MINOR GREEK TRAGEDIANS Volume I: The Fifth Century

Ed. with Intro., Translations and Notes by M.J. Cropp

Liverpool (Aris & Phillips Classical Texts) (2019) p/b 271pp £23.70 (ISBN 9781786942036)

This first volume (of two) covers the scant remains—sometimes scarcely even that—of 18 Athenian dramatists. However, over half the book is taken up by just four of them, Phrynichus, Ion, Agathon and Critias? (always appearing here with that question-mark); even the shadowy Thespis is represented by a generous range of testimonia , and four pitiful fragments. The intention is to offer in accessible form virtually all of the tragic fragments composed by non-canonical poets between 500 and 200 BC.

C.’s introduction offers us a ‘sketch’ of tragedy in the fifth century, treating Aristotle’s account of tragedy as ‘growing’ from primitive improvisational beginnings and ‘gradually’ approaching its mature form as misleading: rather, it may have developed in a particular historical context in Athens at the start of the fifth century. The theme is interestingly developed at length and in such detail as the material allows; but did it really leap whole from, as it were, the head of Zeus? Aristotle was a lot closer than we are to tragedy’s birth and development. C. goes on to describe the sources of the evidence for tragic productions, notably the annual competition records (partially) surviving in inscriptions, as well as in compendia such as the Suda.

C.’s method—à la Loeb—is to give, first, whatever is known about the dramatist, followed by the testimonia and fragments (for each play) on one side of the page, with the translation on the facing page This is followed in each case by the notes/commentary, accompanied by ‘mini-bibliographies’ (perhaps a trifle optimistic to list R. Bentley 1691/1699!). It is here that we are told what is known, or, more usually, surmised about the play from which, it is thought, the given fragment or fragments come (Wilamowitz is notably free with conjecture in this area). 

Of individual dramatists, Phrynichus is now remembered for his Capture of Miletus, with its unfortunate consequence for the author; Agathon receives full treatment, thanks to his appearance in Aristophanes’s Thesmophoriazusae (quoted at length) (the translation of malakos in one of the testimonia as ‘soft’ is weak: cf. modern Greek malakismeno). Thus we know a little more about him than the others—indeed, one even gets an impression of his work, despite the paucity of the 29 fragments that survive: much the same is true of Ion, well-known in his time and a contemporary of Euripides, but, says C., it is ‘unfortunate that the fragments (60 or so) yield so little’, mainly being ‘baldly lexicographical’. 

However, it is in the case of ‘Critias?’ that the full extent of the problems facing C. (or, potentially, any editor of fragments) becomes apparent. Critias was well known as a politician, being one of the 30 Tyrants of 404-3, and killed in 403. There are four named plays: Pirithous, Rhadamanthys, Tennes and (probably satyric) Sisyphus, attributed to Critias by Wilamowitz, partly because, although they are also attributed to Euripides, they are described in the ancient Life of Euripides as inauthentic, while Critias disappeared (?deliberately) from the record after his infamous career. The matter is complex (e.g. Stobaeus attributes four gnomic fragments to Critias; Athenaeus refers to the author of Pirithous, ‘whether this is Critias the Tyrant or Euripides’: and so on). In the book under notice, Critias? fragment 19 is unexpectedly missing. It consists of some 40 lines asserting that the gods are a human invention, ascribed to Critias by Sextus Empiricus. Your reviewer, puzzled, found the lines—but ascribed to Euripides’ Sisyphus, with a question mark, in an appendix (‘Critias or Euripides?’) to the Collard-Cropp vol. viii of the Loeb Euripides (2008), pp. 672-677. C.’s decision not to republish the lines under Critias? at once becomes understandable; and the evidence supports Euripidean authorship—but could not much the same have been said about Rhesus before the decisive work of Liapis?

Two tiny points: in a couple of places, C. might have been a little more forthcoming. In an epigram by Dioscorides about Thespis (A.P. vii 410) the word τριθῦν appears, described as meaningless by C., whose note (not very fully) refers one to Gow-Page’s (1965) Hellenistic Epigrams. There, however, the word appears in a rather different form (τετριθῦν) but again without commentary. Neither form is to be found in LSJ; nor does either commentary give space to Wilamowitz’s conjecture τριετῆ, i.e. triennial (Page’s Oxford Text Epigrammata Graeca [1975] prints ὅτε † τριθῦν….†, without further comment). Again, C. refers to the possible distinction between Antiphon the Orator and the Sophist (p. 170), each being distinct from the homonymous tragedian: a reference to G.J. Pendrick’s Cambridge ‘Orange’ Antiphon the Sophist (2010) would not have been out of place. 

This is not a book to be ‘read’ in any ordinary sense: rather, it is a handbook to be referred to (with gratitude) by scholars who will be thankful that C. has done so much spadework in advance: which is not to say that it replaces Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta. There are Indexes, including notably useful ones giving a list of titles attested with their authors, and another one of sources; there is also a bibliography.

Colin Leach

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