Poetic Compounds in Aeschylus and Euripides, Not Poles Apart

Hana Aghababian (Cornell University)

Many studies on Greek tragic compounds focus on the constituent parts of compounds (see Breitenbach (1934) on Euripides and Clay (1960) on all three tragedians); Earp (1948) sorts Aeschylean compounds according to more subjective criteria, such as compounds in which “one or both the elements are unfamiliar” (1948:12); Nuchelmans (1949), in line with historical-linguistic treatments of compounds, sorts Sophoclean compounds in terms of the syntactical relations between the compound constituents, following the Sanskrit grammarian Panini’s classifications. Despite the attention paid to compounds in all three tragedians, we tend to associate compounds with Aeschylus first and foremost. This has two important consequences: (1) discussions of Aeschylus’ style tend to focus on his compounds in a way that characterizes him as either grandiose or convoluted, and (2) it gives the impression that the other tragedians utilize compounds less innovatively or effectively. Indeed, in reference to their compounds, Podlecki (2006:11) writes, Aeschylus’ Greek has “seemed more craggy, harsher, and even at times turgid, by contrast with […] the almost prosey flow of Euripidean Greek.” These associations and evaluations (intentionally or not) channel Aristophanes’ Frogs in putting Aeschylus and Euripides on opposite ends of a spectrum that places bombast and complexity on one end and simplicity and fluidity on the other. Through a close reading of Ag. 104-259 and Ph. 784-833, I argue that (1) the various usages and interpretations of compounds renders them unclassifiable, and (2) Aeschylus’ compounds serve to diversify and elevate concisely, while Euripides creates just as many compounds, but their semantics are deliberately ambiguous and show a wide range of variability. I reject the notion that such characterizations must correlate with crude bombast and lucid eloquence, respectively. I argue instead for a more nuanced understanding of tragic compounds as an essential feature of poetic style and as an important locus of innovation for each poet.