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Pausanias, the Serpent Column, and the Persian-War Tradition

David Yates

Within a few years of the Greek victory at Plataea the most conspicuous monument to the Persian Wars, the Serpent Column at Delphi, was quite literally rewritten.  Its dedicatory inscription had originally attributed the victory to the Spartan Pausanias, the supreme Greek commander at Plataea and the man charged with overseeing the construction of the monument: “When the leader of the Hellenes destroyed the army of the Medes, / He, Pausanias, dedicated this monument to Phoebus” (Thuc. 1.132.2).  Reaction was swift and negative.  Pausanias’ epigram was replaced with a list of 31 allied states, headed by a simple assertion: “These fought the war” (Meiggs and Lewis, #27).  The removal of Pausanias’ inscription constitutes the earliest and best remembered dispute over the Persian-War tradition.  Thucydides (1.132) and Ps.-Demosthenes (59.96-98) provide our most detailed narrative accounts.  Thucydides has been largely ignored since his treatment appears in the digression on Pausanias (1.128-135), whose reliability has long been criticized (Rhodes, Westlake, and Hornblower).  Communis opinio follows Ps.-Demosthenes and holds that Pausanias intended his inscription to glorify Sparta, but that the allies became offended and forced the Spartans to remove it (Gauer, Trevett, Hornblower, and Kienast).  Consequently, the Serpent Column has been interpreted as proof that the early memory of the Persian Wars was strongly influenced by a Panhellenic narrative that transcended the parochial claims of the individual states (Jung and Beck).

I argue that the accepted interpretation runs counter to the natural implication of the inscriptions.  If Pausanias intended his epigram to celebrate Sparta, he was (for once) coy to the point of opacity.  Sparta does not even appear.  Rather, all participants, including the hegemon, are figured as members of a homogenous, Panhellenic collective (“the Hellenes”).  The list of states and its heading are equally unsuited to a Panhellenic backlash.  There, the allies are presented, not as a collective, but as Spartans, Athenians, and so forth – hardly a blow for transcendent Panhellenism.  There is indeed a tension between a Panhellenic and state-centered view of the war, but Pausanias appears to advocate the former, not the latter.  The entire incident must be reinterpreted.  Whatever the faults of his digression on Pausanias, Thucydides offers a more satisfying explanation.  His Pausanias is depicted as an overweening aristocrat whose efforts to fashion a Panhellenic powerbase outside the bounds of his home polis are thwarted by his fellow citizens.  Their reaction restores the city-states (Sparta first among them) to the commemoration.  Interpreted in this light, the Serpent Column would no longer mark the victory of a Panhellenic memory of the war, but rather its flat defeat at the hands of a more state-centered vision.  My conclusions call into question whether any grand Panhellenic narrative of the war ever took firm root, which in turn hints at a Persian-War tradition that was from the beginning much more atomized than scholars assume. 

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Problems in Greek History and Historiography

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