Thursday, January 30, 2014


The Alexandra of Lycophron, Paris, 2008

Starting with the early Renaissance, the study of ancient Greek became a popular and prestigious discipline – and stayed that way for more than five hundred years. Currently the study of Classics as a whole is a relatively rare academic specialty. The ancient texts are still quoted all the time by current-days poets and novelists and essayists  but quoted nowadays only in translation.

There may have been one Greek poet named Lycophron or there may have been two  modern scholars are divided between opposing theories. Everybody agrees there was a prolific writer of tragedies and literary criticism named Lycophron at the court of the Ptolemies in Alexandria about 300 BC. And everybody agrees that only a few scattered lines from all those tragedies and all that criticism have survived. What does survive under the name "Lycophron" is a complete poem of about 1200 lines called the Alexandra. Some scholars think the courtier-tragedian wrote it, but many think a poet who lived about a hundred years later adopted the name "Lycophron" as part of this intricately contrived literary performance.

The Alexandra of Lycophron, Basel, 1546

The poem consists mainly of prophecies by the Trojan princess Cassandra, repeating much of the plot of the Iliad, but in deliberately elaborate, allusive language. The 'Baroque' style of this late-Greek production is what has brought the poem back into fashion among working scholars today. It has become a mine for modern quotation and speculation. There are said to be more than 500 ancient Greek words that appear only in the Alexandra and in no other surviving text.

Ajax and Cassandra, Roman fresco, Pompeii

Cassandra's special curse is always to be right and never to be believed. She correctly predicts her own doom at the end of the Trojan War, when she will be seized as a concubine by the Greek hero Ajax.

Ajax and Cassandra, 1886
Solomon Joseph Solomon 

In the passage below, Cassandra describes the fate waiting for her own mother, Hecuba, after the Greeks have taken Troy 

And thy doom I lament, thou grief-worn dog.
One that same earth, which bare her, opening wide
Shall swallow utterly in yawning depths,
As she sees direful ruin close at hand,
There by her forebear's grove, where concubine
Who wed in secret now lies joined in death
With her own offspring ere it sucked the breast
And ere her limbs were bathed, her travail past.
And there shall lead to cruel bridal-feast
And wedding-sacrifices Iphis' son,
Grim lion, using his fierce mother's rites;
Slitting her throat into a vessel deep
The snake, dread butcher of the wreath-crowned cow,
Shall smite her with Candaon's thrice-owned sword,
And slay for wolves the opening sacrifice.
While thee, aged captive, on the hollow shore,
Stoned publicly by the Dolonican folk
Embittered by thy curses and abuse,
A robe shall cover wrought of showering stones,
When Maera's dusky form thou shalt assume.

 George W. Mooney, from his 1921 translation of the Alexandra

Hecuba (detail) 1815
Merry-Joseph Blondel