Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.40

P. J. Finglass, Sophocles: Ajax. Cambridge Classical Texts and Commentaries, 48.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2011.  Pp. x, 612.  ISBN 9781107003071.  $180.00.  

Reviewed by Donald J. Mastronarde, University of California, Berkeley (

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

P. J. Finglass has previously given us an impressive detailed commentary on Sophocles’ Electra (see BMCR 2009.08.03), and now, less than ten years from his doctorate, after a detour into Pindar with his treatment of Pythian Eleven (see BMRC 2008.08.37, he contributes his third commentary to the distinguished Cambridge orange series, this time devoted to Ajax.

The strengths that characterized the previous Sophoclean commentary are still evident here: Finglass seems to know virtually all the relevant bibliography, has examined all the older editions and commentaries, evaluates every textual choice independently from the ground up, and is neither overly aggressive nor overly conservative in considering emendation (e.g., good defense of the transmitted text against conjecture at 40, 82, 114-15) or interpolation; he also weighs in on staging, dramatic technique, and many aspects of literary and cultural interpretation, and pays due regard to the ambiguities and uncertainties of dramatic character and dramatic presentation. The new commentary shows a greater maturity, however, in at least two ways. First, Finglass has become more experienced in and interested in the manuscripts, their readings, and their orthographic habits, and (perhaps betraying at times the zeal of the convert) decries the inconsistencies and inaccuracies that infest the brief apparatuses of many modern editions (he criticizes the OCT of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson, but also his own Electra). Second, there is a pedagogical gain: he now starts many of the notes with a clear English translation of the Sophoclean Greek (which often strikes me as πικρὸν καὶ κατάτεχνον, in the words that Plutarch Mor. 79B ascribed to Sophocles, though Finglass, p. 10 n. 34, has his doubts about the applicability of this judgment). This is both an aid to students who are less advanced and an assurance to other scholars of exactly how he is putting together any problematic words that might be receiving more isolated treatment in the body of the note.

The introduction covers the expected topics. To support a grouping of Ajax with Antigone, later than Trachiniae but earlier than the other four extant plays, Finglass places most weight on technical trends in the treatment of trimeters (hiatus between lines without change of speaker; amount of antilabe) and a lesser weight on formal structures (prologue form, introductory anapaests, three-way dialogue). The longest sections are on production and the myth. Finglass gives a detailed argument against the strained theory of Scullion that there is no change of scene in Ajax. He highlights in the appropriately tentative language how Sophocles’ treatment may have modified and innovated against earlier treatments known to his audience. He is not sympathetic to interpretations that identify particularly Athenian or democratic motifs in this tragedy (pp. 57-9 and, e.g., the notes on 972-3, 1093-117). In the section on heroism, he indicates briefly some problems with applying the concept of “the Sophoclean hero”; he steers clear of the existential, hero-worshipping trend of the mid-twentieth century, which, though superseded, still exerts an influence on some readings of the so-called “deception speech” of Ajax in the presumption that Ajax cannot be intentionally deceiving. He cogently demonstrates that while an allusion to the status of cult hero is present and thematically significant at one point (Eurysakes’ supplication at the corpse), Sophocles has declined to carry this theme through to the subsequent scenes and has preferred to concentrate on the immediate reactions and disputes of the surviving characters.

Finglass explains clearly why he has chosen to cite the manuscripts he cites and has checked most of these himself from facsimiles, microfilms, or the originals. He downgrades the significance of the so-called Roman family GRQ.

Although the section in the Introduction entitled Unity is fairly brief, the commentary itself provides many longer notes (especially those introducing whole sections of the drama) that make pertinent observations about structural and thematic strategies. On the “deception speech” Finglass correctly posits that the audience will be surprised by Ajax’s appearance and the tenor of his speech and will not be certain exactly how to interpret this (and different members may come to different conclusions, or to no conclusion), but he argues that “as Ajax’s speech progresses, attentive audience members may begin to suspect that (iv) [Ajax is lying, and still intends to kill himself] is correct.” I find this the most plausible approach, and it is an excellent tragic irony that Ajax has manoeuvered himself into this position even while insisting on his essential difference from corrupt and changeable figures like Odysseus. Perhaps the longest note in the commentary is that on 815-65 surveying the possibilities for staging of the suicide. Finglass believes the sword fixed in the ground is inside the skene, unseen by the audience, and that Ajax enters the skene at the end of his speech to leap upon it inside. All of this is clearly argued, but I remain sympathetic to the view first put forth by Lobeck and accepted by Wiles and Meineck: namely, the eccyclema brings out a tableau with actor, sword fixed in ground, and some panels or props suggesting a grove; the actor leaps upon the sword; and the eccyclema withdraws the tableau to allow the change of spatial orientation needed for the entrance of the searching chorus. I do not accept that because the eccyclema normally brings interior scenes outside and because its movement is normally signaled in the text it must always have been used in this way (in this scene, there is no one to signal the movement anyway). And it gives too little credit to the fifth-century actors and producers to insist that at this period the actor could not have leapt upon the sword and given an adequate impression of impalement (it does not need to be wholly realistic, any more than a male actor opening his robe to display his female breast could be).

In sum, this is a wonderful resource for the study of Ajax, and its author clearly a force to be reckoned with in the high-level explication of Greek texts. The book has been produced with the great care we associate with the series and its editors, and slips are very few. I conclude with a few notes on details (naturally somewhat slanted toward disagreements).

1-133: Finglass lays out the possibilities of the staging well; I agree that Athena is invisible to the human characters in the scene, but I continue to believe that placing her on the skene roof is worth serious consideration.

21-2 on periphrasis of ἔχει with nom. aor. participle: an example of Finglass’s thoroughness in documenting stylistic feature, but also of the tendency to say less about the semantics of unusual features.

36-50: a good example of Finglass’s ability to evaluate the claims of previous interpreters (here resisting the temptation to find justifications for Ajax’s vengeful purpose).

160-1: Finglass clearly has a phenomenally thorough system of gathering and indexing comments from the countless sources he has used, and he often quotes verbatim in his notes pithy insights from earlier commentators or authorities; occasionally, as here with an epigrammatic claim of Campbell (“ὑπό marks that the lesser are to serve the greater; μετά, that the great require the cooperation of the lesser”), the quotation seems rather isolated from its context and rather cryptic. I doubt the usefulness and truth of this particular remark of Campbell; the rest of Finglass’s note more cogently cites an observation about the stylistic variatio. The other side of the same habit of thoroughness emerges a few times in criticizing or rejecting suggestions that could have been passed over in silence.

196: Finglass is rightly not averse to recognizing in ἄταν οὐρανίαν the ambiguities or multiple suggestiveness of Sophoclean language (see also the end of his previous note on the opaque τᾷδ’ ἀγωνίῳ σχολᾷ).

227-232 “Black is an unexpected colour for an iron weapon, and evokes a sinister atmosphere rather than the actual appearance”: rather, it does both, since Hesiod has μέλας σίδηρος at Op. 151, and the blackness may also refer to bloodstains (Homeric μέλαν αἷμα).

p. 269 “non-articular participles referring to a specific individual”: this is an odd designation; what we have here is a genitive absolute with the pronoun (obvious from the context) omitted, and no article is expected; the comparison passage Finglass offers (1067-8; not a gen. abs.) is also one in which an article would not be idiomatic (again a pronoun is understood), though his terminology is influenced by a passage in A. C. Moorhouse, Syntax of Sophocles 128-30.

281 ὡς accompanies the genitive absolute without affecting the sense”: on the contrary, as Finglass’s own translation shows with the added phrase “on that basis,” the ὡς does affect the semantics, by making the causal relationship marked instead of unmarked.

296-7: Finglass disagrees with Hunt about the last extant trace of 297 after [βο]τηραϲ ευ: he thinks the next letter is clearly kappa (ευκ[ερων]), but I agree with Hunt: the damaged trace of the top of a letter is suggestive of two strokes, the top end of a vertical and a short horizontal to the right, which is the ductus of epsilon for this scribe, not of the vertical of kappa (as Hunt admitted, the suggestion of epsilon may be misleading, because of damage to the material).

552-3: OC 434-5 should not have been cited for “ἥδιστος in a generalisation.”

596-645 (p. 314 top): a good remark on the gap between the attitude of the chorus (“obtuseness”) and the more nuanced response one might expect of the audience.

636-8: Finglass’s choice here is ἄριστος (a rare survival of reading attested only by Triclinius and his circle) instead of Livineius’ ἄριστα (as in OCT) so that the superlative properly supports the idiomatic use of εἷς (Lloyd-Jones’ emendation of ἐκ), but this leaves the gen. πατρῴας γενεᾶς very harsh, since we have to assume Sophocles has stretched the idiom of ἥκω + adverb so that it can apply to ἥκω + adjective, which I don’t think very plausible. It is better to keep ἐκ and accept that it conveys “as a result of, by reason of” here.

766-9: in this boastful utterance the verb in ἐπισπάσειν κλέος is quite forceful and plays off the physical violence this verb often expresses; it is wrong of LSJ to soften the verb to “win, acquire” by grouping it with a set of (mostly prose) passages using the middle voice.

774-5: Finglass shows sympathy for West’s εἰσρήξει, but has to admit the compound is attested only in a late antique glossary. I suggest that the transmitted ἐκρήξει is not corrupt: Sophocles is assuming the “normal” situation of the siege, that the Trojans are hemmed in by the Greeks, so that the abnormal situation (as in the middle books of Iliad) is when Trojans break out of their confinement and carry the battle to the Greek ships and camp.

787-8: the part of the summons that I argued was not fully heard by Tecmessa is the last detail μὴ χαίρειν τινά in 786; in my view, this analysis is supported by the strong dismay Tecmessa expresses in 791, in reaction to πρᾶξιν ἣν ἤλγησ’ ἐγώ in 792, which would not be so strong if she had registered the sense of 786.

815-818 (very end of note): it seems inconsistent to use as an argument against the possibility that Ajax kneels the claim that “the speech would be hard to deliver effectively from that position” when Finglass has accepted the view that Ajax is sitting during his entire first scene with the chorus and Tecmessa (348-505).

1173-5: for the use of τρίτος add Eur. Hipp. 1404 as another relevant example.

1231: Ant. 1325 is not “the man who is not alive, but rather dead,” but (Griffith) “one who no more exists than a non-person.”

Table of Contents

1 Date
2 Festival
3 Production
4 Myth
5 Heroism
6 Unity
7 Politics
8 Text
Text and Critical Apparatus
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