BMCR 2020.05.41

Aeschylus. Suppliants

, Aeschylus. Suppliants. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. 404 p.. ISBN9781107686717 $39.99 (pb).

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

In 1952, the publication of P. Oxy. 2256 changed our understanding of Suppliants’ place in Aeschylus’s oeuvre. Whereas the other five of the six surviving definitely Aeschylean plays had confirmed dates for their productions (Persians in 472, Seven in 467, and the Oresteia in 458), Suppliants had no secure date for its production, allowing speculation to hold sway. Imagined to be early, perhaps from the fifth century’s first Olympiad and certainly the playwright’s earliest surviving drama, scholars focused on its allegedly primitive features, among them the heavy dominance of lyrics, the small number of characters and likely use of only two actors, and the very limited amount (one example) of dialogue between two actors. P. Oxy. 2256 showed, however, that it was produced not in the early years of the fifth century but sometime between 470 and 459, with, for several reasons, 463 being more likely than any other date. Stylistic features also support this “later” date. (Not all scholars immediately accepted this change of date, leading Hugh Lloyd-Jones to remark wryly about the mean age of the prominent holdouts.) The new date allowed both for a new appreciation of the range and development of Aeschylus’s art and for a greater focus on the richness of this extraordinary play, which could be considered without the erroneous distractions of discussions of its alleged early features.

Aeschylean drama is characterized by its bold use of language—dense, novel, taut, charged, multivalent, ambiguous, and frequently echoing thematically throughout a play or entire trilogy (as we see in Oresteia). In the case of two plays, Libation Bearers and Suppliants, the challenge posed by these plays’ exuberant language is complicated by their textual transmission, as each relies on a single, tenth-century manuscript, Laurentianus 32.9, known for Aeschylus’s plays as M. There are innumerable places where the manuscript reading yields no plausible sense and many where the collective judgment of editors results in aporia. The problems are both small and large, and the editor of Suppliants faces an inordinate number of decisions about what Aeschylus actually wrote, which, of course, are driven by and drive matters of interpretation. In addition to the other areas about which an editor needs to be knowledgeable (literary and mythological traditions, contemporary culture, stagecraft, and the like), this play requires an editor with exceptionally deep knowledge of the Greek language, especially tragic language.

Alan Sommerstein is one of the foremost experts on ancient Greek drama, a prolific scholar for over four decades. He has produced text, translation, and commentary on all of Aristophanes for the Aris & Phillips series; issued a Loeb edition of Aeschylus, with the major fragments; published texts and commentaries of Aeschylus’s Eumenides and Menander’s Samia for the Cambridge “green and yellow” series; written a comprehensive monograph on Aeschylus; and has been the author and/or editor of numerous articles and collections. We are fortunate that he has applied his vast knowledge and skill to this difficult play.

The commentary’s introductory material is rich, providing both standard fare (Aeschylus’ life, mythological traditions, stage production, textual transmission) and also concise treatments of key thematic issues, such as marriage, supplication, and the presentation of democracy/tyranny. What is not in this full introduction is any overview of Aeschylean meter, neither of the iambic trimeters nor the lyrics. The latter receive proper attention ad loc. within the commentary, but a synthetic discussion of Aeschylean verse would be valuable, especially to students.

Receiving full treatment, however, is the issue of the order of plays within the tetralogy. P. Oxy. 2256 confirms Danaidsand Amymone as the final two plays, but neither it nor any other source provides information about the relative order of the other two plays, Suppliants and Egyptians. The strong consensus view is that Suppliants was the opening play but this view rests on inferences and a small sample size to determine the most salient characteristics of a connected tetralogy’s first play. Sommerstein clearly lays out the arguments on both sides of this debate and makes a strong case for second position for Suppliants. Although he draws no firm conclusion on the plays’ order, he clearly leans towards its appearing second, a view that he has accepted in earlier publications. And he may well be correct.

In the commentary proper, each major section is introduced with a thorough overview of its most salient issues, followed by lemmata for the items treated within that section. Throughout the commentary, Sommerstein provides careful guidance for interpreting the text. He is especially attuned to matters of diction and offers a wealth of observations about Aeschylean, tragic, poetic, lyric, and Homeric usage. When is a word or phrase unique or highly unusual in its morphology, semantics, or syntax—and when is it merely inauthentic, a casualty of the textual transmission? With Suppliants it is not always easy to determine. Overall as a textual critic, Sommerstein is neither too conservative nor reckless in printing emendations; and he does not quickly yield to the daggers of despair. Appropriately, as Sommerstein himself acknowledges (p. 309), he is most given to conjectures where the text is most corrupt, the scene starting with the arrival of the band of Egyptians (825ff.). Sommerstein is also eager to understand how textual corruption occurred, and often points to Greek pronunciation at the time of the manuscript’s production to illustrate how the mistake could likely have arisen. Repeatedly, he shows an openness to other ideas and possibilities, and even disagrees with his earlier self (his 2008 Loeb edition) in numerous places.

Sommerstein comments productively also on matters of rhetoric, verbal structures, echoes, and ring-composition. He provides a metrical scheme for each of the lyric sections and pays attention to the range of metrical issues in establishing the text and explaining his choices. Sommerstein is also attentive to the play’s staging (he assumes a trapezoidal orchestra and no skene for the production) and costumes, one of the ways by which the contrast between the foreign Danaids and Argives, a central element of the play, is created. The foreignness presented also extends to the play’s language, especially that of the band of Egyptians later in the play (see n. 825-910 and also n. 117-19 and n. 524-6). A commentator travels the roads the text presents, and so there are several exegeses on geography, mythology, religious rituals, political practice, marine vessels, and many other topics. Just as in matters of language, meter, and staging, Sommerstein is thorough, careful, and helpful on these matters, but I confess that some notes, chock-full of information, are perhaps longer than necessary for the immediate issue.

The play (and tetralogy, it seems) teems with a set of overlapping antitheses—Greek/barbarian, male/female, powerful (rulers)/powerless (suppliants)—and Sommerstein fleshes these out effectively, both in the introduction and in the commentary proper. But in a story driven by the (female) suppliants’ refusal to marry their (male) cousins, no antithesis is more pointed than that of male/female. As Sommerstein remarks, “a major theme (if not the major theme) of the trilogy, and indeed of the tetralogy [is] that while the union of the sexes is an essential part of the divinely mandated order of nature, its proper basis, also divinely mandated, is mutual desire” (20). In the course of the three tragedies, the suppliants are pursued, rescued, married off and then (with the sole exception of Hypermnestra) murder their husbands. We can only guess at possible details of the other plays, but fragment 44, containing Aphrodite’s moving words in Danaids on her universal power and the mutual sexual desire of sky and earth for each other, indicates that the goddess appeared (presumably near the end of this play) to resolve the impasse created by Danaids’ wholesale murder of their husbands and rejection of her realm.

Sommerstein repeatedly draws attention to irony in this play, in which the weak women who supplicate that they be spared show their mettle to all the men they deal with—Danaus, Pelasgus, the Egyptian herald, and bands of both Egyptians and Argives—and will eventually murder those who seek them out. Irony, a staple of drama, especially when based on traditional stories, abounds, but without knowing the treatment in the other plays or the plays’ order, we perhaps should be less confident in asserting it as often as Sommerstein does.

This edition is described as the “first since 1889 to offer an accessible English commentary based on the Greek text.” True, but the two Anglophone editions that have appeared since 1889 and before Sommerstein’s work demand at least brief comment. Friis Johansen and Whittle’s edition (1980) is massive (1,117 pages in three volumes), daunting to all but the diehard philologist, yet invaluable to all as a reference text on matters of Greek and tragic language and usage. A. J. Bowen’s edition in the Aris & Phillips series (2013) is based on the translation facing the Greek text, but it deals consistently and effectively with the Greek and textual issues. On philological matters, Bowen is, to be sure, less fulsome than Sommerstein, but his edition is a helpful and complementary guide to this demanding drama.

One cavil. Latin has not been the exclusive gateway to learning Greek for many decades, and so there is good reason not to use Latin in constructing an apparatus criticus intended for an Anglophone audience, and some editions in this series have opted for English. It is true, to be sure, that the abbreviated Latin used in this context is generally (but not always!) decipherable by the Latinless, but what is that person to make of the explanations in Latin at several places in the apparatus, following 979 in the text, or within the notes at, for example, 524-99?

The fundamental metric by which to judge a commentary is the extent to which it facilitates one’s understanding of the text and allows for exploration of its themes and ideas on a firmer foundation. By this standard, Sommerstein has succeeded admirably, as his meticulous, thorough, and stimulating edition will make Suppliants more accessible to grateful students and scholars alike. This volume is handsomely produced, and none of the very few typographical errors I noted will cause trouble.

Fifty years ago, the Cambridge University Press published the first volume (T. B. L. Webster’s edition of Sophocles’ Philoctetes) in what has come to be known as its “green and yellow” series. Many very valuable volumes have followed in the ensuing decades. The Press and the series’ several editors should be congratulated on this highly successful venture—with best wishes for continuing excellence over the next half century.

Table of Contents

1. Aeschylus
2. The Danaid Myth
3. The Danaid Tetralogy
4. Supplication
5. Marriage
6. Greek and Barbarian
7. King, People and Tyrant
8. Zeus and Io
9. Characters and Choruses
10. Performance
11. Place in Aeschylus’ Work
12. Transmission and TextSigla and Abbreviations
Suppliants (Greek text and apparatus)