Notes on the transmission of Aeschylus

The fifth century BC dramatist Aeschylus is one of the few Greek dramatists whose works have survived.  Originally more than 80 plays existed, and official copies were deposited in the Metroon in Athens.  His plays remained popular during the fourth and third centuries BC.  1

Some time after 240 BC, when the Library of Alexandria was created, Ptolemy Euergetes arranged to borrow the official Athenian copies, on payment of a huge deposit; and then calmly kept them, forfeited the money, and returned copies to Athens rather than the originals.  It is perilous to negotiate with those above the fear of law. 

The text was then worked on by the scholars of the Library, who athetised lines that they considered had been interpolated or amended, often by actors or producers in the interests of their own production.  But at the same time, in the second and first centuries BC, Aeschylus dropped out of favour, and became the property of scholars and grammarians, rather than the public.  Horace, Quintilian, and others comment on it during this and the next period.

At some point during the succeeding centuries, perhaps in the third century, a selection of seven plays was made, and an edition produced, with separate commentaries, probably for school use.  These are the only plays that have reached us.  Later still, during the early Byzantine period, a further selection from these of three plays was made — the so-called Byzantine triad, consisting of Prometheus, Seven against Thebes, and the Persians.  At the same time the commentary material was reworked as marginal scholia.  At some later point, two more of the seven plays, the Agamemnon and the Eumenides, were added to the curriculum.  These five plays are well attested in Byzantine manuscripts.

Fortunately in 1423 a manuscript arrived in Florence, written ca. 1000 AD, and containing all seven plays of the original edition, including the Libation-bearers (although the start of this is lost) and the Suppliant Maidens.    This manuscript is now in the Biblioteca Mediceo-Laurenziana (Laur. 32.9) and has the siglum M.  It is a high-quality parchment copy, which also contains the works of Sophocles and Apollonius Rhodius, with the scholia.  It is also the oldest of our codices.

There are about 150 manuscripts of Aeschylus.2  Almost all of these contain only the edition of three, with the plays in the order given above.  The last two plays exist only in M and its copies.  The Agamemnon and Eumenides exist in M and its copies, but also in three other manuscripts, at least one of which is known to be the work of Demetrius Triclinius, and the other two are thought to be his work also, but at a different stage of his life.  There are three further manuscripts: two contain the Agamemnon, one of which (V) is merely a few hundred lines; and the remaining one, at Salamanca, contains the Prometheus and Eumenides

None of the manuscripts other than M is older than 1200, a few are 13th century, and most belong to the 14-16th centuries.  A list of selected mss is given in the Loeb, but is perhaps too long for this post.3

The papyrus fragments recovered from the sands of Egypt mainly date from the 2nd century on, when Aeschylus was not in fashion.  Generally they reflect the text of the codices.  However a significant number of fragments from the satyr plays have been recovered.

The text of Aeschylus has suffered generally from Byzantine “corrections”.  The Suppliant Maidens has fewest scholia, and probably has been least interfered with.

M and some of the other manuscripts also contain supplementary material to the scholia.  There is a catalogue of the works of Aeschylus, both the tragedies and the satyr plays.  There is a description of his life; and also the hypotheses or argumenta, summaries of the content of each play, with details of the circumstances of performance.  There are two versions of the catalogue.  The life probably derives from a pupil of Aristotle, and is full of valuable, but not always accurate information.  The argumenta vary from play to play; complete for the three core plays; absent altogether for the two preserved by M; somewhere in between for the others.

There is, as far as I know, no transmission of the text into Latin, Syriac, or Arabic.  This observation, which will not surprise most of us, is necessary because of a remark in a sub-Da Vinci Code novel which I found myself reading this afternoon.  In Chris Roberson’s Book of Secrets (Angry Robot / Harper-Collins, 2009), on p.139, I read the following curious statement:

“Aeschylus, the acknowledged father of the Greek theater; only something like seven of his plays have survived.  Dozens of his plays, praised by the ancient world, are totally forgotten to us.”  She had lapsed into lecturing, but she was a professor so I forgave her. “Of the ones we have, several survived only in translations made later by Arab scholars.”

The translations into Arabic of Greek texts were mainly of technical works, such as the medical texts of Galen.  Nor am I quite sure that Christian people like Job of Edessa or Hunayn ibn Ishaq would appreciate being called “Arab scholars”!  So this all looked a bit strange.  Thus a bit of research online; thus this post.  The statement above is fiction, then; there are no Arabic versions of Aeschylus, as far as I can tell.

The book was filed under sci-fi and fantasy at my local bookshop, and I bought it under that impression, sadly.  It is a little annoying when something you read for light relief tweaks your scholarship muscle! 

But I don’t think we should complain.  Mr. Roberson merely sought to tell a story, and amended reality slightly in order to do so, on a matter which only specialists would detect.  That is, I suppose, what fiction is; and if Swallows and Amazons could take liberties with the Lake District, why shouldn’t Chris Roberson invent an Arabic transmission of Aeschylus? 

Anyway, if anyone reads this obscure novel, and their curiosity is stirred about Arabic versions of ancient Greek literature, surely that is all to the good?  Let us not be too stuffy about these things.

1.  This post began as a summary of information from Thomas G. Rosenmeyer, The art of Aeschylus, University of California, 1982, p.11 f.  Online at Google Books here.
2.  R.D.Dawe, The collation and investigation of manuscripts of Aeschylus, Cambridge, 1964.
3.  Loeb Classical Library edition, ed. H.W.Smyth (1922), volume 1, p.xxxv.  The Loeb is online here.

UPDATE: I gather that the book to read is Alexander Turyn, The Manuscript Tradition of the Tragedies of Aeschylus (Polish Institute Series No. 2. New York City, 1943).   Unfortunately I don’t have access to it.  Why aren’t books like these online?

12 Responses to “Notes on the transmission of Aeschylus”


  1. H. Jeremiah Lewis

    I’d always assumed that the Arabs only translated Greek technical works (primarily scientific, medical, mathematical and philosophical texts) but Okasha El Daly’s Egyptology: the missing millennium: ancient Egypt in medieval Arabic writings mentioned a number of unexpected Arabic translations of Greek writings, including poets like Homer. I don’t know – and highly doubt – that there were versions of the playwrights, but it’s still interesting that more than what we assume got transmitted. I wonder if any of these are still extant.

  2. Greek non-technical works in Arabic at Roger Pearse

    [...] interesting comment on my last post deserves further examination.  It read, in [...]

  3. Bill White

    On the stirring of curiosity, my interest in ancient history was sparked by a children’s mystery novel. The father of Brains Benton, our hero, was a professor of history or classics or somesuch, and the author had him mention the Second Punic War at some point. The *what*? And it was the *second* one? What had I missed? A whole new world awaited my eager exploration!

  4. Roger Pearse

    That’s interesting — thank you! I think we all owe more to novels than perhaps we might admit.

  5. David Wilmshurst

    Dear Roger,

    Since we are specifically concerned with Aeschylus in Arabic (or not), I can’t resist sending you this extract from my forthcoming book on the Church of the East:

    As the ‘Abbasid caliphs consolidated their hold on Palestine, Syria and Mesopotamia, Muslim scholars began to explore the intellectual heritage of the classical world. Their tastes were curiously limited. They were not interested in the glories of Greek literature. They did not want to read Homer in Arabic, nor the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They saw little of value in the incomparable works of Herodotus or Thucydides, even though the latter had proclaimed his history ‘a possession for all time’. Philosophy was more congenial to their tastes, though their exposure tended to be limited to a prescribed selection of the works of Aristotle. Few scholars progressed beyond this conventional syllabus, or made any acquaintance with Plato. Above all, they were interested in acquiring practical knowledge. They were gradually made aware by their Jewish and Christian subjects that Hebrew and Greek literature contained books on medicine, astronomy, physics and mathematics which could be immediately exploited if they were translated into Arabic.

    It is sometimes claimed that after the Arab conquest ‘the torch of classical learning burned most brightly beyond the frontiers of Christendom’. I’m not at all sure that that is true. I was excited to read in the TLS a few weeks ago that a French scholar had recently discovered the text of Galen’s long-lost On Freedom from Grief (Peri Alupias) in a monastery in Thessalonica. The manuscript was copied two years before the fall of Constantinople, in the lands of Christendom.

  6. Roger Pearse

    I wasn’t aware of the Galen find — this is most interesting! Do you have any more details?

    Thank you for the extract! It sounds right to me. The role of Nestorians in the translation movement at the Abbasid court seems utterly unknown to the general public.

  7. A newly discovered text by Galen at Roger Pearse

    [...] Wilmshurst has drawn my attention to a find.  It seems that a French scholar discovered a lost work by Galen in a monastery in [...]

  8. ikokki

    It is an often repeated tale (which I think originates in Galen) that the Athenians were cheated out of the manuscripts of the 3 great dramatists by Ptolemy. It is nor true: the Athenians were fully aware that Ptolemy had no intention of returning them, they needed the money to buy their freedom from the Macedonian guard in the Acropolis. The Athenian politician (and by modern terms economist) Lycurgus is the person credited with preserving the original manuscripts of the 3 tragic poets in the Metroon. Lycurgus also was the person that added the marble covering at the theater of Dionysus under the Acropolis and he managed the Athenian economic so well that when Alexander the Great died Athens had as much gold in its public fund as at the time of Pericles (in terms of weight but due to inflation not in value). It is ironic how after the Chremonidean War Athens barely kept independence and did so by mobilizing an army that was often made up in large part of non-Athenian students of the philosophical academies. By the time the plays were sent to Ptolemy the Athenians knew very well that only the afterglow of its old glory was keeping them somewhat free…

  9. David Wilmshurst

    You probably know as much about the discovery of Peri Alupias now as I do. The TLS review, a couple of months ago, I think, was of a recent French translation of this recently-discovered work. I’ll see if I can dig out the TLS article and let you have the title and author of the French book under review. Galen had just lost a lot of his books and medical instruments in a disastrous fire, and claimed that, being a philosophical sort of chap, he was able to master his grief by consoling himself that things could have been worse. According to the article he also complained, though possibly not in Peri Alupias, that frequenting the court of the emperor Commodus was bad for his nerves. If Commodus was anything like his portrayal in ‘Gladiator’ I can understand why.

  10. Roger Pearse

    I’d be interested in the other reference! Yes, I bet it was tough on the nerves.

  11. Robert Kruck

    Were all 80 of Aeschylus’ tragedies and satyr plays in existence at the time of their deposit into the Alexandrian Library?

    Is there any information on the latest date at which all 80 of his plays were still extant?

    I recall a lost tragedy on Achilles, by Aeschylus, was discovered recently in the form of a mummy wrapping. Has it been translated to English? Does anyone know where a translation of this play is available?

    I remember reading somewhere that the reign of Marcus Aurelius was the latest time at which Greek and Latin literature was more or less intact, and that serious losses of Greek and Latin literature began to occur in the late Classical era (well before the beginning of the Dark Ages).

  12. Roger Pearse

    I don’t know, I have to say.

    The compiler of the Theodosian code in the 430s AD complains that the complete text of 2nd century jurists is not available anywhere. The wholesale move from the roll to the codex in the 4th century doubtless has a bearing on this. But as to where the losses are … I don’t know. Livy was extant complete in 400, as an edition was made of it.



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