Monday, May 30, 2016


Stephen Halliwell, Aristophanes: Clouds, Women at the Thesmophoria, Frogs. A Verse Translation, with Introduction and Notes. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015. Pp. xcv, 298. ISBN 9780198149941. $100.00.

Reviewed by Alan H. Sommerstein, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site


In 1997 Stephen Halliwell published a verse translation of four plays of Aristophanes that he billed in his preface as the first part of a three-volume translation of the eleven comedies and selected fragments.1 The present volume is the third in the original plan but the second to appear; the final (originally second) volume will include Acharnians, Knights, Wasps and Peace.

Apart from the inclusion of an appendix on the fragmentary plays, this volume largely follows the pattern of its predecessor. The general introduction, like the surviving version of Clouds, "is the same as the previous one but has been revised in detail"; the style and verse-forms of the translation are also broadly similar, though the dominant iambic rhythm is now more extensively diversified with trisyllabic feet. As before, the translation is accompanied by limited explanatory annotation, together with a chronological table and a glossary of names (including not only persons and places but also "institutions" such as Assembly, Council and Mysteries). The bibliography has of course been updated, though some sections still consist predominantly of pre-1995 material.

The translations are once again (to quote my review of the 1997 volume) "accurate enough to be usable for any academic or educational purpose for which the use of translations is acceptable at all", and the introductions to individual plays provide in general an excellent orientation (though the introduction to Clouds might with advantage have included a compact summary of what parts of the play did or did not, so far as we can tell, undergo significant revision after the original production). I would draw special attention to the perception (p. 3) of a red herring in the opening verses of Clouds (lines 5–7 create the impression that this will be another war-and-peace play); to the demonstration (pp. 4–6) that Plato in the Apology (19c–d) carefully distinguishes Aristophanes from those who slander Socrates "with animus and malice" (φθόνωι καὶ διαβολῆι χρώμενοι) and who, unlike the comic poet, are unidentifiable; to the stimulating analysis (pp. 92–100) of the second half of Thesmophoriazusae as a paradigm example of paratragedy, whose object is "not to critique or devalue tragedy as such, but to convert it into the stuff of comedy" (p. 99); and to the comparison (p.101) between the final scene of the same play and the Dionysus-Ariadne entertainment in Xenophon's Symposium (9.2-7).

Halliwell has long been known for (among many other things) his rejection of the view that Aristophanes' plays have a political or cultural agenda—that he was seeking to influence the opinions of his audiences on questions of the day—and nobody will be surprised to find this position being maintained in the present volume. But those unconvinced by this approach may find certain weaknesses in its presentation here.

A favourite device is to point to passages in a play that seem to take contradictory views on some political, cultural or ethical issue. On closer examination, however, these contradictions often vanish. There is no contradiction, as claimed on p. 9, between seeing philosopher-intellectuals as "pursuing abstruse ideas" and seeing them as "possessors of a key to practical success": Halliwell himself notes that Hippias of Elis claimed expertise both in science and in rhetoric (p. 10), some other philosophers such as Democritus studied both nature and society, and according to Plato (Apology 19b–d) it was alleged by many who were not comic poets, and widely believed among the Athenian public, that Socrates was simultaneously "a thinker about things in the sky, an investigator of everything that is under the earth, and one who makes the worse argument into the better". Again, there is (unfortunately) nothing contradictory about believing both that it is "wrong to try to cheat one's creditors" and that it is "acceptable to set fire to people's property" (p. 18)—especially perhaps if, like Strepsiades, one supposes oneself to have divine authority for both. In Frogs, the play's apparently "dovish" final words (1531–3) are contrasted (pp. 154–5) with Aeschylus' recipe for Athens' salvation, which is "predicated on a continuation of war"; but one might with perfect consistency believe (i) that any opportunity should be taken of ending the war on acceptable terms and also (ii) that until such an opportunity arises (or, indeed, for the very purpose of encouraging the enemy to offer good terms) the war effort must be pursued with the utmost vigour.

Even those, such as Malcolm Heath,2 who have argued most strongly against a politically engaged reading of Aristophanic comedy, have often felt compelled to make an exception for the parabasis of Frogs where the chorus plainly advocate the re-enfranchisement of those who had lost their citizen rights for having supported the Four Hundred. Halliwell admits (p. 168) that this proposition was "a realistic political option for the city", but argues that it "must have been gradually winning support" in any case (probably true, but irrelevant; it took several months, and a catastrophic naval defeat, before it was implemented). He also (pp. 169–170) seeks to undermine the ancient evidence that Aristophanes was publicly honoured for giving this advice; but would anyone inventing a fictitious decree have made it award Aristophanes a crown of sacred olive, when Athenian honorific crowns were normally of gold? Halliwell makes one strong point against the view, which I have championed,3 that Frogs was restaged early in 404: the play contains passages that presuppose the existence of a strong Athenian navy (one of them, 701–2, is in the parabasis itself), and these would have been "jarringly anachronistic" when this navy had been destroyed. Yet if the objective of the restaging was to honour Aristophanes for the advice he had given a year before, its proponents may well have expected many spectators to feel that things might have been very different now if only they had adopted this policy in time.

In any case, Halliwell undermines his own position by conceding (p. 237), in his discussion of Babylonians, that this play "certainly caused some political controversy". Cleon, the most successful and popular politician of the day, thought it would be to his advantage to make an attack on Aristophanes (or his producer Callistratus) on account of things that had been said or seen in Babylonians: either he was making an utter fool of himself, or it was widely accepted in Athens in the 420s that comedy could be a political weapon.

The Appendix (pp. 235–254) finds something to say about every one of the 33 non-extant plays attributed to Aristophanes (and one other play very doubtfully attested by a badly broken inscription), translates between eighty and ninety fragments, and makes brief comments on a good many more (expecting, no doubt, that interested readers will consult them in Henderson's Loeb edition4). He is wisely cautious about attempting any reconstruction, but the reader will carry away an impression of the variety and unpredictability of Aristophanes' imagination.

Minor points: (p. lxiii n. 87) the acceptance of the possibility of a wider use of the ekkyklema is inconsistent with the categorical statement in the text that it is used "purely for the purposes of paratragedy". (p. xciii) the dates given for Cleon's generalships will not make it clear to the uninformed reader whether he was elected twice or four times. (p. xciv) Alcibiades was "suspected of involvement" not in the mutilation of the Herms but in profanations of the Mysteries. (p. 97) Teucer is not "Menelaos' companion" but has come to Egypt independently after being banished from Salamis (Helen 90ff). (p. 168 n. 25) the genuineness of the Andocidean text of Patrocleides' decree has now been defended by M.H. Hansen, GRBS 55 (2015) 884–897. (p. 172) it is surprising to find Dionysus described as "elderly", which he never is in art (even on the lost Berlin krater his beard was black). (p.256) the quotation labelled as fr. 21 is actually fr. 18; the real fr. 21 is the one discussed in the text above (Amphiaraus addressing his daughter Iaso). (p. 263) treating the aegis as a "means of transport" is not necessarily an "extravagant metaphor"; cf. Aeschylus, Eumenides 404. (p. 294) the Council was not "temporarily suspended" in 412, nor does the note on Thesm. 808–9, here referred to, say it was. (p. 294) Demeter was a sister, not a daughter, of Zeus.

No two writers or readers will agree where transliteration should end and latinization begin, though many will wonder why we are given "Kypros" and "Korinth(ian)" alongside "Cretan". But can we please get rid of the unaccountably fashionable "Attika", which is neither one thing (Attica) nor the other (Attike)?

We look forward eagerly to the completion of the series—and to the appearance of this volume in paperback (due November 2016).


1.   Aristophanes: Birds, Lysistrata, Assembly-Women, Wealth (Oxford, 1997). I reviewed this volume in CR 49 (1999) 252–3.
2.   Political Comedy in Aristophanes (Göttingen, 1987).
3.   Talking about Laughter and Other Studies in Greek Comedy (Oxford, 2009) 254–271 (originally published 1993).
4.   J. J. Henderson, Aristophanes V: Fragments (Cambridge MA, 2007).

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