The Theban Epics

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

Appendix 1. Eriphyle in the Theban Epics

It seemed best to segregate this difficult problem and treat it here. Consideration of the question will also give us an insight into the ways in which past scholars resurrected the plots of lost epics. Bethe’s method was to isolate patterns and tendencies among the forms of the myth preserved by late sources such as the mythographers, and to identify these mutually incompatible patterns and tendencies with the different versions employed by different epics. In addition, Friedländer picked out symmetrically parallel traditions, which could be assigned to the Thebais and its matching sequel, the Epigoni.

Bethe was tireless in his search for examples of “Doppelüberlieferung,” but the energy he put into it was often totally wasted: consider, for instance, his intuition (1891:169) that because Sicyon loomed large in one early epic’s presentation of the Oedipus story (the Ἀμφιάρεω ’Eξελασία), Oedipus’ clash with his father must have taken place between Thebes and Sicyon; whereas because Delphi was significant in the Thebais, he reasoned, the clash took place at the Phocian pass, before Delphi (cf. page 9 above). With Robert’s demolition of the existence of any independent poem called the ’Aμφιάρεω ’Eξελασία (see pages 99–103 above) this distinction can be seen to have been built on sand, and Bethe’s further portentous deductions (1891:169–171) as to why the Thebais eliminated Sicyon in favor of Delphi are so much wasted paper. It is, of course, crucial to this type of approach (cf. Bethe 1891:116) that two different traditions be interpreted as summarizing and representing two different (and specific) sources, rather than being two chance strands that happen to have survived out of any number of variants that have since vanished. The basic implausibility of this presupposition should be instantly obvious, and the need to identify the two alleged sources with two epics totally baffling, even to those who do not bear in {123|124} mind Stesichorus’ Eriphyle. It further overlooks the possibility that mythographers themselves might be capable of reshaping myths. [1]

We begin with an unusually favorable instance, involving the death of Tydeus. From his study of this (1891:76–77), Bethe soon broadened the issue to a discussion of the contents of the Thebais as a whole, and of Eriphyle’s role in the lost Theban epics. According to one version of Tydeus’ death, Amphiaraus killed Melanippus and, on Tydeus’ request, gave him Melanippus’ severed head to gnaw on (regarding our sources for this, see page 82 above). The other version had Amphiaraus himself suggest the disgusting act to Tydeus because Amphiaraus was Tydeus’ enemy and wished by this ruse to discredit him in Athena’s eyes (Apollodorus III 6.8: see page 82 above). Bethe thinks this second form of the story more sophisticated and therefore more recent. He then proceeds to build upon this fairly innocuous platform some far weightier and wide-reaching hypotheses involving the contexts of the two strands. The first version (which Bethe attributed to the Ἀμφιάρεω ’Eξελασία) had as its background a stress upon Eriphyle’s right, as sister of Adrastus and wife of Amphiaraus, to decide the original quarrel between those two worthies. In this account, Amphiaraus was conceived of as a free ruler, though one obliged by the terms of his oath to her to accept Eriphyle’s advice thenceforth.

This version’s attribution to the Thebais is perhaps the most plausible of Bethe’s reconstructions, as witnessed by the uncharacteristic way in which it elicited Robert’s support (1915:1.211: “von nun an freue ich mich Bethe eine ganze Strecke weit folgen zu können”). Not so the obverse side of the coin, for we have already seen how valueless was Bethe’s laborious reconstruction of a whole epic tradition allegedly deriving from a large-scale poem called the Ἀμφιάρεω Ἐξελασία (see pages 99–103 above). This in itself is a heavy blow for believers in epic “Doppelüberlieferung.” But worse will come.

Scholars have seen further scope for the detection of mutually incompatible epic traditions in the case of the bribing of Eriphyle. This is almost invariably undertaken by Polyneices (see page 48 above), and scholars have generally assumed that he occupied this role in the Thebais. Odyssey xi 326 and Hyginus Fabulae 73, however, represent Adrastus as the briber of his own sister. This would seem to belong to a tradition whereby Adrastus is the bitter enemy of Amphiaraus, and finally assuages his hatred by having his foe dispatched to the war, from which he will never return. Such a scheme is apparently inconsistent with the Thebais’s treatment of the story, for there Adrastus eulogized Amphiaraus after his death (F7: see commentary ad loc.). It may be consistent, however, with the tradition passingly presupposed by Pindar Nemean IX 11–27, and reproduced in detail by Σ ad loc. (3.152–153 Dr.) and Menaechmus of Sicyon (FGrHist 131 F10), where we have a long and complex account of the origins and prehistory of Adrastus’ grudge against Amphiaraus: the former was expelled from Argos by the latter and perforce took refuge for a time in Sicyon, where he married Polybus’ daughter and succeeded that worthy in the kingship.

Friedländer (1914:331 = 1969:44–45) supposed the ultimate source of all this to be the Alcmaeonis. Its very complexity was taken by him (334 = 47) as a guarantee of its relatively later origin, which fitted his view of this epic. The tradition’s explanation of Adrastus’ temporary links with Sicyon led him further to the extremely weighty conclusion (334 = 47) that one of the Alcmaeonis’s aims was to reconcile the two ancient traditions of Adrastus as king of Argos and recipient of cults in Sicyon (cf. Herodotus V 67). He therefore presumed the epic to have originated in the northeastern Peloponnese. {125|126}

This final stage of the argument certainly needs to be treated with extreme caution. For objections of principle to its approach to the origins of myths see page 124 above.

Σ Pindar Nemean IX 30 (3.15.3 Dr.) contrasts with the version of Menaechmus of Sicyon (FGrHist 131 F10: see above) the account given by οἱ δέ. According to this latter account, the Proetids (Capaneus and Sthenelus) rather than the Anaxagorids helped Amphiaraus in his expulsion of the Talaids from Argos. Amphiaraus killed Talaus, and Adrastus fled into exile. The issues were finally resolved when Eriphyle was betrothed to Amphiaraus. She was to act as arbitrator εἴ τι μέγ ἔρισμα μετ’ ἀμϕοτέροισι (to wit Adrastus and Amphiaraus) γένηται. The dactylic rhythm of these words and their close resemblance to Iliad IV 38 (σοὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ μ.ε.μ.α. γένηται) long ago convinced scholars that they derive from some lost epic, which will be the source also of the preceding narrative attributed to οἱ δέ. What is the identity of this epic?

Welcker (1865:2.345n49) thought it the Thebais, and Bethe (1891:46–47) the Ἀμφιάρεω Ἐξελασία. Robert (1915:1.222) irrefutably pointed to the unlikeliness of the very existence of the latter poem (see pages 99–103 above). The former, he thought, could similarly be excluded from consideration. The narrative of the Thebais is nowhere explicitly said to have made Eriphyle the sister of Adrastus. But her status as just that is surely implied by her role as arbitrator between Adrastus and her husband. And yet Robert supposed Bethe to have established that the Thebais did not portray Eriphyle as sister of Adrastus (see page 124 above).

The other version (which is found in Apollodorus III 7.2–3 and 7.5, and Diodorus IV 66.3) presents Thersander as the second briber of Eriphyle (Polyneices being the first) and locates her murder after the expedition. This Bethe would attribute to the Thebais. Friedländer similarly interprets the second employment of the bribery motif as a deliberately symmetrical counterpart to the first: Polyneices and Thersander, father and son, are neatly paired in an original and sequel identifiable as Thebais and Epigoni. The alternative and incompatible tradition (on which see page 125 above) whereby Adrastus is the original briber of Eriphyle is assigned by Friedländer to the Alcmaeonis.

Prinz objects on general grounds (1979:184–186) to the improbability of an epic (or, indeed, any) version wherein the matricidal act predates the expedition of the Epigoni: such a crime entails madness (or at least a hounding by the Erinyes), and this must be incompatible with Alcmaeon’s leadership of, or even participation in, the campaign. The epic version, he argues, placed the murder of Eriphyle after the expedition. Ephorus’ narrative certainly seems to have no place for Alcmaeon’s madness, but this is explained by Prinz (185) as the fruit of Ephorus’ own invention, intended to solve (among other problems; on these see page 130 below) the riddle of Alcmaeon’s absence from the Trojan War: by reversing the usual sequence (employed by the epic tradition) in which Eriphyle’s death postdates the expedition of the Epigoni, he could represent Alcmaeon as occupied in Aetolia and unable to join the Greeks against Troy.

Yet another opportunity for the detection of significantly variant traditions was exploited by Bethe (1891:110–112) in connection with the Epigoni: their leadership, their identity, the locale, and the outcome of their battle against {127|128} the Thebans were differently treated in different epics, he insists (116–117); the contents of the two epic traditions as thus reassembled are usefully summarized by Prinz (1979:172).

Prinz (1979:180) surmises the second version to be explicable in terms of the date of Euripides’ play and interprets it as equivalent to a friendly gesture by an Athenian towards Argos, his city’s ally. Since we know relatively little about the date of the Suppliant Women (see Collard’s edition 1.8–14, which concludes that 428–422 is the likeliest range), it may be safer to prefer the explanation given by Collard ad loc. (2.419), that we have to do with an autoschediasm devised by Euripides himself “for congruence with the role” of Aegialeus’ father Adrastus in the play. Either explanation neatly dispenses with the notion of two equally long-standing and popular versions, each equally epic in origin. Besides, as Prinz (1979:173) further observes, the differences between what are allegedly two separate epic traditions are suspiciously small: Alcmaeon is important to both accounts, for instance.

As for the lists of the Epigoni offered by various ancient sources, it is particularly perverse of Bethe (1891:110–111) to try to establish two separate traditions here (Pausanias X 10.4 and Apollodorus III 7.2 reflecting the Alcmaeonis; Σ T Iliad IV. 406 [1.517 Erbse] the Epigoni) since, as Prinz rightly stresses (1979:169, with a useful tabular presentation of the five different lists presented by various late authors), there is, on the contrary, a bewilderingly wide range of differing and incompatible versions (perhaps indicative of ignorance of any authoritative epic source) with Aegialeus, Thersander, and Alcmaeon (not surprisingly) the only common elements in all five. Bethe’s selection of two of these lists as reflecting two epics, and his indifference to the other three, is precisely as arbitrary as Prinz (173) finds it.

Aegialeus’ death at the hands of Laodamas, king of the Thebans, is a fixed feature of tradition (a symmetrical reversal of the fate that befell the Seven, {128|129} where only the leader, Adrastus, survived). No double tradition can even begin to be alleged here, then. Laodamas is either killed at some unspecified locale (Apollodorus III 7.3) or survives after defeat in a battle at Glisas (Pausanias IX 8.3, 9.2; 1.44.4; Hellanicus FGrHist 4 F100; cf. Fowler 2013:414). Bethe (1891:113) attributes the first of these accounts to the Epigoni and the second to the Alcmaeonis. But since Glisas stands some distance from Thebes, and Apollodorus (III 7.3), Diodorus (IV 66), and Pindar (Pythian VIII 47) (not to mention common sense and the usual presuppositions of epic battles) seem to envisage the clash as taking place directly before Thebes itself, there may be something in Prinz’s suggestion (1979:182) that the idea of an “Entscheidungsschlacht” was the actual invention of Hellanicus (perhaps by analogy with the famous field battle at Plataea, and appropriately located by him in the vicinity of the recent clashes at Tanagra and Oenophyta [457/6 BC]).

Even without that solution, the idea of two differing epic treatments of the battle with quite incompatible details is very difficult to justify. Laodamas’ death (pace Bethe 1891:113n8) seems as essential as that of Aegialeus, not least because it so economically explains the Theban defeat and retreat.

What of the movements of the worsted Theban forces after the battle? According to Apollodorus (III 7.3–4) and Diodorus (IV 67.1), they move, on Teiresias’ advice, to Tilphusa, and from there to Thessaly (Hestiaeotis, more specifically Homole), whence they later returned, on the Delphic oracle’s bidding (Pausanias IX 8.6; Herodotus I 56 and IV 147), to live under Thersander’s governance at Thebes. Bethe takes the Epigoni to be responsible for this particular set of details. According to Pausanias (IX 5.13), however, they go (under the leadership of Laodamas) to Illyria, and this would seem to correspond to the version presupposed by the Delphic oracle’s advice in Herodotus V 61, which connects them with the Ἐγχελεῖς, a mythical race located in Illyria. The Alcmaeonis utilized this second version, if Bethe is to be believed.

Here too, however, it is not difficult to conceive an alternative explanation of the variants. Prinz (1979:183) supposes the tradition of the flight to Illyria to be another relatively late invention reflecting historical events, in this case the bad reputation of Thebes after the Battle of Plataea (cf. Herodotus IX 86–87): “dass sie aber die Dorier, die Helden der Perserkriege, aus der Landschaft Hestiaiotis vertrieben haben sollten, war schlechterdings absurd. Deshalb liess man nun ihren König Laodamas überleben und feige mit den Thebanern zu den mythischen Encheleern bzw. Illyriern fliehen.”

Prinz (1979:177–178) rightly stresses the likelihood that tragedy (especially Euripides’ Alcmaeon in Psophis, on which cf. Kannicht, TrGF 5.1.206–210; H. D. Jocelyn, The Tragedies of Ennius [London 1967] 188–189) has greatly influenced the accounts of Alcmaeon’s final fate we encounter in the mythographers and other {129|130} late writers. This standpoint is inevitably at odds with Bethe’s notion (1891:135) that Apollodorus III 7.5 and Pausanias VIII 24 can once more be used as a quarry for ancient epic tradition, this time to reconstruct the Epigoni’s version.

Prinz strengthens his position by citing (179) Thucydides II 102.5–6, with its picture of an Alcmaeon finally and peacefully setting in the territory of the Achelous. As a far earlier author than Apollodorus or Pausanias, the historian might be thought likelier to reflect epic, and he certainly omits just those elements found in late writers—Psophis as a first, abortive, place of refuge; Callirhoe’s greed as the cause of Alcmaeon’s death—which one would independently attribute to Attic tragedy and a later impulse to complicate and elaborate an initially simple and straightforward story. If one believes that the consultation of the Delphic oracle in Apollodorus III 7.5 and Diodorus IV 66.3 (= 204 Parke–Wormell; L 39 Fontenrose)—with its order that Alcmaeon be appointed leader of the Epigoni and afterwards punish his mother—derives from epic, then the epic sequel, as Prinz (178) observes, should be fairly predictable.

Ephorus (FGrHist 70 F123A–B) describes how Alcmaeon accompanied Diomedes to Aetolia and assisted him in punishing the enemies of Oeneus (similarly Apollodorus I 8.6: see the commentary on F4 of the Alcmaeonis). Diomedes then returned home, but Alcmaeon stayed behind and proceeded to subdue Acarnania and found Amphilochean Argos. Ephorus dates these events to a period after the Epigoni’s assault on Thebes, in which both Alcmaeon and Diomedes participated. The tradition is thus consistent with a placing of Eriphyle’s death before rather than after the defeat of Thebes, and those scholars who attribute that state of affairs to the Alcmaeonis naturally associate the Aetolian expedition with that epic too (see Bethe 1891:130–135; Friedländer 1914:330–331 = 1969:43–44 etc.).

Now the founding of Amphilochean Argos by Alcmaeon should give us pause (as it does Prinz [1979:185]), since, even without the explicit testimony of Thucydides (II 68.3), we should have guessed that Amphilochean Argos was originally conceived of as founded by Alcmaeon’s brother Amphilochus (cf. Gomme and Hornblower ad loc. etc.). Furthermore, according to Euripides’ Oeneus (cf. Kannicht, TrGF 5.2.584–585), it was, as their close friendship in the Iliad might lead us to expect, Sthenelus who accompanied Diomedes in the expedition against Aetolia. Prinz (1979:184) would derive this Euripidean account from the Alcmaeonis, whose titular hero, he thinks, cannot have participated in the Aetolian expedition because of his mother’s vengeful Erinyes (page 127 above). He would attribute Ephorus’ incompatible version not to any alternative epic tradition, but rather to the fertile invention of Ephorus himself (185), as part of a complex and elaborate λύσις (“ein rechtes Kunststück antiker Homerphilologie”) designed to solve three related problems: Why did the Acar- {130|131} nanians take no part in the Trojan War? Why did Alcmaeon (in strong contrast to his fellow epigone Diomedes) likewise fail to participate? Why does the Iliad represent Diomedes as ruling over all Argos and Agamemnon merely king of Mycenae? [10] Answer: because Agamemnon establishes his rule in Argos while Diomedes is absent in Aetolia; he then relinquishes power to him upon his return, but obliges him to participate in the war against Troy. Alcmaeon, however, angrily stays behind (ἁγανακτοῦντα). [11]

On the other hand (to stress once more and finally the difficulties inherent in this kind of enquiry), Andersen (16) is right to observe that Alcmaeon and Diomedes constitute an obvious partnership because of the Theban exploits of their fathers, Amphiaraus and Tydeus (an antithetical pair of heroes: see page 82 above); this could conceivably justify the hypothesis that a tradition of an expedition against Aetolia led by Alcmaeon and Diomedes existed before Ephorus. Whether such a tradition was (a) available to the composer of the Iliad; and (b) incorporated in the Alcmaeonis must remain unanswerable questions, as we have already seen in connection with F5 of the latter. {131|}


[ back ] 1. A point stressed in his critique of Bethe’s treatment by Prinz (1979:166–168); cf. Ø. Andersen, “Thersites und Troas vor Troia,” Symbolae Osloenses 57 (1982): 15–19.

[ back ] 2. Cf. Servius on Vergil Aeneid VI 445; Vatican Mythographer, ed. G. H. Bode (Cellis 1834) I.15.11; Σ Odyssey xi 326.

[ back ] 3. Apollodorus III 6.2 (Πολυνείκης δ’ ἀφικόμενος πρὸς Ἶφιν τὸν Ἀλέκτορος ἠξίου μαθεῖν, πῶς ἂν Ἀμφιάραος ἀναγκασθείη στρατεύεσθαι. ὁ δ’ εἶπεν· εἰ λάβοι τὸν ὅρμον Ἐριφύλη) was also taken to reflect this variant by Bethe (1891:50); contra Robert 1915:1.210: “Iphis im Kreis der argivischen Fürsten der älteste war, der Vertreter einer längst im Grabe ruhenden Generation, wie Nestor in der Ilias.

[ back ] 4. Cf. I. Loffler, Die Melampodie: Versuch einer Rekonstruktion des Inhalts (Beiträge zur klassischen Philologie 7 [Meisenheim 1963]) 41–43 and 53–55.

[ back ] 5. Asclepiades of Tragilus (FGrHist 12 F29) is also credited with a dating of the matricide before the expedition by Bethe (1891:120) and Robert (Heldensage 2.956–957). Contra Jacoby ad loc. ([1A.489] followed by Prinz [1979:178]), observing (rightly) that Asclepiades offers no dating.

[ back ] 6. A derivation that has won the acceptance of many scholars: see the bibliography in Prinz 1979:183n44.

[ back ] 7. As Wilamowitz observed (1891:239–240 = 1971:74), the ultimate root of the problem lies in the difficulty of connecting the originally independent story of Alcmaeon’s matricide with the relatively late tradition (see page 103 above) of the Epigoni.

[ back ] 8. The epic language of this portion of the poem is observed by B. Forssman (Untersuchungen zur Sprache Pindars [Wiesbaden 1966] 109–110), who considers the Epigoni a possible source. The same conclusion is reached by Stoneman (1981:54–55), on independent grounds.

[ back ] 9. So too, for instance, W. Kullmann, Die Quellen der Ilias (Hermes Einzelschriften 14 [1960]) 148–149n2.

[ back ] 10. The problem of the Iliadic picture of who rules Argos has always been difficult to resolve: see Page, History and the Homeric Iliad (Berkeley 1959) 127–132, Andersen 30n14. Andersen further claims that Prinz does not explain how and why an Aetolian expedition featured in the Alcmaeonis, when the titular hero of that epic did not participate in that expedition. But since Prinz believes the Alcmaeonis and the Epigoni to be one and the same poem (see page 115 above), this objection is not very damaging: an epic largely devoted to the doings of the sons of the Seven might well treat of Diomedes’ Aetolian exploits. Prinz’s theory is thus at least self-consistent. One might alternatively hold (as I do) that the Alcmaeonis and the Epigoni were two separate epics, and that the source of Euripides’ version (Diomedes and Sthenelus in Aetolia) was the Epigoni.

[ back ] 11. Cf. Andersen, “Thersites und Thoas vor Troia,” Symbolae Osloenses 57 (1982): 13–14.