Monday, July 18, 2016


Evan Hayes, Stephen Nimis, Lucian's Dialogues of the Courtesans: An Intermediate Greek Reader. Oxford, OH: Faenum Publishing, 2015. Pp. xix, 151. ISBN 9781940997179. $13.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Adam Bartley, University of Kent (

Version at BMCR home site


This volume, part of a series produced by these editors, is designed to address the stage in students' progress with an ancient language where they make the transition from manufactured material to reading that first genuine ancient text. On this occasion the editors have chosen Lucian's Dialogi Meretricii as the means to do so. These dialogues are a very effective choice for a number of reasons. As the editors themselves note in the introduction at p. x, citing Gilhuly 2007, these dialogues are best viewed as combination of the dialogue form from philosophical discourse and New Comedy, as envisaged by Lucian himself in the Prometheus. From a paedagogical viewpoint this presents a number of advantages. The sentences are, when compared with, for example, the speeches of Thucydides, very terse. The structure of the sentences is quite clear and, although matters of a sexual nature can be referred to quite elliptically, by and large the language is quite straightforward, reflecting the mode of expression imagined by Lucian for courtesans working at the more marginal end of their profession and their clients. This direct expression also reflects the fact that, unlike the dialogue in Old Comedy, for example, there are no constraints on expression due to metre. The vocabulary is similarly student-friendly for the most part and will not have students constantly referring to a dictionary or Henderson's The Maculate Muse to the degree that would be the case for readers of Aristophanes. Each dialogue is quite brief, meaning that students will find it easier to keep track of where the story goes as they soldier through the Greek.

Another point of interest for students is, of course, that the text deals with themes that both at the time of their composition and today are often considered to be sophisticated and rather less respectable. Lucian was far from the first to handle these sorts of topics, though his works are certainly better preserved than, for example, the shattered remains of Hipponax or Petronius. Indeed, it is often easy to forget that the works of Menander, who, as the editors point out in the introduction at p. x was undoubtedly a strong influence on these works, were only known by fragments and reputation until the 20th century. The editors have provided a brief summary of this tradition in pp. x-xiv, including a brief excursus on the names the used in the dialogues, which as the editors point out, can at first glance appear to be little more than puns on the courtesan's profession. Hayes and Nimis correctly point out, however, that inscriptional evidence suggests that these names have a closer grounding in reality than we might expect. This brief discussion of topic material is engaging and approachable for undergraduate students. If it has one failing, it is one that is also common to a wide range of commentators. Lucian was, of course, a keen literary commentator and humourist, and Nimis and Hayes briefly note the ways in which these dialogues play upon and, sometimes reverse, the representations of hetairai in philosophy and comedy. An example of this is the lesbianism in dialogue 5, which may, in part, be a deliberate reversal of the male homosexuality of works such as Plato's Alcibiades. What is often overlooked, however, is that the characters in the dialogues, including the clients themselves in some instances, lead a very 'marginal' life. The dialogues often show how vulnerable the courtesans, as well as the families that depend on them, are to the whims of clients, the challenges of aging or the scheming of desperate rivals in a similarly tenuous situation. Lucian manages to portray these figures with humour, but largely without glamour or condescension, making the dialogues as much a thoughtful, but not strident, catalogue of the uncertainties of life in this sector of society as a form of literary play. This is something that may, ultimately, prove more interesting to many undergraduate students reading the text as their first taste of real Greek as any aspects of literary play.

The text itself, that of Jacobitz's 1896 edition, is presented with a vocabulary list below on each page and glosses designed to help the reader progress. As with other volumes in the series, these glosses include identification of verb and noun forms that readers may struggle to recall at this stage of their learning, such as the more unusual perfect participles, and also tries to illustrate the parts of compound forms, where it is helpful to do so. There are also a number of linguistic digressions scattered throughout the text that range from a quarter of a page to a full page in length. These are on themes such as participles (p. 8), "result" clauses (p. 13), indirect statement (p. 15) and verbal aspect (p. 94) inter alia. Liberal use is made of examples from the text. Lastly, the volume concludes with a 11-page list of verbs with irregular forms and functions and a separate 5-page glossary.

An unexpected, and interesting, inclusion is the list of names that appear in the dialogues, divided into courtesans, clients, other men, other women and male and female slaves. In addition to providing translations of the names, which helps students see where they might have been chosen as a pun, the list also shows whether the names are recorded in New Comedy or other sources. While a large number—approximately half—of the names do appear in New Comedy, many do not. The number of names without precedent—20 overall—is a small proportion of the total, with the majority of those, 11 in total, being the names of the courtesans. A quick glance at those shows that most of them are the names of everyday objects, with only the name Παγίς, or "Trap", who appears in dialogue 11, suggesting some deeper meaning.

The linguistic passages are well written and well targeted for the audience in question. The text becomes in part a grammatical primer for the student, reinforcing lessons learnt in introductory courses. The glosses are helpful and, as with the other volumes, it is hard to imagine that the student should not be able to make good progress with the text under their own steam with their help. As I have noted in other reviews of volumes from this series, a common problem I have encountered with students is that they often don't think to look to the commentary included in most texts for help when they struggle or avoid doing so in a belief that this is somehow 'cheating'. Having the material that is designed to help them on the same page as the text brings home the message that the help is there to be taken advantage of with a clear conscience. The help in the glosses is suitably terse, but well targeted. In a few instances there is also some very brief but welcome discussion of terms, such as for everyday objects or features of day to day life that come up in the text and will not be familiar from historical or mythological texts.

The volume has, it should be noted, a few limitations. The help provided in the vocabulary on each page is nothing if not generous. The glossary is, at five pages, quite terse and could probably have been safely omitted and doing so would encourage students to become familiar with standard dictionaries at this stage in their learning. The time needed to do so is often underestimated and ideally this learning process should begin as soon as possible. The glossaries presented on each page will serve to build students' confidence, as it will facilitate the development of a fairly rapid reading speed. This confidence does, however, come at the cost of the development of lexical skills and as a result this aspect of the volume may not suit all teachers of Greek.

In summary, then, this is a text with a highly didactic focus and has much to recommend it as a result. It is clearly intended for students late in their first year or early in their second year of studies. The choice of the Dialogi Meretricii is a very effective one and it may come as a pleasant surprise to students that they are to read a text with a sophisticated theme. The help given shows a good understanding of the needs of this group and is provided generously. Some teachers will find the focus on fluency and confidence in reading welcome. Others will perhaps prefer a clearer, less cluttered text or one that encourages a focus on lexical skill development more strongly. The text includes some unexpected but welcome features to help students discuss some features, which worth developing, if they are to go on to read New Comedy. In conclusion, this text fills an important niche in a student's development by taking some of the pain out of the first encounter with an ancient text, before proceeding to editions with a more academically focussed commentary and discussion.

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