5 Creation or Confirmation of the Canon? The Measures of Lycurgus and the Selection of Athenian Tragedy in Antiquity

In: Canonisation as Innovation
André Lardinois
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We know that in the 5th-century BCE around 900 tragedies must have been produced in Classical Athens. Each year approximately nine tragedies were produced for the City Dionysia, the festival for the god Dionysus held in the Spring.1 Nine per year adds up to 900 in the whole century. By the Byzantine period only 32 of these 900 plays had survived, among which the 24 plays that made up the canon of Greek tragedy at least by the 2nd century CE: seven plays of Aeschylus, seven of Sophocles and ten of Euripides.2 In this paper I will address the question how this selection was made and what role political authorities played in making this selection. I will focus in particular on the measures that the Athenian statesman Lycurgus took around 330 BCE to promote Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides as the three great Athenian tragedians, a status they still enjoy today. I will argue that in doing so he strengthened the canonical status that these three tragedians enjoyed already rather than inventing it, and that this is a pattern in the canonization of Greek tragedy in later periods as well. Unlike previous studies of the canonization of Greek tragedy, I view its development more as a confirmation and use of existing traditions than the invention of a new tradition. It was a bottom-up rather than a top-down process and this, I believe, is how cultures most often are formed.3

This paper is part of a larger research programme that studies innovation processes in antiquity. Underlying this programme, which goes by the name of “Anchoring Innovation”,4 is the idea that for the acceptance of innovations it is necessary that they not only deliver something new, but also remain connected to (be “anchored in”) what is already familiar and recognisable to the people who are supposed to adopt this innovation. A good example is Vergil’s Aeneid, which is innovative in many ways, but at the same presents itself as a traditional epic by its many references to Homer’s epics. In this way Vergil made his innovations not only acceptable, but he could also draw on Homer’s reputation to establish the authority of his own poem.5 Canons, either already existing or newly created, are perfect “anchors” to which to tie new developments and from which to derive authority. In this paper I will explore how the tragic canon was used as anchor for political and educational changes in antiquity.

The measures the Athenian statesman Lycurgus took with regard to the texts and reputation of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in the second half of the 4th century BCE form a memorable moment in the selection and transmission of Greek tragedy.6 He finished the stone theatre of Dionysus that still can be seen at the foot of the Acropolis, placed bronze statues of the three tragedians in it, and ordered copies of their plays to be made and stored in the state archives. Lycurgus’ measures selected 225 out of the 900 tragedies that were produced in Athens in the 5th century BCE.7 We know of at least fifty other tragedians who were active in Athens in the 5th century BCE,8 but Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides effectively had cornered the market: the three of them together composed one fourth of all tragedies produced in the 5th century. That they were already considered the best tragic poets in their own time is shown by the Frogs, a comedy that was produced by the Athenian comic poet Aristophanes in 405 BCE.9 In this comedy the god Dionysus descends into the underworld to bring back either Aeschylus or Euripides, after Sophocles defers to Aeschylus, because, so Dionysus says, after the death of these three poets no good tragic poet could be found in Athens anymore.10 Both Sophocles and Euripides had died just before the play was produced, while Aeschylus had died half a century earlier already (in 456 or 455 BCE).

In 386 BCE the Athenians passed a law that from then on not only new plays had to compete in the City Dionysia, but one old play (palaion drama) would be presented on each day of the festival as well.11 The performance records that are preserved from the 4th century BCE reveal that the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were most often chosen to be reperformed, especially those of Euripides.12 They are also the playwrights who are most often cited in 4th-century authors, such as Plato and Aristotle. Everything suggests therefore that these three tragedians were already considered to be canonical before Lycurgus’ measures.13 His reforms were not motivated by his own predilection but based on the popularity and socio-cultural capital these three tragedians already enjoyed in his time.

What exactly did Lycurgus’ reforms consist of, besides finishing the stone theatre and setting up three statues of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides in it? According to the Life of the Ten Orators, attributed to Plutarch, Lycurgus ordered

that bronze statues of the poets Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides be erected and that their tragedies be written down and conserved publicly, and that the city’s secretary read them out to those acting in them for the purpose of comparison. For it was not allowed for these plays to be performed out of accordance with the official texts.14

The writing down and conservation of the plays is quite clear. That this was to happen “publicly” probably means that they were stored in one of the city’s archives.15 But what was the city’s secretary to do with these texts and why compare them to those which the actors had? It is important to remember that all texts in antiquity were hand copied, which inevitably caused changes to occur in them. There was furthermore little concern for what we today consider the artistic integrity of these texts and actors happily changed lines or even inserted whole new scenes when reperforming the plays.16 Our texts of the Greek tragedies contain several examples of such interpolations, which show us that Lycurgus’ measure was not intended (or did not accomplish) to restore the texts of the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides to their original form, but to freeze their transmission in time: no further changes were to be made to them.

Lycurgus’ measure must have been, in practical terms, mostly symbolic.17 It is unlikely that the city’s secretary, after he had read out the text to the actors, would sit in the audience and check if the actors exactly said what was written down on his papyrus role. The measure, furthermore, could only have been enforced in Athens. By the 4th century, however, the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides were reperformed in cities all over Greece and this, as we will see, may have been one of the main reasons why Lycurgus took this measure. It should signal to the rest of Greece that Athens was the legitimate owner of these plays and of their socio-cultural capital.18

When was the measure taken? Lycurgus led the Athenian state between 338 and 324 BCE and it is generally assumed that his law on scripts and the erection of the statues of the three tragedians was taken in the middle of his tenure, around 330 BCE.19 This is a significant moment in Athenian history. In 338 the Greek cities lost their independence to Philip II, the king of Macedonia and father of Alexander the Great, in the battle of Chaeronea. Because Athens had lost its political independence, Lycurgus may have wanted to boost its status as the old and original cultural centre of Greece by emphasizing the contribution Athenian playwrights had made to Greek culture.

The measure may even have been intended to challenge the hegemony of Macedonia specifically. The Macedonian kings loved Athenian tragedy. One of Alexander’s predecessors, king Achelaus of Macedon, had enticed Euripides to come to Macedonia at the end of his life. This effectively made him in the eyes of the Macedonians, and some other Greeks, a half-Macedonian poet.20 Besides, Plutarch in his Life of Alexander tells another, interesting story:21 while on campaign in Phoenicia in 331 BCE, Alexander organized a theatrical festival to which he invited one of the leading actors of his day, Athenodorus. This Athenodorus, however, had previously committed himself to act in a play at the City Dionysia in Athens and therefore was fined by the Athenians for failing to show up there. When Alexander learned about this, he offered to pay the fine for him, which showed, also to the Athenians, that he could secure for himself the best actors, whenever he wanted. In the wake of such appropriations of Athenian tragedy, it is understandable that Lycurgus wanted to emphasize its Athenian origins.

The purpose of Lycurgus’ measure can be surmised from a speech that he delivered around 330 BCE and which has, miraculously, survived.22 It is directed against a man called Leocrates, who had left Athens immediately after news of the defeat at Chaeronea had reached the city, when all citizens were ordered to stay. Lycurgus therefore accuses him of treason. Most of the speech is filled, however, with extolling the benefits of listening to “good” (i.e. morally uplifting) poetry, because it prevents men from becoming traitors like Leocrates. Lycurgus recalls that the Athenians had passed a law (nomos) to have the epics of Homer be recited at the yearly Panathenaic festival.23 Similarly, the Spartans had passed a law (nomos) that their soldiers were to recite the verses of the poet Tyrtaeus, while they were on military campaign.24 They did so, according to Lycurgus, because they believed that these poets installed virtue and courage in their citizens through their poetry. It is therefore also good, Lycurgus says, to listen to the poetry of Euripides, who has a lot of noble things to say: as an example he cites part of the speech of queen Praxithea, the wife of a mythical king of Athens who had sacrificed his daughters for the preservation of the city, from Euripides’ lost play Erechtheus.25

Lycurgus’ speech thus proclaims the benefits for the city of regular performances of the tragedies of Euripides and, by extension, those of Aeschylus and Sophocles in a city festival. It is further worth noting that in the case of the recitation of the poetry of Homer and Tyrtaeus he speaks of “laws” (nomoi) that were passed, but not in the case of Euripides. This may be an indication that his own reforms regarding the theatre and the writing down of the tragic texts had not been passed yet, but that he tried to lay the groundwork for them in this speech. The idea that the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides contribute to the morality of the citizens provided him with a good argument to preserve their heritage for Athens: this, after all, showed why these texts were something to be proud of and worth preserving.

It is interesting in this light that out of the three tragedians he picked Euripides as example of a morally uplifting poet, because his reputation used to be that of a poet who was subversive and undermined the state, for example in Aristophanes’ Frogs. Euripides furthermore ended his life as a poet at the court of the Macedonian king. By demonstrating that Euripides composed morally uplifting plays, Lycurgus sets him on a par with Aeschylus and Sophocles and can claim the moral value of all three tragedians. He also stresses in his speech against Leocrates that Euripides was a through-and-through Athenian poet; for Lycurgus there is nothing Macedonian about him.26

Whereas Lycurgus’ measures therefore boosted the reputation of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and helped to establish them as the three great tragedians, he did not create this reputation. They were already considered canonical well before Lycurgus’ measures. Lycurgus uses their reputation to bolster the status of Athens as the cultural capital of Greece, not the other way around. The need to prop up the reputation of Athens was necessary after the Greek defeat at Chaeronea. After this battle Athens had lost its independence to Macedon and basically had to reinvent itself in order to come to grips with the new political situation. Lycurgus’ measures seem to have been intended to secure at least part of the cultural hegemony the city had enjoyed ever since the 5th century. It is significant in this respect that the lives and dramatic successes of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides happened to coincide with the Golden Age of Athens.27

As part of the “Anchoring Innovation” programme Jacqueline Klooster and Inger Kuin organised a conference at Groningen University entitled “After the Crisis: Remembrance, Reanchoring, and Recovery in the Ancient World”.28 This conference convincingly showed that after a major political crisis the need to innovate is particularly high, but that one cannot anchor new measures either in current affairs or in the more recent past, because they are directly related to and associated with this crisis. In such a situation one typically reaches back, therefore, to a more remote past, when the state was still considered to be doing well.29 By commemorating the successes of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, Lycurgus and the group of politicians who supported him reached back to cultural icons that represented the state in better times and, in so doing, presented the current Athenian state as heir to that Golden Age, at least in cultural terms.30

The success of Lycurgus’ measures is illustrated by the story, told by Galen, how king Ptolemy III supposedly acquired the recorded texts of Lycurgus for the library of Alexandria. He asked for the texts so they could be copied, but then did not return the originals, allowing the Athenians to keep a huge amount of money he had deposited as security.31 We do not know if this is what really happened, but the story itself illustrates the cultural capital that was attached to this set of texts and the attempt, in general, of the Ptolemies to make Alexandria the new hart of Greek culture by collecting classical literature. They did so by collecting as many texts as possible on the one hand,32 and by adopting the predilections of classical Athens, especially in their scholarship, on the other, not only in the case of the three tragedians but in lyric poetry as well. Thus Theodora Hadjimichael remarks about the canonization of the nine lyric poets in the Hellenistic period:

The Alexandrians practically canonized the Lyric Canon, which had already been fixed by the time of the Peripatos [i.e. the school of Aristotle] and which they ultimately inherited … Their role in the process of canonization was not to generate the canonical lyric list ex nihilo but rather to establish it as canonical with their scholarly activity.33

This is an example of what Carsten Colpe has termed “secondary canonisation”:34 the Alexandrians adopted the canons of the Athenians, but at the same time strengthened them by adding “exegetes” in the form of scholars who wrote commentaries to these texts and, in the case of the lyric poets, collected their poetry and fixed their texts.35

The establishment of the Mouseion in Alexandria is a perfect example of “Anchoring Innovation”. On the one hand the Ptolemies presented their new regime, for example in their iconography, as a continuation of the Pharaonic regime.36 At the same time, however, they also wished to present themselves to the wider Hellenistic world as the supreme Greek power. One way of doing so was to claim the cultural hegemony that Athens once enjoyed by appropriating its old texts and becoming the centre of new literary developments. It suited this agenda to adopt the canonical lists that were established in Athens a century earlier with regards to the three tragic or nine lyric poets instead of introducing new lists themselves.

The most important bottleneck through which tragedy had to pass and which had the greatest effect on the survival of our present texts, was the school curriculum. As William Marx (this volume) also remarks, it appears that around the 2nd century CE most Greek grammar schools, at least in the Greek-speaking part of the Roman empire, had settled on a fixed canon of seven plays of Aeschylus, seven of Sophocles and ten of Euripides, all of which, as a result, have survived. It is commonly assumed that this selection was made only in the 2nd century CE, based on a variety of criteria,37 but recent research by Patrick Finglass has shown that the ten plays of Euripides that were selected for the canon of 24 plays are also quoted most often by early Greek authors and best represented among the papyrus fragments in the centuries before the school curriculum was made.38 The school curriculum thus seems to have made a selection of the plays that were already the most popular.

This selection was the result of an intersubjective process: no clear authority can be assigned. According to Finglass, the performability of plays must have played an important role: if plays were not reperformed, it would become harder and harder to find copies or to generate interest in them. Treatises like Aristotle’s Poetics also may have influenced the selection: it is striking that roughly half of the tragedies that Aristotle mentions by name in this treatise are found among the 32 tragedies that survived, which is much more than one would expect statistically.39 Alternatively, these plays were already more popular in his days than the other ones. According to one of the ancient introductions to the Antigone of Sophocles, the Athenians awarded the poet with a generalship because of the success of this play.40 A century later it is favourably quoted by Demosthenes in one of his speeches (19.247), in which he clearly assumes his audience to be familiar with the content of the play. Another century later, the Hellenistic poet Dioscorides (late 3rd century BCE) cites Antigone together with his Electra, which is also preserved, as the best plays of Sophocles in an epigram (AP 7.37). Is it really a coincidence that these two plays were included in the canon five centuries later? It appears that a number of plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides acquired popularity soon after their first production and that the process of selection started well before the 2nd century CE.

The status of these popular plays may in turn have favoured the preservation of other plays: the fame of Aeschylus’ Oresteia, already attested in the 5th century BCE, may have helped to preserve the treatments of the Electra story by Sophocles and Euripides, and the reputation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, which Aristotle praises as the best play, may have helped to preserve the Oedipus Coloneus as well. William Marx is undoubtedly right that the fame of Homer favoured plays dealing with figures known from the Trojan War.41 Similarly, the only complete surviving satyr play, Euripides’ Cyclops, is a parody of Odyssey Book 9, which was a popular text throughout antiquity. Marx is right that the canon also shows a preference for tragedies that end badly, compared to other tragedies that we know and which did not make the canonical list. This suggests that politics or pedagogy had little to do with the selection of these 24 tragedies, but that the early reputation of some of these plays and their playwrights, their performability, aesthetic quality and the scholarly interest in the plays played a more significant role in slowly narrowing the corpus from 900 to the 32 that have survived. Overall we seem to be dealing in the case of the canon of Greek tragedy with what Miguel John Versluys has called “the formalisation of a tradition-in-the-making” rather than the invention of a new tradition by one or more authorities.42

In terms of “Anchoring Innovation” it would also make sense for those responsible for the school curriculum in the Roman or Byzantine period to assign the best known plays to their students. Parents want their children to learn new things at school, but at the same time not to miss out on those things that they (and their neighbours) regard as valuable. By adhering in their selection of plays to those that were generally recognized as the best, teachers could freely innovate in what they wanted their pupils to learn using these texts. In most cases this was rhetoric.43 If a teacher could show that some modern rhetorical theory or device that he wanted to teach to his students could be illustrated by a passage in a famous play of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides, it would probably be more readily accepted than if he had to use an example form an unknown source. In this way canons are useful not only to preserve the past, but also as “anchors” for the promotion of new ideas.


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Csapo and Slater 1995, 107. Not every year nine tragedies were produced at the City Dionysia, but some additional plays were written for other festivals, which evens things out. This study was supported by the Dutch ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW) through the Dutch Research Council (NWO), as part of the Anchoring Innovation Gravitation Grant research agenda of OIKOS, the National Research School in Classical Studies, the Netherlands (project number 024.003.012). I would like to thank the participants in the conferences in Paris and Leiden and in particular Miguel John Versluys for his valuable comments to an earlier draft of this paper.


For a list of the 24 canonical plays, see the contribution of Marx to this volume. These include the Prometheus Bound, which was attributed to Aeschylus but is probably not by him, and the Rhesus, which was attributed to Euripides and is certainly not by him.


Cf. the contribution by Versluys to this volume.


For an explanation of the concept, see Sluiter 2017. For more information about the research programme and its results, see the website www.ru.nl/oikos/anchoring-innovation/.


Cf. Conte 1994, 276–78; Tarrant 1997, 58.


For an excellent assessment of the measures of Lycurgus in their historical and cultural context, see Hanink 2014. My analysis in the following paragraphs is greatly indebted to her findings.


For the number of plays produced by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, see the contribution of Marx, p. 168. These numbers include their satyr plays.


For a list of their names, see Snell 1986, vi.


On this play and other comedies in which the tragedians are parodied, see Rosen 2005.


Aristophanes, Ranae 89–97.


If this privilege had already been extended to Aeschylus’ plays after his death is debated: see Biles 2006–2007, 206–242.


Nervegna 2014, 162–63.


Cf. Hägg 2010, 116: “Lycurgus’ political move merely meant the crowning of the canonization process and the confirming of what long had been the common opinion.”


[Plut.] Vit. Dec. Or. 841f: ὡς χαλκᾶς εἰκόνας ἀναθεῖναι τῶν ποιητῶν, Αἰσχύλου Σοφοκλέους Εὐριπίδου, καὶ τὰς τραγῳδίας αὐτῶν ἐν κοινῷ γραψαμένους φυλάττειν καὶ τὸν τῆς πόλεως γραμματέα παραναγινώσκειν τοῖς ὑποκρινομένοις· οὐκ ἐξεῖναι γὰρπαρ’⟩ αὐτὰς ὑποκρίνεσθαι.


Hanink 2014, 64.


On actor’s interpolations, see Finglass 2015 with earlier references.


Scodel 2001. Cf. Hanink 2014, 67.


Hanink 2014, 6, 65, 73–74; Roisman in Roisman and Edwards 2019, 20–21.


Hanink 2014, 11.


Hanink 2008. On the performance of tragedy at the Macedonian court in the fourth cent. BCE, see also the contributions of E. Moloney and B. Le Guen to Csapo, Goette, Green and Wilson 2014.


Plut. Alex. 29.3. See Hanink 2014, 70–72 for an analysis of this story with earlier references.


I follow the text of Conomis 1970. For an analysis of the speech with earlier references, see Hanink 2014, 25–59. Add Van Hilten-Rutten 2018 and Roisman and Edwards 2019.


Lyc. 26, 102. This custom was in fact initiated under the Peisistratids at the end of the sixth cent. BCE: see Roisman in Roisman and Edwards 2019, 183–84 with earlier references.


Lyc. 28, 107.


Lyc. 24, 100 = Eur. Fr. 360 Kannicht.


Cf. Hanink 2014, 52–53.


Hanink 2014, 65.


See Klooster and Kuin 2020.


Cf. Assmann 1992, 125, also cited by Versluys in this volume: “In Zeiten verschärfter interkultureller Polarisierung, Zeiten zerbrochener Traditionen, in denen man sich entscheiden muss, welcher Ordnung man folgen wil, kommt es zu Kanonbildungen” (“In times of heigtened intercultural strife, times of broken traditions, in which one has to decide which order to follow, canons are formed”).


See Roisman in Roisman and Edwards 2019, 25 for other measures Lycurgus took “to restore Athens to its golden age era.”


Galen, Comm. II In Hipp. Epid. Γ XVII.i. p.607 Kühn, quoted by Hadjimichael 2019, 227. See also Marx’s contribution to this volume.


Galen also claims that Ptolemy III had ordered that any books that were found on board of a ship that anchored in the harbour of Alexandria were to be seized and copied: Galen, Comm. II In Hipp. Epid. Γ XVII.i. p. 606 Kühn, quoted by Hadjimichael 2019, 226.


Hadjimichael 2019, 253. There is some evidence, however, that the canon of Attic orators was more fluid and still debated in the Hellenistic period, see Hadjimichael 2019, 251 and De Jonge’s contribution to this volume.


Colpe 1987, cited by Versluys in this volume.


On the importance of “exegetes” and fixed texts for canonization, see Versluys’ contribution to this volume; on the fixation of canonical texts, see Lardinois 2020, 49.


Stanwick 2002; Versluys 2017, 141–155.


Wilamowitz 1907, 195–97 famously had argued that one influential teacher was responsible for making the selection. While this is generally not believed any more, the school system is still regarded as the most important factor in the selection of the canonical plays: e.g. Marrou 1964, 245; Cribiore 2001; Canfora 2002, 31–32 and Garland 2005, 69–70.


Finglass 2020. The same pattern is, admittedly, not seen among the papyrus fragments of Aeschylus and Sophocles, but their numbers are so small that it is difficult to draw any conclusions on the basis of them.


Hanink 2014, 8. Marx, this volume, is sceptical that Aristotle’s Poetics influenced the canon of 24 tragedies, but other scholarly treatises, now lost, may have done so.


Hypothesis to the Antigone I.13–14, quoted by Jebb 1900, 3.


Marx, this volume.


Versluys, this volume.


Cribiore 2001.

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Canonisation as Innovation

Anchoring Cultural Formation in the First Millennium BCE