Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.07.04

N. T. Croally, Euripidean Polemic: The Trojan Women and the Function of Tragedy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994. Pp. xii + 315. $59.95. ISBN 0-521-46490-0.

Reviewed by David Sansone, Classics -- University of Illinois (

"This is the end of civilization as we have known it." These words (CR 41 [1991] 301) were provoked, not by some cataclysmic social or political upheaval, but by the appearance from Oxford of an OCT with a preface in English. As if in confirmation of Martin West's plangent jeremiad, Cambridge have now published a book that contains the sentence, "Who should they believe?" And yet the book, N. T. Croally's Euripidean Polemic, is concerned with the end of civilization as the Trojans (and, perhaps, the fifth-century Athenians) had known it. And it is a particularly intelligent and stimulating book, so that the solecism (p. 161; to be fair, this is not at all representative of the way Croally writes) may be intended as a subtle reminder that a civilization does not flourish by remaining exactly as we have known it. Indeed, this book succeeds, to the extent that it does succeed, precisely through the application to Euripides' Troades of approaches that were not known to classicists of twenty or thirty years ago. Euripidean Polemic originated as a Cambridge doctoral thesis. It shows on every page the influence of the work of scholars like Loraux, Vernant and Zeitlin, but unlike many studies that share this pedigree, it is lucidly written and free of irritating jargon. Indeed, it can be safely recommended to those classicists who are somehow uneasily aware that naive positivism has died, but who are too embarrassed to ask what has taken its place.

"My subject," Croally begins, with a reminiscence of Wilfred Owen, "is Euripidean tragedy and how, in the cultural and dramatic context of war, it performs its didactic function." In his introduction Croally explains clearly and concisely what he means by this and how he intends to go about demonstrating it. For Croally, Attic tragedy, as civic discourse, is inherently didactic, its didactic function taking the form of the relentless "questioning of received wisdom" (11, 16). Such questioning (12) "can be achieved most potently when the dramatic context is that of war and its aftermath," and for this reason (16) Croally regards "Troades of extant tragedies as perhaps the most extreme self-examination produced by Athens."

Chapter 1, "Teaching, Ideology and War," sets out, again, clearly and intelligibly, the theoretical basis for the reading of Troades that constitutes the remainder of the book. Here Croally seeks to establish that it is indeed the function of tragedy to teach, and that tragedy teaches by questioning ideology, which is defined as (44) "the authoritative self-definition of the Athenian citizen." This questioning takes the form of representing the "other" against which the "self" is constructed. Ideology is most severely put to the test by war, which, because of its fundamentally agonistic nature, intensifies those polarities that are the basis of self-definition. Finally, tragedy, especially tragedy that is under the influence of the eristic practices of the sophists, is, like war, itself agonistic in character. Thus, tragedies (like Troades) that take war as their subject are particularly polemical in exercising their didactic function.

The power and subtlety of Croally's reading of