Anthony J. Podlecki, The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy. Pp. 188. Bristol Classical Press, 1999. ISBN 1-85399-573-8. UK£13.50.
University of Iowa
It was in 1964 that Anthony Podlecki filed the doctoral dissertation on which this book was based, and the book itself appeared two years later. Another two years passed before anyone got around to reviewing it, and the reception then (1968/9) was mixed. Gianfranco Bartolini,[] expressed the general sense of unease at such an undertaking: 'Lo studio dei riflessi politici nell' opera d'arte nel mondo antico è sempre soggetto a grandissime limitazioni.' True enough. The evidence is scanty and, inevitably, ambiguous; the scholar's own subjective prejudices are of necessity harder than usual to diagnose and control. Bartolini was, by and large, generous. He stressed that Podlecki aimed, in the first instance, to modify the more extreme claims advanced by some of his predecessors, and to back up suggestions he found plausible with more cogent arguments (though this led him to underrate Podlecki's originality), and pronounced his monograph (p. 94) 'un buon contributo alla ricostruzione del clima politico in cui Eschilo svolse la sua attività.'
Other critics were less charitable. E. F. Whittle[] dismissed The Political Background of Aeschylean Tragedy as 'an uneven and incomplete study' that showed 'various signs of hasty preparation' and made 'no systematic attempt to analyze the nature of political allusion in Aeschylus, or to establish the abstract lines of his political thinking' -- always supposing, one might add, that he had any. Whittle was not alone in stressing the thinness of the parallel Podlecki drew between the reception in Argos of Aeschylus' suppliant women and Themistocles after his ostracism: A. D. Fitton Brown (who was later to argue that Ovid never left Rome at all, but sat at home for years playing with the topos of literary exile) wrote: 'I find his reasoning fallacious from start to finish.'[] Pelasgian Argos probably went to war to rescue refugees who had been abducted, could claim Argive origin, and were threatening suicide. Why should fifth century Argos put itself at risk to help Themistocles? And if Aeschylus (in 463) really wanted to promote an Argive alliance, why remind everyone that Argos had given sanctuary to Themistocles at a time when the exile -- condemned to death by Athens in absentia -- was lording it over a Persian fiefdom just across the Aegean? Podlecki, who later was to write an interesting biography of Themistocles,[] also identified him as the original stimulus for Aeschylus's attack on tyranny in the Prometheus Vinctus. This (quite apart from the vexed question of the play's authorship) is the longest of long shots: if we want a more plausible inspiration, we need only look to Anaxagoras and the early Sophistic movement.
Re-reading this monograph almost four decades after its original publication, I still find Podlecki's analysis of the relationship between the Eumenides and the Ephialtic reform of the Areopagus by far the best and most cogent investigation in it. As Alan Boegehold noted in his review,[] for Podlecki 'the Oresteia as a whole can be seen as an action at law with intimations of both primitive and civilized procedures.' That perception holds up well: better, I fear, than much of the rest. Podlecki calls this reprint a second edition. That's what it should have been, but isn't. His text appears unchanged. All he has done is add an updated bibliography and a brief résumé of relevant work on the various plays since the original date of publication. Had he reconsidered and rewritten his thesis in the light of subsequent criticism, he would have performed a truly valuable service for Aeschylean scholarship. As it is, all the important questions are left unanswered.
[] Maia 21 (1969) 93f.
[] JHS 88 (1968) 156f.
[] CR 18 (1968) 28-30.
[] Anthony J. Podlecki, The Life of Themistokles: a Critical Survey of the Literary and Archaeological Evidence (Montreal 1975).
[] AJPh 89 (1968) 498-500.