Monday, July 31, 2017


Bob Brier, Cleopatra's Needles: The Lost Obelisks of Egypt. Bloomsbury Egyptology. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016. Pp. x, 238. ISBN 9781474242936. $29.95.

Reviewed by Carola Vogel, Johannes Gutenberg University, Mainz (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Among the huge variety of Egypt's ancient monuments one type was to gain a particularly lasting impression: the obelisk. Despite their enormous size and weight, and in obvious contrast to the pyramids, obelisks were moveable and tempted later rulers and wealthy men to own them. It is no surprise that the dangerous journeys of Egypt's obelisks from their original positions in front of temple pylons along the Nile to their final resting places on squares and river banks in the Western World have been described in many books. With Cleopatra's Needles. The Lost Obelisks of Egypt in the Bloomsbury Egyptology series, the Egyptologist Bob Brier continues this tradition. Beyond the two obelisks cited in the book's title (Cleopatra's needles, now in London and New York) many other obelisks are discussed in Brier's vivid writing style.

The author starts with a short introduction to Egyptian chronology, before providing some background information on Pharaonic quarrying methods in general and those for obelisks in particular.

In the following five chapters (2-6) Brier discusses the fate of many obelisks that were removed from Egypt from Roman times until the 19th century AD. Rome (Ch. 2), possesses more standing obelisks than any other place worldwide including Egypt, their former home. Brier cursorily describes these and the famous Istanbul obelisk in this chapter, ignoring the largest of all, the Lateran obelisk. By contrast, he devotes an entire chapter (Ch. 3) to the Vatican obelisk to demonstrate the engineering achievements of the Renaissance, by explaining how this monument was moved and re-erected by Domenico Fontana within Rome.

In chapters 4-6 the reader learns a great deal about the long and dangerous journeys of obelisks erected in Paris (1836), London (1878) and New York (1881). Brier's lively descriptions cover political and financial situations as well as stunning technological inventions, but also the risk of transporting the heavy obelisks by ship, which cost the lives of six crew members in the case of the London obelisk.

The last chapter "Postscript on the Obelisks" deals foremost with the author's recent investigation of the New York obelisk's damaged and repaired tip and the question whether it was broken before Gorringe moved it out of Alexandria. Comparing old photographs Brier argues that the tip was damaged when the obelisk was still standing in Alexandria and was already repaired when it was erected in New York. He favours the idea that it was Gorringe who completed it in Alexandria before the obelisk travelled to New York. The author tries to connect the presence of eight bolt-holes towards the bottom of the pyramidion's four sides with a possible cladding executed during Gorringe's restoration, but this reviewer doubts it. Such bolt-holes are regularly attested on obelisks and derive from their original gold or electrum coating.

The book closes with a short bibliography and a very useful index. It is illustrated with many black and white figures of differing quality. Whereas most of the old drawings, engravings and photographs are fine, the more recent photographs show little contrast and/or low resolution (e.g. figs. 2.7 and 7.3).

Some final remarks: Bob Brier brilliantly draws the reader's attention to the adventurous stories of these obelisks in times when the Western World was caught up in obelisk mania. For readers interested in the history of science, this book will be highly welcome. It might be less attractive to those expecting in-depth information on the obelisks' original purpose, as monolithic cult pillars devoted to the sun-god Re.

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Robert C. Bartlett, Sophistry and Political Philosophy: Protagoras' Challenge to Socrates. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. v, 248. ISBN 9780226394282. $40.00.

Reviewed by John Bloxham, The Open University (

Version at BMCR home site

This is a work about the relationship between the ideas of Socrates and those of Protagoras, written as an exegesis of the whole of Plato's Protagoras and that part of his Theaetetus which deals with Protagoras (142a to 183c7). Bartlett provides loose commentaries on both dialogues, focusing on themes, dramatic framing and untangling the narratives through the careful examination of seemingly small details. He reads the dialogues in the manner of Leo Strauss (1899-1973) and he shares the strengths and some of the weaknesses of that approach. Strauss argued that ancient thinkers concealed their true beliefs behind a mask: both to protect society from philosophy's harmful scepticism and to protect philosophers from society's consequent retaliation. References to concealment abound in the Protagoras, which makes it an excellent object for this approach. For Bartlett, both Socrates and Protagoras are esoteric speakers. Bartlett shows little concern with the dialogues as literature, but language is carefully studied for clues pointing towards hidden philosophic meaning. He often argues from omission, first constructing what he believes should be the speaker's argument in support of their stated position. Failure to make the expected argument is then construed as evidence that they secretly believe something else. However, while some readers might already be put off by the mention of Strauss, Bartlett has a comparatively mild case of Straussianism and those aspects of Straussian writing most annoying to non-Straussians (for example, the heavy emphasis on seemingly insignificant details without telling the reader why they are supposed to matter) are relatively rare. For the most part, Bartlett offers clear reasoning for his focus on particular episodes and his interpretations are seamlessly woven into his larger narrative.

Bartlett closely echoes Strauss in his justification for tackling the Protagoras. Strauss often wrote about the 'crisis of our time' or the 'crisis in political philosophy', which he ascribed to the modern dominance of relativistic thought. For Bartlett too, today's post-modernists and historians of political philosophy share a belief that the ideas they study cannot be true, dooming any genuine attempt to engage with the ideas as things of value in their own right. According to Bartlett, modern relativism owes much to the ancient relativism of the sophists: by understanding ancient sophistry we can consider whether political philosophy is really possible (3). Since only six dialogues show Socrates debating with sophists, and Plato portrays Protagoras as the best of the sophists, it becomes crucial that we understand the nature of Protagorean thought.

The Protagoras begins with the question of whether virtue can be taught, which leads to a debate over whether virtue is one thing or many. Socrates holds that all virtue is knowledge; however, when Protagoras contends that courage is an exception to this rule, Socrates disagrees and the dialogue ends in aporia. Bartlett divides the Protagoras into three uneven sections: Socrates' opening conversation with the unnamed comrade, the recounted conversation with Hippocrates, and the much longer discussion with Protagoras. He argues that the Protagoras is part of Plato's defence against the charge that Socrates corrupted the minds of the young. By recounting an example of Socrates putting off a potential student from studying with Protagoras, Plato revealed the goodness of Socrates (11-12). Bartlett's Protagoras holds that the true virtue he teaches, self-interest, is at odds with the conventional virtues to which society habituates us (75). Protagoras claims to make his students 'noble and good' but in fact he only teaches them how to gain the most advantage for themselves (76). It is in our interests for the community to be governed by rules like justice and piety, but it is also in our interest to ignore those rules ourselves if we can get away with it (97-8). The result for Bartlett is that Protagoras only teaches students how to exploit politics for their own gain (208). But this is 'politically irresponsible' because his teaching for politicians undermines the community's values (211). Despite the dialogue's ostensible concern with justice, Protagoras turns out to be a relativist in this regard (46). Socrates puts Protagoras in a difficult position with his questions about the possibility of combining vices with virtues (for example, being moderate but unjust). Protagoras becomes hostile because he cannot publicly state that he believes that injustice is sometimes beneficial; at the same time, if he denies this belief he might put off potential students who are attracted to him by exactly this sort of teaching (50).

Bartlett's perceptive analysis of the courage discussion illuminates the inconsistency in Protagoras' beliefs. Protagoras' view of courage is that there is an innate boldness which people share to different degrees and which cannot be taught. However, it can be developed through training individuals to recognise the bleakness of existence and yet still make the best of it (80). Socrates applies Protagoras' hedonistic outlook to the issue of courage, stripping it of its noble character and demonstrating the ignoble nature of Protagoras' teachings (98). Reducing virtue to knowledge takes the selfless nobility out of virtue, but Protagoras is unwilling to let this be the case for courage (104). Protagoras wants courage to be noble because he recognises his own courage in pursuing knowledge despite the nihilistic conclusions to which that pursuit will eventually lead him. He does not recognise the contradiction because he does not closely examine his own motivations (221). Another of Bartlett's insights concerns Protagoras' and Socrates' debate over the poet Simonides (54-70). After much close analysis, Bartlett makes a convincing argument that Protagoras used this example as a subtle dig at Socrates for behaving badly. From Protagoras' perspective, both Protagoras and Socrates believed that virtue was relative and that injustice was sometimes wise. Just as Simonides had criticised Pittacus despite apparently being in agreement with him, Socrates was being hypocritical in trying to trip up Protagoras. Consequently, in defending Simonides, Socrates was both defending his own position and reinforcing the attack on Protagoras.

In the Theaetetus, Socrates is ostensibly helping Theaetetus to define knowledge, beginning with Protagoras' theory that knowledge is a form of perception. Protagoras initially teaches that we know nothing about the inherent nature of things, only those aspects of them that we perceive. As perceptions differ from person to person, whatever a person perceives must be true for that person. However, Protagoras' supposed private teaching goes further. In this version, our perceptions are the result of constant motion. Nothing ever simply 'exists' because everything is always becoming something else. Bartlett avers that the Theaetetus shares a concern with the Protagoras with respect to the charges brought against Socrates at his trial. The Theaetetus is designed to show Socrates preventing the young Theaetetus from becoming seduced by Protagorean relativism (180).

Bartlett suggests throughout that there are clues that the work is really concerned with religion and politics, rather than in simply finding a definition of knowledge. Any claim to knowledge must defend itself from the rival claim of the political community (115). Even Socrates' assertion that he lacks knowledge is, according to Bartlett, a rejection of 'the core of what the city says all decent citizens must know and hence accept' (116). However, although Protagoras' relativism is a response to the claims of prophets to have divine knowledge (202), Protagoras undermines all claims to knowledge in refuting theirs (203). Bartlett's Socrates seeks in the Theaetetus to discover if a more reasoned rejection of religion is possible (223). He claims enigmatically that Socrates 'somehow' rejects relativism, and likewise the existence of divinity 'must remain an open question'. This leaves the reader with the suspicion that Bartlett's Socrates is equally relativistic and atheistic – only more 'responsible' because he prudently hides this perspective. For Bartlett, all the supposed 'pointers' to the gods show that the underlying concern in the Theaetetus is not knowledge per se, but the challenge which religion poses to philosophy (221). Whereas Protagoras denies religion's claim to knowledge by denying knowledge itself, Socrates does not so quickly dismiss either the possibility of knowledge or the claims of religion.

Bartlett's position that both dialogues are highly esoteric works sometimes causes him to make odd observations. For example, he notes that it is easier to enter the home of Socrates than that of Callias and thereby insinuates that Callias might have something to hide (18). But perhaps the difficulty simply lay in the fact that Callias was a much wealthier and more important public figure than Socrates? A similarly thin claim is developed from the description of Protagoras being followed by a few close comrades and then by an outer circle of listeners. For Bartlett, this is an indication that 'Protagoras may speak differently to different audiences' (18). More plausibly, Bartlett notes that Protagoras' discussion of earlier sophists hiding their profession shows that Protagoras was familiar with the practice of cloaking wisdom from certain audiences; however, Bartlett views Protagoras' own avowed openness as simply another precaution. Likewise, Bartlett remarks that the unnamed comrade in the framing section of the Protagoras is not a philosopher and the episode is addressed to him, suggesting that Socrates has adapted the discussion with Protagoras to fit the limits of this audience. In other words, an obstacle has been placed in the way of the reader's understanding. As these examples indicate, Bartlett's Socrates and his Protagoras had more in common with each other than with ordinary people in their understanding of virtue (111). Socrates compares learning to the soul's nourishment, but he does not relate the usefulness of learning to its truthfulness or falseness. For Bartlett, this is an indication that Socrates believes some truths can be harmful and some false beliefs can be beneficial. He rightly acknowledges that this will be difficult for a modern to take seriously, because we tend to believe that 'there is a perfect harmony between the truth in its entirety and the requirements of a healthy political order' (14-15).

The work provides a careful and sensitive reading of the two dialogues; however, there are many unanswered and seemingly inconsequential questions, whilst the sometimes longwinded paraphrasing can grow tiresome. And he occasionally slips into anachronism, for example in using Aristotle (88, 94) to fill in gaps in his argument. Even Bartlett's milder-than-usual Straussianism leads him to focus on hidden number patterns and the order of incidents which will strike some readers as bizarre. For example, he notes that Hippocrates swears an oath 'for the fourth but not the last time' (16); he observes that the Protagoras and Theaetetus are connected because 'each begins with a performed section of twenty-one exchanges'; he adds extra emphasis to Socrates' and Theaetetus' mentioning the gods because it was in 'the second and therefore central (161c2-162d2) of the three official criticisms of Protagoras' (171); and he remarks that Socrates replaces a slave to recount the Protagoras but that a slave recites an account from Socrates in the Theaetetus (110). On this last point, Bartlett suggests that Socrates was in some way slavish; but even if this is not simply coincidence, how many readers have noticed the apparent connection?

One of the work's main weaknesses is where it is at its least Straussian. In dealing only with that part of the Theaetetus dealing with Protagoras, it leaves out the wider context of the dialogue and plays down its central concerns. In doing so, Bartlett portrays a coherent and well-developed Protagorean philosophy; however, this reader finds the scanty evidence for this unconvincing. Nevertheless, whilst it is clear that details are sometimes stretched to fit conclusions, the reader is not left hanging and the choice of whether to accept or reject Bartlett's position is clear. He is also very good at bringing the reader's attention to subtle contradictions informed by close attention to the dialogues' framing discussions. Whether or not one fully agrees with Bartlett, his highly sceptical, questioning approach often leads to novel insights and fresh perspectives. This book would also make an excellent text for undergraduates, both for its provocative commentary on the dialogues and as a lucid, readable example of the Straussian approach.

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Louise Revell, Ways of Being Roman: Discourses of Identity in the Roman West. Oxford; Philadelphia: Oxbow Books, 2016. Pp. x, 175. ISBN 9781842172926. $46.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Linda R. Gosner, University of Michigan (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

In her latest monograph, Ways of Being Roman: Discourses of Identity in the Roman West, Louise Revell explores the formation and maintenance of identity among communities in the western Roman provinces from the time of Augustus through the mid-3rd c. AD. She includes case studies from Iberia, Gaul, the Germanies, and Britain. Revell focuses on how lived experiences and daily practices of individuals within a community shape their identities in a variety of thematic categories (ethnicity, class/status, gender, age). Her examples are intended to be more anecdotal than comprehensive, serving as illuminating illustrations of ways that identities were constructed, performed, and maintained.

Chapter 1 provides a summary of the history of scholarship on Roman identity and then lays out the theoretical framework that Revell adopts in the book. Her account is brief but useful in outlining trends in Roman scholarship, couched in the wider context of the humanities and social sciences. She traces the evolution of the concept of identity as a static, essentialist idea to the fluid, experience-based perception of identity more prominent today. Revell pinpoints the transition in the 1980s post-processual theoretical turn and discusses the role of the Theoretical Roman Archaeology Conference in the increase in identity studies. She points out several lingering issues, which are deconstructed further throughout the book. Specifically, marginalized groups are often described based on their relationships with and/or difference from elite adult males. Further, the concept of identity as unchanging has led scholars to assume uncritically that modern and ancient identities can be equated.

Revell concludes Chapter 1 by proposing a theoretically explicit archaeology of Roman identities. She asserts that "identity rests within practice and the routines of daily living, which incorporate the material culture of the archaeological record. Therefore our undertaking in writing an archaeology of Roman identity is the exploration of such practices" (p. 16). She reveals three core areas of focus: the social practices that served to construct and reaffirm identity, the boundaries that maintained group divisions, and the social structures and ideologies that constrained identity formation. Her framework fits comfortably alongside studies of everyday life, habitual practice, and community that have emerged in recent decades in anthropological archaeology (e.g. Canuto and Yaeger 2000, Robin 2013, Varien and Potter 2008),1 though Revell does not reference much of this work explicitly.

Chapters 2 through 7 are organized as complementary pairs that explore various aspects of identity through overarching themes. Chapters 2 and 3 discuss the idea of a Roman ethnicity that existed alongside multiple, regionally based ethnic identities in the provinces—and how these forms of ethnicity were reconciled. Chapters 4 and 5 address status and class through a discussion of provincial elites and non-elites. Finally, Chapters 6 and 7 explore the relationship of gender and age to identity. Revell explains that these are just some of many themes that can be used to address identity, and that future studies could focus on religious or military identities.

In Chapters 2 and 3, Revell discusses the concept of ethnic identities, focusing on the global and regional/local scales respectively. Here, she defines ethnicity loosely as a set of shared practices and beliefs that set Romans apart from non-Romans. These practices can be enacted and beliefs expressed through a range of different material correlates, so no specific object type or style can be directly associated with a distinctive "Roman ethnicity." She illustrates her point first with a discussion of how the construction of new buildings in the forum of Tarraco enabled local inhabitants to adopt practices associated with Roman urbanism (voting, enacting religious rites, attending market days) that reinforced a global Roman ethnicity. Revell then describes how portrayal of mythological scenes on portable objects in Roman Britain indicate shared beliefs and, by extension, a shared Roman ethnic identity.

Chapter 3, by contrast, explores regional and local variability in ethnic identities, tying the discussion to scholarship on resistance, hybridity, creolization, bricolage, and ethnogenesis. Revell asserts that different identities coexisted, and someone might choose to foreground a local or regional identity depending on the context. Importantly, she emphasizes a need to decenter Roman culture in analysis, and to understand local identities as multi-layered rather than a binary combination of Roman and indigenous. This chapter relies primarily on inscriptions to reveal when and where local or regional origins are included on epitaphs. Other examples that use evidence of agriculture, foodways, and production, however, incite fascinating questions about how pre-existing cultural norms and local environmental situations influenced practices. These cases show we can surmise a great deal about local identity in contexts where epigraphy was scarce, a key point this book demonstrates throughout.

Revell discusses in Chapter 4 the ways that Roman imperialism incited changes in social rank, focusing on how status was displayed and performed by magistrates in public and domestic settings. For instance, when a magistrate in Roman Britain entered a tribunal or council chamber in a basilica, those observing would associate him and the space with elite status. These perceptions could be reinforced by the magistrate's dress and entourage as he approached the building. Revell also comments on less ephemeral associations of elites with public spaces, including statues and inscriptions on public buildings that were viewed by elites and non-elites alike. Similarly, houses served as material signifiers of elite status to visitors. Despite variation in architectural forms across the western provinces, houses with highly decorated meeting and dining areas gave elites a place to show their position to visitors and perform political duties.

Because so much writing on Roman identity has privileged elites, the discussion of non-elites in Chapter 5 is perhaps the most significant contribution of the monograph. Revell discusses the biases of research, recording, and archaeological survival that have led to the invisibility of non-elites in scholarship. She proposes three areas of research to help remedy this situation. The first is the concept of entangled spaces, or trying to understand how accessibility, temporality, and other patterns of use led to divergent experiences of places by elites and non-elites. The architecture of amphitheaters and baths as well as the laws and customs surrounding their use, for instance, ensured that non-elites perceived these spaces differently than elites. The second is an investigation of the archaeology of labor, the social practices surrounding the production and manufacture of goods. Because production often leaves tangible archaeological traces, an investigation of labor is an excellent way to study daily practices from a material perspective, and Revell's arguments concerning identity in these contexts are particularly convincing. Through a discussion of jewelry making, mining, and potting, Revell suggests some ways that being a part of producing communities permeated everyday routines—and identities—of those involved, as well as the ways that production stimulates ties between skilled and unskilled laborers, specialists, and various groups within the broad "non-elite" designation. Revell's final point is that institutional ideologies that constrained non-elites in Roman society must be closely examined. She illustrates this with the examples of slaves and gladiators in the provinces, discussing how their lives were impacted by Roman laws and values. She suggests rightly that we should make efforts not just to recognize their existence in provincial communities, but to better understand how these structures affected their experiences.

In Chapters 6, Revell turns to gender identities. Despite the rise in studies of women and gender in archaeology, the topic of gender identity is not often integrated into big-picture studies about Roman imperialism and cultural change. She suggests that this is a problem of traditionally male-centered scholarship rather than a lack of evidence, and details how archaeological evidence for dress and adornment can reveal how gender identities were performed. Epigraphic evidence is also key to understanding gender within family structure, and Revell discusses the variation in provincial practices surrounding commemoration of and by women on epitaphs. She also argues rightly that gender should be considered within broader changes in the practices and ideologies surrounding production, such as the role of women's labor in the home and in larger scale production. Because gender studies are often underrepresented in Iron Age archaeological literature, Revell emphasizes that it is difficult to look at the long-term impacts of Roman imperialism on gender practices. However, her comments on ways of accessing local change and continuity throughout this chapter are key and deserving of future research.

In her final thematic chapter, Revell addresses the issues of age and aging. Like gender, these topics are difficult to present comprehensively in the western Roman provinces because they have not played a major role in scholarship until recently. Much of her discussion is based on funerary evidence—both epitaphs and the burials themselves, and Revell describes the varied treatment of infants, children, adults, and the elderly in several provincial cemeteries. She suggests that we should look beyond the funerary sphere for children, and discusses the ways that children would have used public spaces in urban and rural environments. She also makes an important point about the contribution of child labor to production in and outside of the home, and that artifacts associated with these activities can provide evidence of the lived experiences of children (so, we should not only associate toys with childhood).

One of the primary strengths of the book is the application of old data and case studies from across the western provinces to the robust theoretical framework that Revell outlines. She advocates the use of old data sets to ask new questions (p. 18). This book serves as a skillful example of just this kind of research. It is a useful reminder that data produced from different regions and scholarly traditions can successfully be integrated into large-scale studies. The decision not to include Italy (and not to focus solely on Britain) was a wise one. In doing so, Revell brings out a wide variety of case studies from provinces less represented in Anglophone literature and diverges from many existing studies of identity that rehash widely-known evidence from Rome and Pompeii. Considering the breadth of the book, it is no surprise that Revell seems most at home using examples from Roman Britain and southern Spain that she is personally familiar with. Likewise, many of the case studies seem to have been selected because they were published in accessible, often English language, books and articles. I noted a handful of minor errors and typos.2 The addition of a map indicating sites discussed would have been helpful.

Any oversights and minor errors are far outweighed by the benefits of a monograph with such a wide-ranging geographical and temporal scope, and one which presents this material with keen attention to theory. Revell is to be commended, and I hope that her arguments for this kind of research will make an impact on future work on Roman identities, archaeology, and social history broadly speaking. The book will also be useful for undergraduate and graduate courses about the Roman world. The writing style is accessible and jargon-free. While bibliography is not exhaustive, it provides a concise foundation.3 The substantial overlap in archaeological, epigraphic, and historical material will provide reading for fruitful cross-disciplinary discussions. Most importantly, Revell's notion of identity grounded practice will help push the tired discussion of identity towards more innovative research about lived experience and community formation in the Roman world.


1.   Canuto, M., and J. Yaeger, eds. 2000. The Archaeology of Communities: A New World Perspective. New York: Routledge; Robin, C. 2013. Everyday Life Matters: Maya Farmers at Chan. Gainesville: University of Florida Press. Varien, M. D., and J. M. Potter, eds. 2008. The Social Construction of Communities: Agency, Structure, and Identity in the Prehispanic Southwest. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press.
2.   For instance, Vipasca is in southern not northern Portugal (p. 93).
3.   For more comprehensively cited literature reviews, see especially: Díaz-Andreu, M. 2005. The Archaeology of Identity: Approaches to Gender, Age, Status, Ethnicity and Religion. New York: Routledge; Insoll, T., ed. 2007. The Archaeology of Identities: A Reader. New York: Routledge.

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Rada Varga, Viorica Rusu-Bolindeţ (ed.), Official Power and Local Elites in the Roman Provinces. London; New York: Routledge, 2016. Pp. xix, 193. ISBN 9781472457318. $145.00.

Reviewed by Danijel Dzino, Macquarie University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The research of provincial elites is undoubtedly important for a better understanding of the Roman empire. Provincial elites represented an important node in imperial networks that connected the provincials, municipal elites and imperial elites. Their individual and collective actions initially influenced the degree and speed of provincial integration, and later provided crucial support for the proper functioning of the Roman empire.1 The present volume brings ten different studies dealing with the relationship between provincial elites and official power throughout the Roman empire in a wide chronological period spanning from the 1st century BC to late 5th century AD. The focus and methodology of the papers is diverse, but most of them utilize archaeological and epigraphical sources, except the chapters of Zaccaro, and especially Wangerwelf and Dodd, who rely more on written sources. While a good part of the empire is represented in these studies, it is difficult to claim that "… all areas within the empire are covered" (p. xvii) as studies from some areas are missing — such as Roman Africa, Egypt, Dalmatia, Moesia, Pannonia, etc.

Some criticism could be aimed at the editors, in particular the fact that a proper introduction (or afterword) outlining the theoretical concepts, methodology, recent scholarship and the problems in research is missing. Only a short preface with the contents of individual chapters is provided. A proper introduction would be necessary to strengthen the consistency of the volume, which is diluted with such a wide chronological span of individual studies, as the position and role of provincial elites was different in different periods. Finally, an introduction would have provided a necessary platform where the editors could properly define the overarching term of the study –"provincial elites."2 The term is very broad and could include elites of local origins, urban and/or rural elites, senatorial elites with possessions in the provinces, military elites, etc. The contributions utilise very different definitions of elites, encompassing pretty much all those categories, which adds to the blurring of the volume's methodological focus to some degree.

The first group of contributions discuss early provincial elites and different ways of their integration in the empire. The chapter of Ourania Pall, Georgios Riginos and Vasiliki Lamprou provides a clear and condensed overview of evidence for local elites in West Roman Greece looking into settlement patterns, villas and burials. It provides excellent information in comparative perspective with the other provinces, showing local particularities in balancing between the Greek and Roman cultural patterns in Thesprotia and Preveza, as well as the evidence for the survival and continuing influence of the local elite after the Roman conquest. Benedict Lowe successfully argues that patronage was an important method of communication between provincial elites and Roman administration in Iberia, acting as an instrument of efficient integration in the imperial power-networks. The contribution of Hannah Cornwell is particularly interesting as she puts more light on the king Cottius and his intelligent use of a geographically advantageous position in the high mountain-passes of Western (Cottian) Alps in negotiations with the Romans. Cottius not only negotiated ways to remain in power, but also adopted the Roman language of administrative power to strengthen his political position locally, and promote a message of continuity to his subjects.

The next batch of chapters deals with elites in the High empire. Francesca Zaccaro analyses the changing meaning of the term (praotēs) in the writings of Plutarch and the epigraphy of the island of Amorgos and city of Aphrodisias. Lydia Langerwelf focuses on the literary strategies of Pausanias in his description of the Messenian revolt against Sparta, and the Acarnanian revolt against the Romans. She sees, justifiably, Pausanias as an imperial writer who critically revised nostalgic local histories, blaming both the Messenians and Acarnanians for squandering their freedom. Stefano Magnani and Paola Mior reveal how local elites in Palmyra negotiated different cultural matrices in order to construct unique local identities in the High empire. Rada Varga and Viorica Rusu-Bolindeţ analysed a rich corpus of inscriptions from the praetorium consularis in Dacian de facto capital Apulum. They described in some detail particular ways in which official power was expressed in the Dacian province—through artifacts, votive monuments and funerary inscriptions. Analysis of epigraphic evidence reveals different identity-strategies of the military elite in this context, depending of their rank. The names of higher commanding officers are very uniformly Roman, while some lower officers use indigenous names showing, in the authors' opinion, Thracian origins.

The last group of essays deals with Late Roman and post-Roman provincial elites. Rob Collins examines archaeological evidence from Hadrian's wall, concluding that the relationship between late Roman commanders and soldiers in this part of the empire changed on several levels from the 4th century. The commanders were recruited locally from less prominent families. They expressed a privileged position in archaeologically less visible ways—through feasting and personal connections, rather than through the opulence of a commander's domus. The contribution provides very interesting evidence and conclusions showing increasing regionalization of late Roman army units in Britain, and changed ways in which military commanders showed their rank. Similar regionalization of elites in an even later period is noticed by Leslie Dodd, who in the examples of Caesarius of Arles and Avitus of Vienne sees the transition from affiliation with imperial identity towards appearance of local identities in post-Roman "barbarian" kingdoms. Finally, Mariana Bodnaruk examines the presence of equestrians (the clarissimi) in honorific inscriptions from 4th century Roman provinces, questioning with good reason the existing paradigm that the equestrian order disappeared with Constantine's reform of 324.

Generally, there is not much to object to in individual contributions The conclusion of Varga and Rusu-Bolindeţ that some lower-rank officers from Apulum are of Thracian origins becomes partially problematic due to the wrong identification of Dasas, the son of Scenobarbus, from the inscription CIL 3.7800 as ""completely Thracian (personal name and filiation")" (p. 122).3 It is also a pity that Collins did not engage with Gardner's study of the late Roman army in Britain,4 as it would strengthen his arguments and deepen the theoretical framework of the paper.

Despite some editorial problems in defining the field of study and putting it in proper scholarly context, the volume is a valuable contribution to scholarship, providing good coverage of provincial elites in the Roman empire. It is overall a clearly written and scholarly relevant collection of essays providing interesting case studies, which can be used in comparative research of provincial elites in the Roman empire.

Table of Contents

Rada Varga, "Preface", p. xvii
Ourania Pall, Georgios Riginos and Vasiliki Lamprou, "Local elites in West Roman Greece: The evidence from Thesprotia and Preveza, p. 1
Francesca Zaccaro, "Collective mentality and πραότης (praotēs): Ruling classes in the Eastern provinces in literature, linguistics and epigraphy. A 'vademecum' for the politician", p. 22
Benedict Lowe, "Roman state structure and the provincial elite in Republican Iberia", p. 33
Hannah Cornwell, "Routes of resistance to integration: Alpine reactions to Roman power", p. 52
Lydia Langerwerf, "The futility of revolt: Pausanias on local myths of freedom and rebellion", p. 77
Stefano Magnani and Paola Mior, "Palmyrene elites: Aspects of self-representation and integration in Hadrian's age", p. 95
Rada Varga and Viorica Rusu-Bolindeţ, "Provincial landmarks of the official power. The praetorium consularis of Apulum", p. 115
Rob Collins, "Power at the periphery: Military authority in transition in late Roman Britain", p. 127
Mariana Bodnaruk, "Administering the Empire: The unmaking of an equestrian elite in the 4th century CE", p. 145
Leslie Dodd, "Kinship, conflict and unity among Roman elites in post-Roman Gaul: The constrasting experiences of Caesarius and Avitus", p. 168


1.   Amongst others: M. Cebeillac-Gervasoni and Laurent Lamoine (eds.), Les élites et leurs facettes: les élites locales dans le monde hellénistique et romain (Rome, 2003); C. Ando, Imperial Ideology and Provincial Loyalty in the Roman Empire, (Berkeley–Los Angeles, 2000), etc.
2.   See D. Slootjes, "Local Elites and Power in the Roman World: Modern Theories and Models (review of J. Perkins, Roman Imperial Identities in the Early Christian Era", Journal of Interdisciplinary History 42/2 (2011), p. 236, who is asking similar questions in relation to the term "local elites".
3.   The name Dasas/Dazas, gen. Dasantis seems to be of Dalmatian origin, most frequently found in the modern-day Central Dalmatian hinterland, western Herzegovina and southwestern Bosnia where pre-Roman indigenous Delmatae lived. Occurence of the name in Dacia should be ascribed to the miners and soldiers of Dalmatian origins: J. J. Wilkes, Illyrians (Oxford–Cambridge, 1992), p. 75. The entries in Epigraphic Database Heilderberg register this name only in Dalmatia and Dacia, with two occurrences in Moesia and one soldier of Dalmatian origins in Germania Superior, but not in Thrace. The name Scenobarbus also appears exclusively in Dalmatian and Dacian inscriptions.
4.   A. Gardner, An Archaeology of Identity: Soldiers and Society in Late Roman Britain (London, 2007).

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Sunday, July 30, 2017


Jason König, Greg Woolf (ed.), Authority and Expertise in Ancient Scientific Culture. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. xi, 473. ISBN 9781107060067. $135.00.

Reviewed by Emilie-Jade Poliquin, Columbia University (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Someone reading the title, the list of contributors, and part of the introduction might expect to find many similarities between this book and Taub and Doody's 2009 volume Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing.1 Indeed, the two books have much in common: several scholars contributed to both (Harry Hine, Alice König, and Aude Doody), and Jason König, analyzing self-promotion and self-effacement in the introductory chapter, seems—at least at first sight—to correlate authority with authorial voice. This first impression is, however, misleading. In many respects, this collection of seventeen articles deals with the notion of authority and expertise in ancient scientific culture from a broader perspective. The editors voluntarily go beyond the traditional limits of technical literature (medicine, law, architecture, etc.) by including chapters on philosophy and historiography. Moreover, they treat authority not only as an intratextual (for example auctorial), but also as an extratextual phenomenon (i.e. real expertise of a particular group of people, expressed through literature). Indeed, by assembling interdisciplinary articles focused mostly on the Roman Empire, they endeavor to set forth how scientific authority influenced and was influenced by social and political context.

Unfortunately, the structure of the book does not help the reader appreciate this dual perspective (intra- v. extratextual authority); dividing the volume into different thematic sections could have been an easy way to highlight it. Instead, the order of the chapters is dictated by the different scientific disciplines, creating constant movements back and forth between methodological approaches. Therefore—and also in order to bring out further interdisciplinary parallels—I have chosen not to follow it in writing this review.

In two similar chapters, Michael Trapp ("Philosophical authority in the Imperial period") and Jill Harries ("Iurisperiti: 'men skilled in law'") try to define the expertise of two groups of professionals, philosophers and jurists, respectively. The scholars highlight how these men dealt with political authority and how, when competing for public recognition, they produced diverse rivalries not only among themselves but also with other professions, and how each group managed to establish a clear, yet complex field of expertise.

Three chapters explore the tension between theory and practice. In the first ("Fragile expertise and the authority of the past: the Roman art of war") Marco Formisano asks the question: Can we learn something useful from military treatises ? After showing that literary sources are less univocal than we might think — he offers an interesting reading of Ovid's iudicium armorum —, Formisano explains the role and importance of theory in two military texts: Onasander's Strategikos and Vegetius' Epitoma rei militaris. Next is an article by Alice König ("Conflicting models of authority and expertise in Frontinus' Strategemata") in which she examines both the textual representation of military expertise and the intratextual authority of Frontinus' persona. She demonstrates how the narrative strategies developed by Frontinus not only do not widen the gap between theory and practice, but even create a bridge between them. Aude Doody begins her chapter ("The authority of writing in Varro's De re rustica") by saying that "In Varro's De re rustica, owning a farm does not make you a farmer" (p. 182), a playful sentence that also evokes the tension between theory and practice. Doody offers an investigation of the use and authority of written texts in an agricultural world constituted mostly of illiterate slaves.

A unique chapter looks into mathematics. Reviel Netz ("The authority of mathematical expertise and the question of ancient writing more geometrico") asks if ancient authors tried to enhance the authority of their texts by writing more geometrico. To answer this question, Netz presents (long and sometimes convoluted) analyses of four "mathematised treatises" and four "mathematical-like passages," concluding that in antiquity, mathematics did not carry the same authority as today.

The remaining papers deal with auctorial authority. Four different chapters develop the notion of self-presentation, especially vis-a-vis other writers or sources. Daniel Harris-McCoy ("Making and defending claims to authority in Vitruvius' De architectura") discusses Vitruvius both as a compiler of information and the editor of his treatise. He points out how Vitruvius cites his sources with parsimony and with as few references as he can in order to make himself essential to the reader. Harris-McCoy then explores two metaphors relating to nature that show how Vitruvius gathered his information to create a new body of knowledge in the same way Nature does with atoms. Emily Kneebone ("The limits of enquiry in Imperial Greek didactic poetry") argues that didactic poets, in ways reminiscent of Vitruvius, expressed their authority through their relation to Nature or especially to a boundless Nature. This group differs greatly from prose authors, as they claim poetic authority, not technical expertise, and because they emphasize the limits of their mortal knowledge more often than writers of prose. Kneebone points to one exception: Marcellus of Side's Iatrica, "a point of self-conscious intersection between the ‛epic' and ‛scientific' didactic traditions" (p. 224). According to Johannes Wietzke ("The public face of expertise: utility, zeal, and collaboration in Ptolemy's Syntaxis"), Ptolemy presented himself as a literary euergetês: through a long-term process of collaboration with a source far in the past (Hipparchus) and a reader far in the future (us?), Ptolemy emerges as the only possible authority in astronomy. A similar argument can be found in Ralph M. Rosen's chapter ("Anatomy and aporia in Galen's On the Construction of Fetuses"). Focusing his analysis on one particular treatise, Rosen shows how Galen, even though he admits the limits of observation in embryology and his own failure to find clear answers, nevertheless positions himself as better equipped than anyone else would ever be, thus endowing himself with greater authority.

Auctorial authority should not be studied only in regard to self-presentation: the relationship established with the reader is also very important and is, to different degrees, the subject of three articles. Nicolas Wiater ("Expertise, 'character', and the 'authority effect' in the Early Roman History of Dionysius of Halicarnassus") shows how Dionysius, through enumerations, voluntarily confuses his readers in order to prove his superiority over them. In this context, Wiater coins the phrase "authority effect" to express the effectiveness of a variety of rhetorical devices that give more authority to the author. Harry Hine ("Philosophical authority in the Younger Seneca") reflects on how Seneca the Younger, even though he was not a professional philosopher, was able to adapt his level of philosophical expertise to his readership. Studying examples from the Consolations, the De beneficiis and the Letters, Hine sees a correspondence between the wide spectrum of attitudes toward philosophy seen in Seneca and the one we can perceive in Roman society. Daryn Lehoux ("The authority of Galen's witnesses") highlights how Galen, in some of his treatises, not only plays with the authority of his eyewitnesses to increase his own, but also uses the addressee as a witness to involve the actual reader.

Literary genre also affects auctorial authority and is especially important for the understanding of apparent inconsistencies or contradictions. Leah Kronenberg ("Varro the Roman Cynic: the destruction of religious authority in the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum") claims that the Divine Antiquities should be read as a Menippean satire: in them, Varro creates the persona of a pedantic expert whose inconsistent sayings parody Roman religion and are not to be taken too seriously. Katharina Volk ("Signs, seers and senators: divinatory expertise in Cicero and Nigidius Figulus"), aiming to resolve a long-standing controversy over De diuinatione, points out how Cicero used the dialogue form to create two personae (Quintus and Marcus) and to express through them two apparently irreconcilable attitudes toward divination. Volk concludes that Cicero, like Marcus, did not "believe" in Divination (the ontological fact), but, like Quintus, respected divination (the social practice).

The book closes with a chapter by G.E.R. Lloyd ("Authority and expertise: some cross-cultural comparisons"), undertaking some comparisons involving ancient India, Mesopotamia, and mostly China. Lloyd demonstrates how our perceptions of authority and expertise can change according to time and/or culture.

Finally, anyone interested in the study of scientific/technical literature will certainly find something useful in one or another of the seventeen individual papers. However, for the scholar studying authority, this volume has, as we say in French, "the defects of its qualities and the qualities of its defects": its dual approach, looking to both intra- and extratextual expertise, can lead to confusion — one feels, for example, that some authors have hesitated between the two approaches. These reservations do not alter the fact that, without any doubt, the volume provides a rich survey of the theme of authority.

Technically, the copyediting is excellent and the volume is easy to use: it has copious notes and bibliography (860 titles); the original texts are often given in addition to the English translation; and there is a helpful index.

Authors and Titles

1. Introduction: self-assertion and its alternatives in ancient scientific and technical writing — Jason König
2. Philosophical authority in the Imperial period — Michael Trapp
3. Philosophical authority in the Younger Seneca — Harry Hine
4. Iurisperiti: 'men skilled in law' — Jill Harries
5. Making and defending claims to authority in Vitruvius' De architectura — Daniel Harris-McCoy
6. Fragile expertise and the authority of the past: the Roman art of war — Marco Formisano
7. Conflicting models of authority and expertise in Frontinus' Strategemata — Alice König
8. The authority of writing in Varro's De re rustica — Aude Doody
9. The limits of enquiry in Imperial Greek didactic poetry — Emily Kneebone
10. Expertise, 'character', and the 'authority effect' in the Early Roman History of Dionysius of Halicarnassus — Nicolas Wiater
11. The authority of Galen's witnesses — Daryn Lehoux
12. Anatomy and aporia in Galen's On the Construction of Fetuses — Ralph M. Rosen
13. Varro the Roman Cynic: the destruction of religious authority in the Antiquitates Rerum Divinarum — Leah Kronenberg
14. Signs, seers and senators: divinatory expertise in Cicero and Nigidius Figulus — Katharina Volk
15. The public face of expertise: utility, zeal and collaboration in Ptolemy's Syntaxis — Johannes Wietzke
16. The authority of mathematical expertise and the question of ancient writing more geometrico — Reviel Netz
17. Authority and expertise: some cross-cultural comparisons — G. E. R. Lloyd.


1.   Liba Chaia Taub, Aude Doody (ed.), Authorial Voices in Greco-Roman Technical Writing. Trier: WVT Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2009.

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Eric Dodson-Robinson (ed.), Brill's Companion to the Reception of Senecan Tragedy: Scholarly, Theatrical and Literary Receptions. Brill's companions to classical reception, 5. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2016. Pp. xii, 332. ISBN 9789004266469. $163.00.

Reviewed by P. Paré-Rey​, Université Jean Moulin Lyon 3 – Université de Lyon​ (

Version at BMCR home site


Ce volume, appartenant à la série des Brill's Companions consacrés à la réception de l'Antiquité classique, étudie celle de la tragédie sénéquienne d'un triple point de vue : réceptions scolaire, théâtrale et littéraire. Il complète deux volumes précédents, les Brill's Companion to Seneca (2014) et Brill's Companion to Roman Tragedy (2015), où les études abordaient de façon classique, respectivement, la vie et les œuvres du philosophe et du dramaturge ; la tragédie sous la République, l'Empire, et au-delà de l'Antiquité, avec trois chapitres consacrés à la réception de la tragédie sénéquienne, vue par Schlegel, Shelley, T.S. Eliot, ou adaptée par Hugo Claus.

Ici la perspective est élargie dans le temps, dans l'espace et dans les méthodes, car les contributions partent de la réception des tragédies de Sénèque dans l'Antiquité même pour aller jusqu'à notre dernière décennie ; elles sont écrites par des spécialistes d'horizons disciplinaires et géographiques (quoique le tout soit en anglais) variés. La cohérence du volume est assurée par le sujet même et par l'organisation choisie : la première partie est consacrée à l'Antiquité, la deuxième à la Renaissance et à la première Modernité, avec des chapitres traitant de la réception de la tragédie de Sénèque pays par pays, la troisième et dernière partie étant réservée aux temps modernes. Cette composition, marquée par un saut séparant Antiquité et Renaissance, reflète le fait majeur de l'histoire des tragédies de Sénèque : tombées dans l'oubli dans l'Antiquité tardive, elles sont redécouvertes quand un manuscrit du XIe s. (le fameux Etruscus) contenant neuf tragédies est exhumé en Italie par Lovato de'Lovati au XIIIe s. (il meurt en 1309). Si les XIII et XIVe s. sont cruciaux pour leur histoire avec l'apparition des premiers commentaires, comme le montre G. Guastella, si les XIV et XVe s. sont également des jalons importants (T. M. Romero), l'intérêt que les tragédies suscitent et l'influence qu'elles exercent sont à leur apogée aux XVI et XVIIe s., ce qui mérite que quatre spécialistes s'y attardent.

L'ouvrage offre ainsi une synthèse très commode des principaux aspects de la question (philosophiques, politiques, littéraires, poétiques, génériques, traductologiques, scéniques), à l'heure où Sénèque intéresse non plus seulement les antiquisants mais les comparatistes, les spécialistes des reception studies et des arts du spectacle. Il a le mérite de reposer les uexatae questiones qui ont fait couler tant d'encre (rapport entre œuvre dramatique et œuvre philosophique de Sénèque : voir C. Star ; représentabilité des tragédies : voir notamment J. Harst, J. Winston et R. Remshardt) en en proposant des bilans bibliographiques, méthodiques et scientifiques achevés. Il est cependant une question qui aurait parfaitement trouvé sa place ici et aurait bien mérité un point définitif (pour compléter l'exposé sommaire de C. Star), celle du nom de Sénèque et des nombreuses identités que les savants ont mis derrière durant des siècles, dans la mesure où cette question a rejailli sur l'attribution des tragédies, ensemble ou séparément. Une autre de ses originalités est d'ouvrir, dans la dernière contribution (S. McElduff), sur les années à venir, signe que la réception de ces tragédies est un sujet qui ne sera pas épuisé avec ce guide, ce dont on ne peut que se réjouir.

L'introduction de l'éditeur scientifique du volume, Eric Dodson-Robinson, replace l'objet du Companion dans le contexte des Reception Studies, est l'occasion de proposer une bibliographie critique, et aborde pour commencer la question de l'intérieur : il s'agit de voir comment Sénèque dessine lui-même la tradition et la réception de ses tragédies via ses prologues métadramatiques. L'auteur, proposant de voir cette réception comme agonistique, s'appuie sur les théories de narratologie, d'herméneutique, et même de métaphysique pour approfondir sa description de la réception des tragédies. Passant par une comparaison de Sénèque avec Shakespeare (son auteur de prédilection, traité dans une contribution séparée de P. Gray dans le volume, sur le thème de la dignité humaine, abordé à travers le lexique de la dignitas et surtout de l'imperium sui) et Racine, il en conclue que Sénèque est pertinent pour notre temps, et surtout que le texte, fort de son autonomie, échappe à son auteur et dure bien sûr plus que lui.

Les contributions de la première partie traitent de la réception des tragédies dans l'Antiquité. Christopher Trinacty traite la réception de Sénèque par Sénèque lui-même, à partir des Lettres ; également, de façon plus originale, de l'Apocoloquintose, qu'il propose de voir comme un guide pour comprendre la réception des sources de Sénèque ; enfin des tragédies, où il choisit d'étudier l'intertextualité avec Horace, ce qui demandait à être fait. Les premières sections brossent à grands traits des caractéristiques bien connues (intertextualité philosophique, rhétorique, grecque et romaine). Les passages sur l'intertextualité ovidienne et horatienne sont rapides mais très suggestifs, tout comme la piste d'un « excès intertextuel », ouverte par le fameux article d'A.J. Boyle.1 C. Star reprend le dossier des liens entre Sénèque le tragique et le Stoïcisme, tout en posant en termes nouveaux le problème : pourquoi n'y a-t-il pas consensus ? comment a-t-on envisagé ces rapports ? comment peut-on et doit-on le faire ? La réponse, convaincante, tient en la nature de ces textes : multivalente, avec des points de vue et des priorités variables. La démonstration pourra s'enrichir de références qui étayent le propos de l'auteur.2 Quant à Peter J. Davis, il soulève la question de l'impact immédiat des tragédies sur la littérature flavienne, à travers l'examen de trois œuvres (la Thébaïde, les Argonautiques et Octavie), dans lesquelles il montre, respectivement, des échos thématiques et structuraux ; des situations analogues ; des épisodes, champs lexicaux et structures comparables. La conclusion synthétise efficacement le poids respectif de telle tragédie (Thyeste, Médée, Œdipe, les Phéniciennes) sur ces œuvres poétiques qui en ont chacune fait un usage particulier.

La deuxième partie s'ouvre sur l'article fondamental de G. Guastella, qui retrace l'histoire des tragédies comme le fruit d'une longue gestation : histoire des manuscrits, « oubli » des tragédies et redécouverte, premières analyses métriques (Lovato), premières imitations (Mussato), premiers commentaires (Trevet). Autant de jalons qui marqueront durablement les humanistes, tant pour les méthodes que pour le sens (philosophique, dramaturgique) qu'ils ont assigné aux tragédies. T. M. Romero enchaîne sur la réception de Sénèque en Aragon et en Castille aux XIV et XVe s. en conjuguant généralités (comme sur la réception manuscrite) et applications pratiques. Il présente successivement les cas de traduction et de réception en catalan et en castillan et précise les types d'opérations subies par les tragédies (emprunts, traductions, redéploiements de situations et de thèmes) que l'on retrouve chez tels écrivains et dans telles œuvres. La Celestina, traitée en fin d'article, est un exemple passionnant qu'on aimerait voir développé. La conclusion, sur l'influence de Sénèque sur la comedia et de la tragicomedia ne peut être pleinement appréciée que si l'on connaît les spécificités de ces genres dramatiques en Espagne. Le volumineux article de F. De Caigny, élaboré à partir de sa non moins copieuse somme,3 présente la réception de Sénèque en France en fonction de trois grandes phases (1550-1610 ; 1610-1645 avec le tournant critique des années 1634-35 ; fin du XVIIe s.). Cette périodisation permet une grande précision, mais perd parfois le lecteur dans une accumulation de remarques très détaillées, alors que sont régulièrement examinées les composantes dramatiques (action, personnages, style, structure). Sont néanmoins dessinés trois mouvements nets. Durant la première période d'étude, la question qui se pose est celle du mode d'appropriation de Sénèque le Tragique : imitation ou traduction ? Cette question débouche sur une typologie claire permettant de situer les essais des divers auteurs français sur une échelle allant de la fidélité assez stricte à la grande liberté par rapport au modèle. Quand celui-ci est remis en question, à l'époque suivante, l'auteur observe une tension entre continuité et rupture : Sénèque demeure présent, mais les sujets dramatiques et les débats théoriques évoluent (vers une réflexion sur la structure, avec la question des trois unités ; vers une critique du style sénéquien). Enfin, dans la dernière phase, c'est la problématique de la traduction qui occupe et ouvre les pièces sur un nouveau public (élargi), sur de nouveaux sujets (l'amour) et sur de nouveaux types de personnages (affadis). Chez J. Harst et J. Winston, la réception scénique est traitée conjointement avec, respectivement, l'usage scolaire et les traductions de Sénèque. Le premier se centre sur l'Allemagne et les Pays-Bas, mais ses réflexions, bien que nourries de focus sur Lipse et des passages clefs de Sénèque, valent pour une aire géographique plus large (théâtralité interne des tragédies ; rapports, dans les commentaires, entre philosophie et philologie et entre rhétorique et poétique). La dernière partie, sur la présence de Sénèque dans le Trauerspiel, s'appuie efficacement sur les préliminaires méthodiques et implique, comme pour les comedia et tragicomedia, que l'on connaisse bien cette forme dramatique pour vérifier la pertinence du rapprochement. La seconde fait de l'Angleterre son terrain d'investigation et développe thématiquement les modes de transmission et de traduction des tragédies, la présence de l''English Seneca' dans la culture anglaise de la première modernité, étudie précisément quelques passages pour souligner les effets de traduction ou d'adaptation, et termine sur une bibliographie critique récente et utile.

La dernière partie, sur laquelle nous passerons rapidement faute de place, est une invitation à exploiter la riche matière d'un Sénèque présenté par presque tous les contributeurs comme pertinent pour notre Modernité. L'intérêt de H. Slaney est de ne pas se limiter aux atrocités des tragédies mais d'étudier finement comment Sénèque est, dans le courant gothique, ressource stylistique ou intertexte fonctionnel et activé. F. Citti, R. Remshardt et S. McElduff se consacrent aux réceptions récentes de Sénèque, non seulement sur scène mais dans les autres arts et medias, et révèlent une présence de Sénèque parfois inattendue.

Nous saluerons la clarté de la présentation ainsi que le soin apporté à l'orthographe et à la ponctuation, tel que nous n'avons relevé aucune coquille. Il est une seule image, p. 234, qui illustre l'incarnation de Richard III par l'acteur Edmund Kean dans une mise en scène du XVIIIe s., ce qui nous fait déplorer l'absence d'une telle illustration p. 95 pour la miniature illustrant un codex du XIIIe s. que décrit G. Guastella. L'index final cumule les entrées par noms propres (auteurs anciens et modernes, personnages mythiques), notions, et titres des œuvres, ce qui a l'avantage de condenser la matière mais l'inconvénient de mêler des entrées diverses qu'on a plutôt tendance à consulter séparément. Nous regretterons l'absence de bibliographie générale, à côté des bibliographies partielles de chacun. Dans des bibliographies, il est curieux de trouver les sources mélangées aux études secondaires et déroutant de lire seulement les dates d'éditions modernes pour des textes des siècles précédents. Une conclusion qui aurait comparé la réception des tragédies entre les divers pays, qui aurait tracé de grandes lignes d'évolution à partir des contributions, aurait été appréciable. À tout le moins, il y aurait pu avoir des renvois internes entre les contributions, par exemple à propos du traducteur Hughes, de la question des Sénèque(s), de l'intertextualité, dont il est question plusieurs fois et dont la présence dans l'index ne suffit pas pour élaborer une véritable synthèse.

Ces menues réserves ne diminuent en rien la valeur du volume, qui devient un précieux outil de référence pour tous ceux qui s'intéressent à l'histoire des tragédies et du théâtre latin en général, à la diffusion de Sénèque, à la circulation des idées et des formes artistiques antiques du Moyen-Âge à nos jours.

Table of Contents

List of Contributors
1 Introduction, Eric Dodson-Robinson
Part 1 - Antiquity
2 Imago res mortua est: Senecan Intertextuality, Christopher Trinacty
3 Seneca Tragicus and Stoicism, Christopher Star
4 Senecan Tragedy and the Politics of Flavian Literature, Peter J. Davis
Part 2 - Renaissance and Early Modern
5 Seneca Rediscovered: Recovery of Texts, Reinvention of a Genre, Gianni Guastella
6 The Reception of Seneca in the Crowns of Aragon and Castile in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries 101, Tomas Martinez Romero
7 The Reception of the Tragedies of Seneca in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries in France, Florence de Caigny, Translated by Eric Dodson-Robinson
8 Germany and the Netherlands: Tragic Seneca in Scholarship and on Stage, Joachim Harst
9 Early 'English Seneca': From 'Coterie' Translations to the Popular Stage, Jessica Winston
10 Shakespeare vs. Seneca: Competing Visions of Human Dignity, Patrick Gray
Part 3 - Seneca in the Modern Age and Beyond
11 Senecan Gothic, Helen Slaney
12 Nineteenth- and Early Twentieth-Century Receptions of Seneca Tragicus, Francesco Citti
13 Seneca Our Contemporary: The Modern Theatrical Reception of Senecan Tragedy, Ralf Remshardt
14 Rereading Seneca: The Twenty-First Century and Beyond, Siobhan McElduff


1.   Boyle A.J. (1987) « Senecan tragedy : twelve propositions », Ramus, 16, p. 78-101.
2.   Mader G. (1997) « Duplex nefas, ferus spectator : Spectacle and Spectator in Act 5 of Seneca's Troades », Latomus, 239, Studies in Latin Literature and Roman History, VIII ; et Aygon J.-P. (2016) Vt scaena, sic vita. Mises en scène et dévoilement dans les œuvres philosophiques et dramatiques de Sénèque, Paris, De Boccard (qui n'a sans doute pu être consulté).
3.   de Caigny de F. (2011) Sénèque le Tragique en France (XVIe-XVIIe siècles), Paris, Classiques Garnier, Bibliothèque de la Renaissance, 3. ​

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Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona, Vine and Wine in the Ancient Greek World. Translated by Maria Relaki. Athens: Foinikas Publications, 2015. Pp. 294. ISBN 9789606849510. €80.00.

Reviewed by Michael Fontaine and Justine Vanden Heuvel, Cornell University Department of Classics; Cornell University Program on Viticulture and Enology (;

Version at BMCR home site

This gorgeous book—large and lavishly illustrated—collects twenty scholarly papers on the subject of wine in ancient Greece and ancient Greek literature by Stavroula Kourakou-Dragona, a scholar whose career is unlike anything we typically see in BMCR.

A retired oenologist, Kourakou-Dragona spent her career in Athens at the "Wine Institute, one of the research foundations of the then Ministry of Agriculture." Later rising to Director, she represented Greece in the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV), an intergovernmental organization that coordinates and negotiates all aspects of wine and viticulture worldwide. In that connection, she had to do her homework (p. x):

Naturally, it was a vital necessity that I become familiar with Greek viticultural zones, the history and peculiarities of the wines from each region, so as to be in a position to champion the interests of Greek wine production in the international decision-making forums. In order to come into close contact with the rural population and take advantage of the experiences of the elder inhabitants, I read, before visiting each region, anything that had been written about the vines and wines of that particular area: folklore and travel literature, traditional songs, ampelographies, archaeological publications etc.

The fruit of these astonishing labors is on display in the 20 essays that follow. Kourakou-Dragona commands all the ancient literature about Greek wine known to us and quite a bit more. Channeling the rhetoric of a classical historian, she explains the genesis of those essays in her preface (p. x):

So when, following a period of intense scientific activity, the time had come to retire after 35 years of service, I had the idea of completing all the collected wealth of information and memories with a retrospection on the distant Past: to see the roots of lesser known ancient Greek wines, to research the technical knowledge of the ancient winemakers based on the surviving records of mainly ancient Greek scholarship and to attempt to interpret through modern scientific knowledge the secrets of their art, which allowed Greek wines to travel along the sea routes as a precious merchandise.

After long years of study, I collected worthwhile material, but I also discovered crucial mistakes made by renowned, mainly foreign, scholars, on ancient treatises and translations published during the 20th and 21st centuries, mistakes that were perpetuated by repetition, resulting in erroneous interpretations and often serious misconceptions.

The 20 papers that document these claims were originally presented at conferences in Greece and abroad, often in Greek, and hence limited to a restricted audience. The papers are all newly revised and translated here into English (sometimes, as these extracts show, not entirely idiomatic, but always intelligible). Greek and French editions of the book are being simultaneously published, too.

The chapters are not connected but they do ask and answer many interesting questions, ranging from investigations of familiar passages of classical Greek literature to actual winegrowing regions of Greece in antiquity and today. For example:

•Could the delicious wine that Odysseus gave the Cyclops have really been simultaneously sweet and high-alcohol? (Answer: no.) (Chapter 1).
•What is or are the Pramnian wines of Iliad 11 and Odyssey 10, and why are they served sprinkled with goat's cheese, barley, and honey? (Answer: Like the colloquial use of the word champagne to describe almost any sparkling wine, "Pramnian" is a generic term for a type of high-alcohol wine, rather than the name of a wine that comes from a particular locale—but unlike Champagne, whose name memorializes its region of origin, Pramnian wines were produced in several different regions.) (Chapter 2).
•If Hesiod knew the method of producing homemade sweet wine from grapes, how is it that—despite his poverty—he also drank imported biblinos wine, which came from Phoenicia or Thrace? (Answer: Actually, he was probably drinking homemade biblinos wine he produced himself from biblinos grapes growing on the slopes of Mount Helicon.) (Chapter 3).

In making such arguments and weighing probabilities, Kourakou-Dragona invokes literature, etymology, climate, and her personal experience and scientific expertise.

After these early chapters on epic, the central chapters provide strong technical background on grape growing and winemaking processes in ancient Greece and Rome. Topics include the color of grapes and the winemaking processes required in antiquity to produce differing colors of wines, the techniques used to replicate the wines produced or mixed with saltwater when made a distance from the coast, the scientific basis for separately referring to several varieties that varied in color but that we now know to be the same variety, how grape pomace was crushed with and without the use of rocks, how ancient vineyards were protected from pests, and a technical discussion of the fumigation or smoking used to artificially age Roman wines. We also get a viticultural interpretation of an ancient law of Thasos intended for protection of winegrape growers.

Elsewhere Kourakou-Dragona draws our attention to interesting novelties that throw light on everyday life. In a "Satire of Wine Tasting" (chapter 7), she demonstrates that a fragment of the 5th c. comic poet Hermippus (fr. 77 KA [incert.]) is a satire—the only example of its kind—of exaggerated boasts of the sort that sommeliers today tend to make of their own abilities.

Students of wine culture may benefit most from Kourakou-Dragona's social and biological explanations of myth. In "The Interpretation of Dionysiac Viticultural Myths" (chapter 16), the emergence of Dionysus from Zeus' thigh is put into perspective with the phenological development of the vine, where the new shoot (which will bear clusters) emerges directly from the cane above a node. The text is well supported by photographs, such as an old vine during dormancy with a title comparing it to Semele ("like a dry trunk hit by lightning"). In similar fashion, local details in mythic stories, such as that of Icarius of Athens, are explained via the actual wine-growing properties of those locales.

In the credit column, we applaud the many vases, maps, statues, and photographs of modern vineyards that are reproduced in color on nearly every page. Some are merely decorative, but in general these images are well chosen and help illuminate the arguments. In the demerit column, a few problems of translation will limit the book's potential audience. Ancient Greek is often quoted to make a point but is not translated (or even transliterated) into English—and some of the vocabulary used in those passages is rare or technical indeed. The book also presumes familiarity with the ancient authors; hence readers are not routinely told when (say) Archestratus or Nonnus or Columella lived. Nonspecialists might also be troubled by some oddities and inconsistencies in transliterating Greek names and toponyms; hence Maron in Odyssey 9 is called Maro in chapter 1 and Maron in chapter 2, Eustathius is called Eustace (p. 31), Helicon is called Elicon (p. 39), and so on.

But make no mistake. There are very few people in the world who could have written this book; most scholars have either the technical knowledge or the classical background but not both. The impressive harmony with which these two perspectives are synthesized makes Vine and Wine in the Ancient Greek World a treasure house of information and a monumental capstone to an impressive career. We recommend it highly.

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Friday, July 28, 2017


Isabelle Torrance (ed.), Aeschylus and War: Comparative Perspectives on Seven against Thebes. Routledge Monographs in Classical Studies. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2017. Pp. 226. ISBN 9781138677005. $140.00.

Reviewed by N. J. Sewell-Rutter, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This book presents papers from an interdisciplinary symposium on Seven against Thebes held at Notre Dame in 2015.1 The principal service of the collection as a whole is to forge closer connections between Aeschylus' great play and the immediate human experience of war. This was something intimately familiar to the original audience and, indeed, to earlier generations of classicists, but the majority of contemporary scholars and students of the text have not seen or felt armed conflict, devastation and rapine at first hand.

To this end, Seven is viewed from various perspectives. Torrance does not exclude traditional philology, close readings and historical approaches, but readers will also find pieces on reception in film and theatre. The most striking inclusion is a transcript of a moderated conversation with a retired American army officer, who brings to the table the experience of a veteran of armed conflict.

Torrance succeeds in the aim 'to put [Seven] back on our political and sociological maps, both ancient and modern' (p. 6). The tragedy tends to play second or third fiddle to the towering Oresteia and the theoretically fertile Persians, though it is one of Aeschylus' most vivid achievements, forceful and shattering, counterpointing family and city to marvellous effect. If nothing else, this book compels us to take a good look at the drama in the round, disputed ending and all. What emerges is a work of immense impact from the pen of a tragedian who not only fought in the Persian wars but actually lost his brother Cynegirus at Marathon.2 The original audience in 467 B.C. watched Seven in an Athens that had been repeatedly threatened in recent decades and was still scarred by Xerxes' depredations of 480 B.C.3 This is not an easy experience to replicate in an institutional library or scholarly study.

This review does not, of course, afford scope to consider all the book's contributions in detail: my omissions are not intended to be invidious or tendentious. The overall impression of the papers in Aeschylus and War is one of harmony, of various interdisciplinary contributions working synergistically to illuminate the play and its several ancient and modern contexts. It is sometimes a mistake to reach for a thesis in an edited volume, but this book does coherently remind us both of the importance of Seven against Thebes and of the smells of blood and ashes in which it was conceived.

The conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Janowsky is a minimally edited transcript. The oral immediacy of the discussion is largely preserved, so naturally there are some inelegant sentences4 and some unfollowed hints at further lines of enquiry. Janowsky's experience of command seems to this reviewer to be particularly illuminating for two things: our assessment of Eteocles as military leader and our engagement with the chronology and timeframe of the play.5

'The first time I looked at this I thought Eteocles was a poor example of a leader … Why was the city not prepared? If I know I'm going to be attacked and I am the commander … and I know that I have seven gates to defend, then I have assigned defenders of those gates, and I have assigned back-up defenders of those gates. … These things are planned out. This is what military strategists and commanders do' (p. 15).

Such was Janowsky's immediate reaction to Eteocles' handling of the central crisis of the play. This is salutary: it will keep a stark truth about the play in the foreground for Classicists. The shield scene is a very stylised (I hesitate to say 'symbolic') account of the defence of Thebes, a contest in matching blazon for blazon and a display of Eteocles' wit and brio, not an exemplar of strategy. However thematically and artistically fascinating it is, this marvellous piece of theatre is odd and militarily anomalous.

The transcript also introduces the theme of panic and the manifold other emotional and physiological reactions to war, which will recur throughout the book. Janowsky sees the chorus's panic as 'typical' under the circumstances, not 'overblown or unreasonable' (p. 20). There follows a teasing exchange about the distortion of time in the shield scene (pp. 20–22): '…if you're waiting or not actively engaged in combat time is very slow.' The implication is that the long and lovingly detailed central scene of Seven against Thebes occupies an unnaturally extended human moment, that it is mimetic of a real psychological phenomenon experienced in the interstices of combat.

Meineck's paper centres on the phenomenon of collateral damage. Its principal manifestation in the fifth century BC was the wholesale sorting, enslaving and slaughtering of citizens in a taken city—a process called in Greek andrapodismos. This reality underlies the chorus's anxiety in the play: if Eteocles fails to defend his city, the young women of Thebes face the kinds of horrors that we now class as war crimes (p. 50). Meineck establishes from the Classical historians and Attic tragedy that captivity, especially of women, was a very present horror in the contemporary Athenian consciousness, not something glossed over in art and literature.

This paper is not the only one in the collection to consider Zeitlin's work on Thebes as an 'anti-Athens'6 (p. 63). After several pages of careful thought about empathy, its objects and mechanisms, Meineck rightly concludes that the panic-stricken chorus of Seven is not too distant or alien to be felt for by the Athenian spectator (p. 66). Through tragic mimesis, he concludes, the Athenians are invited to 'empathise with the victims of war' (p. 68), including those they have dragged off into servitude themselves.

I now consider two more traditional approaches to the play, the papers by Foster and Sommerstein, which address respectively Pindar's reworking of Amphiaraus, and the oracle to Laius in the play.

Foster's paper illuminates the very different presentations of Amphiaraus in this play and in Pindar's Pythian 8. Pindar's sublime final epinician, she argues, should be seen as a 'determined response to Aeschylus' earlier Seven', rehabilitating the possibility of the benign inheritance of excellence, something that is usual in victory odes but darkly inspissated in Aeschylean tragedy (p. 150). Amphiaraus is, to be sure, the excellent figure among the Seven. However, he stands mysteriously alone in Aeschylus' presentation, 'detached from his own mythic history and cult and the many traditions that typically surround him' (p. 154). Pindar, on the other hand, restores to the hero his usual mythic and cultic identity, positively valuing heredity in a response to Aeschylus (and tragedy) that is both 'intertextual and intergeneric' (p. 158). Foster shows that Pindar overhauls Aeschylus' imagery thoroughly: the poet of victory and aristocratic success is absolutely determined to reassert the continuity of positive value between fathers and sons.

Alan Sommerstein addresses the old question of oracles. The subtitle of his paper asks, rather teasingly, 'What did Apollo's oracle mean?' Notoriously, both oracles and curses can shift and metamorphose in tragedy: characters and choruses are allowed to rephrase and reinterpret them as themes and plots evolve. In this play, we are told clearly that Laius received his oracular answer three times: 'he was told by Apollo at Delphi "to die without offspring and save the city"' (p. 176). Oedipus did survive his father, of course, and now, in Seven, Thebes is under siege. For most of the play's duration, the prevailing fear is that the oracle to Laius will be shown to be true. This paper shows what a careful through-reading of a text can still achieve. Sommerstein quietly and competently takes us through the play to demonstrate that, though the city's crisis does seem to be averted when the attackers are beaten off, allusions to the future destruction of Thebes cannot be explained away. 'Aeschylus is thus having his cake and eating it. Most of the time, as is appropriate to the end of a trilogy, he gives the impression that the story is complete; but he also plays on his audience's prior knowledge that it is not' (p. 181).

The first and last papers in Aeschylus and War study aspects of the reception of Seven. The play itself is not widely performed (p. 30): other Attic tragedies are perceived as more tractable or more bankable. This is an understandable reaction. Classicists are liable to forget that it is, even by the standards of its genre, a very stylised piece. It centres on a long series of matched descriptions of shield blazons and includes such wonderfully 'tragic' touches as a hero lamenting the operation of his own father's curse. Seven is nightmarish, but perhaps not accessibly nightmarish like King Oedipus or Antigone.

Seven's influence on the Neapolitan director Mario Martone is Torrance's subject. At the end of the volume, Douglas Cairns considers the reception of the play in two Antigones, by Sophocles and by Brecht (first produced in 1948). These papers independently demonstrate that it is impossible to divorce the modern reception of the Seven from the realities of war. Martone's work Teatro di Guerra is profoundly concerned with war-torn Sarajevo (p. 31); Brecht's play was engendered in the shadow of the Second World War, and deals starkly, if less subtly than Sophocles (p. 198), with class struggle and the depredations of the state.

Aeschylus and War is a salutary reminder that Seven against Thebes must be understood in the martial context from which it draws its inspiration. Moreover, it is to be hoped that this useful and thought-provoking collection of papers will help to rekindle critical interest in a great and difficult work, which has for too long been condemned to brood sublimely in relative neglect.

Authors and Titles

1. Aeschylus and War, Isabelle Torrance

PART I: Modern perspectives
2. Aeschylus on war: a conversation with Lieutenant Colonel Kristen Janowsky
Moderated by Olivier Morel and Isabelle Torrance; prepared for publication by Isabelle Torrance
3. Aeschylus, gangland Naples, and the Siege of Sarajevo: Mario Martone's Teatro di Guerra, Isabelle Torrance
4. Thebes as high-collateral-damage target: moral accountability for killing in Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes, Peter Meineck

PART II: Ancient perspectives
5. Greek armies against towns: siege warfare and the Seven against Thebes, Fernando Echeverría
6. Eteocles and Thebes in Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes, Lowell Edmunds
7. The music of war in Aeschylus' Seven against Thebes, Mark Griffith
8. Fathers and sons in war: Seven against Thebes, Pythian 8, and the polemics of genre, Margaret Foster

PART III: The destruction of Thebes, ancient and modern
9. Aeschylus and the destruction of Thebes: what did Apollo's oracle mean? Alan H. Sommerstein
10. The destruction of Thebes in Brecht's Antigone (1948), Douglas Cairns


1.   The reviewer should mention that Isabelle Torrance reviewed his own monograph on tragedy in 2009. See I. Torrance, 'Guilt in Tragedy', CR 59 (2009), 26–27, reviewing N.J. Sewell-Rutter, Guilt by Descent (Oxford, 2007). The reviewer has never worked with Torrance and did not attend this symposium on Seven against Thebes.
2.   P. 1, and see Hdt. 6.114.
3.   This very relevant recent history is considered by Echeverría, p. 85
4.   E. g. the wonderfully pregnant: 'So my question is quite tangled, and perhaps it's more a comment.' p. 18.
5.   Respectively pp. 15–18, 20–22.
6.   F. I. Zeitlin, 'Thebes: Theater of Self and Society in Athenian Drama', in J. J. Winkler and F. I. Zeitlin (eds.), Nothing to Do With Dionysus? (Princeton, 1990), 130–67.

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Massimiliano Ornaghi, Dare un padre alla commedia: Susarione e le tradizioni megaresi. Il carro di Tespi, 2. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2016. Pp. x, 524. ISBN 9788862746946. €40.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Richard P. Martin, Stanford University (

Version at BMCR home site

Only four banal iambic trimeter verses (maybe five) are attributed to Susarion; some consider even those suspect.1 At first glance, a 500-page book devoted to this shadowy figure from the 6th century BCE looks implausible. Its two divisions meticulously re-examine the evidence regarding the man who allegedly founded comedy at Athens, and then analyze the significance of Megara (Susarion's putative homeland) for dramatic history. Ornaghi's sophisticated approach acknowledges that the object is not to pronounce on the reality of origins, but to sort out the various meanings—literary, political, even philosophical—that underlie the deployment of "Susarion" in ancient discourse about key questions: who established the genre of comedy; why; when; and in what form. In this extended exercise in context-sensitive cultural and historical interpretation, Ornaghi succeeds admirably. He does not answer the questions, but offers a much-needed paradigm for the meta-analysis of source material and a welcome, critical viewpoint on Megarians playing the comedic "Other."

Two sources, centuries apart, rightly attract much attention: a notice from the Marmor Parium (mid-3rd century BCE) and a passage from John the Deacon (early or middle Byzantine period). The former is brief and controversial. In Jacoby's edition (FGrHist 239, entry A39), it runs:

ἀφ' οὗ ἐν Ἀθ[ήν]αις κωμω[ιδῶν χο]ρ[ὸς ἐτ]έθη, [στη]σάν[των πρώ]των Ἰκαριέων, εὑρόντος Σουσαρίωνος, καὶ ἆθλον ἐτέθη πρῶτον ἰσχάδω[ν] ἄρσιχο[ς] καὶ οἴνου με[τ]ρητής…

Andrea Rotstein's excellent new commentary translates: "From the time a [cho]r[os] of komo[idoi] was [esta]blished in Ath[en]s, the Icarians [se]tti[ng it up fi]rst, an invention by Susarion, and the prize consisted at first  of a baske[t] of dried fi[gs] and a me[a]sure of wine…".2 The expected year-calculation falls within a lacuna, but from the entries above and below A39, the epoch in question must occur between 582/1 and 561/0 BCE—a startling assertion, since comedy was not officially made part of the City Dionysia at Athens until 487/6 BCE, at least two generations later. Equally surprising, entry A43 places the dramatic activity of Thespis between 536 and 530 BCE: although the MP does not explicitly call him founder of tragedy, opting for the vaguer "From the time the poet Thespis first [perform]ed ([hupekrina]to),3 who produced (edidaxe)…", the relative chronology of genres is puzzling.4 A third entry (A55) pins the floruit of Epicharmus, another candidate for inventor of comedy, to 472/1 BCE.

Ornaghi helpfully focuses on what MP A39 does not say, thus allowing for more nuance in reconstructed stories of origins. The inscription neither claims that Susarion himself was from Ikarion, nor does it say he invented at the date in question a "khoros of kômos-singers" (let alone "comedy")—only that a khoros was put in place, "Susarion having discovered" (it?) at some (possibly earlier) point. Admittedly, the MP as we have it does not even clearly state that the people of Ikarion first established comic choruses: Ornaghi, more conservative than Jacoby, rejects the restoration [στη]σάν[των πρώ]των Ἰκαριέων as not fitting letter traces and lacking parallels elsewhere in the MP for two genitive absolutes in asyndeton. Yet, in the light of other testimonia and myths about that Attic deme, as well as archaeological finds confirming early theater activity there, it is hard to see how (especially within the MP's general heurematographic approach) anything else could have been meant. If the missing words did specify a foundational role for the demesmen, perhaps the gist was "some of the Ikarians introduced it (restoring a finite verb e.g. ἔθεσαν) upon Susarion's invention" or even "a certain Susarion of the Ikarians having invented it" (so that in both case Ἰκαριέων is partitive and Ornaghi's syntactical dilemma is avoided).

The author is on firmer ground when arguing that the information and dates assigned to Susarion and Thespis descend from different sources and were possibly later synchronized with an eye to traditions about the dating of Solon's career. The suggestion concludes an exhaustive 60-page analysis of the MP's diction, syntax and time-point co-ordination strategies. Again, the negative result is worth stating: it is likely that the compiler of the MP was not repeating a unitary literary-historical account in which comedy was placed prior to tragedy at Athens. Ornaghi's bracing scepticism on this last point would more readily convince me, were it not for the curiously similar relative chronology found in one of the latest (yet fullest) accounts of Susarion, a commentary by one John the Deacon on the Peri methodou deinotêtos attributed to the rhetor Hermogenes (AD 160–230). Before retailing an anecdote about Susarion's famous 4 (or 3 or 5) lines, John provides a two-sentence summary of cultural development from savage acorn-eating to farming, with its rowdy harvest-festivals. Wishing for a more cultivated entertainment, "some clever individuals" (sophoi) invented comedy as a form of "orderly playing around" (λογικῆς παιδιᾶς). Susarion, it is said, first put comedy into metrical form. But then, needing to counter-balance the new genre's total-relaxation effects (diakhusis), they invented tragedy: John cites different sources promoting Arion and Thespis as the creative prototypers. Ornaghi convincingly traces Peripatetic roots for John's sketch of human progress, but is less confident that the comedy-first model goes back that far. I would press further: given our ignorance about Aristotle's lost writing on comedy, and the recurrent references to an early super-genre trugôidia (from trux, "new wine") that supposedly birthed both Classical genres, we might easily imagine 4th-century discourses making tragedy the latecomer.

John is one of six sources preserving a version of Susarion's iambic verses, in which he demands the attention of an audience of demesmen for his wise utterance: "women are a bad thing, but you can't keep house without a bad thing" (fr. 1, IEG II2). Apparently, this was the first "metered" comic performance, but in John's account it is an unscripted response by Susarion, when he was expected to demonstrate his known talent for entertaining at the Dionysia. His wife having just died, Susarion offered these lines as his "explanation" (ἀπολογούμενον)—perhaps for failing to perform something else?—and was "well-received" (εὐδοκιμῆσαι) by the audience. One could explore further the similarities to Old Comic parabases and Archilochean rhetoric of the impromptu. Ornaghi instead focuses on paroemiographic parallels and internal variants, most important of which is the absence in half the testimonia of the key self-referential line "son of Philinos, from Tripodiskos, Megara." Making Susarion Megarian (as opposed to Ikarian) was clearly a crucial sociopoetic move at some stage, although the Attic coloration of his attested iambs would not have helped.

The rest of the first division of the volume (pp. 67–181, 217–36) uncovers other bits of unexpected lore. Ornaghi bravely hacks away at the jungle growth of scholia and the anonymous prefaces about comedy, wisely refusing to reconstruct a single master source. Susarion is tangled up with potted histories of literary evolution and attempts at etymologizing kômôidia (songs for party-processions, villages, bedtime?). A thematic organization might have made for easier reading, but the clinical dissection of testimonia per author provides the most solid basis for later discussion. Some highlights: Susarion lent his name to a meter combining four trochees and a dactylic hemiepes, which does not fit his surviving verses but leaves open the intriguing possibility that antiquity once knew more of his poetry, and it was, moreover, melic. (Here Rusten's idea that Susarion composed dithyrambs would have made a neat tie-in). Susarion was credited, in various scholia to Dionysius Thrax, with instead inventing iambos or tragedy (the latter alleging the authority of Aristotle). By the time of Libanius (Letter 355), he was a proverbial polymath, "Susarion who understands everything."

Most saliently, the character of Susarion's allegedly abusive, inelegant, casually staged and brief shows (no more than 300 lines apiece, according to the late Glossary of Ansileubus [Koster XXVII. 3.8–13]) fits with later Athenian notions about all things "Megarian"—suspiciously well. A commentator on the Nicomachean Ethics (4.6) makes a logical leap between the Poetics and Old Comedy references: in comedy "the Megarians are disparaged because they lay claim to it (ἀντιποιοῦνται) as having been found first among themselves, if indeed Susarion, who started comedy, was Megarian." Ornaghi proceeds to pry apart this and related assumptions through a series of forceful arguments, made in six stages. First, his close reading of Aristophanes (Wasps 54–66), Eupolis (fr. 261), and Ecphantides (fr. 3) in the light of non-dramatic lore, establishes that these playwrights do not allude to an actual formal genre of "Megarian comedy" but invoke a vaguer set of ethnic stereotypes, featuring Megarians as thick, crass, and uncreative. Whatever form any original Susarion comedy might have taken has become encrusted by such Athenian prejudices. Second, Aristotle refers to dual Megarian claims on comedy (Poetics 3.1448a28–b2)—by those close to Athens, who tied it to their democracy, and those in Sicily, who pointed to native-son Epicharmus—but neither, oddly, mentions Susarion. Either the version in which he was the inventor was not yet current, concludes Ornaghi, or Aristotle passed it over as not worth believing. (I suggest another possibility: he tacitly accepted a known pro-Athenian version like that in the MP, and assumed his audience did, too.) Third, the fragments of 4th-century Megarika reveal a marked " auto-legittimazione culturale" (p. 328) when it comes to traditions and local institutions, which clearly react to Athenian versions of mythistory as preserved in the Atthidographers. Ornaghi's excellent survey detects recurrent terms for verbal opposition: ἀντιποιοῦνται in Aristotle's description; ἀντιλογίας at Plut. Thes. 10.3; and most telling, ἀντιπαρῳδῆσαι (Strabo 9.10.) The lattermost describes a Megarian act of poetic counter-attack against the Athenians who, they believed, staked a claim to Salamis on some verses smuggled into the Catalogue of Ships. The Megarian lines claimed that Ajax "brought ships from Salamis, from Polichnê, from Aegeirussa, from Nisaea, and from Tripodes"—that is, from Megarian townships. It is not difficult to see a similar propaganda move inserting a similar line in Susarion's (otherwise Athenian?) iambs, to make him a citizen of Tripodiskos.

The simplest explanation, then, would be that Megarians hijacked an authentic Athenian memorate. But Ornaghi veers off in favor of complexity. His long fourth section explores how the "facts" of Megarian history may have been selectively ordered (or invented) to fit 4th-century Athenian political philosophy, particularly with regard to an alleged "democracy" following the ouster of the tyrant Theagenes (620 BC?). Such synchronization would align "Susarion" with the time-frame for Athenian proto-theater. Building upon the work of Connor and Forsdyke regarding political histrionics, he raises exciting possibilities: e.g. that the subversive incident of the "wagon-rollers" (hamaxokulistai) recorded by Plutarch was a version of Dionysiac ritual. The fifth section pinpoints performance elements in Megarian cults of Demeter, Apollo, and Dionysos, again suggesting (not arguing) that native Megarian traditions could have supported their claim to some dramatic invention (perhaps later identified as "comedy"). A short final section gathers the fragments of Hellenistic poets mentioning Megarian cult or the Athenian myth of Ikarios, while the epilogue leaves us with widely varying options: Susarion might have been a jokey figment of Old Comic projection; or a real Megarian. Whatever we believe, this study deserves to be read carefully by all working on the roots of theater.


1.   Most sceptical: J. Rusten, "Who "Invented" Comedy? The Ancient Candidates for the Origins of Comedy and the Visual Evidence," AJP 127 (2006), 37–66.
2.   A. Rotstein, Literary History in the Parian Marble (Washington DC, 2016), p. 43.
3.   My translation: Rotstein has "[act]ed (?)".
4.   W. R. Connor, whose conservative text is preferred by Ornaghi, persuasively distinguished pre-and post-democratic performances: "City Dionysia and Athenian Democracy," in Aspects of Athenian Democracy, (ed. W. R. Connor et al., Copenhagen, 1990), 7–32.

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