Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2017.04.26 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2017.04.26

Letizia Poli Palladini, A Cloud of Dust: 'Mimesis' and Mystification in Aeschylus' 'Seven against Thebes'. Hellenica, 59.   Alessandria:  Edizioni dell'Orso, 2016.  Pp. xi, 347.  ISBN 9788862746656.  €40.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Antonis K. Petrides, Open University of Cyprus (

This is a book of strong self-confidence and grand claims. Poli Palladini aspires to offer a novel interpretation of Aeschylus’ Seven against Thebes with “so-far unheard arguments” (sic, p. 3)an interpretation of the kind that, in her opinion, earlier scholars, who had either examined only aspects of the play or indulged in nebulous theorising, failed to produce. To the perceived theoretical meanderings and practical deficiencies of these scholars Poli Palladini juxtaposes “a common-sense approach” (pp. 5, 8) privileging rigorous attention to textual and exegetical matters (p. 6) and the pursuit of verisimilitude (p. 9), as opposed to her peers’ berated penchant for ambiguity.

As one suspects, this boldness evokes the book’s origins as a PhD thesis (Oxford 2000). In fact, despite the sixteen-year gap between dissertation and publication, thesis-like features are pervasive in the book: a dogged and occasionally disorienting focus on minutiae, excessive footnoting and bibliographical documentation at least in some of the chapters, frequent long digressions (see, e.g., pp. 78–80 on the timidity of women), and above all a forceful polemic, which sometimes treats other people’s work very unjustly: it may well be that the chapter on the Seven is “the least felicitous” in Taplin 1977; but surely, Zeitlin 1982 offers more to Aeschylean bibliography than an “optional theoretical coating”; Torrance 2007 is not a mere “guide for undergraduates”; and Hutchinson 1985 did not by any means “lull” discussion on the Seven “by giving the fallacious impression that nothing in the play still awaited interpretation” (p. 4).

The book retains much of the philological-exegetical nature of the original dissertation, titled Studies on Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes. As such, it re-examines carefully and often convincingly many particular problems of the play, from textual matters to reconstructions of the two preceding instalments in the trilogy, and from the exegesis of specific references and passages to important questions of staging. These discussions invariably useful, if not always cogent show the author at her best: a scholar with a keen eye for detail, broad background in Greek history, religion and material culture, as well as an enviable command of the Greek language. The objective behind the reworking of this material was to transform it into something more “organic” (p. 3), providing a comprehensive interpretation of the play under two unifying principles: mimesis and “mystification” (p. 1). In a nutshell, Poli Palladini argues that the playwright resorted to a representation of war, relations with women, family feud and mourning by combining material from epic, contemporary experience and his own creative imagination. More importantly, the author adds, Aeschylus pursues a mimesis of the invisible action of superhuman forces. This action is made credible by the playwright’s “mystifying hermeneutics”; that is, the compilation of varied, conflicting and often puzzling interpretations of the disaster that has befallen the city and the royal family by different voices. This plethora of outlooks likened to a rising “cloud of dust” conveys the sense of divine involvement in the only way it can be reduced to mimesis.

Although the notion of mystification is eloquently advanced, the idea itself that Aeschylus evokes multiple, simultaneous causality, because his is a universe where human and superhuman agencies work in tandem, is of course not new. That he intends to confound the spectator in this manner, and that this is how he intends to represent the divine, is, I suspect, not an idea to which everybody will relate. Moreover, Poli Palladini hurts her case by overstretching it, when she speaks, for example, in Chapter 7 of “unintentional mystification” to refer to the confusion caused mostly to the scholar by the loss of the trilogy’s first plays. The apparent purpose of this stretch is to force upon the reader the impression that the book is structurally cohesive. In reality, “mystifying hermeneutics” is the focus of only two of the book’s ten chapters (chs. 8 and 9). To put it another way, not only is “mystification” literally an afterthought, insomuch as it did not belong to the original thesis, but it also fails to coalesce smoothly with the earlier material.

The book comprises a methodological introduction, ten chapters, conclusions and two appendices, the second of which, unusually, offers a new translation of the Seven intended as a companion for the general reader (not a bad idea!). Chapters 1 and 2 deal with traditional philological matters in the way an introduction to a commentary would. Both chapters are exhaustively researched, brimming with interesting ideas and food for thought. In Chapter 1, Poli Palladini argues against the idea that any incident in Athens’ recent history or contemporary politics is allegorised in the Seven. However, she does not rule out the possibility that the strife between Sicilian princes Hieron and Polyzalus over the succession of their deceased older brother might have influenced Aeschylus’ choice of mythic material, especially since the two brothers had Theban origins. She also discusses Pindar F 75, which is sometimes taken as evidence that the Seven was performed in the agora. Rejecting this, she dates the fragment persuasively in 495–92 BC, and opines that the reference to the altar of the Twelve Gods may be intended to honour Peisistratus the Younger, who had dedicated it.

Chapter 2 broaches the question whether the Seven used the skēnē building, arguing that it did not. It also examines the number of statues present on stage (Poli Palladini believes there were eight rather than seven), the play’s costumes, and Aeschylus’ poetic use of the topography of Thebes. The latter section is especially illuminating: Aeschylus’ deviations from topographical realism, the author shows, such as positioning Thebes in the middle of the plain, are meant to represent the final Argive attack as the most formidable ever. Poli Palladini has interesting things to say also about the diegetic space of the play, especially concerning the narrative representation of the gates. Using archaeological evidence, she argues reasonably that πυλῶν ἐπ᾽ ἐξόδοις (l. 33) suggests a kind of gate-court possibly encircled by a further wall. This interpretation has consequences for the way one is to envision the dispatch of the Theban champions (Chapter 5). The largest part of Chapter 2 is dedicated to refuting Taplin’s suggestion that the mute extras in the prologue appear on stage in full armour. Poli Palladini’s arguments here are uneven and sometimes display a kind of dry logic that is unhelpful: σοῦσθε σὺν παντευχίᾳ, she believes, need not necessarily mean “rush out wearing your armour”, but carrying it; the citizens have not been summoned in order to go and fight right away, but in order to be apprised of the military situation; hoplites, and heroic warriors, don their armour at the last minute, not beforehand; and finally, presenting panoplies on stage would be undesirable, as it would increase the cost of the chorēgia. Inasmuch as these are reservists, not active-duty soldiers, Poli Palladini finds it more likely that they appear in their everyday dress. What she disregards, however, is the powerful effect of a fully-armoured group of people appearing solemnly on stage even before the arrival of the king, and the stark contrast between the armed, disciplined men of the prologue and the unarmed, frantic young women of the parodos. Chapters 3 and 4 turn to mimesis, examining the representation of Eteocles’ character and the war itself. Poli Palladini’s considerable knack for distilling primary and secondary sources is displayed here once again, albeit with the thesis-like shortcomings mentioned above. The general tenor of these chapters is that Aeschylean mimesis employs elements from real life (contemporary military leaders and wars), epic and other literary or mythical models, and the poet’s own imagination. A wealth of material illustrates this, enriching our appreciation of the play. Much of Chapter 4 is again an aggressive response to Taplin’s view that in the Seven “strategical and chronological considerations are distorted beyond any realism” (Taplin 1977: 140). For all the epic and other elements interspersed in the representation of war, Poli Palladini counters, there is no major discrepancy between the play and contemporary military practice. The same consistency, in her view, applies to the treatment of time in representing the final day of the war, which is logical and realistic despite some dramatic licenses.

Chapters 5 and 6 examine the pivotal second episode mostly from the point of view of stagecraft. In Chapter 5, Poli Palladini refutes the old idea, recently revived by Wiles, that during the second episode the champions are with Eteocles on stage, departing promptly as their missions are announced. Poli Palladini returns to Wolff’s (1958) original understanding, that the postings had already been completed before the Redepaare. The polemic here is especially fierce: Taplin’s staging is deemed “a surrealistic scenario” that involves the audience developing telepathic skills (p. 120), whereas Wiles is accused of an “impressionistic attempt” to explain away the difficulties of the text (p. 121, n. 35), even of “sheer fantasy with no textual support” (p. 123, n. 42).

Chapter 6 investigates the staging of Eteocles’ final exit to the battle (and his doom). Poli Palladini believes that a single attendant accompanies Eteocles on stage carrying his armour. She leans towards the possibility of an onstage arming scene, although, perhaps too cautiously, she refrains from taking an absolute position on the matter.

The notion of “mystification” is introduced, belatedly, in Chapter 7. With a title that is slightly mystifying itself (“Unintentional mystification”), the chapter discusses various difficulties in understanding the Seven that are created by the loss of the plays that preceded it. The "unintentional" part of the title thus refers to obscurities not intended by the poet but caused by the accidents of transmission. That said, the chapter analyses mainly Oedipus’ curse (its wording and content) and Eteocles’ dreams, reaching the rather surprising conclusion that at least as regards the former Aeschylus was after all intentionally vague in the first two instalments of the trilogy. This contradiction seems to be the unfortunate upshot of Poli Palladini’s attempt to force what I assume was another semi-independent “Study” in the thesis into the newfangled mystification framework of the book. Still, the arguments in support of a vague wording for the curse are worth taking seriously.

Chapters 8 and 9 expound on Aeschylus’ “mystifying poetics”, focusing mostly on the “decision scene” (ll. 653–719). The general concept is that the audience’s oscillation between external and internal causality, created by the complexity of the dramatic situation, the depth of Eteocles’ character, and the ambivalent language of Aeschylus, is a deliberate strategy on the playwright’s part aiming to produce a sense of puzzlement in the spectator. This mystification is a means of exploring, on the emotional and the moral rather than on the theological level, the impact of divine action on man. Mystifying hermeneutics, writes Poli Palladini, is “a process of interpretation which confounds its addressees so that they will not notice the logical fallacies in the interpretation, [thus helping them] go beyond the rigour of logic and […] accept a discourse about deep truths, here the unity of the Labdacids’ misdeeds as links in a chain” (p. 201). All this makes for an engaging and lively read, but the impression of this reviewer is that its originality is more terminological than essential.

Chapter 10 explores “mimesis in the exodos”, examining mostly the identity of the chorus. Poli Palladini puts forth the attractive suggestion that, instead of two semi-choruses of maidens (that is, instead of dividing the primary chorus in two), the exodos employs a secondary chorus consisting of Theban menmost probably the same extras used in the prologue, this time representing not the reservists of the beginning, but citizen-soldiers returning from the battlefield with the corpses of the two sons of Oedipus.

Appendix I returns to the beginning of the play examining “the timing of Eteocles’ first exit” (p. 229), which Poli Palladini places not at line 77, as most scholars agree, but at line 281, thus leaving the king on stage during the parodos. The discussion is strong in parallels and logical argumentation, although, as the author herself admits, no definitive answer can be given.

All in all, there is a lot to learn from this book. Its stronger points seem to be deriving from the original thesis, which comprised studies on matters of philology and stagecraft. The notion of mystifying hermeneutics constitutes a post-thesis attempt to provide a unifying framework, which, however, does not add significantly to the book’s value.

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