Creon achieved his bitter reign in the fallout from a murderous dispute between Eteocles and Polyneices, whom Oedipus, their father, cursed for abandoning him to his suffering. At first the brothers agreed to rule Thebes in alternate years, but when Polyneices’ turn came, Eteocles refused to surrender the throne. Angered, Polyneices took refuge in Argos, where he married King Adrastus’ daughter and persuaded his father-in-law to help restore him to his rightful throne.
With six other generals, Polyneices led an army against Thebes. The city was on the point of being captured when Teiresias announced that the gods would save it if one of the royal household willingly laid down his life. When Creon’s son, Menoeceus, sacrificed himself, Thebes’ fortunes immediately changed. As one of the attackers, Capaneus, scaled the walls, Zeus destroyed him with a thunderbolt, and at last, with many dead on both sides, Polyneices and Eteocles challenged each other to single combat. In the vicious duel, each struck a mortal blow and with both brothers dead the invaders turned and ran. Thebes was saved, but all was still not well.
Antigone & the Fourteen Against Thebes Photo Gallery
Assuming command, Creon ratified his nephew Eteocles’ earlier wish that no fallen enemy should be buried – a clear defiance of the gods’ unwritten laws. Opposed even by her sister, Ismene, Antigone disobeyed the edict, either dragging her brother Polyneices’ body to Eteocles’ already burning pyre, cremating it on a pyre of its own or scattering sufficient earth on it to free his spirit. In Sophocles’ version, Creon then ordered Antigone to be walled up in a cave and left to die. However, his son Haemon (Antigone’s fiance) refused to condone such barbarity and ran to free her. Shortly afterwards, Creon, too – shown the error of his ways by Teiresias – rushed to the cave. But already Antigone had hanged herself and, seeing Creon, Haemon lunged at him unsuccessfully with a sword, which he then turned on himself. When Creon leaned that his wife Eurydice had also hanged herself, he must have hoped Thebes’ sorrows were complete. They were not.
Shortly afterwards, Theseus, outraged at Creon’s impiety, arrived from Athens at the head of such a threatening army that the Thebans were forced to allow the fallen attackers to be buried. Worse was to come. A generation later, the sons of the seven original invading generals launched their own attack on Thebes. Teiresias knew that these so-called ‘Epigoni’ were destined for success and advised the Thebans to leave city under the cover of night. The next morning the invaders broke in, ransacked its buildings and razed Thebes to the ground.
Today Antigone’s story is familiar to theatregoers, but much of Sophocles’ plot may be his own creation. In an older version of the story, when Antigone buries Polyneices, Creon tests Haemon’s loyalty by ordering him to kill her. Haemon pretends to carry out the sentence, but in fact gives Antigone to shepherds for safe-keeping. In time their son returns to Thebes to take part in games. Creon recognizes him thanks to a genetic birthmark and, despite pleas from Heracles, vows to punish Haemon; but instead Haemon kills both himself and Antigone. Creon then gives his daughter Megara to Heracles in marriage.