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Pheres: A Horrible Old Man?
June 17, 2010
In his introduction to Alcestis, Richmond Lattimore describes Pheres, the father of Admetus, as 'a horrible old man'. (Euripides I, The Complete Greek Tragedies, University of Chicago Press, 1955, p. 3) I am not sure I agree.

As Lattimore points out, the plot of the Alcestis is from a traditional legend: Apollo has arranged for Admetus to postpone his death if he can find someone to die in his place. After Admetus' mother and father refuse, his wife, Alcestis, generously agrees to die for him and is eventually restored to life by Heracles. The first part of the play focuses on Alcestis' death and its implications for Admetus; the last part on her rescue and return. Linking the two is the episode in which Admetus' parents arrive with funeral offerings only to be rebuffed by Admetus, who blames them for Alcestis' death.

Because Pheres would not offer his own life to save his son, Admetus paints him as a coward who 'let' Alcestis die in his place. Pheres answers that he did everything that is required of a parent. He gave Admetus life, raised him, and passed on his estate. He is not obliged to die for him. Admetus is not persuaded. "You will die in evil memory," he tells his father.

Lattimore's characterization of Pheres as 'a horrible man' fulfills Admetus' prediction, but unless Lattimore is acquainted with Pheres in some other connection, his judgment seems harsh. Pheres and his wife appear to be sincere in their intent to share their son's burden as he mourns the loss of his wife. They honor her loving sacrifice. Their only offense is not stepping up to die in their son's place.

Granted it would be noble for Pheres to buy some years for his son, but is refusing to sacrifice his life ignoble and cowardly? The question seems to come down to this: is it wrong for a father to refuse to give up his own life for the life of his son? In these circumstances I am inclined to agree with Pheres that Admetus should not have asked him in the first place.