In Thucydides’ Plataean narrative, the city that was the site of Greek victory over barbarians suffers a peacetime attack by the formerly Medizing Thebans. Plataea remains stubbornly loyal to Athens, resisting Peloponnesian aggression for years. Eventually the besieged Plataeans are executed, Thucydides tells us, because the Spartans felt it expedient (3.56.3, 68.4). I argue that Thucydides’ use of significant names in the final Plataean plea for mercy underscores an important facet of this story: the Spartans’ nearly sacrilegious disregard for the glorious past that Plataea represents.
Thucydides reports the names of the men who deliver the final Plataean speech, Astymachus son of Asopolaus and Lacon son of Aieimnestus (3.52.5). Hornblower observes that the name Asopolaus appears nowhere else in ancient Greek sources. Similarly, Aieimnestus appears only twice elsewhere, well after the classical period. Gomme remarks that the names seem superfluous to the narrative. He also notes that two men apparently deliver one speech while the answering Theban speakers are left unnamed. The abundance of names is surprising, as Thucydides is normally sparing with names, using them about half as often as Herodotus (Hornblower (2011) 105). He also almost never uses patronymics to identify minor characters such as these men, whose one appearance is an exercise in tragic futility. But although the historian does not normally exploit meaningful names, as many of his contemporaries do, he does so here. The first three names invoke significant concepts associated with the Plataean past: bravery in battle, the river Asopos (important in the Battle of Plataea; cf. Hdt. 9.36-59) and the ties between Plataea and Sparta. But the final name, Aieimnestus, is the most significant, the father’s inappropriate name becoming grim wordplay in the son’s execution.
The concept of eternal remembrance invoked by the name Aieimnestus is out of place in the Plataean narrative, where refusal to remember the past features prominently. In 429 BCE, the Spartan Archidamus treats Plataea’s history reverently, offering what is in Thucydides a nearly unique prayer to the gods and heroes of the land before he invades it (2.74.2). By 427, his fellow Spartans deem the past irrelevant. In proceedings that make a mockery of justice, the Spartans propose to determine the Plataeans’ guilt or innocence on the basis of one question, whether they had rendered aid to Sparta "in the current war” (3.52.4 á¼ν τá¿· πολÎμá¿³ τá¿· καθεστá¿¶τι), a question that emphatically rejects the past. After the Plataeans deliver a speech extolling their role in the Persian Wars, the cruel question is simply repeated (3.68.4). The Plataeans fail “because the past, and the values a living memory guarantees, mean nothing in war” (Macleod (1977) 234).
The Plataean speech explicitly discusses memory, the vocabulary for forgetting serving as ironically distorted echoes of Aieimnestus’ name. The Plataeans open the speech by promising to create a “reminder of the good deeds” of the Plataeans (3.54.1 τá¿¶ν εá½– δεδραμÎνων á½‘πÏŒμνησιν). They claim “it is not proper to forget these things” (3.54.5 á½§ν οá½κ εá¼°κá½¸ς á¼€μνημονεá¿–ν) and beseech the Peloponnesians “not to forget” their forefathers’ oaths (3.59.2 μá½´ á¼€μνημονεá¿–ν). The verb á¼€μνημονÎω appears only once elsewhere in Thucydides, and there in an inscription (5.18.11). The aptly named pair conclude the speech by reminding the Spartans (3.59.2 á¼€ναμιμνá¿„σκομεν) that the two cities fought side-by-side in the glorious earlier battle. But Aieimnestus’ name will be tragically disproven.
The Spartans’ willful refusal to value the past is one of the more unsettling moments in Thucydides. The contrast between Archidamus’ earlier reverence and his compatriots’ later disrespect suggests that a weakening respect for the past accompanies the growing power of expedience in the societal deterioration that characterizes the Peloponnesian War. Thucydides’ choice to flood the narrative with rare and significant names, and especially the bitterly ironic name of Aieimnestus, brings this concept, an especially disturbing element in a work of history, to the fore.