BMCR 2005.08.02

Sophron’s Mimes. Text, Translation, and Commentary

, , Sophron's mimes : text, translation, and commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004. xiv, 202 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0199266131. $95.00.

This new book on Sophron, a fifth-century Sicilian mimographer from Syracuse, said by Suda ς 893 to have been a contemporary of Euripides, starts on an apologetic note: ‘a book on Sophron may seem to require more defence than most’ (p. v). Rhetorical and polite as the gesture may be, the apology is unnecessary, even slightly out of place. There has been no Sophron commentary for some sixty years, and never one in English, and Hordern (henceforward H) has set out to fill the lacuna with a competent and informative contribution. The notes and introductions to the fragments are necessarily the most significant section of the book, but H has also offered a very precise translation and a substantial introduction, discussing at length all relevant issues of chronology, style, language, literary contextualization, and history of the text in antiquity. A welcome general index rounds off the volume.

H informs that his original plan to edit Sophron afresh gave way in time to a decision to reprint, in a slightly abbreviated form, Kassel-Austin’s text and critical apparatus as found in Poetae Comici Graeci I (previously, the fragments of Doric comedy could be read in Kaibel, Comicorum Graecorum fragmenta I.1, 1899). Nevertheless, H has inspected some MS sources personally, the most significant of which are PSI 1214, in Florence, and PHerc 1014 (Demetrius Lacon), in Naples. It is perhaps a pity that H could not include references to Jeffrey Rusten – I. C. Cunningham, Theophrastus: Characters; Herodas: Mimes; Sophron and Other Mime Fragments. Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), the greatest novelty of which was the inclusion of translations of Sophron and the fragments of popular mime of mainly the Imperial age.

H’s most important predecessor is the annotated edition of A. Olivieri, Frammenti della commedia greca e del mimo nella Sicilia e nella Magna Grecia. Parte seconda (Naples, 1930, 1947 2), which is still helpful. In the intervening sixty-odd years, the fragments have not greatly changed in number, from the 175 in Olivieri to the 172 in H, and the greatest differences between the two editions are in the ordering (Olivieri was more confident in assigning uncertain fragments to known plays) and in the interpretation of individual words and expressions.1 The most important accretion to the Sophron corpus in the last hundred years was the publication of an Egyptian papyrus by Norsa and Vitelli in 1932, early enough to be included in Olivieri’s second edition. The papyrus preserves fragments of perhaps as much as four different mimes, or, less probably, four sections of the same.

From the viewpoint of someone interested in Roman drama, Sicilian and South Italian theatre is one of the most excruciating losses. If ever Plautus scholars, in their daydreaming moments, endeavour to tell themselves the story of how a man from Northern Italy came to be so well acquainted with the plays of Athenian authors active a century earlier and to make so much of them, the question of the South Italian mediation becomes crucial, and it has been shown to be so with the great thrust forward given to theatre studies in recent years by vase painting experts such as Richard Green (see, e.g., ‘”Comic cuts”: snippets of action on the Greek comic stage’, BICS 45 (2001), 37-64) and Oliver Taplin ( Comic angels and other approaches to Greek drama through vase-paintings (Oxford, 1993)). After all, does not Horace ( Ep. 2.1.58) say that Plautus (dicitur) … ad exemplar Siculi properare Epicharmi, ‘hurries up after the model of the Sicilian Epicharmus’?2

With this, perhaps naive, premise, it came as a blow to read that Sophron’s mimes are ‘primarily literary in character’ (p. 8), and then that ‘it is scarcely credible that they would have survived and received literary attention from Hellenistic and later scholarship …, had they been simple little pieces of the sort outlined above’ (i.e. short gags centering on petty country thefts and impersonations of foreigners with a strong accent, as in the description of the primordia of Doric comedy at Athen. Deipn. 14.621d; Wüst, RE 15 (1932), 1730; H, pp. 7-8). In H’s view, Sophron’s mimes ‘were probably intended for sympotic performance’; ‘it is hard to believe that they were produced on a public stage’.

H comes close to seeing in Sophron a precursor of the Hellenistic fashion for ‘realistic’ pieces, i.e., stereotypical representations of downtown lowlife and women’s private conversations. Comparison with later so-called ‘popular’ mime, as for example collected in Cunningham’s 1987 Teubner edition of Herodas, pp. 36-61 ( Fragmenta mimorum papyracea), leads H to conclude that, for example, the so-called Charition in POxy 3.413, ‘was clearly much longer than any of Sophron’s pieces’ (p. 10), and that the social contexts of fifth-century and later mime were altogether quite different.

Although H has some authoritative precedent for his claim (cf. for example Wilamowitz, Hermes (1899), 206-8; Reich, Der Mimus, 20; Wüst, RE 15 (1932), 1734), one wonders whether such a radical difference between Sophron and later popular mime rests on firm ground. Besides, what does ‘literary’ mean at this stage? Of course, Sophron’s mimes were written down; what we have are not transcriptions of an improvised performance, nor scenarios of a Commedia dell’Arte type, but this is in my view the furthest we can go with the definition of ‘literary’ as applied to Sophron and is a long way from proving that these mimes were not recited on a stage or on the street or in the market-square for a wider audience. Stronger positive proof is needed to argue that Sophron wrote only for symposium performance and for a relatively sophisticated audience relishing the caricatural representation of simple folks. In fact, the performance described in Xen. Symp. 9.2-7, with its erotic sentimentalism, is not an encouraging parallel for H’s thesis. It is true that the first known piece of evidence for a public performance of a troupe of mimes is dated to the last quarter of the III century BCE (C. Watzinger, MDAI Ath. Abt. 26 (1901), 1-8), but the nature of popular shows was such that it is not difficult to see why it eluded the public record. H has no comment on the interesting mention of a χοραγός at fr. 147: is this one of those self-referential jokes typically found in Athenian and Roman comedy? did mime actors see themselves as the poor relatives?

Even in terms of intertextuality, a key element of literariness in all traditions, H admits that little can be found (p. 140), except a perhaps proverbial Homeric allusion in fr. 140 and the striking use of the adjective γλύκυπικρον with reference to a bout of diarrhoea in fr. 4D, possibly a parody of Sappho’s famous fr. 130 γλύκυπικρον ἀμάχανον ὄρπητον.

Where an extended passage of Sophron is available for comparison, fr. 4A from The women who say they are expelling the goddess, said by a scholion to have been imitated by Theocritus in Id. 2, the difference between a self-conscious Hellenistic poet and a mimographer is apparent in the use of literary allusion and in the construction of character. Perhaps a more analytic comparative discussion of Sophron’s Women and some meaningful fragments of imperial mime would have been desirable, for the difference between the so-called Adulteress (P.Oxy 3.413) and fr. 4A does not seem to me so self-evident as H assumes.

One element which could be studied to make H’s claim more convincing is naturally Sophron’s use of language: is Sophron using literary expressions or is he drawing on popular language? Admittedly, it is difficult to define the linguistic background against which Sophron can be set and his poetics assessed, considering the scarcity of material available for comparison. However, H interestingly observes that Sophron’s choice of writing in Doric is ‘defiantly vernacular’ (p. 11), and elsewhere adds the suggestion that Sophron may have ‘wished actively to oppose himself to some perceived cultural encroachment’ of Attic drama (p. 1). H also states that grammarians quoting Sophron to illustrate Doric forms assume that Sophron, ‘though writing in a literary manner, did not use a literary dialect like that found in Greek poetry, and his language … shows marked divergence from the literary Doric of, for example, Stesichorus and Pindar’ (p. 17). Although H gives no precise references for these grammarians’ assertions (and I must admit I have not traced them), the fact that Sophron’s dialect is different from literary Doric may be important in trying to decide the issue of the audience of Sophron.

However, while H’s introduction (pp. 18-25) and notes are excellent on all matters pertaining to accentuation,3 phonology, and morphology, one regrets that more attention has not been devoted to wider issues of style and linguistic register, and, more generally, to comparison with the language and conventions of Greek comedy. For example, is it possible to assess the register of recurrent expressions such as ὥσπερ ἔχει (Fr. 4A, 2, 14)? Aristophanes, in a similar context, has κατάθου ταχέως τὸν στέφανον ( Eq. 1227) or ἀνύσας τι κατάθου ( Nub. 635)? Is this relevant in terms of sociolinguistic register variation? Perhaps not, but H does not seem to concern himself with the question.4

At some point, however, Sophron became high-brow and entered the canon, and that seems to have happened in the late Classical and early Hellenistic age, when a tradition makes him a favourite pillow book of Plato (Diog. Laert. 2.18). Sophron’s place in a theory of genres is discussed by Aristotle ( Poet. 1447b), Philodemus ( On Poems 199, 201 Janko), and other critics (references in Janko, ad l.), a sign of the high regard in which he came to be held. His mimes were then imitated by Theocritus ( Id. 2, 15) and Herodas, and a distinguished critic, Apollodorus of Athens (II cent. BCE, produced a commentary and perhaps also edited the text. Later, Sophron is included in a very exclusive school reading list in Stat. Silu. 5.3.156-7, next to Callimachus, Lycophron, Corinna (on which see now Ch. McNelis, CA 21 (2002), 67-94).

In the ancient editions of Sophron, the mimes seem to have been arranged by μῖμοι γυναικεῖοι and μῖμοι ἀνδρεῖοι, a division which in H’s view goes back to Sophron himself (p. 4). The criterion is more appropriate for an editor than for an author, but some support for H’s assertion comes from a passage in Plato’s Republic 451C, where Socrates speaks of ἀνδρεῖα and γυναικεῖα δράματα as two separate classes.5

One original element in H’s overall interpretation of Sophron is the emphasis on a link with the iambographic tradition (p. 6: ‘Sophron’s world closely recalls that of Hipponax’s iambi, where we find the same obsession with sexual activity, scatology, and bawdy and boisterous behaviour’). Iambographers as performers and impersonators, after all, have features in common with drama, and a link was recognized by the ancient sources. However, while the general point is interesting and worthwhile, this perceived connection sometimes leads H to exaggerate the presence of sexual elements in the mimes. It is largely accepted that Sophron and mime writers in general freely resorted to sexual jokes, double-entendres, and so on. However, H’s suggestions of sexual allusions or even straightforward explicit descriptions of sexual acts are sometimes not entirely convincing.

Fr. 21 ἦ ῤα καλὼς ἀποκαθάρασα ἐξελεπύρωσεν is an apt example of this exaggerated tendency to see sexual allusions in Sophron. H translates as ‘cleaning it off nicely she peeled back the skin’, and goes on to comment (ad l., p 157) ‘here [the verb ἐκλεπυρόω ] probably refers to the foreskin of the penis’, and then ‘[ ἀποκαθάρασα ] here may refer to cleaning something, such as semen, off the penis … if so, the scene here is clearly post-coital’. Clearly is surely the wrong word here: one verb is appropriate for ‘incipient sexual activity’, the other is ‘post-coital’. At the very least, the material for this note is badly organized. Cunningham (‘Certainly she has nicely purged and stripped him’), who also comments ‘probably sexual’, at least quotes, amongst other references, Arist. Eccl. 847 τὰ τῶν γυναικῶν διακαθαίρει τρυβλία, ‘licks their platters clean’. Whatever the true interpretation, nothing is said by H about possible contexts in which this very explicit description could have been pronounced: I find the past tense odd to reconcile with a dramatic context. H’s interpretation seems influenced by Hipponax, especially frr. 12 and 84 West. Finally, one wishes that H had raised the question whether Apollonius Dyscolus ( Gr. Gr. II.1,1 p. 169,22 Schneider), quoting the fragment to comment on the accent of adverbial forms in – ως in Doric, was being risqué, obtuse, or postmodern, when he chose to cite a passage with such an explicit sexual, almost pornographic, element. Can we not see this fragment simply as a reference to a prostitute leaving her lover destitute and impoverished, as in Roman comedy, ‘stripped off of all his goods’?6

To sum up, even if I disagree with some aspects of H’s general interpretation of Sophron, as well as with his interpretation of individual fragments, his book is an important tool in the study of Sophron, and a major contribution to the study of Sicilian Doric literary production. H’s ability to lay out new paths for the understanding of this important author is refreshing, and I was glad to find some expert and competent challenges to my own private views, even in matters which are and are bound to remain to a large extent controversial.


1. Another point of difference with Olivieri is H’s partial lack of interest for the visual record. Olivieri, for example, had provided the book with illustrations of Phlyax vases (slightly later in date than the putative age of Sophron), one of which at least depicts a scene possibly drawing on the ‘Tunafisher’ (frr. 45-8). The vase is in Cefalù, Museo Mandralisca; Olivieri, pp. 101-2, 151 fig. 7a, from Lipari, ca. 380 BCE, image available online Cratere a campana museo Mandralisca.

2. The ἄρτος τυρῶς, bread with cheese, of fr. 13 comes up in Pl. Miles 24 epityrum estur insanum bene, and the joke about the running nostrils (106 λαδρέοντι δὲ τοὶ μυκτῆρες) has a parallel in Mos. (1109-10 TH. probe / med emunxti:: TR. uide sis, satine recte. num mucci fluont?‘TH. You’ve wiped my nose alright (‘i.e. you’ve cheated me’). TR. Let me see: is it all right? it’s not still running, is it?’). Possibly from the same context comes the reported use of (fr. 144) πλέννα, a variant of βλέννα, ‘drivelling’, which comes up as an adjective in Plautus, Bacch. 1088. For the metaphorical use of ‘wiping someone’s nose’ as ‘cheating’ in comedy cf. Poll. Onom. 2.78 ἤδη δέ τινες τῶν κωμικῶν τὸ ἐπὶ κέρδει ἐξαπατᾶν ἀπομύττειν εἶπον.

3. H is probably right to write πάσαι with the papyrus at fr. 4A.12 (see also Introd. p. 24), but why has he not altered also fr. 25 κεχάναντι ἁμὶν πᾶσαι ?

4. Other points where I would have wished more information on linguistic points are: fr. 4A.8 οὕτα (= Attic αὕτη) means ‘here it is’, but again not a word on whether it is a normal way of assenting or not: cf. Arist. Ach. 342 οὑτοιί σοι χαμαί; fr. 13 συμβουλεύω γ’ ἐμφαγεῖν : is that a standard phrase for ‘help yourself’? Are there similar contexts where a host offers food to one’s guests? fr. 78 τί τυ ἐγὼν ποιέω : is it a threat or a complaint? Is it found anywhere else in similar contexts? Cf. Alciphr. 4.17.10 ἀλλὰ τί ἔστιν αὐτωῖ ποιῆσαι;”But, what is one to do about him?’

5. The passage could however refer to choruses of men and women rather than whole plays, as in the words of Agathon at Arist. Thesm. 151-4.

6. Other fragments where a sexual interpretation is too readily endorsed or suggested are: fr. 57 ὦ οὗτος, ἦ οἰῆι στρατείαν ἐσσεῖσθαι? is seen as containing a ‘or you’re just pleased to see me’ joke, which H supports with reference to the metaphorical value of δόρυ in Aristophanes (cf. Lys. 985 καὶ ἔπειτα δόρυ ὑπὸ μάλης ἥκεις ἔχων?‘is this why you carry a spear under your cloak?’). At the same time, the passage in Sophron is significantly different: ‘do you think’ is not the right lead-in to the punchline. One should also remember that the phallus is not universally acknowledged as a stage prop of mime actors (cf. Wüst, RE 15 (1932), 1737); fr. 75 πῦς ἐς μυχὸν καταδύηι?‘where into the corner are you slinking off?’ is similarly interpreted as possibly obscene, with μυχός as an allusion to the vagina. The source explains the words as equivalent to ἀντὶ τοῦ εἰς τίνα μυχόν. Of course the sexual sense is just remotely possible, but then anything can be taken metaphorically, in life, and one could go on for ever. I have some misigivings even with the sexual interpretation of fr. 24 ταί γα μὰν κόγχαι, ὥσπερ αἴ κ’ ἐξ ἑνὸς κελεύματος κεχάναντι ἁμὶν πᾶσαι, τὸ δὲ κρῆς ἑκάστας ἐξέχει (‘The conches, just as if at one command, gape open for us, all of them, and the flesh of each one sticks out’), which ‘no doubt preceded a bawdy description of actual intercourse, clearly involving several male and female participants’. Of course, κόγχη and many other fish and meat words in Greek and other languages are apt to be used sexually, but H’s interpretation is over-confident, and degenerates into grotesque detail, as when glossing τὸ κρῆς as ‘the inner labia’. To suggest an alternative interpretation, Athenaeus, in Deipn. 6.267-70, has a long section focusing on ‘land of cockayne’ descriptions in comedy: could the fragment belong in one of those contexts?