Academic journal article Antichthon

The Historian Ephorus: His Selection of Sources*

Academic journal article Antichthon

The Historian Ephorus: His Selection of Sources*

Article excerpt

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An historian is only as good as his sources, and an assessment of any historian rests primarily on an assessment of his ability to find, to choose, and to utilise historical sources. In this regard we may, I believe, credit Ephorus, the most important of the fourth century B.C. historians, with a large degree of achievement. Before we turn to the main body of this paper, however, I must prefix some comments on the size and nature of the Ephoran corpus which chance has transmitted to us. Felix Jacoby consciously chose not to print all that has survived of Ephorus under FGrHist 70. Jacoby limited himself to those passages which specifically cited Ephorus as author of the transmitted information. Jacoby of course knew as well as anyone else that he might have printed nearly all of Diodorus Books 11-15 in volume IIA of the Fragmente.1 In addition to these books of Diodorus we frequently find parallel passages in authors such as Strabo, Pausanias, and even Polybius, passages which we may with varying degrees of confidence claim as fragments of Ephorus. In our assessment of Ephorus we must take all this material into account.

I. Ephorus and the early history of Sparta

Let us begin. One of the most important events of early Greek history is surely the Spartan conquest of Messenia. Our only certain knowledge of this rests on what the contemporary poet Tyrtaeus wrote of it. Through him we know that the First Messenian War lasted 20 years, that this war centred on Mt Ithome in the plain of the Upper Pamisus River, that King Theopompus finally drove the Messenians from Mt Ithome, and that the Second Messenian War took place two generations after the first war.2 For many reasons the passage merits quoting:


Under our King, Theopompus, dear to the gods,

through whom we took broad Messene,

Messene good to plough, good to plant:

for it for nineteen years they fought

ever unrelentingly with valiant hearts

the spearmen fathers of our fathers:

but in the twentieth they [the foes] left behind their rich fields

and fled from the great Ithomaean mountains.

These eight lines burst with historical information. But who bothered to quote them for us? We read them both in Pausanias3 and in Strabo,4 the latter of whom informs us, honestly enough, that he is citing them at second hand: he read them in Ephorus. Pausanias, of course, had them from Ephorus as well, whether directly or indirectly matters little.

Let us now look more closely at those bits of Tyrtaeus' poetry which survive in the form of quotations in other authors' works. First, we have three lengthy citations of thirty lines or more which deal with hoplite warfare and its associated ideology (Frr. 10, 11, and 12 West). These fragments lack specificity; if we knew nothing of their historical context, we might never guess it. Two of these inspirational fragments appear in Stobaeus (a few lines of which Plato quotes)5 and one in Lycurgus.6 We find a briefer fourth one in Dio Chrysostomus,7 and a very brief fifth one in Hephaestion.8 These lines reveal what posterity valued most highly in Tyrtaeus' work, namely the ringing endorsement of the patriotic sentiment: dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, what Wilfrid Owen forever stigmatised as 'the old lie'. Then, two banal lines of Tyrtaeus appear in a medical tract and a philosophical essay (Frr. 13 and 14 West),9 and another word merits quotation lexically owing to its unusual scansion (Fr. 17 West).10 These three bits I propose to ignore in the following. Next, Aristotle might have quoted Tyrtaeus' lines on Eunomia (Fr. 4 West) in his work on the Spartan constitution which Plutarch used in his Life of Lycurgus where we find these lines quoted.11 The lines, however, also appear in Diodorus, who may well have had them not from Aristotle, but rather from Ephorus.12 If Aristotle did not actually cite the verses in question, then Plutarch got them from Ephorus whom he used as much as anyone else did. …

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