A mythical Athenian hero associated with the foundation of the Athenian state, and regarded as a patron of Athenian democracy. His fight against the Amazons when they invaded Attica seems to have been invented as a parallel to the Persian invasion of the early 5th century. He is always shown as a youth and usually as a traveller, with a broad-brimmed cap (petasos), often supported by Athena. His story was developed to rival that of Herakles, by devising for him a series of adventures he is said to have had on his way to Athens from his birthplace at Troezen: see Sinis, Skiron, Procrustes. In Athens he is recognized by his father Aigeus, and encounters Medea who tries to poison him. In Attica he fights the Bull of Marathon, and leads the tribute of Athenian boys and girls to Knossos for the Minotaur, whom he slays with the help of Ariadne. He takes Ariadne to Naxos where he abandons her for Dionysos to find. With his companion Peirithoos he abducts Helen, the Amazon Antiope and attempts Persephone; he also fights beside Peirithoos when the latter's wedding is disrupted by Centaurs. For this they are imprisoned in Hades, whence only Theseus is rescued by Herakles.
Above left: Theseus carrying off Antiope with Peirithoos. Detail from an Athenian red-figure clay vase, about 490 BC. Paris, Musée du Louvre G197. © Musée du Louvre Licence Plate 11 UK 1007 200
Above right: Detail from an Athenian red-figure clay cup, about 440 BC. London, British Museum E84. © British Museum Licence Plate 11 UK 1007 201