BMCR 2012.07.57

The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: a Commentary for Students

, , The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: a Commentary for Students. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. lxxiv, 289. ISBN 9780199595617. $55.00 (pb).

More than half a century has elapsed since the publication of the last English commentary and text suitable for first-time readers of the Agamemnon in Greek, by Denniston and Page (Oxford, 1957). Anyone who has labored at teaching this great play to students who come to the Agamemnon with no experience in Attic tragedy beyond reading, say, Euripides’ Alcestis (perennial favorite of elementary Greek classes for its relative brevity and simplicity) will rejoice at Raeburn and Thomas’s book. At the same time, those who have been through the text more times than they can remember will find much here that is new and valuable. And MPG Books Group has produced a paperback that for page size, flexibility of spine, layout, and hardiness puts the Cambridge Press Green and Yellow series to shame: CUP Syndics take note!

Inexperienced readers, and of course their instructors, will be grateful for the sort of help hardly to be found in earlier commentaries.1 Knotty stretches are translated, some with the literalism that is urgently needed when what they see on the page can strike beginners as an impossible combination of abstract and concrete (188: “by a lack of sailing characterized by empty innards”). Skillful poetic translations are quoted a few times, e.g., Browning’s “Ship’s-hell, man’s-hell, city’s-hell (688-90). At many points disambiguation of homonyms will spare a student time-robbing, discouraging confusion (e.g., 113-15 νεῶν, 1358-9 λέγω). Similarly, Raeburn and Thomas point out important lexical nuances that easily elude most students, especially in these days when many misuse the lexical resources of Perseus and underuse LSJ in both print and electronic media, e.g., ad 136-7 on the ambiguity of πρὸ λόχου and ad 1482 on αἰνέω = “tell of”. It was news to me, though a hardware enthusiast, that Aeschylus’ specific metaphoric vehicle at 1565-6 might be a masonry bracket. Disambiguation by accent (ad 1174-6; 1324-5) will be especially useful where students are, regrettably, not taught and accustomed to exploit this millennia-old “crutch” for newcomers to the language. Several times they point out not- immediately-obvious particle usage, for instance that at 491-2 οὖν conveys “in fact,” not “therefore.” Denniston’s Particles is, of course, cited, even where the Denniston and Page commentary does not condescend to alert the reader to an important nuance conveyed by a particle. Especially welcome is an explanation (ad 219-21) of a feminine adjective that a tyro is bound to find mysterious unless, which is unlikely in the extreme, she or he has already been directed to Wilamowitz ad Eur. HF 681.

Raeburn and Thomas have a good ear for the articulation, or phrasing, of the lines, and often point out noteworthy rhythmical shaping in dialogue. In their note ad 944, for instance, they suggest how pauses around a phrase would strengthen the line’s “resigned acceptance,” and ad 1455, where the four longs in West’s emendation convey a particular affect. Less credible, in my opinion, are the claims of sound symbolism, as at 956-7, where “the powerful alliteration πορφύρας πατῶν would be a good cue …[for Agamemnon] to step on the purple garments.” Likewise, the note ad 312-13: “The five οι sounds are powerfully assertive.” I was more persuaded by the authors’ suggestion of how a particular delivery could exploit sounds inherent in the words, as at 943: “the diphthong of πιθοῦ and its circumflex accent can be delivered with a seductive cooing effect.” In an appendix nearly thirty pages long Raeburn gives an account of scansion and lyric meters far fuller than what one would expect in a commentary. There are interesting suggestions on stage movement, for instance how the murderer and her victims might enter the palace (ad 1299 and 1306), how the chorus might move in reaction to Agamemnon’s cries and the display of bodies on the ekkyklēma (ad 1370-1 and 1343-71). Apropos a director’s work, I liked the remark ad 905-44: “Clytemnestra now stage-manages Agamemnon’s entrance into the house.”

Raeburn and Thomas avoid steering the reader towards any particular interpretation of the Agamemnon and the Oresteia as a whole. I want in particular to commend them for pointing out, with a light touch, that Aeschylus did not engage in crude schematizing of the forces that collide in the course of the trilogy. In the Introduction they say that “Unlike [Froma] Zeitlin, we would see gender dynamics not as ‘the basic issue’ of the Oresteia, but as one important strand in Aeschylus’ complex dramatization of oppositions among humans and gods…” Ad 1022-4 (on p. 179) they remark that “The Olympians are … authorities for retributive justice just as well as the Erinyes.”

This commentary reproduces Page’s OCT text, though it often rejects its readings and makes some textual suggestions of its own. The commercial constraints that put the OCT in this book are obvious. I recommend that when and if the fascicle of a far superior edition, West’s Teubner, becomes available again, instructors designate it as the required text. It is physically easy to manipulate while using a commentary, and was not very expensive. Beginners working (and I mean working) through this great play deserve all the help they can get.

This is an excellent commentary, perfectly aimed at its primary audience, yet obligatory for veteran Aeschyleans.


1. In his Frogs commentary (Oxford, 1993: vi) K.J. Dover took the lead in meeting the requirements of contemporary students.

2. A few dissents exempli gratia from claimed cross references of various sorts. Raeburn and Thomas’s imagination runs out of control ad 4-6 in even entertaining a link between ὁμήγυρις and the audience watching the play. I cannot believe that Aeschylus’ word προτέλεια is to be inked to the play as a ritual enactment. Ad 1100-4: Od. 3.261 μέγα μήσατο ἔργον, referring to Clytemnestra, is not at all likely to have been ringing in Aeschylus’ or any other ancient’s ear when they heard Cassandra sing the word μήδε ται.