CUP (2021) h/b 711pp £130 (ISBN 9781107026035)
This work, in the Cambridge ‘Orange’ series, is on a truly heroic scale. F. has been engaged with Rhesus for some 30 years, and the completion of this commentary has taken him longer ‘than the siege of Troy’: which means, of course, that the admirable editions of Vayos Liapis (2012) and Almut Fries (2014) appeared while the work under notice was in progress, and it is perhaps permissible to wonder with what feelings they were viewed by F.
First things first: after Liapis’ edition appeared, it was no longer possible to believe in Euripidean authorship of Rhesus, and the edition of Fries (entitled Pseudo-Euripides: Rhesus, who can hardly have seen Liapis) took the identical line: considerations of language, style, and dramatic technique all tell against Euripidean authorship. Here, F. looks at the history of the question, starting from Del Rio and J.J. Scaliger in 1600, followed by Hermann (‘impassioned attack’, sc. on Euripidean authorship) in 1828. Two attempts to reassert Euripidean authorship were made in the twentieth century, the latest by Ritchie (1964).
Then came Liapis and Fries. F. does not attempt to engage directly with these scholars (even references to them in the notes in the Introduction are scanty): in the event, his opinion is the same as theirs, although he claims, p.21, that the ‘question remains unsettled’: I think not. He wonders whether our play is a reworking of the original Euripidean play with the same title; and he accepts that work in the past two decades has produced the almost unanimous conclusion that Rhesus belongs to the fourth century BC: E. Fraenkel (1965) was among those who opposed Ritchie and arrived at what is now the consensus opinion. (Very detailed computer-based ‘trace analysis’, by M. Manousakis, recently displayed decisive evidence that Prometheus Vinctus is not by Aeschylus: I have no doubt that a similar examination of Rhesus would confirm the consensus). I note also that the works of both Fries and Fantuzzi are dedicated to Martin and Stephanie West: which tells its own story.
In his Introduction, F. also investigates chronology and the ‘Macedonian connection’. The evidence is relatively plentiful, and the anecdote concerning the actor Neoptolemos, mediated via Stobaeus, who had acted in a play—possibly the Rhesus—in which a deification was followed by death, bears a remarkably close resemblance to the death of Philip by assassination just after his daughter’s marriage. One can only agree with F. when he suggests that 336 is at least a plausible terminus post quem for Rhesus ‘especially as many other [especially military] details of the play fit the second half of the fourth century.’ F. does not like Liapis’ tentative suggestion that Neoptolemos may have been the actual author: but it was no more than a suggestion.
F.’s Introduction goes on to ask ‘Were tragic smiles allowed in Menander’s time?’ Hermann had already noted the incongruously nature of the parodos and epiparodos, the latter reminding him of Plautus. F. shows that there are at least four scenes that the audience could probably understand as comic (or having a comic tone). Here F. makes another suggestion that the author of Rhesus wished to expand upon features of the poetics underlying Iliad 10, a book which seemed separate to some of the ancients and thus maybe also to the author of Rhesus—a guess, as F. admits, but one which he bolsters by some cogent parallels. F. goes on to make the interesting suggestion that Rhesus is an example of the ‘ongoing and subtle exchanges that distinguished and united tragedy and comedy in some tragedies of the late fifth century’ (might one think here of Helen?) and reshaped tragic scenes and myths in New Comedy so successfully that they could hardly be described as extraneous. Seen from this perspective, Rhesus may be thought to display a literary strategy ‘opposite but symmetrical to that of New Comedy and therefore fully in accordance with the rules of the contemporary system of literary genres’.
The final section of the Introduction is ‘Political Tragedy; for which polis?’ Tragic performances were ‘spectacles (and) were occasions on which spectators could reflect on controversial issues to be debated in the ekklesia or boule’. F. argues that the character of Rhesus is updated (i.e. from Homer), and raises the question, ‘What should a good ally be?’ Hector is similarly politicised, while Aeneas (not in Homer) appears as an exceptional counsellor. With Hector, a relevant subject is that of the connections between xenia, philia and summachia which are absent from Homer. Rhesus makes its audience reflect not only on what is euboulia, as seen in Hector’s debates with the watchmen, Aeneas and Rhesus, but also on its limits and failure, when it is hampered by hostile tuche. One is perhaps entitled to wonder whether playgoers would think in those terms, rather than being gripped by the action.
A thoroughgoing account of the MS tradition is followed by the text, in which F. follows Diggle ‘very closely’; the text itself is given with an apparatus criticus on a very generous scale. The Commentary—densely printed in a none-too-large typeface—occupies not far short of 500 pages for a play which is just under 1,000 lines in length. Your reviewer’s random sampling was particularly taken by the note (nearly three pages) on 773-98, which has ‘peculiar features’ both as a tragic messenger-speech and as the tragic narrative of a dream; but it is perhaps unnecessary to add that any problem is approached by F. in the same ultra-detailed fashion: it is hard to imagine that any new commentary (or renewed debate about authorship) will be called upon for very many years to come. Fries’s Commentary is also of formidable length and detail, while that of Liapis is arguably more accessible: here one may add that all three editions have benefited from an unsung hero: the learned devotion of the indefatigable James Diggle. It is perhaps curious that this play should have attracted so much distinguished attention, when other plays are still calling out for up-to-date commentary. The Bibliography takes up 60 pages, there is a General index and an index of Greek words discussed.
One can only congratulate F. on his successful completion of this Homeric task. (The formidable cost may, one hopes, be mitigated in due course by a softback or ‘E’ edition).
who reviewed Liapis’ Rhesus at