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Aeacus’ Heroism and Homeric Reception in Nonnus’ Dionysiaca

Joshua Fincher

Nonnus in his 48-Book epic, the Dionysiaca, engages in a systematic criticism of the conventions and ethical assumptions of Homeric epic in order to express the superiority of his own approach to writing poetry. One of the dominant tactics that Nonnus employs is an attack on the heroic code of Homer and the primacy of Homeric heroes, particularly Achilles who appears throughout the poem as a symbol for Homeric authority and traditional poetics. Nonnus constructs the character of Aeacus in the Dionysiaca as a primary paradeigma for a composite, Dionysiac heroism consisting of militarism, piety, dolos, and kingliness against which can be read the monochromatic and unsuccessful heroism of his grandson, Achilles. In doing so, Nonnus gives himself, Aeacus, and the Dionysiaca a greater measure of authority and worthiness to be the producer and subject of song than Homer and his Achilles.

The composite nature of Aeacus’ heroic code reflects the polygeneric poikilia that is the basis of Nonnian poetics, and the success of his composite heroism mirrors the success of the Dionysiaca’s poikilia as mode of composing epic. My talk aims to expand current discussions of the reception and criticism of Homer (Graziosi: 2002, Kim: 2010) by illustrating an engagement with Homeric poetry that does not make a rationalistic critique of Homer’s truth value but rather attacks Homer as a poetic master, ethical authority, and source for the criteria for evaluating his successors’ poetics. Additionally, I offer a new understanding of Nonnus’ bold polemic against traditional poetics that expands current views of Nonnian imagery and Homeric engagement (Shorrock: 2001, Hopkinson: 1994a/b).

             Nonnus’ critique is accomplished by placing Aeacus in scenes closely modeled on Homeric episodes. In Book 22, Aeacus’ battle at the Hydaspes is closely based on Achilles’ battle at the Scamander (Il. 21), while the funeral games in Book 37 for Opheltes mirror Iliad 23. In both episodes, Aeacus is depicted as performing actions to consciously create a paradeigma to govern his descendants’ behavior, a paradeigma to which Achilles does not live up. At the Hydaspes, Nonnus explicitly states that Aeacus outperforms Achilles at the Scamander and is more successful in military matters. In 37, Aeacus performs the roles that Odysseus and Agamemnon take in Homer’s games. The actions of Agamemnon and Odysseus in Il. 23 especially illustrate the heroic traits of dolos and kingliness which are both traits that Achilles does not embody in the Iliad. Finally, Aeacus’ prayer in Book 39 represents his own contribution to heroism: extreme piety, which is another heroic trait not enacted by Achilles. Along with presenting Aeacus’ deeds as the unfulfilled paradeigma for Achilles’ behavior, Nonnus further figures these scenes as the primary paradigm for Iliad 21 and 23. In ironically establishing a situation in which the Homeric poems are dependent on the mythically anterior events that the Dionysiaca narrates, Nonnus subverts the primacy of Homeric narrative authority.

            Aeacus is a successful and superior hero because he is able to combine various models of heroism into one character and deploy them where appropriate. Nonnus uses Aeacus’ composite heroism as a metaphor for the polygeneric poetics of the Dionysiaca that, rather than maintaining a strict adherence to Homeric convention, seek to subsume all genres into Nonnus’ overarching ‘Dionysiac’ poetic. The effective deployment of different genres within the umbrella of epic allows Nonnus’ poem to expand the expressive power of the epic genre. The failure of the limited Achilles to fulfill Aeacus’ heroic expectations symbolizes the inability of traditional poetics and generic categories to succeed in the poetic climate of Late Antiquity that favors variation over the maintenance of canonical boundaries. In removing the value of Homeric anteriority, Nonnus attacks the basis of Homeric claims to primacy and appropriates a measure of authority to establish the Dionysiaca and his own poikilia as a new poetic paradigm.

Session/Panel Title

Intrageneric Dialogues in Hellenistic and Imperial Epic

Session/Paper Number

4.4

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