Theseus, the legendary founder of Athens, is an ideal introduction to our course. To the Athenians of the classical era, Theseus was not legend but historical fact. He founded Athens as a unified nation and established the prototypes of the most characteristic Athenian political and religious institutions. To Theseus, the Athenians owed their love of liberty and democracy and a foreign policy based on giving aid to the weak and helpless. In pursuit of such noble goals, Theseus traveled to the far corners of the Greek world and won eternal fame through his encounters with the Minotaur, Amazons, the Golden Fleece, and Oedipus. As is the case with the Founding Fathers of other nations, such as George Washington, the truth of such stories may be less important than the fact that the Athenians believed them to be true and used them to establish criteria for judging the character of their political leaders.
Questions to Consider:
1. What does Plutarch’s Life of Theseus tell us about the values of the Athenian democracy in the fifth century B.C.?
2. Do you think it matters if George Washington actually chopped down the cherry tree? Do school children even learn the story today?