You are here

68.3.Solez

In order to provide an insight into how aristocratic Greeks and those who memorialized them in verse conceived of their actions, I will focus in this paper on chariot-racing metaphors, and specifically on one recurring aspect of them – the notion of Troy as turning-post. I choose this trope because of its potency and antiquity in the literary tradition; chariot-racing metaphors are highly productive in ancient Greek literature but I do not think that they ever escape the association with Homer and his descriptions of Achilles as a charioteer and a chariot-horse circling round and round the city of Troy in Iliad 22 (22.22-23; 22.162-66). This powerful imagery stands at the beginning of the Greek literary tradition, and exerted an influence on the metaphorical vocabulary of all authors working in that tradition. Analyzing the passages in two important poetic texts that employ chariot-racing metaphors – the Iliad and Aeschylus’ Agamemnon – will help us to understand the relationship of the use of this metaphor in these two works, the significance of the metaphor’s later use, and the network of associations the notion of chariot-racing summons into the minds of an ancient Greek audience.

L. Myrick’s 1994 article discusses the frequent chariot- and foot-racing metaphors in the Orestes plays of the three major tragedians, and points out that chariot- and foot-racing metaphors are used to describe the act of murder or of having died (Euripides’ Electra 824-5, of Orestes about to murder Aigisthus; 954-6, of Aigisthus having been killed), and that death and murder often occur in a context of actual chariot-racing (Sophocles’ Electra 504-515, of Myrtilus; 749-760, of Orestes). Similar connections are made in N. Bruyère-Demoulin’s 1976 article, where she adduces a large number of examples of racing imagery in Greek literature showing that the Greeks sometimes imagined life itself as an athletic competition, usually a foot-race. While Myrick and Bruyère-Demoulin elucidate the connection of chariot-racing vocabulary to life, death and murder, they do not address the political aspect of the chariot-racing metaphor that is very rich in the passages they cite and is clearly linked to the threat of death. The chariot-racing metaphors in the tragedians are motivated by more than an association of chariot-racing with danger, death, and murder, but rather rely on and evoke the wider range of aristocratic endeavor, involving the display of wealth, contestations for political legitimacy, proficiency in war, heroic ideology, the distribution of largesse and the receipt of honors.

The chariot-racing metaphors in the Agamemnon, and the related athletic and epinician vocabulary, form part of the dense network of symbolism Aeschylus uses to produce his tragic effects, which also includes images of disgraceful trampling (Goward 105), metaphors of humans as dogs (Raeburn and Thomas lxvi-lxix), and a net from which one cannot escape (Goward 106). Chariot-racing as contesting for dominance, legitimacy, and life itself is not the dominant metaphor of the Agamemnon, and it has not been much discussed in the scholarship on Aeschylean symbolism (no mention in Raeburn and Thomas, Goward, or Fraenkel), apart from Myrick’s and Bruyère-Demoulin’s comments on the eschatological symbolism of racing, and a brief mention in H. J. Rose’s commentary (30, s.v. 344). The chariot-racing vocabulary in the Agamemnon clearly links this text to the Iliad in meaningful ways: 1) it is employed at moments of seeming victory and high danger, where Agamemnon, like Achilles, is victorious but soon to die; 2) the two victories the metaphor refers to, Achilles' over Hector and Agamemnon's over Troy, are very different, but are both of the highest stakes, personal or political, for the characters concerned; 3) in both the Iliad and the Agamemnon the metaphorical race takes its decisive turn around the walls of Troy.

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy