Theseus: Get to Know the Mythical King of Athens

Theseus was a prominent hero of Greek mythology who was particularly important in the lore of the ancient city of Athens.

Feb 29, 2024By Laken Bonatch, MA History and MS Archives Management (in-progress), BA History & Classics,

theseus mythical king athens


Theseus is a hero who features prominently in Greek mythology in both Greek and Roman sources. He featured in many stories such as the slaying of the Minotaur, the exploits of his son Hippolytus, his own set of labors, and the unification of Athens. Versions of Theseus’s stories appear among others in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, the myths of Ovid, and the biographies of Plutarch. This article will provide an overview of Theseus’ place in mythology while focusing on his significant role in shaping Athenian identity.


Overview of Theseus in Mythology

Theseus Fighting the Centaur Bianor by Antoine-Louis Barye, modeled in 1849 and cast in 1867. Source: the MET, New York


Theseus was a mythical Greek hero and Athenian king who may or may not have been a real person. Based on his appearances in art and myth, scholars have hypothesized that he could have lived in the Late Bronze Age, a few decades before the Trojan War. Theseus’ birth is disputed between sources, with some stating that he was the son of Aegeus, an early king of Athens, while others claim that he was the demigod son of Poseidon. Due to issues with his parentage, Theseus was raised outside of Athens until he came of age. Once he decided he was ready to confront his father and gain his inheritance, Theseus journeyed to Athens and completed a set of labors. It is likely that Theseus’ myths were inspired by the famous labors of Heracles.


Theseus’ labors involved dispatching dangerous bandits, a large boar, and a king. Unlike Heracles, Theseus dealt more with humans than monsters in his labors. However, some of his future (and most famous) deeds still involved slaying monsters. Theseus eventually arrived at Athens after finishing his tasks, but he had to complete another dangerous mission on behalf of his stepmother, Medea, who wished to dispose of the hero. This mission involved fighting the bull of Marathon, which Theseus succeeded in killing. In other stories, Theseus possibly ventured with Jason and the Argonauts to obtain the Golden Fleece.


Amphora of Theseus slaying the Minotaur, artist unknown, ~540 BCE. Source: the British Museum, London


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Among all his exploits, Theseus’ most famous myth was his encounter with the Minotaur on Crete. Athens was forced to send sacrifices to Crete each year to feed the Minotaur, the monstrous offspring of King Minos’ wife Pasiphae and a bull. The Minotaur was trapped in a labyrinth built by the legendary inventor Daedalus. Theseus decided to put an end to the cruel custom. He volunteered as a sacrifice and entered the labyrinth with the assistance of Minos’ daughter, Ariadne. Theseus defeated the Minotaur and saved the Athenians from being sacrificed, winning him renown at home.


However, he made a grave mistake on the way back home. He had told his father that if he was coming back alive, his ship would return with white sails; if dead, with black. Forgetting to raise the white sails, Theseus gave the wrong signal to his father. Thus, Aegeus threw himself off a cliff outside of Athens into the sea that would be named after him as the Aegean.


At the end of his adventure, Theseus returned to Athens and unified the area into one city-state, taking his father’s place as king. This aspect of Theseus’ myths will be discussed further in the article.


Theseus in Tragedy

Phaedra and Hippolytus by Pierre-Narcisse Guérin, 1802. Source: Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge, MA


Theseus is also an important character in the Greek tragedies of Hippolytus by Euripides and Oedipus at Colonus by Sophocles. In the former, Hippolytus is the illegitimate son of Theseus and the Amazon queen Hippolyta (who was very likely raped by Theseus). The plot of Hippolytus centers on Hippolytus’ refusal to marry and his offenses against the goddess Aphrodite who curses Hippolitus’ stepmother, Phaedra, to fall in love with him. Hippolytus rejects his stepmother, who then commits suicide and leaves a note for Theseus, accusing Hippolytus of raping her.


Theseus enters the tragedy in the final act, arriving home to find Phaedra’s body. After reading the note, Theseus calls upon his father, Poseidon, to kill his son. Hippolytus, who is riding a chariot to go hunting, is chased by a sea monster. The monster scares the horses, who throw Hippolytus from the chariot and drag him to his death. Artemis reveals to Theseus that his son did not rape Phaedra, but his son was already dead. This tragedy may not focus entirely on Theseus, but it builds off his mythology, including his parentage, his relationship with Hippolyta, and the tragic death of his son.


Oedipus at Colonus by Jean Antoine Théodore Giroust, 1788. Source: the Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas


Sophocles also included Theseus in his Oedipus at Colonus. The tragedy takes place after teh events of Sophocles’ other famous tragedy, Oedipus Rex. It follows Oedipus after discovering the truth about his parentage, blinding himself, and fleeing Thebes. At this point in his life, he is an old man who is preparing to die, wandering the countryside outside of Athens. At the same time, a civil war is occurring in Thebes between Oedipus’ sons, and an oracle states that victory depends on where Oedipus’ body is buried following his death. This leads to Creon, Oedipus’ brother-in-law and future king of Thebes, petitioning Oedipus to return to Thebes, but the latter refuses.


Theseus only has a minor role in this tragedy, but he appears to offer Oedipus protection as king of Athens. This tragedy fits into the period of Theseus’ mythology that focused on his unification of Athens. By making Oedipus a citizen of Athens and offering him protection before his death, Theseus won his favor and knowledge of his burial location, which would supposedly bless Athens.


Theseus in the Roman Period

Theseus and the Minotaur, artist unknown, 18th-19th century. Source: The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore


Theseus’ appearances in tragedy add to the literature surrounding the mythical hero and offer different interpretations of his life, but interestingly, a majority of the sources we have in the present on Theseus are from the Roman period. Although these sources were informed by now-lost Greek works, most of our information on Theseus comes from Plutarch and Ovid. We know that these myths were rooted in ancient Greek, rather than Roman, traditions due to references to Theseus in other works and surviving artifacts with artwork from popular mythological episodes.


Through his biography of Theseus, Plutarch is responsible for shaping our understanding of the hero as a founder figure. Plutarch wrote this biography as part of his series called Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans where he compared pairs of important figures, one from Greece and one from Rome. He paired this biography on Theseus with a biography of Romulus, one of the mythical founders of Rome, naming Theseus a founder of Athens, even if he was not the literal founder in the original mythology. Rather, Theseus is often credited with unifying Athens and setting it on the path toward the city-state it would become in its Golden Age in the 5th century BCE.


Marble sarcophagus with the myth of Theseus and Ariadne, artist unknown, 130-150 CE. Source: the MET, New York


Ovid, in Book VIII of his Metamorphoses, recounts Theseus’ most famous deed, his encounter with the Minotaur. This is where much of our modern understanding of the myth comes from. Ovid describes the background of the Minotaur’s creation, the history of Daedalus, Minos’ family tree, and Theseus’ journey to Crete. This is also where Theseus’ relationship with Ariadne is mentioned, including the hero’s decision to abandon her after taking her from Crete. Ovid’s portrayal of Theseus highlights some of the cruel traits of this mythological figure, while Plutarch provides a more heroic image of the “founder” of Athens.


Although these interpretations of Theseus have greatly shaped the myths we hear about him, it’s important also to remember that Theseus was more than a mythical figure in the ancient world.


Theseus’ Relationship with Athens

Amphora of Panathenaea games, artist unknown, 530 BCE. Source: the MET, New York


Despite some of our knowledge of Theseus coming from sources somewhat removed from Ancient Greece, we still know that he was a very significant figure in Athens from art and architecture. Theseus began to appear in Athenian popular culture around the 6th century, and rose in prominence throughout the 5th century as politicians like Cleisthenes and the tyrant Peisistratus worked to connect Theseus to Athens’ lineage. Previously, Heracles held more importance in Athenian culture, but unlike Theseus, he was not a hero from Athens. Theseus being one of Athens’ early kings and possibly the unifier of Attica, helped foster Athenian pride and a common sense of identity.


To create a link between Athens in the 5th century and Theseus in the past, Peisistratus dedicated a festival of Apollo on Delos to Theseus to connect to the hero’s relationship with Crete. Furthermore, the origins of the Panathenaea, an important Athenian religious festival, were connected directly to Theseus’ actions when uniting Athens. The Athenian story goes that before Theseus was king, Attica was divided into multiple city-states with independent governments. Once he came to power, Theseus disbanded the separate governments and united Attica under Athens, establishing the Panathenaea Festival as a way to celebrate the union.


Theseus Temple in Vienna by Peter von Nobile, 1819-1823. Source: Kunt Historiches Museum Wien, Vienna


Following Pisistratus’ rebranding, Theseus became sort of an Athenian national hero. Cleisthenes placed various episodes from Theseus’ myth on the metopes of the Athenian treasury at Delphi, a panhellenic sanctuary visited by Greeks from all over the ancient world. In 476 BCE, Cimon, another Athenian politician, brought what was thought to be Theseus’ remains from Skyros to Athens and constructed a shrine around them, permanently establishing Theseus as Athens’ most important hero.


Theseus Finding the Sword and Shoes of his Father with the Help of his Mother, Aethra, by Laurent de la Hyre, mid 1600s. Source: the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest


Whether Theseus was known more as an Athenian king or a hero in the ancient world is hard to say. Athens certainly emphasized both sides to the man: his role in uniting Attica and his heroic deeds. However, it is likely many aspects of Theseus’ myth, such as his six labors, were influenced by Heracles, the more popular hero at the time. It’s likely that Theseus began as a mythical figure and then evolved as he was named an ancient king and uniter of Athens until he became known for both his adventures with the Minotaur and his deeds as king. In many ways, Theseus became the face of Golden Age Athens, representing the best of their government structure and courage while also serving as a means to unite the city-state in times of war and strife. Whether Theseus was a real figure or not, his impact on ancient Athens was significant and long-standing.

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By Laken BonatchMA History and MS Archives Management (in-progress), BA History & Classics, Laken has a BA in History and Classics from Bryn Mawr College and is currently pursuing an MA in History and MS in Library Science with a concentration on Archives Management from Simmons University. She is working toward becoming an archivist in order to help others in their research while preserving history at the same time, and her academic interests include medieval and ancient history.