BMCR 2024.03.23

Aeschylus: Agamemnon

, Aeschylus: Agamemnon. Bloomsbury Greek texts. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2023. Pp. 408. ISBN 9781350154896.



Anyone working on a new commentary to Aeschylus’ Agamemnon is bound to encounter two major obstacles: on the one hand, the text is as dense, complex and sometimes mysterious as it is breathtakingly powerful; on the other hand, the precedent of Eduard Fraenkel’s edition and commentary would humble even the most learned scholar. [1] Leah R. Himmelhoch has risen splendidly to the challenge. Her book is a valuable tool for students of all levels, as well as for experienced classicists seeking to untangle the intricacies of Aeschylus’ masterpiece.

As the author explains in her introduction, this edition is aimed primarily at first-time readers of Agamemnon, particularly advanced students of Greek at the university level. Therefore, her translation is meant to accompany the study of the original text, while her commentary explains potentially tricky grammatical issues, highlights the main themes and imagery, connects the text to significant aspects of Greek society, and directs readers to the main grammatical aids as well as to relevant scholarship. The book’s structure facilitates consultation: a list of abbreviations is followed by an introduction, the Greek text, Himmelhoch’s translation, the commentary, a bibliography and an index.

In her introduction, Himmelhoch lists the principal commentaries she used, thus encouraging further reading. These include, among others, Raeburn and Thomas’s commentary for students[2], doubtless the one that comes closest to Himmelhoch’s own work. The list is limited to anglophone scholarship: commentaries such as Pierre Judet de La Combe’s[3] or Enrico Medda’s[4] could have been added.

The introduction offers a quick overview of Aeschylus’ life, the Oresteia’s performative, historical and literary contexts, Agamemnon’s plot and its place in the tetralogy, its important themes and imagery, its style, metre and reception. In just thirty pages, Himmelhoch provides students with all the necessary equipment. The clarity and concision of this section are remarkable. She rightly devotes special attention to an analysis of Iphigenia’s death in relation to traditional forms of sacrifice and wedding rituals: this constitutes the moral backbone of the play, and of the Oresteia as a whole.

When it comes to the features of Agamemnon’s original performance, many issues have been the object of endless dispute, and a book intended for student use must necessarily take sides without giving a full account of each vexata quaestio.[5] In the case of the ekkyklema (wheeled platform), though, the discussion on whether or not it was used to reveal the dead bodies of Agamemnon and Cassandra is open to this day[6]: Himmelhoch joins the (traditionally favoured) view that it was indeed used, but a mention of the ongoing debate could have been profitable to readers.

The Greek text follows Herbert Weir Smyth’s edition,[7] which has the advantage of being the one used by the Perseus Project. By referring students to the resources of the Perseus Project, Himmelhoch invites them to get acquainted with its helpful tools. Whenever the translation or commentary require an emendation of Smyth’s readings, Himmelhoch clearly states so, explaining the reasons if necessary.

Himmelhoch’s translation shows the depth and accuracy of her research on and around the text. It remains very close to the Greek without being pedantic. This is especially praiseworthy in the case of choral odes, whose dense, elevated and often intricate language has tormented many a skilled Hellenist.

The commentary is concise enough to be accessible to students, without ever losing grasp of the text’s subtleties. Reading her commentary to the first lines of the lyric section of the parodos (ll.104-107) can give a good example of Himmelhoch’s method. First, she briefly introduces the section as a whole, linking it to the preceding anapaests in terms of content (the lyric section explains the chorus’s sense of foreboding expressed immediately before) and reminding readers that this part of the parodos reveals Agamemnon’s guilt, which will determine his death later in the play. She includes a mention of Clytaemnestra’s likely entrance at the end of the song and refers to Oliver Taplin’s discussion of the issue.

The commentary goes on to analyse ll. 104-105 (κύριός εἰμι θροεῖν ὅδιον κράτος αἴσιον ἀνδρῶν / ἐκτελέων·). Himmelhoch repeats the translation of the lines: “I have authority to tell of the commanders meeting with auspicious omens on the road, (commanders) of men in their prime”, then explains the structure κύριός εἰμι + infinitive and discusses the origin of the chorus’s authority, with reference to Fraenkel’s commentary. She then clarifies the meanings of αἴσιον and ὅδιον, and reminds students that they are adjectives, before moving on to the noun κράτος, whose translation as “commanders” she connects to the fact that both Agamemnon and Menelaus are in charge; she then labels the syntagm ἀνδρῶν ἐκτελέων as objective genitive dependent on κράτος, a fact which could easily escape a student reader.

Proceeding to ll. 105-7 (ἔτι γὰρ θεόθεν καταπνεύει / Πειθὼ μολπᾶν / ἀλκὰν σύμφυτος αἰών·), Himmelhoch emends the lectio tradita καταπνεύει with καταπνείει, then focuses on σύμφυτος αἰών and the Greek belief that a man’s lifetime was born and aged with him, referring to Alan H. Sommerstein’s Loeb edition[8]. As for Πειθώ, she explains it is an accusative and the direct object of the verb. Finally, she illustrates the Doric endings of the feminine genitive plural μολπᾶν and of the feminine accusative singular ἀλκάν. The section ends with a translation of the three lines in toto: “for still, by the will of the gods, the life born with me inspires (in me) Persuasion, the vigour of song” and a brief explanation of the content, highlighting the vigour of the chorus members’ voice and reason in opposition to the weakness of their old bodies.

In less than one page, Himmelhoch manages to make the opening of one of Greek tragedy’s most famous – and most discussed – choral songs accessible to learners. The simplicity with which she deals with notoriously intricate issues comes not only from the author’s expertise as a scholar, but also from her long experience teaching Classics.

The constant concern with the students’ benefit is one of the main assets of this book. This, combined with the depth and quality of Himmelhoch’s scholarship, make her Agamemnon a precious addition to the library of anyone reading Greek at all levels, as well as a source of assistance to lecturers and professors.



[1] Fraenkel, E. (1950), Aeschylus: Agamemnon, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[2] Raeburn, D. and Thomas, O. (2011), The Agamemnon of Aeschylus: A Commentary for Students, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3] Mazon, P. and Judet de La Combe, P. (2015), Eschyle: Agamemnon, Paris: Les Belles Lettres.

[4] Medda, E. (2017), Eschilo: Agamennone, Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

[5] Himmelhoch directs readers to crucial works on Aeschylus’ performance, the most influential being Taplin, O. (1977), The Stagecraft of Aeschylus, Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[6] Taplin 1977 (325-327) thought the use of the ekkyklema less likely than the employment of mute attendants. More recent discussions of the different views include Medda 2017 I (142-145), and Belardinelli, A.M. (2023), Lo spettacolo teatrale dei Greci: Tecniche drammatiche e messa in scena, Milan: Le Monnier Università (217-218).

[7] Smyth, H.W. (1926), Aeschylus, vol. 2, Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

[8] Sommerstein, A.H. (2008), Aeschylus II: The Oresteia, Loeb Classical Library, Cambridge Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.