LYKOPHRON ALEXANDRA: Greek Text, Translation, Commentary & Introduction

Edited by Simon Hornblower

OUP (2015) h/b 618pp £120 (ISBN 9780199576708)

This is a formidable work of scholarship by an ancient historian of noted distinction, which will doubtless not be, or need to be, replaced for many years ahead. To start with the author, who was not Lykophron of Chalkis—as is shown by internal evidence—but the later (2nd century BC) ps-Lykophron, to use the late Peter Fraser’s designation: for convenience, this review will revert to Lykophron.

The work is a ‘monodrama’ in iambic trimeters of 1474 lines, all but 44 of which are spoken by Kassandra (Alexandra being her name in Sparta) after her rape (‘hubristheisa’ at Eur. Troades 69) by the Locrian Ajax. It takes the form of a prolonged prophecy of events ranging from the foundation of Troy, and concentrating on the nostoi after the fall of Troy, up to the Roman dominance in Greece. The language used is intentionally of a high degree of obscurity, and although H. regards it as a ‘minor poetic masterpiece’ and an ‘imaginative creation of very high quality’, even listing seven individual lines which he finds worthy of especial praise, others have been less kind: the reviewer has heard ‘Aeschylus on speed’ given as an unkindly summary description of the work, and its often bizarre language can make reading it frankly laborious even for competent Hellenists.

The long (112pp) Introduction deals in masterly fashion with many topics: this review will list in italics, not always in H’.s order, most of the major ones, interjecting comments as appropriate. Sources of and influences on the Alexandra: few indeed are the major authors not mentioned; perhaps only Sappho, says H. regretfully, did not write about Kassandra, though the poet himself does recall Sappho: see p. 123. Date of the poem: it is now generally agreed that since the poet refers, albeit with due obscurity, to T. Quinctius Flamininus and his victory at Kynoskephalai in 197 BC, the poem itself must postdate that event. Authorship: the Sicilian and S. Italian ‘slant’ of the work leads H. to wonder whether the author came from that region, rather than Ptolemaic Alexandria: after listing a number of relevant factors, he admits that his case is cumulative rather than decisive; and after careful consideration, and supported by the late Martin West, H. comes down against the ‘appealing’ idea of female authorship. Foundation Myths (etc): this is an important topic in the poem; as an historian, H. is particularly interested in settlements by Greeks and Trojans of non- or partially Greek areas (notably Asia Minor, Cyprus and Latium) and he seeks corroboration of the literary evidence from archaeological or epigraphic material; he waxes notably enthusiastic over a discovery in the Adriatic of some 5th C pottery carrying dedications to Diomedes, though his repeated description of the discovery as ‘spectacular’ perhaps says more about what we do not have than what we do.

Performance: In considering whether this poem was ever publicly performed, H. went so far as actually to experiment, by reciting it himself: it took two hours (which would have been well worth watching!). But it is simply not good enough for H. to compare the difficulties of Lykophron with those challenging the audiences of much of Shakespeare’s work: Lykophron is unrelentingly obscure, and an audience would surely have been bewildered. This is a work, if ever there was one, for the study, not the stage. This leads on to Lykophron and epigraphy: the value and function of cult epithets in the Alexandra. This is a long and important section, well-suited for analysis by a historian. Thus, Lykophron/Kassandra never does anything so brash as to address (e.g.) Demeter by name: rather, she is given five obscure ‘descriptors’: Athena has six, including ‘the Ox-binder, the Seagull goddess, the Maiden’, and of course ‘divine polyonomy’, often with asyndeton, was a highly serious matter. H. makes it his business to check whether the information provided by the ancient scholiasts about the local origin of the epithets, or epikleseis, is of value to the historian of religion: and epigraphy, ‘virtually ignored by all modern commentaries’, is given full attention (it is not practicable to give examples here, but an Index lists over 240 cited inscriptions, by the reviewer’s count). Of course, we may ask just how it was that Lykophron was so knowledgeable, and the suggestion that he had access to a Hellenistic sylloge of cult epithets is highly attractive.

The History of the Text is mainly the work of Peter Fraser, who had himself planned an edition, with some minor updating by H. There has been no Anglophone edition of the work since two appeared in 1921: one of those, by A.W. Mair, is the by now antiquated Loeb Library edition, whose introduction is praised by Fraser; since then, the most accessible text for most will be the Hurst/Kolbe Bude edition (2008), which, however, concentrates on literary matters, almost entirely ignoring epigraphy.

Justice cannot be given here to the Commentary, which is of exemplary detail— indeed, on average it covers no more than four lines per page. This is, par excellence, a historian’s commentary, which is certainly not to imply that literary aspects are given short measure—thus, for example, the many instances of hapax legomena are well treated—but it is reasonable to ask whether, on occasion, H. gives us too much information, or at least speculation. Take the ‘Bones of Hector’, at lines 1189-1213. These bones were translated from Ophryneion in the Troad to Thebes in Boeotia: Robert Parker (2010) called the move ‘unexplained’, but H., whether or not in a spirit of emulation, devotes five full pages (ten columns of type) to considering the story, without reaching a decisive conclusion. One cannot help feeling that (say) Sir Richard Jebb would have demoted the discussion to an Excursus. Another long note on Neileos and the foundation of Miletus (pp. 476-8) is even more complex and finally unsatisfactory, while leaving this reviewer with several unanswered questions. By contrast, the even more detailed treatment of the important Lokrian Maidens episode (pp.404-412) is fully justified.

One or two quibbles may perhaps be permitted. H. refers more than once to his forthcoming Lykophron’s Alexandra and the Hellenistic World: one’s appetite is stimulated but not satisfied thereby, and the same is true of the unpublished doctoral thesis by one of his students. Again, references to Christa Wolf’s novel Cassandra (1983) and Christiana Elfwood’s (= Sourvinou-Inwood’s) Murder Most Classical (2007) may seem more relevant now than they will do later in the doubtless long after-life of the work noticed here: there are one or two other instances. And since H. does not accept the main conclusions of the important work of Stephanie West on the poem, it is (presumably of necessity) not given the attention that its quality merits. Finally, that the apparatus criticus is kept to the barest minimum may be a matter for approbation rather than censure.

H. has already won many justified laurels for his work on Thucydides and Herodotus, and more laurels will surely now be forthcoming: moreover, even if historians find fault, such is the depth of detail provided by H. that (as with A.B. Cook’s Zeus), the work will lose none of its abiding value. It is hardly necessary to add that the Bibliography, Indexes etc, match the detail and care everywhere apparent; the quality of the proofreading is such that the reviewer has noted only one, insignificant, typo (in a late Annex). The book is worth every penny of its £120 cost: one can foresee its being discussed at many a graduate seminar, though it is likely to be found only on the shelves of university libraries; and the reviewer is deeply conscious that this all-too-brief notice can do little more than draw attention to what is an outstanding feat of scholarship.

Colin Leach


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