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Theseus is the most famous of the legendary kings of Athens,
the Attic hero par execellence, the counterpart of the Dorian Heracles
23-26). He is said to have lived one generation before the Trojan war in
which his two sons, Demophon and Acamas, took part. He was the son of Ægeus,
a great-grandson of Erechtheus, and
of Æthra, whose grandfather was Pelops,
son of Tantalus and grandson of Zeus. But, according to other sources, he was
the son of Poseidon himself.
Ægeus consulted the oracle of Delphi because he was unable to have children from his wives. On his way back, unable to understand the answer of the god, he payed a visit to Pittheus, a son of Pelops who was king of Troezen and renowed for his wisdom. Pittheus, reading through the oracle which ordered Ægeus to "loose not the wine-skin's jutting neck" until he would be back in Athens (Plutarch's Life of Theseus, 3, 3), managed to make him drunk and to have him sleep with his daughter Æthra. Theseus was born of this union after Ægeus had returned to Athens and was raised at the court of his grandfather in Troezen (in the tradition that made him the son of Poseidon, Æthra had been led that same day by a dream sent her by Athena to go to a nearby island offer a sacrifice to Poseidon, and there, had been raped by the god). Before leaving Troezen, Ægeus had hidden under a heavy rock, unknown to everybody except Æthra, a sword and a pair of sandals that his son should take with him back to Athens when grown up, if he were able to lift the rock, to make himself recognized.
When he was sixteen, he was already so strong that his mother told him the secret. Theseus lifted the rock, took the stuff and decided to go to Athens. Rather than going by sea (Athens was across the Saronic Gulf from Troezen), as recomended by his mother and grandfather, Theseus decided to take the land road through the Isthmus of Corinth, which was by then infested by monsters of all kinds unchecked because Heracles was in captivity in Lydia, slave of Queen Omphale ; he indeed wanted to take advantage of this state of affairs to emulate Heracles.
Theseus was credited with many wondrous deeds on his way to Athens and after reaching it and being recognized as Ægeus' son (Plutarch's Life of Theseus, 6, 6, sq). The most famous of these is his victory over the Minotaur, which freed Athens from the obligation to send Minos in Crete a tribute of seven youths and seven maidens every nine years as a condition for peace following a war waged earlier against this king (Isocrates' Helen, 27-28). After his victory, he fled Crete with his companions still alive and Ariadne, the daughter of Minos and Pasiphae, who had fallen in love with him and helped him by giving him the thread that allowed him to leave the Labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. But he abandonned her in the island of Naxos on the way back, no one knows exactly why (according to a tradition, it is there that Dionysus saw her and fell in love with her, married her and took her with him to the Olympus).
On his way back to Athens, Theseus forgot to change the black sails of his ship for white sails that were supposed to let Athens know of his victory. So, when his father Ægeus saw the black sail on the horizon, he thought his son was dead and jumped into the sea to his death. The sea took his name thereafter, being called the Ægean Sea. The boat in which Theseus made the trip to Crete and back was still preserved in Athens in the time of Socrates and Plato (see Plutarch's Life of Theseus, 23).
Theseus and his companions had vowed to Apollo that, were they to return home alive, they would send an annual mission to Delos in thanksgiving. This tradition was still alive in the time of Socrates, with what was supposed to be the very ship Theseus had sailed on, and Plato tells us at the beginning of the Phædo (58a-c) that it is this mission which gave Socrates a reprieve between his condemnation and death, because, for the duration of the sacred mission and till the return of the ship, no one was to be put to death.
But the reference to Theseus at the beginning of the Phædo may have a deeper meaning : it may be read as suggesting a parallel between Socrates and either the Minotaur (for the Athenians, who accused him of destroying the youth) or Theseus (for Plato, who saw in Socrates the potential savior of Athens' youth), a reading that is reinforced by the word "taurèdon (bull-like)" used at 117b5 to characterize Socrates final look at the executioner handing him over the cup containing the hemlock.
One of Theseus' exploits on his way to Athens from Troezen was the slaying of Sciron, a robber who used to stop travellers on the road nearby Megara in a place where it was going through cliffs overlooking the sea, and ask them to wash his feet, only to push them in the sea while they were doing so (but there are other traditions, especially from Megara, presenting Sciron as a hero, even in some of them as a relative of Theseus, whom Theseus slew not on his way through the Isthmus, but once he had become king of Athens and waged war against Eleusis ; see Plutarch's Life of Theseus, 10).
Plato refers to this episode in the Theæthetus at the beginning of the discussion between Theodorus and Socrates (169a-c). Theodorus compares Socrates to a Sciron stripping his adversaries through speech and Socrates adds that he is more stubborn than Sciron because, even after being defeated by thousands of Theseuses, he keeps questioning others. We should note that this comparison of Socrates with another of Theseus' victims comes at the start of that section of the Thæthetus which parallels Socrates' trial (see "The seven steps of the dialectical trilogy" in the Overview of the tetralogies for a presentation of this parallel), a trial which, read in the light of the interpretation of the Phædo's mention of Theseus suggested above, asks the question : "Is Socrates a new Theseus saving Athens' youth or a new Minotaur destroying it ?" In that light, the Theæthetus restates the question in more philosophical terms : "Is it Theodorus, whose name means "gift of god", a "scientist" friend of Protagoras and his theory of man-measure, who will turn out to be the new Theseus able to rid Athens of Socrates and his stripping dialectic that leaves men deprived of any logos, or is it the other way around, Socrates being the only Theseus able to bring his companions "home", that is, in the Islands of the Blessed ?"
After he had become king of Athens, Theseus married Phædra, the sister of Ariadne and daughter of Minos and Pasiphae. But, in order to do so, he repudiated his former wife, an Amazon named Antiope, and this led to a war between Athens and the Amazons, which Theseus won (other sources say that the war took place before Theseus married Phædra, as a result of his having in fact kidnapped Antiope while accompanying Heracles in his expedition against the Amazons to take the belt of Hippolyte, their queen, as one of his twelve labours). Later, Phædra fell in love with Hippolytus, the son that Theseus had had from Antiope. As the young man, who was fond of hunting but had nothing to do with women, turned her down, Phædra, afraid that he might tell the truth to his father, simulated a rape and accused him in front of Theseus. Theseus, unwilling to kill his son himself, asked Poseidon, who was supposed to grant him three wishes, to help him get rid of Hippolytus. Soon after, a monster came out of the sea and frightened Hippolytus' horses so that he was thrown to the ground and pulled by the reins till he died. Learning about this, Phædra hanged herself (a slightly different version of this story is found in Euripides' Hippolytus and Plato refers to it at Laws, III, 687e and again at Laws, XI, 931b-c, the first time as an instance showing what extreme behavior senility can lead to with the help of the gods, the second time to illustrate why it is so important for men to honor their parents, knowing that the gods always side with them rather than with their children).
On a different note, the fact that the person who brings Socrates to talk about love in the Symposium, and again in the Phædrus, has the same name, in masculine form, as Theseus' wife : Phædrus, may be one more hint to suggest a comparison between Socrates and Theseus that is also suggested by the reading of the Phædo's mention of Theseus, as indicated above.
There is also the story that Theseus and his friend Peirithous vowed to offer one another daughters of Zeus for wives. As a result, they both took part in the abduction of Helen in Sparta when she was not yet of marriageable age (that is, long before another abduction, by Paris this time, which led to the Trojan War). Theseus brought Helen back in Attica and entrusted her to his mother, hiding them both in a secret place in Attica (in Aphidnæ), unknown to everybody (Isocrates' Helen, 18-20). Then, he embarked with his friend Peirithous for Hades, in the hope of capturing Persephone, another of Zeus' daughters, for Peirithous. They reached the place but couldn't leave it. Theseus was eventually set free by Heracles, but not Peirithous (Plutarch, in his Life of Theseus, XXXI, 4 and Life of Theseus, XXXV, 1-2, gives a rationalized version of the story, in which Hades has become the court of a king of Epirus, a region of north-western Greece, named Aidoneus ; Plato, on his part, criticizes such legends at Republic, III, 391d ).
While Theseus was away, Helen's brothers, Castor and Pollux, invaded Attica with an army of Lacedæmonians, to get their sister back. At first, they simply asked for her, but when the Athenians answered they didn't know where she was, they set for war. Yet, an Athenian by the name of Academus, who somehow knew of Theseus' secret, told Helen's brothers where she hid. Castor and Pollux then took Aphidnæ, freed their sister and took Theseus' mother Æthra prisonner to Sparta. When he later died, Academus was buried in the vicinity of Athens, across the Ceramicus district, in a garden called the Academy in his honor. This story explains why the Academy was never wrecked by the Spartans during their wars against Athens (for a similar story relating to the village of Decelea, see Herodotus, IX, 73).
It is in this garden that Plato established his school, which took its name and became known as the Academy. We may wonder if Plato might have had the reforms of Cleisthenes in mind when he chose to settle his school in a location bearing the name of an Attic hero the school would inherit, as if it were an eleventh tribe, the first of a new Athens ; and whether he deliberately chose a hero who averted a "Trojan War" before the time between Athens and Sparta because of a knowledge he was willing to share, a knowledge he most certainly learned from Theseus, who was by then in Hades, as was Socrates, the new Theseus, when Plato settled the Academy to spread Socrates' wisdom to Athenians, Spartans and Greeks of all origins alike.
During this campaign, Castor and Pollux also helped sit Menestheus, a great-grandson of Erechtheus who had taken the lead of Attic noblemen angry against Theseus' reforms, on the throne of Athens in place of Theseus' sons. So, when Theseus came back from Hades, he found that he was no longer welcome there and, unable to recapture his throne, left for the island of Skyros, where he died, or was assassinated by the king of the place (see Aristotle's Constitution of the Athenians, fr. 6), as a private citizen. After Menestheus' death, his sons Demophon and Acamas, back from the Trojan War, regained their throne at Athens.
During the battle of Marathon, many Athenian soldiers pretended they had seen Theseus fight at their head. After the Medean Wars, the oracle of Delphi ordered the Athenians to recover the bones of Theseus and give him a decent grave in Athens. Cimon fulfilled the order after taking the island of Skyros in 473, led to the grave by an eagle (see Plutarch's Life of Cimon, VIII, 5-6). His grave in Athens became a place of asylum and he was honored has the first champion of democracy.
For more on Theseus' political role and his major accomplishment, the so-called "synoecism", or bringing together of all the villages of Attica, see the entry on Athens.