Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.09.20

Jeffrey Henderson (ed.), Aristophanes: Frogs, Assemblywomen, Wealth. Loeb Classical Library 180.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2002.  Pp. 608.  ISBN 0-674-99596-1.  $21.50.  

Reviewed by Elizabeth Scharffenberger, Columbia University (
Word count: 1609 words

This volume, the fourth in its series, completes the new edition of Aristophanes' comedies that Jeffrey Henderson has undertaken for the Loeb Classical Library. The first three volumes have already received high praise in BMCR reviews (1999.05.17, 1999.07.11, and 2001.07.27), and this latest publication, which contains annotated texts and translations of Frogs, Assemblywomen, and Wealth, merits the same. It is a fine work of scholarship that is both erudite and entertaining, and it provides a valuable tool to readers who wish to study these plays in Greek with the help of modern translations in Americanized English, or who want to go through a translation with a good Greek text right at their fingertips.

Henderson's reliance on contemporary American slang to render Aristophanes' many vulgarities has garnered his earlier Loeb volumes attention in the media (e.g. Julie Flaherty's article in The New York Times on September 28, 2000), and their unexpurgated language is currently advertised on Harvard University Press's website. On this score, the new volume does not disappoint, and Henderson handles the comedian's ebulliently maculate muse with his usual flair, translating (to cite just two of many examples) κύσθου λεοντῆν in Frogs 430 as "a lionskin made of pussy", and βινούμεναι χαίρουσιν in Assemblywomen 228 as "they like a fucking". This welcome linguistic fidelity is complemented by other felicitous elements that make the translations eminently readable. Henderson consistently demonstrates a talent for finding the right word or turning a clever phrase that captures Aristophanes' wit, often with a play on familiar modern idioms. Thus Dionysus in Frogs complains that his "butt runneth over" [εγκέχοδα 479]; the parabasis disparages "these crummy coppers" [τούτοις τοῖς πονηροῖς χαλκίοις 725]; during the agon Aeschylus boasts of having created "many profiles in courage" [πολλὰς ἀρετὰς 1040]; he is later told by his gleeful umpire, "That's strike three...!" [τρίτος... κόπος οὗτος 1272]. In Assemblywomen, the Athenians' chief principle of government is "indifference to precedent" [τῶν δ' ἀρχαίων ἀμελῆσαι 587]; the girl taunts her elderly competitor with talk of her "boytoys" [τἀμὰ παίγνια 922], only to be insulted a few verses later as "miss twiggy" [ὦ φθίνυλλα σύ 935]; her boyfriend Epigenes subsequently despairs that he is "damned three ways from Sunday" [ὢ τρισκακοδαίμων 1098]. (The translation of Assemblywomen, it should be noted, has much in common with its forerunner in Henderson's Three Plays by Aristophanes: Staging Women [New York: Routledge, 1996].) πώμαλα in Wealth 66 is cleverly rendered as "Fat chance", and Cario's quip to Hermes in 1138 [ἀλλ̓ οὐκ ἐκφορά] becomes "This isn't carry-out!"

The translations are often quite straightforward and literal; for example, Euripides' opening salvo in Frogs 907-10 is presented as:

Very well, as for myself, the kind of poet I am, I will tell you in my final remarks, but first I'll expose my opponent for the charlatan and quack that he was, and by what means he hoodwinked his audiences, whom he took over from Phrynichus already trained to be morons.

At times, however, Henderson sacrifices literalness in language for the sake of making Aristophanes' humor accessible to Greek-less readers and giving his translations a lively, contemporary flavor; thus the alphabet joke in Assemblywomen 685-6 is rendered by "G as in guzzle"; the vocal imitation of lyre-strumming in Frogs 1286ff., φλαττοθραττοφλαττοθρατ, becomes "brumda brumda brumda brum, and similarly θρεττανελο in Wealth 290 and 296 is represented by "ta dum da dum." There is a slight possibility that some might be misled by such renderings, and readers should be aware that this volume does not aim to present absolutely literal translations of Aristophanes' plays. Henderson's more adventurous choices might also cause the volume to become dated in a relatively quick period of time, and they might limit its usefulness to readers outside North America. Yet, all in all, choices like the ones cited here and in the paragraph above impart a crucial element of freshness and vigor to the translations, and they are consequently worth the attendant risks. Henderson exhibits particular skill in making Aristophanes' paratragedy both funny and accessible, especially in the passages of lyric parody at Frogs 1264-1295 and 1309-1362; his success in handling parody and paratragedy makes his translation of Frogs the most exciting of the three.

Henderson's expertise as an editor, textual and otherwise, is once again evident in this volume; described here are just a sample of his interesting and important editorial decisions. As is typical in the Loeb series, variant readings and emendations are sparingly noted in this volume. Marking the controversies caused by the troubled text of Frogs 1437-1450, Henderson adopts Sommerstein's attribution of 1257-1260, 1437-1441, and 1451-1453 to the original performance of 405 BCE, and of 1252-6 and 1442-50 to the re-performance in the following year (cf. Sommerstein, ed., Aristophanes: Frogs [Warminster, 1996]). Contrary to the suggestions of some scholars, he assigns 1442-1450 as well as 1437-1441 + 1451-1453 to Euripides. The colometry of the polymetric parody of Euripidean lyrics in Frogs 1309-62 corresponds to that of L. P. E. Parker in The Songs of Aristophanes, with the exception of 1357 and 1361-1362; like Parker, Henderson attributes ὁρῶ in both 1323 and 1324 to Euripides. The stage directions at the beginning of Frogs introduce Dionysus and Xanthias accompanied by a (presumably) live donkey;1 the directions at 208 indicate that the chorus of frogs is present on stage with Dionysus and Charon; at 829, Pluto is said to enter and take "the center chair" between Dionysus and Aeschylus. Agreeing with Elmsley, Henderson posits a lacuna after Assemblywomen 381 and completes van Leeuwen's supplement to create 381a, which he divides between Chremes [κεναῖς ἀπελθὼν χερσίν.] and Blepyrus [οὐδὲν οὖν ἔχεις;]; 382 is accordingly presented as Chremes' response to Blepyrus' question. In 564-729, the Neighbor (first met in 327), not Chremes, comes out to converse with Praxagora and Blepyrus; 608 is assigned to Blepyrus and 609-10 to the Neighbor; the man who appears at 746 to challenge the Neighbor's readiness to turn over his personal property to the polis is identified (a little tendentiously, I believe) as "Selfish Man." The stage directions explaining the ms. indication of χοροῦ at Assemblywomen 729 and 876 state that "brief" songs have not been preserved; the same indication at Wealth 321, 626, 770, 801, and 1096 is explained by the direction, "The Chorus delivers an entr'acte". The introduction to Wealth describes these entr'actes as "presumably... not composed by Aristophanes" (p. 416), but the question of whether the comedian composed the lost songs in Assemblywomen is curiously left open. The stage direction at the beginning of Assemblywomen envisions Praxagora in a mask, but masks are mentioned nowhere else in directions for this or the other comedies. This inconsistency bothers me a bit, as does the fact that the directions beginning at Wealth 770 describe Cario and other characters departing and entering via "a wing", introducing the term suddenly and without explanation. But these are, to be sure, minor points. (While on the topic of presentation, I will mention that "Its" for "It's" at Assemblywomen 975 is the only misprint by the press that I noticed.)

The footnotes are abundant, excellent, and much needed; the notes on Alcibiades at Frogs 1422 and on Thrasybulus at Assemblywomen 203 exemplify Henderson's gift for thorough and lucid exposition of important details. It is the curse of scholarship to wish for yet more notes, but here I go: I would like to see one on the Cerameicus at Frogs 129 and one on the Scira at Assemblywomen 59. Readers who are using only the translation of Wealth will have to resort to the index if they care to find out who Aristyllus (mentioned at 314) and Neocleides (at 665) were, since biographical notes on these men are given in Assemblywomen (at 647 and 254-255, respectively) but not repeated in Wealth. The various Aeschylean tragedies that are quoted and evoked in the course of the contest of Frogs are well documented, but there are a few gaps in the treatment of Euripides' plays. In particular, notes indicating that the Euripidean Antigone is the source of the verses quoted in 1182-1187 would be appreciated, as would indications of the debt in 1331-1363 to Hecuba and Orestes.

The three comedies are preceded by brief introductions that helpfully describe their plots, themes, concerns, as well as their historical contexts and circumstances of production; each introduction concludes with comments on the manuscript and papyrus sources for the text, notations of sigla, and a selective list of annotated editions. Henderson gives gentle but firm guidance as to how the plays are to be interpreted, directing readers into a mainstream of contemporary Aristophanic scholarship that he has been instrumental in shaping. The denouement of Frogs reflects Aristophanes' pessimism about contemporary Athenian culture, but holds forth hope that "the works of Aeschylus... might inspire Athenians to recapture the virtues that had made their city preeminent in his day" (p. 5). Assemblywomen dramatizes a pleasing comic utopia while simultaneously satirizing "contemporary Athenian fondness for political experimentation and theorizing" (pp. 240-241). In Wealth, no credence is to be given to the arguments of the unsympathetically portrayed Poverty; for restoring sight to Wealth and installing the god on the Acropolis, Chremylus is "a civic benefactor not unlike Trygaeus in Peace" (pp. 419-420). Those who construe any or all of the three comedies differently might wish to see the diversity of interpretative opinion acknowledged in this volume, which will deservedly gain wide usage among classicists and non-classicists alike. Yet even the most grudging critic must concede that practical constraints limit the material that can be covered in these introductions. Given these constraints, the wealth of resources that Henderson manages to pack into this publication is wholly remarkable.


1.   Jeff Massey's yet unpublished idea that Xanthias wears an donkey "outfit" suspended from his shoulders makes excellent sense in light of his exchange with Dionysus in 21-32 (cf. 38 and 159); see also C. W. Marshall's review of Sommerstein 1996 in Echoes du Monde Classique/Classical Views 43 (1999): 146.

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