BMCR 2000.07.01

Murder Among Friends: Violation of Philia in Greek Tragedy

, Murder among friends : violation of philia in Greek tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (xix, 282 pages). ISBN 9780195351248

1 Responses

Fifth-century Athenians possessed a vocabulary that could isolate a number of kinds of interpersonal mutual obligations. The plots of tragedy typically present and explore the consequences of the violation of these reciprocal relationships. This is in fact “typical” in the strictest sense: this book argues that harm to these relationships is an intrinsic characteristic of the genre. Individual chapters discuss the averted sibling slaying in Iphigeneia among the Taurians (pp. 21-38), hiketeia and the notion of a “suppliant bride” in Aeschylus’ Suppliants (pp. 39-62), violation of xenia in Philoctetes (pp. 63-80), the relevance of the aynthw relationship to Andromache (pp. 81-100), and suicide in Ajax, figured as killing one’s closest philos (pp. 101-116). With each, Belfiore says something of interest about ethics in the play, even if I was not convinced by every claim.

These chapters are complimented by three detailed appendices, “an especially important part of this book” (p. xvii), which describe certain or likely violations of reciprocal relationships in other extant tragedies (pp. 123-160), in the fragments of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides (pp. 161-203), and in the fragments of minor tragedians (pp. 204-219). The appendices add considerable breadth to the study and provide statistical support for the overall thesis, and will serve as a useful handlist for the narratives of tragedy no longer extant. There is much of use here.

Belfiore, however, makes much larger claims for her work than this, and here lies my greatest difficulty with the book. She claims each of the reciprocal relationships she traces is in fact a subset of the philia relationship: that every violation of xenia or hiketeia constitutes a violation of philia, which consequently is defined in the broadest possible terms. Therefore, “harm to philoi is a generic characteristic of ancient Greek tragedy” (p. 117). Her introductory chapter on ” Philia Relationships and Greek Literature” (p. 3-20) seeks to justify this usage. Aristotle prefers tragic actions to take place within philia relationships (p. 3, 1453b19-22) and so philia is defined to enable universal application of this preference. There are, of course, times when the word philos or a cognate is used in each of these other relationships, but more precision is necessary. Defining philia is difficult, as Plato recognized (cf. David B. Robinson, “Plato’s Lysis : The Structural Problem,” ICS 11 [1986], 63-83, not cited by Belfiore). Mary Whitlock Blundell, Helping Friends and Harming Enemies (Cambridge, 1989), discusses “degrees of closeness extending out from the self, overlapping and intersecting like ripples on a pond” (p. 39), and more consideration ought to have been given to distinguishing these. Similarly, more engagement with the issues raised by David Konstan, Friendship in the Classical World (Cambridge, 1997) could only help clarify the issue, beyond the position-statement on pp. 19-20, which does not adequately replace a fuller bibliographic survey.

With such a broad definition, universal claims are easier to establish. The author initially says that the plays examined in detail “are hard cases for my view” (p. xvii), though in practice they are all accommodated into her broad definition of philia, as is acknowledged in the conclusion (p. 118). Nor is the brief discussion of reciprocal relationships in epic (pp. 9-13) convincing, especially concerning the role of hiketeia (where the Iliadic examples provided do not acknowledge the poem’s insistent violation of supplication, as with Tros and Lycaon).

The readings of individual tragedies are often bold but again not without obstacles. Belfiore does successfully track the establishment and the change of reciprocal relationships in these plays. Drama, however, provides nuance beyond a schematic diagram tracing relationships. In Iphigeneia among the Taurians, is it really important to know that Pylades is kin to Orestes as well as being philos (p. 27)? Yes, the play says so in stichomythia (lines 917-918), but this is not information the whole audience needs to have previously possessed. Much more important than the technical existence of kinship is the Aeschylean precedent both for the friendship of Orestes and Pylades (where Strophius is dorjenow , Ag. 880), and for the ancestral spear as recognition token (pp. 32, 37); literary antecedents are not considered by Belfiore. The discussion of Aeschylus’ Suppliants is interesting, but the evidence is overstated. The reader is told “[t]hree literary sources state explicitly that the bride comes as a suppliant to the home of the husband” (p. 49), but they are not autonomous, and clearly reflect a single, Pythagorean source that is likely post-classical. This is not “ample literary…evidence” (p. 55) and calls into question the interpretation of Zeus and Io “as the prototype of an ideal Greek marriage” (p. 56). Belfiore does usefully sketch how her interpretation resonates throughout the trilogy (pp. 58-62). Philoctetes is principally about the violation of philia, but Belfiore concentrates instead on xenia (which is subordinated to philia when broadly defined, as here, which leads to some blurring). Interesting connections are made arguing “Skyros is the unheroic antithesis of Troy” (p. 74), but they are made problematic by their dependence on Neoptolemus’ probably fictitious account of Odysseus’ earlier treatment of him. The problems of lying and telling partial truths, from both gods and men, that tease through the play are not adequately addressed. After insisting that suicide is in no way honourable or noble in Ajax (p. 105), Belfiore nevertheless concludes “Aias benefits the dependents he has injured and restores himself to a friendly relationship with them” (p. 113), a right conclusion arrived at circuitously, without discussion of deliberate deception or the role of Odysseus (who is mentioned only at pp. 115-116).

I treat Andromache out of order because it is in this chapter that the single-example-for-each-reciprocal-relationship approach left me most unsatisfied. Belfiore argues that “[i]t is Andromakhe, not Hermione, whose relationship with Neoptolemos is ambiguous and problematic” (p. 84). The notion that “Andromakhe errs by being too ready to treat enemies as philoi” is provocative, though not helped by the use of sarcasm (p. 88). Belfiore argues that Thetis married Peleus unwillingly, and that this establishes an important mythological precedent for the play (pp. 92-97). Belfiore’s interpretation made me want to apply her approach to other plays involving spear-won brides and illegitimate children: above all, Tecmessa in Ajax (not discussed because Ajax is the subject of the following chapter?) offers much to think about, but interpretations of the captive assignments in Hecuba and Trojan Women might also have been worth including. These cases seemed more immediate to me than Hippolytus (p. 88). In passing it is suggested that Andocides 4.22-23 was written specifically with Andromache in mind (p. 85), and implied that Euripides’ bigamy in his late sixties or early seventies is historical and not a fiction of the comic poets (p. 89).

There are indications of some haste in preparing Murder Among Friends. Suggestions for stage action are accompanied by the adverb “surely” (pp. 53, 54, 67). Occasionally, the language used seems more appropriate for a grant application (e.g. pp. xviii, 120). Inconsistent transliteration (e.g. Alkestis and Andromakhe but Bacchae on p. xii), typographical errors (e.g. on p. 15 “asppendix”), erroneous plot summaries (e.g. Polymestor is not killed by Hecuba, as is claimed on p. 14, but corrected on p. 148, though on p. 149 she still speaks of the time “before he dies”), and misrepresentation of other scholarship (e.g. on p. 183, Cropp does not claim that Aeschylus adapted Thuc. 1.136 in his Telephus — it had yet to be written — but that Aeschylus probably adopted Themistocles’ story and so the play echoes Thucydides) are all present to some degree. The exclusion of satyr drama from consideration is unfortunate: Cyclops could contribute usefully to the discourse of philia and xenia Belfiore establishes.