BMCR 1996.06.07

1996.6.7, Webster, Monuments Illustrating New Comedy, 3rd ed.

, enlarged by J.R. Green and A. Seeberg). Bulletin Supplement 50. London: Institute of Classical Studies; University of London, 1995. Vol. 1: Pp. 264 + xvi + 59 plates; Vol. 2 (Catalogue): Pp. 515 + viii.

Some 35 years have passed since the publication of the first edition of T.B.L. Webster’s Monuments Illustrating New Comedy, 1 in which over 1,400 individual items were catalogued. The same list was reprinted in the second edition, published in 1969, which appeared five years before Webster’s death, and supplemented by substantial addenda et corrigenda. 2 It is a tribute to, and an appropriate commentary on, the far-reaching influence and legacy of T.B.L. Webster that two of his former charges, one Hyperborean, the other Antipodean, overcame the tyranny of distance to edit and enlarge his Monuments Illustrating New Comedy. Although featuring Webster’s name prominently on the cover, this third edition, greatly revised and enlarged, is the work of Dick Green and Axel Seeberg, and it is to them that all credit is due. New discoveries, a significant increase in publication of relevant material, coupled with a fuller treatment of some of the categories only summarily covered in earlier editions on account of chronological problems (such as bronzes, gems and glass), has brought the number of entries to over 3,500. As the editors of the new edition modestly state: “We are well aware that our lists are not complete but we hope that they remain reasonably representative of the variety of media where actors and masks occur, of the types, and of the periods and regions” (p. vii). These goals, often requiring unstinting effort in the face of what is admitted to be, at times, “a boring and trying task” (p. viii), are not only admirably met, but greatly exceeded. Handsomely produced in two hard-bound volumes and well-illustrated by 59 plates of black-and-white photographs, this third edition should quickly take its place as a standard work of reference.

Evolving from the plays of Menander and his contemporaries, New Comedy was to enjoy a popularity over a span of time not matched by Old or Middle Comedy. Its diachronic longevity was matched by its geographical dissemination. This resulted in a very large following of the performance itself, complemented, among the more educated, by a healthy following of the written form, as well as a proliferation of visual representations. The transition from Middle to New Comedy was accompanied by an enormous increase in the geographical horizon and the range of media of the visual representations. In attempting to come to grips with these in the third edition of Monuments Illustrating New Comedy, Green and Seeberg are not content with the time-honoured catalogue, admirably put together in Vol. 2. In Vol. 1 they offer a much needed introduction to this substantial body of material by way of a series of essays, complemented by various indices. The depth of interpretation offered in Vol. 1 represents a departure from earlier editions, but since it is the catalogue that remains constant, in format if not in size, it would be best to begin with it.

The list proper, or catalogue, fills the second volume in its entirety (pp. 515 + viii). This is prefaced by a two-page section headed “Directions for Use”, which should be read carefully in conjunction with the preface (Vol. 1, pp. vii-ix), which often clarifies, or adds to, some of the directions for use. Despite a number of unavoidable grey areas, mentioned below, Vol. 2 represents a solid piece of scholarship, that will be used and re-used by students of New Comedy and of Greek theatre in general for some time to come. As the editors stress, it is a catalogue, not a primary publication and, as such, it relies heavily on the published work of others; it is therefore a collection of references to material both published and unpublished. It should be noted that although published in 1995, the lists are current only up to the later part of 1986; material published near to, or since, that time is not included in the current volume, even though occasional reference is made to publications appearing in the 1990s. Individual catalogue entries provide the basic information, in telegram style; the descriptions are short, but accurate, with only the more important bibliographical references. The material is presented chronologically, according to six discerned periods: Period 1 = Early Hellenistic to ca. 250 BC; Period 2 = ca. 250-150 BC; Period 3 = ca. 150-50 BC; Period 4 = ca. 50 BC-AD 50; Period 5 = ca. AD 50-180; Period 6 = ca. AD 180 onwards. Although such a division seems reasonable, and I marvel at the editors’ ability to date a given item to late in Period 2 as opposed to early in Period 3 for example, a word of warning is due in places, especially with particular classes of material. In the case of gems, for instance, all are listed under Period 4, even though the authors admit that not all gems were produced at this time. The reader should also be careful to understand what the editors mean by “date” and “origin,” terms that refer to the general type of the object rather than the individual object itself. Consequently, Roman copies will usually be found classified under the most probable date and place of the common original.

As in previous editions, individual items are designated by a two-letter code, where the first letter stands for a region, the other for a medium. Hence the entry 3EL 5 refers to Period 3, E = Egypt and Cyrene, L = terracotta lamp, number 5, which happens to be a slave mask at the base of the spout of a lamp thought to be in the Benaki Museum, Athens. Be that as it may, the editors, hesitantly, have modified the meaning of individual letters in the code from earlier editions. Users of the earlier editions should thus be warned; whereas in the second edition X = Mainland Greece, X = unknown origin in the new edition, and so on. The reasoning for the change, particularly for the “locality”, is not, to my mind, sufficiently spelled out, despite the comments in Vol. 1, p. vii. For instance, in previous editions, “BV” meant “Boiotian vase”; it now means “a vase from Boiotia, Central or northern Greece”. Where “DM” once stood for a “mosaic from Delos”, it now refers to a “mosaic from Delos, the Aegean, Western Asia Minor, or the Black Sea.” In both cases, the reader has to double-check the entry in question for the provenance of the object, bearing in mind the constant problem of “origin” as opposed to “find spot”. In all this, the third edition is arguably less precise than earlier editions in its shorthand, though it gains by doing away with some of the locality codes (14 instead of the 19 in the second edition), though the material codes have increased from 11 to 15. In most cases, however, confusion is avoided and the catalogue as a whole is remarkably clear.

To return to the mosaic found on Delos, since what determines the regional classification is the origin of the type, and not the find spot of the object, the shorthand “DM” of the new edition ultimately refers to a mosaic, the origin of which is to be sought now in Delos, the Aegean, Western Asia Minor and the Black Sea. The problems inherent in distinguishing between “origin” and “find-spot”, coupled with the problem of imposing a tight chronological framework on individual items, some of which defy such categorisation, might have been alleviated by a full index of “find-spots”, or some alternative system of cross-referencing. An attempt to this end is made with the “Catalogue Inventory with Indication of Exports and Imports” (Vol. 1, pp. 103-128), though it could have been expanded or given in a different format. The lack of a fuller system of indices or cross-references results in a catalogue that lacks flexibility and is monolithic. Given the fact that Vol. 2 is a catalogue per se and that all of the interpretative material is in Vol. 1, I wonder whether it might not have been wiser to publish the lists in a form other than a printed book? Microfilm would certainly have lowered both the production costs and portability of the volume. Better still, a CD-ROM or a data-base, especially one easily accessed, would have made the catalogue infinitely more flexible, and would have allowed for uses and searches not anticipated by the editors. Although I am an avid fan of the printed book, the material covered in Vol. 2 is far more useful in an electronic format that can be easily searched and easily added to.

For those whose eyes glaze over at the thought of an endless catalogue, relief is to be found in Vol 1, which, as mentioned above, represents something of a departure from earlier editions. The tone is quickly set by the fine reproduction of a drawing by Rubens which serves as the Frontispiece (= 4XS 4b in the catalogue). The text proper follows the preface (pp. vii-ix) and a list of abbreviations (pp. xi-xvi) and begins with a section labelled “Costumes and Masks” (pp. 1-51). Following a brief general introduction to the subject (pp. 1-5), the remainder of the section is a detailed typology of the various types of masks. The approach of presentation adopted follows Webster’s practice of listing the mask-types of the monuments by consecutive numbers derived from Pollux. Consequently, under each individual mask-type (there are 44 types in all), the relevant descriptions given in Pollux’Onomastikon are compared with the monuments themselves. For each type of mask, there is the relevant passage in Greek, a translation, a description and discussion of the monuments and a small drawing indicating the basic structure of the mask-type. Types 1-9 are the old men, 10-20 the youths, 21-27 the servants, 28-30 the old women and 31-44 the young women. As Green and Seeberg admit, the equation of particular mask-types known from physical or visual remains on the one hand, with Pollux’ descriptions on the other, can range from virtual certainty to almost pure conjecture. Nevertheless, the editors proceed judiciously and present the evidence in a way that allows the reader the opportunity to make an informed judgement.

The second section, entitled “Survey of the Evidence” is much more quantitative than qualitative. A solitary histogram showing the quantities of material broken down by period is then followed by a survey of each of the six discerned periods. Under each period there are two pie-graphs that list the material respectively by medium and by provenance. Hence, under Period 1, the reader can see at a glance that terracotta masks and figurines far outnumber representations in all other media (including pottery, stone sculpture, precious metals and other), while the place that has produced the majority of monuments (i.e. the originals) is Sicily. This diachronic survey is followed by a shorter section headed “Note on the Relative Popularities of Masks” (pp. 77-83), with fourteen additional pie-graphs, listing, for example, the stage presence of characters in Menander, as well as those of Terence, followed by pie-graphs showing categories of character represented by masks, by figures and in the physical remains. The pie-graphs are an important visual aid that greatly assist the discussion. Nevertheless, one gets the impression that their usefulness is somewhat exaggerated.

The following section—”Illustration of Plays”—provides an overview of comicae tabellae, which are viewed as illustrations of particular scenes from particular plays by the same well-known author. The section, though small (pp. 85-98), adds considerably in terms of both quantity and understanding to Simon’s earlier survey. 3 Addenda include, among others, some fifteen inscribed scenes, some of which repeat or appear to be related to uninscribed representations known for some time. Individual illustrations are presented under plays by title, or else as anonymous plays. The discussion of most of these illustrations is accompanied by a schematic sketch of symbols, the handiwork of Astrid Seeberg, which attempt to provide a shorthand guide to the general kinds of figure represented and their grouping.

There follows a summary listing of “Flat Roman Lifesize Masks” (pp. 99-102), which provides the vital statistics for 66 masks in all. This, in turn, is followed by a “Catalogue Inventory with Indication of Exports and Imports” (pp. 103-128). The catalogue is presented first by period, then provenance; this is followed by a “Summary Index by Media” (pp. 129-130), a “Select Concordance” to Bieber, Robert and Winter, 4 and an expectedly long “Museum Index and Concordance” (pp. 135-227). The latter includes quite a number of objects of which the present whereabouts is unknown as well as objects formerly on the market.

The iconographical indices follow: on pp. 229-235 there is an “Index of Figure Types—Seated Slaves”, accompanied by 36 schematic sketches, which cover the four basic discerned groupings: A. with hand(s) to the face or head; B. with one hand touching the seat/alter; C. other seated poses; D. irregular, unusual and/or individual types. The second iconographical index, an “Index of Figure Types—Other than ‘Seated Slave'” (pp. 237-240) has no accompanying sketches, nor does the “Index of Accessories” (pp. 241-254). The latter lists a large variety of headgear, items carried or held in the hands or arms, items carried or supported on the head or body, surroundings (including stage props) and associated motifs. This is followed by a “List of Illustrations—by Collection” (pp. 255-258), followed by the “List of Plates” proper (pp. 259-263). The plates themselves are at the back of Vol. 1. It is worth noting that the numerous illustrations provided in this edition do not repeat those in earlier editions. As such, the earlier editions are not totally superceded.

As with Webster’s earlier editions of Monuments Illustrating New Comedy, as well as his other books dealing with illustrations of Old and Middle Comedy and Drama, 5 this new edition is an important and indispensable research tool that will serve students of Greek theatre for many years to come. For this Dick Green and Axel Seeberg deserve not only full credit, but our thanks. It would be good to see the 4th edition of Webster’s Monuments Illustrating New Comedy in electronic, searchable format.

  • [1] T.B.L. Webster, Monuments Illustrating New Comedy, BICS Supplement 11, London 1961. [2] T.B.L. Webster, Monuments Illustrating New Comedy, BICS Supplement 24, (2nd Ed.), London 1969, pp. 275-335. [3] A.K.H. Simon, Comicae Tabellae. Szenenbilder zur griechischen Neuen Komödie (Emsdetten 1938). [4] M. Bieber, The History of the Greek and Roman Theater (2nd ed., Princeton 1961); C. Robert, Die Masken der neueren attischen Komödie (25. Hallisches Winckelmannsprogram 1911); F. Winter, Die Typen der figuerlichen Terrakotten (Berlin-Stuttgart 1903). [5] T.B.L. Webster, Monuments Illustrating Old and Middle Comedy (3rd Ed. revised and enlarged by J.R. Green, BICS Supplement 39, London 1978); A.D. Trendall and T.B.L. Webster, Illustrations of Greek Drama (London 1971).