BMCR 2006.08.49

Euripides. Iphigenia at Aulis. Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy

Michelakis, Pantelis,, Euripides : Iphigenia at Aulis. Duckworth companions to Greek and Roman tragedy. London: Duckworth, 2006. 176 pages : illustrations, maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 0715629948 £11.99 (pb).

The book under review is among the latest in the swiftly growing series of “Duckworth Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy”. Pantelis Michelakis (M.) seeks to fill the series’ mandates (as given on the back cover) by providing an accessible introduction to Euripides’ Iphigenia at Aulis, and to the principle concerns of past and present criticism. In this he succeeds. M. has produced a volume that, while brief, will generate student interest in this important play and still be of service to more established scholars.

The volume is broken into eight short chapters, simply and accurately titled and the bulk of this review will summarize and evaluate each in turn. The book begins with “A Summary of the Play”. Following an Aristotelian structure — scenes divided by choral songs — this chapter fulfils its promise succinctly, with interpretative issues saved for later chapters.

The second chapter explores the “provocative and revisionist attitude towards myth” (9) exhibited in IA. M. identifies four points of the Iphigenia story that are subject to variation and can serve as a litmus for authorial intent: Artemis’ reasons for holding back the fleet; Agamemnon’s motivation for agreeing to the sacrifice; the stratagem by which Iphigenia is brought to Aulis; and the sacrifice or salvation of Iphigenia. Sections on “Epic and Lyric Poetry” and “Tragedy” cover IA‘s literary predecessors, including the Iphigenia plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles. M. is perhaps too confident in following Zielinski’s interpretations of fragment 605 Radt (cited by page number in Lloyd-Jones’ Loeb), namely that the play must be set in Argos, and therefore cannot include Agamemnon or Achilles as characters. Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians is also discussed. A final section, “Traditions and Innovations”, lists briefly some other possible innovations of IA and examines thematic echoes with earlier sources: the chorus’ evocation of “happier” versions of epic and lyric, for example. Iconographic evidence, limited as it is, is not discussed, although both Woodford and LIMC are suggested as further reading.1

The next chapter, “Characters”, begins with the observation that IA is not, unlike Sophocles’ and Euripides’ earlier tragedies, built around one character, but one event — the sacrifice of Iphigenia. All characters on stage are (in principle) opposed to that event. Agamemnon, Menelaus and Iphigenia are all subject to reversal of opinion and Achilles avoids a firm moral position. Aristotle’s famous observation on the inconsistency of Iphigenia is presented, along with the various ways that this comment has been interpreted. M. suggests three factors a reader might consider when analysing the use of character: needs of the plot; psychological motivations; and context — how the play responds to its literary tradition. Without privileging any one of these approaches, M. discusses, in separate sections, each character in the play, along with the chorus and offstage characters: Odysseus, Calchas and (collectively) the Greek army. Only the messengers are not treated specifically, dismissed as non-Euripidean. Characters are analysed thoughtfully and in human terms (the psychological approach: Conacher’s dismissal of Menelaus, for instance, as “a dramatic convenience” is rejected2) but equal consideration is given to plot function and literary context.

In “Themes and Issues” many of the issues with which the characters of the play are demonstrably preoccupied are identified throughout the chapter in bold type. The first section, “Role-Playing”, examines how characters define themselves and each other as the social fabric unravels under wartime conditions. Moral values, plans of action, roles, self-consciousness, name, body and gender are all important key words here. The second section, “Rhetoric”, examines the use and effect of persuasion in IA. Subjects exploited for rhetorical use include falsehood, friendship, reason, irrationality, freedom, necessity, fortune, patronymics, matronymics and memory.

In the fifth chapter, “Religion”, M. addresses the cultural context in which the play takes place. M. first tackles the place of “Iphigenia and Artemis in Fifth-Century Cult” — not directly relevant to the play but, as M. rightly argues, important if we are to understand the full range of imagery employed throughout IA. “Artemis and Other Gods” discusses the diminished role of Artemis and the divine in IA, as well as the deification of abstract values, a theme not unique to this play but again relevant. Sections on “Human Sacrifice”, “Animal Sacrifice” and “Marriage and Death” discuss the importance of sacrificial ritual and the ways in which Euripides explores and exploits the similarities and differences between these ritual frames. Finally, a section on “Supplication” briefly analyses the two supplication scenes, distinguishing this type of ritual in the play from the previous examples as being integral to plot, rather than contributing to imagery.

The next chapter, “Politics”, is another one of contextualization, giving a brief overview of the state of affairs in Athens at the end of the Peloponnesian War. Again, IA does not engage directly Athenian politics but addresses issues relevant to contemporary political thought. A section on “War” explores the disruption of social norms caused by war. In particular, M. emphasizes self-sacrifice and the conceptual Other and their position within Athenian political ideology (“civic ideology” as a phrase is not used). The next section compares “Panhellenism” of the early fifth century (and political applications of this concept after the Persian Wars) and its use in IA. The final section, “Mass and Elite”, comments again on contemporary ideology, this time the tension between the democrats and aristocrats of Athens and IA‘s presentation of the mob as a powerful but often misguided political force and its human leaders as uncertain and infallible.

“Performance” is the topic of the seventh chapter. M. is attracted to the idea of presenting IA as part of a connected trilogy (along with Bacchae and the fragmentary Alcmeon in Corinth), and spends some effort on establishing mainly thematic links between the plays. But these links — the death of a young family member at the hands of a parent, the perversion of ritual and the conflict between family structure and societal values — could be made between IA and many other late Euripidean plays. As an exercise in contextualization this section is useful but might be less constrained by the idea of the unified trilogy (this preoccupation appears earlier in Chapter 2, when M. more reasonably attempts to locate a trilogy for Aeschylus’ Iphigenia play, perhaps with Telephus and Palamedes).

In the final (and, at 26 pages, longest) chapter, M. deals with “Reception”. This includes a section on “The Text and its History”, in which M. describes the survival of the text through manuscripts L and P and attempts to diffuse the polarity that has come to exist between the textual critic and the general interpreter, who is not necessarily concerned with issues of philology. This is a particularly important and welcome discussion, and an absolute necessity for any reader approaching this text for the first time. A student can be overwhelmed when first learning about the instability of our ancient texts and (by extension) the study of Classics. IA can serve as an introduction to textual criticism. M. presents the major problems of IA carefully, identifying the prologue and epilogue as major points of textual contention. Two pages are dedicated to the reasoning behind the interpolations, rather than the validity of the interpolations themselves. Sean Gurd’s recent monograph is acknowledged in a footnote.3 This section could have been positioned earlier in the book, as the subject comes up frequently in earlier chapters.

Also, some textual decisions are made out of hand, sometimes noted (as with the dismissal of the first messenger as non-Euripidean on page 43) and sometimes not (M. notes that the choral entry song is one of the longest in Greek tragedy (27), but only the first three of eight stanzas are considered genuine by many editors4). The chariot entrance is another scene that goes unchallenged. To be fair, the scope of this volume does not allow nor require such a thorough approach to the problems of text but a small table or appendix of major issues might help a reader make sense of IA‘s complicated textual history.

In a section on “Critical Views”, M. surveys various approaches, considering first Aristotle’s dislike in Poetics and praise in Politics. In modern criticism, M. finds value in the generic studies of the early twentieth century, and favours the ironic readings of Conacher and Vellacott,5 combined with later nuanced readings, rejecting the straightforward approach of David Kovacs.6 In particular, M. favours the reading of Foley, whose influence is evident throughout this book, both in M.s reading of many key passages and in the footnotes.7

A discussion of “Performance History” rounds off the chapter and the volume. Evidence of ancient performance is given — namely the second-century terracotta “Iphigenia” bowls and the musical scraps of P. Leiden inv. 510. The impact of Racine’s seventeenth-century translation and adaptation is discussed. Highlights of modern performance are given, including the frequency with which IA is paired with other plays, Mnouchkine’s Les Atrides being the most prominent example. The final pages of this section are reserved for a discussion of Cacoyannis’ Iphigenia.

The “Guide to Further Reading,” divided into smaller sections corresponding to each chapter, identifies the most useful works in English and in other languages when necessary. The bibliography, which is both thorough and multi-lingual, duplicates this information but ensures that this volume will be of use to the more serious readers.

Terminology is avoided. Most previous volumes in this series have included a glossary of basic terms such as parodos and stasimon — the back cover promises a glossary as a series feature — and this would be of great use to students new to Greek tragedy. Occasionally, a specialized term appears without context or definition. Can an undergraduate be expected to know, for example, who or what a sophist (48) is?

I find endnotes annoying at best, and these are infuriating. Many are little more than cross-references to sections (not page numbers), resulting in a great deal of page flipping, and there was much repetition.

Despite these quibbles, I am happy to recommend this work, particularly as a supplement to a senior undergraduate reading this text in Greek for the first time. Themes and interpretations are presented in an even-handed manner. A course instructor may not agree with every decision made by M., but these are conversation starters for a classroom. M. writes in a clear and easy style, a must for any work directed at undergraduate students, and the text is almost error free.8


1. S. Woodford, The Trojan War in Ancient Art, Ithaca (1993).

2. D.J. Conacher, Euripidean Drama: Myth, Theme and Structure, Toronto (1967) 258.

3. S. Gurd, Iphigenias at Aulis: Textual Multiplicity, Radical Philology, Ithaca (2005).

4. D. Page, Actors’ Interpolations in Greek Tragedy, Oxford (1934) 141-7 remains the relevant discussion.

5. Conacher, see n.2 above. P. Vellacott, Ironic Drama: A Study of Euripides’ Method and Meaning, Cambridge (1975).

6. D. Kovacs, “Toward a Reconstruction of Iphigenia Aulidensis,” JHS 123 (2003) 77-103.

7. H.P. Foley, Ritual Irony: Poetry and Sacrifice in Euripides, Ithaca (1985) and Female Acts in Greek Tragedy, Princeton (2001).

8. I found only three small errors. (1) A sub-heading in Chapter One reads “Prologue (1-162)”. The prologue ends on line 163. (2) Page 85, in the second last paragraph, should read “such as Orestes”; the “as” has disappeared over a line break. (3) The date of Cacoyannis’ Iphigenia is alternately listed as 1976 (171) and 1977 (128). This discrepancy may arise from different Greek and international release dates.