Thursday, 9 August 2012

Euripides Vol. V: Helen, Phoenician Women, Orestes

A review of Helen: WITH Phoenician Women AND Orestes (Loeb Classical Library) edited and translated by David Kovacs (978-0674996007), first published in the JACT Review.
This volume of the Loeb Euripides has been edited and revised by David Kovacs who is working his way through the complete plays (another volume containing Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, Rhesus has just been published this month). This was my first sight of this series and I was pleasantly surprised. Loebs have always had their uses, but the translations have been uneven (some very poor) and (not unreasonably) increasingly out-of-date and awkward. I did wonder whether the series had outlived its usefulness, as there are many good translations available in modern series, and for the student of language the Aris & Phillips editions provide a substantial commentary geared towards the English translation. However I enjoyed this volume: still the same size, easy to slip into a pocket (or out of sight under a desk), but with a very readable translation which ties closely to the Greek text, some helpful notes (often relating to the more obscure points of mythology) and brief references to alternative readings. The introductions to the individual plays are short but well-focused, drawing attention to the main issues arising from the drama, and for each there is a select bibliography which points the interested student towards suitable further reading. Although the facing page translation can be seductive for the learner, used sensibly this volume can facilitate the development of reading speed; for those who fear their Greek is becoming more rusty, the modern Loeb can provide an excellent refresher. Kovacs is to be congratulated on the quality of this volume: the translation can be read for itself, yet complements the Greek text and clarifies it. The volume will find a ready home in university libraries. The introductions are accessible to school students, though the bibliographies quite properly focus on scholarly work accessible for the most part only in specialist libraries. Motivated students of language will find the presentation of the plays helpful and stimulating. Those interested in Greek drama, too, have cause to welcome this volume: the Helen has often been used to ease students into the formalities of Attic drama; The Phoenician Women and Orestes are more demanding plays. I mark this volume down as highly recommended.

Matthew W. Dickie: Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World

A review of Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World by Matthew W. Dickie (ISBN 0-415-24982-1), originally published in the JACT Review.

This is a detailed and well-presented account of the development of the concept of magic in the Greek world and a thorough discussion of the activities of those who claimed to be (or who were thought to be) magicians or sorcerers (and sorceresses). D. has an excellent grasp of the evidence for magical practices over a considerable period (from Homer through to the end of the seventh century AD) and discusses the difficulties and dangers of reading modern concepts of magic into the ancient evidence, something made the more difficult because so many modern approaches are grounded in what has been learned from the ancient world. He deals thoroughly with the evidence from the earliest period, arguing that it is only towards the end of the fifth century that it can be reliably assumed that descriptions of magical acts fit closely enough with the modern concepts. The chapter on the nature of the Greek understanding of magic is complemented by another on magic as a distinctive category in Roman thought. D. discusses the evidence for magic in the context of the Hellenisation of Roman culture during the late Republic, though the limited range of archaeological evidence (of, for example, curse tablets) prevents certainty until the Augustan period. The literary evidence is more definite, though D. assesses fully the issues of change in the concept of magic during the process of transfer from one culture to another.

Chapters 2, 3 & 4 deal with magicians of various sorts in the Greek world in the classical and Hellenistic periods. The final chapters look at the activities of similar figures in the context of Rome and the Empire through to the end of the seventh century AD. Throughout there is an emphasis on the teasing out of the different strands of belief and prejudice encountered in the ancient texts. A good deal of the (literary) evidence is found in polemical contexts; this is perhaps particularly true of Christian writers.

The book is written throughout in a clear and informative style, and introduces the evidence accessibly. This subject is hardly central to the main curriculum in schools, but does form an important element in understanding the attitude of emperors and others to potential threats against their persons. The growth of Christianity was also affected by the attitudes of the elite and the common people towards non-standard religious practices, so this book provides valuable background for anyone interested in the development of religion during the crucial early years of the Church, and does cover Jewish culture from the time of Acts onwards. There are full notes, a bibliography and a detailed index.

TC Brickhouse & ND Smith: The Trial and Execution of Socrates – Sources & Controversies

A review of The Trial and Execution of Socrates: Sources and Controversies by Thomas C Brickhouse and Nicholas D Smith, originally published in the JACT Review.
This is a useful addition to the books on Socrates’ trial and death, including new translations of the major sources (including the Euthyphro, Apology & Crito, together with the death scene from the Phaedo), including some of the lesser known authors in Chapters 4, 5 & 6 (Diogenes Laertius, Libanius & others), which students will find helpful – though the authors cannot overcome the lack of contemporary material, especially from those hostile to Socrates.
The first chapter (13pp) is a succinct introduction to the issues considered most important at the moment, with cross-references to some of the vast Socratic literature, and particularly to the selection of recent scholarship which forms Part II of this book. Most of the material is already available (there is an essay by Enid Bloch (Hemlock Poisoning and the death of Socrates: Did Plato Tell The Truth) which is published for the first time) but is usefully collected together in three sections: on the reasons for the prosecution of Socrates, Socrates & obedience to the law, and, finally, Plato & the truth about Socrates’ death.
The book is aimed squarely at undergraduates studying Socrates, whether from a historical or philosophical perspective, though it will be of use to anyone looking at the issues surrounding the trial of Socrates, and can be recommended to support A level study, particularly for the helpful gathering of a variety of sources more often referred to dismissively in footnotes than given in full. Part II is more problematic for less advanced students, though most Greek references are either in translation or translated; the occasional misprint should have been corrected.
This is a worthwhile addition to the library, providing access to some less well-known material in a convenient form, and with suitable guidance can be used effectively by able students. It is a pity that a general index has not been added, which would have eased use for both student and teacher.

Andrew Dalby ‘The Story of Bacchus’

A review of The Story of Bacchus by Andrew Dalby, originally published in the JACT Review.
This is an unusual book, piecing together the ‘life’ of the god Bacchus from the scattered hints in ancient sources, many familiar, some much less so. There are nine chapters, notes (with references to the main sources used) and some further reading. I was not predisposed to recommend it – it does not seem an obvious candidate for school/university libraries. Yet I enjoyed reading it.
The book follows the narrative of Bacchus’ life, from his birth under disputed circumstances, through his childhood and adolescence, to the stories of his more mature years and his arrival on Olympus as a god. The stories are well told, with some direct quotation, but more often a judicious and selective paraphrase of the multiple sources, with acknowledgements of the discrepancies and inconsistencies inevitable in Greek myth. There is some limited discussion of the reasons for the divergences: for example, Bacchus/Dionysus’ role in mystery cult may explain some of the omissions in pagan sources, while the relish with which the more transgressive elements in his life and worship are described by some later authors may be explained by their fervent desire to expose the crudities of pagan beliefs from a Christian perspective.
The 18 colour illustrations, placed oddly at the front of the book, show something of the iconography of the god: strangely there is but one more recent work, the Bacchus and Ariadne by Giovanni Antonio Pellegrini. They are not integrated into the book and seem to be an afterthought.
There is no great apparatus of theoretical approaches to the meaning of ancient myth. This is, after all, a life and proceeds with a narrative. It is fun to read, covers the ground and explains something of the fascination the Greeks felt for the god and his gifts to men.

Just an introduction

I’ll be using this blog for reviews of books and articles on classical subjects.