Tydeus and the Cadmaeans

Catherine Goode
In the 2010 edition of Trends in Classics, edited by Christos Tsagalis and entitled “Homeric Hypertextuality”, Mary Ebbott explored how we can use hypertextual links in the Iliad to discover more about the Theban tradition of stories, which may provide possible links to the Thebaid of the Epic Cycle. [1] A hypertextual study looks for connections which extend outward from the particulars in a text, which can lead us to other stories and traditions, whether these survive in written form, or may have only been known from oral performance. Our textual evidence of the Thebaid is small, and this means many such hypertextual links, according to Ebbott’s metaphor, are “broken” – we have lost the other end of the link, with which some ancient audiences would have been familiar. [2] Ebbott’s essay focused mainly on allusions to Tydeus, and particularly the episode in which he visits the Cadmaeans at Thebes. Her dictional study of individual lines uncovered several meanings which may well have been understood immediately by ancient audiences from their knowledge of other oral performances.
The purpose of this paper is to carry forward the findings of Mary Ebbott’s study in order to show how such a study of Epic Cycle material can enhance our understanding of the Iliad’s characterization. First, I will provide a brief summary of each mention in the Iliad of Tydeus’ visit to the Cadmaeans, and how they match up with one particular example of his behaviour in a fragment of the Epic Cycle’s Thebaid. I will then make use of Ebbott’s insights to assess to what extent a hypertextual approach can specifically enhance our understanding of Tydeus’ character in the Iliad, and what that means for his place in the poem as a whole. The findings of Ebbott’s study which are most relevant to this aim concern the message taken by Tydeus to the Cadmaeans: it was a public performative speech; it was designed to persuade; and it was intended to be taken in the spirit of peace rather than hostility. [3]
The first time the episode of Tydeus and the Cadmaeans is alluded to in the Iliad comes in book four: during Agamemnon’s Epipolesis, the leader walks amongst his troops and stops at various points to rebuke and encourage certain individuals. It is an interesting section as a whole, which makes a significant contribution to the characterization of Agamemnon as a fundamentally flawed leader. [4] However, for my present purposes we will focus on one particular part of the Epipolesis, when he rebukes Diomedes and Sthenelos by comparing them unfavorably with their fathers’ generation (4.370-400). He tells the story of Tydeus going to the people of Mycenae and asking for help before being sent alone with a message to the Cadmaeans in Thebes; he defeated all the Cadmaeans in contests of strength with the help of Athene; and then he slew all but one of the fifty Cadmaeans who ambushed him on his way home. We can see this version as a basic template of the episode, as the key elements of the message, the athletic contests and the ambush are all present.
Agamemnon makes it clear that he never knew or met Tydeus himself (οὐ γὰρ ἔγωγε | ἤντησ᾿ οὐδὲ ἴδον 374-5), but he uses the story in a straightforward comparison to show that his son is inferior to him (ἀλλὰ τὸν υἱὸν γείνατο εἷο χέρεια μάχῃ 399-400). Although Agamemnon has no personal experience of Tydeus, he mentions his meeting with the Mycenaeans perhaps in an effort to improve his own image by association – and excuses the Mycenaeans’ refusal of help by saying Zeus sent them portents to change their minds: ἀλλὰ Ζεὺς ἔτρεψε παραίσια σήματα φαίνων (381). These vague “signs” are a possible hypertextual link of the kind Ebbott encourages us to look for. A fuller version of this story could dwell on this divine intervention to add a further dimension to Tydeus’ mission, or to present the whole story from the perspective of Mycenae. However, there is no mention of any such visit to the Mycenaeans, or Zeus’ signs, in any other surviving version of the episode and so it may be that this link is irretrievably “broken” from a hypertextual perspective. It is also possible that the detail is tailored to Agamemnon’s particular take on the tale, and that it was not reflected in or taken up by other poems, as it shows the significance of his own people, and any instance of divine intervention only bolsters that significance; the point is that we are not encouraged to differentiate sharply between allusion to existing stories and invention of new ones. Quite simply, it is enlightening for a reader to take heed of Agamemnon’s version of the episode as it adds to his own characterization and provides further possibilities for Tydeus’ story.
As vague as Zeus’ “signs” is the mention of the message Tydeus took to the Cadmaeans (ἀγγελίην 384). We can suppose that the message was some kind of demand that Eteocles step down in favour of Polynices. However, if Ebbott’s dictional study is correct to conclude that the message must have been designed to persuade, rather than be openly hostile, there must have been more to it than a straight demand. Here a hypertextual study might posit that a traditional audience could have heard details in other performances of the language the message used to persuade; but there seem to be no more hints in our text of the Iliad. Agamemnon’s use of the Tydeus allusion is helpful to us because it lays down the skeleton of the episode and presents some links to further possible stories. The involvement of the Mycenaeans is only relevant to this instance, but the vague mention of the message will be repeated in other instances; the involvement of Athene, which Agamemnon assumes in line 390, will become the most significant element in other Iliadic allusions to the episode.
In Diomedes’ aristeia of book five, Athene alludes to the story of Tydeus and the Cadmaeans in her own rebuke to Diomedes. She has a different perspective on the episode from Agamemnon, because she was personally involved. Whether or not she claims to have offered Tydeus active encouragement in the ambush is a matter of debate, because of the doubtful line 808, which was either athetised or omitted by Aristarchus – this matter will be discussed further below. There is a difference in tone detectable here, as Athene seems more amiable than Agamemnon had been – she may seem scathing, but she speaks as a family friend, rather than a harsh (and tendentially rather unfair) commander.
Athene’s version is more condensed than Agamemnon’s, and is based on creating a rhetorical antithesis between father and son using a ring-formulation: you are not like Tydeus – he fought when I discouraged him but you hold back when I help you – therefore you are no true son of Tydeus. This neat formulation means she can include far less detail than Agamemnon, who seems to want to humiliate Diomedes at length rather than quickly spur him to action as he arguably ought to be doing. From the point of view of a modern audience, these different allusions provide alternative versions of the same episode; it is possible that these different versions were explicated further in other poems or performances, but whether that was the case or not, the mere possibility of other versions deepens our appreciation. It may be significant that both these uses of the Cadmaean story appear in the mouths of two different characters with different levels of knowledge; an epic poet could have used the voices of Agamemnon and Athene to encourage his audience to appreciate the differences between the two allusions, and this effect extends to us as well. We can develop this idea more fully with further study of Athene’s use of the allusion.
As in Agamemnon’s version, Tydeus went as messenger (ἄγγελος 804) to Thebes, and there is no more detail here about the actual message he was carrying. However, Athene does tell us that Tydeus was a short man (μικρóς 801) but a fighter. Physical qualities such as this are usually given in the Iliad to emphasize a contrast, either with another man (as between Odysseus and Agamemnon at 3.193-4) or with the subject’s character traits (as Odysseus 3.209-224). This trend suggests that Tydeus’ stature is of little consequence here other than to emphasize his feistiness in battle. Kirk suggests that the detail may have come independently from the tradition that produced the Thebaid. [5] However, it may be that μικρóς is particularly relevant in the context of the Cadmaeans episode. As Ebbott argued, it seems likely that the message brought by Tydeus preceded open hostility, and was carried in a spirit of peace. [6] Athene’s point is that even in this supposedly peaceful context, Tydeus had an indomitable enthusiasm for battle; the mention of his misleadingly short stature emphasizes this characteristic by contrast, and strengthens her rebuke.
The strength of the antithesis drawn by Athene in this allusion leads Michael Apthorp to agree with Aristarchus on athetizing line 808. [7] This line, in which Athene calls herself a helper (ἐπιτάρροθος) clashes with her previous assertion that she forbade him from fighting or drawing attention to himself (ἐγὼ πολεμίζειν οὐκ εἴασκον οὐδ᾿ ἐκπαιφάσσειν 802-3), and diminishes the strength of her rhetoric. Apthorp, after careful study of the papyri as well as the context of the line itself, felt so strongly about the inauthenticity of the line that he called it a “gatecrasher at Homer’s banquet”. [8] I agree that Athene’s rebuke is stronger without line 808, but there must be a sound reason why scholars before and after Aristarchus decided to include it in their text of the Iliad, consistently enough that it is still a matter for discussion in the 21st century. At 4.389-90, Athene is said to have given help to Tydeus, though as Apthorp argues, this is not the poet’s contradiction, but a difference in perspective between Agamemnon and Athene. [9] There may be another possible significance of 808, which is relevant to my study. If a traditional audience was familiar with other poems telling the story of Tydeus and the Cadmaeans, those versions would doubtless be fuller and more detailed than the allusion by Athene. A fuller version could therefore accommodate the two attitudes that in book five seem contradictory – Athene forbids Tydeus, and then encourages him. We are asked to imagine a version in which Athene discourages Tydeus, he goes ahead without her, and (perhaps because she is impressed by his spirit) she then decides to help him. In such a version as this, the two attitudes are part of the arc of the narrative, rather than clashing violently. Similarly, Athene and Diomedes start at odds, then work together. The apparent contradiction can therefore be seen as an example of the allusiveness of the Iliad, and how it invites the invention or recollection of other stories. In this way, line 808, though it may weaken Athene’s rebuke in its immediate context, in fact strengthens her relationship with Tydeus by suggesting a hidden depth to their interactions; the depth of that relationship is then passed on to her dealings with Diomedes.
So far we have seen two allusions to the episode of Tydeus and the Cadmaeans, and the most significant difference between the two is that Agamemnon claims Tydeus had the help of Athene, while the goddess herself (whatever we make of 808) has asserted that she discouraged Tydeus from engaging in hostilities. The clearest indication that Athene was involved, and did offer Tydeus help in the ambush, comes the third time the episode is mentioned, this time by Diomedes himself as he embarks on a reconnaissance mission with Odysseus in book ten. Rather than praying for help by reminding Athene of the help she has offered himself in the past, as Odysseus has just done (10.278-82), Diomedes reminds her of his father’s embassy to the Cadmaeans (284-90). Here, Tydeus’ message is mentioned once again, but this time with a further detail that it contained “gracious words” (μειλιχίον μῦθον 288), supporting Ebbott’s argument that the message was peaceful. [10] This would only be a suitable instance to recall in such a prayer if Athene had definitely given help and encouragement to Tydeus, rather than dissuading him as she has claimed to have done. [11] Therefore, Diomedes here makes clear his belief that she had helped his father. Not only did she follow with Tydeus (ἔσπεο 285) – which could just indicate the goddess’ observation rather than positive endorsement – but the killing of his ambushers was achieved σὺν σοί (290), clearly stating Athene’s part in events. The athletic contests are not mentioned, perhaps because Diomedes’ present situation is closer to that of the ambushed Tydeus, as he and Odysseus make their way into enemy territory. There is no such conflict in this allusion as was present in the troublesome line 808 of book five – it would indeed be ill-fitting for Diomedes to ask Athene for help with a mention of a time she withheld encouragement from his father. Diomedes seems totally confident that Athene was a strong supporter of his father, because he wants the same support in his current situation.
It is noticeable that each of these three uses of the Cadmaeans episode appears in the voice of an internal character rather than the omniscient poet-narrator; that is why apparent contradictions need not trouble us as weaknesses in the poet’s craft, or later interpolations. Naturally, these different narrators have different perspectives and levels of knowledge which mean their versions of events may well vary. The use of different narrators also suggests that the audience is encouraged to receive the allusions as somehow removed from the rest of the narrative. [12] Other examples of allusions made by internal characters, such as Nestor’s tales of Pylos, and the stories of Lycurgus and Bellerophon told by Diomedes and Glaucus, seem to suggest themselves as the topic of other poems, and the Cadmaeans episode does the same, each time it appears in the mouth of another character. [13] From the three allusions to the same episode, we are made aware of various different contingencies in which Athene offers unmitigated help, or no help at all, or changes tack between the two when Tydeus is in desperate need. Even beyond that there are many more variations, focusing on the failed alliance with the Mycenaeans, the formulation of the message, the designation of Tydeus as messenger, but which enrich our own appreciation of the tradition.
The picture we gather of Tydeus from these allusions to the Cadmaeans episode is predominantly of a keen fighter, who will challenge his opponents in any situation – whether alone against many (as in the ambush), or in a context that was intended to be peaceful (as in the athletic contests). Despite being small in stature, his fighting spirit is so indomitable that it can lead him to disobey the orders of his superiors, both mortal and divine. Allusions to Tydeus are used to exhort his son to battle, but that does not mean that they are “uniformly favorable” as Malcolm Davies has claimed. [14] Tydeus is a great warrior, but has a certain wildness that makes him crucially different from his son Diomedes, who is at times cautiously aware of his status in battle, and always obeys his patron goddess Athene. [15] Indeed, he reflects on the distinction between gods and men, and the limits imposed by mortality – which are crucial themes in the Iliad as a whole. This brings us to a fragment of the Thebaid which tells of Tydeus’ savagery, and reflects a character quite different from anything we know of his son from the Iliad.
F5 in Davies’ edition of the Epic Cycle fragments (preserved in the D scholia to 5.126) tells directly of the death of Tydeus:

Τυδεὺς ὁ Οἰνέως ἐν τῶι Θηβαϊκῶι πολέμωι ὑπὸ Μωλανίππου τοῦ Ἀςτακοῦ ἐτρώθη· Ἀμφιάρεως δὲ κτείνας τὸν Μελὰνιππον τὴν κεφαλὴν ἐκόμισε [Τυδεῖ] καὶ ανοίξας αὐτὴν ὁ Τυδεὺς τὸν ἐγκέφαλον ἐρρόφει ἀπὸ θυμοῦ. Ἀθηνᾶ δὲ κομίζουσα Τυδεῖ ἀθανασίαν ἰδοῦσα τὸ μίασμα ἀπεστράφη αὐτόν. Τυδεὺς δὲ γνοὺς ἐδεήθη τῆς θεοῦ ἵνα κἂν τῶι παιδὶ αὐτοῦ παράσχηι τὴν ἀθανασίαν. ἡ ἱστορία παρὰ τοῖς Κυκλικοῖς.
According to this fragment, Tydeus was wounded in battle by Melanippus, who was then killed by Amphiaraus. The latter then carried Melanippus’ head to the dying Tydeus, who gnawed at the brain to soothe his spirit. Seeing this, Athene retracted the immortality she would have offered Tydeus; and having realised his mistake, Tydeus requested of the goddess that she bestow immortality on his son Diomedes instead. The A b T scholion to 5.126 [16] relates the story in almost identical terms, but with the added detail that Tydeus had been “violently annoyed” (σφόδρα ἀγανακτῆσαι, 76-7) by Melanippus, providing a motive for his desecration of the latter’s corpse, although no further explanation of the offence is given. The episode is attested, with variations, in several other written sources including a scholion to Pindar, Libanius, and, later, Statius. It also seems to have been depicted on red-figure vases as early as the fifth century. [17] The D scholia, through which the Davies fragment was preserved, have diverse origins and come from a tradition which represents, as Eleanor Dickey points out, the “oldest surviving stratum of Homeric scholarship”. [18] The A b T scholia have different origins, but are predominantly exegetical in character. [19] The correspondence between the two traditions assures us that the Melanippus episode was known to some of the Iliad’s earliest critical readers. In both cases, the association is prompted by Athene’s first spoken intervention to encourage Diomedes; she has mentioned Tydeus by name but given no reference to any specific episode when she had offered him help. The scholiasts perhaps inserted the Melanippus story here as it is the first time Athene mentions Tydeus in her help to Diomedes, and the story reveals something of the relationship between the goddess, the mortal and his problematic father. However, it thus mitigates the use of Tydeus as an entirely positive precedent, as it reveals a side of Tydeus’ character that Diomedes should not emulate.
This story can lead us to several avenues of discussion, including the questions of Amphiaraus’ motives, Melanippus’ offence against Tydeus, and whether there was an early epic tradition of immortality for Diomedes, as reflected by other poets. [20] I cannot explore these avenues in detail in the course of this paper, but it seems clear that no such tradition of immortality is explicitly suggested in the Iliad, but that – conversely – a potentially immortal Diomedes would fit even better as a reflection of Achilles. [21] As ever, there are two possibilities: that stories about an immortal Diomedes developed as a commentary to the Iliad, or that they inspired the Iliad itself. From the point of view of an archaic audience, in any case, the distinction would not have mattered much; it was the epic resonance of the performances that interested and beguiled its listeners, whichever particular stories were invented ‘first’.
From the point of view of my present paper, this fragment is relevant to my study because it reveals in Tydeus the same lack of control and restraint that is suggested when he disobeys the orders of Athene, and possibly those of his comrades, to refrain from challenging the Cadmaeans. In Athene’s version of the episode in book five, she specifically forbids him from fighting or drawing attention to himself (ἐγὼ πολεμίζειν οὐκ εἴασκον οὐδ᾿ ἐκπαιφάσσειν 802-3), but he challenges them anyway. The story of fr.5 shows the same rebellious spirit, but has far more dire consequences as he is left to suffer a death that Athene could have prevented. The chewing of his enemy’s brain is such a horrific act that even the goddess if disgusted; it does not seem possible that Tydeus could fail to realize that he was transgressing a moral boundary, but his hatred for his opponent is so great that he commits the act anyway. [22]
The consistency of characterization between these two episodes helps us to gain a more nuanced impression of Tydeus, which may reflect how he was portrayed in the Thebaid and the surrounding tradition more generally. This picture is certainly not “uniformly favorable” and it differs crucially from the depiction of his son. In an extended narrative about Tydeus, his disobedience of Athene when he meets the Cadmaeans could be proleptic of his eventual rejection by her at the point of his death – on the other hand, a version in which Athene did offer him help would demonstrate the closeness of her bond, explaining why she was prepared to offer him immortality in the first place, and giving depth to her patronage of Diomedes in the Iliad.
The apparent difference in behavior between Tydeus and his son is also suggestive of the generational change that has occurred between the two great wars. This shift between father and son fits a more general pattern in early hexameter epic, whereby the second generation is represented as weaker, but more humane, than the first. This change is evident in the divine succession myth of the Theogony, in which Zeus is portrayed as less violent than his antecedents Ouranos and Kronos. Nestor’s reminiscences in the Iliad have embedded in them the belief that previous ages of men were mightier; and although Achilles wishes that he could bring himself to eat Hector’s raw flesh, he cannot actually perform the deed that Tydeus had in the previous generation. Because a lessening in physical strength is paired with a less savage nature, this change can be regarded as decline or as progress; but it is bound to have implications on all the characters of the poem, and their relationships with each other. [23] When Tydeus, and his exploits with the Cadmaeans, is invoked as an example for Diomedes, the differences between father and son are therefore as significant as the qualities Diomedes is encouraged to emulate.


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[ back ] 1. Ebbott 2010. My thanks are due in particular to Casey Dué Hackney for introducing me to Ebbott’s work, and for her helpful comments on this paper. I am also thankful to all participants in the Kyklos project for allowing me to present this paper to them; and to Efimia Karakantza for coordinating the discussion.
[ back ] 2. According to Mary Ebbott’s conception of the “traditional audience” as members of the culture in which poems and stories were handed down and recomposed in performance. (Ebbott 2010, 240)
[ back ] 3. Ebbott 249-252.
[ back ] 4. Griffin 1980,70-72.
[ back ] 5. Kirk 1990 v2, 143.
[ back ] 6. Ebbott 2010, 249-252.
[ back ] 7. Apthorp 2000.
[ back ] 8. Apthorp 2000, 9.
[ back ] 9. ibid.
[ back ] 10. Ebbott 2010, 249.
[ back ] 11. This therefore supports the relevance of line 808.
[ back ] 12. Alden 2000 makes a study of “para-narratives” such as these in the Iliad, and how they complement the concurrent action of the poem.
[ back ] 13. Gaisser 1969 explores the traditional nature of the stories told by Diomedes and Glaucus and suggests that the two stories may have been explicated further in another poem, in particular a catalogue of punishments mortals have suffered at the hands of gods.
[ back ] 14. Davies 1989, 26.
[ back ] 15. During his aristeia of book five, Diomedes only goes forward to wound Aphrodite, knowing she is a goddess, because Athene has told him to do so (5.129-132). After his encounters with Aphrodite and Ares in book five, we can perceive a change in attitude by the time Diomedes meets Glaucus in book six; from then on he is keen to distinguish sharply between gods and mortals and not transgress the boundary (Graziosi and Haubold 2010, 36-7).
[ back ] 16. Erbse 1971 v2, 22.
[ back ] 17. In a 1947 article, Beazley made a thorough study of the scene on two red-figure kraters from the mid-late 5th century BC, especially focusing on the personification of Immortality (Athanasia) which seems to have been invented by the vase-painters rather than the poets. He also provides a summary of when the episode is mentioned by the listed writers.
[ back ] 18. Dickey 2007, 20.
[ back ] 19. ibid.
[ back ] 20. Diomedes’ immortality is assumed in Ibycus fr.294 P and Pindar Nemean 10.7. According to Apollodorus (Bibl. 3,6,8), Amphiaraus hated Tydeus for persuading the Argives to march to Thebes against his advice – this version varies from the scholia as it asserts that Tydeus himself had killed Melanippus, rather than Amphiaraus.
[ back ] 21. Immortality for Diomedes would be entirely counter to the ethos of the Iliad. As Davies notes, not even Zeus could bestow immortality on his favourite warriors, demonstrated at 16.431ff (Davies 1989, 26); Griffin’s chapter on “Death and the God-like Hero” demonstrates how mortality is an essential characteristic of the epic hero, exemplified in Achilles, in order to explain “the greatness and fragility of the life of man” (Griffin 1980, 81-102).
[ back ] 22. Eating the flesh of one’s enemy is a singularly monstrous act which is hinted at in the Iliad but never committed, as it seems to be too inhumane for the poem’s ethos; Achilles expresses the wish to eat Hector’s flesh at 22.337-354, but his heart (θυμός) prevents him. This could be seen as a minimised reflection of the shift in cosmic history that has occurred between the two Wars – from savagery to something closer to men as we know them (Graziosi and Haubold 2005, 139-149).
[ back ] 23. This generational change, and in particular the way it effects the women of the Homeric poems, is the subject of my current PhD dissertation.