Greece is a land of legends, and the people in many of the ancient city states told stories about great heroes in their past. Surprisingly, in view of its importance over many centuries, Athens could boast only one famous hero: Theseus.
Theseus was the son of King Aegeus of Athens and Aethra, daughter of the king of Troezen, in the Peloponnesus. Aegeos had two wives but no son. But when he stayed one night in Troezen, he made the king’s daughter, Aethra, pregnant. When he returned home, he left a sword and a pair of sandals under a rock near the town, with instructions that if she bore a son, when he came of age he was to claim them and take them to Athens. Aegeus also asked her to tell their son to travel in secret, as he feared that the fifty sons of his brother, Pallas, would kill him to secure the throne for one of themselves.
When Theseus arrived at manhood, he traveled to Athens to present himself to his father, first collecting the sword and shoes from under the rock. As the roads were infested with robbers, his grandfather tried to persuade him to take the shorter and safer sea route, but Theseus insisted on going by land, and on his way had many adventures, which formed a cycle of legends. Many of the adventures of Theseus rather suspiciously resemble those of the much more famous legendary hero Heracles. Scholars now believe that they were adapted from ancient stories, or in some cases deliberately created by the Athenians, in order to glorify Athens by enhancing the reputation of their own hero.
Even in Athens, perils awaited the young prince. A sorceress named Medea had insinuated herself into Aegeus’ affections and replaced his former wives. Instantly recognizing Theseus on his arrival by means of her secret powers, and afraid of losing her influence over her husband if he should be recognized, she filled Aegeus’ mind with the suspicion that the young stranger was his enemy and sought his throne. She persuaded him to send their young guest to certain death by having him attempt to capture the savage bull of Marathon. She thought that he would be killed, but Theseus succeeded in the mission.
Then she prepared a poisoned potion which contained a deadly herb which grew from earth watered by the saliva of Cerberus, the three-headed watchdog of Hades, and persuaded Aegeus to offer it to his son at dinner. When Aegeus recognized the swords with which his visitor cut his meat, he realized what he was about to do, and as the youth raised the cup to his lips, Aegeus dashed the drink to the floor. He acknowledged Theseus as his son and heir, and drove Medea from the city.
Their rivalry coming to a climax, the sons of Pallas, went to war to prevent Theseus displacing them, but he soon defeated them and strengthened his father’s hold over power.
The Athenians were at that time forced to pay an onerous tribute to Minos, king of Crete. This was because Androgens, Minos’ son, had been killed in Attica. In consequence, this powerful king had declared war on Athens, while the gods had sent a drought and an outbreak of the plague. The Athenians consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, and were advised to sue for peace. This was granted, but only at the price of a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens to be sent to Knossos every nine years. These were said to be devoured by the Minotaur, a monster with a bull’s body and a human head, which was kept in a labyrinth under the royal palace. This labyrinth was so complex that whoever went inside could not find his way out unassisted.
Theseus resolved to deliver his city from this burden. When the time came for sending the tribute, he volunteered himself. The ship left for Crete under black sails, as was customary, but Theseus promised to change these for white sails as a sign to his father, should he return alive.
When they arrived in Crete, and the youths and maidens were exhibited before Minos, Ariadne, the king’s daughter, instantly fell in love with Theseus. She secretly provided him with a sword with which to face the Minotaur, and with a ball of thread with which he could find his way out of the labyrinth after he had killed it. As a result, he slew the Minotaur and escaped, taking Ariadne with him, and sailed for Athens.
On their way back the pair put in at Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne while she was sleeping on the beach. Later he claimed that Athena had appeared to him in a dream and commanded him to leave her behind.
Theseus also forgot the signal he had promised his father, failing to raise white sails when his ship drew near the shore of Attica. When the old king saw the familiar vessel returning with black sails he thought his son had perished, and in his grief threw himself from the rock. It was sometimes said that he threw himself from the spot where the small temple of Athena of Victories was later erected, although others say that he flung himself from the cliffs of distant Sounion, which is why the Aegean Sea was named after him. In any case, the returning Theseus found himself king of Athens.
Ancient writers exercised considerable ingenuity in endeavoring to explain why Theseus appeared to be so selfish and thoughtless. Some conjectured that when they reached Naxos, the god Dionysos carried Ariadne off. They said that by that time Theseus had fallen in love with her, and it was because of his grief at losing her that he forgot to change the sails. Catullus thought that Theseus just forgot about her. When she woke up and realized that she had been abandoned, she called upon the Furies to punish Theseus, and it was as a result of this curse that he forgot to change the sails, and so inadvertently caused his father’s death.
Theseus consolidated his hold over power in Athens by killing the fifty sons of Pallas. Then he united the various small demes scattered throughout Attica into a single state, centered upon the Acropolis, effectively laying the foundations of Athenian future greatness.