Bryn Mawr Classical Review 96.5.4


Nan Dunbar (ed.), Aristophanes: Birds. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995. Pp. xvii, 782. $105.00. ISBN 0-19-814934-4.


Reviewed by John Gibert, University of Colorado, gibert@ucsu.colorado.edu.

Nan Dunbar's commentary on Aristophanes' Birds was anticipated for a very long time before its appearance last summer. As she says in her Preface, she began work on the play nearly forty years ago. A large-scale English commentary was clearly needed then, and it remained so. A. Sommerstein's edition in the Aris and Phillips series is welcome but necessarily limited; there have also been editions in Italian (G. Zanetto, 3rd ed. 1992) and Greek (Ph. Kakridis, 1974) since D. began work. A new critical text was also needed (more below). As D. notes (v), there has been a "great expansion during the last half-century in ideas of what a large-scale commentary should contain." The result in her case is a colossal work, nearly 800 pages. It is a rich store of information and sure to be long-lasting. Everyone who uses it -- and that will be everyone who pays close attention to Birds from now on -- will have ample cause for gratitude.

D. is apologetic about the length. Indeed, she has not left much out. Her discussions of textual and basic exegetical issues are unstinting. As examples of items included in part because of the expansion just mentioned, she lists "discussion of dramatic technique, problems of staging and the evidence of vase-painting for both myth and Athenian life." Also, because of "a general reduction in the amount of Greek learnt by students at both school and university, she has "provided more help with understanding Greek idiom and appreciating stylistic nuance than has hitherto been thought necessary in most Oxford commentaries on dramatic texts." Following the lead of B.B. Rogers but going much further, she is exhaustive on ornithology. Finally, she makes full use of the old scholia. As she explains, this is a large task because Birds was relatively neglected by Byzantine schoolmasters; as a result, its old scholia have suffered less mutilation and displacement. Moreover, specialized study of the scholia to Birds already has a distinguished tradition, and D. has had the added benefit of the recent edition by D. Holwerda (Groningen 1991).

She thus covers an enormous amount of ground. Three further tendencies contribute to bulk: D. states her position on doubtful or disputed matters with extraordinary precision, often represents rejected views thoroughly, and generously glosses words and cultural concepts and identifies names and events mentioned only in passing. For the first of these one can only be grateful. In a weak moment, one might wish D. were more dogmatic, but at least one always knows why she stands where she does. The second and third raise questions, to which I shall return, about what is attainable and desirable in a "large-scale commentary," as well as its intended audience.

In her Introduction, D. discusses "The Character of the Play" in 14 pages, "Production" in 4, and "The History of the Text" in 32. Presumably we learn from these proportions something about D.'s view of her task as editor and commentator. The first section is disappointing. For example, D. may be right to deny that Birds contains extensive political allegory, but it is hard to see why she cites three straw men (Süvern, Katz, Vickers), but not the more nuanced discussions of e.g. Newiger, Hubbard, and Zimmermann. For a pithy, up-to-date survey of this topic, one must turn to D. MacDowell, Aristophanes and Athens (Oxford 1995) 221-8. My own preference would be for a large-scale commentary that refers to more secondary work on such subjects (including literary interpretation, which is as little cited here as in Dover's Frogs), but if the reference function is excluded, then the straw men should go with it.

Similarly, in a brief discussion of mythological sources for the plot, D. mentions but does not engage with A. M. Bowie. Nor do I recall seeing, here or in the commentary, a reference to B. Zannini-Quirini, Nephelokokkygia: la perspettiva mitica degli Uccelli di Aristofane (Rome 1987). This section could easily have been expanded to make a major contribution, as e.g. Dover did when he treated "Socrates" and "The Two Versions of the Play" in his Clouds or "The Contest of Aeschylus and Euripides" in his Frogs. But the issue seems not to be a congenial one to D. In general, her method is to draw attention right back to primary sources and especially to the limits that difficulties in understanding them, or ascertaining how the original audience understood them, impose on more venturesome interpretations of Aristophanes' larger purpose. This is no doubt appropriate for a commentary but may be taken to an extreme.

D.'s section on the history of the text and its interpretation in ancient and Byzantine times is a summary treatment with much detailed new information for Birds. It is excellent but does not aim, I think, to take a place beside "classics" like Barrett in his Hippolytus, let alone Wilamowitz in his Herakles. Nor perhaps is there any reason why it should. I have a quibble concerning Pergamene scholarship (p. 37). D. does not let on that distribution of fragments between Crates of Mallos and Crates of Athens (whom she does not mention) is uncertain in almost all cases due to lack of precise citation. She accepts a "commentary" on Frogs but strangely, given that acceptance, allows that all the other references to Crates in the Aristophanic scholia could be to his work "On Attic Diction." She does not mention hyp. II Pax, which is not strictly incompatible with lexical work but rather suggests specialized work on Aristophanes, possibly including didascalic research. Of course it could be by the other Crates.

I turn now to the text. The OCT of Hall and Geldart (2nd ed. 1906-7) had limited aspirations as a critical edition. The Budé by V. Coulon (1923-30) has had to do as the standard text until individual Oxford editions have arrived. D. differs from Coulon, in mostly minor ways, in some 125 places, not counting orthography and line attributions (large numbers of both). Interpolation is rarely an issue in Birds. D. deletes three trimeters retained by Coulon, part of an anapaestic run, and the odd syllable of bird-call; of the trimeters, Sommerstein indicates corruption in the first (16), joins Beck and D. in deleting the second (192), and is sufficiently troubled by the third (338) to consider in his commentary the deletion already known to him to be advocated by Dunbar (but he rightly objects that the line is hard to account for as interpolation). Scholars working since Coulon account for only a handful of the different readings adopted by D. Some attributions early on are taken over from Marzullo and Fraenkel, and I noted acceptance of one change each by Barrett (99, rather a principle of accentuation), Dale (240), Von der Mühll (864-5), Desrousseaux (1094), Maas (1138), Higham (1149), and Bayard (1615, published in 1920 but claimed for himself by Coulon), along with two by Schroeder (266, 334b), Fraenkel (336, 812), and West (698, 930), and four by Sommerstein (279, 886, 993, 1603; but she does not mention conjectures of his at 9, 241, 755, 924, 994, 1040, and 1395). I noted 16 places where D. names herself in her apparatus, in two of which she suggests changes not adopted in her text (24, 227, 338, 405, 531, 535, 537, 586, 738, 866, 867, 966, 1064, 1229, 1395b, 1454). In addition to the proposed deletion of 338, one of these was known to and accepted by Sommerstein (1064). I was often convinced (but not at 534-8 or 586); the solution of a few problems is so difficult or arbitrary that absolute conviction is hardly to be expected, but unlike Sommerstein, D. never sets daggers. In any case, her discussions of these and indeed all textual issues will be the starting point for future work.

Undaunted by Dover's peevish observations in his Frogs (103-4), D. provides a full collection of testimonia, with the Suda figuring largely. D. emphasizes that it has "virtually the authority of a manuscript of Aristophanes," and an early one at that.

The foundations of the text, of course, are R and V, as they have been for all editions since Bekker's (1829). Their importance explains why D.'s patient labors have not produced a text radically different from that of her predecessors. Still, her work on the manuscripts has resulted in some gains. Of the seven older manuscripts containing Birds (often known as "pre-Triclinian," a little misleadingly as D. shows), Coulon used only six (RVAMUG). (Note: D.'s sigla are the same as those in Dover's Clouds and MacDowell's Wasps, as well as Dover's Frogs, except that there Vp2 = Dunbar's P). He did not use E (Estensis graecus 127). If he gave a reason for this omission, I have not found it. Since E is known to have been used by Marcus Musurus for the Aldine editio princeps, perhaps Coulon thought its readings adequately represented by his frequent citation of Ald. (another frustrating feature of his edition, since, as Dover writes on p. cxxv of his Clouds, Ald. "contributes virtually nothing which had not already been contributed by [extant] manuscripts of XIV in."). If so, D.'s appreciation of E (27-8) shows how wrong he was. In particular, the corroboration of a unique good reading of E by a still unpublished papyrus (cf. D. on 1661-6) leads her to suggest that "other good readings in E alone, or in E and Triklinios, usually seen as corrections, may be genuine tradition" (27). She adopts 8 such readings in all. Coulon also did not use G (Venetus Marcianus 475) -- reasonably, since it had already been shown to be an apograph of V. But though it is thus eliminated as a witness, a collation was published in 1918 and used by D., who found in it four unique good readings (now understood to have the status of conjectures) attributed by Coulon to modern scholars. (The four who must, alas, resign themselves to one less mention in the apparatus are Bentley, Blaydes, Meineke, and Seidler.)

Of the so-called "Triclinian rescension" (Vv17LBPHC, represented by the collective siglum q), Coulon used only B (Parisinus Regius gr. 2715), which he considered to have the status not of tradition but of an edition by Triclinius. But in a detailed appreciation (47-9), D. shows that its position is more complex. B shows affinities with two of the vetustiores (UG) and freedom from some of q's errors, including many of Triclinius' metrical "corrections." The source of its roughly 20 unique conjectures (of which D. accepts 4 that improve the meter, 3 that improve the Greek) is therefore unknown and possibly pre-Triclinian. (With one exception, B is also the only Triclinian manuscript cited separately by Sommerstein, in about a half-dozen places.) As for the rest of q, D. reports it diligently. The impact on the text, summarized by her on 46-7, is fairly small. Sommerstein, for example, in his select apparatus reports q only about three dozen times (and of course he does not accept its reading in all of these), and in only two of these was q itself split, so that Sommerstein had to cite it by its branches t (Vv17LB) and p (PHC). Triclinius of course mainly made metrical alterations, both good and bad. The good ones have long since been printed by editors, both because q figured so largely in Ald. and because scholars easily conjectured those not found there. But a few new ones from Vv17 and L (both first published in 1962) have resulted in further improvements to the apparatus. (Note: the date 1968 in the first paragraph of the Preface (!) is a typo; generally, however, the proofreading has been quite good.)

The real problem with Coulon's edition is misreporting. One example will suffice. D. notes (29 n. 2) that 7 of 9 supposed unique good readings of M reported by Coulon are phantoms. As I prepared this review, I noted a good many more discrepancies between his reports and those of other editors.

D.'s commentary contains an astonishing wealth of information and well-reasoned argument on almost every kind of detail. It is strong on grammar, syntax, and history, including to some extent politics but not ideology or social history. Citing even other commentaries only sparingly, D. liberally quotes parallel passages of all kinds and argues almost everything from scratch. The scholarly reader will sometimes feel that she re-invents the wheel. Here I can discuss only a minute sample of notes that show something of her particular interests and manner.

The first mention of each species of bird occasions a precise ornithological identification (or as precise as possible), often accompanied by lengthy further observations on habitat, migratory behavior, habits, diet and, where applicable, poetic, iconographic, and culinary associations. There is much to marvel at in this assortment of knowledge. For example, on 589 D. tells us that in Mediterranean countries the diet of the Little Owl includes 39.8% Coleoptera and 27.8% Orthoptera. (The context in Aristophanes includes locust-eating.) And on 609: "In fact the longest-living corvid recorded with probable reliability is a Swedish raven (Corvus corax) shot in 1839, and indicated to be c. 69 years old by a small copper plate with the date 1770 firmly fixed to the lower mandible." (The context mentions corvid longevity; D.'s notes run to nearly two pages.)

D. has re-examined the attribution of lines in the early part of the play. The issue is how early it is desirable to distribute the parts (manuscript attributions having no authority) so that Peisetaerus emerges as the dominant character. Fraenkel, followed by both Sommerstein and D., thought that after 93 the role of Euelpides should be reduced to that of a mere echo. Marzullo, followed in the main by Sommerstein, applied the same principle right from the start. Though a by-product of D.'s preferred arrangement is acceptance of two of Marzullo's attributions, she rejects the premise for this part of the play. She could have made more of the point. It is generally acknowledged that within joke routines (common at the beginning of plays), comic actors may possess little or no individual character. But do some scholars still engage in textual intervention to enhance the role of a single "comic hero"? Was Marzullo guilty of this? But if there is no principle of character consistency to invoke in making attributions, can any principle be found at all beyond the minimum internal consistency required by pronoun references and the like? Definitive answers may not be possible, but I think D.'s readers could have been given more of a taste of the larger debate.

In her metrical analysis of 1393-1400, D. offers convincing reasons for deleting TO/N in 1395b. Though it is undoubtedly appropriate to her task, this matter is perhaps not earth-shaking. I mention it because I wonder whether a joke at the dithyrambic poet Kinesias' expense has gone unremarked. Neither the long textual discussion (a stately page) nor the effective characterization of the style Aristophanes is mocking (p. 661) mentions the sound sequence ha- ha- ha- (which seems significant despite the middle word's long vowel). Wouldn't an actor have taken this opportunity to spout hot air? Isn't it in any case an overblown poetic effect?

I doubt D. has missed many jokes in this play with which she has lived so intimately for so long. But her awareness of them is occasionally submerged. For example, on "winged Chaos" (698) she writes, "Chasm is 'winged' nowhere else in Greek, but the scholars who have proposed more obvious epithets for Chasm here ..." One hopes that this sentence is going to end with "... are missing the joke." It doesn't. D. rehearses Hermann's and Kock's humorless conjectures and the support claimed for them and then offers a straight-faced defence of the paradosis. (In fairness, I should mention that Rogers followed Hermann.) Another example of excessive seriousness: D. produces yet another diagram of Meton's city plans (1001-2n.).

Earlier I mentioned the section of the Introduction on mythological sources. One item included here, Sophocles' lost Tereus, is considered in a short paragraph on p. 9 and again in a few notes. But the note on 15 (the first mention of Tereus) devotes about five times as much space to ornithological discussion as to the myth treated in Sophocles' play. (G. Dobrov, "The Tragic and the Comic Tereus," AJP 114 (1993) 189-234, appeared too late to be taken into account.) I missed a concise statement, even a skeptical one, with pertinent secondary references, of what Aristophanes' use of Sophocles' play might mean in the larger context -- a statement, in fact, like the one in MacDowell 202-5. Incidentally, D. (101n.) and Sommerstein (100-1n.) disagree with Dobrov (196) and MacDowell (204) as to whether Tereus appeared in bird-costume at the end of Sophocles' play: the commentators say no, the others yes. D. does cite W. Burkert's Homo Necans for possible cultic associations of Procne and Tereus in Athens, but that is a bare beginning. (Note: she gives the same citation twice for the same point (9 n. 14 and 15n.); such duplicated references are not infrequent and should have been streamlined.)

On other matters involving costume, D. (16 n. 3) rightly accepts O. Taplin's arguments against J. R. Green's idea (based on his interpretation of the "Getty Birds," a late 5th-century Attic red-figure calyx now in Malibu and first published in 1985) that all the choreuts in Aristophanes' play were dressed identically as fighting-cocks (see also her detailed notes on the four "extras," 268-93). She also follows Taplin on Procne. Here I recognize some of her points (in notes on 209-66, 667-74, 672-4) as directed against F. E. Romer, TAPA 113 (1983) 135-42, cited in this context by Sommerstein, Del Corno, Taplin, and MacDowell, but not D.

In a work on this scale, it is only natural that especially important observations risk getting lost in the mass of information included for the sake of completeness. I wish D. had brought matters into focus more often with a sentence at the beginning or end of a note. The notes at the beginnings of sections do not help much, since she is much more interested in detailed exegesis than in anything like a recurrent theme or overall interpretation. Indeed, her section headings occasionally lack comment altogether, as at 162-208, entitled "Peisetairos has a great idea -- a bird-city in the air."

I return now to the questions of size and intended audience. It seems pretty clear to me that D. was unwilling to exclude any audience. We have seen that she felt called upon to provide more help with the Greek than used to be thought necessary, and her expansive glosses on a wide range of matters mentioned only in passing must also be intended for an audience of less advanced students. Yet the likely outcome of asking students to cozy up with this book can be guessed. The depth of detail D. provides on technical matters like text and meter can only be expected to interest scholars. As I pondered these matters, I was reminded of Gordon Williams' thoughtful remarks on Fraenkel's Agamemnon (Eduard Fraenkel: 1888-1970, Proceedings of the British Academy 56, 1972). Williams wrote of the "sad result" that Frankel's masterpiece was "practically unusable by [his] 'favourite reader'," who seems to have been essentially an Oxford undergraduate. Yet the degree of completeness that would enable scholars to rely exclusively on Fraenkel was also not attained, because it is unattainable. That is, as no one knew better than Fraenkel, scholars must return to the original, full presentation of their colleagues' views whenever anything important is at stake. In any one work, one wants selection, terse argument, and effective citation.

I would call these more or less latent contradictions rather than faults; I understand and sympathize with the considerations that led to them, and like Williams, I still stand in awe of Fraenkel's accomplishment. To what extent D.'s commentary suffers from similar contradictions, and how much it matters, readers must decide for themselves. Her work is unquestionably a contribution of the highest significance, timely and thoroughly professional. The scholarly audience in particular, capable of supplementing it where necessary, will turn to it constantly for its nearly inexhaustible stores of information and argument.