Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.08.37 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.08.37

Douglas Cairns (ed.), Tragedy and Archaic Greek Thought.   Swansea:  Classical Press of Wales, 2013.  Pp. liv, 262.  ISBN 9781905125579.  $100.00.  

Reviewed by Jennifer Starkey, University of Colorado (

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This volume contains a selection of papers (fully revised and updated) from a conference in Edinburgh in 2008.1 In addition to Cairns's introduction, which nearly amounts to an independent article in its own right, there are three papers on Aeschylus, four on Sophocles, and one on Euripides; most offer a close reading of one or two plays or of several shorter passages. A glance at the subject index gives a fair idea of the volume’s main topics, including ‘alternation,’ ‘exemplarity,’ ‘mind, disturbances of,’ and ‘presumption, human,’ as well as a few more predictable entries like ‘atē’ and ‘hybris.’

Thus, these papers tackle some of the biggest ideas that arise in tragedy (the gods and fate, human limitations, delusion and self-destruction, the (im)possibility of happiness), and this is in accordance with Cairns's assertion in the general introduction that current scholarship often sets aside literary interpretation of the plays in favor of a focus on various matters of context, such as the political or religious function of tragedy, details of performance, and reception theory. While he does not advocate a complete return to the ‘classic’ scholarship of (e.g.) Reinhardt, Bowra, and Knox, he suggests that the questions they asked about the meanings of individual plays were important and deserve to be asked and answered again in light of the progress that recent decades have seen in other areas, such as politics and performance. The introduction includes a rather lengthy reading of Sophocles's Antigone in which Cairns demonstrates what a thorough understanding of central themes and ideas of archaic literature (here, atē) can contribute to our experience of classical tragedy.

Alan Sommerstein’s paper continues the discussion of atē but focuses on the semantic development of the term. He identifies a basic sense of ‘harm’ or ‘damage’ in ordinary and legal language as well as an elaborated sense of delusion followed by self-destruction in Homer and other epic poetry; the archaic poets and Aeschylus in turn understand it as ‘either a folly that causes disaster, or a disaster that is caused by folly’ (p. 5), but not necessarily one driven by divine forces.

Richard Seaford offers a provocative reading of the Oresteia in light of Heraclitean and Pythagorean ideas of balance and antithesis; to oversimplify greatly, Seaford finds Heraclitean influence in the first two plays of the trilogy, where doom and salvation are conflated and opposites become virtually indistinguishable, while Eumenides takes on a more Pythagorean coloring as Zeus represents the critical force that differentiates opposites and ensures that the right one prevails.

Fritz-Gregor Herrmann explores the characterization of Eteocles and his decision to face his brother in Seven against Thebes. Through comparison to Hector in Iliad 8.517-28, Herrmann stresses the demands made on Eteocles as a military leader and the limits of what he can and cannot say in public; his responses to the boasts of the Seven are meant chiefly to encourage his Theban followers and do not necessarily reflect a decision that is being made at that moment on stage. Perhaps ironically (given the title of the paper and the extensive survey of scholarship and thought on decision-making in n. 1), Herrmann concludes that Eteocles already knows before the play begins that he may have to fight Polynices but puts on a brave face for the sake of his citizens. But an important difference between Hector and Eteocles is that the latter has been cursed, and Herrmann deals with this element by suggesting a new staging for the ‘shield scene’: the champions are chosen sequentially by lot, and this illustrates the role of the gods and fate without negating the possibility that Eteocles already knew what might happen.

Vayos Liapis, noting a prominent trend in scholarship on Antigone of attempting to determine whether Creon or Antigone should be considered the ‘tragic hero,’ offers instead a median position. Returning to the subject of atē, Liapis argues that at the beginning of the play, Antigone is characterized as a typical Labdacid, dangerous to the polis because of her defiance and (self-)destructive tendencies. Creon, by contrast, advocates sound principles in his determination to protect the city from the Labdacids and their like. But as the play continues, Creon takes a turn for the tyrannical and ultimately suffers a fate similar to that of the Labdacids, falling into delusion and destroying his household. While many will find this reading attractive, Liapis unfortunately tends toward the polemical and oversimplifies what he sees as the ‘orthodoxy’ of modern scholarship on Antigone.2

Douglas Cairns carefully examines notions of ‘free agency’ and ‘determinism’ in Oedipus Tyrannus, with due attention to the development of these ideas in Hellenistic times and modern philosophy. He builds his argument around criticism of Dodds's influential article ‘On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex,’ suggesting essentially that Apollo plays a far greater role in bringing about Oedipus's fate than is usually recognized. Cairns does not, however, see the play as a story of human crime followed by divine punishment; Apollo’s interest is not so much in benefiting mankind as in marking a clear distinction between gods and humans (by seeing his oracles fulfilled, by preventing any one man from becoming too successful). The apparent unfairness of Oedipus's suffering is in fact what makes him an appropriate paradigm of mankind.

William Allan’s paper is also concerned with ideas of guilt and responsibility in both of Sophocles's Oedipus plays. He means to deny an overly simple ‘developmental’ reading of the two plays in which Sophocles's ‘archaic’ vision of passive acceptance of human guilt and punishment in the first gives way to a new, more refined notion of legal responsibility as divorced from ritual pollution in the second. The first part of his discussion provides a more nuanced understanding of OT and forms a nice complement to Cairns's article; the second part argues that, while Oedipus's attempts at self-defense in OC challenge the ‘traditional’ view of guilt, his arguments are ultimately unconvincing. Unfortunately, despite his insistence that Oedipus's failed defensiveness serves a dramatic purpose, Allan never explains exactly what that purpose is.

P. E. Easterling studies closely the third stasimon of OC, especially the sentiment that the best thing is never to have been born while the next best is to die soon. After an interesting exploration of the origins of this maxim in Silenus and an archaic tradition reaching back to Theognis (and possibly earlier), she asks what business a tragedy has citing Silenus; though one feels that this question could be explored more fully, her brief conclusion suggests that Silenus is an appropriate figure of authority for tragedy both because of his ties to Dionysus and because of his traditional role as a wisdom teacher.

Finally, Michael Lloyd surveys some half-dozen plays of Euripides. Contrary to the view (expressed most notably by Dodds) that Sophocles is the last truly ‘archaic’ poet, Lloyd argues that Euripides shows several archaizing tendencies throughout his career. He is especially interested in the tension in Euripides (but not so much in Aeschylus or Sophocles) between man’s lack of control over his own life and the attempts made by several characters to seize or even flaunt their autonomy; for instance, ‘voluntary self-sacrifice…is sometimes presented as a response to the mutability of fortune which preserves the agent’s autonomy and dignity’ (p. 211).

As should be evident, the volume as a whole is relatively unified in theme, and contributors regularly cite each other’s papers. Yet despite this unity, my greatest concern is the absence of any specific definitions of ‘archaic thought’ or broad consideration of methodology; the result is that each contributor appears to have a different idea of what ‘archaic thought’ is and how it should be applied to interpretation of the tragedies. On the one hand, this means that the reader can profit from a variety of techniques and results. On the other hand, he is never alerted to the slipperiness of these ideas and so is often left unsure just how ‘archaic thought’ is relevant to the interpretation being offered. For instance, Seaford and Easterling take what might be the most obvious approach, identifying certain ideas or values that occur in literature of the sixth and early fifth centuries, then exploring the ways in which these ideas are introduced and developed in the tragedies. Sommerstein describes how the force of a single word changes from one period and genre to another. Herrmann writes almost exclusively about Seven against Thebes, and seems, except for a few comparisons to Homer, to take Aeschylus himself to be representative of ‘archaic thought’ (rather than a classical author influenced by archaic thought). Cairns himself uses ‘archaic’ and ‘traditional’ interchangeably, though one might object that a traditional feature need not be specifically archaic and might not seem out of place in any period of Greek literature. Certainly all of these papers are useful and interesting in their own ways, but it would have been helpful for the general introduction to touch briefly on some of these differences in assumption and method, and for individual contributors to show some awareness of them in their own papers; it is ironic, for example, that not until the final article by Lloyd do we get a reference to Dodds's observation ‘that for the purposes of political history the archaic age is usually thought to end with the Persian Wars, but with the rise of the sophistic movement about thirty years later for the purposes of the history of thought’ (p. 205). The advantage, of course, of not attempting to pin down the archaic versus the classical period is an emphasis on the continuity of thought and culture from one period to the next – a model which many will find appealing.

The volume is attractive and cleanly produced, though I noticed a handful of (usually minor) typographical errors.3

Table of Contents

Douglas Cairns, Preface, vii
Douglas Cairns, Introduction: Archaic Thought and Tragic Interpretation, ix
1. Alan H. Sommerstein, Atē in Aeschylus
2. Richard Seaford, Aeschylus, Herakleitos, and Pythagoreanism
3. Fritz-Gregor Herrmann, Eteocles’ Decision in Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes
4. Vayos Liapis, Creon the Labdacid: Political Confrontation and the Doomed Oikos in Sophocles’ Antigone
5. Douglas Cairns, Divine and Human Action in the Oedipus Tyrannus
6. William Allan, ‘Archaic’ Guilt in Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus and Oedipus at Colonus
7. P. E. Easterling, Sophocles and the Wisdom of Silenus: A Reading of Oedipus at Colonus 1211– 48
8. Michael Lloyd, The Mutability of Fortune in Euripides


1.   Easterling’s paper has already appeared in Karamalengou and Makrygianni (eds.), Ἀντιφίλησις: Studies on Classical, Byzantine and Modern Greek Literature and Culture in Honour of John-Theophanes A. Papademetriou , Stuttgart, 2009.
2.   For instance, on p. 96 we hear that Ant. 278-9 ‘is a key passage, habitually over-interpreted to signify that Creon is impiously blind to the obvious fact that his decree runs counter to the will of the gods,’ which seems to be something of an overstatement. Indeed, Liapis eventually offers an alternative interpretation that, I suspect, many would already endorse (p. 97): ‘[Creon’s] reasoning bespeaks not so much a tyrant as a statesman who is so politically minded as to attempt to subsume to the interests of the polis even the transcendent will of the gods.’
3.   On p. xii, read ‘than’ for ‘that;’ pp. xxx and xxxv: read σῴζοντα for σῳζοντα in Soph. Ant. 1114; p. l n. 105 (‘the association between unjust wealth, hybris, and atē…’): read ‘among’ for ‘between;’ pp. 41-2: ἀσπιδηφόρους in Aesch. Sept. 19 is ‘shield-bearing,’ not ‘spear-bearing;’ p. 68: read ἐπ’ for ἀπ’ in Soph. Trach. 1275 (in accordance with the translation provided); p. 93: read παῖδέ φημι for παῖδε φημὶ in Soph. Ant. 561; p. 129: add ἐπεὶ at end of Soph. OT 376; p. 129: read χώρας for χῶρας in Soph. OT 97; pp. 134: read μακίστων in Soph. OT 1301 (to match p. 144); p. 146: read ἄπο for ἐπο in Soph. OT 1400; p.195: read φέρτατόν for φέρτατον in Certamen Homeri et Hesiodi 74; p. 196: read χρήματά for χρήματα in Pindar fr. 157 M; p. 196: read ἔστ’ for ἐστ’ in Soph. Trach. 1; p. 198: read εὖτ’ for εὗτ’ in Soph. OC 1229; p. 205: read πῇ for in Solon 13.66 (in accordance with the citation from West); p. 212: read αὐτὸν for αὐτον in Eur. Heracl. 610; p. 258: remove the comma after ‘BACCHYLIDES.’

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