Monday, March 14, 2011


Alan H. Sommerstein (ed.), Aeschylean Tragedy. Second edition. London: Duckworth, 2010. Pp. xii, 384. ISBN 9780715638248. $40.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Oliver Thomas, University of Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

Alan Sommerstein's guide to Aeschylus has become a staple of student reading lists, at least in Oxford. However, the first edition (Bari: Levante, 1996) is out of print and hard to acquire. With the appearance of a relatively – but perhaps insufficiently – affordable paperback second edition, the book may reach the bookshelves of its intended broad readership. It is particularly welcome as a complement to Sommerstein's recent Loeb volumes of Aeschylus (see BMCR 2009.08.50).

The general structure and main arguments of the book remain. Chapter 1 outlines Aeschylus' lifetime and its politics. Chapters 2-3 discuss his theatre and its conventions, and his use of the connected trilogy. Chapters 4-8 discuss Persae, Septem, Supplices, the Oresteia (at greater length, naturally), and Prometheus, respectively; in each case, the lost parts of the tetralogies also receive attention. Chapters 9-10 focus on fragments, firstly the satyr-plays Theoroi and Dictyoulkoi, then the tetralogies which retold parts of the Iliad and Odyssey. Chapters 11-13 are more thematic, about Aeschylus' world-view and political engagement, and what he can teach people today. Sommerstein (rather weakly) justifies his omission of a chapter on Aeschylus' poetic style on grounds of accessibility for readers without Greek (ix). The absence of sustained comment on Aeschylus' artistic influence – even if only on, say, Sophocles and Euripides – is also a shame.1

The book is dedicated to students and does not assume knowledge of Greek. However, Sommerstein seems also to write for a variety of other readers. His flair for speculating at what lurks behind the extant fragments dominates chapters 3, 9, 10, and sections of chapters 5-8, and speaks mainly to the professional. By contrast, chapters 4-8 contain plot summaries which are only lightly dusted with critical comments, and are most useful as a refresher for someone returning to Aeschylus after an absence.2

Sommerstein builds his interpretations carefully from exemplary command of detail, and offers admirably clear positions with which one can grapple. However, he sometimes applies a directness of logic where I would wish for more circumspection. For example, § 5.2 seems to interpret Eteocles' psychological development from the starting-point that he does not intend to fight, since he does not initially say as much. § 5.5 assumes that the terms of Oedipus' curse and Laius' oracle seen in Septem were portrayed consistently in the preceding plays. § 7.9 (with ramifications for § 11.6) discusses the gods of the Oresteia, without persistently distinguishing what ordinary characters say versus what prophetic characters say versus what Aeschylus wanted to express versus what he believed. § 8.2 trusts Prometheus' view of his situation. § 11.2 retrojects from Agamemnon's behaviour during the 'tapestry' scene to his character at Aulis. In § 11.5, the vagueness of the divine apparatus of Persae is described, but then interpreted without consideration of the fact that Persians are speaking. § 12.1 infers Aeschylus' favour towards Ephialtes' reforms, by pressing the ambiguity of Eum. 690-2 and two adjectives which can but need not be related to anecdotes about Ephialtes' murder.

A few arguments strike me as questionable on other grounds. § 7.4 underplays Pindar Pythian 11 in treating the mythographic background of the Oresteia. § 11.2 argues that Agamemnon's concern for his alliance (Ag. 212-17) is a matter of expediency, not of duty. But alliances were sanctified by oaths, and the juridical λιπόναυς suggests duty. Chapter 13 is about what Aeschylus can teach 'us', but 'we' are defined narrowly – liberal westerners, who uphold gender equality and so on. How can Aeschylus speak to other audiences?

Finally, I noticed a few internal inconcinnities. In chapter 1 and on p. 96 Sommerstein suggests that 463 is the most likely date for Supplices ('possibly 463', '463?'), whereas on p. 289 he explains why this is not so. The discussion of doors in Choephoroe on pp. 156-7 seems to presuppose a single door, while pp. 168-9 argue for two. The traditional view of supplication as unrefusable remains unchanged on pp. 304-5, whereas on p. 97 it was revised in acknowledgement of F. Naiden, Ancient Supplication (Oxford, 2006).

It remains to stress that in such a wide-ranging book on such a rich author, some differences of opinion are inevitable, and what is impressive is that Sommerstein's arguments always repay careful attention.

Owners of the first edition may be interested in a detailed survey of the revisions. A few minor alterations correct infelicities and factual errors, or reflect new ideas about the text (consonant with Sommerstein's Loeb editions). By far the majority improve the first edition's lax referencing.3 This extends to the addition of over 200 items of bibliography published between 1996 and 'forthcoming', plus some older items, which render the bibliographical survey (pp. 319-28) extremely valuable, especially with regard to scholarship not in English.4

Perhaps the most significant changes of argument are that: Sommerstein retracts his suggestion that Supplices alludes to Pericleidas and thus dates to 461; he relocates the mound in Persae, Septem, and Supplices to the back of the orchestra (§ 2.1, following S. Scullion, Three Studies in Athenian Dramaturgy (Stuttgart, 1994)); he adds § 4.2, an ingenious argument published in Dioniso 2008 that prophecies in Phineus and Glaucus Potnieus brought unity to the trilogy containing Persae.

Other significant changes in chapter 2 are that Sommerstein accepts Goette's arguments that the theatre was smaller than traditionally thought (see BMCR 2008.05.24) and, with justified caution, that the orchestra was trapezoidal; also, he now reconstructs the judging procedure differently. In particular details of staging, Sommerstein now envisages the chorus of Choephoroe entering from the scene-building (p. 156), that of Eumenides having not unattractive masks as in subsequent art (p. 31 n.20), and that of Prometheus entering on high then descending by ladder while Prometheus converses with Oceanus (pp. 222-3). Sommerstein's view of the fragmentary plays has undergone various alterations, visible in his Loeb. These principally affect chapter 3. The account of the Aethiopis tetralogy and the activities of Euphorion acknowledges M. L. West's 'Iliad and Aethiopis on Stage' in CQ 2000; Argeiai, Hypsipyle, the end of the Lycurgeia, and (less convincingly) Argo all come out slightly differently; § 6.2 offers a tauter argument that Aigyptioi preceded Supplices; an argument that Prometheus Pyrkaeus is an ancient chimera is added to § 8.4. Finally, miscellaneous additions include McClure's suggestion that Euripides Andromache 825ff. alludes to the confrontation in Choephoroe (§ 7.6.6: L. McClure, Spoken like a Woman (Princeton, 1999), 194-5), a paragraph on the fact that women are anything but silent at the end of Eumenides (end of § 7.8), and a comparison of Justice in fr.281a and in the Oresteia (end of § 11.5).

Sommerstein has kept this identifiably the same book as the first edition, reasonably enough. However, this means that recent scholarship is almost never given extended appraisal. To cite just one example, chapter 4 might have engaged less superficially with Rosenbloom's book on Persae (BMCR 2007.11.24) than merely mentioning it (p. 66 n.17, p. 322). More seriously, Pericleidas is cut from § 12.2 without explanation, and the chapter's general view of Aeschylus' democratic sympathies is barely altered, although an inference just from Persae and Eumenides is significantly riskier without the further support of Supplices.

One should not judge this book's publishers by its grainy cover. The pages are firmly glued in. Reformatting is nearly perfectly consistent, including in the useful indices of passages and topics. Diagrams generally improve on the first edition (though the genealogy on p. 318 was better in landscape format). I noticed just four copy-editing slips, all trivial.

Compared to other one-volume guides to Aeschylus, this book is more down-to-earth and detailed than Herington's Aeschylus (New Haven, 1984), more wide-ranging than Gagarin's Aeschylean Drama (Berkeley, 1976), more useful for students working on a particular play than Rosenmeyer's The Art of Aeschylus (Berkeley, 1982), and more up-to-date than all three. Both Sommerstein and Duckworth are to be commended for making it available again.


1.   Furthermore, it struck me that an extra section in chapter 2 introducing the formal features of tragedy and some of the attendant jargon – which is delayed until § 7.5 – might have assisted the presentation of chapters 3-6.
2.   Similarly, § 6.4 summarizes the stage-movements of Supplices with very little guidance as to interpretation. Chapter 4 is particularly thin, and one must wait until § 12.3 for analysis of the historical engagement of Persae.
3.   There are still a few deficiencies in this department. On p. 176 a citation is attributed to 'Lebeck 1971' without a page-number. The parenthesis at pp. 186-7 cries out for an inline reference. The historical sketches in chapter 1 and § 12.1 keep the reader well clear of the complicated source-criticism on which they rest.
4.   Foreign-language works were largely excluded from the first edition, presumably with the non-professional audience in mind. The second edition must have been in press before the dissemination of Jouanna and Montanari's useful Entretiens Hardt volume about Aeschylus (BMCR 2010.07.28), which is the bibliography's most glaring omission.

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