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Astyanax and the Discus: Athletic Discourse in Euripides’ Troades

Owen Goslin

At the climactic moment of Troades Talthybios enters with the corpse of Astyanax, and the Chorus exclaim provocatively that the Greeks hurled him from the towers like “a bitter throw of the discus” (diskêma pikron, 1121). Although English translations typically ignore the reference to the discus, I argue that these words are no dead metaphor but part of an intricate appropriation of athletic discourse by the tragedian. I use the term “discourse” deliberately, in order to account for Euripides’ engagement with athletics not only at the level of imagery, but also as a cultural activity that was significant in the formation of individual and communal identities. As Mark Golden has argued, Greek athletics functioned as a “discourse of difference” that established and reinforced cultural hierarchies and polarities. Throughout the play the Trojan captives refer to athletic practice in order to make sense of their defeat: their nostalgia for the city’s past athletic customs (833-5, 1209-13) expresses their dread of a future in which their city will cease to exist and their noble status – and even their name (1319) – will go unrecognized.

In the first part of my paper I account for the significance of the discus reference in the funeral preparations for Astyanax. The staging of the scene would underline the discus image in 1121: although there is no consensus whether Astyanax’s corpse was carried on top of Hector’s shield or whether the two objects were brought on stage separately (cf. Dyson & Lee 2000), I argue that the former interpretation would be most dramatically effective, since the round shield suggests the shape of a discus. The Chorus conceive of the boy’s death as a shocking perversion of athletic practice; for the Trojans are now no longer participants in a contest with the Greeks, but transformed into objects in a new “game,” in which annihilation of Trojan identity is the goal. Hekabe, too, grieves for Astyanax by turning to the paradigm of athletic competition (1209-13), when she laments that she must decorate his body with funeral adornments (agalmata, 1212) rather than with crowns for athletic victory. Astyanax’s identity is thus incomplete, since he is defined by the social roles he was never permitted to fulfill: as athlete (1209-13), bridegroom (1218-20), and caretaker of Hekabe’s tomb (1180-86).

In the second part of my paper I argue that the athletic discourse at the end of the Troades forms a structural ring with the Alexandros (the first play of the trilogy), in which a pentathlon contest featured prominently. Previous scholars (Conacher 1967, Scodel 1980, Cropp 2004) have suggested various themes and poetic imagery uniting the trilogy. I argue that the athletic discourse in the Alexandros and Troades are formally and thematically linked, supporting the “trilogic” interpretation of these plays. In the Alexandros, Paris – who was exposed as a child and returns to Troy as a poor shepherd, unknowing of his true parentage – wins recognition of his eugeneia and regains his rightful identity through participation in the athletic games offered by Priam. Astyanax’s death represents a reversal of this movement in several important respects: (1) he is literally cast out of the city, (2) he is transformed from a potential athlete into an athletic object, and (3) although his parentage is never in doubt, he dies before he can confirm his noble identity in athletic deeds.

Scholars who have previously discussed the athletic imagery in the Troades have treated it as part of Euripides’ problematization of victory – particularly in the Cassandra episode (cf. Croally 1994: 120-22). I broaden this picture by demonstrating how Euripides appropriates athletic discourse to dramatize Troy's communal dissolution. This is achieved through a striking reversal of the normal Greek cultural analogy between war and athletics (cf. Golden 1998: 23-8; Pritchard 2012); here war annihilates Troy’s athletic culture, and with it an important avenue for the formation of individual and communal identity.

Session/Panel Title

Greek Tragedy: Rhetoric, Cartography, and the Death of Astyanax

Session/Paper Number

68.4

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