Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.04.31

Petra Schierl, Die Tragödien des Pacuvius: ein Kommentar zu den Fragmenten mit Einleitung, Text und Übersetzung.   Berlin and New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2006.  Pp. xvi, 678.  ISBN 978-3-11-018249-1.  €128.00.  



Reviewed by Ingo Gildenhard, Durham University (ingo.gildenhard@dur.ac.uk)
Word count: 1755 words

None of the tragic plays from republican Rome has survived in full -- all we have are meagre fragments, with the bulk of them coming from the dramatic output of Ennius, Pacuvius and Accius. The first and last of the trio have been well served by modern scholarship, with Jocelyn's superb edition with commentary of the tragic fragments of Ennius (Cambridge, 1967) and Dangel's provocatively idiosyncratic 1995 Budé edition of Accius. Pacuvius, in contrast, has not fared equally well -- until now, that is: D'Anna's edition (Rome, 1967), while serviceable, has long been due for an update, and S.'s massive volume, which leaves hardly any stone in Pacuvian scholarship unturned, achieves precisely that, even though she offers rather less food for thought on her chosen author than Jocelyn and Dangel on theirs. The overall standard of production is very high, and I have only noticed minor blips, such as a wrong cross-reference here and there, easily corrected.

The substantial introduction covers Pacuvius' life, his oeuvre (including a survey of literary issues to do with the production of tragedies in republican Rome: Greek models, techniques of translation, contamination, choice of subjects, originality, language, style and metrics), text and transmission, the reception of Pacuvius in antiquity, and a survey of modern scholarship, concluding with some remarks on the methodology applied in the preparation of the current edition and some guidelines on how to use it. The exposition is competent but also rather bland; there is of course a virtue in commentaries that do not grind axes and simply inform (which S. does amply), but at least in this reviewer's opinion a greater sense of urgency and a more clearly articulated answer to the question 'what for, what ultimately for?' (to paraphrase Leavis) would not have come amiss. Aficionados of Pacuvius and early republican tragedy will of course want to read this book from cover to cover, but it is not bound to enthuse those who are not already hooked on this (rather fascinating, if enigmatic and elusive) author.

The commentary proper begins with some testimonia (de vita, de operibus, de iudiciis apud posteros), followed by detailed entries on each of the thirteen plays securely attested for Pacuvius: Antiopa, Armorum iudicium, Atalanta, Chryses, Dulorestes, Hermiona, Iliona, Medus, Niptra, Pentheus (vel Bacchae), Periboea, Teucer, and the fabula praetexta Paulus. The rearguard of the volume comprises a section on those testimonia and fragments that cannot be attributed securely to a specific play, a section on fragments where the authorship of Pacuvius is in dispute, the bibliography, a concordance (to D'Anna and the third edition of Ribbeck), a conspectus metrorum, and four indices (fontium, locorum, verborum, rerum).

This arrangement is generally sound, even though it might have been advisable to print all of the seventy or so testimonia in one place, instead of sprinkling them throughout the commentary. As it is, the first entry in the general section under De operibus, i.e. Testimonia titulorum duodecim fabularum, quae Pacuvio certe adscribi possunt, et fabulae praetextae, simply refers the reader to the commentary on individual plays. But information on certain titles can also be found under number three of the general section (De iudiciis apud posteros); some plays have no testimonia at all since their titles are only mentioned in connection with a quotation; some of the testimonia listed under specific plays have nothing to do with the title but would have merited an entry under De iudiciis apud posteros; and, occasionally, a testimonium that one would expect under a specific play only occurs in the general section, without cross-reference (e.g. T 32 on the Antiopa). T 26 is printed twice, once on p. 89 (with text-critical insert) and once on p. 113 where it does double duty as an unnumbered fragment and is printed without text-critical insert but some additional sentences that some scholars have suspected of containing a quotation from Pacuvius. All this causes rather a lot of page-flipping; having the testimonia assembled together would also have facilitated the pursuit of interests to do with Pacuvius and his reception above and beyond the reconstruction of individual plays.

The commentaries on the plays follow a tried and true formula: extensive introductions that rehearse the standard problems of interpretation (mythic plot, potential Greek models, attempts at reconstruction), a list of play-specific testimonia (where appropriate), the fragments with a German translation (both faithful and very readable) and an impressive critical apparatus, each followed by extensive comments on various aspects of text, style, language, meter, theme, and position in the plot. One particular area in which S. excels with compelling and often original insights is the analysis of rhetorical design: see e.g. p. 123, for an excellent discussion of Antiope's (?) "virginem me quondam invitam per vim violat Iuppiter"; p. 146, on eloquent Ajax (though read 'fr. 22' for 'fr. 23'); p. 296: enactment through antithesis and alliteration; p. 366: interaction of style and theme; or p. 383: Medea's antithetical argument. (One related area that is largely left unexplored is the correlation of theme and meter: see A. Gratwick in CR 2008, 114-7, here 116.)

But what stands out most is her mastery of doxography. S. offers an exhaustive record of conjectures, well displayed in her critical apparatus, and discusses in detail previous attempts at reconstruction. She sensibly prefers to err on the side of caution: if at all, S. hesitantly endorses the solution that strikes her as least speculative. Not infrequently, her survey of previous scholarship ends in aporia. If she deems the text beyond repair or the available reconstructions built on quicksand, she feels no need to pull a rabbit out of her hat, preferring to leave matters as they are: "Auf eine Rekonstruktion des aeusserst unsicheren Textes muss allerdings verzichtet werden; ein vertretbarer Vorschlag, der metrisch korrekt und zugleich inhaltlich sinnvoll ist, fehlt bisher" (534) sums up her cautionary approach. S. proves a virtuoso of the hypothetical subjunctive (koennte, waere, wuerde) and the qualifying tag (eher, kaum, allerdings, fraglich, mit einiger Wahrscheinlichkeit, vermutlich, bleibt Spekulation).

The scepticism yields some excellent discussions. For example: S. supports the hypothesis that, despite Cicero's comparison, in Tusc. 2., of Pacuvius' Niptra with a Sophoclean treatment of Odysseus in pain, it is by no means certain that any one of the two plays by Sophocles dealing with the return and the death of Odysseus (the Niptra and the Odusseus Akanthoplex) was Pacuvius' model. (A further aspect that would have merited consideration in this context is the likelihood that Cicero read neither of the Greek plays in their entirety but rather encountered the relevant passage -- from whatever play -- as an excerpt in one of his philosophical sources.) At the same time, the quiet if remorseless way in which S. systematically exposes the questionable nature or outright unsustainability of many a scholarly argument also seems to suggest that the approaches that have traditionally dominated scholarship on Pacuvius, i.e. textual criticism and plot reconstruction, may have run their course -- together with larger theses that build on a particular reconstruction of text or plot. Many of them are so speculative that they tend to be of interest only to those who wish to offer a counter-speculation.

At the same time, fragments invite grasping for straws, and at times this reviewer wondered whether more could have been caught. Take, for instance, Serv. Auct. at Aen. 4.469, which gives a summary of the clash between Pentheus and Bacchus. S. plausibly suggests that Servius relies on Ovid, Met. 3 for his summary and that the testimonium must therefore be used with caution for inferences about the Pacuvian play. But she assumes, I believe incorrectly, that Akoites and Bacchus are not one and the same in Ovid (see E. J. Kenney's note in A. D. Melville's Oxford World's Classics edition ad loc.); and, while Pentheus has no visions in Ovid and ascribes furor to the worshippers of Bacchus, he himself rants and raves in the thrall of passion (see esp. 3.567: crescit rabies; 707: recanduit ira). Likewise, given the fact that Pentheus, in Pacuvius, sees, among other things, the agmina Eumenidum in his madness, his savage order to send the captive after gruesome torture to the underworld (694-5: cruciataque diris/ corpora tormentis Stygiae demittite nocti), is rather suggestive of a deft allusive inversion. In short, there may be more traces of Pacuvius in Ovid than appear at first sight.

Given that Pacuvian studies desperately need a breath of fresh air that would move the debate away from the glass bead game of plot-reconstruction (and thus make it relevant to other areas of classical scholarship), it is also unfortunate that S., like many German philologists working today, has somehow managed to remain oblivious to the world-class research of her colleagues in ancient history. The commentary shows no sign that she has read anything by Flaig, Hoelkeskamp, or Jehne, or any of the other scholars who, over the last two decades or so, have profoundly altered our understanding of republican Rome and hence the larger cultural context in which Pacuvius produced his plays. What she has to say on 'historical semantics' is hence consistently less insightful than it could have been. To give just a few examples: p. 226-30: in fr. 76 = 80-2 Ribb. = 128-30 D'A, a speaker hails his fellow citizens as "augurium atque extum interpretes", and fr. 77 seemingly conflates the domains of the augures and haruspices in a sweeping critique of divination; but little is made of the remarkable density of technical terms from Rome's civic religion, their precise meanings, and the ensuing incongruities with Rome's cultural certainties, beyond the hackneyed suggestion that this is potentially "provocative". p. 395 n. 25: for Greek genealogies in Rome, Wiseman's 1974 Greece & Rome piece ought to have been cited together with Hoelkeskamp's "Roemische gentes und griechische Genealogien" (in Vogt-Spira and Rommel, Rezeption und Identitaet, Stuttgart 1999). p. 534-5 (on the Fortuna-fragment): the semantics of Fortuna in Rome are considerably more interesting than S.'s discussion would lead one to suppose. Jocelyn (1967) 301 is not quite right in claiming that "Fortuna never indicates impersonal chance (tuche) in republican drama" except in this particular fragment, but the assertion points to something important. There are also no comments on the fact that the doctrine of "Wanckelmuetigkeit des Schicksals" is explicitly ascribed to philosophers (... perhibent philosophi) and the connotations of this Greek loanword in republican Rome.

But, overall, all such criticisms are minor in the light of an impressive piece of scholarship that makes a significant contribution to the field of Roman republican tragedy.

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