Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.07.16

Maurizio Sonnino (ed.), Euripidis Erechthei quae exstant. Biblioteca nazionale. Testi con commento filologico, 19.   Firenze:  Felice Le Monnier, 2010.  Pp. 520.  ISBN 9788800740067.  €37.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Martin Cropp, University of Calgary (

Erechtheus is important especially because of its Athenian subject: the self-sacrifice of an early king and his family to save the city from barbarian invasion, and the commemoration of this in the city’s cults and institutions. The myth, like those of the extant Heraclidae and Supplices, belongs to the repertoire of Athenian patriotic oratory to which the Euripidean plays both contributed and responded. Until 1967 Erechtheus was best known through two long book fragments. The Sorbonne papyrus published by Colin Austin in 19671 added a new dimension by revealing much of the play’s conclusion. New editions and studies have followed, but none so ambitious and comprehensive as this very welcome new edition by Maurizio Sonnino. This includes an extensive introduction leading to a proposed reconstruction of the play, a full presentation of the myth-sources, texts of the fragments with extensive apparatus, a very full commentary, an Italian translation of the fragments, and an array of supporting information and indexes. The book is very clearly organized, avoiding excessive compression. New fragment numbers (1-23) reflect Sonnino’s reconstruction of the play, with Kannicht’s (F 349-370) cited for comparison.

Concerning the play’s date Sonnino argues that Plutarch’s anecdote linking fr. 10/F 369 with the one-year truce of 423/2 must have come from Timaeus and is therefore chronologically reliable. This may well be right, and is in fact only marginally inconsistent with the range of dates suggested by the metrical criteria, which Sonnino treats too sceptically (p. 33).

Concerning the myth Sonnino challenges several orthodoxies. A narrative found in two late sources has Ion, son of Erechtheus’s daughter Creusa and the immigrant Xuthus, defeating Eumolpus’s Thracian invasion and so inheriting the kingdom of Athens. Sonnino argues that this derives (through Ephorus) from Hecataeus and represents the myth as it was formulated in the sixth century (one might add that Melanippe Sophê F 481 seems to reflect the same source). The myth then has an aristocratic/dynastic character: a great-grandson of Erechtheus (Eumolpus, whose mother Chione was a daughter of Erechtheus’s daughter Oreithyia) challenges a grandson (Ion) for the kingdom after Erechtheus’s death, and threatens Attica with barbarian domination. This tradition will have been less welcome in democratic Athens, especially after the citizenship law of 451 (Ion’s father being an alien), and Ion’s role was diminished in various ways. One way was to make Erechtheus Eumolpus’s opponent — improbably since he was Eumolpus’s great-grandfather, but aptly since he was Athenian par excellence. On this analysis the Eleusinian Eumolpus was originally a separate figure, and Eleusis played no part in the early tradition of a Thracian invasion or in Euripides’ play (except in Athena’s closing speech linking the Thracian and Eleusinian figures genealogically). Eumolpus’s son Immarados is also a product of later rationalizing.

Sonnino analyses the identification of the Erechtheids with the Hyacinthids similarly. The Hyacinthids and their father were originally pre-Greek vegetation deities (this seems to be reflected in their cult details and further identification with the Hyades), but in Athenian myth they had become the daughters of a Spartan immigrant who sacrificed them to save Athens from a pestilence. Their re-identification as Erechtheids was probably established before Euripides’ play, but Euripides went further by dividing the group between the one daughter who is sacrificed and her sisters who give their lives by suicide. Sonnino distinguishes clearly between those sources that reflect Euripides’ myth and those reflecting alternative or syncretistic developments. Phanodemus’s connection of the sacrifice and the name Hyacinthides with ‘the hill called Hyacinthus’ is shown to be irrelevant, and the likelihood that in the play the eldest daughter was sacrificed, and to Persephone, is strongly supported (this tells against Joan Connelly’s identification of the sacrifice scene in the Parthenon frieze, which presumes that the sacrifice of a single daughter was established before Euripides’ play and makes the youngest daughter the victim). As for the adopted son addressed by Erechtheus in fr. 16/F 362, Sonnino tentatively identifies him as Pandion (as did Carl Robert, Die griechische Heldensage I, 151: cf. M. L. West, The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, 107-8).

In reconstructing the play Sonnino assigns the ‘ethnographic’ frs. 2–4/F 366–8 to Erechtheus surveying the barbarian host before the debate with a Thracian spokesman (frs. 5–8/F 352-356, to which he adds fr. 9/F 363 again ascribed to Erechtheus). The ode including fr. 10/F 369 is tentatively placed immediately after this. Fr. 11/F 365 is added to the scene which included Praxithea’s great speech (frs. 12-13/F 360-360a) and plausibly explained as his reflection on the aidos which inhibits him from killing his daughter to save the city. What follows in Sonnino’s reconstruction is controversial, and I shall return to it below. He assumes with some recent and earlier scholars that the king and queen deceived their daughter about the impending sacrifice, and places fr. 14/F 350 (a query about sacrificial preparations) in a scene in which she is assured that a normal sacrifice is being prepared. She thus goes unknowingly to an involuntary death, and fr. 15/F 358 (an exhortation to children to love their mothers) is assigned to Erechtheus attempting to allay her sisters’ resentment in a subsequent scene — but the attempt is vain, for on this account their suicide (which some sources ascribe to an oath sworn between the three sisters that all should die together) is in effect a protest against the sacrifice. This hypothetical sequence leads to Erechtheus’s advice to his heir (fr. 16/F 362) and his departure for the battle which is ending as the papyrus (fr. 17/F 370) begins. Sonnino leaves unplaced fr. 18/F 351 ὀλολύζετ’, γυναῖκες . . . , fr. 19/F 359 on adopted sons, fr. 20/F 364 on πόνοι, and the lexicographic frs. 21-23/F 357, 369a-b, while making recommendations on these in the commentary.

Sonnino’s texts of the fragments show a number of improvements on earlier editions. Fr. 10/F 369 becomes fully coherent with the conjecture τε (for δὲ) in v. 3. In the papyrus, Sonnino prints his reconstruction of vv. 8-9 published in ZPE 166 (2008) (κιθάριδος βοαῖς | <σ>υντ[όνοις Ἀσι]άδος [πο]δὶ | τροχαλὸς ἑπομέναις, ‘rapid [i.e. playing rapidly] with the Asian cithara’s sharp cries that follow the dance-step’). In v. 12 he observes that the supplement Ἐρεχθ]εύς cannot be right since Erechtheus has died during the battle, and tentatively suggests μήσ[τωρ μὲν Ζ]εύς. In vv. 21-22, where the papyrus is defective and Stobaeus’s quotation slightly distorted, he suggests that Euripides wrote τοὺς καλῶς τεθνηκότας | ζῆν φημὶ μᾶλλον βλέπειν τοὺς μὴ καλῶς | ζῶντας . . . Some transmitted readings rejected by others are ably defended (fr. 12/F 360.9 μοίαις, 11 οἰκίζει, 20 σθένει, fr. 16/F 362.20 πονηροὺς, 21 γεραιτέρας, 24 ἐξουσίαν . . . εὐτυχῶν, 25 διωκάθειν (present), fr. 17/F 370.78 ἐνιαυσίῳ . . . χρόνῳ). Fassino’s new readings in the papyrus (reported by Kannicht in TrGF 5, p. 1161) are accepted in vv. 32, 58, 61 and 98, while Austin’s are preferred in vv. 19, 36, 54 and 108. Less convincing are Sonnino’s rewriting of fr. 12/F 360.42 (ἄρξουσι τ’ ἄλλοι τῇ σεσωσμένῃ πόλει: why should Praxithea anticipate others ruling when she expects Erechtheus to survive?) and the assignment of fr. 17/F 370.47 to Praxithea while the rest of the earthquake announcement is rightly given to the Chorus. At three difficult points in the papyrus Sonnino proposes new readings which bear on his reconstruction of the play: in v. 37 ἀρὰν ὧν (δραμων Austin) referring to a ‘malediction’ pronounced by the younger sisters; in v. 41 τό<λ>μαν ἱερὸν (τὸν ἀνίερον Austin, τὸν {ἀν}ἱερὸν Diggle) referring to the rash sacrifice which Praxithea now renounces; and in vv. 75-6 ἠπ[ατη]μένη | ψεύσμ[ασι (the eldest daughter ‘deceived by lies’: ητ[ . . . .]μενη | τουσυ[ Austin). These seem to me unlikely in the contexts of Praxithea’s formal lament for her lost family-members (‘Whom first shall I lament . . .’) and of Athena’s recognition of the eldest daughter’s heroism.

Sonnino’s commentary improves on his predecessors in many ways. Particularly valuable are his demonstrations that the fragments systematically deploy the language and symbols of democratic Athens (including the logos epitaphios: cf. Introduction, pp. 36-42, 113-9), and that the Thracian invasion is assimilated to the Persian invasions (Introduction, pp. 87-90). The play’s many allusions to Athenian topography and monuments, and the cultic details and terminology in Athena’s speech, are fully and precisely elucidated, as are such puzzles as the board-game and wood-joining metaphors in fr. 12/F 360.8-13. The philological standard is generally high, although a few unfortunate errors have found their way into the publication.2

My main disagreement concerns the assumption that Erechtheus and Praxithea deceived their daughter about their intention to sacrifice her. This rests on a brief summary of the story in Aelius Aristides’ Panathenaic oration (1.87 Lenz): ‘It is said that in this war against Eumolpus Erechtheus gave his daughter on behalf of the city when the god advised it, and that her mother brought her in having dressed her as if sending her to a festival (ὥσπερ εἰς θεωρίαν πέμπουσα)’. I have observed before that this is unlikely to refer to a deception.3 Aristides rehearses the standard examples of the city’s megalopsuchia displayed in protecting others and defending herself against invaders. He then reflects on the prothumia shown by individuals in such causes, and on the cultic and dynastic honours they attained. It is scarcely likely that he would have chosen to remind his audience that Erechtheus and Praxithea tricked their daughter in sending her to be sacrificed. What he surely means is that Praxithea displayed her prothumia by dressing the girl to show that her death was an occasion for celebration rather than grief. The contrast between festal and funereal attire is a tragic commonplace (cf. Eur. Hipp. 807-8, Supp. 97, Aesch. Sept. 857, Soph. OT 1491). This exactly reflects her attitude in her great speech, and it may well reflect a scene in Euripides’ play. On the other hand, the supposed deception creates a large discrepancy: Praxithea has proclaimed (fr. 12/F 360) that the sacrifice will bring her daughter unique glory, and has publicly dedicated her to this noble purpose; why should she now conceal this from the girl, and how could such a deception be convincingly dramatized?

The model for a deceived victim is Iphigenia, but Iphigenia is not sacrificed to save her city, and her mother too is deceived and bitterly angered by the sacrifice. The story of Isaac (Sonnino, p. 290) also differs since Yahweh demands the sacrifice to test Abraham’s obedience and ultimately spares his son. Sonnino suggests (pp. 122-4) that the resistance found in comparable plays must in Erechtheus have come from the victim herself (and her sisters), but that motif is clearly fulfilled by Erechtheus’s own initial resistance. Nor need the sisters’ suicides have been formulated by Euripides as a protest (p. 123): the drama demands a single sacrificial victim, and the suicides serve to maintain the tradition that the sisters died and were deified as a group, while also balancing a single divinely imposed death against two that are fully voluntary. If the plot of Erechtheus did feature a deception, it is more likely to have been the concealment of the suicide pact. Sonnino rightly maintains that the suicides were revealed to Praxithea only after the report of Erechtheus’s victory and death, but the pact may have been revealed to the chorus and audience, or even initiated, in an earlier scene, just as Menoeceus in Phoenissae reveals his intended suicide after concealing it from his father.

This is not to imply that Euripides’ play was simply a patriotic eulogy. Euripides’ sceptical juxtaposition of conflicting truths and values, on which Sonnino rightly insists (pp. 22-7), was no doubt exemplified in Erechtheus’s resistance to the sacrifice and Praxithea’s collapse from patriotic enthusiasm into grief, and probably in other elements of the play. Praxithea’s grief displays both the unpredictability of events and the full costs of subordinating private attachments to the demands, however rationally compelling, of communal duty. The dynamic is similar to that of Supplices, which juxtaposes the civic patriotism foregrounded (not without some ambivalence) in its main action with the laments of the mothers of the Seven and Evadne’s suicide.

My disagreement on this point does not by any means outweigh my admiration for Sonnino’s work, which should rapidly become the first point of reference for any detailed study of the play. The book’s attractive printing and affordable price should help to bring this to pass.


1.   Fragment A and fragments B, C, and D are now accessible in digital images on the website of the Institut de Papyrologie de la Sorbonne.
2.   ἐξέσωσας is identified as an aorist participle (p. 214). εἵσ[ατο does not exist as a form of ἵημι (p. 347). Et.Magn. 720.14 does not say that σκῦλα can be taken from a friendly corpse (p. 351). Sonnino’s verses illustrating the revelation of the suicides include four metrical errors and nine wrong accents (p. 356 n. 74). I noticed over forty (mostly typographical) errors in the spelling or accentuation of Greek words.
3.   C. Collard, M. Cropp. K. H. Lee, Euripides: Selected Fragmentary Plays I (Warminster, 1995; rev. Oxford, 2009) , p. 151.

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