The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy: Volume 1: Neglected Authors, by Matthew Wright. Bloomsbury Academic. London 2016.

I came across Matthew Wright’s The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy as a result of an article in The Guardian back in November of last year. It sounded both accessible and really interesting as a treatment of tragedy that spent a lot more time on the context of the texts and fragments we have left than is usual for treatments of Greek literature — especially treatments that might appeal to a non-specialist. In consequence, I treated myself to a copy in the gift-giving season of the year. Fortunately, it turns out that it really is both accessible and interesting.

There are thirty-two surviving complete plays of Greek tragedy, written by the three “classic” tragedians: Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. This classic trio also comprise the majority of the extant fragments. These playwrights were active in Athens in the 5th century BCE, but they were far from the only tragedians to be at work in this period. There were dozens active from the late sixth down into the fourth centuries, who wrote hundreds of plays — perhaps more than a thousand — and saw them performed in front of Athenian audiences. But of these hundreds, only a handful of fragments survives.

This is in part because the canonisation of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides began in the fourth century BCE, when it is recorded that an Athenian politician, Lycurgus son of Lycophron, basically arranged that this trio should be commemorated as the Athenian state tragedians, with bronze statues, official texts preserved in the state archives, and a ban on deviating from the standard texts in any performance of an Aeschylian, Sophoclean, or Euripidean tragedy. It might be in part for other reasons, too.

Wright is interested in the process by which texts become lost, and by which some texts become more lost than others. He’s interested in what kinds of evidence exist for the lost tragedies, and how that evidence can be used to illuminate ancient Greek tragedy as a genre that extended beyond the canonical trio of authors. He’s also interested in examining the evidence for the development of tragedy as a genre over the course of roughly two centuries, from its inception down to the start of the Hellenistic period.

The Lost Plays of Greek Tragedy: Volume 1 is divided into six chapters, plus a prologue and an epilogue. In the prologue, Wright sets out his methodological approach very clearly, outlining the caution with which he’s approaching the gaps between the evidence, and describes what he’s setting out to do in very accessible language. (This striking readability is a continuing feature of this volume, and an extremely welcome one.)

The first chapter is devoted to the earliest tragedians, playwrights whose work, in some cases, was lost almost as soon as it was performed. Wright is careful with his arguments, and clear in discussing the evidence and the flaws with the evidence.

The sixth chapter, which I will take here out of order, discusses the “very lost” — tragedians and works of whom nothing is known but their names, and sometimes not even that; names that might be the names of tragedians, fragmentary inscriptions, and so on.

The other chapters discuss playwrights of whom, at worst, something can be said. The second chapter deals with fifth-century tragedians; the fifth chapter, with fourth-century ones (including Dionysus, the ruler of fourth-century Syracuse). The third chapter discusses Agathon, who shows up as a character in Plato’s Symposium, and who might be the best-known non-canonical tragedian, while the fourth chapter is concerned with tragedians who are related to other tragedians, since there seems to have been something of a tradition of theatre as a family business.

Wright concludes with a brief epilogue in which he discusses the apparent continuities in tragedy as a genre on down into the late fourth century, followed by an appendix which collects all the fragments of the non-canonical tragedians in English translation.

This is a really solid and engaging piece of work on ancient Greek tragedy. I found it fascinating, and I think it might have wide appeal.

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Tim Whitmarsh, Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World. Faber & Faber, London, 2016.

This is an intellectual history of atheism in Greek and Roman antiquity. It begins with the Archaic period in Greece, where traces of anti-theism (the idea that gods can be fought, or denied) can be seen in the Hesiodic Catologue of Women, among other places. From these mythological beginnings, Whitmarsh constructs a lineage of thinkers who disbelieved in the godly powers of the gods, and who theorised explanations for the workings of the natural world that relied on the principles of cause and effect.

The best parts of this book, by me, are the discussions of early “god-battlers” in the mythology, and the discussion of the various philosophical schools and their adherents. Whitmarsh made me want to read Sextus Empiricus – or at least feel mildly inclined towards doing so – which, since Sextus Empiricus’s books rejoice in titles like Against the Mathematicians, is a hell of an achievement. The weakest part is post-Constantine, which is not really treated in any depth: there might not be any space left for public atheism, but the book could have used a chapter on how the texts in which the outlines of classical atheism remain were preserved.

On the whole, it’s an extremely readable book, lucidly argued, and occasionally funny. Whitmarsh does sometimes like to pull out unusual words like perdurance, but that only adds to the experience. Battling the Gods is entertaining history. Which is the best kind.

The Amazons – I am very excited

Very interested in THIS book

Very interested in THIS book

Review copy of Adrienne Mayor’s The Amazons: Lives & Legends of Warrior Women Across the Ancient World, via I am to review this for, and I am positively gleeful about the opportunity to read it. Mayor is a researcher at Stanford who has a track record in publishing well-received popular history, and the cover copy for this book has strong praise from both Edith Hall (well-respected scholar of Classical receptions) and John Boardman (a name to conjure with for Classical historians), so I am very much intrigued to see what kind of book this is.

Historic links of interest

“The Real Amazon Warriors” discusses Adrienne Mayor’s survey of warrior women across the ancient world.

Classical era poem found on stele in Western Turkey.

Inscription dedicated to Hadrian in 129/130 CE uncovered in Jerusalem.

Wooden statue of standing, dressed male figure preserved in bottom of well; uncovered during excavations under Agios Konstantinos Square in the Piraeus during works on the extension of the Athens metro. The article is in Greek, but Google translate appears to render a rough sense of it.

Susan P. Mattern, The Prince of Medicine: Galen in the Roman Empire.

Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2013.

Not commonly does one come across a work of scholarship that is an active pleasure to read: indeed, the pleasure most often won from reading history is a kind of grim satisfaction at having wrested some prize of new information from stolid, thickly-detailed prose. Mattern’s book is decidedly of the former rather than the latter sort: her mastery of her material is never in doubt, but her presentation, while never less than learned, is engagingly conversational.

Galen is a difficult topic for any scholar to address. He may well have written over 600 individual treatises – at least one list of known Galenic and Pseudo-Galen writings runs to 441 titles – of which more than 100 survive – over three million words. Kühn’s 19th century edition of Galen is still the most complete, and runs to 22 volumes. Though Galen wrote entirely in Greek, and there is no evidence that – despite dwelling at Rome much of his life – he ever learned another language, his work has been transmitted through various manuscript traditions, and to be a complete Galenist, one needs not only Greek, but also Latin, Syriac, and Classical Arabic. It’s a massive undertaking, and Mattern herself, as she says, when she refers to texts transmitted only through Arabic, is working from modern translations of the manuscripts.

Mattern has already written one book on Galen, Galen and the Rhetoric of Healing. This biography is revealing both about Galen and the world in which he lived, but Mattern never lets sympathy or enthusiasm lead her beyond the limits of the evidence: rather, she’s very clear about what isn’t known (a lot, including whether Galen ever had a spouse, children, students in a direct tradition, and whether he died aged seventy or aged eighty-seven – as the Arab tradition has it) compared to what is. Within the limits of that material, this is a surprisingly compelling biography.

And there is some really interesting incidental material – for example, about the fire in 192 that destroyed Galen’s library, including some of his own work not yet given out for circulation: it consumed the area around the Temple of Peace, in which area were important archives and expensive storerooms hired by wealthy men like Galen to keep their books and IOUs and some of their expensive positions.

(And it transpires Galen met Aelius Aristides – I had not known, previously, that their timelines aligned, but it seems they were acquainted in passing.)

It’s excellent history. Complete with animal vivisection. And plague. Well-recommended.

What Fresh Hell Lies Here?

Perhaps you’ll remember Rod Rees’ The Shadow Wars (The Demi-Monde: Spring in the UK) as one of the unexpected ARCs mentioned in my second-last post. Well, I started reading it for review, and tweeted a few egregiously awful quotes, and the (in)famous Requires Hate got in on the act…

The Storify of the Untethered Breasts:

“Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in a quite charming fashion.”

Someone passed on a link to the cover of the latest Kindle magazine: Rape In Wonderland.


Ronan Wills discusses Hounded by Kevin Hearne, and his view on the banality of urban fantasy.

Nerds of A Feather discusses grim/dark iterations in fantasy:

[W]hat’s the purpose of all the violence and cruelty in the art we consume, and specifically in fantasy fiction? When is it acceptable and when is it not?

A certain author turns up in the comments to defend his precious, as is becoming tediously de rigueur in his case, and diametrically opposed to the response of Joe Abercrombie to criticism as quoted in the post. (I have Important Thoughts, natch, on violence and fantasy, but they’ll keep.)

(No, really, they’ll have to keep. I’ve reached my procrastination limit for today.)

And! If you’ve made it this far, you deserve some reward. Stylist Turns Ancient Hair Debate On Its Head:

By day, Janet Stephens is a hairdresser at a Baltimore salon, trimming bobs and wispy bangs. By night she dwells in a different world. At home in her basement, with a mannequin head, she meticulously re-creates the hairstyles of ancient Rome and Greece.

Ms. Stephens is a hairdo archaeologist.

Her amateur scholarship is sticking a pin in the long-held assumptions among historians about the complicated, gravity-defying styles of ancient times. Basically, she has set out to prove that the ancients probably weren’t wearing wigs after all.

And a Dutch television show enlists two men to undergo simulated labour contractions:

And if that’s not all the news that’s fit to print, that’s as much as I have time for today…