Scholia Reviews ns 8 (1999) 26.


Marion Findlay, Divine Quest: A Guide to Reading Virgil's Aeneid. Auckland: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996. Pp. ii + 77. ISBN 0-582-87955-8. No price supplied.

Gwen Hunter and Elizabeth Priest, Greek Drama. Auckland: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996. Pp. vi + 90. ISBN 0-582-87985-X. No price supplied.

Jonathan Campbell and Kay Harrison, The Art of Greek Vase Painting. Auckland: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996. Pp. iv + 84. ISBN 0-582-8795-3. No price supplied.

Anne Gosling
University of Natal, Durban

To classicists working in South Africa the lack of classical civilisation courses in schools is a matter of deep regret. It is encouraging, therefore, to see that the subject is part of the New Zealand curriculum, and that textbooks of quality are providing not just classical facts but challenging lines of enquiry to develop critical and cultural awareness in general. The three books under review might well be used by South African (and other) teachers of art and literature to extend and stimulate pupils who wish to explore beyond their own syllabus.

Each of the three is readable and informative. Least successful, perhaps, on the textual level, is the work on vase painting, which presents detailed material in a top-down fashion which might prove a little indigestible to young readers, whereas the two books on literature pose questions which encourage the reader to think ahead about problems and thereby to engage with the texts on a more individual level. At the same time, all three texts introduce pupils to wider issues of criticism, whether literary or aesthetic. For the Aeneid, it is a question of reading a text on more than one level, and determining what makes a good story (p. 1). For drama, the issue is the nature of tragedy and comedy (and the difference between ancient and modern conceptions of tragedy). Both works deal extensively with plot and characterisation; both in different ways engage with questions of fiction and reality. The vase painting study has good ideas on how -- and why -- to look at art, how to appreciate links between technical and aesthetic innovations and how techniques like foreshortening, torsion and perspective work (p. 41). All three books lead readers to think about how information, whether visual or verbal, is constructed and imparted, and how it is received. All three raise questions about the social and political environment of the works they discuss, and invite comparisons between ancient and modern approaches, in ways that should engage pupils and heighten their cultural and historical sense by letting them relate what they are studying to their own experience while also becoming aware of the otherness of the Greek and Roman worlds.

Divine Quest begins with an 'Introduction to Virgil and the Aeneid' (Chapter 1, pp. 1-11) which briefly positions Virgil's Rome in relation to the Greek world from the Trojan War to his own day, and outlines how Augustus came to power, why Virgil wrote the Aeneid, the main characters and the tale of Troy. The material is treated more fully in Chapter 5, 'Characters in the Aeneid'. (pp. 46-57), with illuminating contrast between the Homeric and the Roman codes of honour, based on individual glory versus communal responsibility, and in Chapter 6, 'Historical background to the Aeneid' (pp. 58-64), covering Schliemann; the Mycenaean world; the oral transmission of legends; the spread of Greek culture and the rise of Rome and eventual civil war; Augustus' need for an epic and the nature of Virgil's response. Findlay's sensitive situating of the poem in its temporal as well as its imaginative contexts offers scope for enjoyable and thoughtful reading.

Chapter 2, 'Reading the Aeneid' (pp. 12-34), gives the essentials of content, with the first six books receiving more detailed treatment, both in their summaries and discussion and in the types of activity suggested, than books 7-12. The questions of divine intervention and of the conflict between furor and pietas are introduced, and are enlarged on in Chapters 3 and 4, 'Major themes in the Aeneid' (pp. 35-40), and 'Gods in the Aeneid' (pp. 41-45). Chapter 3 deals with divine mission, of Aeneas, and of the Romans. (I found it a little one-sidedly accepting of imperialism for our post-colonial temper; pupils could be invited to discuss the ideological issues.) Chapter 4 covers Fate, deities, religious and philosophical belief and scepticism and Roman Stoicism.

Chapter 7, 'Poetic techniques in the Aeneid' (pp. 65-72), looks at the growth of the Aeneas legends in the context of Rome's expansion into Greece, Asia Minor and Africa; at Virgil's adaptation of the material and use of Italian legends and Homer; and at the structure of the poem, its unity, divisions and links. Findlay is good on narrative techniques and imagery (pace, variation, descriptive skills, vividness of extended similes, symbolism) as also on guiding readers to assess Virgil's achievements for his own time and for later readers. This, together with the appendix offering for comparison four translations of 6.295-316, the descent to Avernus, by Day Lewis, Fitzgerald, Sisson, and Dryden (pp. 75-77), encourages reflective and critical responses.

In Greek Drama Hunter and Priest offer equally stimulating insights into ways of responding to ancient literary forms that are both formative for and strange in modern western literary culture. Even more than Findlay they constantly invite pupils to consider drama from their own contemporary and cultural perspective as well as attempting to grasp its ancient significance. Chapter 1, 'Introduction to Greek Drama' (pp. 2-6), briefly situates drama in ritual, without delving into the problem of the origins of drama. The characteristics of tragedy, comedy and satyr plays are succinctly outlined, with an introduction to the festivals of Dionysus and the organisation of their dramatic components. Chapter 2, 'The Greek Theatre' (pp. 7-10), covers the physical theatre, its machinery, and the audience. Chapter 3, 'Tragedy and comedy: actors, acting and conventions' (pp. 11-18), outlines masks and costumes, the skills required of actors and playwrights, and the functions of the chorus. Two chapters provide useful historical and political background as a context for drama: Chapter 4, 'History of Athens in the fifth century B.C.' (pp. 19-25), deals with the Persian Wars, the democracy from Pericles to the demagogues, and the intellectual climate of 5th century Athens, while Chapter 5, 'The Peloponnesian War: 432-404 B.C.' (pp. 26-31), covers the outbreak of the war, the plague, Cleon, Alcibiades, the Sicilian debacle, the oligarchy and Athens' eventual defeat. Chapter 6, 'Aristophanes and old Attic comedy' (pp. 32-39), explains the value of the plays as historical sources as well as their range of comic devices and verbal wit, and closes with a run-down of the structure of Old Comedy and a chronological table. Tragedy is covered in Chapter 7, 'Greek tragedy: the three great fifth-century B.C. tragedians' (pp. 40-49). Mention of its foundation in religion and its mythological and historical source material is followed by discussion of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the end of the chapter offers some thought-provoking comments on why modern society and thinking do not offer scope for tragedy on the Greek model. At the beginning of each of these chapters pupils are invited to articulate their own preconceptions and experience of comedy and tragedy, a productive way of getting them to think about the material before they are fed the information.

Part 2 consists of a study of four plays; Chapter 8 (pp. 50-63) is concerned with Wasps and Frogs, Chapter 9 (pp. 64-76) with Oedipus Rex and Chapter 10 (pp. 77-88) with Antigone. Where necessary (as with the functioning of the Athenian law courts in Wasps) background material is provided, but at times students are pointed in the direction of material already covered, both historical and stylistic, and invited to apply what they have been told to the play in question. Related activities range from establishing the content and listing humorous devices to planning the staging of a scene. All are geared to getting pupils to understand the complexities of the plays and how the playwright engages the audience and conveys his message. I found the analysis of the Oedipus, as tragedy, as a play about Athens, as psychological drama, about ignorance, about human strength and weakness, particularly thought-provoking (pp. 67f., with pp. 72f.); so too the sense of the open-endedness of Antigone (pp. 77-80).

There is a glossary of theatrical and literary terms (p. 89) and a bibliography (p. 90).

Although just as informative and well set out, Campbell and Harrison's The Art of Greek Vase Painting is a more conventional work, in that pupils are provided with information and the categories and approaches to be used in studying it. There is very little scope for imaginative comparative engagement with the material. Chapter 1, 'Introduction to Greek vase painting' (pp. 1-8), has a map and diagrams of vase shapes, and tells how to look at and describe vases, followed by descriptions of preparing the clay and making the vessel, with explanations of terminology, the essentials of black- and red-figure and white-ground, and diagrams of a kiln (unfortunately in figure 1.10c the references to black- and red-figure are reversed). Throughout the book I found the technical explanations extremely clear. There is good discussion of the characteristics and techniques of early pots, organised chronologically but offering comparisons and insight into influences and innovations, in Chapter 2, 'The origin of Greek vase painting' (pp. 9-15).

Chapter 3, 'Black-figure vase painting' (pp. 16-35), comments briefly on aspects of continuity and innovation, followed by a study of vases in chronological order. We begin with a useful summary of the panels of the François Vase, but the photographs are not always clear enough to see what is mentioned, and the postponement of the explanation of the myths until after discussion of the content of each panel could make this complex vase difficult of access to readers unfamiliar with the myths depicted, while odd comments like 'Notice the architecture of the fountain-house' (p. 21) or 'Notice the archaic peplos which the girls wear' (p. 22) add little, since the reason for drawing attention to them is not made clear. By contrast, the discussion of Exekias' belly amphora depicting Achilles and Ajax playing dice (pp. 27f.) contains clear explanations of items mentioned (such as vase shape, decorative technique, armour) and an excellent exposition of the remarkable composition.

Chapter 4, 'The age of red-figure' (pp. 36-65), offers detailed analyses of individual painters, beginning with the bilingual vases of the Andokides Painter and ending with the Mannerists, and including a brief digression on the influence of wall-painting. Chapter 5, 'The origins of white-ground ware' (pp. 66-71), mentions the 6th century experiments with this technique and its subsequent confinement to funerary vessels because of its fragility. (The Penthesileia Painter's red-figure kylix is included alongside his white-figure Judgement of Paris pyxis.) Chapter 6, 'Further information' (pp. 72-82), sets out the iconography of the Olympian gods on vases, with illustrations. Then follow discussions of the depiction of musculature and the treatment of the male form and of drapery and the female form, in each of which the characteristics of the black- figure, red-figure and late red-figure periods are compared with contemporary sculptures. Finally inscriptions on vases are mentioned, with a table of Greek letter forms. There is a detailed glossary (pp. 83-84) and a short bibliography, which is referred to frequently throughout the text.

All three volumes are enhanced by good and varied illustrations, clear maps and pleasing layout. For Virgil we have photographs of ancient sculpture and buildings and illustrations from the Vatican Aeneid and other early editions (there is scope here for pupils to think about the later reception of Virgil). Drama is well served by diagrams, vase painting and sculpture, excellent photographs from modern productions and even cartoons. Vase painting has useful diagrams and numerous black-and-white photographs, usually from familiar sources like the British Museum but also from the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, supplemented by sixteen pages of colour photographs.

In the two literary works imaginative activities aim at engaging and extending pupils as well as at preparation, consolidation and revision. There is a good range, formal and informal, written and oral: dramatic presentations, art work, flow charts, lists, media scripts or interviews. I liked 'Write an obituary for Priam or Creusa', 'Write a job description for Jupiter' (Divine Quest, pp. 21 and 42), 'Is fertility still important? How do we ensure it?' (Greek Drama, p. 5), or the invitation to consider the difficulties you experience when telling jokes with a paper bag covering your face, and how to overcome them (ibid. p. 13). By contrast, Vase Painting suggests few activities, and they are academic and prescriptive. Clearly there is no room in this module for less than perfect performance according to the rules. The third exercise (p. 79) is challenging. Pupils are asked to draw stylistic comparisons between photographs of sculptures and vase paintings and assign them to periods. This follows several pages of similar comparisons in which similarities are listed in detail. Giving pupils a chance to attempt the exercise before reading the model discussion might have encouraged more engagement with the material. The fourth and last activity (p. 84) requires the student to review the material by drawing up charts, notes and a timeline. The aim is explicit: 'the tasks below will prepare you for assessment by an examination or test'. This is where my main criticism of the book lies: it is too obviously a syllabus for examination, rather than a topic for discovery and pleasure.[[1]]

Cavils notwithstanding, these are three excellent books for teenage readers and deserve to be used beyond the confines of the school syllabus.


[[1]] There are some unfortunate errors. Divine Quest talks of 'the Greek Achanians' (p. 66). In Greek Drama I would prefer to see 'choregoi' rather than 'choregi' (p. 6), 'metre' rather than 'meter' (p. 15) and 'laid' rather than 'lay' (p. 66, 'The shepherd lay the child on Mount Citheraon [sic, a typographical error]'), while 'quotes' as a noun (passim) and 'may have' for 'might have' (p. 72) grieve my pedantic heart. Vase Painting has infelicities of punctuation: p. 44: 'All the figures exhibit some form of foreshortening, the most extreme case is . . . '; p. 58: 'All of the painting had to be completed before the second layer of plaster dried, in this way the paint was completely absorbed . . . '; p. 69: '. . . Achilles was supposed to have fallen in love with Penthesileia, at the moment he killed her and thus their love was doomed.'; '. . . he was more often shown as a naked or semi-draped, young man' (p. 73). There are problems of expression, such as the quaintly archaic 'she was wed to Hephaistos' (p. 68) or the clumsy 'Another type of pottery . . . were the Panathenaic amphorae'(p. 56) or 'However, it is on the interior of the cup where the Penthesileia Painter has lavished . . . ' (p. 69). There are regrettable errors of spelling: 'Athena Promarchos' (p. 57), 'Stoa Poikele' (pp. 58, 59), 'petassos' (pp. 60, 67, 68, 69), 'Caducceus' (p. 68), 'amazon' for 'Amazon' (p. 70), ekhphora (p. 83).