Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.10.22

Jacques Jouanna, Sophocle.   Paris:  Librairie Arthème Fayard, 2007.  Pp. 906.  ISBN 978-2-213-60384-1.  €30.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Brigitte Le Guen, Université de Paris 8 (
Word count: 2333 words

At the end of 2007, specialists of the Greek theatre and, more broadly, all readers interested in the great Athenian playwrights of the fifth century BC had the good fortune to see the publication by Fayard of Sophocle by Jacques Jouanna. The book is the result of some fifteen years of work.

Let me say it straightway: we are dealing with a survey for which no equivalent in any language whatsoever exists. The author is the long-time holder of the position of Professor of Greek Literature and Civilisation at the Université de Paris IV-Sorbonne. He has devoted at least half his teaching and research career to Greek tragedy; the other half has focussed on ancient medicine which, in several respects, is linked to it. Here J. Jouanna (= J.J.) has achieved the tour de force of presenting Sophocles, in one and the same work, as both the renowned politician and remarkable dramatist he was. In contrast to the standard critical tradition (V. Ehrenberg, Sophocles and Pericles, Oxford 1954), he tries to show that, while Sophocles won the dramatic contest on 24 occasions (and his main rivals, Aeschylus and Euripides, triumphed only 13 and 4 times respectively), he was also fully engaged in current debates as a result of which the city of Athens entrusted him with several duties, which were by no means purely honorific.

This explains the arrangement of the work into two main, albeit unequal, parts judging purely by the number of pages. The first, "Sophocles the Athenian", deals with the public figure (pp.11-125); the second, "Sophocles the Tragedian", deals with the career of the poet, the features of his dramatic composition and the imaginary which informs all of his work (pp.129-536). For the first time Sophocles' theatre is considered as a whole, and in a truly magisterial manner, with analysis of the tragedies that have come down to us in extenso (7 out of a total of 130; see Annexe I, pp.537-608) followed by the scrupulous and detailed examination of 115 works that survive in fragments only (Annexe II, pp.609-676). The separation between man and work -- which the structure of the presentation make inescapable -- is, however, never total, so that there is a constant back and forth between the two. Sophocles lived in the specific socio-political context of fifth century Athens. He carried this, as and when appropriate, into his tragedies, while observing the conventions of the genre. Two examples may serve to illustrate this: J.J. indicates that the oppressive presence of the plague motif at the beginning of Oedipus the King almost certainly derived from the "widespread plague which afflicted Athens for several years at the start of the Peloponnesian War" (p.42); and when he refers to Sophocles' membership of the Colonus deme Hippios, he cannot help but cite (p.15) the vibrant eulogy sung by the chorus of old men in Oedipus at Colonus (v. 668-693).

This book of 906 pages opens with what the author calls a 'snapshot of Sophocles'.1 J.J. uses the phrase, obviously one pleasing to him, repeatedly and with slight variations right down to the last page. The image is one of the poet in action, at a banquet, pictured by Ion of Chios, a man of letters, playwright and one of his contemporaries.2 It is preserved for us by a character in Athenaeus of Naucratis' Deipnosophistai (13, 603f-604d), who cites it six centuries later. From this we obtain the image of Sophocles J.J. wants to impress on his readers: a cultivated man, aged around forty, bubbling with intelligence, as skilled a strategist on the battlefield as at the banqueting table.

The five following chapters (pp.23-125) allow us to follow the artist from his youth until his death, including his two careers -- political and theatrical. And J.J. is sure that, along with his marked religiosity, Sophocles was able to maintain a true balance between the two.

Six further chapters (pp.131-517), preceded by a new preface (pp.129-130), remind us of the loss of a substantial number of Greek plays of the classical and later periods. These illuminate the poet's world and the distinctive elements of his dramatic technique. J.J. examines, one by one, the way Sophocles utilised the myths transmitted by the Homeric poems and other epic cycles to create the basic ingredients for his tragedies (pp.131-203); he shows how the artist made light of constraints imposed by space and time (pp.205-333), composed and presented his characters (pp.335-416), as well as the manner in which he portrayed relations between men and gods (pp.417-462) and handled the power of tragic irony (pp.463-517).

His return to the poet's reputation during his life-time and the success of the plays over the centuries serve as a conclusion and fulfil J.J.'s deepest aim in writing his magnum opus (pp.519-536): to locate the man and his work in his time, using just the single methodological principle of a "new and critical re-examination" (p.520) of the available documentary corpus.

Five annexes complete the whole. The first two, devoted to a presentation of Sophocles' tragedies preserved complete or as fragments (see above), are followed by one relating to Sophocles the hellenotamias in 443/2 (Annexe III, pp.677-680) and two more provide the non-Hellenist with translations of texts important for studying the writer and his theatre: Discourse 52 of Dion of Prusa, A Comparison between the Philoctetes of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles (Annexe IV, pp.681-684); the Life of Sophocles by an anonymous author, seemingly of the first century BC; and the notice about Sophocles in the Byzantine manuscript of the Souda (Annexe V, pp.685-688).

Another 52 pages of 'bibliographical orientation' follow, beginning with the main general works and studies of each individual play. Subsequent titles are arranged in rubrics corresponding to the various chapters. The book ends with 136 pages of notes, 24 pages of lexica and indices (concepts, proper names, passages cited) and 6 pages of contents.

It cannot be stressed enough that this is a remarkable work, which demands admiration, and to which it is impossible to do justice in detail in a few pages. With respect to the life of Sophocles, i.e. his background and social milieu, his role in introducing the cult of Asclepius to Athens and the cultic honours he enjoyed after his death in recognition of his signal piety - virtually all are the subject of debate, even controversy, and each of J.J.'s assertions deserves discussion. This is not the place to do so. I should just like to make one methodological observation: the reliability of an article in a Byzantine dictionary dating from the eleventh century AD (Etymologicum genuinum), which is the sole evidence for the heroisation of Sophocles with the name Dexion, is not confirmed by the archaeological or epigraphic material. In fact, they only attest the existence in the fourth century (the date when the recovered stelae were engraved) of a small shrine built on the western slope of the Acropolis for a private cult performed by a priestly association jointly to Amynos, a healer hero, Asclepius and a god or hero called Dexion. The Byzantine note and the inscription only illuminate each other if one accepts the identifcation of Sophocles with Dexion. However, nothing makes this a necessary assumption: the Greek fondness for word-play and explanations based on apparent etymological similarities are well known. The use of the adjective dexios to characterise Sophocles in earlier literature and allusions to his heroisation, combined with the existence of a cult (or its memory) of Dexion on a spur of the Acropolis, may well have led the dictionary's author to identify Sophocles with Dexion. In the same way, knowledge of Sophocles' reception of Asclepius in his house (via Plutarch and Philostratus the Younger) could have led him to add to the poet's piety by crediting him with the construction of an altar to the healer god. These are not established facts and expressing scepticism about them is not misplaced hypercriticism (on p.80, J.J. refers to "certain critical scholars [who] might be tempted to doubt" the sources he adduces).

In the section devoted to Sophocles the tragedian, J.J. discusses the staging and dramatic practices of the fifth century by considering the layout of the theatre of Dionysus Eleuthereus, the festivals celebrated in honour of the god of drama, the composition of the audience, and the parts played, respectively, by the providers of the chorus, authors, actors and property men. This story, largely dependant on the work of Sir Arthur W. Pickard-Cambridge, for long the reference work par excellence,3 needs now to substantially rewritten based on a new examination of the documentary corpus. This means going back to the first major dates of theatrical history (linked to the Great Dionysia and the introduction of the tragic competition in Athens in 534; 486 as the probable year of the introduction of comic competitions also needs to be included) and more broadly the entire context of production (pp.221 ff.). This, again, is not the appropriate place to do this. So, rather than discussing in detail the author's statements on these various points, I shall limit myself to emphasising what is, in my view, the most important contribution of this work.

First and foremost, gratitude is due to J.J. for his translation and commentary of the main testimonia relating to the playwright. This makes a documentation previously restricted to specialists accessible to a wider public (cf. S. Radt, Tragicorum Gaecorum Fragmenta, vol. IV, Sophocles, Göttingen, 1977; 2nd ed. 1999). He also deserves praise for his consistent effort to return to the sources, be they literary, archaeological or epigraphic, even though their treatment may not always command agreement. Let me pick just one example: a historian faced with the problem of how to utilise the fragments accessible through Athenaeus4 would certainly not accept without reservation that the Ion of Chios passage, which opens the book, is a piece of 'reportage' on Sophocles, nor yet 'a picture drawn from life'. It is, of course, a highly elaborated image (J.J. himself describes it as a "delicious scene from comedy", p.12). It fits the conventions of the literary banquet, where the quality and quantity of the delicacies consumed vie with the profusion and aptness of the citations exchanged among the guests. Moreover, we only have this story because Athenaeaus of Naucratis used it. And he recontextualises (perhaps deforms) it to serve his personal artistic project, which is, of course, the setting of a banquet of food and words. But the crucial point is that fragment 104 (ap. Jacoby) of Ion of Chios' Epidemies is now accessible to all, specialist and non-specialist alike (pp.11-12).

Another fundamental merit of the book is to bring to life before our eyes both the wealth and the complexity as well as the pliability of the myths which made up the cultural horizon of Sophocles and (part at least) of his audience in the fifth century BC. In the chapter dealing with the poet's imaginary, as well as in Annexe (II), where the pieces preserved only in fragmentary form are examined, J.J. rescues numerous tragedies with whole sections of their history from oblivion. The result is to diminish the great gaps in the literary tradition. He considers, scrupulously and with unparalleled erudition, the legendary tales that inspired Sophocles before he reworked them. For example, he recalls the madness of Athamas who, while out hunting, killed the son of his second marriage in the belief that it was a stag. A little further on, he reminds us of Eumelos, son of Admetus and Alcestis, who commanded a Thessalian contingent and took part in the chariot race included in the funeral games held in honour of Patrocles, and then the Lycian king Iobates whose daughter, wife of the king of Tiryns, fell in love with Bellerophon. J.J. thus allows the reader to see for him/herself the rich mythological tradition on which poets planning to write a tragedy could draw. At the same time, while each playwright was free to produce as many variants of a particular mythical sequence as he wanted -- this explains the fact that Euripides wrote two Phrixos plays, Sophocles two Lemnians, two versions of Tyro, two of Phineas and three of Thyestes -- the various poets competed against each other, while picking over and over the same heroes and the same episodes. This explains the innumerable and subtle games played among poets working within one, as well as different, genres. Thanks are due to J.J. for emphasising their importance.

This enthralling survey, impeccably presented, is marred by very few typographical errors: p.744, n.12, should read "concours"; p.758, n.51, should be "Ertyhrées"; p.764, n.44, "Didascalies"; p.766, n.64, the parenthesis after 440 should be deleted. The translation of the inscription honouring Kalliades and Lysimachides (p.80) should correct "it was decided" to "it pleased" (the Greek is not edoxe, but dedochthai), "seeing that" into "given that" or "in the expectation of" (this being the usual way of rendering the conjunction epeide in decrees), "award eulogies" into "award a public eulogy" (this being the technical meaning of the verb epainesai), and "inscribe" to "transcribe" (the verb anagraphein being similarly a technical term). On p.27, too, the total of the sum levied by the Hellenotamiai on the tribute paid by the cities of the Delian League was not one-sixth, but one-sixtieth; and on p.26, it needs to be made clear that the lists found next to the Propylaea during the excavations of the Acropolis from 1834 on, do not note the phoros payable by the Athenian allies but the aparchai due to the goddess. On p.92, the translation of rubric (A 56) of the Parian Marble needs to be modified, as it does not at all reflect the way in which the whole of the chronicle is laid out.

Obviously, these are mere details that do not undermine the book's value. J.J.'s work is impressive. I would conclude by adapting the beginning of a verse of Phrynichus' Muses: "Oh happy Sophocles, to have found in J.J. an unconditional admirer and the most talented biographer!"


1.   Maria Luisa Gambato in Ateneo, I Deipnosofisti, Salerno Editrice 2001, mentions pp. 1554-1555, n. 2-6, "un rarissimo caso di testimonianza quasi in presa diretta".
2.   L. Leurini, "Ione di Chio 1960-2005", Lustrum 48 (2006), 7-44.
3.   The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, 2nd ed., Oxford 1988. See also B. Le Guen, "Réflexions sur l'activité théâtrale dans le monde hellénique : à propos de trois synthèses récentes", Topoi 8/1 (1998), 53-94.
4.   E.g. D. Lenfant (ed.), Athénée et les fragments d'historiens, De Boccard 2007 (with previous bibliography).

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