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This webpage reproduces an article in
Classical Philology
Vol. 28, No. 4 (Oct. 1933), pp277‑281.

The text is in the public domain.

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 p277  Simonides on the Fallen of Thermopylae

The fragment of Simonides (Bergk, frag. 4; Diehl, frag. 5) on the men who died at Thermopylae presents a difficult problem. There is no agreement to what class of poem it belongs or on what occasion it was sung. Diodorus, who quotes it (XI.11.6), calls it an Ἐγκώμιον, but he has been taken as using the word in its later vague sense, not in the proper fifth-century sense of a poem of personal homage to a single man, such as Pindar's Ἐγκώμια, for instance, were. Bernhardy thought that it was a σκόλιον, but it seems too hieratic for that. Bergk claimed that it was part of the hymn for the sea-fight off Artemision, and the style suits well with his suggestion, but for it there is unfortunately no evidence. More persuasive than any of these suggestions is that it was a Θρῆνος. What more likely than that Simonides, who made a great name by his dirges,1 should have written one for Leonidas and his fellow-heroes of Thermopylae? But even to this there are grave objections. Normally a Θρῆνος was sung over the dead body and followed immediately after a man's death. Such is the dirge which the women of Troy sing over Hector (Iliad XXIV.721) or that which Cassandra refuses to sing over herself in anticipation of her murder (Aesch. Ag. 1322). In the words of Simonides there is no note of lamentation, and the words cannot have been sung over the dead bodies on the battlefield of Thermopylae. It looks as if we must find some other explanation.

The men who fell fighting against the Persians were soon exalted to the rank of heroes, and shrines were erected to their memory at which rites suitable to heroes were conducted.2 To the celebration of such rites the performance of these words of Simonides seems to belong. At Marathon, says Pausanias (I.32.4), σέβονται οἱ Μαραθώνιοι τούτους οἳ παρὰ τὴν μάχην ἀπέθανον ἥρωας ὀνομάζοντες. On the cult of the Greeks who fell at Plataea we are better informed. Thucydides records that the Plataeans honored their tombs κατὰ ἔτος ἕκαστον δημοσίᾳ  p278 ἐσθήμασί τε καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις νομίμοις, ὅσα τε γῇ ἡμῶν ἀνεδίδου ὡραῖα, πάντων ἀπαρχὰς ἐπιφέροντες (III.58.4), and the full details of the rite in his own time are given by Plutarch (Vit. Aristidis 21). Not dissimilar in general character was the cult of Harmodius and Aristogeiton at Athens, οὓς, says Demosthenes in On the False Embassy 280, νόμῳ διὰ τὰς εὐεργεσίας ἃς ὑπῆρξαν εἰς ὑμᾶς ὲν ἅπασι τοῖς ἱεροῖς ἐπὶ ταῖς θυσίαις σπονδῶν καὶ κρατήρων κοινωνοὺς πεποίησθε, καὶ ᾄδετε καὶ τιμᾶτ’ ἐξ ἴσου τοῖς ἥρωσι καὶ τοῖς θεοῖς. Pollux (VIII.91), following Aristotle Ἀθ. πολ. 58.2, adds that the Polemarch at Athens διατίθησι τὸν ἐπιτάφιον ἀγῶνα τῶν ἐν πολέμῳ ἀποθανόντων καὶ τοῖς περὶ Ἀρμόδιον ἐναγίζει. The probabilities are that these rites dated back to a period not much later than the Persian wars and that they existed in different parts of Greece. At least, at Sparta the two soldiers Maron and Alpheus, whom Herodotus names as the best fighters at Thermopylae after Leonidas (VII.227), had, according to Pausanias III.12.9, a ἱερὸν or shrine. They were not themselves buried here, as Herodotus VIII.228 records that all the dead were buried at Thermopylae, and the shrine was placed for the cult of them in absentiâ. If we follow a reasonable analogy from similar cults elsewhere, there would be here also an annual feast in honor of the dead heroes, and at some occasion connected with this Simonides' words seem to have been performed. At least if we bear such a possibility in mind and then read the words of Simonides, the occasion becomes clearer and the meaning of the words more pointed.

The text of Simonides may be quoted in Wilamowitz' version, which at least restores the metre:

τῶν ἐν Θερμοπύλαισι θανόντων

εὐκλεὴς μὲν ἁ τύχα, καλὸς δ’ ὁ πότμος,

βωμὸς δ’ ὁ τάφος, πρὸ γόων δὲ μνᾶστις, ὁ δ’ οἶκτος ἔπαινος.

ἐντάφιον δὲ τοιοῦτον οὔτ’

5 εὐρὼς οὔθ’ ὁ πανδαμάτωρ ἀμαυρώσει χρόνος

ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν ὅδε σηκὸς οἰκέταν εὐδοξίαν

Ἑλλάδος εἴλετο. μαρτυρεῖ δὲ καὶ Λεωνίδας

κόσμον ὁ Σπάρτας βασιλεὺς ἀρετᾶς μέγαν λελοιπώς

ἀέναόν τε κλέος.3

 p279  The occasion of the poem is plainly not at Thermopylae. That is shown by the emphatic ἐν Θερμοπύλαισι in line 1, which would be otiose and almost pointless as a mere substitute for ἔνθαδε. And that the poem is performed away from the actual grave is shown by the words βωμὸς δ’ ὁ τάφος. The suggestion that for a tomb the dead have an altar means plainly that although they are not buried in Sparta, they have there an altar where their memory is cultivated. The character of the place is made clearer by its being called σηκός. Strictly, a σηκός was any sacred inclosure, and Ammonius adds that it was sacred to a hero while the ναός was sacred to a god.4 If the dead Spartans are heroized, σηκός is the appropriate word for the place of their cult, and it remains appropriate even if their bodies are not in it, as it had no definite associations with burial. The presence of an altar was, of course, essential if there were to be any rites of sacrifice such as there were at Marathon, Athens, and Plataea. Simonides' point is that here it takes the place of a tomb.

The point of the words πρὸ γόων δὲ μνᾶστις is not merely that the dead have died so nobly that they find lasting remembrance instead of tears. That is a later and more sophistical idea which appeals to Hyperides, who says of his dead οὐ γὰρ θρῆνων ἄξια πεπόνθασιν, ἀλλ’ ἐπαίνων μεγάλων πεποιήκασιν (Epitaph. 42). The dead of Thermopylae are celebrated away from their tomb some time after their death. Therefore they cannot get γόοι, the tears wept over the dead, but they can get μνᾶστις, remembrance. A similar consolation is offered by Pericles in his Funeral Speech, κοινῇ γὰρ τὰ σώματα διδόντες ἰδίᾳ τὸν ἀγήρων ἔπαινον ἐλάμβανον καὶ τὸν τάφον ἐπισημότατον, οὐκ ἐν ᾧ κεῖνται μᾶλλον, ἀλλ’ ἐν ᾧ ἡ δόξα αὐτῶν παρὰ τῷ ἐντυχόντι αἰεὶ καὶ λόγου καὶ ἔργου καιρῷ ἀείμνηστος καταλείπεται (Thuc. II.43.2). Pericles is, of course, speaking near the actual place of burial, but he knows that elsewhere the dead are remembered and that they have a second memorial in men's thoughts of them. His thought is essentially the same as that of Simonides, and, like the poet, he makes ἔπαινος an essential element in remembrance.

The words that follow are less easy to understand, and there is considerable difficulty in the precise interpretation of ἐντάφιον. This has been taken to mean "shroud," "winding-sheet," and a parallel for  p280 a metaphorical use of the word is quoted from Isocrates VI.44, καλὸν ἐντάφιον ἡ τυραννίς, but the parallel is not really exact or helpful. Isocrates uses the word for that which provides an elegant covering for something morally dead and is a specious deception. If Simonides uses ἐντάφιον in the sense of "shroud," he must mean that the memory of the dead is like an everlasting shroud, and the image, though violent, is not very appropriate. In what sense is this remembrance like a shroud? What is there to hide or cover? It looks as if we must find another meaning for ἐντάφιον, especially if the poem is performed away from the tomb and there is no direct reference to burial. Now in Soph. El. 326 and elsewhere the plural ἐντάφια is used of offerings made to the dead, and although all the certain cases of the sense are in the plural, it seems possible that Simonides uses the singular in the sense of "offering" and refers simply to the σηκὸς with its βωμός and its ceremonies. It is the shrine and its cult which will last forever. It is true that when Polybius (XV.10.3) wrote the words κάλλιστον ἐντάφιον ἔξουσι τὸν ὑπὲρ τῆς πατρίδος θάνατον he seems to have had Simonides' words in mind and to have taken ἐντάφιον to mean "shroud." But such was the meaning of the word in his day, and he may well have misunderstood Simonides. It may also be noted that the scholiast on Soph. El. 326 explains ἐντάφια by ἐναγίσματα. Now ἐνάγισμα in the singular is used on inscriptions from Thessalonica (CIG, 1976) and Lampsacus (ibid., 3645) in the sense of offering to the dead. Moreover, offerings, ἐναγίσματα, were an invaluable part of the cult of heroes. So Simonides makes a point. The offering of the usual wine and milk is superseded here by a ceremony which cannot decay as perishable offerings can.

The shrine has won εὐδοξίαν Ἑλλάδος as its οἰκέταν, and this is commonly taken to mean that it has the glory of Hellas as its inhabitant; that is, personified Fame dwells in it as a protecting deity. This receives some support from the words Pericles quoted above where ἡ δόξα is itself a memorial. But for the use of οἰκέταν there is no parallel. The word means "a member of a household" and "a slave," and the natural meaning is that Glory is an attendant at the shrine. Such a personification need not surprise us in a choric poem, and the meaning is made clear by the details of the cult. At the annual ceremony  p281 the dead were supposed to take part in a feast with the living. The archon at Plataea summoned them ἐπὶ τὸ δεῖπνον καὶ τὴν αἱμοκουρίαν (Plut. Vit. Aristidis 21) and pledged them with the words Προπίνω τοῖς ἀνδράσι τοῖς ὑπὲρ τῆς ἐλευθερίας τῶν Ἑλλήνων ἀποθανοῦσι. Simonides conceives a similar feast where the dead are summoned to a feast and served by Glory.

The final evidence that the poem is performed at the ἱερὸν of Maron and Alpheus comes from the mention of Leonidas. Like the others he was actually buried at Thermopylae, and if the poem were a general lament on the fallen, he would certainly be included in their number. As it is, he is cited separately as a witness or σύνδικος who by his own glory proclaims that of his fellow-fighters. He had his own shrine at Sparta (Paus. III.14.1), and like all dead Spartan kings was honored as a hero (Xen. Resp. Lac. XV.9, εἰ δὲ τελευτήσαντι τιμαὶ βασιλεῖ δέδονται, τῇδε βούλονται δηλοῦν οἱ Λυκούργου νόμοι, ὅτι οὐχ ὡς ἀνθρώπους ἀλλ’ ὡς ἥρωας τοὺς Λακεδαιμονίων βασιλεῖς προτετιμήκασιν). Funeral games, τὰ Λεωνίδεια were held in his honor (CIG, 1421, καὶ Οὐράνια β′ καὶ Λεωνίδεια πάλην, πανκράτιον). Because he has his own shrine, he is cited separately as an impartial witness, just as when Pindar's athlete Epharmostus wins in the games at Thebes the tomb of Iolaus is cited as a witness to his prowess (Ol. IX.98, σύνδικος δ’ αὐτῷ Ἰολάου τύμβος . . . . ἀγλαίαισιν). The part played by Leonidas in the poem becomes intelligible when we realize that he is a neighbor of the shrine where the poem is sung.

The words, then, belong to a poem sung at Sparta at the shrine of Maron and Alpheus. It is presumably a ὕμνος sung to the dead as heroes. Demosthenes implies the existence of such hymns (De Fals. Leg. 280, ᾄδετε), and Simonides was the appropriate man to write one. He composed the epitaph on the fallen at Thermopylae, and he had close personal ties with Sparta in his friendship with the seer Megistias, who fell in battle and for whom κατὰ ξεινίην he wrote the epitaph preserved by Herodotus (VII.228.3).

The Author's Notes:

1 Cf. Dion. Hal. Vet. script. 420 (Reiske); Quint. X.I.64.

2 Cf. L. R. Farnell, Greek Hero Cults, pp362‑63.

3 Sappho and Simonides, pp14 and 141. I have, however, punctuated l. 6 in the traditional way.

4 Cf. Liddell and Scott, s.v. σηκός.

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