Sunday, March 1, 2009


William Allan (ed., comm.), Euripides: Helen. Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii, 371. ISBN 9780521545419. $38.99 (pb).
Reviewed by Brian V. Lush, College of Charleston (


After a hiatus of nearly four decades, during which no commentary was devoted to Euripides' Helen, William Allan's is the second in as many years to be published. Readers need not, however, be concerned about redundancy or competition for audiences among these two recent offerings. Although Peter Burian's Aris and Phillips commentary precedes Allan's by only a year, Burian's is keyed to readers with a limited exposure to Greek. Allan's commentary, on the other hand, appeals to more advanced readers of Greek, and will undoubtedly prove to be a valuable resource for experienced undergraduates, seasoned readers who are yet unfamiliar with the play, and for professional scholars of Euripidean tragedy. Readers will also find that Allan's work constitutes a worthy successor to A. M. Dale's (1967) Oxford commentary, which has until now been the standard English language commentary. Although scholars will continue to find Kannicht's (Heidelberg 1969) masterful commentary indispensable, Allan's commentary does the much needed work of filling the gap between previous treatments of the play and present time.

Allan's introduction to the play is long (85pp.) by comparison to other commentaries in the Cambridge Green and Yellow series, and is of a piece with Mastronarde's (2002) introduction to Euripides' Medea in the same series. This comprehensive introductory essay includes sections on (1) the production of Helen in its Athenian context and with reference to the poet's life and works; (2) the figure of Helen in earlier Greek culture and religion; (3) Euripides' introduction of Helen to the stage; (4) literary treatments of Helen by Stesichorus, Herodotus and Euripides; (5) production, staging and tragic diction; (6) the intellectual context within which Euripides produced his Helen, and how the Helen draws from contemporary ideas of epistemology, ethnicity, social relations and the Gods; (7) the question of genre and late Euripidean tragedy; (8) the Nachleben of Euripides' Helen; and (9) text and transmission.

Allan's introduction does a particularly good job of engaging with previous scholarship on the play, and his analyses are useful both in their contribution to our understanding of the play, and in introducing new audiences to the numerous treatments of a unique tragedy that sometimes confounds modern expectations. In general, Allan seeks to respond to broader interpretive trends that have dominated discussion of the Helen over the past four decades. The commentaries of Dale and Kannicht were, of course, written prior to the publication of Podlecki's (1970) seminal defense of the "basic seriousness of Euripides' Helen," and although neither denies the play's status as a genuine tragedy, current users of Dale's work, for instance, will likely be vexed by her treatment of certain elements in the Helen which, as she claims, "for Greek taste would be out of place in a 'tragic' tragedy" (xi). Such generic criticism, among other points of scholarly criticism, has continued, though with decreasing frequency, to beleaguer Helen, and it is against this backdrop that Allan sets his own analysis of the play.

The language of Allan's preface and introduction reflects his more focused aim of counteracting negative judgments of the play based upon the often narrow, anachronistic and essentialist theories of tragedy that a number of previous scholars have applied to it (ix, 68). Similarly, Allan successfully demonstrates that the Aristophanic portrait of Euripides cannot be taken at face value, and that his later tragedies were substantive, coherent and "intellectually serious" (46ff.). Far from being a religious, political and literary radical, Euripides fit well within the diverse and inclusive purview of fifth-century Athenian tragedy. This important message is emphasized repeatedly in both the introduction and in the commentary.

Another aim of Allan's introduction, "to reconstruct the original audience's core values and expectations as a more accurate guide to understanding the play" (ix), occasionally leads to a rigid discussion of the play's treatment of issues such as war and ethnicity. Allan's approach focuses upon the "affirmatory impact of tragedy," and responds to previous, one-sided discussions of the play as "anti-war" or politically subversive (e.g., 5, 200-1, 213, 279, 335). Allan is correct in his avoidance of a reading that ties the play too closely to particular historic events (e.g., the Sicilian Expedition), or which assumes definite criticism of contemporary events where none is evident. However, his assumptions about the audience's reception of the play at a charged and tenuous period in Athenian history seem overly prescriptive. The Helen is, among other things, a play about war and the suffering incurred as a result of martial conflict. Allan is careful to remind his readers not to exaggerate characters' claims about the futility of the Trojan War as condemning war per se (e.g., 201). However, too little is known about the responses of fifth-century audiences to assume that the play had nothing to say about war in general, or nothing to imply about the Peloponnesian War in particular.

Allan uses Diggle's edition (Oxford 1994) as a point of departure for his own text, though it differs from Diggle's significantly: Allan departs from Diggle's text in some 123 places, and proposes new punctuation in another 23, making this version of Helen a new and important contribution to the textual analysis of the tragedy. The apparatus criticus provides only a limited selection of textual alternatives that Allan deems of primary importance, but discusses numerous other passages and loci of interest in the commentary. Readers are referred to the apparatus critici in the editions of Kannicht and Diggle for a fuller record of previous emendations and manuscript evidence.

The commentary itself is detailed, judicious and consistently gratifying throughout. Allan explains difficult textual choices with the utmost clarity, as with his treatment of the contentious vv. 744-57, in which the Servant famously condemns prophets and seers as liars. As Allan explains, "[a]lleged linguistic and stylistic difficulties boil down to one real problem (that later Attic temporal augment in 752 ἠβούλετο..." (232). In response to this difficulty, Allan simply adopts Herwerden's emendation ἐβούλετο, which employs the temporal augment typical of fifth-century tragic diction. Further, such γνῶμαι as are uttered here by the Servant are often thought to be removable or irrelevant to the context, at least in part, on the grounds that they are "detachable from a context" (Dale xxxiii) and "auffälig breit" (Kannicht 208 ad 726-33). Allan, on the other hand, argues that such statements, although broadly applicable, are "highly relevant to the play" and that the Servant's comments "characterize the speaker as a shocked yet spirited old man, prone to moralizing reflection" (232). This comment is emblematic of Allan's willingness to accept the text on its own terms--a practice that he follows consistently throughout his commentary.

Although Allan does not use a dogmatically conservative model of textual criticism, he preserves the text as it is transmitted by L as closely as possible. At the recognition duet at vv. 625-97, a passage particularly troubled by textual difficulties, Allan affirms that Pap. Oxy. 2336 "confirms the high quality of L's text, but offers several improvements." Vv. 711-33, of which over half is deleted in Diggle's OCT edition, are largely retained by Allan on the grounds that "it would be misleading to treat sententiousness per se as a mark of interpolation (especially in Euripides)." On Helen's epode at vv. 229-52, Allan objects to Lourenço's allegations of "inapposite imagery and wooly phraseology" and asserts that these verses "represent a typical example of late Euripidean lyric." Such judiciousness is a consequence of his general strategy of avoiding anachronistic judgments of style and content. Finally, Allan responds to a particularly difficult crux at vv. 1148-50 by adopting Kovac's (2002) Loeb version of the text (which includes the conjectures of Schenkl and Willink, as Allan notes):

προδότις ἄπιστος ἄδικος ἄθεος; οὐδ' ἔχω
ὅ τι σαφὲς, ὅ τι ποτ' ἐν βροτοῖς τῶν θεῶν
ἔπος ἀλαθὲς εὕρω.

In this case, Allan opposes the emendations of Paley, Murray and Alt, and explains that this decision retains as much of the transmitted text as possible.

In addition to Allan's careful treatment of the text itself, his comments are generally illuminating and invoke a wide range of contextual information and critical analysis. He is particularly strong in the areas of contemporary intellectual strains and metrical analysis. Theonoe's peculiar theology, explained by her at vv. 1002ff, has been repeatedly mined for contemporary philosophical influences. Allan, in a note that is typically rich in detail, identifies the relevance of Anaximenes, Empedocles, Diogenes of Apollonia and Anaxagoras, reminding his readers that Euripides did not compose his tragedies in an intellectual vacuum, and that his use of contemporary ideas places him squarely within his own social and historical milieu. In particular, Allan traces the use of nouns in -σις throughout the tragedy, explaining that they are "a feature of the intellectual revolution of the late fifth century" (152).

Elucidation of lyric meters, and the connection of these meters to their literary context, is also a noteworthy and positive feature of Allan's commentary. Comprehensive metrical analysis is given at the start of each choral ode or exchange with a dramatis persona, along with a discussion of the content of the passage and its relationship to the play as a whole. For example, about the choral parodos at vv. 164-252, Allan identifies the iambo-trochaic exchange between Helen and the chorus as a "form of antiphonal lament which the fifth-century audience can relate to the antiphonal dirges ...of their own mourning rituals" (166). Consistently and sensitively tying meter to context proves to be a valuable contribution both for scholars of the tragedy, and for newcomers to Euripidean lyric who may be yet unaware of the power and importance of these often difficult passages.

Points of criticism about the commentary are few and relatively minor. In his approach to issues of production and staging, Allan might have devoted more attention to the visual dynamics of the tragedy, and the potential impact that staging may have had upon the play's initial audience. Allan devotes some 8 1/2 pages of his introduction to a general explanation of tragic staging, and to providing a thorough overview of the dramatic structure of the Helen. However, relatively scant attention is given to a moment of particular interest: in treating the exit of the chorus and Helen into the palace, Allan comments only briefly that this unique coup de théâtre "emphasizes H.'s isolation and helplessness" (179). This moment is, in fact, the only instance in extant tragedy at which all characters and the chorus exit into the skênê, leaving behind them an empty stage. Despite Allan's general thoroughness, more could have been made of this important dramatic moment, after which Menelaus enters an empty stage and delivers a second prologue. Less experienced readers might also have benefited from a brief introduction to lyric meter in the Introduction, and from a more thorough treatment of contemporary ideas in the introductory section entitled "Knowledge and Reality." Introductory resources for both topics are, however, abundant and cited by Allan. Allan's own contribution to the recently published Blackwell Companion to Greek Tragedy (Gregory 2005), entitled "Tragedy and the Early Greek Philosophical Tradition," will provide an excellent complement to the commentary for readers who are less familiar with pre-Socratic and Sophistic thought.

Errata in the commentary are rare and trivial. The only places requiring correction that I have identified are as follows: in the ΤΑ ΤΟΥ ΔΡΑΜΑΤΟΣ ΠΡΟΣΩΠΑ on p. 90, τεῦκρος should read Τεῦκρος; at p. 239 ad 828 πεισάντε should be proparoxytone (πείσαντε); at p. 272 ad 1109-10 (sixth line from the top of the note), ἀοιδοτάτος should be proparoxytone (ἀοιδότατος); at p. 273 ad 1117-21, βαρβάρω should include an iota subscript (adscript in this series) after the omega (βαρβάρῳ); at 340 ad 1642 (fourth line from the top of the note), "ixmmediate" should read "immediate".

In summary, Allan's commentary is a valuable and needed contribution to the study and dissemination of Euripides' Helen. It is rich in contextual information, straightforward in its analyses and contentions, and judicious in its treatment of the text. Additionally, it does a significant portion of the necessary work of bringing the last four decades of scholarship to bear upon our reading of the play. For all of these reasons, Allan's new commentary will go a long way towards achieving his stated goal of demonstrating that "Helen is an extraordinarily exuberant and inventive drama that deserves to be read (and performed) more widely" (ix).


  1. C. Michael SampsonMarch 1, 2009 at 6:28 PM

    Regarding the 'empty stage' phenomenon, Allan cites several examples (p. 205) of epiparodoi. So, although you are correct that he might have noted the novelty of Euripides' dramaturgy here, I'm not sure your assertion, that "This moment is, in fact, the only instance in extant tragedy at which all characters and the chorus exit into the ske^ne^, leaving behind them an empty stage" is correct; the empty stage does appear in other plays.

  2. To my knowledge, however, this is the only instance in which the chorus exits into the skene. Although other instances of characters leaving an empty stage do exist, this method of exit seems to be unique in extant Attic tragedy.