Refugees and Immigrants in Greco-Roman Myth and Literature: The Case of Teucer

  Antoniadis, Theodore. "Refugees and Immigrants in Greco-Roman Myth and Literature: The Case of Teucer." CHS Research Bulletin 9 (2021).


Teucer (Τεῦκρος), the legendary founder of Salamis in Cyprus, is not registered among the prominent figures in classical literature, though he has his moments not only in the epic tradition, but also in tragedy, Greek and Roman. Τhe son of king Telamon of Salamis and Hesione, daughter of king Laomedon of Troy, took part in the Trojan War fighting as a great archer alongside his half-brother Ajax against the Trojans. Having failed to stand by him after the award of Achilles’ arms to Odysseus, however, Teucer stood trial as soon as he got back home and eventually was disowned by his father and banished from his homeland. Such is, more or less, the version of his myth as we know it from ancient Greek authors, but to the Romans it seems that Teucer was more familiar, or even cherished, as an exile/refugee, a man who was forced to abandon his native land and set out to find a new home for himself and his companions. Ηis toils and wanderings already make him a counterpart of Aeneas in the eyes of Vergil’s Dido. However, it is rather Horace’s famous lines in Ode 1.7 that associate Teucer’s myth with the themes of war, voyage, adventure, and rehabilitation in a new homeland which have been explored during the CHS Fellowship as an inherent element of the Augustan poetry.



The prevalence of the ‘refugee theme’ in the Augustan literature is not at all a Roman invention exclusively related to Aeneas’ adventures across the Mediterranean after the fall of Troy and the foundation of Rome by his descendants, Remus and Romulus, in 753 BC. Indeed, if we recollect the cases of Thebes and Cyrene founded by Kadmos and Battus respectively, we then realize that in the Graeco-Roman world migrant founders and not autochthonous or aboriginal people were commonly found in the core of a community’s origins as founders, civilizers and leaders. However, the desideratum of my research was to showcase that the Romans rather than the Greeks were those who mostly embraced such stories.

The Greek bastard archer

This became particularly evident as soon as I focused on one of the most neglected foundation myths in the classical tradition, but one which afforded a number of fascinating contextualizations it within the political, ethnic and literary representation of Rome as a community largely built by refugees. I used the word “neglected” because, if compared to more ‘celebrated’ refugees like Aeneas, Teucer’s name and his exploits have not claimed much scholarly attention so far. This is perhaps because the son of king Telamon of Salamis is somehow overshadowed by the figure of his famous father and especially by that of his half-brother Ajax. The first owes his reputation to his involvement in the Argonautic expedition and the hunt for the Calydonian Boar, while he features in all versions of Hercules’ sacking of Troy. Ιt was in honour of his contribution to Hercules’ feat indeed that Telamon took as a prize the daughter of king Laomedon, Hesione, the woman who bore him Teucer.  As for Ajax, the “bulwark of the Achaeans” whose might and colossal figure are proverbial in Homer, he is also well-known from Sophocles’ play, which recounts the aftermath of his suicide after his failure to be awarded with the armour of Achilles.  In contrast, as we shall see, for most classical Greek authors, Teucer, despite his other qualities as a hero, is a νόθος, a bastard son of a slave woman, due to his mother’s Trojan origins, already evident from his very name.  Ηis exile in Cyprus is briefly mentioned only by Pindar (Nem. 4.46-8) and Euripides (see below), while there is no reference to it by Proclus in his summary of the Nostoi.

In the Iliad Teucer is generally presented as an efficient killer by virtue of his excellence in archery. His heroic status, though, is constantly undermined by the fact that in most battle scenes Teucer is fighting under the protection of Ajax as we frequently find him loosing his shafts from behind his half-brother’s enormous shield. Undoubtedly the most characteristic example is at Il. 8.266-72 where Homer is likening him to a child always looking for his mother’s arms (271). The simile is very apt and telling indeed, but it appears to detract from Teucer’s heroism pointing to his disproportionate relationship with his brother.  The same sentiment is further detectable in the very next scene (Il. 8.280-5) when Agamemnon, in his compliment to Teucer for his martial performance, is almost at pains to disclose Teucer’s ‘special’ relationship with his father by hinting at his illegitimate status as a child of a concubine.

Teucer’s attempt to establish his own ‘status’ as a hero acquires a far more dramatic character in the Ajax of Sophocles for the very reason that he must now act without his brother’s support. In this play Teucer is confronted with the humiliating conduct of the two Atreides, who demand that the corpse of his dishonoured brother be left unburied. Expressing his determination to protect Ajax’s rights in answer to his plea before his suicide (562-64), Teucer is first mocked by Menelaus for being overconfident (1120): ‘This mere archer seems to entertain some big ideas’. However, there is no doubt that by far the most malicious insults are delivered by Agamemnon. Soon after he is introduced in the play, the leader of the Greek army attacks Teucer addressing him as the son of a slave-mother” (1228: ‘You, the son of a captive woman, it’s you I’m talking to!’, 1235: ‘Is it not shameful that I have to hear such monstrous insults from the mouths of slaves?) and mocking his mother’s origins (1229-30: ‘Heaven knows what sort of fine speeches you’d be making if you were born of a noble woman’) and his barbarian language (1263: ‘I don’t understand this barbarian accent’). On top of this abuse, Agamemnon berates his resolution to protect his brother’s corpse from maltreatment arguing that Teucer, being nothing himself, is hopelessly trying to defend someone who is nothing now (cf. 1231: ‘You are a nobody, and here you act the champion for this nonentity’). In doing so, the Mycenaean king appears to sum up and epitomize all the Greek literary and mythological tradition that treats Teucer as nothing more than a bastard archer who owes his standing to his father’s name and his brother’s martial valour.

To our surprise, Teucer appears in Euripides’ Helen merely playing the part of an informant who tells the heroine about the aftermath of the war at Troy and the homecoming of the Greek warriors. Though his post-war experience makes him a suitable interlocutor, his rather arbitrary appearance in this drama has been much disputed in terms even of its very necessity.  For our purposes, it is important to note that his status, as we have traced it so far, remains unchanged. Answering Helen’s persistent questions in her excitement to have found someone who has returned from Troy, he introduces himself as a Greek who has been banished from his homeland (90: ‘I have been exiled from my native country’). An exile too as we shall see, Helen shows her sympathy and wants to learn more about his drama (91). Teucer’s responses, however, are consciously terse and quite vague especially in terms of his father’s decision to banish him (92) and the reason for his disgrace (94). Αs for his illegitimacy, this seems to be discreetly absorbed by his other misfortunes. Overall, he appears quite reluctant to speak more of his traumatic past and relates only what is absolutely necessary about the fate of Helen’s husband and her family members. His absolute priority is to continue his journey to the land where Apollo has promised him a new home (148-9: ἐς γῆν ἐναλίαν Κύπρον, οὗ μ’ ἐθέσπισεν / οἰκεῖν ᾿Απόλλων ‘It is there Apollo prophesied that I must live, calling the place by the island name of Salamis’. In contrast to the audience’s expectations, however, Helen’s feedback, despite her assurance that his ‘journey itself will show him the way’ (151), is somehow vague, if not confusing (157) as it provides no clear sign that Teucer will ever be happy or rewarded for his sufferings. We understand that he will reach Cyprus as long as this is something ordained by Apollo’s oracle (148-9), but his social and ethical rehabilitation remains uncertain as in Sophocles’ Ajax.

Teucer’s Rehabilitation in Roman Literature

Contrary to the Greek tragedians, Teucer’s drama was more cherished among the Roman playwrights and their audiences. It appears that the Romans favoured a Teucer written by Pacuvius, since Cicero cites several verses from this play in his works. However, in none of these fragments do we find any reference, no matter how oblique, to Teucer’s illegitimacy. Actually, the most celebrated line of Pacuvius’ play must have been one that Cicero recalls in his Tusculan Disputations to deprecate the evils of exile (Cic. Tusc. 5.37.108 – Trag. Inc. 92 Klotz): Itaque ad omnem rationem Teucri vox accommodari potest: ‘Patria est, ubicumque est bene’. ‘So Teucer’s words can be accommodated to every situation: Home is wherever one is well’. However, there is no question that Teucer was mostly cherished as a homeless wanderer in Augustan literature. His portrait as that of a distraught veteran and a stateless nobleman, who is ready to accept whatever fortune might bring, is now evoked to endorse sentiments and ideas that are pertinent or complementary to Cicero’s approach. In the Aeneid, Vergil reincarnates him in the role of an informant from whom Dido claims to have first heard about the misfortunes of the Trojans but also of Aeneas’ virtue (Aen. 1.619-26). Like Helen, Dido is touched by Teucer’s story, because, as she explains (Aen. 1.627-30), she was also forced to abandon her homeland in search of a new patria.  By telling his story, therefore, Dido serves a dual purpose. On the one hand, she displays her kinship to the Trojans through her father’s guest friendship with Teucer, while, on the other, she is indirectly offering Aeneas a new patria like her father did to Teucer.  In this instance, the issue of Teucer’s descent is no longer a taboo either for himself or for those who surround him, as Dido remembers him speaking proudly of his Trojan origins. For the Roman audience, though, it is obviously the wider applicability of Teucer’s exploits to Aeneas’ cause that matters here as the Salaminian warrior represents a fine example of how a homeless refugee manages to gain a new kingdom. 

However, the complete rehabilitation of the former “bastard archer” in Roman letters is mostly achieved by Horace in ode 1.7, a sympotic poem where an after-dinner conversation takes place between Horace and his friend Plancus, a noble statesman, who grumbles because his military obligations keep him away from his residence in this beauty-spot. The lyric poet asks Plancus to attain tranquility by putting his principles into practice wherever fortune might place him. Like Cicero in the passage discussed above, Horace applies the mythological exemplum of Teucer to enhance this point further (Carm. 1.7.21-31). Most characteristic is Teucer’s exhortation to his companions that culminates the poem (25, 30-31): Nil desperandum Teucro duce et auspice Teucro: […] cras ingens iterabimus aequor “there is no need for despair… Tomorrow we shall set out once more over the boundless sea”. Beyond the  well-attested correspondence between his words and those of Odysseus and Aeneas who rally their men in a similar way in Homer’s Odyssey (12.208-12) and Vergil’s Aeneid (1.198–207), Horace recuperates Teucer as an archetypal founder by making him more ‘optimistic’, confident and committed to his purpose. What is more, the foundation of a new Salamis, which in Greek literature remains in question, is finally put forward in mostly straightforward manner. From this aspect, the metaphor cras ingens iterabimus aequor that prominently encapsulates Teucer’s imminent departure communicates a certainty that is missing from all its parallels.

To sum up, the Roman Teucer is a wholly remodelled hero from Greek myth and literature. Not only is he no longer overshadowed by the superior military prowess of his brother, but he also feels no need to apologize either for his illegitimate parentage or for his failure to match his father’s excellence and his brother’s bravery. All the above belong to his ‘Greek past’, a past that was gradually erased from all Roman literary records. His appropriation in Latin poetry demanded his transformation from a bastard archer into a noble founder, a man with a sense of purpose and honour, a hero not unlike Aeneas. Nevertheless, his portrait always obeys the generic rules of the texts that introduce and ‘promote’ him to Roman readers. From the emblematic exponent of “the freedom in exile” creed in Pacuvius and Cicero, in Vergil we see him being transformed into an ‘Odysseus-plus’, a warrior, a wanderer, but also a promising colonist, that is a proto-Aeneas. Finally, Horace’s Teucer meets the highest standards in all aspects of his multifaceted career, plus he is an occasional drinker for the needs of the poet’s occasional lyrics.  Even as a drinker, though, he personifies freedom and hope and the tranquility of mind establishing himself as a lifelong paradigm for all Roman readers.

All translations are taken from the Loeb Classical Library volumes listed in the bibliography. For the published version of this research meterial, see: Theodore Antoniadis, “Nil desperandum….cras ingens iterabimus aequor (Hor. Carm. 1.7). The foundation of Salamis by a bastard archer as an exemplum in Latin Literature” in S. Tzounakas, S. Alekou & S. Harrison (eds.), The Reception of Ancient Cyprus in Western Culture, Trends in Classics – Pathways of Reception, De Gruyter (forthcoming in 2021)

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