BMCR 2006.04.15

Lucien et la tragédie

, Lucien et la tragédie. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte ; Bd. 76. Berlin and New York: W. de Gruyter, 2005. vi, 374 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 3110184931 €98.00.

This book represents a decidedly traditional approach to the reception of classical texts and ‘classicizing’ that began already in antiquity, an area of study which elsewhere is energetically underway within a more distinctly theoretical framework.1 Karavas’ project is to show how and where Lucian quoted and referenced classical tragedy, as well as to demonstrate that he did this reasonably often. The book consists of an introduction, three parts and a conclusion; the parts are divided into chapters which in turn are split into Roman-numeral sections. The methodology throughout is rooted in literary scavenger-hunting: Karavas has tracked down hundreds of tragic words, citations and allusions scattered throughout Lucian’s vast corpus, and the result is, despite the project’s inherent limitations, a useful reference volume and a stimulating presentation of Lucian as a reader of Attic tragedy.

The general introduction begins with an inventory of modern editions and studies of Lucian; Karavas believes that adequate academic energy has been invested in neither the study of Lucian’s language nor the relationship between tragedy and Lucian’s works.2 He goes on to contextualize Lucian as both critic of and participant in the second century taste for Atticism, emphasizing the distinction between those (like Lucian) who tried to ἀττικίζειν, and others whose over-the-top moves to ὑπεραττικίζειν tended to bluster with near self-parody. From a summary tour through the satiric Consonants at Law, Professor of Rhetoric, Lexiphanes, and the Pseudo-sophist, Karavas gleans a standard vision of Lucian’s literary program: while Lucian is not opposed to poetic/archaizing literary language if the execution is accurate and the result harmonious, he stigmatizes both hyper-Attic excess and the embarrassing ignorance responsible for pseudo-Atticism; his own prose thus campaigns for a ‘middle-way’. This section of the introduction weaves together the presentation of two literary programs: Lucian’s and Karavas’ own. His admiration for Lucian’s writing is clear, and he wants to be sure that his project is not misinterpreted as an attempt to discredit his author’s originality and versatility by laying the literary sources and models bare. The introduction concludes with the tricky issue of authenticity, and Karavas summarizes the arguments (or at least the bibliography where these can be found) for the authenticity of a number of works whose attribution to Lucian has been doubted.3

Part One, ‘Les mots tragiques chez Lucien’, is an inventory of words that Karavas has identified in Lucian’s oeuvre as ‘tragic’, that is words which stand out from both the fashionable Attic and ordinary second century vocabulary. Karavas recognizes that the “caractérisation d’un mot comme tragique est toujours relative” (p. 34), but after careful reading and lexicographical research has selected 107 words that fit his criteria of either having appeared for the first time in a classical tragedy or of use by Lucian that reflects a tragedian’s innovation. For each word Karavas cites the passages where it appears in Lucian, gives a definition, lists its occurrences in classical tragedy, then provides a brief analysis and gives references to the word’s use elsewhere in Greek literature.

This catalogue is useful as a reference tool and reliable for its textual citation. It is, however, sometimes hindered by its limited scope: while Karavas’ project is strictly one of demonstrating Lucian’s use of classical tragedy, in the more than five centuries that separate these authors the idea of tragedy and the ‘tragic’ stylization of both myth and reality came into vogue in many genres (as is evident elsewhere in Lucian, see below) and the complexity of ‘tragic’ semantics intensified. Here is one example: Lucian uses αἰάζω in On Dance (45) to describe the ‘inscription’ on the flower that sprang from the blood of Hyacinthus: τὴν ἐν αὐτῷ αἰάζουσαν ἐπιγραφήν. The verb occurs 12 times in the extant tragedies and fragments, and Karavas cites an example from each of the three tragedians. He writes that Lucian uses the verb “pour rendre la scène vraiment tragique” (p. 42) and I agree. However, the link here between Lucian’s and the tragedians’ usage is by no means direct. Karavas does not mention that intervening, for example, is Bion’s Lament for Adonis and its refrain of Αἰάζω τὸν Ἄδωνιν (Lucian himself gives an account of rituals ( τὰ ὄργια) performed for ‘Adon’ at the temple of Aphrodite in Byblos in On the Syrian Goddess 6). The stories of Hyacinthus and Adonis are similar; both involve a beautiful boy beloved of a god and his mortal wounding on account of another god’s jealousy, and in Ovid’s Metamorphoses we have an account of Apollo inscribing Hycanthus’ flower with the very lament ( αἰαῖ) from which the verb αἰάζω is derived: “ipse suos gemitus foliis inscribit, et AI AI / flos habet inscriptum, funestaque littera ducta est” (10.215-16). Lucian’s phrasing is strikingly similar to Ovid’s (AI AI…inscriptum), and the dialogue’s repertory of tales a dancer ought to know actually follows a course quite similar to the trajectory of the Metamorphoses. An account linking αἰάζω in Lucian directly to Attic tragedy may therefore be misleading.

In the first chapter of Part Two, Karavas runs down Lucian’s actual citations of tragic verse. This chapter, like the next, is organized by tragedian: Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, minor tragedians (here = Dionysius the Tyrant and Achaeus, but in the next chapter the author of Prometheus Bound), adespota. For each citation, Karavas compares passages, drawn from many corners of Greek literature (as well as lexicographers), which either quote the same tragic verses or contain parallel constructions and/or express similar sentiments; he also records textual variation between Lucian’s citations and the tragic texts (when available, since some tragic fragments have been culled from Lucian himself) and within Lucian’s own manuscript tradition. Part of the project is to identify the ‘formulas’ that Lucian uses to lead into his citations, and these key words and phrases are summarized on pp. 168-69. Karavas successfully shows that Lucian references tragedy to various philological, rhetorical, and dramatic ends. He notes that certain lines from tragedy were proverbial in Lucian’s time (as , for exampleand of course, Hippolytus 612, “my tongue swore … “), and others, for example on the subject of old age, could be found in popular anthologies of poetic excerpts; a short discussion of how these anthologies shaped the educated public’s knowledge of classical authors would have been worthwhile. The real bulk of this chapter (and again of the next), is devoted to Lucian and Euripides: Lucian cites his preferred tragic poet 36 times, and these passages (which include two Euripidean exodoi) make up 58 of the 75 lines that Karavas counts as tragic quotations in the corpus.

Part Two’s second chapter treats ‘Les allusions tragiques chez Lucien’; Karavas intends allusion as “la référence indirecte aux tragédies connues, complètes ou fragmentaires” (171). ‘Indirect reference’ is present when Lucian’s language recalls tragic characters, scenes and myths as they were told (and/or transformed) by the tragedians. The story of Phaedra and Hippolytus, for example, turns up in Lucian’s On Dance and On the Syrian Goddess. One of these passages (which Karavas cites but does not discuss) is On the Syrian Goddess 23, a charged account4 of the Assyrian twist on the Hippolytus myth: the husband of Stratonice, the Assyrian “Phaedra”, gives her in marriage to his smitten son. Two passages from On the Hall, a wrought exercise in ecphrasis, also show up here: Karavas calls attention to descriptions of paintings he believes are directly inspired by Sophocles’ Electra ( Dom. 23) and Euripides’ Andromeda ( Dom. 22 and 25) — to these might also be added the last picture in the hall (section 31), of Medea holding a sword and looming over her unsuspecting children. It would have been useful to have these passages somehow (even if briefly) contextualized within their peculiar genre of rhetorical ecphrasis.5 One also wonders whether the artworks/their descriptions reflect a direct interpretation of the dramas themselves, or rather perhaps the texts’ broad and deep influence on mythography6. But, since Karavas’ chapter is ordered according to tragic author (and thus six pages separate the two Hall passages discussed), there is unfortunately no natural place for consideration of the passages as a group. I also see a further instance of allusion/citation in Dialogues of the Dead 16.2, ἄνω γὰρ ποταμῶν τοῦτο γε, to E. Medea 410.

At times I was not entirely convinced that a passage identified as an allusion to tragedy was in fact that. For example, Karavas sees an allusion that is “subtile et très adroite” (p. 176) in a passage of Lucian’s Alexander (46) that describes the punishment of an Epicurean ( οὐκέτι τὸν τοιοῦτον οὔτε στέγῃ τις ἐδέχετο οὔτε πυρὸς ἢ ὕδατος ἐκοινώνει… ), to Electra’s lines in Euripides’ Orestes about Argos’ prohibition against helping her and Orestes ( ἔδοξε δ’ Ἄργει τῷδε μήθ’ ἡμᾶς στέγαις, μὴ πυρὶ δέχεσθαι… ll. 46-47). But Lucian’s wording may more immediately recall formulations of Roman exile, as they appear e.g. in Plutarch, Cicero 32.1 and Marius 29.7.

The end of this chapter concludes Karavas’ repertory of tragic words, citations and allusions. Karavas has shown that Lucian alludes to tragedy often, in a variety of ways for a variety of effects, and it is interesting that a few dozen of these references are to tragedies we no longer have, like Euripides’ Andromeda and Meleager. On Lucian’s citation of the first hemistich of S. Electra 369, Karavas writes that “L’allusion subtile est réservée ici seulement à ceux qui pourront la comprendre” (p. 174), and it is clear in many cases that the tragic reference hardly struck (or strikes) Lucian’s reader with the same force as a “my tongue swore … ” sort of popular saying. Since even the most well-read members of Lucian’s audience were/are unlikely to catch all the scores of subtle tragic allusions and three-word citations, the phenomenon often at play here is surely Bakhtin’s double-coding, and more specifically Eco’s ‘intertextual irony’,7 though issues of reader reception/response are not really addressed in the book.

Sections I-IV of Part Two, Chapter Three, are devoted to Lucian’s use of particular words connected to tragedy and theater. Karavas first collects instances of words with the root τραγ -, followed by δρᾶμα, θέατρον and θεαταί, and finally other technical terms, like words relating to costume and the stage. Many variations on the etymological theme of τραγῳδία exist in the corpus, and their use is not restricted to classical tragedy/tragedy qua spectacle (though there are certainly many instances of this, especially in On Dance). The adjective τραγικός (which occurs 27 times in Lucian) has an especially wide range, and is used of actors, court intrigue ( Slander 10), and in the modern metaphorical sense: Ariadne in Hermotimus 47 is ‘the tragic Ariadne’ (and Lucian will even use the word to mean ‘goatish’!). From this section we also get some impression of the idea of tragedy/the tragedian in Lucian: in Peregrinos 8 the title-character is dressed as a tragic actor for his suicide; in Menippus 8 our hero is disguised as a tragedian so as to be able to pass through Hades incognito. In section V, Karavas tours through references to the tragic poets by name, and from this inventory there emerge aspects of an apparently still-thriving interest in Hellenistic Vitae traditions (e.g. Aeschylus composed drunk, Agathon was ‘loveable’; though Karavas associates these characterizations directly with Aristophanes). Karavas also makes the noteworthy observations that, besides Homer, Euripides is the only author whom Lucian refers to simply as ποιητής, and that Lucian’s disdain for Lycophron (an Atticist’s worst nightmare) is clear. This section of the book is a very useful collection of references, even if the listy style of the prose is not particularly suited to casual reading.

Section VI of the same chapter, ‘Les spectacles tragiques à l’époque impériale’, presents a very condensed history of the reperformance and evolution of tragedy from the fifth century to Lucian’s time. I am not totally persuaded by the logic (despite the presence of supporting bibliography) behind the idea that “la construction de la liturgie chrétienne … prouve l’existence des spectacles dramatiques à l’époque impériale” (pp. 221-22), and it does not seem entirely clear what combination of recitation of tragic monologues or scenes and full-blown tragic spectacle we ought to be imagining. But the nature of performance (tragic and otherwise) is thorny in this period, and Karavas divides the insight Lucian provides into four groups: critiques of actors and costumes, and references to representations in general and in specific instances. The four longish passages Karavas cites reflect judgments on and anecdotes about performance, and each names mythological tragic characters, who by this time seem essentially to represent stock roles (e.g. the rooster in The Rooster 26 refers to ‘Sisyphuses’ and ‘Telephuses’). I am also not so sure that based on Lucian’s texts “Il est donc indéniable que Lucien a assisté personnellement à des représentations tragiques” (p. 227), but it is clear that the passages cited furnish lively snapshots of what seems to be a vigorous theater culture.

The remainder of the book is an analysis of Lucian’s paratragic spoof, the Podagra or Gout (cf. Housman’s “Fragment of a Greek tragedy”!), in many ways to Attic tragedy what the Battle of Frogs and Mice is to Homeric epic. This last section is divided into three chapters: ‘Présentation et la question de l’authenticité’, ‘Les mots tragiques dans la Podagra‘ (at 57 pages, the definite bulk of the chapter), and ‘Analyse et commentaire’. In his ‘présentation’ Karavas summarizes the Podagra‘s plot and ‘tragic’ features (a chorus, a messenger, a parodied Euripidean exodos, among others), then addresses the question of authenticity, mainly by synopsizing the history of scholarship on the issue. Karavas is in line with the communis opinio in considering the Podagra authentic and the Okypous, the other short tragedy transmitted under Lucian’s name, spurious. In the next chapter Karavas gives a catalogue of words in the Podagra that he believes directly recall tragedy (36 altogether), and the entry for each one follows the same format as those for the tragic words listed in the first part of the book. The analysis and commentary section consists of an expanded plot summary in which Karavas runs through the drama’s use of tragic vocabulary and phrasing in order of appearance; he also makes observations along the way as to how these contribute to the parody. As elsewhere, in this work Lucian’s texts evoke Euripides most often, and a few passages, like the parodos sung by the chorus of ‘gout initiates’, have a distinctly Bacchic flavor. Karavas also pays close attention to textual issues and will sometimes summarize the history of a textual problem. He notes that while Lucian wrote this piece as entertainment, he nevertheless followed all of the technical rules of tragic composition, and both the form and content of the Podagra demonstrate his thorough familiarity with high Attic tragedy.

In concluding his study of the Podagra, Karavas discusses the issue of parody and poses two questions: why did Lucian choose the subject of gout, and why the form of tragedy (instead of using his signature genre, the dialogue)? First, “le thème de la goutte était très populaire dans l’antiquité” (p. 325). One reason is that it was associated with excess — of wealth, alcohol, and sex. In response to the second question, Karavas believes that Lucian chose to parody tragedy because parody was a way for him to “prendre possession de son héritage littéraire” (p. 327). This conclusion nicely positions the parody as the ultimate manifestation of Lucian’s erudition in respect to classical tragedy, which elsewhere manifests itself as his learned use of the tragic vocabulary, allusions and references whose tracking and analysis have been Karavas’ project all along.

Finally, Karavas recapitulates in his ‘Conclusion générale’ that the aim of his study has been to “démontrer l’influence qu’a exercée la tragédie classique sur les écrits de Lucien” (p. 329), and within his formal framework he has succeeded in this goal. This book will serve as a useful reference tool for anyone interested in the ‘well-read’ Lucian, the place of drama in the imperial period, or the fortuna of Attic tragedy in antiquity. The compilations of tragic words and allusions do not make for an easy continuous read, but they do not need to, and the various introductions and conclusions to chapters and sections provide a good overview of Karavas’ ambitious project and its findings. The main drawback to the study is that it places Lucian and the tragedians in a near-vaccuum, considering the authors in-between in only a cursory manner. Some further contextualization of Lucian’s citation of tragedy within the literature of the Imperial period would also have been helpful, and previous studies of Plutarch, for example, would have provided useful comparanda.8 Nevertheless, this book will make for an extremely handy starting point for anyone wishing to pursue Lucian’s use of tragedy in a literary-historical or theoretical framework.

There is an appendix of ‘Les mots suffixés en – μα chez Lucien’ (and see also the chart of epithets in the Podagra on p. 316). Section I of the bibliography is devoted to texts and authors cited, section II consists in modern studies. Indices are of quoted passages, Greek words, and general subjects.


1. See, for example, J.I. Porter, ed., Classical Pasts: The Classical Traditions of Greece and Rome (Princeton, 2006), and G. Cajandi and D. Lanza (eds.) L’Antico degli Antichi (Rome, 2001).

2. Karavas’ scope here is restricted mainly to works whose sole subject is Lucian, and he thus foregoes discussion of recent works discussing Lucian in a broader context (there is no talk e.g. of S. Swain’s 1996 Hellenism and Empire: Language, Classicism, and Power in the Greek World AD 50-250 or of Being Greek Under Rome, the 2001 volume edited by S. Goldhill — which does not make Karavas’ bibliography at all).

3. Given that there are more than 80 works printed in the Lucian OCTs, it can be a little confusing when Karavas alternates between full French titles and standard Latin abbreviations.

4. See J. Elsner in Goldhill 2001: “The play with the Hippolytus myth not only grounds the text’s deeper learning in the classics of Greek culture … but it also works simultaneously to affirm Syria’s different (better?) way of handling such mythical problems. It is as if a paradigm of Syrian sacrifice is being made to cap the heroics of Greek tragedy” (148-149).

5. The two books of Imagines attributed to the Philostrati for example include descriptions of a number of images with ‘tragic’ subjects. On post-classical artistic representations of classical tragedy see A. Stewart’s “Baroque Classics: The Tragic Muse and the Exemplum,” pp. 127-172 in Porter 2006.

6. See for example A. Cameron’s Greek Mythography in the Roman World (New York, 2004), p. 58.

7. “[I]ntertextual irony, by bringing into play the possibility of a double reading, does not invite all readers to the same party. It selects them, and privileges the more intertextually aware readers, but it does not exclude the less aware” (Umberto Eco, On Literature, Harcourt: 2004, tr. Martin McLaughlin, p. 220); cf. Karavas’ “Les écrits de Lucien sont destinés à des publics de cultures différentes, et leur lecture peut se faire à plusieurs niveaux” (p. 230).

8. Karavas signals that Plutarch is the most studied author for evidence of tragic performace in the Imperial period; H. Schläpfer’s Plutarch und die Klassischen Dichter (Zurich, 1950) and W.C. Helmbold and E.N. O’Neil’s Plutarch’s Quotations (Baltimore, 1959) would have been of use, considering Karavas’ own project.