Skip to content

What’s in a fragment?

March 16, 2014

To Zeus’ majesty I first do reverence, and with supplication I beseech him that this day’s light may see us exchange our labours for prosperous fortune; and for the chieftains of all the land of Greece, who with Menelaus demand vengeance of Paris, son of Priam, for the violent rape of Helen, I pray for a friendly reconciliation of their grievous quarrel.

(Aeschylus Unknown F285S)

There are very few extant Greek tragedies; 33 works by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides out of approximately 270 written. However, in addition to these, there is a substantial amount of fragmentary work. In some cases the fragments can be used to establish the potential plot and/or partially reconstruct a play; such as Euripides’ Antiope. Fragmentary evidence in particular broadens and improves the understanding of an authors range of work, subjects and issues explored. The fragments can provide additional supporting evidence in respect of arguments around these and other areas such as the writing style and structure of an author. However, there is equally a lot of room for conjecture and guess work. Interpretations of fragmentary evidence can be distorted, and as such it is difficult to understand and appreciate how a play would have originally been represented.

The example above is from an unknown play by Aeschylus. This fragment is open to significant interpretation, and the only conclusion that can be drawn is that the play explores a scenario from the Trojan epic cycle. In respect of who is making the speech, the first line is a prayer to Zeus so it might be suggested that the speaker is a priest. However, it could also have been delivered by Agamemnon, setting the scene for the opening of the play. Unfortunately there is insufficient information to conclude with any certainty who it is; though it is definitely a Greek. The labours referred to could be interpreted as many years of fighting but might equally reference the Greeks preparations for the war and recent arrival at Troy. The reference to a reconciliation could either be between the Greeks and Trojans or the various Greek chieftains. This would suggest that either the play is set at the start of the Trojan war or during the later years while the Greek army is encamped at Troy. It is difficult to conclude either way as, if the chieftains are seeking vengeance it suggests that they are unified but the most logical conclusion is that there has been a disagreement between them.

When making use of fragments it must be noted that the context is not normally known or is entirely lost. Furthermore, as demonstrated with Aeschylus, should the fragment be read as it first appears. Regardless of the issues raised by the use of fragments, the evidence is exceptionally valuable and can provide great insight into the lost plays. 


Aeschylus Fragments – Loeb Classical Library Vol. 2, Translated by Smyth, W. London: William Heinemann Ltd, 1963.

From → Greek Tragedy

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: