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Sylvie David-Guignard: De Cadmos à Créon. De la Thèbes mythique à la Thèbes tragique, Besançon: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté 2022, 445 S., ISBN 978-2-84867-860-3, EUR 35,00
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Rezension von:
Roy van Wijk
Università di Trento
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Roy van Wijk: Rezension von: Sylvie David-Guignard: De Cadmos à Créon. De la Thèbes mythique à la Thèbes tragique, Besançon: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Comté 2022, in: sehepunkte 23 (2023), Nr. 12 [15.12.2023], URL:

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Sylvie David-Guignard: De Cadmos à Créon

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This interesting book by Sylvia David-Guignard, rooted in a 2001 dissertation, analyses the complex image of 'Thebes' in the works of the Athenian tragedians. Most of the space in this book occupies a close-reading of the texts of Aeschylus, Sophokles and Euripides. The quality of the philological analysis of the texts is outstanding and offers the reader rewarding insights. However, the long shelving of this work before publication has at certain points created a 'scholarly publications hiatus'. This does not undermine the meticulously researched interpretations of the tragedies, but leaves this reviewer at least wondering about the further potential this book could have had. There are works cited that post-date 2001, but there are some lacking that will be mentioned below, which could have further illuminated the complexity of the topic David-Guignard tackles. Nevertheless, she is successful in entangling these tragedies and avoiding a monochromic interpretation of Thebes in the eyes of the surviving Athenian tragedians.

The work is triparted into sections dealing with one topic each. The first concerns Thebes and its origins (La Thèbes des origines) (23-157); the second the representation of Theban space (La representation de l'espace thébain) (159-249) and finally, a treatment of Thebes as a mirror for Athens (La Thèbes tragique, une "autre" Athènes) (253-386) before a brief concluding section (387-392). Each topic in turn has various sub-sections dealing with the finer details of these larger themes.

The origins of Thebes are explored in exemplary fashion, ranging from the various founders of the city (Amphion and Zethus or Cadmos) to the dominance of twins or twin-like coupled heroes and deities in the Boiotian mythological landscape. David-Guignard traces how the tragedians prefer different stories about the founders of Thebes, Cadmos in particular. This ranges from dismissing the autochthonous claims of the Spartoi in Euripides' Phoenicissae to stress the 'foreignness' of Cadmos as compared to the Athenians [1], to embracing the way in which Thebes was a palimpsest that allowed for various traditions to be projected onto it. Certain elements of the analysis are somewhat dated, like the discussion of the influx of people into Boiotia that are linked to mythological migration stories and indigenous inhabitants. David-Guignard is especially susceptible to equating pottery with people, following 1980s investigations that viewed the differences in styles during the Bronze Age as an indication for changing populations. More recent discussions of the migrations to Asia Minor, for instance, have illuminated the difficulties with accepting such interpretations. [2] A more critical approach to these questions would therefore have been beneficial for understanding the tapestry of populations occupying Boiotia in mythological times. [3]

The second chapter deals with the way in which Theban geography is depicted in the Athenian tragedians. This is a rich investigation. Particularly telling was the way in which David-Guignard uncovers the many naval metaphors used by Aeschylus in his Septem to depict and describe Thebes, a land-locked polis (184-5). It demonstrates, in the words of the author 'how the real geography of Thebes can double for a symbolic geography stemming from the literary creations' of Athenian tragedians (185). Similarly, the prosperous soil of Boiotia is regularly evoked, as is its suitability for transhumance. While perhaps tangential to the inquiries made of the tragedies, some engagement with Emeri Farinetti's 2011 Boeotian Landscapes would have been instrumental in understanding Boiotia and its history. [4] This essential study has illustrated how the Boiotian landscape and history emerged from its spatial organisation. Coupling these insights with the construction of the Boiotian landscape of the Athenian tragedies could therefore have prompted an interesting comparison and perhaps have illuminated how it differed from the real uses for the Boiotian landscape.

In the final chapter, for instance, there are some revealing insights. In the course of numerous citations and dissections of the tragedies, the author points out that Thebes only really emerges as a mirror to Athens when Theseus enters the fray and intervenes. Elsewhere, the depiction is much more nuanced and cannot simply be poured into the mould of hostility and polemical views. This wholly fits in with the recent advances made in our understanding of social memory. These insights stress the polyvalence of memory and how events can put one or the other memory more into the foreground, depending on the situation, the prevalent discourse and the performative action, or in which institution the memory was mentioned. However, titles dealing with these phenomena go unmentioned. [5] Here, it could have been interesting how the conception of Thebes, as versatile as it is in the tragedies, contrasted with the ways in which similar episodes were presented in the orators, for instance. Of course, that would have reached beyond the parameters set for David-Guignard's study, but a framing of the discourse prevalent in the theatre, as opposed to the Assembly, could have sharpened the insightful remarks by the author.

In sum, the book is a worthwhile read that especially revels in the close reading of the texts of the Athenian tragedians. It presents us with an interesting insight into the multitudes of perspectives that could be offered and maintained, or conversely, adapted, in the Athenian theatre vis-à-vis Thebes. Therefore, there are some missed chances to be rued, but that should not take away from what is an attractive and meticulous study of Thebes' image in Aeschylus, Sophokles and Euripides. For that, the author should be lauded.


[1] Here it would have been interesting to reflect on the contributions in the 2020 volume Städte und Stadtstaaten zwischen Mythos, Literatur und Propaganda ed. by P. Cecconi and C. Tornau, particularly the contribution by Maria Paola Castiglioni (La metamorfosi di Cadmo nelle Baccanti di Euripide e il punto di vista ateniese). Unfortunately, this title is missing in the bibliography.

[2] N. MacSweeney: Separating Fact from Fiction in the Ionian Migration. In: Hesperia 86.3 (2017), 379-421.

[3] Here she could have profited from recent advances in local histories, especially that of Boiotia, see S. Tufano: Boiotia from Within. The Beginnings of Boiotian Local Historiography (= Teiresias Supplements Online; 2), Münster 2019.

[4] E. Farinetti: Boeotian Landscapes: A GIS-based study for the reconstruction and interpretation of the archaeological datasets of ancient Boeotia, Oxford 2011.

[5] E.g. B. Steinbock: Social Memory in Athenian Public Discourse: Uses and Meanings of the Past, Ann Arbor 2013; M. Barbato: The Ideology of Democratic Athens. Institutions, Orators and the Mythical Past, Edinburgh 2020.

Roy van Wijk