Pylos before Pylos, and then again another Pylos

My interest, as discussed in my first post, is in how audiences responded to descriptions of communities in the early Greek epics. On such response, albeit a late one, comes from the Roman-period geographer Strabo. In a discussion of the western Peloponnesos, Strabo observes that a number of communities there claimed to be the original home of the Homeric hero Nestor:

βιάζονται δ᾽ ἔνιοι μνηστευόμενοι τὴν Νέστορος δόξαν καὶ τὴν εὐγένειαν· τριῶν γὰρ Πύλων ἱστορουμένων ἐν Πελοποννήσῳ· καθότι καὶ τὸ ἔπος εἴρηται τουτί

ἔστι Πύλος πρὸ Πύλοιο· Πύλος γε μέν ἐστι καὶ ἄλλος·

τούτου τε καὶ τοῦ Λεπρεατικοῦ τοῦ ἐν τῇ Τριφυλίᾳ καὶ τῇ Πισάτιδι, τρίτου δὲ τοῦ Μεσσηνιακοῦ τοῦ κατὰ Κορυφάσιον, ἕκαστοι τὸν παρά σφισιν ἠμαθόεντα πειρῶνται δεικνύναι, καὶ τὴν τοῦ Νέστορος πατρίδα τοῦτον ἀποφαίνουσιν.

Some try to force the issue in their pursuit of the glory and distinguished ancestry of Nestor; for there are three Pyloses in the record of the Peloponnesos; and so this saying is told:

there is Pylos before Pylos; and there is then again another Pylos

—one in Lepreon in Triphylia, one in Pisa, and one in Messenia near Koryphasion. Each of these tries to show that the [Homeric] epithet “sandy” applies to itself and adduces proofs that it is the homeland of Nestor. Strabo 8.3.7

This statement makes clear that the picture of Nestor’s land in the Iliad and Odyssey was sufficiently vague that various communities in the Western Peloponnese could lay claim to being the “real” Homeric Pylos.

Here I want to use Pylos as a means to explore one of the features that recur in epic representations of the polis, namely fortifications. While many communities are said to be walled in the epics, I am interested in how the absence of any reference to walls in connection with an epic polis might be perceived by various potential audiences. No city wall is mentioned in connection with Pylos in the Iliad and Odyssey; in the latter poem, for example, Telemakhos passes from the shore to Nestor’s home without ever being said to see a wall or to pass through a gate. Is this because the Odyssey conceives of Pylos as an unfortified community? Or is it because epic narrative tends to describe only those features that are of significance for the action? In terms of the example, does Telemakhos fail to encounter a wall because the Odyssey wants its audiences to think of Pylos as being unfortified, or because fortifications are irrelevant to the narrative?

Let us consider these explanations through the lens of Strabo’s comment. Of the three claimants to be Homeric Pylos that he cites,

  • Lepreon in Triphylia: fortified by the Classical period at the latest (Roy 502)
  • Elean (Pisan) Pylos: never fortified (Coleman 7)
  • Koryphasion in Messenia: fortified in the fifth century (Shipley 557)

It is, then, possible that the absence of walls in Homeric Pylos reflects the reality of any or all of these sites (with the possible exclusion of Lepreon), or, for that matter, that of the Bronze Age palace, which was, unusually, without walls, at least in its later phases (Davis 55-56). Each of these sites of course will have made its claim to being Nestor’s homeland at different points in time and for different reasons, which means that, over time, responses to Homeric Pylos must have evolved, and in turn fostered an evolution in Homeric Pylos itself (Frame 651-71, 745).

As was just suggested, physical features of communities in the epics tend to receive attention only when they are relevant to the plot; fortifications are called for when a community is under attack. Thus, of the two communities depicted on the Shield of Akhilleus, only the City at War is said to be fortified (Iliad 18.514). Since Homeric Pylos is never the setting of a siege, the nature of its defenses remain indeterminate.

As it happens, epic Pylos does come under siege elsewhere in the early Greek epic tradition, in a fragment of the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women that refers to Herakles leading an attack against the city:

πολέας δ’ ἀπόλεσσε καὶ ἄλλους

μαρνάμενος Νηλῆος ἀγακλειτοῦ περὶ τεῖχος

and many others he [Nestor] also destroyed

fighting over the wall of glorious Neleus [Nestor’s father]. Catalogue of Women fragment 33a19-20 MW

As the setting for a battle narrative, Pylos is fortified. It would therefore seem that epic narrative constructs its urban settings on an ad hoc basis, building them up from generic ideas about what a city looks like.

But what about the audiences for these epics? What of someone who had lived in or near or had visited one of the putative Pyloses? He or she would naturally try to harmonize the mental image created by the poem with that of the (or a) “real” Pylos. From this perspective, the absence of fortifications makes for a relatively more Panhellenic Pylos, in that their mention in effect generates a piece of evidence against which rival claims to being the “real Pylos” might be judged. Performers of epics could be expected to avoid wading into such disputes, but also to correct elements of description that were irreconcilable with the real world(s) of those for whom they performed. By way of comparison, the real-world location of Homeric Sparta was unquestioned, and it was unwalled (e.g., οἱ δὲ Σπαρτιᾶται ἀτείχιστον ἔχοντες τὴν πόλιν, Xenophōn Hellenika 6.5.28), so any poet or poem would be discouraged from staging a siege there.

The hermeneutic being proposed here, then, is that representations of communities in early Greek epic need to be approached from multiple and mutually reinforcing perspectives. There is on the one hand a general tendency to rely on a generic conception of a polis, which includes a city wall. In the case of imaginary or hypothetical communities, this generic outline is the sole structuring theme; in the case of communities that have analogues in the real world of ancient Greece, on the other hand, the outline becomes refracted through the experiences of poets and their audiences.

As epic traditions evolved, in particular those that attracted a Panhellenic constituency, real-world knowledge on the part of poets and audiences would exert continued pressure to make the generic outline conform with the realities of communities that are also named in the epics (e.g., Luce 1998: 1). A Panhellenic narrative would thus be well served by a stripped down image of community that relies on features that are well represented across the Greek world, in order to avoid issues that had the potential to divide a Panhellenic audience—such as the question of where Nestor “really” lived.

works cited

Coleman, Joseph. 1986. Excavations at Pylos in Elis. Hesperia: Supplement XXI. Princeton.

Davis, J. ed. 1998. Sandy Pylos: An Archaeological History from Nestor to Navarino. Austin, TX.

Frame, Douglas. 2009. Hippota Nestor. Hellenic Studies 37. Washington, DC.

Luce, John. 1998. Celebrating Homer’s Landscapes: Troy and Ithaca Revisited. New Haven and London.

Roy, James. 2004. “Elis.” in An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis: An Investigation Conducted by The Copenhagen Polis Centre for the Danish National Research Foundation, Hansen, Mogens Herman and Thomas Nielsen, edd. Oxford. 489-504.

Shipley, Graham. 2004. “Messenia.” in An Inventory of Archaic and Classical Poleis: An Investigation Conducted by The Copenhagen Polis Centre for the Danish National Research Foundation, Hansen, Mogens Herman and Thomas Nielsen, edd. Oxford. 547-568.