Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.06.18

Stephen Esposito, Odysseus at Troy: Sophocles' Ajax and Euripides' Hecuba and Trojan Women. Translations with introductions, notes, and essays. Focus classical library.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing, 2010.  Pp. xxiii, 279.  ISBN 9781585103966.  $17.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Barry Spence, University of Massachusetts Amherst (

Stephen Esposito’s Odysseus at Troy: Sophocles’ Ajax and Euripides’ Hecuba and Trojan Women is a useful addition to the excellent classical literature-in-translation series put out by Focus Publishing, whose stated mission is to produce high quality textbooks for the educational community. This is a goal they have consistently realized for over a quarter century, and Esposito’s previous contributions to this effort include his translation of the Bacchae, in 1998, and the collection Euripides Four Plays: Medea, Hippolytus, Heracles, Bacchae, which came out in 2003. In the present volume, Esposito contributes a conscientious translation of Ajax, the sixth tragedy of Sophocles to appear in the Focus Classical Library, leaving only the Trachiniae.

Odysseus at Troy, while incorporating the work of several authors, follows the format of other Focus Classical Library editions, which typically consist of an introductory essay, translation with accompanying footnotes, a following interpretive essay, and bibliography of suggested additional reading. The work under review has a two-part introduction, the first part of which, “Odysseus on Stage,” is written by Esposito and Stephen Scully; and the second part, “Drama in Athens,” is by Robin Mitchell-Boyask and contains subsections covering Performance in Athens, Drama and the City of Athens, and Athenian Drama and the Peloponnesian War. Then follows the translation of each play with stage directions and copious footnotes. Both the translation of Hecuba by Mitchell-Boyask and that of Trojan Women by Diskin Clay were previously published by Focus, in 2004 and 2005, respectively. This collection republishes not only their translations but also the explanatory essays that complemented them. Esposito provides an accompanying essay for Ajax and precedes each play with an outline of its structure. Collectively, these outlines can serve to foster an awareness of the organizational norms of the genre. In the wake of the three essays, the student benefits from a six-part appendix. Part one contains a helpful second diagram of the structure of Ajax, one that is more expansive and detailed. Parts two and three have genealogy charts for Ajax, Hecuba, and Trojan Women. Part four consists in a translation of the sophist Gorgias’ epideictic piece “In Praise of Helen” by Diskin Clay. There follows a bibliography sub-divided into fifteen sections, which includes suggested reading on such topics as Greek tragedy, culture, and politics, as well as various approaches relating to Euripides and Sophocles. The appendices are rounded out with a map of ancient Greece and Asia Minor.

This collection's balance of translated primary texts, exegetical apparatus, essays, and bibliography is well suited to benefit its target audience, students, presumably advanced secondary and undergraduates, enrolled in courses that involve Greek drama in translation. Since the majority of college students experience Greek tragedy through translation rather than in the original—if they are exposed to it at all—it is desirable that they are provided both with texts that are reliably accurate renderings and with explanatory notes that bridge potentially extensive gaps in even basic knowledge. These notes should, on the one hand, avoid unnecessary abstruseness, and, on the other, afford moments of literary and cultural insights comparable to those attained through reading the original. This is especially the case with Esposito's Ajax, where 385 footnotes do the yeoman's work of elucidating points of dramatic, thematic, cultural, intertextual, and lexical nuance and complexity. For instance, Esposito’s notes inform the reader of meaningful rhetorical and structural devices like prolepsis (19) and ring composition (5); explain crucial cultural concepts like κλέος (11), χάρις (29), ὕβρις (11), αἰδώς (21), and ἀγών (13); call attention to thematically resonant words like πεῖρα (2); and offer assessments of important junctures in the dramatic action by contextualization within Greek literature and culture. An example of this last can be seen, when Odysseus refuses Athena’s invitation to gloat over a maddened Ajax, in the footnotes: “Odysseus…is the first character in extant Greek literature to claim that it is impious to exult over fallen foes” (note 32), and, “It is probably fair to say that nothing in Greek literature matches Odysseus’ compassion…and nothing so upends the Greek moral code of ‘helping friends, harming foes’” (note 50). Indeed, interpretive perspectives such as this incorporate the reading of previous commentators like W. B. Stanford1—thus positioning the notes as a continuation of the work of traditional classical commentaries—and at the same time they introduce the Greekless reader to the riches of these foundational texts.

Esposito’s translation of Sophocles’ Ajax negotiates reasonably well the borderland between the rigorously literal and the fluently idiomatic. Consider, as a typical case in point, the opening of Ajax’s third monologue, ἅπανθ’ μακρὸς κἀναρίθμητος χρόνος / φύει τ’ ἄδηλα καὶ φανέντα κρύπτεται (646-7) which Esposito renders as “All things, in his long and immeasurable march, Time / begets from darkness into the light and then once again hides.” Here, a trade-off in idiomatic fluency is made in favor of preserving both the emphatic position of the thematic words bookending each verse, and also the chiastic word order of the second verse (verb, noun / noun, verb). Generally speaking, there are no significant slips in the accuracy of his translation, and any instructor can rely confidently on this version as the translation of choice, if the scrupulously literal takes precedence over the rendering of a poetic voice. While undergraduates may find a poetic version easier going, a literal version is more useful for a close reading and meaningful class discussion, even though this may mean the undergraduate reader’s experience will not generally bring her into any conscious awareness of the trimeter, the anapest, or the musical complexity of lyric meters. Literal accuracy, in fact, is a quality shared by all three translations in this collection; a premium is placed on the semantic and dramatic dimensions of the plays, at the expense of the originals’ musicality. This feature is thoroughly in keeping with the overall goal of the collection, which is to approximate a comprehensive experience of each play’s meaning. Mitchell-Boyask’s translation of Hecuba is a partial exception, since it makes perhaps the most successful effort at conveying a sense of the poetically distinct nature of the choral odes, primarily through preserving some of the elliptical syntax of the original while infusing the texture of the language with alliteration and repetition. Overall, however, these translations are faithful literal versions, which, despite their virtues, may in fact also challenge some less motivated students due to the slight trade-off in idiomatic readability, and due as well to the need to absorb so many footnotes.

Whereas nearly four hundred notes complement Esposito’s translation, Mitchell-Boyask’s and Clay’s have less than half as many. This unevenness seems largely the result of a collection that consists of unrevised, previously published translations, including their accompanying explanatory material, together with a newly translated play and a more general introductory essay. But, taken as a whole, the larger aim is to fulfill the programmatic intention of presenting a complex, multi-perspectival portrait of the volume’s eponymous figure, showing both positive and negative cultural depictions of him along with the symbolic valences such depictions presumably entailed within Athenian society.

The principle that informs this volume’s selection, in fact, targets the vital relationship between Athenian democracy and the theatrical stage. In his introduction, Esposito rightly emphasizes the importance of the Athenian privilege of παρρησία “free speech” as the “feature of democracy that marks out the genre of drama as a specifically Athenian institution” (x). He links the democratic exercise of free speech in Athenian policy-making with the expressive forum of the Theater of Dionysus. “The Athenian empire was so ever-expanding and aggressive in nature that it forced the citizen body, in a qualitatively different way than in other cities, to deliberate constantly on difficult issues such as the just use of power. The rostrum of the Assembly was one primary place for that debate to occur; the stage of the theater was another” (x). Thus, Esposito frames his selection of plays by underscoring the essential political nature of Athenian drama. It is perhaps worth noting that this political interpretation of tragedy stays close to that articulated in Christian Meier’s The Political Art of Greek Tragedy (English trans. 1993, Johns Hopkins U. Press). Such a thesis would surely prove engaging for many college students. In effect, the three plays offered are meant to demonstrate this thesis through the considerable political implications that freight the name, words, actions, and reputation of Odysseus. As the volume’s title suggests, the plays offer takes on Odysseus as a leader among the conquering Greeks; and, as the introduction explains, his diegetic words and actions, whether compassionate as in Ajax, or opportunistic as in Hecuba, are read as an index of Athenian civic attitudes toward the exercise of power and oratory. Esposito details a calculus that accounts for the sympathetic picture of Odysseus in Ajax, dated to between 450 and 440 BCE, and the diametrically opposed perspectives of him in both Hecuba, dated to 424 BCE, and Trojan Women, dated 415 BCE, by involving a consideration of various historical, cultural, and political factors relating to Athens’ imperial aspirations. Three reasons are given for the contrasting negative/positive portraits we get of Odysseus. The first is “Athenian deliberations about the just use of power,” as previously mentioned, and here Esposito suggests a connection between the Mytilene incident of 428/7 BCE with Hecuba, and the Melos incident of 416 BCE with Trojan Women. He substantiates the relationship between the plays and the events by observing the similarity between “the ethos of political expediency presented in these two historical events and the argument of political ‘necessity’ that pervade these two ‘Trojan War’ tragedies” (xii), as embodied in the character of Odysseus. The second cause is described as the arrival of sophists like Gorgias in Athens, and the third impetus relates to the fact that “in the last third of the fifth-century there was a more stringent attitude to truth and morality as the radical democrats and the Athenian mob became ever more suspicious of the numerous intellectual types that were populating the political terrain” (xii). In this Athenian political context, Odysseus’s Homeric epithet polytropos is often seen as speaking to his wily, trickster tongue rather than to his wandering ways.

Esposito does a convincing job of laying out the correspondences between various concerns facing Athenian society and the mutable character of Odysseus, and indeed, the resultant rationale for the collection as a whole withstands scrutiny. And yet this reviewer wonders if including Philoctetes as the third play alongside Ajax and Hecuba would not have made a more convincing case for the collection’s implicit thesis, especially given Odysseus’s role as sophistic pedagogue to Neoptolemus in that play. The possible objection that Philoctetes takes place on Lemnos instead of at Troy would seem to be incidental, given the fact that the action of that play is directly tied to the completion of the Greek conquest of Ilium. And such an objection would seem to be less substantive than the fact that Odysseus never even appears but is only alluded to in Trojan Women.

Despite the fidelity of Esposito’s translation, it seems regrettable that he fails to discuss in the notes the longstanding debate surrounding interpretation of Ajax’s so-called Deception Speech, lines 646-92, especially given the following nod to that controversy: Ajax’s “third monologue…is arguably the most uncanny and complex speech in extant Greek literature” (197). While his translation of it is admirably precise, his notes and essay offer no substantive description of the interpretive issues that are brought into play by Ajax’s speech, nothing, that is, beyond sending the reader to Simon Goldhill’s Reading Greek Tragedy “for an interpretation that sees the meaning of the deception speech as less stable than the one presented here” (199).

It is important to point out that this collection is marred by a stunning frequency of editorial lapses. Typographical mistakes and omissions abound throughout the volume, especially in Mitchell-Boyask’s half of the introductory essay. These shortcomings are unfortunate in a book that is destined for the hands of undergraduates.

Aside from these qualms, Esposito’s collection is a welcome resource for students of Athenian drama.


1.   Cf. W. B. Stanford (ed.) Sophocles Ajax (Macmillan 1963) pp. 66-67.

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