Sunday, September 29, 2019


Vayos Liapis, Antonis K. Petrides (ed.), Greek Tragedy After the Fifth Century: A Survey from ca. 400 BC to ca. AD 400. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. Pp. xiv, 415. ISBN 9781107038554. $125.00.

Reviewed by Martin Cropp, University of Calgary (

Version at BMCR home site

[Contents are listed at the end of this review.]

This book offers a survey of Greek tragedy from the deaths of Euripides and Sophocles to late antiquity, aiming to provide a comprehensive overview of the history of the genre in all its aspects — as literature, as performance art, and as one of the most influential and persistent cultural properties of the Greco-Roman world. A central purpose, as set out by Antonis Petrides in his Introduction, is to insist on the vitality of 'postclassical' tragedy and to reject the orthodoxy of a long and sad decline from a fifth-century zenith which dominated scholarship until quite recently. Eleven chapters are focused on Texts (1–4), Contexts and Developments (5–9) and Reception and Transmission (10–11). The book's admirable ambition is limited, of course, by the scarcity and unevenness of the available evidence. Nearly half of it is focused on the fourth century BCE, a quarter on the Hellenistic period, and one chapter on the era of the Roman empire, while two chapters provide more expansive surveys of, respectively, tragic music and dance and the scholarly tradition. Given this structure, it is not surprising that some topics, such as the diffusion of theatres through the Greek world, the persistence of choruses and the professionalization of dramatic performance are addressed more than once. Such overlaps are usually signalled by the editors, and unadvertised minor contradictions are rare (on p. 54 it is 'perhaps unlikely' that Theodectas produced a tragedy Mausolus on the occasion of the satrap's funeral, whereas on p. 187 he apparently did so; on p. 185 Carcinus II produced 'a startlingly innovative version of the Medea myth', but on p. 254 he 'reverts to an older version').

After Petrides' Introduction, Chapter 1 summarizes what can be said about the best-known fourth-century tragedians, Theodoros Stephanopoulos writing on Carcinus II and Chaeremon and Vayos Liapis on Astydamas, Theodectas and several others (I missed mention of Sophocles II and the Ashmolean fragments of an Achilles which was probably his rather than his grandfather's).1 The authors stress that the evidence shows considerable variety, with both derivative and innovative elements, a point explored further in the contributions of Dunn and Carter and in Almut Fries's chapter on Rhesus (Ch. 2). Fries draws on the introduction to her 2014 edition (see BMCR2016.10.29) in a sympathetic account of the play's literary context and dramatic novelties. Pierluigi Lanfranchi's chapter on Ezekiel's Exagôgê (Ch. 4) similarly draws on, and updates, the introduction to his 2006 edition (which surprisingly seems to have been reviewed only in a few journals of theology and Judaic studies) and will be helpful to readers more comfortable with English than French. Lanfranchi stresses what the Exagôgê owes to the conventions and language of classical tragedy as well its peculiarities as a drama composed (probably) for performance in connection with a Jewish festival in Alexandria. The only other extant tragic work from the Hellenistic period, Lycophron's Alexandra, is the centrepiece of Simon Hornblower's chapter (Ch. 4), which again summarizes the essentials of his 2015 edition (see BMCR 2017.03.54, 2018.09.18) with emphasis on its tragic affinities and its likely historical context and significance. This occupies nearly half of Hornblower's chapter and is accompanied by brief but stimulating comments on the pervasive influence of tragedy in this period contrasted with the scant remains of actual tragic and satyric texts.

Part 2 ('Contexts and Developments') opens with B. Le Guen's survey (Ch. 5) of the archaeological and epigraphic evidence for the diffusion of tragedy in the Greek world in the fourth century and the Hellenistic era. Le Guen illustrates in detail the variety of occasions for tragic performances (new and old plays, excerpts and complete productions, competitive and non-competitive contexts, Dionysiac and non-Dionysiac festivals) and gives particular attention to the Artists of Dionysus and the persistence of tragic choruses in various forms. Three lists tabulate the relevant epigraphic or literary evidence (with some confusing headings: Table 1 'Aegean and Ionian cities' actually lists Aegean islands and Corcyra, while Table 2 'Cities in continental Greece and Asia Minor' lists five Ionian cities and Carian Iasos). Duncan and Liapis's chapter on theatre performance after the fifth century (Ch. 6) covers some similar ground in sections on the theatrical environment and the chorus in fourth-century tragedy, adding material on theatrical equipment, the formation of a literary canon and a repertory tradition, and aspects of performance and acting. It is perhaps slightly unfortunate that the chapter is framed by references to the epigram supposedly composed by Astydamas for his statue in the Theatre of Dionysus, in which the poet complains about not being ranked with the great tragedians of the fifth century. This is often said to typify a kind of inferiority complex amongst fourth century tragedians, but it should be observed that the whole story of the epigram's composition by Astydamas and rejection by the Athenian boulê is anecdotal and highly suspect (or as Denys Page put it, 'It would be an act of blind faith to accept the truth of the tale or the authenticity of the epigram').2 The first-person style is inappropriate for a public honorific statue and much like that of Hellenistic epigrams impersonating great literary figures of the past (e.g. Homer, Sappho, Alcman, Thespis: AP 7.5, 7.15, 7.709, 7.410); so the epigram probably tells us more about Hellenistic literary attitudes than those of the mid-fourth century.

Mark Griffith provides an informative survey of music and dance (Ch. 7) ranging broadly through the period covered by the book and through evidence which is largely comparative and drawn from music history in general (specific evidence for the continuing importance of music tragedy comes mainly from inscriptions recording festival arrangements, and for dance there is vanishingly little). Griffith includes a helpful basic description of technical developments in musical styles and instrumentation, and argues convincingly that the music and choreography composed for early performances is unlikely to have survived to be re-used in later times.

The last two essays in this section confront the question of how, if at all, fourth-century tragedy differed from what went before. Francis Dunn (Ch. 8) takes soundings in several areas (song, plot-types, diction and rhetoric, characters and character-development, theatrical self-reference and allusion) and finds that the evidence, where there is any, is quite mixed, not least because late fifth-century tragedy itself was far from uniform in these respects. David Carter (Ch. 9) looks more specifically at the social and political attitudes detectable in the remnants of fourth-century tragedy and finds, firstly, no evident difference in the expression of 'Athenian' values (concerning suppliants, burial and freedom of speech, for example), and secondly no real evidence that tragedy became less (broadly) political and more rhetorical in the fourth century. The first point is probably right: the evidence is slight (mainly three fragments of Moschion from the tail-end of the fourth century if not later), but the civic rhetoric of fourth-century Athenian tragedians is not likely to have differed much from that of fourth-century Athenian orators. The second point is, I think, less cogent. Carter points out that tragedy was already a highly rhetorical art-form in the mid-fifth century, but Aristotle's distinction between 'the early poets' whose characters express themselves 'politically' (πολιτικῶς) and 'those nowadays' whose characters do so 'rhetorically' (ῥητορικῶς) is about style rather than substance and suggests (to me at least) that Aristotle thought of the latter as talking more like people trained in rhetorical schools, in scenes increasingly designed to showcase rhetorical confrontations.

The book ends with two chapters on reception and transmission. Ruth Webb (Ch. 10) explores attitudes to tragedy in the period of the Roman empire, emphasizing tragedy's 'double life' — a thriving but increasingly stylized and eccentric performance art and a profound influence, through its texts, in the realms of literature, rhetoric, and moral and practical education. This prominence, Webb points out, along with its mythical subject-matter, made tragedy peculiarly vulnerable to criticism and distrust, especially in Christian circles. Finally, Johanna Hanink (Ch. 11), provides a clear and concise survey of the study of tragedy — historical, philological and philosophical — from the fifth century BCE to the scholars of Byzantium.

The book as a whole is amply documented and makes a valuable addition to the now burgeoning study of 'postclassical' tragic theatre. It should be widely consulted, and for that reason I add a few comments on minor points. p. 29: The tragedian Antiphon was not visiting Syracuse 'as an ambassador' when Dionysius had him executed; πρεσβευτήν in the ps.-Plutarchan Life of the orator Antiphon is a mistake for πρεσβύτην 'an old man', which would apply to the orator but not to the tragedian. p. 30: The only text-fragment of Patrocles of Thurii (on whom see now Cropp and Storey, JHS 138 (2018), 50–54) does not seem to me to express 'obvious Schadenfreude' and 'gleeful relief' at the death of the man whose funeral urn the speaker (surely a relative) holds. pp. 37, 253, 281: Astydamas F 8.1–2 is mistranslated in all three places: not 'The surest praise of a family is to praise an individual', but 'the surest praise of birth (i.e. of commending a man's eugeneia) is to praise with regard to the man (i.e. his personal conduct, not his heredity)'. pp. 54, 56: Theodectas was not a pupil of Aristotle, who was about fifteen years his junior; nor was Heraclides of Pontus (p. 181), who was acting director of the Academy when Aristotle was twenty-three years old. p. 55: In Theodectas F 1 it is Ajax, not Diomedes, who claims that Diomedes chose Odysseus so as to be sure of having a companion inferior to himself. p. 102, '[O]ne could…make a case for [the assassination of] Jason [of Pherae]' as the subject of Moschion's Pheraioi: Meineke actually proposed the assassination of Jason's brother and successor Polyphron by his son Alexander, before Ribbeck fixed on the assassination of Alexander himself.3 p. 121: Satyr- plays were not necessarily dropped from the tragic competition at the Dionysia "in 341 BC"; the didascalic record for 341 is just the earliest record we have of a non-competitive satyric production. p. 167: The same record does not mean that the production of an 'old drama' only became a regular feature of the programme in the late 340s. p. 151, n. 13: Carcinus II has nothing to do with Acragas; the Carcinus of Acragas named in Suda κ 394 is clearly a different person. p. 154: The tragedian executed because of his association with Callisthenes of Olynthus and the 'Page's Conspiracy' was not Neophron (Suda ν 218) but Nearchus (cf. Suda κ 240). p. 247: Snell's tentative identification of galliambics in Astydamas F 1h (the Hibeh papyrus) is very uncertain, as Liapis has pointed out (AJPh 137 (2016), 75f.). p. 248: Some uncertainty should be signalled about the identification of the plot of Sophocles' Chryses in Hyginus, Fab. 120–1. p. 253: In Aristotle, Rhet. 1399b31, 'for he could have done it for this reason' is Aristotle's comment, not part of Ajax's argument.

Table of Contents

Introduction (A. Petrides, 1–21)

1. Greek tragedy in the Fourth Century: The Fragments (V. Liapis, Th. Stephanopoulos, 25–65)
2. The Rhesus (A. Fries, 66–89)
3. Hellenistic Tragedy and Satyr-Drama (S. Hornblower, 90–124)
4. The Exagôgê of Ezekiel the Tragedian (P. Lanfranchi, 125–146)

5. Beyond Athens. The Expansion of Greek Tragedy from the Fourth Century Onwards (B. Le Guen, 149–179)
6. Theatre Performance after the Fifth Century (A. Duncan, V. Liapis, 180–203)
7. Music and Dance in Tragedy after the Fifth Century (M. Griffith, 204–242)
8. The Fifth Century and After: (Dis)continuities in Greek Tragedy (F. Dunn, 243–269)
9. Society and Politics in Post-Fifth-Century Tragedy (D. M. Carter, 270–293)

10. Attitudes to Tragedy from the Second Sophistic to Late Antiquity (R. Webb, 297–323)
11. Scholars and Scholarship on Tragedy (J. Hanink, 324–349)

Bibliography (350–391)
Index Locorum (392–402)
General Index (403–415)


1.   See M. L. West, ZPE 126 (1999) 43–65; R. Kannicht in TrGF 5, 1109–11.
2.   D. L. Page, Further Greek Epigrams (Cambridge, 1981), 33.
3.   A. Meineke, Ueber der tragischen Dichter Moschion, Bericht…der Königl. Preuss. Akademie…zu Berlin, philosoph.-histor. Klasse (1855), 102–114 at 106.

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