Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Thalia Papadopoulou, Aeschylus: Suppliants. Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. Pp. 189. ISBN 978071563913990100. £12.99.

Reviewed by Letizia Poli Palladini, Liceo-ginnasio 'Giovanni Meli,' Palermo, and Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA (

Version at BMCR home site

Twenty-third scion in a distinguished line, this book keeps loyal to the aim and method of its predecessors, i.e. introducing a particular tragedy by means of clear, accessible, well-structured treatment. It is a merit of Dr. Papadopoulou that her work not only carries out the proposed task with sound knowledge, but also brings a breath of fresh air to old topics. The production of the book is nearly faultless.1

After a 'Preface' (pp. 9-10), and a short chapter 1, 'Aeschylus: Life and Works' (pp. 11-13), which supplies some background information, Chapter 2, 'The Danaid Trilogy' (pp. 15-24), deals with the date of the première (pp. 15-17). Having reported on the available evidence (mainly P. Oxy. 2256 fr. 3, a fragmentary hypothesis) and on the different interpretations of it, Papadopoulou favours the year 464/463 (Archedemides' archonship). The author rejects the theory of an early composition and delayed performance, and that of a posthumous first production. A similar rejection meets attempts at dating Suppliants on the ground of alleged echoes of contemporary political events, such as the Argive-Athenian alliance witnessed by Thucydides (1.102.4). The fallacy of the historicist approach is strongly stated. Next, Papadopoulou deals with the structure of the trilogy (pp. 17-24), i.e. with possible reconstructions of the lost dramas, and with the issue of the sequence of the first two plays. Some sympathy is cautiously bestowed on the prevailing opinion that Egyptians followed on Suppliants (p. 19). The possible content of the third piece of the trilogy,Danaids, is then discussed, with special regard to Aphrodite's intervention in favour of Hypermestra, it would seem, whether at a trial or not (pp. 19-21).2 Attention is also paid to the possible resolution of the story, whether through the Danaids' punishment in Hades (a frustrating water-carrying task) or their acceptance of marriage (pp. 21-23). A review of the likely subject-matter of the satyr-play Amymone follows (pp.23-24).

Chapter 3, 'The Danaid Myth' (pp. 25-38), touches on the fluctuations of the story so that Aeschylus' selection and elaboration, and hence his intention of conveying meaning, may be gauged. An overview of the main variants (Danaus aggressor/suppliant, coming from Egypt/always living in Argos; Danaids benevolent dispensers of water/murderesses), and of possible interpretative approaches (allegorical, historical, comparative) introduces the topic (pp. 25-30). A close look is then taken into the development and spread of the motif of the Danaids' punishment in Hades (pp. 30-34): Papadopoulou shows that this is later than Aeschylus, although it may have been influenced by him, if e.g. the Danaids ended with a purification connected with water (and perhaps a leaking vessel) being imposed on the young women, perhaps as a condition to remarry. The next topic of investigation is the diffusion and shape of the myth before Aeschylus (pp. 34-38). Reviewing the evidence of (non-Homeric) epic, genealogic, lyric poetry, and mythographic prose, the author shows that, albeit Homer does not mention the Danaid myth, its existence since archaic times as an important Argive tradition cannot be doubted. The conclusion is that Aeschylus is likely to have innovated by presenting Danaus and his daughters as suppliants rather than a party in a war, and by downplaying the latters' virago-like nature. The figure of Pelasgus, too, appears to be an Aeschylean novelty, possibly aimed at emphasizing the establishment of Danaus' line on the Argive throne.

Chapter 4, 'Religion' (pp. 39-49), deals with supplication (pp. 39-43) both generally and in the play. Papadopoulou underlines how the Danaids evade Pelasgus' inquiry into (?) the legal issue behind their plea, and how their being "manipulative" towards him prepares their shift from helplessness to aggressiveness. Then attention is paid to the gods (pp. 43-49), who are often invoked in prayer, first of all Zeus, as protector of suppliants and progenitor of the Danaids. The unilateral character of such invocations is exposed (they focus on Zeus' role of gentle deliverer of Io, suppressing that of lustful lover).

Chapter 5, 'Gender' (pp.51-64), addresses gender conflict with special regard to the question why the Danaids reject marriage. Their aversion is argued to be particular, though often expressed generally, in the language of the typical maiden fear of marriage as a form of rape. The opposition between the sexes, which occasionally emerges, is seen as a consequence of the central polarity, marriage by force vs. marriage by consent. In fact, although the Danaids' cause is often referred to as a female one, even their protectors, Danaus and Pelasgus, assert the traditional gender hierarchy. Psychoanalytic approaches to the Danaids' stance as a pathological attachment to their father are set aside as fallacious, since dramatic characters cannot be laid on the analyst's couch. The author then refutes the tenacious view that the Danaids act out of disgust for incest. The Athenian law about marriage of a heiress to a kinsman (uncle or cousin) is shown to be inappropriate here, with Danaus being alive; on the other hand, there was nothing incestuous about marriage between first cousins in Athens. The emphasis, therefore, put on the Egyptians' suit as unacceptable relates to their violent insolence (later exemplified on stage by the Egyptian Herald and his henchmen's intervention) in trying to force Danaus' and his daughters' will. Finally Papadopoulou considers the reconstruction of the Danaids' motivation based on the tale of an oracle about Danaus' eventual death at the hands of a son-in-law. The charms of a consistent causation are admitted, but at the same time the reader is reminded that Suppliants contains no hint at any oracle whatsoever.

Chapter 6, 'Politics' (pp. 65-75), places the tragedy in its historical and political context, although Papadopoulou strongly opposes all historicist readings that have posited allegorical equations between the drama and history (pp. 65-69). At the same time a few elements in the action are believed to have recalled realities of the Athenian polis such as the public examination of young men entering adulthood, the legal status of resident aliens, and the procedure of the popular assembly (pp. 69-71). It is surmised (pp. 71-72) that democratic Argos may conjure up Athens, and that Suppliants may provide the earliest evidence for the topos 'Athens protector of the weak,' so well-known from later sources (tragedy, oratory). The end of the chapter (pp. 72-75) deals with the opposition Greek vs. barbarian both broadly, and specifically.

Chapter 7, 'Performance' (pp. 77-97), discusses the setting of the action (pp. 77-80) as implied by the text: no scenic building was needed, but a raised structure accommodating statues of gods (possibly 12), and a large altar; the dancing area is conceived as the grove next to the sacred precinct; the side-walks are imagined as leading one to the sea, the other to the city of Argos. After space, time is considered (p. 80): a single day seems to be enough for the action to take place within the dramatic fiction. The performers of the play (pp. 80-83) were two actors, twelve chorus-members, a number of mutes, and apparently two subsidiary choruses, one of Egyptian henchmen, the other of Argive guards (rather than of the handmaids attending the Danaids). The remainder of the chapter is devoted to costumes and stage properties (pp. 83-87), and to stage action (pp. 87-93), i.e. mainly to entrances, exits and other stage movements such as getting on/off the mound. The author shares the common method of inferring such visual details from the verbal text. Then it is the turn of music, singing, and dancing (pp. 93-97). The practicalities of these important elements of ancient tragedy are explained to the reader, and even the possible function of different metres is touched upon.

Chapter 8, 'Reception' (pp. 99-124) accommodates somewhat different topics, first the vicissitudes of the text in the manuscript tradition and then its slowly developing diffusion in the West through printed editions and translations both in Latin and vernacular languages (pp. 99-100). Then attention is paid (pp. 100-102) to the ancient iconography of the Danaids as either water-carriers, or murderesses, or suppliants. The latter type, which is thematically closer to Aeschylus' Suppliants, is attested inter alia on two Attic water-jugs dated to 460-450 B.C. On the other hand, Amymone seems to have inspired several Attic vase paintings of the same period. After this, Papadopoulou passes on to elaborations of the Aeschylean tetralogy, both by Greek (pp. 103-106) and Roman authors (pp. 106-112). The disproportion between the two sections is due to the particular political overtones taken up by the Danaids' story in Augustan monumental visual arts (see the statuary decoration of the temple dedicated to Apollo on the Palatine after the victory at Actium) as well as poetry (see especially V.Aen.12.938-947). Another set of Aeschylean echoes may resound in Ov.Her. 14. The chapter is concluded by a learned review of modern adaptations or revivals for the stage of Suppliants. The notes (pp. 125-150), which allow the reader to pursue controversial matters and attain a more critical vantage-point, show knowledge of the ancient evidence and of the relevant scholarly literature. The book is completed by a guide to further reading (pp. 151-154), a bibliography (pp. 155-173), a glossary (pp. 175-176), a chronology (pp. 177-180), an appendix giving a chronological list of Danaid-based operas (pp. 181-182), and an index of names and things (pp. 183-189).

The greatest merits of this book are dramatic sensitivity and critical balance; the author is open to the suggestions of contemporary culture but is never led astray by them. On the negative side, exempting from blame such features of the series as omission of textual problems, and lack of illustrations, one can object that the author takes too clear-cut an approach to the moral stand of the Danaids (in bonam partem). Actually, as often with Aeschylus, one gets the impression of an inextricable mixture of right and wrong. Likewise, I wonder if the main theme is 'gentle, mutual love' rather than 'marriage without any fuss.' Having dealt with the origin of the myth, the author might have touched on a related conundrum, the origin of the Greek name 'Egypt' (notoriously unrelated to the local one, Kemet). The date of 464/463 should be mentioned as possible, not as the likeliest.3 The staging without skênê seems to be implied by Suppliants, but it cannot be ruled out that the rest of the trilogy may have needed a palace front as a backdrop.4 The rhetoric of supplication5 and the large use of imagery (once a favourite scholarly topic) ought to have been treated at greater length. Further reflection is called for by the inconsistency in things political. Can we at one and the same time accept interactions of tragedy with the broadly political, and reject as anathema any allusion to specific political events, to say nothing of political interpretations of Augustan visual arts and poetry? Although no political allegory stands out in Suppliants, it is nonetheless hard to deny some general accord with Athenian home and foreign affairs of the late 460s. However, these and other objections on arguable points of detail cannot affect the final assessment: this book will prove both a useful and reliable tool in the hands of students, and stimulating reading for more expert scholars.


1.   I have not come across any misprints but on p. 138 n. 14 (read 'West 2006'), nor has random double-checking of quotations shown any mistake, but only few slips: p. 22, last line, read (sc. Supp.) 1026-1029; p. 32, last paragraph, read Lucr.RN 3.1003-1010. On p. 113, it should be added about Salieri's Les Danaïdes that du Roullet and de Tschudy reworked an original manuscript libretto, Ipermestra o Le Danaidi, by R. de' Calzabigi, formerly commissioned by Gluck: see A. Basso, ed., Dizionario Enciclopedico Universale della Musica e dei Musicisti: I Titoli e i Personaggi, Torino 1999, s.v. 'Danaidi.'
2.   TrGF III, Aesch., fr. 44 Radt.
3.   See P. Sandin, Aeschylus' Supplices: Introduction and Commentary on vv. 1-523, Lund 2005 (corrected edition), pp. 2-3.
4.   See A. F. Garvie, Aeschylus' Supplices: Play and Trilogy, Bristol 20062, p. 161; M. L. West, Studies in Aeschylus, Stuttgart 1990, p. 170.
5.   Investigated by S. Gödde, Das Drama der Hikesie. Ritual und Rhetorik in Aischylos' Hiketiden, Münster 2000.

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