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The Broken Wall, the Burning Roof and Tower: Pindar, Ol. 8.31–46

  • E. Robbins (a1)

In the Eighth Olympian, for Alcimedon of Aegina, Pindar recounts a story (31–46) that, according to a notice in the scholia, is not found in earlier Greek literature. Aeacus was summoned from Aegina to Troy by Apollo and Poseidon to help in the construction of the city's fortifications. Smoke, says the poet, would one day rise from the very battlements Aeacus built. The wall newly completed, a portent appeared: three snakes tried to scale the ramparts but two fell to earth while one succeeded in entering the city. Apollo immediately interpreted this sign: Troy would be taken ‘owing to the work of Aeacus’ hand' and would, moreover, be taken ‘by the first and the fourth generations’.

If there is literary invention here, it would seem that Pindar has drawn inspiration from three passages of our Iliad: (i) 7.452–3, Apollo and Poseidon toiled to build a wall for Laomedon; (ii) 6.433–4, there was one spot in the wall of Troy that was especially vulnerable; (iii) 2.308–29, the seer Calchas declares an omen involving a snake to signify the eventual destruction of Ilium.

The general import of the passage is clear enough — descendants of Aeacus play a prominent part in the Trojan war and in the capture of the city. But the details of the portent and of the prophecy have caused much perplexity, for they cannot easily be made to correspond to the history they prefigure. It is the numbers in Pindar's account that are the chief source of confusion.

On the model of the omen interpreted by Calchas (where a snake eating nine birds represents a lapse of nine years before the sack of the city) the three snakes in the Pindaric story might reasonably be expected to represent the lapse of three generations before Aeacus' great-grandson Neoptolemus played his conspicuous part in the final agony of Troy. But this interpretation of the portent forces us to explain away the fact that Troy was also destroyed by Aeacus' son, Telamon, as Pindar repeatedly insists in his Aeginetan odes (Nem. 3.37, 4.25; Isth. 6.26–31): if the snakes are taken to represent generations, one of the unsuccessful snakes in fact represents a successful conqueror. This is a disturbing inconcinnity.

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The Classical Quarterly
  • ISSN: 0009-8388
  • EISSN: 1471-6844
  • URL: /core/journals/classical-quarterly
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