© 1998 Bernard SUZANNE   Last updated January 16, 1999 
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City of northern Peloponnese (area 3).
Argos was one of the most important cities of Peloponnese, rival of Sparta for the leadership of that region. Indeed, at the start of his Histories, Herodotus presents it as once a city that had "in every respects the first place in the country nowadays called Greece" (Histories, I, 1). And, in the Homeric world, Agamemnon, the leader of the Greek expedition against Troy, is often presented as king of Argos, or of the Argives (eg.: Iliad, II, 100-109, where Agamemnon is presented as king of all of Argolis, though in some parts of the Iliad, Agamemnon is said to be king of nearby Mycenæ, while Diomedes is named as commander in chief of the contingent from Argos, eg. : the catalog of ships, Iliad, II, 559-580), and the word "Argives (Argeioi)", inhabitants of Argos, is often used as synomym of "Greeks". In fact, as will be seen in the following account of the rich mythology surrounding Argos and Argolis, it is hard to separate the stories relating to Argos itself from those relating to Argolis as a whole or to other cities of Argolis, such as Tirynthus or Mycenæ, which helps explain why Agamemnon can be seen by Homer as sometimes king of Argos and at other times as king of Mycenæ.

In mythology, the first king of Argos is the River-God Inachus, a son, like all rivers of the world, of the Titans Oceanus and his sister and wife Tethys (not to be confused with the Nereid Thetis, mother of Achilles). In some legends, Inachus is presented as contemporary with Erichthonius of Athens and Eumolpus of Eleusis. He was chosen as arbitrator between Hera and Poseidon in their fight for the dominion over the country and decided in favor of Hera. Hera indeed, as she herself claims in the Iliad (Iliad, IV, 50-52), was the protector of Argos, where she had a very ancient temple, the Heraion.
In Peloponnesian legends, Inachus is said to have been the father of Phoroneus, the first human being (Plato refers to this tradition at Timæus, 22a-b), who is sometimes presented as the one who decided between Hera and Poseidon and introduced the cult of Hera in Peloponnese. He was also credited for teaching men to gather in cities and use fire. He was the father of Niobe, the mother of all living beings and the first mortal who was loved by Zeus (not to be confused with the daughter of Tantalus), from whom she had a son named Argus, credited for teaching men how to cultivate wheat, and who became king of Peloponnese, then called as a whole Argos after him, a name that was later restricted to the city of Argos and the surrounding region of Argolis (according to Arcadian legends, Zeus and Niobe had another son, Pelasgus, the eponym of the Pelasgians, the mythical people that lived in Greece before the Hellens, and supposedly the first man who lived in Arcadia).

Among the descendants of Inachus was Io, who is either said to be the daughter of Iasos, a great-grandson of Argus, or directly the daughter of Inachus, as in Æschylus' (Prometheus Bound, 588). Io too was loved by Zeus and, when Hera, Zeus' wife, became suspicious, Zeus changed Io into a white heifer. Hera then entrusted the metamorphosed Io to the surveillance of Argus, great-grandson of the above mentioned Argus, son of Zeus and Niobe, and thus a relative of Io, endowed with so many eyes that half of them could sleep while the other half stayed awake. Zeus, then, asked Hermes to free his beloved and Hermes killed Argus, whose eyes, in reward, Hera immortalized by moving them on the feathers of the peacock, a bird consecrated to her. After that, Hera sent a gadfly to torment Io who, rendered furious by the insect, ran through all Greece. She first followed the coast of what became known hereafter as the Ionian Gulf, then crossed to Asia at the strait that, as a result, received the name of Bosporus (litterally in Greek, "ox ford"), before eventually ending in Egypt where she gave birth to the son she expected from Zeus, Epaphus. In Egypt, she was later known and honored as Isis. The legend of Io is developed at length in Æschylus' Prometheus Bound (561-886) and is presented by Herodotus at the sart of his Histories, in a rationalized version, as the remote origin of the conflicts between Asia and Greece that led, from rapt of woman to rapt of woman to war (Io abducted by the Phoenicians, Europa by the Cretans, Medea by the Greeks, Helen by Paris, leading to the Trojan War) to the Medean Wars whose story he writes (Histories, I, 1-5).

Epaphus, the son of Zeus and Io, married Memphis, the daughter of the River-God Nile, from which he had a daughter named Libya, the eponym of the country west of Egypt. From Poseidon, Libya had twins, Agenor, the mythical hero of Phoenicia, and Belus, who became king of Egypt. Agenor became the father of Cadmus (the founder of Thebes), Phoenix (who settled in Sidon and gave his name to the Phoenicians) and Europa (the mother of Minos, son of Zeus and king of Crete), while Belus had two sons, Danaus and Ægyptus. Danaus had fifty daughters, the Danaides, while Ægyptus had fifty sons. Afraid of these boys, Danaus fled with his daughters and reached Argos where he overthrew the king of the time, Gelanor, last descendant of Phoroneus, to become king in his place. But, after he had settled in Argos, his fifty nephews came after him to claim his daughters as wives. Danaus gave his consent, though he was not convinced by the boy's plea of goodwill, but, during the wedding night, at their father's command, all the daughters murdered their bridegrooms, except the first-born, Hypermestra, who spared her husband Lynceus. After that, to find willing husbands for his daughters, Danaus had to offer them as prizes in games that he organized. In this manner, they could find husbands among young boys from the area and became the origin of the Danaans, the people who replaced the Pelasgians in Greece ("Danaans" is sometimes used by Homer as another name for the Greeks). Eventually, the Danaides, along with their father Danaus, were all killed by Lynceus to avenge his brethren. In Hades, as a penalty for their crime, the Danaides were condemned to pour eternally water in bottomless vessels. Danaus was said to have built the citadel of Argos, in which his tomb was still visible in historical times.
This legend may have inspired Plato for the story Socrates tells Callicles in the Gorgias of men in Hades carrying water into leaking jars with sieves, as an image of people with insatiable passions (Gorgias, 493a-d ; see also Republic, II, 363d). From another standpoint, Plato, in the Menexenus, has Aspasia in her funeral oration oppose the Athenians that are pure Greeks to "the Pelopides, Cadmians, Ægyptians and Danaans [that is, the offspring of Pelops, Cadmus, Ægyptus and Danaus] and all others who are barbarians by nature and Greeks by law" (Menexenus, 245d).

Lynceus then became king of Argos. From Hypermestra, he had a son, Abas, who became the father of twins that reproduced the hatred between their grandfathers Danaus and Ægyptus : Acrisius and Proetus. They fought for the kingship of Argos after the death of their father, and Acrisius got Argos, while Proetus settled in nearby Tirynthus, fortified for him by the Cyclops. It is said that it is on the occasion of the war between the two brothers that the round shields used with so much success during antiquity were invented.
Acrisius had a daughter named Danae and, when he asked the oracle for a son, he was told that it would be his daughter who would have a son and that this son would kill him. So he jailed Danae, but this didn't prevent Zeus from falling in love with her and making her pregnant in her jail by taking the form of a shower of gold (some say it was Acrisius' brother Proetus who made her pregnant and explain this way the hatred between the two brothers). Danae secretly gave birth in her jail to a son named Perseus, and her father didn't learn of it until one day, the infant made noise while playing and Acrisius heard him. Unwilling to kill the baby, yet hoping to save his life, Acrisius put his daughter and her son in a wooden box and abandonned them to the sea. The raft drifted until it landed in the island of Seriphos, where the baby and his mother were taken care of by a fisherman named Dictys, who became Perseus' adoptive father.
Meanwhile, Proetus, the twin brother of Acrisius who had become king of Tirynthus, had to split his kingdom in three and give two shares to Melampous and his brother Bias (grandchildren of Cretheus, the king of Iolcos in Thessalia) to get Melampous, a seer and healer who could understand the language of all the animals and knew how to use plants to heal diseases, to heal his daughters that had been struck by madness at the instigation of Dionysus (or, according to other sources, Hera) and were roaming the country pretending to be cows : at first, Melampous had asked Proetus for one third of his kingdom for himself as a the price for the cure, but Proetus found it too high and refused ; yet, when, finding no other cure for his daughters, he made a second call on Melampous, the healer raised his price and, this time, asked not only for one third of the kingdom for himself, but for another third for his brother Bias. This time, Proetus, afraid that the price might raise again if he waited any longer, agreed and Melampous cured his daughter, who later married Melampous and Bias. Proetus was succeeded by his son Megapenthes.

While this was happening, Perseus had grown up at the court of Polydectes, the tyrant of the island of Seriphos, who was Dictys' brother. One day, after he had become a strong and handsome young man, Perseus promised Polydectes, who had fallen in love with Danae, that he would bring him back the head of the Gorgon if only he would leave his mother alone. The Gorgons were three sisters who had snakes for hair, golden wings and turned into stone whomever looked them in the eyes. They lived in extreme Occident, near the kingdom of the dead. Only one of them, Medusa, was mortal and, at the time, she was pregnant by the works of Poseidon. With the help of Hermes and Athena, flying sandals and a helmet that made him invisible, Perseus managed to cut the Head of Medusa while she was asleep without looking her in the eyes. From the neck of Medusa sprang a winged horse named Pegasus and a giant named Chrysaor. On his way back, while in Ethiopia, Perseus freed and married Andromeda, who was tied to a rock and offered to a sea monster sent by Poseidon to ruin her country as a result of the foolish behavior of her mother Cassiopeia, who had declared herself more beautiful that the Nereids.
Back to Seriphos, Perseus found that Polydictes hadn't waited for his return and had tried to rape Danae, who, with Dictys, had seeked asylum near a sacred altar. With the head of the Gorgon, Perseus changed Polydictes into stone and handed the kingdom of Seriphos over to Dictys. Then, with his wife Andromeda, he set sail toward Argos, his homeland. Learning about that, Acrisius, afraid that the oracle might come true, left Argos and fled to the country of the Pelasgians. There, he attended games organized by the king of Larissa when he was killed by a discus accidentally thrown among the spectators by none other than Perseus, who had come as a competitor to these games. Full of grief when learning who the victim was, Perseus buried his father and, unwilling to become king of Argos after such a crime, swapped the kingdom of Argos for that of Tirynthus with his cousin Megapenthes, the son of Proetus, who brought along with him the families of Bias and Melampous with whom he was sharing kingship. Perseus was said to have built the walls of Mycenæ.
From Andromeda, Perseus had many children, including Alcæus and Electryon. The former was the father of Amphitryon and the later of Alcmene, the earthly parents of Heracles (Heracles was also said to be the son of Zeus, who had assumed the appearance of Amphitryon to seduce Alcmene). Perseus was also, through another of his sons, Sthenelus, who became king of Mycenæ, the grandfather of Eurystheus, Heracles' rival for the kingdom of Mycenæ who imposed upon him the 12 labors.

Back in Argos, Megapenthes had a son, Anaxagoras, and a daughter, Iphiarina (who is sometimes said to have married Melampous). Anaxagoras succeeded his father as king of Argos, and, in some traditions, it is him, not his grandfather, who split his kingdom with Melampous and Bias after Melampous had healed Argian women become mad. Anaxagoras was succeeded on the throne of Argos by his son Alector, then by Alector's son Iphis. During all that time, and until the reign of Cylarabes, the great-grandson of Iphis, who reigned after the Trojan war and reunited the kingdom of Argos under his sole leadership after the death of the last descendants of Melampous and Bias, Argos was split between the three families.
Melampous married Iphianassa, one of Proetus' daughters he had cured, while Bias married the other, Lysippe, though he had been married earlier to Pero, the daughter of his uncle Neleus, king of Pylos, and sister of Nestor, with whom he had had several children. It is a son he had had with Pero, Talaus, who succeeded him. Talaus took part in the expedition of the Argonauts and married one of Melampous' granddaughters, Lysimache (other traditions give Lysianassa, the daughter of Polybus, king of Sicyon, as the wife of Talaus), to become the father of Adrastus, who was to lead the ill-fated expedition of the Seven against Thebes.
Melampous had several sons, including Antiphates who succeeded him, and Abas, whose daughter Lysimache, in one tradition, married Talaus and was the mother of Adrastus. Antiphates married Zeuxippe, a daughter of Hippocoon, the half-brother of Tyndarus, king of Sparta, who gave him two sons, Oecles and Amphalces. Oecles married Hypermestra, daughter of either Thespius, king of the Boeotian city of Thespiæ, or Thestius, king of Pleuron and took part in the expedition of Heracles against Troy in which he was killed by Laomedon while guarding the ships. Oecles had a son named Amphiaraus who, aside from being admired as a bold and just king, was also a seer.
When Amphiaraus was young, during quarrels beween the reigning families in Argos, he killed Talaus and ousted Adrastus, who fled to Sicyon at the court of Polybus, his grandfather on is mother's side in the tradition that makes Lysianassa the mother of Adrastus). When Polybus died without children, he left his throne to Adrastus. Having become king of Sicyon, Adrastus made peace with his cousin Amphiaraus and recovered his share of the throne of Argos ; and, though he never completely forgave his cousin, he gave him his sister Eriphyle in marriage, under the condition that, in case of future disagreement, they would rely on her arbitration, a condition that turned out to be fateful to Amphiaraus later.
The opportunity for Adrastus to get even with Amphiaraus came when Polynices, the son of Oedipus ousted from Thebes by his brother Eteocles, and Tydeus, the son of Oeneus, king of Calydon, exiled by his father for having killed his brother, both arrived in Argos and knocked at Adrastus' door the very same day to seek asylum. While waiting at the door, the two exiles started fighting "like lion against boar", which reminded Adrastus, when he saw them, of an old oracle saying that he would marry his daughters to a lion and a boar. So, Adrastus greeted them, purified Tydeus of his murder, and gave his elder daughter Argia in marriage to Polynices and his younger daughter Deipyle to Tydeus, pledging to help them recover their kingdoms. And this was the origin of the expedition of the Seven against Thebes.
To help Polynices recover his throne, Adrastus asked the help of members of the three royal families of Argos, the sons of Bias, Melampous and Proetus. The seven princes who took part in the expedition against Thebes were, aside from Adrastus, their leader, Polynices and Tydeus :

On their way toward Thebes, the princes stopped at Nemea where they unwillingly were the cause of the death of Opheltes, the son of Lycurgus, king of the place. Amphiaraus explained them that this accident was a bad omen, anouncing the failure of the expedition and the death of its leaders. Unshaken by such omen, Adrastus and his other companions organized games for Opheltes' funeral, that were the origin of the Nemean games, taking part in them and winning many prizes before continuing their march toward Thebes. A first encounter with the Thebans along the banks of the Ismenus, a river of Boeotia flowing near Thebes, turned to their advantage and forced the Thebans to retreat within the walls of their city. In a last attempt to settle the dispute, Tydeus was sent in embassy to Eteocles, but the mission failed and the assault was decided. But when Adrastus' army tried to take the city, each one of the seven leaders attacking one of its seven gates, it was crushed and all its leaders except Adrastus himself were killed (in his drama, the Seven Against Thebes, Æschylus doesn't name Adrastus as fighting in front of one of the seven gates and replaces him at the seventh gate by Eteoclus, son of Iphis and brother of Evadne, Canapeus' wife).
In the fight, Tydeus was opposed to Melanippus, a descendant of one of the men born from the teeth of the dragon sawn by Cadmus, who mortally wounded him before being killed by Amphiaraus. Being a seer, Amphiaraus foresaw that Athena was about to grant Tydeus immortality, but he was also well aware of Tydeus' cruelty and wanted to take revenge of him for the leading role he had played in getting Adrastus to undertake the expedition in which he knew he would die. So, Amphiaraus cut Melanippus' head and brought it to a wounded Tydeus, who opened it and ate the brains. Athena was so shocked that she let Tydeus die. In the rout that followed the defeat of Adrastus' army, Amphiaraus tried to escape, but, when he was about to be caught by his pursuers, Zeus opened the earth in front of his chariot and engulfed the whole team along with him within the hole so opened. Zeus later granted Amphiaraus immortality.
Canapeus, a giant, was struck by Zeus' lightning while trying to climb the walls of Thebes to set the city afire. His wife Evadne threw herself into the fire that was burning him and died with him. Thus, both children of Iphis, who had suggested Polynices to use Harmonia's necklace to buy Eriphyle' support, were killed in that war, and when Iphis died, he left his share of the throne of Argos (he was of the lineage of Proetus) to Sthenelus, the son of his daughter Evadne and of Canapeus.
As for Polynices, he fought against his own brother Eteocles and they killed each other (for the continuation of this story on Thebes' side, see the section on Oedipus in the entry for that city).
Traditions differ as to what Adrastus, the only survivor, did next. Some say that he was persuasive enough (at Phædrus, 269a, Plato, quoting an elegy from Tyrtæus, calls him "honey sweet-voiced Adrastus" and calls on him to rescue dialectic in the face of rhetoric) to obtain from the Thebans the right to bury the dead on his side, other that he fled to Athens and asked Theseus his help to recover the bodies, which were then buried in Eleusis.
[The story of this expedition inspired Æschylus The Seven against Thebes, one part of his Theban tetralogy, and also Euripides' Phoenician Women and Suppliants.]
Undeterred by this failure, Adrastus, ten years later, organized a second campaign with the sons of the dead princes, against Laodamas, the son of Eteocles, who had by now become king of Thebes after Creon' regency. This new expedition was called the expedition of the Epigones (in Greek, "those who come after"). The seven princes who took part in it were : After his victory, Alcmæon went to Delphi to consult the oracle about the pledge he had made to his father Amphiaraus to kill Eriphyle, his own mother. The oracle confirmed that, in view of what Eriphyle had done, not only with regard to her husband, but again with regard to her son, he had to abide by the pledge, which he did. But then, he became the prey of the Erinyes who drove him crazy. He wandered across the country and arrived at the court of Phegeus, in Arcadia, who purified and cured him, and gave him his daughter Arsinoe in marriage. Alcmæon offered her as wedding gifs the necklace and dress of Harmonia, which had served to secure his mother's help in the two expeditions against Thebes. But soon after, he had to flee again because a drought had fallen on the country and he was told by an oracle he could be freed of his malediction only when he would settle on a land that didn't exist when he killed his mother. He eventually settled on new land formed by alluvia at the mouth of the river Achelous along the shore of western Greece north of the Gulf of Corinth, and was purified by the river-god who gave him his daughter Callirhoe (a name meaning "beautiful flow" in Greek) in marriage. But she too wanted the necklace and dress of Harmonia as wedding gift, and, to recover them from Arsinoe, Alcmæon lied to her and her father, so that they killed him. Yet, the son he had had with Callirhoe before dying, Amphoterus and Acarnan, later avenged him by killing Phegeus and his two sons, before offering the necklace of Harmonia, which had led to so many murders, to Apollo at Delphi and establishing new settlements in the southern part of Epirus (the part of western Greece north of the river Achelous), which was thus callled Acarnania, after Acarnan (Thucydides gives a watered down version of this story at Histories, II, 102).
Alcmæon's brother Amphilochus, who hadn't been involved in the murder of their mother, took part in the Trojan war and, upon his return, moved to Ætolia and founded a city he called Argos too, on the gulf of Ambracia, north of Acarnania (Thucydides' Histories, II, 68).

When Adrastus died, of grief at the death of his last son in the expedition of the Epigones, he left his share of the throne of Argos to Diomedes, who was the son of his daughter Deipyle and of Tydeus. Diomedes married one of his aunts, Ægialea. Before becoming king of Argos, Diomedes, who was the grandson of Oeneus, king of Calydon, by his father Tydeus, had restored, with the help of Alcmæon, Oeneus' daughter and son-in-law on the throne of Calydon which had been usurped by Agrius, a brother of Oeneus, with the help of his sons. After that, Diomedes took part in the Trojan war at the side of Ulysses. In older traditions, he had one of the happiest returns from that war. But later traditions added new episodes to his story : while he was away at Troy, his wife Ægialea, at first faithful to him, had finaly decided to take lovers and Diomedes, when coming back, barely escaped death at their hands by fleeing in Italy, where he later died after having founded several new colonies in southern Italy.

(to be continued)


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First published January 4, 1998 - Last updated January 16, 1999
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