Gentle Speech vs. Angry Looks: Pindar and Bakkhylides Create Confrontation

Christina Clark

Both Bakkhylides and Pindar compose poems in which young heroes confront hostile kings. Theseus faces Minos aboard ship on the way to Crete in Bakkhylides 17 and Iason meets Pelias twice in Pindar Pythian 4, first in the agora and second in the palace. These scenes are similar in that they involve a young hero confronting an older king who has usurped privileges. Both Theseus and Iason are armed and look dangerous; both confront kings who seem secure in their authority. However, these similarities are superficial. Both poets create character by using different categories of nonverbal communication. They assimilate the two youths into different heroic patterns:  Bakkhylides creates Theseus’ aggressive character through gestures, making him look like an Achilles, whereas Pindar provides Iason with a more indirect, but no less effective, confrontational style via proxemics and paralinguistics, making him look like an Odysseus.

Bakkhylides emphasizes gesture (touch [11-13] and facial expression [16-20]), and has Theseus use imperatives when addressing the king (23). Theseus confronts Minos directly with verbal and physical threats from the beginning. In contrast, Pindar uses proxemics (135) and paralinguistics in fashioning his heroic confrontation. In both of Iason’s encounters with Pelias, Pindar emphasizes that Iason speaks gently, with soft words (101, 136-137). Braswell (1988, 192) interprets this as showing Kheiron's influence while Segal (1986, 16-29) argues that Iason uses gentle speech as a kind of "good drug" with which to neutralize Pelias' guile, eschewing direct combat between himself and his uncle. Iason bides his time, using paralinguistics to defuse violence at the start, even as he declares his identity and intentions. He assumes the mantle of legitimate heir to the throne and launches an offensive only in his second encounter with the king.

Bakkhylides’ uses of gesture, facial expression, and epithets alluding to weapons and armor (significant objects and body adaptors) create a much greater feeling of threat and impending violence than in Pindar’s confrontation. Like Pindar he uses paralinguistics but gives this category to Eriboia, the girl touched by Minos. This is a canny and natural choice, for her shout sets off the confrontation. Theseus and Minos fight over status and appropriate behavior towards a girl (Clark 2002). Eriboia has been physically threatened and Theseus responds violently with physical threats. The audience of a confrontation also influences heroic style. Theseus’ aggressive response to Minos plays out in front of an audience of mostly men – Minos’ crew and the Athenian youths, and by the end of the poem Theseus has won both fights, gaining heroic status. Bakkhylides tells us the internal audience’s reaction to Theseus’ confrontational style: “the sailors marvelled at the magnificent boldness of the man” (47-48), much as onlookers of Homeric battle-scenes react (Segal 1979, 27).

In contrast, Iason and Pelias fight over the kingship, which cannot of itself contribute to the drama as Eriboia does with her shout. Pindar’s choice of nonverbal categories instead emphasizes Iason’s own guile and use of subtler weapons than Theseus employs. Iason’s audience is different from Theseus’ – in the agora, the townspeople gaze in awe at the striking youth; in Peleus’ palace, their kinsmen give witness. Iason’s soft voice, soothing speech, and wise words (136-139) when confronting Peleus in his palace enable the king to respond calmly (156) and to propose a pact between them. This nonverbal and verbal characterization of Iason as peaceful and reasonable makes additional sense given the context of the ode’s effort to persuade Arkesilas to allow the return of the exiled Damophilos, who has learned to hate the violent man (284).

Back to the Meeting Program

[Home] [ About] [Awards and Scholarships] [Classical Journal] [Committees & Officers]
[Contacts & Email Directory
] [Links] [Meetings] [Membership] [News]