BMCR 2002.06.06

Menander: the Plays and Fragments

of Athens Menander, M. G. Balme, The plays and fragments. Oxford world's classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. xxxiv, 312 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 0192839837 $10.95 (pb).

Until the appearance of this collection, only one single-volume translation included the bulk of the extant writings of Menander.1 Norma Miller’s 1987 Penguin volume nicely translates all the texts from F.H. Sandbach’s 1972 OCT Menandri Reliquiae Selectae and has been the only book suitable for use as a classroom text.2 W.G. Arnott has completed his superb three-volume Loeb edition of Menander, but it is too expensive and unwieldy to serve as a textbook for most classroom uses. The Penn Greek Drama Series has issued a Menander volume, but a host of problems make it difficult to recommend (cf BMCR 1999.03.08). For most classroom use, then, the choice now becomes one between Miller’s Penguin and Maurice Balme’s new contribution to the Oxford World Classics series (once the sensibly priced paperback edition becomes available). Both are reliable and the choice will be one of taste and preference. Balme’s translation is a shade more exact and up-to-date but Miller’s remains more readable overall.

Peter Brown provides a sharp and wide-ranging, yet coherent introduction. Brown covers Menander’s life, dating of the plays, the development of Greek stage comedy, theatrical and generic conventions of Menandrean comedy, and an assessment of Menander’s legacy for world theater. He also nicely emphasizes the lively stage action of Menander’s comedy in performance. Too often the generic constraints and stock requirements of Greek New Comedy tacitly suggest such comic drama was a fairly lifeless affair, so Brown’s comments are especially welcome.

The translations include all the plays of which anything substantial has been recovered on papyrus, arranged from most complete to least: The Bad-Tempered Man (Dyskolos), The Girl from Samos (Samia), The Arbitration (Epitrepontes), The Shield (Aspis), The Girl with the Shaven Head (Perikeiromene), The Man She Hated (Misoumenos), The Man from Sikyon (Sikyonios), Twice a Swindler (Dis Exapaton), The Hero (Heros), The Lyre-Player (Kitharistes), The Farmer (Georgos), The Apparition (Phasma), The Flatterer (Kolax), The Girl Possessed (Theophoroumene), The Girl from Leukas (Leukadia), The Girl from Perinthos (Perinthia), The Man from Carthage (Karchedonios), The Women Drinking Hemlock (Koneiazomenai), the bits of the unknown play from P.Caerensis 43227 (as in Handley’s OCT) and a selection of other quotations of Menander from antiquity (again as in Handley’s OCT, but equipped with cross-references to Kassel-Austin).3 Each play comes equipped with its own brief introduction, which tells what survives of the play, its cast, and basics of its plot.

Balme’s translation is the most meticulous yet to appear in English. He renders the Greek iambic trimeter into blank verse and the trochaic tetrameter into English trochaics. The result feels more like rigid versification than poetry, though some could say the same about Menander’s orginal. Balme expends the most effort making his translation reflect the state of the tattered remains of the scripts of Menander’s plays. He dutifully notes gaps, supplies hypotheses about their contents, and for shorter textual problems, he italicizes any translation of tentative reconstructions (see example below). He also capitalizes on the most recent scholarship, e.g., Arnott’s Loeb, noted above. For Epitrepontes and Misoumenos especially, this means measurable additions to the texts available to Miller for her 1987 translations.

Unfortunately, such meticulousness does not always result in clarity. Balme’s allegiance to meter and precision can leave passages and lines ranging from decent to awkward to nearly inscrutable without checking the Greek. Readers are likely to find a line like “Call me your mother, Gorgias/ And say it’s urgent” unintentionally humorous coming out of the mouth of the old man Knemon ( Dyskolos 699-700). Students, especially in America, may be less amused with Knemon’s archaic style in his great monologue, which features lines like “Lie me down. I hold that no one should say more than he needs must” (739-40).

Comparison with Miller’s translations tends to show that Balme is not often bad but also never establishes a rhythm that will convey to the reader the flow of Menander’s Greek, which made him so popular and quotable in antiquity. Two examples will suffice.4 For προάγει γὰρ ἡ τῶν πραγμάτῶν ἐμπειρία of Dyskolos 29, Balme offers “experience brings men on.” Typical of Balme, it is accurate, literal, and vague. Miller turns in the epigrammatic “Experience matures a man,” which brings out more of the force of the maxim. For a more extended example, consider Balme’s handling of Chairestratos’s speech from the last act of Epitrepontes. Chairestratos debates with himself about his feelings for Habrotonon, the hetaira in the company of Charisios, his friend and neighbor:

the opposite, and you,
Chairestratos, must now consider what
Should happen next; how you can stay his friend,
Faithful as you have always been? For she’s
No common tart and it’s no chance affair;
She’s seriously in love; she’s had this child;
And in her mind she’s free. Enough of that!
You must not look at her. First she must have
A talk alone now with her dearest love,
Her sweet Charisios…

The italics are original, reflecting Balme’s convention of italicizing conjectures. The use of traditional brackets might have been preferable, since on the printed page the italics have the distracting effect of emphasizing words and phrases at cross purposes to the content and manner of a character’s speech. Now Miller for the same passage:

[brooding] Contrariwise, Chairestratos, you have to consider the inevitable consequence. How do you propose to continue to be Chairisios’ loyal friend? She’s not a common tart, who’s available to anyone. It’s serious, she’s had a child, she’s no slave. [Pause] Oh, stop it! Forget her! Let her first have a tête-à-tête with her “dearest, sweetest Chairisios” …

Miller offers a looser, prose version, preferring to delineate the turns of thought in Chaerestratos’ aporia. She also silently omits the more fragmentary lines.

Choosing between Miller and Balme will depend on purpose and taste. In Chaerestratos’ speech above, Balme preserves more accurately the individual lines and words of the Greek text, but at the expense of the general sense of the whole. Miller conveys general thrust of the speech. For an ordinary classroom text, or for any occasion to introduce Menander to the Greekless reader (student, performer, director, etc), Miller will be by far the more accessible. For years I have used Miller’s translation with success in courses on ancient comedy in translation. It is not perfect, but students have been able to articulate many of the issues raised by Menander’s plays, even as they have still struggled with the fragmentary state of even the better preserved plays. Balme’s version would certainly cause them to lose the forest for the trees. Those seeking a reference translation or crib for Menander’s Greek, however, will find Balme precise and reliable. Indeed, for any close line-by-line analysis, Balme’s efforts will be helpful. Overall, then, for Brown’s introduction and Balme’s exactness, this new volume will be rewarding, so long as its goals and strengths are kept in mind.


1. This does not count reprints of translations from early in the twentieth century which are very much outdated by newer finds or single plays available in their own editions or in compilations.

2. F.H. Sandbach, Menandri Reliquiae Selectae (Clarendon: Oxford, 1972; revised with appendix, 1990). The revisions and additions of the 1990 edition of course appeared too late for Miller to incorporate. Miller adds to the Dis Exapaton the parallel lines from Plautus’ Bacchides for easy comparison of this unique instance where we have both a Greek comedy and its Roman adaptation. No other edition contains this handy feature.

3. R. Kassel and C. Austin, Poetae Comici Graeci, vol. 6.2 Menander: Testimonia et Fragmenta apud scriptores servata (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1998).

4. For ease of comparison, I use the same two passages I used in my review of David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, eds, Menander (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998) in BMCR 1999.03.08.