Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.11.17

A.H. Sommerstein, Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae.   Warminster:  Aris & Phillips, 1998.  Pp. xl, 242.  ISBN 0-85668-707-3 (hb).  ISBN 0-85668-708-1 (pb).  

Reviewed by Armand D'Angour, Jesus College, Oxford (
Word count: 1863 words

Sommerstein's (= S.) series of translations with commentary of Aristophanes' (= A.) plays have been an invaluable resource for students of A. since the publication twenty years ago of his Acharnians (1980). The volume under review (= Eccl.) is the penultimate in the series. Succeeding commentaries have become more sophisticated and comprehensive, with S. noting and incorporating new ideas and approaches resulting from scholarly work and research, not least his own contributions in recent years. As the project nears completion, S. will need to go back to the beginning (rather like painting the Forth bridge) to rectify earlier errors and omissions. The wealth of useful (sometimes recherché) information compiled in S.'s notes has made the lack of an index to each volume increasingly frustrating, but we can now look forward to the promised consolidated index which will accompany the publication of S.'s Wealth.

In Eccl. S. displays the same lucidity and thoroughness as in his Frogs (reviewed in BMCR 1998). As always, there is much to enjoy and learn from his wide-ranging scholarship, judicious analyses, and pertinent observations on literary, historical, textual and dramaturgical issues. His full introduction provides a succinct historical contextualisation for the play, concluding that the date of performance was most likely 391, probably at the City Dionysia. He proceeds to consider possible comic forerunners of the theme of gunaikokratia and concludes that the way the topic is treated in Eccl. was indeed quite new to comedy, as A. himself claims. One of the most intriguing historical questions raised by the play is whether and how the political ideas developed by Plato in his Republic may be related to the communistic vision put into the mouth of Praxagora. S. presents the arguments with care, and the remarkable parallels which he lists lead him to espouse the attractive (though not uncontroversial) view that Plato was well aware of A.'s comic fantasy and adapted the details to his more serious political vision. On this account it would be no exaggeration to claim that Eccl. 'has been in the long run the most intellectually influential of all ancient comedies'.

S. goes on to consider Eccl.'s episodic structure, something his own allocation of lines and helpful stage directions go some way to ameliorate: among other things, the reappearance in the final scene of Blepyrus (pace Wilamowitz et al.) and the spirit (if not figure) of Praxagora is surely essential to salvage a certain unity. He discusses the play's unusual formal features, especially the use (and neglect) of the chorus, for the development of the genre, remarking on the fact -- drawn to his attention, we are told with characteristic scrupulousness, by a former pupil of his to whose memory Eccl. is dedicated -- that in Eccl. (unlike most of A.'s comedies, Wasps being an early exception) gods play no explicit part in the action. This may have no special significance (the gods are frequently invoked in oaths) but perhaps A. felt that the portrayal of the scheme as one of entirely human agency could lend an edge to the detailed proposals put forward by Praxagora that would have been blunted by fantasy if gods had been accorded, say, the kind of roles they play in Wealth. This way, within the admitted absurdity of a feminocratic utopia, A. could raise serious questions (later pursued in Wealth) about the social and political direction of an increasingly individualistic and secular Athens in which proposals for change might no longer even pay lip-service to traditional appeals to the divine but seem rather to flow merely from the whims of a novelty-seeking demos (cf. Eccl. 578-87).

Following a concise account of the textual transmission, S. offers a fully revised text incorporating many worthwhile conjectures, and a selective but generous apparatus criticus based on Vetta. Perhaps his greatest contribution is his imaginative and rigorously practical allocation of lines to speakers, as in the case of the two unnamed women of the first scene. There are few opportunities for new conjectures of his own, but αὐτὸς in 307 is attractive, as is the assumption of a lacuna at 560 and the sprinkling of salt (-παραλο-) in what S. tells us with relish is the longest known word in Greek. The adoption of Dover's transposition of lines 22 and 23 leads to an ingenious speculation about the mispronunciation of ἑταίρων, but the arguments for transposition are not compelling (unlike Richards' neat transposition in 44/ 45 of ἡμῶν and οἴνου) and I find more attractive S.'s alternative suggestion, following the lead of a scholiast, of a mistakenly aspirated ἕδρας. I think he must be right to defend the obscure βουκολεῖν τὸν δήμιον (81), but perhaps line 78 is obelised unnecessarily: if Blepyrus can 'shit a cable' (391) maybe Lamius could be allowed to 'fart a σκύταλον.' At 220, Wilson's καινόν γ' does indeed make better sense than the transmitted text without γ', but Bergk's ἀρετῆς at 587 is not to be preferred to the transmitted ἀρχῆς, given the similar usage at 985 (S.'s counterargument splits hairs). Line 514, which S. translates 'Look, everything you mentioned is on the ground' makes me wonder if the MSS' unmetrical κεῖται δὴ πάνθ' ἅπερ εἶπας should be emended to διακεῖται (rather than, e.g., κεῖται καὶ), 'everything is arranged as you ordered'. εἰθισμένοι (265, for -αι) and σοι (330, for σου) seem to be errors; an absent breathing over ἀφανῆ (602) seems wittily self-referential.

S.'s translation succeeds in being both reasonably literal and lively, with the help of liberal italicisations, exclamation marks, and colloquialisms. Some interpretative choices will raise quibbles: it is not clear to me how the metaphorical κυλίνδεται (208), 'rolls', should more easily be taken as 'gets kicked around' (i.e. 'is ignored') than, following the scholiast, 'pitches from side to side' like a drunkard or a boat in rough seas, or indeed government policy; and perhaps the pear that ἐνέχεται (357) is simply, like Thrasybulus, 'digging its heels in.' Idiomatic usages are generally well-judged, as e.g. 'we're dead in the water' for οὔτε θέομεν οὔτ' ἐλαύνομεν (109), 'it says in black and white ...' for γραμμάτων εἰρηκότων (1050), but occasionally rather idiosyncratic -- 'I've got [a beard] that beats Epicrates by a street!' is surely extravagant for 71, κἄγωγ' ἐπικράτους οὐκ ὀλίγωι καλλίονα (puzzled students may look in vain for the street in question). When the translation employs a non-Greek idiom or image, S. is mostly careful to explain in the notes what the corresponding Greek words signify (though adding the three dots in translating παρὰ τῶν πλειόνων in 1073 'from the ... majority' suggests some kind of political innuendo that is not in the Greek).

S. gamely offers English equivalents for most puns and double entendres, and is on the whole happy to use sexual or scatological vocabulary of an appropriate level: for instance, πράττει τὰ μέγιστ' ἐν τῆι πόλει (104) is 'he's screwing up the City with the best of them!', τῶν νέων ... τὰς ἀκμάς (720) 'the p(r)ick of the young men,' τὸ δὲ τῶν ἀνδρῶν (625) more subtly 'the men's point ... of view;' however 'the end-product' for κόπρος (360) is uncharacteristically euphemistic and 'tur(d)meric' for καλαμίνθη (648) requires (and gets) a footnote for botanical purists. In cases such as βακτηρίαι (150), ἐπιτρίβουσιν (224), and πάτταλον (284), S. simply refers in the notes to possible sexual innuendoes (though it seems far-fetched to suppose a reference to dildoes in ἐρεβίνθων χοίνικα, 45). Similarly the translation adopts a dual policy for comic names: Sebinos and the man from Anaphlystus, old friends from Frogs, reappear here as 'Shagathon' and 'a man from Wanksbury', joined by Kopreios, 'the man from Shittington' (317), Hachradousios, 'the fellow from Pearswick' (362), and Orthagoras, 'the Hard Man' (916), while other potentially significant names like Geusistrate (49), Charixene (943, whom S. speculates may have been a real hetaira, the mistress of the tyrant Hipparchus), Epigenes and Geres (931-2), and for that matter Blepyrus and Chremes (see S.'s notes on 311, 372) are not 'translated;' perhaps Ariphrades, who won't shut up during Assembly (129), should be 'Mr. Bigmouth.'

The notes are full of helpful information and observations, with ample guidance on secondary reading to add to the full general and subject-bibliographies. S. expertly fleshes out nuggets of Athenian daily life, elucidating such matters as the sale of torches in wine-shops (50), the right posture for carding wool (90), the kind of insult such as would nowadays be levelled only at football referees (255), the practice of 'doughnutting' in parliaments past and present (296-7), the correct spelling of Hileithya (369), the special gifts offered (in Greece then as now) for the birth of a boy (549), telling the time by shadow-lengths (652, with impressive trigonometry), punishment by food deprivation through history (665), domestic dining arrangements (675), and the rules of 'backgammon' (987). There are, as always, great prosopographical riches to be had, whether we wish to know more about well-known political figures like Epicrates (71), Agyrrhius (102), Thrasybulus (202-3), Aesimus (206), and Cephalus (248), their lesser known colleagues such as Phormisius (97), Hieronymus (201), and Heurippides (825), comic butts like Smicythion (46) and Epigonus (167 -- perhaps a real transsexual?), or fat-cats like Antisthenes (366), Nausicydes (426), Lysicrates (630), and Callias (810). Even blear-eyed Neocleides (254) apparently proves his usefulness as a source of relative dating, since by the time of Wealth (665) he has become blind; S. does not entertain the possibility that the advice of Praxagora (255) or Blepyrus (404-6) might actually have improved Neocleides' eyesight!

S. awakens the student to the humorous visual and dramaturgical possibilities of the text. We visualise the ungainly gait of a woman wearing embades (47) and imagine the sound of one hand clapping as an old crone applies 'Diomedean compulsion' to her victim (1029). Perhaps emulating Richard Seaford's discovery of a ritual mirror in the staging of Euripides' Bacchae, S. reveals a similar stage-prop (125) -- here a handy make-up accessory as in Thesm. 140. He is particularly hot on phalluses, helpfully suggesting that σοὶ τοιοῦτον ὑπάρχει (622) is a reference to Blepyrus' all-too-visible flaccidity and conversely (following D. Sewart) supposing that Epigenes' ananke (969) points to his 'ithyphallic condition.' However, his arguments for mock self-fellation in 470 are ultimately less convincing than the more usual position adopted by Henderson and others that ἀριστᾶις refers to cunnilingus. The repetition of πρὸς βίαν in 471 shows that what is envisaged by Chremes is effectively the same thing as what was feared by Blepyrus in 467 -- evidently not forced self-fellation -- just as δρᾶ ταῦθ', 470 (not τοῦθ', which might have been a more natural way of drawing attention to the action S. specifies) picks up the question τί δρᾶν; (467, where a wayward grave is printed over the ν). Focussing on κινεῖν, S. argues that "while [cunnilingus] could certainly be called "lunching," it could not be called "screwing,"' but he overlooks the inescapably feminine ἑαυτάς· κινεῖν ἑαυτάς would hardly be taken to refer to fellatio rather than to cunnilingus -- something which could easily have been indicated on stage by a suggestive head-motion. But quibbles of this kind aside, Eccl. is an altogether excellent volume which will undoubtedly afford readers much pleasure and edification.

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:27:05, Friday, 03 April 2009