Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.28


Alan H. Sommerstein (ed.), Aristophanes: Frogs. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1996. Pp. xiii + 299. ISBN 0-85668-647-6.


Reviewed by Armand D'Angour, Department of Greek & Latin, University College London, a.d'angour@ucl.ac.uk.

As one might have expected from Alan Sommerstein (henceforth S.), who has edited nine of Aristophanes' plays in the Aris and Phillips series, this translation and commentary is a work of thorough and judicious scholarship, enlivened by many personal touches and an evident delight in Aristophanes' imaginative brilliance. S.'s revised text and detailed commentary gracefully complement and in many areas supersede the work of his distinguished predecessors in the field, and an excellent introductory essay sets the scene for the play's historical and literary background. The image on the cover is an indication of the understated yet scrupulous attention to detail: it depicts the European marsh frog rana ridibunda, whose croak (see S.'s note on 209) clearly identifies it as the source of the refrain transcribed by Aristophanes as brekekekek koax koax.

S. relates language, character-portrayal and themes to the action of the play in a lively and accessible way, without deviating from the highest standards of accurate scholarship. A comparison, though odorous, may be instructive: on anthosmian (1150) Dover's note runs: "In Pl. 807 used of red (Greek 'black') wine with a good bouquet; cf. Xen. HG vi. 2. 6, where it is taken for granted that A)NQOSMI/AS OI)=NOS is the best. Whether Aeschylus' words mean 'You stink' or 'You have a hangover' is uncertain; SigmaVE implies that H(DU/S and smooth wine produces no hangover." S.'s note, which characteristically cites relevant fragments of old comedy (from Kassel-Austin's invaluable PCG), is both fuller and more to the point: "does not have the best of bouquets: lit. 'is not flower-scented (anthosmis)', a term applied to wines of exquisite aroma (e.g. Wealth 807, Pherecrates fr. 113.30, Xen. Hell. 6.2.6; Hermippus fr. 77.6-11 speaks of a particular variety of wine as smelling of violets, roses and hyacinths). The semantic link between 'you drink evil-smelling wine' and the message Aeschylus evidently means to convey, viz. 'that remark was in very poor taste', is presumably 'your breath stinks': both the words one speaks, and the smell of the wine one has drunk, are carried on one's breath."

In determining the most viable sense for his translation, S. has thoroughly overhauled the text, enabling him to adopt a number of well-chosen variant readings or emendations. These are often convincingly argued for in the commentary (though hanuteton in 606, presumably an "Atticization" of anueton, curiously appears without apparatus or explanation), and supported by the fluent English rendering. I note, for example, the persuasive repunctuation of 14 (question mark after poiein and nothing at the end of the line), hounos instead of onos (27), haut' for aut' (182), Oknou plokas instead of (say) onou pokas (186), heintai (Radermacher) for heinai (133), Hippokinou (429, a nice inversion of Hipponikou), lematias (494, a noun by analogy with e.g. mastigias, stigmatias), tou chorou (546, "the ring" of teeth, surely preferable to tous chorous), hupsilophon (818, more colourful than hippolophon and the lectio difficilior), authis for au dis (1173), areien aurais (1438 S., surely the best permutation of existing variants and emendations), and sotheiemen an? (1448 S., perhaps his most satisfying emendation, with the half-line given to Dionysos as a question). On the major cruces of the text, S. unfortunately can go little further than previous editors: obeloi appear in lines 340 (I wonder whether an admittedly unparalleled aorist middle imperative egeirai might explain the MSS' unmetrical EGEIRE), 819 (where S. is rightly dubious of his own suggestion of re-punctuating smileumata t', erga), and 1028 (where S.'s suggestion ep'kousan tou Dareiou, following Dover's lead, perhaps makes the best of a difficult job).

S.'s mindfulness of the dramatic flow of the text gives him a refreshing perspective on questions of line assignment and division. His careful analysis of the play's possible revision in the light of Sophocles' death (pp. 20-21, with note on 1435-66) repeats the argument he proposed in Sommerstein et al. eds, Tragedy, Comedy & the Polis (Bari 1993) 469-475, which represented a satisfying advance on previous discussions (notably Dover's). His ingenious solution to line 1448 has been mentioned above, and he argues authoritatively for assigning 1018 and 1162 to Dionysos rather than Euripides. I think he is right to retain Xanthias as the speaker of pou 'stin in line 483 and am persuaded by his assignment of speakers in the problematic lines of the "whipping scene" (644-5) and the literary debate (1018-21). However, I suspect that he is wrong about 1136, where all' oligon ge moi melei is so strongly adversative that it demands to be spoken by Euripides (so U, followed by previous editors): it must be explained as indicating the latter's insouciance about Aeschylus' accusation that he is "blathering" (lerei).

S.'s parallel translation, while not attempting to emulate the daring brilliance of Rogers' 1924 verse rendering, is both sound and lively (there is scarcely a page without a generous scatter of exclamation marks). Occasionally S. veers on the side of caution, not attempting for example to translate the sexual double entendre of 48-9 (Rogers has "I was serving lately aboard the -- Cleisthenes"): how about DIONYSOS: "I served as a marine under Cleisthenes". HERAKLES: "And did you get to grips with any enemy seamen?". Elsewhere he does not shrink from witty or lascivious wordplay, clearly an endlessly popular pastime amongst British classicists (as shown by the response to the UK Classical Association Newsletter's competition to complete the limerick "There once was a girl of Naupactus, Who had an affair with a cactus..."). Thus he offers, for instance, "diver-sified song-melodies" for polukolumboisi melesin (245), "Phucus of Dickeleia" standing in for Sebinos hanaphlustios (427), "the bowel is empty" for enkekhoda, echoing the formulaic ekkekhutai ("the bowl is empty"), and "mental bunkrapt" for katestomulmenos (1160, "seduced by idle chatter" = "rapt by bunk"). Verbal ingenuity can be self-defeating if it merely leads to obscurity, as it clearly does in some cases where we encounter such unenlightening locutions as "foot it featly" (1357) and "instead of a one-spot from Chios he's a six-spot from ... Ceos!" (970). But S.'s ear for words generally serves both Aristophanes and the reader well, in Greek as in English: thus he can relish the possible pun on euteleia (405, playing on tele, "rites") suggested to him by a colleague "[during a brainstorming session] on the Toulouse Metro, somewhere between Jean-Jaures and Mirail-Universite, in March 1994". He is unusually sensitive to assonance, detecting aural echoes in khandane/kan me dei (258-9/265), Tartessia/Teithrasia (475/477), Telephos where we expect enkephalos (855, cf. the play on athanatos/Athenaios at 628), and balaneus with basileus (710, a suggestion made by del Corno). In this regard I miss a mention of ekmiainomai (753), a comic distortion (as Stanford noted) of mainomai two lines earlier. But I doubt that there is any sexual double entendre intended by Xanthias' eiserchomai at 520, in response to the slave-girl's repeated invitation to enter the house (Aeacus too says eisiton at 669, obviously with no such implication): the joke lies in the dramatic irony of the slave's preening use of autos.

S.'s notes are a source of wide-ranging instruction and enlightenment. As well as adducing an unusual amount of prosopographical detail about the historical figures who populate Aristophanic comedy, whether well-known politicians like Cleophon and Critias or lesser authors like Cinesias and Phrynichus (the comic poet), S. offers a wealth of novel observations and interpretations, some of which he has argued for more fully in other contexts and others whose provenance he conscientiously acknowledges. For example, he rejects a supposed (and difficult) allusion to the diobelia in 142, arguing that the reference is simply to the "two-obol" seats. The puzzling appearance of "Cleisthenes' son" in 422 ("who he was, we do not know" notes Dover) is sensibly dispatched by construing ton Kleisthenous ... prokton. The notes on 791 and 651 respectively suggest plausible contexts for the metaphor of the ephedros attributed to one Cleidemides (the Persian king sits by while Athens and Sparta destroy one another) and for Dionysos' pretence at feeling pain at the thought of the festival of Diomeia (relocated due to the Spartan occupation of Deceleia); though à propos the latter scene, readers might also seek a connection between cavalry and onions ("possibly because they were part of the standard ration for the cavalry: cf. Kn. 600" suggests Stanford). We learn that the scholiast's explanation that "outside the olive trees" at 995 means "off the track" can be supported by references elsewhere to olive trees planted on the boundaries of an enclosure, and that a reference in Theophrastus corroborates the comment in line 1033 (pace Dover, who wrote "'Cures for diseases' are not elsewhere attributed to Musaeus"). One note clearly explains why the first half-line, not the second, of 64 must be the Euripidean quote mentioned by the scholia (one might also have expected S. to mention that 19 echoes tragic diction); while another points out the irony, generally overlooked, of 531 "to suppose that you, a slave and a mortal, could be the son of Alcmene!" (Herakles himself had once been both). The debates over the significance of the lekuthion are masterfully summarised (1198-1247) and the arguments for its being the subject of ou klausetai in 1209 are decisively marshalled. And the much commented-on line 1114 is nicely explained as an exaggerated reference to new technology: to offer a topical paraphrase, it's as if Aristophanes is saying "Now that everyone gets BMCR electronically, they're all authorities on the latest editions of classical texts!"

In an edition of such comprehensive excellence (I noted in passing only two proofing errors -- the text at line 628 should have a comma and not a full stop, and the note on 1504 should refer to pp. 22-23), it is frustrating that there is no index of subjects and of Greek words, which would have greatly enhanced its usefulness. Furthermore, this edition will not, and is clearly not intended to, serve learners of the language. Thus the translation alone of line 1, "Shall I say one of the usual thing, master?" will not alert the student to the "deliberative" function of the subjunctive EI)/PW; nor will the reader learn, for example, why anatetrammenos in 543 should mean "lying on his back" (Dover, succinctly, has "lit., 'turned up', i.e. 'lying back'") or what pros is doing in line 611 (id. "this must be adverbial, 'in addition'"). The universal transliteration of Greek words in the introduction and commentary indeed suggests an attempt to cater even for those unfamiliar with the language; yet how useful could it be for them to learn, for instance, that Pherrephatta, the Attic form of Persephone, is derived from *Phersephynta (671)? The parallel translation cannot compensate for the wholesale lack of detailed comment on Greek constructions, syntax, or idiom, and the cursory metrical analyses often appear pointless. For all the latter purposes Dover's edition, recently reprinted in a "students' edition", will remain indispensable, and Stanford's 1963 school edition still has much to recommend it. Yet in view of these and other distinguished forerunners, of whose efforts S.'s notes show him to be thoroughly and helpfully aware, S. has succeeded in producing an impressive edition and commentary which, while necessarily covering much of the same ground, manages to present the play both as a whole and in matters of detail from a valuable fresh perspective which cannot fail to stimulate and inform.