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Pindar and the Epic Cycle

Henry Spelman

University of Cambridge

The study of the epic cycle is a growth industry that has produced much ground-breaking research in recent years, but comparatively little attention has been paid to the importance of the cycle for post-Homeric poetry. Did Pindar allude to lost Trojan epics? Some simply assert a positive answer (e.g. West 2013) while others express doubt in passing (e.g. Burgess 2001). Rutherford 2015 has offered by far the most sophisticated and substantial discussion of this topic, but he cautiously avoids endorsing any firm conclusions. For the sake of concision, this paper focuses on the Cypria and the Aethiopis in particular. I argue that Pindar not only alludes to these poems but alludes to them as the work of Homer.    

            As many scholars would agree, Pindar closely engages with the Iliad and the Odyssey in substantially the same form as we know them today (e.g. Cassio 2002, West 2011; compare and contrast Nagy 1990). If Pindar, like many in his day (cf. Hdt. 2.117), considered other Trojan epics also to be the work of Homer, one would expect him to engage with these other poems in a similar way. Pindar did in fact regard cyclic epics as Homeric (contrast e.g. Nisetich 1989, Mann 1994). A reading of Isthmian 4, for example, shows that he knew of the Aethiopis’ distinctive account of Ajax’s suicide ‘in the late night’ (ὀψίαι | ἐν νυκτί, I.4.35b-36; cf. περὶ τὸν ὄρθρον, Aethiopis fr. 6 West). As Pindar tells it, Homer handed down to posterity an account of Ajax’s ‘entire achievement’ (πᾶσαν … ἀρετάν, I.4.38). This comprehensive phrase must extend beyond the brief timeframe of the Iliad to cover much else, including Ajax’s exploits on the day of Achilles’ death, a story told in the Aethiopis (arg. 3; cf. Pind. N.8.28-32).   

            Isthmian 4 implies that Homer composed the Aethiopis and transmitted this poem intact through time. Nemean 10 provides invaluable concrete evidence for Pindar’s engagement with another cyclic epic as just such a stable text. Seven lines of the Cypria, one of the most extensive fragments from any lost Trojan epic, offer a singular opportunity for us to observe a close intertextual interaction in Pindar, just as the approximately 27,000 hexameters of the Iliad and Odyssey enable us to discern comparable interactions in other odes. Nemean 10 does not just agree with the Cypria in numerous larger points of plot but picks up from this earlier poem some distinctive details, among them the hollow oak in which Lynceus spied the Dioscuri from Mt. Taygetus (ἐν στελέχει | ἡμένους, Pind. N.10.61-22; ἔσω κοίλης δρυὸς ἄμφω, Cypria fr. 16). On the yet more fine-grained level of diction, Pindar may even follow the Cypria in punning on the name of Ἀφαρητίδαι (N.10.65), ‘the sons of Mr. Quick’ (λαιψηροῖς δὲ πόδεσσιν ἄφαρ, N.10.63; αἶψα … ποσὶν ταχέεσσι, Cypria fr. 16). In Nemean 10 as elsewhere Pindar does not just react to a nebulous mythological tradition but rather signals that he is retracing one particular ‘highway of song’ (ὁδὸν ἀμαξιτόν, N.6.54, looking to the Aethiopis).

            Recognising that Pindar’s extant lyric alludes to lost epics has important implications for our understanding of both. While Pindar’s creative freedom makes him at best a highly problematic resource for reconstructing vanished texts, he does bear unique witness to the early reception of cyclic epic. His allusions probably depended on his audiences’ knowledge derived from frequent and widespread rhapsodic recitations of these works which, in the poet’s view, Homer had handed down in order ‘for later men to play’ (λοιποῖϲ ἀθύρειν, I.4.39). By identifying many probable allusions to cyclic epics in Pindar we may also greatly enrich our sense of how thoroughly his poetry is interested in situating itself within a literary tradition. Constructing an immanent literary history in which he plays a central role, Pindar sets his work alongside canonical epics and sets himself alongside the single most distinguished figure of the poetic past, Homer.

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Whose Homer?

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