Dreams of Victory: An Epinician Moment in Aelius Aristides' Sacred Tales

Janet Downie

University of Chicago

Aelius Aristides would not make any scholar's list of epinician writers.  Yet one of his principal endeavors in the Sacred Tales is to celebrate and memorialize the virtuosic performances that are made possible by Asclepius' healing presence.  Whether the tests he undergoes are physical or rhetorical in scope, Aristides sees himself as an athlete and often describes his success in these terms.  In the fourth Tale, for example, Aristides says his oratorical askêsis (Or. 50.16) involves rising in the morning fully focused and primed, "just like when an athlete works out at dawn" (Or. 50.26).  He suggests a link, then, with the physical rigor of the many medical cures he has already described—going barefoot in the winter (Or. 48.80), running and riding horseback when his body is in a weakened condition (Or. 49.5), outlasting his companions in his ability to endure cold outdoor baths (Or. 48.76, 48.80).  The purpose of this paper is to examine one episode in the fourth Sacred Tale that epitomizes Aristides' multi-faceted use of the language of athletic competition.  This episode has not been closely studied, but it deserves attention because it shows in detail how physical performance and literary performance are uniquely intertwined in Aristides' first-person account.

In the fourth Tale (Or. 50.45) Aristides tells how Asclepius instructed him in a dream to set up a monument commemorating his own successful performances of choral poetry.  In the dream, Aristides composes a rather pedestrian dedicatory inscription in which he names himself poet, judge and chorêgos; his lines are then bettered by the god, who describes Aristides instead as "a charioteer of everlasting muthoi".  There is, of course, solid literary precedent for the image of the poet as charioteer.  Pindar uses charioteering metaphors in several of his epinician odes (O. 9.81, I. 8.61, O. 1.110), and they appear as well in a number of inscriptions commemorating poetic victories (Kaibel, Epigr. gr., 1878: 39.3; Preger, Inscr. Gr. metr. 1891: 10).  What I want to suggest here, though, is that in this case the image of the charioteer is used to identify more precisely the god's role in those victories—both physical and rhetorical—that are the concern of the Sacred Tales.  This passage, then, which has hitherto been read only as a specimen of Aristides' self-aggrandizing tendencies, can be read as emblematic of a carefully calculated humility.


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