Tragedy and the Historian

Christopher B.R. Pelling (ed.), Greek Tragedy and the Historian.
Oxford:Oxford University Press, 1997.
ISBN 0-19-814987-5. Pp. xii + 268.

Reviewed by Antony G. Keen
Northwest Normal University
People's Republic of China
E-mail: agkeen@nenu.edu.cn

It is impossible to understand Athenian tragedy without having some grasp of Athenian history; similarly one cannot comprehend the Athenian polis without some knowledge of Attic drama. Yet the divide between 'literary' and 'historical' scholarship sometimes means that historians are unsure how to use tragic evidence. It is to bridge such a gap that this volume, deriving from an Oxford seminar series, exists. The preface (p. vi) professes that contributors were invited to dwell both on 'the value of historical approaches for illuminating the plays' and the methodological difficulties of using them as a historical source'. This reviewer, however, whilst often illuminated on the plays and their reception by the audience, found less than he expected to illuminate the wider context.

This may partly be because most of the contributors are people principally perceived as literary scholars rather than historians. This is probably a product of the seminar's objectives, which seem to have been to bring the knowledge of scholars or tragedy to ancient historians; but perhaps a more balanced picture might have been provided if a few more 'historians' had participated.

The volume begins with Pelling's own contribution, 'Aeschylus' Persae and history' (pp. 1-19). This is one of the most successful pieces in the volume. Pelling raises a number of points to lead one towards more caution than sometimes displaye d by those who would use this play as an eye-witness account of the battle of Salamis. He effectively demonstrates that many of the differences between the accounts of Aeschylus and Herodotus, where Aeschylus has been preferred as a man who was there at t he time, arise out of the different literary effects for which the authors were striving. This is quite a pessimistic outlook -- if one accepts Pelling's assertion that 'as soon as the strong possibility is raised that [the details given]might be elaborating falsifications' (p. 6: emphasis Pelling's) the historian is potentially left with very little, either from Aeschylus or Herodotus -- but it is a necessary counterbalance to overliteralism in the reading of the Persae.

P.E. Easterling, 'Constructing the heroic' (pp. 21-37), looks at the way tragedy interrelates the Attic world in which it was performed with the heroic world that formed its subject matter. She focuses particularly on the interesting concept of 'heroic vagueness', by which she means that the disjunction between the heroic and Attic worlds allows the tragedian to deal with ideas of contemporary relevance in ways that need not fix upon contemporary details, and indeed to allow plays to be given from the outset different readings by different sections of the audience. This article is extremely valuable for insights into how an audience would react to a tragedy and especially for emphasizing that right from the first performance there is no one 'correct way' to read a play.

Angus M. Bowie contributes 'Tragic filters for history: Euripides' Supplices and Sophocles' Philoctetes' (pp. 39-62). His approach, to find references to specific contemporary events, is, as he admits from the start, not altogether a fashionable one. However, it may be that the reaction against seeing direct contemporary references in tragedy has gone too far, just as the desire to see such references also went too far. The fashion is to look more for tragedy's relation to the broad character of the Athenian polis, but the tragedians did not live in a generalized Athens devoid of particular events, and specific allusions cannot be ruled out. What Bowie shows well, particularly through the example of Euripides' Suppliants and the Delium campaign, is that a play need not be a complete allegory to carry contemporary resonances, and that the differences between the action of the play and contemporary reality can be illuminating for Athenian public ideo logy.

Alan H. Sommerstein, 'Audience, Demos, and Aeschylus' Suppliants' (pp. 63-79) argues that the introduction of entrance fees for the Dionysia, which he places in the late 450s, whilst intended to regulate demand for seats, led to the au dience reflecting far more the wealthy sections of the Athenian population, which led in turn to playwrights playing up to a more oligarchically-minded audience. Sommerstein is right to highlight the danger of treating the theatre audience as being identi cal to the demos as found in the Assembly, though he seems to assume that the audience for comedy and tragedy would be the same, which is perhaps open to question. He ends the piece with a thought-provoking interpretation of Aeschylus'Supplia nts as an attack on Cimon's pro-Spartan policy of the late 460s.

Peter Wilson, 'Leading the tragic khoros: tragic prestige in the democratic city' (pp. 81-108) is also thought-provoking, emphasizing the role in the civic institution of the theatre played by rich individuals out for individual prestige. He also includes a discussion of the entrance-fee that makes a neat companion to Sommerstein's. Wilson's view is that the fee and theorikon were linked from the very start, and that financing Athenian citizens' attendance was a means of discouraging non-citizen attendance without actually barring them (but how many rich metics would be put off by a two obol charge?).

Pierre Vidal-Naquet's 'The place and status of foreigners in Athenian tragedy' (pp. 109-19) is probably the weakest piece in the volume. He argues that reflection on the foreigner and his relationship to the polis is central to Athenian tragedy, but one cannot help feeling that Vidal-Naquet's points have been made rather better elsewhere (by Vidal-Naquet, among others). I am also suspi cious about his statistical arguments, which take the extant corpus as their basis. It may well be that these works are representative of Attic tragedy as a whole, but when we have not much more than ten per cent of the work of the three 'Greats', never mind all the other poets, some qualification is needed.

Stephen Halliwell, 'Between public and private: tragedy and Athenian experience of rhetoric' (pp. 121-41), is an interesting treatment of the use of rhetoric in tragedy, and highly illuminating on the effects that rhetoric would have on an audience. What it is less successful in is drawing out of this illumination for the use of rhetoric in other parts of Athenian society, and it is left to Pelling in his conclusion to draw these points out more distinctly.

There then follows a pair of chapters on religion, Robert Parker's 'Gods cruel and kind: tragic and civic theology' (pp. 143-60), and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood's 'Tragedy and religion: constructs and readings' (pp. 161-86). (One of the strengths of this volume is that contributors have made a serious effort to relate their points to those raised by other contributions, and one must complement Pelling for his careful editing in this respect.) Parker's is one of the more successful papers in the volume. He brings together the optimistic view of the city's gods found in oratory and the less rosy picture in tragedy, and through comparing the two tells us something important about the general religious outlook of the Athenians.

Sourvinou-Inwood takes as her staring point the assertion of J.D. Mikalson (Honor Thy Gods: popular religion in Greek tragedy [Chapel Hill 1991])that a significant divorce existed in the Athenian mind between the gods depicted on the Attic stage and those worshipped in Athenian temples. She effectively demolishes this idea, and further shows that the apparent capriciousness of some deities (e.g. Aphrodite in Hippolytus) can be attributed to an unbalanced approach to religious observance on the part of the 'victim'. However, the piece is over-long, and also, like some other contributions, assumes a detailed familiarity with what is known of Athenian tragedy, which may be undesirable in a work intended to bridge the gap between historians and literary scholars.

The final contribution is Robin Osborne's 'The ecstasy and the tragedy: varieties of religious experience in art, drama, and society' (pp. 187-211), which does not have quite so broad a remit as its subtitle would suggest. In fact, it is an examination of the depiction of Bacchic rites on the stage and on pottery. Osborne makes some interesting observations about the relation of the depiction of such rites to reality, though his piece often seems to have little to do with tragedy -- but he does make the sensible point that Euripides' Bacchae has been overprivileged here,especially considering that Aeschylus produced a trilogy along similar lines.

The volume is rounded off by a 'Conclusion' by Pelling (pp. 213-35), in which he draws many of the themes of the collection together, adds some new points of his own, and is refreshingly critical of his contributors where he disagrees with them. My only complaint about this section is that I feel the average reader might benefit from its being at the beginning, rather than the end, of the volume.

I do not wish to be too negative about this collection. There is much to provoke thought, I took copious notes whilst reading it, and shall return to the volume frequently. However, I feel it falls short of its professed object of showing how tragic evidence may be used for the historian. Perhaps the problem is in the format, and to achieve such an objective, what is needed is not a collection of papers, where the contributors are free to follow their own inclinations, but a more tightly-organized textbook.

(Antony G. Keen is Foreign Expert in Western Classics at Northeast Normal University, the People's Republic of China.)

Reviewed by Antony G. Keen
Northwest Normal University
E-mail: agkeen@nenu.edu.cn