When P. T. Stevens coined the term ‘tragic koine’ for the linguistic stock-in-trade of Greek tragedy from the later fifth century on, he immediately acknowledged the limits of our evidence: ‘... if the rest of Attic tragedy had survived we might find that the style of Sophocles was more distinct from the tragic koine than that of Euripides ... and that a good deal of what now appears to be Euripidean would be seen as common at any rate to a group of dramatists’ (Stevens 1965: 270; cf. Fries 2014: 29-30). In other words, it is difficult to distinguish the ‘universally tragic’ from the language and style of Euripides, and vice versa, because he provides by far the best evidence for the period in question. But does this mean all effort is vain because the argumentation will inevitably be circular?
Not entirely. As Sansone (2013) observed, some guidance as to the personal diction of Euripides is offered by Aristophanes, who was familiar with a much larger dramatic corpus and whose supreme talent for parodying tragedy, and especially Euripides, was already recognised by his contemporaries (Cratin. fr. 342.2 PCG εὐριπιδαριστοφανίζων, ‘writing in the style of Euripides and Aristophanes’). For my paper I have taken further Sansone’s approach and examined systematically the verbal expression of the character Euripides in Aristophanes’ Acharnians, Thesmophoriazusae and Frogs as well as other Euripidean paratragedy, except direct quotations and paraphrases. In that way it has been possible to extend significantly Sansone’s list of words and phrases that are notably more frequent in Euripides than in the rest of surviving tragedy, or even restricted to him. The evidence, necessarily selective, is arranged in three categories: (1) poetic words particularly favoured by Euripides; (2) words apparently invented or introduced into tragedy by Euripides; and (3) whole phrases or ‘verse formulae’.
Category (1) is represented, for example, by θάσσω (‘to sit’), which occurs twenty-one times in Euripides, as against only once in Sophocles. So it is probably no coincidence that Aristophanes put it into the mouth of Euripides in the paratragic couplet Thesm. 889-90. A passage particularly rich in such favourite words is the virtuoso parody of a Euripidean monody at Ar. Ran. 1331-63.
Perhaps the most interesting word in category (2) is κομψός (‘clever, smart’, with the same semantic ambivalence as in English), which also illustrates Euripides’ tendency to admit colloquial expressions (cf. Collard 2005: 375-6). The adjective and its opposite ἄκομψος are attested eight times in genuine Euripides, the verb κομψεύω (‘to talk smartly, to quibble’) once each in Euripides and Sophocles. In Aristophanes κομψός characterises Euripides at Thesm. 93 (cf. Eq. 18 κομψευριπικῶς, ‘clever in the way of Euripides’); at Ran. 967 Euripides himself applies the word to the opportunistic politician Theramenes.
Category (3) includes several expressions tied to a specific metrical position, such as the variable ‘verse-end formula’ ... (κ)οὐκ ἄλλως λέγω / ἐρῶ / ἐρεῖς (‘I do not deny it’ etc.), which Euripides has five times, while otherwise it only occurs at Aesch. Sept. 490. It is thus doubly significant that at Ar. Ran. 1140 the phrase marks one of the rare occasions when Aeschylus is forced to agree with Euripides. More generally, it is likely that this ‘formulaic’ quality of Euripides’ trimeter versification was a primary target of the celebrated lekythion-joke at Ar. Ran. 1189-1247.
This paper offers an introduction to a field of study in which much remains to be done. Its line of inquiry allows us, with due caution, to distinguish between the Euripidean and the so-called tragic koine and thus to unravel some of the very fabric of tragic diction. We acquire a linguistic yardstick that can help us, for example, to indentify with greater certainty fragments of Euripides among the tragica adespota and to tell the individual in the style of other dramatists, especially the better preserved ones of the fourth century.
Rhythm and Style