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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