The mytheme of the "outlandish" and "savage" Seven who threatened the city has traditionally seemed to be based on Bronze Age history in the generation before the Trojan War, when in the Iliad's Catalogue of Ships only the remnant Hypothebai ("Lower Town") subsists on the ruins of Thebes. Yet archaeologists have been hard put to locate seven gates in "seven-gated Thebes": In 1891 Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff declared that the seven gates existed only for symmetry with the seven assailants, whose very names vary: some have their own identity, like Amphiaraus the seer, "who had his sanctuary and his cult afterwards... Others appear as stock figures to fill out the list," Burkert remarks. "To call one of them Eteoklos, vis-à-vis Eteokles the brother of Polyneikes, appears to be the almost desperate invention of a faltering poet" Burkert follows a suggestion made by Ernest Howald in 1939 that the Seven are pure myth led by Adrastos (the "inescapable") on his magic horse, seven demons of the Underworld; Burkert draws parallels in an Akkadian epic text, the story of Erra the plague god, and the Seven (Sibitti), called upon to destroy mankind, but who withdraw from Babylon at the last. The city is saved when the brothers simultaneously run each other through. Burkert adduces a ninth-century relief from Tell Halaf which would exactly illustrate a text from II Samuel 2: "But each seized his opponent by the forelock and thrust his sword into his side so that all fell together".
The mythic theme passed into Etruscan culture: a fifth-century bronze mirrorback is inscribed with Fulnice (Polynices) and Evtucle (Eteocles) running at one another with drawn swords. A particularly gruesome detail from the battle, in which Tydeus gnawed on the living brain of Melanippos in the course of the siege, also appears, in a sculpted terracotta relief from a temple at Pyrgi, ca. 470–460 BC.
The Seven Against Thebes were
- Eteoclus and Mecisteus. Some sources, however, state that Eteoclus and Mecisteus were in fact two of the seven, and that Tydeus and Polynices were allies. This is because both Tydeus and Polynices were foreigners. However, Polynices was the cause of the entire conflict, and Tydeus performed acts of valour far surpassing Eteoclus and Mecisteus. Either way, all nine men were present (and killed) in the battle, save Adrastus.
The defenders of Thebes included
See also Epigoni, the mythic theme of the Second War of Thebes