AESCHYLUS: LIBATION BEARERS: Edited with Introduction, Translation & Commentary


Andrew Brown

Liverpool (2018) p/b 486pp £24.95 (ISBN 9781786940995)

This Aris and Phillips commentary is well designed to ‘make the play accessible to a much wider range of readers’ (sc. than A.F. Garvie’s major edition of 1986, to which B. makes generous allusion): at the same time the many points of difficulty are thoroughly examined. The Introduction (which rather surprisingly refers readers to Sommerstein’s Aeschylean Tragedy [2010] for a summary of the plot) opens with a section on the Myth, which concentrates on the Oresteia of Stesichorus, a most important source. B. makes the interesting point that Stesichorus opens with an ornate invocation of the Muse, ‘promising a cheerful and celebratory subject’: not an obvious description of the Oresteia (with its five murders) and B. offers, rather hopefully, ‘All’s well that ends well?’ A section on the Visual Arts demonstrates that scenes from our trilogy were frequent subjects, and perhaps (suggests B.) the Oresteia krater of the Dokimasia Painter inspired Aeschylus to put Agamemnon in a robe: but other playwrights besides Aeschylus will also have written plays about this most famous myth. The section on the Performance considers, in valuable detail, how the stage may have been set up: there are real practical problems, and B. differs here from Garvie’s approach. Further questions arise about the number of performers—see, especially, pp. 21-3—where the desirability of having three (or even four: so Taplin) actors is considered, though a cast of two is not inconceivable. 

The long section on Trilogy and Tragedy opens with the question whether Libation Bearers is a tragedy in its own right or an act in in a three-act drama, located as it is between Agamemnon and Eumenides, in our only surviving trilogy: of course, it is both, and B. concludes that it is both a ‘true tragedy in any sense of that term’, and part of the (entire) experience for the audience of the Oresteia. A section on Imagery (snakes to the fore) serves to show how popular the topic is with scholars (ten or more are listed), though since Martin West regarded the topic of image patterns as a ‘monstrous misconception … a monstrous anachronism’ (because ‘Aeschylus had favourite images to which he had recourse time and again’), a degree of caution is called for. On the play’s Influence in Antiquity, B. argues that Libation Bearers was a ‘uniquely influential play’ in its own century: besides Aristophanes in Frogs (especially), we have, of course, the Electra of both Sophocles and Euripides (to the latter of which we shall return), though which play came first is still a matter for scholarly debate. B. sensibly refrains from discussion of the play’s ‘reception’ in recent times.

The text comes to us solely via the Laurentianus (M), a manuscript dating from the tenth century AD: it is both lacunose and deeply corrupt, and there is no help from papyri; even the opening lines have to be derived from Aristophanes’ Frogs. B.’s text is based on the 1998 edition of West’s Teubner Aeschylus, but, he says, ‘the choice of readings is my own’; in ten places he prints conjectures of his own. Your reviewer found all of them to be perfectly sensible; the boldest one [at 206] he prints in a passage that he obelises; additionally, he puts forward some suggestions in the apparatus criticus and the notes. I particularly commend a proposed short addition to the text at 155, while he offers two lines of his own at 975 in the difficult speech of Orestes: he cannot be blamed for his despair at 969-972. We then have a list of Abbreviations and a Bibliography which is mercifully less bloated than many others (metrical matters are deferred to an Appendix).

As noted, the text is accompanied by a relatively brief, but comprehensible, apparatus criticus and a translation which is keyed to the text, so that obelised passages are also translated; B. acknowledges that he has (sensibly) had recourse on occasion to Sommerstein’s Loeb translation of 2008. Of course, the bulk of the book is devoted to the Commentary; and if, as has been austerely propounded, its role is to establish, explain, and illustrate the text, B. has fulfilled his task admirably in all three respects. One may adduce the helpful introductions to the ‘Episodes’, notably at the recognition scene, but also (for example) the note at 674 where Orestes tells a deliberately lying story to Clytemnestra, and the long note which describes the Final Scene from 973.

The recognition scene (lines 164-305) presents grave problems. In our text, we are shown three proofs by which Electra can be confident that she is seeing Orestes (after, perhaps, seven years): a lock of hair, a footprint, and a piece of woven cloth. But the lines referring to the footprint (205-210) are, at best, confused and have been regarded by many scholars as interpolated: B. here follows Fraenkel and others in athetizing the lines. However, in a notorious passage of Euripides’ Electra (518-44), the three tokens are successively and deliberately rubbished by Electra, on the grounds of their implausibility, implying that Aeschylus must have also included the footprint. Denniston, in his fine edition of the play (1939), discusses the problem, but retains the lines; Fraenkel, however, wielded the knife and regarded the passage in Euripides as the work of a later interpolator (which, by implication, B. must also do). B. examines the passage at considerable length with exemplary care and detail, from the point of view both of the coherence—or its frequent opposite—of the text, and from how it might appear to the audience. Yet the problem remains: was a footprint somehow brought into the text, for, if not, why would either Euripides or his interpolator have bothered to mention (and rubbish) it?

B. also deals most thoroughly with the issues raised by the ultra-long Kommos (306-478). Here the problem is one of interpretation: curiously detached from its surroundings, what is its purpose? B. gives the conflicting views of Wilamowitz, Schadewaldt and Lesky (and lists their supporters), concluding that the Kommos ‘is discursive and exploratory, moving in more than one direction to deepen our understanding of the current situation and of the coming deed of bloodshed’; he does not place his standard in any of the opposing camps. The reviewer here commends the detailed analysis of Garvie, who (broadly) finds a line of descent from Karl Otfried Mueller to Wilamowitz and Lesky as against Schadewaldt, who regards the Kommos as an invocation of the dead Agamemnon. 

There is much more that could be said. Here, however, the reviewer will merely observe that any student who has occasion to be involved with Libation Bearers will be well served by this edition; textual problems (perhaps the most puzzling to the neophyte) in this sadly corrupt play are handled with notable skill, though the absence of any manuscript to compete with M at least limits the possibilities. It does not replace Garvie’s full-scale commentary, but it makes no pretence of doing so; and, as prices go nowadays, the paperback edition is good value for its 486 pages. Why is there no similar edition of Agamemnon? Strongly recommended.

Colin Leach

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