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Integration or Imperialism? A Reassessment of Aeschylus’ Aetnaeans

Mark Thatcher

Boston College

Aeschylus’ lost tragedy Aetnaeans (written in the late 470s) celebrates Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, and his colonial foundation of Aetna but also, surprisingly, highlights a pair of indigenous Sicilian deities, the Palici. One prominent interpretation (Dougherty, Bonanno, Morgan) has argued that the Aetnaeans participates in a strategy of “cultural imperialism,” through which Greeks take possession of the indigenous deities, familiarize and Hellenize them, and thereby demonstrate their cultural superiority over the Sikels. The presence of indigenous deities in a Greek tragedy presents an intriguing case study of cultural politics in colonial Sicily. In contrast to earlier work, however, I focus on a two-way accommodation between Greeks and Sikels that is also suggested by the play, which highlights the contributions of both cultures to the social and religious landscape of Deinomenid Sicily.

In an opening section, I show that relationships between Greeks and Sikels – while always fluid – were particularly in flux in the early fifth century. The Deinomenid program of new foundations and forced migration of populations led to massive social change for all Sicilians (Lomas, De Angelis). The long-standing process of selective adoption of Greek cultural features by Sikels (Albanese Procelli, Antonaccio, Giangiulio, Shepherd) reached new heights when the sanctuary of the Palici in central Sicily was remodeled along Greek lines (Maniscalco and McConnell). The efforts of the Sikel leader Ducetius, shortly after Aeschylus’ time, to carve out a state with its capital at the sanctuary (Diod. 11.88.6-89) not only added to the turmoil but also show the importance of the Palici in Sikel culture (Cusumano).

With this context in mind, I reassess three aspects of the Aetnaeans. First, the one securely attested fragment (F6 Radt) accepts what seems to be a non-Greek story, the birth of the Palici from the ground: in an etymological pun, Aeschylus derives the name Palici from palin hikousi, “they came back” from under the earth (where their mother had disappeared while pregnant). Dougherty argues that explaining the indigenous deities in the language of the colonizer is an act of appropriation that legitimizes Greek power in Sicily; by contrast, I show that the etymology expresses a productive blending of Sikel beliefs and Greek linguistics. Similarly, Aeschylus makes the Palici sons of Zeus, inserting them into the dominant Greek cultural discourse. Yet Zeus had many non-Greek sons, including Belus, an Egyptian king, and Targitaus, a Scythian founder. As Erich Gruen has recently shown, such mythical liaisons often served not to claim priority for the Greek gods and subordinate foreigners to Greeks but – as I demonstrate for Aetnaeans – to forge connections between different peoples. Finally, a hypothesis preserved on papyrus (POxy 2257 F1) indicates that successive scenes in the play were set in several locations throughout southeastern Sicily, including Mt. Etna, Leontini, and Syracuse; this has been interpreted as establishing a celebratory movement towards Syracuse and the telos of the Deinomenid regime (Poli-Palladini, Smith). While accepting this, I also draw attention to the role of the Palici in this movement, which evokes the relevance of the native deities to the audience’s present day. I suggest that Aeschylus celebrates the social order of fifth-century Sicily by dramatizing its origins, which are rooted in the contributions of all of the island’s disparate peoples.

Reading the Aetnaeans in its fifth-century Sicilian context thus points to a politics of integration and accommodation, rather than imperialism, in which Greeks are shown the importance of Sikel deities for the foundations of their contemporary society and Sikels find a place within Hieron’s empire. Aeschylus, a vir utique Siculus (Macr. Sat. 5.19.17), thus contributed to the development of a distinctive local culture, different from that of mainland Greece, in which all Sicilians could take pride.

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Traditions and Innovations in Literature

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