BMCR 2003.04.20

L’Agamemnon d’Eschyle: Commentaire des dialogues

, L'Agamemnon d'Eschyle : commentaire des dialogues. Cahiers de philologie ; v. 18. Série Les textes,. Paris: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2001. 2 volumes (892 pages) ; 24 cm.. ISBN 2859396276 set EUR 59.46.

This large two-volume work on Aeschylus’s Agamemnon is composed of four introductory essays, a detailed commentary on the dialogue of the play, a substantial bibliography, and five indices. It complements the earlier three-volume commentary of Judet de La Combe (hereafter J.) and Jean Bollack on the prologue and lyrics.1 In this installment, J. also promises (p. 7) a critical edition and translation of the tragedy. Although graduate students and scholars will certainly profit most from this rich commentary, undergraduates with some French will also be well served by it, for it often has more to offer (than, say, Denniston-Page) in the way of explaining and interpreting the knotty language of the play. All in all, it masterfully integrates textual, philological, literary, rhetorical, and dramatic analysis in a way that few others do (or even attempt). The discussions of the language of the play are especially rich; the textual contributions are welcome, but J.’s conservative stance is often unpersuasive; the rhetorical and dramatic analyses are stimulating, but sometimes lack clarity.

Volume one of the commentary opens with a four-part introduction: Situation du commentaire; De l’étude des chants choraux à celle des épisodes; La question du personnage; Sur la singularité de l’ Orestie. The first section outlines the basic aims and principles of the commentary. Despite the length of the work, J. avows that its scope is restricted: its aim is to understand (p. 13) “le dialogue dramatique comme forme de discours” in the Agamemnon; the emphasis thus falls on “les modes rhétoriques et argumentatifs des discours.” J. also defends his conservative approach to textual criticism, mainly by contrast with M.L. West (more on this in the next paragraph). Part two is largely a defense of their (J. and Jean Bollack’s) much-criticized decision2 to divide the commentary into lyric (plus prologue) and dialogue installments. Despite J.’s insistence on the uniqueness of the Agamemnon‘s chorus and his notion of ” la dissonance lyrique” (pp. 27-9), I too believe an integrated commentary would have been superior. The remaining two essays treat literary matters. The ideas here are interesting but often (unless it is my French) difficult to follow. More examples from the play would perhaps have made the arguments clearer and stronger. The discussions in the commentary proper, rooted as they are in a specific word or scene, generally do not suffer from this problem.

The Introduction is followed by a comparison of the readings endorsed by J. and those of M.L. West’s 1998 Teubner (2nd ed.). There are 144 such discrepancies: none is a conjecture or emendation of J. himself, and about 80 represent readings in which J. prefers a MS reading (most often that of τ) to an emendation. His faith in the transmitted text is also evinced by his removal of a number of cruces that appear in West’s text (15 in all: at 304, 539, 547, 597, 665, 913, 1055, 1092, 1197, 1343, 1377f., 1388, 1447, 1526, 1595f.). But J. does condemn πρὸς ἡδονὴν / πεύκη at 287f. and τοῖς … ὁμοῦ at 1324f. (the text of τ). The MS tradition is discussed only in passing, but will be treated in J.’s forthcoming edition.

The commentary proper totals 683 pages. Each episode is preceded by a presentation, which offers a brief introduction to the scene and discussion of prominent themes and issues. The format is unique in that each lemma is given a rubric such as that to line 1178, ” καὶ μήν : La rupture.” In fact, this commentary is composed not of brief notes but bantam essays. The congeries of citations to ancient texts and modern scholarship that one finds in an Oxford or Cambridge commentary is absent here: references and comparisons are generally discussed not just cited. The length of the work is due to the painstaking research that informs many of the discussions, which often canvass the opinions of modern and ancient scholars. There is, for example, an excellent eight-page exposition of ἄπτερος φάτις (v. 276) and an eleven-page survey on the history of the interpretations of lines 869-874.

The bulk of the commentary is devoted to matters philological and textual. J.’s discussions of the language of the play, while sometimes in need of more hard linguistic support, are the most successful parts of the commentary, for they do not merely provide narrow accounts of a particular word or syntactic construction but also explore broader implications. His textual contributions also share this virtue but here it is a mixed blessing, for J. often seems preoccupied with the literary benefits of a particular reading and as a result fails to substantiate his arguments otherwise. The length to which he goes to defend the transmitted text is at times a bit excessive. But one must give him credit for arguing against emendations long accepted by editors: he sometimes breathes new life into extremely difficult problems. Here is a sample of his discussions with brief comment:

261. This is a case in which one is grateful for J.’s willingness to buck the tide of editorial judgment with a fresh thought. He opts for εἴτε κεδνὸν against Auratus’s εἴ τι κεδνὸν, which is preferred by almost all modern editors (with the notable exceptions of Mazon and Wilamowitz). Fraenkel3 opted for Auratus’s conjecture because he thought that that it was the more normal expression. Yes, but the context must be given more consideration: there is no reason to believe that the chorus would use a more quotidian expression here given the rather stiff language that they use elsewhere in addressing the queen. Moreover, the false symmetry that is set up between κεδνὸν and μή fits the context (p. 100): “elle [the false symmetry] donne au questionnement un tour rigoureux, systématique, tout en signalant que l’hypothèse néfaste (celle de la mauvaise nouvelle, qu’on attend en fait après εἴτε κεδνόν) a bien été écartée.”

304. A telling example of J.’s determination to defend the transmitted text. μὴ χαρίζεσθαι is notoriously difficult, and for centuries editors have either emended or obelized it. Paley wrote of the phrase: “the reading is so uncertain that it has been marked with an obelus.”4 Fraenkel agreed with him and said further that ” μὴ χαρίζεσθαι does not make sense.”5 Denniston-Page comment: ” χαρίζεσθαι is nonsense…The truth is still to be found: there is not even a plausible suggestion to record.”6 In the face of all this, J. removes the obeli and prints the transmitted text, explaining (p. 127f.):

Avec χαρίζεσθαι, l’accusatif note d’abord l’objet du don que l’on fait pour le plaisir de l’autre (avec l’idée que le don est libre,”gracieux”)…La pression ( ὤτρυνε) que le relais du Cithéron exerce sur celui de l’Égiplancte serait “de ne pas faire de l’obligation concernant le feu l’objet d’un don gratuit”. Le bonheur que fait naître la flame aperc,ue sur le Cithéron ne doit pas prévaloir sur la mission imposée et transformer l’ordre d’allumer un autre feu un manifestation gratuite de liesse.

While the conceit makes sense and could conceivably fit the context, J. fails to demonstrate how χαρίζεσθαι can mean treat as a free gift vel sim. He compares the use of the verb at Il. 6.49 and 10.380, but neither supports his case. As an alternative, he suggests (p. 128) that we might construe the line by taking θεσμὸν as the object of ὤτρυνε, and πυρός as a partitive genitive with χαρίζεσθαι (vid. LSJ s.v. II.2), which would give us, “urged the rite of the beacon-fire ( πυρός would have to be taken ἀπὸ κοινοῦ) not to give excessively of the fire.” (J.’s own translation strays from the Greek: “Il encourageait à suivre l’ordre de ne pas être dispendieux avec le feu.”) This interpretation he objects to on syntactic grounds, but there is no problem there; the difficulty is seeing how the sense of the line would fit the context. In e.g. 301 and 306 the strength and abundance of the beacon fire is emphasized: J. should have explained why wanton use would suddenly become a concern.

1258. Victorius corrected MS δίπλους to δίπους. But J. argues that perispomenon διπλοῦς is closer to the transmitted text and makes sense enough (p. 541): “Clytemnestre, en couchant avec un loup pendant l’absence du lion, est un lionne “double”, qui n’est pas franche. … Elle se dénature.” He compares E. Rh. 395. But Fraenkel7 is surely right that, given the context of the γρῖφος, δίπους is the correct reading; δίπους ὄφις at A. Suppl. 895 offers a decisive comparison. One can hardly see how this correction, the removal of a lambda, is any more substantial than a switch of accent.

At the close of the commentary, the reader finds a twenty-five page addendum to the first installment of the commentary, entitled Vingt ans après. Here J. (and note that J. is writing this section alone without Jean Bollack, although he mentions on p. 773 that he has discussed all modifications with his earlier collaborator) responds to further criticism of the previous volumes and takes account of recent bibliography. After this, we are treated to fifty-four pages of bibliography and thirty-nine pages of indices, both of which are helpfully organized in discrete categories. The bibliography, for instance, is divided according to thirteen topics, including Langue et style; Théories et histoire de l’interprétation; and Sur Eschyle: critique textuelle et interprétation (this last the most extensive). In the bibliography on the language and style of Aeschylus, we miss Stanford’s Aeschylus in his style (Dublin, 1942) and Kumaniecki’s De elocutionis Aeschyleae natura (Cracow, 1935). There are five helpful indices: Mots, choses, concepts; Faits de langue et de style; Mots grecs étudiés; Reprises d’Homère étudiées; Auteurs anciens: passages discutés.

I noticed a handful of typographical errors,8 but a far more irritating problem is the book’s poor binding. The pages started to fall out from the spine when I first started reading it, and after some ten months now spent with this commentary, none remains intact.

Despite some abstruse literary analysis and intermittent weaknesses in his textual and philological arguments, the quality of J.’s scholarship and literary sensitivity is high. This commentary (and its earlier installment) will not replace Fraenkel’s, but will serve as an excellent complement.


1. L’Agamemnon d’Eschyle: le texte et ses interprétations, 3 voll. (Paris, 1981).

2. For reviews, vid. A.F. Garvie (1983), Journal of Hellenic Studies 103, 162-4; B. Knox (1983), Classical World 77, 133; A. Neschke (1984), Poetica 16, 356-60; H. Neitzel (1985), Gnomon 59, 4-7; H. van Looy (1985), L’Antiquité Classique 54, 324-5; W.J. Verdenius (1986), Mnemosyne 39, 165-170; J. Pòrtulas (1987), Emerita 55, 165-7.

3. Aeschylus: Agamemnon, 2nd ed. (Oxford, 1962), n. ad loc.

4. The Tragedies of Aeschylus: Re-edited with an English Commentary, 4th ed. (London, 1879), n. ad loc.

5. op. cit., n. ad loc.

6. Aeschylus: Agamemnon (Oxford, 1957), n. ad loc.

7. op. cit., n. ad loc.

8. Most glaring is the run of errors in the list comparing J.’s readings with West’s. On p. 79: for “273” read “272”; at 287 the Greek in the cruces should read πρὸς ἡδονὴν / πεύκη; at 340, for ἂν read ἄν, after which should appear γ’, and ἀνθάλοιεν should be properispomenon. On p. 82: at 1308 ἐφεῦχας should be paroxytone, and at 1388 πέσων should have a grave on the ultima. On p. 83: at 1547, the virgule should be a colon; for “1562” read “1563.”