BMCR 2020.10.08

Ancient theatre and performance culture around the Black Sea

, , , Ancient theatre and performance culture around the Black Sea. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2019. xxx, 551 p. ISBN 9781107170599 $99.99.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

I should say at the start that, due to the widespread closure of libraries during the pandemic, I have been unable to check a number of details in this book or to pursue a number of references it gives. And my own library is currently in storage.

The volume is a welcome one. It aims to fill a serious gap in most western scholars’ knowledge due in part to ignorance of the languages of Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and indeed Russia, to the paucity of publications from those countries in western libraries, and then, it must be admitted, political considerations. And on the other side there are the manifold restrictions that their scholars have faced over many years, including regulatory.

The space allowed for this review means that I cannot cover the whole range of the contents adequately and I shall therefore limit my comments to some of the archaeological issues. Following an explanatory and typically enthusiastic Preface by Edith Hall, the book opens with an introductory chapter by David Braund providing a thoughtful survey of what he sees as important in the following chapters, going well beyond the typical précis style one finds in so many chapters of this kind in other books. It is an important contribution in itself, and it will help the more casual reader to find a way through what is not always the easiest of books.[1]

One may note that in these early pages there are several references to the fragments of the Attic red-figure vase in Kiev that depict the performance of a chorus almost photographically. Part is illustrated in colour on the dust-jacket, something removed before any book reaches the shelves of most libraries; it is otherwise only to be found in a small, murky, monochrome reproduction as a frontispiece. Although the fragments are now becoming reasonably well known (e.g. JHS 134, 2014, 1-11), readers should perhaps encourage their librarians to cut out the colour version and stick it inside the covers of the book.

Taplin’s chapter comes next and, though brief, it forms an excellent introduction. As always, he raises fundamental questions with clarity and good sense, and he is never afraid to encourage the reader to question his conclusions. His main thrust is to ask whether the plentiful and often glamorous material from South Italy and Sicily justifies the modern perception of its being the principal area outside Athens and Attica to enjoy theatre in the later fifth and the fourth centuries, at the expense of, say, the Black Sea. He makes a good case against being one-eyed, but it should be remembered that Greek colonies and Greekness had been well established in the West since as early as the mid-eighth century (all apart from Mycenaean activity) in a way it had not been in the northern Black Sea areas, and that we have strong evidence for theatre having a vital place in the mentality of western Greeks (and at least ‘upper-class’ regional natives). I would argue that the two areas, West and North, were on different planes and that we are in danger of comparing apples and oranges. For the volume as a whole he rightly points out that we should not over-emphasise the presence of stone theatres at the expense of wooden ones (such as we see regularly on so-called phlyax vases). On the other hand, he (and others in the volume) in my view place too much emphasis on the stated towns of origin of theatre figures, including playwrights. This is an old issue. A person from Bumpkinland takes on the style of his/her adopted city, in this case usually Athens, and produces work that sits within that city’s needs or manner. Compare the case of ethnically non-Athenian black- and red-figure vase-painters. Alexis, for example, was labelled as coming from Thourioi, but it is likely that his family came to Athens soon after or even before his birth and was well established there, and given his developing relationship with Menander, he was in effect thoroughly Athenian and we are yet to see demonstrated any of his work that is not. It is the centripetal force of Athens that we are talking about.

The following chapter, by West (“The Northward Advance of Greek Horizons”) is in some senses a counterpoint to Taplin’s, as well as being an important contribution. It offers an account of the physical difficulties of travel together with an at times sobering examination of Greek experience of and attitude to the peoples of the northern Black Sea down to the time of Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, with emphasis of course on Herodotos. One might add that the Athenian view must at least in part have been driven by these regions being a major source of slaves.

Rusten’s piece “The Phanagoria Chous” is a fine discussion of a vase that will be associated with his name from now onwards, as it is already. It has all the merits of his Birth of Comedy (2011; this vase at p. 430) and quietly demonstrates his command of the material. Why the vase made its way to Phanagoria one can only speculate, but small Attic choes of this general kind of the later fifth century were generally associated with Athenian practice, and I would regard it as likely that it was taken by an Athenian parent for (his) child. It is saddening that Rusten’s carefully chosen images are so small and so poorly reproduced.

Next is a substantial piece from Braund (“Theatre and Performance in the Bosporan Kingdom”) that provides good information on the geography and historical background together with evidence for religious beliefs as a setting for theatrical performance. Much of it is necessarily speculative.

My main concern from this point on and through the following four contributions from Saprykin, Bylkova, Dana and Minchev (on Tauric Chersoneus, Olbia, Istros and Tomis, and then a selection of Bulgarian sites) is on the material evidence presented. On p. 92 Braund mentions a ‘terracotta face’ from Nymphaeum (not illustrated) which he suggests is the ‘face of a satyr or possibly even Pan himself’. It is neither of these but in fact a mask and a remarkably good and lively mainstream version of a kolax of New Comedy. It implies strong familiarity with Athenian practice. On pp. 101-2 he illustrates and discusses a plaque from Kepoi, now in Moscow, ‘showing two actors in satyr masks carrying Dionysus’. They are not satyr-players but comic actors as their costume makes clear (notice the padding, the phallos and leggings), derived from Middle Comedy types, interestingly done in what must be a local style. In context this makes them the more important. In the meanwhile the plaque has been discussed by Csapo, who includes the same illustration reproduced in good and sharp colour.[2] He relates it convincingly to a periagermos, a practice of actors carrying a figure out of the orchestra on their shoulders at the end of a victorious performance.  Csapo also includes another, cruder plaque with the same motif that had been adduced already by Zhuravlev. Who the figure carried might be is unclear but one supposes either the writer/director, the choregos, or indeed Dionysos. The important point within the terms of this book is that it presents a direct echo of Athenian practice (and not simply imported art) and therefore suggests a similar style of festival. Given the possibility of provincial delay, dating the piece is not easy, but I would suspect not far from the middle of the fourth century BC.

In summary, far too many of the figurines are described as ‘satyrs’ when they are in fact actors from Comedy identifiable as known Athenian types depicting distinct characters from the Athenian stage. (Bylkova is a notable exception in this respect.) Some pieces had already been listed in Monuments Illustrating Old and Middle Comedy (1978) and many more could have been identified as being of types defined there. To have gone this step further would have added a major dimension to the presentation. From another perspective, this lack of knowledge of the Athenian side of things illustrates the gap the book was designed to fill, and one hopes that it will be a challenge to bring the two sides closer together.

One of my points is that there is much more interaction with Athenian drama for the period of Middle Comedy (roughly 390-325 BC) than for later periods, although New Comedy material persists in varying degrees in different localities. In fact the direct connection with Athenian theatre was dying down already from ca 350 or very soon after. One wonders if this had to do with the presence and activity level/style of prominent Athenian families — or had the Athenian settlers become locals and less connected with their homeland in a way that one could point to from more modern parallels? Certainly there is not the interest in masks typical of early New Comedy that one sees in the Greece and the West. On the other hand, for the first half of the fourth century the finds in this region matched the range and sophistication seen elsewhere in the Greek world.

It would also have been good to learn how many of these figurines were local copies rather than imports: while imports could merely imply casual souvenirs, bought on a holiday perhaps, copies indicate enough community interest to prompt local artisans to set about manufacture for sale, and thereby suggest a strong market based on familiarity with performed theatre. And then the figurine types provide information about the themes of comedies enjoyed, even if attempts to identify individual comedies are likely futile given the number produced and our limited information about them.[3] Auge plays are a case in point. The likelihood of comedies about foundlings and therefore recognition scenes so popular in Middle Comedy and then Menander is fascinating given that they developed around Athenian social systems. Comic figurines involving foundlings were not popular in South Italy and Sicily before Menander, by contrast with the areas discussed here – why? What does it tell us about fans of Comedy in these regions? These are the sorts of issues that can now begin to be explored.

There follows a substantial section with contributions from Bakola, Wyles, Hall (two) and Budelmann examining tragedies set in the Black Sea. They tell us something of the Athenian view of these lands, the use and function of such settings, familiarity versus distance, and so on. They also raise the question of whether performance there was envisaged.

The last section contains six chapters on various subjects that lie outside the strictly theatrical, and it is followed by an Epilogue including an important discussion of Pseudo-Scymnus from David Braund to whom this book (and a great deal that lies behind it) owes so much.

The Index is good and thorough.

In short, this is an important book. Perhaps inevitably it is uneven in quality, but it includes material that one will ignore at one’s peril. I hope too that it will mark a beginning.

Finally, I am surprised that scholars concerned with material evidence continue to entrust their work to C.U.P. when it persists in producing images of such poor quality.

Authors and Titles

David Braund – Introduction: Embarking on a Voyage around Black Sea Theatre, 3-13
Oliver Taplin – The Spread of Greek Theatre to the West – and to the North-East?, 14-25
Stephanie West – The Northward Advance of Greek Horizons, 26-41
Edith Hall – The Tragedians of Heraclea and Comedians of Sinope, 45-58
Jeffrey Rusten – The Phanagoria Chous: Comic Art in Miniature in a Luxury Tomb in the Cimmerian Bosporus, 59-81
David Braund – Theatre and Performance in the Bosporan Kingdom, 82-105
Sergey Saprykin – Ancient Theatre in the Tauric Chersonesus, 106-134
Valeriya Bylkova – Theatre at Olbia in the Black Sea, 135-160
Madalina Dana – Celebrating Dionysus in Istros and Tomis: Theatrical Manifestations and Artistic Life in Two Ionian Cities of the Black Sea, 161-176
Alexander Minchev – Ancient Theatres and Theatre Art of the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast and Thracian Hinterland, 177-221
Emmanuela Bakola – Space, Place and the Metallurgical Imagination of the Prometheus Trilogy, 225-251
Rosie Wyles – Fragmentary Greek Tragedies Set in the Black Sea, 252-266
Edith Hall – Black Sea Back Story: Euripides’ Medea, 267-288
Felix Budelmann – Dare to Believe: Wonder, Trust and the Limitations of Human Cognition in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris, 289-304
Edith Hall – Visualising Euripides’ Tauric Temple of the Maiden Goddess, 305-327
Marina Vakhtina – Music and Performance among Greeks and Scythians, 331-361
Vladimir Bochkovoy, David Braund, Roman Mimokhod and Nikolay Sudarev – A New Mask and Musical Instruments from the Eastern Bosporus, 362-372
Manana Odisheli – The Cult of Dionysus in Ancient Georgia, 373-399
Maya Muratov – Paratheatrical Performances in the Bosporan Kingdom: The Evidence of Terracotta Figurines, 400-432
David Braund – Historiography and Theatre: The Tragedy of Scythian King Skyles, 433-452
Froma Zeitlin – Life Trajectories: Iphigenia, Helen and Achilles on the Black Sea, 453-469
David Braund – Epilogue: Dancing around the Black Sea: Xenophon, Pseudo-Scymnus and Lucian’s Bacchants, 470-489
References 490-541
Index 542-551


[1] Page 5 has an unfortunate typo with reference to Magna Graecia: ‘Great Geece’.

[2] “Crowns, Garlands, and Ribbons for Tony Podlecki: Official and Unofficial Victory Rituals at the Athenian Dionysian Festivals”, Mouseion Series III, vol. 17 Suppl. I (2020, 151-174: esp. 168-170.

[3] Bear in mind that of all the 200 or so scenes on contemporary comic vases in the West, we can only link a couple to known plays, and only one of them has surviving text.