Friday, October 18, 2013


Daniel I. Iakov, Η Άλκηστη του Ευριπίδη. Ερμηνευτική έκδοση (2 vols.). Athens: Μορφωτικό Ίδρυμα Εθνικής Τραπέζης, 2012. Pp. 386; 367. ISBN 9789602505083.

Reviewed by Andreas Markantonatos, University of the Peloponnese (

Version at BMCR home site

Daniel I. Iakov has written widely on Euripides' Alcestis for the last three decades. His lengthy interpretative essay on the play, 'Η Άλκηστη του Ευριπίδη. Ερμηνευτική Δοκιμή', now forming a good part of the introduction to the first volume of this recently published annotated edition of the play (vol. I, pp. 57-123), was published in the Greek periodical Hellenika as early as 1985. Eight articles on textual and interpretative problems have since appeared, as well as an extensive review of Markus Dubischar's monograph on Euripidean agon-scenes (Die Agonszenen bei Euripides: Untersuchungen zu ausgewählten Dramen, Stuttgart 2001), in which there is an illuminating discussion of the tension-filled scene between Admetus and Pheres.1 This remarkable two-volume edition is the capstone of Iakov's long and hard thinking on this fascinating play — one of the most popular, and for that matter over-interpreted, Euripidean plays. Especially with its rich and vivid Modern Greek rendition of the ancient text and copious commentary on every critical problem and difficulty, Iakov's long-standing engagement with Alcestis reaches here an impressive climax. This beautifully designed and produced edition of Euripides' Alcestis, published by the National Bank of Greece Cultural Foundation, seems to me to be the most meticulous and perceptive treatment of the play in recent times. It not only revisits crucial textual and interpretative issues, offering much-needed considerations of matters to which previous editors have failed to give careful thought, but also, and more importantly, it synthesizes a vast amount of secondary literature into a coherent and convincing whole, not to mention that it offers a new ancient text which shows the insight of an astute literary critic at every turn.2

The first volume includes a long introduction (pp. 25-127) dealing painstakingly with the folkloric elements in the myth of Admetus and Alcestis, the figure of Alcestis in Greco-Roman literary tradition and beyond, and the play's structure and main points of interpretation, as well as the satyric quality of the plot and the history of the text. There follows a new edition of the ancient text with a Modern Greek translation on the opposite page. A well-arranged table listing all textual deviations from the standard editions of L. P. E. Parker and James Diggle is provided at the end of the volume. One might wish that Iakov had furnished his text with an apparatus criticus to allow experts to follow his argument without difficulty, but the highly detailed notes on his editorial choices diminish this infelicity. After that the reader is in for a pleasant surprise, as nine appendices round off the first volume. These succinct and thought-provoking essays form a collection of Iakov's past research papers on the play, some of them scattered in rare multi-authored publications and periodicals, and now provide easy access to much of the reasoning behind his views and suggestions; fully revised and updated, they make a helpful coda to the introduction and Modern Greek rendition of the ancient text. The second volume contains 277 closely packed pages of commentary, as well as a few addenda, exhaustive bibliography, and tirelessly thorough indexes.

In the Introduction Iakov begins his exploration of the myth of Alcestis by discussing Albin Lesky's well-known theory, primarily based on research on comparative folklore by N. G. Politis and D. C. Hesseling, that the Euripidean play echoes a complex web of traditional stories and popular tales, still to be found in several European countries, in many of which the bride consents to offer her life to save her husband from untimely death.3 He rightly places little emphasis on this folkloric material, fascinating though it is (especially the Modern Greek version with its strong emphasis on female self-sacrificing duty), primarily because the differences between these popular narratives and the tragic play are too many to allow a satisfactory explanation of the special ways in which Euripides adapted the legendary tradition. We are on less shaky ground when we turn to the ancient testimonies, especially the slight but tantalizing evidence about an older Alcestis by the tragic poet Phrynichus. Iakov surveys the exiguous information, exercising extreme caution as regards the hotly disputed theory that Phrynichus was the first to introduce the Heraclean legend into the myth of Alcestis. He is equally cautious with reference to an alleged Sophoclean drama Admetus, which, if it existed at all, would probably have focused on Apollo's servitude at Pherae and his assistance to the xenophile king Admetus in winning Alcestis as his bride. In my view, Iakov could have been bolder in using the ancient evidence about Phrynichus' play, which seems to me to have been a rich source of inspiration for Euripides, especially in connection with the innovative use of the Heraclean cycle of stories and the gruesome figure of Thanatos.4 Iakov also examines the 'pro-satyric' character of the plot, discussing the comic elements in the figure of Heracles and how these are related to the happy ending of the play. He refrains from taking sides in the wide-ranging debate over the satyric quality of Alcestis, thus treating the genre-question as a pseudo-dilemma, and draws attention to the fact that it was only after Aristotle's Poetics that problems of genre came to the fore. A large part of the introduction is devoted to exploring the moral issues and difficulties surrounding Admetus' choice to accept his wife's self-abnegating offer (pp. 60-123). Iakov is adamant that Admetus is innocent; in fact, he argues that Euripides took great pains to funnel the story of Apollo's benefaction into reported action, rather than presenting it on stage for people to see, while at the same time giving prominence to Alcestis' non-recriminating versions of the past. More than this, he quite rightly emphasizes Euripides' choice to depict Alcestis not only as royal consort but also as doting mother, thereby adding more pathos to the familial sufferings and the deep-toned lamentations which ominously foreshadow the annihilation of the royal house after Alcestis' death.

In his native Greece Iakov is unanimously regarded as not only a virtuoso translator of ancient Greek literature but also a prolific critic of graceful charm and subtle intricacy. His admirable translation of the Euripidean text into clear and vivid Modern Greek serves as an eloquent witness to his ability to turn set-piece speeches and debates into actable lines on the modern stage, without sacrificing fine points of style and diction. This translation should take its place alongside Hourmouziades' recent rendition of the play as one of the finest attempts to convey the emotional intensity and the internal rhythm of Euripidean poetry.5

The organization of the commentary is admirable, allowing separate and comprehensive examination of all important questions, as well as discussing a broad range of manuscript readings, variants, lemmata in the scholia, and citations in ancient authors. The commentary is divided into sections corresponding with the natural divisions of the play, each beginning with an analysis of important dramatic techniques and crucial thematic points. Since space is limited my comments here are confined to a few textual and interpretative problems of continuing interest associated with the Prologue of the play (lines 1-76), which I hope will provide sufficient evidence of Iakov's critical and editorial expertise.

[16] Iakov sensibly retains the line, concurring with A. M. Dale, D. J. Conacher, A. Garzya, and L. P. E. Parker in the view that line 16 is in apposition to πάντας . . . φίλους, thereby serving as the first indication that the Apolline plan is not unproblematic, while introducing the theme of the aged parents clinging tenaciously to the brief remainder of their life.

[19-20] The lectio tradita is admittedly unique usage, but Usener's conjectures ἥν and ψυχορραγοῦσαν are no solution; even worse is Kirchhoff's suggestion that there is a lacuna after line 19. Iakov is right to point out that the unparalleled middle form of βαστάζω, especially in view of the use of the active voice in lines 40 and 917, militates against the proposed emendations. Perhaps one would not be far off the mark to suggest that the received text is the earliest example of the passive of βαστάζω, thereby obviating the difficulty posed by the absence of a possessive genitive in line 20. It is also possible that the revelation of the identity of those assisting the fading Alcestis is held in judicious reserve for later, when it can make room for further layers of pathos and complexity; in fact, in line 201 the Maidservant describes Admetus holding his dying wife in his arms inside the palace.

[50] Related to the preceding textual problem of line 16 is the question whether the manuscript reading ἐμβαλεῖν should be retained and τοῖς μέλλουσι accordingly rendered as 'those lingering in life', or simply 'those who are due to die'. Iakov finds support in Diggle, Kovacs, and Parker for the endorsement of Bursian's emendation ἀμβαλεῖν; but one is tempted to argue that here Apollo drops another broad hint at the unblushing egotism of Admetus' aged parents in his effort to reformulate the duties of Thanatos.

[64] Deviating from Diggle and Parker, who favour Schmidt's emendation πείσῃ, Iakov retains the manuscript reading παύσῃ, drawing attention to Bernardakis' solution that παύσῃ implies παύσῃ <ὠμὸς ὤν>. One may add in support of Iakov's suggestion that the received text harks back to καταπαύων (line 31) in the sense of annulling the privileges of Thanatos, as well as putting an end to his cruel ways.

To sum up, in this two-volume annotated edition Iakov weighs carefully the many views that have been put forward on a wide range of issues pertaining to the play's text and themes, while reasoning his way to his own conclusions which never fail to convince and carry the discussion forward. The enlightening introduction, well-balanced translation, clear-eyed comments, and thought-provoking appendices are a distillation for both the general reader and the classical scholar of Iakov's innovative research and critical assessment maturing over many years. It can be confidently predicted that this edition of Alcestis will have many decades to run before it has to be replaced.


1.   The eight articles are the following: (1) 'Zu Euripides Alkestis 320-2', Mnemosyne 43 (1990) 432-434, (2) 'Η Άλκηστη του Ευριπίδη και του Χόφμανσταλ. Συγκριτικές Παρατηρήσεις', Παλίμψηστον 13 (1993) 43-53, (3) 'Ευριπίδη Άλκηστη 943-7', in Αντί Χρυσέων. Αφιέρωμα στον Ζήσιμο Λορεντζάτο (Athens) 1995, 327-331, (4) 'Euripides, Alkestis 213-217 und 226-230', Wiener Studien 111 (1998) 89-92, (5) 'Der Redenstreit in Euripides' Alkestis und der Charakter des Stückes', Hermes 127 (1999) 274-285, (6) 'Η Άλκηστη του Ευριπίδη και ο Έμπορος της Βενετίας του Σαίξπηρ' Hellenika 54 (2004) 213-220, (7) 'Die Spiegel der Alkestis', in E. Karamalengou and E. Makrygianni (eds.) (2004), Άντιφίλησις. Studies on Classical, Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature and Culture in Honour of John-Theophanes A. Papademetriou (Stuttgart 2009) 179-187, and (8) 'Euripides' Alcestis as Closed Drama', RFIC 138 (2010) 14-27.
2.   Euripides' Alcestis has been fortunate in falling into the competent hands of erudite and perceptive annotators. Aside from the helpful and widely used English-language commentaries by A. M. Dale, D. J. Conacher, J. E. Thorburn, C. A. E. Luschnig and H. M. Roisman, and L. P. E. Parker, and older but still useful editions by J. H. Monk, T. D. Woolsey, F. A. Paley, W. S. Hadley, and H. W. Hayley, it is worth remarking that the following rather obscure annotated editions of the play are not without merits and should be mentioned in modern bibliographical compilations: (1) Anthon, C. An English Commentary on The Rhesus, Medea, Hippolytus, Alcestis, Heraclidae, Supplices, and Troades (New York, 1877), (2) Bayfield, M. A. The Alcestis of Euripides with Introduction, Notes, Appendices, and Vocabulary (London and New York, 1894 2nd ed.), (3) Blakeney, E. H. The Alcestis of Euripides with Introduction, Notes, Appendices, Vocabulary and Illustrations (London, 1900), (4) Buckley, T. A. Euripides' Alcestis and Electra. Literally Translated with Critical and Explanatory Notes. With an Introduction by Edward Brookes, Jr. (Philadelphia, 1900), (5) Earle, M. L. Euripides' Alcestis (London and New York, 1894), (6) Jerram, C. S. Euripides Alcestis with Introduction and Notes (Oxford, 1890 3rd ed.), and (7) Kynaston, H. (transl.) and J. C. Collins (intro. and notes) Euripides' Alcestis (Oxford, 1906).
3.   Lesky, A. Alkestis, der Mythos und das Drama (Vienna and Leipzig, 1925).
4.   Cf. also Markantonatos, A. Euripides' Alcestis: Narrative, Myth, and Religion (Berlin and New York, 2013) 88- 93 with further notes.
5.   Hourmouziades, N. Ευριπίδου Άλκηστις. Εισαγωγή, Μετάφραση, Σημειώσεις (Athens, 2008).

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