Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2007.11.23

Onofrio Vox, Memoria di Testi Teatrali Antichi.   Lecce:  Pensa Multimedia, 2006.  Pp. 290.  ISBN 88-8232-470-2.  €18.60.  

Reviewed by Johanna Hanink, Queens' College, Cambridge (
Word count: 2562 words

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Memoria di Testi Teatrali Antichi is a collection of nine papers on the reception of ancient dramatic texts, with the 'receivers' in the spotlight ranging from Atthidographers of the 4th century BC to Felice Romani, the librettist of Giovanni Bellini's Norma (premiered at La Scala in 1831). In a brief introductory note, the editor, Onofrio Vox, invokes a long and well-recognized aspect of the historiographic tradition surrounding Alexander the Great, namely its consistent representation of Alexander as an enthusiast of Athenian (and especially Euripidean) tragedy. Vox singles out this thread of the Alexander tradition as an example 'della fortuna e del riuso dei testi teatrali antichi già nell'antichità' (6). Alexander, however, is quickly left by the wayside as Vox turns his attention to the book's premise and program: some ancient dramatic texts enjoyed 'vite nuove' in various forms and via various routes of transmission; taken together, the chapters gathered here are meant to work as 'una sorta di seminario virtuale,' in which each contribution clarifies the fortuna of particular ancient plays and the strategies by which they were re-used by later authors and re-worked in different forms.

This volume achieves mixed results. While it has been meticulously edited and each of the authors has clearly invested protracted and careful thought into his or her contribution, Vox's introduction offers what I believe is an overly optimistic vision of the unity and accomplishment of the total product. For example, while the book's title mentions 'testi teatrali antichi,' it is heavily Euripidean and almost entirely focused on Attic tragedy (in the introduction Vox does signal that the texts examined are 'prevalentamente attici' -- but it is really Attic tragedy that is on the table). Indeed, Tuzzo's chapter on Terence's influences on Roswyth may be the sole reason for which the category of texts must be defined as 'teatrali antichi' rather than 'tragici attici'. There are no indices, nor are the chapters by any means in conversation with each other -- a disappointment of expectations raised by Vox's professed vision of the book as 'a sort of virtual seminar.' The look of the book (it is a cheerful purple paperback in the 'Satura' series) somehow suggests that it was designed to, or at least thought to be able to, appeal to an audience whose expertise and interests range relatively widely. And yet many of the chapters are so mechanically philological and bogged down by unnecessary footnoting and lengthy quotation that anyone drawn to the collection by its title (or overleaf, or introduction...) stands a good chance of being disappointed. In the remainder of this review, I will be discussing the content of certain individual chapters, and at the end I will make some further general remarks on the book's overall success.

The first chapter, Mario Andreassi's 'Citazioni teatrali nelle facezie del Philogelos,' challenges the decisions fragment-editors have taken to identify -- even if they have done so tentatively -- a few (punch)lines from the Philogelos as true theatrical quotations: 226 has been construed as a comic quotation (fr. 479 Kassel-Austin), while the Pointe of both 239 and 242 appears among the adespota in collections of tragic fragments (fr. 279 Nauck2 and fr. *279 Kannicht-Snell); none of these lines, however, has been universally accepted as a true dramatic fragment. Andreassi thoroughly rehearses the arguments on both sides for the three alleged citations, and each time refutes the likelihood that the joke 'cites' a specific dramatic text. He argues that the facetiae whose protagonists belong to the world of the theater (a gluttonous comic actor in 226; in 239 a τραγῳδός) instead make pseudo-citations, i.e. pronounce lines reminiscent enough of the kinds of things generally said onstage to be recognized as theatrical. Andreassi's expert feel for the Philogelos is plain1 and his argumentation persuasive, yet this interesting chapter might have been enhanced by more contextualization of the practice he calls citation 'in the manner of', i.e. pseudo-citation. For example, although he cites one phrase's textual parallel in Machon's Chreiai (which 'per più di un aspetto ricordano le facezie del Philogelos,' p. 20), he might have also mentioned how fragments of Machon do actually contain identifiable allusions to lines of surviving Attic tragedy.2 A discussion contrasting strategies of tragic citation and pseudo-citation in comic texts could have cast further light on the individual case of the Philogelos and, more broadly speaking, might have helped to clarify aspects of the evolution of ancient 'theatrical' clichés.

While Andreassi shows that the theatrical punchlines in the Philogelos are not necessarily true dramatic quotations, Claudio Rosato argues that the presence of Euripidean quotations in Cicero's Epistulae does not, in most cases, require that Cicero had firsthand knowledge of the plays. Within this corpus of letters he identifies three models of Euripidean quotation: citations in which Cicero mentions Euripides by name (2 instances), then citations of surviving tragedies (9 instances) and non-surviving Euripidean tragedies (6 instances) that Cicero does not attribute. For each of these 17 occurrences, Rosato discusses the quotation's Ciceronian context and identifies other citations of the verse(s) in ancient literature. He manages to demonstrate that all lines quoted from non-surviving Euripidean plays are nonetheless attested elsewhere (usually in Plutarch or Stobaeus), which itself suggests they had already become proverbial; many of Cicero's quotations thus seem to reflect a knowledge of the plays that has been at least mediated by the gnomological tradition. Less space in this chapter might have been devoted to the minutiae of every case of Euripidean citation in the letters, and more to Rosato's thoughts on what sort of significance and currency the ability to quote even the most famous lines of Euripides (and tragedy) had in Cicero's time, within his various circles. For example, Rosato might have expanded upon his observation that the majority of Euripidean verses occur in Cicero's letters to Atticus, where Cicero never explicitly names the play or even the poet he is quoting -- Atticus, of course, would have needed no such flagging. On the other hand, Cicero does mention Euripides' name in the letters ad familiares, where he drops it presumably in order to fortify his own arguments with Euripides' self-evident authority.

Maria Falappone, in her chapter on citations of Attic tragedy in 'archaeological' histories, argues that authors of archaeologies, too, saw tragic texts as documents inherently imbued with a certain auctoritas (a term that recurs in more than one chapter in this volume, yet which is never really defined -- why not simply 'autorità'?). Accordingly these historians considered the accounts of local history, geography and mythology found in tragedy to be accurate, or at least formidable enough to merit careful refutation. In the first part of the chapter, Falappone undertakes a case study in the story of the Athenian king Erechtheus and Euripides' likely (and long-recognized) role in establishing the key elements of this myth for posterity. She observes that fourth-century Attic orators followed the Euripidean version that cast the Thracians as barbarian invaders (and elided the Athenian hostilities with the Eleusinians found in other variants); by assuming this plotline the orators could frame the actions of Erechtheus' family as models of Athenian patriotism.3 In her next section, Falappone lists a number of passages from archaeologies, particularly by Strabo and Dionysius of Halicarnassus, which cite tragedy and engage with 'tragic' accounts of historical matters. Topics discussed include the founding of Metapontum, the boundaries of Attica, the origin and migrations of the Pelasgians and the ethnogenesis of the Romans. In the final section, Falappone turns to Plutarch: in the Lives Plutarch rarely cites tragedy for its value as 'testimonianza storica,' but Falappone shows that in the Life of Theseus the use of testimonia from the tragedians (and likewise from Atthidographers, Plutarch's principal source), is more frequent and important -- in fact Plutarch himself calls this particular work a piece of archaiologia.

Falappone's chapter (which, lacking a conclusion, seems to cut off prematurely) is filled with many useful bits of information, yet falls prey to two of the most significant perils of studies directed at 'Reception of tragedy in X text(s)': while many good individual points are made, large sections of the piece (like many of the others in this book) tend to read like a prosified list. Second, there is no clear sense of why citations of tragedy might be different from or used differently than citations of epic (or lyric): twice, at pp. 77 and 91, Falappone herself suggests that epic and tragedy had the same auctoritas, but her preliminary sketches of e.g. tragedy's relationship with Atthidography4 do hint that some important distinctions might have been made.

Why exactly tragic citation is under consideration, beyond the fact that drama is the stated purview of the volume, is also somewhat unclear in the two chapters on the quotation of Attic tragedy by Christian apologetic authors. Both apologists discussed (Athenagoras and Theophilus) cite Homer extensively in addition to the tragedians, while Theophilus also devotes attention to the origin of the world as imagined in Hesiod's Theogony. A common thread between the two chapters (as throughout the volume) remains an emphasis on the likelihood that these two authors drew principally upon anthologized collections as their sources of tragic verse. And again, in keeping with the general methodologies of this volume, the bulk of both chapters consists in notices of specific citations, which are accompanied by reflections on how the citations fit and function within the author's broader rhetorical program. Here, too, the result often reads much like a narrativized commentary (both contributions also tend to summarize large portions of the apologies). An interesting direction that might have been pursued here is one that Milo hints at in her piece on Athenagoras, where she makes a suggestive but brief reference to the 'classical' education that Apologists of the second century BC would have received. This, for example, might have been more precisely grounded in whatever evidence we have for tragedy's place in school curricula of the time. Milo also points out that Euripides is the tragedian most often quoted by Athenagoras, a piece of information that could have been contextualized within e.g. the popular Euripidean biographical tradition, which closely connected him with philosophical circles and even cast him as a sort of philosopher in his own right, particularly on matters theological.

In an interesting and enjoyable piece, Maria Frassoni traces the evolution of Xerxes' bridging of the Hellespont as a topos in ancient literature. She opens with a detailed reading of the episode's presentation in Aeschylus' Persians, in which she locates the first literary articulation of Xerxes as theomachos (the Bosporus was sacred to Poseidon). She shows that, whereas Aeschylus' account is heavily laden with moral judgments, Herodotus shows a measure of admiration for the Persian army's feat of engineering. For the historian, the building of the bridge itself is not tantamount, as it was for Aeschylus, to scorn for the divine; rather it functions as a physical manifestation of Xerxes' hubristic desire (the product of his megalophrosune) to rule as one man over two continents. In the second portion of her chapter, Frassoni shows how the bridging of the Hellespont (along with the digging of a canal through Athos) became a topos widely invoked in poetry (e.g. in Ennius, Catullus and Propertius) and deployed in rhetoric both political (e.g. in Isocrates and Aeschines) and philosophical (e.g. in Cicero, Lucretius and Seneca). In fact the conceit became so established as a rhetorical exemplum that Epictetus could refer to it by a kind of shorthand: a student must beware of persuasion by mere rhetorical superficialities, such as the elegance with which his teacher treats 'τὰ περὶ τὸν Ξέρξην' (III 23.38). Frassoni also shows that, in Silver Latin, the figure of Xerxes became a popular point of comparison for certain overambitious and prideful members of the Julio-Claudian family. The chapter concludes with a detailed interpretation of this conceit's appearance in Juvenal's 10th Satire, as well as some speculation about Juvenal's own exposure to the tradition of Greek tragedy: after centuries of relative obscurity in comparison with Herodotus' narrative, here the Aeschylean version, equating Xerxes' bridging of the Hellespont with a desire to shackle Poseidon himself, resurfaces.

The volume concludes with a contribution from Onofrio Vox, on what seems to be a Euripidean echo in the Atreus of the first-century BC Roman orator Mamercus Aemilius Scaurus. Cassius Dio reports that, in Scaurus' tragedy, a royal subject is advised 'as Euripides says' (κατὰ τὸν ἐΥριπίδην) to endure the folly of his ruler (aboulia) (Dio LVIII 24.3-4); Scaurus himself was apparently compelled to commit suicide largely because some took this 'thoughtless ruler' as a cipher for Tiberius. The line Dio mentions strongly recalls a much-quoted one from Euripides' Phoenissae, in which Polynices tells his mother that 'one must endure the misjudgment (amathia) of those in power.' Using the testimonia provided by Tacitus, Dio and possibly Suetonius, Vox first speculates upon the plot of Scaurus' play. Then, after a substantial catalogue of occurrences of the words aboulia and amathia (the principal variation between the Euripidean verse and Dio's citation) in Greek literature, Vox argues that Dio's departure from the original reflects a conscious choice made by Scaurus himself (though presumably Dio was translating Scaurus' Latin). The piece concludes with the observation that the phrase 'κατὰ τὸν ἐΥριπίδην' elsewhere only once introduces a third party's citation of Euripides (thus meaning 'citing Euripides' or 'as Euripides says'). Like other pieces in this volume, this chapter suffers from the lack of a conclusion, and it is difficult to tell what original light Vox has shed here on either Scaurus' play or on the Roman reception of Euripides. Moreover, so much of the chapter relies (though again it is not the only one guilty of this) upon cross-referencing occurrences of words or phrases that an appendix is included that somewhat oddly lists TLG search results for the unit 'κατὰ ἐΥριπίδην'.

The subject of drama's reception in antiquity is a particularly fascinating one, largely because it was the early processes of reception (and canonization) that were responsible for determining which texts would survive and ultimately exert such enormous influences on the history of Western literature. In the majority of this book's chapters, however, the reception of any particular play is very narrowly conceived of as a list of instances in which it is quoted by later authors, and any author's personal reception of drama is likewise reduced to a list of his own citations of theatrical texts. Now, however, that the tools for compiling these sorts of references are so readily available, perhaps future students of this immensely promising area will be able to concentrate their efforts on producing somewhat 'thicker' descriptions of ancient drama's transmission and tradition.


M. Andreassi, 'Citazioni teatrali nelle facezie del Philogelos?' (pp. 11-32)

L. Belloni, 'Reminiscenze da Medea nel libretto di Norma' (pp. 33-66)

M. Falappone, 'Citazioni della tragedia attica nelle "archaiologiai"' (pp. 67-104)

M. Frassoni, 'Serse e l'Ellesponto: da Eschilo (Pers. 745-50) ed Erodoto (VII 35) a Giovenale (X 173-187)' (pp. 105-152)

D. Milo, 'Tragedia attica e Apologetica: I. Atenagora' (pp. 153-170)

G. Nardiello, 'Tragedia attica e Apologetica: 2. Teofilo' (pp. 171-192)

C. Rosato, 'Le citazioni euripidee nell'epistolario di Cicerone' (pp. 193-212)

S. Tuzzo, 'Terenzio nei drammi di Rosvita: pretesto o modello?' (pp. 213-256)

O. Vox, 'Euripide nell'Atreo di Mamerco Emilio Scauro (D. C. LVIII 24, 3-4)' (pp. 257-282).


1.   For a thorough introduction to the Philogelos, one might first consult the third chapter (pp. 27-70) of Andreassi's own monograph (also in the Satura series): Le facezie del Philogelos. Barzellette antiche e umorismo moderno, Lecce 2004.
2.   Machon fr. XII.173 Gow (cf. E. Med. 1342) and fr. XV.30 Gow (cf. Soph. El. 2); on the political significance of these allusions see pp. 35-40 of L. Kurke's 2002 "Gender, politics and subversion in the Chreiai of Machon" (PCPS 48: 20-65).
3.   Here Falappone's study would have benefited greatly from e.g. Peter Wilson's 1996 chapter on the citation of tragedy in fourth-century oratory: 'Tragic rhetoric: The use of tragedy and the tragic in the fourth century,' in Tragedy and the Tragic: Greek Theatre and Beyond, ed. M. S. Silk, 310-331. Oxford.
4.   Atthidography as a genre would, of course, have had a special purchase on the history of Athenian tragedy itself, as well as on the biographies of its poets: the Atthidographers Ister and Philochorus, for example, are both cited in tragedians' Vitae.

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