Academic journal article Akroterion

The Amorous Queen and the Country Bumpkin: Clytaemestra and Egistus in Dracontius' Orestis Tragoedia

Academic journal article Akroterion

The Amorous Queen and the Country Bumpkin: Clytaemestra and Egistus in Dracontius' Orestis Tragoedia

Article excerpt

This paper investigates the depiction of Clytaemestra and Egistus in the narrative poem of the North African poet, Dracontius. A close reading of the Latin epyllion explores the similarities and differences between this Clytaemestra and Egistus and their representation in the Greek and Roman tradition.

The Orestis tragoedia, in spite of its title, is a miniature epic poem or epyllion, (1) composed, it is now generally agreed (Bouquet & Wolff 2002:8) by the North African poet, Blossius Aemilius Dracontius. The little that we know of his life is based on information in his work. (2) His date of birth is assumed to be around AD 450 and he probably lived in or near Carthage until the early sixth century. He was the last author in the Latin West to write mythological epic poetry (Schetter 1994:342). These poems are known as the Romulea. Although pagan culture was no longer dominant in political life and Dracontius wrote some works that were overtly Christian, pagan literature still played a decisive role in education. The educated elite of the time were well versed in this culture and it is by no means unusual for a poet to render new versions of pagan mythology without turning them into allegories with a Christian message. (3) The very fact that scholars disagree (4) about whether the Romulea poems also contain a Christian message indicates that this was not the poet's primary purpose.

This paper argues that Dracontius' aim was rather to be innovative in transferring a myth more traditionally treated in drama to another genre, as highlighted in his invocation to the muse of tragedy, Melpomene, to descend from the tragic buskins and to exchange iambics for dactylics (13-14).

   Te rogo, Melpomene, tragicis descende cothurnis
   etpede dactylico resonante quiescat iambus.

   I ask you, Melpomene, descend from the buskins of tragedy
   And let iambic metre rest while the dactylic foot resounds. (5)

It is noteworthy that the change of genre is announced as a lowering (descende). It is tempting to see here an indication of the domestication of the story which is usually presented in the tragic genre.

In addition to the change of genre, Dracontius alters the focus of the narrative to the love of Clytaemestra and Egistus and presents their relationship as adultery. The poet pays scant attention to the themes of fate and destiny prominent in dramatic treatments of the myth. This paper will investigate how Dracontius, by changes in elements in the traditional mythical tale, and by his characterisation of Clytaemestra, Egistus and Agamemnon, turned the story into an account of the evils of adultery.

The little epic of 974 hexameter lines, packed with narrative detail, retells most of the myth of Orestes. That means that Dracontius has incorporated not only the material from Aeschylus' Oresteia, but also incidents that figure in other tragedies such as Sophocles' Electra, Euripides' Orestes and Iphigenia in Tauris. The question of whether Dracontius knew Greek and read these dramas in the original, remains open, (6) but scholars have traced echoes of many Latin poets in his work. Different versions of the murder of Agamemnon had been scripted by various Romans. Some of these works like Pacuvius' Doulorestes, Livius Andronicus' Aegisthus and Lucius Accius' famous Clytemnestra (7) are preserved only in fragments, but we do have Seneca's Agamemnon which presents a very different Clytaemestra to that of Aeschylus' tragedy of the same name. Roswitha Simons (2005:7) notes that it is characteristic for Dracontius to ring the changes on well known myths by combining various traditional versions that usually appear separately and mostly in genres other than epic. This is supported by Fontaine (1981:21) who remarks that the literature of late antiquity is characterised by a mixture of models, genres and tones.

In addition to retelling all the incidents of the Orestes myth: the murder of Agamemnon, Orestes' revenge through matricide, his madness, his healing and the trial on the Areopagus, the poem includes Orestes' visit to Tauris and encounter with Iphigenia as well as his killing of Pyrrhus. …

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