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David Yates

The battle of Oenoe is a notoriously intractable problem for the history of the Pentecontaetia.  Pausanias is our only source.  He identifies a painting of the Athenians and Spartans on the verge of combat in the Stoa Poikile as a depiction of a battle in Argive Oenoe (1.15.1).  Later, he cites the same battle as the occasion for an Argive statue group at Delphi, but here acknowledges the participation of the Argives as well (10.10.4).  Both monuments were erected on a magnificent scale in the mid-fifth century (Bommelaer, Shear, and Camp), which suggests that Oenoe was a major engagement fought during the Athenian-Argive alliance against Sparta (462/1-451 B.C.).  The problem is that no other source mentions the battle.  How could an event be significant enough to warrant such commemoration and yet fail to be attested until the second century A.D.?  Solutions turn on what is thought the most reliable piece of evidence, the name Oenoe.  Some simply insert the battle into a broadly Thucydidean timeline, but qualify that it must have been a small affair, quickly celebrated and then forgotten (Meiggs, Badian, Bollansée, and Develin). Others offer more creative solutions with the result that almost any military exercise associated with any town called Oenoe (or even the nymph of the same name) has been adduced as the event celebrated in one or both monuments (Jeffery, Francis and Vickers, Taylor, Sommerstein, Stansbury-O’Donnell, and Castriota).  All preserve the name by ignoring other facts gleaned from Pausanias or the archaeological record.  No answer has proven satisfactory.

I argue that too much faith has been placed in the name Oenoe.  Most assume that it appeared on the monuments themselves.  This was certainly not the case for the Argive statue group.  Pausanias specifically cites “the Argives” as his source, which points to an oral tradition, not an inscription.  Indeed, the inscription survives and it reads simply “The Argives dedicated it to Apollo” (FD III 1.90).  There is no lacuna, and similarly terse inscriptions are not uncommon at Delphi (see the Samian Apollo [FD III 4.455] or the Chian Altar [FD III 3.212]).  In the case of the Stoa Poikile, two classical references strongly imply that no labels appeared on the paintings contained within ([Dem] 59.94 and Aeschin. 3.186).  The name is ultimately a product of oral tradition.  It may be correct nonetheless, but since over a century of debate fixated on the name has led nowhere, I suggest we abandon it and find a known battle that fits the other clues – a major mid-fifth-century engagement in which the Spartans, Argives, and Athenians took part.  The battle of Tanagra (458/7 B.C.) immediately suggests itself.

Scholars have ignored this possibility and understandably so, since Thucydides is quite clear that the Athenians and Argives lost this battle (1.107-108; see also Hdt. 9.35.2).  But monuments are products of memory, not history.  Plato’s Menexenus, aping the popular epitaphioi logoi, characterizes the battle as a draw (242a-b; see also Diod. 11.80.6 and Justin 3.6.8-9); Aristodemus even calls it an Athenian victory (FGrHist 104 F1.12).  I am not suggesting Thucydides is wrong, merely that the Athenians and Argives may not have conceded their defeat at the time.  The results of battles were often disputed, and monuments were the weapons of choice in such disputes.  I maintain that our commemorations represented Athenian and Argive counterclaims to the victory at Tanagra.  By the imperial period, however, Thucydides’ sober assessment had prevailed.  Plutarch (Cim. 17.4-8 and Per. 10.1-3) and, more importantly, Pausanias himself (3.11.8 and 5.10.4) identify the battle as a Spartan victory.  The inherent contradiction of a victory monument for a recognized defeat made our commemorations particularly prone to invention.  Over time a less objectionable (albeit less famous) event was substituted, the battle of Oenoe.  My conclusions suggest a simple solution to this vexed historical problem and provide a vantage point from which to consider the dynamic interaction between history and memory.     

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War, Slavery, and Society in the Ancient World

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