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Aeschylus' epitaph

University Press Scholarship Online

Oxford Scholarship Online

The Tangled Ways of Zeus: And Other Studies In and


Around Greek Tragedy
Alan H. Sommerstein

Print publication date: 2010


Print ISBN-13: 9780199568314
Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2010
DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199568314.001.0001

Aeschylus' epitaph
Alan H. Sommerstein (Contributor Webpage)

DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199568314.003.0014

Abstract and Keywords


This chapter argues that the epitaph on Aeschylus cited by his ancient biographer and
others which commemorates him as one who fought bravely at Marathon without
mentioning his poetry while unlikely to be by Aeschylus himself was probably written
soon after his death by a member of his family and inscribed on his tomb at Gela.
Features of its language which have been claimed to be Hellenistic are in fact well
attested in the classical period, and the unusual use of alsos in the sense level expanse
(instead of sacred grove, glade, sacred enclosure) is confined to Aeschylus and his
contemporaries.
Keywords: Aeschylus, tomb, epitaph, Gela, Marathon, alsos

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Aeschylus' epitaph

'
.1
In Gela, rich in wheat, he died, and lies beneath this stone:
Aeschylus the Athenian, son of Euphorion.
His valour, tried and proved, the mead of Marathon can tell,
The longhaired Persian also, who knows it all too well.2
Athenaios (14.627c) and Pausanias (1.14.5) say that Aeschylus composed this epitaph
himself; the Life transmitted in the Aeschylean manuscripts says merely that the people
of Gela gave him a costly funeral in their public cemetery and honoured him
magnificently, inscribing these verses, without specifying a composer. One is fully entitled
to approach such traditions as these with scepticism, knowing what we know about the
habits of ancient biographers, especially biographers of poets,3 and knowing also that this
was not the only epitaph of Aeschylus circulating in antiquity; 4 and Aeschylus is (p.196)
certainly not likely to have written an epitaph that specified the place of his death.5 We
may, [112] though, note that this was clearly much the most famous of the Aeschylean
epitaphs in existence,6 and that even if we can hardly suppose Aeschylus to have written
it himself, a member of his family 7 could have written it shortly after his death at the
request of the Geloans. After all, there must have been some inscription on Aeschylus'
tomb, and given that he was a distinguished poet it would not be at all strange if the
inscription was in verse.
Denys Page, however, has attempted 8 to demonstrate that the language and content of
the epigram proves it to have been composed no earlier than the Hellenistic period. He
brings four arguments. Three of these, I shall show, prove nothing; the fourth, far from
proving the poem late, is actually evidence that it is a fifthcentury composition.
1. Page argues that an epitaph inscribed on a tomb at Gela would not have
mentioned that the tomb was at Gela. In fact it is common for epitaphs to mention
the place of death or burial if, but only if, the deceased was not a native or citizen
of that place. Thus in CEG 104 (c.400) we read
'
,
<>
cf. also CEG 114 (possibly of the year 479), 528, 545. Page, to be sure, points out
that in all these the deceased speaks in the first person, and asserts that common
sense precludes the possibility of a thirdperson epitaph informing its readers
where it is located. Apparently then common sense deserted the writers of
epitaphs in the fourth century, when we find in Athens an epitaph like this, in which
third person alternates with second: (p.197)
,

'

(CEG 606.79)

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Aeschylus' epitaph
[113] and in Cyprus:
[] , , '
. (CEG 713)9
It is clearly a commonplace of the sepulchral epigram, in the case of one who died
far from home, to name both the homeland and the place of death/burialnot, of
course, in order to tell readers where they are, but to emphasize (1) the pathos
of dying away from home and being buried far from one's kin and (2)
counterbalancing this, the honour of resting in the soil of a famous or pleasant
land. The Aeschylus epitaph follows this same patternAeschylus is an Athenian
who has died at Gela, and Gela is praised for its fertility (rich in wheat)and in
addition makes a further contrast between Gela as the site of Aeschylus' physical
tomb/memorial () and Marathon which enshrines and can tell the memory
of his martial valour.
2. Page claims that the use of the genitive in line 2 ( ) is
unclassical. He unwarrantably takes it for granted, however, that the genitive is
possessive and depends on ; 10 it could perfectly well depend on the word
next to it, , and be an example of the poetic genitive of place within
which (see Khner and Gerth 18981904: i. 384 and Moorhouse 1982: 59).
3. Page objects to the epithet as inappropriate to Persians; but it
would refer very well to a feature of Iranian hairstyles to which, oddly enough,
Page himself draws attention. In Iranian art nobles are generally represented as
having thick buns of hair on the nape,11 and any fifthcentury Greek who had
seen a distinguished Persian (whether an enemy on the battlefield or an
ambassador in the assembly) might have observed this (to Greeks) bizarre
fashion and created this epithet to describe it. How likely [114] is it, on the other
(p.198) hand, that this epithet for the Persians could have originated after the
fall of their empire?
4. The plain of Marathon, claims Page, is not appropriately described by the word
. That is true provided, but only provided, that bears one of its
normal meanings, which are (1) sacred grove; (2) grove, glade whether or not
sacred; (3) sacred enclosure whether or not wooded.12 These three senses
(the third only in poetry) account for all but ten of the 150plus occurrences of
and its derivatives in literary texts down to 100 BC.13 Of the ten
exceptions, one is in our epitaph; the other nine are all found in poetry certainly
or probably written between 475 and 410 BCone by Bacchylides, one by
Melanippides, two by Sophocles, and five by Aeschylus, in whose surviving work,
moreover, there is no instance of in any of its regular senses. Three times
is applied to the sea (Aesch. Pers. 111,14 Supp. 868; Bacchyl. 17.85).15 In
another passage (Aesch. Supp. 5089) it is used (twice) of an area which is
specifically described as being both smooth ()hence presumably [115]
treeless16and nonsacred (); in others again it denotes broad plains like
those of Thebes (Soph. (p.199) Ant. 8445), of Argos (Soph. El. 5)17 or of Egypt
(Aesch. Supp. 558,18 Melanippides PMG 757.3).19 Thus invariably (so far as our
knowledge goes) in Aeschylus, and occasionally in the work of his

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Aeschylus' epitaph
contemporaries,20 but (unless in our epitaph) never before or after,
denotes, not a (relatively small) area covered with trees, nor a (relatively small)
area consecrated to a divinity, but a level area regardless of its size; 21 it has
become, in fact, a virtual synonym of , [116] which can likewise be applied
to the sea (e.g. Aesch. fr. 150). This is the sense which bears in our epitaph,
and it is therefore overwhelmingly probable that it was written by a
contemporary of Aeschylus.
(p.200) There is another consideration too. It has often been observed that the epitaph
quoted in the Life makes no reference to Aeschylus' art. Indeed, anyone who knew of
Aeschylus only from the epitaph would be entirely unaware that he was a man of any
special individual distinction. To be sure, he had fought bravely at Marathon, but so had
ten thousand others. Would anyone have written a fictitious epitaph for a man like
Aeschylus in such terms? Certainly the two other Aeschylean epitaphs we possess,
written by known later authors and making no pretence to authenticity, are not of this
kind: one dilates on his contribution to the development of tragedy, the other calls him
the great. Other fictitious epitaphs for archaic and classical poets similarly praise them as
individuals.22 Not so our poem: to its author, Aeschylus was first and last an Athenian
who did his duty as a citizen and a soldier. Such an attitude bears the stamp of that poet
who, more than any other, articulated the ideological principle of Athenian democracy
according to which communities prospered through the loyalty, solidarity, and courage of
their peoples, and came to grief through the selfishness and folly of their leaders.23 If
Aeschylus did not write the epitaph himself, it was written by someone who knew what
Aeschylus would have wanted to be remembered for: not for winning thirteen victories
for himself at the City Dionysia, [117] but for winning, with his comrades, one victory for
Athens on the plainor, to use a favourite word of his own, the of Marathon.24

Addendum
p. 196 n. 6:this is true only if ancient is taken to exclude medieval; the epigrams by
Antipater and Diodorus are both quoted in the Suda (3203; 118, 366).
Notes:
(1) Life of Aeschylus 11; the first half is quoted by Plut. Mor. 604f and by an anonymous
commentator on Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics (CAG xx. 146.23 Heylbut), the second
half by Ath. 14.627c. There are many variant readings, but the text is nowhere in serious
doubt (except perhaps for the Aristotelian commentator's reading
{}).
(2) Sommerstein (1996a: 24).
(3) See Lefkowitz (1981) passim.
(4) The others are AP 7.39, 40 (= Aeschylus test. 164, 165 Radt), ascribed to two
epigrammatists of the Augustan age, Antipater of Thessalonike and Diodoros (of Sardis). A
fragment (one pentameter) of a further epitaph, couched in the first person, is preserved
in Life 17.
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Aeschylus' epitaph
(5) Though it would be foolish to insist that he could not have done soso long as we
reject the fantastic story about his death told in Life 10.
(6) It is the only one which is quoted or referred to by any ancient author other than
Aeschylus' own biographer.*
(7) Aeschylus' son Euphorion, and his nephew Philokles, were both poets good enough to
win first prizes for tragedy at the City Dionysia.
(8) Page (1981: 1312).
(9) Cf. also CEG 737.
(10) No inscription of so early a date could possibly have called the tomb the memorial
of Gela.
(11) Cf. e.g. Culican (1965) pl. 18, 21, 22, 41, 42, 52.
(12) On occasion in this sense may be applied to a whole city as being under the
patronage of a particular divinity or hero: thus sacred Onchestos is the of
Poseidon in Iliad 2.506 (cf. h.Ap. 230, h.Herm. 186), Aigina of the Aiakidai in Pind. Olymp.
13.109, and Eleusis of Demeter in Pind. Isthm. 1.57.
(13) And in the epigrams of the Anthology regardless of date. The statements I have
made about the distribution of (with its derivatives) in its various senses are
based on a TLG search of all authors dated from the eighth to the second century BC and
also of Lyrica Adespota, Tragica Adespota, Comica Adespota, and the Anthologia Graeca.
Typical instances of sense (1) are Odyssey 6.291, 20.278, Sappho fr. 2.23, Soph. Tr. 1167,
Hdt. 6.7880 passim; of (2), Iliad 20.8, Theogn. 1252, Arist. HA 618b19, 22, 34; of (3),
Bacchyl. 3.19, Pind. Olymp. 7.49, Eur. Tro. 15, Ar. Thesm. 1149 (see also previous note).
(14) Broadhead (1960) ad loc. takes as = the demesne sacred to
Poseidon; but there is no mention of Poseidon in the context. Hall (1996) more
cautiously suggests that the word implies a sense of enclosure and so may refer to the
Hellespont rather than the open sea; but an interpretation on these lines will not work for
the other two passages cited in the text.
(15) In contrast, when a millennium later Paul the Silentiary (AP 9.663) speaks of
, he means not the sea, but seaweed.

(16) Particularly since the area being described was almost certainly, in theatrical fact,
the floor of the orchestra.
(17) The reference cannot be to the city of Argos, since the epithet applied
to Io indicates that we are to think of her after her transformation, when in bovine form
she grazed (as Aeschylus' Danaids put it) (Aesch.
Supp. 501, cf. 53842, Prom. 67382).

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Aeschylus' epitaph
) might be regarded (as by Friis
(18) Strictly speaking this passage (
Johansen and Whittle 1980 ad loc.) as an instance of the sense sacred enclosure; but
nowhere outside the ten passages now under consideration is unambiguously
applied to any area larger than a city.
(19) D. A. Campbell (1993: 23), under the spell of the conventional rendering of ,
translates here as glades, not reflecting that glades are neither sunny ()
nor suitable places to practise chariotdriving ( ';
chariots figure likewise in Soph. Ant. 8445!).
(20) For the evidence for the chronology of Melanippides' life see D. A. Campbell (1993:
15); add that he was dead by the time Pherekrates' comedy Cheiron was produced (cf.
Pherekr. fr. 155.67 KA).
(21) How did this sense of originate? Most probably by a slipshod extension of
sense (3). Where, as in the passages cited in n. 12, a city is described as the of a
god or hero, it may not always be obvious whether the reference is to the urban centre
or to the entire territory of the polis; if the latter alternative is taken, it then becomes
legitimate to describe a whole country, even a very large one, as the of its patron
god. The final stage comes when, in a passage like Aesch. Supp. 558 (though of course that
is taken to be
passage cannot itself have been the model), a phrase like
synonymous not, as sense (3) would require, with but with
. We cannot tell by whom or when this final step was taken, except that it had been
taken by 472 BC; but noting the remarkable fact that of the ten surviving instances of
= four are in Aeschylus' Suppliants and two more (Melanippides PMG
757.3 and Soph. El. 5) relate to persons appearing, or prominently mentioned, in that play
(the Danaids and their ancestress Io), I would like to suggest that the person responsible
may have been the tragic dramatist Phrynichos who is known to have written at least two
plays ( and ) based on the Danaid myth.
(22) Of nine known epigrams on Sophocles (Soph. test. 1.723 and testt. 17784 Radt), of
which four are ostensibly sepulchral, every one refers to his poetry or drama; of nine on
Euripides (Eur. test. 1.18 and testt. 63, 64, 66, 89, 969 in Kovacs 1994), all except the
disparaging 64 praise him as poet, dramatist, or winner of glory; of the numerous
sepulchral epigrams on poets in AP 7 not one praises the poet exclusively or even mainly,
as our Aeschylean epitaph does, for being a good citizen (I exclude of course the two
epigrams on Solon, AP 7.867, since their authors, like every other educated Greek, will
have pigeonholed Solon not among poets but among statesmen and lawgivers).
(23) See Sommerstein (1996a: 41330); Ober (1989: 16670).
(24) This chapter was originally published in Museum Criticum 30/31 (1995/6) 11117. I
am most grateful to Pacini Editore for giving permission for this republication.

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Aeschylus' epitaph

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