Friday, 17 July 2020

The shields of three retired mercenaries

Soldiers of fortune were a staple of ancient Greek warfare, and never more so than in the early Hellenistic age. They left their mark on the up-and-coming genres of new comedy (Plautus' Miles Gloriosus is a mercenary recruiter) and epigram. Book 6 of the Anthology preserves many poems in which veterans hang up their well-used gear as they retire on the profit of war. You will find some in my book, but these three are done fresh for the blog. 

6.124 (on YouTube)


TimanĊr’s bloody shoulders bore me once,

And now, a shield, I hang beneath the eaves

Of Pallas’ shrine, Defender in the Fight.

I often knew the dust of iron war,

And ever warded death from him who bore.


Doubtless plenty of real-life mercenaries did make offerings on retirement to whatever deity they credited for their survival, and though I don't presently have access to a library to check, it's a fair bet that many of them commissioned inscriptions, a minority of which were surely in verse. These literary versions, though, are consciously participating in an extended conversation (which may nonetheless have intersected with and enriched actual inscriptional practice) between authors writing for publication and performance. The following poem by Nicias implicitly acknowledges that plenty of poets have tried their hand at the 'shield' trope already ('just like the others') -- and Nicias, a friend of Theocritus, comes very early in epigram's development as a literary genre.

6.127 (on YouTube)


Just like the others, I was always bound

To leave behind the hateful strife of War

And listen to the chorus of the girls

Beside the shrine of Artemis, the place

Where Epixenus dedicated me,

When pale old age began to sap his limbs.

Mnasalcas was a contemporary of Nicias.

6.264 (on YouTube)


The shield of Alexander, Phylleus’ son,

I hang here as a holy offering

To lord Apollo of the golden hair.

Worn is my rim and tired by constant war,

Worn too my boss, but courage makes me shine,

Courage I earned in arming that brave man

Who set me here. From when I first was made,

I never have been worsted or outdone.

No comments:

Post a comment