Theseus is the favorite hero of the Athenians. Hamilton takes his story from a variety of sources, but mostly from Apollodorus. Theseus is the son of the king of Athens, Aegeus, but he grows up with his mother in southern Greece. Before he left for Athens, Aegeus placed a sword and a pair of shoes under a giant rock and tells his wife that when their son is strong enough, he should roll away the rock, claim the objects, and go to Athens.
Theseus will show how Athens had a different idea of heroism from the rest of Greece, and later Hamilton’s retelling of Aeneas’s story will illustrate the Roman idea of heroism. Something of the culture of each place and time period can be divined through the heroes they celebrated. Theseus seems much more heroic to the modern reader than most.
Theseus grows up very strong, and he moves the rock without any trouble. He leaves for Athens, but thinks it would be too easy to go by ship, so he travels by land. There are many bandits on the road, notably Sciron, Sinis, and Procrustes, each of whom kills their victims in a different horrible way. Theseus defeats them all and turns their own torturous methods on the bandits themselves.
Even as a youth Theseus shows a more advanced kind of heroism than Perseus. Theseus does his great deeds on his own, without help, and uses his strength and bravery to make the road safer for the common people. Perseus, on the other hand, acted mostly out of self-interest.
Because of this, Theseus is already a hero when he reaches Athens. Aegeus (who does not know Theseus is his son) throws him a banquet, planning to poison him there, as Medea (who now lives in Athens) convinces him that Theseus will overthrow him. Just as Medea hands Theseus the poisoned cup, Aegeus recognizes his sword, and realizes that Theseus is his son and heir. Medea escapes to Asia.
Medea returns to the story, again acting as an ambiguous villain and again escaping. Like many heroes, Theseus is raised without a father, but they are reunited here. Theseus is already beloved in Athens because of his altruistic deeds on his travels.
Years before, Aegeus had killed a son of Minos, king of Crete, and Minos had then defeated Athens in battle. Since then, every nine years the Athenians have to send seven girls and seven boys to be thrown into the Labyrinth as food for the Minotaur. The Minotaur is half man, half bull, the child of Minos’s wife Pasiphaë and a bull, and he lives inside Daedalus’s Labyrinth.
Even the Minotaur is not a clear-cut villain in this story, as the sacrifice of Athenian youths is a punishment for Aegeus’s sin of killing a guest. This complex situation is similar to the later Greek tragedies, where characters are caught in situations older and more complicated than their own stories.
Theseus offers himself as one of the fourteen young victims, hoping to kill the Minotaur himself. He promises his father that if he survives, he will change his returning ship’s black sail to a white one, so Aegeus will know from afar if his son has succeeded.
Theseus has just arrived in Athens, but he already feels a kinship with its people, and his own heroic nature inspires him to volunteer – both to help others and to win glory by slaying a monster.
When Theseus arrives in Crete, Minos’s daughter Ariadne immediately falls in love with him. She asks Daedalus how she can help Theseus (defying her own father), and she promises Theseus she will save him if her will marry her and take her back to Athens with him. Ariadne then gives Theseus a ball of golden thread to unwind as he walks through the Labyrinth, so he can find his way back out.
Like Medea, Ariadne betrays her father for the sake of the stranger she falls in love with. Unlike Medea, Ariadne does not commit murder, but only helps save Theseus’s life. Hamilton’s earlier tales of Daedalus and Dionysus (who will later love Ariadne) intersect with the story here.
Theseus enters the Labyrinth, finds the Minotaur asleep, and beats him to death his fists. Then he follows the thread out of the Labyrinth and flees Crete with Ariadne and the other young victims. On the way home, Theseus abandons Ariadne (one story says purposefully, one accidentally) on the island of Naxos. Theseus then forgets to hoist the white sail on his ship. Aegeus, watching from a rocky cliff, sees the black sails, thinks his son is dead, and throws himself into the sea. The sea is then named the Aegean.
Again Theseus seems to surpass Perseus in heroism, as he kills the Minotaur with his bare hands, without the help of the gods or magical objects. Theseus then acts very unheroically in abandoning Ariadne. This is a similar sin to Jason rejecting Medea after she had saved him. Ungratefulness is the greatest flaw of these heroes – similar to Zeus punishing Prometheus after Prometheus helped him defeat the Titans.
Theseus then becomes king of Athens and makes the city into a democracy, and a time of prosperity and happiness begins. He has a few more adventures as king, like helping the Seven against Thebes, when the Thebans went against the gods’ laws and would not let a defeated army bury its dead. Theseus receives the aged Oedipus when no one else will, and keeps Hercules from killing himself after he goes mad.
This is the part of Theseus’s heroism that makes him the most “civilized” hero of the myths. Instead of taking up his throne, he institutes the world’s first democracy. He also fights for the virtuous cause in Thebes, even in a quarrel that does not have to affect Athens.
Theseus attacks the Amazons and marries their queen, who bears him a son called Hippolytus. Then he defends Athens from an Amazon invasion, and no other enemies attack the city while Theseus rules. He is one of the Argonauts that sail with Jason, and he participates in the Calydonian Hunt, which Hamilton will describe later.
Many of the stories overlap again, and a timeline starts to become clearer. Many of the heroes come together in adventures like the Quest of the Golden Fleece, the Calydonian Hunt, and the Trojan War.
One of Theseus’s best friends is Pirithoüs, who is also brave but not as successful as Theseus. Theseus defeats the Centaurs after they try to kidnap the women at Pirithoüs’ wedding. Theseus helps his friend again when Pirithoüs stupidly decides to take Persephone as his next wife (this is after Theseus kidnaps the baby Helen, who is then rescued by Castor and Pollux, her brothers).
Pirithoüs offers a counterpoint to Theseus, and illustrates more about the Greek idea of heroism. Pirithoüs is just as bold and daring as Theseus, but he lacks something, whether skill at fighting, luck, or fate, that keeps him from becoming a great hero. Otherwise he seems no different in terms of his morals and goals.
Hades is amused by Pirithoüs’ intentions, and he ends up putting Pirithoüs and Theseus in his Chair of Forgetfulness, where their minds go blank and they cannot move. Pirithoüs sits there forever, but Hercules comes to the underworld and rescues Theseus.
This last adventure shows Theseus overstepping his bounds slightly and failing in a quest. It is a kind of arrogance to attempt to kidnap the most well-guarded woman in the universe, and he is punished for it.
Later in his life Theseus’s story grows tragic. He marries Phaedra, Ariadne’s sister, and she falls madly in love with Theseus’s son Hippolytus. When Hippolytus rejects her (as he rejects all love), Phaedra kills herself and leaves a suicide note that accuses Hippolytus of raping her.
Many of the heroes have tragic endings to their lives after they have succeeded in their quests and adventures. Hippolytus is punished, as many characters are, for rejecting love.
Theseus finds the note and condemns Hippolytus, though his son tries to protest. He exiles Hippolytus from Athens, and the youth is mortally wounded by a monster soon afterward. Artemis then reveals the truth about Phaedra to Theseus, and brings him the dying Hippolytus. Theseus is crushed, and he goes to visit his friend, King Lycomedes, who kills him for unknown reasons.
Artemis, the protector of chastity and independence, punishes Theseus with the guilt of his son’s death. There is another legend that the great healer Aesculapius, whom Hamilton will describe later, then brought Hippolytus back from the dead.