Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.01.02 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.01.02

Oliver Taplin, Joshua Billings, Aeschylus, 'The Oresteia': The Texts of the Plays, Ancient Backgrounds and Responses, Criticism. A Norton critical edition.   New York; London:  Norton & Company, 2018.  Pp. xxxv, 251.  ISBN 9780393923285.  $15.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Andrew Brown, Kent, UK (

Don’t be fooled by the title page: you can’t expect a Greek text for this price and you don’t get one. What you do get, however, is still good value: a new translation (with introduction, map and notes) by one of the foremost Aeschylean scholars, a collection of relevant Greek material, an anthology of modern criticism, glossary and bibliography.

For scholars the main interest here will lie in seeing how far Taplin’s views have changed since The Stagecraft of Aeschylus (Oxford, 1977), but in fact the book pays surprisingly little attention to matters of staging. The chorus still numbers 15. Use of the ekkyklēma is now ‘likely’ at Ag. 1372 and presumably Cho. 973 but the chorus of Eum. still does not enter until 140 (though the notes admit uncertainty). There is still (against Scullion and Sommerstein) a ‘refocusing’ of scene at Cho. 653, so presumably Electra and the chorus enter by an eisodos at 10–22, but we are not told this, though we are told that the chorus ‘depart into the palace’ at 1076 (against Stagecraft). In the Slave’s scene at Cho. 875–86 we are given no hint of any problem with doors; I would sympathise, since the difficulty has often been exaggerated, were it not for the fact that Taplin exacerbates it with ‘unbolt the women’s quarters too’ (my italics) at 878–9. Then Pylades still enters with Orestes at 892 but neither he nor the Slave ever exits!

On two points of staging Taplin is positively and oddly misleading: at Ag. 1372 Cassandra’s corpse shares Agamemnon’s net and bath (and at 1446 she is ‘on top of him’), as though Clytemnestra had caught them together (no warrant for this in the text or in Stagecraft); and at Cho. 6–7 Orestes dedicates two locks although only one will be found by Electra. ‘Does she ignore one, or bunch the two up into one?’1

Only in the Trial Scene of Eum. do the concerns of Stagecraft come to the fore, and here Taplin responsibly retains the transmitted order of lines in the main translation while setting out his own attractive restoration in a note at the end. We are not, however, told how many jurors there are, and this looks more like conscious evasion than inadvertence.

This is not, of course, a book for experts but for beginners. The brief Introduction is very well judged for their purposes and finds room for some pages on reception. The plays are now Agamemnon, Women at the Graveside (a dreary title – why not Orestes’ Revenge?) and Orestes at Athens. The text is based mainly on those of West and Sommerstein, as it should be (this is no place to discuss textual issues but I cannot suppress a squawk of protest at acceptance of the vile conjecture πρόμος at Cho. 965). There are explanatory footnotes as well as endnotes on textual variants, all helpful as far as they go but (except on the sequence of the Trial Scene) very brief. The notes below the Parodos of Ag. should have given a name to Agamemnon’s daughter.

The translation is in verse: spoken dialogue rendered in a faint and irregular iambic rhythm, anapaests in Hiawatha trochees, and lyrics in various metres, with strophic responsion and with rhymes and half-rhymes.2 This has the advantage of making a clear distinction between the spoken and the sung and avoiding the stiff and stilted effect that can come from lyrics rendered in prose or free verse. There is naturally some sacrifice in literal fidelity to the Greek but the spirit is generally well conveyed. For the modern reader the effect is more fluent and natural than, for instance, that of Christopher Collard’s excellent 2002 translation for OUP, largely owing to Taplin’s willingness to abandon Aeschylus’s syntactic structures for simpler, punchier phrases (but at Ag. 1438 he is for once too literal as readers will take ‘the violator of this woman here’ to mean ‘the violator of Cassandra’ instead of ‘the man who ruined my life’). The rhymes are occasionally clunky and contrived but there is some effective poetry. Here is a fine example (Ag. 1560–6):

Damnation meets with condemnation back:
to judge is difficult.
The plunderer gets plundered in his turn,
the killer pays for guilt.
Yet this remains as long as Zeus remains
upon his throne secure:
who does the deed must suffer for the deed —
that’s the eternal law.
Who can eliminate the seed, expel
the household curse at last?
This family and dire catastrophe
are glued together fast.

However, the temptation to try to improve on Aeschylus is not always resisted; at Ag. 435–6, for instance, ‘voiceless and cold: a hollow urn | filled with crumbling ashes’ reads well but none of the four adjectives is in the Greek.

Moreover the translation is not quite complete. A whole antistrophe (167–75) is omitted from the Parodos of Ag., then six lines from the Beacon Speech, and so on; the stasimon Cho. 935–72 is reduced from 36 lines (in West’s text) to 22. Taplin is frank about this, estimating that ‘somewhat more than 5 percent of the Greek text has been left out’ and listing most of the omissions in the notes (but not all; without checking systematically I spotted also Ag. 394, 1014–16, Cho. 285, Eum. 387–8). Some of these are lines believed spurious; they include Eum. 858–66 (against West and Sommerstein) but at least that passage is translated in a note. Others are lines deemed obscure or incurably corrupt; this has the advantage of not tempting the reader to rely on interpretations and readings that are in fact unreliable, but perhaps Taplin gives up rather easily (is Eum. 30 really ‘too unclear’?). Others again, however, are omissions on purely subjective grounds: lines that are ‘rather recherché’ or ‘Labored to modern ears’ or omitted ‘To tighten the dialogue’. The reasoning is not always obvious: at Eum. 703, for instance, where Taplin could easily have told readers what the line means (‘neither among the Scythians nor in the territory of Pelops’), he reveals only that it is an ‘Intrusive line with little point’. Does he mean that it is spurious (why should anyone have inserted it?) or merely that it is not to his taste?

This is a serious matter. In performance, to be sure, cuts will generally be needed, but they are the responsibility of the director, not the translator. Anyway the ‘Criticism’ section of the book is surely aimed at students who encounter the Oresteia in an academic context and such readers will want (or certainly should want) to have access to the whole trilogy, flaws and all. For this reason alone students will still have to be referred to other translations, probably Collard’s (which also has much fuller notes) or even, if they don’t faint at the sight of Greek, A. H. Sommerstein’s Loeb (2008).

The section ‘Ancient Backgrounds and Responses’ provides photographs and descriptions of five well-chosen vases; extracts from Odyssey 1, 3, 11 and 24; an excessively brief account of Stesichorus’s Oresteia, not mentioning Iphigeneia or the Nurse; and extracts from Pindar’s Pythian 11 and the Electras of Euripides and Sophocles. The translations are by Taplin. Space could have been saved by omitting the Electra extracts since anyone wanting to make a comparison will have to read the plays in full.

The ‘Criticism’ section consists of material by Hegel, Nietzsche (notes on lectures on Cho., newly translated by Billings but quite scrappy), Thomson, Dodds, Goldhill, Lebeck, Zeitlin, Vidal-Naquet, Herington, Sommerstein, Macleod, Winnington-Ingram, Rosenmeyer, and Taplin/Wilson. This provides a taster for a wide range of critical viewpoints, though some of the material will be heavy going for beginners – or at least for such as need to be told by the editors the meaning of ‘virago’ and ‘coup de grâce’. Almost all the pieces, however, are extracts (themselves often abbreviated) from longer works and this gives the whole section a rather Reader’s Digest air. It will be helpful if it whets students’ appetites to read further, less helpful if they see it as an excuse to avoid doing so.

The ‘Selected Bibliography’ is generally well chosen and includes some quite advanced material (though all in English). A. J. Podlecki’s Aris & Phillips Eum. (Warminster, 1989) might have been mentioned and it seems odd to cite Loeb editions of other authors and not that of Aeschylus. C. W. Marshall’s Bloomsbury Companion to Cho. (London and New York, 2017) and my Aris & Phillips edition of the same play (Liverpool, 2018) evidently came out too late to be included.

This book will be deservedly popular for its convenience and will contribute usefully to the task of making the work of Aeschylus more widely accessible. I had expected, however, to recommend it wholeheartedly and am disappointed that I can do so only with reservations. I hope Taplin and Billings will produce a companion volume on the other three authentic plays – but without cuts, please!


1.   I quote M. Ewans, Aischylos: the Oresteia (London, 1995), 169 n. 15; but it is almost certain that the lock for Inachus has been dedicated offstage.
2.   Another new translation, by David Mulroy for the University of Wisconsin Press (Madison, 2018), is also in verse but more strongly and traditionally metrical. I find the effect pleasing in some places but in others incongruously Victorian.

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