(Note: I'm asking about text, not performance practice, which is well documented. Also this question is open to Ancient Roman plays, if the problems discussed below apply to them as well.)

The “translator's note” to Ian Johnston's online translation of Aristophanes's Lysistrata states that

in several places in Lysistrata there is some confusion and debate over which speeches are assigned to which people.

This made me curious about what manuscript sources of ancient plays look like. I found some (a single page on Wikimedia whose date I have not ascertained, and a large codex from the 14th and 15th centuries), but my lack of knowledge of Ancient Greek prevents me from understanding what I'm seeing.

I know that manuscripts of ancient text often use scriptio continua and minimal punctation, which can lead to uncertainty in editing. However, I would expect something as crucial as attribution of speeches to characters (arguably necessary for interpreting a play) to be somewhat explicit.

How were changes of speaker and stage directions (if there were any—in the Lysistrata translation, at least, some of them seem to be editorial) indicated in manuscripts of ancient plays?

  • 2
    Welcome to the great, great question. I don't remember how it is in the Lysistrata specifically, but, in general, one way in which a switch to another speaker is marked is in the text itself, e.g. by a name in the vocative: "You must be correct, Socrates" — here we know the dialogue has switched away from Socrates who had just been speaking. Something like, "I agree", can also serve this purpose. Etc.
    – Cerberus
    Sep 11, 2022 at 22:39

1 Answer 1


There are two punctuation marks, the paragraphos and the dicolon, which are sometimes used to indicate change of speaker in both papyri and manuscripts. But they aren't always used, and when they are their value can be dubious because they are prone to errors in transmission.

Here's a description from Donald Mastronarde's discussion of the text of Euripides (p. 7):

Although a speaker may be identified in the margin, especially at first appearance, the normal way to mark change of speaker is with a paragraphos (a horizontal line under the first letters of a line and usually extending somewhat into the left margin), positioned beneath the last line of a character’s speech. If there is antilabe (change of speaker within a line, much rarer in tragedy than in comedy), a dicolon (and sometimes also extra space) within the line is used in addition to the paragraphos.

Similarly, Seth Jeppesen says about a MS of the Samia of Menander (p. 75 n. 31):

Characters were identified in the margin when they spoke for the first time in a scene. After that, the scribe simply put a small line, called a paragraphos ( _ ), below the edge of the writing in the left margin which indicated that somewhere in the line there was a change of speaker. If there were three characters on stage, it did not indicate who the new speaker was. Occasionally, the scribe would put a dicolon t : ) at the spot in the line where the speaker changed, but this was not at all standard and sometimes the dicolon just represented a spot where there was an emphatic stop, it need not indicate a change of speaker at all. Therefore, it can be very difficult at times for editors to figure out who speaks where in a play.

You can see an example on p. 28 of this PDF. As far as I can see neither of the manuscript texts you linked to uses these.

Obviously it's very easy for such marks to get omitted, misplaced, or wrongly inserted in transmission, so their value is limited (and even if we could be sure that a given mark is correctly transmitted, it was likely first inserted not by the author himself but by a later editor).

As for stage directions, these seem not to have been used by ancient playwrights (who would have had no need for them since they also normally served as directors of the production). There are a small handful of alleged stage directions in tragic and comic manuscripts; Oliver Taplin in this article discusses these and is skeptical that any of them is original.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.