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Perseus and the foundation of Tarsus in The Chronicle of John Malalas: sources and allusions

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The Chronicle of John Malalas, Perseus, Tarsus, Antipater of Thessalonica, Bouttios, pagan kingship, Nonnus

Abstract (summary)

In the Chronicle of John Malalas, which covers the span of time from Adam to the death of Justinian (AD 565), there is a rationalizing and anti-pagan rendition of the career of the hero Perseus. This account of the life of Perseus asserts that he founded the city of Tarsus and offers the following details: He went to Isauria and Cilicia, and as he awaited the assaults of his enemies he received an oracular response to the effect that, "Dismounting from your horse and fixing the flat [tarsos] of your foot on the earth you may seize the victory." And getting down off his horse in a village called Andrasus he fixed the flat of his foot there. And he won the victory by the use of the Gorgon and made this same village a city, which he called Tarsus after the oracle of his foot, and he sacrificed an innocent girl by the name of Parthenope for the purification of the city. This account has its roots in various long-held traditions associated with Tarsus, but also includes a number of novel elements with polemical purposes. Perseus was recognized as the founder of Tarsus, or at least one of them, since the turn of the era at the latest, when Antipater of Thessalonica identified him as such in one of his epigrams.2 The association between Perseus and Tarsus was further maintained in literature, such as Lucan's Pharsalia (AD 62-5) and the orations Dio Chrysostom (c. A.O. 40/50-after 110) delivered in the city itself, and on the coins issued by Tarsus and neighbouring cities.3 Perseus was still identified as the founder of Tarsus in late antiquity, as Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330-95) attests.4 Indeed, the broad strokes of Malalas' account of the foundation of Tarsus are also to be found in the lines of Nonnus' Dionysiaca (c. 450-70). The founding by Perseus and the naming after the flat of his foot are present here, as well. But, while the foundation story in Malalas is consistent with this one, it is considerably more elaborate. Perhaps most remarkably it attributes to Perseus a virgin sacrifice at the inauguration of his new city. This detail indicates that the episode as a whole must be read in the context of several other such incidents in Malalas' Chronicle which derive from an historical tract written against pagan kings and taking aim at specific examples of rulers from a number of different periods. All of these incidents, including the founding of Tarsus, appear to be derived from one of Malalas' sources (perhaps at second hand), Bouttios, who seems to have written in reaction to the reign of Julian the Apostate (361-3) and reasonably shortly after that time. While Malalas' basic account of the foundation of Tarsus, like Nonnus', is the culmination of a variety of traditions concerning both the city and Perseus, some of the added elements are more explicable in terms of a polemical intent, a diatribe against pagan kingship.

Publication Information

Garstad, Benjamin. “Perseus and the Foundation of Tarsus in the Chronicle of John Malalas.” Byzantion 84 (2014) 171-83.



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