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The Battle of Thyrea in Greek Epigram

Michael A Tueller

Arizona State University

Scholars have often addressed how Herodotus uses his epigrammatic sources; my twenty-minute paper looks in the other direction, at how later epigram used Herodotus. I find that, despite their brevity, battle-epigrams engage effectively with Herodotus, personalizing and complicating his narrative. Additionally, the ability of epigram to feature multiple points of view and to employ (in Peter Bing’s term) Ergänzungsspiel can create a subtle but often effective critique of the Histories.

My paper begins with a brief survey of epigrams on Thermopylae, to show the thematic foundations on which later epigrammatists would build. It then takes as its focus a series of epigrams on the Battle of Thyrea (especially AP 7.244, 430–432, 720–721). This battle serves as an excellent point of comparison, because Herodotus’s account of it (1.82) closely parallels his account of the Battle of Thermopylae (Dillery 1996).

Three primary (though interconnected) themes emerge from the paper.

First, the earliest of the Thyrea epigrams, in a manner similar to AP 7.248 and to Herodotus himself, rely for their impact on numbers: equal armies, the canonical force of 300, and the small numbers of survivors. In fact, two epigrams, AP 7.244 and 721, describe a battle in which there are no survivors at all, on either side. This innovation probably emerges from the characteristics of epigram itself, which prefers to foreground the epigram’s lonely stand as a written witness in the absence of oral report, but, if taken seriously, it creates the possibility to imagine that Herodotus’s story is incorrect in its most important features.

Second, the epigrams create a compelling addition to the story: that Othryadas memorialized his victory with an “inscription” painted in his own blood. Again, this is a product of the imperatives of the epigram genre itself. This change, however, allows epigram to reframe Othryadas’s death. Now he mutilates himself (Herodotus uses the ambiguous verb καταχρῆσθαι), not out of shame, but as a final, suicidal act to secure a Spartan victory—a gesture supremely in keeping with Spartan discipline.

Finally, the different viewpoints of these epigrams require the reader to reach his own conclusions. While this theme can be seen in a number of epigrams, it comes out best in AP 7.430 (Dioscorides), the most artful of them. In pursuing this theme, I engage directly with the most robust line of scholarship currently being followed on these epigrams: analysis of whether they favor the Spartan or Argive side (e.g. Cairns 2016: 306–313). Dioscorides’ poem is put in the mouth of two Argives, and thus features much anti-Spartan comment, but, as I show, we must not take these words at face value. Read against the conventions of its genre, we see that this epigram operates in different modes and evolves through the conversation of speakers who discover new information as they go—thus like the “riddle” epigrams next to which it appears in the Palatine Anthology. What is more, the reader of the epigram is meant to infer the identity of its unnamed speakers—they are Alcenor and Chromius, the surviving Argive combatants—and thus to think beyond the text, putting it back into the context of the Histories. Ultimately, these shifting perspectives cannot support anything as simple as a solid conclusion about the true victor of Thyrea’s contest of champions.

Many of my paper’s conclusions engage directly with Noel Robertson’s analysis of the the Battle of Thyrea (Robertson 1992: 179–207), and especially his attempt to re-create the Argive side of the story. The paper will show that the epigrammatic evidence is better explained by developments within the genre itself rather than by contact with lost historical sources or traditions. This does not mean, however, that the epigrams’ interaction with historiography is merely fanciful: in fact, their poetic license allows them to shed some light on dark corners of Herodotus’s account, and to thus to introduce questions that historians might well consider even now.

Session/Panel Title

Materiality of Writing

Session/Paper Number

90.2

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