Homeric Ainoi in Latin Literature, Part II: Quintilian

2018.10.19 | By Miriam Kamil

§1. In the first part of this essay, I examined a passage from the Odyssey referred to in the text as an ainos. This was the improvised story told by Odysseus to the swineherd Eumaios in Odyssey 14, wherein Odysseus’ fictitious persona forgets and then obtains a cloak while out on ambush during the Trojan War. Eumaios intuits that he is hearing an ainos and correctly interprets its hidden message: his guest would like a cloak for the night. By examining this passage and considering Nagy’s definition of a Homeric ainos,[1] we saw how Homeric ainoi are micro-narratives that parallel their macro-narrative both in characters and in plot. By means of this parallelism, the speaker of the ainos expresses a desire for a certain outcome in the macro-narrative by ending the micro-narrative with that desired outcome. This paralleling of characters and plot is present in other, non-Homeric ainoi as well. Non-Homeric ainoi, like those of Hesiod and Aesop, coincide with the modern concept of ‘fables’ and possess many of the same qualities as Homeric ainoi. The primary difference lies in the apparent truthfulness of Homeric ainoi. Hesiodic and Aesopic ainoi tend to be fantastical, which signals the presence of a deeper meaning to the listener. Homeric ainoi, on the other hand, are consistently presented by their speakers as truth. It is the listener’s task to detect a deeper meaning and thereby prove him- or herself mentally qualified to understand the ainos. We saw, for example, how Eumaios’ detection of an ainos has consequences for the plot of the Odyssey, when he becomes an ally to Odysseus against the suitors.

Odysseus and Telemachus in the hut of Eumaios (1633). Theodoor van Thulden (1606–1669).
Odysseus and Telemachus in the hut of Eumaios (1633). Theodoor van Thulden (1606–1669), after Francesco Primaticcio, after Nicolò dell’Abate. Image via Rijksmuseum.

§2. Having clarified the term ainos and its particular manifestation in Homeric epic, I now to return to my original guiding question: do Homeric-type ainoi exist in Latin literature? To answer this question, I turn to Quintilian, a first century Roman rhetorician and the only extant Roman author to offer a Latin synonym for the Greek word ainos.[2] This comes in his text Institutio Oratoria, or ‘The Orator’s Education’, in which he offers advice to developing orators on best practices. While the text aims to teach public speaking, Quintilian often defines rhetorical devices with the help of literary examples.[3] One of the rhetorical devices he discusses with literary examples is fabula, along with the related term fabella. The latter, he tells us, the Greeks call ainos.[4] But since Quintilian uses the terms interchangeably at certain points, this essay examines both.[5] Quintilian also mentions apologatio as a synonym, which we will see is similar but not identical to our concept of ainos. Then, looking in the same way at the Latin aenigma,which is etymologically related to the Greek term ainos, I realize another imperfect translation for the Greek concept. Touching on an example from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I finally conclude that while Homeric-type ainoi do exist in Latin literature, they are not called by any consistent name among the writers and grammarians of antiquity.

§3. At the point in his text where he mentions ainoi, Quintilian has just explained how the orator can convincingly use historical events to argue cases. He goes on to tell us that fabulae poeticae, ‘poets’ stories’, can have the same effect as historical examples.[6] This term, fabulais a noun deriving from the verb fari meaning, ‘to speak’, and its most basic meaning is ‘something spoken’. In the classical period, it can mean, ‘narrative, story’.[7] The English word “fable” is derived from fabula.[8] Quintilian qualifies the term with the adjective poetica in order to clarify that he means stories as told by poets. Just as an orator can reference events of the historical past to accentuate a point, Quintilian tells us, so too can he retell famous stories.

§4. What famous stories does he mean? At an earlier point in the same text, Quintilian helps clarify this point when he categorizes fabulae as one of three types of narratio, or ‘narration, relating’.[9] The other two types are argumentum and historia. Unlike argumentum, a story that is false but conceivable, or historia, a story that both seems true and is true, fabulae neither are true to life nor do they resemble anything true.[10] Examples include tragedy and poetry. Cicero’s De Inventione, also a treatise on best practices in oratory, offers the same tripartite definition of narratio: argumentum, historia, fabula. He too defines fabulae as neither true to life nor appearing to be so.[11]

§5. Already we can see a distinction between Latin fabulae and Homeric ainoi. In Homeric ainoi, it is the listener’s task to discern meaning beyond the fact of the story, even while the speaker asserts the story’s truthfulness. In the case of Odysseus’ ainos to Eumaios, Odysseus claims that wine has made him overly candid, implying truthfulness.[12] In Phoenix’ ainos to Achilles, Phoenix claims for himself the omniscience of the Muses before telling his story.[13] In both cases, the story’s apparent truth is an important part of its function as a test for the listener. Fabulae, on the other hand, are not true to life, but inherently implausible by Quintilian’s definition.[14] Nevertheless, because of Quintilian’s equation of fabula and fabella with ainos, an examination of his example of a fabula is worthwhile.

§6. This example comes from Cicero’s Pro Milone, in which Cicero presents a defense of Roman patrician Milo, who has been charged with assassinating his political rival Publius Clodius Pulcher. As part of his defense strategy, recounts Quintilian, Cicero acknowledges the murder but insists on its being justifiable, since men have been acquitted of killing bad people, “even in fictional stories.”[15] Cicero then recounts the conclusion of the myth of Orestes as told by fifth century Greek tragedian Aeschylus in his Eumenides.[16] In this play, Orestes is put on trial for killing his mother, which he did as an act of revenge after she killed his father. With Apollo as his defense counsel and the Furies as prosecutors, judge Athena breaks the jurors’ tie and acquits Orestes.

§7. In this example, Cicero grafts his client’s situation onto the story of Orestes in order to parallel them, in the hope that the judges’ verdict will accordingly parallel Athena’s verdict on Orestes. Cicero even calls Athena the “wisest goddess.”[17] We might interpret this as an attempt at flattering any judges who are inclined, as Athena was, to acquit. In the same way, Cicero suggests that Clodius, the murder victim, is comparable to the archetypal murderess Clytemnestra and so deserved his fate. Cicero subtly moves the blame to the victim for his own death and away from his client, Milo.

§8. So far Cicero’s fabula about Orestes is similar to the Homeric ainoi. Here Cicero tells a brief story with a plot and characters that parallel the events and people in the macro-narrative. In this case, the macro-narrative is the real-life court case of Milo. Cicero uses these constructed parallels to flatter his listeners, implicitly comparing the judges to Athena. We recall that flattery was a primary purpose of Odysseus’ ainos as well. But Cicero hinges this flattery on the judges’ willingness to vote as Athena did, for acquittal, and in this way he encourages the judges to behave like Athena. Just as Phoenix uses the ending of his ainos to encourage Achilles to fight, so does Cicero choose an ainos that ends in acquittal to manifest an acquittal for Milo. Finally, Cicero’s story excludes unqualified listeners from his true meaning. Those who are not mentally qualified will be unfamiliar with Aeschylus’ play and so will not understand what story he is referencing, especially since Cicero does not name any of the characters. In these ways, Cicero uses a fabula very much like the characters in Homer use ainoi.

§9. And yet the differences between this and the Homeric ainoi are apparent. Firstly, Cicero acknowledges that the story is invented, a ficta fabula, rather than claiming it to be true. While this corresponds to both Quintilian’s and Cicero’s definitions of fabulae as stories that neither are nor seem to be true, it sets the fabula apart from Homeric ainoi. Moreover, Cicero’s fabula lacks narrative structure. As a one-sentence summary of Aeschylus’ play with even the names of the characters elided, it falls short of a micro-narrative. Based on these contrasts, we can say that while there are similarities, fabulae as defined by Quintilian and demonstrated by Cicero are a literary device that is distinct from Homeric ainoi.

§10. At this point, Quintilian moves on to discuss fabellae, which is the device he compares explicitly to Greek ainoi. The diminutive form of fabula, a fabella can mean ‘a story’ or more specifically, ‘a fable’.[18] Quintilian uses the term in the sense of ‘fable’, explaining that these stories are most associated with the name Aesop.[19] They are especially pleasing, he says, to rustic and uneducated minds, who readily agree with arguments they find pleasing.[20] It seems likely already that this category will exclude the Homeric ainoi, but as before, Quintilian’s examples complicate this assumption. While the fables he describes are more closely aligned with the tale of the Hawk and the Nightingale, which we marked out as different from Homeric ainoi,[21] their similarities to Homeric ainoi in form and function are nevertheless remarkable. The first example, from Livy’s History of Rome, demonstrates this.

§11. Quintilian points us to a passage of Livy set in 494 BCE, where the consul Menenius Agrippa makes a speech in an attempt to reconcile a group of hostile plebs bent on seceding from Rome.[22] In his speech, Agrippa recounts one of Aesop’s fables, called The Belly and the Members.[23] In the story, the hands, mouth, teeth and other limbs of a body grow tired of the demanding belly and conspire to stop feeding it. But the limbs quickly realize that starving the belly drains their strength too and call off their protest. Agrippa’s story is successful; the plebs and plebeians are reconciled and a special office is established to maintain peace between the classes thereafter.[24]

§12. Livy tells us plainly how, “drawing a parallel from this to show how like was the internal dissension of the bodily members to the anger of the plebs against the Fathers, [Agrippa] prevailed upon the minds of his hearers.”[25] Agrippa persuades the plebs to recognize their station in the overall body politic of the Roman Republic, a station which corresponds to that of the limbs in the story. As the limbs learn they cannot themselves thrive without the stomach, so does Agrippa instruct the plebs that they need the patrician class in order to thrive. It is an expert exercise in gaslighting and subjugation. As in Odysseus’ ainos, Agrippa creates a micro-narrative with parallels to the macro-narrative, in this case Livy’s History of Rome, to communicate a message to his listeners and obtain a certain result.

§13. On the other hand, unlike the ainoi of Homer, Agrippa’s fabella makes no claim of being true or even plausible. It is apparently a story meant for children, since, as Quintilian says elsewhere, fabellae “follow naturally out of nurses’ tales.”[26] Accordingly, there is a sense of condescension as Agrippa addresses his inferiors, the plebeians, and placates them with a children’s story.[27] The patronizing tone of Agrippa’s story recalls Hesiod’s attitude toward his brother, nēpios Perses.[28] But in the Homeric ainoi, where speakers and listeners both had to navigate the rules of politeness and hospitality, we didn’t mark any such condescension.

§14. In considering whether fabellae mirror the function of ainoi in Greek epic, we might recall that the word fabella defines both a type of story and the use of such a story in persuasive oratory. It is both a genre and a rhetorical device. In the generic sense, fabellae are simply fables. But when individual fabellae are used as rhetorical devices in other genres, like history or oratory, they act very much like Homeric ainoi. In this example, Livy uses a fabella to introduce a micro-narrative with persuasive parallels to the macro-narrative, cohering with the functions of Homeric ainoi. A fabella, we might then say, is a type of ainos, one that uses Aesopic fables to communicate its hidden message, while Homeric ainoi are another type.

§15. Quintilian’s second example of fabella comes in a literary work. This is Horace’s first Epistle, addressed to his patron Maecenas on the subject of philosophy and the pursuit of virtue. Throughout the poem, Horace expresses distaste for what seems to him to be the too popular pursuit of wealth and status over virtue.[29] Having taken this contrarian stance, at a point just over halfway through the poem, Horace imagines the Roman people asking him why he does not share their opinions, since he shares their city.[30] He responds to his imaginary interlocutors, “I should reply as once upon a time the prudent fox made answer to the sick lion, ‘because those foot-prints frighten me; they all lead toward your den, and none lead back.’ ”[31]

§16. In this example, Horace invokes the Aesopian fable of The Fox and the Sick Lion to emphasize what he feels are the frightful consequences of following the crowd of indulgent Romans.[32] He likens himself to the prudent fox, who is too intelligent to walk willingly into the lion’s den. The Roman people with whom he imagines speaking are other animals who would willingly go into the lion’s den. The lion is parallel to the temptations of wealth and other things that lack virtue. The lion in the story is sick, hence its title, The Fox and the Sick Lion. In the fable, the lion’s sickness forces him to lure animals into his den by trickery rather than force, which allows for the conversation between the two animals. Horace includes the detail of sickness, calling the lion aegrotus, ‘sick’. The inclusion of this detail suggests that the state lacks moral health. Accordingly, elsewhere in the poem, immorality is equated to sickness.[33]

§17. The use of a fabella here is very like the use of ainos in Homeric epic. It is a micro-narrative within the framework of a macro-narrative, which here is a letter to Horace’s patron Maecenas.[34] This micro-narrative parallels the macro-narrative in its characters and plot and includes a persuasive moral accessible only to those who understand it. This message is not said outright, but encoded in a story.

§18. But, as in the previous example, the speaker makes no claim to be telling the truth in this fabella; it is an implausible story. As in the Livy example, this feature marks the fabella out from Homeric ainoi, but not from ainoi in general, like the tale of the Hawk and the Nightingale in Hesiod’s Works and Days. Moreover, this fabella is different from what we have seen in the Homeric ainoi in that it is so brief as to be more of an allusion rather than a complete micro-narrative. The context of the fox’s words to the lion is elided and only the quotation is left. Based on its extreme brevity, we might be tempted to disqualify this example from being an ainos.

§19. But it is difficult to determine where the distinction between micro-narrative and allusion lies. For example, immediately after the fox’s remark, Horace calls the Roman people “the beast with many heads.”[35] This is an allusion to the Lernaean Hydra vanquished by Hercules in one of his heroic labors. We could see a micro-narrative in this and draw parallels between Horace and Hercules, the Roman people and the Hydra. Being cryptic, the line is only accessible to a qualified audience, and in this resembles an ainos. But its lack of content marks it out from other ainoi examined. And while Quintilian refers to the story of the Fox and the Sick Lion as a fabella, he makes no comment on the following allusion to the story of Hercules, suggesting it falls outside the bounds of what he considers a fabella. But because there is no length specification in any definition of ainos, any distinction between ainos and allusion is debatable.

§20. Based on Quintilian’s examples of fabulae and fabellae in Cicero, Livy, and Horace, we can say that Quintilian’s definition of ainoi matches up neatly with some ainoi from Greek literature, like the tale of the Hawk and the Nightingale. Moreover these terms carry similarities to the form and function of ainoi in Homer in the way their speakers use them to create parallels to their macro-narratives, encrypt moral messages, and obtain certain results. But, on the other hand, all of these examples present implausible stories whose implausibility makes the presence of a hidden message a given. In contrast, the ainoi in Homeric epic are presented as true and the detection of falsehood is one of the tests marking out qualified from unqualified listeners. Therefore, when Quintilian connects fabulae and fabellae with Greek ainoi, we can conclude that by this time in the first century CE, ainoi had come to refer to what we would call fables, with the distinct Homeric ainos left out.

§21. At the end of this section on fabellae, Quintilian mentions that the stories he has described are also called by the name apologatio, though, he tells us, this term has not become common.[36] Quintilian is the only extant author to use this term, an apparent variation on the more common apologus.[37] Like many of the other terms under consideration, this word basically means, ‘story’.[38] Apologus is also the Latinized form of the Greek word ἀπόλογος, which is the term used to refer to the tale of Odysseus’ wanderings in Books 9–12 of the Odyssey.[39] It is defined this way in dictionaries, and all of the Ancient Greek uses of the term refer to the story told by Odysseus to the Phaeacians.[40]

§22. The apologos of Odysseus to the Phaeacians in Odyssey 9–12 is distinct from Homeric ainoi in that it is presented not only to the audience in the story, the Phaeacians, as truth, but to the audience outside the story as well.[41] Unlike the cloak ainos, the apologos may be taken as a straight recounting of events without ulterior motive. There is nevertheless blurring between the terms ainos and apologos. There are aspects of the apologos that seem intended to endear Odysseus to his hosts, for example, and so may not strictly be truth.[42] In parsing these terms, it seems that the simplest explanation is to define apologos as a specific story, the story of Odysseus’ wanderings, which at certain points behaves like an ainos.

§23. So much for the distinction between ainos and the Greek apologos. In Latin literature, the paucity of instances of apologus makes it difficult to gauge exactly how the term was received. What is clear is that it refers to more than just the story of Odysseus’ wanderings. The earliest documented use comes in Plautus’ Stichus, a comedy from 200 BCE about two sisters awaiting their long-voyaging husbands, who are brothers.[43] The antagonist is the sisters’ impatient father, Antipho. In Act IV of the play, the brothers have returned and reconciled with their father-in-law, who now wants them to provide him with music girls for his entertainment. Instead of making his request outright, Antipho says he would like to tell a story, an apologus.[44] He goes on to describe an old man with two daughters, who are married to two brothers, “the same as mine now are married to you.”[45]

§24. At this point, the parallels between Antipho’s apologus and the play itself are transparent, leading one of the brothers to say, sarcastically, “I wonder what this apologus is going to get at.”[46] The other then mocks, “This apologus is very much to the point.”[47] Then comes the request: Antipho tells how the old man in the story asked for some flute- or harp-playing girls from the men, which he considers fair recompense for his daughters’ dowries. He ends his story by telling how the brothers agreed to the old man’s request, then swiftly exits the scene as if afraid to hear the real brothers’ response. “What a remarkable fellow Antipho is! How skillfully he made up his apologus!” one brother jeers.[48] But they nevertheless agree between them to grant Antipho’s encoded request.

§25. The micro-narrative of this scene so blatantly parallels the macro-narrative as to be completely artless, which the other characters in the scene mock with exaggerated remarks about its cleverness. But despite its comedic elements, the story has all the characteristics of a Homeric ainos. It has a micro-narrative whose characters and plot mirror the macro-narrative, a request politely concealed, and a specific material goal. And unlike fabulae and fabellae, the apologus is plausible.[49] What marks it out from the Homeric ainoiis that anyone at all would be qualified to understand the hidden message, so plainly is it hidden. This difference can be accounted for by the change in genre, comedy rather than epic.[50] Based on this example, the Latin apologus seems to embody Roman comedy’s reception of the Homeric ainos. We might therefore define apologus as an ainos, but one that is parody of an epic ainos.

§26. Aside from Plautus, Cicero uses the term apologus more than any other extant author, in three separate works.[51] In all three instances, apologus means something like ‘funny story’. First, in the De Inventione, Cicero explains how it is sometimes effective to open a legal argument in court with a joke. Such jokes when prepared beforehand can be apologi or fabulae or “anything that holds derision.”[52] While he provides no examples, Cicero tells us that by such things “the mind is made whole by admiration and renewed by laughter.”[53] Similarly, in the De Oratore, a Platonic-style dialogue about the ideal orator, the character Marcus Antonius includes narrationes apologorum, ‘recounting of apologi’, among the genres of stories which provoke laughter.[54] These genres must have the semblance of truth and a bit of the repulsive in order to be funny, he says. But Marcus Antonius provides no examples. Finally, in the Ad Herrenium, Cicero includes apologi in a list of eighteen types of speech act that can produce laughter, a list which also includes fabulae “that seem true.”[55] Quintilian, following suit, mentions apologi in a section on urbanitas, ‘wittiness’, but likewise does not go into detail.[56] There is no indication whether Quintilian means the same thing by apologus here as he meant by apologatio earlier.

§27. Altogether, these orators paint a very hazy picture of what constitutes an apologus. It is considered funny and twice paired with, but kept distinct from, fabulae. It is stated that apologi have a place in court, but it is left unsaid whether they exist in literature. It seems that in the time of Plautus’ Stichus, about 200 BCE, the term apologus carried much the same weight as our Homeric ainos, though with some aspects changed to suit the comedy genre. It seems reasonable to speculate that the use of apologi in comedy affected the word’s definition so that, by Cicero’s time, over a hundred years after Plautus, the word came to mean something like “a funny story.” But since so few examples of the term survive, nothing can be said for certain.

§28. Having exhausted Quintilian’s suggestions for ainoi synonyms, we might consider as a final possibility the term aenigma.This is a Latinization of the Greek word αἴνιγμα, a derivative of αἶνος. As mentioned above, the Greek term refers to a different sort of riddle than an ainos, a prime example being the riddle of the Sphinx in the myth of Oedipus. It is nevertheless worth considering the Latin derivative as a synonym for ainos, given their etymological connection.

§29. In Latin an aenigma is ‘an obscure expression or saying, riddle, enigma’.[57] Quintilian uses the term pejoratively when he says that the overuse of metaphor in oratory results in aenigmata, ‘riddles’.[58] Elsewhere, he describes aenigma as “allegory, but harder to understand.”[59] But while Quintilian criticizes the use of aenigmain oratory for its opacity, he does not count it as a negative in poetry, citing an example of an aenigma in Virgil’s Eclogue 3. In this poem we have a singing contest between two herdsmen, Damoetas and Menalcas. Near the end of their exchange of verses, each herdsman presents the other with a riddle.[60] First, Damoetas asks his rival, “Tell me in what lands—and to me be great, Apollo!—heaven’s vault is but three ells wide.”[61] Manalcas does not solve the riddle, but responds with his own: “Tell me in what lands grow flowers inscribed with royal names.”[62] This riddle too goes unanswered as the judge, Palaemon, declares a tie and the poem ends.

§30. The first of these riddles has never been satisfactorily explained, with suggested solutions ranging from celestial globes to wells that reflect the sky, to the opening of the roof in the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitoline Hill.[63] Each of these solutions could explain the sky being reduced to three ells. The second riddle has a more straightforward answer: the lands where the hyacinth grow has flowers inscribed with royal names. Hyacinth flower petals have markings that resemble the letters AI. There are two mythological aetiologies for this. Firstly, a boy named Hyacinthus, beloved and accidentally killed by Apollo, transformed into the flower in death. The sound of Apollo’s woe “Ai! Ai!”was marked on this flower’s petals.[64] In the second aetiology, Ajax, in committing suicide after the disgrace of losing the slain Achilles’ arms to Odysseus, bled onto the flowers where he died, and afterward they held the first letters of his name. In Latin, his name is spelled Aias, making the first two letters AI.[65] The answer to the riddle, then, is either Sparta, where Hyacinthus died, or Troy, where Ajax committed suicide.[66] Perhaps confirming the former solution, Virgil has primed us to think of the hyacinth flower as a favorite of Apollo’s at an earlier point in the poem.[67]

§31. These two riddles share with the Homeric ainoi that their solutions are concealed, only accessible to a few. In the case of the first riddle, it is not certain whether anyone in the history of classical scholarship has proven qualified, as the solution is still unclear. Within the poem, no character ventures to answer the riddles, leaving their qualifications in doubt as well.

§32. On the other hand, these two riddles have distinct differences from the Homeric ainoi. Firstly, neither riddle can be considered a micro-narrative, or a story with a plot parallel to the macro-narrative of the singing contest. The second riddle may allude to the story of Apollo and Hyacinthus, but the story is not told explicitly or in any way as to parallel it with the singing contest between the herdsmen. Moreover, one does not need to be qualified on the three customary levels, mentally, morally, and emotionally, to understand the riddles. But Quintilian tells us that we may become qualified to understand aenigmata if someone explains them to us.[68] The burden on the hearer to solve the riddle becomes greatly diminished if their only task is to find out the solution from someone else. It seems that the sort of riddle that Quintilian calls an aenigma is closer to what we encounter in the story of Oedipus or in the griphoi of Athenaeus.[69] They remain a distinct category from ainoi in general and Homeric ainoi in particular.

§33. At this point, we may reflect on the imperfect Latin translations for ainos we have found. First, fabula as Quintilian defines it and Cicero uses it, seems to be a reference or allusion to a famous poetic work, with the speaker making no claim to truth. While the story alluded to contains parallels to the macro-narrative at hand, as in the case of Orestes in the Pro Milone, its implausibility marks it out from Homeric ainoi. Because the story is billed as fictional right away, Cicero does not test his audience in the way that the speakers of Homeric-type ainoi do. Next, the diminutive term fabella refers specifically to Aesopic fables. When these stories are used in other works, they recall the Hesiodic ainoi examined in the first part of this essay, and so they may be called ainoi, as Quintilian tells us. But just as Hesiodic ainoi differ from Homeric ainoi, so too are Latin fabellae distinct. Next, apologus seems to be the closest Latin parallel we have found, as it is used in Plautus’ Stichus, though certain aspects of the device are altered to suit the comedy genre. But the word apparently falls out of usage in Latin literature until the time of Cicero, who does not clarify the term beyond being a funny story. Because of its infrequent and inconsistent use, the connection to Homeric ainoi is hazy. Finally, aenigmata as defined by Quintilian and exemplified by Virgil embody a different sort of riddle than an ainos. This is a paradox with a solution that anyone is qualified to know, provided they learn it from someone else. Ultimately, none of these terms presents a satisfactory synonym for the ainos device as Homer uses it, as we studied it in the Ancient Greek Hero course.

§34. Nevertheless, ainoi like those in Homer do exist in Latin literature. But they are not referred to by any name, exposing the limits of the methods used in this essay. The example from the Odyssey was particularly useful for defining our term because Eumaios calls Odysseus’ story an ainos. But not all or even many ainoi are referred to by name in their texts. For example, Phoenix’s story to Achilles is never called an ainos in the Iliad, but it is recognizable by its form and function. So in Latin literature, there are examples that fit the mold of an ainos but never receive that or any other consistent label.

§35. For example, there is the story of Vertumnus and Pomona in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a text which abounds in stories within stories. Vertumnus, a minor god, attempts to convince Pomona, a forest nymph, to love him by telling her the tragic story of Iphis and Anaxarete.[70] The micro-narrative mirrors the macro-narrative as Iphis unsuccessfully woos Anaxarete. Ultimately, Vertumnus narrates, Iphis hangs himself in Anaxarete’s front doorframe and the sight of his dead body turns Anaxarete to stone. Back in the macro-narrative, Pomona, as if heeding the warning, embraces Vertumnus.[71] Like the Homeric ainoi, the micro-narrative parallels the macro-narrative in characters and plot. It is also persuasive, as Vertumnus encourages Pomona not to act in the same way as her micro-narrative parallel.[72] Moreover, the micro-narrative is offered as true. Vertumnus insists the story is “the most well-known thing to happen in all of Cyprus.”[73] This is in contrast to Quintilian’s ainoi, which were neither true nor plausible, the feature which consistently distinguished them from the Homeric ainoi.

§36. From this example, it seems that the sort of ainos exemplified in Homeric epic may survive as a literary device in Latin literature. But it is not called by a consistent name in its texts or in literature about it. For the tale of Iphis and Anaxarete, scholars use “inset tale” and “inset narrative,” but these phrases do not convey the key riddling aspect.[74] Perhaps there should be a consistent name for these stories, and perhaps it should be ainos.


Bibliographical Abbreviations

BA = Nagy, G. 1999. The Best of the Achaeans: Concepts of the Hero in Archaic Greek Poetry. Revised ed. with new intro. Baltimore (available online).

H24H = Nagy, G. 2013. The Ancient Greek Hero in 24 Hours. Cambridge, MA (available online).

LSJ = Liddell, Henry George, Robert Scott, and Henry Stuart Jones. 1996. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. with revised supplement. Oxford.

OCD = Hornblower, Simon, and Anthony Spawforth, eds. 2012. Oxford Classical Dictionary. 4th ed. Oxford.

OLD = Glare, P. G. W., ed. 2012. Oxford Latin Dictionary. 2nd ed. 2 vols. Oxford.

PH = Nagy, G. 1990. Pindar’s Homer: The Lyric Possession of an Epic Past. Baltimore (available online).



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[1] This definition is: “a performance of ambivalent wording that becomes clarified once it is correctly understood and then applied in moments of making moral decisions affecting those who are near and dear” (H24H 2§60).

[2] According to the Packard Humanities Institute (PHI) search engine.

[3] The section under consideration here, chapter 5.11, is more literary than is typical for Quintilian. Russell (2001:319), “For the student of literature (as opposed to logic or technical rhetoric) this is a richer and more suggestive chapter.”

[4] Quintilian Institutio 5.11.20 Αἶνον Graeci vocant.

[5] A story found in Livy, for example, is called both fabula and fabella (5.11.19).

[6] Although they may be less impressive; Quintilian Institutio 5.11.17.

[7] The OLD entry for fabula includes: ‘talk, conversation’, ‘a thing said, account, report’, ‘a fictitious story or report, tale, fiction’, a story told for entertainment, instruction, etc., tale; a fable’, ‘a legend, myth; a thing that exists only in talk, a mere name, a thing of the past’, ‘a play, drama; a piece of play-acting, pretense’.

[8] Merriam-Webster, “fable (noun),” accessed August 13, 2018, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/fable.

[9] Quintilian Institutio 2.4.2. Cicero defines narratio more narrowly as rerum gestarum aut ut gestarum expositio ‘an exposition of events that have occurred or are supposed to have occurred’ (De Inventione 27, tr. Hubbell).

[10] Quintilian Institutio 2.4.2 fabulam, quae versatur in tragoediis atque carminibus, non a veritate modo sed etiam a forma veritatis remota.

[11] Cicero De Inventione 1.27 fabula est, in qua nec verae nec veri similes res continentur. Cicero’s brief example of a fabula is a fragment from a lost work of the tragic poet Pacuvius offering the implausible image, angues ingentes alites iuncti iugo, ‘huge winged dragons yoked to a car’ (Pacuvius fr. 242 Warmington).

[12] Odyssey 14.463–466; discussed in part one of this essay, §18.

[13] Iliad 9.527 μέμνημαι. See part one of this essay, §18; H24H 2§§1–22.

[14] We might ask whether the term argumentum has any coincidence with ainos, since it, unlike fabula, is something which seems true but is not. Quintilian offers comedy as an example, but never tells us whether argumenta like comedies are used in oratory or in other genres. It gets none of the extended consideration offered fabula and fabella. The term argumentum outside of the category of narratio, however, comes up frequently in both Quintilian and Cicero’s rhetorical treatises, where it often means proof, or more specifically, something certain which gives confirmation to something uncertain (see Quintilian Institutio 5.10.11; Cicero Topica 2.87; De Partitione Oratoria. 2.5–6). Elsewhere Quintilian tells us that argumentumhas several meanings, including the plot of a play or even an artistic design (Institutio 5.10.8–10). I have not been able to find more information on the use of argumentum, the subcategory of narratio, as a rhetorical device.

[15] Cicero Pro Milone etiam fictis fabulis. See also Cicero De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum 1.65 fictae veterum fabulae, also using Orestes as an example.

[16] Aeschylus is referred to only allusively as among doctissimi homines, ‘the most skilled men’.

[17] Cicero Pro Milone sapientissimae deae sententia; quoted at Quintilian Institutio5.11.18.

[18] OLD on fabella: ‘a story, tale, anecdote; a fable’, ‘a play, drama’.

[19] Quintilian Institutio 5.11.19. He credits Hesiod with the invention of fabellae, which is not true, although Hesiod is credited with the earliest extant Greek fable (discussed in part one of this paper).  Quintilian compares fabellae to “Aesopic and Libyan stories,” Αἶνον Graeci vocant et αἰσωπείους ut dixi, λόγους et λιβυκούς (5.11.20). Quintilian may be reading from Aristotle’s Rhetorica (2.20.2–3), in which Aristotle discusses the rhetorical value of fictional stories. He calls these stories, λόγοι οἷον οἱ Αἰσώπειοι καὶ Λιβυκοί.

[20] Quintilian Institutio 5.11.19. Seneca likewise urges against reading fabellas et Aesopeos logos while mourning since they require a relaxed mind (Consolation to Polybius 8.3–4); see Van Dijk (1997:44–45).  But consider Nagy (1990b:65–66) and Martin (1984) on Hesiodic fables as didactic tales intended for royalty.

[21] Discussed at part one, §§18–21.

[22] Livy 2.32.

[23] Aesop fabula 130 ed. Perry; 132 ed. Hausrath; also told at Cicero De Officiis 3.5.22.

[24] Livy 2.33.1–2.

[25] Livy 2.32.12 comparando hinc quam intestina corporis seditio similis esset irae plebis in patres, flexisse mentes hominum (tr. Foster).

[26] Quintilian Institutio 1.9.2.We see the association between fabellae and children’s stories again in Cicero’s De Natura Deorum, where pontifex Gaius Aurelius Cotta condescendingly dismisses the stoic philosopher Quintus Lucilius Balbus’ claims of proof of the gods’ existence as ‘old wives’ tales’, fabellae aniles (3.12). On the pejorative view of old wives’ tales in the classical period and after, see Ziolkowski (2002).

[27] Livy tells us that Agrippa is a plebeian himself, despite having held a consulship in 503 BCE, but he would not likely have been both a plebeian and a consul; see Foster (2002:322n2).

[28] Part one §15.

[29] I refer to the narrator of the epistle as “Horace” for simplicity, but I leave open the possibility that this narrator is a constructed character distinct from the author himself. See Lee-Stecum (2009) on the narrator’s persona.

[30] Literally, “since you walk the same porticoes,” (Epistles 1.1.70–71).

[31] Horace Epistles 1.73–5, tr. Fairclough. Mayer (1994:103) too glosses olim as, ‘once upon a time’, enhancing the fairytale atmosphere.

[32] Aesop fabula 142 ed. Perry; 147 ed. Hausrath, with similarities to fabula 238 ed. Hausrath-Hunger.

[33] Horace Epistles 1.34–35.

[34] On whether Horace’s letters are biographical versus fictional, see Mayer (1994:1–5).

[35] Horace Epistles 1.76.

[36] Quintilian Institutio 5.11.20.

[37] Russell (2001:441n28) suggests we translate the hapax legomenon apologatio as apologus.

[38] OLD apologos (>ἀπόλογος) ‘a tale, story, fable’.

[39] LSJ ἀπόλογος: ‘story, tale, Ἀλκίνου ἀπόλογος, of long and tedious stories (from that told by Odysseus to Alcinous in Od.9–12)’.

[40] Plato Republic 614b; Aristotle Rhetorica 1417a13; Poetica 1455a2. I found no example of the noun used otherwise than to refer to the tale of Odysseus’ wanderings. The second person present imperative middle-passive of ἀπολογέομαι, ‘to defend oneself’, looks identical to the noun (in the genitive singular) but is not to be confused with it.

[41] Richardson (1996:396): “Unlike the clearly marked lies he tells various characters in Ithaka, the Apologue is presented as a factual account of the hero’s experiences.” But Richardson concedes that we can only be sure of the parts of the apologos which the master narrator confirms elsewhere, leaving most of the story “consistent but not verifiable.” On the veracity of the apologos, see Richardson (1996:396–397n5); Parry (1994); Most (1989b).

[42] Richardson (1996:398), for the parts of the apologos unverified by the master narrator, “we have only Odysseus’ word, and we know what his word is worth.” See Most (1989b: 15–16) on the many allegorical interpretations of the apologos; Shay (2002:17–18) on Odysseus’ discomfort among the civilian Phaeacians guiding his choice to tell the apologos as a “diversionary distraction.” Emlyn-Jones (1986:5–7) observes that the raid on Ismarus in the apologos and the raid on Egypt in the Cretan Tales are very similar, with each story tailored to impress its audience. On different versions of the Odyssey being “true” for different locales, see Nagy (2017).

[43] Apparently a translation of a lost Adelphoe by Menander, but not the same Adelphoe as that translated by Terence; see de Melo (2013:2–3).

[44] Plautus Stichus 538.

[45] Plautus Stichus 539–541 (tr. de Melo, and hereafter, but keeping the Latin apologus where de Melo has “story”).

[46] Plautus Stichus 541. De Melo (2013:7) calls the story a “not very convincing attempt at subtlety.”

[47] Plautus Stichus 544.

[48] Plautus Stichus 570.

[49] Although the apologus is plausible, Antipho never claims to be retelling a true event.  The introduction to the apologusfuit olim, ‘once upon a time’, may suggest that he is not telling a true story, but something closer to a fable (Plautus Stichus 36).

[50] Ainoi in general are not restricted to epic, but appear in other genres including comedy. See Nagy (2011§§99–120) on an Aesopic fable in Aristophanes’ Wasps.

[51] The word appears more in Plautus (4 times versus 3 times in Cicero), but in fewer works—only the Stichus.

[52] Cicero De Inventione 25 (= 1.17).

[53] Cicero De Inventione 25.

[54] Cicero De Oratore 2.264.

[55] fabula veri simili; the full list at Cicero Ad Herennium 1.10.

[56] Quintilian Institutio 6.3.44. See Ramage (1963) on the concept of urbanitas in Cicero and Quintilian.

[57] OLD aenigma.

[58] Quintilian Institutio 8.6.14.

[59] Quintilian Institutio 8.6.52.

[60] While the poem resembles Idylls 5, 6, and 8 of Theocritus, which all contain singing matches, the riddles are Virgil’s addition; see Clausen (1994:116); Coleman (1977:125).

[61] Virgil Eclogues 3.104-5, tr. Fairclough. An “ell” is a unit of measurement, with three ells being “about five feet” (Clausen 1994:117).

[62] Virgil Eclogues 3.106–107.

[63] Coleman (1977:125–126) appraises these and other solutions. He considers the answer of a celestial globe most likely to be correct, since it creates a thematic link to a point earlier in the poem, where the engraved cup serving as the contest’s prize is said to have astronomers carved into it (lines 40–41). Coleman also notes a possible reference to Aratus the astronomer (lines 60–61). Servius considers and rejects two solutions in his commentary: the tomb of a man named Caelius and the well at Syene; see also Clausen (1994:116–117).

[64] As told by Ovid, Metamorphoses 10.162–219.

[65] Again from Ovid, Metamorphoses 13.382–399.

[66] Coleman (1977:106–107); Clausen (1994:117–118).

[67] Along with Laurel, another famous, doomed love of Apollo, at Eclogues 3.62–63.

[68] Quintilian Institutio 8.6.53 si quis interpretetur, intelligas.

[69] Defined above, n. 55.

[70] Ovid Metamorphoses 14.623–771.

[71] On this tale and the interactions between the inner and framing stories, see Myers (1994); (2009:163–193); Gentilcore (1995); Hunt (2010).

[72] Myers (2009:172–173) and Hunt (2010:43) identify the story as part of a suasoria, a persuasive speech.

[73] Ovid Metamorphoses 14.696–697 referam tota notissima Cypro / facta.

[74] Gentilcore (1995:110); Hunt (2010:52); Myers (1994:225).