Monday, July 27, 2015


Alan H. Sommerstein, Menander: Samia (The Woman from Samos). Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xii, 367. ISBN 9780521514286. $99.00.

Reviewed by Alexandra Daly, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (

Version at BMCR home site


Classroom experience with Menander is usually limited to Dyskolos, on which several English commentaries of varying levels are available (Handley 1965; Gomme and Sandbach 1973; Konstan 1983). The disappointment widely expressed since the publication of the Bodmer papyrus tends to put both instructors and students off this seminal author. Although my intermediate Greek students and I learned this past fall that Dyskolos is rich and humorous, the fragments and testimonia of the rest of the corpus suggest that it is rather staid; had more survived of, say, The Possessed Girl (Theophoroumene), the modern view of Menander would be quite different, perhaps on a par with the ancient view. Dyskolos is not everyone's cup of tea, and more commentaries on the other comedies that survive at appreciable length are needed.

Hence Alan Sommerstein's new Green and Yellow on Samia is especially welcome. The highly entertaining and mostly complete Samia might replace Dyskolos as the representative Menandrian comedy; in any case, it is long overdue for instruction and an English commentary besides those of Gomme and Sandbach (1973) and Bain (1984). The former is inaccessible to most undergraduates, and the latter, with its facing translation and brief notes, limits their engagement with the Greek. Both predate the ongoing surge of scholarship on New Comedy that includes several recent commentaries: Pice and Castellano's (2001) on Samia; Beroutsos' (2005) on Aspis 1–298; Ingrosso's (2010) on Aspis; Ireland's (2010) on Aspis and Epitrepontes; Furley's on Epitrepontes (2009) and Perikeiromene (2015). Joining their ranks, this commentary by one of the foremost scholars of Attic drama should ease Samia into graduate and advanced undergraduate curricula and encourage the study of Greek New Comedy in general. Given another opportunity to teach Menander, Sommerstein's Samia would be my first choice.

The introduction (1–57) consists of thirteen sections: (1) Menander's Life and Career; (2) New Comedy; (3) The Plot of Samia; (4) The Characters and Their Relationships; (5) Love, Marriage—and Rape; (6) Tragic Themes and Reminiscences; (7) Rich and Poor; (8) The Date of Samia; (9) Language and Metre; (10) Performance; (11) Samia in Art; (12) The Recovery of Menander; and (13) Text and Title. There follow the text and apparatus (61–93); commentary (95–324); bibliography (325–338); and indexes (339–367). In all Sommerstein's is the longest commentary to date on any individual Menandrian comedy. He balances comprehensiveness with concision and clarity throughout. The book is very well produced, with no significant errors.

Because New Comedy is so seldom taught at the undergraduate level, an introduction to the genre is essential, and Sommerstein's (4–10) is exemplary. Rejecting long-standing assumptions about the literary merit (or lack thereof) of Menander and his genre, he emphasizes their virtues: elegance, characterization (see, e.g., the discussion of Demeas and Nikeratos, 22–26), and the shuffling of plots and characters to new effects. First-timers will occasionally need background on the other plays he cites, but for the most part he clearly identifies the stock material and Menander's use of it; his interpretation of Moschion's self- obstruction as an ingenious twist on the dominant plot pattern (6–7) is particularly well-taken. Sommerstein's reliance on Roman comedy for information about its Greek ancestor is traditional and fruitful to a point, but it is worth keeping in mind that where extended comparison is possible (e.g., between Bacchides and Dis Exapaton), the differences tend to be at least as significant as the similarities.

Both in the introduction and throughout the commentary, Sommerstein puts his knowledge of the rest of Attic drama, with which students are likely to be more familiar, to excellent use. He stresses the formal and linguistic continuity across the three phases of comedy and explains the differences as valid artistic choices and socio-historical developments. From the connections and distinctions he draws between Aristophanes and Menander, students should gain a new appreciation for both. Sommerstein also notes numerous possible intertexts with tragedy; his references to the "girl's tragedy" (e.g., ad 553–554 on Melanippe the Wise, 590 on Danae) demonstrate Menander's particular debt to Euripides, who favored plots in which girls are punished by their fathers for their premarital rape and impregnation by gods, and the importance of this mythic pattern for Greek conceptions of female sexuality. Based on his own reconstruction of Euripides' Hippolytos Kalyptomenos, Sommerstein proposes four striking reminiscences of it in Samia (39–40). If he is correct that Eur. fr. 1067 belongs to the same context as Eur. fr. 440 and is invoked at Samia 343–347, Demeas' lines are a wonderful example of Menandrian repurposing and irony: with the words of a slave failing to persuade Theseus of Hippolytos' innocence, Demeas tries "to persuade himself [of Moschion's innocence] and succeeds—in reaching a wrong conclusion."

Sommerstein is forthright and sensitive on issues of gender and sexuality. Given their own experiences as well as the current debates about sexual consent on college campuses, students are likely to struggle most with the presentation of Plangon's rape and pregnancy; Sommerstein is careful to explain the cultural and generic assumptions behind it. Overall he is highly attentive to the female experience—the strange marriage of respectability and vulnerability in Chrysis' position; the friendship between this foreign pallake and the citizen women next door; the rape victim's trauma; the wife's protection of her daughter and opposition to her husband—much of which must be inferred from male speech and action.

Drama must be understood primarily as a script, and Menander, however he reads on the page, truly comes alive in performance. With its range of emotion (from tender affection to blistering rage) and humor (slapstick, misunderstandings, paratragedy), Samia has the potential to be an engrossing production, and Sommerstein gives performance its due. In the introduction (48–50) he lays out the architecture and conventions of Menander's theatre; throughout the commentary he makes learned suggestions for and speculations on staging, including entrances and exits, backstage movements, positions, gestures, and the use of masks. His treatment especially of gesture, which receives no fewer than thirty-one references in the index, should set an example for commentaries on dramatic texts.

The section on art (50–52) is a rare treat in a Green and Yellow commentary. Sommerstein recognizes that the mosaics depicting scenes from Menandrian comedy are vital evidence: they attest to the dramatist's enduring celebrity and probably derive from an iconographic tradition that began soon after his death and therefore reflects the original circumstances of performance. In addition to the long-known Mytilene mosaic, Sommerstein treats two possible representations of the same scene (the expulsion of Chrysis, Samia 369–383); he rejects the sarcophagus lid in the Louvre and accepts the recently discovered Brindisi mosaic with reservations. I would have liked to see a fuller discussion of Menander's reception in other media both ancient and modern, though instructors and students can turn to Nervegna (2013) for an extensive discussion of the former. Sommerstein gives a good idea of his ancient reputation (53) but hardly treats his posthumous reperformance, adaptation by the Roman dramatists, and indirect influence on later drama. Students will better appreciate this long-lost and still neglected author if they know that he courses through everything from Shakespeare to sitcoms.

An overview of papyrological terminology and methods would have been helpful, as Sommerstein engages so closely and often with the papyri. Most U.S. undergraduates will be unfamiliar with terms like haplography (245) and mystified by Sommerstein's analysis of spaces and traces without an account of how and why it matters. With a supplementary lecture and handout, however, the text can be used to introduce students to the process whereby tatters of papyrus become the tidy codices to which they are accustomed. Sommerstein's judgment on the text is generally reasoned and astute. His treatment of line 573 is paradigmatic: he suggests an origin for the two transmitted readings, then gives two reasons—one orthographic, the other logical—for preferring μηθαμῶς to μαίνομαι. Where certainty is impossible, he tends to be agnostic; for instance, the "slight and ambiguous" traces in line 38 could represent either αὗται or αὕτῃ, both of which "would be intelligible in terms of the situation and the social conventions." He argues convincingly for a few readings of his own: ὥστ' (4); τήρ[ει δέ με (447); the assignation of πάνυ μὲν οὖν (724) to Moschion. πρὸ τῶν γάμων (692) is a plausible, albeit tentative, suggestion.

In sum, this commentary will be extremely valuable to scholars and students alike: it will enable instruction of Samia, enliven that of Menander, and contribute to the flowering study of New Comedy.1


1.   Works cited:

Bain, D. M. 1983. Menander: Samia. Warminster.
Furley, W. D. 2009. Menander: Epitrepontes. London.
Furley, W. D. 2015. Menander: Perikeiromene. London.
Gomme, A. W. and F. H. Sandbach. 1973. Menander: A Commentary. Oxford.
Handley, E. W. 1965. The Dyskolos of Menander. London.
Ingrosso, P. 2010. Menandro: Lo scudo. Lecce.
Ireland, S. 2010. Menander: The Shield (Aspis) and The Arbitration (Epitrepontes). Oxford.
Konstan, D. 1983. Menander's Dyskolos. Bryn Mawr.
Nervegna, S. 2013. Menander in Antiquity: The Contexts of Reception. Cambridge.
Pice, N. and R. Castellano. 2001. Menandro: La Samia. Bari.

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