Fragments of Cresphontes.

Jo Caird writes for JSTOR Daily:

Only thirty-two full-length Greek tragedies have survived into the modern age. Written by just three men, Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles, these works represent a tiny fraction of those that would have been performed at the grand theater festivals of ancient Athens, beginning in the fifth century BCE. Of the more than 300 known tragedies from that era, the vast majority exist only as fragments, tantalizing glimpses of imaginative worlds that remain frustratingly out of reach.

Or maybe not. Although just half a scene and a handful of broken lines are all that remain of Cresphontes, a revenge tragedy by Euripides, the British theater company Potential Difference has put the play at the heart of its latest work, Fragments. Set in the papyrology department of a fictional university, the play (on tour in the UK until May 13) centers on a trio of papyrology scholars attempting to decipher the drama of Cresphontes from a handful of badly damaged scraps of text. As they do so, the ancient drama comes to life around them through puppetry and song. […]

The myth of Cresphontes, which we know from the writings of later authors, tells the story of a young man who secretly returns to his birthplace to avenge the murder of his father, the late king at the hands of his uncle, Polyphontes. Just a baby at the time of his father’s death, Cresphontes is smuggled to safety by his grandfather, while his two brothers are killed by their uncle. His mother, Merope, is then made to marry her husband’s murderer against her will. The drama climaxes when Cresphontes reaches adulthood and his mother mistakenly thinks he is a bounty hunter hired by Polyphontes to murder her son. She is stopped from killing him in the nick of time.

There are certainly plenty of gaps in the text for [Russell] Bender and Dr. Laura Swift, his co-author and a tutorial fellow in classics at the University of Oxford, to celebrate. The text, such as it is, includes around 100 lines of text gathered from two papyri written 400 years apart, and ten brief references found elsewhere. Together these offer a glimpse of the action, never a full picture. What we know straight from Euripides is that Cresphontes vows to avenge his father after disguising himself and inquiring at the palace about his death; that a chorus of old men comment on the troubled state of play in the royal household; and that Merope bemoans her fate.

Even with so little to go on, says Bender, “it’s inspiring to work with this text.” Firstly, there’s the sheer drama of the plot, which would have made Cresphontes “really quite an exciting, engaging play,” says Swift. “Given that this isn’t a myth that we think the audience would have been familiar with, there would have been genuine suspense and excitement,” she explains. “Particularly given that tragedy often does end in disaster, the audience could have really been at the edge of their seats thinking, ‘Oh god, she’s going to kill her own son.’” […]

Reading the ancient Greek of papyrus fragments is a very different experience from reading as we know it. As Herbert C. Youtie writes in a seminal essay on the process of papyrology, “The scribes do not divide their texts into words and sentences, nor do they generally make any attempt to conform to the orthodox spellings of the schools.” This is because the people of that era were so in the habit of reading aloud that they were able to glean spacing and punctuation naturally as they read. Modern readers attempting to interpret these texts have no choice but to make a series of educated guesses at how words should be divided, based on their knowledge of the language and the context.

Complicated as that process is, papyrologists then face the additional task of dealing with the idiosyncrasies of ancient handwriting, including accidental errors by scribes in a hurry to get their work done. Transcription errors among papyrologists are worryingly frequent, writes Youtie; in an analysis of the published texts of 250 papyri and ostraca (pieces of pottery) alongside their originals, he finds that the letter alpha is mistaken for 21 out of 24 letters of the alphabet. When you extrapolate these figures out for the entire alphabet, single letters as well as groupings, the scale of the problem becomes clear. […]

When Bender and Swift first began working on Fragments, back in 2014, there wasn’t much academic interest in what Swift calls “fragmentary drama.”

“People who worked on tragedy who were interested in literary or cultural questions only really looked at the extant plays because there’s quite a lot of them and there’s plenty to be getting on with,” she says. That’s slowly changing now, with classicists finally beginning to look to the enormous quantity of fragmentary drama languishing unstudied in papyrus collections at universities and museums around the world. This is important, says Swift, because this material has the “potential to really expand our understanding of the genre of tragedy” beyond the work of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Lots more at the link; thanks, Bathrobe!


  1. I don’t know with whom this specific claim originated, but the statement that the chorus is made up of old men looks to me like reading Sophoclean convention into a Euripides play. The choruses in plays by Euripides were typically composed of female charcters, who commented on the difficulties faced by the female leads and their families. The fragments of Cresphontes may be found here, and I don’t see in the English translation anything that suggests that the aging chorister characters are male (although there could be something in the Greek).

  2. No, the Greek makes it clear that they’re male. Thanks for the link!

  3. I don’t know with whom this specific claim originated, but the statement that the chorus is made up of old men looks to me like reading Sophoclean convention into a Euripides play.

    There is discussion of this point on p. 14 of the article referred to the JSTOR Daily blogpost that Hat linked to: Katherine Lu Hsu, ‘P. Mich. 6973: An Interpretation of a Ptolemaic Fragment of Euripides’ Cresphontes’, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, Bd. 190 (2014), pp. 31-48, on JSTOR here.

    (Short comment because I am on the road.)

    EDIT: I see after hitting ‘save’ that Hat commented on this same point a minute before I did. Thank you for today’s post, Hat! This is great.

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