Essays and Addresses/Suidas on the Change Ascribed to Sophocles in Regard to Trilogies

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search
Suidas on the Change Ascribed to Sophocles in Regard to Trilogies  (1889) 
by Richard Claverhouse Jebb
From Essays and Addresses.


The passage of Suidas which I have taken as my subject follows his notice of two other modifications which Sophocles had introduced into the form of Attic Tragedy,—the increase in the number of the actors from two to three; and the increase in the number of the Chorus from twelve to fifteen. Then Suidas continues, "And he himself began the practice of play contending against play, and not tetralogy"—against tetralogy[2] The grammatical construction claims a brief comment. I take the accusatives δρᾶμα and τετραλογίαν as subjects to the infinitive ἀγωνίζεσθαι. Compare Arist. Poetics, ch. 7, εἰ γὰρ ἔδει ἑκατὸν τραγῳδίας ἀγωνίζεσθαι, πρὸς κλέψυδραν ἂν ἠγωνίζοντο: "for if it had been necessary that a hundred tragedies should compete, they would have competed under a limit of time for each." The alternative is to take δρᾶμα and τετραλογίαν λογίαν as cognate accusatives, and to suppose that the subject to the infinitive is the poet; "he began the practice of (the poet) competing with play against play," etc. We might then compare Herod. 5. 22 ἀγωνιζόμενος στάδιον, contending in a foot-race. Thus δρᾶμα would be equivalent to δραματικὸν ἀγῶνα, and τετραλογίαν to τετραλογικὸν ἀγῶνα. But δρᾶμα and τετραλογία are opposed to each other, merely as different instruments of the same contest; and therefore, if the poet were the subject to the infinitive, we should rather have expected the dative, δράματι, τετραλογίᾳ. It is true that Aristides (ii. 422) has the phrase Σοφοκλῆς...ἡττᾶτο τὸν Οἰδίπουν, "Sophocles was defeated with his Oedipus"; but there the accusative seems rather analogous to the cognate accusative in such phrases as νικᾶν μάχην. It will appear bye and bye that, although the general sense of the passage is not affected by the question as to the subject of the infinitive, yet this point is perhaps not wholly without significance.

I propose to discuss the interpretations which have been placed upon the statement of Suidas, and then to offer my own[3].

As a preliminary, it is necessary to consider the origin of the tetralogy in Greek drama, and the evidence regarding the period of time during which tetralogy was in use.

Among the deities of ancient Greece, it was peculiar to the young Dionysus,—that latest comer from the East,—that, according to legend, he had not been permitted to assume his place in the pantheon without resistance at the hands of men. His entrance into Hellas had been opposed; his worshippers had been harassed; in his own person he had endured contumely, even bonds: but in the end he prevailed; the frowardness which thwarted the enthusiasm of his votaries was turned by him into a darker ecstasy of madness and self-destruction. He alone was at once a god and a hero; comparable in might with Zeus; one who had striven and suffered like Achilles. The people who kept festival in his honour, and who danced round his altar, would sing of his sufferings and his triumphs. Then, as such festivals became more systematic, a certain number of persons was set apart from the general body of worshippers, for the purpose of conducting the dance in a more regular manner. These chosen persons were called the Chorus; a circular dancing-place (orchestra) was marked out for them, with the altar of Dionysus at its centre; and, since they danced round the altar, they were called a circular or "cyclic" Chorus. Only three years ago (1886) the German explorers of the Dionysiac theatre at Athens traced parts of the enclosure of the old circular orchestra,—the orchestra of the great Attic dramatists,—close to the site of the older temple in the precinct of Dionysus. In the theatre at Epidaurus—the clearest illustration of the classical Greek period—the complete circle of the orchestra is marked out by a ring of flat stones in the ground; and one result of the explorations made there and elsewhere since 1883 has been to establish that down to the Roman age the complete circle of the orchestra was always left clear in front of the place where the actors stood.

From the primitive Chorus, dancing round the altar of Dionysus, drama was developed, so far as we know, by three steps. (1) First, it became usual for a member of the Chorus to vary the dance and song by recitation. Originally, the subject of the recitation would be some adventure of Dionysus. But as early as about 600 B.C. it would appear that themes might be taken from the legends of the heroes, while the choral dance and song were still purely Dionysiac. It does not seem that any other god was ever made the subject of the recitation; a fact which illustrates the peculiar character of Dionysus, as noticed above. (2) The second step is that attributed to Thespis, when the reciter was no longer merely one of the dancers, but was made a person distinct from them, and in a manner contrasted with them; one who replied to their dance and song with his recitation, and was thence called the answerer, ὑποκριτής. This change would naturally lead to a higher organisation of the performance. The Chorus still remained the essential and dominant element. But the part of the reciter would now be adjusted to the choral parts in such a way as to give unity to the whole. We may suppose, too, that the choral songs, while continuing to make Dionysus prominent, were no longer restricted to that theme, but might refer also to the subject of the recitation. And the reciter doubtless used imitative action. Such a performance contained at least the germ of drama proper; and that name was perhaps already given to it. The word δρᾶμα, as describing a composition, occurs first in Herod. 6. 21, with reference to the piece by Phrynichus, called "The Capture of Miletus". Miletus was taken in 494 B.C., and the play cannot have been much later. In 494 Aeschylus was only thirty-one; he had been only about fourteen or fifteen when Phrynichus began to exhibit, and when, therefore, there was still only one actor. The first tragic victory of Aeschylus was not gained till 484 B.C., though he is said to have competed as early as 500 B.C. It is very probable, then, that in the "Capture of Miletus" there was only one actor. If so, we have to imagine a narrative of the capture, diversified by the choral expressions of anxiety or sorrow; such a play as the Persae of Aeschylus would be, if, in addition to the Chorus of Persian elders, the only person in it were the messenger who describes the battle of Salamis and the retreat of Xerxes.

(3) The third step in the development was taken when Aeschylus added the second actor, and so made it possible to have a properly dramatic action. The date of the change is uncertain; but it was not later than 472 B.C., and probably some years earlier than 484 B.C. This change evidently required that the audience should be placed in the manner known from later times. While there was only one actor, the spectators could still stand round in a complete circle, as of old; the actor could address himself to different points at different moments. But with two actors it became necessary that the acting should be turned, as a rule, towards some one quarter; and therefore that the spectators should be arranged in something like a semicircle. We do not know how early this was done; but at any rate the old legend (given by Suidas s.v. Pratinas), that a stone theatre was begun at Athens soon after 500 B.C., is now decidedly rejected by the experts who have lately examined the remains of the Dionysiac theatre at Athens. No permanent scene-building of any kind, they say, can have existed at Athens before about 330 B.C.; nor were there any permanent seats for the audience before that time. There was simply the circular orchestra, and such temporary wooden structures, for actors and for audience, as may have been put up for each occasion. Further, architectural evidence from the fourth century B.C., and later, is held to prove that no raised stage (λογεῖον, pulpitum) for the actors existed before the Roman age; in the Dionysiac theatre, there was no such stage before Nero's reign; the actors were on the same level with the Chorus. The writer on architecture, Vitruvius (c. 20 B.C.), in his account of the Greek theatre, was misled by Greek theatres modified under Roman influence; and gave as the front line of a raised stage what was really the line of the proscenium. The evidence of the ancient dramatic texts is of little avail against the modern architects; there are a few passages, indeed, which seem to imply a raised stage, but these are not conclusive; and there are, other passages which imply the opposite. It is well, for our present purpose, to remember this; because, if the architects are right, then we see that, in regard to externals, the matured Attic drama of the fifth century stood in a nearer relation with the archaic Dionysia of the earlier period than has generally been supposed; and that the feeling adverse to change in the traditional methods of the exhibition is likely to have been so far more influential.

The form in which Aeschylus produced his tragedies—at least during the later part of his career—was that of the trilogy, or group of three. To these was appended a fourth play, a satyr-drama, so called because in it the Chorus consisted of satyrs attendant on Dionysus; the object being to preserve a memory of that mingled seriousness and mirth which had been at the heart of the early Dionysiac festivals. Tragedy represented one side of the old Dionysiac mood, Comedy the other; but the satyr-drama—historically true to its purpose in that it was much nearer to Tragedy than to Comedy—represented both; and was therefore described by the rhetorician Demetrius[4] (περὶ ἑρμηνείας) as παίζουσα τραγῳδία, "Tragedy with mirth in it". The tragic trilogy, with the satyr-drama added, made up the tetralogy. It is not known that Aeschylus himself, or any of the dramatists, used the word τριλογία or τετραλογία. The earliest date to which the word τριλογία can be traced back is about 200 B.C.; this is obtained from the scholium on Ar. Ran. 1124, which shows that τριλογία was used, in reference to tragedies, by Apollonius Rhodius and Aristarchus. It has been inferred from the same scholium that Aristotle used the word τετραλογία in his διδασκαλίαι: but the inference seems unwarranted; however, it is plain from scholia that τετραλογία, as well as τριλογία, was a current term with the Alexandrian scholars; and in the second century A.D. Diogenes Laertius uses the phrase, τὴν τραγικὴν τετραλογία (3. 56)[5] in a way which shows that it had long been familiar. Welcker[6] indeed, assumed that a poet of the Old Comedy, Nicomachus, had written a piece called Τριλογία—in ridicule of the tragic practice; but Meineke has cleared this up (Frag. Com. I. 496 ff.), by showing that, in the passage of Suidas on which Welcker relied, τριλογία is not the name of a comedy, but refers to the names of three tragedies which follow it, indicating that they formed a trilogy. So we are left without any certain evidence for the words τριλογία and τετραλογία before 200 B.C. It is quite possible that, as Mr H. Richards has suggested, the earlier use of τετραλογία was in reference to a group of four speeches (such as Antiphon's tetralogies), and that the Alexandrian scholars transferred it to groups of plays. In any case, it is certain that Aeschylus composed in these forms, whether he did or did not use these terms. Wagner, too, composed what we call a tetralogy, yet he did not call it so, but simply a Bühnenfestspiel.

Was Aeschylus the inventor of the trilogy? It is nowhere stated, and cannot be proved; but it is very probable; Phrynichus seems less likely, and no third name has been suggested. We may next ask, what was the motive which first prompted such a grouping of three tragedies? Welcker finds it in a custom (which he supposes) that the single actor of the earlier period should speak thrice between the choral parts; each such deliverance being a λόγος, and the whole a τριλογία. This is to assume a good deal; besides, if, as Welcker holds, the primitive τριλογία answered to the single τραγῳδία of later days, then three τραγῳδίαι ought to have been called an ἐννεαλογία. The true motive of trilogy—so far as Aeschylus, at least, is concerned—is certainly deeper than any mere accident of tradition; it is rather to be sought in the nature of the epic material which he used, and in his relation, as a dramatist, to that material;—a relation which no one has appreciated better than Welcker himself. As Homer was the chief authority for the heroic legends, so epic narrative was the form of poetry which was chiefly associated with them. In the rudimentary drama—if it may be so called—of the days before Aeschylus, the single actor's parts probably bore some resemblance to the messenger's speeches in matured tragedy—in this respect, at least, that they were mainly occupied with narration. Thus when Aeschylus first came forward, all the influences of past and present favoured the tendency to combine a dramatic form with an epic spirit. Whether Aeschylus really said that his tragedies were only "morsels from the great feasts of Homer[7],"we cannot tell; but the saying has point when it is interpreted by his way of treating his subject-matter.

Take, for instance, the story of Agamemnon. The conqueror of Troy dies at home by the hand of his wife; his son, a young boy at the time, grows up in exile; returns in early manhood; slays the murderess, his mother; is pursued by the Furies; is tried at Athens, and is acquitted. We are not concerned now with any details in which Aeschylus departed from the epic version; we have only to observe that, from an epic point of view, this story is a single whole; the poet who tells how Agamemnon was killed would naturally go on to tell how Orestes avenged him, and what happened to Orestes afterwards. And this epic point of view was that from which Aeschylus approached dramatic composition. But it is manifest that the whole story could not be effectively treated in a single tragedy. Therefore he treated it in three tragedies, forming three successive chapters of the story: the Agamemnon, with the murder; the Choephoroe, with the revenge; and the Eumenides, with the acquittal. The fact that this trilogy was known as the Oresteia (a name certainly not restricted to the last two plays) illustrates the fact that, in a trilogy where the plays were thus connected, the second play regularly marked the tragic climax. It has been much discussed whether the plays of an Aeschylean trilogy were always connected; and whether he always produced his plays in trilogies, or sometimes also singly. Welcker thinks that, during his earliest period—down to perhaps about 490 B.C.—Aeschylus may sometimes have exhibited single plays; but that, after he had once adopted the trilogical form, he always connected the three plays, either by story (as in the case of the Oresteia), or by some pervading idea. Thus Welcker ingeniously supposes that, in the trilogy to which the Persae belonged, the connecting idea was Hellenic victory over the barbarian; the first play, called the Phineus related to the Argonauts; next came the Persae; and in the third piece, the Glaucus, the sea-deity of that name described the victory of the Sicilian Greeks over the Carthaginians at Himera in 480 B.C. Where the supposed link between the pieces is merely of this ideal kind, the group has been called a theme-trilogy; where the link is one of story (as in the Oresteia), a fable-trilogy. The doctrine of the theme-trilogy has been developed to the utmost extent by Adolf Schöll, in his Gründlicher Unterricht über die Trilogie (1859). He maintains that the law of inner unity in the trilogy was as strictly observed by the tragic poets after Aeschylus as, according to Welcker, it was by Aeschylus himself; and he attempts to show how the extant or recorded plays of Sophocles and Euripides can be grouped either by fable or by theme. More recently, G. Günther, in a work entitled Principles of the Tragic Art (1885) has advocated a view which seems far more probable. He points out—what, indeed, is evident—that there is something frigid, and foreign to the spirit of classical Greek poetry, in the notion of grouping three tragedies under an abstract idea. And he justly remarks that the conjectural reconstruction of theme-trilogies is apt to become a highly arbitrary process. Aeschylus, he thinks, often linked his three plays by fable—as in the Oresteia—but did not invariably do so. Sophocles and Euripides inherited that freedom of choice; with them, probably, the linking of the three plays by story was less frequent than it had been with Aeschylus; this inference is warranted by the extant evidence of their plays and fragments. In cases where the three plays were not linked by fable, we are still at liberty, Günther says, to suppose that the poet chose their subjects with some regard to artistic effects of harmony or contrast. While concurring generally in this view, I think that it requires to be qualified by some further remarks. (1) First, though Welcker's attempt to reconstruct the Aeschylean trilogies, by links of fable or of idea, involves a very large measure of uncertainty—as he himself fully admits,—still he may be said to have proved thus much, that the trilogy in which the plays were linked by fable was the characteristically Aeschylean form of composition. Aeschylus did not always use it; but it was the form distinctively associated with his name. (2) Secondly, the trilogy in which the plays were not linked by fable was characteristically Sophoclean—the form best suited to the dramatic concentration which marked his art; the form which he was the first to make popular by excellent illustrations, and which he continued to prefer. As to the comparative prevalence of the two forms in the whole tragedy-literature of the fifth century, the evidence is too scanty to warrant any precise estimate. Towards the end of the century we meet with two certain instances of the Aeschylean form, the Pandionis of Philocles in 429, and the Oedipodeia of Meletus in 405. On the other hand, the relatively small number of such fable-trilogies which can safely be inferred from the extant documents, and the fact that in 340 B.C. the trilogical form itself had ceased to be imperative—as is shown by an inscription published in the Transactions of the German Institute at Athens for 1878—would lead us to believe that, after Aeschylus, the general tendency was in favour of the trilogy with unconnected plays. (3) Thirdly, we may observe that there seems no ground for an assumption which has been made, or implied, in some writings on this question—viz. that a trilogy would have appeared defective as a work of art if the three tragedies had not been in some way related to each other. We saw that Günther, while giving up the theme-trilogy, suggests that the author of three plays not linked by fable may still have studied some general effect of harmony or contrast between his pieces. The poet may, of course, have sometimes done so, and with good result; but it seems unlikely that either poet or audience would have felt this to be necessary. Drama at the Dionysia was an act of religious worship. The honour of Dionysus was the central idea of the festival. The thing primarily required by Athenian feeling was not that the tragedies should be connected with each other, but that each should be worthy of the god. The unity of the tetralogy in this paramount aspect—viz., as a religious tribute—was symbolised by the number of the tragic Chorus. With Aeschylus, at least in his earlier period, the number was twelve; Sophocles raised it to fifteen by adding a coryphaeus (whose duties had formerly been taken by one of the ordinary choreutae) and two leaders of hemichoria; i.e. when the Chorus had to act in two equal divisions (as it does in a passage of the Ajax), these two men respectively led the two divisions. Both the older twelve and the later fifteen roughly represented one quarter of the old cyclic Chorus; and thus, though (so far as we know) the same twelve or fifteen men formed the Chorus in all the four pieces of a tetralogy, their number itself expressed the feeling that the tetralogy was a single performance.

Tetralogies continued to be exhibited throughout the fifth century B.C. The evidence for this rests ultimately on the basis of contemporary Athenian records. In the fifth century it was customary for the archon, after each occasion on which dramas had been performed, to draw up a list of the competing poets, the choregi, the plays, and the chief actors, with a notice of the order in which the judges had placed the competitors. This record was preserved in the public archives. Towards the middle or latter part of the fifth century, it became usual to engrave such a record on a stone tablet, and to set it up in or near the Dionysiac theatre. Further, the choregus whose poet gained the prize received a tripod from the State, which he erected, with an inscription, in the same neighbourhood. In the fourth century, about sixty years after the deaths of Sophocles and Euripides, Aristotle compiled a work called Διδασκαλίαι, "Dramatic performances," being a list of the tragedies and comedies produced in each year. For this work his materials were the written or engraved records just mentioned. The book has perished, but its nature is known from citations of it which occur in the Greek Arguments to some plays, in scholia, and in late writers. There are altogether thirteen such citations; five of these say, "Aristotle in the Διδασκαλίαι": the other eight quote simply the Διδασκαλίαι, without the author's name. They are collected in the Berlin Aristotle, v. 1572. About 260 B.C. the Alexandrian poet Callimachus compiled another work of the same kind, Πίναξ καὶ ἀναγραφὴ τῶν κατὰ χρόνους ἀπ' ἀρχῆς γενομένων διδασκαλιῶν, "A Table and Record of Dramatic Performances in chronological order, from the earliest times." He made a careful use of Aristotle's Διδασκαλίαι, as appears from the scholium on Ar. Nub. 552. Works of a similar kind were written by Aristophanes of Byzantium (c. 200 B.C.)—who, like Callimachus, was at the head of the Alexandrian Library—and by other scholars of Alexandria and of Pergamum. Several of these writings were extant as late, at least, as the end of the second century after Christ. Athenaeus shows this. He had met with a mention of a play, ascribed to a poet of the fourth century B.C., of which the title was new to him. It has not been registered, he says, either by Callimachus, or by Aristophanes, or by the authors of the Pergamene records (p. 336 c). Among the last-named was Carystius of Pergamum (iio B.C.), who wrote a book Περὶ Διδασκαλιῶν. The notices which have come down to us from these sources enable us to trace fourteen tetralogies. Four are by Aeschylus, the earliest which can be dated being the Persae tetralogy in 472 B.C.: the next the Theban in 467, and then the Oresteia in 458; the fourth tetralogy is the Λυκουργία. Five are by Euripides, belonging to the years 438, 431, 415, 411 (?), and 405 (?) B.C. Of the remaining five, one is by Aristias, son of Pratinas, in 467 B.C., and another by Polyphradmon, in the same year; the third is by Philocles, nephew of Aeschylus, in 429; the fourth by Xenocles, who defeated Euripides with it in 415; and the fifth by Meletus in 405. The citations of the last two from the Διδασκαλίαι are among those five citations of that work which have Aristotle's name added. To this list we may add a tetralogy by Nicomachus, a contemporary of Euripides, on the strength of Suidas s.v. Νικόμαχος, as explained by Meineke. The dramatic career of Sophocles began in 468, and he died in 406 or 405 B.C. Thus all through his active life as a poet tetralogies were being produced by other poets.

We are now in a position to estimate the various explanations which have been given of the statement in Suidas—that Sophocles began the practice of play contending against play, and not tetralogy against tetralogy. πρῶτος τρισὶν ἐχρήσατο ὑποκριταῖς—καὶ πρῶτος τὸν χορὸν κ.τ.λ.—καὶ αὐτὸς ἦρξε τοῦ δρᾶμα πρὸς δρᾶμα ἀγωνίζεσθαι, ἀλλὰ μὴ τετραλογίαν.

(1) Godfrey Hermann, in his work on the Composition of Tetralogies (1819), takes the meaning to be that Sophocles abandoned tetralogy altogether, and exhibited only a single tragedy on each occasion. Stress is laid on the fact that no extant notice records a tetralogy by Sophocles. But against this negative evidence—the importance of which is very greatly diminished by the scantiness of the notices which we possess—we have to set this fact, that on at least two occasions when Sophocles competed for the tragic prize, he is known to have competed against a tetralogy. This was the case in 438 B.C., when Euripides produced the Alcestis in place of a satyr-drama. The argument to that play says:—"Sophocles was first; Euripides was second, with the Cressae, Alcmaeon in Psophis, Telephus, and Alcestis." It was the case again in 431 B.C., when Euripides brought out the Medea. The argument says: "Euphorion was first; Sophocles second; Euripides third, with Medea, Philoctetes, Dictys, and the Reapers for satyr-play." Euphorion, the son of Aeschylus, was not likely to have abandoned the use of tetralogy; and we cannot reasonably doubt that Sophocles, too, produced four plays. To have competed at the Dionysia with a single tragedy against a tetralogy might well have exposed an Athenian poet to the imputation of sterility or of arrogance; and there is no evidence that, after the institution of tetralogy, either Sophocles or any other fifth century poet ever did so; while all the presumptive evidence is the other way. The year 340 B.C. is the earliest in which it is proved[8] that the tragic poets exhibited less than three plays each; and in that year they produced two each. It may be added that in the fifth century B.C. a poet who offered only one tragedy at the great festival would not merely have courted defeat in the contest, but would further have seemed to render an incomplete and grudging homage to the god. It was only by a tetralogy that the old Dionysiac Chorus was fully represented. We may decide, then, I think, against the view that Sophocles abandoned tetralogy.

(2) Boeckh modifies that view. He supposes that Sophocles continued to produce tetralogies at the Great Dionysia, but set the example of producing single tragedies at the Lenaea. There is nothing to support this conjecture. What is known about drama at the Lenaea amounts to this. In the earlier times, the Rural Dionysia in December was the only festival with Dionysiac choral performances. It was probably under Peisistratus, about 550 B.C., that the festival of the Lenaea, held in January, was instituted. The Lenaea then became the chief occasion for producing the choruses. It was at the Lenaea that Thespis exhibited, in the later years of Peisistratus; it was the Lenaea that witnessed the performances of Choerilus and Pratinas, and the earlier works of Aeschylus. The institution of the Great Dionysia, held in March, may probably be placed about 478 B.C.[9] The Great Dionysia then became the chief occasion for Tragedy, and seems to have been the only festival at which Tragedy was produced down to about 430 B.C., when the Lenaea—which had meanwhile been monopolised by Comedy—began once more to be used for Tragedy also, though perhaps not, at first, every year. But the Tragic contest at the Great Dionysia always continued to be the principal one, just as the Lenaea continued to be peculiarly the festival of Comedy. If, then, the innovation made by Sophocles concerned only the Lenaea, it would not have been of much significance; nor could it have been made at all before the later period of his career. There is equally little probability in Bergk's suggestion that the Rural Dionysia was the festival at which Sophocles produced single plays, while producing tetralogies at the Great Dionysia and at the Lenaea.

(3) Another explanation is that proposed by Mr A. T. S. Goodrick (Journ. of Philology, vol. xiv., pp. 137 f., 1885). Sophocles, he thinks, began his career with tetralogies, following the example of Aeschylus. But, some years later, we find each of the ten Attic tribes furnishing a choregus, and so we must conclude that at that period no fewer than ten tragic poets were wont to compete on the same occasion. Sophocles then introduced the rule that each poet should exhibit at the festival only one play of the tetralogy which he had composed for it. After the festival, the other three plays were published along with the play which had been acted, and thus became known to the public; probably, too, they were acted in other theatres at less important festivals. (1) The first objection to this hypothesis concerns the assumption that as many as ten tragic poets ever competed at the same Dionysia. That Mr Goodrick means ten tragic poets, and not five tragic and five comic, is shown by his speaking of ten tetralogies (p. 138); for Comedies were always produced singly. In the fifth century the number of tragic poets at the Great Dionysia was regularly three only; the old belief that it was five had no better ground than the supposition that, when the Didascaliae name the three competing poets in order, these are the winners of a first, second, and third prize, and that the whole number of competitors must have been larger. But there was only one prize. As to the supposed ten choregi, a choregus from each tribe was not appointed every year; but the ten tribes in rotation nominated choregi, from among whom the archon chose as many as were required for the festival; i.e., at the Great Dionysia in the fifth century, usually three for Tragedy and three for Comedy. The evidence on these points will be found in Albert Müller's recent work on Greek Scenic Antiquities, pp. 320 f. and 331, 1886. (2) The second objection to Mr Goodrick's hypothesis is that the three unacted plays of each tetralogy would not have been recorded in the Didascaliae, which, as their name denotes, were lists, not of plays written merely, but of plays performed. Thus the scholium on Eur. Andromache 446 says that the date of that play is not on record, because it was never acted at Athens. The same limit to the contents of the Didascaliae is expressly stated by the scholium on Ar. Nub. 552 ( = 553 Dindorf).

(4) C. F. Hermann (Greek Ant. ii. § 59, n. 23) approaches the problem from a different side. He grants that Sophocles continued to exhibit tetralogies, but supposes that he altered the mode of procedure. Hitherto the four plays of each tetralogy had been acted one after another. But Sophocles, says C. F. Hermann, arranged that the first play of the first tetralogy should be immediately followed by the first play of the second tetralogy, this by the first play of the third, and so on; so that each of the three poets appeared four several times. Here the first objection is that such a system would utterly mar the effect of a tetralogy in which the tragedies were linked by story. Let us imagine, for example, a performance in which the Agamemnon was followed by two plays wholly unrelated to it and to each other; then the Choephoroe; next, two more plays on other subjects; and then the Eumenides. It is manifest that the impressiveness of the Oresteia as a whole would be destroyed; the unity of the poet's large design would be broken up; his work, as now presented, would be no longer the work which he had planned. But we have seen that tetralogies of the Oresteia type continued to be exhibited, at least occasionally, down to the end of the fifth century. Take, for instance, the year 429 B.C., when Philocles brought out his tetralogy, the Pandionis, and suppose that on the same occasion two other poets offered tetralogies not linked by story. Are we to suppose that the sandwich-system, as it might be called, was applied to all three? If so, then manifestly Philocles was placed at a serious disadvantage as compared with his two competitors. Or are we rather to assume that Philocles was allowed to have his Pandionis performed as a whole, and that only the other two tetralogies were interfused? In that case, we have two different systems in operation at the same festival, to the detriment of its symmetry. There would have been small inducement to institute the new plan, when, besides being complicated and troublesome in itself, it was one which could not be uniformly enforced; or, if uniformly, then at the expense of fairness towards one class of admissible compositions. I cannot, therefore, think that C. F. Hermann's theory is a probable one.

(5) Welcker's interpretation is simpler. He, we remember, holds that, in the tetralogies of Aeschylus, the three tragedies were always linked by story or by idea, and that Sophocles was the first to dispense with such a link. He understands the statement of Suidas as referring merely to this change. When Suidas says that Sophocles "began the practice of play contending against play, and not tetralogy against tetralogy," he means that a Sophoclean group of four plays was not a tetralogy in the same sense as an Aeschylean group; i.e., it had no inner unity[10]. Here, then, the issue is narrowed to a question of language. Welcker supposes that Suidas limited the use of the word τετραλογία to the case in which the plays were linked. The critic has been led to this supposition by his own view as to the proper use of the word τριλογία. That word, he thinks, should be restricted to the Aeschylean linked trilogy; in the case of Sophocles, he recognises no 'trilogy,' but only a group of three tragedies. Now, even if we granted, for the sake of argument, that Welcker was right about the word trilogy, the construction which he puts on Suidas would still be untenable. For Welcker allows that, in the Aeschylean tetralogy no less than in the Sophoclean, the fourth piece, the satyr-play, had, as a rule, no link of story or of idea with the trilogy. If, therefore, Suidas had intended to draw the distinction between Aeschylus and Sophocles which Welcker attributes to him, he ought not to have said τετραλογίαν: he ought to have said τριλογίαν. And further, Welcker candidly admits that, so far as the usage of the term τετραλογία can be traced elsewhere, that usage affords no warrant for the restriction which he imagines Suidas to have placed upon it. Further, if Suidas meant merely to distinguish between groups of connected and of unconnected plays, he has expressed his whole thought very obscurely: δρᾶμα πρὸς δρᾶμα does not suit this. We may add that, as nothing more than the external unity of consecutive exhibition was necessarily denoted by τετραλογία, there is just as little reason for supposing that anything more was denoted by τριλογία. And so Welcker's interpretation fails.

We have now considered five explanations: (1) that of Godfrey Hermann—Sophocles gave up tetralogy altogether; (2) that of Boeckh and Bergk—he exhibited single plays at the Lenaea, or at the Rural Dionysia, while retaining tetralogy at the Great Dionysia; (3) that of Mr Goodrick—he composed tetralogies, but caused only one play of the group to be acted at the Great Dionysia; (4) that of C. F. Hermann—he arranged that, in the performance of three competing tetralogies, one play from the first should be followed by one play from the second and one from the third, till all twelve plays had been given; (5) that of Welcker—Suidas means simply that Sophocles dispensed with an inner connection in the trilogy.

Seeing that no one of these interpretations appears tenable, are we then reduced to the conclusion which has been adopted by Adolf Schöll, and more lately by Günther—that the statement of Suidas is in irreconcileable conflict with the other extant evidence? Are we to suppose that, using some more ancient authority, the lexicographer of the eleventh century has not only misunderstood it, but has so transformed the sense that the real meaning of the original statement can no longer be divined?

It is only in the last resort that such a conclusion would be justified; and I cannot but think that the words of Suidas are susceptible of an explanation which, so far as I know, has not yet been suggested. In the first place, it seems beyond all reasonable doubt that Sophocles continued the Aeschylean practice by composing tetralogies—a practice which we have found in use down to the end of the fifth century; we know that he competed against the tetralogies of other poets. It also seems clear that, as the linked trilogy was characteristic of Aeschylus, the unconnected trilogy was characteristic of Sophocles, though we cannot assume that the general rule was observed without exception in either case. Now let us consider a matter which, in previous discussions of this question, seems scarcely to have received the attention which it deserves; viz., the nature of the task imposed on the ten judges, who, after the performance of the tragedies, had to arrange the three contending poets in order of merit. In the case of a trilogy like the Oresteia, where the three plays formed an artistic unit, the task of judging would be comparatively easy; the poet came before the judges with what was essentially a single work. But it would be otherwise when a poet offered four plays, unrelated in subject, appealing to different ranges of thought or sentiment, marked by incommensurable beauties and dissimilar faults. If this poet's two competitors also offered four unconnected plays each, the judges would have before them three groups of independent compositions. We may assume that, at the Great Dionysia, the aspirants to the Tragic prize would, as a rule, be fairly well matched against each other in respect of general dramatic calibre; such an inference is made reasonable by the fact that those great dramatists, from whom a few plays have come down to us, were occasionally defeated—even when exhibiting works which in our eyes are supreme masterpieces—by other dramatists whose works have perished. It is not permissible, then, to suppose that the task of the judges would often be simplified by a clear pre-eminence in one poet. And, given a well-matched trio, the kind of difficulty which would confront the judges may best be imagined, perhaps, by taking an illustration from English literature. Let us suppose a contest between three groups of Shakespeare's plays—since "none but himself can be his parallel." The first group, or tetralogy, might consist, for instance, of Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Cymbeline, Twelfth Night; the second, of Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Winter's Tale, As You Like It; the third, of Othello, Julius Cæsar, Tempest, Much Ado About Nothing. A reader of the plays, with leisure for study and reflection, might not perhaps find it very difficult to decide which group, on the whole, he placed first, second, or third; though he would probably feel that, at best, the result of such an attempt must be unsatisfactory. But for a body of judges in a theatre, compelled to give their award soon after hearing the tetralogies once acted, the choice would be still more perplexing. It would not be strange if they sought refuge from this embarrassment by raising a question which could be determined with comparative ease—viz., which one play was the best of all. The author of the tetralogy which contained that play would then be placed first; and the second place would be decided by the best play in the two other sets. If a linked trilogy like the Oresteia was exhibited by one or two of the competitors, but not by all three, then the tetralogy containing it could be viewed either as a unit, or as a group, at the discretion of the judges.

While general probabilities thus countenance the belief that the fate of a tetralogy may often have turned on one play, it may be observed that this belief does not depend on general probabilities alone. In ancient literary references to the Attic drama of the fifth century B.C. we sometimes find that the name of a single tragedy is associated with a poet's victory or defeat. For example, (1) the Argument to the Philoctetes says: "It was performed in the archonship of Glaucippus. Sophocles was first." (2) In an Argument to the Antigone we read: "They say that Sophocles was appointed to the strategia which he held at Samos, because he had distinguished himself by the production of the Antigone." (3) The Argument to the Hippolytus says: "It was performed in the archonship of Epameinon. Euripides was first." (4) Plato, in the Symposium (p. 173 A), speaks of the occasion when "Agathon conquered with his first tragedy." (5) Aristides (ii. 256) expresses his surprise that Philocles won the prize against the Oedipus Tyrannus; and thus implies that this play alone might well have ensured success. Such passages have been cited in support of the view that these plays were produced singly. (6) But Aristophanes, in the Ranae, makes Aeschylus speak of having composed the Seven against Thebes (1021), and of having exhibited the Persae (1026); it is known, however, that in each case the play formed part of a tetralogy. It was natural for Aristophanes to write thus, because the Seven against Thebes and the Persae stood out before his mind as the most striking plays in their respective tetralogies. And so, when the custom of unconnected tragedies had been made popular by Sophocles, it is still easier to understand why a play should be mentioned alone, if it had been the bright particular star of its own constellation, and if its brilliancy had been recognised by popular report as the primary cause of the poet's triumph.

This, then, I think, is the probable basis of fact on which the statement of Suidas rests:—when groups of unconnected plays competed, the difficulty of comparing the groups, as such, often led to the prize being decided by a comparison of the single plays; and as Sophocles was peculiarly associated in tradition with the trilogy of unconnected tragedies, so he was also associated with its practical result, viz., a method of award under which the single play became the usual gauge of merit. When, however, we have assigned our reasons for believing that this was the basis of fact underlying the statement of Suidas, another and entirely distinct question remains:—Is this the meaning which Suidas intended his statement to convey? Undoubtedly his words perfectly fit that meaning. As we saw at the outset, δρᾶμα and τετραλογίαν are the subjects to ἀγωνίζεσθαι. Play contends with play, not group with group, when the judges compare single plays and not whole groups. If the verb had been διδάσκεσθαι instead of ἀγωνίζεσθαι, the plain sense would have been that the poet exhibited his plays singly. Some weight must therefore be allowed to the fact that the verb actually used, ἀγωνίζεσθαι, is just the verb which suits the other sense. But we must look at the whole context. Suidas has just been speaking of two changes made by Sophocles in the external form of Tragedy—the addition of a third actor, and the enlargement of the Chorus. It is natural, then, to suppose that here also he is thinking of some definite change in the form or method of exhibition. And this inference is strengthened by the emphasis of the word αὐτός, which seems to lay stress on the personal initiative of the poet. On the whole, I am disposed to surmise—though I do not feel sure—that Suidas himself intended his words in the sense put on them by G. Hermann—that Sophocles forsook tetralogy altogether, and produced only single plays. This, we can now assert with some confidence, Sophocles did not do. Is it, then, a pure accident that Suidas has employed a form of words which, without forcing, yield a different sense, and one quite in accord with all the ancient evidence? I can hardly think so. His article on Sophocles is apparently a string of statements epitomised from older sources. It is not improbable that, in one of the Alexandrian or Pergamene writers on the Attic drama, he had found a passage to the effect that the Sophoclean type of trilogy led practically to play being pitted against play for the prize, instead of tetralogy against tetralogy, as in the earlier period. For the sake of illustration, I may suggest a form of Greek words, as close as possible to those used by Suidas, yet which would express that meaning with rather less ambiguity:—δράματος ἤδη πρὸς δρᾶμα ὁ ἀγὼν ἐγίγνετο, ἀλλ' οὐχὶ τετραλογίας—the contest (i.e. the tussle for the prize) now came to be one of play against play, not of tetralogy against tetralogy. Meeting with such a statement, Suidas might easily have taken ὁ ἀγών to mean, not the issue between the competitors, but the dramatic exhibition. I put this case merely to show how possible it is that his paraphrase is verbally faithful to an authority which he did not accurately comprehend, and that this may be the reason why it remains susceptible of the right sense, as well as of that wrong sense which he may have intended.

In concluding this endeavour to assist in the elucidation of a much-discussed passage, I would only add that the question with which it is concerned may be said to have a somewhat larger scope than that of a mere detail in the history of an ancient festival. Pindar stands between epos and drama, when he gives us such pictures—worthy of the man accustomed to see beautiful forms in vivid action—as the coming of Jason to Pelias, the meeting of Apollo and Cheiron, the episode of Castor and Polydeuces, the entertainment of Heracles by Telamon: Aeschylus is the great dramatist whose framework is still epic: but it is only when the single tragedy has become the measure of dramatic art, that drama reigns in its own right. We turn to Aristotle's Treatise on Poetry, and we are amazed to find that the author of the Didascaliae, the first annalist of trilogy and tetralogy, drops not one hint—in the text as we have it, at least—that tragedies had ever been produced otherwise than singly. Once or twice he refers—in one place (c. 18) with undisguised censure—to the epic scale of tragedy in the Aeschylean period. But no one could have gathered from Aristotle that it had so long been the custom to exhibit plays in groups. Where he speaks of the number of tragedies set for one hearing (c. 24), nothing forbids us to suppose as many poets as pieces. So exclusively is his attention directed to the single drama. It is to the Oedipus Tyrannus, not to the Oresieia, that his canons of criticism are adapted. His attitude of mind in this respect may leave room for regret; it may seem to us strange indeed that he should apparently fail to appreciate at all the greatness of Aeschylus; but his justification lies in the distinction between poetical grandeur and the excellence proper to drama as such. In the passage which we have been considering today, if the interpretation which I have suggested for it may be accepted, Sophocles comes before us as the poet whose distinctive method first concentrated the attention of Athenians on the essence of that art which he illustrated.


  1. This 'Exposition' was delivered by the author, as candidate for the Regius Professorship of Greek in the University of Cambridge, in the Arts School before the Council of the Senate on May 24, 1889.
  2. καὶ αὐτὸς ἦρξε τοῦ δρᾶμα πρὸς δρᾶμα ἀγωνίζεσθαι, ἀλλὰ μὴ τετραλογίαν.
  3. Since the literature bearing on this passage is a somewhat large one, it may be well to give at the outset a chronological list of the writings which have been chiefly used for this paper.
    1819. G. Hermann, On the Composition of Tetralogies.
    1824. Welcker, The Aeschylean Trilogy Prometheus.
    1839. A. Schöll, Contributions to the History of Greek Poetry; also his "Full Exposition of the Tetralogy" (1859).
    1839. Heinrich Bode, History of Greek Dramatic Poetry.
    1841. Boeckh, An Essay to show "That single plays also were exhibited by the Greek Tragedians."
    1857. Bergk, A Commentary on the Art of Sophocles.
    1858. C. F. Hermann, Greek Antiquities, vol. ii. § 59, n. 23, 2nd ed.: where he says that his view of the passage in Suidas was first expounded in Jahrbuch für Wissenschaftliche Kritik for 1843, vol. ii. p. 834.
    1877. H. Richards, "Some Doubts as to the performance of Trilogies or Tetralogies at Athens," in the Journal of Philology, vol. vii. p. 279.
    1885. A. T. S. Goodrick, "On certain Difficulties with regard to the Greek Tetralogy," in the Journal of Philology, vol. xiv. p. 133.
    1885. G. Günther, Principles of the Tragic Art.
    1886. A. E. Haigh, "On the Trilogy and Tetralogy in the Greek Drama," in the Journal of Philology, vol. xv. p. 257.
    1886. Albert Müller, Handbook of Greek Scenic Antiquities.
  4. Demetrius, De Elocut. § 169.
  5. Θρασύλος δέ φησι καὶ κατὰ τὴν τραγικὴν τετραλογίαν ἐκδοῦναι αὐτὸν (Plato) τοὺς διαλόγους.
  6. Aesch. Tril. p. 500.
  7. Athen. p. 348, ὃς τὰς αὑτοῦ τραγῳδίας τεμάχη εἶναι ἔλεγε τῶν Ὁμήρου μεγάλων δείπνων.
  8. By a contemporary inscription. C. I. A. ii. 973 (M. 323 n. 2, H. 324.)
  9. A. Müller, p. 311.
  10. So Haigh, p. 21, n. 1.