This new book on Sophron, a fifth-century Sicilian mimographer from Syracuse, said by Suda
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
3. H is probably right to write
4. Other points where I would have wished more information on linguistic points are: fr. 4A.8
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