The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan

  Bollack, Jean. 2016. The Art of Reading: From Homer to Paul Celan. Trans. C. Porter and S. Tarrow with B. King. Edited by C. Koenig, L. Muellner, G. Nagy, and S. Pollock. Hellenic Studies Series 73. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

9. An Act of Cultural Restoration: The Status Accorded to the Classical Tragedians by the Decree of Lycurgus*

I. Evidence of early corruption of the tradition: The contemporaneous use of the text

1. The corruption of the text

The modern usage of the term “corruption” as applied to the history of the texts of classical tragedies, a usage that can be inferred from the interpretation proposed by Hartmut Erbse and others, [2] dismisses the hypothesis of a parallel literary tradition as presupposed by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff [3] and assigns an almost anecdotal origin to the measure.

The archiving does not amount to a new initiative: it merely perpetuates the old method for preserving the texts that poets deposited after the original competitions. The condition of these texts had deteriorated, so they had to be restored to repair the marks of wear and tear.

The booksellers’ copies were unusable because they had been spoiled by erroneous annotations (“Lesefehler”). This claim entails a presupposition that has no basis in the text of the decree.

The texts had been defaced by the interpolations of actors as well. The practical distinction between the two traditions—the one more general and destined to be read, the other technical and destined for performance—was not taken into account by Erbse.

Thus we find interpolations and evidence of “corrections” at a very early date; such a twofold source of uncertainty justifies skepticism, but it is also evidence of a reaction, prefiguring the work of specialists. We waver between the role of tradition, the pole of a guarantee, on the one hand, and, on the other, the role of corruption, with the consequent need to exercise control.

2. The reconstitution of a less corrupted tradition, to halt the deteriorations ensuing from stage performances (Dindorf)

Wilhelm Dindorf (1802–1883) outlined the model in the preface to his Poetae scenici of 1869. [12] In his opinion, the first reading copies had been made available to the public by the actors; they were stage versions (Bühnenexemplare) and thus derivative sources. To understand the full extent of the corruption, one had to take into account copyists’ errors and theatrical interpolations (lines inserted, invented, or moved, and words altered). According to this hypothesis, Lycurgus’ decree was promulgated to check this development, but it changed nothing and had meager results. Corruption continued unabated. [13] This constant deterioration underlies the reconstitution of the history of the texts. The actors were bound by stricter controls: earlier abuse of the texts, in performance, is inferred from a text considered as a reaction. The canonical versions were newly reconstituted from proper sources that had not been contaminated by theatrical practices. [14] We know nothing of these sources; still, we might imagine that the poets’ descendants themselves perpetuated the tradition and thus that some copies must have been found in family collections, sometimes in the author’s hand, but in any case less corrupted, and that these copies might have been used in the work of purification established by Lycurgus. Unaware of the importance of a more general use of the texts outside the domain of the theater, scholars could not see the difference between two traditions, one literary, the other more technical and proper to the theater, which complemented one another.

II. Readings of the text since the Renaissance

1. The scribe takes the poet’s place by reciting the play to the Actors

2. Performances are eliminated and replaced by public recitations

In his edition of Plutarch’s Moralia, Henri Estienne (1531–1598), an early French translator of the Lives of the Ten Orators, imagines that a competition of public readings of the plays replaced theatrical performances, without any discussion: “ut recitatis tragoediis ex adverso contra eas liceret: neque eis tamen ius respondendi daretur” (“it was permitted that the tragedies be recited in the scribes’ presence, but the scribes were not granted the right of responding”). [17] The Protestant orientalist Samuel Petit de Nȋmes (1594–1643), in his Lois attiques (Attic Laws) of 1635, took the meaning of the last phrase in its strictest sense, making it an essential element of the measures taken by the decree (without really taking account of the function of the explanatory clause), and thus read into the decree a strong desire for moral, even perhaps aesthetic, purification. As he saw it, Lycurgus would have deemed it better to honor the heritage by eliminating performances altogether and replacing them with a simple public reading, or a recitation by the public scribe who would have been an expert in good diction and in declamation. According to the Pseudo-Plutarch, this is how Lycurgus presented the text of the law: “eorumque Tragoedias publice asservari, et Lege cavit ne quis eas histrio doceret, sed ut publice ab Urbis Scriba recitarentur” (“that their tragedies be preserved by the state, and forbade by law that any actor should perform them, but mandated instead that they be performed by the scribe of the city”). [18] The historian Ernst Wilhelm Gottlieb Wachsmuth (1784–1866), in his Hellenische Altertumskunde, [19] specifies that it was not a question of economy, “not because they lacked the means to stage [the plays], but rather the better to pay homage to the aesthetic superiority of these poets” (whose work had {117|118} apparently been betrayed by the actors). The purity of the message was played off against theatrical performance.

In general, critics did not accept the idea that Lycurgus’ decree could have been intended to put an end to the performance of the classics. The last phrase could not be understood in this sense; it had to be a matter of new requirements for accuracy and purity.

3. Performances Are not categorically Forbidden, but recitation takes the place of Acting performed on stage

It was difficult to determine what was involved in the substitution, if it was not a matter of instruction (see above, II.1) and if recitation had not been officially substituted for performance, as the Calvinist Petit believed it had been (see II.2). Scholars were dealing with a more open rivalry between recitation and theatrical performance, and they had to find a concrete referent for it. Johann Jakob Reiske (1716–1774) gives short shrift to the last phrase: the performers were obliged to read because “they” (the scribes or the custodians of the archives; Reiske reads αὐτούς for αὐτάς: ipsos scribas vel tabularum custodes) did not allow them to perform. [21] The confusion is obvious. Daniel Albert Wyttenbach (1746–1820) added to Xylander’s translation a suo arbitratu, “of their own free will” (histrionum, quibus suo arbitratu eas agere non liceret, “… actors, who were not allowed to perform them [the tragedies] of their own free will”). [22] So that the verb “to perform” might have a derogatory meaning, an element of freedom and abandon was inferred. With παραναγινώσκειν translated as “to read, to recite” rather than as “to read beside, to collate, to compare,” these scholars necessarily ended up in the aporia of a competition. The actors took too many liberties; the task should be entrusted to more serious people. At one point, Wyttenbach formulates the hypothesis that “perhaps” a better reading would be καὶ οὐκ ἐξεῖναι παρ’ αὐτὰς, “it was not permitted [to the actors] to perform beyond [the letter of the text]” (p. 319). The almost ludicrous substitution of scribes for actors was thus avoided, and at the same time the suo arbitratu was eliminated, rationally enough: actors would be allowed to act, but they {118|119} had to adhere strictly to the text. Thus Xylander’s translation of the preceding sentence, reproduced in his book, could not be maintained.

4. The scribe Attends the performances to supervise the production and prevents the Actors from taking liberties with the text

K. F. Heinrich, in his 1806 commentary on Juvenal, [23] proposed a new function for the scribe; he was no longer the director of the actors, nor an actor who did not act, but rather a supervisory authority, in keeping with his dignity. He was present at every performance, following the play on his official copy to make sure that no one deviated from the text. Heinrich adopted Reiske’s correction (see above: αὐτούς). [24] “For (or before) the actors” is taken to mean “observing their diction”: agentibus eas in scena histrionibus, iuxta et altrinsecus exscripto exemplari legeret (“while the actors were performing them [the plays] on stage, he [the scribe] was reading [the script] behind the scenes, to be emulated as a copy [by the actors]”). Gottfried Hermann (1772–1848) agrees; [25] he adopts Reiske’s conjecture αὐτούς, but disagrees with him on the pronoun he applies to the actors: ne quid histriones suo arbitrio (see above) mutarent; ὑποκρίνεσθαι, [26] that is, to use the text freely, for one’s own purposes. [27] It was this supervisory authority that W. W. Goodwin retains in his revised and corrected translation of the Moralia [28] : “and that the public clerk [i.e., the scribe] should read these copies as the plays were acted, that nothing might be changed by the players [this clause is Charles Barcraft’s addition]; and that otherwise it should be unlawful to act them (p. 38).” The scribe no longer “reads” in the place of the actors. His supervision is conceived as concomitant. The play is performed; the scribe is present, with a valid text; he follows along with this copy, like a director, during the performances, to see where the actors are making mistakes. Presumably the {119|120} presence of a supervisor prevented any blunders and provided this guarantee to the audience. Heinrich’s understanding of the dative as “for the actors” is still awkward; it implies that the scribe helps the actors by reading alongside them (παρ-) (grammatically, the pre-verb and the complement should be linked). From a public reading that takes the place of a theatrical performance, we have passed to a silent exercise, very far from declamation.

5. Prior verification of the quality of the text by the “Men of the Theater”

The success of this interpretation of the text among the historians of transmission was assured. The original letter of the text was defective; what was needed was some library work, with the help of specialists and archivists, to restore a reliable model. Welcker did not alter the text of the final sentence, thinking that one could imagine adding, “simply,” that is “without these precautions.” [31] Most recent authors, who have for the most part followed Welcker, have preferred to correct the text, usually by adopting Wyttenbach’s conjecture of παρ’ αὐτάς (discussed above), which could be combined with the hypothesis of a prior reading for verification. [32] I cite here M. Cuvigny’s translation in the Budé edition of the Moralia (1981, 12:1): “que le secrétaire de la cité devait lire aux acteurs appelés à interpréter leurs oeuvres” (“that the city clerk had to read to the actors called to interpret their works” [these last words are {120|121} not supported by the text]). Indeed, any deviation from the text was forbidden. [33] Obviously, it is hard to account for the repetition of ὑποκρίνεσθαι, following the logic of Welcker’s analysis. In fact, we end up where we started, without having made any real progress on the hermeneutic front. The preliminary analysis, didactic and formative and thus technical, as it had been conceived (see above, II.1), had become more of an informational document, more literary and regulatory. One approach was no more plausible than the other; undoubtedly an important aspect of theater life, linked to the staging of plays, had been lost. The change corresponded perfectly with the shifting of methodological interests. The positivist critical method of the nineteenth century is reflected in the last analysis, which became “canonical,” but on the whole, if we look at a trans-historical schema, the letter of the text and the need to conform to it won the day among scholars, over the realities of the stage, which were quickly put in the same category as superficiality and improvisation (see solutions 2 through 5). Herein lies the flaw, in the methodical suspicion of cultural productions.

III. The Original meaning is political, Aimed at the complete restoration of a national cultural past

1. Taking the technical copies of Theatrical texts into consideration

It would be possible to translate οὐ γὰρ ἐξεῖναι … by “because henceforth it would not be allowed,” as is most often done, but it would be much more natural to say “because it was not possible to perform them” (see Amyot, above, II, 1). The referent of “them” must be the tragedies with the text of the public copy, reproducing the booksellers’ versions that circulate in the city. Αὐτάς, whose antecedent is τὰς τραγῳδιάς αὐτῶν, refers to the texts of the tragedies that had been given quasi-legal status. The translation of the unemended explanatory clause allows us to better understand the preceding phrase. The negative οὐ followed by the particle γὰρ highlights an objective reason (a prohibition would presumably not be expressed in this way—if one were to understand it as “because it would no longer be permitted”); this translation explains the second section of the decree.

The integration of the theatrical tradition is an indispensable element in the survival or the reactualization of the past. The explanatory clause, with the repetition of the word ὑποκρίνεσθαι (“to perform”), contributes to this enrichment. The tragedies must be performed, and so performed in a different way (otherwise, the situation would be just the opposite, with the prohibition presupposed by Petit [see above II, 2]—which under the circumstances is an absurd hypothesis). They could not be performed based on the reading text alone (οὐ … γὰρ). Without the integration of technical experience, there could be no show—nor any real restoration of the work.

The problem shifts. The traditions are distinct. The question had been how Lycurgus had gone about correcting the changes that the actors had made in the texts; restoration of the texts was supposed to be the aim of the measure (ut eius auxilio [that, is the official book] ab histrionium mutationibus temerariis fabulae … integrae servarentur, “ … so that by his help, the texts would be preserved intact from the rash changes of the actors” [Korn, 1863, 7]). Pure, uncontaminated sources had to be found (altera instat quaestio, qua quibus fontibus et auxiliis Lycurgus ad hoc exemplum componendum usus sit, “another question arises: what sources and aids did Lycurgus use for composing this example,” ibid.). What had been taken as a source of corruption was, on the contrary, the necessary complement for performing the plays. The “text,” without the theatrical annotations, was not itself made problematic by the decree, which says nothing about interpolations; it does not even mention them (nor rule out presupposing them). The actors fulfill the terms of the measure by virtue of their theatrical expertise, which relied on a particular tradition, both written and oral, that could immortalize a very ancient technical knowledge (dating from the time of Sophocles and Euripides). The experience of the men of the theater allows them to restore the works, or to constitute the patrimony of tragedy in a more technically orthodox manner. It becomes obvious that, in the state in which they were found, the texts that were being read could not be used for performance.

2. Two complementary measures: The elevation of tragedies to the rank of Official texts Integral to the life of the city, and the perpetuation of the material conditions for Their performance

The secretary is charged with a task of collation that leads him to compare the text written out by city scribes (ἐν κοινῷ, literally “in common,” “in the public domain”) on the model of booksellers’ copies (books as opposed to scripts) with other texts that give the necessary stage directions, if only to clarify the allocation of lines among speakers. The collation process points to a marked difference between commercial texts meant to be read that circulated broadly in the public domain, and more technical copies that contained a whole set of notations associated with staged and musical performance of the plays.

Starting with this distinction, we can extrapolate four stages, directly or indirectly implied by the decree: {123|124}

What this hypothesis allows us to infer is precisely the existence of dual textual traditions, each of which clearly had a function: one was intended for study and for schools, and more broadly for a public of readers and other users of books, who were interested in either the form or the content of the texts, in the art of oratory, the wisdom of the pronouncements, the stories, or the argumentation; but this tradition did not include what the actors needed to perform the plays on stage.

It may be that the stage texts had been significantly altered, and that that is why the literary copies, which had to be completed, were chosen as the official texts. But one might perhaps more naturally conclude that the body of directions that existed for the staging of a given play was added to a version that did {124|125} not differ significantly from the other, more widely diffused version, despite the added marginal notes. Corruption, if indeed it existed, is not implied in the decree, nor addressed by it.

3. Evidence of a political objective

The texts of past performances of fifth-century Greek tragedies were collected by the city as the true basis of its political existence; the past had a central presence thanks to the texts and their public preservation, even as regular performances updated the past, in the framework of theatrical restorations of a political (or cultural) nature. Lycurgus’ decree places the three tragedians on the same level. We know from Quintilian (Institutio Oratoria 10.1.66) that Aeschylus’ plays had been rewritten in response to public expectations. Aeschylus was a cult figure. Whereas, two centuries earlier, the Pisistratidae had endowed Athens with a cultural, pan-Hellenic expansion through the critical examination of the Homeric poems, a new universal patrimony now served, in a very different political situation, to consolidate the political identity of the city. The collection of the works in one place was an affair of state.

Once purely corrective (paleographic) expectations are abandoned, the decree, instead of being considered a document on the state of preservation of {125|126} texts, takes on its full significance as an element of a very deliberate political restoration. The three clauses complement one another. A public consecration through the erection of statues, which elevated the poets to the level of beneficent—even foundational—heroes, shows that the city had rediscovered itself and saw in them a part of its identity. Secondly, the deposit of works by the classical authors in the archives established a collection of texts that could be referred to on a daily basis. This decision had a symbolic meaning. Thirdly and more concretely, the decree served to give life to the works through performances that were as close to the original intent as possible; all the directions—stage, choreographic, and musical—had to be gathered together and included. The three decisions all had the same goal. {126|}

Works Cited

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Bernhardy, G. 1856. Grundriss der griechischen Literatur. 2 vols. 2nd ed. Halle.

Bétolaud, V. 1870. Œuvres morales et œuvres diverses de Plutarque. 5 vols. Paris.

Boeckh, A. 1808. Graecae tragoediae principum. Heidelberg.

Bollack, J. 1990. L’Oedipe Roi de Sophocle: le texte et ses interprétations. 4 vols. Lille.

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Buxton, R. G. A. 1984. Sophocles. In Greece and Rome, New Surveys in the Classics 16. Oxford.

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Dindorf, W. 1868. Poetae Scenici Graeci, 5th ed., corrected. Leipzig. Orig. pub. 1830.

Easterling, P. E. 1973. “The Transmission of the Text.” In Sophocles: Electra, ed. J. H. Kells, 243–252 (Appendix 3). Cambridge.

Estienne, H. 1572. Vitae X rhetorum, Roberto Britanno interprete. Geneva.

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[ back ] * Originally published as “Une action de restauration culturelle. La place accordée aux tragiques par le décret de Lycurgue,” in: M.-M. Mactoux and E. Geny, eds., Mélanges Pierre Lévêque. Vol. 8, Religion, anthropologie et société. Annales littéraires de l’Université de Besançon, vol. 499 (Paris, 1994), pp. 13–24.

[ back ] 1. This text develops my commentary on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King (1990), ad 1:139–141. [ back ] In the Teubner edition of 1971, Jürgen Mau prints the text with Gregorios N. Bernardakis’s addition 〈παρ’〉αὐτάς (see below, II, 3).

[ back ] 2. In Hunger et al. 1961, 1:217–218.

[ back ] 3. 1907:124–128.

[ back ] 4. 1868, praef., VII n2.

[ back ] 5. Erbse agrees with Turner (1951). Wilamowitz holds that the stage directions contained in the books were addressed primarily to the reader. We know that he believes that the tragedians intended their works to be read as books. According to Erbse, “[w]e do not know if Lycurgus had succeeded in obtaining clean copies from the poet’s heirs. We can assume that he did his utmost to find the best version whenever authenticity was in question” (in Hunger 1961, 1:217–218). Maybe. Page (1934:2) cites the decree—with a text modified according to Grysar: οὐκ ἐξεῖναι δ’ ἄλλως—detecting in it evidence of a longstanding corruption of the texts of the tragedies, owing to actors’ interpolations; Zuntz (1965:251–252) posits that the official text obtained thanks to Lycurgus might have helped the work of Aristophanes of Byzantium, noting that the latter did not have to worry about eliminating erroneous readers’ notes or interpolations, but aimed “to preserve what was transmitted” (252).

[ back ] 6. Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ Epidemics [II in Hippocr. lib. II Epidem—Corpus Medicorum graecorum V 10.21 (1936), 79.8 (XVII, 607 Kühn)]. See also Pfeiffer 1968:82.

[ back ] 7. See also Bernhardy 1856, 2.2:110–111.

[ back ] 8. Colonna 1975, vol. 1, praef., XLII–XLV.

[ back ] 9. See, for example, Reynolds and Wilson 1968:5. The authors posit the perpetuation of an original archiving that was in place even before Lycurgus. Copies were made for the actors. They did not find what they needed in private collections, when “the original performance plays were revived from time to time.” No distinction is made between the two spheres and the dual tradition in the use of the text.

[ back ] 10. The decree “provided that an official copy of the plays of all three great tragedians be kept in the public archives and the actors compelled to keep to this text, and the implication must be that [Sophocles’] work too was thought to need protection” (Easterling 1973:244).

[ back ] 11. “Thanks to the 4th century B.C. politician Lycurgus, authorized texts of Sophocles (and Aeschylus and Euripides) were established” (Buxton 1984:5); these texts attest to the popularity of the three tragedians.

[ back ] 12. Dindorf 1868, praef., VII–VIII. Wilamowitz later modified this classical interpretation.

[ back ] 13. “ … laudabili profecto consilio, sed exiguo, ut videtur, successu” (“by a praiseworthy plan, indeed, but with little success, it seems”) (Dindorf 1868, praef., VIII).

[ back ] 14. Some systematic choices must have been involved. Is it conceivable that copies could have been made of some three hundred tragedies?

[ back ] 15. “ … que l’on feist escrire leurs tragædies pour les garder en public, et que le greffier de la ville les leust aux joueurs, pour ce qu’il n’estait pas loisible de les jouer” (Amyot 1820 [1559], 4:77).

[ back ] 16. Böttiger 1837:259n2.

[ back ] 17. Estienne 1572:1547.

[ back ] 18. See Wesseling 1742:139 §XXXII.

[ back ] 19. Wachsmuth 1826–1830, 2:743.

[ back ] 20. See Reiske’s edition (1778, 9:38–39.4), which follows Xylander’s translation.

[ back ] 21. [TN: At stake here is the gender of the Greek third-person pronoun: if the masculine autous is used, it refers to the actors, if the feminine autas is used, it refers to the tragedies.]

[ back ] 22. See Wyttenbach’s edition of the Moralia (1830:4.1.319).

[ back ] 23. Heinrich 1839:19.

[ back ] 24. “Ils lisaient; ils n’avaient pas le droit de jouer” (this was the situation imagined in II.3, above).

[ back ] 25. Hermann 1827, 2:155.

[ back ] 26. [TN: This is the middle form of a verb that means “to play a part, be an actor”; it can also have the sense of “to perform [tragedies/comedies].”]

[ back ] 27. August Boeckh (1785–1867) supports a related interpolation (1808:327–28), which he could have read in Johann Matthias Gesner (1691–1761), in his commentary on Quintilian (1738, ad 10.1.66). The idea is almost absurd: the scribe would sit through the performance of a new play that revived one of the many topics that the classical authors had dealt with, and try to detect the borrowings and plagiarisms. He would be defending the authors’ copyright.

[ back ] 28. Goodwin 1878, 5:35–42. The same point can be found in Bétolaud 1870, 3, p. 733: “que le gardien de ces archives suivȋt la lecture du texte pendant que les comédiens le joueraient: autrement la représentation n’en devait pas être autorisée” (“that the guardian of these archives should follow the written text while the actors performed the play: otherwise the performance should not be authorized”).

[ back ] 29. Welcker 1839–41, 3:907n33.

[ back ] 30. [TN: An examination to prove oneself a qualified citizen of Athens, able to exercise public rights and duties.]

[ back ] 31. “… denn es sollte forthin nicht freystehen … sie zu spielen, wie bisher” (for henceforth it should not be allowed … [for the actor] to perform them as in the past” (see n. 31 above).

[ back ] 32. See O. Korn’s dissertation (1863:5–6, followed by O. Jahn and F. W. Ritschl); Sommerbrodt 1864:131–132.

[ back ] 33. See also Fowler’s translation of the Moralia (1936:401): “that the clerk of the State read them to the actors who were to perform their plays for comparison of the texts and that it be unlawful to depart from the authorized text in acting.”

[ back ] 34. Bernhardy 1856; see above n7.

[ back ] 35. Bernhardy accepted a rather indefensible cut before τοῖς ὑποκρ., leaving τοῖς 〈δ’〉 ὑποκρινομένοις οὐκ ἐξεῖναι 〈παρ’〉αὐτὰς [with Wyttenbach] ὑποκρίνεσθαι without a complement. The repetition seems odd. Moreover (but the argument is valid against other analyses as well), αὐτάς refers to τραγῳδίας, that is, to the works of the tragedians, and not to the revised copy from the public archives, which is mentioned in the same sentence.

[ back ] 36. Liddell et al. 1940, s.v. 1.

[ back ] 37. Isocrates Panegyricus 4.120, speaks of “compar[ing] the text of the treaties made under our rule [of Athens] with those which have been published recently” (Isocrates, Panegyricus and To Nicocles, ed. and trans. S. Usher [Warminster, 1990], 81). Aeschines, in Against Ctesiphon 3.201, invites his adversary to “take the board and read out the laws together with the decree” (Aeschines, trans. C. Carey [Austin, TX, 2000], 233).

[ back ] 38. Wilamowitz 1907:124–128.

[ back ] 39. An example of the notations can be found in the fragment of Euripides’ Orestes (lines 338–344): see Pöhlmann 1960:12.

[ back ] 40. Wilamowitz 1907:125.

[ back ] 41. See Amyot 1820 [1559]: “pour les garder en public.”

[ back ] 42. On the exact nature of the function designated by ὁ τῆς πόλεως γραμματεύς (which, apart from this passage, appears only in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War 7.10), see Romilly 1953–1972, 4:91 n1.

[ back ] 43. Mossé (1988–1989:25–36) considers the decree a type of regulation linked to the medium of writing, as in the administration of finances: in keeping with the conventional understanding of texts, she insists on control of their literal accuracy, “which would be inscribed in the practice of administrative management, linked to the work of the leader who restored the life of the city” (31–32).