Alan H. Sommerstein (ed.), The Comedies of Aristophanes Vol. 10: Ecclesiazusae. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1998. Pp. xiv + 242. ISBN 0-85668- 708-1. UK£16.50, US$28.00.
The University of Iowa
It is now twenty years since Alan Sommerstein published his first Aristophanes edition, of the Acharnians, and further volumes have appeared at regular intervals of two to three years ever since. The Ecclesiazusae is the penultimate play in Aristophanes' surviving corpus to be thus tackled, and Sommerstein promises to round off what is, by any yardstick, a most impressive achievement (for sheer stamina, to look no further) by delivering the Plutus 'ca. 2001'. This series, among other things, graphically chronicles the huge advances made in computerized desktop book-production involving complex typography and the regular use of Greek-language texts. Comparison of Sommerstein's new Ecclesiazusae with an early edition such as his Knights (1981) strikingly demonstrates the sophisticated techniques developed over the past decade for dealing with even the most recalcitrant classical material (though for some impenetrable reason this volume still transliterates Greek phrases in the commentary.) At the same time Sommerstein himself has, inevitably, learned a great deal on the job. Dealing with the minutiae of text, production, dramatic techniques, character allotment, topical jokes and historical background through ten volumes will sharpen anyone's scholarship, and Sommerstein's was pretty sharp to start with. Which is simply to say that for justifiably confident judgments, textual surefootedness, percipient interpretation, and a subtle insight into the rough-and-tumble of Athenian politics, his Ecclesiazusae must be reckoned-- with the possible exception of his Frogs (1997)--the most successful volume yet in the series. It doesn't hurt, either, to have a broad abrasive sense of humor well attuned to that of your author.
Sommerstein's overall achievement becomes very clear when we look at his predecessors. Victor Coulon's Budé edition (Paris 1923-30) is still, alas, the best in the field, though by default only, and overrated by too many scholars (Sommerstein included): his text is in fact extremely shaky. Both the text and apparatus of the Hall & Geldart (second edition Oxford 1906-7) leave a great deal to be desired. Van Leeuwen (Leiden 1896-1909) and Rogers (London 1902- 15) are primarily of value for their commentaries, though both are severely outdated and van Leeuwen is hard to access. The future looks brighter: Kassell and Austin are editing all eleven comedies as Vol. III.1 of their monumental Poetae Comici Graeci (Berlin), and Henderson is following up his exemplary edition of the Lysistrata (Oxford 1987) with a complete new Loeb translation. But for an overall series of the entire corpus, including critical text, commentary, translation, and full introduction, all subsumed to one man's intelligent analysis and wide- ranging scholarship, Sommerstein stands triumphantly alone. Si monumentum requiris, circumspice: ten (soon to be eleven) invaluable volumes, their matter so presented as to be of equal use to student beginner and advanced research scholar-in itself a remarkable piece of academic legerdemain.
The Ecclesiazusae offers ample scope for Sommerstein to show his paces: it has problems and to spare. First, its date. It was produced at some point during the Corinthian War (395-387/6), but before the Plutus (388). The most commonly accepted year is 392; Ussher (Oxford 1973) opted for 393. Sommerstein, whose control of the evidence for early fourth century history is better than that of many professional historians, recognizes that no reliable sense can be extracted from the corrupt scholion on 193, and therefore ignores it. Though this scholion's source is Philochoros (FGrH 328 F 148), its claim that two years prior to the date of the play's production an alliance had been made between Sparta and--of all Greek states!--Boeotia is patent nonsense, since for most of the Corinthian War, beginning with a vigorous invasion in 395, Sparta showed herself aggressively hostile to Boeotia. Sommerstein prefers, rightly, to rely on internal evidence. Here the key statements occur at 197f. and 823-9. There has been much-debated talk about launching a new fleet; and Heurippides' proposal to impose a new tax has been voted down. As Sommerstein points out (p. 6), 'while Athens had available Conon's fleet and Persian money, there was no need to create a large Athenian navy or to propose special taxes.' But after Tiribazos imprisoned Conon in the summer of 392 (Xen. Hell. 4.8.16) it was a very different matter. If we allow time for the rejection of Heurippides' tax-proposal, the date we are looking at for the production of the Ecclesiazusae in which these allusions would be topical is 391. Sommerstein reinforces his thesis with further references at Eccl. 202f. and 356f. He is almost certainly right.
He is also pithily sensible (in less than two pages) on the far-from-satisfactory MS tradition. Apart from the great 10th cent. Ravenna codex, only Mu1 and Lambda contain the complete text of Eccl., and Sommerstein, who has collated Lambda and reported the readings of its scholia for the first time (revealing, inter alia, that a conjecture by Bentley at 23 goes back at least to medieval times) now firmly, and with justice, downgrades Mu1 to a copy of Lambda. Bentley, however, benefits from the first-ever papyrus reading recorded of Eccl., Mich. Pap. 6649 (Pi60), published as recently as 1981 by T. Renner,[] which confirms his conjecture of lipar=w| at 652. Sommerstein advances Lambda as a good MS 'basically of the Alpha-Gamma family' (p. 38), its ancestor being 'not Gamma but a sister of Gamma' (p. 39), that offers a series of sound readings, often against R. Again, his arguments are persuasive, and cumulatively confirmed in the text he prints, the notes to which cite Lambda throughout.
But of course the chief interest of Eccl., for modern readers both lay and professional, is Praxagora's famous proposal for communism by gynaecocracy; and here Sommerstein shows himself as familiar with ancient political theories, and the considerable modern scholarship generated by them, as earlier with the historical context in which they arose. His analysis (pp. 8-22) of Praxagora's 'new society', and its much debated relationship to Books III and V of Plato's Republic, is a model of clear exposition and informed, commonsensical judgment, which begins--very necessarily in these PC days--with a tart reminder (p. 8) that 'to ancient Greeks (as to most peoples before the last few generations) the domination of men over women was part of the natural order of things.' Thus gynaecocracy is fundamentally conceived, and not just in a comic context, e.g. here or in the Lysistrata, as fantasy--at least among the vast majority of Athenians. This does not mean that a small minority was not seriously considering such novel and subversive notions as a 'permanent gynocratic Utopia' (p. 10), but does serve to keep them in proportion.
To begin with, Praxagora seems not have any specific aim in mind except for women to take over political power in Athens 'because it was thought that this was the only thing that hadn't so far been tried' (456f.), and the situation was desperate. But at 583- 710, in lieu of the normal comic agôn, she delivers a speech outlining a new and radical model for society, the archetype of every subsequent communist-style utopia, and in particular virtually identical with Plato's blueprint for his Guardians. (Its essentials also soon resurfaced in Zeno of Citium's notorious Politeia, a point Sommerstein doesn't mention.) Private property and marriage--but not slavery--are both to be abolished. Sex, here equated with the women expected to supply it, is to be communally available, preference being given to the old or ugly. But women still also supply clothing, even if food is provided by slaves: men, as Praxagora admits (652), have it easy. This gynaecocracy is very tongue-in-cheek.
It is also, for dedicated Platonists, more than a little embarrassing, since its detailed, point by point resemblance to the Guardians' regimen is far too close for coincidence. There have been two main attempts to get round the embarrassment, and Sommerstein demolishes both of them. Was Aristophanes caricaturing Plato's model? Impossible: all the evidence places the Republic at least a decade later than the Ecclesiazusae. Could they both- -the latest favorite explanation--have been drawing on a common source? But if there was one, Aristotle, who specifically names Plato as unique in proposing communal property, sex, and parentage (Pol. 1266a31-36, 1274b9-10), somehow missed it. The obvious answer, that Plato was deliberately adapting Aristophanes' schema, has been dismissed out of hand as frivolous. It's hard to see why, not least when we recall that what Plato sent Dionysius of Syracuse, when asked for literature explaining Athens' system of government, was, precisely, the collected works of Aristophanes. Sommerstein's arguments in favor of this solution are, again, both meticulous and sensible: it is interesting, as he says, that it is in this precise part of the Republic that Socrates most fears his proposals being ridiculed as comic fantasy (Rep. 452a-d). Praxagora's proposals attack the wealth/poverty gap and, allied with this, social selfishness: fantasy maybe, but still well rooted in social fact.
Sommerstein's commentary is, as always, user-friendly
and commonsensical, besides (in welcome contrast to
most of its predecessors) quite evidently enjoying
Aristophanes' sexual and scatological fun. It is also
fuller and more detailed than many of Sommerstein's
own earlier efforts in this field, thus implicitly
signalling (a process it has been fascinating to
watch throughout) the steady deepening and
consolidation of his scholarly experise in all
aspects of Aristophanic studies. For excellent
examples see his notes on 197f. (contrasting class
reactions to the desirability of naval rearmament),
202f. (Thrasybulus), 652 (shadows and sundials), 729-
30 (choral interludes), and 1113 (identity of the
despoina), a discussion which also reminds us
of Sommerstein's skill at that most difficult
Aristophanic game, speech-allotment, something
materially aided by his hands-on involvement with
play-production. (Any would-be director will find
this edition treasure-trove.) His translation
properly aims for utilitas rather than
decus, but still manages to achieve the
occasional neat rendering, e.g. at 720 for '
[] T. Renner, 'Two Papyri of Aristophanes',
ZPE 41 (1981) 1-12.
[] T. Renner, 'Two Papyri of Aristophanes', ZPE 41 (1981) 1-12.