Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.10.08 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.10.08

Nigel Nicholson, The Poetics of Victory in the Greek West: Epinician, Oral Tradition, and the Deinomenid Empire. Greeks overseas.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2016.  Pp. xviii, 353.  ISBN 9780190209094.  $74.00.  

Reviewed by Nicholas Boterf (


The Poetics of Victory in the Greek West by Nigel Nicholson takes on the tangled web of athletics, politics, epinician, and oral tradition in late sixth- to middle fifth-century Sicily and Italy. The book’s explicit goal is to describe the nature and origins of epinician by contrasting it with popular traditions about athletes. But the story of epinician in the west is inextricably tied to the rise and fall of the Deinomenid regime in Syracuse. This book traces out how epinician became the sanctioned and privileged vehicle of Deinomenid self-presentation, and how oral narratives about athletes provided a counter-narrative to it.

The introduction to the book summarizes epinician’s relationship with oral narrative, and this discussion is continued into the first chapter, “Hero-Athlete Narrative.” Nicholson identifies what he calls “hero-athlete narrative” as a specific subset of oral traditions about athletes with a homogenous ideology. These stories, he argues, constitute a genre. The heroization of the athlete took many forms, from feats of great strength to divine birth and other extraordinary events. One recurring narrative structure relates how the athlete is disrespected by his home community, and disaster befalls the community until the Pythian oracle instructs them to make this wrong right through heroization. Nicholson dates many of these stories to the archaic period, and sees several of them originating in self-promotion by the athletes themselves.

The second chapter, “Epinician and the Hero-Athlete Narrative”, forms the cornerstone of the book, and details the differences between these two genres. Nicholson sees these two forms as oppositional, and even suggests that hero-athlete narrative was the main competitor to epinician. He traces out several ways the two genres are ideologically opposed. First, epinician frames the victor as above all excellent in athletics. On the other hand, in “hero-athlete narrative” the athletic victory is merely a prelude to greater actions outside of the ring. This is reflected in the two forms’ different uses of myth: epinician likens athletes to heroes of old, but maintains a firm boundary between them; hero-athlete narrative portrays athletes becoming heroes in their own right. Epinician also refused to give its victor many idiosyncratic features or even any concrete physicality. By contrast, the hero-athlete narrative often described the unusual feats of strength, training regimens, and even physical features of the athletes it celebrated. Epinician, furthermore, integrated the victor into the wider community, while hero-athlete narrative tended to portray the victor as isolated and acting autonomously from his own community. There is a spatial dimension to this as well, as epinician portrays the victor moving comfortably through the urban center, while hero-athlete narrative shows the athlete moving primarily through rural spaces on the periphery.

The third chapter, “Politics and Athlopolitics”, sketches out the historical situation of western Greece that provides the backdrop for the book’s readings. Nicholson coins the term “athlopolitics” to emphasize how intertwined athletics and politics were in the west. The remainder of the chapter describes the history of the region, beginning with the conquest of Sybaris in 510 BC and ending in 467 BC with the death of Hiero and the dissolution of the Deinomenid empire.

The fourth chapter, “Epizephyrian Locri: Hagesidamus and Euthymus”, applies the methodology discussed in the previous chapters to specific texts. Here Nicholson reads the victor of Olympian 10, Hagesidamus, alongside the more famous Epizephyrian Locrian victor Euthymus. As Nicholson notes, the first words of Olympian 10, where Pindar demands “The Olympic victor” be read out to him (Τὸν Ὀλυμπιονίκαν ἀνάγνωτέ μοι) (1), in a Locrian context would make audiences think of Euthymus rather than Hagesidamus. Euthymus was the subject of a hero-athlete narrative where he saved a maiden by defeating a dark spirit in combat at Temesa. Nicholson identifies several points of ideological battle between Olympian 10 and this hero-athlete narrative. Of most interest is the different perspective on the Deinomenid empire the two genres offer. The Olympic games of 476 BCE were a banner year for epinician, as Pindar produced three epinicians for Hiero of Syracuse and Theron of Acragas from these games alone. In such a context the choice of an epinician from Pindar could not but signal alliance with the Deinomenid empire. He also suggests that the final image of Ganymede in Olympian 10 adopts Deinomenid imagery as evidenced by the acroterion of Ganymede that graced the Syracusan treasury at Olympia. By contrast, Nicholson argues, Euthymus’ narrative seems to have propped up visions of an independent and autonomous Locri. The two genres therefore offer competing visions of Locri’s relationship to the Syracusan empire.

The fifth chapter, “Croton: Astylus and Philippus”, concentrates on the origins of the Deinomenid association with epinician by comparing the athletes Astylus and Philippus. The first was celebrated in a epinician by Simonides that is now mostly lost, while the second was featured in a hero-athlete narrative. Nicholson traces the genesis of both to tensions between Croton and the emerging Deinomenid empire. Nicholson argues for a pro-Deinomenid stance in the epinician for Astylus, and sketches out the connections between Simonides and the Deinomenid regime. By contrast he sees the hero-athlete narrative of Philippus as signaling opposition to Syracuse’s rising power. Nicholson moves on to trace the origins of the Deinomenid appropriation of epinician to the years after 480 BC and describes how epinician was a suitable vehicle for the regime’s self-projection. The Deinomenids were interested in integrating themselves into the larger Greek world, justifying their commoditized economy while also giving the appearance of generosity, all perspectives that epinician was uniquely able to convey. Furthermore, the Deinomenid regime had a fear of the talismanic power that an athlete could possess, and worked to appropriate the rhetoric of athletic victory for their own regime and even to suppress athletic hero cults. Epinician, with its weightless and non-heroic portrait of the victor, uniquely suited their interests.

The sixth chapter, “Sicily Under Gelon: The Two Glaucuses”, looks at a rare example of an athlete appearing in both epinician and hero-athlete narrative. “The Two Glaucuses” in the title refers to the different ways each genre portrayed Glaucus of Carystus. Nicholson sees the biographical tradition around Glaucus as incoherent because it has cobbled together depictions from both epinician and hero-athlete narrative. Glaucus appears as both a rough farm boy known for his raw strength and a sophisticated professional boxer. Nicholson discusses in great detail a statue of Glaucus described by Pausanias, and he accepts the hypothesis that this statue was part of a statuary group funded by Gelon himself. He argues that this statuary group was important in creating the vision of the victor that the Deinomenids would later cultivate primarily through epinician. In the last part of the chapter Nicholson discusses what little remains of the epinician for Glaucus by Simonides. As it turns out, the one paraphrase of this poem that survives is provocative, claiming that neither Polydeuces nor Heracles would dare challenge him (οὐδὲ Πολυδεύκεος βία / χεῖρας ἀντείναιτό κ’ ἐναντίον αὐτῶι, / οὐδὲ σιδάρεον Ἀλκμάνας τέκος) (as reconstructed by Page) (509 PMG). This is an unusual breach of epinician decorum, as Glaucus is put on a very similar level to the gods, something that (Pindaric) epinician strays away from. Nicholson surveys the remains of Simonides’ corpus for clues about the tone of this passage, and concludes that this passage was exceptional for even Simonides’ corpus. However, he argues that the effect is very similar to other passages: it limits Glaucus’ exceptionality to the sphere of athletics. The gods are only afraid to challenge Glaucus in the ring.

The seventh chapter, “Sicily Under and After Hieron: Ergoteles of Himera and Tisander of Naxos”, compares Olympian 12 starring Ergoteles of Himera and the hero-athlete narrative of Tisander of Naxos that developed after the collapse of the Deinomenid regime. Nicholson argues for a 470 BC date for Olympian 12, noting the similarities in language with the political vocabulary developed by the Deinomenids. For instance, the mentions of “Zeus the Liberator (παῖ Ζηνὸς Ἐλευθερίου) (1) and “Savior Fortune” (σώτειρα Τύχα) (2) at the beginning of the ode both refer to Deinomenid watch-words. What is striking about Ergoteles’ story in Olympian 12 is that his exile resembles the motif of an athlete being disrespected by his community that appears frequently in hero-athlete narrative. Nicholson describes how epinician presents this motif with a different ideological bent. The last part of the chapter discusses the hero-athlete narrative of Tisander of Naxos, and how it originated in a period of anti- Deinomenid sentiment within Naxos.

As the title indicates, the final chapter, “Beyond the Deinomenids: Alexidamus of Metapontum”, looks into an epinician in the west outside the Deinomenid sphere of influence. This epinician is Bacchylides 11 for Alexidamus of Metapontum. Nicholson identifies three peculiarities of this ode: (1) the defeat of the victor is described in detail; (2) the ode confuses Pythian and Delian Apollo; (3) the ending of the ode, which focuses on a local Metapontum cult at the expense of any mention of the family. Nicholson argues these peculiarities can be best explained by seeing the ode as setting itself in opposition to the local legend of Aristeas, which, as the author argues, resembles in many ways the hero-athlete narratives this book has discussed elsewhere.

As these summaries show, The Poetics of Victory in the Greek West is a truly impressive work. I found the second chapter in particular to be valuable in showing how the portrayal of athletes in epinician is not ideologically neutral. When set alongside other oral accounts of athletes, it is clear how ideologically charged the epinician’s view of the victor and his community is. The individual readings throughout the book are uniformly well-argued and encompass an astounding variety of topics. Any scholar studying epinician or politics in Greek southern Italy and Sicily will turn to this book just to see what Nicholson says about a topic

But I have some reservations about the book. There is a mismatch between the theoretical foundations and the readings. Nicholson throughout the work emphasizes that epinician and hero-athlete narrative are fixed genres formed in opposition to each other (e.g. “epinician and the oral narratives were intimately bound together as oppositional forms” (41), “the hero-athlete narrative was the primary vehicle against which epinician competed to define what the athlete meant and what kind of a community his success validated” (51)). But even though the methodological framework of the book seems to promote a strict binary opposition, the readings themselves show a much more fluid relationship. The very range of sources Nicholson utilizes implies that epinician and hero-athlete narrative are a part of a much richer and complex tapestry than his early chapters suggest. And at many moments in the book this binary opposition explicitly breaks down. For instance, he views the stories surrounding Phayllus of Croton (196ff) as “a reinvention, or creative misuse, of the hero-athlete genre.” Nicholson examines the Aristeas story as similar to “hero-athlete narrative” even though he was not an athlete (297ff). An entire chapter is devoted to the “two Glaucuses” of epinician and hero- athlete narrative, a doubling that in itself suggests that hero-athlete narrative and epinician are not as mutually exclusive as he claims. What happens if we discuss epinician and athlete-hero narrative not as oppositional forms, but as parts of a larger, more complex, and polyvalent discourse about athletes in antiquity and in the archaic period? I think the book would have become much richer, and the methodology would be much more faithful to Nicholson’s own readings.

The Poetics of Victory in the Greek West is an important book, and will be referred to frequently by scholars interested in the many topics it covers. But I suspect it will be far from the last word on the subject.

The book on the whole is beautifully written and very readable. I did not detect any grammar or spelling errors. The book is commendable for its many maps and timelines. Most chapters have their own individual timeline clearly laying out the events crucial to the chapter’s argument. I hope more books follow this example.

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