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Oedipus the Tyrant

June 22, 2012

I’ve always wondered why Oedipus is a tyrant.  I mean, why this word for “king” rather than one of the more legitimate-feeling ones, like, I don’t know, basileus?  I’ve never really been satisfied with any of the answers.  I mean, I just haven’t encountered any positive — or even neutral — use of the word outside of Greek Tragedy.  This is surely partly a function of the time-lapse between Greek verse and prose; Oedipus Tyrannus dates from 439; that’s vaguely contemporary to Herodotus, but most extent Attic Prose is much later, and that’s where we get most of the strictly political uses of the word.  Even the earliest extent play of Aristophanes (another author who focuses on his contemporaries rather than the mythical past) is a good fourteen years later.  But tyrannos, even if, at such an early date, it were possible to use the term without vitriol, is weirdly specific.  It was never (to my knowledge) a word that could have the general application of the English king or even the Latin rex; it refers to a very specific kind of autocrat which came to prominence in Greece between the seventh and fifth centuries.

Now I’m sure there’s an awful lot of ink spilled on this very question.  After all, very few plays have attracted the same degree of attention as the Oedipus.  So I always kind of figured that, if I ever had the opportunity to study the Oedipus in more detail, I would be find an answer among the secondary sources.   It’s entirely possible — even plausible — that the answer I’m about to set forth is already a commonplace in the literature.   Maybe it’s even obvious to anyone who’s thought more about the play than I have.  But a brief comment from Mark Griffith’s commentary on Prometheus Bound finally put helped clarify the matter for me, and I thought I might share my thoughts here, just in case anyone else is as confused as I am:

τυραννίδα : essentially a monarchy obtained by force or cunning, not inherited ( = βασιλεία); it often, but not always, carries pejorative associations.  To Kratos it does not, but as the play progresses, these associations are clearly brought out. (ad Aesch. Prom. 10)

A tyrannos, then, is defined essentially negatively against the basileus: the basileus becomes king through inheritance (the proper way to become king), whereas the tyrannos is simply an autocrat who comes into power in any other way.  We might then (ignoring, out of convenience, that such dichotomies are inherently problematic) distinguish two ways of thinking about the tyrannos.  Firstly, because the tyrannos comes to power via his own qualities rather than automatically, through inheritance, a tyranny as an institution is a kind of meritocracy: whoever shows himself to actually be the best, rather than simply having the best lineage, becomes tyrannos.  This, of course, involves rejecting an entire widespread ideology of inherited excellence, according to which there cannot possibly be a distinction between the two.  But especially for those who accept such an ideology, a second way of thinking about the tyrannos comes to the fore: tyrannoi achieve their power through violence, by forcefully ousting  or cunningly betraying the rightful basileis.  I suggest that both senses of tyrannos, as well as the basileus, are fundamentally at play in the Oedipus Tyrannus.

The beginning of the play — particularly the introductory exchange between Oedipus and the Priest — firmly establishes Oedipus as the first kind of tyrannos.  He is king at Thebes neither through inheritance nor through forceful usurpation, but because he rescued the Thebans from the Sphinx.  And in this case, even the potentially violent undertones of “slaying the monster” are removed: Oedipus’ achievement was not in the realm of force but of intellect; he is king because he alone could answer the Sphinx’s riddle.  And yet, as the play continues, it becomes clear that Oedipus is actually the second kind of tyrant as well.  He is king not only because he answered the Sphinx’s riddle, but because he killed the former king, Laius.  The link between the two kinds of tyrant is reestablished.  Oedipus may be king because he is the best, but he also proved that worth in a violent — albeit unknowing — usurpation.  And yet everything becomes truly problematic because, at the same time as the underlying brutality of Oedipus’ tyranny is exposed, he is also exposed as the true-born basileus: the king he murdered, on whose throne he sits and with whose wife he sleeps, was in fact his own father.  Oedipus is both a tyrannos in the second sense and a basileus; that is to say, he is a parricide.  A tyrannical basileus is a contradiction in terms, and in the logic of myth, contradictions are not simple impossibilities, but work themselves into a hideous kind of existence through such horrors as incest and kinslaughter.

But the contradiction of the tyrannical basileus — or perhaps more appropriately of the basileian tyrannos — is also one that various tyrants attempted to maintain.  One of the points that Douglas Frame’s book, Hippota Nestor, brought home to me with particular force is the degree to which the Peisistratids took pains to associate themselves with the heroic past, claiming descent from the skeptrouxoi basilees of Homer, specifically the descendants of Neleus (father of Nestor).  In Nigel’s Sicily class, it became clear that Hieron of Syracuse attempted similar ideological maneuvers, associating himself with the divine and heroic pedigree which was the hallmark of the Greek aristocracy.  The Oedipus provides a forceful critique of such an attempt.  Even the most virtuous of tyrants owes his power to violent usurpation, and a tyrant who is also a basileus is necessarily in some sense a parricide.

One Comment leave one →
  1. July 19, 2012 8:00 pm

    This is an interpretation that I have heard before, although you do a much better job of explaining it. I think Will voiced a much less sophisticated version of this in Wally’s tragedy class. I especially like the bit about the contradiction at the end of the last paragraph. It accords nicely with a section in Plato’s Laws in which the Athenian Stranger explains that tragedies like Oedipus Rex show the audiences something hideous and twisted in order to discourage real-life instances of incest, etc. It seems to me (I think along the lines of what you point out) that Sophocles implicitly argues that any tyranny, even one that seems legitimate, is a twisted form of government (Plato makes a similar argument in the Republic).

    The point is, I agree.

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