Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.11.02

Stephen J. Esposito (trans.), The Bacchae of Euripides. Focus Classical Library.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing/R. Pullins Co, 1998.  Pp. 126.  ISBN 0-941051-42-0.  $7.95.  

Reviewed by Jon David Hague, Austin College (
Word count: 1261 words

The Focus Classical Library continues to grow with Stephen Esposito's translation of Euripides' Bacchae. This series is somewhat unique in that it contains more extensive introductions and notes than many other series. This makes it useful in undergraduate courses.

A nineteen-page introduction with ten plates precedes the translation. Esposito provides a summary of the play and a discussion of formal elements, structure and major themes. This last part of the introduction is the lengthiest. The author emphasizes the dynamic between city (Thebes) and wilderness (Mt. Cithaeron) and how this paradigm carries over to other dualities in the play: foreign vs. Greek; vengeance vs. peace; and, in Dionysus himself, mortal and immortal; Greek and foreign, etc. Esposito also situates the play within Euripides' oeuvre and a historical context, both of which he sees as closely integrated. He focuses on the wayward run of Athenian eros as it is revealed in Euripides' plays and in the course of the Peloponnesian war. With this eros, by which, I think, Esposito also means pleonexia, Euripides most graphically confronts Athens in Bacchae. One thing I see missing here is a discussion of the interesting relationship between historical Athens and mythic/dramatic Thebes. Froma Zeitlin's article in Masks of Dionysus might have been cited for this problem. But Esposito's discussion of wayward eros in Athens does answer the very important question of why Bacchae is such a dark play: "the dramatist highlights human desolation, not civic liberation."

The information highway hasn't escaped Esposito. In the very last pages of his introduction, he reveals a web page that contains four more appendices, in addition to the first two in the book, now more detailed on these pages. See In one appendix there are detailed outlines of the play: thematic; sequential appearance of main actors; thematic outline of the acts and songs. Another outlines key speeches and scenes. The fifth and sixth emphasize the uniqueness of Bacchae and Dionysus respectively. There are lots of superlatives in these two appendices, but Esposito supports them with notes. Finally, there is a very useful bibliography that is much more extensive than the one provided at the end of the book. The web bibliography is divided into five parts: Athenian tragedy; Euripides; the Bacchae; Dionysus; and recent modern fiction. The articles and books referred to are English works or works translated into English. For undergraduate and graduate students doing research on Euripides and Bacchae, this bibliography is valuable. Best of all, Esposito promises to update and expand the pages.

The translation is very accessible to students. I don't think that Esposito was aiming for a masterpiece, but what he has given us is something that is close to the syntax of the Greek but not overly strained in English. This, of course, is a translator's most difficult task. We've only seen a few this century consistently render something that is both good poetry and a clear and committed interpretation of the text. Arrowsmith, Davenport and Fitzgerald come to mind.

Following the translation are four appendices. Two address the lacunae after 1300 and 1329 respectively. For the first two appendices, the updated web pages should also be consulted. Esposito places Agave's speech, based on the text of Christus Patiens, after 1300, using Kopff's Teubner edition. Furthermore, he agrees with some scholars that a compositio membrorum took place on stage at this moment. I too agree but wish Esposito, who is good at this kind of thing, had given us his own vision of how this took place, with Pentheus' mask or dummy body parts, in addition to quoting others who feel such action necessary. Otherwise, Esposito is quite good at helping us imagine the stage action. The lacunae after 1329 is Esposito's translation of C. Willink's (CQ 16 [1966]) hypothetical reconstruction.

The third appendix provides a genealogy chart, and the fourth is a five page essay, "The Roman Bid to Control Bacchic Worship," by Valerie Warrior. This last appendix reminds us of the importance of Livy's account of Bacchic worship in Rome, but it doesn't do much to illuminate elements of Euripides' play other than point out that at one time the Romans, like Pentheus, feared the practice of Bacchic worship. With this and the last plate in the introduction, a German cathedral Christ-as-Dionysus door handle, two other plates that date to the first centuries BCE and CE respectively, and a short glossary entry, "Dionysus as a pagan rival of Christ," s.v. 'Dionysus,' there is an attempt to emphasize the importance of the reception of Bacchic worship in latter periods. However, because these various parts of the book, though interesting, are not well organized, the reader is left feeling that an intention has been unfulfilled.

A very useful feature of this translation is an eighteen-page glossary at the end of the book. Items that would have taken up too much space in the footnotes are treated in detail in the glossary. There are general entries that give information about people and geographical sites mentioned in the play. But even more useful are explanations of concepts in the play. For example, there are paragraph-long discussion of Dionysus as democratic god, his androgyny, physical appearance, and mask. Esposito also discusses the importance of Pentheus' age, name, "failed initiation into the Dionysian mysteries", and his "death as an animal sacrifice", to name a few of the entries s.v. 'Pentheus.' A student could read these entries like an essay, after having read the play as a whole. Another significant feature of this glossary is Esposito's emphasis on the importance of Bacchic ritual to the play; however, and I think appropriately, he doesn't attempt to find Bacchic ritual in the overall structure of the play.

The very last pages contain a 32 item bibliography, one third of which is naturally dominated by Henrichs, Seaford and Segal. The more extensive bibliography contained one of the above-mentioned web pages that should not be overlooked.

The Focus Library is doing not only the teacher of classics but also the interested general reader a great favor by providing such well-informed editions of Greek authors. Nonetheless, I have one complaint. Generally there are far too many footnotes. This, I think, is not the publisher's fault, nor Esposito's. Both, I believe, feel that students need this much help. And on some things they do: they should know that Euios is a ritual name for Dionysus, and the words and actions of Greek ritual should be explained. But when Pentheus says to his guards, "I command you to lock every gate in the encircling rampart," do we need a note to tell us that "Pentheus' purpose is to prevent the Stranger from joining the Theban maenads on Mt. Cithaeron"; or when the stranger says to Pentheus, "I would sacrifice to him rather than rage on,/kicking against the pricks, a man at war with god," that this is "a warning: don't resist those more powerful because your resistance will prove self-destructive." Of course, Esposito is right. But have the readers been paying such little attention to the play that they can't understand these things? Are we beyond the point of trusting that people might understand what we as scholars have spent many years of professional work comprehending?

I like the format of the Focus series and would use Esposito's translation in class. The introduction and glossary are very informative. But I wouldn't mind seeing a more committed translation, one that isn't afraid to create rather than render a Greek phrase felicitously in English, and notes that suggest rather than explain away a reader's exploration of a text.

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