Professor Simon Hornblower looks at one of the most intriguing and neglected poems of antiquity.
My subject is a long post-classical Greek poem, the Alexandra, which must win some kind of prize for unpopularity among modern critics of ancient literature. But unlike many of my academic colleagues, I think it a wonderful and daring construction and a minor experimental masterpiece, unique in ancient writing, and of enormous historical importance not only for the Greek attitude to the conquering Roman superpower but for Hellenistic and Roman history more generally.
I begin with two quotations from near the end: ‘with their spears, they will win the victory-wreath and the first-spoils, taking sceptre and kingship over land and sea’. Then 250 lines later: ‘ … after six generations, my kinsman, a unique wrestler, after joining in a spear-fight, shall come to a reconciliation about sea and land … ’. These pseudo-prophecies (prophecies long after the event) are delivered in the metre of classical tragedy by a mythical figure, Cassandra, the most beautiful daughter of King Priam of Troy. But their subject-matter is historical: they both refer to the Roman acquisition of pan-Mediterranean power. ‘Kinsman’ refers to the myth of Trojan foundation of Rome. Both are cryptically expressed, but in my view the victorious kinsman is the proconsul Titus Quinctius Flamininus; the defeated power is Philip V of Macedon; the ‘spear-fight’ is the decisive battle of Cynoscephalae fought in Thessaly in 197 BC; and the ‘reconciliation’ the political settlement after the battle. The author is the subject of this article, a poet who went under the name Lykophron. The mix of myth and rational history is bold, and is further proof that myth did not – as is sometimes said – replace logos, reason, in the Hellenistic age.
Although it is a long poem (1474 lines) and survives complete, its author is much less familiar today than the usual Hellenistic trio Callimachus, Apollonius Rhodius and Theocritus. This is partly because the Alexandra is notoriously difficult (it was called the ‘dark poem’ in antiquity), and this has made it hated by students of Greek poetry. Stephanie West, a Lykophron expert, has compiled an amusing dossier of rude things said or written about the poem, and they keep coming. But the difficulty can be overstated. The architecture is straightforward; the main transitions between episodes are simple, even mechanical; the sentence constructions are clear; and the thought is lucid, unlike Pindar’s tangled Greek or the dense abstract speeches in Thucydides. The three main difficulties of the Alexandra are these: first, the many unusual words used, many found only here in ancient Greek, so-called hapax legomena. One of them was long thought to be a hapax word, ankhipous ‘treading close’; but we now know it is not: it occurs in a remarkable inscribed poem from western Asia Minor, published only last year, and also full of unusual vocabulary. It dates from about 200 BC, just when in my view Lykophron was assembling his materials. Second, Cassandra’s habit of folding excursuses into excursuses, although this is no worse than Herodotus, one of Lykophron’s chief models. And third, the author’s usual way of referring to gods heroes and mythical figures in a periphrastic, riddling way. So the Sirens are ‘the harpy-legged nightingales’; the Wooden Horse ‘the ghastly pregnant hiding-place’; and Odysseus ‘he of the dolphin sign, thief of the Phoenician goddess’. The dolphin refers to an incident in the childhood of Odysseus’ son Telemachus; and the Phoenician goddess is Athena, so the second half refers to the theft of the Palladion at Troy by Odysseus and Diomedes. Gods and goddesses are not named but referred to by strings of piled-up cult epithets. All this may seem off-putting and obscurantist. But that is where the ancient commentaries help: ancient and Byzantine readers found it hard going as we do, so we are well provided with explanatory material, above all by the Byzantine scholar Johannes Tzetzes. And there are two ancient prose paraphrases, which assist in understanding what myths are being alluded to, and how far they diverge from standard versions.
Cassandra’s most famous characteristic is the flawed gift of prophecy: Apollo endowed her with this in exchange for sex with her, but when she changed her mind and refused him, he limited the gift so that her prophecies would not be believed. None of this is in Homer. When Troy fell, she was raped by Locrian Ajax, despite her appeals to Athena. In the Odyssey she is killed by Clytaemestra together with Agamemnon, who had taken her as booty. The best known account of this is in Aeschylus. But in the Alexandra, the Trojan War is still in the near future.
The poem’s structure is ambitious in scope but simple in structure. Cassandra’s name at Sparta was ‘Alexandra’, she who fends off men, hence the poem’s title. Her long prophecy is enclosed by two short speeches by Priam’s guard, whom the king has instructed to watch over his daughter and report anything she says. So the bulk of the Alexandra can be seen as one long tragic messenger-speech which culminates in some Roman history. But nothing is spelt out explicitly: it is all shone through the lens of myth. The poem shows literary knowledge of the great third-century Alexandrian poets, and historical knowledge of the Hannibalic or Second Punic War fought by the Romans in 218-01 BC. The greater part is an account of the many unhappy nostoi, returns, of Greeks from Troy, which are explained as requital for Trojan Cassandra’s sexual assault by Ajax. The assault itself, described in heart-wrenching detail, opens the nostoi narrative. Its close and climax are Aeneas’ arrival in Italy, not quite a return in the usual sense. The longest nostoi sections are about Odysseus and Menelaus, both of whom go to the western Mediterranean, Sicily and S. Italy. Cassandra is hostile to Odysseus in particular, whose long troubled return is punishment for Ajax’s rape of herself. The western nostos of Odysseus was not an innovation: a fifth-century BC addition to Hesiod’s Theogony made Odysseus sleep with Circe and father a son Latinus. But Lykophron works it up in a detailed and systematic way, with special attention to Odysseus’ visits to religious sites in Campania, notably the oracle of the dead at Aornus. As for the more surprising presence of Spartan Menelaus in Sicily and Magna Graecia, he is a precursor of royal, entirely historical Spartan adventurers. In Lykophron, the mythical material is presented idiosyncratically, with digressions and excursuses. Near the end Cassandra predicts the entire Europe-Asia conflict from before the Trojan War to Rome’s conquest of Greece. This includes a valuable narrative of the historical colonisation of Aeolian, Ionian and Dorian Asia Minor in terms of charter myths. Some of this reflects historical rivalries between elite settler families.
It may have been written for recitation to an elite pro-Roman audience in a Greek-speaking city of South Italy. Perhaps Lykophron was a priest, and if so Italian Epizephyrian Locri would be a good guess for his native polis. Female poets are attested there, and in view of the number of abused and mistreated women in the poem, it is tempting to think the name Lykophron concealed a woman – except that there is no other known example of a ancient Greek female poet taking a male pseudonym. As for financial support, perhaps he was crowd-funded by a syndicate of wealthy pro-Roman Greek sponsors. A modern parallel is the ‘Musilgesellschaft’ which paid Robert Musil to write his novel Man without Qualities. Anyway, South Italy is the likeliest region of origin: nearly a third of Cassandra’s prophecy relates to Sicily and South Italy, and there are signs that the poet was bilingual in Greek and Latin.
Finally I turn to Lykophron’s knowledge of Roman myth. The very existence of Roman myth was denied until recently, but this was wrong.
The poem never names Rome directly. But a famous section runs: ‘my kinsman (Aeneas), will leave behind him such twin lion-whelps, a race of outstanding strength’. The lion-whelps are the twins Romulus and Remus, though with typical idiosyncrasy Lykophron does not call them wolf-cubs, as we might have expected given that they were suckled by a she-wolf. The Greek word for strength is rhōmē, so this is an early, perhaps the earliest, example of what would be a common play on the name of Rome.
The poet is especially interested in the myths about two areas, Apulia on the SE Italian peninsula; and Campania with Latium on the SW. First, Apulia. An attractive section of the Alexandra describes how the Homeric hero Diomedes came west from Argos and Aetolia and founded the Apulian city of Argyrippa, Latin Arpi. Cassandra adds that his sad followers changed into birds and settled on the island which bears the name of their leader. (This was picked up by Virgil and by Ovid two centuries later in his Metamorphoses). The section ends by saying that Diomedes will be called a ‘high god by many’. It was long thought that the only islands in question were the Tremiti islands off the Gargano peninsula. But in the mid-1990s chance excavations revealed a cult site of Diomedes on the central Adriatic island of Palagruza, including inscribed potsherds dating to the fifth century BC and carrying his name. Clearly, Lykophron or his source was well informed about both the myth and the corresponding ritual of hero-cult for Diomedes.
Then there are Campania and Latium, and the twins Romulus and Remus; and above all Aeneas. Romulus on his own is attested in Greek sources long before Lykophron. But the twins are a later development. Roman tradition, transmitted by Livy, held that in 296 BC the Ogulnii brothers erected a statue of the infant founders of the city beneath the udders of the she-wolf. It has been argued that Remus was grafted onto the original story. Fabius Pictor, who wrote a Roman history in Greek in the late 3rd century, knew of the Romulus and Remus legend. But some of the earliest evidence for the twins is in fact numismatic, and it is possible that Lykophron came across these silver coins when they started to circulate in Italy in the early third century. Not every myth was transmitted in books. Certainly Romulus and Remus had, by about 200 BC, reached the island of Chios at the other end of the Mediterranean, as an inscription proves. That Aeneas went west to Italy was an old idea by Lykophron’s time – it is found in Stesichorus of Sicilian Himera (sixth century). The Alexandra gives the first fully surviving literary account of Aeneas in the west: all other evidence is fragmentary and second-hand.
Cassandra’s narrative of Odysseus’ wanderings in Campania, in particular Naples (Greek Neapolis) is out of scale. Why should Lykophron have been so interested in Naples and the cult for the city’s guardian Siren Parthenope? The lines about Parthenope end at the exact middle point of the poem, surely an intentional indicator of the importance of Naples. Cassandra says a torch-race at Naples was founded by an Athenian commander, and that this old ritual was enlarged later. An ancient commentator shows that this commander was an Athenian, Diotimos. Now this man is attested both in Thucydides and in an Athenian inscribed decree as having led a naval squadron to Corfu just before the Peloponnesian War, so he was a western expert. Cassandra famously ‘predicted’ Roman sceptre and kingship over land and sea; and Naples was the first and most valued of Rome’s naval allies, a relationship which began in the 330s BC. Lykophron’s distribution of attention in this section can be explained in terms of Hannibal and the second Punic War. Hannibal ultimately failed for two main reasons: he was not able to detach Rome’s Italian allies from their loyalty, and he was not able to overturn Roman control of the seas. This meant he could not be reinforced or supplied from Carthage, whereas Roman capacity for manpower replacement was unlimited. After his defeat of the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC, Hannibal’s first move was to try to capture Naples, so that, as Livy puts it, he could possess a maritime city. But Naples stayed loyal, so he had to turn against Capua instead. Lykophron uses the mythical Siren Parthenope, and the ritual honouring her, to give a political and military explanation of Roman success in what in the 190s BC was a recent traumatic conflict: Sirens are essentially sea-creatures. Lykophron makes sense of the torch-race ritual by tracing it to its origins in the Peloponnesian war, by an aetiology taking the form of a first originator, as aetiologies often do. Even Odysseus’ mythical visit to the oracle of the dead at Aornus has a parallel in Hannibal’s consultation of the same oracle and his sacrifice there, as Livy narrates.
So the Alexandra is important for the study of Greek religion. A spectacular illustration of the relation between myth and ritual is to be found in Lykophron’s section about the myth of the tribute of the Locrian maidens. This was paid by the mainland Greek polis of Locri (not the south Italian colony of the same name). The tribute was supposedly imposed on the Locrians by an oracle as a penance for Locrian Ajax’s rape of Cassandra. The fate of these maidens is elaborated by Cassandra in horrific terms: the maidens were sent across the Aegean; they went to Troy and were either brutally killed as they attempted to enter the sanctuary of Athena Ilias, Trojan Athena, or they spent their lives there in menial servitude as temple servants. Lykophron is the fullest but not the earliest literary source to mention the tribute: in the 350s BC the stratagem-collector Aeneas Tacticus casually cited it so as to illustrate the difficulty of preventing infiltration of a city, and he was clearly talking about an existing real-life ritual. But what sort? Unexpectedly, in 1912 an early Hellenistic inscription revealed that the ritual of the Locrian maidens was a factual reality. Although there are annoying gaps, it suggests that the visit of the maidens to the sanctuary was harmless and temporary; it mentions monetary allowances for the upkeep of the girls. Modern scholars see the ritual as pre-marital and initiatory, a temporary segregation of girls before re-integration into the community; in other words a classic rite of passage. In a nutshell, Lykophron has the myth, the inscription has the ritual. Walter Burkert wrote in another connection ‘the myth carries, in fantasy, to the extreme what, in ritual, is conducted into more innocent channels’. This insight is beautifully applicable to the Locrian Maidens also. It is a neat example of the reworking or manipulation of a myth – Cassandra’s rape – as an explanation, an aetiology, for a pre-marital ritual. Cassandra after all ‘keeps men away’: preparation for acceptance of men in marriage entails temporary rejection of men according to Cassandra’s own mythical example.
I end where I began, with Trojan Cassandra’s prophecy of Roman domination by land and sea. The Trojan War and associated myths nourished much classical literature. Even supposedly myth-averse Thucydides, without mentioning Troy, uses language which compares the Athenian defeat at Syracuse to the fall of Troy, the greatest captured city of all. Then Lykophron, 200 years before Virgil, creatively reworked this mythical theme: he used it to explain and salute Roman penetration of the Greek world. This poetic theme has parallels in contemporary gestures by real-life Romans. Flamininus at Delphi claimed descent from Aeneas. The same claim was made by Acilius Glabrio, consul in 191, and victor over the Aetolians at Thermopylae. It is not always easy to say whether such rewriting and manipulation of myth was done by poets concerned to create literary works of art, or by historical agents and communities or cities whose aim was what has been called the invention of tradition. But I hope I have at least persuaded you that the Alexandra is worth a read.
Simon Hornblower FBA has been a fellow of All Souls College Oxford (twice) and was professor of Ancient History in the meantime at University College London. He published in 2015 a complete edition of Lykophron’s Alexandra (with commentary and translation, reviewed at: https://classicsforall.org.uk/book-reviews/lykophron-alexandra-greek-te…) and in 2018 followed this with Lykophron’s Alexandra, Rome, and the Hellenistic World (containing the first English translation of the ‘Locrian Maidens’ inscription. See the review at: https://classicsforall.org.uk/book-reviews/lykophrons-alexandra-rome-and-the-hellenistic-world/)