Wednesday, April 15, 2015


Johanna Hanink, Lycurgan Athens and the Making of Classical Tragedy. Cambridge classical studies. Cambridge, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014. Pp. xiii, 280. ISBN 9781107062023. $95.00.

Reviewed by Stephen Lambert, Cardiff University (

Version at BMCR home site


In 405 BC, on the eve of the final act of the Peloponnesian War, Aristophanes in the Frogs has Dionysus choose between three potential saviours of the city, not politicians or generals, but Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. Thus was born the enduring idea that these three represented the peak of Athenian dramatic achievement. Thus too Aristophanes staked the claim of tragedy to be a crucial component of the city's political fabric. With the exception of Plato, however, late fifth- and early fourth-century prose writers do not devote much attention to the political space occupied by tragedy. Old tragedies were performed at the City Dionysia from 386, but it is only in the 340s (Aeschines' citation of Euripides in court against Timarchus in 345 was a milestone), and especially after the defeat at Chaironeia in 338, that there is an explosion of public attention directed to the tragic poets, as, facing the challenge posed by the growth of Macedonian power, Athens looked to its dramatic heritage to bolster its sense of political identity and, as Hanink aptly puts it, "began constructing the pedestal on which their drama still stands in the modern imagination". Thus the scene is set for Hanink's illuminating study of tragedy in fourth-century Athens. The crucial years between Chaironeia (338) and the Lamian War (323-322), "Lycurgan Athens", are the main focus, but there are also succinct surveys of developments between 405 and 338 and the final chapter extends the story down through the third century.

Hanink begins (chapter 1) with the central document of the role played by tragedy in the Lycurgan policy agenda, Lycurgus' one extant speech, Against Leocrates (330), directed against a man who had fled Attica in the aftermath of Chaironeia, and full of morally improving citations of poetry, including tragedy. Lycurgus expresses his admiration in particular for Euripides, quoting extensively from his Erechtheus, one of many indications that in the fourth century Euripides was the most popular of the canonical three.

Chapter 2 discusses Lycurgus' law providing for statues of the three great tragedians in the theatre of Dionysus and for establishing official texts of their plays, persuasively interpreting this in part as affirmation of Athens' control over its own theatrical heritage in the face of Macedonian claims. Both Philip II and Alexander were fans of Athenian tragedy, and the idea now surfaces that, by virtue of his "exile" at the court of Archelaus, Euripides was de facto a Macedonian poet (p. 73). Competition with the Macedonians over Athens' theatrical heritage, and over attracting the best "celebrity" actors to perform at dramatic festivals, were to an extent proxies for the political and military resistance to Macedon which had become unrealistic after the defeat of 338.

Chapter 3 presents the results of the latest research on the construction of the "Lycurgan" theatre of Dionysus on the south slope of the acropolis (to which Lycurgus contributed, although it was started before and finished after him); on the special Assembly after the City Dionysia devoted to business arising from the festival; on the honorific decrees for actors and others who had contributed to the theatre, which are a particular feature of the Lycurgan period; and on the dispute between Demosthenes and Aeschines over the announcement of Demosthenes' crown at the City Dionysia.

Chapter 4 ("Courtroom drama: Aeschines and Demosthenes") reviews that well-known actor Aeschines' innovative citation of poetry, and of Euripides' Phoenix, in the Against Timarchus, and Demosthenes' counter-citations in On the False Embassy and On the Crown (the only speeches in which Demosthenes quotes poetry). Interestingly, Demosthenes criticises Aeschines' citation of the Phoenix (19.246) on the grounds that it was not a play performed by the best contemporary actors, capping it with a citation of Sophocles' Antigone, in which Aeschines himself had played Creon (p. 155). Among other things the exchange demonstrates the power to set the theatrical agenda that, by this time, actors had acquired.

Chapter 5 analyses parody of tragedies in fourth-century comedies. Comedy "remained preoccupied with the tragic poets and plays of the fifth century" in a way that implies widespread familiarity with the classical masters (more than one comic poet wrote a Phileuripides), while the object of satire shifted from the tragic poets themselves to characters in the comic plays, typically disreputable or of low status, misappropriating tragic quotations. The status of the "Classics" is now taken for granted. This should not, however, mislead us into assuming that contemporary tragedy was regarded as second-rate by comparison. If late evidence is to believed, a statue in the theatre was voted by the Athenians for the contemporary tragic poet Astydamas II, following his victory at the City Dionysia in 340 with Parthenopaeus, anticipating by several years the statues of the three canonical greats. The base of the statue was allegedly inscribed with an epigram asserting that, had he lived in their day, Astydamas would have been a match for the men "who seem to carry off the first prizes", but who "have the advantage of time, where envy does not follow". Hanink aptly connects this sentiment (self-conscious "epigonality") with the weight of the past that lies heavy on Demosthenes' shoulders in On the Crown, and with the cultivation more broadly at this period of Athens' fifth-century tragic, and indeed political, heritage.

Chapter 6 explores briefly the monumentalisation of the historical records of dramatic performances and victories, beginning with the inscription of the "Fasti" in the 340s, and in more detail Aristotle's treatment of tragic poets in a work penned in Lycurgan Athens, the Poetics, and in the Rhetoric. It includes helpful discussions of the four contemporary poets that Aristotle alludes to familiarly: Astydamas II, Theodectes, Carcinus the Younger, and Chaeremon. In the Poetics Aristotle mentions these poets for examples of plot devices and such like, but, unlike their fifth-century predecessors, not as innovators or as subjects of developed literary criticism. The different focus of the Rhetoric gives it less of an emphasis on the fifth century. P. 212 presents a useful table setting out Aristotle's view of the contrasting characteristics of "old" and contemporary tragedy. The chapter concludes with well-judged reflections on the absence of emphasis in Aristotle on the specifically Athenian, polis context of tragedy, Hanink noting that this had become a feature of less interest in the new Panhellenic perspective on Athenian theatre represented by Aristotle (who, after all, was a Macedonian). As she rightly points out, this background helps illuminate Lycurgus' agenda in asserting and exploiting Athens' claim to her dramatic heritage.

In an Epilogue Hanink examines "classical tragedy in the age of Macedon": the shift, under Demetrius of Phalerum (317–307) from the choregia in which individual liturgists sponsored specific plays, to agonothesia in which individuals sponsored whole festivals and the Demos asserted itself as choregos; the emergence of theatrical supranationalism, e.g. in the association of "artists" (technitai) of Dionysus with their at best oblique relationship to Athens, and (p. 234) in a hellenistic epigram commemorating Euripides, attributed to the Macedonian Adaeus (AP 7.51, 5–6 = Adaeus 3.5–6 Gow–Page, GPh), in which there is passing mention of Macedonian claims to "ownership" of the poet, who "is now the true possession only of 'theatre' itself", while "the city of Athens has been all but erased from Euripides' biography". Menander and his statue in the theatre are briefly considered, together with his younger colleague, the poet-benefactor Philippides; and the book aptly concludes with the appropriation by Ptolemy III Euergetes (reigned 246–222), in exchange in effect for a large monetary sum, of the master copies of Sophocles, Euripides and Aeschylus from the Athenian archive for the great library at Alexandria, signifying a symbolic shift to Alexander's Egyptian foundation of the claim to the title, "cultural capital of Greece".

Hanink writes in a lucid and engaging style, bringing together the disparate evidential strands, archaeological, epigraphical and literary, into a persuasive synthesis, and handling deftly the balance and interplay between the political and literary aspects of her topic. Her opinions are by and large judicious; she mostly avoids the temptation to overinterpret; and her scholarship is unobtrusive. Specialists in particular aspects of her topic will have some quibbles. Lycurgus' Against Leocrates was not, as Hanink asserts, delivered before the Areopagus (the speech refers frequently to the Areopagus as an external body, e.g. 12–13), nor does the speech itself give reason to believe that Leocrates was breaching a formal ban on leaving Attica in the aftermath of Chaironeia (this is an apparently false assertion made in the hypothesis of the speech). Her detection of honorific decree language in this speech and elsewhere in the orators, while well-directed in principle, is not wholly convincing in execution. She rightly notices (46) that Lycurgus 1.100, δικαίως ἄν τις Εὐριπίδην ἐπαινέσειεν, ὅτι τά τ' ἄλλ' ἦν ἀγαθὸς ποιητής, καὶ τοῦτον τὸν μῦθον προείλετο ποιῆσαι ("one would justly praise Euripides since, in addition to being a good poet in other respects he also chose to treat this story" [i.e. Praxithea giving up her child to be sacrificed]) echoes the language of approbation in honorific decrees, and resonates with Lycurgus' proposal to decree a statue for Euripides in the theatre, but she misses proairesis as a feature of honorific decree vocabulary, and some of her interpretations of less well-signposted occurrences of ἐπαινέσαι in the orators as having this connotation are less persuasive (as e.g., p. 49, Isoc. 5.130. At p. 51 Hanink apparently confuses διδόναι and δοκεῖν, most charitably interpreted as a slip). In her discussion (pp. 30–31) of why Lycurgus chose to prosecute the "small fry" Leocrates, Hanink might have appreciated more fully both the significance, in the context of Lycurgus' rigorous management of the city's finances, of the back story to this case (Leocrates had previously been prosecuted, unsuccessfully it seems, for a tax-related misdemeanour, 19), and the pervasive sense conveyed by the written record that, in this last, mature, and strongly collectivist, phase of the classical democracy, the hortatory and paideutic intention of policy acts, both positive (as e.g. in the award of honorific inscriptions from the 340s onwards to ordinary Athenian officials) and negative (such as underlies this prosecution) ought to be applicable across the whole of the citizen collective.

Hanink makes many other connections across evidence categories which are both original and convincing, e.g. on p. 175 she acutely observes that Demosthenes treats Aeschines' quotation of Euripides' Phoenix as contemporary comic poets treat "characters whose absurd quotations of tragedies only make their literary airs more outrageous". She prudently withholds judgement about the reliability of that most misleading of sources for Athenian history, Plutarch, though it is well known, as Hanink herself recognises, that much in the ancient biographical traditions about the tragic poets originates in overly literal interpretations of treatments of them in comedy, and we might suspect a similar origin for much of Plutarch's anecdotage (e.g. Plut. Lysander 15.2–3 on the decision of the Peloponnesian allies to save Athens from destruction after the Peloponnesian War, not for political reasons, but because the city had produced Euripides, pp. 1–2).

The centrality of religion to the Lycurgan programme might have received greater emphasis. Hanink relegates Lycurgus' membership of the genos Eteoboutadai to a footnote (p. 32 n. 29), but it is central to understanding his moral and political authority. She perceptively draws attention, for example, to the theatrical effect of Lycurgus' recitation of (Erechtheus' wife) Praxithea's lines from the Erechtheus: "the jurors will have heard in Lycurgus' single voice a plurality of voices (Praxithea's, Euripides' and Lycurgus' own)" (p. 36); but she misses the authority with which this performance will have been endowed by Lycurgus' membership of a genos which traced its descent directly to Erechtheus (and Praxithea), and which supplied, in Lycurgus' own time, both the priestesses of Athena Polias, of whom Praxithea was, on one view, the prototype, and the priests of Poseidon Erechtheus, which were to include two of Lycurgus' own sons. By virtue of his status as Eteoboutad Lycurgus was in a position to embody Praxithea in a rather strong sense, and to share her solemn priestly authority.

My reservations, however, go largely to details. Overall the book makes a very valuable, well-rounded, contribution to our understanding of the literary, political and monumental aspects of post-fifth-century tragedy in general and its role in the Lycurgan policy agenda in particular; and the lively, well-crafted and accessible style in which it is written will make it attractive to teachers and students as well as useful to researchers.

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