BMCR 2021.02.07

Städte und Stadtstaaten zwischen Mythos, Literatur und Propaganda

, , Städte und Stadtstaaten zwischen Mythos, Literatur und Propaganda. Beiträge zur Altertumskunde, 383. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2020. Pp. vi, 347. ISBN 9783110656763 €99.95.

[A Table of Contents follows below.]

This volume consists of twelve articles written in English, Italian, and German, treating works from the Archaic Greek period to Late Antiquity. The authors tackle the issue of political influence on the image of cities and city-states and how this interaction transformed or altered canonical associations with certain cities, such as Thebes, in the common imaginaire of their societies. Their purpose is an interesting one that deserves commendation and is successful for most of the book.

Angela Ganter starts things of by teasing out interesting questions surrounding the changing image of Thebes in the poetic and theatrical works of the Archaic and Classical period. In the earlier poetry, such as the Homeric works, a picture emerges of the city as an impenetrable fortress, whereas that imagery later devolves into a stereotype of a polis wrecked by stasis, infighting, and bad decision-making. The transformation pictured by Ganter is a convincing one, but certain aspects could have been fleshed out more. A case in point is Aeschylus’ Septem where Ganter swiftly goes through the play, but then does not mention the variations in the myth of the burial of the attackers, variations which would demonstrate that there was never a monolithic picture of the myth, even in Athens. I think an engagement with Bernd Steinbock’s Social Memory in Athenian Public Discourse would have brought some enlightening prospects to these changes on the perception of Thebes, even if only in the background.

Next up is Marion Meyer who treats the Athenians’ changing views of their patron goddess. Meyer meanders through vase painting, the votive depository from the Acropolis, and literary works of the mid-sixth century to the end of the fifth to figure out how the depiction of Athena and her roles changed. From a more localised, mothering figure, she was transformed into a figure whose roles tie in with the Panhellenic pantheon. She becomes the guarantor of the Athenians’ freedom, meshing with the Athenian narrative after the Persian Wars. It is a wonderful investigation and a rewarding read. Meyer shows how the Athenians themselves altered their views of the goddess as a result of changing fortunes. Yet the article employs a local, inward reflection, which contrasts with the other contributions. These all deal with the perceptions of other cities from an outsider’s perspective, as it were. While Meyer’s piece aligns well with the purpose of the volume, it nevertheless remains somewhat of an exception, since it constitutes an endogenic perspective, rather than viewing how the perception of another city changed course.

Vanessa Zetzmann dives into the Aeschylean Oresteia to analyse the framing of Argos in Aeschylus’ plays. She demonstrates that Argive rhetoric was deceitful and defied clear communication. Conversely, Aeschylus’ Athenians communicated in an honest manner that enabled clarity concerning the course of action to be taken. Interestingly, as Zetzmann points out, the language used by both poleis is similar; yet the terms used by Athenians reflect the judicial processes in the city at that time. Performance also played a significant role in rhetoric. It was not just the strongest argument, but also its delivery that mattered in Athens. This part of the article is convincing. I am less convinced by her later suggestion that this treatment of Argive and Athenian speech somehow reflects Aeschylus’ disparaging attitude towards the Athenian-Argive alliance of 461. This claim comes at the end of the article and could have been fleshed out more if the play constitutes such an open commentary on the recent alliance.

Paolo Cecconi follows with an investigation of Euripides’ Phoenician Women and its adaptions of Theban myth. Both human and divine actions cast the city into despair. Part of the blame lies with Athena—and indirectly Athens—but there is a glimpse of hope: the younger generation embodied by Menoeceus. He takes the rightful course by putting polis before family and brings peace to Thebes. The play echoes the contemporary situation at Athens, and Euripides may have hoped that the younger Athenian generation would bring stability after the civil wars. By emphasising the role of the younger generation in the works of  Euripides, in contrast to Aeschylus, Cecconi makes an elegant case that these new elements in the play are a reflection of the times in which Euripides wrote.

Johannes Buhl tackles the Phoenician Women too, this time by inserting Freudian insights and Christian Meier’s Könnensbewustsein of the Greeks into the equation.[1] Buhl stresses the importance of the survivors of war for building a new chapter in a city’s life. The play seems to be set in Thebes, but in reality, it is set in Athens. The interaction between the play and the Athena Nike frieze—depicting the sacrifice of a bull or ox—is intriguing, since Buhl argues that Euripides annuls the importance of self-sacrifice because of its ultimate futility. The implementation of Freudian insights is interesting, but in my opinion did not propel the argument any further, as it was strong enough without it.

Maria Paola Castiglioni analyses the metamorphosis of Cadmus in Euripides’ Bacchae from an Athenian point of view. She traces Cadmus’ association  with Dionysus in respect to the  cult site on the Cadmeia in Thebes, similar to the association of Poseidon and Erichthonios in Athens. Yet Euripides alters Cadmus’ image. His oriental background is emphasised more, an oblique Euripidean accusation aimed at Thebes—according to Castiglioni—during the final stages of the Peloponnesian War, when the Persian King got involved. This characterization  counters claims of autochthony from the Theban elite by transforming Cadmus into the founder of the city, rather than the indigenous Spartoi, thereby making “earthbornness” the prerogative of the Athenians. It is a compelling analysis, but there is a problem with the account of Cadmus’ alleged cult on the Cadmeia, since Castiglioni does not mention the work of Albert Schachter, who provides criticism on the restoration of the epithet ‘Kadmos’ attached to Dionysus at Thebes.[2] It would not have undercut her argument concerning the Athenian view of Cadmus, but it at least would have made the juxtaposition between the Theban hero and his Athenian counterpart Erichthonios less marked.

Wrapping up the ‘Classical’ period is the piece by Patrick Finglass, who proposes a compelling argument that we should view the presence of Athenian myth in the Odyssey as reflecting the reputation of these myths, rather than a later Athenian insertion. Finglass bases himself on the poetry of Stesichorus and a Hellenistic papyrus dated between 150 BCE and 100 CE, which comments on the ingenuity of Stesichorus’ poetry, especially with regards to his invocation of Phaedra. The author then bravely  argues for more provocative or insecure restorations in fragments to propel arguments forward, instead of relying on conservative readings. It is an intriguing plea that should provide a spark to scholarly debate.

After this foray into the Greek world, contributions turn towards Imperial Rome. Jochen Schultheiß stresses the role of the ‘common people’ in Statius’ Thebaid, since their role is to demonstrate the suffering of war and to elucidate these concerns to the protagonists of the play. He convincingly shows that Argos, Thebes, and Athens are displayed as symbolic portrayals of one-man rule: patriarchal monarchy, tyranny, or ideal monocratic power. In the plays, however, the common people, not the protagonists, have the last word. The poem therefore ends not as a political allegory and comment on recent events (the civil wars rupturing Rome) but as a universal plea against the depredations of war. The argument is well founded in the poem, but I would not fully dismiss the notion that demonstrating righteous rule to a wide audience, so they can identify what should happen under a virtuous ruler is a kind of  political allegory..

Stefano Rocchi follows up with a piece on Florus’ Vergilius: orator an poeta. The author makes a compelling case that we should date date the poem to Hadrian’s reign. Basing himself on textual references, mythological allusions, the context of the poem, and the identification of the setting of the discussion within the poem, namely the Augustus-temple in Tarraco, Rocchi beautifully details how the poem fits in with Hadrian’s reign; references to Baetica as an equal to Rome’s stature emphasise the town’s prowess rather than depict it as a provincial peripheral backwater. Florus therefore creates a city landscape that transports Tarrasco to the upper echelons of the Mediterranean by projecting onto it a plethora of myths that demonstrate its antiquity and rightful place in the Roman canon.

Markus Hafner guides the reader through recent excavations that uncovered (possibly) Hadrian’s Athenaeum and uses this find as a starting point for a venture into Roman imperial literature. This literature projects Rome as a cultural proprietor and protector of Athenian wisdom. Despite the presence of critical speakers in Lucan, Chariton, and Heliodorus, an appreciation of Athens and a presentation of the transition to Rome as the transition to a new cultural capital are visible. In Hafner’s judgement, these are undoubtedly echoes of imperial sponsorship—as exemplified in the Athenaeum– which aimed to strengthen Rome’s cultural standing. Hafner thereby shows, contrary to earlier scholars, that there was a political element to the Second Sophistic, as demonstrated by the interplay of literature projecting Athens onto Rome and the construction of imperial buildings embodying that new cultural allure.

Chiara Ombretta Tommasi traces the figure of Teiresias throughout late antiquity and medieval texts, showing how all idiosyncratic aspects of Teiresias changed into allegories of something else, for instance, his transgender status comes to reflect the seasonal cycles, as in Fugentius’ work. Other Christian authors, such as Clement of Alexandria, portray Teiresias in a much broader—almost pan-pagan—light, as personally representing the faults of paganism in contrast to Christianity. The seer thereby leaves his Theban confines and becomes a venerable representative of the ancient pagan pantheon. The common denominator is that Teiresias’ initially ‘Theban’ characteristics are lifted onto a more universal stage and reflect more generic points of view. Although the argument is convincing, I find it harder to uncover the Stadt und Stadtstaaten aspect, since the Theban characteristics, to my mind, were not as singular as the author argues here, but appear simply a result of Teiresias’ actions in Thebes.

The last piece is by Thomas Gärtner, who analyses three epyllia by Dracontius to show how in each of these—Raptus Helenae, Medea, and Orestes—the main male protagonists are pictured as cretins or country bumpkins unworthy of their royal pedigree. They thereby contribute to the question as to what constitutes royalty: behaviour or birth? He goes on to show the moral flaws of the characters before reaching his final analysis, where Gartner demonstrates how Dracontius integrated his Medea and Orestes into earlier versions of the myths in Thebes and Argos. The work shows how a late antique author, while showcasing his erudition and inserting novelties into known myths, projects a continuing vision of the tragic capacities of cities such as Athens, Thebes, and Argos.  Gartner argues that Dracontius did not engage with Greek originals, but relied on Latin transmissions. This makes all the stronger his case that these views had ingrained themselves in a widespread curriculum of the Latin imaginaire.

There are some minor criticisms. I found the choice to translate the original Latin or Greek somewhat erratic, with some scholars opting not to and some even vacillating between translating and not translating them within the same article. This incongruence gave the volume a less cohesive appearance, which is confirmed by the lack of cross-referencing between the works. Articles such as those of Bühl and Cecconi or Castiglioni and Meyer could have cross-referenced each other, as this would have stressed similarities between the contributions more.

 The volume nevertheless displays a dazzling array of insightful variety. The quality of the separate pieces is undeniable and certainly contribute to our insights into how cities were displayed in drama or other literary works. It is well edited, with errors hard to find. It is therefore a recommended volume for any scholar working on literary works, the reception of myths throughout antiquity, or the influence of political affairs on (literary) artistic creations in the ancient world.

Table of Contents

1. P. Cecconi and C. Tornau: Einleitung: Städte und Stadtstaaten zwischen Mythos, Literatur und Propaganda 1-10
Angela Ganter: Καδμεία νίκη: Politicising the ‘Seven against Thebes’ in the 5th century B.C. 11-28
Marion Meyer: Athen, Athena und die Athener. Identifikationsfigur(en) und Narrative” 29-74
Vanessa Zetzmann: Von Argos nach Athen: Von Manipulation zu Polis-Rhetorik zwischen Aischylos’ Agamemnon und Eumeniden 75-106
Paolo Cecconi: “Wer baute das siebentorige Theben?” Breve rifleesione sulle origini della colpa e della catastrofe 107-138
Johannes Buhl: Σοφίσματα θεῶν. Götterdämmerung, Kontingenzerfahrung und Kulturpessimismus in Euripides’ „Phönikierinnen“ 139-163
Maria Paola Castiglioni: La metamorfosi di Cadmo nelle Baccanti di Euripide e il punto di vista ateniese 163-180
8. Patrick J. Finglass: Phaedra between Homer and Sophocles: the Stesichorean connexion 181-190
Jochen Schultheiß: Plebs Argiva—Thebana iuventus—verendi Cecropidae . Die ‚   “kleine Leute” in Statius’ Thebais191-222
Stefano Rocchi: Triptolemos und Europa in Tarraco. Stadtdarstellung, Politik und mythische Züge in Florus’Vergilius: orator an poeta? 223-248
Markus Hafner: Der “Mythos Athen” im literarischen Diskursfeld fiktionaler Erzählprosa der Kaiserzeit: Lukian, Chariton und Heliodor 249-268
Chiara Ombretta Tommasi: Da indovino tebano a profeta universale. Alcune metamorfosi di Tiresia in età tardoantica 269-292
Thomas Gärtner: Ethopolie, Struktur und Mythopolie in den profanen Epyllien des Nordafrikaners Dracontius 293-336


[1] Christian Meier, ‘Ein antikes Äquivalent des Fortschrittsgedankes: das „Könnens-Bewusstsein“ des 5. Jahrhunderts v. Chr.’ In Historische Zeitschrift 226.2 (1978): 265-316.

[2] Albert Schachter, Cults of Boiotia. From Acheloos to Hera. London 1981, p. 187 n.2 and 189 n.2.