Sunday, January 13, 2013


Victor Coulon, Pierre Judet de La Combe, Aristophane. Les Grenouilles. Classiques en poche. Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2012. Pp. l, 311. ISBN 9782251355009. €13.50 (pb).

Reviewed by Alan H. Sommerstein, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site

This is the fifth Aristophanes volume to appear in the Classiques en Poche series, in which Budé texts (without critical apparatus) are published with facing translations and new introductions and commentaries. In the previous volumes (Lysistrata, Wealth and Clouds by Silvia Milanezi [1996, 2008, 2009] and Wasps by Ch. Orfanos [1998]) the translations had been those of Hilaire van Daele from the original 1923-30 Budé volumes; by a welcome change of policy, Judet de la Combe has been permitted to supply his own translation. Where he disagrees with Coulon's text or speaker assignments, the issue is discussed in the commentary. It might have helped readers if such disagreements could be flagged (e.g. by an asterisk) in the translation itself; at present this is done only when the text is considered to present an unresolved problem, in which case "(?)" is inserted as the equivalent of the traditional obelus.

The Introduction (pp. VII-L) deals briefly with the production and its historical, political and literary background, but gives little information about the career of Aristophanes or the general nature of Old Comedy. The information it does give is not always reliable. Aristophanes was not "en fin de carrière" in 405 (p. VII n. 1), and the Lenaea was not "réservé aux seuls Athéniens" (p. VII n. 2) – indeed non-citizens could perform in choruses or even sponsor them, which they could not do at the City Dionysia (schol. Wealth 953). Nothing is said anywhere about the possibility that Frogs was revised after the death of Sophocles. Regarding the political situation, those with a mindset formed by modern politics may be misled when Cleophon, for example, is described as a "responsable politique" (p. VII) or later, in the commentary (on 678) as "chef des démocrates" and as having been executed "après une campagne du parti adverse".

Most of the introduction is devoted to interpreting the play and especially its presentation of tragedy. Judet de la Combe does well to point out that poetry was an integral part of civic life (pp. VIII-IX) and that Frogs has been unduly influential in shaping modern views of Euripides (and, he might have added, of Aeschylus too) (p. XVI n. 15). He then criticizes two schools of interpretation, the historicist (which he associates with de Ste. Croix, Henderson, and the present reviewer) and the ritualist (associated with Carrière and Lada-Richards), both of which, he argues, fail to account for the "discontinuité" and "incohérence" of the play.

This discontinuity and incoherence proves to consist in the fact that Dionysus goes down to the underworld to bring a poet (Euripides) back to earth, then finds himself judging a contest between Euripides and Aeschylus arranged by Pluto for a different purpose (to decide who should occupy the underworld "throne of tragedy"), and then, when he is unable to choose between them, is told by Pluto "Then you won't have done what you came here for" (1414) and invited, after all, to take the winner back to earth.

This alleged discontinuity and incoherence is actually of trivial significance. For a theatre audience it is easily smoothed over. The throne of tragedy, though it appears to be physically present on stage, is never mentioned in the script between lines 830 and 1515: once the contest actually begins, it is simply a contest to determine which of the two is the better tragedian, and when Pluto's intervention at 1414 reminds us of Dionysus' original mission we will probably have completely forgotten that this is not what the contest was supposed to have been about.

Why, though, should Aristophanes have chosen to introduce this untroubling but real inconsistency? He had a compositional problem to solve. His basic idea was that Dionysus should go to the underworld to bring back Euripides and, while there, become convinced that he would do better to bring back Aeschylus instead. The best way of getting him to change his mind, especially given the conventions of Old Comedy, was to have a contest between the two poets. But Dionysus, having made the descent specifically to fetch Euripides, would never himself have proposed such a contest: if there is to be one, it must have been arranged independently of (but fortuitously at the same time as) his arrival, and therefore must be for some prize to be enjoyed in the underworld itself. Hence the idea of the "throne of tragedy" is introduced – and promptly dropped again; and the contest proceeds for four-fifths of its length without any specification, or any need for a specification, of what the two poets are competing for, until the idea of a prize – return to earth – is introduced at last as the contest enters its final round.

Judet de la Combe's own interpretation of the play might possibly have been expressed in a manner that was more concise and easier to grasp. In essentials it appears to be approximately as follows (see especially pp. XXXIX-XLV). Both Aeschylus and Euripides are presented as flawed, alike in their techniques and in their approach to the role of educating the public – which they both agree is the duty of a poet (954, 971-5, 1008-9, 1054-6), as do the chorus of initiates (686-7, 1530) and the god of the underworld (1501-3). Aeschylus seeks to transmit and confirm traditional Athenian values, but he does not encourage his audience to test these values by reasoned argument, with the result that "the public are always left in a state of infantile obedience (minorité obéissante)" (p. XLI). In effect, hetells them how they should behave, and when his direct influence is removed by death they cease to follow his instructions. Euripides, on the other hand, educates his public in methods of persuasive argumentation, apparently regardless of the content or merit of the propositions being argued for. The sailor trained by Aeschylus will be in manners and intellect unfit for civilized company (1073-5); the sailor trained by Euripides will be in physique and attitude unfit for wartime service (1071-2, 1076; cf. 1083-98). Aeschylus wins the contest "because he is the past – because in his intractable violence he constitutes an overdue reminder of what the city had been before it degenerated" (p. XXXIII).

At the end of the introduction (pp. XLV-XLIX), Judet de la Combe discusses the principles underlying his translation. He emphasizes the "dissonances" and incongruities of Aristophanes' language, which can be sublime and obscene within one sentence or even within one word: this characteristic he has endeavoured to reproduce, if necessary by "redistributing differently in the sentence the elements that arouse laughter by the incongruity of their juxtaposition" (p. XLIX). So far as I can judge, he has succeeded in combining this kind of fidelity of style with fidelity of sense.

The commentary consists of lengthy notes on sections of text and mostly brief notes on individual passages, some straightforwardly explanatory, some discussing significant textual issues, others drawing attention to passages of thematic importance for the overall interpretation of the play. It contains a fair number of challenging suggestions. Judet de la Combe is probably right (inter alia) to detect a sexual undertone in ξυνηλθέτην (47; why not also in ἐπὶ ... κειμένην in the previous line?); to point out (on 53-54) that when we hear about Dionysus' reaction to reading Andromeda, we will at first think that he had fallen in love with the fictional princess herself; to emphasize the force of line 1475 in hoisting with his own petard a dramatist who had allegedly espoused and promoted the view that there is no objective truth but only opinion; and maybe to explain the reference to Diagoras (320) as implying that the Athenians have turned atheist so that his are the only songs about the gods now heard in the city. Among less satisfactory suggestions are the claim that ἀπαπαῖ (58) denotes "a violent negation" (which should imply that Cleisthenes is neither woman nor boy nor man – so what is he?); that κόρεις (115) puns on κόραι (an innkeeper was not the same thing as a brothel-keeper, and πορνεῖα have just been mentioned separately); that βρεκεκεκέξ puns on Βρόμιος (quite apart from any other considerations, this appellation of Dionysus is not used anywhere in the play); and that the duals of 606-7 refer to the three men named in 608, Iliad 9.182-198 being cited as a parallel (but if these three Scythians were already on stage in 605-7, they would not need to be summoned by name or told to "come here"). It is regrettable that fragments of Euripides are cited from the Budé edition without also giving the TrGF numbering which is standard in all scholarly publications and was duly employed as a secondary numeration by the Budé editors themselves, even before Kannicht's TrGF Euripides volumes had been published.

At Frogs 1433-4 Dionysus declares himself still unable to decide between Aeschylus and Euripides; at 1467-71 he makes his decision. The intervening lines must evidently be of crucial importance – but unfortunately they are textually the most controversial passage in the play, perhaps in the whole Aristophanic corpus. Judet de la Combe discusses their problems in a five-page note on line 1437, in which he rejects all the proposals that have been made for rearranging the text, reassigning sections of it, and/or identifying doublets perhaps to be associated with the attested reperformance of the play: he translates the text in its transmitted sequence, while recognizing that line 1442 (ἐγὼ μὲν οἶδα καὶ θέλω φράζειν) does not fit at all well in its present position, and marking the transition from 1441 to 1442 with the sign "(?)" to signal "an unresolved difficulty". I venture to suggest, modifying my own earlier proposal,1 that 1437-41 + 1451-3 should be regarded as a rejected Aristophanic draft, cut out before the (original) performance and replaced by 1442-50, but not clearly deleted in the working copy from which the later textual tradition derives (perhaps it was marked for deletion but not actually erased).2

The book concludes with an eight-page bibliography comprising editions of the play, the scholia, the comic and tragic fragments, and secondary literature (with a good spread between work in French and in other languages); a policy decision seems to have been made to include only books, not articles – with the result that on the subject of "Dionysiac rites, the Mysteries, and their relations with the theatre" we are offered Xavier Riu's lamentable Dionysism and Comedy (Lanham MD, 1999)3 but not any of the highly relevant work of Richard Seaford.4 Perhaps Martin Revermann's Comic Business (Oxford, 2006) could have been included; and James Robson's Aristophanes: An Introduction (London, 2009) surely deserves a place alongside the excellent introductions by Mastromarco and von Möllendorff.

Although Aristophanic scholars are not the primary target readership for this book, they should not overlook it.


1.   See most recently Talking about Laughter and Other Studies in Greek Comedy (Oxford, 2009) 254-271. The proposal, slightly modifying one made in T.G. Tucker's edition (London, 1906), was that in the original production this passage comprised 1435-41 + 1451-66, and that for the reperformance 1437-41 + 1451-3 were deleted and 1442-50 inserted in their place. Judet de la Combe (p. 294) points to a genuine difficulty with this solution: it leaves Euripides, in one of the two versions of the script, with a suggestion so outlandish and grotesque as to make Dionysus' decision a foregone conclusion.
2.   Unlike the antode of the second parabasis of Wasps, which was erased leaving semi-legible traces of which Hellenistic scholars could make nothing (schol. Wasps 1283). In G.W. Dobrov (ed.), Brill's Companion to the Study of Greek Comedy (Leiden, 2010) 400-4, I have used these and other passages as evidence that "our texts of the plays derive ultimately from ... 'working scripts', which were first written out in fair copy (presumably before rehearsals began) and updated as necessary ... to take account of subsequent changes".
3.   See my review in CR 51 (2001) 384-5.
4.   For example, his chapter "Tragedy and Dionysus" in R. Bushnell (ed.), A Companion to Tragedy (Malden MA, 2005) 25-38.

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