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?