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Pindar’s Nemean 5 and the Problem of Aeginetan Descent from the Aiakidai

Peter Moench

University of Virginia

Pindar’s Aeginetan odes constitute a striking subset of his epinicia, both for their sheer quantity (approximately a quarter of the corpus) and for their consistent focus on a single set of heroes, the Aiakidai. At the same time, as Stenger (2014) has recently stressed, Pindar’s insistence on linking the Aiakidai with Aegina stands in stark contrast to the minimal time actually spent on the island by the heroes. In Nemean 5, the only Aiakid narrative set on Aegina comes to an abrupt end with a break-off alluding to the exile of Peleus and Telamon for the murder of their brother, Phokos (14-16). As Zunker (1988) argues, this exile myth reconciles Aegina’s post-Homeric claim to be the homeland of Aiakos and his sons with the older mythic tradition that located Peleus and Achilles in Thessaly and Telamon and Ajax on Salamis (for the Aeginetan appropriation of Aiakos and his descendants, cf. Prinz [1979]). However, Stenger (2014) argues that this representation of the Aiakidai as “Aeginetans” abroad comes at the price of cutting off the possibility of the contemporary population claiming their local heroes as ancestors – otherwise the standard maneuver in the Greek world and particularly attractive to Pindar who tends to stress the hereditary nature of aretē (Rose [1974], Suárez de la Torre [2006]). While Stenger’s interpretation follows Zunker (1988) and Burnett (2005), most scholars have continued to assume that Aeginetans did claim descent from the Aiakidai (e.g. Pavlou [2015], [2012], Polinskaya [2013], Athanassaki [2011], Pfeijffer [1999], Nagy [1990]).  

My aim in this paper is twofold. First, since Stenger (2014) does not address the majority view in favor of Aeginetan Aiakid ancestry – nor have those who hold this view responded to its critics – I will briefly review the arguments on either side and contend that the skeptics have the stronger case. Second, I will suggest that Nemean 5 is a crucial ode for both confirming this conclusion and for illustrating how Pindar responds to the challenge of this peculiar Aeginetan situation.

The evidence of Nemean 5 at first seems contradictory. On the one hand, the ode highlights the exile of the Aiakidai from Aegina, thereby rupturing the continuity between Aeginetan past and present. On the other, in the transition in the final triad from the myth of Peleus’s winning of Thetis back to the victories of the contemporary Aeginetan family, Pindar turns to his favored idea of hereditary excellence: Πότμος δὲ κρίνει συγγενὴς ἔργων πέρι | πάντων (“hereditary/inborn fate is decisive in all endeavors,” 40-41). That this principle is meant to somehow link the human victors of this section to the Aiakid heroes is suggested by Pindar’s subsequent statement that the laudandus’s maternal uncle, Euthymenes, “exalts the kindred host of that man [i.e. Peleus]” (ἀγάλλει κείνου ὁμόσπορον ἔθνος, 43). These three lines are the closest Pindar comes to representing contemporary Aeginetans as descendants of the Aiakidai and unsurprisingly that is how they have typically been read (e.g. Rose [1974], Pfeijffer [1999]). However, I will argue that they reflect instead Pindar’s careful construction in the ode of a metaphorical Aeginetan family connected not by the descent of present-day inhabitants from the heroes but by the representation of Aegina herself as the common “mother-polis” to both groups. Here I build on the reading of Nash (1990) of the metaphorical significance of ματρόπολιν (8) in the proem. However, where Nash argues that Pindar thereby distinguishes the metaphorical kinship of his laudandus, Pytheas, with the heroes from his literal heredity (referred to in the gnome of lines 40-41), I argue that the poet subordinates the ode’s various family relationships to the overarching family of the polis. In as much as all Aeginetans, past and present, are children of Aegina – regardless of how long they remained on the island – all can be viewed as one, closely knit family. Hence, Nemean 5 presents a unique solution to the lack of Aiakid descent on Aegina.

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Archaic Poetics of Identity

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