In Aristophanes’ Frogs, Aeschylus subjects the opening lines of six of Euripides’ plays to ridicule by inserting the phrase ληκÏθιον á¼€πÏŽλεσεν into one of each play’s first three lines. This paper will argue that the phrase means, “had his lekythion stolen.” Previous scholars have concerned themselves exclusively with the significance of the word ληκÏθιον, finding in it a sexual (Whitman, Sider, Gerö and Johnsson), metrical (Navarre, Arnould) or stylistic (Quincey, Taillardat 297–98) significance. Little, if any, attention has been paid to the only other word in the phrase, á¼€πÏŽλεσεν, which is regularly assumed to mean “lost” in the sense of “mislaid,” as Sommerstein translates the expression. Faraone (33) argues in another connection that á¼€πÏŽλεσεν used in curses against thieves can serve as a “face-saving” device, but evidence will be presented that active forms of á¼€πÏŒλλυμι can signify “have something stolen” (e.g. Ach. 1022, Nub. 856, Av. 493; Arist. Probl. 952b18 and 22; Plut. mor. 18d; Ath. 338a; the same is true of Latin perdo: e.g. Plaut. Curc. 584, Men. 665; Sen. Ben. 7.16.3; Mart. 12.87; Petr. Sat. 30.11). By contrast, instances of á¼€πÏŒλλυμι meaning “misplace” are nearly impossible to find.
Given that a lekythion (a container for olive oil) was a personal item that one might bring with one to the gymnasium or the public bath, both of which places were notorious as targets of thieves (Dem. In Timocr. 114; Fagan 36–38), it is likely that Aristophanes’ audience understood that Cadmus, Pelops, Aegyptus and the other victims of Aeschylean sabotage had their lekythia stolen. This is explicit in the case of the sixth Euripidean prologue to be subjected to the insertion of ληκÏθιον á¼€πÏŽλεσεν: After Aeschylus applies the tag to Oeneus, he is called out by the umpire Dionysus, who asks, “And who stole it (καá½¶ τÎ¯ς αá½”θ’ á½‘φεÎ¯λετο; 1242)?” No answer is given to Dionysus’ question, which brings the lekythion-scene to an abrupt end, with the apparent humiliation of Euripides. The contest between the two tragic poets next turns to their skill in composing lyrics. Euripides goes second, as he had done in the competition involving prologues. The lyric competition similarly ends with Aeschylus’ devastating parody of Euripidean lyrics, the subject of which is, significantly, the theft of some woman’s rooster and the woman’s hysterical appeals for help in retrieving the stolen item from the presumed thief, a woman named Glyce (1331–63).
Why do both scenes end with Euripidean characters being represented as victims of petty crimes? It will be argued that this is the ultimate humiliation for the tragic poet who had earlier boasted that, unlike his pretentious predecessor, he brought familiar, everyday matters onto the stage (959–63) and taught the Athenians how better to manage their households (971–79). This is “the achievement he most vividly takes pride in” (Lada-Richards 242; cf. 291–93), and the boast earns the approval of Dionysus, who notes that “every Athenian” now comes home from the theater having learned to keep a vigilant watch on every cooking utensil and every morsel of food in his house (980–91). The Aeschylean versions, however, of Euripides’ prologues and lyrics reveal a cast of tragic characters, both human and divine, who are pathetically incapable of preventing the loss of their personal belongings through theft. Thus the humor of the lekythion-scene derives not only from the absurdity of hearing an everyday object grafted onto a solemn narrative involving a mythical or divine character. Those mythical and divine characters turn out to be so far from setting an admirable example of household management for the ordinary members of Euripides’ audience that they cannot even protect their belongings from common thieves. That is not to deny that other—sexual, metrical and stylistic—factors may contribute to the humor of the scene. But sometimes a lekythion is just a lekythion.