BMCR 2013.04.06

Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound. Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy

, Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound. Companions to Greek and Roman Tragedy. London: Bristol Classical Press, 2011. 176. ISBN 9780715634769. $26.00 (pb).


Ruffell has taken on a difficult play for his Companion, difficult in that both authorship and date are still the subject of considerable debate. Students of the play face three related problems: (1) when and by whom was it written?, (2) is it part of a trilogy?, and (3) how do we handle the very striking depiction of Zeus as a “new tyrant” with all the stereotypical attributes that one might expect? Ruffell considers all three issues with remarkable thoroughness and fairness. Those who place the play(s) in the last years of Aeschylus’ career will find their position ably defended, as will those who prefer a later production (430s?) of Aeschylean material by Euphorion or Philokles. While Ruffell admits that the latter “is certainly attractive”, he concedes that the case against production by Aeschylus himself “is not absolutely conclusive and . . . I keep both options open” (16). Even those who regard the play as “written by someone else in an Aeschylean manner” (16) will find that view accommodated.

At times, however, keeping options open presents a problem. For example, Ruffell argues throughout that Prometheus has a strong grounding in contemporary Athenian politics, but is it the critical situation of the late 460s and early 450s, or the equally contentious 430s? Ruffell makes a strong case for seeing the background as that of “the years around and following the reforms of Ephialtes” (23), but the emphasis on “tyranny” might better suit a later period, since we can see that comedy of the 430s was attacking Pericles as tyrannos (e.g. Cratinus F 259). Incidentally I am not sure that tyrannos at Ajax 749, 1335 and Antigone 60 must bear the pejorative sense that Ruffell (32 n. 5) would like. Similar difficulties arise over the possible influence of Protagoras’ ideas upon the play, just possible on an early date (75), but more likely on a later date, and over the possible use of the mechane and ekkyklema (91-2, 95-6).

For Ruffell Prometheus is “a study of the nature and application of power” (29), or “tyranny as seen within democratic Athens” (52). He points to such key political terms in the drama as eleutheros (“free”: 50), prytanis (169), stasis (200), hypeuthynos (“under scrutiny”: 324), hesychia (“quietness”, the watchword of those who eschewed politics: 327, 344). In his view Okeanos is presented as a political collaborator, and Hermes the willing lackey in the new tyranny. Ruffell juggles neatly (52-5) the implications of a date around 460 and of those from the 430s, and is rightly cautious about any hint of Perikles as Zeus. In that regard I do not agree with those who see Perikles’ dismissal from office in 430 as lying behind Cratinus F 171.16-17 ( Wealth-Gods): “now that tyranny is over and the people ( demos) are in power”. The point is probably only that Olympus’ political experience humorously mirrors that of Athens, tyranny followed by democracy. Although Ruffell disagrees with those who have “sought to divorce it [tragedy] from its political context”, he does well to avoid any suggestion that contemporary political personalities and events inspired the writing of Prometheus, preferring instead to see the issues and characters of the play enhanced by the spectators’ own experience.

I found Ruffell’s third chapter (“Technology and Civilisation”, 57-79) the most compelling section of the book. Aeschylus has made major changes to the myth of human history as found in Hesiod, changing the pessimistic decline from an original Golden Age into a progressive myth of human improvement and removing all traces of the trickster, Prometheus, as well as the figure of Pandora. In Prometheus “hope” ( elpis) has become the “impulse for change” and fire “a powerful metonymy for the idea of progress itself” (62). Behind the drama lies the influence of Xenophanes (on gods), contemporary medicine (“the language of medicine permeates Prometheus ”: 68), and especially Protagoras. Here Ruffell makes considerable use of Plato’s dialogue and its myth of human progress, in which humans may have developed the technical skills of life but lack social skills and political cohesion. These Zeus provides through Hermes. Ruffell wonders whether in Prometheus Unbound Zeus offered this missing skill in exchange for Prometheus’ secret, thereby creating an ordered human society ( dike) at the end; this would be very much in the manner of Eumenides. He calls attention also to the intellectual vocabulary in the play, especially the term sophistes, used not as “professional teacher”, but with the sarcastic sense of “smart guy” as in Old Comedy (Cratinus F 2; Clouds 331, 1111, 1309). Again one wonders if ca. 460 is too early for such references.

In the play that we have, Prometheus is presented as the sympathetic champion of humanity, while Zeus is the harsh tyrant, newly installed in his power, for which he has Prometheus to thank. Hephaistos maintains (35) that “anyone who has recently come to power is harsh” – but consider Euripides’ Suppliant Women, where much is made of the young Theseus as the ideal “new ruler” and the older Adrastos is the one who is found wanting. But what happened in the next play? Ruffell argues (46-9) that both Zeus and Prometheus will have moved from their entrenched positions in the extant play. Much is made of Prometheus’ stubbornness ( authadia), and Greek tragedy contains many characters whom audiences and readers find both admirable and confounding. Antigone, often linked today with Prometheus as a “martyr”, is a prime example. So too Oedipus, Ajax, or Philoktetes. What then of Zeus? Ruffell suggests that Zeus may have yielded to necessity (47), that Herakles’ act of kindness “may have facilitated that deal”, or that Zeus may have offered humanity its needed social cohesion (73). At lines 231-4 Zeus proposed to replace humanity with “a newer one”, and the chorus at 552 speaks of the plans of mortals as against “the harmony of Zeus”. Both White and Podlecki wonder if the Prometheus of the extant play has mistaken both the nature and the ultimate plan of Zeus.1 Aeschylus’ familiar theme of pathei mathos could have been worked out in the later play, especially if the chorus of now released Titans or Herakles or Gaia (if she appeared in the play) encouraged Prometheus also to yield to Necessity (see 515-20).

In the fourth chapter (“Making a Spectacle”: 80-104) Ruffell has some sensible things to say about the staging, although I would quarrel with his description of the play (80) as “perhaps the most visually arresting of Greek tragedies”. Eumenides or Euripides’ Suppliant Women might have more of a claim. Prometheus is more likely impaled against the skene -building, rather than the dramatically attractive centre of the orchestra. The chorus enters on foot, not in a wagon or by the mechane, and Ruffell makes a good case for Okeanos’ entry on the mechane. This raises the thorny issue of whether this device goes back as early as the 450s – its first generally agreed usage is in Medea (431). He is divided on whether Prometheus leaves the playing-area at the end by the ekkyklema or remains transfixed until the next play begins. Since the setting does not change, good dramatic sense might leave him in place, but it depends on how long the interval was. Ruffell makes a great deal out of the contrast between the static Prometheus and the other characters, whose mobility is stressed repeatedly in the drama (the entry of the chorus, the wanderings of Io). But is Ajax really “the closest analogy” (86)? I would suggest Oedipus at Kolonos, where the blind Oedipus remains fixed in the centre of the orchestra for over 1000 lines, before leaving under his own power to the fate awaiting him in the grove of the Eumenides. But Ruffell rightly stresses the intense visual aspect of this play, which boldly connects the physical suffering with the play’s larger and more cosmic themes.

In his final chapter Ruffell notes that Prometheus has, especially since the 18th century, found a special place in the “radical tradition”, the intellectual study of rationality, humanity’s place in the cosmos, the nature of creation etc. Here he identifies the main players as Milton ( Paradise Lost, which “raises questions about the motivations of Aeschylus’ protagonist”: 108), Shelley ( Prometheus Unbound, where “the solution comes from within [humanity]”: 118), and Mary Shelley ( Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus, which “asks questions about the nature and implications of humanism”: 122). In his discussion of modern dramatic stagings and adaptations, Ruffell mentions Prometheus and Antigone as the “the two rebels of Greek tragedy” (126) during the period of the colonels (1967-74). Here an interesting sequence can be detected: the ban on Sinodinou’s Prometheus in 1967 because it used the music of Theodorakis; the National Theater of Northern Greece’s production in July 1970 (Herodes Atticus), where Prometheus’ defiant scene with Hermes resulted in wild enthusiasm, fourteen curtain-calls (by my count), and severe embarrassment for the junta; and finally the National Theater’s production in 1974 (Epidauros), where Prometheus became the spokesman for the lead actor’s (Manos Katrakis) leftist views and evoked a wildly enthusiastic response from the audience. While Ruffell is careful to avoid seeing Prometheus as inspired by contemporary Athenian politics, both Ruffell and van Steen show how modern restagings can in fact become more political propaganda than artistic revivals.2

Finally, how many plays were there? Ruffell rightly argues (17) that there is too much back-story in Prometheus for it to be anything other than the first play. The title Prometheus Unbound is well documented in ancient tradition, but if Prometheus was released in that play, what is left for a third play? It is sometimes assumed that the third play had something to do with the installation of a Prometheus-cult in Athens or the establishment of dike through “Prometheus’ philanthropy and Zeus’ acquiescence” (49). Cratinus F 171 ( Wealth-Gods) has the freed Titans come to Athens “in search of our kinsman”. If Wealth-Gods parodies the Prometheus-plays and that kinsman is Prometheus, this may be evidence for an Athenian connection in a third play. Ruffell comments that there is “no evidence for a connected ‘dilogy’ elsewhere”, but suppose that Euphorion or Philokles found only two partly completed plays after Aeschylus’ death. Ruffell admits that “the identity of the third play may lie elsewhere”. IG ii 2 2319, col. ii seems to show that at the Lenaia of 418 only two tragedies were presented. Could the Prometheus-plays have been then a ‘dilogy’ performed at a Lenaia competition? Two other Prometheus titles are known: Fire-Lighter (the satyr-drama of 472) and a very shadowy Fire-Bearer. The most economical hypothesis is that Fire-Bearer is a mistake or alternative title for the satyric Fire-Lighter. Ruffell has provided a worthy contribution to this very useful series of companions to ancient tragedy. He covers all the bases with well-documented scholarship and eminent fairness to all sides of what has become in the last few decades a very perplexing and controversial drama. He may view the play through a highly politicised lens, but he argues his case well and does an admirable job of embedding the play within its political and intellectual context. Although he has kept his “options open”, one is increasingly nudged toward a date for Prometheus in the late 430s.


1. S. White, “Io’s world: intimations of theodicy in Prometheus Bound, Journal of Hellenic Studies 121 (2001) 107-40. A. J. Podlecki, Aeschylus: Prometheus Bound (Warminster: Aris and Phillips, 2005).

2. G. van Steen, “Playing by the Censor’s Rules? Classical Drama Revived under the Greek Junta (1967-1974)”, Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora 27.1-2 (2001) 133-94.