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  • Homeric Allusions at the Close of Thucydides' Sicilian Narrative
  • June W. Allison

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(Marcellinus Vita Thucydidis 37)

When Thucydides composed his history, the inclusion of elements from epic was natural. Both the subjects and compositional techniques of epic were at home in this evolving genre.1 Herodotus' mighty prose epic, with its own debts to Homer, was the culmination of the process, successfully combining the mythic and epic with historical narrative.2 Thucydides' method, however, was going to be different: the mythic was to be done away with and the epic made to serve the account of the most destructive war in historical memory.

Thucydides in some places mentions Homer directly and in others makes artful allusions to Homeric epic.3 In his Archaeology he repeatedly [End Page 499] holds up the Trojan War as the first great naval expedition and records its failings. In his programmatic passages, moreover, Thucydides draws comparisons between Homer's methods and his own.4 Marcellinus, his biographer, reflects a tradition that attributed even individual features of Thucydides' style and language to Homer. Epic conventions abound: there are angry speeches between antagonists; there are catalogues of warriors, in particular, the fine example before the final battle at Syracuse (7.57–59); and there are splendid battle scenes, where individuals, such as Brasidas, are singled out.5 When Thucydides turns to compose the events of the Sicilian Expedition, he allows the reader to dwell on parallels between it and its ancestral expedition to Troy.6 The parallels with the Homeric poems on a thematic level are large and obvious: a monumental Greek naval expeditionary force travels far in order to besiege a city. The insistence in book 6 on heavy preparations for Sicily recalls Thucydides' criticism in book 1.9 of Agamemnon's effort. Unlike their poetic ancestors, who prolonged the siege because they had to spend valuable time gathering supplies by means of raids on nearby cities, the Athenians would take their necessities with them. Like the Iliad, the History has war as its pervading theme, but also like the Iliad, it is not simply about war; rather it is about the human motivations and reactions which that most dehumanizing phenomenon elicits. In depicting what is poignant Thucydides competes with Homer. He [End Page 500] does not fail to draw on the values of the Iliad to highlight his own narrative and to imbue his account with the powerful sensitivity to suffering found in both Homeric poems.

My focus in these pages is Thucydides' use of Homeric words in his description of the final battle in the great harbor and the retreat of the Athenians from Sicily. In 1900 Smith collected some of these terms but made no claims for completeness: "A few terms and idioms borrowed from poetry and traceable directly or indirectly to Homer may give some idea of what might be found if one knew classical Greek usage thoroughly well and were perfectly familiar with Homer" (70).7 So it is not easy to pinpoint specific verbal allusions to Homer in the History. The historian may have used other works in the epic cycle or tragedies now lost that made use of epic.8 Moreover, the atmosphere of high poetry we encounter may result from the effect of a few words or even one word or a setting which will recall Homer without, however, alluding to a specific passage in the poems.9 The poetic influence upon prose was long and profound. Indeed, prose of the fifth century had not yet totally divorced itself from poetry. What I suggest here is that Thucydides created an atmosphere in the final chapters on the Sicilian disaster which derives its Homeric aura from a number of attributes, among these, words of epic coloring.

In two places Thucydides seems to make conspicuous use of Homer: in the Funeral Oration, and at the end of book 7. The Funeral Oration deserves analysis, but because it is a formal, epideictic, state address over fallen warriors and is traditional (as Pericles says repeatedly), [End Page 501] it attracts epic forms, as it were, by nature. I shall concentrate on book 7, where Thucydides has employed Homeric echoes to enhance in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-3168
Print ISSN
0002-9475
Pages
pp. 499-516
Launched on MUSE
1997-12-01
Open Access
No
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