BMCR 2006.10.28

Euripides. Hekabe. 2 volumes. Series: Vivliothiki archaion syngrapheon

, Ekabē. Athens: Daidalos, 2005. 2 dl. ; 21 cm.. ISBN 9602273399 €12.56.

More than a century ago, Dimitrios N. Vernardakis, one of the most eminent Greek scholars of the 19th century, published his modern Greek edition of the Hecuba of Euripides with a philological commentary and a discussion of the text (Athens, 1894). However, because this edition did not include a translation and because of the archaism of Vernardakis’ language, Greek scholars and students have primarily consulted the foreign editions, mainly the English ones,1 the French Budé edition by Louis Méridier, with introduction, translation and notes (Paris, 1960 3 = 1927), or the German text editions.2 To satisfy the increasing interest of a large modern Greek-speaking public in Greek drama, there have been only a few translations, without any serious effort to provide the readers with quality editions. These apparently good intentions to bring the ancient texts down to the “common reader’s” level had a negative impact on editorial politics, because there has been a very small proportion of truly scientific publications intended for scholars, students, and enlightened readers as well. Yet a large public was interested in (re)discovering ancient Greek theatrical production on stage, mainly during the summer festivals in Athens and Epidaurus. Despite this popularity, there was no significant improvement in the modern Greek editions. This is why the series “Vivliothiki Archaion Syngrapheon” (= Library of Ancient Authors), in its new form, is a very refreshing approach to the ancient literary production, with quality editions (text, translation and commentary) of well known works, (e.g., Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, Euripides’ Helena, the Hippocratic De natura hominis and De uetera medicina, Galen’s De sanitate tuenda, Hesiod’s poems) and of some less well known but not less important works (e.g. the Anonymous Τέχνη μουσικῆς or Xenophon’s On Horsemanship).

Katerina Synodinou (hereafter S.), professor of classics at the University of Ioannina (Epirus, Greece) offers us an edition of high erudition, but also a book accessible to every audience. The edition under review consists of two volumes: the first one contains a detailed introduction, a list of abbreviations, a rich bibliography (up to 2001), the two hypotheses, one anonymous and the other attributed to Aristophanes of Byzantium, the ancient Greek text (reprinted from the OCT edition by James Diggle, 1984, 1989) and modern Greek translation on facing pages; the second volume contains a commentary, an appendix of lyric metres, an index and a very short list of errata appended to the back cover.

Unlike the edition of Vernardakis, which is a testimony to 19th century erudition and is not intended for the “common reader”, S.’s goal is to facilitate the approach to the play for readers willing to appreciate its dramatic, cultural and historical context. She aims (p. 9) “to fill an editorial gap” and also “to provide a useful tool intended not only for students and scholars, but also for many a reader interested in classics”.

The first part of the Introduction (p. 11-20) examines the twofold myth: the sacrifice of Polyxena (p. 11-15) and the murder of Polydorus by Polymestor, which brings about Hecuba’s revenge (p. 16-20). Euripides’ innovation lies in connecting the two myths and therefore in changing the time and place of the play (p. 20). S. investigates the mythical background of the Achilles-Polyxena relation and provides iconographic evidence not mentioned in pre-Euripidean literature. She discusses Achilles’ epiphany and demand, focusing on the originality of Euripides, which consists in the fact that the Trojan princess becomes a voluntary victim in order to fit in with the device of the voluntary sacrifice, intended to raise questions about moral values in the aftermath of the war. The variant of Polyxena’s possible marriage to Achilles and of an erotic connotation of the ghost’s demand is claimed to be rather later (Hellenistic) than the play, or at least to be a result of the communis opinio that a virgin’s sacrifice was considered to be an equivalent to marriage. Concerning the murder of Polydorus by his host, the Thracian king Polymestor, and regardless of whether Polymestor is a “Euripidean creature” or whether Euripides draws his inspiration from an existing Thracian person or a local narrative, it is clear (p. 17) that Euripides embodies the Athenian clichés about the legendary unfaithfulness and cupidity of the Thracians.

Although Greek readers are interested in myth, it would have been more appropriate to begin the introduction with the sixth chapter, “The Play” (p. 58-64), which gives a panoramic account of the more important issues: the opposition between Greeks and barbarians, between free people and slaves, the concepts of moral baseness and superiority, of faithfulness and betrayal, of heroism, of honour to the dead heroes, of the degradation of democratic institutions, of prominent role of Polyxena, who overshadows even her mother (p. 63-64). The general Euripidean context stressed here would have been more useful as a beginning to the introductory section, before the detailed study of every single question.

The second chapter, “The date of the Hecuba” (p. 21-25), contains literary evidence of a terminus ante quem (423 B.C.), the parody of Aristophanes’ Clouds (ll. 718-19, 1165-66), pointing out its dubious value. Some allusions of the Chorus could refer to historical events, such as the Athenian revival of the Delian festival in honour of Apollo (p. 23) or the solidarity with the Spartan women’s grief for their war victims (p. 23-24), and probably provide a terminus post quem (425 B.C.). Comparison with other plays, based on metrical evidence, dates the Hecuba between the Hippolytus (428 B.C.) and the Trojan women (415 B.C.). In conclusion, all evidence tends to indicate that the play was produced most likely in 424 B.C.

The third chapter, “Structure and dramatic unity” (p. 26-36), begins with a synoptic presentation of the plot, according to the Aristotelian structure: scenes divided by stasima. It then offers a diachronic survey of scholars’ opinions about the unity of the play, from the Renaissance to the present. S. enumerates the more important issues discussed by 20th-century scholars attempting to preserve the play’s unity, and classifies them into three groups of opinions: the first takes into account the character of Hecuba (p. 31-32) and her change from submission to revolt or her evolution which consists in bringing to light some latent aspects of her character. The second one focuses on thematic unity, with “as many different interpretations as scholars” (p. 32). The third group (p. 35-36) combines the two previous viewpoints and insists on the twofold unity, based both on the character of Hecuba and on the ideas of the play. S.’s conclusion is based on the “effectiveness” of the plot “as it stands, with two different actions and one central character”, and its evaluation by the individual reader or, more properly, the individual spectator (p. 36).

The fourth chapter, “The human sacrifice and the role of Odysseus” (p. 37-47) answers the question whether Achilles’ demand for a human sacrifice as a gift of honour is legitimate or not, i.e. whether sacrifice is a proof of loyalty to a dead comrade. S. thus has the opportunity to study the distinctive features of this sacrifice and the political meaning of the play, in particular the role of Odysseus as an anachronistic demagogue.

In the fifth chapter, “Hecuba’s metamorphosis into a dog” (p. 48-57), S. investigates the antecedents of blind Polymestor’s prophecy, and examines the different interpretations of the metamorphosis. She agrees with Theodoros Stephanopoulos3 that the transformation and the reference to the τέκμαρ of Cynossema could not be Euripides’ invention: the poet draws on a local Thracian tradition, transmitted to Athens (p.49). The reasons for this ἀποκύνωσις are not mentioned by Euripides, but there are many references in post-Euripidean literature (p. 49); parallels can also be drawn with modern Greek literature and legends. S. refutes the one-sided interpretation of the metamorphosis as a proof of moral degeneration and integrates the fierceness of revenge into the context of custom and of the lex talionis. In conclusion, “the question is not if Hecuba’s revenge is righteous or not, but what price she is going to pay for this righteous revenge” (p. 56); the price is the change of shape, which could be regarded more as a well-earned rest than a condemnation.

The last chapter, “The text” (p. 65-75), relates not only the history of the text of the Hecuba, but also the transmission of the Greek tragic texts in general. In this very interesting section, S. owes much to the French edition by Méridier (p. χ especially in what is discussed on p. 67-68 about the role of Aristophanes of Byzantium. However, the reference to Méridier is omitted (why?), while it ought to appear next to other pertinent references, such as the studies by G. Zuntz4 and by L.D. Reynolds and N.G. Wilson.5 A more precise reference to “Didymus, 1st cent. B.C.” (p. 69) would have been welcome: the author in question is indeed the Alexandrine scholar Didymus Chalcenterus. The history of the transmission of Euripides and of the text of the Hecuba (p. 71-75) is stressed with reference to the study of K. Matthiessen;6 S. gives useful explanations about the role of the Byzantine scholars, in particular Michael Moschopulus (p.73).

The complete list of the manuscripts, papyri and ostraca is given p. 112-115, followed by the sigla, p. 116. It is worth noting that the detailed apparatus reprinted from Diggle should satisfy everyone who is interested in textual criticism. S. mentions the existence of ancient testimonia on p. 75, but without a further explanation of ancient references quoted in the apparatus. I would like to point out here that references to Galen such as “Galen p. 8 or p. 236” are to be completed with the volume of the edition by Kühn (K.), or the one in the Corpus Medicorum Graecorum ( CMG), or the abbreviation of the title of the work, if need be. The references put right are: “Galen, 18b, p. 8 K. and 14, p. 236 K.” The recensio of the MSS and their sigla are also reprinted from Diggle, without reference to editions presenting slight differences, such as the one by S. Daitz, who offers a brief, but useful description of the principal mss of the play and also stresses the reason why a separate list of testimonia would not be of capital interest. But these are only details. Scholars’ interest is fulfilled by the analysis of textual issues in the commentary, and readers willing just to be initiated into the textual problems that can interfere with the interpretation of the play are not annoyed by specialists’ debates.

The “Selected bibliography” (p. 86-111), is rich as well as multilingual, including many modern Greek references.

S’s modern Greek translation in a flowing and particularly pleasant language reveals the contribution of modern Greek to the comprehension of the ancient works. Literal, but not obscure, it follows the method initiated by Vernardakis, namely the use of the exact modern equivalent or the maintainance of the ancient turn of phrase when it exists in modern Greek, or appeals to modern colloquial expressions in order to emphasize the continuity of the Greek language.

Objectivity and erudition are S.’s guidelines throughout the commentary, which follows the Aristotelian division into scenes and stasima. S. also carries out a more detailed subdivision of every single scene or stasimon into its component parts, in order to bring to light their internal coherence and to enable the reader to follow the evolution of the plot. At the beginning of each section or subsection, S. offers a general survey of the more important issues; she then proceeds to a meticulous line-to-line study, including references to a large spectrum of bibliographical material.

As in the case of the translation, modern Greek realia play an important role in the interpretation and confirm the survival of cultural features throughout the centuries. The philological commentary and the study of the dramatic context is often combined with the study of the metre.

The theme of law is an occasion for a complete survey of the Athenian system of laws and a discussion of the preeminence of written or customary law, of law vs. persuasion, of law vs. phusis, so as to shed light on the anachronisms as a part of the Euripidean criticism of the corruption of the Athenian political system. S. highlights the audacious decision to put a denunciation of the demagogues’ ingratitude and disregard of their obligations towards their friends (l. 254-257) into the mouth of Hecuba, a stranger and a slave. The analysis of the notion of punishment (l. 749) is accompanied by a study of the Athenian archaic and classical practices concerning retaliation as a legal process. Examination of the concept of law which stems from the gods (l. 800), mainly the obligations of hospitality and burial of the dead broken by Polymestor, offers a real condensé of erudition, focusing on the refutation of the thesis that “law” means “human convention” without reference to the gods.

Issues concerning law and hospitality set forth the ironic use of the clichés about the moral superiority of Greeks (civilized people) over barbarians (ll. 326-327, 877, 1129, 1199-1201, 1247). The political allusion to the Athenian alliance with the Thracians in 431 B.C., is not the main interest of these lines, according to S. The sacred character of the xenia and the absolute prohibition against harming a xenos (Agamemnon’s censure of Polymestor) constitutes another ironic cliché: the sacrifice of Polyxena, a captive and a suppliant, was perpetrated by the Greek army, who cannot pretend to any moral superiority, because both xenoi and suppliants are under the gods’ protection, and consequently killing either of them is a sacrilegious act. Thus, “from that point of view, both Greeks and barbarians are on the same level” (p. 447).

The concept of slavery (cf. S.’s extended study, On the Concept of Slavery in Euripides, Ioannina, 1977) is also embodied in the analysis of the Greek law, which is equal for slaves and free people, particularly in case of bloodshed. S. explains the legal status of a slave in classical Athens (commentary on ll. 291-292), in comparison with Hecuba’s speech; she sets out all the cases in which the slaves were under protection of the law, without enjoying a perfect ἰσονομία. S.’s analysis of the “name” vs. the “natural condition” of slave takes into account not only the opposition between “word and deed” (Gregory), “connotation and denotation” (Collard), but also the attitude of other Euripidean characters who are born slaves, but consider that “only the name” of slave is shameful, and does not affect their intrinsic moral value.

The corollary of slavery is liberty of choice, which is instrumental to the comprehension of voluntary sacrifice. S. stresses the opposition of the two concepts (commentary on ll. 547-552), focusing on control over one’s own death, the only freedom of a woman, whose life is subject to the male will. Sacrificial victims in Euripides (all but one female) claim their freedom to die and reject the “slavery” of a life without dignity. This point of view would have been more complete with a gender problematics taking into account the antithesis between Polyxena and the soldiers. The refutation of Loraux’s gender interpretation of Polyxena’s way of dying (l. 567)7 should also have been toned down: further evidence selected to prove that cutting the victim’s throat instead of striking her breast is undoubtedly a female way of dying, but not one exclusively reserved to women,8 does not confirm this statement. The examples cited are mostly characters who can be assimilated with women: a very old and a very young man (Amphitryon and Menoeceus). As for Hector’s death, he is neither a tragic character, nor a sacrificial victim. Nevertheless, we can find the idea that Polyxena’s sacrifice (and her nudity at the very moment of her death) is a means of surpassing female status; interpretation of l. 578 highlights the fact that Polyxena received male and female funeral honours: the leaves thrown on her as if she were a victorious athlete and the adornment as if she were a bride.

The value and characteristics of voluntary sacrifice offer a stimulating field of reflection. Interpretation of Polyxena’s comparison to a heifer (l. 504), a current image for young men and women, reminds us that such an animal is a very suitable sacrificial victim. However, considerations about “jeopardizing human sacrifice” and assimilating it into an animal one because Talthybius switches from metaphoric to literal register are quite puzzling, because Polyxena always compares herself to a young animal (a filly, l. 141, a mountain-bred heifer, l. 205). Another interesting point is the link between the sacrifice and the timing of the favorable winds (ll. 900-901, 1289-1290). According to S., Euripides’ dissociation of the two events reveals either an indirect condemnation of human sacrifice, or an evidence of its uselessness and of the Greeks’ cruelty. However, the idea of a “useless” sacrifice, also mentioned in the introduction (p. 46) in order to complete the political interpretation of the play and to point out the irrelevance of the “patriotic” aspect of Odysseus’ argumentation, ought to have been toned down.

Meticulous analysis of textual issues in the commentary provides all the elements necessary to the investigation of this field. Detailed bibliographical references to the main controversies, survey of the principal aspects and opposing opinions, objectivity and erudition remain the main characteristics of textual discussion. However, the reader is quite disappointed — and puzzled— to discover that such a thorough research remains confined to the commentary, and is not accompanied by any editorial choices which could have contributed to the improvement of the Greek text (and subsequently of the translation). S. prints Diggle’s text, even when she clearly expresses her disagreement. I would like to enumerate some examples, in order to point out S.’s pertinent philological analysis, which contrasts with her persistence in leaving Diggle’s text unchanged:

l. 415-420: the sequence of exchanges between Polyxena and her mother. S. adopts the line order by Diggle (417-420 before 415-416), but there is a contradiction between this choice and the commentary on l. 417, where it is stated that this line “fits better after the l. 416”, because it is Hecuba’s commentary on Polyxena’s major loss, i.e. the fact that she will die unmarried. S. stresses the antithesis between the Underworld (l. 414, as a place of freedom) and the life in daylight (l. 415, as a place of slavery), both of them sources of distress, without changing the text.

l. 620: the emendation of the MSS κάλλιστα to μάλιστα“is not necessary”, because the invocation of Priam “who had very many and very good possessions” contrasts with the present situation of the slave queen. The emphasis on wealth, on prosperity, not on children, would nevertheless have been more explicit if expressed in the Greek text as well.

l. 805: although S. finds no reason to change the MSS ἴσον (equal) to σῶν (safe), stressing the importance and the ironic connotation of ἰσονομία, she maintains Murray’s emendation and translates “nothing is safe”.

l. 885: perhaps the only case where the reader notices at once the existence of variants, because S. translates “I think poorly of the female sex”, γένος, although she maintains σθένος in her text, regardless of the argument that γένος fits in with Agamemnon’s mentality.

l. 1162: Verrall’s emendation πολυπόδων instead of πολεμίων is regarded as “audacious and attractive” at first sight. S. goes through the principal arguments concerning all variants ( πολυπόδων, πολεμίου, πολεμίων), paying special attention to those which point out the irrelevance of the emendation, but she prints and translates Diggle’s text, although she prefers the MSS solution: there is no question here of the capacity of octopuses to cling to someone or to something, but of the women’s abrupt and aggressive act of capturing Polymestor.

The above criticisms are meant to improve this excellent edition, which offers the pleasure of reading or rereading the Hecuba. Very well produced, with only a dozen typographical errors throughout the two volumes, (including a quite annoying one p. 107, concerning the year of publication of Paul Schubert’s article: the last zero of 2000 is omitted ( QUCC, 64 (200) [sic]), this edition thoroughly fulfills its goal, and will be of particular interest for students (undergraduate and graduate) and teachers. I am confident that this excellent book will find its rightful place in many a Greek library and will interest many a Greek student.


1. Hecuba, with introduction, translation, and commentary by Christopher Collard (Warminster, 1991). Children of Heracles; Hippolytus; Andromache; Hecuba, edited and translated by David Kovacs (Cambridge, MA, 1995). Hecuba, introduction, text, and commentary by Justina Gregory (Atlanta, GA, 1999).

2. E.g., the one by S. G. Daitz (Leipzig, 1973, 2nd ed. 1990), without commentary.

3. Th. Stephanopoulos, Umgestaltung des Mythos durch Euripides (Athen, 1980).

4. G. Zuntz, An Inquiry into the Transmission of the Plays of Euripides (Cambridge, 1965).

5. L. D. Reynolds & N. G. Wilson, Ἀντιγραφεῖς καὶ φιλόλογοι. Μετάφραση, Ν. Παναγιωτάκις (Athens, 1981, 2nd ed. 1989).

6. K. Matthiessen, Studien zur Textüberlieferung der Hekabe des Euripides (Heidelberg, 1974).

7. N. Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman. Transl. A. Forster (Cambridge, MA., 1987), pp. 60-61.

8. J. Mossman, Wild Justice. A Study of Euripides’ Hecuba (Oxford, 1995), pp. 160-161.