Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.02.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.02.44

James Franklin Johnson, Acts of Compassion in Greek Tragic Drama. Oklahoma series in classical culture, 53..   Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2016.  Pp. vi, 308.  ISBN 9780806151663.  $34.95.  

Reviewed by P. J. Finglass, University of Nottingham (


The compassion and pity (together with fear) created by Greek tragedy in its audience have been a mainstay of scholarly discussion since Gorgias and Aristotle; acts of compassion by the characters of Greek tragedy, however, have not received anything like the same attention. Johnson’s pioneering monograph on this topic is thus a welcome addition to the literature; and although aspects of the book make it slightly less helpful than one might have hoped, it will nevertheless deservedly be consulted and cited by scholars and students.

The book opens with an introduction briefly detailing recent work on compassion in ancient Greek society and setting out general thoughts about the nature of compassion during that period. The first chapter, ‘Homer and Archaic Greece’, examines the role of compassion in literature before tragedy. The second, ‘Fifth-Century Athens’, looks at compassion in this city, for example in the courts and the assembly. The three chapters that follow, ‘Aischylos’, ‘Euripides’, and ‘Sophokles’, are the heart of the book; they are succeeded by a Conclusion, Notes (i.e. endnotes, regrettably), Bibliography, and an Index. The overall arrangement is well done; Johnson examines the place of compassion in literature before tragedy, then in the society most associated with tragedy, then in the three major tragedians.

Johnson believes that compassion in literature before tragedy is pretty much limited to Homer; as for other writers, ‘in general, . . . the philosophers, lyric poets, and didactic poets of this period are not much interested in compassion, or perhaps it is not so central or appropriate to their genres as it is to that of epic, especially “tragic” epic’ (p. 45). Johnson goes on to ask ‘if . . . Homer, especially the author of the Iliad, emphasized the pity theme beyond the emphasis by other authors or in other texts of the Archaic period, how did this theme come to resurface in Attic tragedies?’ (p. 47), concluding that the answer lies in Homer’s immense prestige in Athenian society. But Johnson’s premise is doubtful; the greater number of references to compassion in Homer and tragedy will more probably reflect the greater proportional loss of the literature in between. Moreover, Johnson in no way exhausts the references to compassion even in the scraps of archaic literature that have reached us. At the opening of Stesichorus’ Sack of Troy, the Muse is asked to sing of ‘a man learned in measurements and wisdom’ who won glory by causing the Sack of Troy thanks to Athena’s intervention – ‘for the daughter of Zeus pitied him as he continuously carried water for the kings’.1 Epeius, for whom the goddess feels compassion, will become the creator of the wooden horse; the pity of Athena for this one man sets in motion the events that culminate in the brutal destruction of an ancient city. Pity recurs as a motivating factor at the start of the Cypria, where Zeus’s pity for Earth, burdened as she was by the weight of so many humans, prompts the beginning of the Trojan War (fr. 1 West). And openings such as these feed into dramas such as Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, where early acts of pity lead ironically to disastrous consequences. Fuller investigation of the literature between Homer and tragedy would have produced a different literary history from the one offered in this book.

Johnson’s discussion of compassion in the individual tragedians tends to go through different plays, looking at every reference to compassion and then giving an overall sense of the place of compassion within the drama; there are also some general comments on each playwright. Sometimes he sees compassion where playwrights have conspicuously avoided including it. Pelasgus in Aeschylus’ Suppliant Women and Demophon in Euripides’ Children of Heracles both fail even to mention pity as a motivating factor in their decisions to accept the supplications with which they are confronted, whereas Theseus in a similar context in Euripides’ Suppliant Women makes merely a glancing reference to that emotion; yet Johnson assures readers that these figures must have been motivated by compassion (pp. 80, 108, 113; cf. p. 59 on Diodotus’ speech in Thucydides), and even mistranslates aidoion as ‘so compassionate’ (p. 80; cf. p. 79) in order to lend weight to this conclusion. True, aidôs and pity can be associated, but they need not be, and such a translation begs the question. Better to ask why compassion is not a factor in the decisions in these plays, especially since it is in Oedipus’ response to the supplication in Sophocles’ Oedipus the King; a comparison would have been a fruitful exercise. Other judgments too can seem off the mark. So Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus ‘provides redemption for Oidipous and seems to have been used by the playwright to correct some people’s negative impressions of Oidipous based on the earlier play’ (p. 287 n. 10); if that really was Sophocles’ intention, it’s hard to say that he made a success of it. Theseus in the same drama ‘is a hero who . . . represent[s] the best of Athenian qualities and embodie[s] its best hope in the critical final stages of the war with Sparta’ (p. 212). But the character who sends Antigone back to Thebes at the end of the play lacks the foresight that an able leader ought to possess; and when Sophocles was writing OC it was far from clear that the war with Sparta was about to end.2

Some points that will not trouble specialists would nevertheless make me hesitant to recommend this book to students without a warning. So Prometheus Bound is called ‘a play traditionally attributed to Aischylos but not universally accepted as such’ (p. 88), and Johnson’s discussion proceeds on the assumption that the play is indeed Aeschylean; he is of course entitled to that view, but needed to emphasise that most scholars today see things differently. Euripides’ Medea is called ‘an early play’ (p. 143); in that case, the Ninth Symphony is ‘early Beethoven’, Great Expectations ‘early Dickens’, and Tess ‘early Polanski’, seeing that all these works come twenty-four years after their creator’s début in the relevant genre. Trojan Women is said to have had its first production ‘around 415’ (p. 118); why the qualification? Firm dates are so rare in our business that we should not spurn the ones that we have. (The discussion of the play that follows makes no reference to the tetralogy of which it formed part; might compassion have played a role in Alexander, Palamedes, and Sisyphus?) ‘Greek’ and ‘Athenian’ are unhelpfully used as synonyms in a discussion of Aeschylus’ Persians (pp. 75–6); the same problem is evident in the claim that ‘Greek tragedy was obviously written by Athenians for a mostly Athenian audience’ (p. 223), which overlooks Ion of Chios, Hieron of Syracuse, and Archelaus of Macedon, for starters.

Johnson falls victim to the biographical fallacy, assuming that we can read the personalities of dramatists from their plays; so for him Euripides ‘is keenly sensitive to the pathos of human suffering’ (p. 144), whereas ‘for Aischylos, compassion . . . is an emotion that he never seems to become fully comfortable with’ (p. 71). Other conclusions are somewhat bland, as when we are told that Seven against Thebes ‘makes us aware of the suffering on both sides of any martial conflict’ (p. 73; who is ‘us’, by the way?), or that ‘compassion and empathy are needed to remind us of the horrible consequences of human aggression and to motivate saving action, comforting solace, and, when the time comes, dignified treatment of the dead’ (p. 224), a claim that ignores recent work questioning the value of empathy.3 Other statements are not so much bland as actively misleading because of too ready an acceptance of statements and portrayals in ancient sources. So Sophocles ‘exhibit[s] the golden mean in his treatment of the compassion theme, much as he exhibits it in other aspects of his poetic work’ (p. 145; cf. p. 212 ‘the golden mean between the extremes represented by Aischylos and Euripides’), a claim explicitly influenced by Aristophanes’ Frogs; while the Athenians ‘seem to have been especially disposed to the feeling of compassion’ (p. 68). I hope we can all agree that Sophocles does more than split the difference between Aeschylus and Euripides; as for Johnson’s characterisation of the Athenians, I wonder what the Melians would have made of it.

Johnson is aware of the latest scholarship on pity in ancient Greece, but has missed some fundamental work on tragedy and early Greek poetry from recent decades. For the Loeb Aeschylus he cites Smyth’s old edition, ignoring the new one by Sommerstein (2008). For the Penguin translation of Euripides he uses Vellacott, not the new, much better translation by John Davie (1998–2002). For Sophocles’ Philoctetes Johnson cites Webster’s long outdated 1970 edition/commentary, ignoring the recent one by S. L. Schein (2013; see BMCR 2013.11.31). He strangely cites Kenneth Dover’s edition of Aristophanes’ Clouds from the abridged student edition. He is unfamiliar with recent work by Ann Suter on lamentation and tears, which might have led him to revise his remarks on that topic and gender (e.g. pp. 75, 153–4, 251 n. 85). He frequently cites old editions of works subsequently revised, such as Buxton’s Sophocles (1995/1984), Dawe’s Oedipus Rex (2006/1982), Garvie’s Suppliant Women (2006/1969), Lloyd-Jones’s Justice of Zeus (1983/1971), the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2014/1996), Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta volume one (1986/1971), West’s Iambi et elegi graeci (1989–92/1971–2), and neglects a great deal more. We all miss useful work, all the time; not all new work is good work, and good older pieces can retain their value. But those of us who seek to add to the literature on Greek tragedy should nevertheless try to get to know the latest publications on the subject.

Johnson’s writing is generally clear, but can lapse into cliché: gifts keep on giving (pp. 20, 222), babies are thrown out with bathwater (p. 51), coins have two sides (p. 82), roller-coasters are ridden (p. 163), depths are plumbed (p. 194). His use of the phrase ‘blurts out’ for some of the most moving lines in Sophocles’ Electra (pp. 160, 164) unhelpfully suggests clumsiness on the part of their speakers. I do not understand why he refers (p. 155) to ‘Western or non-Western religious teachings’; why not say just ‘religious teachings’? (And what is his evidence that people influenced by religious teachings are thereby more likely to be compassionate? I can think of a few counterexamples.) He helpfully gives cross-references to Macleod’s Collected Papers when citing his articles, but neglects to do so for Calder, Gould, Lloyd-Jones, and Schadewaldt. He refers to the British Institute of Classical Studies; the first letter of that journal’s abbreviated title stands for Bulletin.

This book has its problems, then, in matters of substance, presentation, and style. Nevertheless, readers will often find it stimulating, and it will, I hope, generate interest in what is still a relatively neglected area. ​


1.   Stes. fr. 100 F., on which see Finglass, P.J., ‘How Stesichorus began his Sack of Troy’, ZPE 185 (2013) 1–17. (Available here behind a login.)
2.   See ‘Sophocles’ Theseus’, in A. Markantonatos and B. Zimmermann (eds.), Crisis on Stage (Trends in Classics, Suppl. 13; Berlin and New York 2011) 41–53.
3.   See now P. Bloom, Against Empathy. The Case for Rational Compassion (New York, 2016), previously summarised here.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

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