Wednesday, 20 February 2019

Upward attribution and ‘Go tell the Spartans’

The epigram for the 300 Spartans who died at Thermopylae is a strong candidate for most famous epigram of all time. As far as most people are concerned, it was composed by the poet Simonides of Ceos. Today we’re looking at why that attribution is wrong.
Ὦ ξεῖν’, ἀγγέλλειν Λακεδαιμονίοις ὅτι τῆιδε
    κείμεθα, τοῖς κείνων ῥήμασι πειθόμενοι.

Stranger, report back to the Spartans that here
    we lie, obeying their dictates.
Or in the more famous phrasing of Steven Pressfield,
Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by,
    that here obedient to their laws we lie.
Modern plaque at Thermopylae commemorating the battle, with the ‘Go tell the Spartans’ epigram (and no mention of Simonides)
It’s a wonderful little poem, full of sentiment and ambiguity, and it genuinely was written on a 5th century BCE memorial for Leonidas and his crew at Thermopylae (as well as the modern one pictured above). And Simonides was a real poet, easily the most famous and successful Greek poet of his day. It’s just that he didn’t write it.

The misattribution to Simonides is a case of upward attribution.

Upward attribution

Upward attribution is an attribution error gone viral. It deserves to be a more common term in literary history. When a poem, or a quotation, or a book, is more memorable than its real author, and it gets attached to the name of someone more famous -- that’s upward attribution. And it is frighteningly common.

Here’s a modern example:
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
-- not Albert Einstein
First, let’s point out that this is a hopelessly inaccurate and misleading picture of mental illness. This aphorism has done a lot of damage to public understanding of mental illnesses.

Now, on to the attribution. It isn’t Einstein, of course. The idea of linking insanity to repetition can be traced back to the 1890s, according to Quote Investigator, but the closest matches for the wording are much more recent, from the 80s.
Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.
-- ‘Narcotics Anonymous’ (privately printed, 1981), ch. 4, p. 11 (scanned PDF)
The most immediate source for the modern wording is a 1983 novel:
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.
-- Rita Mae Brown, Sudden death (New York: Bantam, 1983), ch. 4, p. 68
Why aren’t the correct authors given credit? It’s because the aphorism is much more memorable than the names. If you’re quoting a witty aphorism and you want to be taken seriously, Narcotics Anonymous just isn’t going to cut it. And Rita Mae Brown is a perfectly respectable author, but I’m sure she’d agree that she doesn’t have quite the brand recognition that usually goes along with popular aphorisms. Her name isn’t on everyone’s lips in the same way as, say, Shakespeare or Austen.
‘Did I ever tell you what the definition of insanity is?’ -- Vaas, Far cry 3 (2012). At least he doesn’t cite Einstein.
Upward attribution isn’t usually a deception. It’s what happens when a bunch of people have an interest in a quotation, or poem, or whatever, but they’re not so interested in the author. Or maybe they have imperfect information about the author. In that situation, errors can go viral.

Famous names are magnetic. Here are a few more examples:
  • the films The nightmare before Christmas (1993) and James and the giant peach (1996), almost invariably attributed to Tim Burton instead of Henry Selick
  • the Windows 95 song’, often attributed to Weird Al Yankovic instead of Bob Rivers
  • an enormous number of poems misattributed to John Donne in the 1600s
The further back in time you go, the stronger the effect. There’s a lot of upward attribution in ancient texts. Hippocrates didn’t write the Hippocratic Corpus, Euripides didn’t write Rhesus, Seneca didn’t write Octavia, Apollodorus didn’t write the Library, Aristotle didn’t write the Problems, and Aeschylus probably didn’t write Prometheus bound (though I’ll grant there’s disagreement over the last one). If you poke your nose into academic work on Greco-Roman literature you’ll be inundated with ‘pseudo-’ authors: pseudo-Plutarch, pseudo-Plato, pseudo-Hyginus, and so on. Nearly all of these are upward attributions.

The epigram

Why does anyone think the epigram is by Simonides?

The modern attribution comes from the fact that the epigram appears under Simonides’ name in two sources: the Byzantine-era Palatine anthology (7.249), and the 1st century BCE Roman politician Cicero (Tusculan disputations 1.101).

Consequently, the epigram does appear in many modern editions. It is fr. 78 in Hiller’s Anthologia lyrica (1904), fr. 92 in Diehl’s Anthologia lyrica graeca (1922), and fr. 119 in Edmonds’ edition of Lyra graeca (1924). Campbell’s anthology of Greek lyric poetry (1967, revised edition 1982) uses Diehl’s numbering and includes it, and Campbell actually adds a note in his commentary, ‘There is little doubt that Simonides wrote it’ (p. 399).

The most recent edition of early epigrams, Page’s Epigrammata graeca (1975), gives it as Simonides fr. XXII(b) -- but Page adds a note explaining why it isn’t actually by Simonides. His notes are in Latin, unfortunately, so his point will be missed by a lot of modern students who know Greek but not Latin -- not to mention people who don’t know either language.

Campbell’s newer Loeb edition of Greek lyric (1988-1993) copies Page’s numbering and so includes it too, but by this time Campbell has softened his tone. He acknowledges that ‘an ascription to Sim[onides] in e.g. Palatine Anthology is worthless’ (Campbell 1991: 519).

The epigrams are normally published separately from Simonides’ elegiac output, even though they’re all in elegiac metre. I don’t actually know why, but I imagine it’s because only a tiny proportion of the epigrams are authentic. (Hence you won’t find the epigrams in West, Iambi et elegi graeci, 2nd ed. 1992; or in Gentili and Prato, Poetarum elegiacorum testimonia et fragmenta, rev. ed. 2002.)

Who did write it, then?

We don’t know. No alternative evidence exists. Get used to that kind of thing in ancient literature. That shouldn’t mean that we default to accepting bad evidence.

How do we know that it isn’t Simonides?

The original source for the epigram is Herodotus’ Histories, written around 425 BCE. Herodotus gives the most famous account of the battle of Thermopylae. After the battle, he says, three inscriptions were set up to honour the dead. The second one is the famous one.
They were buried in the exact place where they fell, as were the people who died before Leonidas gave the command to withdraw. The following inscription was made for them:
Here, against three million, there once fought
    four thousand men from the Peloponnesos.
This inscription was made for all of them. There is a separate one for the Spartiates:
Stranger, report back to the Spartans that here
    we lie, obeying their dictates.
This one is for the Lacedaimonians. And the following one is for the seer:
This is the gravestone of famous Megistias. Once the Medes
    crossed the river Spercheius and killed him.
He was a seer, and he knew his approaching fate in advance,
    but he refused to abandon Sparta’s leader.
The Amphictyons (local rulers) are the ones who honoured them with inscribed monuments, except for the one for the seer: Simonides son of Leoprepes is the one who wrote the one for the seer Megistias, because of their guest-friendship.
-- Herodotus 7.228
(Herodotus mentions Simonides in one other place too, 5.102.)

In other words: Herodotus knew his Simonides. He knew the famous epigram. And he knew perfectly well that the two had nothing to do with each other.
You can already tell this is going to be a feel-good movie with a happy ending
So on the one hand we have Herodotus, writing about 50-60 years after the battle; on the other we have the Greek anthology. What’s the right way of weighing them up?

The Greek anthology is the clear loser. The Anthology began to be compiled 400 years later, in the 100s BCE, when Meleager compiled a first phase of the anthology called the Garland. But epigrams from Simonides’ era never ever bear the name of the poet. We have lots of inscribed monuments from that period, with epigrams honouring the dead, and not a single poet’s name in sight. The Anthology is OK evidence for poets from the 3rd-2nd centuries BCE onwards, but for earlier poets, its attributions are worthless.

This isn’t controversial, by the way. Here’s how Michael Tueller puts it in his preface to the Greek anthology:
Inscribed epigrams were not ‘signed’ by their authors, but their collectors nevertheless often attributed them to Simonides, Anacreon, or others -- a judgment that in general implies nothing more than an ancient opinion that they sounded like the sort of thing that Simonides, Anacreon, et al. would have written. Hence, ascriptions of epigrams in the Greek Anthology to any figure from before the late fourth century BC must be regarded as speculative at best.
-- Tueller 2014: xii
You might think it’s more compelling that Cicero attributes the epigram to Simonides too. Hey, independent corroboration! Well, unfortunately, no, Cicero isn’t an independent witness. Cicero was subject to the same bundle of misattributions that got into Meleager’s Garland.

Simonides has a reputation in some circles as an epigrammatist (Britannica; New World Encyclopedia). That reputation is a distortion: of the epigrams linked to him in the Anthology, only two or three appear to be authentic. For the others, upward attribution had probably already happened before Meleager came along. Two of them, Anthology 7.258 and 7.296, refer to events after Simonides’ death. (The authentic ones are 7.511, 7.677, and 13.30; the second one is the Megistias epigram, from Herodotus, and the other two seem to be from longer elegiac poems.)

The particular case of the ‘Go tell the Spartans’ epigram isn’t very controversial either. Scholars don’t usually address the Simonides attribution directly -- the Anthology’s unreliability makes it a moot point, not worth arguing over -- but when they do, they more often reject it (Wilamowitz 1913: 204-205 n. 1; Podlecki 1969: 258; Page 1975: 18).

How did it get linked to Simonides?

Simonides had a reputation for writing elegiac poetry, and he had a reputation for writing poems about the Persian Wars.

And on these counts, at least, his reputation is justified. He genuinely did write lots of poems about the Persian Wars. We have substantial fragments of elegiac poems about the battles of Artemisium, Salamis, and Plataeae (frs. eleg. 1-4, 5-9, 10-17 West); and lyric poems, for singing, in praise of the Spartans who died at Thermopylae, and about the battle of Artemisium (frs. 531, 532-535 Page).

(This means, incidentally, that when scholars talk about Simonides’ Thermopylae poem, they’re talking about the lyric fragment, not the ‘Go tell the Spartans’ epigram.)

That’s more than enough, without even thinking about his reputation as an epigrammatist. The Greek anthology has a bunch of epigrams about the Persian Wars which it links to Simonides’ name (7.248-251, 253, 431, 442 and possibly 443, 512, 677) -- but of these, only the Megistias epigram (7.677) has Herodotus to vouch for its authenticity.

Why would anyone defend the epigram’s authenticity?

As I see it, the main reason is that people like to fill in gaps in our knowledge of the world. When there are gaps in the evidence, people will often cling doggedly to bad evidence -- even evidence as bad as the attributions in the Greek anthology.
[T]he evidence of H[ero]d[o]t[us], who is concerned only with the setting-up of the epitaphs, must not be taken as indicating that S[imonides] did not write the first two as well as the third.
-- Edmonds 1924: 353 n. 2
Why ‘must’ Herodotus not be taken that way? Who gets to fill in the bits that Herodotus forgot to say? Boas (1905: 12-13) invents a pretty story that the Amphictyons commissioned Simonides to do all three epigrams, but he waived the commission fee for the third one. Can I do it too, or are only Edmonds and Boas allowed? There are no reasoned arguments here. It’s just denial.

As Tony Podlecki has put it, literally the only reason for linking Simonides to the first two epigrams in Herodotus 7.228 is because they’re juxtaposed with a real Simonides epigram.
Positively to deny them to Simonides may seem heartless, but their ascription rests on nothing sounder than guilt by association with the undoubtedly genuine Megistias-dedication.
-- Podlecki 1969: 258
It isn’t as though we have the epigram attributed to Simonides, but there’s good reason to doubt the attribution. No: we have no attribution at all. (We already established that the Anthology is bad evidence.) To link the epigram to Simonides at all is to say something that Herodotus didn’t say.

Hartmut Erbse argues for attribution to Simonides -- the only substantial argument I know of from the last century -- but at the core is still the argument from juxtaposition. As Erbse sees it, Herodotus’ wording implies that ‘Simonides stood in connection with the Amphictyons’ (Erbse 1998: 215). And that demonstrates authorship. Somehow.

Erbse adds that the three epigrams in Herodotus 7.228 have a ‘unity of thought’. That’s never been a strong argument for authorship of anything. Here, it doesn’t even apply. If you have some texts attributed to a particular author, but there’s some reason to doubt the attribution of one of them, then OK, ‘unity of thought’ might carry some weight. But that isn’t the situation here. What we have is two anonymous epigrams, and an epigram linked to a named author. Ioannis Ziogas (2014: 119-121) quotes some surviving inscriptions that are also stylistically close to the ones in Herodotus, including one that starts ‘O stranger’: that doesn’t mean they’re by Simonides.

The further Erbse goes on, the more tenuous it gets. Eventually we find him declaring (1998: 218) that the third epigram, for Megistias, couldn’t even exist without the ‘Go tell the Spartans’ one, and that in turn couldn’t exist without the first one. Er, what? I love your editorial work, Erbse, but this is just nuts. Take a look at the modern memorial plaque at Thermopylae: you’ll notice there’s only one epigram there. Take a look at the introduction to the Wikipedia article on Simonides. That epigram is perfectly capable of standing by itself.

Unlike the poor Spartans. Ziogas points out that the epigram doesn’t so much focus on their valour, but rather on who’s responsible for their deaths. We’ll never know exactly how things went down, but I find it hard to believe that it was ever meant to be a suicide mission: if it was, it didn’t achieve anything. My personal suspicion is that Leonidas’ order to withdraw was an attempt at a full retreat, but the withdrawal wasn’t completed before the Spartans, Thespiaeans, and Thebans got cut off. (Hey, you want another myth dispelled? If you read Herodotus book 7 you may notice that the Greeks north of Thermopylae joined the Persian invasion force. The defenders at Thermopylae may well have been killed by fellow Greeks.)


  • Boas, M. 1905. De epigrammatis Simonideis. Groningen: J. B. Wolters.
  • Campbell, W. A. 1982 [1967]. Greek lyric poetry, new edition. London: Bristol Classical Press. Orig. publ. Macmillan Education, 1967.
  • ---- 1991. Greek lyric, vol. 3 (Loeb Classical Library 476). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
  • Edmonds, J. M. 1924. Lyra graeca, vol. 2 (Loeb Classical Library, w/o no.). London: William Heinemann; New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
  • Erbse, H. 1998. ‘Zu den Epigrammen des Simonides.’ Rheinisches Museum 141: 213-230.
  • McDermott, W. C. 1944. ‘Simonides, fragm. 92’ (subscription required). Classical Journal 40.3: 168-170.
  • Page, D. L. 1975. Epigrammata graeca. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • ---- 1981. Further Greek epigrams. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Podlecki, A. J. 1968. ‘Simonides: 480’ (subscription required). Historia 17.3: 257-275.
  • Tueller, M. A. 2014. The Greek anthology, vol. 1 (Loeb Classical Library 67). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Orig. published under the name Paton, W. R., 1916-1919.
  • Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, U. von 1913. Sappho und Simonides. Berlin: Weidmann.
  • Ziogas, I. 2014. ‘Sparse Spartan verse: filling gaps in the Thermopylae epigram’ (subscription required). Ramus 43.2: 115-133.

No comments:

Post a Comment