The Parallel Tale of Neaera

Published January 15, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros

So, I’ve read the portion in which I was interested of the other library book from last semester now.  The book is Hellenistic Collection, edited and translated by J.L. Lightfoot, part of the Loeb Classical Library.  Most of the book is just fragments from the work of Hellenistic authors.  The one portion I wanted to read, however, was a complete work by Parthenius of Nicaea, called (in this translation) Sufferings in Love.

Parthenius barely qualifies as Hellenistic:  he was taken to late Republican Rome (as a prisoner?) following the Mithridatic Wars, and allegedly is the man who taught the Greek language to Vergil.  (I say “allegedly” because our source for that claim was writing several centuries later, and therefore not really in a position to be a good authority.)  The work, Sufferings in Love, is a prose collection of tales of unhappy romances, which — according to the preface he wrote — he sent to a Roman poet so that he might use some or all of the tales as the basis for some of his poems.  (If the poet did write any of these tales in verse, they didn’t survive.)  Having seen the source mentioned somewhere, I looked into it last semester to see if it mentioned Dido and thus established her as having a pre-Vergilian origin, but of course it didn’t.  (It did tell a tale somewhat similar to hers, though, with Odysseus as the man involved.)  It sounded interesting, though, so I thought I’d check it out and read it over the break, just in case it had any tales useful to me.  (And sure enough, it did turn out to be the source of some of the obscure side-stories of the Trojan War that I’d been wondering where they came from.)

But once of them particularly struck me, and immediately made me wonder how old the story was, and if it was purely mythological, or (allegedly) based on real people.  (Some of the stories were expressly written about historical people, while others were obviously mythological.  And then there’s stories like this one, that make up a gray area that could go either way.)  So I want to quote this whole story to you now.

XVIII. NEAERA

This story is told in the first book of Theophrastus’ Responses to Political Crises

(1) Hypsicreon of Miletus and Promedon of Naxos were the greatest of friends.  When once Promedon came to Miletus it is said that the other man’s wife fell in love with him.  While Hypsicreon was around, she dared not speak to the guest; but after a time, when Hypsicreon happened to have gone abroad and the other was again staying with her, Neaera sallied forth against him by night when he was in bed. (2) First she tried to persuade him; but when he would not give in, through reverence for Zeus in his capacity as patron of friendship and hospitality, she had the maidservants bar the door.  And in this way, what with Neaera employing many forms of seduction, he was forced to have intercourse with her. (3) On the next day, however, thinking that he had done a dreadful thing, he went sailing back to Naxos.  Neaera sailed to Naxos too, in fear of Hypsicreon; and when Hypsicreon asked for her back, she stationed herself as suppliant on the hearth in the prytaneum. (4) Though Hypsicreon was insistent, the Naxians refused to surrender her, yet urged that he might take her if he could persuade her.  Hypsicreon thought this treatment outrageous, and persuaded the Milesians to declare war on the Naxians.

Sounds a bit familiar, eh?  And yet, the differences are also striking:  the adultery is purely the wife’s idea, she leaves of her own will (and possibly not even together with her “lover”), and the people of the other man’s home would return her if they could but religious duty to respect the sanctity of taking shelter with the gods prevents them.

I keep wondering if this is supposed to be true, to explain a real war, or if this is just a myth.  If it is pure myth, is there any chance it pre-dates the version of the Trojan War we know?  Could there have been a version without the adulterous wife angle?  (Admittedly, it’s hard to conceive of one, because the familiar version is stuck in our heads so well, but if the myth is in any way based on real warfare between Wilusa and the Mycenaean Greeks, it was just as likely to be financial and/or part of the larger struggle between the Mycenaeans and the Hittites as to be anything else.)

However, as cool as that would be, it’s probably the other way around:  this story was more likely to have been inspired by the Trojan War than vice-versa.  An earlier tale in Parthenius’ collection also comes from the same Theophrastus source, and tells of the end of this war, in which one of the besieged Naxian maidens falls in love with one of the Milesian warriors.  This happened a lot in the Trojan War…and it wasn’t always Achilles they fell in love with…though it usually was.  In a twist on the usual Trojan version (at least two towns were sacked by Achilles because the princess of the town fell in love with him and let him and his men into the city…resulting in him having her put to death for her treachery), the Naxian maiden convinces…wait, no, it was the Milesian who fell in love with her, not vice-versa.  But that also happens in the Trojan War, for example in late versions where Achilles falls in love with Polyxena.  Anyway, the Naxian maiden convinces her Milesian suitor to turn traitor and let the Naxian men into the Milesian fortress (though Parthenius’ version doesn’t previously mention a fortress, so his story may have been a bit garbled) so that they can defeat the enemy and lift the siege.  Naturally, both maiden and warrior end up dead, but they’re given the burial of heroes.

The similarity — in opposite — of the Naxian maiden’s behavior and that of the princesses of Methymna and Pedasos, as well as the similarity of what the Naxian maiden convinces her lover to do with the what the Trojans attempt to convince Achilles to do for Polyxena…both do seem to indicate that Theophrastus was purposefully subverting the Trojan War tale.  (As do the two warring cities.  Miletus was on the Anatolian coast, and the Mycenaean Greeks gained control of it at least once in the Late Bronze Age (not the Hellenistic writers likely knew that detail) and the Hittites were trying to keep control of it.  Naxos is a Greek island, unlike land-locked Sparta, but the significant part is that it’s purely Hellenic, while Miletus by dint of its location is more “barbaric,” no matter how many of its residents are Hellenes.)  And yet I don’t know how much of the Achilles/Polyxena story existed prior to the Roman Imperial period.  All the surviving versions I know of were written during the rule of the Roman Empire.  That doesn’t mean the story didn’t exist previously, of course, but without an earlier source, we can’t be sure if it did or didn’t.  Was the story first invented to explain why Polyxena was sacrificed at Achilles’ tomb, or was the story of her sacrifice invented because he was already said to have been infatuated with her?

It’s kind of a chicken-and-the-egg debate, you know?  Even if an ancient text is discovered that’s much older than our existing texts, and it tells one of those stories, unless the author expressly states that they’re the first ever to tell the tale (as Stesichoros did with his tale of Helen never even going to Troy) we can’t know if the author invented the story, or if it was circulating for hundreds of years first.  (Usually, anyway.  We can be pretty sure that Euripides invented the tale of Medea murdering her children because of the scholiast who said that rumor had it the Corinthians bribed Euripides to shift the blame from their ancestors to Medea.  That sort of rumor wouldn’t have spread if versions in which Medea killed her children already existed.)

Sometime, I should try and learn whatever I can about Theophrastus and his Responses to Political Crises, and see what we know about it.  From the way the footnotes in this book talked, I get the feeling that Theophrastus’ work is no longer extant, so I can’t just consult it directly, but there may be references to it that make it clear if it’s a history with that theme, or more of a philosophical/ethical discussion of how people might respond to such crises.

No idea when I’ll get around to doing that kind of research, but at least this post will be here to remind me I wanted to look into it.

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