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January Conference 1999

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The Spring Before It Is Sprung:
visual and non-verbal aspects of power struggle in Aeschylus' Myrmidons

Pantelis Michelakis, University of Oxford, U.K.


Aeschylus' Myrmidons is the first play of a lost trilogy about Achilles, called for convenience Achilleis.[1] Together with the Nereids and the Phrygians or Ransom of Hector, the Myrmidons gave in dramatic form a great deal of the story of the Iliad. As the fragments of the play suggest, the Myrmidons starts in medias res with the Chorus of the Myrmidons pleading with the seated and veiled Achilles (Ar. Frogs 911-13) to help the Achaeans, and reproaching him with treachery (fr.131 in anapaests; frr.132 and 132a in lyric). It seems that, despite the efforts of the Chorus, Achilles maintains his silence for some time, and breaks it only when Phoenix addresses him (fr.132b), perhaps towards the middle of the play. In a dialogue with an interlocutor, Achilles stresses the pointlessness of the threat by the Achaeans to stone him, since he is irreplaceable, and claims his superiority over the leader of the army, Agamemnon (fr. 132c). The Trojans set fire to the Greek ships (frr. 133 and 134), a fact which makes Achilles accept Patroclus' participation in the battle and brings about Patroclus' death. Achilles laments over the body of his friend and beloved (frr. 134a-139), and asks for new weapons (fr. 140) to take revenge against Hector.

Leaving aside the socio-political issues involved in the decision of the Achaeans to stone Achilles and the homosexual relation between Achilles and Patroclus, this paper focuses on another important theme of the play, namely Achilles' immobility and silence.[2] My aim is twofold: first, to argue for the importance of non-linguistic and visual structures for the articulation of meaning on the tragic stage of the early fifth century bc; second, to show ways in which contemporary vase painters and late fifth-century comedy, while pursuing their own interests, can help us reconstruct the visual and non-linguistic conventions upon which Aeschylus draws in his tragedy.


During the first half of the fifth century Athenian painters take a sudden interest in the Presbeia scene, a scene which consists of the central figures of Achilles and Odysseus, often surrounded by other figures who do not always occur in the Presbeia of the ninth book of the Iliad (e.g. Diomedes). The chronological and geographical limitations of the theme, its diffusion in a wide range of vase types (skyphoi, krateres, stamnoi, lekythoi, hydriai, pelikai, oinochoai and kylikes), and its thematic dissociation from the Presbeia of the Iliad suggest that the relation between vase paintings and contemporary drama cannot be overlooked.[3] Rather, they invite some reflection on the behavioural norms that both iconography and drama appropriate in order to articulate visually Achilles' anger and stubbornness.

At the centre of the Presbeia scene Achilles is seated on a stool, wrapped with his mantle which at times covers not only his body but also his head; he fixes his eyes on the ground; he has his right hand against his forehead or chin, and the left arm under the mantle, either on his legs or under his right arm, as a prop. Odysseus, on the other hand, is sometimes seated, with his hands around his knee, sometimes leaning against a staff; he wears the clothes of a traveller, and looks at Achilles, occasionally stretching his right arm forward, a gesture suggestive of his attempt to make Achilles engage in dialogue with him.

The confrontation between Achilles and Odysseus results in a striking visual contrast between them. This is not only because the scene illustrates a situation in which communication fails; it is also because the gestures, movement, posture and elevation of the two figures challenge the conventions for the visual (spatial and behavioural) expression of power. Odysseus' dependent position is at odds with his spatial superiority over Achilles when he is standing, with his relaxed pose when he is seated, with the movement of his arms, and with the direction of his eyes, which are fixed on Achilles. Achilles' superiority, on the other hand, is paradoxically articulated by means of his immobility and covering with the mantle, his assumption of an uncomfortable sitting position, 'bent over like someone in physical pain' as Shapiro puts it, and his lowering of his eyes.[4]

In vase paintings of the Presbeia scene, the visual articulation of the contrast between Achilles and Odysseus challenges the conventions of the visual expression of power in the posture of interlocutors. The pictorial evidence, with its unequal distribution of power between Achilles and Odysseus, helps us reconstruct those scenes in the Myrmidons where the representatives of the army try in vain to make Achilles engage in dialogue with them. Furthermore, it enables us to visualise the initial scene of the play where Achilles encounters the Chorus. Long before formal representatives of the army arrive and an attempt at negotiation and compromise such as that of the ninth book of the Iliad takes place, the contrast between the two sides is clearly articulated by the Myrmidons' plea to Achilles. Achilles is an individual, seated at the centre of the stage, mantled and silent. The Myrmidons, on the other hand, are a group; they walk into the acting area and surround Achilles, addressing him (fa…dim' 'Acilleà fr. 131.1, fqiît' 'Acilleà fr. 132.1, ¥nax 'Acilleà fr. 132a8.4)[5] and reproaching him with treachery (põropin fr. 131.3,[6] m¾ prodîj fr. 132a8.5; cf. prodos…an fr. 132c20) and cowardice (kakandr…ai fr. 132a4.I.2). The trilogy starts not with the conflict between Achilles and Agamemnon (which antedates the plot), but rather with the non-Iliadic conflict between Achilles and the collective body of the army, thematically articulated by means of the reproach of treachery and the threat of stoning, and visually illustrated with the encirclement of Achilles by the sub-group of his Myrmidons.[7] Even if the Myrmidons are well disposed towards their leader and approach him in the hope of reaching a compromise, Achilles' rejection of their pleas makes their active role at the beginning of the play parallel to the energetic role assumed off-stage by the Achaeans.

Let us now return to the pictorial evidence to examine other ways in which it helps us understand Aeschylus' stagecraft. In vase paintings, mantled figures feature in various contexts broadly associated with abnormal emotional states or with the failure of communication.[8] In early fifth-century scenes of the arming of Achilles, in which Achilles mourns the death of Patroclus, as well as in funerary scenes in which male or female figures mourn at the tomb, the act of covering oneself with a mantle denotes grief.[9] In erotic scenes in which wrapped-up boys reject advances made to them by youths, and in Dionysiac scenes where the seated and wrapped women initially ignore the satyrs who invite them to be drawn in by their enchanting music, the use of a mantle denotes indifference, resistance and hostility.[10] The Achilles of the Presbeia scene illustrates very effectively the motif of the mantled figure as he both expresses his distress and frustrates the possibility of social interaction.

Even if the vase paintings of the Presbeia scene are not directly influenced by the first performance of Aeschylus' Myrmidons, they still point to a behavioural convention which enables us to visualise the posture of the mantled and bent-over Achilles, a posture which articulates visually his emotions and his rejection of attempts at dialogue and compromise. In fact, the Achilles of the Myrmidons must be a step further towards the extremes than the Achilles of the vase painters. In contrast to the Achilles of iconography, whose face and eyes remain visible, the Aeschylean Achilles totally rejects the possibility of being on view. As Euripides comments in the Frogs: 'He [Aeschylus] would begin by making some solitary figure, say Achilles or Niobe, sit down with their head covered, not letting them show their face [...] and not making even this much of a sound' (911-13).[11] The actor who plays Achilles in the Myrmidons is seated, mantled and hides his prosopon. He either covers his mask with his hand or lowers his whole head, so that only the top of the head is visible to the spectators. In either case Achilles' face is not visible.

Achilles' crouching, I would suggest, is a codified expression of distress and anger not only in the grammar of iconography, but also in the grammar of theatre performance. Achilles assumes an uncomfortable sitting position, held with a curved spine. The position which the shrouded Achilles occupies at the centre of the stage is one of precarious balance, which prepares for his subsequent outburst. Achilles' immobility and silence, his death-like state, conceal a nucleus of tensions. Under normal circumstances, thymos, located in the breast, has the tendency to go upwards - this is how the Euripidean Achilles argues in the Iphigenia at Aulis (ØyhlÒfrwn moi qumÕj a‡retai prÒsw, 919); and in Theophrastus the passionate and brave men hold their spinal column erect.[12] The effort of the Aeschylean Achilles, then, to suppress his anger engages his postural muscles, and transforms his body into a spring before it is sprung.[13]


The shrouded figure of Achilles challenges not only the visual articulation of authority and meaning, but also the linguistic one. This becomes clear both with Achilles' prolonged silence and, subsequently, with his verbal explosion. In Greek literature silence is usually imposed on those who are in an inferior position, either individuals, or groups.[14] In the Myrmidons it is not silence which is equivalent to impotency, but language. Unlike, say, in the Homeric assemblies, where silence is an undesirable reaction, 'le résultat d'une contrainte ou la réaction non souhaitée'[15] manifesting somebody else's power, in Aeschylus it is a self-conscious decision, a weapon against those who attempt to impose their will on Achilles.

The provocative and disruptive silence of the Aeschylean Achilles is one of the focal points of Aristophanes' parody of Aeschylus in the Frogs. In fact, the behaviour and individual characteristics of the Aristophanic Aeschylus are modelled on the character-traits of the Aeschylean Achilles for over four hundred lines, from his entrance at 830 down to the parody of his lyrics at 1261-1300.[16] Long before Euripides attacks Aeschylus for his silent characters, 'a mere pretence of drama', as he says at 908-913, which shows that Aeschylus is exploitative and a cheat, Aeschylus features as an angry and silent Achilles. When he first enters the stage together with Euripides he remains mute for over 10 lines, a silence remarked upon by Dionysus and commented upon by Euripides: 'dio: Why are you keeping so quiet, Aeschylus? You hear what he says. eur: He'll be all disdainful and aloof to begin with, the same hocus-pocus act he always used to put on in his tragedies' (831-33).

Aristophanes does not simply point to Aeschylus' provocative use of silence; he also seeks to reinstate the normative association of silence with powerlessness and inferiority. When the theatre critic Euripides has convinced the spectator Dionysus that the silences of the Aeschylean characters show Aeschylus' unseemly pride, silence becomes a weapon of which Aeschylus loses control, a stratagem by which the roles are inverted, the deceived spectator taking his revenge on the haughty poet. Aeschylus' displeasure at Euripides' criticisms prompts Dionysus to dismiss his passive role. 'Alas', Aeschylus exclaims at 926. 'Be quiet' Dionysus replies. And he continues in the next line: 'Stop gnashing your teeth.' At the beginning of the formal agon between Aeschylus and Euripides, Aeschylus is under double attack: one of his own dramatic techniques is turned against him by Dionysus at the very moment when it is heavily criticised by Euripides.

Verbal explosion

For some time, or, as Euripides says in the Frogs 914-15, during the time 'the chorus would fire off four strings of lyrics', the action in the Myrmidons focuses on a figure who, despite his dramatic importance, refuses to 'perform' in front of, and for the sake of, collective bodies - the Chorus, the army of the Achaeans and the citizens of Athens. Shrouded like a dead man or a mourner or a sexually immature boy or a woman who has not yet been initiated into the mysteries of Dionysus, Achilles hides - both protects and denies - the physicality of his body, and imposes on himself a death-like state (cf. fr.132c.6: broto‹sin „atrÕn pÒnwn, 'physician of sufferings for men', i.e. death).[17]

Achilles' desired body appears to hold within itself the key to power, satisfaction and meaning. It is a metaphor for, as well as the source of, the play's narrative.[18] The Chorus and the dramatic characters lay siege to this body, they try to penetrate Achilles' mantle, and to make the hero put himself at their service. Their failure to possess Achilles' body equals their failure to master the text's symbolic meaning. When they finally decide to stone Achilles, they attempt to annihilate the physicality of the individual they fail to possess. Yet, as Achilles himself remarks in one of the fragments which succeed his silence, without him the cause of the Achaeans is lost (fr. 132c.1-4). Without Achilles' body the narrative of the play is threatened with a premature closure.

The moment when Achilles finally breaks his silence takes the form of a sudden release of energy, of an uncontrollable verbal explosion. To put it in the manner of the Aristophanic Euripides (Frogs 923-26), 'And then, when he had finished with that drivel and the play was already half over he would utter a dozen of oxhide words with crests and beetling brows, fearsome bogy-faced things that the audience had never heard of.'[19] Achilles' utterances are reminiscent of Cassandra's incomprehensible utterances in the Agamemnon when she first opens her mouth some three hundred lines after her entrance (1072-73), as well as of the terrible threats that the Sophoclean Ajax utters against Tecmessa when he finally breaks the long silence which follows his realisation of his madness (Soph. Ajax 311-14). Achilles' breaking of his silence, like the silence itself, challenges the linguistic structure of the Myrmidons and the claim of language to meaning and authority.

It is not surprising, then, that Achilles' verbal explosion becomes Aristophanes' target in the Frogs. First of all, the Aristophanic Aeschylus who has remained silent upon his initial entrance onto the stage suddenly bursts into three lines of long compound words (840-43). Later, when Dionysus forces the furious Aeschylus to stay silent, Aeschylus' fidgeting and gnashing of his teeth serve as non-linguistic evidence for his inability to control himself (922 and 927). Finally, when the Chorus exhort the Aeschylus-Achilles to react to Euripides' challenge anew, they use the metaphors of the over-spirited team of horses and of the mighty wind to suggest self-control and moderation, from fear that Aeschylus might easily pass from silence to an uncontrollable manifestation of his anger (992-1003). Verbal explosions, like silences, are first introduced by the character of Aeschylus-Achilles and are then parodied by the other characters.


In the Myrmidons, the coiled and silent Achilles who dismisses any contact with those around him assumes a death-like status which threatens the narrative of the play with a premature closure. One after the other, the representatives of the army approach Achilles and exercise on him all their argumentative force in an attempt to make him speak and put his body at their service. The tension results in Achilles' uncontrollable verbal explosion. The powerful individual first refuses to perform in front of, and for the sake of, collective bodies (the audience, the Achaeans) and then bursts into incomprehensible utterances. Achilles' immobility and silence, and his subsequent outburst challenge the claim of language to power and authority but also behavioural and spatial norms which are well documented in iconography and which are reinstated by Aristophanes in the Frogs.

The visual dimension of the confrontation between Achilles and the representatives of the army is illustrated by early fifth-century vase paintings which depict the Presbeia scene. The striking contrast between the powerful Achilles who is seated in silence and the powerless figures around him who stand and/or talk enables us to catch a glimpse of the techniques at hand for the articulation of the confrontation on the tragic stage. By the end of the fifth century, the dramatic techniques employed by Aeschylus for the portrayal of Achilles are parodied by Aristophanes in the Frogs. The Aeschylean Achilles serves as a tragic model for the comic figure of the Aristophanic Aeschylus. Aristophanes' preoccupation with the silence and subsequent outburst of the Aeschylus-Achilles not only provides evidence for the early reception of Aeschylus' stagecraft and techniques of characterisation; it also allows us to evaluate the importance of visual and non-linguistic structures for the articulation of meaning on the stage of early fifth-century tragedy.

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I am grateful to Pat Easterling for her generous advice. I would also like to thank those who attended the oral presentation of this paper at the Open University for helpful criticism.

[1] The trilogy and the title Achilleis are not attested in ancient sources. They are however widely accepted by modern scholars; see the relevant literature in S. Radt, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, Vol. 3. Aeschylus (Göttingen 1985) 113. For reconstructions of the Achilleis see W. Schadewaldt, 'Aischylos' Achilleis' in id. Hellas und Hesperien (Zurich 1970) 308-54 [=Hermes 71 (1936) 25-69]; H. J. Mette, Der Verlorene Aischylos (Berlin 1963) 112-21; V. di Benedetto, 'Il silenzio di Achille nei Mirmidoni di Eschilo' Maia 19 (1967) 373-86; B. Döhle, 'Die Achilleis des Aischylos in ihrer Auswirkung auf die attische Vasenmalerei des 5. Jahrhunderts' Klio 49 (1967) 63-149; B. Snell, Szenen aus griechischen Dramen (Berlin 1971) 1-24; O. Taplin, 'Aeschylean Silences and Silences in Aeschylus' HSCPh 76 (1972) 57-97; A. Kossatz-Deissmann, Dramen des Aischylos auf westgriechischen Vasen (Mainz 1978) 10-32; A. H. Sommerstein, Aeschylean Tragedy (Bari 1996) 338-48.

[2] I hope to undertake a full-scale examination of Aeschylus' Myrmidons on a different occasion.

[3] On the debate over the relation between vase paintings and Aeschylus see Döhle, Achilleis; Taplin, 'Aeschylean silences' 70-71; Kossatz-Deissmann, Dramen 10-13; 'Achilleus' LIMC I.1 (1981) 113-14. For a full list of the relevant vase paintings see Döhle, Achilleis 99-108; Kossatz-Deissmann 'Achilleus' nos 439-454. On the more general question of the influence of classical drama on vase paintings, see most recently J. R. Green, 'On Seeing and Depicting the Theatre in Classical Athens' GRBS 32 (1991) 15-50; Theatre in Ancient Greek Society (London 1994) 1-48.

[4] H. A. Shapiro, Myth Into Art. Poet and Painter in Classical Greece (London 1994) 19. Sitting and silence relate to impotence, whereas standing and speaking relate to power: O. Longo, 'Silenzio verbale e silenzio gestuale nella Grecia antica. Alla riscoperta di un codice culturale' Orpheus 6 (1985) 245; S. Montiglio, 'La menace du silence pour le héros de l'Iliade' Métis 8 (1993) 173, 175-76 with n. 42; R. Sennett, Flesh and Stone. The Body and the City in Western Civilization (London 1994) 49-50. Standing relates to warrior ethos: J. N. Bremmer 'Walking, Standing, and Sitting in Ancient Greek Culture' in J. Bremmer & H. Roodenburg (edd.), A Cultural History of Gesture. From Antiquity to the Present Day (Oxford 1991) 24-25. Cf. n. 12 below.

[5] I use the text edited by Radt, Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta.

[6] This is a conjecture based on Harpocr. 259.10 Dindorf propepwkÒtej: ¢ntˆ toà prodedwkoÒtej. ™k metafor©j d lšgetai. Dhmosqšnhj Øpr Kthsifîntoj (18.296). ™n ¢rcÁi tîn MurmidÒnwn A„scÚloj 't£de - lis…aj' [=fr. 131.1-4 Radt].

[7] The tension between Achilles and his Myrmidons is hinted at only once in the Iliad, in 16.200-7.

[8] Longo, 'Silenzio verbale' 246-47. For the dissemination of the motif in Greek art see the complementary remarks of M. Laurent, 'L' Achille voilé dans les peintures de vases grecs' RA 32 (1898) 178-83 and G. Neumann, Gesten und Gebärden in der griechischen Kunst (Berlin 1965) 143.

[9] On the mantled Achilles of the scene of the arming of Achilles, see Kossatz-Deissmann, 'Achileus' 123-25 nos 511-515, 519, 521, 524a; on the arming of Achilles scene, see most recently J. M. Barringer, Divine Escorts. Nereids in Archaic and Classical Greek Art (Ann Arbor 1995) 30-36. Mantled figures mourning at the tomb: e.g. D. C. Kurtz, Athenian White Lekythoi. Patterns and Painters (Oxford 1975) nos 29.1, 29.3, 31.1b.

[10] Cloaked boys in courting scenes: e.g. K. J. Dover, Greek Homosexuality (Cambridge, Mass. 1989) [first ed. 1978] R637, R791, R851; cf. the similar position of the cloaked woman of R867. Mantled women in scenes from the initiation of a maenad: C. Bérard & C. Bron, 'Satyr Revels' in C. Bérard et al. (eds.), A City of Images. Iconography and Society in Ancient Greece (Princeton 1989 [first published in French 1984]) 145-146.

[11] Throughout the paper I use the translation of the Frogs by A. H. Sommerstein, Aristophanes' Frogs (Warminster 1996).

[12] Erect spinal column characterises the brave man, the passionate man, and the gentle man: Ps.-Arist. Physiogn. 807a33, 808a20, and 808a27 respectively; as a characteristic of freemen (as opposed to slaves): Arist. Pol. 1254b27-34; Theogn. 535-36; as a characteristic of man (as opposed to animals): e.g. Arist. Parts of Animals 653a29-33; cf. n. 4 above.

[13] Here I draw on material from theatre anthropology. The apparent immobility of the actor conceals a nucleus of tensions and is caused by the position of the actor's spinal column: E. Barba & N. Savarese, A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology. The Secret Art of the Performer (London 1991) 51, 94, 232. The immobile actor is like a spring before it is sprung: E. Barba, The Paper Canoe. A Guide to Theatre Anthropology (London 1995) 56.

[14] On uses of silence in ancient Greek society see Longo, 'Silenzio verbale'; in Homer: Montiglio, 'La menace du silence'; in tragedy: Longo, 'Silenzio verbale' 246-49; N. C. Hourmouziades, 'oroi ka… metaschmatismo… sthn arca…a ellhnik» tragwd…a (Athens 1984) 179-227; Taplin, 'Aeschylean Silences' 77-97.

[15] Montiglio, 'La menace du silence' 162.

[16] By the end of the fifth century the idea that a poetical work is an expression of the poet's own nature is well established: the relevant sources are collected and discussed by F. Muecke, 'A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman' CQ 32 (1982) 51-53; M. R. Lefkowitz, 'The Poet as a Hero: Fifth-Century Autobiography and Subsequent Biographical Fiction' CQ 28 (1978) 464; A. H. Sommerstein, Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae (Warminster 1994) on lines 149-50.

[17] On the death-like state as normal among mourners see R. Seaford, Reciprocity and Ritual. Homer and Tragedy in the Developing City-State (Oxford 1994) 86-92.

[18] P. Brooks, Body Work. Objects of Desire in Modern Narrative (Cambridge, Mass. 1993) 8: 'a protagonist often desires a body [...] and that body comes to represent for the protagonist an apparent ultimate good, since it appears to hold within itself - as itself - the key to satisfaction, power, and meaning. On the plane of reading, desire for knowledge of that body becomes the desire to master the text's symbolic system, its key to knowledge, pleasure, and the very creation of significance' (quoted by A. M. Bowie, 'Exuvias effigiemque: Dido, Aeneas, and the Body as Sign' in D. Montserrat (ed.), Changing Bodies, Changing Meanings. Studies on the Human Body in Antiquity (London 1998) 59).

[19] If the parallels of Cassandra and Ajax which are adduced below are valid, lines 923-26 of the Frogs refer to the breaking of Achilles' silence, not to a narrative about the death of Patroclus, as suggested by Sommerstein in his commentary of the Frogs and in Aeschylean Tragedy 341.


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