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Nicander’s Hymn to Attalus: Pergamene Panegyric

Thomas James Nelson

University of Cambridge

Whatever the rhetoric of Ptolemaic kingship might have us think, the Ptolemies were far from the only Hellenistic monarchy to patronize literary culture and the arts. Every Hellenistic kingdom we know of placed a strong premium on poetry and learning, which were essential marks of not only Hellenic identity, but also royal power and authority. In this paper, I broaden our horizon beyond Alexandria to the literary dynamics of another kingdom – that of the Attalids, whose efforts to fashion a new home of the Muses at Pergamon cast themselves as the fiercest cultural rivals to the Ptolemies.

The situation of our evidence at Pergamon, however, is almost the exact opposite of that in Alexandria. While we are blessed with a rich archaeological record, we have paltry literary remains, rendering the Attalids’ once active and flourishing literary climate almost fully obscured. Scholars have attempted to overcome this obstacle in various ways. Some have looked to the famous Great Altar's Gigantomachy and imagined baroque epics to parallel its grandeur (Ziegler, pp.43-52); others have explored potential hints of Attalid propaganda in Lycophron's Alexandra (Kosmetatou) and Nicander's Theriaca (Magnelli, p.212).

In this paper, by contrast, I focus on a rare poetic fragment that explicitly praises the Attalid dynasty, Nicander’s Hymn to Attalus (fr. 104 Gow-Schofield). In the past, this fragment has only been studied as part of the larger puzzle of Nicander’s chronology (Cameron, pp. 199-202; Cazzaniga; Overduin, pp.9-11; Pasquali). But I contend that it repays detailed literary analysis as an illuminating exemplar of Pergamene poetics.

I first explore the hymn’s resemblances to Theocritus’ hymnic Encomium of Ptolemy Philadelphus (Id.17), in an analysis which highlights the similar approaches of Alexandrian and Pergamene panegyric. Both texts exhibit a shared interest in their generic identity and the mythical genealogy of their king. In particular, Nicander’s emphasis on Attalus’ ties to Telephus and Pelops retrojects the king’s command of Mysia back into mythical times.

I then turn to a more detailed study of the fragment’s language, exploring its allusions to authors of the remote and recent literary past. Particularly revealing is Nicander’s use of the epithet Τευθρανίδης (v.1). Ostensibly, the word refers to the Attalids’ ancestor Teuthras, Telephus’ predecessor as king of Mysia. Yet this extremely rare word occurs only once elsewhere in the extant literary tradition as a hapax legomenon in Homer’s Iliad, where it refers not to Telephus, but to the otherwise unknown Trojan ally Axylus (Τευθρανίδην, Il.6.13). The patronymic could have featured in the now-lost Cyclic treatments of Telephus, especially the Cypria, but it is significant that our earliest poetic references to the hero employ a different patronymic, Arcasides, emphasising Telephus’ Arcadian roots as a descendant of Arcas (Τήλεφος Ἀρκα[σίδης], Archilochus P.Oxy. 4708.5; Τήλεφον Ἀρκασίδην, [Hes.] fr.165.8). Nicander’s alternative patronymic diverges from earlier literary tradition to foreground the Attalids’ Mysian heritage. In addition, however, it encourages an implicit association of Attalus with the Homeric Axylus, an archetype of guest-friendship (Il.6.12-17): as a prosperous and hospitable host, Axylus exhibits paradigmatic traits of Hellenistic kingship. The allusive implication is that Attalus too, as another ‘descendant of Teuthras’, is equally wealthy and just as capable of displaying a similar level of generosity.

I close by exploring how Nicander positions his poem against more recent precedent: the hymnic poetry of Callimachus. His fragment echoes Callimachus’ hymns both verbally (the rare epithet Πελοπηίς, v.4, cf. HDel.72), and thematically (ἀπ’ οὔατος, v.2, cf. ἐπ’οὔατα, HAp.105). In so doing, he polemically appropriates the literary ‘poster boy’ of a rival kingdom and establishes Attalus as a worthy cultural and political rival to the Ptolemies.

Despite its fragmentary state, therefore, this poem illuminates the larger agonistic and international context of Hellenistic poetry and expands our gaze beyond the single centre of Ptolemaic Alexandria.

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Hellenistic Poetry

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