Bloomsbury Academic (2021) h/b 141pp £70.00 (ISBN 9781350023642)
S. manages to pack a lot into this ‘Companion’ to Menander’s Epitrepontes (‘Men at Arbitration’); it is not a commentary, and is therefore perhaps best read with a text, translation, or both, at hand. There are nine chapters. In the first, S. tells us about Menander the Athenian (this leading playwright of the New Comedy appears to have written over 100 plays, before his death, reportedly from drowning, in 291 BC, age 51.) The 4th C BC was a turbulent time at Athens, which Menander was fortunate to survive, possibly helped by his friendship with Demetrius of Phalerum; we cannot make any firm inference about his political leanings (if any), nor can we ascertain the date of Epitrepontes.
S. goes on, in chapter two, to describe New Comedy and its sharp divergence from the Old Comedy of Aristophanes. Where Aristophanes was close to pantomime, Menander was ‘sitcom’; the plays consisted of 5 acts, separated by choral interludes; the characters were mainly stock types: young men, older men, wives, hetairai, cooks, slaves, parasites, and brothel-keepers. The plots would involve erotic entanglements of one kind or another (money too might be involved), and the plot interest would hang on doubt about how the various muddles would be resolved; the action invariably took place outdoors.
What we have of Epitrepontes (chapter three) mainly comes from the Cairo codex of the 5th C AD, first published in 1907: at roughly 750 lines, it must account for about half of the play. Papyrus fragments and quotations add to our knowledge, and a mosaic of the 4th C AD might be more helpful if it were not so confused. The main omission is the (postulated) divine prologue, but we are inevitably left with a number of relatively minor questions unanswered. S. now gives an account (chapter four) of the plot. In simplest terms, it involves the paternity of an abandoned infant, the outcome of a rape at a Festival (in Menander, rape is usually followed by marriage with the rapist). Slaves play important roles (two of them attend the arbitration—where the arbitrator Smikrines eventually turns out to be the infant’s grandfather). The women involved are Pamphile, the mother of the child, who fears abandonment by her husband, and Habrotonon, a hetaira, who has not been raped. In the end, the errant husband Charisios is reunited with wife and his (recovered and discovered) infant son, who had been identified by rather convenient tokens (gnôrismata) left with the abandoned infant. Do the key slave Onesimos and the harpist Habrotonon gain their freedom? Do Chaerestratos (friend of Charisios) and Habrotonon get married? We shall never know.
In chapter 5, S. usefully and in some detail considers Rape, Marriage, Legitimacy, Citizenship and Child Exposure. The penalty for rape could be execution, but as the only example ever offered of that is the case of Themistios and a Rhodian flute girl, the fact that it took pace at the Eleusinia may well have had considerable bearing on the outcome. In Epitrepontes, the circumstances mean that the son will have assured status as a citizen, being the legitimate offspring of a marriage of two citizens (and a citizen could be legitimately married only to another citizen). S. goes on to point out that exposure was an accepted fact of Athenian life; so was the right of the wife’s original kurios to terminate her marriage (threatened here by Smikrines but eventually not exercised).
The play’s characters are analysed and discussed in chapter 6. Smikrines is shown to be the least attractive character, acting solely with motives of financial self-interest, just as Habrotonon comes out as the most attractive, acting wholly —and successfully—from altruism. S. tells us that ‘many male scholars have developed a soft spot for Habrotonon’! Pamphile, unhappy for much of the play, successfully defies her father, and is reunited with Charisios. The slave Onesimos has the important characteristic of being a busybody: while he is inevitably guided by self-interest, his revelation of a ‘ring’—one of the tokens—helps to lead to the successful outcome. This leads on to chapter seven’s Structural Patterns (‘elaborately structured in multiple ways’, says S). In effect, S. sets out the play’s far from straightforward skeleton, including its physical structure of the play (two houses, all the action taking place outside them). A key aspect is the absence of the protagonist Charisios, husband (and earlier unrecognised rapist) of Pamphile, who comes on stage only at a late point in the play: compare, says S., Neoptolemus in Andromache or Xerxes in Persians.
The final two chapters, eight and nine, look at the literary and intellectual background, and the next twenty-three centuries. The influence of Euripides is clear, and recognised by Quintilian. Epitrepontes, for example, owed a debt to Euripides’s Augê (which survives only fragmentarily); one thinks, too, of those of Euripides’ plays which have happy endings, such as Helen and Iphigenia in Tauris. The arbitration scene has a predecessor in Euripides’ Alopê, and S. suggests that Menander also made use of Aristotle’s definition and classification of right and wrong actions in Nicomachean Ethics. Menander was to become very popular after his death, to judge not only by Terence’s adaptations for his Roman audience, but by the number of surviving papyri, Epitrepontes notably among them—which many centuries later, after the discovery of the Cairo codex, became the first of Menander’s plays to receive a separate edition with commentary in 1925, by Wilamowitz. The arbitration scene was performed in Athens in 1908, and the most successful (if idiosyncratic) modern production took place in 1980 at Epidaurus and other places later; but, as S. observes, the prevalence and acceptance of rape do not play well in today’s world. Yet the scholar Aristophanes of Byzantium asked, ‘Tell me, Life and Menander, which of you imitated the other?’; and Julius Caesar, not normally thought of as a dramatic critic, called Terence a ‘half-price Menander’. (S. probably thought these quotes too obvious to mention).
The text is followed by detailed footnotes, all of which are of interest and demand to be read. There is a bibliography (not offensively long) and an Index. This is an excellent introduction both to Menander and this play—but it is shockingly expensive. S. recommends W.D. Furley’s commentary (2009), itself costing £45, but for most purposes, your reviewer found that vol I. of W.G. Arnott’s Loeb edition (1979) will still serve.