Shakespeare’s Tharsus: Fact or Fiction – P2

I am no viper, yet I feed
On mother’s flesh, which did me breed;
I sought a husband, in which labour
I found that kindness in a father.
He’s father, son, and husband mild,
I mother, wife, and yet his child.
How they may be, and yet in two,
As you will live, resolve it you.

(Pericles, Act One, Scene 2, lines 64-71)

Does anything have the power to shock us anymore? Are there any taboos left? Incest? In Ancient Egypt incest was practiced in the families of the Pharaohs right down to Cleopatra. Before she had Caesar and Mark Anthony, she married her brother. In Ancient Greece, the playwright Sophocles disparaged it. Oedipus entire line was cursed when he unwittingly killed his father and sired grandchildren on his mother/wife. But what about the ancient city of Antioch?

Oil Jar (lekythos) with the Garden of the Hesperides Greek made in Paestum South Italy 350-340 BCE Terracotta (1)

Hesperides, a goddess-nymph of the setting sun. Detail from an oil Jar (lekythos) Greek, made in Paestum South Italy 350-340 BCE Terracotta

Pericles, the Prince of Tyre, sailed to Antioch after hearing report of the mythic beauty of Hesperides, daughter of King Antiochus. Now Anitochus wasn’t just any, overly, over-protective parent. Jealous of his daughter’s many suitors, he was also her lover. He challenged them with a riddle, a coil of diplomacy. If they answered it correctly they could take his daughter/lover as their wife. If they failed to answer, they were executed for the presumption of having tried. Yet they would face death if they offended the king’s honour by revealing the family secret.

Was incest to be kept secret in Antioch? Could it be hushed if the royal family practiced it? Shakespeare’s version is told from a Renaissance, Christian perspective.

In the riddle above the first two lines are from Antiochus’ consciousness, the remaining his daughter’s. Pericles understood it immediately and fled Antioch. Perhaps he should have been more wary in setting off? Did he consider the beauty’s name, Hesperides. She was named after a goddess of the dying day.

Shakespeare’s play is taken from a story told and retold for over a thousand years. It began in the 3rd century C.E. with a Greek text that was soon followed by Latin, then French, and eventually English in the Renaissance. (1) Does the play have a basis in history?


The extent of the Seleucid Empire at its height (in the peach). The red lines denote present day national borders.

The names of the characters have a Graeco-Roman ring to them. The settings invoke the Eastern Roman Empire, or perhaps the Seleucid Empire. As Antioch was a Seleucid capital, and as the earliest version of the story is Greek, an origin in the historic Seleucid Empire is plausible.(2) Wikipedia lists 13 Seleucid Emperors named Antiochus. (3) Of their, oftentimes, scant biographies it is difficult to find any similarities with Shakespeare’s play.

antiochus detail


Alternatively, the play could be a product of a historically minded imagination. Antiochus may have been chosen as the name of the king because incest was acceptably practiced in the royal families of the Seleucid Emperors. Consider Antiochus I Soter (323/4-261 BCE) who was so infatuated with his stepmother, Stratonice, that his father gave her to him, to cure his lovesickness. Or Laodice IV (3rd-2nd C BCE) who married all three of her brothers in succession. Giving the outrage of incest to a Seleucid monarch gave the story plausibility.

Whether the original source of the tale was legend or fiction, it has the air of authenticity. We can safely assume that the settings existed. That Tharsus existed. Was it the island in the north Aegean, Thasos, or the city in the Eastern Mediterranean, Tarsus?


(1)Stokes, Frances Griffin, Who’s Who in Shakespeare: Characters, Names and Plot Sources in the Plays and Poems, George Harrop and Co., London, 1924, pp. 252-253.

(2) The Seleucid Empire was a Hellenistic society begun with Alexander the Great’s conquests in Syria and the Middle East. On his death, his Generals held territories for themselves and war between them ensued. In 312 BCE Seleucus Nicator I established himself as the monarch of Babylonia and the founder of an Empire that bore his name. It finally fell to the Romans in 63 BCE.

(3) An easy to read bio as the first twelve can be scrolled through on the Encyclopedia Iranica webpage.

Photo Credits:


Photo credit: mharrsch / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The Seleucid Empire

Photo credit: prince_volin / Foter / CC BY-ND


Photo credit: damiandude / Foter / CC BY-NC