In the first place it is necessary to appreciate the nature of Creon's edict
The character of Creon's edict.
against burying Polyneices. Some modern estimates of the play have seemed to assume that such refusal of sepulture, though a harsh measure, was yet one which the Greek usage of the poet's age recognised as fairly applicable to public enemies, and that, therefore, Creon's fault lay merely in the degree of his severity. It is true that the legends of the heroic age afford some instances in which a dead enemy is left unburied, as a special mark of abhorrence. This dishonour brands the exceptionally base crime of Aegisthus1 Yet these same legends also show that, from a very early period, Hellenic feeling was shocked at the thought of carrying enmity beyond the grave, and withholding those rites on which the welfare of the departed spirit was believed to depend. The antiquity of the maxim that, after a battle, the conquerors were bound to allow the vanquished to bury their dead, is proved by the fact that it was ascribed either to Theseus2 or to Heracles3. Achilles maltreated the dead Hector. Yet, even there, the Iliad expresses the Greek feeling by the beautiful and touching fable that the gods themselves miraculously preserved the corpse from all defacement and from all corruption, until at last the due obsequies were rendered to it in Troy4. The Atreidae refused burial to Ajax; but Odysseus successfully pleaded against the sentence, and Ajax was ultimately buried with all honour5. In giving that issue to his play, Sophocles was doing what the general feeling of his own age would strongly demand. Greeks of the fifth century B.C. observed the duty towards the dead even when warfare was bitterest, and when the foe was barbarian. The Athenians buried the Persians slain at Marathon, as the Persians buried the Lacedaemonians slain at Thermopylae. A notable exception may, indeed, be cited; but it is one of those exceptions which forcibly illustrate the rule. The Spartan Lysander omitted to bury the Athenians who fell at Aegospotami; and that omission was remembered, centuries later, as an indelible stigma upon his name6.
Thus the audience for which Sophocles composed the Antigone would regard Creon's edict as something very different from a measure of exceptional, but still legitimate, severity. They would regard it as a shocking breach of that common piety which even the most exasperated belligerents regularly respected.
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