Was Theseus more important to Athens as a monster-slayer or as a political leader?

Ancient history is not my forte, but here is a short exam-style ancient history essay – not referenced.


Theseus, as a Greek king of the heroic age, played many roles in the development of Athens; these were both political roles in the everyday development of Athens and his less realistic roles as a mythical hero and monster-slayer. It is noted by historians, such as Erika Simon, that Theseus was profoundly unique even from the outset of his placement as an Athenian leader due to his foreign background and life in the heroic age rather than earlier, so it is debatable whether Theseus was of greater importance as a more traditional hero or as a political leader to an ever-changing polis.

Theseus became symbolic of Athenian democracy, particularly in works by contemporary writers who emphasise his role as a political leader. One of Theseus’ greatest achievements as a political leader was his connection with the Athenian synoikism of roughly the 5th C BCE; Thucydides’ History discusses how Theseus’ changed the political alignments of Attica’s several ‘bodies’ to create a singular Athens. This was celebrated by Athenians because it enabled the city to grow powerful as one united state. Furthermore, Euripides describes Theseus as a leader who thrives on democracy in his Suppliants. Theseus is believed to have thought that Athens, as a state, ‘is not subject to one man’s will, bit is a free city’; this shows that he aimed to develop they democratic side of Athens in order to better is and further unify the state. Contemporary writers, such as Euripides and Thucydides, view Athens as a free city under Theseus because, contrary to tyrants such as Peisistratos, Theseus insisted on rule by the people for the people, which is the true nature of democracy. Simon’s emphasis on Theseus’ inimitability as an ancient hero stems from the fact that while Heracles’s life appears to be a string of continuous heroic deeds, Theseus’s life represents that of a real person, one involving change and maturation. Theseus became king and therefore part of the historical lineage of Athens, whereas Heracles remained free from any geographical ties, probably the reason that he was able to become the Pan-Hellenic hero. This made Theseus far more significant to the reality of Athens’ political development.

Theseus did not only play a political role in Athens, however. In my opinion, Theseus was more important to contemporary Athens in his role as a traditional hero. In antiquity, it was not his political integrity that gained him fame and made him a rival to his cousin Heracles, it was his acts of superhuman heroism and his defeating of the Centaurs and the Amazons. When Cimon erected a shrine in remembrance of Theseus, he did not have it decorated with images of the political and economic progress of Athens, it featured images of the Amazonomachy and the Centauromachy and the Cretan adventures. It is these acts that represent the solidification of Theseus as a national hero. Whilst, Theseus was significant as a political leader, he would not have been immortalised with Heracles on the Hephaesteum if he had not been only part mortal in the first place. Bacchylides describes Theseus with great awe, not because of his uniting of the Attica peninsula, but because he committed himself to ‘the indescribable deeds of a mighty man’ and undertook epic adventures of great strength and the conquering of evil beasts such as the Centaurs.

To conclude, it is evident that in retrospect Theseus as a political leader and as a catalyst for the synoikism of Attica was a hero for Athens. However, in reality, it appears that he was valued more greatly as a traditional hero and for his monster-slaying adventures in antiquity. Contemporary writers place significant emphasis on his superhuman abilities and this is how he was immortalised by Cimon. So, to Athens, Theseus was more important as a monster-slayer.

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