Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.02.32

Eric Csapo, Margaret Miller, Poetry, Theory, Praxis: The Social Life of Myth, Word and Image in Ancient Greece. Essays in Honour of William J. Slater.   Oxford:  Oxbow Books, 2003.  Pp. xiv, 266.  ISBN 1-84217-101-1.  $72.00.  

Contributors: Robert Fowler, Margaret C. Miller, Richard Hamilton, Eric Csapo, Bernd Seidensticker, Erica Simon, Martin Cropp, John R. Porter, J. Richard Green, Robert Garland, Matthias Steinhart, Matthew W. Dickie, Noel Robertson

Reviewed by Panos Seranis, University of Cambridge (
Word count: 2526 words

This book is a tribute to Professor William Slater by thirteen of his many students, colleagues and friends in the course of his career in Classics at Canadian universities. In his Preface, the editor acknowledges the difficult task of providing coherence in a Festchrift, whose aim is to celebrate the life and works of an extraordinary teacher and scholar. No thematic unity has been attempted: the individual contributions included in this volume cover a remarkably wide range of themes, collectively identified as the social life of theories, artifacts, and poems" (p.vii). This variety aptly reflects the diversity of Prof. Slater's own interests, which extend well beyond the field of Classical Studies. I acknowledges that I am by no means qualified to pass judgement on such a wide range of scholarship; therefore, part of what follows will be offered by way of synopsis rather than criticism.

The book is divided into three sections: Myth and Cult (four essays), Theatre (six essays) and The Written Word (three essays). Several of the contributions were presented to audiences on other occasions prior to their inclusion in this volume.

Robert Fowler starts off this book wondering who the Pelasgians really were. He suggests that it is almost impossible to argue about their true identity because most historical accounts are problematic, as none of them seems to provide convincing arguments as regards Pelasgians' ethnic identity, language and origin. By looking closely into mythic, historic and literary references for a definition of Pelasgians, F illustrates that most theories refer to Pelasgians in connection with some other tribe, something that adds to their elusive character.

Margaret Miller in her essay "Art, Myth and Reality: Xenophantos' Lekythos Re-examined" focuses her attention on the cultural significance of an Attic lekythos of 380 BC (depicting figures in Oriental dress engaged in a hunt), which was found in a grave near the site of ancient Pantikapaion, modern Kerch in the Crimea. Scholars were interested in finding out where and for whom Xenophantos made the lekythos. M argues that in order to gain a proper understanding of the lekythos and its inter-cultural associations, one needs to situate any analysis in a multi-layered contextual framework. Thus, she examines the hunt scene of Xenophantos' lekythos by contrasting the practice of hunting in East and West; discussing the cultural context of the lekythos; focusing on how Persians were depicted in Attic art; re-examining some Achaemenid seals; and comparing historical and mythicised Persians and their significance in Greek art.

Richard Hamilton in his "Lenaia Vases in Context" discusses the ritual significance of a group of vases showing female worshippers at a mask of Dionysus attached to a column. H emphasises that a better understanding of the meaning of the vases results only if they are examined as a group in a systematic way, as this could reveal their association with Athenian religious practice. The main focus of H's analysis is the Lenaia idol, whose significance is discussed alongside the only other parallel of semi-anthropomorphic character found in Athenian iconography, the Athenian herm. H looks closely into continuity of the idol from black-figure to red-figure vases, emphasising the differences between them. In more detail, H addresses the issues of the number of figures depicted in the vases; the existence of the double mask on the black-figure lekythoi only; dancing practice as ritual; certain idol characteristics (clothing, decorative branches, funerary offerings in the form of 'cakes', etc); and the (absence of) thyrsoi as items of religious practice. H' s lucid and comprehensive account helps us understand more the visual language of the vases and their wider contextual references.

Eric Csapo provides an interesting and thoughtful analysis of the role of dolphins and Nereids in literature and art in his essay "The Dolphins of Dionysus". C's main argument is that one fails to understand their role either in literature or art, unless one situates reference to them within the practice of cultic dance and dramatic performances. C investigates, in turn the role of dolphins and Nereids (a) in New Music (430-380 B.C.), which sought to recreate or reinvent the cultic and Dionysiac character of dithyrambic and tragic music; (b) in art by discussing a number of cups and kraters; and (c) in myth and cult, emphasising the myths of Arion and Dionysus. C concludes this very interesting paper by arguing that the choruses of dolphins and Nereids served a number of different functions, all of which made them symbols of "eternal salvation, giving them a doctrinal role in the mysteries, and a further more metaphysical, connection with Dionysus"(pp.94-5). I am aware that my simplified synopsis inevitably fails to do justice to C's complex arguments, which can be fully appreciated only by a close reading of his essay. "The Chorus of Greek Satyrplay" by Bernd Seidensticker sheds light on the scant information we have about the role of the chorus in satyr plays. Focusing on papyrus fragments, vase painting and "scattered remnants of ancient scholarship on the genre" (p. 102) S. addresses the issues about the appearance and size of the Chorus; its relation to Papposilenos; its dramatic role; singing and dancing of the Chorus; and finally, a discussion on the (dis)unity of the Chorus. S provides an illuminative account of the Chorus in satyr plays with insightful parallel references to the chorus of tragedy, arguing that "satyr play and its protagonist, the chorus of satyrs, are not just a jolly appendix to tragedy, added to provide comic relief, but the very heart of the dramatic performance" (p.120).

The political resonance of Euripides' lost drama Hypsipyle occupies Martin Cropp in his contribution to this volume. C argues that the mythical background to the plot of Euripides' play has larger political implications for the Athenians. C masterfully demonstrates how the time and setting of the play, its mythical heroes and plot have been skillfully exploited by the poet to enhance the political, military and religious importance of the city. C rightly draws our attention to ways, in which Euripides reinvents and reinterprets his mythical material in order to highlight political and personal dimensions to his drama. Viewed this way, Hypsipyle moves beyond the category of romantic or escapist melodrama (as habitually has been seen by most scholars) and it can be compared with other Euripidean tragedies, whose aim was to "provide the citizens of Athens with a sense of stability and community and to display cultural, ethical and political leadership to the panhellenic congregation in the Theatre of Dionysus" (p.143).

In her short but very interesting essay, Erica Simon discusses the interpretation of a red-figured Attic kalpis found in the Charles University at Prague, which depicts a young woman holding a long sword and looking down at someone lying on a low bed. S believes that this is a tragic scene inspired by Aeschylus' tetralogy. She goes further to identify the woman as Hypermestra, one of Danaus' fifty daughters, who failed to kill her bridegroom, Lynkeus, thus disobeying her father. Lynkeus (the man lying on the bed) killed Danaus, fulfilling thus the oracle's prophecy. Simon's essay is a close "reading" of the kalpis that highlights details other scholars have ignored and may have misinterpreted. Her thesis is well argued and, regardless of whether one agrees with her speculations or not, one cannot fail to admire the care with which she constructs her interpretation.

John R. Porter's contribution entitled "Orestes the Ephebe" retains much of the freshness and humour of its original delivery. P, as his bibliography shows, is extremely well read and his arguments are clear and compelling. Modern scholars, according to P, have mistakenly seen Orestes' as a "sociopathic thug" (p. 147), whose emotions and behaviour are more fitting to the female protagonists of Euripidean drama. Furthermore, he argues that this is due to a false image of ephebic behaviour, viewing young men as rebellious and impetuous, not helpless and inhibited. Taking Orestes as his main focus, but with some reference to Telemachus,1 P seeks to investigate how the ideological associations between young men and women in Greek public discourse might influence our view of young men. In doing so, he focuses his discussion on literary and artistic evidence. P argues that both young men and women were expected to exhibit their obedience towards older men. He backs up his thesis through an overview of erotic scenes (and their conventions) between men and young boys, in which boys are not to experience any sense of pleasure from their encounters with older men. According to P this is an artificial effect of public discourse resulting from self-regulated censorship that expected young men and women to behave as such. Through a masterful analysis of vase scenes (portraying helpless ephebes or women as love victims on one hand, and their counterparts of agitated youth on the other) P concludes that the contemporary audience was more likely to view the actions of Orestes as those of a "typical youth overwhelmed by the external pressures he is subjected to" (p. 172) in his transitional state from an ephebe to a man.

J. Richard Green's paper is entitled "Speculations on the Tragic Poet Sthenelus and a Comic Vase in Richmond" and does what it says in the title. The author speculates that the scene of three male figures, two standing and one seated, depicted on an Apuleian red-figure bell-krater may well represent a scene from a lost comedy by the late fifth century poet Sthenelus. Green argues persuasively that the scene is taking place outdoors, portraying three slaves in performance. Drawing from both artistic and literary evidence, Green suggests that the krater may depict an impoverished poet Sthenelus in a scene from a comedy that may comment on tragedy and its practice.

Drama performances as vehicles of social and political consciousness are the focus in Robert Garland's essay "Upstaging Greek Tragedy: The Use (and Abuse) of Genre?" Garland looks at 19th and 20th century productions of Greek drama that have predominantly reflected contemporary social, cultural and political concerns and meanings. In his survey Garland demonstrates with critical acumen how the staging of drama has been used to serve political propaganda, independent movements, anti-war and feminist groups, all bearing strong political and social elements at the expense, he suggests, of the true meaning of the original texts.

Although G acknowledges the fact that a comprehensive understanding of the history of production of Greek tragedy requires a detailed knowledge "of the social and political events, cultural developments, dramaturgical tendencies, and critical approaches of the era to which each production belongs" (p. 197) he also expresses his legitimate concern that sometimes the "poetic licence" of contemporary drama productions may lead to a misinterpretation of textual meaning, about which he, like other classicists, has a "fetish". Therefore he suggests that classical scholars' advice should be sought in order to alert audiences to the subtleties of tragedy that may be go unnoticed.

It has to be said, however, that it is -- and should be -- the texts themselves that "do" things to the audience, not the "informed" interpretations of learned scholars. G discusses the significance of the audience, but not in as much detail as one would expect from an analysis of texts composed to be performed rather than to be read.

Matthias Steinheart analyses inscriptions and artefacts that shed light on the religious role of Athenian women. His essay examines a bronze hydria that bears the inscription TELESSTAS in the rim of its handle that portrays the protome of a woman. S speculates that the name of the inscription is a female one (genitive of TELESSTA). He supports his case by examining a number of objects with inscriptions that name women as their owners and by situating these artifacts within their social and economic background. S speculates that if TELESSTA is the owner of the hydria she should be literate (so she could read the inscription written on it) and rather wealthy (so she could afford it). What makes S's thesis particularly interesting, apart from his lucid and well-thought observations, is his ability to link a wide range of primary sources to their complex contextual framework.

Matthew Dickie in his paper "The Topic of Envy and Emulation in an Agonistic Inscription from Oenoanda" examines a commemorative inscription written on the base of a statue, which was found in the agora of Oenoanda. In his analysis D deals predominantly with the final couplet, an apostrophe to the viewer that he translates:

Therefore give up your carping criticism, you who are in thrall to dread envy and gaze at my statue with eyes of imitation.

In his perceptive survey of envy and emulation, D draws from a variety of literary sources to construct his theory. He compares Euarestos' couplet with three other instances (a copper amulet now housed in the Cabinet des Medailles in Paris, a Numidian building-inscription and an inscription from the oasis of Symmachi), where the context of the verse has an apotropaic force. D focuses his discussion on the harm that envy of a malevolent person can cause (a preoccupation also evident in many cultures today) and wonders whether there is a similar presumption in Euarestos' inscription too, namely to protect the statue from the malign force of the envious onlookers. D's conclusion as regards the inscription at issue is a tentative one. This is perfectly legitimate, as the meaning of similar inscriptions lies somewhere between fact and literarische Spiel. I would, however, like to note that his analysis would have benefited from the discussion of the proper name Euarestos, which means "well pleasing", "acceptable" and could be interpreted two ways: "I am well pleasing, therefore nobody envies me", or "I am well pleasing, therefore more susceptible to envy".

"Aesop's Encounter with Isis and the Muses and the Origins of the Life of Aesop" is the primary concern of Noel Robertson's contribution to this volume. R examines the important role of Isis and the Muses in Vita Aesopi and the transformational effect that their visitation had for the hero, looking closely into the Vita itself and parallels from Apuleius' Metamorphoses. R provides an informative account of the background of the story and its appeal to later audiences and literature. However, I think that there are two omissions from his bibliography: both Papademetriou's Aesop as an Archetypal Hero2 and Karla's Vita Aesopi: Überlieferung, Sprache und Edition einer frübyzantinischen Fassung des Äesopsromans,3 could have been profitably used in R's study.

To summarise, the book is carefully produced thanks to the editorial care of Csapo and Miller, who presumably also supplied Slater's list of publications (pp. ix-xiv). The mistakes are few and far between and they do not interfere the reading of the book. The volume also contains 91 black and white illustrations, an essential addition to a book that draws so extensively from decorative art. A list of illustrations, however, would have been a benefit for the reader of this book.

The interdisciplinary nature of this volume provides a stimulating survey of poetic, religious and artistic representations and their association with their social and cultural contexts. The general high quality of the essays makes this volume a welcome δόσις to a deserving teacher and scholar of Classics.


1.   To add another element in Porter's discussion, Telemachus' responses to the stories about his father also signify a transitional stage in his maturation process.
2.   J.-Th. Papademetriou, Aesop as an Archetypal Hero. Studies and Research 39. Athens: Hellenic Society for Humanistic Studies, 1997. For a review of this book see BMCR 1999.05.25
3.   G. Karla, Vita Aesopi: Überlieferung, Sprache und Edition einer frübyzantinischen Fassung des Äesopsromans. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2001.

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