We were delighted to catch up with CHS author Malcolm Davies at the SCS conference last month, where we had a fascinating chat with him about his new book, Theban Epics. The book is truly a remarkable piece of scholarly detective work, as Malcolm extracts an extraordinary amount of material and meaning from the few fragments that remain of the poems about the Theban wars.
The Theban epics recount the story of the other great siege of ancient Greek legend, the attack known as the Seven Against Thebes, which occurred a generation before the Trojan War. Though told with an intriguingly different sensibility than that of Homeric tradition, the epic is linked thematically to the Iliad. Its story also has a narrative connection to the Trojan War, as one of its fiercest combatants, Tydeus, is the father of a great warrior of the Iliad, Diomedes.
Here, you can listen to Malcolm talk about the significance of his book’s cover, which depicts Tydeus himself in a fateful act of bloodthirsty savagery.
In antiquity, the story of the failed assault of the Seven against Thebes ranked second only to the Trojan War. But whereas the latter was immortalized by Homer’s Iliad, the account of the former in the epic Thebais survives only in fragments preserved in later authors. The same is true of the Oedipodeia and Epigoni, which dealt respectively with events leading up to the Seven’s campaign and with the successful assault on the city in the next generation. The Thebais was probably the most important of the three—certainly more and longer fragments of it have survived—and it has been alleged that its recovery would tell us more about Homer than any comparable discovery.
Paradoxically, these fragments suggest very un-Homeric content and style (in particular its detail of the hero Tydeus forfeiting immortality by gnawing on the head of a dying enemy). The same is true of the epic Alcmaeonis, named after one of the Epigoni, whose few surviving fragments pullulate with un-Homeric features. Malcolm Davies provides the first full commentary on all four epics’ fragments. He attempts to set them in context and examines whether artistic depictions of the relevant myths can help reconstruct the lost epics’ contents.