Scholia Reviews ns 18 (2009) 33.


Michael Lloyd (ed.), Aeschylus. Oxford Readings in Classical Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. Pp. xiii + 418. ISBN 0-19-926525-9. UK£80.00.

Thalia Papadopoulou, Euripides: Phoenician Women. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2008. Pp. 160. ISBN 978-07156- 34646. UK£12.99.

Isabelle Torrance, Aeschylus: Seven Against Thebes. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2007. Pp. 174, incl. 5 black-and- white illustrations. ISBN 978-0-7156-3466-0. UK£12.99.

Edith Hall
Classics, Royal Holloway, University of London, England

An enigmatic South Italian vase in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, dating from around 340BCE, depicts a lively scene from the siege of Thebes (catalogue no. 92.AE.86).[[1]] One of the seven great gates of Thebes is painted in the centre, surmounted by massive blocks representing the city wall, with defending warriors and a grey-haired elderly monarch looking out from crenels in the battlements. On the left, the attacking hero Capaneus is half-way up a ladder, holding a flaming brand, although Zeus’s thunderbolt is already heading towards him. A team of four horses enters the picture from the lower right. But what makes the scene so remarkable is that the walls of Thebes are painted in a distinctive, streaky way, with dilute glaze, elsewhere used to suggest the appearance not of monumental stonemasonry but rather of planks of wood. The edifice painted on the vase gives the impression to the viewer that it has been made by a carpenter, and thus is designed to suggest a temporary construction rather than mythical walls of stone. In his brilliant recent (2007) study, even the reliably cautious Oliver Taplin acknowledges that the vase may represent ‘a trace of some kind of strange “war games” performance about which we are otherwise ignorant’ (p. 267).[[2]]

I suspect that the vase is indeed theatre- related, perhaps inspired by a spectacular show related to (or ultimately derived from a tradition of entertainments founded by) one of our two surviving ‘siege of Thebes’ tragedies, Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes or Euripides’ Phoenician Women, or perhaps to one of the other attested lost or fragmentary plays on this theme. These include, for example, the papyrus dialogue featuring an encounter between Jocasta and her sons in Tragicorum graecorum Fragmenta adesp. F 665 = PSI 1303. Indeed, it is likely that there was far greater diversity of performances on mythical themes than we currently realise or can thoroughly document. This is certainly the case by 340 BCE, when drama had long since freed itself from the overwhelming cultural dominance of Athens, theatres were mushrooming across the Greek-speaking world, and touring professional actors were performing on temporary wooden stages wherever people would pay to see them; studies in the performance and influence of the more popular plays in the fourth century and beyond have, since a pathbreaking article by Pat Easterling published in 1993,[[3]] become a cutting-edge research area.

Whatever our preconceptions about onstage death, we learn from the hypothesis to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon that in the Hellenistic theatre it was not unknown for the Argive king to be killed in a memorable way that could actually be seen by the audience (lines 15f.). The performance reception of ancient plays within antiquity has also been stimulating important research; we know, for example, that there was a famous Greek theatrical dancer called Telestes associated with Seven against Thebes (Athenaeus 1.22a), a piece of testimony which raises important questions about performance conventions, since it is not at all clear which individual role in this tragedy requires its actor to dance at all. Again, Diodorus reports that, before the battle of Arginusae, one of the Athenian admirals dreamt that he and his six colleagues were playing the roles of the ‘Seven against Thebes’ in Euripides’ Phoenician Women (Diodorus 13.97-8): yet, with the exception of Polynices, the Seven do not appear in the text that has been transmitted, unless the audience could see, through extra-textual supplements to the action, what Antigone is shown from the walls of Thebes. Moreover, performance styles may well have been interestingly diverse long before, even as early as the fifth century, when we now know that Greek tragedies were performed -- or rather, revived -- in contexts other than the major Athenian festivals of Dionysus, for example in Attic deme theatres. Theatrical impresarios handling a text with an impressive teichoskopia scene, such as Euripides’ Phoenician Women, may well not always have felt hidebound by the minimalist scenic and staging conventions that classical scholars -- as opposed to people teaching Greek tragedy in drama departments -- tend to assume was the norm.

Most ancient actors and producers certainly did not have any inherent respect for the idea of an ‘authentic’ original text by a canonical poet. The fourth-century nonpareil tragic actor Theodorus always demanded that the character he was playing as protagonist be given the prologue, on the ground that audiences sympathised most with the first voice that they heard (Arist. Pol. 7.1336b.27- 31); since Theodorus specialized in reviving canonical masterpieces by Sophocles and Euripides, this must in practice have meant that new prologues needed to be created hastily and prefixed to favourite plays in the repertoire. Such thespian input explains why, for example, Iphigenia in Aulis has two prologues, the result of at least one drastic thespian intervention in the text. When Lycurgus arranged for the texts of the fifth-century tragic masterpieces to be collected and held for the benefit of the public (en koinōi, [Plut.], Lives of the Ten Orators, Lyc. 841F), probably in the Athenian Metröon where documents of public interest had been archived since the late fifth century, his scribes may therefore have faced a paper jungle. However irritating ‘actors’ interpolations’ may be to scholars and critics aspiring to the holy grail of textual ‘authenticity’, they can alternatively be seen as welcome evidence of a flourishing and creative ancient performance tradition.

These are some of the fascinating directions in which studies of the Greek tragic theatre have been moving, at least over the last decade and a half. Moreover, thinking about the origins and transmission of ancient tragic texts in terms of performance has come profoundly to affect our reading of the emotional and sociopolitical impact of plays; David Wiles, for example, has made some very important points about the use of performance space in Seven against Thebes, even if he makes some rather unfounded assumptions about what exactly its original spectators could see.[[4]] But when it comes to more ‘literary’ appreciation, as evidenced by the three books under discussion here, the well of inspiration seems to be drying up. The majority of publications on Greek tragedy today seem to collect or recycle ideas from publications which first appeared at least a decade and a half ago. Indeed, the 1970s to the early 1990s begin to look retrospectively something like a golden age. It was during that chronological period that there appeared the two canonical (although very different) heavyweight commentaries on the tragedies dealing with the siege of Thebes and the fratricide of Eteocles and Polynices, Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes and Euripides’ Phoenissae, by Gregory Hutchinson (OUP 1983) and Donald Mastronarde (CUP 1994) respectively. Just as importantly, it was in those days that many of the most important theoretical advances in the way literature was discussed by Classicists were made in publications on Greek tragedy, by such illustrious names as Vernant, Vidal-Naquet, Loraux, Segal, and Winkler. But these five are all now dead, and during the last decade and a half, with one or two outstanding exceptions, it seems that the torch of literary avant-gardism has passed from scholars on Greek tragedy to those investigating quite other genres, especially epic, Hellenistic poetry, and the ancient novel.

To replace the provocative monographs and pathbreaking articles applying theoretical models such as Structuralism, Deconstruction, Gender Theory, Narratology, Ritual anthropology or Cultural Materialism, there has, however, been a veritable avalanche of pedagogical aids in the form of ‘companions’ to Greek tragedy. These include such estimable compendia as the Blackwell Companion to Greek Tragedy (2005), edited by Justina Gregory, and the Cambridge Companion to the Greek and Roman Theatre (2007), edited by Marianne McDonald and Michael Walton. There are also several similar volumes currently in press, including ‘Companions’ to Sophocles in preparation by both Blackwell and Brill. OUP has so far eschewed the ‘Companion’ arrangement, which contains newly commissioned articles on discrete aspects of a genre or author, sticking instead to its now time-honoured format of the Oxford Readings. These volumes, according to the OUP website, aim to offer ‘a representative selection of the best and most influential articles on a particular author, work, or subject’, kicked off by ‘an authoritative and wide-ranging introduction by the editor surveying the scholarly tradition and considering alternative approaches’. That is, the volumes’ unique selling point is that their contents have been tried and tested for a period of some - - sometimes many -- years. This series contains some important collections, including Erich Segal’s on Greek Tragedy (1983), Judith Mossman’s on Euripides (2003), and now Michael Lloyd’s Aeschylus.

Lloyd built his reputation with two books on Euripides, a discussion of the debate scene (The Agon in Euripides, OUP 1992) and an edition of Andromache (Aris & Phillips 1994), which is one of the most rhetorically flamboyant and sophistical of all Euripides’ plays. Aeschylus is a very different dramatist, but Lloyd shows that he is at home in any area of ancient Greek drama and has produced a useful if slightly staid collection. His brief was, it must be said at the outset, a very challenging one, since really important individual articles on Aeschylus have historically been few and far between. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of the articles which Lloyd has selected. Timothy Gantz’s thorough review of what is factually known about Aeschylean tetralogies, and Mark Griffith’s ‘The King and Eye: the Rule of the Father in Aischylos’ Persians’, first published in 1980 and 1998 respectively, are both fundamental to contemporary studies in Aeschylus. The articles Lloyd includes on the Oresteia are all ‘classics’ of their kind -- John Peradotto on the omen of the eagles, E. R. Dodds’ ‘Morals and politics in the Oresteia’, and C. W. Macleod on the politics of the same trilogy. The other three plays are rather mysteriously less well served, in that there are in existence several much more recent and far less dull discussions of every single one. The 1962 discussion of Seven against Thebes by Kurt von Fritz, in particular, has been emphatically superseded. But what this volume does not include is any very literary discussions of one of the greatest poets of all time, nor any sense (besides a few undeveloped references in footnotes) of his importance to the scholarly avant-garde in the 1980s and 1990s. Reading the book feels like sitting on the back row at an Oxford seminar in the early 1980s -- the ‘speakers’ are mostly theoretically traditional male contributors, with no poststructuralists or feminists, and very little sense that what Aeschylus composed was for collective performance by an ensemble in a theatre.

The tension inherent in the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies format results from its fundamental brief. It is supposed to ‘consider alternative approaches’ through a process of surveying the scholarly tradition. But at the end of Oxford Readings in Aeschylus, the novice reader would be no more aware of the crucial importance of the Oresteia and Suppliants in feminist scholarship, of Persians in postcolonial studies, or of Seven against Thebes to Semiotics (see further below). They certainly would not know about Aeschylus’ reception within antiquity, which has attracted some crucial work by distinguished scholars. Lloyd’s collection constitutes a good enough book, and his introduction is reliable and perceptive within methodologically rather limited parameters, but an authoritative survey of the critical tradition it cannot claim to be. I am also confused about the intended reader. Students will find it old-fashioned, and be annoyed by the untranslated ancient Greek; scholars will find it useful as a collection of studies that have indeed been historically important, and some of which are still making waves, but limited in its theoretical range.

Duckworth’s intervention in the same ‘advanced pedagogical’ market is a developing series of ‘Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy’, which consist of short monographs promoted as ‘Accessible introductions’ to individual plays: ‘Each volume discusses the main themes of a play and the central developments in modern criticism, while also addressing the play's historical context and the history of its performance and adaptation,’ says the promotional literature. The quality of the series, edited by Tom Harrison (who deserves great praise for encouraging some very able younger scholars to participate), varies wildly. The best, which include Jon Hesk’s Ajax and Pantelis Michelakis’ Iphigenia in Aulis, are quite outstanding; some (including Michael Lloyd’s Sophocles’ Electra (2004)) are helpful and incisive, but one or two are woefully inadequate. Isabelle Torrance’s new study of Seven against Thebes is one of the more useful, although I think (for all the reasons detailed above) that she made a mistake in deciding at the outset to dismiss as ‘inauthentic’ the transmitted ending, in which Antigone and Ismene appear in order to join the lament for their slain brothers. This ending may not have been written by Aeschylus, but it was certainly a version that we know was performed, and we know that tragedies by Aeschylus were revived as early as the 420s BCE, with Seven against Thebes high on the list of likely candidates.

Torrance organises her analysis of the tragedy’s themes under sensible chapter headings (‘City and Family’, ‘Divine Forces and Religious Ritual’, ‘Warriors’ and ‘Women’), and has clearly given a very great deal of intelligent thought to the question of what her likely reader will want from a book of this nature and scale. She is excellent on the emotional tensions and psychological development of the play, the religious atmosphere (although the Christian connotations of the word ‘sin’ are rather unhelpful), curses, oaths and their functions, imagery, and the use of the chorus. I particularly liked her sensitivity to the way the play interacts with its audience’s knowledge of earlier poetry and of the myths relating to Thebes. The discussion of the play’s Nachleben in and subsequent to the crusades, although necessarily brief, is also very perspicacious. But where I part company with Torrance is with her round-up of the critical tradition, which implies that discussions of the play have been limited to textual criticism, the politics of the play in relation to Athens at the time of its premiere in 467, and the configuration of the protagonist Eteocles. Not only does this account leave out the entire story of the play’s staging in antiquity, but curiously omits the crucial place this particular text holds in the history of literary theory in the classics academy, as a result, primarily, of Froma Zeitlin’s pathbreaking experiment in applying semiotic theory to Greek theatrical poetry in Under the Sign of the Shield (1982). This is particularly curious because the section on the ecphrasis of the shields earlier in Torrance’s book clearly does owe a good deal to Zeitlin’s innovative approach. Fortunately, the second edition of Under the Sign of the Shield, which has hitherto been frustratingly inaccessible because printed in such a small quantity by an Italian press (Edizioni dell’Ateneo, Rome), has just been published in the USA by Lexington Books (2009).

One of the best qualities of Torrance’s study is her palpable appreciation of the peculiarly dark, violent and desperately anxious atmosphere of her play, as well as its extraordinary emphasis on the noise and stress of war. I would certainly recommend this book to undergraduates, although Seven against Thebes is not a play which is often read within the curriculum except on the most specialist courses. Thalia Papadopoulou, in contrast, struggles earnestly but with rather less literary sensitivity in her contribution to the Duckworth series, Euripides: Phoenician Women. Unfortunately the success of her volume is further compromised by its cut- and-paste attitude to publications by other scholars (usually sourced in footnotes, but still creating a rather disjointed effect) and lack of careful editing by a native speaker of English. The book has some strengths, including a wide-ranging and informative study of reception in both antiquity and post-Renaissance. Where Torrance organised her chapter according to themes, Papadopoulou favours a more Aristotelian set of categories -- characters and actions, the role of the chorus -- which leads to some no-nonsense clarity that may help the intended reader. But in the case of this play, I would still rather send my undergraduates -- even completely Greekless ones -- to Elizabeth Craik’s exemplary Aris & Phillips edition (1988), with its helpful introduction and translation in the same volume as her text and wise commentary keyed to the English translation.


[[1]] viewable online at: tDetails?artobj=17786

[[2]] O. Taplin, Pots and Plays: Interactions between Tragedy and Greek Vase- Painting of the Fourth Century BC (Oxford 2007).

[[3]] Pat Easterling, ‘The end of an era? Tragedy in the early fourth century’, in Alan Sommerstein, S. Halliwell, J. Henderson, and B. Zimmermann, Bernhard (edd.), Tragedy, Comedy and the Polis: Papers from the Greek Drama Conference, Nottingham, 18-20 July 1990 (Bari 1993) 559-69.

[[4]] David Wiles, Tragedy in Athens: Performance Space and Theatrical Meaning (Cambridge 1999) 197-201.