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The Fragments of Rhianus’ Messeniaca: An Iliad for the Messenian People?

Veronica Shi

Some fourteen fragments*, miscellaneous testimonia, and a few swaths of paraphrased material in Book 4 of Pausanias’ Hellados Periegesis are all that remain of the Messeniaca, a six-book epic of the Second Messenian War attributed to the 3rd century poet and Homeric scholar Rhianus.  In spite of their meagerness, however, these remains sketch the outlines of a bold attempt by Rhianus to create a national history, in epic form, for the Messenians after their liberation from Spartan rule in 369 BCE.

Scholars such as Lionel Pearson and Nino Luraghi have amply demonstrated how important the Messeniaca came to be both as a national poem for the recently liberated Messenians, who lacked a written heritage of their own, and as a source for Messenian history (Pearson 1962; Luraghi 2008).  Their work, however, uncovers a highly problematic aspect of the poem: if the Messeniaca was meant to celebrate Messenian independence and identity—and managed to do so successfully, judging from the prominence Pausanias accords it as a source for Messenian history in his Peregesis—why did its narrative focus on a nadir of the Messenian past, namely the defeat and exile of the hero Aristomenes after the Second Messenian War in the 7th century BCE?

I suggest that both the Messeniaca’s unusual choice of subject matter and its resulting success as a national text can be explained if we approach the poem as a sophisticated imitation of Homer’s Iliad.  Although Rhianus’ stylistic debts to Homer have been treated by Bing (1988) and Castelli (1994), the overall purpose as well as scope of Rhianus’ appropriation of Homer has yet to recieve attention in the scholarship, and will be a central focus of my paper.  I will survey both thematic and narrative parallels between the Iliad and the paraphrased narrative of the Messeniaca in Pausanias, as well as verbal correspondences between the Iliad and Rhianus’ fragments—a striking example of which includes the portrayal of Sparta’s besiegement of Eira as an 11-year effort (CA 54 = Paus. 4.17.6), surpassing Homer’s 10-year siege of Troy.  Throughout my analysis I will draw attention to the challenges of determining how we may securely attribute material paraphrased by Pausanias to Rhianus' original text.  Although these are not insignificant, I will show that the fragments, and material from the Periegesis that can be reasonably supposed to represent Rhianus' work, indicate the outlines of a Messenian Iliad in which the Messenians play the role of latter-day Trojans, with Aristomenes as their Hector, to the Spartans.  I suggest it is by modeling the Messenian past closely upon the plot of the Iliad that Rhianus was able to vest Messenia’s past with cultural relevance in the wider Hellenistic world—and to do so, moreover, in a literary form and register which elevated (even celebrated) rather than whitewashed the bleak mythology of the Messenians’ enslavement to the Spartans. 

My paper's final portion considers the broader implications this interpretation of the Messeniaca has for our understanding of early Roman historical epic, whose first practitioners Naevius and Ennius were active no more than two generations after Rhianus' floruit.  Homer’s influence on Naevius and Ennius is beyond dispute, and the sophistication with which the Bellum Punicum and Annales repurposed Homeric material and narrative strategies can seem anomalous when these poems are viewed in isolation.  But were the Romans unique in casting themselves in the role of the Trojans (or their descendants), and was the Roman epic tradition unique in using Homeric tactics to weave the story of Rome’s rise into the broader mythology of the Hellenistic world?  Rhianus’ latter-day Iliad suggests otherwise--that Naevius and Ennius’ Homerizing accounts of Roman history, rather being unique to the Roman context, could well reflect a practice of literary and cultural appropriation more widespread within, and possibly adopted from, the lost world of Hellenistic historical epic.

*Collectanea Alexandrina frr. 50, 51, 54-6; Supplementum Hellenisticum 716, 923, 941-7 (of which 943-45 are tentatively attributed). 

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Poetry and Place

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