BMCR 2007.10.27

Euripides: Suppliant Women, with Introduction, Translation and Commentary

, , Suppliant women. Aris & Phillips classical texts. Oxford: Aris & Phillips/Oxbow, 2007. viii, 260 pages : maps ; 22 cm.. ISBN 9780856687792. $36.00 (pb).

Table of Contents

The Aris and Phillips Classical Texts collection has been enriched with a new volume devoted to the Suppliant Women by Euripides. In this publication, James Morwood — formerly Head of Classics at the Harrow School (England), and specialist of Euripides, whose tragedies he has already edited and translated in the Oxford World Classics collection1 — gives us a new translation, as well as an introduction and new commentary on the play. As Morwood himself says in his preface, Christopher Collard has already published a “magnificent edition” and brilliant commentary on the work (Collard C., Euripides, Supplices, edited with an introduction and commentary, 2 vols, Groningen, 1975). Morwood’s work does not compete with Collard’s: not only does he refer to recent studies which have made discussion about the play still richer over the last thirty years, but, more importantly, he has neither the same aim, nor does he have the same audience in mind. His book is a lot more accessible, and less technical, but also less comprehensive in its approach.

The assets of this book are partly due to the project underlying the collection, whose goal is explicitly to permit an easy and stimulating approach to the texts: literary analysis and matters of interpretation are highlighted, whereas the philological section is reduced to the bare essentials. In addition, Morwood, offers the reader a remarkable translation, both fluent and accurate, accompanying the Greek text with an apparatus criticus which has been simplified so as to cite and discuss only the most notable variants and emendations.

Morwood has not edited the text of the play itself. The Greek text (with the exception of a single word) is the one edited by James Diggle in the Oxford Classical Texts collection (Diggle J., Euripides Fabulae vol. II (Supplices, Electra, Hercules, Troades, Iphigenia in Tauris, Ion), Oxford University Press, 1982), an edition long considered to be definitive by the scholarly community.

Like all the other volumes of this collection, the book is divided into three main parts: an introduction; the text, given in translation on the right-hand page, facing the Greek; and finally the commentary.

The introduction (pp. 1-31) discusses the main questions raised by the play. It is divided into eight brief chapters:

1) Plot, themes and motifs gives a summary of the plot and presentation of the main themes of the play: the treatment of the Argive corpses, the Panhellenic motif, youth and age, parents and children, education, labour.

2) Politics and character highlights the play’s political aspects, in particular the question of the family and the role granted to the women, as well as the opposition between Argos and Athens which appears through the opposition Adrastos-Theseus.

3) King Theseus and democratic Athens studies the “apparent paradox” of Theseus being at the same time king of Athens — even if in the play he vehemently refuses the title of “turannos” — and the creator and champion of democracy. Morwood reinstates this representation of Theseus within the framework of a larger tradition, citing both earlier literary examples and iconographic elements from contemporary Athens.

3b) Theseus, Herakles and Kimon argues that Theseus is to be connected with Herakles as a figure of the Panhellenic hero and points to several hypotheses which would explain the allusive strategy used by Euripides; he also underlines the vitality of the cult of Theseus in fifth-century Athens, after the so-called relics of the hero had been brought back with great pomp by Kimon.

4) Athenian funeral encomia and Adrastos’ oration offers an explanation of the features of the funeral oration in Athens, clarifying the form and function of Adrastos’ eulogy of five of the Argive commanders.

5) The play’s geography studies the image of the three cities in the play apart from Athens (Eleusis, Thebes, Argos) and the values linked to each of them, determining their mode of representation. This is particularly clear for Eleusis, the holy city, and Thebes, the anti-Athens and enemy city.

6) The myth and its reception describes distinctive features of the Euripidean version of the myth and examples of its lineage, from Roman literature until the Renaissance.

7) Date cites different suppositions regarding the play’s dating — hypotheses based principally on a possible reference to the alliance between Athens and Argos in 420 and the battle of Delion in 424 — but Morwood rejects every certainty on the subject.

8) The text and translation describes the manuscript tradition and the principles underlying the constitution of the simplified apparatus criticus proposed by himself below the Greek text. Variants in the manuscripts are not mentioned whenever the given reading is considered unquestionable; editorial corrections to the manuscripts are included (and compared with errors) when they are necessary, along with all the variants and conjectures that have raised discussion among scholars.

This introduction, thanks to its multiple references, enables the reader to comprehend the scholarly discussion surrounding the play and the questions it raises. A selective bibliography (pp. 33-35) follows, quoting the principal modern editions of the play and the studies (but only in English, and mostly recent ones).

Morwood presents his new translation of the play with the following words: “In accordance with the aims of this series, my translation does not aim at elegance or performability. Its primary objective is to make clear what I take to be the meaning of the Greek.” In fact, the translation closely follows Euripides’ text, preserving as far as possible the order of the words in Greek and allowing the reader to recognize easily the construction adopted. As a result, Morwood’s translation will perhaps seem less elegant than others, such as the one by D. Kovacs in the Loeb Classical Library,2 or the more ancient one by E.P. Coleridge,3 literary but accurate, currently available on the internet site Perseus. But Morwood seems to me to be generally closer to the Greek.

Here is an example showing the quality of Morwood’s translation. In lines 16-19, Aithra, Theseus’ mother, is surrounded by the mothers of the Seven, and explains the reason why they have come to supplicate her: νεκροὺς δὲ τοὺς ὀλωλότας δορὶ / θάψαι θέλουσι τῶνδε μητέρες χθονί, / εἴργουσι δ’οἱ κρατοῦντες οὐδ’ ἀναίρεσιν / δοῦναι θέλουσι , νόμιμ’ ἀτίζοντες θεῶν. Coleridge renders these lines as follows: “so now their mothers would bury in the grave the dead, whom the spear has slain, but the victors prevent them and will not allow them to take up the corpses, holding the laws of the gods in no honor.” Here is Morwood’s version: “it is their corpses, laid low by the spear, that their mothers wish to bury in the ground. But the rulers (of Thebes) are preventing this and are not willing to allow the corpses to be taken up, making light of the law of gods.” Morwood respects the original word-order more closely, beginning with the word “corpses” as in the Greek. In addition, the participle “laid low” corresponds grammatically to the Greek participle ὀλωλότας. Finally, Coleridge’s translation suggests that the Thebans are preventing the mothers themselves from going to take up the bodies of their sons, whereas this task could never be theirs (they have come to Eleusis only out of despair, but would otherwise have waited in Argos for the repatriation of the corpses). The Greek literally says: “they refuse to give the recovery of the corpses”; again, Morwood’s translation is more accurate.

The commentary (pp. 143-240) follows an explicative principle and will be accessible and useful even to those readers with an incomplete mastery of the Greek language. It lacks the scholarly precision and comprehensiveness of Collard’s commentary but, as I have already said, the aim here is not the same. The commentary is divided into chapters corresponding to the play’s structure: Prologue, First Chorus, First Episode (Part 1, Choral Intervention, Part 2. . .). Each part begins with a summary of both the action and the speeches made by the characters, so that the commentary is helpful in finding one’s way through the play. Consistent with Morwood’s approach, there are line by line quotes of the English translation, rather than of the Greek text (as in Collard’s commentary). Morwood gives us insight into the meaning of the translation, expounding the historical context, allusions to realia and matters of scenography, and commenting on the characters’ personality and evolution. His explanations of the Greek text, on the other hand, appear more scarcely and often remain at a rather superficial level, although they are always useful, elucidating some difficult constructions by giving literal translations, and justifying or explaining the translation of idiomatic matters, Greek particles or tenses.

The philological content is minimized. Morwood only occasionally discusses the variants and choices made by Diggle in editing the text. He sometimes gives the meanings corresponding to the different readings and suggested emendations, but without explaining the arguments underlying these choices. Moreover, he does not speak of metrics at all. This method results in a commentary far more accessible to students and readers wishing to discover the play and fully understand the Greek text. It may not, however, satisfy the specialists, who can then turn to Collard’s edition (where there are comments on nearly every word of the tragedy and the rhythmic pattern of every lyrical section is described). For example, referring to lines 16-19 cited above, we find an example of the gap between the two commentaries. Here is Collard’s commentary on the expression οἱ κρατοῦντες (v. 18): “the so-called allusive pl. in this idiom (where the reference is only too plain) decoratively imitates gnomic generalisation.” In contrast, Morwood restricts himself to telling us about “the rulers: i.e., Kreon, the new king of Thebes (cf. 400) being the only surviving male in the royal family, his nephews Eteokles and Polyneikes having killed each other in recent battle.”

Morwood’s commentary on philological debate is sometimes approximate. For example, in lines 250-251, the chorus speak up for Adrastos — whom Theseus has just condemned for having declared a war without the gods’ assent: “He made a mistake. Young men are liable to do this. You should forgive him.”. “He made a mistake” translates the Greek ἥμαρτεν. Morwood indicates in the apparatus the emendation suggested by Elmsley, the plural ἥμαρτον. He then translates τῶιδ’, “forgive him” and indicates Hermann’s proposal: τῶνδ’. He goes on to ask in the commentary:

“do the Chorus regard Adrastos as a young man? (That would contradict 166 where he is “grey-haired”.) Or is it rather that they associate him with the juvenile hotheads who led him astray (162, 232)? Elmsley emended the singular verb to the plural (‘they made a mistake’). It would then be the young men of 232 who blundered, and this meaning would render Hermann’s emendation in 251 necessary: forgiveness of them rather than of him.”

Contrary to Morwood, Collard adopts Elmsley’s emendation, but not Hermann’s, and explains it quite consistently: “Elmsley’s correction is made necessary by the continuation ἐν νέοισι. In their formal distich the Cho. entreat forgiveness for Adrastos ( τῶιδε) by associating his fault with the natural errors of the νέοι who led him astray. . .” Morwood’s remark on the necessity to associate the two emendations hardly seems justified.

A short appendix, The Argive women and Athenian mourning legislation (pp. 241-244), follows the commentary. Dealing with a controversial question, Morwood argues convincingly that during the play, without being coerced by Theseus, the mothers effectively change their way of expressing grief to conform with Athenian behavior. The end of the volume also contains a well-informed “general bibliography for Euripides” (pp. 245-246), as well as an index of the characters (e.g: Adrastos), themes (e.g: education), some rhetorical forms (e.g., funeral encomia) and some stylistic effects (e.g., colloquialisms). This index refers to the notes and lines in the play where these subjects appear. Some entries are a little surprising and do not seem relevant to me, such as: Chaucer and Shakespeare, mentioned only in the introduction, or Churchill (!), who is only mentioned in one note in an anecdotal way. The reader adopting a thematic approach to the play, however, will find this index helpful.

The many qualities of this volume will enable numerous readers to enjoy the discovery of this magnificent play which, as James Morwood reminds us, has too long been considered as a minor work by Euripides, a play of political propaganda. Each part of the book, the Introduction, Translation and Commentary, aims to facilitate reading and stimulate interest, without drowning the reader in technical details concerning Euripides’ language or the editing of his work.


1. Morwood James (ed. and trans.), Hall Edith intro, Medea and Other Plays, Oxford University Press, 1998; Morwood James (ed. and trans.), Hall Edith (intro.), Bacchae and Other Plays, Oxford University Press, 2000;Morwood James, Hall Edith, The Trojan Women and Other Plays, Oxford University Press, 2001;Morwood James, Waterfield Robin, Hall Edith, Orestes and Other Plays, Oxford University Press, 2001;Morwood James, Waterfield Robin, Hall Edith, Heracles and Other Plays, Oxford University Press, 2003.

2. David Kovacs (trans.), Euripides: Suppliant Women, Electra, Heracles. Loeb Classical Library, Vol. 2, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

3. Euripides. The Complete Greek Drama, Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill (ed.) Two volumes. 1. The Suppliants, E. P. Coleridge (trans.), Random House, 1938.