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Ethnic Contestation and Nemean 11: Tenedos, the Aiolis, and Athens

Eric Driscoll

This paper demonstrates that Pindar’s Eleventh Nemean ode participates in ongoing discourses of contested ethnicity in the fifth century Aegean. Specifically, it implicitly urges an anti-Athenian sense of ethnic solidarity between Tenedians, other Aiolians, and Sparta. At issue are both the internal and external politics of Tenedos and the nature of the Athenian empire: Tenedos remained loyal to the Athenian league throughout the fifth century, yet Aristagoras, clearly a member of the island’s elite, delights in claiming descent from a companion of Orestes – who came ἀπὸ Σπάρτας (l. 34) to Tenedos.

Nemean 11 is not, in fact, an epinician ode. Rather, it was performed at a public festival on Tenedos to celebrate the installation of Aristagoras among a new board of prytaneis. Symbolically the chief magistrates of the polis, the prytaneis tend to the communal hearth of the city, an important locus of its self-representation (Miller 1978; Gernet 1981). Aristagoras uses this charged performance venue to define himself and Tenedos in their relation to one another and to the wider world. Note that: (i) the poem begins with a long and rich invocation of Hestia that affirms Aristagoras’ magistracy as divinely inspired (ll. 1-10), (ii) Aristagoras’ genealogy gives him roots in both Sparta and Boiotia (ll. 33-37), and (ii), he professes to be a descendent of a companion of Orestes, who led the Aiolians to Tenedos (l. 35). This Aiolian colonization tradition diverges from that found in all other sources (see Hdt. 1.151; Strabo 13.1.46; Paus. 10.14; Diod. Sic. 5.83) by claiming  primacy for Tenedos within the Aiolis, against Lesbos, usually considered the epicenter of the Aiolian migration (cf. Hall 2002: 71-72).

The period of the First Peloponnesian War (461-446 BC) provides the most compelling chronological context for the odes’s performance. Although direct evidence is lacking (Fearn 2009: 30), Nem. 11 can be illuminatingly juxtaposed with Pythian 11 and Isthmians 1 and 7, Theban poems likely to date from this period which contest both symbolic and concrete Athenian encroachment on Boiotia. Furthermore, the Aiolian island of Lesbos was a hotbed of dissent against the Athenians at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war; this state of affairs is likely to have antedated the 430s, and could well have obtained in the 450s as well, when other Aegean islands also resisted Athens. Though united by ethnicity, Tenedos nevertheless betrayed to Athens the Lesbian poleis’ plans to revolt in concert with Sparta and Boiotia (Thuc. 3.2). Together, the evidence suggests that it was during the First Peloponnesian War that this whole cluster came together: Athenian expansion into Boiotia sparked the mobilization of a previously latent sense of ethnic solidarity between the Aiolians of the northeastern Aegean and their putative founders in Boiotia, in alliance with Sparta (cf. Thuc. 7.57); yet this was by no means uncontested within individual Aiolian cities, as the case of Tenedos proves.

On this reading, Aristagoras would be a proponent of the Aiolian-Boiotian-Spartan alliance, who claimed for himself a place of aristocratic primacy within Tenedos. The typically aristocratic elements within the ode have led some scholars to suppose that Tenedos was an oligarchy (Fearn 2009), but there is no evidence to support that conclusion, which flows from a misunderstanding of the complexities of self-representation (cf. Kurke 1991: ch. 8). Rather, the indirect indications we do have suggest that Tenedos was more likely democratic. This, furthermore, would do much to explain why Aristagoras had Pindar compose Nem. 11. What we have at Tenedos is an example of the deployment of ritually significant song performance to canvass for a realignment of the island’s politics. Unlike some similar cases (Kowalzig 2007: ch. 5), it was unsuccessful; yet a careful reading of the poem and its historical context does much to illuminate ethnic differentiation and resistance within the Athenian empire.

Session/Panel Title

Athenian Frontiers

Session/Paper Number

29.2

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