Thursday, August 25, 2016


Poulheria Kyriakou, Antonios Rengakos (ed.), Wisdom and Folly in Euripides. Trends in classics – supplementary volumes, 31. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. Pp. x, 445. ISBN 9783110452259. $154.00.

Reviewed by Mary Lefkowitz, Wellesley College (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

As Aristotle knew, human error (hamartia, Poet. 1453a10) is a fundamental aspect of drama. A propensity for making errors in judgment makes mortals at least partly responsible for all the bad things that happen to them, and not just random victims of malevolent or inattentive divinities. So it is not remarkable that this collection of essays is devoted to wisdom and folly in Euripides, who offers such vivid descriptions of both qualities in his works. The collection is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Iakov, who was respected both for his scholarship and wise counsel; a list of his publications is included in the volume.

The essays are grouped under three headings: General, Individual Plays, and Reception; there is a useful subject index and an index locorum. But I wish that the editors had also provided an introduction (and/or conclusion) that sought to describe the central importance for drama of the subject of wisdom and folly. What might be meant by the terms wisdom or folly is never defined, though it may unreasonable to expect that it would be, given that the various authors are talking about dramas, not philosophical discourses. It would have helped if the editors had tried to explain how the various essays collected in the volume might be related to one another, and if the authors (wherever appropriate) had referred to each other's works. In the following discussion of the contents of the volume, I have tried to suggest some of the ways in which such connections might be made.

General Essays. In "Euripides the Antiquarian," Luigi Battezzato observes that since Euripides understood that his audience enjoyed learning about the origins of myths and rituals, he was not simply inventing learned aetiologies as a form of entertainment.1 In "Euripides: Poet of Irritations," Martin Hose explains why Euripides deliberately makes his audience question the gods' behavior, without necessarily supplying any answers; he is not so much attacking religious orthodoxy, as explaining why the problems created by it cannot be solved. Gregory Hutchinson ("Gods wise and foolish: Euripides and Greek literature from Homer to Plutarch") shows how Euripides interrogates the gods' wisdom in both general and particular ways; without the debates and questioning portrayed in his dramas, the second half of the fifth century would not have been of much interest to philosophers. In "'Rightly does Aphrodite's Name begin with aphrosune': Gods and Men between Wisdom and Folly," Maria Serena Mirto picks up where Hutchinson left off, showing how the questions raised in the dramas were taken up by philosophers. Tradition and innovation can even work together in ways that neither Socrates nor Plato would have objected to, as (for example) in Hecuba's prayer to Zeus in Tro. 884–8. Unfortunately for mortals, however, the gods do not necessarily subscribe to mortal notions of wisdom and folly, and humans are left to make whatever sense they can of divine action. In "Wisdom from Slaves," Ruth Scodel points out that wise advice about the limitations of human knowledge is often given by slaves and persons of inferior status, though the grandees to whom the underlings volunteer their counsel are usually too self-centered to hear it. But even if they had been willing to listen, the good advice, however well-intentioned, would probably not have helped them, since it comes from other humans, not from the gods.

Individual Plays. This section begins with Laura McClure's "Hearth and Home in Euripides' Alcestis," a play that celebrates marriage and the silent role played by the goddess Hestia in protecting the home, depicting Alcestis' return as a second marriage. The chapter, although informative and well-documented, does not attempt to address the central theme of the volume, though certainly wisdom can be found in piety and maintaining the stability of the home (see, e.g., the slave's wise advice in Bacch. 1150-2). In "The Wisdom of Jason," John Gibert considers the Medea, a drama in which the characters ignore Hestia and everything she stands for, offering a close analysis of Jason's sophia, and his use of the language of cost and benefits. In "The Education of Hippolytus," Justina Gregory explains why the education Hippolytus received from his "pure" grandfather Pittheus does not help him, because it did not encourage him to empathize with others; he only learns to do so after he experiences pain and suffering. That suffering becomes this legacy, through remembrance of his life in ritual. In "Wisdom, Nobility, and Families in Andromache," Poulheria Kyriakou finds that every character, even Peleus, has moral flaws and only partial understanding. But in "Wisdom through Experience: Theseus and Adrastus in Euripides' Suppliant Women ," Katerina Synodinou shows that Theseus is able to learn from his mother the value of compassion, even for when people have acted wrongly, displaying a humanity and empathy for the Argives' suffering that contrasts starkly with the steely resolve and strict demands of the goddess Athena, who appears ex machina at the end of the play. Yet, as Andrea Rodighiero suggests in 'Sail with your fortune': Wisdom and Defeat in Euripides' Trojan Women," it is only through empathy that Troy's suffering can be incorporated into the cultural memory of the Greeks. The drama reminds the Athenian audience that even though good fortune cannot last, life is better than death, and that although it cannot be completely understood, the existence of the gods cannot be denied. In "The Significance of Numbers in Trojan Women," Matthew Wright argues that explicit counting calls attention to the terrible loss and suffering the drama portrays, and may also have helped to connect it to the other (now lost) dramas in the same trilogy. In "The Delphic School of Government: Apollonian Wisdom and Athenian Folly in Euripides' Ion," Andreas Markantonatos proposes that the Ion is directed at the Athenian audience: Ion prefers the pious life he leads in Delphi, and through Ion's future kingship Athena promises a strong and morally principled leadership, now badly needed in the last phase of the Peloponnesian War. David Konstan's "Did Orestes Have a Conscience? Another Look at Sunesis in Euripides' Orestes," also focuses on morality. Konstan argues (rightly) that in Or. 396 Orestes'synesis should not be translated as "conscience," since in the drama Orestes feels no remorse for having murdered his mother.2 But would it even have been appropriate or sensible for him to have been remorseful if he was following the orders of a god?

In "Madness Narrative in Euripides' Bacchae," Anna Lamari shows that in the Bacchae Euripides portrays delusion with psychological accuracy. In "The Language of Wisdom in Sophokles' Philoktetes and Euripides' Bacchae," Seth Schein discusses how the Philoctetes, sophism is rejected in favor of what is morally right; in the Bacchae the gods' wisdom triumphs, with all its complexity of meaning. In "The Figure of Teiresias in Euripides' Bacchae," Bernd Seidensticker demonstrates that Tiresias is not a comic figure, as some scholars have suggested. The scene in which he and Cadmus appear heightens the tension, allowing the audience to begin appreciate the dark and destructive powers of the god: if the two old men are made to look foolish and uncomfortable by the demands of Dionysiac ritual, what then will the god do to Pentheus? In "Bacchae: Manipulation and Destruction," Davide Susanetti discerns in that drama a warning to Athens. The Athenians' lust for Sicily is like Pentheus' deranged desire to spy on the maenads. The play "captures the decline of an era," as seen by Euripides "from his exile in Macedonia." But can we determine exactly what was in the poet's mind, especially the idea that he was in exile is almost certainly a fiction based on comedy? For all we know, he may have been in Athens when he wrote the Bacchae. 3 So far as we can tell from surviving texts, Athenian dramas did not comment directly on current events, but dealt with timeless problems, such as the human inability to understand and come to terms with the reality of a world controlled by gods for their own benefit. The lost drama discussed by Patrick Finglass in "Mistaken Identity in Euripides' Ino," presented a particularly vivid portrayal of the most terrifying results of human misunderstanding and derangement, cases in which parents unwittingly murder their own children (as, e.g., in the Heracles and Bacchae). In a recently discovered fragment (POxy 5131) Ino recovers from her madness only to discover that she has killed her own child, and not (as she had intended) the son of her rival Themisto, Athamas' second wife. Despite its grim subject matter (all four of Athamas' sons are killed), Ino appears to have been a popular play, often quoted by later writers; annotations on the papyrus suggest that it may have been performed in Oxyrhynchus in the early third century A.D.4

Reception. In "Whatever Happened to Euripides' Lekythion ([Frogs/i] 1198–1247)?" David Sansone discusses the meaning of ληκύθιον ἀπώλεσεν, a phrase that has an important bearing on our understanding of Aristophanes' caricature of Euripides. Although in recent times some scholars have suggested that ληκύθιον is a metaphor for male genitalia,5 Sansone shows persuasively that the phrase in fact must mean "had one's oil flask stolen," for example, at the bath or gymnasium, a type of theft that was categorized as hierosylia, a crime of some consequence. Since Aristophanes identifies the poets with the characters in their dramas, his Euripides is by association not the canny street-smart character he represents himself as being, expert in domestic matters (oikeia pragmata). Thalia Papadopoulou returns to the theme of insanity in "Euripidean Frenzy goes to Rome: The Case of Roman Comedy and Novel," arguing that Euripidean madness scenes had a continuing influence on Latin authors; sub-textual Bacchic associations are particularly prevalent, with echoes even in Livy's account of the episodes that led to the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. In "The Leopard-skin of Heracles: traditional wisdom and untraditional madness in a Ghanaian Alcestis," Barbara Goff describes how tragic madness triumphs in the 1962 drama Edufa, by the Ghanaian suffragette and playwright Efua Sutherland, who based her plot based on Euripides' Alcestis, but with an unhappy ending, reflecting the politics of that time.

The last chapter of the volume, Michaelis Tiverios' "New Evidence for Euripides' (?) Alkmene: Another Look at a South Italian Vase-Painting," discusses a scene on a fourth-century Sicilian calyx crater by the Darius painter (Boston 1989.100), depicting Amphitryon preparing to burn Alcmene alive, because he supposes that she was unfaithful. The vase also shows that Alcmene is about to be rescued. A rainbow appears over the pyre while a large eagle flies by. Opposite Amphitryon, on the other side of the pyre, stands a boy and behind him a man labelled ΧΡΗΩΝ. Most scholars believe that the boy is carrying wood, and that the man standing behind him must be Creon (the king of Thebes).6 Tiverios suggests instead that the boy is a χρησμόλογος reading an oracle from a book roll, and the man behind him (who resembles Amphitryon) is the person who delivered the oracle (χρήων), perhaps Zeus himself as he appeared to Alcmene.7 Creon seems to me to be the more likely candidate, but in either case the timely oracle will keep Amphitryon from killing Alcmene and making a terrible error in judgment. Thus the chapter offers a fitting conclusion to a book about wisdom and folly.


1.   Cf. S. Scullion, "Tradition and Invention in Euripidean Aitiology" ICS 24–25 (1900–2000) 217–33; further discussion and bibliography in M. Lefkowitz, Euripides and the Gods (New York 2016) 136–7.
2.   See esp. V. di Benedetto, Euripidis Orestes (Florence 1965) 85–6; C. W. Willink, Euripides: Orestes (Oxford 1986) 151 suggests "Awareness."
3.   On the historical unreliability of such information as we have about Euripides' life, see M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets, ed. 2 (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2012), 87–103.
4.   P. J. Finglass, "A New Fragment of Euripides' Ino," ZPE 189 (2014) 78–9.
5.   E.g., C. H. Whitman, "ληκύθιον ἀπώλεσεν," HSCP 73 (1969) 109–12.
6.   E.g, O. Taplin, Pots and Plays (Los Angeles 2007) 172–4, who observes that Χρήων is not a "philologically possible form" of Κρέων.
7.   Even though Zeus never appears ex machina in known dramas, the term χρήω is used on a tablet from the oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Tiverios observes that the phrase λιγὺς ὁ χρησ[μός] occurs on a papyrus fragment of the beginning of Euripides' Alcmene (TrGF 5.1, F 87b.13), but that cannot be this oracle; see M. Cropp and G. Fick, Resolutions and Chronology in Euripides: The Fragmentary Tragedies, BICS Suppl. 43 (London 1985) 73.

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Barbara Ryan, Milette Shamir (ed.), Bigger than Ben-Hur: The Book, its Adaptations, and their Audiences. Television and popular culture. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2016. Pp. xviii, 269. ISBN 9780815634034. $34.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Ruth Scodel, The University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site


First, a note about conflict of interest: I was solicited to contribute to this volume, but when a collaborator and I submitted a contribution about slavery in the novel, the play, and the 1925 film, the editors wanted revisions we were not willing to make. Slavery is regrettably neglected.

This book is not intended for readers whose main interest is classical reception. It is a study of American popular culture. A classicist who teaches ancient Rome in film will want to look at some of the chapters, but probably does not need to read them all. More of the chapters deal with the novel than with the adaptations, and sometimes they expect a reader who has read Wallace's novel carefully. I have done so, because I felt obligated to do so; I find much of it tedious, but the contributors mostly seem to regard it with considerable admiration. Also, it bothers me throughout that contributors sometimes seem to accept Wallace's research at the valuation of Wallace himself and his contemporaries. He was very careful about typography, but that does not mean that he understood either Rome or Second Temple Judaism very deeply.1

Since I do not think that the book is really aimed at the readers of BMCR, and since its main topics are outside my competence, this will not be a very detailed review. The words "modernity" and "imperialism" recur often. Only the first chapter, Eran Shalev's "Ben Hur's and America's Rome," which argues that the virtuous Republican Rome so important to the Founders became an evil empire with Jacksonian democracy and the Second Great Awakening, is about antiquity. The chapter is a good introduction to the topic, but is superficial.2

That said, there is much that is fascinating here about the background of the novel. Howard Miller's essay "'In the Service of Christianity': Ben-Hur and the 'Redemption' of the American Theater, 1899–1920," examines how the Klaw-Erlanger stage version overcame widespread hostility to the theater, especially among evangelicals. Jefferson Gattrall's "Retelling and Untelling the Christmas Story" tells a related though very different story about the novel's place in Sunday Schools, since the novel was also an object of suspicion. Hilton Obenzinger's "Holy Lands, Restoration, and Zionism in Ben-Hur" links the novel to the Jewish restoration and Zionism, as well as to Western fiction. While the last few pages move too quickly through to the Wyler film and its political implications to give the issues the discussion that they deserve, this is a really valuable contribution. Anyone who has not given special study to nineteenth-century American Protestant discourse on Jewish Restoration can learn something, and I doubt that my ignorance is atypical. Milette Shamir on "Ben-Hur's Mother" considers an inherent tension between linear time and progress on the one side (the basic plot of the Bildungsroman), and nostalgia, the mother, and antiquity on the other. Without being entirely convinced, I was certainly intrigued.

Barbara Ryan's chapter, "Take Up the White Man's Burden: Race and Resistance to Ben-Hur", reads John Buchan's novel Sick Heart River (1941) as resistance to Ben-Hur. The evidence is thin, and the argument relies heavily on the name of the less-than-admirable guide, Lew. "Getting Judas Right," about the 1925 film, by Richard Walsh, also depends on names, in this case that "Judas" and "Judah" are different forms of the same name. The treatment of Judah as a Christ figure is convincing, the parallels with modern interpretations of Judas less so; but the really engaging thread in this essay is its analysis of how the film avoids supersessionism and its comparison of the 1925 film to other early Jesus-films. Ina Rae Hark, "The Erotics of the Galley Slave," proposes three ways the filmed Crucifixion might trouble Christians: it eroticizes the spectacle, feminizes Jesus, and potentially arouses homoerotic desire. The film transfers all these disturbing possibilities to Judah. None of this is very surprising to anyone familiar with the queering of St. Sebastian, but it gives a new twist to the familiar homoerotic subtext of the film.

Thomas Slater writes about June Mathis, who was hired in 1922 to write a script for the film that was to become the first feature-length adapation of Ben-Hur. Slater gives a sad account of the exclusion of women from Hollywood, but it's not clear to me that Mathis' script would have been a very good movie. David Mayer sets out what he wishes a new adaptation would include. He would like more attention to Judah's wealth and the story's emphasis on the power to do good that wealth gives; he would like the inclusion of the episode from the novel in which Messala and Iras scheme to ambush and murder Judah; and he would like more attention to Judah's raising of an army, a Jewish Revolt that he abandons when he understands the real message of Jesus. This last theme, he notes, has contemporary resonance. I do not expect that the Paramount version to be released August 19, 2016, will meet any of his desires. This chapter includes a treatment of the "adventuress" character in the nineteenth-century novel and of the role of Iras, whom the 1959 film omitted completely.

Finally, Jon Solomon provides an extensive catalogue of companies, brands, and products named for Ben-Hur. It is an impressive list.


1.   Jon Solomon's 2015 article, "The Classical Sources of Ben-Hur," International Journal of the Classical Tradition 22.1 29-75, treats some of the relevant questions.
2.   There is a richer treatment of this history in M. Malamud, (2009). Ancient Rome and modern America (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell).

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Tuesday, August 23, 2016


Lisa Kaaren Bailey, The Religious Worlds of the Laity in Late Antique Gaul. Bloomsbury classical studies monographs. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. viii, 247. ISBN 9781472519030. $120.00.

Reviewed by Robin Whelan, Brasenose College, Oxford; The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (

Version at BMCR home site


Ordinary late-antique Christians are beginning to think for themselves. Numerous recent studies have used the evidence of sermons (in particular) to try to push past the normative views of ecclesiastical authority figures and locate the voices and agency of the men and women who constituted the majority of Christians in this (and any) period. Lisa Bailey has a track record in this field: her first monograph was a close reading of the Eusebius Gallicanus sermon collection.1 In her new book, Bailey widens her scope to investigate what Christianity meant to people in late-antique Gaul (here defined as the period c. 400-700; much of the discussion focuses on the sixth century).

In her Introduction (1-19), Bailey locates her study within the context of scholarship on lay Christianity, not only in late antiquity, but across the European middle ages,2 before sketching approaches to the various available forms of evidence: church councils; secular legal sources; hagiographies; sermons; epitaphs; material culture. All of these are brought to bear in the following chapters; perhaps unsurprisingly, the two big beasts of the sixth-century Gallic Church, Caesarius of Arles and Gregory of Tours, play central roles. In her opening pages, Bailey justifies the choice—perhaps more obvious from a medieval than a late-antique perspective—to frame her subjects as the 'laity': this book is about the messy process by which that Christian construction of ordinary people came to be dominant, even taken for granted (4-6). In that sense, this is less a study of the 'many identities' of late-antique Christians (to borrow a phrase from Éric Rebillard) than a work on the multiplicity of that one form of identity.3 Bailey also problematizes the frequent recourse to a 'negative trajectory' (6-7) of clerical takeover in the early middle ages: 'the laity, like the Roman Empire, are always declining' (7).

Chapter 1, 'Laity, clergy and ascetics' (21-51) frames the book by setting out the ambiguities of 'bipartite' views of the Christian community in late-antique Gaul (clerici vs. laici/saeculares). A first section (24-33) surveys the categories used in conciliar canons and secular legislation. Both presented a fundamental contrast between clerics and worldly people, whether resulting from ordination, lifestyle choices, or exemptions and restrictions. This contrast became much fuzzier when it came to ascetics (who did not necessarily hold ecclesiastical office) and lower clergy (who had lower status and expectations). The boundaries were further blurred by the focus of ascetic writers on conversion as an inward change from which external markers followed (33-43). Other pious Christians also straddled the clerical/lay borderline, not least those in various forms of 'service' to individual churches: unfree dependents, penitents and the poor (43-51). In aggregate, Bailey identifies a 'spectrum of religious commitments and behaviours rather than strictly delineated categories' (38). From this fuzziness, she suggests, came opportunities for lay religious agency (50-51).

Chapter 2, 'Environments' (53-73) draws on approaches from the 'spatial turn' to think about lay interaction with physical churches. It argues that 'clergy did not and could not control the religious environments of the laity', either in terms of access or use (73). Basilicas had multiple foci and they often seem to have been designed to facilitate proximity to relics (56-62). Private churches and monasteries provided alternative environments even less susceptible to ecclesiastical control (67-71). As for actual church use, clerics had obvious anxieties about lay people disrespecting a sanctified space. At the same time, they also present considerable evidence of activities that suggested a much greater reverence, not least incubation and the seeking of cures (62-66).

Chapter 3, 'Urban case studies' (75-101) considers the specific rhythms and topography of Christian life in Arles, Lyon, Trier and Tours. Each city presents very different ancient and late ancient patterns of development and sharply contrasting bodies of surviving evidence. Bailey sets out the urban fabric and (possible) communal memory of each site before discussing how people might have experienced these cities as Christians. Particularly nice are her evocations of attempts by bishops to unify distant Christian sites at Arles and Tours through processions and relic translations (81, 97-98).

Chapter 4, 'Rituals' (103-115) considers the Eucharist, processions and rogations: liturgical moments where 'the lay experience of being "lay" would have been most acute' (103). Presenting rituals (after Philippe Buc and Catherine Bell) as 'argument[s] for… consensus' (105), Bailey contends once more for multiple perspectives on the message and significance of these communal activities.4 So, the performative aspect of the Eucharist might have kept attendees engaged despite its potential remoteness; at the same time, challenges to bishops during Rogations suggest that not everyone got with the programme.

Chapter 5, 'Behaviours' (117-37), the heart of the study (and something of a synecdoche), considers the depictions of ideal and rather less than ideal lay behaviour in hagiographies, sermons and epitaphs. Texts in all three genres suggested that worldly people could be good Christians; Bailey nicely picks out differences of emphasis. Late-antique Gallic saints' lives present future ascetic superstars as virtuous even in their worldly (pre-conversion) lives (119-22). If such narratives offered implicit role models for lay behaviour, sermons were much more explicit in their persuasion and admonishment (122-25). Caesarius offered a moral checklist for individual Christians to tick off (124); the Eusebius Gallicanus preachers were keener to offer a rationale for appropriate behaviour (124-25). Epitaphs highlighted similar pious activities (e.g. almsgiving), but left more room for family and city (125-28). Bailey once again stresses the subjectivity of clerical views both in depictions of 'misbehaviour' (128-32) and incidental descriptions of the laity (132-37). Her readings of alternative logics in Gregory's miracle stories are particularly neat (like the Christian who justified his gardening on Avitus' festival day by claiming that the saint was a working man, too).

Chapter 6, 'Knowledge and Belief' (139-57) returns to the knotty problem of what precisely lay people might have known of Christian teachings in late antiquity. Bailey sides with more optimistic post-revisionist approaches that have suggested widespread popular engagement with doctrinal controversies. Certainly, clerics seem to have both encouraged and expected considerable knowledge (141-48). Bailey takes a judicious perspective on the doubts and objections expressed in sermons and miracle stories: these were neither necessarily real objections made by members of the writers' congregations, nor simple authorial inventions, but 'indirect reflections' (150) of what those Christians might have been thinking. The efforts to which preachers went to persuade those audiences—and the likelihood of doubt and practical scepticism that they assumed—suggest that ordinary Gallic Christians had considerable independence of thought, and thus, distinct perspectives on their own religiosity. A short conclusion (159-60) recaps the book's main arguments, and gestures forward to the continued lack of closure in the high middle ages.

The Religious Worlds of the Laity is an exemplary study of the interaction between Christian authority figures and those over whom they claimed pastoral oversight. It deserves to be read by anyone interested in the construction (and contestation) of Christian identity in late antiquity. With that audience and literature in mind, the book could perhaps have done more to frame what precisely was distinctive about this process in late-antique Gaul. The analysis frequently slips smoothly from general statements about late-antique or medieval Christian identity formation—across the Mediterranean/Europe—to specific examples from fifth-, sixth- or seventh-century Gaul. As a result, something of the particularity of late-antique Gaul—evoked in the urban case studies of ch. 3—is elided. Some intriguing peculiarities are noted, like Gallic hagiography and its positive view of worldly lives before the 'conversion' moment (no reconstructed sinners here), and Caesarius's expectations of ordinary Scriptural reading as opposed to Augustine's elite study groups. The communal dynamics delineated here invite comparisons between Caesarius' Arles or Gregory's Tours and (say), John Chrysostom's Antioch or Augustine's Hippo Regius. A more sustained comparative frame of reference, or a more wide-ranging concluding chapter, would have helped to locate late-antique Gaul—and Bailey's study—within the growing body of literature on the Christianisation of the late-antique and early medieval world. As it is, The Religious Worlds of the Laity will undoubtedly provoke others to make that comparison themselves.


1.   L. K. Bailey, Christianity's Quiet Success: The Eusebius Gallicanus Sermon Collection and the Power of the Church in Late Antique Gaul (Notre Dame, IN, 2010).
2.   Esp. J. Arnold, Belief and Unbelief in Medieval Europe (London, 2005) and S. Hamilton, Church and People in the Medieval West, 900-1200 (London, 2013).
3.   É. Rebillard, Christians and their Many Identities in Late Antiquity, North Africa, 200-450 CE (Ithaca, NY, 2012).
4.   P. Buc, The Dangers of Ritual: Between early Medieval Texts and Social Scientific Theory (Princeton, NJ, 2001); C. Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice (New York, 1992).

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Greg Fisher (ed.), Arabs and Empires before Islam. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xxvii, 580. ISBN 9780199654529. $225.00.
Reviewed by Hamish Cameron, Bates College (
Version at BMCR home site

Arabs and Empires before Islam seeks to illuminate the pre-Islamic Arabs and their relationship to the empires and kingdoms which surrounded them. The chapters, each of which has been written by an ensemble of scholars, examine a variety of mostly written evidence from multiple traditions, most originating in geographically, politically and chronologically adjacent contexts. Archaeological evidence plays a part in this volume, as do writings by pre-islamic Arab authors themselves.
Greg Fisher marshals a formidable array of scholars of the pre-Islamic and early-Islamic Near East to examine over a thousand years of diverse relationships between the people of pre-Islamic Arabia and the surrounding empires. Only three of the book's eight chapters have a single author. In the remaining chapters, specific sections are sometimes noted as the work of particular scholars, but most are collaborative in some way. Each chapter (except for one devoted entirely to archaeology) includes between 25 and 53 translations of ancient texts, clearly organised by chapter and text number (e.g. 5.10). This gives a strong internal structure to the work that allows the reader to see the wider network of links within the included corpus.
The volume begins with a brief Editor's Introduction by Fisher giving a broad outline of the land and peoples that constitute pre-Islamic Arabia. Fisher discusses the nature of the external and internal sources, the geographical scope of the book, and a number of important terminological issues (including the nature of frontiers and names for Arab collective structures). He then gives an outline of the book. Other notable introductory material includes a guide to the transliteration conventions adopted in the volume and several lists of the names of frequently recurring Arab leaders and dynasties.
Chapter 1, "Arabs and Empires before the Sixth Century", serves the dual roles of historical survey and introduction to regional epigraphy and linguistics. It is divided chronological into two sections. The first covers sources from the Achaemenid period to the Severans. The second covers the fourth and fifth centuries CE. The chapter's long chronological scope is divided among specialists of the respective texts and periods: Michael C. A. Macdonald examines inscriptions in Ancient North Arabian languages and Aramaic; Touraj Daryaee, Greg Fisher, and Matt Gibbs discuss Achaemenid, Parthian and Early Sasanian evidence; Aldo Corcella examines the Classical Greek accounts; Greg Fisher and Ariel Lewin the Roman evidence (with the addition of Conor Whately for the fourth and fifth centuries); Donata Violante the New Testament. The chapter ends with a conclusion by Fisher and Macdonald. The evidence and arguments of the first chapter show the many uses and meanings of the terms "Arab" and "Arabia" and establish the major themes of the volume: the region's internal political complexity as well as the role of Arabia and its peoples as a political and religious borderland between the Roman and Sasanian empires.
In Chapters 2 (Before Ḥimyar) and 3 (Ḥimyar, Aksūm, and Arabia Deserta in Late Antiquity), Christian Julien Robin examines South Arabian epigraphic evidence of the political, social, and religious groups and relationships that existed in the area of modern Yemen. Robin's examples and discussions illustrate the range of evidence as well as the stylistic conventions, common subject matter, and potential biases of the region's epigraphy. Chapter 2 establishes a cultural context for the religious reforms and political changes of the late fourth to early sixth, then Chapter 3 discusses the forms of Judaism and Christianity that emerged during that time, as well as the expansionist kingdoms of the region and their relationship to the Roman and Persian empires.
While most of the book examines relationships on a broad, geographical scale, in Chapter 4 (The Archaeological Evidence for the Jafnids and the Naṣrids) Denis Genequand zooms in for a narrower spatial approach. He discusses a number of sites on the fringes of Roman and Sasanian space that are linked to North Arabia dynasties by epigraphy or by textual sources. The chapter includes several clear archaeological plans and a few site images. The first four-fifths of the chapter deals with the Jafnid dynasty. The Naṣrid material occupies just the final seven pages.
In Chapter 5, "Arabs in the Conflict between Rome and Persia, AD 491-630", Peter Edwell (with unmarked contributions from Greg Fisher, Geoffrey Greatrex, Conor Whately, and Philip Wood) approaches its subject material through a chronological narrative that provides context for the primary source texts. Most of these texts were written by imperial subjects on either side of the conflict and discuss the Arabian peoples and leaders in the conflict as third parties in service of the two empires. The texts that form the backbone of this chapter are primarily excerpts from Greek and Syriac chronicles and histories (often quoted at length and only in translation) that provide fleeting snapshots of the activities of Arab groups at the interface of the two empires. Edwell et al. show how Arab leaders, especially Rome's Jafnid allies negotiated the complexities of inter-imperial warfare, Christian sectarianism, and court politics.
Chapter 6 (Arabs and Christianity) attempts to understand the penetration of Christianity into the Arab world in Late Antiquity and how its spread was related to Roman imperial interests in its promotion. At close to 100 pages, this is a weighty chapter. Fisher himself begins by examining interactions between individual Christian holy men and local Arab groups and individuals before the 6th century. The second section (Romans, Persians, Arabs, and Christianity in the 6th Century) covers a range of topics focused mostly around specific bodies of evidence: George Bevan, Greg Fisher, and Philip Wood use hagiographic evidence to consider relations between Jafnids, Miaphysite monasteries, and Saint Sergius. Basema Hamarneh examines church mosaics at Nitl and Tall al-'Umayri East and their Islamic-era modification. George Bevan and Greg Fisher treat sixth-century martyria from Syria. Philip Wood explores how Miaphysite missions negotiated a lack of state structures among the Arabs of the Jazira (northern Mesopotamia), Philip Wood (with Geoffrey Greatrex) discusses the conversion of the pagan Naṣrids of al-Ḥīra to Christianity. Greg Fisher and Geoffrey Greatrex examine three passages describing an episode of anti-Christian persecution at Najrān in South Arabia in 523. The chapter ends with a note by Peter Schadler on the application of the term Ishmaelites to groups in Arabia and the later development of the term Saracen. The chapter weaves these threads together to show how Christianity provided a space of opportunity for political advancement in Arabia. It also reveals how, as the link between religious affiliation and political allegiance grew in Late Antiquity, Christianity both induced conflicts and built relationships between different Arab groups and leaders who adhered to various interpretations of Christian theology.
Chapter 7 (Provincia Arabia: Nabataea, the Emergence of Arabic as a Written Language, and Graeco-Arabia) addresses the life of the Roman province of Arabia from its annexation to its loss. In the first section (Petra and Ḥegrā between the Roman annexation and the coming of Islam), Zbigniew T. Fiema and Laïla Nehmé survey the Roman annexation of the region. They explore the administration, urbanization, and economic development of the province as well as the relationships between the Roman province and peripheral Arab groups and the impact of Christianity on the region. This section is based mostly on archaeological evidence. The second section, "The Emergence of Arabic as a Written Language", examines the textual evidence for the province. Michael C. A. MacDonald begins by discussing how cultural norms around language use and writing may have affected the development of written Arabic. He then proceeds through a close philological commentary of inscriptions in the Nabatean script that illustrate the relationship between Arabic and Aramaic in the region. The section includes a sub-section by Laïla Nehmé on 'transitional' Nabataeo-Arabic texts and ends with a discussion of the Greco-Arabica, a loose corpus of Arabic words transliterated into the Greek script that allows access to otherwise unknown aspects of pronunciation and meaning.
The eighth and final chapter, "Arabic and Persian Sources for Pre-Islamic Arabia", uses later sources to show how Islamic writers looked back on the pre-Islamic past. There are five sections. The first begins by establishing the political and religious context for Islamic prose writing about pre-Islamic Arabs. It positions pre-Islamic history as an ideological battleground for Islamic writers of the 9th and 10th century who were concerned about Arab identity and its relationship to other peoples, especially Persians. The texts in this section are arranged thematically under a combination of geographical and thematic headings to highlight areas and types of interaction between Arabs and Empires. The section briefly discusses the central role of the Qur'an in mediating knowledge about pre-Islamic Arabia to Islamic writers. The third section examines the pre-Islamic poetry frequently used by Islamic scholars for qur'anic exegesis, the study of Arabic philology, and questions of Arabic identity. The texts in this section give glimpses of pre-Islamic political activity as well as representations of traditional Arabic ways of life. In these first three sections, Harry Munt (with contributions from Omar Edaibat and Robert Hoyland) shows how these later Arabic sources relate to the contemporary sources in previous chapters. He then shows how different perspectives on the same events shed light on questions raised earlier in the volume. The final part of the chapter comprises a section (by Isabel Toral-Niehoff) on Al-Ḥīra and the conversion and death of its last Naṣrid king, Al-Nu'man. It also includes a brief section by Touraj Daryaee giving a glimpse into a few Middle Persian and Persian sources that illuminate relationships between Sasanian kings and Arab rulers. These final sections give further perspectives on texts discussed earlier in the chapter and the book. All the texts in this chapter are contextualised within the Arabic or Persian traditions with short biographies of their authors or historiography and important bibliography.
There is a degree of inconsistency in the treatment of the primary texts from chapter to chapter. Many of the primary texts are provided in translation only and the original language of the texts is not always clear. Some source translations rely on the presence of transliterated Greek words to hint at their use of language. Others assume knowledge of the language used by the author. Generally, the passages are accompanied by references to previous publications, translation credits, additional reading, notes on linguistic oddities and translational practices. This makes the omission of a consistent notation of original language appear odd. However, given the editorial consistency that Fisher has managed to apply across such a wide range of contributors, this seems a minor quibble.
The text is accompanied by a number of helpful visual aids. The first four chapters in particular are well illustrated with drawings of inscriptions clearly showing scripts and letter forms, photos of inscriptions and find sites, and regional maps showing sites, kingdoms and campaigns. The volume includes an attractive selection of 16 colour plates showing sites, buildings, landscapes, inscriptions and other relevant archaeological evidence.
Arabs and Empires Before Islam gives an excellent overview of the complexity of social, political and religious action in pre-Islamic Arabia. Because each of the chapters in the volume is organised according to its own logic, there is some overlap across them. This overlap, however, provides opportunity for interactivity between chapters and illuminates different perspectives on the same material. While the volume can only introduce the field of pre-Islamic Arabia to non-specialists, it does so through a series of deep, focused bores into selected topics, rather than by attempting an all-encompassing overview that merely scratches the surface. Much here will be familiar to specialists, but the volume includes some previously unpublished epigraphic and archaeological evidence, as well as much more material that is otherwise unpublished in English. Moreover, each chapter's footnotes provide ample guides for those who wish to explore these topics further. This work will be of use to scholars and graduate students seeking an introduction to pre-Islamic Arabia and will prove especially valuable to those with an interest in ancient borderlands, empires, and people on their fringes.

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Sunday, August 21, 2016


C. W. Marshall, Tom Hawkins (ed.), Athenian Comedy in the Roman Empire. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. Pp. vi, 295. ISBN 9781472588838. $39.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Paul S. Martin, University of Exeter (

Version at BMCR home site


Although many texts that mention comedy or comedians have long been used principally as a mining source for evidence about fragmentary plays or for biographical information about comedians, the reception of Athenian comedy has been a booming area of study over the last decade (the edited volume of Olson 2014 is a good example of the breadth of the field),1 and this volume will no doubt be itself mined for the numerous and varied insights of its contributors. Even if at times this is a slightly eclectic collection, the sheer range of authors and contexts where the influence of Athenian comedy can be felt is testament to comedy's enduring value.

The introduction ("Ignorance and the Reception of Comedy in Antiquity") makes the volume accessible to those not well versed in the latest trends of comic scholarship by providing a chronological overview of Athenian comedy and laying out some of the key methodological problems we face when approaching the material. Key to these problems is the muse of the book itself, the goddess Agnoia, ignorance or misapprehension (depicted on the cover). Most comic plays survive only in fragments; we often do not know what plays were available to later authors; the picture of imperial comic performances is at best partial. The chapter, then, provides a welcome orientation to both the material and the approaches in the book.

Mathias Hanses begins the more detailed studies with a focus on the reception of Greek New Comedy in Juvenalian satire ("Juvenal and the Revival of Greek New Comedy at Rome"). Juvenal laments the increasing presence and popularity of Greek comic actors in Rome, at one moment reducing the whole of Greece to a comedy (natio comoeda est, 3.100), as well as its influence on the Roman populace, as the fictional world of comedy breaks the fourth wall and is found spread throughout the city. Hanses sees the satirist's response, creating poetry that breathes new life into the Roman tradition of comoedia togata, as a deliberately hypocritical strategy that plays into Juvenal's satiric persona.

Julia Nelson Hawkins' chapter ("Parrhēsia and Pudenda: Speaking Genitals and Satiric Speech") asks what we should make of the image of Villius arguing with his own penis at Horace Sat. 1.2.68–72). By putting this passage in the context of other examples of speaking or otherwise autonomous genitalia in Aristophanes (e.g. Ar. Ach. 777–82 and Thesm. 289–91) and by drawing on Žižek's model of the 'organ without a body', she suggests that the image of speaking genitalia is linked to poetics and parrhēsia, so that phallic masculinity can be viewed as one of the many masks donned by the satirist.

Tom Hawkins' contribution ("Dio Chrysostom and the Naked Parabasis") examines two speeches of Dio Chrysostom (Or. 32 and 33) in which Dio offers criticism that is designed to improve the communities he is addressing. This position, Hawkins demonstrates, updates the traditional function of the parabasis, understood not simply in formal terms but also as a 'locus of creative transgression' (71, drawing on Biles 2011).2 While this might perhaps be a surprising position for an author who is elsewhere disparaging of comic poetry, Hawkins demonstrates that Dio in these speeches draws upon a range of old comic poets.

Ryan Samuels ("Favorinus and the Comic Adultery Plot") focuses on how Favorinus of Arles deployed the image of the eunuch adulterer as part of an ongoing rhetorical rivalry. Samuels begins by demonstrating Menander's introduction of this device into the comic adultery plot as well as his significance as a template for later adaptations, before moving on to survey the scientific and pseudo-scientific sources concerning the sexuality of eunuchs. This lays the groundwork for a discussion of the figure of the eunuch in the literature of the Second Sophistic and more specifically Favorinus' self-construction as the Gaul turned Hellene who actively promoted the adultery charge levied against him.This ambiguous identity, between potent adulterer and impotent eunuch, poses challenges for conceptions of masculinity that Favorinus manipulates and confounds.

Fritz Graf's chapter provides an important counterpoint to the more literary discussions by focusing principally on the epigraphic material to re-evaluate the question of the performance of comedy. Focusing on the Demosthenia festival at Oenoanda, Graf's account demonstrates that comedy continued to flourish in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Not only were classical comedies re-performed, but the production of contemporary plays was sufficiently well regarded that poets could be honoured by particular cities (as in the case of the tragic playwright C. Iulius Longianus) and the ability to draw the best performers to produce plays that had proved popular elsewhere was highly valued. Additionally, Graf reviews evidence for travelling performers, actors, and musicians, who, through their association with the Guild of Dionysiac Artists, provided links between Rome and provincial cities.

C. W. Marshall contributes two chapters to the volume, both of which provide valuable lessons in the complex methodology of the reception of comedy in the Roman world. In the first ("Plutarch, Epitomes, and Athenian Comedy"), Marshall suggests that Plutarch wrote the text known to us as the Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander with much less focus on Aristophanes, but rather with a much wider scope. This chapter adduces a number of reasons why this Comparison is not as straightforward as is commonly assumed and ends with an important reminder: 'the example is important since it reminds us of the degree to which the way we frame discussions of the reception of comedy in antiquity is often shaped through the accidents of survival' (p. 137). The second chapter ("Aelian and Comedy: Four Studies") examines four case studies from Aelian: Socrates' trip to the theatre to watch the Clouds, Aelian's direct and indirect knowledge of comedies in the Historical Miscellany more generally, four letters in the Rustic Letters between Callippides and Cnemon (characters in Menander's Dyscolus), and Eupolis' Molossian puppy. From these different examples emerges the importance of examining our assumptions about what authors or their audiences actually knew about comedy.

Ralph Rosen provides the first of two chapters on Lucian's reception of comedy ("Lucian's Aristophanes: On Understanding Old Comedy in the Roman Imperial Period"). For Rosen, Lucian is virtually unique among his contemporaries for the sophistication of his reading of Old Comedy. The notion of "sophistication" here is exemplified by the Uneducated Book-Collector, whose eponymous figure is satirized for reading but not really understanding Aristophanes and Eupolis (specifically the Baptai). Focusing on Dead come to Life, or the Fisherman and Double Indictment, Rosen argues that Lucian incorporates Old Comic strategies and plots as part of a (sometimes ambiguous or contradictory) defence of his satiric programme.

Ian Storey, meanwhile, takes a wider view of Lucian's engagement with comedy, which included everyone from Aristophanes to Epicharmus to Menander ("Exposing Frauds: Lucian and Comedy"). By contrast with Rosen, who is principally interested in how Lucian reads comedy, Storey places more focus on what comedies Lucian knew. One important consideration Storey emphasizes is that 'We cannot use Lucian to say with confidence what was in a lost comedy' (p. 178, cf. 170) since adaptation, variation, and expansion are key to Lucian's intertextual strategy. Sometimes, however, Lucian is the best evidence available, and accordingly Storey carefully analyses cases where we might detect influence from comedy. While not every reader will find all of his suggestions convincing, they are always stimulating and his discussion is careful and balanced.

Anna Peterson ("Revoking Comic License: Aristides' Or. 29 and the Performance of Comedy") takes the puzzling call for a ban on comic performances at the Dionysia of Smyrna as a locus for revisiting the question of whether comedies were performed in the imperial period, and if so what kind of comedies. On the basis of the Lysimacheia, likely established in AD 181, and a 1st cent. AD inscription from Cos, she suggests that there is a small amount of evidence for the performance and composition of Old Comedy (ἀρχαία κωμῳδία) in the Imperial period. In this context, Aristides' complaints against the slanderous humour of comedies being performed in Smyrna are re-examined in the context of his wider interest in combining oratory with proper religious practice.

The final two chapters turn to fictional letters. Alciphron takes centre stage in Melissa Funke's chapter ("The Menandrian World of Alciphron's Letters"), which argues that Alciphron 'reorients and recreates the world of Menander's plays by presenting it from the perspectives of his secondary characters' (p. 224). Rather than young men or boastful soldiers, the world of Alciphron's Letters is dominated by hetairai and parasites. In particular, the Letters of Courtesans, Funke argues, is central to Alciphron's interest in recreating and drawing his audience into a Menandrian Athens with many more references to contemporary events and people. Perspective and temporality are, then, key to Funke's reading of Alciphron's collection.

Finally, Emilia Barbiero's contribution ("Two Clouded Marriages: Aristaenetos' Allusions to Aristophanes' Clouds in Letters 2.3 and 2.12") focuses on the much later collection of letters that goes under the name of Aristaenetus. As a complement to previous scholarship that has found parallels between people and situations in Aristaenetus and Menander, Barbiero produces a nuanced reading that finds cross-epistolary connections between two pairs of letters from books 1 and 2 (1.5 and 22, and 2.3 and 12).

While it is not possible to engage with all of these arguments in detail here, it is worth considering briefly the wider implications these essays collectively bring out. Clearly, the influence of comedy was felt far and wide: satire, oratory, and letter-writing being only a few notable examples, to say nothing of comedy's continued performance history. At points, however, the volume hints at a more complicated picture that would view comedy in the wider context of the reception of classical literature or humorous texts in general, or both. For example, when Lucian's personification of Dialogue in the Double Indictment claims that Lucian 'shut me up in one place with Jest, Iambos, Cynicism, Aristophanes and Eupolis' (33), comedy's value as a source of literary inspiration is closely associated with a range of other forms and ideas. We might therefore justifiably ask: how closely related is comedy to these other forms in the Imperial period? What precisely marks comedy out from them? As our understanding of the reception of comedy develops, how comedy fits within the broader matrix of Imperial literature and its reception of classical literature will likely become an important question to address.

Overall, this volume is an important contribution to the field that does much to dispel some of the agnoia with which it begins. A volume such as this one cannot but leave one wanting more, in the most positive sense. There is still much much work to be done on the reception of comedy, and the contributions contained herein will no doubt play a vital role in shaping the direction to come.


1.   Olson, S.D., ed., Ancient Comedy and Reception: Essays in Honor of Jeffrey Henderson (Berlin and Boston, 2014).
2.   Biles, Z., Aristophanes and the Poetics of Competition (Cambridge, 2011)

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Cecelia Eaton Luschnig, Three Other Theban Plays: Aeschylus' 'Seven against Thebes'; Euripides' 'Suppliants'; Euripides' 'Phoenician Women'. Translated, with Introduction and Notes. Indianapolis; Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2016. Pp. lxii, 208. ISBN 9781624664717. $15.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Adriana Brook, Lawrence University (

Version at BMCR home site


Cecelia Luschnig's Three Other Theban Plays, like the rest of the Hackett Greek and Roman Drama series, is a book clearly intended to appeal to students. The glossy cover features a black-and-white photograph of heavily robed, exotic-looking women carrying huge clay jars on their heads; the photograph was taken, so the back cover tells us, in Cairo circa 1860. The choice is provocative—almost as good as Elvis' mugshot on the cover of Paul Woodruff's translation of the Bacchae in the same series —and, like much of the material supporting the three smooth and lucid translations in this volume, is designed to nudge students to ask good questions.

Three Other Theban Plays offers new translations of Seven Against Thebes and Suppliants, while reprinting Luschnig's 2011 Hackett translation of Phoenician Women.1 The book is written primarily for university (or possibly high school) students who have no prior knowledge of Greek history, theatre, or mythology. It offers generous help with these topics throughout and is sprinkled with brief but rich observations about connections among the three plays. It seems that book's main objective is to create a reading environment in which students are most likely to make discoveries on their own, rather than relying solely on professors to guide them to a more complete understanding of the plays. In this, it is very successful.

Luschnig's edition also anticipates its own use in a performance context, though this is clearly secondary to its intended use in the classroom. The footnotes offer advice about untranslatable "tragic noises," draw attention to staging choices available to the director (e.g. do Eteocles and Polyneices obey Jocasta's command to look at each other at Phoen. 454–58?, p.131 n.70), and, once, suggest an alternative translation better suited to a modern production. The two appendices discussing the division of roles and listing the succession of scenes in each play will be equally helpful to students and directors.

As stated in the translator's note, Luschnig's goal is to offer translations that are both readable and speakable and in this she has succeeded admirably. The Classics professor will feel she is offering her students a translation that captures the nuances of the original Aeschylus or Euripides (though not a literal translation appropriate for students who are also reading the plays in Greek) and the stage director will feel confident that these plays 'work' for an audience in the 21st century. Potentially awkward lines are translated with the right compromise between accuracy and elegance (e.g. Sept. 246, μή νυν ἀκούουσ᾽ ἐμφανῶς ἄκου᾽ ἄγαν, is translated, "You hear it, but try not to hear it so noticeably."). To my ear, Luschnig's translation occasionally errs in the direction of the colloquial (for example, ξυνῆκ(α) at Phoen. 744 is translated, "I get it" rather than, "I understand," and pauses and exclamations are sometimes translated with modern interjections like "uh" and "whoa"). But, on the whole, Luschnig's translations achieve an admirable balance between accessibility and faithfulness to the Greek. Both the tragedy expert and the novice will enjoy reading these translations; the stage actor will enjoy speaking these lines.

The Hackett Greek and Roman Drama series offers classroom instructors an alternative to the widely-used and comparably priced Greek tragedy translations published by the University of Chicago Press. By comparison with the Chicago versions of Seven Against Thebes, Suppliants, and Phoenician Women (found in separate volumes and translated by David Grene, Frank William Jones, and Elizabeth Wyckoff, respectively), Luschnig's edition offers a more extensive introduction and more substantial student support throughout the translations themselves (the Chicago endnotes cover only issues of textual criticism). Though recently updated since their original publication in the 1940s and 50s, the Chicago translations also feel, as a rule, more archaic and stilted than Luschnig's more approachable translations. Compare, for example, Phoen. 700–2 (selected at random). The Greek reads,

καὶ μὴν ἐγὼ σ᾽ ἔχρῃζον εἰσιδεῖν, Κρέον·
πολλῶν γὰρ ηὗρον ἐνδεεῖς διαλλαγάς
ὡς ἐς λόγους συνῆψα Πολυνείκει μολών.

Luschnig translates,

Good, I am eager to see you too, Creon.
I found the truce utterly useless when
I entered into discussion with Polyneices.

While Wyckoff's Chicago translation reads,

Creon, be sure I wished to see you too.
I found the terms of peace from Polynices,
when we discussed them, far from what we need.

Although Luschnig does not translate in iambic metre as Wyckoff does (note: not all Chicago translations share this characteristic), her translation is easier to read, without sacrificing formality or sense.

It should be noted, however, that Hackett's drama series does not yet offer translations of all the Greek tragedies and is haphazardly organized. Sometimes a volume contains only one play, and when several plays are presented together they may be grouped by author or, as here, by theme. By contrast, the Chicago editions offer all of the tragedies grouped by author. Aeschylus and Sophocles appear in two volumes each, Euripides in five, making it easier to plan a syllabus if the instructor already knows what plays she wants to include in the curriculum.

Luschnig's three translations are generously supported by footnotes, which both repeat and expand on elements of the introduction and greatly increase the utility of this volume for all students, and particularly those who may be speed-reading tomorrow's assignment at 2am. In addition to helping students with details of myth and geography, the notes point out running motifs in the plays, remind students of technical details (e.g. what is a parodos?), contextualize content (mostly through citations from Homer and other tragedies), point out important metrical changes, explain suspected interpolations, and occasionally offer brief historical context. The book is somewhat lacking in this last category. For example, not to mention the Peloponnesian War when discussing criticism of Sparta in the Suppliants (p. 61, n. 21) seems an oversight. It is also unfortunate that the notes are not always evenly distributed. Many juicy passages receive no comment at all, which would be quite usual in a volume like this one but for the fact that some passages receive detailed analysis (for instance, the second stasimon of Phoenician Women).

Both the introduction and the footnotes occasionally cite secondary scholarship. While potentially helpful, this seems to be the one feature of the book that is not conceived with the student reader in mind. These notes often point to minute details of interpretation that are unlikely to be important to the novice reader (e.g. p. xxviii, n. 13 where Luschnig cites Storey on the possibility that Adrastus and the chorus of boys might have come onstage separately at the beginning of Suppliants). These specific references are also unevenly distributed throughout the book. Some sections are heavily cited, while others go without secondary citation for pages at a time. Given the target audience, it might have been more effective to leave these references out and, instead, revise the select bibliography at the end of the book—currently an alphabetized list—into sections organized by topic to serve as a starting point for students writing term papers (e.g. Athens and Thebes, performance and staging, female characters etc.). Not all sources would be easy to categorize in this way, but this set-up would better serve the student reader.

Aside from the glossary of Greek theatrical terminology, the only section of the book I have not yet addressed is the two-part introduction. Part I is geared toward the complete novice, covering basic details on the City Dionysia, the three main Attic playwrights, the mythical subject matter of tragedy with brief remarks about their relationship to historical Athens, and theatrical conventions of the fifth century. Some of the sections are rather eclectically organized (e.g. Section I.5.4, "Actors, Masks, Roles, and Messenger Speeches") but, on the whole, this part of the introduction does exactly what it should, and does so clearly, concisely, and often in a gently humorous tone that will appeal to most students.

Part II of the introduction, which focuses on the three Theban plays in greater depth, is less successful. It repeats from Part I information about the myths of tragic Thebes without adding much new analysis. It also offers rather uneven coverage of a few topics relating to the interpretation of the three plays without making it clear why these and not other topics have been chosen. The comparison of the treatment of the Oedipus myth in these plays (though, naturally, with almost nothing to say about Suppliants) and the discussion of all three dramas as plays about war is justifiable and useful, but Luschnig's in-depth argument as to why Jocasta holds together the plot of Phoenician Women seems out of place, particularly without corresponding analysis of the other two plays. This section represents a lost opportunity for Luschnig to expand further on her comment in the translator's note that the convenience of having these three plays in the same volume will facilitate "comparisons of the tragedians' styles and world views" (lix). The book would have benefitted from more discussion of all three plays together.

While there are certainly small adjustments that could be made to improve this volume, it is a useful addition to Hackett's offerings in Greek and Roman Drama. Three Other Theban Plays offers a reliable, thorough resource to its primary audience of students. Undergraduates are likely to find these translations more accessible than those in the similarly targeted University of Chicago Greek tragedy translations and will certainly find this edition, as a whole, more supportive of their efforts to contextualize and interpret these plays.


1.   Euripides: Electra; Phoenician Women; Bacchae; Iphigenia at Aulis. Translated, with notes by Cecelia Eaton Luschnig and Paul Woodruff; Introduction by Cecelia Eaton Luschnig. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., 2011. The translation is a word-for-word reprinting with minuscule modifications to the notes.

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Daniel Silvermintz, Protagoras. Ancients in action. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. xiii, 93. ISBN 9781472510921. $25.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Bernd Manuwald, Universität zu Köln (

Version at BMCR home site


Protagoras, coming from a humble background, was a pupil of Democritus; he became the first democratic philosopher and a teacher of rhetoric. At the same time he promoted a secret doctrine on the basis of the stronger ruling over the weaker; thus he turned into an inspiration for policies of Pericles, both good and bad. This (somewhat simplified) is the portrait of Protagoras that Daniel Silvermintz paints in this study. The book consists of three chapters (each further divided into subsections): 1. "From Humble Beginning to Celebrated Teacher" (pp. 1–20), 2. "Protagoras and Pericles" (pp. 21–46), 3. "Protagoras' Secret Teaching" (pp. 47–75).

In ch. 1, Silvermintz mainly presents anecdotal material, which is often entertaining to read, but only provides questionable information on the historical Protagoras. This is particularly true for Silvermintz' discussion of Protagoras' education (pp. 4–8), a section entitled "Education under Democritus", which ends with the rather implausible conclusion that "Democritus provides the philosophic grounding for Protagoras' defence of immorality" (p. 8). Silvermintz himself gives ca. 490–420 BC as the dates for Protagoras (p. vii) and 460–370 BC as those for Democritus (p. 3) (in line with the generally assumed chronological relation between the two men), apparently without regarding this as a problem for the assumed teacher-pupil relationship. After completing his education, Protagoras was, according to Silvermintz, a "[c]elebrated teacher of rhetoric" (pp. 8–15),1 though rhetoric in the strict sense is not actually discussed by Silvermintz in this context. (The τέχνη ἐριστικῶν attributed to Protagoras in DK 80 B6 is mentioned only elsewhere in the book: p. 35.) Silvermintz refers to various general comments on education attributed to Protagoras and to his practice of asking for payment for his teaching (described critically in the ancient sources), as well as to "various techniques of deception" (p. 11). In this context the homo-mensura statement (DK 80 B1) is interpreted by Silvermintz to say that Protagoras takes people's willingness to pay for lessons by him "as validation of his wisdom": for "[t]he human being is the measure of all chremata (valuable things)" (so Silvermintz' translation; quotations on pp. 12-13).

Ch. 2 is meant to cover Protagoras' "political thought" and his influence on Pericles. For Protagoras' "political thought" Silvermintz mainly relies on Protagoras' 'Great Speech' in Plato's Protagoras (320c–328d), which he (like others) assumes to represent the views of the historical Protagoras accurately, as well as on passages from the Theaetetus. Here it would have been nice if the approach had been based on a more critical examination of the sources. While some ideas in the Protagoras, especially the format of the 'myth' (320c–322d), can plausibly be referred back to the historical Protagoras,2 it is equally clear that not everything Plato has put into Protagoras' mouth can be attributed to the historical figure. It would never have been possible for the historical Protagoras in the same speech to presuppose that the sons of Pericles who died in 429 BC were still alive (328cd), and to mention the play Agrioi by Pherecrates, which was first performed in 420 BC (327d; cf. Pherecrates test. i Kassel-Austin) — an anachronism typical of Plato. When Silvermintz says that "Protagoras was the first philosopher to explain the rationale of having a government ruled by its people" (p. 21), it would have been helpful not only to have a summary of what Protagoras (according to Plato) says about this topic (e.g. p. 25), but also a critical discussion of whether Protagoras follows up this claim with an argument. What emerges from Plato's text is only that Protagoras argues that fundamental ethical qualities (that prevent people from hurting others and that must exist independently of the constitutional shape of a state) are essential (and can also be taught); but they do not lead to competence in making decisions, as stated by Protagoras (322d–323a).3 If what Plato has Protagoras say in the Theaetetus (167c) goes back to the historical Protagoras, namely that what appears just and praiseworthy to each city has these qualities as long as that city regards these matters in that way, this applies to each constitutional form: it will therefore be doubtful whether one can conclude from Plato's text that "democracy emerges as the best regime" in Protagoras' view (p. 29). For in the dialogue named after him Plato only has Protagoras explain to Socrates why the Athenians in particular allow everyone to contribute to political discussions, without commenting on the quality of this form of government.

Silvermintz' study includes a detailed discussion of Pericles (pp. 30–46), since he regards Pericles as influenced by Protagoras, both positively and negatively.4 Obviously, the ancient sources mention connections between Pericles and Protagoras; but not even Plutarch, on whose biography of Pericles Silvermintz' discussion is largely based (p. 80 n. 11), presents Protagoras as one of the 'teachers' of Pericles (cf. Per. 4). Plutarch mentions Protagoras only once, in a passage from which Silvermintz concludes that Protagoras "spent an entire day training Pericles in the art of sophistic rhetoric" (pp. 22; 34). But what was discussed at the meeting according to this passage (Per. 36.5 ["36.3" in Silvermintz]) was the question of responsibility with respect to a fatal sports accident.5 Moreover, if Pericles is believed to have said about the fallen that they were immortal like the gods—for human beings did not see the gods either, but inferred from the reverence paid to them that they were immortal (Per. 8.9)—the existence of gods is assumed, so that this remark cannot be used as evidence for the influence on Pericles of Protagoras' agnostic statement about the gods (DK 80 B4), as Silvermintz believes (pp. 33-4). It is also methodologically problematic that Silvermintz speaks of the "Protagorean roots of Athenian democracy" on the basis of a (certainly fictitious) discussion between Alcibiades and Pericles about the laws in Xenophon, Mem. 1.2.41–6 (abbreviated to the single paragraph § 42 [§ 41 in Silvermintz]: p. 41). In this passage, Pericles makes a trivial statement that describes facts about Athenian democracy, namely that what the assembled citizens have checked and laid down in writing is law. The discussion as a whole, however, reveals that, irrespective of constitution, everything that the ruling power in a state prescribes has legal force, even in a tyranny, while everything that some people force others to do without convincing them is to be seen as force and not as law, even in a democracy. Tracing Pericles' power-politics back to Protagorean ideas is equally questionable (pp. 42–5). The well-known suggestion that there is a parallel between Pericles and Oedipus is hardly given new support by comments such as: "Just as Protagoras renounced the gods and the ancestral tradition, Oedipus murders both the king of Thebes and his father with a single blow" (p. 45).

In ch. 3, Silvermintz starts from Socrates' ironic question whether Protagoras has explained the truth of the homo-mensura statement to his pupils in secret (Plat. Tht. 152c). Silvermintz misunderstands this as a statement ("asserts", p. 49) and, after Silvermintz has assumed a 'secret doctrine' also for Plato,6 he explores a secret doctrine of Protagoras. According to Silvermintz there is "a salutary public teaching that promoted traditional morality and a corrosive private teaching that he revealed to his paying students" (p. 47); the latter "provides a philosophic justification for the rule of the strong over the weak" (p. 75): Protagoras would thus be a second Callicles or Thrasymachus. Silvermintz aims to infer this secret doctrine from Protagoras' 'Great Speech' in Plato's dialogue. If Silvermintz were right, his theory would have to imply the following assumptions (which he does not spell out): insofar as Plato reproduces Protagoras' doctrine in that speech (written many years after Protagoras' death), 7 Plato was not able to refer to Protagoras' oral and private teaching. On the contrary, he could only have relied on publicly available writings of Protagoras, which would have to have contained this 'secret doctrine'. Of course, this may not have been immediately obvious to everyone and only discernible, if at all, as a second meaning. Therefore, when composing Protagoras' speech, Plato must be thought to have included all elements essential to the 'secret doctrine', without apparently noticing that he did and what kind of doctrine he was conveying. For, since this 'secret doctrine' completely contradicts views expressed by the Platonic Socrates elsewhere (cf. Gorgias, Politeia), Plato would not have had his Socrates pass over this point in silence and only address the central element of Protagoras' unclear concept of ἀρετή (Prot. 328e ff.)—on the basis of which Protagoras' defence of democracy ultimately fails (something which seems to have escaped Silvermintz). These general considerations already make Silvermintz' theory improbable, particularly since he has to eliminate Protagoras' explicit commitment to being a sophist and to open discussion (316c ff.) with an argument irrelevant in this framework (Prot. 323a–c; no reference in Silvermintz), since it stems from a specific context (p. 64).

Thus it is not easy to comprehend how a secret moral doctrine can follow from Protagoras' 'Great Speech'. Instead, it seems to be a construct by Silvermintz, apparently arrived at on the basis that "the restrictions regulating justice and holiness are merely arbitrary" (p. 73).8 Silvermintz comes to this conclusion, not via the 'Great Speech', but via the divergent nomoi in existence among different peoples according to the Dissoi Logoi (90 DK, c. 2.9 ff.). But what can be demonstrated as a view of Protagoras is only that, within a political community, certain rules for living together must apply (Prot. 322c2-3; 323a2–4; c4; 324d8; 325a1 ff.). From the homo-mensura statement (which is not even alluded to in the 'Great Speech') one might infer at most that in Protagoras' view the same matters are not regarded as just in all states (cf. Tht. 167c), but not that what applies in one state does not necessarily apply to all. Silvermintz' comment, based on the homo-mensura statement, that "the individual is the only valid arbiter of truth", cannot therefore be used as the basis for a conclusion in line with Protagoras' views: "[W]hy should the individual not transgress the law when he knows he can reap greater rewards by acting unjustly?" (p. 73). The moral condemnation of Protagoras, implied in the final sentence of Silvermintz' study because of the "unethical implications of this first principle" (p. 75), therefore does not have a basis in fact. If one expected a detailed analysis of the difficult homo-mensura statement and its position within the history of philosophy in a study on Protagoras, one would be disappointed.

Because of the uncritical use of sources and the frequently problematic argumentative structure, the portrayal of Protagoras painted by Silvermintz is unconvincing to this reviewer. The study is indeed an "accessible introductory survey", as the advertisement states, but in many respects the picture that emerges does not agree with what can be securely inferred from the few surviving testimonies about Protagoras.


1.   With regard to Callias, "[o]ne of Protagoras' most famous patrons in Athens", he notes that there was such a close relationship between him and Protagoras that "Protagoras appointed Callias guardian of his children upon his passing" (p. 17)—an odd misreading of Plat. Tht. 164e–165a.
2.   See B. Manuwald, "Protagoras' Myth in Plato's Protagoras: Fiction or Testimony?" in J. M. van Ophuijsen et al. (eds.), Protagoras of Abdera: The Man, His measure (Leiden / Boston, 2013), 163–77 (with references to earlier studies of the author).
3.   See B. Manuwald, "Bürger als politische Akteure. Überlegungen zur allgemeinen Politikkompetenz bei Platon und Aristoteles", Hyperboreus 20 (2014), 225-43, at 227–32. On the reasons for failure see below.
4.   Silvermintz' extensive discussion of Pericles, including historical issues, can only be reviewed here with respect to Protagoras' influence insofar as it is explicitly stated.
5.   The fact that the issue can also be exploited rhetorically (Antiphon, Tetralogia 2, to which Silvermintz [p. 35] refers as "Antiphon, Speeches 3.2.7") is a separate matter.
6.   On the refutation of such ideas see T. A. Szlezák, Reading Plato (London / New York, 1999), 85-6.
7.   On the point that it cannot be attributed to the historical Protagoras in its entirety see above.
8.   In the context of this review it is impossible to discuss all questionable aspects of Silvermintz' interpretation of Protagoras' 'Great Speech'. To mention just one further example: according to Silvermintz the myth reveals Protagoras' "sacrilegious and immoral views", for instance in the "natural ecosystem" created by Epimetheus (p. 67). But how can a situation be regarded as a sacrilege when someone ordered by the gods (Prot. 320d4–6) distributes δυνάμεις and thus creates a meaningful system according to the principle that the different species will be able to survive (320d8–321b6)?

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Muriel Debié​, L'écriture de l'histoire en Syriaque: transmissions interculturelles et constructions identitaires entre hellénisme et Islam. Avec des répertoires des textes historiographiques en annexe. Late Antique History and Religion, 12​. Leuven; Paris; Bristol, CT: Peeters, 2015. Pp. xxxiv, 724. ISBN 9789042932371. €105,00.

Reviewed by Héctor R.​ Francisco, Universidad de Buenos Aires-CONICET (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

The aim of the book under review is to provide a tool to facilitate research on Christian historical narratives written in Syriac (p. xv). However, after a closer evaluation of its almost eight hundred pages, the reader discovers that it has a much broader scope. Beyond being a descriptive repertoire of texts and authors, this monumental and valuable volume thoroughly discusses significant issues concerning Syriac historical literature in particular and pre-modern historiography in general.

In L'écriture de l'histoire en Syriaque, Muriel Debié masterfully synthesizes the results of the last few decades of studies covering almost eight hundred years from Late Antiquity to the "Syriac Renaissance" of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In the first of the two parts, she introduces the reader to the material, cultural and political contexts in which these histories were produced and circulated and situates historical writing at the centre of the process of Syriac identity formation. She finds it significant that, despite the hegemony of Greek and Arabic, Syriac became one of the major literary languages for Christian communities of the Near East for more than eight centuries. But, at the same time, Syriac historians were integrated within large multicultural empires (the Christian Hellenism of the Late Roman Empire, the Iranian culture of the Sasanian Empire, and, after their decline, the Islamic culture of the Caliphate), and their identity was a complex combination of social, geographical, linguistic and religious elements. Thus, for Christian historians living under Byzantine, Sasanian and Islamic authority, writing in Syriac implied a particular interpretation of their own place in history.

At the same time, the book analyzes another notable topic—the definition, characteristics and methods of pre-modern historical genres. Debié distinguishes history (as genre and as practice) from other forms of narratives about the past (namely biography) by identifying it with the Hellenistic and Eusebian traditions. These traditions encompass both the secular and ecclesiastical histories on the one hand, and universal—and to a lesser extent local—chronicles on the other.

The twelve thematically arranged chapters and conclusion deal with a wide range of historical, conceptual and methodological topics. The first chapter describes two interrelated subjects, namely the identity of the authors of Syriac historical writings and the notion of the text as a unique reality. In chapter two, the author turns to a more conceptual stance in order to discuss topics related to the classification of historical genres and their relevance in the Syriac historical tradition.

The next three chapters (three to five) are devoted to the description of the social, geographic and cultural contexts of Syriac histories, and in particular the material conditions in which Syriac histories were written. In chapter four, Debié gives a brief account of the social background of some of the most significant historians (John of Ephesus, Theophilus of Edessa, Dionysius of Tell Maḥre, Michael the Syrian, and Barhebraeus). Chapter five is devoted to the survey of the most important centers of literary production, both cities (Edessa, Melitene, Nisibis, Kirkuk, and Irbil) and monasteries (Qennešre and Mor Gabriel).

Chapters six and seven offer a detailed description of the chronological systems employed by Syriac historians and the underlying concept of time in their narratives. In chapters eight to eleven the author turns to the discussion of the Biblical, Greek and Islamic sources of the Syriac histories (chapters eight, nine and ten) and their relationship with other literary genres (chapter eleven). Finally, in chapter twelve, Debié returns to the topic of history and identity in the Miaphysite, East Syriac, and Melkite literary traditions. The author argues that the early extinction of a Miaphysite literature in Greek and the continuity in the use of Syriac in Melkite and Maronite circles of Mesopotamia until the end of the Middle Ages suggests that the use of Syriac may be interpreted as a geographical phenomenon. The last section of this chapter deals with the relation between language and identity and the role played by the Biblical past on its configuration.

The second part of the book is an annex with a comprehensive repertoire of historical texts written in Syriac from Late Antiquity to the Late Middle Ages. The criterion of classification of the texts is primarily chronological. However, Debié also maintains the traditional differentiation between Melkite, West and East Syriac traditions. By far the largest part is the catalogue dedicated to West Syriac authors. This feature may reflect the major impact of Eusebian models on West Syriac literature: as the author states (p. 107), East Syriac historical writing was dominated by a biographical dimension. Debié includes in her analysis not only works preserved in manuscripts but also narratives known to us only by references in other works. Each of these texts is provided with a brief summary and a valuable commentary with relevant information including a list of the available manuscripts, the most important editions and translations, and a bibliography. It should be noted that this catalog crosses the strict boundaries of Syriac language by including a section surveying significant Syro-Arab historians. This part ends with an extensive bibliography arranged by themes.

Throughout her study the author addresses a wide range of topics and it would be impossible to discuss all of them exhaustively. Nevertheless, two relevant issues are worthy of further comment. In the last decades, Syriac historiography has received increasing attention in a number of studies devoted to placing it in the context of Late Antique, Byzantine and (to a lesser extent) Islamic historical traditions. These studies have highlighted the need to address Syriac historians not only as complementary sources of Byzantine or Islamic History but also as resources for the study of the social and cultural history of the Near East.

Debié's main purpose is to analyze the literary aspects of Syriac historical writing. By stressing its dialogue with Greek and Arabic literatures, she seeks to elucidate the materials incorporated (and eventually reworked) in Syriac histories. These materials encompass not only historical data or references to specific events but also the narrative (and typographic) features of the historical works written in Greek which influenced Syriac historical writing. In addition, Debié extensively analyses the complex process involving the circulation of texts, both the appropriation of Greek and Arabic historical texts by Syriac historians, and also the Syriac materials incorporated in Byzantine and Islamic histories. For example, in chapter ten, when commenting on recent studies regarding the presence of Oriental materials in Theophanes' Chronography she extensively discusses how Syriac materials would be integrated in Byzantine chronicles (pp. 387-402), highlighting the diverse ways by which texts could be transmitted from one religious community to another. She concludes that distortions arising from such circulation should not be underestimated given that religious allegiances conditioned the way of writing (and reading) history.

In discussing the reception and influence of Greek models on Syriac historians, Debié analyzes the relationship between history writing and Syriac identity formation. This issue has a long and polemical history, and in recent times it has regained attention with the publication of the results of a multidisciplinary research project based at Leiden University.1 Debié views history as one of the key elements for understanding the formation of Syriac Christian identity. Thus, the production, circulation and reception of historical texts in Syriac are related to communal self-definition. Moreover, she shows that the traditional image of Syriac culture as a marginal phenomenon of Late Antique and Islamic cultural history should be replaced by a more dynamic picture in which dialogue and integration prevail. This emphasis on interaction and mutual influence is one of the key strengths of Debié's point of view.

To conclude, this book is an important contribution to the comprehension of the development of Christian historiography. Any work of synthesis implies a selection and one may note two limitations in Debié's approach. First there is little attention to the relation of Syriac histories to other Oriental literary traditions (Armenian, Coptic or Middle Persian to name a few). In addition, the focus on the influence of the Hellenistic (Eusebian) approach to Syriac historiography tends to set aside other forms of the discourse about the past—notably hagiography. This choice is fully justified by both stylistic criteria and content. However, considering the author's insistence on the porous nature of the literary genres, other forms of historical narratives—such as Lives of Saints or Acts of the Martyrs—deserve more attention.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that Debié's work is an essential resource for further research on pre-modern historical literature, not only for specialists in Syriac studies, but also for historians of the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires, and the Islamic Caliphate. ​


1.   Bas Ter Haar Romeny (ed.), Religious Origins of Nations? The Christian Communities of the Middle East, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2009.

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Friday, August 19, 2016


Anton Bierl, Joachim Latacz (ed.), Homer's Iliad: The Basel Commentary. Prolegomena. (English edition translated by Benjamin W. Millis and Sara Strack and edited by S. Douglas Olson; first edition 2000). Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. Pp. xviii, 284. ISBN 9781614517375. $182.00.

Reviewed by Evert van Emde Boas, Calleva Research Centre, Magdalen College, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In 2005 I was a Master's student in Oxford. One of the sessions in the obligatory 'Research Techniques' seminar series was on commentaries, and for that session I offered to give a brief presentation comparing the Cambridge Iliad commentary series to the volumes in the Basel Gesamtkommentar edited by Joachim Latacz.1 What I had not fully thought through when I volunteered is that my peers, given their varied backgrounds, could not all be expected to read German. So, to allow for a fair side-by-side comparison, I found myself translating several pages of the Basel commentaries into English for my handout. The notes that I have dug up suggest that at one point in my talk I said that the Basel commentaries are 'in themselves a very good reason to learn German'. With the appearance of the volume under review and the gradual publication of translated commentary volumes,2 future students will no longer have to do so (at least not for this reason).

The Prolegomena form a companion volume to the commentaries, and consist of several introductory essays, glossaries, and indexes. The translation is based on the third German edition (2009), but has been updated throughout, particularly in the footnotes. The English version has an additional essay by Anton Bierl on 'New Trends in Homeric Scholarship'. The translated commentaries will also 'include supplemetary information directed specifically at an Anglophone audience' (xiv).

First things first. Having tried my hand at a few pages myself, I can only express the greatest admiration for the achievement of Benjamin W. Millis and Sara Strack, the project's translators, and for S. Douglas Olson who leads their team. Olson's compliment to his collaborators in the preface, where he remarks that Millis and Strack 'have done a superb job of rendering the original German into clear, colloquial English that nonetheless allows something of the individual voices of the various contributors to be heard' (xv-xvi), is richly deserved. The volume in fact seldom betrays its German origin, at least in style.3

Of course, a review of a translated work of this kind should seek to assess more than simply the quality of the translation. To what extent does this volume, and the project of translating the Gesamtkommentar as a whole, meet a genuine need, and offer English-speaking users something that they will not find elsewhere? In spite of what I said to my fellow students in 2005, my answer is mixed. It is also slightly different for the Prolegomena than for the commentary volumes themselves (which, I should make clear, are not the focus of my review).

Some thoughts, then, about the project as a whole. The Basel commentaries have been received with near-universal acclaim,4 and that they will now be accessible to a wider readership is a very good thing. Yet questions must remain about how wide that readership will actually be. Professional scholars never had any justification to ignore the original German volumes in the first place (although some have); so the target audience is presumably students. For them, the commentaries will be in competition not only with the blue Cambridge series, but also with a growing number of smaller-scale texts in the 'Green and Yellow' series, as well as the Oxford commentaries on books 1 by Pulleyn and book 9 by Griffin.5 Given this competition, several aspects may hamper the widescale adoption of the Basel commentaries: the lack of introductions to the individual volumes, the vast scale and comprehensiveness of approach, the complexity of design, and the prohibitive price. To be clear: I will in the future certainly advise my own students to use the commentaries when looking at individual passages, and recommend that libraries buy them.

Moving on to the Prolegomena: parts of this book deserve to be widely used as teaching resources. This is particularly true of the chapters dealing with factual matters. I know of no better brief presentation in English of Homeric grammar than Rudolf Wachter's overview (65-115), which covers phonology (with a suitable amount of attention for matters of historical grammar and dialect), word and stem formation, morphology, and syntax. Wachter's chapter, fuller in coverage than (for instance) the overviews in recent Green and Yellows,6 can stand alone as an excellent basic reference text (it is frustrating, in that respect, that the reader is sometimes referred to a separate section with '24 Rules relating to Homeric Language', found in each of the commentary volumes but not reproduced in the Prolegomena). It may be noted that those without German and/or French who want an even fuller treatment are not given much help: the material is (rightly) heavily informed by, and constantly refers to, Chantraine's Grammaire homérique; reference works in English are not mentioned.

The grammar chapter is complemented by a concise, clearly organised discussion of metre by René Nünlist (116-21) and, at the end of a volume, a Homeric-Mycenaean word index compiled by Wachter (236-58), a nice addition 'meant to direct the attention of the reader of Homer to Mycenaean Greek' (236). Further factual chapters include a very helpful glossary of terminology used in Homeric criticism and narratology ('Homeric Poetics in Keywords', 164-76) by Nünlist and Irene de Jong,7 and a chapter with short biographies of the main 'Cast of Characters of the Iliad' by Fritz Graf (on the gods, 122-39) and Magdalene Stoevesandt (on human characters, 140-50), supplemented later in the volume by a complete index of characters (204-35).

The essay chapters translated from the original are 'Commenting on Homer: From the Beginnings to this Commentary' (1-26), 'Formularity and Orality' (39-64) and 'The Structure of the Iliad' (151-63), all by Latacz, as well as a brief 'History of the Text' (27-38) by the late Martin West. These chapters are more obviously in competition with material offered elsewhere in Companions.8 What the chapters by Latacz, in particular, offer English speakers, in contrast and addition to such Companion chapters, is a sense of the important work done in the modern period in continental Europe, particularly Germany. Thus, the chapter on commentaries (justifiably) extols the virtues of Ameis- Hentze-Cauer (which served as the basis for the Basel series), while the chapter on orality discusses at length the work of, among others, Wolf, Geppert, Hermann, Curtius, Ellendt, and Düntzer — all predating Parry and Lord (who are of course also given a proper full treatment). Such reminders are important, and the chapters are all informative and insightful. Yet I am not sure that they can supplant the Companions: in the chapter on formularity and orality, for instance, there is no discussion of the implications of oral theory for composition on a larger scale than verses (i.e. type-scenes and story patterns) — an important feature of the comparable Companion chapters.9 (Type-scenes, incidentally, do receive ample treatment in the commentaries themselves.)

The new addition to the translated volume is an essay by Bierl on 'New Trends in Homeric Scholarship' (177-203), which seeks to 'clos[e] the gap' (178) between the original edition's presentation of the state of the art of Homeric research in 2000 and more recent developments.10 The chapter's final section ('Further Topics and Related Themes', 195-203) does a good job of summarising a great deal of recent work on the Iliad, touching on such themes as myth, ritual, hero cult, near-Eastern influences, metanarrative reflection, and memory. The first few sections are devoted to developments in oral theory and the Homeric question, many of which actually predate 2000. Bierl subscribes enthusiastically to Nagy's evolutionary model and 'multitext' approach. As he himself points out (186 n. 2), this puts him at odds with the discussion of the history of the text given by West earlier in the volume (and, I think, with Latacz's discussion in 'Formularity and Orality'). It is arguably a good thing that such different approaches are reflected within a single volume, but the risk of confusion is great. A clearer exposition of the differences would have helped to elucidate the current state of the discussion, and whether Bierl's favoured approach actually 'mediates long-standing debates' (191) and 'merges with the unitarian approach' (194). By the same token, Neoanalysis is mentioned several times in the chapter and the book as a whole, but its tenets never outlined in any detail.

One final quibble. I am a great fan of cross-references and the use of typography to help readers, but the extremely elaborate design of this volume and the series, with its overlapping systems of abbreviations, its four different 'levels' of text in the commentaries with alternating Greek, transliteration, and translation, is damaging to user-friendliness. Even someone who has read the user manual may get confused at times: 'CH.' in small caps means 'Chantraine', while 'CH' in all caps refers to Stoevesandt's chapter on human characters (one of several examples where an abbreviation is not readily transparent); 'P' (not superscript), used several times in Bierl's essay to refer to the glossary of critical terms, is not in the list of abbreviations. The keying of lemmata to 'Richard [sic] Lattimore's popular translation' (xiv)11 — the German fascicles with text and translation are not being translated — is understandable, but means that students may have to shift constantly between at least three books.

The Basel commentary series stands as a magnificent achievement in Homeric scholarship, and whatever the reservations and doubts expressed above, the English translation is a welcome addition.

Table of Contents

Preface to the 1st Edition (2000) VII
Preface to the English Edition XI
Abbreviations XVII
1. Introduction: Commenting on Homer. From the Beginnings to this Commentary by Joachim Latacz 1
2. History of the Text by Martin L. West 27
3. Formularity and Orality by Joachim Latacz 39
4. Grammar of Homeric Greek by Rudolf Wachter 65
5. Homeric Meter by René Nünlist 116
6. Cast of Characters of the Iliad: Gods by Fritz Graf 122
  Human Beings by Magdalene Stoevesandt 140
7. The Structure of the Iliad by Joachim Latacz 151
8. Homeric Poetics in Keywords by René Nünlist and Irene de Jong 164
9. New Trends in Homeric Scholarship by Anton Bierl 177
10. Character Index by Magdalene Stoevesandt in collaboration with Sotera Fornaro, Andreas Gyr and Andrea Suter 204
11. Homeric - Mycenaean Word Index by Rudolf Wachter 236
Bibliographic Abbreviations 259


1.   The series was in its infancy in 2005, with only the first two volumes and the Prolegomena published. A further eight commentary volumes have since appeared, under the editorial management of Latacz and Anton Bierl; the eleventh is due later this year. The series will then cover books 1 (reviewed at BMCR 2001.09.01), 2 (reviewed at BMCR 2005.08.16), 3, 6, 9, 14, 16, 18, 19, 22, and 24. The project was introduced to readers of BMCR by Latacz himself at BMCR 97.07.12.
2.   Apart from the Prolegomena, the translated commentaries on books 3 and 6 have appeared; book 19 is due this year. The promised pace of publication is 'approximately three new volumes … per year' (xiv): it is too early to assess whether that projection, which seems optimistic, is realistic.
3.   The use of wider letter spacing (for names) feels out of place in an English volume, however.
4.   See, in addition to the BMCR reviews mentioned in n. 1, e.g. Willcock in CR 52 (2002) 229-31 and 55 (2005) 229-31.
5.   S. Pulleyn, Homer: Iliad, Book One (Oxford 2000); J. Griffin, Homer: Iliad, Book Nine (Oxford 1995). Recent Green and Yellows are B. Graziosi and J. Haubold (ed.), Homer: Iliad Book VI (Cambridge 2010); I.J.F. de Jong (ed.), Homer: Iliad Book XXII (Cambridge 2012); several further volumes are planned.
6.   Cf. e.g. De Jong (n. 5) 29-33; A.M. Bowie (ed.), Homer: Odyssey Books XIII and XIV (Cambridge 2013), 29-54. Both refer to Wachter's original German chapter.
7.   Full disclosure: Irene de Jong has been my academic supervisor and colleague.
8.   E.g. I. Morris, B. Powell (eds.), A New Companion to Homer (Leiden 1997); R. Fowler (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Homer (Cambridge 2004).
9.   See e.g. J.M. Foley in Morris & Powell (n. 8), 154-8; M. Clark in Fowler (n. 8), 134-7. There is no direct counterpart in such works to Latacz's history of commentaries, although the Morris-Powell volume has chapters on the reception of Homer in antiquity and the scholia.
10.   In the process much important recent literature is cited; I missed a reference, however, to A. Kelly, A Referential Commentary and Lexicon to Iliad VIII (Oxford 2007).
11.   This error is actually one of very few I found: proofreading and production are of a high standard.

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