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Laius, king of Thebes, the son of Labdacus, and a direct descendant of Cadmus, was married to Jocaste, the daughter of a noble Theban. An oracle having foretold that he would perish by the hand of his own son, he determined to destroy the infant to whom Jocaste had just given birth. With the consent of his wife, whose affection for her husband overcame her love for her child, he pierced the feet of the babe, bound them together, and handed the infant over to a servant, with instructions to expose him on Mount Cithæron to perish. But instead of obeying this cruel command, the servant intrusted him to a shepherd who was tending the flocks of Polybus, king of Corinth, and then returned to Laius and Jocaste, and informed them that their orders had been obeyed. The parents were satisfied with the intelligence, and quieted their conscience by the reflection that they had thus prevented their son from committing the crime of parricide.

Meanwhile the shepherd of king Polybus had unbound the feet of the infant, and in consequence of their being much swollen he called him Oedipus, or Swollen-foot. He then carried him to the king, his master, who, pitying the poor little waif, enlisted for him the kind offices of his wife, Merope. Oedipus was adopted by the king and queen as their own son, and grew up in the belief that they were his parents, until one day a Corinthian noble taunted him at a banquet with not being the son of the king. Stung at this reproach the youth appealed to Merope, but receiving an equivocal, though kindly answer, he repaired to Delphi to consult the oracle. The Pythia vouchsafed no reply to his inquiry, but informed him, to his horror, that he was fated to kill his father and to marry his own mother.

Filled with dismay, for he was tenderly attached to Polybus and Merope, Oedipus determined not to return {270} to Corinth, and took instead the road leading to Boeotia. On his way a chariot passed him, in which sat an old man with two servants, who rudely pushed the pedestrian out of the path. In the scuffle which ensued Oedipus struck the old man with his heavy stick, and he fell back dead on the seat of the chariot. Struck with dismay at the unpremeditated murder which he had committed, the youth fled, and left the spot without learning that the old man whom he had killed was his father, Laius, king of Thebes.

Not long after this occurrence the Sphinx (full details of whom have already been given) was sent by the goddess Hera as a punishment to the Thebans. Stationed on a rocky height just outside the city, she propounded to the passers by riddles which she had been taught by the Muses, and whoever failed to solve them was torn in pieces and devoured by the monster, and in this manner great numbers of the inhabitants of Thebes had perished.

Now on the death of the old king Laius, Creon, the brother of the widowed queen, had seized the reins of government and mounted the vacant throne; and when at length his own son fell a victim to the Sphinx, he resolved at all costs to rid the country of this fearful scourge. He accordingly issued a proclamation, that the kingdom and the hand of his sister Jocaste should be awarded to him who should succeed in solving one of the riddles of the Sphinx, it having been foretold by an oracle that only then would the country be freed from the monster.

Just as this proclamation was being made in the streets of Thebes Oedipus, with his pilgrim's staff in his hand, entered the city. Tempted by the prospect of so magnificent a reward he repaired to the rock, and boldly requested the Sphinx to propound to him one of her riddles. She proposed to him one which she deemed impossible of solution, but Oedipus at once solved it; whereupon the Sphinx, full of rage and despair, precipitated herself into the abyss and perished. Oedipus {271} received the promised reward. He became king of Thebes and the husband of Jocaste, the widow of his father, king Laius.

For many years Oedipus enjoyed the greatest happiness and tranquillity. Four children were born to him--two sons, Eteocles and Polynices, and two daughters, Antigone and Ismene. But at last the gods afflicted the country with a grievous pestilence, which made terrible havoc among the people. In their distress they entreated the help of the king, who was regarded by his subjects as a special favourite of the gods. Oedipus consulted an oracle, and the response was that the pestilence would continue to rage until the land was purified of the blood of king Laius, whose murderer was living unpunished at Thebes.

The king now invoked the most solemn imprecations on the head of the murderer, and offered a reward for any information concerning him. He then sent for the blind old seer Tiresias, and implored him, by means of his prophetic powers, to reveal to him the author of the crime. Tiresias at first hesitated, but yielding to the earnest solicitations of the king, the old prophet thus addressed him: "Thou thyself art the murderer of the old king Laius, who was thy father; and thou art wedded to his widow, thine own mother." In order to convince Oedipus of the truth of his words, he brought forward the old servant who had exposed him as a babe on Mount Cithæron, and the shepherd who had conveyed him to king Polybus. Horrified at this awful revelation Oedipus, in a fit of despair, deprived himself of sight, and the unfortunate Jocaste, unable to survive her disgrace, hanged herself.

Accompanied by his faithful and devoted daughter Antigone, Oedipus quitted Thebes and became a miserable and homeless outcast, begging his bread from place to place. At length, after a long and painful pilgrimage, he found a place of refuge in the grove of the Eumenides (at Colonus, near Athens), where his last moments were soothed and tended by the care and devotion of the faithful Antigone.


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