Hostname: page-component-797576ffbb-lm8cj Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2023-12-11T16:55:38.298Z Has data issue: false Feature Flags: { "corePageComponentGetUserInfoFromSharedSession": true, "coreDisableEcommerce": false, "useRatesEcommerce": true } hasContentIssue false

Anachronism in Greek tragedy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2013

P. E. Easterling
Newnham College, Cambridge


Anachronism-hunting has been out of fashion with scholars in recent times, for the good reason that it can easily seem like a rather trivial sort of parlour game. But given that Greek tragedy draws so heavily on the past, a close look at some examples may perhaps throw light on a far from trivial subject, the dramatists' perception of the heroic world.

So long as anachronism was treated as an artistic failing the debate was bound to be unproductive; one can symphathise with Jebb's view (on Soph. El. 48 ff.) that Attic tragedy was ‘wholly indifferent’ to it. And one can see why later scholars have objected to the very idea of anachronism as irrelevant and misleading. Ehrenberg, for example, wrote in 1954: ‘It is entirely mistaken to distinguish between mythical and thus quasi-historical features on the one hand and contemporary and thus anachronistic on the other. There is always the unity of the one poem or play, displaying the ancient myth, although shaped in the spirit of the poet's mind and time.’

Research Article
Copyright © The Society for the Promotion of Hellenic Studies 1985

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)


1 Ehrenberg, V., Sophocles and Pericles (Oxford 1954) 15 fGoogle Scholar.

2 Knox, B. M. W., Oedipus at Thebes (London 1957) 61Google Scholar. Cf. Knight, R. C., Racine et la Grèce (Paris 1950) 404Google Scholar: ‘L'anachronisme est la condition même de tout art vivant qui veut choisir ses sujets dans le passé, puisque l'artiste ne saurait bien rendre que des gens qui ressemblent un peu à ceux qu'il a observés et des sentiments qui ressemblent un peu à ceux qu'il a éprouvés’.

3 Bain, D., Actors and audience (Oxford 1977) 209Google Scholar.

4 Julius Caesar II i 192; King Lear: ‘the Turk’ III iv 92–3; Nero III vi 6; Troilus and Cressida II ii 167.

5 MacCallum, M. W., Shakespeare's Roman plays and their background (London 1910) 86Google Scholar. See Velz, J. W., ‘The ancient world in Shakespeare: authenticity or anachronism?’ in Shakespeare Survey xxxi, ed. Muir, K. (Cambridge 1978) 112Google Scholar.

6 See Garvie, A. F., Aeschylus' Supplices: play and trilogy (Cambridge 1969) 153, 197–9Google Scholar; Winnington-Ingram, R. P., Studies in Aeschylus (Cambridge 1983) 67Google Scholar.

7 See especially Ehrenberg, V., ‘Origins of democracy’, Historia i (1950) 517–22Google Scholar.

8 See Garvie (n. 6) 150–2 and Johansen, H. Friis and Whittle, E. W., Aeschylus, the Suppliants (Copenhagen 1980) 28Google Scholar f. for bibliography.

9 The Supplices of Aeschylus: the new date and old problems’, AC xxxiii (1964) 359 fGoogle Scholar.

10 What mattered was the counting; it was less important whether the vote was taken by show of hands (χειροτονία) or by ballot (ψῆϕος). (Both systems were in use in the Athenian assembly.) In Supp. ψῆϕος and cognate words are repeatedly used for a decision which is taken by show of hands: cf. Friis Johansen–Whittle (n. 8) on 7, 601, 604. See Boegehold, A. L., ‘Toward a study of Athenian voting procedure’, Hesperia xxxii (1963) 366–74CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11 This seems to be the natural interpretation of the passage, despite the doubts cast by Brown, N. O., ‘Pindar, Sophocles, and the Thirty Years' Peace’, TAPA lxxxii (1951) 15Google Scholar n. 23. He rightly detects chicanery in κρυϕίαισι and θϵράπϵυσαν, but does not consider the possibility that this lay in giving Ajax's peers the opportunity to vote against him anonymously instead of openly. Corinna offers a parallel (PMG (654.19–22), but the date is quite uncertain.

12 This is noted as an anachronism by Eustathius, on Il. ii 852Google Scholar(ψηφίζειν γὰρ οὔπω εἴδησαν ἥρωες, ὰλλὰ μεταχρόνιον τὸ τω̑ν ψήφων εὕρημα). But it seems to be an isolated comment; so far as I know judicial voting was not seen as anachronistic by scholiasts.

13 For the Cyclic epics seej. Kamerbeek's, C. edition of Ajax (Leiden 1963) 15Google Scholar.

14 Stapfer, P., Shakespeare and classical antiquity, trans. Carey, E.J. (London 1880) 117Google Scholar.

15 On Pelasgus see Grossmann, G., Promethie und Orestie (Heidelberg 1970) 148–53Google Scholar.

16 See Jeffery, L. H. in A Companion to Homer, ed. Wace, A J. B. and Stubbings, F. H. (London 1962) 555Google Scholar.

17 See Heubeck, A., Archaeologia Homerica iii X (1979) n. 714Google Scholar for references (and a critique of this view).

18 175 ff. The relevant terms are ἐσημήναντο (175), ἐπιγράψας (187), ση̑μα (189).

19 See Friis Johansen–Whittle (n. 8) on 946 and 947; Pfeiffer, R., A history of classical scholarship i (Oxford 1968) 26Google Scholar n. 4. βύβλων here must mean ‘sheets of papyrus’ not ‘books’ as LSJ have it.

20 Pfeiffer (n. 19) 25 f.

21 Cf. Eur. Melanippe (fr. 506 N2); Solmsen, F.The tablets of Zeus’, CQ xxxviii (1944) 2730CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

22 This passage no doubt refers to the Unwritten Laws, but that very concept depended on the existence of written law codes.

23 A long scholion on Dionysius Thrax gives a résumé: Cramer, J. A., Anecdota Graeca (Oxford 1837) iv 318Google Scholar f. Cf. Josephus, , c. Ap. i 1011Google Scholar, and see Jeffcry (n. 16) 545–7, Pfeiffer (n. 19) 19–22, Heubeck (n. 17) 146–8.

24 See the scholia on Il. vi 168, 169a, 176b, 178 and Il. vii 175, 185a, 187, in Erbse, H., Scholia graeca in Homeri liadem ii (Berlin 1971Google Scholar).

25 Supp. 947 refers to a papyrus document; cf. n. 19 above.

26 At Hipp. 451 f. the ambiguous term γραφαί may refer to books: ὅσοι μὲν οὖν γραφάς τε τῶν παλαιτέρων / ἔχουσιν αὐτοί τ᾿ εἰσὶν ἐν μούσαις ἀεί (‘those who know the writings of earlier generations and are themselves always occupied with the Muses’), But there is quite a strong case for taking γραϕαί as ‘paintings’ (γραϕή is used in this sense at Hipp. 1005; cf. Ag. 242 and (probably) 1329, Eum. 50, Ion 271, Tro. 687). Barrett ad loc. rejects this interpretation with the question ‘what old paintings would there be in a private household of Euripides’ day?' But it may be wrong to think specifically of Euripides' own time, and this may be a studiedly vague way of saying ‘those who know stories from the past, whether from paintings or from poetry’. At first sight αὐτοί τε seems to demand the closest possible link in sense between the two clauses, but since εἰσὶν ἐν μούσαις has to mean ‘occupied in reading’ not in writing, the two lines would then become tautologous. The sentence is more effective if γραϕαί means paintings; on this interpretation the τε … τε would be illogically placed (as Barrett notes), but this would not present a difficulty.

27 Cf. Bain (n. 3) 209 f. Veiled and ambiguous references to the theatre are not of course ruled out.

28 Cf. Page, D. L., Alcman, the Partheneion (Oxford 1951) 69Google Scholar. Ant. 1038 seems to be the first reference in poetry to India as a source of wealth.

29 The text of the rest of the note is corrupt: ἐπὶ Τριπτολέμου γάρ φασι γενέσθαι Πυθικὸν ἀγῶνα ἑξακοσίοις ἔτεσι πρότερον, which Michaelis wanted to emend to ἐπὶ Τρωικοῦ πολέμου γάρ φασι γενέσθαι Ὀρέστην Πυθικοῦ ἀγῶνος κτλ.

30 See Gudeman ad loc. for examples.

31 Pfeiffer (n. 19) 80.

32 FGrH iiiB (Notes) p. 140 n. 24.

33 There may be a rather similar irony in the story of the False Merchant in Philoctetes (546–8). He supplies wine to the Greeks at Troy, echoing Il. vii 467, but there the wine comes from Lemnos itself.

34 See Eustathius, on Il. XV 680–7Google Scholar.

35 Ἐνέται in the scholion, but Barrett argues that the correct form of the masculine is Ἐνετοί.

36 See Page (n. 28) 87 f; Devereux, R., ‘The Enetian horses of Hippolytos’, AC xxxiii (1964) 375–83Google Scholar; Homer's wild she-mules’, JHS lxxxv (1965) 2932Google Scholar; The Enetian horse of Alkman's Partheneion’, Hermes xciv (1966) 129–34Google Scholar.

37 From ‘Poetry and drama’, in Selected Prose (Harmondsworth 1953) 78.

38 Cf. Winnington-Ingram, R. P., ‘Euripides: poiêtês sophos’, Arethusa ii (1969) 129Google Scholar.

39 A comprehensive study would have to be much lengthier. Other features of tragedy which are no prominent in epic include hero cult, Trojans seen as barbarians and orientals, Athens and Corinth as important cities.

40 This paper is based on the Gaisford Lecture given at Oxford in 1981. I am grateful to Constantine Valakas for helpful criticisms and suggestions.