Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.4.11

W. Geoffrey Arnott, Alexis: The Fragments. A Commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xxi, 886. $175. ISBN 0-521-55180-3.

Reviewed by Sander M. Goldberg, UCLA,

Alexis, born at Thurii and active at Athens, has long been the great, shadowy eminence of Greek comedy: prolific, long-lived, and fragmentary. He wrote, says the Suda, 245 plays, a prodigious number even allowing for the inevitable fudges and confusions. From these we have 339 securely attested fragments and further dubia. One reason for such numbers is Alexis' longevity. His career apparently stretched some eighty years from the 350s to the 270s, and his dates are thus given as c. 375 to c. 275 B.C. Amazing -- Menander's life, by way of comparison, is generally set as c. 342/1 to 292/1 -- but plausible: two fragments of Alexis (fr. 1, 185) refer to Plato as alive and were therefore written no later than 348/7, while another (fr. 246) toasts Ptolemy Philadelphus, thus dating itself no earlier than 279. The fragments also record some of the changes that we know came to Greek comedy in this period. A fragment in the Eupolidean meter (fr. 239), for example, suggests the presence of an old-style chorus addressed from the stage. Another (fr. 112) announces an approaching band of revelers with a version of the entrance formula now so familiar from Menander's first act breaks (cf. Aspis 246, Dys. 230, etc.). In fact, much in Alexis either prefigures or reflects the conventions of New Comedy. We find stock types like the parasite (the name is perhaps Alexis' coinage) and cook, characters with names like Chaireas, Demeas, and Krateia, and familiar witticisms like jokes on the verb KO/PTW. Small wonder, then, that ancient traditions made Alexis the teacher or even the uncle of Menander: his career bridges the gap between Old and New Comedy.

Yet it does not, from our perspective, bridge that sometimes maddening gap very securely. The fragments are generally quite short -- six lines make a long one -- and the vast majority of them reflect the unashamedly limited interests of Athenaeus, our primary source.1 This is, of course, a familiar problem for students of later Greek comedy. Lines selected for their allusions to eating and drinking or, when culled by Stobaeus, for their moral sentiments, are unlikely to tell us much (and then only coincidentally) about a dramatist's tendencies in plot and character development, or even about his sense of humor. Nor will they be a very reliable guide to the themes and conventions of his genre. The commentary on such fragments will instead engage much more consistently and thoroughly with the flora and fauna of the Mediterranean, details of Greek dress and cuisine, and the social habits of ancient Athens than with "literary" matters. And so, inevitably, it must be with Alexis and W. G. Arnott, who combine to tell us a good deal about the price of fish and wine, the culinary merits of cicadas, and the four species of lupin native to Greece. Yet Alexis is so inherently interesting and important a figure in the history of comedy and Professor Arnott so experienced a student of that history that this volume still has much to teach about ancient drama as well. I will spend the rest of this review sampling what students of comedy will and will not find in this volume besides the documentation of ancient life's minutiae.

First and unfortunately, readers will not find a text. Cambridge University Press cut Arnott's Greek text as a cost-saving measure [sic]. Users of this volume are blithely, and perhaps overconfidentally, referred to Kassel-Austin, which is thus also essential for making more than passing sense of the present work.2 We can certainly be grateful that Arnott has not renumbered the fragments, but less happy consequences of this decision to lean so heavily on PCG emerge with use. One example:

Nearly forty years ago, Arnott argued that an eight-line fragment Athenaeus attributes to Alexis includes the Greek original of Plautus, Poenulus 522 ff. The fragment (Athen. epit. 1 21d = fr. 263 Kock) must therefore belong to Alexis' Karchedonios. (The scanty remains of Menander's Karchedonios reveal a quite different plot and so cannot be Plautus' model.) Though Arnott sticks with this identification, Kassel and Austin remained hesitant and kept the fragment, now numbered 265, among their Incertarum fabularum fragmenta. So it now remains. Arnott must therefore resort to cross-references and cross-arguments to will it back where he thinks it belongs, surely a frustrating exercise in self-abnegation for the world's leading authority on Alexis. And no convenience for his readers, either, who must flip back and forth between two places in two enormous volumes. There are also, as so often, significant textual problems in this fragment. Arnott is of course very good on these, but so are Kassel and Austin. And they got to the job first. As a result, much of Arnott's commentary is spent arguing for what PCG has already printed, explaining in linear form what can already be learned from its very fine apparatus. This is not a welcome redundancy. The space could better have been used for a Greek text or for the commentator's further thoughts on, say, Plautus' standards of translation. He evidently missed a Greek social nuance in Poenulus when he translated Alexis' A)RRU/QMWS as "festinantem". Arnott is at least suggestive on this point, but he could surely have told us more.

Latinists bringing other concerns to this volume, however, will be more conveniently served. Two examples: Alexis' Lebes may have been the original of Plautus' Aulularia.3 No verbal correspondences survive of the kind linking Karchedonios and Poenulus, but each of the five rather long fragments of Alexis' play (fifty-five lines in all) can be fitted to the Plautine context, and both the title Lebes and the cook we meet in its remains are suggestive of the Roman play. Though certainty is not possible, clarity is, and Arnott's explication, both in the long headnote to Lebes and in a separate appendix discussing this putative link to Plautus (pp. 859-64), are exemplary for the precision and scrupulous neutrality of their explication. Armed with this material and Arnott's notes on the individual fragments, Latinists will be well equipped to reach their own informed opinion on this question. A different kind of problem arises for them with Alexis' Demetrios, for Nonius quotes two lines of a play by Turpilius called Demetrius that clearly translate the opening of Alexis, fr. 47. Arnott supplements his discussion of the fragments of Alexis' play and their echoes in the Roman tradition with an appendix providing both a text of the Turpilius fragments and his own brief commentary on them. This is again most welcome, an immensely useful presentation that leaves students of Roman drama in his debt.

The hallmark throughout this text and commentary is a kind of measured conservatism: authoritative presentation of the secure, honest presentation of the controversial, and good judgment in knowing the one from the other. Similar qualities mark the introduction, which provides not just expert guidance to many thorny issues of interpretation but an index and foretaste of what can be gleaned from the fragments to follow. Here Arnott is able to reproduce in their entirety (a great convenience!) the sixteen testimonia from PCG on which Alexis' biography rests, and he adds two more for the sake of completeness, an entry in Stephanus of Byzantium that mentions an Alexis (probably not the poet, however), and a mid-fourth century lekythos that may perhaps refer to him. He also pays full and careful attention to the sources, especially the problematic Athenaeus, an essential (and tactful) reminder that no editor of fragments can avoid confronting the textual traditions of the sources that preserve his material. Caution is again, and rightly the hallmark. In some matters of literary history, however, this introduction may be just a little too conservative.

In accounting for Alexis' extraordinary productivity, Arnott reasonably suggests that some plays were staged only in the demes, and he rejects the suggestion of Blume and others that some may have been produced in Magna Graecia: "The titles and fragments of Alexis are all Attic in dialect, and the many precise references to real persons, places, institutions and events in the fragments ... would make full sense only to an Attic audience" (p. 15). So we have long been accustomed to think, and so we might well think of extant plays like, for example, Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae. Nevertheless, Oliver Taplin has almost certainly identified the so-called "Würzberg Telephos," a fourth-century Italian vase, as representing a revival of Aristophanes' comedy in Magna Graecia perhaps a generation after its Athenian debut.4 It may be too early to conclude from this fact that our history of Old Comedy and its audience needs rewriting, but we certainly need to consider Taplin's arguments when assessing the career of Alexis, himself probably a western Greek. Atticism may not imply all that we have been trained to think. Certainly the theatrical traditions of Magna Graecia in the fourth century must claim an increasing share of attention for students of Attic drama, not to mention those curious about the intellectual baggage that the Tarentine Greek Livius Andronicus brought to Rome a century later.

That said -- and what reviewer will not have one or another such quibble? -- this book remains an extraordinary achievement. It has been over forty years in the making and does not look much like the doctoral dissertation from which it derives, but the sophistication and maturity of its content and presentation amply justify the wait. We, and generations of scholars yet to come, all stand in Geoffrey Arnott's debt. Even Alexis himself, who might on other grounds complain of Tyche's cruelty, can at least take pleasure in this new monument to his literary remains.


1. Nearly three-quarters of the fragments come from one or the other version of the Deipnosophistae. The rest come from the lexicon of the Antiatticist (38 fragments), Pollux (26), and Stobaeus (27). There are no papyri.

2. R. Kassel and C. Austin, Poetae comici graeci, vol. 2 (Berlin 1991), 21-195 (hereafter PCG), a volume that, despite CUP's confidence ("since the fragments themselves are now readily available ..."), is not, perhaps, on everyone's bookshelf. (It was certainly not on mine: one reason this review is so noticeably overdue.) The study of Greek comedy is getting to be a very expensive, as well as weighty proposition.  

3. So Arnott, WS 101 (1988) 191-91; QUCC 62 (1989) 34-38. PCG reserves judgment. If this identification is correct, the similarities long noted between Aulularia and Menander's Dyskolos would reflect a common debt to Alexis rather than Menander's direct influence on Plautus.  

4. O. Taplin, Comic Angels (Oxford 1994), 36-41. A. D. Trendall dated this vase to the 370s; the Thesmophoriazusae is dated to 411. This is the most certain, as well as the most provocative, of Taplin's identifications. For Greek drama in the west, cf. H.-D. Blume, Einführung in das antike Theaterwesen (Darmstadt 1984) 108-111.