IG XII 9, 286: The Pleistias Epigram
University of Texas at Austin
The epitaph of the Spartan Pleistias (IG XII 9, 286), who died in Eretria between the middle of the VIth century B.C. and the first quarter of the Vth, poses many historical and poetic problems. My goal in this paper is to summarize the work that has been done before about the epigram and to set this short poem in the broader context of archaic Greek poetry.
The epitaph consists of a single elegiac distich, inscribed in three orthograde vertical lines from the top down on a stele. The name of the deceased, written horizontally, occupies the upper part of the monument. The inscription reads:
Contrary to what is generally found in Euboia, the epitaph is in the Doric dialect, perhaps to stress the Spartan origins of Pleistias. The letter-forms, according to L.H. Jeffery, are indistinguishable from the Attic script of the same period (The Local Scripts of Archaic Greece, Oxford, 1961, p. 86).
This epigram poses some historical problems, which its very vague dating does not help to solve: how can we explain the prolonged presence of a Spartan in Eretria and Athens, when many sources (Plutarch, Pseudo-Aristotle, Isocrates, Plato, Xenophon) tell us that a law of Lycurgus prohibited for any Spartan citizen to settle down in another city? How can we reconcile this with Herodotus' affirmation (I 65, 1) that it was in the times before Lycurgus that the Spartans had no contacts with foreigners? Part of the answer may reside in the interpretation of the Lycurgan legend, that it should never be considered datable historical evidence, but rather, the product of a Spartan tradition about the mythical lawgiver (cf. M.A. Flower, 2002, "The Invention of Tradition in Classical and Hellenistic Sparta", Sparta. Beyond the Mirage, A. Powell and S. Hodkinson eds, London, 191-217).According to Plutarch (Moralia, Lycurgus), another Lycurgan law prevented the inscription of names on tombstones, unless the deceased had fallen at war, or, in the case of a woman, had died in childbirth. Should we conclude that our epigram, which contains the name of the deceased, was inspired by the common usage for epitaphs in the rest of Greece, or that the Lycurgan law, if it has existed at all, came much later than the Archaic period, or was never enforced? Apart from these historical questions, this formulaic epigram fits very well in the context of archaic Greek poetry. First, the life of Pleistias, described in three steps (Sparta, Athens, Eretria) with the words patris, ethraphtê, enthade, is comparable to a great number of Greek epitaphs, spanning in date from the Archaic period down to the Hellenistic times, which use the same words or derivatives of them. Second, the epithet euruchoros automatically reminds the reader of Homer, and leads to think that the composer of the epitaph might have used it as a direct reference to epic poetry. Third, the pentameter ends with thanatou de enthade moir' echiche, a very common formula in the elegiac corpus (found in Mimnermus, Callinus, Solon and Theognis) and in the Homeric poems.
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