BMCR 2005.11.14

Lost Dramas of Classical Athens: Greek Tragic Fragments

, , , Lost dramas of classical Athens : Greek tragic fragments. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 2005. 248 pages ; 25 cm. ISBN 0859897524 £40.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

In September 1996 the University of Exeter hosted a conference on Tragic Fragments which aimed, as the Introduction to this volume explains, “to encourage scholarship on tragic fragments not only by specialists on tragedy, but also by scholars with different interests, including ancient comedy, philosophy, history and society”. The resulting publication, delayed by various accidents, includes a selection of seven papers from the conference plus three supplements (the chapters by Kassel, Harvey and Wiles). There is evidence of some updating, but this seems to be fairly superficial and the book’s extensive list of works cited contains few items published later than 2001 — a pity, since much has happened in the study of tragic fragments in the last decade. But despite the delays, the book deserves a warm welcome, containing as it does a number of contributions of lasting value.

A brief Introduction surveying the volume’s contents is followed by two of the three supplementary items, which together provide a survey of scholarship on the fragments from the Renaissance to the present day. In ‘Fragments and their Collectors’ Hazel and David Harvey have translated Rudolf Kassel’s ‘Fragmente und ihre Sammlung’; it is good to see this elegant and learned essay made available in English. Besides sketching the development of scholarship on both tragic and comic fragments from the Renaissance to the mid-19th century, Kassel gives an engaging account of the gradual shift in scholarly interest from their moral to their historical value,and the concomitant development of a comprehensive and scientific approach, which was fully implemented in the professionalized scholarship of the 19th century. Kassel’s article was first published in a volume honouring Stefan Radt,1 editor of the Aeschylean and Sophoclean volumes in the monumental new Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. One might have wished for Radt’s surveys of the Aeschylean and Sophoclean fragments to be similarly presented here.2

David Harvey’s own ‘Tragic Thrausmatology’ brings us from Kassel’s stopping point to the turn of the 21st century in six sections: ‘Before Nauck’, ‘Nauck’, ‘Papyri’, ‘After Nauck’, ‘Individual Dramatists, Individual Dramas’, ‘Whatever Next?’ If this chapter increasingly acquires the tone of a bibliographic survey as we approach recent times, that is quite understandable in view of the increasing volume of relevant work and the difficulty of establishing a historical perspective at this point. H. concentrates in the first four sections on scholars who worked on “all the Greek tragedians” (22 n. 5), in the fifth provides “summary lists … with a scattering of comments” (43) of work since Nauck on individual dramatists and plays, and in the sixth makes some brief suggestions for future work. For one who claims inexperience in this area of scholarship (21) H. fulfils his task with remarkable aplomb, but a few inaccuracies may usefully be noted.3 The remarks on page 36 about papyrus publications look somewhat out of date by now, and on pp. 40-1 more might have said more about those advancing sceptical views of the connections between vase-paintings and tragic texts (especially J.-M. Moret, and recently Jocelyn Penny Small).

In ‘Euripidean Fragmentary Plays: the Nature of Sources and their Effect on Reconstruction’ Christopher Collard adds some remarks on the nature of the available source-material to those in the Introduction to Collard et al., Euripides: Selected Fragmentary Plays I (1995), and then discusses the reconstruction of two plays in the light of papyrus discoveries. The first of these is the aggravatingly obscure Cretan Women, where Collard concludes that the small piece of commentary on the play identified in P. Harris 13 leaves the play’s reconstruction “a thing largely of guesswork, and its location [whether in Crete or Mycenae] no clearer”. Compare now Kannicht’s lapidary Latin summation to similar effect in TrGF 5.495, T *v (but favouring a Cretan location, p. 496). The second play is the somewhat less obscure and rather striking Euripidean Oedipus, for which P. Oxy. 2455 supplied the beginning of a narrative hypothesis (including the play’s first line!) and P. Oxy. 2459 parts of a report-speech about the killing of the Sphinx. This discussion is now reworked in Collard’s edition of the Oedipus fragments in Selected Fragmentary Plays II (2004).

The next four chapters give some attention to questions of reconstruction while focusing on specific aspects of one or more lost plays. In ‘Lycians in the Cares of Aeschylus’, Anthony Keen reviews what has been drawn (much of it speculatively) from the sparse evidence for Aeschylus’ Carians or Europa, a play featuring Sarpedon’s death at Troy and the return of his body to his home for burial. (The list of fragments on pp. 81-2 hardly needed to include Aeschylus F 315, whose attribution to this play by Hartung is ignored by Radt.) The discussion includes three vase-paintings thought by some to have been influenced by the play, two of them remotely at best, the third — an early 4th C. Apulian vase (New York, Metropolitan Museum 16.140) — perhaps a little more closely. It should be noted, however, that the interpretation of this vase’s second side as showing Europa visiting Zeus on Olympus to beg for her son’s body is more implausible than K. suggests (the winged figure on this side is not at all like the winged figure of Hypnos on the other side; and how would the mortal Europa have reached Olympus?), and was firmly rejected by A. Kossatz-Deissmann, Dramen des Aischylos auf westgriechischen Vasen (1978), 72. K. then debates at length the question whether the play was set in Lycia (traditionally Sarpedon’s homeland) or in Caria as the title Carians and the reference to Mylasa in F 101 suggest. He interprets the evidence for a mythistorical connection between Carians and Lycians as allowing the conclusion “that Aeschylus did set the action of Cares in Lycia, probably at Xanthus, and that the chorus is composed of leading local citizens, whom Aeschylus calls Carians rather than Lycians since, as far as he is concerned, the two are much the same” (78).

Ruth Bardel’s ‘Spectral Traces: Ghosts in Tragic Fragments’ discusses Aeschylus’ Psychagogoi, Sophocles’ Polyxena, the late 4th C. Munich Medea vase showing the ghost of Aeetes, the well known early 5th C. Basle crater showing youths dancing before a (?)tomb, and the fragments of an early 5th C. hydria in Corinth (T 1144) which might show a dramatic necromancy (B. considers but rules out two other vases sometimes adduced). Despite this slim haul, B. manages to conclude “that the motif of ghostly appearances was more common than the extant corpus of Greek tragedy (and comedy) suggests, and secondly that this motif was fairly widely used prior to Aeschylus’ Persae” (112). This rather diffuse essay could have done with some firmer editing, if only to eliminate such passages as this (p. 92): “In the Phaedrus (261a6-7) Plato asks, ‘is not rhetoric in its entire nature an art which leads the soul by means of words ?’ … Can we read the fragmentary Psychagogoi as another Aeschylean example, alongside the Persae, of the performative potential of language which has the demonstrative power literally to conjure up ghosts of the past?”

Richard Seaford’s ‘Death and Wedding in Aeschylus’ Niobe‘ provides a fascinating supplement to his well known work on the interactions of wedding and funeral imagery in tragedy. S. first traces the elements in what remains of Aeschylus’ text (especially F 154a), and in the iconography, that characterize Niobe’s mourning as a kind of inverted wedding, “the female veiled, silent, beautiful, lamenting, eventually escorted by her kin to her new home” (117). While remaining agnostic about how Aeschylus handled Niobe’s petrifaction, S. infers from Sophocles’ allusions to her fate ( El. 150ff., Ant. 823ff.) that “the paradigm of Niobe may represent not just mediation between the desire for insensibility and the desire to lament unendingly, but also the consolation of the immortality that is tenuously (and paradoxically) implicit in the death-in-life of unending grief” (124). With this in mind he offers a subtle interpretation of the suggestions of petrifaction which appear in some Apulian vase-paintings representing the mourning Niobe: these seem to transmute what the dramatists presented as the tomb of Niobe’s children into the tomb of Niobe herself, and thus may allude both to her commemoration in the form of a stone funerary statue and to the ‘immortalization’ which this kind of commemoration offers. S. also discusses the parallelisms and contrasts between the scenes of Niobe’s mourning and Andromeda’s captivity which are shown together in one of the Apulian paintings (Taranto 8928). Fiona McHardy’s ‘Filicide in Tragic Fragments’ (apparently completed before the appearance of E. Belfiore, Murder Amongst Friends [2000]) discusses what we know of filicidal mothers in tragic plots — Ino, Medea, Procne, Althaea, Iliona (Hyginus, fab. 109), Astyoche (Sophocles’ Eurypylus), and the possibility that in several of these the filicides were tragic inventions. Noting the tendency to associate filicide with madness (whether divinely or emotionally generated), McH. suggests that we see here an expression of the Dionysiac nature of tragedy; but the implications of this are not pursued, and differences amongst the plots and their mythical data tend to be downplayed in the interests of making the paper’s general point.

In ‘Tragic Fragments, Ancient Philosophers and the Fragmented Self’ Christopher Gill notes that ancient philosophical texts are an important source of tragic fragments, and that, while ancient philosophers often disregarded their original contexts or significance, their understanding of an original text may sometimes be important both for our appreciation of their argument and for our interpretation of the original. G. discusses three examples extensively. Concerning Euripides’ Chrysippus F 840-1 he argues ( contra Alcinous in antiquity and e.g. Snell in modern times) that these lines were probably spoken by Laius after Chrysippus’ death and thus constitute a declaration of ‘soft’ akrasia, i.e. a retrospective rather than a wilful recognition that what he did was against his better judgment. G.’s discussion here is very instructive even if his assumption concerning the dramatic context is questionable (the use of the present tense in F 840 suggests to me an argument made before the abduction, though more likely to a confidant than to Chrysippus himself.) With regard to Medea 1078-80 G. observes the differences between two ancient interpretations of Medea’s condition — Galen’s in terms of the Platonic psychology of the tripartite soul, and the Stoic interpretation attributed by Galen to the philosopher Chrysippus, in terms of a surrender of reason to passion. G. suggests that the latter offers the better insight into Euripides’ portrayal of Medea’s psychic conflict. On the other hand, G. argues (against Snell in particular) that there are important differences between the Stoic-influenced portrayal of Phaedra surrendering to her passion in Seneca’s Phaedra and Euripides’ portrayal of her in the lost Hippolytus, since for Euripides the passion of love, unlike anger, is externally rather than internally generated. These discussions together amply demonstrate the value of thinking carefully about the contexts in which our fragments are quoted, especially (but not only) where philosophical texts are concerned.

In ‘Aristophanes on How to Write Tragedy: What You Wear is What You Are’, James Robson examines Aristophanes’ portrayals of the process of tragic composition (by Euripides and Agathon respectively) in Acharnians and Thesmophoriazusae, drawing attention to the comic playwright’s emphasis on the poets’ adoption of their characters’ costumes, poses and moods. R. suggests that, despite the lack of explicit contemporary evidence, these portrayals are not entirely comic invention but owe something to 5th-century theorizing about the need for poets to identify imaginatively with their characters. The play with adoption of costumes, exploiting a widespread cultural association between change of clothing and change of character or status, will have been a comic exaggeration of such theories. R. is inclined (perhaps optimistically) to regard Aristophanes as an originator, or at least the first articulator, of this notion of ‘method composition’.

As a finale we have the text, along with brief introduction by its author, of a stage version of the fragments of Euripides’ Hypsipyle which David Wiles produced with a student cast at the Classical Association’s annual conference in September 1997. Would that I had seen it! The fragments provide a not very incomplete text up to the confrontation of Eurydice and Hypsipyle and the intervention of Amphiaraus in the middle of the play. Wiles fills the long gap between this and the reunion scene near the end of the play by having the Eurydice-Hypsipyle-Amphiaraus scene acted out three times in different styles (‘psychological’, ‘ritual’, ‘rhetorical’) by three groups of actors, in consultation with Dionysus (for the patron god is present in person) and with the audience, who get to elect the best of the three alternatives. This is all ingenious and interesting, but it has to be pointed out that the hundred-line gap which the actors’ discussion is supposed to fill is now considered non-existent,4 and that Wiles probably exaggerates our ignorance of how Hypsipyle came to be pardoned, given that Eurydice expresses great respect for Amphiaraus in F 757.884-5 and is likely to have accepted his advice promptly. Note also that Hypsipyle’s twins were not born after the Argonauts’ departure from Lemnos (as here, p. 193), since Jason took them with him. Lastly, I doubt Wiles’ hindsightful assurance that “Euripides’ portrayal of an Argive army marching to certain destruction must have reflected his foreboding at the fate which awaited Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian war” (191): why not his anticipation of the fate of the next army marching from the Peloponnese against Athens? But the play-text does include the book’s best misprint, on p. 201 (Chorus to Hypsipyle): “Too dangerous to help a runway slave” (for fear of passing aircraft, perhaps?).



1. Fragments and their Collectors (Rudolf Kassel, translated by Hazel and David Harvey)

2. Tragic Thrausmatology: the Study of the Fragments of Greek Tragedy in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries (David Harvey)

3. Euripidean Fragmentary Plays: the Nature of Sources and their Effect on Reconstruction (Christopher Collard)

4. Lycians in the Cares of Aeschylus (Anthony Keen)

5. Death and Wedding in Aeschylus’ Niobe (Richard Seaford)

6. Spectral Traces: Ghosts in Tragic Fragments (Ruth Bardel)

7. From Treacherous Wives to Murderous Mothers: Filicide in Tragic Fragments (Fiona McHardy)

8. Tragic Fragments, Ancient Philosophers and the Fragmented Self (Christopher Gill)

9. Aristophanes on how to write Tragedy: What You Wear is What You Are (James Robson)

10. ηψ]πσ[ιπψλε: a Version for the Stage (David Wiles)


Index of fragmentary plays and other passages cited

General Index


1. R. Kassel, ‘Fragmente und ihre Sammler’, in H. Hofmann and A. Harder, Fragmenta Dramatica (Göttingen, 1991), 243-53; also in R. Kassel, Kleine Schriften (Berlin and New York, 1991), 88-98.

2. S. Radt, ‘Sophokles in seinem Fragmenten,’ in Sophocle (Vandoeuvres-Genève, 1982: Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique 29), 185-222, reprinted in Hofmann and Harder, Fragmenta Dramatica (above, n. 1), 79-110; ‘Der unbekanntere Aischylos’, Prometheus 12 (1986), 1-13.

3. P. 26: David Sansone should be credited with the rediscovery of the conjectures accompanying Bothe’s early translations of Euripides (cf. J. Diggle, Euripidea [Oxford, 1994], 518). P. 36: it is not quite true that the hypotheses “do not contain any fragments of tragedy at all”; the narrative hypotheses cited each play’s first line (as some of the papyrus texts show), and scholars have occasionally identified within the summaries phrases which might have originated in the text of a play. P. 37: M. van Rossum-Steenbeek (misspelled throughout as ‘-Steenbeck’) inspected some but not all of the papyri that she re-edited in Greek Readers’ Digests (see p. 183 of her book). We now have Kannicht’s editions of the Euripidean hypotheses in Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta 5, and Wolfgang Luppe’s extensive and ongoing work on them deserved mention. Pp. 38, 224: Theodoridis’ publication of Photius’ Lexicon is not yet complete; so far we have the first half of the alphabet in Volumes 1 (1982) and 2 (1998). P. 45: responsibility for a Loeb edition of Euripidean fragments has passed from H. Lloyd-Jones to C. Collard and M. Cropp. Pp. 45-6: to the list of commentaries on lost Euripidean plays add A.-T. Cozzoli, Euripide: Cretesi (Pisa and Rome, 2001) and M. Curnis, Il Bellerofonte di Euripide (Alessandria, 2003). P. 47: a reprint of Nauck has long been available from Olms and is listed on their website.

4. This was made clear in Walter Cockle’s reconstruction of P. Oxy. 852: W. Cockle, Euripides: Hypsipyle (Rome, 1987).