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Menelaus as Embedded Poetic Figure in Bacchylides 15

Caitlin H Fennerty

Brown University

This paper explores Bacchylides’ innovative treatment of myth in Bacchylides 15 through his engagement with Homer, Hesiod, Solon, and Pindar. The fragmentary poem stages the Greek embassy to Troy, ending with Menelaus’ verbatim appeal to the Trojans to shun hubris (47-63). Pfeiffer’s analysis of the poem’s reminiscences of the Iliad (Il.3.199-224) has elicited appreciation for the surprise the ending would have excited in an audience well-attuned to oral, inter-textual allusions. In the immediate Iliadic subtext, Antenor recounts having entertained Menelaus and Odysseus and contrasts their rhetorical skills. He complements the laconic Menelaus, but dwells especially on Odysseus’ spell-binding effect. Pfeiffer rightly dismissed the argument that Bacchylides was following an alternative mythic tradition from the Cypria in concluding with Menelaus’ speech. Rather, Bacchylides clearly aimed at “toying with audience expectations,” who anticipated hearing “Odysseus’ verbal blizzard” next (Pfeiffer 49). While Pfeiffer convincingly demonstrated that Bacchylides’ ode re-imagines Antenor’s brief description of Menelaus’ words, he did not consider Bacchylides’ engagement with other authors that allows for a fuller account of Baccchylides’ poetic intent in his reenactment of the mythic episode. As Fearn has explored in some depth, the Homeric hero adopts a Solonian/Hesiodic stance as a speaker of dike, warning his audience of the inevitable destruction of Troy if they violate Zeus’ ordinances. Nobody yet, however, has inquired deeply into this generic juxtaposition: i.e., how are we to understand Bacchylides’ excision of Odysseus’ Iliadic speech in favor of presenting Menelaus as an embedded Hesiodic figure?

In the first section of the paper, I suggest an additional Homeric intertext. Menelaus’s declaration that “not Zeus…but men are responsible for their many woes” (51-53) has been read as an allusion to Zeus’ speech in the Odyssey. However, a more unified reading emerges from treating this as a rebuttal of the Iliadic justification for war articulated by Priam during the τειχοσκοπία scene (3.162-167). There, Priam denies Helen’s culpability for Troy’s suffering, claiming the gods are responsible. In the second section, I argue that Menelaus’ rebuttal of this Iliadic claim may take on aesthetic dimensions when we consider that Bacchylides’ excision of Odysseus’ speech shares close parallels with Pindar’s disavowal of Odysseus as a negative exemplum of Homeric falsehoods in Nemean 7. Bacchylides’ privileging of Menelaus’ words over Odysseus’ suggests implicitly what Pindar makes explicit: Homer has deceived posterity by perpetuating false mythoi which contrast with the “true account” celebrated in his lyric ode. In the final section, I argue that in commemorating Menelaus’ speech, the poet not only rejects Homeric falsehoods, exemplified in the person of Odysseus, but identifies his own skill (σοφία) with that of the truth-speaking Menelaus. In doing so, Bacchylides’ aligns himself and his embedded poetic figure with Hesiod and Solon, both of whom adopt the similar didactic stance of warning their audiences against persisting in unjust behavior. As an embedded poetic figure and a Homeric basileus, Bacchylides qua Menelaus collapses the roles of muse-inspired poet and Zeus-reared king, highlighting his impressive authority as a speaker of dike and truth.

Session/Panel Title

Early Greek Poetry

Session/Paper Number

39.3

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