Literary Topoi and Historical Facts

From: Miles, R. (2011). Hannibal and Propaganda. In Dexter Hoyos (Eds.), A Companion to the Punic Wars, (pp. 260-279). Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

This passage above suggests that it is a ‘fact’ that one of Pyrrhus’ advisors made such a comparison. The story is known from Cassius Dio (9.40.27):

The same man, when, upon his retreat, he beheld the army of Laevinus much larger than it had been before, declared that the Roman legions when cut to pieces grew whole again, hydra-fashion. This did not, however, cause him to lose courage, but he in turn arrayed his forces, though he did not join battle.


and Plutarch:

It is said, too, that Cineas, while he was on this mission, made it his earnest business at the same time to observe the life and manners of the Romans, and to understand the excellences of their form of government; he also conversed with their best men, and had many things to tell Pyrrhus, among which was the declaration that the senate impressed him as a council of many kings, and that, as for the people, he was afraid it might prove to be a Lernaean hydra for them to fight against, since the consul already had twice as many soldiers collected as those who faced their enemies before, and there were many times as many Romans still who were capable of bearing arms.

Appian pulls these two traditions together:

The Senate made answer to Cineas as Appius advised. They decreed the levying of two new legions for Laevinus, and made proclamation that whoever would volunteer in place of those who had been lost should put their names on the army roll. Cineas, who was still present and saw the multitude hastening to be enrolled, is reported to have said to Pyrrhus on his return: “We are waging war against a hydra.” Others say that not Cineas, but even Pyrrhus himself said this when he saw the new Roman army larger than the former one; for the other consul, Coruncanius, came from Etruria and joined his forces with those of Laevinus.

Appian makes clear that bon mot was not a fixed point in the received tradition.  He knew it from at least two different sources with different variations.  We can’t be sure if Appian’s sources were riffing on Silenus’ motif or faithfully recording an actual piece of rhetoric from the time or if the metaphor is just so pervasive that it provides a nice plausible exclamation in any history.

Heck.  There are dozens upon dozens of popular histories to day that still use the metaphor.  The loose use of the metaphor is found in many earlier Greek works including Plato’s Republic, p426E.

All that said, this Florus passage (going back to a lost bit of Livy?) might be the best evidence that some lost historian made something of the Pyrrhus = Hercules, Rome = Hydra symbolism on a more meaningful level that a simple metaphor.

For Pyrrhus said, “I plainly see that I am sprung of the seed of Hercules, when I see all these heads of foes cut off springing up again from their blood as they sprang from the Lernaean hydra.”

Perhaps tellingly for the attribution to Pyrrhus, Plutarch uses it when discussing the actions of Alexander.

The use of metaphor in relationship to Pyrrhus is not irrelevant to a discussion of Silenus, but I’d hesitate to move it from a conversation about the historiographical tradition and into one about propaganda.

Note also how the hydra in Pyrrhus tradition is not a negative characterization of Rome, not emphasizing her monstrosity or destructive capacity, but instead resilience and depth of martial resources, especially her manpower base.  It’s a complement.

187 out of 410 days: One for the Wish List

I can’t believe this is finally coming out!  Even with an author’s discount at the press its pricy enough, I might have to wait to see if my grant comes through and add it as a budget line on that, if possible.  Oh. And they say it will also be available as an ebook.  I might have to have both a digital and hard copy.  I’m stupidly excited to read it.  ALL OF IT.  It would be really tacky but I’d almost consider fishing around for an opportunity to review it.

182 out of 410 days: LOFTS announced on AWOL

I’ve often griped about things behind the paywall of major publishers.  Case in point, I just put a line in a grant request for a year’s access to Brill’s New Jacoby: a new necessity for historiographical research that I can’t access via ILL.  And even at an outrageous cost it is still has significant weaknesses.  Anyway, I was pleased and intrigued to learn about this new approach from this blog:

The Leipzig Open Fragmentary Texts Series (LOFTS)

which includes this sub-project:

Digital Fragmenta Historicorum Graecorum (DFHG) Project

This is a great move forward for access and maybe even for interface, but how will it move us forward in terms of new scholarship?  Will those outside the research one institutions be forever stuck behind the ultimate paywall of the 70 year public domain for esoteric digital resources?

The dirty little secret of the academy is illegally digitized books.  I’ve check the pirated sites that have a richness of academic titles.  My first book has been pirated.  Dozens perhaps dozens of dozens of individuals are now reading it on bad scans rather than checking it out from the library or may one or two of them buying it.  Gotta say.  I don’t really mind.  It is dreadfully expensive. Even at a 40 percent author’s discount I didn’t buy many copies, just enough for my tenure file.  I certainly don’t have a spare copy!

At least the print nature of a book makes it more able to A) be legally borrowed from a library or B) pirated.  Databases like the BNJ are because of pricing and the high degree of specialization of their subject matter to only a few wealthy institutions which are willing to pay for access for their members.

So for now I’ll cheer on LOFTS and its ilk.  (While groaning at yet another acronym!)  And, I’ll twiddle my thumbs hoping that my wee little grant is approved so that come next July 1st, I too might have the privilege of accessing the BNJ.