Classics Hellenistic Tragedy
Agnieszka Kotlinska-Toma
  • LAST REVIEWED: 20 September 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0259


Already by the mid-18th century J. J. Winckelmann was of the opinion that the Hellenistic period was a decadent era of the brilliance of Greece, and that ipso facto all the forms of art which flourished during this time testify to the decline of the classical aesthetic. In the case of tragedy, in contrast with visual arts or poetry and prose, such an opinion held sway for a very long time. Critical attitudes to post-classical drama in any case have their origins in a much earlier time––those who disapproved of certain changes in the genre included both Aristophanes and Aristotle, and Hellenistic scholars themselves held up the three tragedians––Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides––as peerless literary exemplars which by default placed later playwrights into a position of potential inferiority. It is therefore unsurprising that Hellenistic tragedy remained marginal to the interests of philologists and theater historians. Currently scholars display a growing interest in the Hellenistic drama and show that stage genres not only enjoyed increasing interest, but that they underwent constant changes, adapting to new conditions and to the changing tastes of the audience. The greatest problem with research into Greek drama is its state of preservation. In the case of post-classical tragedy we only have at our disposal fragments preserved either in the works of other authors or those found on papyri. Those conducting research on Hellenistic tragedy should remember that this period encompasses three centuries, during which this genre must have undergone transformations which are difficult for us to define due to a lack of sufficient evidence. We can without doubt distinguish the first fifty years of the era, which coincides with the activity of the so-called Tragic Pleiad and, most probably, of Moschion. The extant fragments are characterized by their formal perfection, they are stylistically refined and may serve as examples of sophisticated dramatic poetry. Multi-genre tragedy writers are an interesting phenomenon of the Hellenistic period. In previous eras tragedians usually adhered to one stage genre, but from the end of the 4th century writers with broad interests were also composing tragedies. To this group belong: Lycophron, Alexander Aetolus, Philiscus of Corcyra, Sositheus, and Callimachus, as well as philosophers: Timon of Phlius, Diogenes of Sinope, and Diogenes of Tarsus. However, at the end of the 4th century the theater became a professional environment. The performance of plays and the organization of the festival were in the hands of specialist stage artists called technitai). Many authors of Hellenistic tragedy are known to us exclusively from honorific inscriptions or from lists of winners of the dramatic contests. We usually know nothing further about these authors.

Texts and Commentaries

With the exception of Schramm 1929 there has been no separate edition of the dramatic texts of the Hellenistic period. However, Schramm’s edition is partially outdated and does not include Ezekiel’s Exagoge, although the commentary remains interesting. Currently the standard texts are Snell 1986 and Snell and Kannicht 1981. Affordable commentaries to selected fragments are found in Kannicht, et al. 1991 and Cipolla 2003.

  • Cipolla, Paolo. 2003. Poeti minori del dramma satiresco. Testo critico, traduzione e commento. Amsterdam: Adolf M. Hakkert.

    Critical edition with commentary and Italian translation of the fragments of lesser poets of satyr plays, including Hellenistic authors. In Italian.

  • Kannicht, Richard, Bardo Gauly, Lutz Käppel, et al., eds. 1991. Musa tragica: die griechische Tragödie von Thespis bis Ezechiel. Ausgewählte Zeugnisse und Fragmente; griechisch und deutsch. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

    A survey of Greek tragedy including Hellenistic texts and ancient testimonies on the authors, with German translations and short commentaries as well as bibliography.

  • Schramm, Franciscus. 1929. Tragicorum Graecorum hellenisticae, quae dicitur, aetatis fragmenta [praeter Ezechielem] eorumque de vita atque poesi testimonia collecta et illustrata. Münster, Germany: Monasterii Westfalorum: Officina Societatis Typographicae Westfalae.

    A still interesting and worth reading edition (although partially outdated) with an insightful commentary on texts and ancient testimonies on the Hellenistic tragedians. It precedes most of the major discoveries on papyrus. In Latin.

  • Snell, Bruno, ed. 1986. Tragicorum Graecorum fragmenta. Vol. 1, Didascaliae tragicae, catalogi tragicorum et tragoediarum, testimonia et fragmenta tragicorum minorum, editio correctior et addendis aucta cur. R. Kannicht. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

    Standard critical edition (abbreviated TrGF) of the testimonies on and fragments of minor tragedians.

  • Snell, Bruno, and Richard Kannicht, eds. 1981. Tragicorum Graecorum fragmenta (TrGF adespota). Vol. 2, Fragmenta adespota: testimonia volumini 1 addenda, indices ad volumina 1 et 2. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

    Standard critical edition of the unidentified fragments of Greek tragedy and the satyr play. With indexes and additions to the TrGF. Vol. 1 (Snell 1986).

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