Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.05.16

W. Geoffrey Arnott (trans.), Menander. Volume III. The Loeb Classical Library 460.   Cambridge and London:  Harvard University Press, 2000.  Pp. ix, 639.  ISBN 0-674-99584-8.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Sander Goldberg (
Word count: 1898 words

A lot of Menander is now loose in the world. Just after World War I, when work on the Cairo codex first made a Loeb Menander feasible, F. C. Allinson could do the job in a single volume of four plays (Epitrepontes, Samia, Perikeiromene, and Heros) with enough room left over for the main literary fragments and a few more bits and pieces. Fifty years later, F. H. Sandbach had eighteen plays for the first OCT, and even that effort and the magisterial commentary it engendered were soon overtaken by further discoveries and the better understanding those discoveries made possible. Thus both the need for and the nature of the new Loeb Menander: three hefty volumes instead of a single svelte one and twenty years to do the job. And what a job: "quod templa caeli summa sonitu concutit!" Where does completion of the project now leave us?

First some facts. The initial volume of 1979 presented an extensive introduction and six plays, Aspis to Epitrepontes. Volume II (1996) gave us ten more, Heros to Perinthia, and some supplemental bibliography. Now the finale: four plays (Samia, Sikyonioi [sic], Synaristosai, Phasma) embracing and discussing all known sources of each, including the pictorial evidence; nine Fabulae Incertae, each fully introduced; a list and explanation of ten papyri not included in this volume--important for telling us why, for example, that little exercise by the teenager Apollonios at Memphis (the old Didot II) is here but the longer extract in the same roll by his brother Ptolemaios (Didot I) and often discussed along with Epitrepontes is not; PSI 1476, containing extracts from Menander; and three papyri with plot summaries of Menandrean plays.

A nice collection, but not just a collection. A. has never been simply a hunter and gatherer and translator. These texts are new, based on his own study of the papyri, including personal inspection of the Bodmer and Cairo codices and the Sorbonne Sikyonios (-oi) and fresh reflection on the editorial and interpretive challenges they pose. Few today have seen so much of Menander and studied him so thoroughly. There may never be a definitive, much less complete edition, but this is certainly an authoritative one, which deserves respect and will reward close attention. A. provides the best possible access to the current corpus and a solid foundation for building on it. That said, an editor who reviews so much material and makes so many decisions is bound to make a few that will prompt second thoughts among readers. Indeed, A.'s own energy and acumen and the very spirit of this enterprise, which values results over personalities, almost demands it. So here are a few qualms, quibbles, and doubts to keep the pot boiling, one for each of the major kinds of decision A. has had to make.

Editing first, and the example is Samia 96ff. Demeas and Nikeratos, newly returned from the Black Sea, enter from the harbor with attendants and baggage. A. prints (quoting his right-hand page):


Don't you all notice now a change of scene, How much this differs from the horrors there? The Black Sea--fat old men, no end of fish, Disgusting business. Then Byzantium: Absinthe and all things bitter. God! But here-- Pure blessings for the poor. Oh dearest Athens, If only you could get all you deserve-- So we who love the city might then be Completely happy...

Attribution of all this to Demeas follows the Bodmer codex but will surprise users of the OCT or English translations based on it. Sandbach gave 98-101 to Nikeratos, with Demeas stepping in at the apostrophe to Athens. Sandbach argued (1970: 120-22) that the cranky asyndeton of those lines better suited Nikeratos, who is prone throughout the play to short utterances, and, as a poor man himself, more likely to invoke blessings for the poor than his rich companion. A.'s return to the paradosis, however, is not merely a conservative reflex: at Dyskolos 430ff., for example, he joined the OCT in assigning lines to Sostratos' mother against their explicit attribution by B to her slave, Getas. Here in Samia, A. notes his departure from the OCT, though only on the left-hand page where many readers will doubtless miss it, and he does not give a reason. For that, we must find our way to ZPE, where A. observed that Demeas too may speak in asyndeton, that otherwise only Demeas swears by Apollo ("God!" of 100), and that Sandbach's claim that the blessings for the poor did not fit Demeas "has been effectively refuted by R. Kassel (ZPE 114, 1996, 58), demonstrating that πενήτων ἀγαθά is a proverbial expression that need have no reference to its user's possession or lack of wealth" (Arnott 1998: 43). Well, yes and no. What Kassel showed was that the expression was proverbial for Synesius. Whether it was also proverbial for Athenians six centuries earlier or whether Menander might himself have helped make it so for later generations is not clear. Nor is Demeas prone to choppy sentences like these unless he is seriously angry or annoyed, as at 324-27, 380-83, 454-56 (i.e. three of A.'s six examples of Demeas' asyndeta, of which only 552-56 is really similar to 98-101). A. may still be right and Sandbach wrong, but so good a suggestion deserves a more compelling refutation.

As for interpretation, a faint mustiness sometimes seeps from A.'s literary judgments. Take the oft-discussed matter of tragic echoes. Menander's debt to tragedy could be flaunted or obscured, producing broad parody, subtle allusion, or sometimes just flickers in an attentive viewer's memory. The problem for scholarship has been that once the debts are noted, and they are by now very thoroughly annotated, we have not really known what to do with them. What is the point, or at least the effect on an audience, of borrowing a tragic device here, recalling a tragic scene there, or suddenly falling into a tragic cadence? Consider the messenger's speech at Sikyonios 176ff., where the stranger from Eleusis tells Smikrines how an impromptu assembly declared the girl Philoumene a citizen and prevented intervention by her dubious young shadow, Moschion. The ostensible model for this scene was Euripides' Orestes 866-88, reporting the Argive assembly that condemned the matricides Orestes and Electra. A. comments: "he [Menander] transforms and modernises the tragic situation by substituting something contemporary and bourgeois for the distanced past of myth" (200). Students of New Comedy, who have been saying things like this for a generation, should start paying more attention to their friends on the tragic side of the program, who have been showing for almost as long that the first dramatist to transform and modernise the tragic situation at Argos by substituting something contemporary was in fact Euripides in the Orestes (cf. Zeitlin 1980, Goldberg 1993) . He explores the consequences of Orestes' legendary deed against a social background that is distressingly and disconcertingly like the real world of human affairs. The Argive assembly is all too contemporary, the human players acting out its melodrama are all too human, and the only thing distant about the myth as Euripides tells it is that Apollo at last deigns to extricate those wretched humans from the mess they got themselves into. What is really different about Menander's assembly is not that it is contemporary or bourgeois, but that it works. It reaches what the world of comedy tells us is a correct verdict. The difference between comedy and tragedy is less a matter of myth v. reality than of faith (or lack of it) in the mechanisms of democratic justice. That is no trivial issue. The "Life" that Menander so famously imitates is not simply an array of literary tropes.

Finally, translation. That little excerpt by young Apollonios at Memphis is spoken by someone recently emerged from clouds of confusion to a new light. He explains himself to the audience directly, like Moschion of Samia, and concludes, in A.'s translation (Fab. Incert. 2, 9-15):

But here I've come now, like a patient on his bed In hospital when he's been cured! I'm born again To live my future life. I walk and talk And think. This great and glorious sun I've now Discovered. In today's clear light I can See you now, gentlemen, I see blue sky, And the Acropolis, the theatre.

In hospital? The Greek, εἰς ἀΣκληπιοῦ ἐγκατακλιθεὶς, is more literally rendered in a note: "put to bed in Aesclepius' shrine" and followed by an explanation of incubation (p. 477 n. 3). I would like the translation a little better if I agreed with A.'s next note, on "I walk": "The speaker has apparently been converted by some philosopher or teacher..." (p. 479 n. 4). The speaker unquestionably uses philosophic language, but isn't a character in New Comedy as likely to have been struck by Love as by Philosophy? Lovers also walk about and chatter, like Thrasonides of Misoumenos, who addresses Night in his despair (περιπατῶ τ' ἄνω κάτω...λαλοῦντί σοι, 7-14, cf. 17). If the speaker's conversion is to love, he has experienced not the rationalized regimen of a hospital [sic] but something more like the divine agency of an incubation. That, for example, is what seizes Sostratos in Phyle and invades his mother's dreams (Dys. 50-53, 410-19, cf. Flury 1968: 13-20). Other jarring notes here may not be A.'s responsibility, though the patient in line 9 reminds me too much of J. Alfred Prufrock, and I am not sure that "born again" carries the right connotation. Such problems, though, are a nice reminder of how nuanced--and thus difficult to translate--Menander is, even when incertus.

Quibbles like these, however, only reinforce the twofold value of this edition. It will surely encourage those who know Menander well to do what A. did, which is to see the corpus as a whole and reconsider everything in it from the beginning. The very layout of these volumes facilitates that process, and Harvard University Press deserves thanks for stretching the rules of the Loeb series a bit to accommodate these requirements. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the enticement A. provides for readers who do not know Menander or do not know him well. They too have a contribution to make. While technical work, that analysis and presentation of the hard evidence so elegantly displayed in the new Loebs, has long ranked among the great achievements of modern Classical scholarship, the literary criticism of New Comedy is largely a record of dead ends and exhausted enthusiasms. We need some new ideas, and with Menander now begging to be read just as the burgeoning field of fourth-century studies is producing new contexts for reading him, the time is propitious. There is much to do, and workers of every generation and every orientation will find a firm friend and a trustworthy guide in W. G. Arnott.


Arnott, W. G. 1998. "First Notes on Menander's Samia." ZPE 121: 35-44. Flury, P. 1968. Liebe und Liebessprache bei Menander, Plautus und Terenz. Heidelberg. Goldberg, S. M. 1993. "Models and Memory in the Comedy of Menander." Comp. Drama 27: 328-40. Kassel, R. 1996. "Aus der Arbeit an den Poetae comici Graeci." ZPE 114: 57-59. Sandbach, F. H. 1970. "Menander's Manipulation of Language for Dramatic Purposes." In E. G. Turner, ed. Fondation Hardt Entretiens XVI: Ménandre. Vandoeuvres-Genève. 111-43. Zeitlin, F. 1980. "The Closet of Masks: Roleplaying and Myth-making in the Orestes of Euripides." Ramus 9: 51-77.

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