Wednesday, March 19, 2014


Andrea Rodighiero, La tragedia greca. Universale paperbacks 645. Bologna: Il Mulino, 2013. Pp. 268. ISBN 9788815244659. €15.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Sebastiana Nervegna, University of Sydney (

Version at BMCR home site

Writing introductory works is not easy. Introductory works should be authoritative, accessible and reader friendly without being dogmatic or simplistic. They should present select facts and ideas, discuss key scholarly works and major interpretative trends, and, above all, generate more interest in the topic. As an introduction to Greek tragedy for Italian undergraduate students and for the general public, Rodighiero's La tragedia greca meets most if not all these requirements.

A short introduction reviews various approaches to tragedy and sets out the main aim of the book: to study tragedy "come uno spettacolo inserito in una pubblica festa, prodotto a partire da un testo in versi con precise caratteristiche compositive e formali, da destinarsi a degli attori e a un coro, composto da sezioni dialogate e sezioni cantate su una partitura musicale accompagnata da passi di danza, e concepito almeno all'origine per un determinato spazio (il teatro di Atene) e per il pubblico del V secolo a.C." (p. 10). Accordingly, Rodighiero does not plunge the reader into close readings of the surviving tragedies, but opens with two chapters on tragedy as a performance event. Chapter I, "La tragedia nella città," briefly surveys the context of tragic performances: their origins, the organization of dramatic festivals and the composition of the audience. Chapter II, "Lo spazio teatrale," deals with how tragedies were staged in fifth-century Athens. Rodighiero gathers a wealth of information on issues such as actors' movements on the stage, masks, costumes, choral dancing and the use of props and theatrical machines. Here, as throughout the book, the discussion includes many examples from the surviving tragedies, often with a preference for Sophocles (as one would expect from an expert in Sophocles).1

Chapter III, "Forme del testo," moves from the context of tragic performances to tragic texts. Rodighiero discusses the use of song and recitative, sketches the relationship between tragedy and other genres, especially the dithyramb, and details the constitutive parts of tragedy. In Chapter IV, "Il mito (e la storia) a teatro," Rodighiero finally presents the subject- matter of tragedy. After a brief survey of the relationship between epic poetry and tragedy, and of the tragedies that draw upon Homer's poetry ("circa un terzo di tutti i drammi del V secolo," p. 118), Rodighiero focuses on two standard tragic characters, kings and seers, and on two key tragic themes, freedom and destiny. He concludes with a discussion of tragedy both as a political genre (that is, a genre related to the life of the Athenian polis) and as a means to articulate and express social concerns such as the opposition male/female, free/slave and Greeks/barbarians. Chapter V, "Temi, trame e motivi," contains a broad overview of how Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides dialogue with one another. Intertextuality, as Rodighiero calls it, is at work in both specific songs and scenes, though most of this chapter deals with the use of the same myth (Philoctetes, Antigone and, above all, Electra) by the canonical tragedians. Attention is also given to the chorus (its identity, role and 'standard' features) and to how the surviving tragedies end. Finally, Chapter VI, "Oltre Atene," moves along two main lines, the survival of Classical Greek tragedy in antiquity and the vitality of later tragedy (with a discussion of the so-called minor tragedians and their works, pp. 181–7). Among other things, Rodighiero touches upon tragic reperformances in Classical Athens and beyond, surveys the textual transmission of Greek tragedies and ancient scholarly work on them, and ends with a few remarks on Roman tragedy and the revival of interest in Greek tragedy during the Renaissance. The book includes a handy appendix, "Gli autori e le opere" (197–221).

As my brief summary shows, this wide-ranging book packs a lot of information into six relatively short chapters. Rodighiero's presentation of the material is generally well-informed and honest. It also avoids imposing specific views on the reader. Consider, for instance, the discussion of the composition of the audience in Classical Athens. Rodighiero briefly presents the ancient sources used both to support and to deny women's presence in the theatre, ultimately leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions (p. 41). As common in introductory works, some topics are necessarily treated very briefly (there is very little, for instance, on the fragmentary tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides), but interested readers will find useful bibliographic suggestions in both the footnotes to each chapter and the list given in "Letture consigliate" (pp. 253–5). Rodighiero duly refers to some major works on the archaeological and iconographic records;2 regrettably, however, this book has no illustrations. The visual material is important in studying both tragic performances and their diffusion beyond Athens. We do have some iconographic evidence that brings us close to the earliest revivals probably staged in Athens. The archetypes of the extant paintings reproducing Euripides' Orestes, Hypispyle and (probably) Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus date to the Early Hellenistic period. These archetypes were large paintings likely displayed in Early Hellenistic Athens: their earliest viewers were familiar with theatrical performances of these tragedies. The visual record from Sicily and South Italy (there are about 400 vases that show tragic connections) is also a key body of evidence in mapping the spreading of Greek drama outside Athens, in assessing the role of reperformances in its survival, and in identifying the criteria underlying the selection of Greek plays made by actors and audiences.

One good thing about introductory works is that, by focusing on key sources and facts, they force us to rethink them. I single out one, chosen from the area in which I am most interested, the reception of Classical Greek tragedy in antiquity. As Rodighiero duly notes (pp. 179–80), Ps.-Plutarch (Mor. 841F) tells us that Lycurgus, who was active in the years 336‒324, put together the official edition of the tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to be preserved in the public archive and read to the actors. According to Ps.-Plutarch, this edition was meant to safeguard the texts from actors' interventions. The extent of actors' interpolations and their identification in the surviving texts remain controversial topics, but the stated initiative of preserving tragedies from actors' interventions was slow to come. By the time of Lycurgus, the practice of reperforming tragedies was long established: the earliest epigraphically attested record dates to 386, but Rodighiero is surely right to speak of reperformances already in the late fifth century (p. 178). The official edition of the tragedies by the three main fifth-century tragedians, just like the erection of their statues in the Theatre of Dionysus, is a token of fourth-century Athens' nostalgia for her glorious past. Nostalgia, however, may be only part of the story. Like tragedians and tragic performances, tragic texts also found their way outside Athens. According to Plutarch's biography of Alexander the Great (Alex. 8.3), Alexander had at his disposal "many tragedies by Euripides, Sophocles and Aeschylus," sent to him by his treasurer Harpalos as he was campaigning in Asia (334–324). Both Lycurgus and Alexander the Great sought out the tragedies of the same authors at about the same time.

Rodighiero's book is a useful guide for any reader interested in Greek tragedy. Its mastery of the ancient sources and its careful presentation of current scholarship make it an important addition to an always growing body of studies on ancient Greek drama.


1.   Rodighiero is the author of three books on Sophocles: Una serata a Colono: fortuna del secondo Edipo (Verona, 2007), Generi lirico-corali nella produzione drammatica di Sofocle (Tübingen, 2012) and La parola, la morte, l'eroe. Aspetti di poetica sofoclea (Padua, 2000). He has also produced commented translations of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (Marsilio, 1998) and Women of Trachis (Marsilio, 2004).
2.   To the references given on p. 82, endnote 12 one should add the still important work by T. B. L. Webster, Monuments Illustrating Tragedy and Satyr Play2 (London, 1967).

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