Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2010.04.46

Sabine Föllinger, Aischylos: Meister der griechischen Tragödie.   München:   Verlag C. H. Beck, 2009.  Pp. 224.  ISBN 9783406591303.  €24.90.  

Reviewed by Enrico Medda, Università di Pisa (

Sabine Föllinger has already contributed to Aeschylean scholarship some interesting studies, the most relevant of which is the volume Genosdependenzen. Studien zur Arbeit am Mythos bei Aischylos;1 she presents now her ideas to a broader public in the form of a general introduction to the poet's work followed by her interpretations of the seven plays, which, in the author's words, "sich... nicht unbedingt mit der communis opinio der Forschung decken" (p. 8).

The title of the book is thus explained in the introduction: "das 'Meisterhafte' an Aischylos Werk besteht in der Komplexität, die seine Darstellung menschlicher Problematik auszeichnet" (p.7). The author's emphasis on complexity corresponds to the critical approach outlined in ch. 1 and 3. Föllinger criticizes the widespread tendency to look at Aeschylus' dramas primarily as vehicles of a didactic message of religious, political or philosophical nature, that inevitably results in one-sided readings of the plays, unable to give us an adequate picture of the poet's theatrical art.2 Looking back to the Aristotelic concept of tragedy as imitation of human actions, she sees the core of the plays in Aeschylus' inquiry about the causal factors that determine both the individual and the political actions of his characters, that is conducted not only in the individual dimension, but also by exploring the past of their families. This allows the creation of complex dramatic structures based on the relationships between different generations. In Föllinger's view, human actions are conceived by Aeschylus as the product of the interaction of individual motivations and "generationenübergreifende Kausalitäten", a process in which the latter are not to be seen, in Hesiodic or Solonic terms, as an inescapable burden of inherited guilt. They are rather represented as forces that cooperate to create the conditions in which men are bound to take their decisions, for which they remain in any case personally responsible. According to this perspective, Föllinger regards the skillful adaptation of pre-existing myths to this dramatic purpose (the 'Arbeit am Mythos' that inspired the title of her 2003 volume) as one of the most innovative features of Aeschylus' theatre.3 Politics, religion, moral and juridical ideas are obviously relevant to the whole, but they must be regarded only as a frame: they offer "die Parameter, innerhalb derer der Aischyleische Mensch handelt".

In ch. 1 Föllinger manages to pack a considerable amount of general information, offering a broad view of the historical and cultural context of Aeschylean drama. The necessary brevity does not affect the clarity and reliability of the whole, so that the chapter represents a good starting point for a beginner's encounter with Aeschylus. Two interesting paragraphs are devoted to female roles and to the violence on stage, that often involves women, both as passive and as active subjects. Ch. 2 contains only a (perhaps too) brief sketch of the transmission of the text.

Each of the five chapters (4-8) dedicated to the extant tragedies is organized in three sections: a summary of the content, an exposition of the main critical problems and the author's interpretation.

Föllinger sees the tragic core of the Persians (ch. 4) in the conflict between generations and in its relationship with the legitimation of Xerxes' power. The failure of the king is strongly contrasted not only with his father's deeds, but also with the whole series of Persian kings. This motivates the construction of an ad hoc royal genealogy and the 'hiding', as much as possible, of the memory of Marathon, a defeat that would have dangerously assimilated Darius to his son. The tragedy shows how a powerful king, in his desire to match his father's fame, is ruined by his own errors; these are presented as human and understandable so that they may arouse the audience's pity even for a barbarian character (I side here with Föllinger in believing that the opposition Greeks/barbarians in the play should not be pressed too far). The embedding of the tragic story of Xerxes the individual in the broader context of the war gives occasion to a double-level 'political' reading: the ruin of the king is a paradigm of the danger of giving to one man all the power without any form of control, given that his mistakes disastrously affect the whole community. On a more general level the tragedy highlights the danger of any political power, and probably recalled to the memory of the Athenians the fall of Themistocles.

Föllinger's analysis of the Seven against Thebes (ch. 5) brings to the foreground the conflict between "Kollektiv" and "Individuum". The central theme of the play is in fact identified in the confrontation between Eteocles' "auf die Familie konzentrierten aristokratischen Einzelkämpferethik" and "der polisorientierten Haltung der Frauen" (p. 84). Fö. offers some interesting observations on the poet's choice (unusual for a fifth-century tragedy) to present a female chorus that contrasts with the king by reminding him of the interests of the polis. Her treatment of the two brother's motivations aims to show how they share 'das egoistische Streben nach Ruhm und Ehre'; Eteocles' decision, in particular, is not dictated by his will to rescue the polis, but by an individual motivation that brings him to appropriate the curse of his father. Föllinger proposes a personal reading of the exodos of the drama, in which she again detects the presence of the conflict between the collective and the individual dimension: the decision of the king has in fact serious consequences not only for his family, but also for the city, which continues to be exposed to a great danger even after his death.

In ch. 6, dedicated to the Suppliants, Föllinger fittingly points out the leading role of Danaus, which has not been adequately appreciated by the interpreters of the play. She argues that he is the real promoter of the Danaids' flight and the controller of their attempt to obtain the help of the Argives. As for the origin of the refusal of the women to marry their cousins, Föllinger accepts the suggestion of M. Sicherl that an oracle predicted that Danaus would have been killed by one of his sons-in-law.4 This oracle is not mentioned in the play, but its absence might be explained as a part of the strategy adopted by the Danaids to persuade Pelasgus. The king repeatedly tries to sort out whether the Aegyptians have a legal right on the Danaids or not, but the women recur to evasive answers, remind him that their father has not consented to the marriage and insist on their kinship with the Argives (this last detail is a novelty introduced by Aeschylus's peculiar treatment of the story of Io; it also serves to give the Danaids a strong claim on the protection of their ancestor Zeus). The play presents a series of interacting oppositions: male vs. female, Argives vs. foreigners, monarchic government vs. democracy.

The most elaborate interpretation of the motivations of men's decisions is presented by Aeschylus in the Oresteia (ch. 7). Föllinger detects here a complex tissue of interwoven conflicts: 1) the feud between the brothers Atreus and Thyestes in the preceding generation; 2) father / daughter; 3) wife / husband; 4) mother / son; 5) mother / daughter; 6) generational conflict among gods; 7) political conflict between the chorus and the usurpers; and 8) a more general conflict between genders. She argues decisively against 'optimistic' readings that regard the end of the trilogy as a victory of a new rational order over the ancient conception of blood revenge, and radically reappraises the relevance of the latter and of ancestral curses in determining the decisions of the characters. In her opinion all the deaths in the trilogy are due to voluntary actions: no character is compelled to act by overwhelming external forces, nor is any automatic sanction applied to anyone man as a consequence of a curse; on the contrary, a public punishment is envisaged as an alternative to blood revenge in Ag. 1410-11 and 1616. The end of the trilogy does not bring a real "Lösung" of the conflict, since no character, humane or divine, is really able to control the events. Föllinger's analysis of the Eumenides points out the unfavourable presentation of Apollo and Athena, and on the whole the impossibility to extract from the play a political message in favour of or against the democratic government: the institution of the Areopagus is only the frame chosen by the poet to show the problems of the democratic decisional process, which is unable to cut the knot of the matricide. In the Agamemnon attention is paid to the reversal of male and female roles both in the individual and in the political dimension. Consistent with her criticisms against the 'theological' interpretation of Aeschylus, Föllinger refuses the tendency to read the Hymn to Zeus as the voice of the poet; it must be understood instead in the intra-dramatic dimension, as an attempt of the Elders to persuade themselves that the world is justly, though sternly, governed by Zeus.5 The second stasimon presents a complex picture of the interaction between "Genosdependenz" and individual freedom. The inherited guilt paves the way for a new guilt-producing action, but the connection with the past comes to light only when the decisive moment has come, and an individual decision is needed to give birth to a new hybris. In the Libation Bearers the familial conflict is developed by adding to the "Genosdependenz" an external determinant: the order of Apollo. Aeschylus' innovation consists in his attempt to explain Orestes' motivations within the frame of the religious and cultural context of fifth-century Athens. Religious issues are incorporated into a dramatic project that is centered on the problematization of the matricide. The familial dimension chosen by the poet for his story culminates in the dialogue between mother and son, where Orestes' identification with his father is so close that he blames his mother for the adultery, not for the murder.

Concerning the authenticity of Prometheus Bound (ch. 8) Föllinger does not go beyond a cautious non liquet (I believe she is right in thinking that the connection of Io's wanderings with Zeus and not with Hera, as in the Suppliants, should not be considered an argument against authenticity.) In this play she regards the generational conflict as a frame for the contrast between the stern power of the ruling god and the spiritual freedom of the Titan. Föllinger rejects the idea of a loosely connected 'episodic drama': the unifying element is to be found in the unbroken will of the protagonist. She also insists on the mythic innovations concerning Io, who shares with Prometheus the knowledge of a secret related to Zeus.

After a brief survey of Aeschylus' satyric dramas (ch. 9) and fragments (ch. 10), the book closes with a useful review of the fortune of his theatre from the fifth century B.C. to Christa Wolf's Kassandra, a field of research to which German scholarship has largely contributed in the last decades. Owing to the nature of the book, mainly addressed to German readers, it is understandable that the final bibliography includes German studies for the most part; it is nonetheless rich and well organized.

There is much that is sound in the way Föllinger approaches the decision-making process of Aeschylean characters, a subject that after some decades of lulled interest has recently attracted much scholarly attention.6 Many of her arguments are persuasive and she is often able to offer fresh insights on age-old questions, thus deepening our perception of Aeschylean theatre. Since a detailed discussion of her interpretations of each play would go beyond the scope of this review , I can offer here only a few observations. Not all the chapters are equally persuasive, in my opinion: for example, I appreciate the readings of Persians and Suppliants, but I am seriously perplexed about her interpretation of the ending of the Seven; there, Föllinger's attempt to extract from the text the opposition between "Individuum" and "Kollektiv" seems to be strained. Lines 825 ff., where the women ask whether they should rejoice for salvation or sing a song of mourning for the dead brothers, suggest that the future of the polis is no more a matter of concern for them, and even if those lines were interpolated, as Verrall thought, the familial dimension remains in any case largely prevalent in the final lament.7

On a more general level, Föllinger's defence of human autonomy and responsibility goes sometimes too far and results in a too restricted evaluation of the role of the external forces that exercise pressure on men. In the Persians, for example, the idea that Xerxes' ruin is understandable on the ground of his errors is not enough to cancel out the unresolved tension between the 'moral' perspective of Darius and the 'amoral' concept of the ἀπάτα θεοῦ, which creates a sense of fear for the unpredictability of human ruin. The latter view prevails in the final lament, which probably induced the spectators to reflect on their own difficulty to know what are the limits allowed for human prosperity (see now the discussion of A. Garvie, Aeschylus. Persae, Oxford 2009, xxii-xxxii). As for the Oresteia, I think Föllinger is right in highlighting the 'gray' elements that may be found in the Eumenides, while I find less satisfying her approach to blood revenge and other 'archaic' concepts. She claims that these ideas did not correspond to existing practices in fifth-century Athens; however, it cannot be denied that in many aspects of the religious and juridic life of the polis they existed side by side with new forms of thought. What matters at a dramatic level is that by introducing them as possible determinants of his character's actions Aeschylus was able to instill in the audience a sense of dread that was essential to his dramatic project. The overlapping and clashing of pre-juridical and juridical concepts opened a wide field for his readings of the old myths. This allowed him to cast light on the problematic and contradictory nature of reality, which he did not intend to soften nor explain. In my opinion, human suffering is bound to remain suspended between human responsibility and external compulsion.8

On the whole, Föllinger's book is a welcome addition to the literature on Aeschylus: it serves both as an up-to-date introduction to the author and as a spur to further reflect on his 'masterful' tragedies.


1.   Göttingen 2003. See also 'Fremde auf der Bühne des Aischylos,' in: Ch. Balme (Hrsg.), Das Theater der Anderen. Alterität und Theater zwischen Antike und Gegenwart (Mainzer Forschungen zu Drama und Theater 26), Tübingen 2001, 37-54; 'Väter und Töchter bei Aischylos,' in: Th. Baier (Hrsg.), Generationenkonflikte auf der Bühne. Perspektiven im antiken und mittelalterlichen Drama, Tübingen 2007, 11-22; 'Genealogie und Herrscherlegitimation in Aischylos' Persern,' in: Th. Baier (Hrsg.), Die Legitimation der Einzelherrschaft im Kontext der Generationenthematik, Berlin/New York 2008, 11-24.
2.   In an abridged version of the survey offered in Genosdependenzen, 34-48, Föllinger points out the feeble points of (a) the 'theological' approach, according to which Aeschylus aimed to communicate his religious vision of an ordered world justly, albeit sternly, governed by Zeus; (b) the 'political' approach, that looks at tragedy as an essential medium of public discourse whose main function was to give support to the new political order of the polis; and (c) readings that see in tragedy a document of the 'Geistesgeschichte' of the Greek people. She deals here only with the works of some influential German scholars: K. Reinhardt and Wilhelm Nestle for (a) (against this approach, recently revived by R. Bees, Aischylos. Interpretationen zum Verständnis seiner Theologie München 2009, Föllinger recalls the reaction of H. Lloyd-Jones' [in the well-known 1956 article 'Zeus in Aeschylus', now in Greek Epic, Lyric, and Tragedy. The Academic Papers of Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Oxford 1990, 238-261] who challenged the attribution to Aeschylus of a deep philosophical thought; she feels more in tune with scholars that do not identify tout court the theological utterances of Aeschylean choruses as the 'voice of the poet', like R. Thiel and L. Käppel); Walter Nestle, W. Rösler, C. Meier for (b); and the well-known work of B. Snell for (c).
3.   Readers will find a more wide-ranging discussion of the complex connection between myth and literature in Genosdependenzen, 24ff: in the present study (pp. 24-26) Föllinger emphasizes again the active mythopoetic role of the dramatists.
4.   M. Sicherl, 'Die Tragik der Danaiden, Museum Helveticum 43, 1986, 81-110.
5.   On this point, Föllinger picks up the approach developed in R. Thiel's book Chor und tragische Handlung im 'Agamemnon' des Aeschylus', Stuttgart 1993, and also takes into account the ideas of L. Käppel, Die Konstruktion der Handlung der Orestie des Aischylos: die Makrostruktur des "Plot" als Sinnträger in der Darstellung des Geschlechterfluchs, München 1998.
6.   See my review of N. J. Sewell-Rutter, Guilt by Descent. Moral Inheritance and Decision Making in Greek Tragedy, Oxford 2007, BMCR 2008.10.24, a book apparently overlooked by Föllinger, though it could have contributed many interesting suggestions to her study.
7.   The translation of l. 842 (μέριμνα δ'ἀμφὶ πτόλιν) as "die Sorge um die Stadt aber bleibt" slightly strains the Greek ("bleibt" is not in the text), and μέριμνα is better understood as a reference to the grief that spreads over the city (see Hutchinson ad l.).
8.   As A. Sommerstein points out in his review of Genosdependenzen (Gnomon 77, 2005, 167-69), Föllinger's claim that a public punishment (exile or stoning) is presented as an alternative for blood revenge in the last scenes of Agamemnon does not take adequately into account the fact that the Elders have no force to oppose to the spearmen of Aegisthus.

Comment on this review in the BMCR blog
Read Latest
Index for 2010
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review
Bryn Mawr Classical Commentaries

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010

HTML generated at 15:31:18, Wednesday, 28 April 2010