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The Aesthetics of Slaughter in Quintus Smyrnaeus’ Posthomerica

Nicholas Kauffman

The Posthomerica has been compared, not inaptly, to a Tarantino film (Hall). It is replete with carnage and slaughter of a graphic and sometimes grotesque variety. But though the epic’s violence is often noted, its precise nature, along with the character of its many battle scenes, has remained largely unstudied. In this paper, I aim to take a step toward characterizing the Posthomerica’s violence by focusing on one non-Iliadic feature of its battle narratives: their propensity to represent killing on a grand scale. What makes Posthomeric battles unique, I argue, is that Quintus is capable of separating the violence in his poem from specific individuals, presenting it as general and anonymous, and thus making it seem somewhat anodyne. This impression is intensified by the fact that the slaughter of vast multitudes of men is presented, via his similes, as something that is not horrible or troubling, but potentially constructive, even pleasant.

At first glance, the battles of the Posthomerica seem very Iliadic. They contain, by my count, 166 named casualties, which is approximately proportional to the 242 in the longer Iliad. A number of the men who die are even described, in Homeric fashion, with biographical details, which are traditionally seen as evoking pathos for them (Griffin). But Quintus also frequently (79 times) narrates incidents of generalized killing, in which the victims are unnamed and unnumbered. While such incidents do occur from time to time in the Iliad, the later epic has about five times as many. And very often the masses killed in Quintus’s poem are described in hyperbolic terms: we hear again and again of countless men (μυρίοι), whole peoples (λαοί), or numberless hosts (ἄσπετα φῦλα) being cut down, often by a single, incredibly powerful warrior. In this sense, the Posthomerica’s battles contain far more deaths than the Iliad’s.

Perhaps more significant than the mere existence of such slaughter is the fact that Quintus seems to take pleasure in describing it. While his individual deaths are narrated somewhat perfunctorily, as if for the sake of maintaining the Homeric form, his scenes of mass killing are treated carefully and creatively. This is evident in a series of ten similes, several of which are quite original, in which he compares slaughter to various productive human activities, e.g. harvesting olives, fishing, or making charcoal. This type of comparison is remarkable, given the fact that almost all the Iliadic similes that describe slaughter liken it to destructive events such as storms or forest fires. Moreover, four of Quintus’ slaughter similes refer to the emotion of the individual engaged in the given activity, which is in every case delight. As I argue, the peculiar nature of these similes suggests that war and killing, at least of the literary variety, are not especially problematic for Quintus, as they are often seen to be for the poet of the Iliad (e.g. by Neal and Holmes). In Quintus’ epic, the heroes who go around cutting down countless enemies are not seen only as ravening lions or blazing fires, but also as master technicians who complete their tasks efficiently, even joyfully.

In analyzing these similes, I consider them primarily in terms of their intertextual links with similes from other epics, especially the Iliad. For example, I show how one that likens a host of corpses to sheaves of grain cut down in a field (3.372-78) draws upon and adapts a famous reaping simile in the Iliad (11.67-71), while also responding to two related agricultural similes in the Argonautica (3.1386-80 and 3.1398-1403). Recent scholarship (especially Maciver) has highlighted the ways in which the Posthomerica engages with other texts in intricate and sophisticated ways, and I show that this is indeed the case with the similes under consideration, that Quintus creatively revisits and reformulates the work of his predecessors in developing his own unique aesthetics of slaughter. 

Session/Panel Title

Intrageneric Dialogues in Hellenistic and Imperial Epic

Session/Paper Number

4.5

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