BMCR 2016.08.30

Wisdom and Folly in Euripides. Trends in classics – supplementary volumes, 31

, , Wisdom and Folly in Euripides. Trends in classics – supplementary volumes, 31. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2016. x, 445. ISBN 9783110452259. $154.00.

Table of Contents

As Aristotle knew, human error ( hamartia, Poet. 1453a10) is a fundamental aspect of drama. A propensity for making errors in judgment makes mortals at least partly responsible for all the bad things that happen to them, and not just random victims of malevolent or inattentive divinities. So it is not remarkable that this collection of essays is devoted to wisdom and folly in Euripides, who offers such vivid descriptions of both qualities in his works. The collection is dedicated to the memory of Daniel Iakov, who was respected both for his scholarship and wise counsel; a list of his publications is included in the volume.

The essays are grouped under three headings: General, Individual Plays, and Reception; there is a useful subject index and an index locorum. But I wish that the editors had also provided an introduction (and/or conclusion) that sought to describe the central importance for drama of the subject of wisdom and folly. What might be meant by the terms wisdom or folly is never defined, though it may unreasonable to expect that it would be, given that the various authors are talking about dramas, not philosophical discourses. It would have helped if the editors had tried to explain how the various essays collected in the volume might be related to one another, and if the authors (wherever appropriate) had referred to each other’s works. In the following discussion of the contents of the volume, I have tried to suggest some of the ways in which such connections might be made.

General Essays. In “Euripides the Antiquarian,” Luigi Battezzato observes that since Euripides understood that his audience enjoyed learning about the origins of myths and rituals, he was not simply inventing learned aetiologies as a form of entertainment.1 In “Euripides: Poet of Irritations,” Martin Hose explains why Euripides deliberately makes his audience question the gods’ behavior, without necessarily supplying any answers; he is not so much attacking religious orthodoxy, as explaining why the problems created by it cannot be solved. Gregory Hutchinson (“Gods wise and foolish: Euripides and Greek literature from Homer to Plutarch”) shows how Euripides interrogates the gods’ wisdom in both general and particular ways; without the debates and questioning portrayed in his dramas, the second half of the fifth century would not have been of much interest to philosophers. In “’Rightly does Aphrodite’s Name begin with aphrosune‘: Gods and Men between Wisdom and Folly,” Maria Serena Mirto picks up where Hutchinson left off, showing how the questions raised in the dramas were taken up by philosophers. Tradition and innovation can even work together in ways that neither Socrates nor Plato would have objected to, as (for example) in Hecuba’s prayer to Zeus in Tro. 884–8. Unfortunately for mortals, however, the gods do not necessarily subscribe to mortal notions of wisdom and folly, and humans are left to make whatever sense they can of divine action. In “Wisdom from Slaves,” Ruth Scodel points out that wise advice about the limitations of human knowledge is often given by slaves and persons of inferior status, though the grandees to whom the underlings volunteer their counsel are usually too self-centered to hear it. But even if they had been willing to listen, the good advice, however well-intentioned, would probably not have helped them, since it comes from other humans, not from the gods.

Individual Plays. This section begins with Laura McClure’s “Hearth and Home in Euripides’ Alcestis,” a play that celebrates marriage and the silent role played by the goddess Hestia in protecting the home, depicting Alcestis’ return as a second marriage. The chapter, although informative and well-documented, does not attempt to address the central theme of the volume, though certainly wisdom can be found in piety and maintaining the stability of the home (see, e.g., the slave’s wise advice in Bacch. 1150-2). In “The Wisdom of Jason,” John Gibert considers the Medea, a drama in which the characters ignore Hestia and everything she stands for, offering a close analysis of Jason’s sophia, and his use of the language of cost and benefits. In “The Education of Hippolytus,” Justina Gregory explains why the education Hippolytus received from his “pure” grandfather Pittheus does not help him, because it did not encourage him to empathize with others; he only learns to do so after he experiences pain and suffering. That suffering becomes this legacy, through remembrance of his life in ritual. In “Wisdom, Nobility, and Families in Andromache,” Poulheria Kyriakou finds that every character, even Peleus, has moral flaws and only partial understanding. But in “Wisdom through Experience: Theseus and Adrastus in Euripides’ Suppliant Women,” Katerina Synodinou shows that Theseus is able to learn from his mother the value of compassion, even for when people have acted wrongly, displaying a humanity and empathy for the Argives’ suffering that contrasts starkly with the steely resolve and strict demands of the goddess Athena, who appears ex machina at the end of the play. Yet, as Andrea Rodighiero suggests in ‘Sail with your fortune’: Wisdom and Defeat in Euripides’ Trojan Women,” it is only through empathy that Troy’s suffering can be incorporated into the cultural memory of the Greeks. The drama reminds the Athenian audience that even though good fortune cannot last, life is better than death, and that although it cannot be completely understood, the existence of the gods cannot be denied. In “The Significance of Numbers in Trojan Women,” Matthew Wright argues that explicit counting calls attention to the terrible loss and suffering the drama portrays, and may also have helped to connect it to the other (now lost) dramas in the same trilogy. In “The Delphic School of Government: Apollonian Wisdom and Athenian Folly in Euripides’ Ion,” Andreas Markantonatos proposes that the Ion is directed at the Athenian audience: Ion prefers the pious life he leads in Delphi, and through Ion’s future kingship Athena promises a strong and morally principled leadership, now badly needed in the last phase of the Peloponnesian War. David Konstan’s “Did Orestes Have a Conscience? Another Look at Sunesis in Euripides’ Orestes,” also focuses on morality. Konstan argues (rightly) that in Or. 396 Orestes’ synesis should not be translated as “conscience,” since in the drama Orestes feels no remorse for having murdered his mother.2 But would it even have been appropriate or sensible for him to have been remorseful if he was following the orders of a god?

In “Madness Narrative in Euripides’ Bacchae,” Anna Lamari shows that in the Bacchae Euripides portrays delusion with psychological accuracy. In “The Language of Wisdom in Sophokles’ Philoktetes and Euripides’ Bacchae,” Seth Schein discusses how the Philoctetes, sophism is rejected in favor of what is morally right; in the Bacchae the gods’ wisdom triumphs, with all its complexity of meaning. In “The Figure of Teiresias in Euripides’ Bacchae,” Bernd Seidensticker demonstrates that Tiresias is not a comic figure, as some scholars have suggested. The scene in which he and Cadmus appear heightens the tension, allowing the audience to begin appreciate the dark and destructive powers of the god: if the two old men are made to look foolish and uncomfortable by the demands of Dionysiac ritual, what then will the god do to Pentheus? In “ Bacchae : Manipulation and Destruction,” Davide Susanetti discerns in that drama a warning to Athens. The Athenians’ lust for Sicily is like Pentheus’ deranged desire to spy on the maenads. The play “captures the decline of an era,” as seen by Euripides “from his exile in Macedonia.” But can we determine exactly what was in the poet’s mind, especially the idea that he was in exile is almost certainly a fiction based on comedy? For all we know, he may have been in Athens when he wrote the Bacchae. 3 So far as we can tell from surviving texts, Athenian dramas did not comment directly on current events, but dealt with timeless problems, such as the human inability to understand and come to terms with the reality of a world controlled by gods for their own benefit. The lost drama discussed by Patrick Finglass in “Mistaken Identity in Euripides’ Ino,” presented a particularly vivid portrayal of the most terrifying results of human misunderstanding and derangement, cases in which parents unwittingly murder their own children (as, e.g., in the Heracles and Bacchae). In a recently discovered fragment ( POxy 5131) Ino recovers from her madness only to discover that she has killed her own child, and not (as she had intended) the son of her rival Themisto, Athamas’ second wife. Despite its grim subject matter (all four of Athamas’ sons are killed), Ino appears to have been a popular play, often quoted by later writers; annotations on the papyrus suggest that it may have been performed in Oxyrhynchus in the early third century A.D.4

Reception. In “Whatever Happened to Euripides’ Lekythion ([Frogs/i] 1198–1247)?” David Sansone discusses the meaning of ληκύθιον ἀπώλεσεν, a phrase that has an important bearing on our understanding of Aristophanes’ caricature of Euripides. Although in recent times some scholars have suggested that ληκύθιον is a metaphor for male genitalia,5 Sansone shows persuasively that the phrase in fact must mean “had one’s oil flask stolen,” for example, at the bath or gymnasium, a type of theft that was categorized as hierosylia, a crime of some consequence. Since Aristophanes identifies the poets with the characters in their dramas, his Euripides is by association not the canny street-smart character he represents himself as being, expert in domestic matters ( oikeia pragmata). Thalia Papadopoulou returns to the theme of insanity in “Euripidean Frenzy goes to Rome: The Case of Roman Comedy and Novel,” arguing that Euripidean madness scenes had a continuing influence on Latin authors; sub-textual Bacchic associations are particularly prevalent, with echoes even in Livy’s account of the episodes that led to the Senatus consultum de Bacchanalibus. In “The Leopard-skin of Heracles: traditional wisdom and untraditional madness in a Ghanaian Alcestis,” Barbara Goff describes how tragic madness triumphs in the 1962 drama Edufa, by the Ghanaian suffragette and playwright Efua Sutherland, who based her plot based on Euripides’ Alcestis, but with an unhappy ending, reflecting the politics of that time.

The last chapter of the volume, Michaelis Tiverios’ “New Evidence for Euripides’ (?) Alkmene : Another Look at a South Italian Vase-Painting,” discusses a scene on a fourth-century Sicilian calyx crater by the Darius painter (Boston 1989.100), depicting Amphitryon preparing to burn Alcmene alive, because he supposes that she was unfaithful. The vase also shows that Alcmene is about to be rescued. A rainbow appears over the pyre while a large eagle flies by. Opposite Amphitryon, on the other side of the pyre, stands a boy and behind him a man labelled ΧΡΗΩΝ. Most scholars believe that the boy is carrying wood, and that the man standing behind him must be Creon (the king of Thebes).6 Tiverios suggests instead that the boy is a χρησμόλογος reading an oracle from a book roll, and the man behind him (who resembles Amphitryon) is the person who delivered the oracle (χρήων), perhaps Zeus himself as he appeared to Alcmene.7 Creon seems to me to be the more likely candidate, but in either case the timely oracle will keep Amphitryon from killing Alcmene and making a terrible error in judgment. Thus the chapter offers a fitting conclusion to a book about wisdom and folly.


1. Cf. S. Scullion, “Tradition and Invention in Euripidean Aitiology” ICS 24–25 (1900–2000) 217–33; further discussion and bibliography in M. Lefkowitz, Euripides and the Gods (New York 2016) 136–7.

2. See esp. V. di Benedetto, Euripidis Orestes (Florence 1965) 85–6; C. W. Willink, Euripides: Orestes (Oxford 1986) 151 suggests “Awareness.”

3. On the historical unreliability of such information as we have about Euripides’ life, see M. Lefkowitz, The Lives of the Greek Poets, ed. 2 (Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 2012), 87–103.

4. P. J. Finglass, “A New Fragment of Euripides’ Ino,” ZPE 189 (2014) 78–9.

5. E.g., C. H. Whitman, “ληκύθιον ἀπώλεσεν,” HSCP 73 (1969) 109–12.

6. E.g, O. Taplin, Pots and Plays (Los Angeles 2007) 172–4, who observes that Χρήων is not a “philologically possible form” of Κρέων.

7. Even though Zeus never appears ex machina in known dramas, the term χρήω is used on a tablet from the oracle of Zeus at Dodona. Tiverios observes that the phrase λιγὺς ὁ χρησ[μός] occurs on a papyrus fragment of the beginning of Euripides’ Alcmene ( TrGF 5.1, F 87b.13), but that cannot be this oracle; see M. Cropp and G. Fick, Resolutions and Chronology in Euripides: The Fragmentary Tragedies, BICS Suppl. 43 (London 1985) 73.