Monday, May 28, 2012


Poulheria Kyriakou, The Past in Aeschylus and Sophocles. Trends in classics - supplementary volumes, 11. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2011. Pp. 596. ISBN 9783110257526. $165.00.

Reviewed by Justina Gregory, Smith College (

Version at BMCR home site


The past is a lively presence in Greek studies these days. In 2010 de Gruyter issued Intentional History: Spinning Time in Ancient Greece, a collection of essays edited by Lynn Foxhall, Hans-Joachim Gehrke, and Nino Luraghi, and taking Gehrke's concept of "intentional history" as its point of departure. In 2011 Cambridge University Press published Jonas Grethlein's The Greeks and their Past: Poetry, Oratory, and History in the Fifth Century BCE, which deploys a Heideggerian template to compare historical memory in a variety of literary genres.

The volume under review eschews theoretical superstructure in favor of a straightforward approach that defines the past as "the time of events that precede those characterized in [a] play," and aims to "examine the import of the past within the surviving plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles and determine whether the treatment of the past differs within the work of each poet and between them" (2). Historical assessments by both characters and by choruses fall within the author's compass. Kyriakou concludes that Aeschylean characters taken as a whole "do not operate in the grip of a fixed version of the past as firmly as the characters of Sophocles" (511), but that Aeschylean choruses to some extent redress the balance because they "invoke, probe and lament the past much more often, and more extensively" than their Sophoclean counterparts (512). For characters and choruses alike, whether imagined by Aeschylus or by Sophocles, the past remains ultimately elusive.

This topic holds enormous potential. It is also quite simply enormous, and in her introduction Kyriakou makes valiant efforts to reduce it to manageable size. Having decided to omit all of Euripides for reasons of space, she leaves Prometheus Bound out of account because of doubts about its authenticity. More questionably, she omits Antigone on the grounds that the controversy over Polyneices' burial is not "directly linked" to his family's history (12; but surely Antigone, Ismene, and the chorus all view that event through the lens of the familial past). She attempts to sidestep the thorny problem of freedom of choice, noting that unless such freedom is assumed "any study of [the characters'] decisions, actions, and the way these are connected to the past can only be a study of illusion or self-delusion" (p. 3). In practice, however, the topic is unavoidable, especially in connection with Agamemnon's decision to sacrifice his daughter and Eteocles' decision to face his brother at Thebes' seventh gate. Another topic that Kyriakou hopes to skim over is literary influence—the "poetic past" (2) that leaves its mark on both Aeschylus and Sophocles. Nevertheless, issues of intertextuality inevitably surface as she considers the Iliadic background for the Aeschylean Clytemnestra's baring of her breast (150-51), the relationship of Sophocles' Electra to Aeschylus' Choephori (315-16), and Homeric echoes in Ajax (198) and Philoctetes (249-51).

Kyriakou devotes one chapter (half a chapter in the case of Choephori and Eumenides) to each of her chosen tragedies, taking them in their standard chronological order with the exception of Philoctetes, which she discusses immediately after Ajax because of the thematic links between the two plays. Her method is to begin with an overview of scholarly controversies associated with the tragedy in question, identify those most relevant to her topic, and then methodically consider each passage where characters or chorus comment on the past. Her discussions feature four layers of analysis. Interleaved with the main narrative are treatments of specific textual or contextual issues, printed in a smaller font; there are also footnotes and appendices. The result is a book that resembles a selective commentary more than it does a monograph, and will probably be consulted as such. It is a pity, therefore, that the index of names and subjects that supplements the index locorum is so minimalist; there is no entry for "Iphigenia," for instance, or for "fathers and sons," or for "curse." The publisher should have made more generous provision for readers' needs.

While Kyriakou's discussions are careful and even-handed, they have a tendency to slip out of focus. She identifies but does not follow up on a number of organizing motifs that might have served to tighten her analysis. Kyriakou does not see the "distinction between recent and remote past [as] particularly prominent in the works studied in this book" (8). She considers the Oresteia (not coincidentally the only surviving trilogy) an exception in this respect. She points out that the more distant past recedes as the trilogy takes its course: there is only one reference to the sacrifice of Iphigenia in Choephori, and Clytemnestra's and Aegisthus' adultery and usurpation of the throne do not figure at all in Eumenides. But the Oresteia is not really exceptional; greater attentiveness to the distinction between the nearer and more remote past might have sharpened Kyriakou's discussions of Darius's military record in Persae, Ajax's history of self-aggrandizing comments (to be discussed further below) in Ajax, and Oedipus' repeated self-exculpations in Oedipus at Colonus. Kyriakou draws attention to a second organizing motif, the relationship between physis and education, in her discussion of Philoctetes (244-45); she does not, however, consider how it serves to connect past and present in the play. A third organizing motif might have been the influence exercised by the dead over the living in Greek tragedy—not only the well-known Aeschylean ghosts, but the less obvious Sophoclean suspects like Hector in Ajax and Nessus in Trachiniae. Finally, the connections between past, present, and future (especially as these emerge in the relationship of fathers and sons) might have been considered more explicitly and at greater length.

Kyriakou's analysis of Ajax illustrates the strengths and limitations of her piecemeal approach. She establishes that the hero's suicide is grounded in his past behavior and character rather than pre-determined by Athena, and she points convincingly to his desire to justify himself to his father Telamon and to the self-aggrandizement implicit in his assertion that of the warriors who came from Greece, Troy saw nobody who was his equal (Aj. 421-26). However, this passage needs to be taken in conjunction with Ajax's statement a few lines later that if Achilles were alive to make an award of his arms he, Ajax, would be the recipient (Aj. 441-43), and with Odysseus' later affirmation that Ajax was "the best of the Achaeans… except for Achilles" (Aj. 1340-41)—a statement that does not "problematize" the award of arms as Kyriakou claims (236), but clearly marks it as erroneous. These passages (which Kyriakou links via cross-references but does not bring together in a single, sustained discussion) confirm that with Achilles dead, Ajax should indeed have been ranked first among the Greek warriors. In labeling himself the best of those who came to Troy, then, Ajax seems to retroject the nearer into the more remote past. He is not so much "defin]ing] himself through the past" (10) or "operat[ing] almost exclusively under the sign of the past" (508), as molding history to his rhetorical purposes—a characteristic move, as Kyriakou repeatedly demonstrates, made by characters who invoke the past, but one that is somewhat obscured here by her scattered discussion of the evidence.

Insofar as Kyriakou identifies contradictions, evasions, rationalizations and omissions in characters' accounts of the past, the documentary fallacy is a constant danger. Kyriakou generally keeps that danger in mind, as when she notes with commendable caution (33) that the characters in Persians "are most probably meant to be perceived as having a view of the past that…distorts historical reality." For the most part her analyses do not assume a fixed and objective past, but are attentive to history's fluidity and its potential for generating "dramatically fruitful ambiguities" (508). In this respect her results are not so different from those of Gehrke et al., mentioned at the opening of this review. Kyriakou's general conclusions, however, are probably less significant than her discussions of individual passages and plays. She has produced a responsible and accurate reference work that will repay consultation by scholars working on Aeschylus or Sophocles, while developing a topic that can be fruitfully studied in any tragedy.

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