The Theban Epics

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


[In this on-line version, the page-numbers of the printed version are indicated within braces (“{” and “}”). For example, “{69|70}” indicates where p. 69 of the printed version ends and p. 70 begins. These indications will be useful to readers who need to look up references made elsewhere to the printed version of this book.]

This book is the first in a planned series of volumes consisting of commentaries on the surviving fragments of early Greek epic. The text and fragment numeration follow my Epicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Göttingen 1988), and the project will end with a revised and improved edition of that work. The present volume deals with the three Theban epics which were included in the Epic Cycle, and also that enigmatic composition the Alcmaeonis, which, though probably not part of the Cycle, apparently shared some of its subject matter with the three poems that were. This seemed to justify treatment of it and its intriguing fragments here (the fragments are particularly interesting for the history of Greek religion).

The volume derives from a draft which seemed ready for publication at the end of the 1980s. Why the appearance of it and the other planned constituent parts was so long delayed would be tedious to explain; but the delay has brought various benefits, especially by allowing me to refer to secondary literature that has accrued in the interval. The present seems a particularly auspicious moment for publication since interest in early epic appears to be growing apace: the year 2013 saw the publication by the Oxford University Press of Martin West’s The Epic Cycle, and 2015 will welcome the Cambridge Companion to the Epic Cycle, from both of which I have sought to profit. I was also fortunate enough to be able to consult Robert Fowler’s commentary on the early Greek mythographers (Oxford 2013).

The present volume surveys the various traditions about the war of the Seven against Thebes, together with the story of Oedipus that led up to it and the sequel involving the Epigoni, from the perspective of the four early epics that treated them. A survey of these traditions from a different perspective, that of the treatment of them by Stesichorus, will be found in the forthcoming commentary on that poet by myself and Patrick Finglass, in the introductory sections on his compositions Eriphyle and Thebaid. In view of the recent publications on the Epic Cycle, I shall postpone my general introduction to the numerous issues arising from the Cycle, saving it for my later volume containing the Titanomachia, the first poem in the Cycle with extant fragments and thus a more logical location than one prefatory to the Theban epics.

The earlier draft referred to above was, at the relevant time, read and improved by Hugh Lloyd-Jones and Rudolf Kassel, while Anna Morpurgo and Eva-Maria Voigt provided very helpful advice and information on specific linguistic and philological issues. More recently Martin West read and improved the latest draft and stressed the importance of the mythographer Apollodorus as an actual or potential source of information concerning the Theban epics. This author certainly names, on occasion, Thebais and Alcmaeonis as sources for details (fragments 8 and 4, respectively) and elsewhere provides a narrative which matches details in other fragments of the Theban epics (e.g., Epigoni F3 ~ Apollodorus III 7.4 or Alcmaeonis F1 ~ Apollodorus III 12.6). The possibility of his preserving, without specific confirmation, details from the lost epics must therefore be taken seriously. On the other hand I am sympathetic to the skepticism of Alan Cameron, Greek Mythography in the Ancient World (Oxford 2004) 93–104 (“we must beware of assuming that even … plausible citations … are based on direct consultation of the sources named … It is another matter altogether to assume that [Apollodorus] directly constructed his narrative from a firsthand study of the texts he cites”). My Index Locorum Apollodoreorum will help the reader to consult and decide on the more important passages. The issue becomes more complex (and more interesting) with the Trojan epics, where we have the summaries of Proclus to compare and contrast, and I shall have more to say in the future volumes dealing with those epics.

A review published over fifty years ago—of a book on a classical but very different topic from my own—suggested that “a little honest plagiarism would have made some parts of the book easier reading” because its author “sometimes sacrifices clarity of expression to an overconscientious desire to attribute each specific view to its originator” in an explicit “attempt to rescue meritorious works of the past … from ‘undeserved oblivion’ ” (Classical Review 4 [1954]: 142–143). Some may think or say the same of the present work. The motive is certainly the same.