BMCR 2008.03.38

Euripide in Giovanni Malala

, Euripide in Giovanni Malala. Hellenica ; 19. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2006. 102 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 8876949011. €15.00.

Francesca D’Alfonso’s study of the citations of Euripides in the sixth-century Chronicle of John Malalas presents the evidence thoroughly but succinctly, takes stock of all of the relevant scholarship, and offers new and useful conclusions, in short, it does precisely what we should expect of a brief monograph.

D’Alfonso begins with a discussion of the genuineness of Malalas’ Euripidean material. The tragedian is almost always cited for the ‘poetic version’ of a myth which appears alongside an historicized version obviously more agreeable to the chronicler. But any treatment of these citations must involve not only questions about the text of Malalas, but also questions concerning the survival and circulation of Euripides in the sixth century. Amongst the weightiest modern scholars, Bourier maintained that Malalas’ knowledge of Euripides was indirect, while Patzig argued for Malalas’ direct knowledge of Euripides’ plays. It seems quite clear that Malalas and his contemporaries would have had access to such sources as collections of plot summaries and art illustrating the tragedies, but the availability of such sources does not preclude the possibility of direct access to the texts of Euripides. While D’Alfonso acknowledges the scepticism of modern critics, she urges a search for the traces of genuine Euripidean material which is sympathetic to the purposes and tastes of Malalas and his audience.

If Malalas had direct knowledge of Euripides, rather than through his lost or otherwise unknown sources, we are in a position to draw conclusions about his treatment of those texts of Euripides which survive for us to read. So after clarifying her intention to discuss Euripides in Malalas under the broad headings of surviving and lost plays, D’Alfonso engages in a discussion of the known dramas ( Iphigeneia in Tauris, Bacchae, Andromache, Heraclidae, Hippolytus, Cyclops), intending by a comparison of Malalas’ citation and Euripides’ text to understand the modus operandi of Malalas, and consequently the measure of fidelity and modification respectively we should expect in the citations of the lost plays. The results are varied. Some passages in Malalas demonstrate close verbal parallels and only an adjustment from dramatic to narrative discourse, suggesting a direct reading of Euripides, while others simply note that Euripides dealt with a certain myth. Perhaps most interesting is D’Alfonso’s treatment of the Cyclops, which raises the possibitity that far from being a shallow misreading of Euripides, Malalas conveys a subtle interpretation of Euripides’ text which depends upon the multiple meanings of synonyms and abstruse philosophical speculation.

D’Alfonso’s attention, and no doubt the readers’ interest, is concentrated on the lost plays, and her discussion of this material will receive commensurately greater space in this review. Bearing Malalas’ predominantly euhemeristic interpretation in mind it might be possible to discern Malalas’ point of departure from Euripides’ text, and so weigh the value of his citations as evidence for Euripides’ lost plays. Oedipus and Meleager are particularly difficult to reconstruct, but Malalas offers some clues as to plot and point of view, especially in comparison with the papyri. In some cases ( Stheneboea, Danae, Cretenses, Antiope) Malalas seems to preserve, in his own way, the hypothesis of the play. Malalas’ citation can sometimes be compared to the prologue ( Stheneboea, Phrixus B, Danae), which offers insight into the relation of hypothesis and text in the early Byzantine period.

Oedipus : The primary role of the Sphinx in Euripides’ play suggested by Malalas’ reference (“The most exceeding wise Euripides set out poetically the drama about Oedipus and Jocasta and the Sphinx.”) may have been the result of his rationalizing interpretive method, but Malalas seems to properly reflect the central role of Jocasta in Euripides’ version of the story of Oedipus, as preserved in other sources.

Meleager : In Malalas’ version Oineus, Meleager’s father, not Althaea, his mother, kills the hero because he gave the skin of the Calydonian Boar to Atalanta not to him, and by burning an olive branch, rather than a fire brand. There are indications in the papyri, as well as pottery and mosaic representations, that Oineus had a larger role in some versions of the myth, and there are good herbalogical, ritual, and even anthropological grounds for transposing the half-burnt log to an olive branch, but D’Alfonso reserves judgment until we have the corroborating evidence of papyri or such like to determine whether Malalas presents a rendition of Euripides’ version of the myth or an intriguing variant culled from other sources and credited to Euripides by Malalas.

Antiope : According to Malalas, Euripides related that Antiope was seduced by Zeus after he transformed himself into a satyr. Malalas explains this on the basis of metempsychosis (Zeus the human king was present in the form of one of his descendants) and etymology (‘satyr’ is a Boeotian term for ‘another grosser body’). The recourse to etymology is not inconsistent with Euripides’s plays or their prologues. Malalas also sought to deny the divine parentage of Dionysus by employing an interpretatio Christiana of specific lines from Euripides’ Bacchae, taken out of context and subjected to unsympathetic relation. It seems plausible that here too Malalas depends upon a slander against the heroine related, but not endorsed, by Euripides.

Stheneboea : There is reason to believe that Malalas had access, if not to Euripides’ play, then to a very good report of it. Malalas’ version is not dissimilar to the hypothesis and extracts from the prologue of Euripides’ Stheneboea preserved by the twelfth-century John the Logothete (our best source on the tragedy). Bellerophon’s salvation by Iobates’ recognition of his virtue, rather than the Homeric victory over the Chimaera, is significant here. There are, moreover, specific verbal clues in Malalas which point to a close correspondence to Euripides’ text. The collocation of pharmakon and sophrosyne, as in the words of Stheneboea in Malalas, also appears in another Euripidean play on the ‘Potiphar theme’, the Hippolytus. The construction of χαμαιεύρετος (‘discovered prostrate on the ground’), moreover, a compound including the prefix χαμαι -/ χαμ – seems more characteristic of Euripides than Malalas.

Phrixus B : In the case of at least one citation of Euripides it seems possible to conjecture the nature of Malalas’ source even though he does not name the tragedy to which he is referring. Malalas cites Euripides twice in his account of the career of Agenor and the rape of Europa by Tauros, the king of Crete. We know from the Catasterismi of pseudo-Eratosthenes that Tauros the Bull was mentioned in the Phrixus of Euripides. Euripides wrote two plays by that name, but the prologue of the second Phrixus describes the wanderings and geographical associations of Agenor’s sons in much the same way that Malalas tells of Agenor dividing this kingdom among his sons. So D’Alfonso proposes that Malalas’ source was a collection of the hypotheseis of the plays of Euripides which also included a citation of several lines form the prologue of each play.

Danae : The provenance of Malalas’ citation of the Danae on the birth of Perseus is less clear. The version which Malalas attributes to Euripides has certain verbal affinities with both mention of Danae in Lucian’s ΕΝΑΛΙΟΙ ΔΙΑΛΟΓΟΙ ( Dialogues of the Sea-Gods) and a hypothesis of the Danae found along with an index personarum and a spurious prologue for the same play in the Codex P. This suggests that all three texts (Malalas, Lucian, and Codex P.) depend on Euripides’ original hypothesis. D’Alfonso also raises the possibility that much of the material attributed to Euripides is actually taken from the corresponding euhemerizing source cited by Malalas, the historian Bouttios. Malalas’ concern to rationalize Perseus’ epithet of ‘winged’ and his association of this epithet with Euripides, also call into question whether the prologue in Codex P. is indeed spurious, since the same motif recurs there.

Cretenses : Malalas refers to a play by Euripides about Pasiphae to support his account of the Cretan queen’s liaison with the secretary Tauros, abetted by Daedalus and Icarus. The central role of Pasiphae, as well as her punishment by Minos and consequent death as related by Malalas, seem to be corroborated as evidence for Euripides’ Cretenses by verifiable fragments of that play, particularly the Berlin Parchment. Daedalus’ death at the hands of Minos, unique to Malalas, also seems to be suggested by Euripides’ Cretenses as preserved in the Berlin Parchment. The details offered by Malalas point to a source less generic than an hypothesis of the play, and D’Alfonso suggests that Malalas had read a fragment of the text like that preserved in the Berlin Parchment. A completely unconnected description of Crete as an ‘island of a hundred cities in the midst of the sea’, attributed by Malalas to Euripides, is possibly a quotation from memory of a famous line.

An appendix, illustrated by several plates, discusses the mosaics of mythical scenes found in a number of Antiochene homes more or less contemporary with Malalas. D’Alfonso asserts not only that some of them illustrate Euripides’ tragedies, but also reflect the means by and context in which his plays survived in late antique Antioch.