The Theban Epics

  Davies, Malcolm. 2015. The Theban Epics. Hellenic Studies Series 69. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Chapter 3. Ἀµφιάρεω ἐξελασία [1]

The third chapter of Bethe’s Thebanische Heldenlieder, bearing the title “Des Amphiaraos Ausfahrt,” is a plump and succulent item which, like many other reference works and similar studies of the time, gives the misleading impression that the epic that passed under this title in antiquity is an oft-attested composition of which numerous fragments survive. Building on this impression, Bethe developed a picture of an epic that embraced the whole of the Theban War as its subject matter and thus largely coincided in content with the Thebais.

There are, then, three possible explanations of the phrase:

(i) It represents a short epic poem independent of the Thebais, though sharing (as its name suggests) some of that composition’s subject matter.

Nor can the undeniable popularity of one of the sets of hexameters be used as a substitute for this missing evidence. Numerous passages from Greek literature exhibit close verbal affinities; see, for instance, Theognis 215–216 πολύπου ὀργὴν ἴσχε πολυπλόκου, ὃς πoτὶ πέτρηι | τῆι προσομιλήσηι, τοῖος ἰδεῖν ἐφάνη with the parallels cited ad loc. in Douglas Young’s Teubner edition. Of these, Pindar fr. 43 Sn. (‘ὦ τέκνον, ποντίου θηρὸς πετραίου | χρωτὶ μάλιστα νόον | προσφέρων πάσαις πολίεσσιν ὁμίλει. | τῶι παρεόντι δ’ ἐπαινήσαις ἑκών | ἄλλοτ’ ἀλλοῖα φρόνει’) is particularly interesting, since we are told that it was delivered by its speaker παραινῶν Ἀμφιλόχωι τῶι παιδί. But again, such popularity in itself does nothing to establish the source of Clearchus’ hexameters as epic, let alone the Ἀμφιάρεω ἐξελασία. And the Pindaric fragment, rather than disposing of the problems that throng about us, adds one more to their number.

In such circumstances, would Amphiaraus have addressed him as ἥρως? In such circumstances would he have addressed him at all in the terms of Clearchus’ hexameters? Art again represents Amphiaraus as leaping with impetuous anger and haste onto his chariot (see page 104 below): the speed of his departure is emphasized by both Welcker (2.324n8) and Immisch.

Euripides fr. 69 Kannicht (from the Alcmaeon in Psophis) is sometimes cited as support for the picture of an Amphiaraus delivering himself of gnomic saws and sententiae on the point of departure for Thebes (μάλιστα μέν μ’ ἐπῆρ’ ἐπισκήψας πατήρ | ὅθ’ ἅρματ’ εἰσέβαινεν ἐς Θήβας ἰών), but once again it rather seems to refute any such thesis. The advice which his elder son received from Amphiaraus could hardly be more different from the devious moral Machiavellianism supposedly heard by the younger. Alcmaeon was given instructions on matricide, as emerges from Anon. in Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics III.1.1110A28 (Commentaria in Aristotelem graeca 20 p. 142.27 Heylbut): τοῦ πατρὸς ἐντειλαμένου ἀποκτεῖναι τὴν μητέρα καὶ καταρασαμένου [Nauck: -σομένου] αὐτῶι εἰ μὴ ἀποκτείνηι ἀκαρπίαν γῆς καὶ ἀτεκνίαν. Such terse injunctions, grim and to the point, differ toto caelo from the cautious sagacity of the saws examined above.

It becomes difficult, in the light of these considerations, to avoid the conclusion that a short, or indeed any, epic source for the moralizing is out of the question. As Wehrli comments on the relevant fragment of Clearchus (p. 72): “dass es sich um eine selbständige Spruchsammlung mit heroischem Rahmen handelt, ist mir wahrscheinlicher als ein erzählendes Epos.” The Χείρωνος Ὑποθῆκαι have long been claimed as a potentially comparable source for the above γνώμη. If one believed that the artifacts mentioned above derive from the Thebais, and if one had to accept that the gnomic hexameters derived from a poem that associated them with Amphiaraus’ departure, it would be impossible to dissent from Immisch’s conclusion (p. 172) that that poem presented “eine von der Thebais verschiedene Behandlung des Amphiaraos’ Abschiedes” in which the hero’s farewell was “freundlich und ohne groll.”

(ii) It represents an alternative title for the Thebais.

This was Welcker’s solution (1865:2.371), developed by Wilamowitz (1914:104), who supposed that it was specifically used to distinguish that part of the epic attributed to Homer from the section later combined with the Epigoni (whose Homeric status was early denied: see T1, page 144 below). The hypothesis is attractive to scholars like Wilamowitz and Friedländer as explaining the Thebais’s absence from that Vita Homeri which alone mentions the ἐξελασία. But we have already seen (page 100 above: compare [iii] below) how Robert (1915:2.80n110) removed the grounds for perturbation by reminding us that neither Iliad nor Odyssey finds any mention either. Besides, although the alternate title was a {102|103} common phenomenon in antiquity (see Davies and Finglass’ commentary on Stesichorus’ Iliupersis fr. 99), there is no just parallel for an alternative title derived from so tangential and uncentral an area of the poem’s concern as Amphiaraus’ departure would be to a work otherwise entitled the Thebais.

(iii) It represents a section or episode from the Thebais.

This is virtually the interpretation devised by E. Hiller (“Beiträge zur griechischen Litteraturgeschichte,” Rheinisches Museum 42 [1887]: 341–342), and Robert (1915:1.219) rightly prefers it to (ii). I rather prefer it to (i) as well. Again, the phenomenon is a familiar one: the Iliadic Διομήδεος ἀριστείη, the Odyssean Ἀλκινόου ἀπόλογος. See further S. West, The Ptolemaic Papyri of Homer (Cologne 1967) 20n35. Bergk (Griechische Literaturgeschichte [Berlin 1883]2.41n31), renouncing his earlier ideas (see above under [i]), suggested a more specific hypothesis (“vielleicht ursprünglich Name des ersten Buches”). The Tηλεμαχεία would be an approximate parallel for that. But since we are under no obligation to believe in either of these hypotheses, the range of possibilities surrounding the source of Clearchus’ gnomic hexameters becomes almost infinite.

Robert notes that the choice of a section of the Thebais rather than the Iliad on the part of the pseudo-Herodotean Vita would be explained by its composer’s wish to indicate that the Thebais is earlier than the Iliad.

The Evidence of Art

The departure of a hero for war was a popular subject in art (LIMC I.I s.v. “Amphi-araos” E [pp. 694–697]; see, for instance, Beazley and Caskey, Vase Paintings in Boston 2 [Boston 1954] 10; A. Yalouri, “A Hero’s Departure,” American Journal of Archaeology 75 [1971]: 271), and the departure of Amphiaraus especially so. That this hero is specifically intended can be conveyed, for instance, by the labeling of Amphiaraus or Eriphyle (see Yalouri) or by the employment of recurrent motifs (the hero’s angry glare, his naked sword, the presence of the fatal necklace). On the numerous relevant artifacts see Hampe(–Simon) 19–22 (esp. 20n11), Krauskopf 16–17 (discussion) and 97 (list), Beazley and Caskey, Vase-Paintings in Boston 1 (Boston 1951) 51 (on examples from red-figure vases), Krauskopf (2) (= Tainia [Hampe Festschrift (Mainz 1980)] 105–108 [on examples from Tyrrhenian amphorae), and (3) (= LIMC 1.694–697 [a general survey]).

A particularly memorable example was the Corinthian crater once in Berlin and dated ca. 570 (F 1655: Krauskopf LIMC E1.7), for whose similarity to the Chest of Cypselus described by Pausanias V 17.4, see Krauskopf LIMC E1.15, Davies and Finglass on Stesichorus’ Eriphyle frr. 92–93. As observed there, the possibility of that work’s influence upon the two artifacts has to accept an equal place in our considerations with the possibility that the epic Thebais is the poem from which {103|104} they took their inspiration. We must now consider that latter possibility in the more general context of a survey of the whole range of relevant artifacts. Let me first hail as salutary the skepticism encapsulated in the following quotation from Krauskopf 1980:112: “Auch die ausführlichste Darstellung, der Amphiaraos Krater, gibt ja keine sklavisch getreue Illustration einer bestimmten Szene, etwa der Thebais.

Of the supernumerary figures variously presented by vase-painters I would judge it is the individuals and not their actions that are likelier to derive from an epic source. If this formulation seems unduly paradoxical or obscure, an examination of Eriphyle’s role will instantly clarify matters. On the Chest of Cypselus and the Corinthian krater, Eriphyle stands in Amphiaraus’ presence holding the necklace with which she has been bribed to send him to certain death. We do not instantly conclude that these artifacts are evidence for a version in which Eriphyle actually added insult to injury in this drastic manner by flaunting the evidence of her wickedness. Still less do we infer that such a version stood in the Thebais. Rather we recognize that Eriphyle holds her necklace, as Hampe puts it (Hampe[–Simon] 20), “in naiver Darstellungsweise dem Betrachter des Bildes zur Schau geboten.”

Again, the grim glare which the hero often directs at his wife (particularly well conveyed on the Basel amphora [Krauskopf LIMC E1.10: discussed by Hampe(–Simon) 19–22, with plates 8–11] through the artist’s use of white paint) is probably the vase-painter’s shorthand. Epic is fully capable of describing eyes flashing in anger, of course, but perhaps it is rather the relevant epic’s lengthy narrative of Amphiaraus’ grounds for anger that is here, as it were, concisely summarized. Likewise, it would be rash to infer (with Bethe 1891:127) from those vase-paintings that display Amphiaraus drawing his sword as he leaps onto his chariot, an epic scene in which the hero thus openly threatened his wife. To quote Krauskopf again (1980:112): “das motiv des Schwertziehens kann auch eine Erfindung der Bildkunst sein um die innere Verfassung des Amphiaraos, seinen Zorn auf die verräterische Gattin, äusserlich sichtbar zu machen”; cf. Krauskopf LIMC p. 707 (col. 1). Conversely, we are not to deduce anything as to literary treatments from such vases as appear to depict a peaceful farewell to wife and sons: cf. Stoneman 1981:47–48.

Turning, then, to the slightly safer ground of identifiable characters, one might select as likeliest candidate for derivation from an epic source Amphiaraus’ charioteer Baton: the figure of the ἡνίοχος is a familiar one in epic, and this particular man is depicted on a large number of artifacts, securely labeled as Baton on several (e.g. the Corinthian krater and the Chest of Cypselus mentioned above; or the Tyrrhenian amphora in Basel dating from the second quarter of {104|105} the sixth century: Krauskopf LIMC E1.10). He is also mentioned in the Argive dedication at Delphi (Pausanias X 10.3: see page 69 above) and further attested by the evidence of literature and art as involved in Amphiaraus’ descent into the earth (see page 90 above).

This last example neatly brings us to the next stage of the discussion. For while assessing the possibility of detecting a change in the identity of the work of literature supposed to inspire these artifacts, Stoneman (1981:48) alleges a tendency for the figure of Alcmaeon to gain importance at the expense of Amphilochus (note, for instance, his prominence on the bell-krater at Syracuse [18421: ARV 2 1075.7: Krauskopf LIMC E4.26], ca. 440). Such a rise in significance might ultimately derive from literature, but the latter’s influence upon the trend may well have been of the most general type. A later artist’s general awareness that Alcmaeon’s act of matricide was now being described in the Epigoni, the Alcmaeonis, or in Stesichorus’ Eriphyle (leaving aside tragedy, in particular Euripides [see page 102 above]), is far likelier than that the aforesaid artist had read any of these texts and was deliberately reproducing their version, as against earlier works of art, based on a reading of the Thebais. We should also bear in mind the tendency (noted by W. Wrede, “Kriegers Ausfahrt in der archaisch-griechischen Kunst,” Mitteilungen des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung 41 (1916): 270–272; cf. Krauskopf LIMC p. 707 [col. 2]) for vase-depictions of this story to become progressively simplified and {105|106} to shed the large cast of characters exhibited by, for instance, the Corinthian krater. This movement is marked in the second half of the sixth century but has nothing to do with literary influences. {106|}


[ back ] 1. The title is more usually given in the form we find in the Suda: Ἀμφιαράου Ἐξέλασις. But see page 100 below.

[ back ] 2. Earlier advocates of the notion that the Ἀμφιαράου Ἐξέλασις was part of, or another name for, the Thebais include H. Düntzer, Die Fragmente der epischen Poesie der Griechen (Cologne 1840) 5; Grote, History of Greece 1.261–262n3, 2.129n2; O. Crusius, “Litterargeschichtliche Parerga,” Philologus 54 [1895]: 725n32; Wilamowitz 1914:104 (with a special twist: see below page 100).

[ back ] 3. Both Friedländer (1914:332 = 1969:45) and Robert (1915:2.80n109) are aware that the Suda’s mention of the poem derives from the pseudo-Herodotean Life of Homer. The latter allows the possibility of Welcker’s hypothesis (1849:1.187–188) that Σ Sophocles Electra 836 (p. 213 Xenis) χρυσοῦ … τοῦ δοθέντος Ἐριφύληι διὰ τὴν Ἀμφιαράου ἔξοδον alludes to this epic.

[ back ] 4. Bergk (in a note on Theognis 215 in his edition of the elegiac poets [PLG 4 2.139]) was the first to add to these two lines a third (ἄλλοτε δ’ ἀλλοῖος τελέθειν καὶ χώρηι ἕπεσθαι), which we find cited in isolation by Zenobius (1.7 Leutsch–Schneidewin) and Diogenian (1.184 L.–S.). He is followed by, for instance, Nauck, Mélanges gréco-romains, 382; Immisch; Powell in Collectanea Alexandrina (Oxford 1925); and West 2003:50.

[ back ] 5. Pindar Nemean IX 9–22 deals with the myth of Adrastus and Amphiaraus in a manner that might derive from epic (see page 92 above), and Σ Nemean IX 30 (3.153 Dr.) cites in connection with Eriphyle’s marriage to Amphiaraus the hexameter ending μέγ’ ἔρισμα μετ’ ἀμφοτέροισι γένηται (Iliad IV 38). But again it would be rash and unrealistic to restrict one’s views on the inspiration of both general context and specific line to an epic entitled the Ἀμφιάρεω ἐξελασία. Robert rightly stresses (1915:1.222) the multiplicity of potential sources for this particular myth of Pindar’s: not all are epic. He further observes (222–223) how many different epics might have had cause to treat of the quarrel between Adrastus and Amphiaraus in the terms suggested by μέγ’ ἔρισμα μετ’ ἀμφοτέροισι γένηται.

[ back ] 6. Immisch also cites Euripides Suppliant Women 100–103 (γυναῖκες αἵδε μnτέρες τέκνων | τῶν κατθανόντων ἀμφὶ Καδμείας πύλας | ἑπτὰ στρατηγῶν) and 1213 (παισὶ δ’ Ἀργείων λέγω). Collard ad loc. regards the second phrase as a mere “epic periphrasis,” but this fails to take into account the following two lines (πορθήσεθ’ ἡβήσαντες Ἰσμηνοῦ πόλιν | πατέρων θανόντων ἐκδικάζοντες φόνον).

[ back ] 7. A further example of problematic identity: an old man of sorrowful aspect squats in front of the horses of Amphiaraus’ chariot on the Corinthian vase and several others besides. He is often taken to be a seer (on such figures in literature see Fraenkel on Aeschylus Agamemnon 409 [2.214]). Robert (1915:1.224) preferred to see him as Alcmaeon’s paidagogos. But a similar old man positioned behind the horses on the Tyrrhenian amphora mentioned above (Krauskopf, LIMC E1.10) is identified by his label as Oecles, the father of Amphiaraus.