Wednesday, May 2, 2012


Mary C. Stieber, Euripides and the Language of Craft. Mnemosyne supplements. Monographs on Greek and Roman language and literature, 327. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. Pp. xxvi, 494. ISBN 9789004189065. $230.00.

Reviewed by Markus Dubischar, Lafayette College (

Version at BMCR home site

Euripides and the Language of Craft is a long, extremely thorough, and overall successful study. Its results will be valuable to Euripidean scholars, more so to the specialist than to the novice. The book combines archaeological and art-historical interests and expertise with those of literary studies. The author, Mary Stieber, a classical archaeologist and art historian, has published previously The Poetics of Appearance in the Attic Korai, U of Texas Press 2004 (BMCR 2004.08.10). In addition, several articles by Stieber on Euripides and other Greek poets have prepared the ground thematically and methodologically for certain parts of this new monograph.

In Euripides and the Language of Craft, Stieber does not seek to prove a provocative thesis through complex argument. Rather, this study's substance lies in the collection and very extensive discussion of evidence that moves into focus a largely overlooked aspect of Euripidean poetry: the many ways in which Athenian material culture, the visual arts and artisanship in particular, are reflected in this poet's work. Stieber thus shows us a new side of Euripides' otherwise well-known realism and interest in oikeia pragmata (everyday matters).

The study is organized thematically. Architecture, sculpture, painting, weaving, and, finally, craft and art in a broader sense are treated in five massive chapters with an average length of 85 pages. In essence, the investigation is a long series of very thorough examinations of individual passages in which Euripides uses "artisanal" (a key term in this book) terminology and imagery. The best way to convey a sense of the book's scope and character is to give a run- down of the themes and technical terms that Stieber investigates, which she does by adhering to a relatively consistent pattern: first, she discusses the Greek expression's precise meaning or possible meanings; then, she gives brief overviews of the expression's attestation and use in other poets, inscriptions, and technical treatises; third (and longest), Stieber interprets the occurrences in Euripides of the expression or idea under investigation.

Chapter One, on "Architecture" (1-114), is devoted to city walls and towers, building foundations, columns and supporting members, architraves, cornices, roofs, roof beams, porticoes, doorposts, pilasters, and finally "Cyclopean" masonry.

Chapter Two, focusing on "Sculpture" (115-94), deals with statues and monuments, lead holdings, the erection of statues, gods' thrones, gilded sculptures, living images, and the act of wiping off paint. In addition, Stieber in this chapter considers ideas and images that she takes to be reminiscent of sculpted representations of female beauty, female nudity, or female clothing, but also of Heracles' labors or of the Trojan Horse.

Chapter Three, "Painting" (195-274), is very heterogeneous in its evidence and arguments. Only a short section is centered on Greek technical terminology, hypographo and charasso, both related to line drawing (237-41). The rest of the chapter explores more broadly how monumental painting and, to a lesser degree, vase painting and relief art may have influenced the language and imagery of Euripides. In the footsteps of Shirley Barlow ("pictorial style") and Ewald Kurtz ("malerischer Stil"),1 Stieber culls the plays of Euripides for passages that show "painterly" (199) qualities. She finds them most notably in the descriptive passages of the poet's late choral odes and in messenger speeches. Stieber makes out several distinctly painterly traits: Euripides' interest in color and light effects, expressive use of gestures, vivid details in descriptions and reports of various kinds, "genre vignettes" inspired aesthetically by contemporary vase paintings, and Euripides' interest in representing "character" and in discrepancies between visible appearance and true personality. In this chapter, Stieber also discusses passages in which a speaker either claims to have seen something in paintings or draws attention to technical issues of painting, such as visual focus, clarity, and plasticity. (218-41).

Chapter Four (275-336) mainly deals with textiles. It is, however, titled "Ion" because weaving and textiles play a particularly important role in this play. But Ion also contains passages with imagery related to other art forms, and Stieber interprets them as well: the temples of the Athenian acropolis (278-84) and the sculptural program of the temple of Apollo at Delphi (284-302). In their totality, this tragedy's various artisanal and artistic references and allusionsserve two purposes: they add up to form an additional layer of Athenian patriotic meaning, and they address gender issues connected especially with the female task of weaving.

Chapter Five, "A Practiced Hand" (337-427), explores terminology and imagery associated with more technical aspects of craftsmanship. Here Stieber examines a wide array of Greek technical words. Some of them refer to artisanal activities, such as producing fine work, softening leather or metal, making or building, doing joiner's work, framing or devising, working raw materials and smoothing, molding, forming, melting down and fusing together, scratching and scraping, whetting and blunting, wheel-making, operating a drill, and producing columns on a lathe. Other technical vocabulary refers to things like metal filings, joints, hewn and polished objects, grime, or rod and line. A third category comprises more general concepts or abstract ideas, such as counterfeit images, wondrous feats (like a moving statue) , models, impressions and reliefs, as well as composition and figure, the pattern or shape of a body (in motion), the look or view, , the act of inventing, the attributes "divine," "daidalic," and "lifelike," the figure of Daedalus himself, and, finally, notions of sophos and sophia as related to craftsmanship..

The "Epilogue" (429-33) summarizes the previous chapters' findings and highlights what we learn from them. Stieber conclusively characterizes Euripides as "a man of his times" (430) and "a realist, in every sense" (431), who is intensely interested in so many aspects of contemporary Athenian culture. The Euripides presented to us here and throughout the book is an intellectually and aesthetically progressive poet who lived during an extraordinary time when matters of art and craftsmanship "were common currency, rather than the exclusive province of specialist practitioners" (432).

The bibliography (435-59) is rich and up-to-date. Jacqueline de Romilly's La modernité d'Euripide (Paris 1986) could have informed a broader sketch of the intellectual "progressiveness" of Euripides but is, strictly speaking, not essential to what Stieber set out to do. A general index (461-83) and an index of Euripidean passages (485-94) conclude the book.

This study has several strengths. Throughout, Stieber puts her archaeological and art-historical knowledge to productive use for literary interpretation. Particularly successful elucidations concern Iphigenia's dream (in the prologue of Iphigenia among the Taurians) about her fatherly palace's one remaining support column with flowing hair (37-8 and 41), the fifth-century presence of Bronze Age walls (90-3), the style and appearance of the Thetis statue in Andromache (125-7), the comparable roles of landscapes in narrative poetry and painting (204), the lure of oriental fabrics in classical Athens (328-9), and the movement of Heracles chasing a son around a column (358-9). Other strong passages could be easily added.

Stieber demonstrates effectively that Euripides – unlike Aeschylus and especially unlike Sophocles – willingly incorporates in his poetry many expressions and concepts that have their origin in the realm of contemporary visual artistry and artisanship. Euripidean realism is thus not limited to issues of philosophical thought, rhetoric, and characterization, all of which have long been studied, but also absorbs and reflects recent developments in the practice and theory of the visual arts and related areas. In addition, Stieber's close and thorough examinations reveal that Euripides creatively employs artisanal expressions and concepts in different ways: some terms or ideas occur frequently, others rarely or only once; some images form clusters or entire systems, others stand isolated; some are part of everyday language, others highly specialized and exquisite; some are used literally, others in complicated or subtle metaphors or similes; some are used in their precise technical meanings, others with poetically legitimate imprecision. Stieber's evident poetic and aesthetic sensitivity guides many of her close interpretations and enables her to bring out fine nuances of Euripides' complex and dense language and imagery.

Stieber also strives for argumentative transparency. In matters of dispute, she regularly gives all sides of an argument equal coverage and reflection before unfolding her own position. Moreover, she is always conscious of the degree of certainty of her evidence and arguments; the reader knows at every moment whether Stieber is presenting undisputable facts and cogent conclusions or more subjective interpretations or, occasionally, speculations. Last but certainly not least, chapters and long sections open with helpful introductions that provide the necessary archaeological and art-historical background that many literary scholars may be lacking.

The book, however, also has weaknesses. In a study of this size and scope, some interpretations are bound to be less compelling than others. In as far as individual points are concerned, this is to be expected and not a serious problem. The chapter on "Painting," however, may be the weakest on the whole due to a systematic flaw that pervades many of this chapter's sections. The "painterly" qualities of the Euripidean passages Stieber discusses (following Kurtz and Barlow) are undeniable. Stieber, however, is too willing to postulate that contemporary painting has directly influenced Euripidean writing when more plausibly both branches of art reflect larger intellectual and aesthetic trends of the time. Few will agree, for instance, that the portrayal of character in individuals "is properly the domain of the visual arts" (261) and that Euripides' – or any poet's – interest in human ethos is primarily owed to painting.

Another problematic quality of this study is its unrelenting exhaustiveness and unrestrained focus on details even in peripheral matters. Thoroughness, to be sure, is a virtue. But readers with limited time may lose patience over Stieber's extremely long-winded discussions. Small argumentative steps, reasonable as they may be, are often swelled up to enormous proportions by excessive doxography (long paraphrases and quotations from earlier scholarship), extensive presentations and evaluations of arguments and counter-arguments, and too much information of only marginal relevance. No less than eight pages (66-73) are devoted to the two lines IT 113-4, ten pages (223-32) to Hec. 807-8, and ten pages (347-56) to Ba. 1066-7. In these and many other sections, it is difficult for the reader to get to the core: Stieber's own understanding and explanation of the passage or expression in question, and her main reasons for it. Finally, there are more than just a few misprints. 2

These criticisms, however, should not detract from the fact this book advances and deepens our understanding of Euripidean language and poetic technique, and of the world in which Euripides lived and that inspired him. Mary Stieber is to be thanked for crossing disciplinary boundaries by bringing her art-historical and archaeological expertise to the study of Euripides, a poet most suitable for this kind of treatment, as this book makes clear.


1.   Shirley Barlow, The Imagery of Euripides, 2nd ed., Bristol 1986, vii. Ewald Kurtz, Die bildliche Ausdrucksweise in den Tragödien des Euripides, Amsterdam 1985, 23.
2.   Page 6 read "coalesces"; p. 11 read "this" instead of "his"; p. 34 read "Once" instead of "One"; pp. 51, 117, and 480 "Taureans" inconsistent with pp. 37 and 118 "Taurians" (the latter being the preferable variant); p. 66 insert apostrophe after "Euripides"; p. 73 delete "up" in "head up"; p. 83 n. 289 read "Scholia"; p. 129 delete comma following the parenthesis; pp. 152 and 480 read "Tauris"; p. 186 word repetition "that that"; p. 216 change double parentheses "((…))" into single; p. 269 delete apostrophe in "Euripides'"; p. 301 incorrect syntax around "continuous"; p. 302 read "Athenocentrism"; p. 366 inconsistent transcription (y or u) "rhythmos and summetria". In addition, there are a few Greek misspellings (pp. 171, 173, and 187), incorrect or missing Greek accents (pp. 259, 288, 304, and 306), German misspellings (p. 175 n. 177, p. 303, and in the bibliography pp. 437, 448, 451, and 453), and German quotations that do not fit the English syntactical context (p. 172 n. 165 and p. 252 n. 154).

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