BMCR 2021.03.03

Euripides: Cyclops

, , Euripides: Cyclops. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. 278. ISBN 9781108399999 $29.99 (pb).

Once dismissed as the uninspired product of an ‘overworked  playwright’,[1] or paid scant regard in numerous studies of Greek theatre for much of the last century, Euripides’ Cyclops—our only complete satyr play—has been the focus of renewed and extensive scholarly interest, especially within the last twenty-five years. Indeed, this is true of Greek satyric drama generally. This is not to deny the importance of earlier work on satyric drama;[2] but the late 1990s onward has witnessed a plethora of substantial monographs, collections of essays, and commentaries (as well as conferences and colloquia) devoted to Cyclops and/or the major fragments of the genre from the Classical period to the Roman era.[3] The promotional description on the back cover of this Cambridge ‘green and yellow’ edition asserts that Euripides’ satyr play is a ‘brilliant dramatisation’ of Homer’s account of the blinding of the one-eyed monster Polyphemos by Odysseus on the hero’s return from Troy. This fine edition by Richard Hunter and Rebecca Laemmle, with its consistently valuable insights and richly-informed commentary, demonstrates this claim admirably.

The wide-ranging and learned introduction prepares the reader well for the commentary to follow. After briefly discussing ancient biographical information about Euripides, the introduction focuses on his role as dramatist of satyr plays, and also takes a perforce speculative look at other (now fragmentary) stage depictions of the Odysseus-Polyphemos encounter, such as Aristias’ satyric version and the comedies of Epicharmus, Cratinus and Callias, among others (pp. 4-9). One theme to emerge from these earlier stage versions of the story that appears to have influenced Euripides is the importance of drinking and dining within the narrative: Polyphemos appears as a ‘foodie’ of sorts with ‘mod cons’ who delights in cooking his victims—unlike his Homeric counterpart who eats them raw—and seems to have become a transgressive symposiast prior to his blinding, just as he does in Euripides’ account. Hunter and Laemmle also usefully discuss other post-Homeric influences on Euripides’ work. These include developments in cultural attitudes in the wake of the Persian Wars, concerns with tyranny, and fifth-century intellectual trends such as the thought of figures like the Platonic Callicles in the Gorgias, which parallels much in Polyphemos’ speech to Odysseus (Cyc. 316-46) before he drives the Greeks into his cave to eat them. While other commentators have identified these issues before, Hunter and Laemmle frequently go further in seeing them at play elsewhere in the drama; e.g. they suggest (ad 290-1) that Odysseus’ speech justifying the Trojan War  (esp. Cyc. 291-6) owes something to the rhetoric of the Athenians’ claim to have saved all of Greece at Marathon (Thuc. 6.83, Lys. 2.20-6).

As to be expected, there is detailed discussion of how Euripides engages with Homeric epic, especially Odyssey 9, the most important literary ancestor to his Cyclops (pp. 9-21). Much of the analysis here sees Euripides’ drama as a critical reading of the epic hero’s account of his adventures—his apologoi—and suggests that differences in the satyr play indicate that the Homeric Odysseus is at least ‘cavalier with the truth’ (p. 15, etc.) if not blatantly lying when speaking to the Phaeacians in Odyssey 9-12. Hunter and Laemmle see the Phaeacian king Alcinous’ famously-stated trust in the veracity of Odysseus’ tale (Od. 11.367-8) as reflecting Homer’s anticipation of a negative reception of the apologoi. This, they suggest, draws attention to the implausibility of the hero’s narrative (the poet doth protest too much). Such a reading will appeal to a sceptical age like our own, and Odysseus, of course, is a notorious liar elsewhere in the Odyssey. But differences between Homer’s and Euripides’ versions of the Odysseus-Polyphemos episode can also be explained by differences in the scope and nature of satyr play as opposed to epic and by Euripides’ desire to ‘update’ Homer on various levels for a fifth-century audience, and perhaps economise on the costs of production. As Hunter and Laemmle rightly point out, doubts about the veracity of Odysseus’ apologoi tend to come from much later in antiquity, in scholia, and in the Byzantine period—notwithstanding Longinus (Subl. 9.13). In fact, at certain points in the commentary Hunter and Laemmle see that the version of events in Cyclops aligns closely with Odysseus’ account in the Odyssey (ad 254-60; p. 179, etc.).

Further points of interest emerge in the introduction. In addition to discussing the origins of satyr drama, there is also a nuanced analysis of its functions, which emphasises the predictable nature of satyr drama, with its recognisable tropes, as a self-conscious ‘show for Dionysus’ (p. 33) in the words of Pat Easterling (the edition’s dedicatee). Hunter and Laemmle argue, then, that the ‘repetitiveness and familiarity’ of satyr drama are a major source of its power, rather than its ability to encourage a sense of positive or negative identification between its audience and the satyr chorus, as some have argued. Certainly, Hunter and Laemmle are right to criticise some of the more reductive theories that, for instance, argue for a sexually-aggressive, hyper-masculine identification between the (all-male?) audience and satyr chorus. Rather, Hunter and Laemmle speak of a ‘bonded communality’ within the audience encouraged by the familiarity of the story of Cyclopswhich they view as self-conscious spectators. But this insight, plausible as it is, need not preclude occasional sympathy or identification between the chorus and some within the audience, even if the collective character and behaviour of the chorus could vary from one play to the next or within the same play. In Cyclops alone, the chorus, for all their buffoonery and eventual cowardice, side with Odysseus as their friend (Cyc. 176, etc.), and stand up to Polyphemos in telling him not to harm Odysseus and his men (270-2)—pace Hunter and Laemmle (ad 272) I don’t see this as ‘comically absurd’; the chorus also express their genuine horror at the monster’s cannibalism (356-74), and are depicted as the friends of Dionysos (81, 434-6, etc.), god of the festival of the play’s first performance. On these levels at least, the chorus are likely to be viewed as sympathetic by the audience to some extent.

The date of the play also receives detailed, judicious treatment (pp. 38-47). A communis opinio of c. 408 BC, seems to be emerging in the wake of Seaford’s influential arguments based on metrical features (e.g., increased incidence of resolution in the iambic trimeters of Euripides’ later dramas) and apparent echoes in the Cyclops of datable plays such as Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazousai of 411 BC and Sophocles’ Philoctetes of 409 BC. Hunter and Laemmle add to these considerations with useful thematic, verbal and narrative parallels from plays late in Euripides’ career such as Ion (c. 415-13), Hypsipyle (c. 411-08) and Bacchae (c. 405), while also acknowledging that Cyclops has been linked to his Hecuba (c. 424) on the same basis. Also discussed is the well-known Lucanian krater of the late fifth century depicting the blinding of Polyphemos with satyrs looking on from the side, which, even if it is inspired by a satyr play, may refer to Aristias’ rather than Euripides’ version, as they note. Ultimately, however, Hunter and Laemmle favour a date of 408, which emerges more plausibly in the wake of the cumulative force of their arguments.

The commentary itself is marked throughout by an erudition and clarity, addressing the points broached in the introduction—and going well beyond—to elucidate the text in detail. Aspects of language and grammar, mythological references and allusions, textual issues, extensive metrical analyses, and elements of performance (where these can be plausibly speculated on) receive sound and thorough analysis. On certain specific points there will be scope for dissent or raising questions, as one would expect of a text like Cyclops as the sole ‘intact’ surviving example of satyric drama, which arguably calls for more speculation on the part of its researchers than do the better attested genres of tragedy and comedy (notwithstanding all that’s been lost from these genres as well). But any points of disagreement in no way diminish the value of this edition of Cyclops, which is consistently informed by breadth and depth of learning and is engagingly written. It continually unearths further riches which the play has to offer, and enhances the reader’s understanding of this truly intriguing drama on a number of levels. Students and scholars, then, will welcome this excellent contribution to the ongoing groundswell of interest in satyric drama.[4]


[1] P. Arnott (1961) G&R 8: 164-9.

[2] E.g., R. Ussher’s commentary on Cyclops (1978), D. Sutton’s The Greek Satyr Play (1980) and especially R. Seaford’s commentary Euripides. Cyclops (1984).

[3] A few examples: G. Conrad, Der Silen (1997); N. Pechstein, Euripides Satyrographos (1998); R. Krumeich, N. Pechstein and B. Seidensticker, Das griechische Satyrspiel (1999); P. Voelke, Un Théâtre de la Marge: Aspects figuratifs et configurationnels du drame satyrique dans l’Athènes Classique (2001); P. Cipolla Poeti minori del dramma satiresco(2003); M. Napolitano Euripide. Il Ciclope (2003); G.W.M. Harrison (ed.), Satyr Drama. Tragedy at Play (2005); P. O’Sullivan & C. Collard, Euripides: Cyclops and Major Fragments of Greek Satyric Drama (2013); R. Laemmle, Poetik des Satyrspiels (2013); M. Griffith, Greek Satyr Play: Five Studies (2015); C. Shaw Euripides: Cyclops. A Satyr Play (2018); A. Uhlig and L. Coo (edd.), Aeschylus at Play (2019). B. Seidensticker’s new edition, Euripides Kyklops (2020), noted by Hunter and Laemmle (ix), appeared too late for them to take account of it.

[4] Due to appear in 2021 is a substantial collection of essays edited by A. Antonopoulos, G.W.M. Harrison and M. Christopoulos, Reconstructing a Genre from its Remnants: Studies in Satyr Drama (Berlin: De Gruyter).