LYKOPHRON’S ALEXANDRA, ROME, AND THE HELLENISTIC WORLD

Simon Hornblower

OUP (2018) h/b 254pp £60 (ISBN 9780198723684)

In 2015, H. gave us his distinguished commentary on Lykophron’s Alexandra, and this monograph—promised in the commentary—is the result: readers of this monograph should ideally have ready access to the earlier work. We add here that ‘Lykophron’ is a pseudonym, though one that can hardly have been very successful in concealing the author’s identity if, as H. suggests, the poem was given a public recitation to listeners sophisticated enough to understand it.

A few more preliminary points: ‘Alexandra’ is usually better known as Cassandra; the poem was probably written in the early years of the second century BC, although some distinguished scholars have argued for a 3rd century date (with much later interpolation); and H. believes that internal evidence argues for composition in Magna Graecia.

The main part of the poem consists of Alexandra’s mantic and allusive prophecies—which, of course, have already been fulfilled by the time of the poem’s publication. It is relevant here to note that Alexandra had been raped by Locrian Ajax: conflict between Asia and Europe is one major theme of the poem, and more of the Locrians will be seen here later. The monograph aims to show how the poem is (among other things) a political work: this entails digging into history at a detailed ‘micro’ level: no Mommsen here! The result, of necessity, makes for frankly difficult reading, and the Synopsis (pp. xvii-xx), which gives a chronology of the poem, including the dispersal of the Greek leaders, is distinctly helpful. In the monograph’s first Part– Lykophron’s Geopolitical World—H. first considers the Hellenistic kingdoms; the cities and federations of Old Greece (including the minor role of Athens); he then goes on to Sicily and Magna Graecia; next comes Rhodes which receives a full chapter; finally, Campania, Latium, and Rome, with an annex on the long Aineias section: all this part of the monograph concentrates on history. Far from incidentally, Aegyptiaca sprevit, wrote Wilamowitz—but H. shows that this is far from the case, as that is where Menelaus searched for Helen (treated vindictively by Alexandra/Lycophron, says H., with some mild surprise, not shared by your reviewer).

In Part II comes ‘Cultural and Religious Context’ (which H. had also dealt with fully in the Commentary): first come ‘Sibylline Oracles and Other Apocalyptic Literature’ (a section which the reviewer found relatively less interesting); this is followed by ‘Culture, Religion and Myths of Identity’ in the Alexandra, including Hector’s Bones (lines 1189-1213)—an exquisitely complex episode of ‘Hellenistic exploitation of myth and perhaps kinship ties for political purposes’ which, however, defies summary—and the Lokrian maidens, with Annexes on Lykophron on (a) Hector’s bones, (b) the Lokrian maidens, and (c) the Lokrian maidens inscription; text and translation (note that the dual forms indicate that only two maidens were involved). 

Why the importance of the Lokrian maidens? Myth and fact are mingled: Lycophron’s words are relatively clear: the maidens were to be sent annually—implausibly, for a thousand years— to ‘Ilion’ as requital for Ajax’s impious deed against Cassandra in Athena’s temple at Troy—if they can avoid being waylaid on the way. Ilion? Or, as H. suggests, another more convenient ‘Ilion’, the temple of Athena Ilias in the ‘Lokrian federation’? Perhaps both played a role, with less frequent formal deputations to Troy; and the inscription (which dates from about 100 years pre-Lycophron) is evidence for the veracity of Alexandra’s prophecy. Incidentally, H. comments justifiably on the unlikelihood of ‘aristocratic’ maidens being sent on so long a journey, though Lycophron himself merely refers to maidens chosen by lot. It is typical of H. that he not only prints the inscription in full, but adds an apparatus criticus and, for the first time, an English translation.

Understandably, the long section on the wanderings of Aineias and his Italian foundations, together with the famous prophecy of Roman domination over land and sea (impossible before the First Punic War of 264-241 BC) has demanded the attention of scholars. Here, says H., ‘is a fully surviving and continuous narrative of the arrival of the Trojan Aineias and his founding of cities in Latium—and of the role of Romulus and Remus’; here is even the utterance about the ‘eating of the tables’ (Aeneid 7, 107-34): Dido, however, does not appear; Rome is never specifically named, but the word ῥώμη (strength) at line 1233 is sufficient indication. Further allusive detail comes later, with the ‘unique wrestler’ (1447), shown to be an appropriate term—identified with Flamininus, who famously declared Greece to be free, ‘come to an agreement of reconciliation about sea and land’ (1448)—and a ‘spear fight’, i.e. the battle of Kynoskephalai in 197 BC.

H. regards the Alexandra as the ‘most interestingly political (and one may add, intensely pro-Rome) poem to have survived from the Hellenistic period’; he goes further, and claims Lycophron as being also a ‘highly eccentric historian’. Ιt is his considerable achievement here to have justified those propositions—of course, myth and history mingle and have to be painstakingly disentangled. It will now be incumbent upon scholars to recognise and build on what a remarkable historian has achieved here. 

It is perhaps hardly necessary to add that H. calls on Polybius, Diodorus and the (fragmentary) Timaios for support when relevant: all citations appear in the Index of Literary Passages Cited. There is also a long Bibliography and a General Index.

Colin Leach

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