur’s lineage and how the half human/half bull creature came to be. He recounts Theseus’ battle against the Minotaur, and also what happens to Dedaelus, the famous architect who made the Minotaur’s conception possible and who built the labyrinth. Finally, he narrates what happens to Theseus when he returns to Athens: his battle against the Amazons with Heracles, his journey to the underworld with Pirithuous to kidnap Persephone, and tragic events that take place between Theseus’ wife, Phaedre, and his son Hippolytus, whom he produced with Hippolyta, the queen of the Amazons.


[3.1.1] Having now run over the family of Inachus and described them from Belus down to the Heraclids, we have next to speak of the house of Agenor. For as I have said, Libya had by Poseidon two sons, Belus and Agenor. Now Belus reigned over the Egyptians and fathered the aforesaid sons; but Agenor went to Phoenicia, married Telephassa, and fathered a daughter Europa and three sons, Cadmus, Phoenix, and Cilix. But some say that Europa was a daughter not of Agenor but of Phoenix. Zeus loved her, and turning himself into a tame bull, he mounted her on his back and conveyed her through the sea to Crete. There Zeus slept with her, and she gave birth to Minos, Sarpedon, and Rhadamanthus; but according to Homer, Sarpedon was a son of Zeus by Laodamia, daughter of Bellerophon. Upon the disappearance of Europa, her father Agenor sent out his sons in search of her, telling them not to return until they had found Europa. With them her mother Telephassa, and Thasus son of Poseidon (or according to Pherecydes, of Cilix) went forth in search of her. But when, after diligent search, they could not find Europa, they gave up the thought of returning home, and took up residence in different places; Phoenix settled in Phoenicia; Cilix settled near Phoenicia, and all the country subject to himself near the river Pyramus he called Cilicia; and Cadmus and Telephassa took up residence in Thrace and in the same way Thasus founded a city Thasus in an island off Thrace and dwelt there.

[3.1.2] Now Asterius, prince of the Cretans, married Europa and brought up her children.  But when they were grown up, they quarreled with each other; for they loved a boy called Miletus, son of Apollo by Aria, daughter of Cleochus. Because the boy was more friendly to Sarpedon, Minos went to war and won it, and the others fled. Miletus landed in Caria and there founded a city which he called Miletus after himself; and Sarpedon allied himself with Cilix, who was at war with the Lycians, and having stipulated for a share of the country, he became king of Lycia. And Zeus granted him to live for three generations. But some say that they loved Atymnius, the son of Zeus and Cassiopeia, and that it was about him that they quarreled. Rhadamanthus legislated for the islanders, but afterwards he fled to Boeotia and married Alcmene; and since his departure from the world he acts as judge in Hades along with Minos. Minos, residing in Crete, passed laws, and married Pasiphae, daughter of the Sun and Perseis; but Asclepiades says that his wife was Crete, daughter of Asterius. He fathered sons (Catreus, Deucalion, Glaucus, and Androgeus) and daughters (Acalle, Xenodice, Ariadne, Phaedra); and by a nymph Paria he had Eurymedon, Nephalion, Chryses, and Philolaus; and by Dexithea he had Euxanthius.

[3.1.3] Asterius dying childless, Minos wished to reign over Crete, but his claim was opposed. So he alleged that he had received the kingdom from the gods, and in proof of it he said that whatever he prayed for would be done. And in sacrificing to Poseidon he prayed that a bull might appear from the depths, promising to sacrifice it when it appeared. Poseidon did send him up a fine bull, and Minos obtained the kingdom, but he sent the bull to the herds and sacrificed another. [Being the first to obtain the dominion of the sea, he extended his rule over almost all the islands.]

[3.1.4] But angry at him for not sacrificing the bull, Poseidon made the animal savage, and contrived that Pasiphae should conceive a passion for it. In her love for the bull she found an accomplice in Daedalus, an architect, who had been banished from Athens for murder. He constructed a wooden cow on wheels, took it, hollowed it out in the inside, sewed it up in the hide of a cow which he had skinned, and set it in the meadow in which the bull used to graze. Then he led Pasiphae into it; and the bull came and coupled with it, as if it were a real cow. And she gave birth to Asterius, who was called the Minotaur. He had the face of a bull, but the rest of him was human; and Minos, in compliance with certain oracles, shut him up and guarded him in the Labyrinth. Now the Labyrinth which Daedalus constructed was a chamber “that with its tangled windings perplexed the outward way.”  The story of the Minotaur, and Androgeus, and Phaedra, and Ariadne, I will tell hereafter in my account of Theseus.

[. . .]

[E.1.7] And he (Theseus) was counted among those who were to be sent as the third tribute to the Minotaur; or, as some affirm, he offered himself voluntarily. And as the ship had a black sail, Aegeus charged his son, if he returned alive, to spread white sails on the ship.

[E.1.8] And when he came to Crete, Ariadne, daughter of Minos, having fallen in love with him, offered to help him if he would agree to carry her away to Athens and take her as his wife. Theseus having agreed on oath to do so, she asked Daedalus to disclose the way out of the labyrinth.

[E.1.9] And at his suggestion she gave Theseus a clew [ball of thread] when he went in; Theseus fastened it to the door, and, drawing it after him, entered in. And having found the Minotaur in the last part of the labyrinth, he killed him by smiting him with his fists; and drawing the ball of thread after him made his way out again. And by night he arrived with Ariadne and the rescued Athenian children at Naxos. There Dionysus fell in love with Ariadne and carried her off; and having brought her to Lemnos he slept with her, and she gave birth to Thoas, Staphylus, Oenopion, and Peparethus.

[E.1.10] In his grief on account of Ariadne, Theseus forgot to spread white sails on his ship when he stood for port; and Aegeus, seeing from the acropolis the ship with a black sail, supposed that Theseus had perished; so he cast himself down and died.

[E.1.11] But Theseus inherited the sovereignty of Athens, and killed the sons of Pallas [ of Athens ], fifty in number; likewise all who would oppose him were killed by him, and he got the whole government to himself.

[E.1.12] On being informed of the flight of Theseus and those with him, Minos imprisoned the guilty Daedalus in the labyrinth, along with his son Icarus, who had been borne to Daedalus by Naucrate, a female slave of Minos. But Daedalus constructed wings for himself and his son, and instructed his son, when he took to flight, neither to fly high, in case the glue melted in the sun and the wings dropped off, nor to fly near the sea, in case the pinions became detached by the damp.

[E.1.13] But the excited Icarus, disregarding his father’s instructions, soared ever higher until, the glue melting, he fell into the sea (which was named after him, the Icarian Sea) and perished. But Daedalus made his way safely to Camicus in Sicily.

[E.1.14] And Minos pursued Daedalus, and in every country that he searched he carried a spiral shell and promised to give a great reward to him who should pass a thread through the shell, believing that by that means he would find Daedalus. And having come to Camicus in Sicily, to the court of Cocalus, with whom Daedalus was concealed, he showed the spiral shell. Cocalus took it, and promised to thread it, and gave it to Daedalus.

[E.1.15] And Daedalus fastened a thread to an ant, and, having bored a hole in the spiral shell, allowed the ant to pass through it. But when Minos found the thread passed through the shell, he perceived that Daedalus was with Cocalus, and at once demanded his surrender. Cocalus promised to turn him over, and made an entertainment for Minos; but after his bath Minos was defeated by the daughters of Cocalus; some say, however, that he died through being drenched with boiling water.

[E.1.16] Theseus joined Hercules in his expedition against the Amazons and carried off Antiope, or, as some say, Melanippe; but Simonides calls her Hippolyte. For this reason the Amazons marched against Athens, and having taken up a position around the Areopagus, they were defeated by the Athenians under Theseus. And though he had a son Hippolytus by the Amazon,

[E.1.17] Theseus afterwards received from Deucalion in marriage Phaedra, daughter of Minos; and when her marriage was being celebrated, the Amazon that had before been married to him appeared in arms with her Amazons, and threatened to kill the assembled guests. But they hastily closed the doors and killed her. However, some say that she was killed in battle by Theseus.

[E.1.18] And Phaedra, after she had given birth to two children, Acamas and Demophon, to Theseus, fell in love with the son he had by the Amazon, Hippolytus, and asked him to sleep with her. However, he fled from her embraces, because he hated all women. But Phaedra, fearing that he might report her advances to his father, left open the doors of her bed-chamber, tore her garments, and falsely charged Hippolytus with an assault.

[E.1.19] Theseus believed her and prayed to Poseidon that Hippolytus might perish. So, when Hippolytus was riding in his chariot and driving beside the sea, Poseidon sent up a bull from the surf, and the horses were frightened, the chariot dashed in pieces, and Hippolytus, entangled in the reins, was dragged to death. And when her passion was made public, Phaedra hanged herself.

[E.1.20] Ixion fell in love with Hera and attempted to rape her; and when Hera reported it, Zeus, wishing to know if the thing were so, made a cloud in the likeness of Hera and laid it beside him; and when Ixion boasted that he had slept with Hera, Zeus bound him to a wheel, on which he is whirled by winds through the air; such is the penalty he pays. And the cloud, impregnated by Ixion, gave birth to the Centaurs.

[E.1.21] And Theseus allied himself with Pirithous, when he engaged in war against the centaurs. For when Pirithous wooed Hippodamia, he feasted the centaurs because they were her kinsmen. But being unaccustomed to wine, they made themselves drunk by drinking it greedily, and when the bride was brought in, they attempted to rape her. But Pirithous, fully armed, with Theseus, joined battle with them, and Theseus killed many of them.[3]

[E.1.22] Caeneus was formerly a woman, but after that Poseidon had intercourse with her, she asked to become an invulnerable man;[4] and so in the battle with the centaurs he thought nothing of wounds and killed many of the centaurs; but the rest of them surrounded him and by striking him with fir trees buried him in the earth.

[E.1.23] Having made an agreement with Pirithous that they would marry daughters of Zeus, Theseus, with the help of Pirithous, carried off Helen from Sparta for himself, when she was twelve years old, and in the endeavor to win Persephone as a bride for Pirithous he went down to Hades. And the Dioscuri, with the Lacedaemonians and Arcadians, captured Athens and carried away Helen, and with her Aethra, daughter of Pittheus, into captivity; but Demophon and Acamas fled. And the Dioscuri also brought back Menestheus from exile, and gave him the sovereignty of Athens.

[E.1.24] But when Theseus arrived with Pirithous in Hades, he was tricked; for, on the pretense that they were about to partake of good cheer, Hades asked them first to be seated on the Chair of Forgetfulness, to which they grew and were held tight by coils of serpents. Pirithous, therefore, remained bound for ever, but Hercules brought Theseus up and sent him to Athens. As a result, he was driven away by Menestheus and went to Lycomedes, who threw him down an abyss and killed him.


Taken from: https://www.theoi.com/Text/Apollodorus3.html


Plutarch, Parallel Lives 1, “Life of Theseus,” Chapters 15-19 (trans. W. W. Skeat, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek biography, 2nd century CE

Plutarch, a Greek philosopher and historian from the second century CE, wrote a euhemerizing account of Theseus and the Minotaur, attempting to give a rational explanation for the myth.

Not long after, king Minos‘ ambassadors came from Crete to demand tribute for the third time. This tribute was paid by the Athenians for this reason: Androgeus, the eldest son of king Minos, was treacherously slain within the country of Attica. Because of this, Minos, in order to avenge his death, made war on Athenians and did them much damage. In addition, the gods harshly punished and scourged all the country with barrenness and famine, with plague, and with other misfortunes, even drying up their rivers. The Athenians, perceiving these dire troubles and plagues, ran to the oracle of Apollo, who answered them that they should appease Minos, and when they had made their peace with him then the wrath of the gods would cease and their troubles would end.

Thus the Athenians sent a message immediately to him [ Minos ], and asked him for peace, which he granted them, on the condition that every year they send to Crete seven young boys and just as many young girls. Now the historiographers agree up to this point, but not on the rest of the tale. And those who are the most preposterous say that when these young boys were delivered to Crete, they were devoured by the Minotaur within the labyrinth, or they were shut within this labyrinth, wandering up and down, and could find no place to get out until they died of starvation.

And this Minotaur, as Euripides the poet wrote, was

“A form combin’d, which monstrous might be deemed:

A boy and a bull, both man and beast it seemed.”

But Philochorus writes that the Cretans do not admit that, but rather say that this labyrinth was a jail or prison. In this prison, those who were kept there suffered no other punishment except that they were kept under lock and key and could not fly or run away; and that in memory of his son, Androgeus, Minos had instituted games and prizes, in which he gave the young Athenian children as prizes to those who won. In the meantime, the children were kept locked in the prison of the labyrinth. At the first of these games one of the king’s captains named Taurus [whose name means “bull”], who was a favourite of his master, won the prize. This Taurus was an ill-mannered man and very hard and cruel to these Athenian children.

And to verify this account, the philosopher Aristotle, in his Constitution of the Bottiaeans, made clear that he never thought that Minos had ever put the Athenian children to death. He said instead that they laboured as slaves in Crete for the rest of their lives.

When the time came for the third tribute and the fathers with unmarried children were forced to put their children forward for the drawing of lots, the citizens of Athens began to speak out against Aegeus, lamenting that he, who was the only cause of all this evil, was the only one exempted from this grief. And that, while he placed the government of the realm into the hands of a stranger, he did not care, that they were deprived of all their natural children and were unnaturally forced to leave and forsake them.

These sorrows and complaints of the fathers whose children were taken pierced the heart of Theseus, who, willing to yield to reason, and to have the same fate as the citizens did, offered himself as tribute to be sent to Crete. The citizens thought highly of his courage and honourable disposition and loved him greatly for his community-minded spirit.

Aegeus tried to persuade Theseus to change his mind, but seeing in the end that there was no other option, he drew lots for the children to go with him. Hellanicus instead writes that it was not the Athenians who drew lots for the children to send, but that Minos himself went to Athens in person and chose them. He chose Theseus first, on the condition agreed between them: the Athenians should provide them with a ship, and the children should sail with him, carrying no weapons of war, and that after the death of the Minotaur this tribute would end.

Before this time there was never any hope of a safe return; therefore the Athenians always sent the children out on a ship with a black sail to signify their certain doom. Nevertheless, Theseus encouraged his father to have faith in him and boldly promised that he would defeat the Minotaur. So, Aegeus gave the master of the ship a white sail, commanding him that at his return he should put out the white sail if his son had escaped: if not, then he should set up the black sail, to signal his misfortune. Simonides writes instead that this sail that Aegeus gave to the shipmaster was not white but red, dyed in grain, and of the colour of scarlet, and that he gave it to him to signal their delivery and safety. This master was called Phereclus Amarsiadas, according to Simonides. But Philochorus writes that Scirus the Salaminian gave to Theseus a shipmaster called Nausitheus, and another mariner to tackle the sails, who was called Phaeas (because the Athenians at that time were not very skilled at sea). And Scirus did this because one of the children who was chosen by lot was his nephew. And standing as testament to this are the shrines which Theseus built afterwards in honour of Nausitheus and of Phaeas, in the village of Phalerus, joining to the temple of Scirus. And it is said moreover that the feast which they call Cybernesia, the feast of patrons of the ships, is celebrated in honour of them.

Now after the lots were drawn, Theseus took with him the children allotted for the tribute and went from the palace to the temple called Delphinion to make an offering to Apollo on behalf of himself and the children– an offering of supplication, which they call hiceteria, which was a sacred olive bough encircled with white wool. After he had made his prayer, he went down to the sea-side to embark on the sixth day of the month of March– the day on which, even at this present time, they send their young girls to the same temple of Delphinion to make their prayers and petitions to the gods.

But some say that the oracle of Apollo in the city of Delphi had answered him, that he should take Venus for his guide, and that he should call upon her to lead him in his voyage. For this reason he sacrificed a goat to her upon the sea-side, which suddenly turned into a ram, and so they surnamed this goddess Epitragia, “the goddess of the ram.”

Then, after he arrived in Crete, he slew the Minotaur (as most of the ancient authors write) with the help of Ariadne who, having fallen in love with him, gave him a clew of thread, with which she taught him how to easily wind out of the twist and turns of the labyrinth.

And they say that, having killed this Minotaur, he returned back again the same way he went, bringing with him those other young Athenian children. He also took Ariadne. Pherecides adds that he broke the keels or bottoms of all the ships of Crete, so that they could not immediately set out after them.

And Demon writes, the aforementioned Taurus (the captain of Minos) was killed in a fight with  Theseus at the entrance to the port as they were preparing to sail away. Yet Philochorus reports that after king Minos had set up the games, as he did every year in the honour and memory of his son, everyone began to envy captain Taurus, because they all assumed that he would carry away the game and victory, as he had done in previous years. Furthermore, he attracted much ill will and envy because he was proud and haughty and people suspected that he was having an affair with Queen Pasiphae. This is why, when Theseus asked to duel with Taurus, Minos easily granted it.

Since it was customary in Crete for women to view the games, Ariadne was there and fell even more in love with Theseus when she saw that he was so great a person, so strong, and invincible in wrestling that he beat every one else.

King Minos was so glad that Theseus had beaten Taurus that he sent him home free along with all the other prisoners of Athens. And he released and forgave the city of Athens the tribute, which they paid him yearly.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.03.0078%3Atext%3DThes.


Bacchylides, “Ode 17” (trans. D.A. Svarlien, adapted by L. Zhang)

Greek victory ode, ca. 476 BCE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault (10-45)]
In an ode for a victorious athlete, written around 476 BCE, the Greek poet Bacchylides describes the meeting of the two heroes and demigods: Minos, the son of Zeus and Europa, and Theseus, the son of Poseidon and Aethra. Each hero proves his semi-divine status with a sign from his divine father.


A dark-prowed ship, carrying Theseus, steady in the noise of battle, and two-times-seven splendid Ionian youths, was cleaving the Cretan sea; [5] for northern breezes fell on the far-shining sail, by the will of glorious Athena, shaker of the aegis. And the holy gifts of Cypris [ Aphrodite ] with her lovely headband scratched the heart of Minos. [10] He no longer kept his hand away from the maiden [ Eriboea ]; he touched her white cheeks. And Eriboea cried out [15] to the descendant of Pandion [Theseus] with his bronze breastplate. Theseus saw, and he rolled his dark eyes under his brows; cruel pain tore his heart, [20] and he spoke: “Son of greatest Zeus, the spirit you guide in your heart is no longer pious. Hero, restrain your overbearing force. Whatever the all-powerful fate of the gods [25] has granted for us, and however the scale of Justice tips, we shall fulfill our appointed destiny when it comes. As for you, hold back from your oppressive scheme. It may be that the dear [30] lovely-named daughter of Phoenix [ Europa ] went to the bed of Zeus beneath the brow of Ida and bore you, greatest of mortals, but I too was borne by the daughter of rich Pittheus [ Aethra ], [35] who coupled with the sea-god Poseidon, and the violet-haired Nereids gave her a golden veil. And so, war-lord of Knossos, [40] I ask you to restrain your terrible violence; for I would not want to see the lovely immortal light of Dawn if you were to subdue one of these young people against her will. [45] Before that we will show the force of our arms, and what comes after that a god will decide.” So spoke the hero, excellent with the spear; and the sailors were astonished at the man’s extraordinary [50] boldness. The son-in-law of Helios was angered in his heart, and he wove a new scheme, and spoke: “Father Zeus, great in strength, hear me! If indeed the white-armed Phoenician girl [ Europa ] bore me to you, [55] now send forth from the sky a fire-haired lightning bolt, a conspicuous sign. And you, if Troezenian Aethra bore you to Poseidon the earth-shaker, [60] bring this splendid gold ornament on my hand back from the depths of the sea, casting your body boldly down to your father’s home. And you shall see whether my prayers are heard [65] by the son of Cronus, lord of the thunder and ruler of all.” And Zeus, great in strength, heard his blameless prayer, and brought about a majestic honour for Minos, wanting it [70] to be seen by all for the sake of his dear son; he sent the lightning. And the hero, steadfast in battle, seeing the marvel which pleased his spirit, stretched his hands to the glorious sky and said, “Theseus, [75] you see Zeus‘ clear gifts to me. It is your turn to leap into the loud-roaring sea. And your father lord Poseidon, son of Cronus, will grant you supreme [80] glory throughout the well-wooded earth.” So he spoke. And Theseus’ spirit did not recoil; he stood on the well-built deck, and leapt, [85] and the precinct of the sea received him willingly. And the son of Zeus was astonished in his heart, and gave an order to hold the ornate ship before the wind; but fate was preparing another path. [90] The swift-moving ship hurtled forwards; and the north wind, blowing astern, drove it along. But the ((lacuna)) . . . race of Athenian youths was afraid, when the hero jumped into the sea, [95] and they shed tears from their lily eyes, awaiting terrible compulsion. But sea-dwelling dolphins swiftly carried great Theseus to the home of his father, lord of horses; [100] and he came to the hall of the gods. There he saw the glorious daughters of prosperous Nereus, and was afraid; for brightness shone like fire from their splendid limbs, [105] and ribbons woven with gold whirled around their hair. They were delighting their hearts in a dance, with flowing feet. And he saw in that lovely dwelling the dear wife of his father, [110] holy, ox-eyed Amphitrite. She threw a purple cloak around him and placed on his curly hair a perfect wreath, [115] dark with roses, which deceptive Aphrodite had once given her at her marriage. Nothing of the gods’ will is unbelievable to sensible men. Theseus appeared beside the ship with its slender stern. Oh, [120] from what thoughts did he stop the war-lord of Knossos, when he emerged dry from the sea, a marvel to all, and the gifts of the gods shone on his body. [125] The splendid-throned maidens cried out with new-founded joy, and the sea resounded. Nearby the young people sang a triumphal song with lovely voices. [130] God of Delos [ Apollo ], may the choruses of the Ceans warm your heart, and may you grant god-sent noble fortune.


Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?




Minos’ daughter Ariadne helped Theseus extensively in his conflict with the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of Minos. Theseus then brought her away from Crete, promising to marry her. Accounts vary as to what occurred afterwards. In the most common version of the myth (particularly in Ovid’s accounts), Theseus abandons Ariadne on the island of Naxos, and Dionysus comes to her rescue. She then becomes an immortal goddess and the wife of Dionysus on Olympus.


Catullus, Poems 64, “Of the Argonauts and an Epithalamium for Peleus and Thetis” (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang)

Latin poem, 1st century BCE

The longest version of Theseus’ abandonment of Ariadne is a poem by the Roman poet Catullus, written in the first century BCE, a generation before Ovid wrote the Metamorphoses. This poem is commonly called “Catullus 64,” as it is ordered 64th in the collection of his surviving poems. It is an epithalamium, meaning a wedding poem.


Here are seen the wave-echoing shores of Naxos,

Theseus, aboard his ship, vanishing swiftly, watched

by Ariadne, ungovernable passion in her heart,

not yet believing that she sees what she does see,

still only just awoken from deceptive sleep,

finding herself abandoned wretchedly to empty sands.

But uncaring the hero fleeing strikes the deep with his oars,

casting his empty promises to the stormy winds.

The Minoan girl goes on gazing at the distance,

with mournful eyes, like the statue of a Bacchante,

gazes, alas, and swells with great waves of sorrow,

no longer does the fine turban remain on her golden hair,

no longer is she hidden by her lightly-concealing dress,

no longer does the shapely band hold her milk-white breasts

all of it scattered, slipping entirely from her body,

plays about her feet in the salt flood.

But, not caring now for turban or flowing dress, the lost girl

gazed towards you, Theseus, with all her heart, spirit, mind.

Wretched thing, for whom bright Venus reserved the thorny

cares of constant mourning in your heart,

from that time when it suited warlike Theseus,

leaving the curving shores of Piraeus,

to reach the Cretan regions of the unbending king.

For then forced by cruel plague, they say,

as punishment, to absolve the murder of Androgeus

ten chosen young men of Athens and ten unmarried girls

used to be given together as sacrifice to the Minotaur.

With which evil the narrow walls were troubled until

Theseus chose to offer himself for his dear Athens

rather than such Athenian dead be carried un-dead to Crete.

And so in a swift ship and with gentle breezes

he came to great Minos and his proud halls.

As soon as the royal girl cast her eye on him with desire,

she whom the chaste bed nourished, breathing

sweet perfumes in her mother’s gentle embrace,

even as Eurotas’ streams surround a myrtle

that sheds its varied colours on the spring breeze,

she did not turn her blazing eyes away from him,

till she conceived a flame through her whole body

that burned utterly to the depths of her bones.

Ah sadly the Boy [ Cupid ] incites inexorable passion

in chaste hearts, he who mixes joy and pains for mortals,

and she [ Venus ] who rules Golgos and leafy Idalia,

even she, who shakes the mind of a smitten girl,

often sighing for a blonde-haired stranger!

How many fears the girl suffers in her weak heart!

How often she grows pale: more so than pale gold.

As Theseus went off eager to fight the savage monster

either death approached or fame’s reward!

Promising small gifts, not unwelcome or in vain,

she made her prayers to the gods with closed lips.

Now as a storm uproots a quivering branch of oak,

or a cone-bearing pine with resinous bark, on the heights

of Mount Taurus, twisting its unconquered strength

in the wind (it falls headlong, far off, plucked out

by the roots, shattering anything and everything in its way)

so Theseus upended the conquered body of the beast

its useless horns overthrown, emptied of breath.

Then he turned back, unharmed, to great glory,

guided by the wandering track of fine thread,

so that his exit from the fickle labyrinth of the palace

would not be prevented by some unnoticed error.

But what should I recite, digressing further

from my poem’s theme: the girl, abandoning

her father’s sight, her sisters’ embraces, and lastly

her mother’s, she wretched at her lost daughter’s joy

in preferring the sweet love of Theseus to all this:

or her being carried by ship to Naxos’ foaming shore,

or her consort with uncaring heart vanishing,

she conquered, her eyes softening in sleep?

Often loud shrieks cried the frenzy in her ardent heart

poured out from the depths of her breast,

and then she would climb the steep cliffs in her grief,

where the vast sea-surge stretches out to the view,

then run against the waves into the salt tremor

holding her soft clothes above her naked calves,

and call out mournfully this last complaint,

a frozen sob issuing from her wet face:

‘False Theseus, is this why you take me from my father’s land,

faithless man, to abandon me on a desert shore?

Is this how you vanish, heedless of the god’s power,

ah, uncaring, bearing home your accursed perjuries?

Nothing could alter the measure of your cruel mind?

No mercy was near to you, relentless man,

that you might take pity on my heart?

Yet once you made promises to me in that flattering voice,

you told me to hope, not for this misery

but for joyful marriage, the longed-for wedding songs,

all in vain, dispersed on the airy breezes.

Now, no woman should believe a man’s pledges,

or believe there’s any truth in a man’s words:

when their minds are intent on their desire,

they have no fear of oaths, don’t spare their promises:

but as soon as the lust of their eager mind is slaked

they fear no words, they care nothing for perjury.

Surely I rescued you from the midst of the tempest

of fate, and more, I gave up my half-brother,

whom I abandoned to you with treachery at the end.

For that I’m left to be torn apart by beasts, and a prey

to sea-birds, unburied, when dead, in the scattered earth.

What lioness whelped you under a desert rock,

what sea conceived and spat you from foaming waves,

what Syrtis [shoals], what fierce Scylla, what vast Charybdis,

you who return me this, for the gift of your sweet life?

If marriage with me was not in your heart,

because you feared your old father’s cruel command,

you could still have led me back to your house,

where I would have served you, a slave happy in her task,

washing your beautiful feet in clear water,

covering your bed with the purple fabric.

But why complain to the uncaring wind in vain?

It is beyond evil, and without senses, unable

to hear what is said, without voice to reply.

It is already turning now towards mid-ocean,

and nothing human appears in this waste of weed.

So cruel chance taunts me in my last moments,

even depriving my ears of my own lament.

All-powerful Jupiter, if only the Athenian ships

had not touched the shores of Knossos, from the start,

carrying their fatal cargo for the ungovernable bull,

a faithless captain mooring his ropes to Crete,

an evil guest, hiding a cruel purpose under a handsome

appearance, finding rest in our halls!

Now where can I return? What desperate hope

depend on? Shall I seek out the slopes of Ida?

But the cruel sea with its divisive depths

of water separates me from them.

Or shall I hope for my father’s help? Did I not leave him,

to follow a man stained with my brother’s blood?

Or should I trust in a husband’s love to console me?

Who hardly bends slow oars in running from me?

More, I’m alive on a lonely island without shelter,

and no escape seen from the encircling ocean waves.

No way to fly, no hope: all is mute,

all is deserted, all speaks of ruin.

Yet still my eyes do not droop in death,

not till my senses have left my weary body,

till true justice is handed down by the gods,

and the divine help I pray for in my last hour.

So you Eumenides who punish by avenging

the crimes of men, your foreheads crowned

with snaky hair, bearing anger in your breath,

here, here, come to me, listen to my complaints,

that I, wretched alas, force, weakened, burning,

out of the marrow of my bones, blind with mad rage.

Since these truths are born in the depths of my breast,

you won’t allow my lament to pass you by,

but as Theseus left me alone, through his intent,

goddesses, by that will, pursue him and his with murder.’

When these words had poured from her sad breast,

the troubled girl praying for cruel actions,

the chief of the gods nodded with unconquerable will:

at which the earth and the cruel sea trembled

and the glittering stars shook in the heavens.

Now Theseus’ mind was filled with a dark mist

and all the instructions he had held fixed in memory

before this, were erased from his thoughts,

failing to raise the sweet signal to his mourning father,

when the harbour of Athens safely came in sight.

For they say that when Aegeus parted from his son,

as the goddess’s ship left the city, he yielded him

to the wind’s embrace with these words:

‘Son, more dear to me than my long life,

son, whom I abandoned through chance uncertainty,

lately returned to me in the last days of my old age,

since my fate and your fierce virtue tear you away

from me, against my will, whose failing eyes

are not yet sated with my dear son’s face,

I don’t send you off happily with joyful heart,

or allow you to carry flags of good fortune,

but start with the many sorrows in my mind,

marring my white hairs with earth and sprinkled ashes,

then hang unfinished canvas from the wandering mast,

so the darkened sail of gloomy Spanish flax

might speak the grief and passion in my mind.

But if the one who dwells in sacred Iton [ Athena ], who promised

to defend the people and city of Erectheus,[5] allows you

to wet your hand with the blood of the bull,

then make sure this command is done, buried in your

remembering heart, not to be erased by time:

that as soon as you set eyes on our hills,

strip the dark fabric fully from the yards,

and hoist white sails with your twisted ropes,

so that seeing them from the first, I’ll know joy

in my glad heart, when a happy time reveals your return.’

These words to Theseus, once held constantly in mind,

vanished like clouds of snow struck by a blast of wind

on the summits of high mountains.

But when his father, searching the view from the citadel’s height,

endless tears flooding his anxious eyes,

first saw the sails of dark fabric,

he threw himself head first from the height of the cliff,

believing Theseus lost to inexorable fate.

So fierce Theseus entered the palace in mourning

for his father’s death, and knew the same grief of mind

that he had caused neglected Ariadne,

she who was gazing then where his ship had vanished

pondering the many cares in her wounded heart.

But bright Bacchus hurries from elsewhere

with his chorus of Satyrs and Sileni from Nysa,

seeking you, Ariadne, burning with love for you.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Catullus.php#anchor_Toc531846789

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved


Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 8 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang)

Latin narrative poem, 1st century CE

In his Metamorphoses, Ovid gives a poetic version of Theseus’ slaying of the Minotaur. Contrary to the account in Pseudo-Apollodorus’ Bibliotheca, where Dionysus steals Ariadne away from Theseus while they are resting on the island of Naxos, in Ovid’s version, Theseus actually abandons Ariadne on Naxos, sailing back to Athens without her. As Ariadne weeps on the shores of the island, Dionysus (here “Bacchus,” his Roman name), comes to rescue her.


[152-182] When Minos reached Cretan soil he paid his dues to Jove, with the sacrifice of a hundred bulls, and hung up his war trophies to adorn the palace. The scandal concerning his family grew, and the queen’s unnatural adultery was evident from the birth of a strange hybrid monster. Minos resolved to remove this shame, the Minotaur, from his house, and hide it away in a labyrinth with blind passageways. Daedalus, celebrated for his skill in architecture, laid out the design, and confused the clues to direction, and led the eye into a tortuous maze, by the windings of alternating paths. No differently from the way in which the watery Maeander deludes the sight, flowing backwards and forwards in its changeable course, through the meadows of Phrygia, facing the running waves advancing to meet it, now directing its uncertain waters towards its source, now towards the open sea: so Daedalus made the endless pathways of the maze, and was scarcely able to recover the entrance himself: the building was as deceptive as that.
In there, Minos walled up the twin form of bull and man, and twice had it nourished on Athenian blood. But the third repetition of the tribute, which happened every nine-years and was chosen by lot, caused the monster’s downfall. When, through the help of the virgin princess, Ariadne, by rewinding the thread, Theseus, son of Aegeus, won his way back to the elusive threshold, that no one had previously regained, he immediately set sail for Dia, stealing the daughter of Minos away with him, then cruelly abandoned her on that shore. Deserted and weeping bitterly, as she was, BacchusLiber brought her help and comfort. So that she might shine among the eternal stars, he took the crown from her forehead, and set it in the sky. It soared through the rarefied air, and as it soared its jewels changed to bright fires, and took their place, retaining the appearance of a crown, as the Corona Borealis, between the kneeling Hercules and the head of the serpent that Ophiuchus holds.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Metamorph8.php#anchor_Toc64106496

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2000 All Rights Reserved


Ovid, Ars Amatoria, Book 1 (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang)

Latin elegy, 1st century CE

[content warning for the following source: sexual assault]
In his Ars Amatoria, a set of three long elegiac poems in which he claims to teach the art of love to young men and women, Ovid explains how Ariadne’s grief made her attractive to Bacchus, causing the god to abduct the abandoned girl.


[15] Ah, Bacchus calls to his poet: he helps lovers too,

and supports the fire with which he is inflamed.

The frantic Cretan girl wandered the unknown sands,

that the waters of tiny sea-borne Dia showed.

Just as she was, from sleep, veiled by her loose robe,

barefoot, with her yellow hair unbound,

she called, for cruel Theseus, to the unhearing waves,

her gentle cheeks wet with tears of shame.

She called, and wept as well, but both became her,

she was made no less beautiful by her tears.

Now striking her sweet breast with her hands, again and again,

she cried: ‘That faithless man’s gone: what of me, now?

What will happen to me?’ she cried: and the whole shore

echoed to the sound of cymbals and frenzied drums.

She fainted in terror, her next words were stifled:

no sign of blood in her almost lifeless body.

Behold! The Bacchantes with loose streaming hair:

Behold! The wanton Satyrs, a crowd before the god:

Behold! Old Silenus, barely astride his swaybacked mule,

clutching tightly to its mane in front.

While he pursues the Bacchae, the Bacchae flee and return,

as the rascal urges the mount on with his staff.

He slips from his long-eared mule and falls headfirst:

the Satyrs cry: ‘Rise again, father, rise,’

Now the God in his chariot, wreathed with vines,

curbing his team of tigers, with golden reins:

the girl’s voice and colour and Theseus all lost:

three times she tried to run, three times fear held her back.

She shook, like a slender stalk of wheat stirred by the wind,

and trembled like a light reed in a marshy pool.

To whom the god said: ‘See, I come, more faithful in love:

have no fear: Cretan, you’ll be bride to Bacchus.

Take the heavens for dowry: be seen as heavenly stars:

and guide the anxious sailor often to your Cretan Crown [the Corona Borealis].’

He spoke, and leapt from the chariot, in case she feared

his tigers: the sand yielded under his feet:

clasped in his arms (she had no power to struggle),

he carried her away: all’s easily possible to a god.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/ArtofLoveBkI.php#anchor_Toc521049271

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved


Ovid, Heroides 10, “Ariadne to Theseus” (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Latin epistolary poem, 1st century BCE

Finally, one of Ovid’s Heroides, his fictional, poetic letters written from the point of view of mythic heroines, features Ariadne writing a letter to Theseus, detailing her grief at his abandonment of her.


Even now, left to the wild beasts, she might live, cruel Theseus.

Do you expect her to have endured this too, patiently?

The whole tribe of creatures contrive to be gentler than you:

not one have I had less confidence in than you.

Theseus, what you read has been sent to you from this land,

from which your sails carried your ship without me,

in which my sleep, and you, evilly betrayed me,

conceiving your plans against me while I slept.

It was the time when the earth’s first sprinkled with glassy frost,

and the hidden birds lament in the leaves:

waking uncertainly, and stirring languidly in sleep,

half-turning, my hand reached out for Theseus:

there was no one there. I drew back, and tried again,

and moved my arm across the bed: no one there.

Fear broke through my drowsiness: terrified, I rose

and hurled my body from the empty bed.

Straight away my hands drummed on my breast, and tore at my hair,

just as it was, on waking, from my confused sleep.

There was a moon: I looked and saw nothing but the shore:

wherever my eyes could see, there was nothing but sand.

I ran here and there without any sense of purpose,

the deep sand slowing a girl’s feet.

Meanwhile I called: ‘Theseus!’ over the whole beach

your name echoing from the hollow cliffs

and as often as I called you, the place itself called too:

the place itself wished to give aid to my misery.

There was a hill: a few bushes were visible on its summit:

a crag hangs there hollowed out by the harsh waves.

I climbed it: courage gave me strength: and I scanned

the wide waters from that height with my gaze.

Then I saw – now the cruel winds were also felt –

your ship driven before a fierce southerly gale.

Either with what I saw, or what I may have thought I’d seen:

I was frozen like ice and half-alive.

But grief allowed no time for languor. I was roused by it,

and roused, I called to Theseus at the top of my voice.

‘Where are you going?’ I shouted ‘turn back, wicked Theseus!

Work your ship! You’re without one of your number!’

So I called. When my voice failed I beat my breast instead:

my blows were interspaced with my words.

If you could not hear at least you might still see:

I made wide signals with my outstretched hands.

I hung a white cloth on a tall branch,

hoping those who’d forgotten would remember me.

Now you were lost to sight. Then finally I wept:

till then my cheeks were numb with grief.

What could my eyes do but weep at myself,

once they had ceased to see your sails?

Either I wandered alone, with disheveled hair,

like a Maenad shaken by the Theban god [ Bacchus ]:

or I sat on the cold rock gazing at the sea,

and I was as much a stone as the stones I sat on.

Often I seek again the bed that accepted us both,

but it shows no sign of that acceptance,

and I touch what I can of the traces of you, instead of you,

and the sheets your body warmed.

I lie there and, wetting the bed with my flowing tears,

I cry out: ‘We two burdened you, restore the two!

We came here together: why shouldn’t we go together?

Faithless bed, where’s the better part of me now?

What am I to do? Why endure alone? The island’s unploughed:

I see no human beings: I can’t imagine there’s an ox.

The land’s encircled by the sea on every side: no sailors,

no ship to set sail on its uncertain way.

Suppose I was given companions, winds and ship,

where would I make for? My country denies me access.

If my boat slid gently through peaceful waters,

calmed by Aeolian winds, I’d be an exile still.

I could not gaze at you, Crete, split in a hundred cities,

a land that was known to the infant Jove.

But my father and that land justly ruled by my father,

those dear names, were both betrayed by me.

while you, the victor who retraced your steps, would have died

in the winding labyrinth, unless guided by the thread I gave you,

Then, you said to me: ‘I swear by the dangers overcome,

that you’ll be mine while we both shall live.’

We live, and I’m not yours, Theseus, if you still live,

I’m a woman buried by the fraud of a lying man.

Club that killed my brother, the Minotaur, condemn me too!

The promise that you gave should be dissolved by death.

Now I see not only what I must endure,

but what any castaway would suffer.

A thousand images of dying fill my mind,

and I fear death less than delay in that penalty of death.

At every moment I dream it, coming from here or there,

as if wolves tore my entrails with eager teeth.

Perhaps this land breeds tawny lions?

Who knows if this island harbours savage tigers?

And they say that the ocean throws up huge sea-lions:

and who could prevent some sword piercing my side?

If only I might not be a captive, bound with harsh chains,

nor draw out endless threads with a slave’s hand,

I whose father is Minos, whose mother [ Pasiphae ] is the Sun’s daughter,

because of that I remember the more, that I was bound to you!

If I see the ocean, the land and the wide shore,

I fear many things on land, many on the waves.

The sky remains: I fear visions from the gods:

I’m forsaken, a prey and food for swift beasts.

If men live here and cultivate this place, I distrust them:

I’ve thoroughly learned to fear wounds from strangers.

I wish my brother Androgeus lived and you Athens, land of Cecrops,

hadn’t paid with your children’s deaths for his impious murder:

and that you, Theseus hadn’t killed the Minotaur, half human, half bull,

wielding a knotted club in your strong hand:

and that I hadn’t given you the thread that marked your way back,

the thread so often received back into the hand that drew it.

I’m not surprised that victory was yours, and the monster,

prone, lay groaning on the Cretan earth.

His horns could not pierce your iron heart:

though you might fail to shield it, your breast would be safe.

There you revealed flints and adamants,

there you’ve a Theseus harder than flint.

Cruel sleep, why did you hold me there, senseless?

Rather I should have been buried forever in eternal night.

You too cruel winds, you gales, all too ready

and overzealous in bringing tears to me:

cruel right hand that causes my death, and my brother’s,

and offered the promise I asked, an empty name:

Sleep, the breeze, the promise conspired against me:

one girl, I’m betrayed by three causes.

So it seems I’ll die without seeing my mother’s tears,

and there’ll be no one to close my eyes.

My unhappy spirit will vanish on a foreign breeze,

no friendly hand will anoint my laid-out body.

The seabirds will hover over my unburied bones:

these are the ceremonies fit for my tomb.

You’ll be carried to Athens, and be received by your homeland,

where you’ll stand in the high fortress of your city,

and speak cleverly of the death of man and bull,

and the labyrinth’s winding paths cut from the rock:

speak of me also, abandoned in a lonely land:

I’m not to be dropped, secretly, from your list!

Your father’s not Aegeus: Aethra, daughter of Pittheus,

is not your mother: your creators were stone and sea.

May the gods have ordained that you saw me from the high stern,

that my mournful figure altered your expression.

Now see me not with your eyes, but as you can, with your mind,

clinging to a rock the fickle sea beats against:

see my disheveled hair like one who is in mourning

and my clothes heavy with rain-like tears!

My body trembles like ears of wheat struck by a north wind

and the letters I write waver in my unsteady fingers.

I don’t entreat you by my kindness, since that has ended badly:

let no gratitude be owed for my deeds.

But no punishment either. If I’m not the cause of your health,

that’s still no reason why you should cause me harm.

These hands weary of beating my sad breast for you,

unhappily I stretch them out over the wide waters:

I mournfully display to you what remains of my hair:

I beg you by these tears your actions have caused:

turn your ship, Theseus, fall back against the wind:

if I die first, you can still bear my bones.


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Heroides8-15.php#anchor_Toc524696647

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved


Athens and Later Life

Theseus in Athens

After the death of his father Aegeus, Theseus inherited kingship of Athens. He was credited with creating many political institutions, and unifying Attica as the democratic state of Athens.

For further discussion of the foundation of Athens, see chapter 36.

After abandoning Ariadne, Theseus embarked on a mission, alongside his friend Pirithous, to find a wife.

Like Heracles, Bellerophon, Achilles, and other Greek heroes, his adventures included an encounter with the Amazons. Theseus (either with Heracles or alone) went to the Amazons and kidnapped their queen, called either Hippolyte or Antiope. Theseus and Hippolyte had a son, Hippolytus (see “Phaedra and Hippolytus,” below).

Additionally, Theseus and Pirithous attempted unsuccessfully to kidnap Helen of Sparta and the goddess Persephone.

For further discussion of the Amazons, see chapter 23.

For further discussion of Theseus’ descent to the Underworld to capture Persephone, see chapter 41.


Plutarch, Parallel Lives 1, “Life of Theseus,” Chapters 6, 7, 10, 15, 16, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 35 (trans. W. W. Skeat, B. Perrin, adapted by L. Zhang and P. Rogak)

Greek biography, 2nd century CE

[content warning for the following source: suicide]
Plutarch was a Greek author from the 2nd century CE.  Among his many works are the ‘Parallel Lives,’ biographies of famous Greeks and Romans that paralleled one another.  His ‘Life of Theseus’ was the counterpart to his ‘Life of Romulus.’  Although Plutarch tended towards the rationalizing or euhemerizing versions of stories, he couldn’t resist slipping in some fantastical tales as well.


Chapter 6

During the rest of the time, then, Aethra kept his true birth concealed from Theseus, and a report was spread abroad by Pittheus that he was begotten by Poseidon. For Poseidon is highly honored by the people of Troezen, and he is the patron god of their city; to him they offer first fruits in sacrifice, and they have his trident as an emblem on their coinage. [2] But when, in his young manhood, Theseus displayed, along with his vigor of body, prowess also, and a firm spirit united with intelligence and sagacity, then Aethra brought him to the rock, told him the truth about his birth, and bade him take away his fathers tokens and go by sea to Athens. [3] Theseus put his shoulder to the rock and easily raised it up, but he refused to make his journey by sea, although safety lay in that course, and his grandfather and his mother begged him to take it. For it was difficult to make the journey to Athens by land, since no part of it was clear nor yet without peril from robbers and miscreants. [4]

For verily that age produced men who, in work of hand and speed of foot and vigor of body, were extraordinary and indefatigable, but they applied their powers to nothing that was fitting or useful. Nay rather, they exulted in monstrous insolence, and reaped from their strength a harvest of cruelty and bitterness, mastering and forcing and destroying everything that came in their path. And as for reverence and righteousness, justice and humanity, they thought that most men praised these qualities for lack of courage to do wrong and for fear of being wronged, and considered them no concern of men who were strong enough to get the upper hand. [5] Some of these creatures Heracles cut off and destroyed as he went about, but some escaped his notice as he passed by, crouching down and shrinking back, and were overlooked in their abjectness. And when Heracles met with calamity and, after the slaying of Iphitus, removed into Lydia and for a long time did slave’s service there in the house of Omphale, then Lydia indeed obtained great peace and security; but in the regions of Hellas the old villainies burst forth and broke out anew, there being none to rebuke and none to restrain them. [6]

The journey was therefore a perilous one for travelers by land from Peloponnesus to Athens, and Pittheus, by describing each of the miscreants at length, what sort of a monster he was, and what deeds he wrought upon strangers, tried to persuade Theseus to make his journey by sea. But he, as it would seem, had long since been secretly fired by the glorious valor of Heracles, and made the greatest account of that hero, and was a most eager listener to those who told what manner of man he was, and above all to those who had seen him and been present at some deed or speech of his. [7] And it is altogether plain that he then experienced what Themistocles many generations afterwards experienced, when he said that he could not sleep for the trophy of Miltiades. In like manner Theseus admired the valor of Heracles, until by night his dreams were of the hero’s achievements, and by day his ardor led him along and spurred him on in his purpose to achieve the like.

Chapter 7

Regarding the voyage he made by sea, Major, Philochorus, and some others are of the opinion that he went there with Hercules to fight against the Amazons: and that to honour his valiantness, Hercules gave him Antiopa the Amazon. But most of the other historiographers, namely Hellanicus, Pherecides, and Herodotus, write that Theseus went there alone, after Hercules’ voyage, and that he took this Amazon prisoner; which is more likely to be true. For we do not find that any other, aside from Theseus, who went this journey or took any Amazon prisoner. Bion, also a historiographer, despite this claim, says that he brought her away by deceit and stealth.

For the Amazons (he states) naturally loved men and did not flee at all when they saw them land in their country, but sent them presents, and Theseus enticed the one who had brought him a present  to come aboard his ship. And when she was on board, he hoisted his sail and carried her away. Another historiographer Menecrates, who wrote the history of the city of Nicea in the country of Bithynia, said that Theseus, having this Amazon Antiopa with him, remained a certain time on those coasts, and that he had in his company three younger brethren of Athens, Euneus, Thoas, and Solois (among others).

This last one, Solois, was marvelousIy in love with Antiopa, and never told any of his companions, except one with whom he was most familiar and whom he trusted best, so that he reported this matter to Antiopa. But she utterly rejected his advances, though otherwise she handled it wisely and courteously, and did not complain to Theseus of him.

However, the young man, despairing about his love, took it so personally that, desperately, he leaped into the river and drowned himself. Which, when Theseus understood the reason for his demise, was very angry and full of regret. Then he remembered a certain oracle of Pythia, by whom he was commanded to build a city in the place in a foreign country where he was most regretful, and should leave some of the people who were with him at that time to govern the place.

For this reason, therefore, he built a city in that place, which he named Pythopolis, because he built it only by the commandment of the priestess Pythia. He called the river, in which the young man was drowned “Solois”, in memory of him, and left his two brethren for his deputies and as governors of this new city, with another gentleman of Athens, called Hermus.

Chapter 10

Theseus and Pirithous went together to the city of Lacedaemon [Sparta], where they took away Helen (who was still very young) even as she was dancing in the temple of Diana Orthia, and they fled for their lives. The Lacedaemonians chased after her; but those that followed went no further than the city of Tegea. When they had escaped of the Peloponnesus, they agreed to draw lots together to determine which of the two of them should have her, on the condition that whoever had her should take her to be his wife and would be bound to also to help his companion to get him another.

It was Theseus’ luck to win the lot and he carried her to the city of Aphidnae because she was still too young to be married. He had his mother to come raise her to adulthood and gave his friend, Aphidnus, guardianship of them both. He placed Helen in his good care and tasked him to keep it so secret that nobody should know what had happened to her.

Because he would do the same for Pirithous (according to the agreement made between them) he went into Epirus with him to steal the daughter of Aidoneus, king of the Molossians, who had named his wife Proserpina, his daughter Proserpina, and his dog (with whom he made those who came to ask for his daughter in marriage fight) Cerberus.[6] He promised to give her to whoever defeated his Cerberus. But the king knew that Pirithous came not to request his daughter in marriage, but to steal her away, so he took him prisoner with Theseus. He had Pirithous torn to pieces by his dog, and shut Theseus up in a secure prison.

Chapter 15

Not long afterwards there came from Crete for the third time the collectors of the tribute. Now as to this tribute, most writers agree that because Androgeos was thought to have been treacherously killed within the confines of Attica, not only did Minos harass the inhabitants of that country greatly in war,1 but Heaven also laid it waste, for barrenness and pestilence smote it sorely, and its rivers dried up; also that when their god assured them in his commands that if they appeased Minos and became reconciled to him, the wrath of Heaven would abate and there would be an end of their miseries, they sent heralds and made their supplication and entered into an agreement to send him every nine years a tribute of seven youths and as many maidens. [2] And the most dramatic version of the story declares that these young men and women, on being brought to Crete, were destroyed by the Minotaur in the Labyrinth, or else wandered about at their own will and, being unable to find an exit, perished there; and that the Minotaur, as Euripides says, was

“A mingled form and hybrid birth of monstrous shape,”

and that

“Two different natures, man and bull, were joined in him.”

Chapter 16

Philochorus, however, says that the Cretans do not admit this, but declare that the Labyrinth was a dungeon, with no other inconvenience than that its prisoners could not escape; and that Minos instituted funeral games in honor of Androgeos, and as prizes for the victors, gave these Athenian youth, who were in the meantime imprisoned in the Labyrinth and that the victor in the first games was the man who had the greatest power at that time under Minos, and was his general, Taurus by name, who was not reasonable and gentle in his disposition, but treated the Athenian youth with arrogance and cruelty. [2] And Aristotle himself also, in his Constitution of Bottiaea, clearly does not think that these youths were put to death by Minos, but that they spent the rest of their lives as slaves in Crete. And he says that the Cretans once, in fulfillment of an ancient vow, sent an offering of their first-born to Delphi, and that some descendants of those Athenians were among the victims, and went forth with them; and that when they were unable to support themselves there, they first crossed over into Italy and dwelt in that country round about Iapygia, and from there journeyed again into Thrace and were called Bottiaeans; and that this was the reason why the maidens of Bottiaea, in performing a certain sacrifice, sing as an accompaniment ‘To Athens let us go!’

And verily it seems to be a grievous thing for a man to be at enmity with a city which has a language and a literature. [3] For Minos was always abused and reviled in the Attic theaters, and it did not avail him either that Hesiod2 called him ‘most royal,’ or that Homer3 styled him ‘a confidant of Zeus,’ but the tragic poets prevailed, and from platform and stage showered obloquy down upon him, as a man of cruelty and violence. And yet they say that Minos was a king and lawgiver, and that Rhadamanthus was a judge under him, and a guardian of the principles of justice defined by him.

Chapter 23

The ship on which Theseus sailed with the youths and returned in safety, the thirty-oared galley, was preserved by the Athenians down to the time of Demetrius Phalereus.1 They took away the old timbers from time to time, and put new and sound ones in their places, so that the vessel became a standing illustration for the philosophers in the mooted question of growth, some declaring that it remained the same, others that it was not the same vessel. [2]

It was Theseus who instituted also the Athenian festival of the Oschophoria. For it is said that he did not take away with him all the maidens on whom the lot fell at that time, but picked out two young men of his acquaintance who had fresh and girlish faces, but eager and manly spirits, and changed their outward appearance almost entirely by giving them warn baths and keeping them out of the sun, by arranging their hair, and by smoothing their skin and beautifying their complexions with unguents; he also taught them to imitate maidens as closely as possible in their speech, their dress, and their gait, and to leave no difference that could be observed, and then enrolled them among the maidens who were going to Crete, and was undiscovered by any. [3] And when he was come back, he himself and these two young men headed a procession, arrayed as those are now arrayed who carry the vine-branches. They carry these in honor of Dionysus and Ariadne, and because of their part in the story; or rather, because they came back home at the time of the vintage. And the women called Deipnophoroi, or supper-carriers, take part in the procession and share in the sacrifice, in imitation of the mothers of the young men and maidens on whom the lot fell, for these kept coming with bread and meat for their children. And tales are told at this festival, because these mothers, for the sake of comforting and encouraging their children, spun out tales for them. At any rate, these details are to be found in the history of Demon. Furthermore, a sacred precinct was also set apart for Theseus, and he ordered the members of the families which had furnished the tribute to the Minotaur to make contributions towards a sacrifice to himself. This sacrifice was superintended by the Phytalidae, and Theseus thus repaid them for their hospitality.

Chapter 24

After the death of Aegeus, Theseus conceived a wonderful design, and settled all the residents of Attica in one city, thus making one people of one city out of those who up to that time had been scattered about and were not easily called together for the common interests of all, nay, they sometimes actually quarrelled and fought with each other. [2] He visited them, then, and tried to win them over to his project township by township and clan by clan. The common folk and the poor quickly answered to his summons; to the powerful he promised government without a king and a democracy, in which he should only be commander in war and guardian of the laws, while in all else everyone should be on an equal footing. [3] Some he readily persuaded to this course, and others, fearing his power, which was already great, and his boldness, chose to be persuaded rather than forced to agree to it. Accordingly, after doing away with the townhalls and council-chambers and magistracies in the several communities, and after building a common town-hall and council-chamber for all on the ground where the upper town of the present day stands, he named the city Athens, and instituted a Panathenaic festival. [4] He instituted also the Metoecia, or Festival of Settlement, on the sixteenth day of the month Hecatombaeon, and this is still celebrated. Then, laying aside the royal power, as he had agreed, he proceeded to arrange the government, and that too with the sanction of the gods. For an oracle came to him from Delphi, in answer to his enquiries about the city, as follows:— [5]

“Theseus, offspring of Aegeus, son of the daughter of Pittheus,
Many indeed the cities to which my father has given
Bounds and future fates within your citadel’s confines.
Therefore be not dismayed, but with firm and confident spirit
Counsel only; the bladder will traverse the sea and its surges.”

And this oracle they say the Sibyl afterwards repeated to the city, when she cried:—”‘Bladder may be submerged; but its sinking will not be permitted.’”

Chapter 25

Desiring still further to enlarge the city, he invited all men thither on equal terms, and the phrase ‘Come hither all ye people,’ they say was a proclamation of Theseus when he established a people, as it were, of all sorts and conditions. However, he did not suffer his democracy to become disordered or confused from an indiscriminate multitude streaming into it, but was the first to separate the people into noblemen and husbandmen and handicraftsmen. [2] To the noblemen he committed the care of religious rites, the supply of magistrates, the teaching of the laws, and the interpretation of the will of Heaven, and for the rest of the citizens he established a balance of privilege, the noblemen being thought to excel in dignity, the husbandmen in usefulness, and the handicraftsmen in numbers. And that he was the first to show a leaning towards the multitude, as Aristotle says, and gave up his absolute rule, seems to be the testimony of Homer also, in the Catalogue of Ships,1 where he speaks of the Athenians alone as a ‘people.’ [3]…

Chapter 26

He also made a voyage into the Euxine Sea, as Philochorus and sundry others say, on a campaign with Heracles against the Amazons, and received Antiope as a reward of his valor; but the majority of writers, including Pherecydes, Hellanicus, and Herodorus, say that Theseus made this voyage on his own account, after the time of Heracles, and took the Amazon captive; and this is the more probable story. For it is not recorded that any one else among those who shared his expedition took an Amazon captive. [2] And Bion says that even this Amazon he took and carried off by means of a stratagem. The Amazons, he says, were naturally friendly to men, and did not fly from Theseus when he touched upon their coasts, but actually sent him presents, and he invited the one who brought them to come on board his ship; she came on board, and he put out to sea…

Chapter 27

Well, then, such were the grounds for the war of the Amazons, which seems to have been no trivial nor womanish enterprise for Theseus. For they would not have pitched their camp within the city, nor fought hand to hand battles in the neighborhood of the Pnyx and the Museum, had they not mastered the surrounding country and approached the city with impunity. [2] Whether, now, as Hellanicus writes, they came round by the Cimmerian Bosporus, which they crossed on the ice, may be doubted; but the fact that they encamped almost in the heart of the city is attested both by the names of the localities there and by the graves of those who fell in battle.

Chapter 29

There are, however, other stories also about marriages of Theseus which were neither honorable in their beginnings nor fortunate in their endings, but these have not been dramatized. For instance, he is said to have carried off Anaxo, a maiden of Troezen, and after slaying Sinis and Cercyon to have ravished their daughters; also to have married Periboea, the mother of Aias, and Phereboea afterwards, and Iope, the daughter of Iphicles; [2] and because of his passion for Aegle, the daughter of Panopeus, as I have already said,1 he is accused of the desertion of Ariadne, which was not honorable nor even decent; and finally, his rape of Helen is said to have filled Attica with war, and to have brought about at last his banishment and death, of which things I shall speak a little later. [3]

Of the many exploits performed in those days by the bravest men, Herodorus thinks that Theseus took part in none, except that he aided the Lapithae in their war with the Centaurs; but others say that he was not only with Jason at Colchis,2 but helped Meleager to slay the Calydonian boar, and that hence arose the proverb ‘Not without Theseus’; that he himself, however, without asking for any ally, performed many glorious exploits, and that the phrase ‘Lo! another Heracles’ became current with reference to him.

Chapter 30

The friendship of Peirithous and Theseus is said to have come about in the following manner. Theseus had a very great reputation for strength and bravery, and Peirithous was desirous of making test and proof of it. Accordingly, he drove Theseus’s cattle away from Marathon, and when he learned that their owner was pursuing him in arms, he did not fly, but turned back and met him. [2] When, however, each beheld the other with astonishment at his beauty and admiration of his daring, they refrained from battle, and Peirithous, stretching out his hand the first, bade Theseus himself be judge of his robbery, for he would willingly submit to any penalty which the other might assign. Then Theseus not only remitted his penalty, but invited him to be a friend and brother in arms; whereupon they ratified their friendship with oaths. [3]

After this, when Peirithous was about to marry Deidameia, he asked Theseus to come to the wedding, and see the country, and become acquainted with the Lapithae. Now he had invited the Centaurs also to the wedding feast. And when these were flown with insolence and wine, and laid hands upon the women, the Lapithae took vengeance upon them. Some of them they slew upon the spot, the rest they afterwards overcame in war and expelled from the country, Theseus fighting with them at the banquet and in the war.

Chapter 35

But when he desired to rule again as before, and to direct the state, he became involved in factions and disturbances; he found that those who hated him when he went away, had now added to their hatred contempt, and he saw that a large part of the people were corrupted, and wished to be cajoled into service instead of doing silently what they were told to do. [3] Attempting, then, to force his wishes upon them, he was overpowered by demagogues and factions, and finally, despairing of his cause, he sent his children away privately into Euboea, to Elephenor, the son of Chalcodon, while he himself, after invoking curses upon the Athenians at Gargettus, where there is to this day the place called Araterion,1 sailed away to the island of Scyros, where the people were friendly to him, as he thought, and where he had ancestral estates.

Taken from: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.03.0078%3Atext%3DThes.



Phaedra and Hippolytus

[content warning for the following section: mention of rape, suicide]

The following content is adapted by T. Mulder from Mythology Unbound and is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA license.

Many years later, Theseus married Minos’ youngest daughter, Phaedra, to smooth over relations with Crete. But when he brought Phaedra back to Athens, she fell in love with Hippolytus, his son by the Amazon queen, Hippolyte, who was now about nineteen or twenty years old (and much closer to Phaedra in age than Theseus was). Some say that Aphrodite had caused Phaedra fall in love because Hippolytus was a devotee of the virgin goddess Artemis. Since Artemis was a virgin, Hippolytus had vowed to remain a virgin as well, and Aphrodite took this as a personal affront. In any case, Phaedra was sick with love for the handsome young man. But despite her personal pain, she vowed never to breath a word of her feelings to anyone.

But Phaedra’s nurse, who was an astute observer, figured out what was going on. She contrived to bring Phaedra and Hippolytus together, but he was aggressively opposed to this idea. Out of shame, Phaedra decided to kill herself. Before she did, she addressed a note to Theseus, falsely claiming that Hippolytus had tried to rape her. Despite Hippolytus’ protestations, Theseus believed what he read in the note. He banished Hippolytus from Athens and called upon his own father, Poseidon, to punish the young man. As Hippolytus was driving his chariot out of Athens along the seashore, a terrifying bull emerged from the water. The horses were so frightened that they all reared up and ran in different directions. Hippolytus got tangled in the reins of his chariot and was eventually pulled apart by his horses. After this happened, Artemis told Theseus the truth.

The whole myth is most famously told by the Greek playwright Euripides, in his tragic play, Hippolytuswhich won first place in the theatre contest at the Festival of Dionysus in Athens in 428 BCE.


Ovid, Heroides 4, “Phaedra to Hippolytus” (trans. A. S. Kline, adapted by L. Zhang)

Latin epistolary poem, 1st century BCE

Ovid dramatizes the myth in his fourth Heroides, an imagined latter from Phaedra to Hippolytus, written in Latin in the 1st century BCE.


The Cretan girl, who lacks health unless he grants it to her,

wishes good health to the man who’s the Amazon’s son.

Read what is here. How could reading a letter harm you?

There might even be something in it that pleases you.

My secrets are carried, by these letters, over land and sea:

even enemies read letters received from their enemies.

I’ve tried to speak to you three times, three times my tongue

clung to my mouth, three times the sound died on my lips.

It’s right and natural that shame is mingled with love:

love ordered me to write, to say what shames me.

Whatever love commands cannot be wholly denied:

He [ Cupid ] rules and is a law among the gods.

He told me to pen words, in my first confusion:

‘Write! Having conquered, he’ll give his cruel hand.’

He helps me, and, seeing that he heats my marrow with greedy fire,

he may also fix your affections as I wish.

I would not break my marriage contract through sin –

you can enquire – my reputation’s free of any stain.

Love that comes late is deeper. We burn within; we burn,

and our feelings suffer the secret wounds.

I suppose that, as a young ox is chafed by the yoke,

and a horse captured from the herd scarcely tolerates the harness,

so with great difficulty, with rawness, the heart suffers new love.

and this burden does not lie easy on my spirit.

When guilt’s fully learnt in early years, it becomes an art:

love that comes with the claims of time, loves less easily.

You will enjoy a new libation, one that has been guarded from sin,

and both of us will become equally guilty.

What’s plucked from the loaded branches in the orchard

is valuable, and the rose first gathered by slender fingers.

But even if that first purity, that I bring you free of sin,

were to be marked by this unaccustomed stain,

then I would still accept being burnt by a worthy fire:

a vile adulterer is more harmful than the adultery.

If Juno yielded me Jupiter, her husband and brother,

I’d consider Hippolytus preferable to Jove!

Now too – you’ll scarcely believe this – I take up new arts:

I have the urge to be among wild creatures:

now my chief goddess is Diana, known for her curved bow:

in following her I follow your preference:

I love to pass through the woods and drive deer into my nets,

urging my swift hounds over the tops of the hills,

or launch a quivering spear from my trembling arm,

or throw my body down on the grassy earth.

often I delight in driving a light chariot through the dust,

and twisting the bit in the mouth of a fleeing horse,

Now I’m swept away, like the Maenads roused by Bacchic frenzy,

like those who beat their drums on the slopes of Mount Ida,

or those semi-divine Dryads, and twin-horned Fauns,

who are stunned, touched by his power.

And then others relate it all, when the madness abates:

I silently burn, conscious of love.

Perhaps by my fate I’m paying for the passions of my race,

and Venus may be seeking a tribute from all the tribe.

Jupiter loved Europa, as a bull, hiding his godhead,

– she was the first origin of our people.

A burden and a reproach was born from the womb

of my mother, Pasiphae, mounted by a bull she tricked.

Treacherous Theseus, following the guiding thread

escaped the labyrinth with the help of Ariadne, my sister.

Indeed, I now, lest I might be thought no child of Minos,

am the latest to be subject to the common rules of my tribe.

This was destined too: one House pleased both of us:

your beauty captivated me, your father’s my sister.

Theseus and his son have seized on two sisters:

build twin memorials to us then in your house!

At the time when I entered Ceres’s Eleusis

the soil of Crete should have held me back –

then you above all pleased me (though you had before):

fierce love clung to me in the depths of my bones.

You were clothed in white, your hair surrounded by flowers,

a modest blush tinged your golden cheeks:

others call your face grim and severe,

in Phaedra’s judgment that severity is strength.

let men who are adorned like women stay far from me:

beauty loves the masculine, adorned in moderation.[7]

That severity of yours suits you, hair placed without art,

and the light dust on your distinguished face.

I admire it if you struggle with the arched necks of fiery horses,

forcing them to turn their hooves in a tight circle:

or if you calmly hurl the javelin with your strong arm,

your warlike face turned towards your shoulder:

or grasp the wide-bladed hunting spear of cornel wood –

in the end whatever you do delights my eyes.

Only expend your harshness on the wooded hills:

I’m not a fit subject to be destroyed by you.

Why delight in the study of high-girt Diana’s occupation,

and avoid what you owe to Venus?

What lacks rest now and then, will not last:

rest renews the powers, and restores weary limbs.

The bow (indeed, your weapons imitate Diana’s)

which never ceases to be strung, grows slack.

Cephalus was distinguished in hunting, and many creatures

were killed, among the grasses, by his blows:

yet he didn’t do badly in yielding to Aurora’s lovemaking:

the discreet goddess went to him from her aged husband.

The grass beneath the oak trees often held

Venus and Adonis, both, lying there relaxed.

And Meleager was on fire for Arcadian Atalanta:

she had the wild boar’s hide as a token of his love.

We too could soon be numbered in this throng!

If you take Love away your woods are uncivilised.

I’ll come myself as your companion, the hidden rocks

don’t worry me, nor fear of the boar’s curving tooth.

Two seas pound the Isthmus with their waves,

and the slender stretch of land hears both their waters.

There I might live with you, in Troezen, Pittheus’s kingdom:

it’s now a country dearer to me than my own.

Theseus, Neptune’s son, has been away a while, and will be, longer,

Pirithous keeps him there in his country.

Theseus, unless we deny what’s obvious,

prefers Pirithous to Phaedra, and Pirithous to you.

That is not all: injury comes to us from him:

we have both been wounded deeply, in fact.

Breaking my brother’s [ the Minotaur’s ] bones with his three-knotted club,

he scattered them over the soil: left my sister [ Ariadne ] a prey to wild beasts.

Your mother, worthy, by her energy, of her son, bore you,

she the most courageous of the axe-wielding Amazon girls.

If you ask where she is, Theseus pierced her body with his sword:

not even such a child as you guaranteed her safety!

Indeed she was not even a bride, experiencing the wedding torch –

why, if not that you, a bastard, mightn’t hold your father’s kingdom?

Brothers he took from me, he gave to you. Yet I was not

the reason for taking them all away, he was.

O I wish the harm done you, in your heart’s core,

might be ended by the most beautiful of actions!

Come now, show your respect for your worthy father’s bed like this:

he who fled, and himself disowned his deeds.

Nor, because I’d be seen as a stepmother coupling with her stepson,

should you let your mind fear those empty names.

That old morality was held to be dying, as far as future ages,

were concerned, by Saturn, in his primitive kingdom.

Whatever might give Jupiter pleasure he declared lawful,

and divine law allows any sister to be married to her brother.

The tie is firm that’s made by procreation,

those bonds that Venus herself imposes.

It’s no effort to hide them, though! Seek the gift from her

of being able to mask guilt by known kinship.

Let someone see us embrace: we’ll both be praised,

I’ll be said to be a stepmother loyal to her stepson.

Not for you the unbarring of a harsh husband’s gate,

in the shadows, nor the deceiving of a guardian:

the house will hold as one, what it held as two.

Open kisses you gave, open kisses you’ll give.

You’ll be safe with me, and guilt will earn praise,

even if you are observed in my bed.

Rid yourself of delay, and join quickly in a compact!

Love will spare you, then, that which rages in me now!

I don’t scorn to be a suppliant, or beg humbly of you.

Ah! Where are pride and noble words now? Lost!

And I was certain I’d struggle for a long time –

if Love can be certain – and not submit to sin.

Conquered, I beg you, and clasp your knees with royal arms.

No lover thinks about what’s fitting.

I have no shame, and shame, fleeing, relinquishes its standards.

Acknowledge the favour given and conquer your hard heart!

For Minos, who is my father, rules the seas,

the lightning comes from one grandfather, Jupiter’s raised hand,

the other, Sol, his forehead fenced with sharp rays,

drives his gleaming chariot through the heat of day –

Nobility lies here subject to love: pity my forefathers

and if your power cannot spare me, spare them!

The land of Crete, Jupiter’s island, is my dowry:

all my kingdom would serve Hippolytus.

Cruel man, change your mind! My mother could seduce a bull:

will you be more savage than that wild bull?

Spare me, I beg you, by Venus who’s closest to me:

and so may you never love, what scorns you:

may the nimble goddess [ Diana ] be with you in secret glades,

may the deep woods offer you creatures for plunder:

may the Satyrs and the Pans, mountain gods, favour you,

and the wild boar fall, pierced by your opposing spear:

may the nymphs, though you’re said to hate the girls,

give you that water which quenches parching thirst!

I add tears also to these prayers. You who read

words of prayer, imagine that you can also see my tears!


Taken from: https://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/Latin/Heroides1-7.php#anchor_Toc523806688

Translated by A. S. Kline © Copyright 2001 All Rights Reserved



Theseus now had to live with the terrible truth that he had killed his own son, and for no good reason. He continued on as king of Athens, but life was never the same. He became moody and sullen, and he neglected his duties as king. The Athenians asked him to leave, and Theseus agreed. He decided to go to the island of Scyrus, Aegeus’ homeland, and Lycomedes, the king of Scyrus, agreed to give Theseus some land that had once belonged to Aegeus. But deep down, Lycomedes felt threatened by the presence of such a great hero. As Theseus was walking with Lycomedes along the cliffs at the edge of the island, somehow Theseus tripped (or did Lycomedes push him?) and he fell to his death.

Art and Symbolism

Theseus, nude and in a crown, raises a club in one hand and leads the bull on a rope with the other.
Theseus and the bull of Marathon, silver kylix, ca. 445 BCE (Vassil Bojkov Collection, Sofia)

Theseus was the most popular Athenian hero, so his image is particularly prominent in Athenian art. He was usually represented as a young man, often beardless, sometimes wearing a wide-brimmed hat (petasos), and carrying a sword. As his appearance is not immediately distinctive, it is easier to recognize Theseus from the mythical episodes in which he was involved.


Theseus, with a sword and crown, lunges at the minotaur. The Minotaur is down on one knee. On either side stand youths, robed.
Theseus and the Minotaur, black-figure amphora, ca. 480 BCE (National Archaeological Museum, Athens)
Theseus holds the Minotaur in a headlock and stabs at it with a spear or sword. The Minotaur is down on one knee. Two young women and two young men with spears stand on either side of the battle.
Theseus and the Minotaur, black-figure amphora, ca. 540 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)














Theseus lunges at the Minotaur with a sword. They are in a chase, both in the archaic running pose. A young woman stands behind, and a man stands in front.
Theseus and the Minotaur, black-figure amphora, ca. 575 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)
Theseus, nude and holding a sword, lunges at the Minotaur and grabs him by the head. The Minotaur, a humanoid figure with a bull's tale and head, body covered in leopard-like spots, falls back onto his knees. A bearded man in laurels and a toga stands by, possibly Minos.
Theseus and the Minotaur, tracing from red-figure hydria from ca. 480 BCE (accessed via Jason Brooks)

The most common scene depicting Theseus is the slaying of the Minotaur. The hero usually uses a sword to kill the monster; Athena or Ariadne are sometimes present.


The Minotaur is down on one knee. Theseus stands above him, with his sword stabbed into the Minotaur's head.
Theseus and the Minotaur, ring, ca. 100 BCE (Detroit Institute of Arts)
Theseus holds the minotaur in a headlock. Both figures are heavily damaged.
Theseus and the Minotaur, Delphi Athenian Treasury, ca. 500 BCE (Archaeological Museum, Delphi)


Theseus, in a laurel crown, holds the minotaur in a headlock and stabs it with his sword. The Minotaur is down on one knee.
Theseus and the Minotaur, black-figure vase, 6th century BCE
Theseus, in a tunic and hat, holds the Minotaur in a headlock and stabs at it. Blood pours from the wound. Two young women stand on either side, and a bird flies below Theseus.
Theseus and the Minotaur, black-figure amphora, ca. 540 BCE (Louvre Museum, Paris)





Theseus, with long hair and wearing a tunic, stabs the Minotaur. The Minotaur is on one knee with a hand up in the air. Youths stand on either side, and a bird flies below them.
Theseus and the Minotaur, black-figure amphora, ca. 550 BCE (Getty Villa, Los Angeles)

Another set of episodes often represented in art was that of the killing of various brigands on the way from Troezen to Athens, as well as the taming of the Bull of Marathon.


Theseus, nude with crown and a sword hung on his shoulder, grabs the branch of a pine tree with one hand and grabs Sinis' arm with the other. Sinis is a bearded, nude man.
Theseus and Sinis, red-figure kylix, ca. 490 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)
Theseus, in a tunic and wearing a petasos hat around his neck, holds Sciron by the leg and throws him. Below Sciron are wave patterns, and a turtle.
Theseus fighting Sciron, red-figure kylix, ca. 500 BCE (Altes Museum, Berlin)
Centre: Theseus, a nude young man with a crown and sword, drags the minotaur out from the columns of the labyrinth. Around, Theseus fights his various foes.
Deeds of Theseus. Centre: Theseus and the Minotaur. Clockwise from top: Cercyon, Procrustes, Sciron, the bull of Marathon, Sinis, the Crommyonian sow. Red-figure kylix, ca. 440 BCE (British Museum, London)
Theseus, a naked mad with a sword, laurel crown, and club, leads a bull by the horns. A woman walks in front of them, and an elderly bearded man walks behind.
Theseus and the bull of Marathon, red-figure krater, ca. 440 BCE (Metropolitan Museum, New York)

Theseus was also often portrayed kidnapping of the queen of the Amazons, Antiope, or that of young Helen.


Theseus, long-haired and wearing a hat, holds Antiope. Both figures are heavily damaged.
Theseus and Antiope, Greek statue, 5th century BCE (Archaeological Museum of Eretria)
Theseus, with a chlamys cape, crown, and long hair, stands over Antiope, who wears armor. Both reliefs are heavily damaged.
Theseus and Antiope, Delphi Athenian Treasury metope, ca. 500 BCE (Archaeological Museum, Delphi)














Theseus, nude, carries Helen, a richly-robed woman with earrings and a crown. Another woman chases after and tries to stop them.
Theseus abducting Helen, red-figure amphora, ca. 510 BCE (Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich)
Theseus, nude with a shield, helm, and sword, pursues an Amazon. Another Amazon attacks him from behind. The amazons wear short armored tunics and wield picks, and are depicted with jagged tiger-like stripes on their arms and legs.
Theseus fighting the Amazons, red-figure amphora, 5th century BCE (Israel Museum, Jerusalem)

Media Attributions and Footnotes

Media Attributions

  1. Indicates a gap or missing segment in the text
  2. Erectheus may refer to various figures in Athens' history: Erectheus I (also called Erichthonius), Erectheus II (a later king of Athens), or Poseidon, who was worshipped in Athens with the epithet Erectheus.
  3. The Centauromachy, the battle between the Lapiths and the centaurs at the wedding of Hippodamia and Pirithous, is a common theme in Greek art (such as on the famous West Pediment of the temple of Zeus and Olympia).
  4. Book 12 of Ovid's Metamorphoses provides the most detailed account of the story of Caeneus. Caeneus, born Caenis (a feminine ending of the name), was raped by Poseidon, and then asked Poseidon to transform her into a man. Poseidon fulfilled this wish and gave Caeneus the additional gift of being invulnerable to weapons. For further discussion of the story of Caeneus and the concepts of gender and transgender in this myth, see: Northrop, C. (2020). Caeneus and Heroic (Trans)Masculinity in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Arethusa 53(1), 25-41 and Power M., (2020) “Non-Binary and Intersex Visibility and Erasure in Roman Archaeology”, Theoretical Roman Archaeology Journal 3(1). p.11.
  5. See footnote 1
  6. In some accounts (as here), the names of Hades (Aidoneus) and Persephone (Proserpina) are transposed onto mortal human characters to create a euheumerized version of the myth of the abduction of Persephone (see chapter 10). Cerberus, too, refers not to the three-headed dog of the Underworld, but rather to the king Aidoneus' normal dog.
  7. In the Late Republic and early Augustan period (when Ovid wrote), "severity" was an attribute equated with manliness and highly praised, often apparent in art.


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