BMCR 2022.03.44

Euripides. Ion

, Euripides. Ion. Cambridge Greek and Latin classics. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020. Pp. xiv, 383. ISBN 9780521593618 $39.99.

The Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series “provides texts and commentaries on works of Greek and Latin literature aimed primarily at undergraduate and graduate students of either language.”[1] More than half a century has passed since T. B. L. Webster published his commentary on the Philoctetes in this series, which has now published over fifty volumes.[2] While the individual editions are limited in scope—a play of Sophocles, a book or two or three of Homer, selections from larger works or genres—they cover far more Greek and Latin than virtually any current undergraduates, and very few graduate students, could read. There are at least two principles by which to select new editions: completing coverage of the widely read works (such as the Homeric Epics), revising earlier commentaries of widely read works or selecting works that have received far less attention than they deserve and using a commentary to stimulate interest. John Gibert’s masterful commentary on Euripides’ Ion has a chance to achieve this last goal.

The Ion may well be (at least among those who read Euripides in Greek) the most underappreciated play by Euripides. In gauging the relative popularity of Euripides’ plays, I began with simple Google Searches for phrases such as “Euripides Medea”, “Euripides Bacchae”/“Euripides Bacchant Women,” etc. I found by this rough metric that the Ion ranked 9th out of 18, between the Helen and Electra (Medea was by the far the most popular, followed by the Bacchae, HecubaPhoenissae, Orestes, Hippolytus, Alcestis and then the Helen and Ion.[3] When, however, I used Google Analytics to see how often users read the Greek texts of Euripides in the Perseus Digital Library in the last 90 days of 2021, I was shocked to find that the Ion ranked at the bottom. The Rhesus, which few consider to be by Euripides, stood at the bottom, having been consulted just 710 times. The Greek text of the Medea, consulted 82,979, was more than 100 times as frequently used.  Among Euripides’ plays only the Suppliant Women was less frequently consulted (1,114) with the Greek text of the Ion being consulted just 1,772 times—more than 40 times less than the Greek text of the Medea.

The Ion deserves a far more prominent role, and its starting premise picks up upon an electrifying theme that has itself grown more prominent: the life-changing, life-long traumatic pain that sexual abuse by a more powerful and, indeed, unaccountable figure can exert. In Odyssey 11, for example, when the famous women of the past present themselves to Odysseus, we gain a very different impression. Tyro (Od. 11.236-252) developed a passion for the river Enipeus. Poseidon deceived her by assuming the appearance of Enipeus to have sex with her but we do not hear of Tyro’s reaction and the resulting children, Pelias and Neleus, survive and flourish. Antiope reports without comment (in our text) that she slept with Zeus and bore Amphion and Zethus, who founded Thebes (Od. 11.260-265). We simply hear that Alcmene bore Heracles to Zeus (Od. 11.266-270).

Euripides fashions a Creusa who dramatizes for the audience the violence and brutality of her encounter—no distancing or focus upon the longer-term success of Ion. The emotional scarring of the rape has not lessened and, for more than fifteen years (depending on Ion’s supposed age), she has believed that she had abandoned her child to die, abandoned by its brutal and unjustly revered father. The challenge of the Ion is not that it is remote but that it can be all too personal. Here a commentary cannot play the role that professors must navigate if they choose to teach this in advanced Greek.

Still, the question remains: despite the power of this play, how do we justify going through the Ion when few students will make it through the most widely read plays (Medea, Bacchae, Alcestis, and Hippolytus)? Those of us who have the privilege of teaching advanced courses in ancient Greek also appreciate that our students can only read relatively small subsets of Greek.  Many of us will end up focusing on one or two plays. We need to be able to use them as entry points to discuss Euripides as a whole (at the least) and Greek drama as a whole.

While lists of similar passages are traditional components of any commentary, a substantial number of Gibert’s comparanda describe tendences that characterize either Euripides in particular or Greek tragedy in general. Many citations focus upon idioms and stylistic points of usage that only readers of the Greek will be able to appreciate. A careful reader of Gibert’s commentary would, within a few dozen lines, have enough material to start developing a feel for Euripides’ use of Greek. Instructors will, no doubt, have to choose to emphasize these points and prod their students to reflect upon them (and not just come up with plausible analyses of each word in their assigned readings). Doing so can transform reading the text from the solution of linguistic linear equations and make expressions pop for the students.

One particular strength of Gibert’s commentary is that many of his citations to other passages can be consulted and read in English translation and are particularly helpful for undergraduates who are reading Euripides early in their career when they are not able to work through many parallel passages in Greek. Thus, on 67, “a childless couple’s desire for children motivates oracular consultations at Med. 667–9 (cf. 714–15), Ph. 13–16, fr. 228a.19– 21, Paus. 9.37.4, and in a fourth-century inscription from Delphi (Parke and Wormell 1956: ii.135–6, no. 334; likewise at Dodona, Eidinow 2007:  87–93).”

At 517-518, Xuthus’ explanation of his greetings is described as “(a Euripidean mannerism: Med. 465–6, An. 56–9, Hel. 1193; parodied at Ar. Wasps 1297–8, Thesmo. 582-583” On 808, the Old Man and Creusa both take “for granted the duty of a slave to share his master’s misfortune (for which cf. 725–1047, 850–3, 854–6, 935nn., Med. 54–5, An. 56–9, etc.).”

On 735-737, “old family slaves address women of the household thus at El. 493, 563, Hel. 711 (a usage not found in A. or S.); cf. τέκνον at 765, Ph. 193; παῖ at 1018, Ph. 154.”

On 859, “σιγάσω; impassioned address of one’s own heart or soul is familiar from Homer on (Od. 20.18 τέτλαθι δὴ κραδίη) and common in E. (e.g. Alc. 837, Med. 1056, 1242, Or. 466).”

947-949, the “internal stage direction” is illustrated with “A. Ch. 233, Su. 729, E. Alc. 703, Med. 550, Hcld. 223–5, Her.  624–7.”

On 970-1047, “back-and-forth. Similar plotting scenes occur in El., Hel., IT, and Or. Initial proposals are rejected by one of the plotters at Hel. 803–13, 1035–46, IT 1020–8 (cf. Med. 376–85, Ph. 724–34). A female character takes over and makes decisive contributions at El. 647–98, Hel. 820–31, 1049–1106, IT 1029–88, Or. 1181–1245; and the wiliness of women is remarked upon at Hel. 1049, IT 1032, Or. 1204.”

For those of us, however, who are interested in the Greek, the commentary offers a wealth of observations and parallels that repay attention. I particularly like the frequency with which Gibert specifically cites passages in LSJ—88 times, according to my Kindle reader. Those reading the Ion in a class could well assign these specifically to students. LSJ is freely available online at various locations and students, in my experience, usually use this resource to ferret out the best definition for a passage as quickly as possible. Slowing students down and helping them focus upon some of the very precise nuances that can be found in LSJ. Such attention may be increasingly useful if students shift to the wonderful new Cambridge Greek Lexicon, upon which Euripidean scholar James Diggle (among others) lavished years of his life.

Gibert does a particularly good job not only explaining the complex meter of the choral sections but also suggesting that understanding the complex Greek metrical terms can provide some insight into the conventions and inherent meaning of the content; e.g., in the introduction (p. 24) “ it can be helpful to think of the varieties  of vocal delivery as rungs on a ladder, with chanted and then sung anapaests ascending towards full lyricism (typically correlated with emotionality), as in dochmiacs (virtually confined to tragedy and always associated  with strong emotion) and other categories of rhythm that are invariably  sung (aeolic, dactylo-epitrite, etc.)”; in the discussion of 763-799 (p. 242): “The high incidence of resolution underscores Creusa’s emotion.”

The Ion commentary fits, of course, into the traditional and venerable format that the Cambridge series has adopted, but it can be quietly modern in a refreshing way. There are, it is true, moments when Gibert lapses into traditionally authoritative language. In discussing the meter of 676-724, Gibert comments “Willink (ap. Kovacs) assumes corruption … but his supplements do not convince.” I would prefer less universalizing statements and instead “his supplements have not won acceptance among other scholars who have published on this” or, simply, “have not convinced me.”

For the most part, however, Gibert does avoid, without fanfare, the assumed dogmatism where commentators assume a single, exclusive way of viewing the subject.  In the introduction, for example, Gibert talks about the various social roles that Ion imagines he could occupy when he moves to Athens. Gibert talks about the role of “heroic vagueness,” which actively enables different viewers to identify with actions in the play in their own way. “Heroic vagueness is not just vagueness; rather, Greek poetry had always encouraged audiences to appropriate and identify with mythical heroes and heroines in particular. Tragedy continues the practice in such a way that its principal characters can provide something for everybody and avoid dividing spectators along class lines. Ion arguably goes further, encouraging spectators to identify with its hero whether they are citizens, metics, or allies, legitimate or illegitimate, even free or slave.” (p. 36) “Ion tries on an unusual range of identities conceived in both heroic and contemporary terms and in some cases never entirely discards them. The result is probably that spectators can identify with him in any way that suits their own situations and inclinations. Even at the end, there is the paradox of his separate public and private identities, as a result of which it might almost appear that anybody can be anything.” (p. 40).

The Cambridge commentaries are increasingly available as e-books and I certainly find the ability to search the commentary immensely useful, but the digital form is really an after-thought, and the commentaries are designed for print. As CUP emphasizes its digital publication infrastructure and includes more materials in its Cambridge Core, it is time to think about initial steps to exploit methodology. I do wish that citations to primary sources and to reference works (such as LSJ) were marked up in the text so that citations could become clickable links where the materials are available online. I am not sure how many student readers of this commentary have ready access to the primary sources and reference works cited, but virtually every student reader can check references that are available online. This would not require any changes to the expository text. A supplementary website, whether supported by CUP, Gibert, or someone else, could greatly augment the experience of the reader by offering images and plans of Delphi, recordings of readings for at least some of the spoken sung portions of the play.

To sum up, Gibert’s commentary is tactful, packed with insights and ideas that will generate insight and ideas in any careful reader. This commentary provides instructors and independent readers of the Greek with an infrastructure by which reading one play becomes a lesson in the tragic composition of Euripides, of Greek drama and of fifth-century Greek (or, at least, Athenian) culture.


[1] Cambridge Core., Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics.

[2] On the Cambridge University Press website I found only 47 in print or electronic form, with none listed before 1980.

[3] The dominance of the Medea shows up also in the (loosely defined) Amazon “Best Sellers in Ancient & Classical Literary Criticism”, where the Norton edition of the Medea appears as #10 overall, with the Maxnotes edition of the Medea and the Electraappearing as #28.