ἀμφισβητούντων Ἀθηναίων πρὸς Βοιωτοὺς περὶ τῆς χώρας ἣν καλοῦσι Σίδας, Ἐπαμινώνδας δικαιολογούμενος ἐξαίφνης ἐκ τῆς ἀριστερᾶς μεταλαβὼν κεκρυμμένην ῥόαν καὶ δείξας ἤρετο τί καλοῦσι τοῦτο. τῶν δ᾿ 651εἰπόντων ῥόαν, “ἀλλ᾿ ἡμεῖς,” εἶπε, “σίδαν” (ὁ δὲ τόπος τοῦτ᾿ ἔχει τὸ φυτὸν ἐν αὑτῷ πλεῖστον, ἀφ᾿ οὗ τὴν ἐξ ἀρχῆς εἴληφε προσηγορίαν), καὶ ἐνίκησεν.
When the Athenians were disputing with the Boeotians about the area which they called Sidae, Epaminondas – whilst arguing – abruptly took in his right hand a hitherto concealed pomegranate and, having showed it to them, asked them what they called it. When they said “rhoa” he said “But we call it a sida”. The area contains many these trees, which is how it originally got its name. He won the decision.
There is not much for me to say about this passage in terms of context or philological/historical value. I just found it interesting and wanted to share it. Language, when used as a part of an ethno-linguistic label or to define a speech-community, can have momentous impact in ancient history – think of the shibboleth story. Picture Epaminondas, the victor (well sort of) of Leuctra whipping out fruit and brandishing it at the Athenians. It is curious how the debate came down to one of dialect. Sidae was in the southern part of Boeotia, touching Attica. I would have thought that the locals would just have been Aeolic speakers, but maybe not? Why didn’t Epaminondas just cite the local dialect and leave it at that? Why use linguistics anyway? Why not just argue from descent or ktsis like everyone else?
Language, myth, and genealogy were often a part of how the ancients dealt with disputes and conceived of the world around them. What follows is a brief excursus of some random thoughts on the matter, with some tangential relation to the quotation above. Like I said, I just wanted to share it with you.
If you say “ancient Greek diplomacy” what comes to mind? For most people, probably the Spartan crime of punting the Persian ambassadors into a well (Herodotus 7.133), a (hardly legally rigorous) framework) of mores and customs that held the Greek world together: Don’t punt visitors in wells; don’t attack heralds, proxeny and xenia etc etc. Fair enough, but myth (loosely defined) could also function as a kind of diplomatic framework for the Greeks. I say loosely defined for a reason; the various meanings would not coalesce into anything like our idea of a “narrative” for quite some time.
Occasionally these myths referenced actual physical materia. Perhaps the most famous case being the story of how the Spartans finally defeated the Tegeans, by seizing the bones of Orestes (Herodotus 1.167-8) in obeyance of an oracle. Now, the story here is full of folk tale narrative and often subject to Euhemerist critique (is there anything lower or baser? Due to the size of the “bones of Orestes”: ὑπὸ δὲ ἀπιστίης μὴ μὲν γενέσθαι μηδαμὰ μέζονας ἀνθρώπους τῶν νῦν ἄνοιξα αὐτὴν καὶ εἶδον τὸν νεκρὸν μήκεϊ ἴσον ἐόντα τῇ σορῷ), but it is emblematic of broader Greek thought about myth and history. Myth is often used to tie the untenable together, land (which is eternally static) and humans (who often move around).
The Spartans clearly felt this keenly. Their ancient home played a key part in the epic saga of the Achaeans, yet they themselves overwhelmingly claimed descent from elsewhere. There were various work arounds; the kings, for example, were said to be of Achaean descent, and in semi-mythic kings list Heracles could be put, briefly, before Tyndareus (who could then be said to hold the land in trust for the Heracleidae). You can see why the bones of Orestes could have propaganda value: a ritual reconciliation of Doric and Argive, against their Argive enemies. After all, as Herodotus says, from thence on the Spartans started to beat the Tegeans. Nor is this the only case of Spartans digging up an epic ancestor: Pausanias tells us they likewise appropriated the bones of Tisamenos (7.1), the son of Orestes and Hermione (daughter of Helen, daughter of Tyndareus and therefore a union of Pelopid and Tyndarid, not the wingardium leviosa one).
The above is a physical act (well a pair of them), but I do not think we can divorce it from the context of myth. After all it is myth which lent the context – and impetus – to the actions, and the Spartans were just realising the kind of anxieties we see in the ever-varied genealogical poetic fragments. Arguably a far better response than Kleisthenes of Sicyon (grandfather of that Kleisthenes) outright banning of Homer.
The Athenians, if somewhat less eager to be whipping out shovels and disinterring bones, were no less inclined to use myth this way. Tragedy could be a beautiful venue for this. Sometimes such things had a more decidedly internal focus. One may read in Sophocles’ Ajax, the final conversation between the eponymous er, hero, (himself seen as a tutelary ancestor to the Athenians) and his son, Eurysaces, something like a propagandic snapshot of a father departing for a war and leaving behind an underage son – effectively in the care of the state (hence asking the community to look out for, 565). Such things could not be too on the nose, however; Phrynichus’ play on the fall of Miletus was apparently so moving it was banned and the author fined (Herodotus 6.21.10), and anyway they would certainly have been at risk of ridicule from the comic poets. The cultural prestige of Athens and her festivals meant that drama was also an excellent opportunity to propel messages outward. Euripides took advantage of this in a typically heavy-handed manner. We have mentioned, in connection with Sparta, the Heracleidae above and Euripides’ play of that name concerns a mythic episode where Athens looks after and defends the direct ancestors of Sparta’s kings. Likewise, his Ion can be profitably read in the context of Athens’ claims to have been the metropolis for all of Ionia.
We have looked at examples from Athens and Sparta since they were Greece’s most famous cities, but this use of myth also worked across other poleis. This should not surprise, the mythic tradition that poets were manipulating, recasting, and reusing was inherently international (or at least Panhellenic) and if a poet hankering after a prize would discretely have to have to alter a myth he sang in Thebes if he was singing in Syracuse, well…that was neither here nor there. This international context of poetry was written into the language itself: the development of an epic kunstsprache was a direct result of, and did not precipitate, this. There is, as always, an excellent example of this in Herodotus (read Herodotus!!): The Tegeans and the Athenians are arguing over who will command a place of honour in the assembled phalanx at Plataea. The Spartans adjudicate (9.26-8). The Tegeans list their own accomplishments back in the time of the Heracleidae and finish references to more recent deeds. The Athenians respond with an expectedly bravura display of rhetoric, inverting the mythological paradigm, adding to it, and ending with the trump card of Marathon. The result?
οἱ μὲν ταῦτα ἀμείβοντο, Λακεδαιμονίων δὲ ἀνέβωσε ἅπαν τὸ στρατόπεδον Ἀθηναίους ἀξιονικοτέρους εἶναι ἔχειν τὸ κέρας ἤ περ Ἀρκάδας. οὕτω δὴ ἔσχον οἱ Ἀθηναῖοι καὶ ὑπερεβάλοντο τοὺς Τεγεήτας.
So they answered, and the entire Lakedaimonian camp shouted that the Athenians were worthier to hold the horn [as in wing of phalanx] than the Arkadians. Such was the way in which the Athenians were preferred to the Tegeaeans.
(note the Homeric colouring).
Basically, two distinct polities – the Tegeans and the Athenians, could shore up and use myth to win an argument. Admittedly, this gambit did not quite work out against the Syracusans (7.161.3). When the Persians were saying (or being alleged to have said – Herodotus 7.150) that they were kinsmen to the Argives, descendants of Perseus, is really just a form of international relations. Likewise, Indians claiming their city to have been founded by Dionysus (Arrian Anabasis 5.1). We could dismiss this stuff as entirely fictive or folk etymology, or we could instead choose to see it in its cultural context.
We are straying a bit from our original quotation though, aren’t we? What really strikes me about this passage is the use of linguistics, even if in an extremely crude form. Greek Dialectology is not simple, even now. The categories of Greek dialect the ancients themselves used owed more to the mythological tradition than to any serious philological work. They had Ionic (whence we separate Attic); Doric; and Aeolic. We moderns add another subgroup, Arcado-Cypriot (ironically also supported by myth!). Though we rarely see fit to overturn the entire system, we have made strides and bounds since Ahrens founded the discipline on a scientific basis.
|Ἕλληνος δ᾿ ἐγένοντο φιλοπτολέμου βασιλῆος||From Hellen the battle-loving king sprang|
|Δῶρός τε Ξοῦϑός τε καὶ Αἴολος ἱππιοχάρμης.||Doros and Xouthos and Aiolos, who delighted in horses.|
Hesiod frg 9 M-W
This should not be surprising. Terms like “Aeolic” or “Ionic” are inherently abstractions. One might instead notice the speech of Sparta, or Lesbos, or Macedon. Such theorising always extends out of mythological and genealogical speculation (e.g Strabo 8.1.2, who puts Arcadian under Ionic). If Greeks did really think of these as more concrete groupings, I suspect it started with Doric which was strikingly different from the easterly Greek dialects in some ways and from a relatively early period had its own literary koine. It would be easy to then start thinking of the other dialects in that way, via analogy. I think Doric also offers the earliest evidence we have of Greeks thinking in terms of convergent/divergent sound changes. You might have noticed how all our editions of Alkman have σ pro θ which was certainly a distinct feature of Spartan speech (cf Aristophanes), yet doubtless such a change happened too late for it to appear in Alkman’s poetry. Instead, this is likely a Hellenistic editorial decision based on knowledge of this sound change.
Elsewhere, Greeks might note dialectical variation based on vocabulary. Hesychius – an understudied author – is a good example of this, noting some of the variant Macedonian vocabulary without sitting down and teasing out the sound rules. (but let us leave the Macedonians for another post). Interestingly, Epaminondas did not argue on level of sound change. E.g Attic-Ionic raised the inherited long a to a long e sound (α > η), though there was a reversion when this was combined with certain letters. The Attic (and broader Ionic) form would have been σίδη which actually survives in some Pontic dialects. Would a difference in vocabulary be more notable to everyday Greeks than accent/phonology?
Anyway, there is no conclusion to be had. Maybe I’ll come back in and edit it. As I said, this is a short note. Enjoy your weekend!
 Not that such distinctions ultimately matter. The Achaeans were happy to admit the Aeginetians into the Achaean league at one point. Athens’ interests closer to home expanded into the (potentially) Doric speaking Megarid and, as per its treaty with Plataea, into the Aeolic Boeotia from a fairly early date.
 Do I owe this formulation to Malkin? Calame? Either way, it is mine now.
 For Spartan anxiety and the kings’ list, see Claude Calame’s work and also (somewhat) Irad Malkin. This post is a ‘short note’ and so I’m not terribly motivated to cite articles from edited volumes (which take aaages), unless pressed.
 Ion and Xouthos have been ably treated by Jan Bremmer in at least two places (and Athenian mythic propaganda more generally) for Ajax, and the Dionysia generally, Goldhill, S. (1987). The great Dionysia and civic ideology. The Journal of Hellenic Studies, 107, 58-76 (brilliant article).
 200 years past people were still throwing out terms like “Romaic,” “Graikika,” and “Aeolo-Doric” as dialectical categories as if they were anything other than the results of crack-addled fever dreams. At least the ancients had cool myths ffs. In fact, within Greece, things were insane until Chatzidakis came along and beat the shit out of everyone with his work on dialects. Mackridge has a good article on this, search “mothers and daughters” and his name.
 We never quite see the kind of highly abstract, productive, rules we find in e.g Panini’s Astadhyayi, but I don’t know, I think the Hellenistic editors are going beyond mere stereotype?