Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.01.10 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.01.10

Rebecca Futo Kennedy (ed.), Brill's Companion to the Reception of Aeschylus. Brill's Companions to Classical Reception 11.   Leiden; Boston:  Brill, 2017.  Pp. xix, 634.  ISBN 9789004249325.  $222.00.  

Reviewed by Dennis R. Alley, Cornell University (

[Authors and titles are listed below.]

Completing its series on the reception of the three Attic tragedians, Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Aeschylus is a welcome addition. Perhaps the volume’s greatest strength is its capacious definition of reception, which editor Rebecca Futo Kennedy defines in her brief introduction (pp. 1–5) as “a combination of explorations of receptions and acts of reception. The idea behind it is to provide some insights into the myriad ways that Aeschylus has been received into the world since his first productions since the early 5th century” (p. 1). The virtue of this generously broad definition is evinced by the companion’s inclusion of traditionally overlooked aspects of Aeschylean reception. One particularly remarkable example is Stratos Constantinidis’ article on the Broadhead Hypothesis, which treats scholarly engagement with the text of Aeschylus as an important subset of reception worthy of study in its own right (discussed more below). Yet, the ambition of such a task is not without consequent challenges, some of which are evident from the book’s table of contents:

Part I: Pre-Modern Receptions
The Reception of Aeschylus in Sicily—David Smith
The Comedian’s Aeschylus—David Rosenbloom
Aristotle’s Reception of Aeschylus: Reserved Without Malice—Dana LaCourse Munteanu
Aeschylus in the Hellenistic Period—Sebastiana Nervegna
Aeschylus in the Roman Empire—George W. M. Harrison
Aeschylus in Byzantium—Christos Simelidis

Part II: Modern Receptions
Aeschylus and Opera—Michael Ewans
Aeschylus in Germany—Theodore Ziolkowski
Inglorious Barbarians: Court Intrigue and Military Disaster Strike Xerxes, “The Sick Man of Europe”—Gonda Van Steen
Transtextual Transformations of Prometheus Bound in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Prometheus Unbound: Prometheus’ Gifts to Humankind—Fabien Desset
Aeschylus and Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley—Ana González-Rivas Fernández
An Aeschylean Waterloo: Responding to War from the Oresteia to Vanity Fair—Barbra Witucki
Form and Money in Wagner’s Ring and Aeschylean Tragedy—Richard Seaford
Eumenides and Newmenides: Academic Furies in Edwardian Cambridge—Patrick J. Murphy and Fredrick Porcheddu
The Broadhead Hypothesis: Did Aeschylus Perform Word Repetitions in Persians?—Stratos Constantinidis
Persians on French Television: An Opera-Oratorio Echoing the Algerian War—Gabriel Sevilla
Aeschylus’ Oresteia on British Television—Amanda Wrigley
Orestes on Trial in Africa: Pasolini’s Appunti per un’Orestiade Africana and Sissako’ Bamako—Tom Hawkins
Reception of the Plays of Aeschylus in South Africa—Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.
In Search of Prometheus: Aeschylean Wanderings in Latin America—Jacques A. Bromberg
Avatars of Aeschylus: O’Neill to Herzog/Golder—Marianne McDonald
The Overlooked of Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining—Geoffrey Bakewell
“Now Harkonnen Shall Kill Harkonnen”: Aeschylus, Dynastic Violence, and Twofold Tragedies in Frank Herbert’s Dune—Brett M. Rogers
“Save Our City”: The Curious Absence of Aeschylus in Modern Political Thought—Arlene W. Saxonhouse
Political Theory in Aeschylean Drama: Ancient Themes and Their Contemporary Reception—Larissa Atkinson and Ryan K. Balot

With the reception of Aeschylus defined broadly on both the chronological and topical axes, one cannot escape the feeling that the companion suffers from an apparent lack of organization beyond a rough chronological ordering of chapters. This point is exacerbated by the disproportionate interest shown in the modern reception of Aeschylus over the ancient (weighing 19 to 6 chapters in favor of the modern). Though the number of chapters slightly belies the division of the page count (roughly 400 to 200 pages in favor of modern), the editorial decision to collapse 2,000 years of reception into 6 chapters is a bit puzzling. Inevitably, as Kennedy concedes (p. 2), some topics must be omitted; however, choosing to neglect the reception of Aeschylus by his fellow Athenian tragedians, for example, seems problematic if we are to believe that equal interest is being given to the ancient and modern receptions of the text. One could reasonably argue that the reception of Aeschylus’ Oresteia in Euripides’ Elektra deserves its own chapter—to say nothing of the reception of Aeschylus in Euripides’ other plays, or, indeed, Sophocles’.

In addition to these points, the breadth of the material and lack of subsections makes the volume harder to engage with than other similar volumes and demands that the reader constantly refer back to the table of contents. The problem of usability is deepened by the absence of an index locorum and general bibliography (though each chapter includes its own bibliography at its conclusion). While none of these are insurmountable criticisms, they can at times detract from experience of working with this otherwise excellent volume. And, indeed, there is much to praise here. David Smith’s “The Reception of Aeschylus in Sicily” is an excellent place to start.

Smith begins the with an exploration of the long-assumed Sicilian quality of certain compositions (stemming especially from the author’s ancient vitae). Smith begins by identifying a “push and pull” quality to the ancient biographies’ reports of Aeschylus’ decampment to Sicily. These motivations, as Smith demonstrates, are likely inventions intended to answer an implicit question about Aeschylus’ time in Sicily: why would Aeschylus leave Athens? (p. 14). The value of Smith’s analysis extends well beyond Aeschylus. Indeed, whenever a poet of merit found their way into the orbit of a king or tyrant, the ancient biographical tradition immediately ascribed the visit to patronage and pay.1 Yet, as Smith shows, the biographic narratives involving Hieron’s patronage of Aeschylus are often not only problematic but frequently patently false. Smith’s judicious and thorough analysis of the biographical evidence (pp. 11–18) for “Aeschylus in Sicily” is reason alone to laud the chapter. Yet, the close and careful search for “Sicily in Aeschylus” (pp. 18–36) is equally if not more impressive.

Smith divides candidates for Aeschylean plays with Sicilian productions into two camps—those with ancient testimonia for Sicilian performances and those suspected to have been performed in Sicily by modern scholars. In the first section, the fragments of the Aitnaiai and its relationship to the Dike fragments receive a thorough analysis (pp. 19–31). The Persians and Glaukos are the plays for which modern scholars have proposed a Sicilian production (pp. 31–36).2 The caution and evenhandedness of Smith’s approach throughout is superlative. Avoiding committing to either side, Smith sets out to aggregate the data for Sicilian production and presents the cases advanced on either side. Though some may find his findings discouraging for their lack of positive evidence for Sicilian productions, Smith’s presentation and analysis of the complicated, often contradictory, and obscure material is praiseworthy.

Noteworthy for their concision and the adept selection of content are “Aeschylus in the Roman Empire” by George W. M. Harrison and “Aeschylus in Byzantium” by Christos Simelidis. Harrison systematically sets out the plays of Aeschylus, identifying key moments in their reception by Roman authors, as well as demonstrating the evidence from quotes embedded in Roman-era texts and contemporary papyrus fragments. Scholars working on specific plays will no doubt wish to consult Harrison’s lucid, thorough and extensively sourced collection.

Taking a different approach, Simelidis charts receptions of the text of Aeschylus at Byzantium from the end of Roman Period to the transfer of the famed Medicean manuscript (M) of Aeschylus to Venice following the Fourth Crusade. He looks at three distinct sub-groups: school texts (from which developed the so-called Byzantine Triad of Persians, Septem and PV), scholarly transmission, and Byzantine allusions to Aeschylus. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Simelidis finds that, when compared with the other two tragedians, Aeschylus enjoyed less readership and attention in the Byzantine period. Both these articles are of exceptional utility and impressively focused. Their value for answering questions involving textual transmission and afterlife would make them an ideal addition to an upper-level undergraduate course or graduate seminar on Aeschylus.

Section Two of the Companion confronts a multitude of modern receptions of Aeschylus in various media. Of the many engagements with Aeschylus since the Renaissance, Mary Shelley’s re-imagining of the Prometheus myth is particularly important. The topic is explored in Ana González-Rivas Fernández’s “Aeschylus and Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley.” González-Rivas begins her chapter by exploring the intellectual genealogy behind Mary Shelley’s Modern Prometheus. The connections between the description of Prometheus Plasticator and Pyrophoros in the Pantheon of William Godwin, Mary Shelley’s father, and Shelley’s conception of Prometheus are particularly striking. The chapter then questions what the figure of Prometheus meant to the contemporary Romantic world. González-Rivas finds that, far from the ambiguous figure Victor Frankenstein cuts in Shelley’s novel, Romantic conceptions of Prometheus were nearly universally positive. Rejecting the arbitrary authoritarianism of established order to confer benefits on the whole of mankind, Prometheus resonated with the struggles in which the Romantics saw themselves as engaging. In González-Rivas’ view, Mary Shelley’s view of Prometheus is intended to be subversive and challenging, much like the PV itself. In this way, her characterization of Frankenstein —the modern Prometheus—casts the figure as tragically flawed. Attempting to producing good in the world, he fails and is destroyed by the act. Important as these connections may be, González-Rivas is careful to observe that allusions to the PV are only one intertext of many, and speak as much to the extraordinary erudition of the novel’s author as to the position of the text of Aeschylus in the period.

One last entry deserves special mention. “The Broadhead Hypothesis: Did Aeschylus Perform Word Repetitions in Persians?” by Stratos Constantinidis is an excellent example of the benefits of Kennedy’s approach to reception. Working with the simple question expressed in the title (stemming from the influential commentary on the Persians by H. D. Broadhead,3) Constantinidis explores competing receptions: those of scholarly, textual reception and those of unindoctrinated audiences’ aural reception. Testing the hypothesis through six performances of the play where questionnaires addressing Broadhead’s views on word repetition were distributed, Constantinidis found that audience were not only not hostile to word repetition but may even have benefited from them. The application of experimentation to the reception of a play is an intriguing method for better understanding the philological stakes within Greek poetry. While Constantinidis is appropriately cautious about his findings and highlights the natural limitations on the experiment, the use of performance as a laboratory for understanding the gap between textual expectations and aural reception is commendable and important. The method is easily repeatable and could be refined with the introduction of independent variables and/or random samples.

As this sample of chapters suggest, Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Aeschylus is bold in charting new territories of reception and questioning what we think we know about the process of reception itself. While further editing might have streamlined the presentation, the content of the final project is laudable, engaging and indeed enjoyable nonetheless. Rebecca Futo Kennedy deserves praise for the new territories of reception through which she has guided us.


1.   For ancient biography generally, Lefkowitz, M. 2012, The Lives of the Greek Poets2, London: Bloomsbury, remains the standard treatment. For specific reference to Hieron’s patronage of Aeschylus and other poets during his reign, see Morgan, K. 2015, Pindar and the Construction of the Syracusan Monarchy, Oxford and New York: OUP, 87–132. For problems with assumptions of elite patronage, see Pelliccia, H. 2009. “Simonides, Pindar, and Bacchylides,” in Budelmann, F. (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Lyric, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 140–62, and Bowie, E. 2012. “Epinicians and ‘Patrons,’” in Agócs, Carey, Rawles (eds.), Reading the Victory Ode, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 83–92.
2.   For the modern case for the Sicilian production of Persians, see Bosher, K. 2012, “Hieron’s Aeschylus,” in Bosher, K. (ed. ),Theater Outside Athens: Drama in Greek Sicily and South Italy, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 97–111.
3.   Broadhead, H. D. 1960. The Persae of Aeschylus. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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