Introduction

“We know less about this poem than we think we do” would, of course, be a suitable cautionary rubric for most, if not all, of the works contained within the Epic Cycle. But it seems to me to apply with a particular appropriateness to the Aethiopis, a composition from which, contrary to initial impressions, we possess no securely attested direct citation—indeed only one indubitable fragment of any sort, and that from a portion of the poem which falls outside the scope of Proclus’ résumé (on which see pages 45–81 below). The evidence of art has been thought to expand the range of remarks we can safely make about the work’s contents: so it does, but its aid too sometimes proves delusive.
Our knowledge of the poem is not so circumscribed that we cannot dispense, right at the start, with one or two totally implausible conjectures concerning its structure and origins. It was only to be expected that at the height of the craze for Analysis our epic too should be subjected to the strains and tensions undergone by extant compositions. If the Odyssey could be resolved into such constituent elements as Telemachy, Nekyia, Return, and the like, which once existed as independent epics in their own right, did not the Aethiopis represent an amalgamation of two distinct poems, a Penthesileid and a Memnonid as it might be, which were run together under the supervision of some later mind? The existence of a tradition that attributed an Amazonia to Homer bestowed a supposititious plausibility upon this reconstruction (cf. Suda s.v. “Homer” [3.526 Adler]). Rzach in his RE article (1922:2399.32–50) provides a convenient summary of the views of scholars who concur in positing an independent Memnonid or the like. [1]
Alexandre Severyns, in his important article “L’Éthiopide d’Arctinos et la question du Cycle épique” (1925) sought to bring order and reason into what he with justice called this “chaos des épopées.” In the first place, there is simply no ancient evidence for any such multiplicity of sources for our poem, and no argument by analogy should be allowed. The futility of speculation upon the alleged prehistory of the Iliad or the Odyssey was well exposed by G. S. Kirk (The Songs of Homer [Cambridge 1962] 228–229), even though the existence of some sort of prehistory can hardly be denied. [2]
When the supposed end product of the process thus extrapolated has disappeared to the extent the Aethiopis has suffered, the sheer pointlessness of hypothesizing earlier forms must be apparent to all. Then again, the very notion that a separate poem ever existed whose sole subject matter was the career of a single Amazon, a figure who is accorded a very secondary role within the story of Achilles, is far less likely than many dissectors have allowed. That the episodes involving Memnon bulked larger in the epic as a whole must have struck the person responsible for devising its present title. Furthermore, as Robert (Heldensage 2.1175–1176) has pointed out, the Aethiopis seems to have displayed some kind of symmetry in its plot: two major allies come to help Priam and are killed by Achilles; these are Penthesileia, from the north, and Memnon, from the south, both (in strong contrast to the Trojan allies of the Iliad) dwelling in remote fantasy lands. [3] It rather looks as if Penthesileia and Memnon were early conceived as a corresponding pair.

Footnotes

[ back ] 1. But C. A. Lobeck (Aglaophamus [Königsberg 1829] 1.417–418) should not be cited (as he is by A. Severyns, “L’Éthiopide d’Arctinos et la question du Cycle épique,” Révue de Philologie 49 [1925]: 154) as believing that “l’Amazonie homérique ne différait pas de la Penthésileide d’Arctinos.” All Lobeck infers from the variant last line of the Iliad is that it was intended to link Amazonia and Iliad.
[ back ] 2. West (2013:135) has reintroduced, if not chaos, at least the issue of prehistory, with his theory that the Aethiopis was “constituted from two independent pieces of composition, an Amazonis and a Memnonis.” This notion seems to rest largely on his observation (133) that the episode of Penthesileia does nothing to advance the plot, indeed merely—by complicating it with the interlude of Thesites’ death and its consequences—delays its climax, the death of Achilles. But such retardation is the very stuff of Cyclic epic: think of how the Cypria sets back the arrival at Troy by the devices of the Teuthranian expedition and the delay at Aulis. Think of the Ilias Parva’s fetching of first Neoptolemus and then Philoctetes to Troy, and the need to steal the Palladium, all of which delay the climactic sack of the city. Retardation is not even unknown to the Iliad: compare e.g. the role of Diomedes in postponing the revival of Trojan fortunes. For other aspects of West’s theory see page 23 below.
[ back ] 3. On the “geometrical symmetries” by which the Aethiopis (in contrast to Homer’s epics) seems to have been partly ordered see further J. B. Hainsworth, “Joining Battle in Homer,” Greece and Rome 13 (1966): 159.