Aristophanes: A Guide to Selected Sources

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Sarah Burges Watson

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Aristophanes, Athenian Vit. Ar. 1Anon. Prol. Com. XXXa KosterIG II (2) 1740 poet of Old Comedy, was born in the 450s and died ca. 386 BCE. His earliest plays, beginning with Banqueters (427), were produced by Callistratus or Philonides Anon. Vit. Ar. 2 Schol. Pl. Ap. 19c, a decision which Aristophanes defends in Knights Ar. Eq. 507-36 (512-19), probably responding to comic jibes Anon. Vit. Ar. 2Schol. Pl. Ap. 19c that he was ‘toiling for others’. He won at least six times in the Athenian dramatic festivals. Eleven of his comedies survive. We have titles of thirty-two more and almost a thousand fragments. Sources on Aristophanes are collected by Kassel-Austin 1984 (Greek) and Rusten 2011 (English). His plays have been translated into English by Sommerstein and Henderson.

Comedy and Ancient Biography

Aristophanes’ Life Anon. Vit. Ar. raises pertinent issues for ancient poetic biographies, since much of its material derives from comedy (Lefkowitz 2012). That of Aristophanes is no exception, being ‘largely a mere stringing together of passages from his plays which the ancient scholiasts considered to be reliably autobiographical’ (Cartledge 1999: xiii). For the most part, historical facts about Aristophanes’ life must be sought elsewhere (see Cartledge 1999: xiii-xviii), but the Life’s and the scholiasts’ assumption that a poet’s life can be derived from his work is worth probing for what it can teach us about ancient biography. Three characteristics of Old Comedy seem particularly relevant:

(1) The genre’s ambiguous position on the boundary between fiction and reality. Like some iambic (invective) poetry, comedy refers to people and events in the ‘real’ world (see the Guide to Archilochus; Rosen 1988, 2007). Ancient commentators and biographers tend to treat its satirical statements as factual (Halliwell 1984).

(2) The prominence of the poet’s voice, especially in the parabasis, a convention whereby the chorus turned to address the audience on behalf of, and sometimes in the voice of, the comic poet (see Hubbard 1991). That voice—fragmented, unstable, and elusive—is not the unmediated voice of a historical figure, but a ‘fictionalized representation of the author’ (Goldhill 1991), in dialogue with similarly fictionalized representations by/of his rivals and enemies (see Dobrov 1995; Storey 2003; Bakola 2008; Rosen 2010; Biles 2011).

The literariness of ‘stage autobiographies’ and their inseparability from the dynamics of comic competition is well illustrated by the confrontation between Aristophanes and Cratinus (see Sidwell 1995; Luppe 2000; Rosen 2000; Biles 2002, 2011; Bakola 2008, 2010). In Knights Ar. Eq. 507-36 (424 BCE), Aristophanes represented his rival as an alcoholic has-been, probably literalizing a wine metaphor in which Cratinus had laid claim to the ‘Dionysian’ heritage of Archilochean iambos (Biles 2002, 2011). The following year, Cratinus responded to Aristophanes’ insult by creating an entire drama (Pytine) with himself as (anti-?)hero—the legitimate, alcoholic husband of a despairing Comedy. The play was a resounding success, trouncing Aristophanes’ Clouds, which came third. In the Clouds’ (re-written) parabasis Ar. Nub. 518-562, the poet describes the defeat as one of his greatest disappointments.

(3) As this example demonstrates (see also the Guides to Euripides and Aeschylus), ancient comedians took great delight in making poets resemble their works. The biographers’ tendency to extrapolate poets’ lives from their literary outputs is a closely related phenomenon (Graziosi 2006: 164-5). Both reflect the ancient view, humorously embodied and stated by Agathon in Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae (149-52), that composing poetry requires imitative identification with one’s creations. From here to the cliché that life imitates art and vice-versa is a small step. Biographers played the game of generating lives from art with varying degrees of earnestness and sophistication. The fact that they considered it unproblematic reveals the differences between ancient biography and our own (Momigliano 1993; Graziosi 2002; Hägg 2012); historicity was not a priority, nor was historical evidence readily available: other agendas were in play (see Bing 1993; Graziosi 2002).

The Life on Aristophanes as a hero of democracy

These considerations go some way towards explaining the Life’s literalistic reading of Aristophanes’ persona. The most prominent ‘event’ in Aristophanes’ autobiography is his feud with the demagogue Cleon Ar. Ach. 5-8; Schol. Ar. Ach. 8aAr. Ach. 377-82; Schol. Ar. Ach. 378Ar. Vesp. 1284-91; Schol. Ar. Vesp. 1284; Schol. Ar. Vesp. 1285, the target of Knights. The hostility supposedly arose when Cleon brought an accusation that Aristophanes was foreign (he had Aeginetan connections Anon. Vit. Ar. 3Ar. Ach. 652-4Anon. Prol. com.Schol. Pl. Ap. 19cIG II (2) 1740Schol. Ar. Ach. 653 and 654 b) and that, in Babylonians (426 BCE), he had slandered Athenian officials in the presence of foreigners. Most modern scholars accept that Cleon brought an action; Acharnians 381-2 Ar. Ach. 377-82 suggests that it was rejected. In connection with the comic poet’s defeat of the ‘tyrannical’ Cleon, the Life also repeats Aristophanes’ hyperbolic claim that he quashed the ‘informers’ Ar. Vesp. 1015-59Anon. Vit. Ar. 4, who were making prosecutions for the sake of personal profit (see MacDowell 1971: 1-4). These achievements are the cornerstones of the Life’s portrayal of Aristophanes as a crusader for democracy.

The vehemently pro-democratic stance of the Life (5) Anon. Vit. Ar. 5, which probably took shape in the context of Hellenistic monarchy (Bing 1993), is surprising. In the Life, to eulogize Aristophanes is to be pro-democracy. Ps.-Xenophon Ps.-Xen. Ath. Pol. 2.18 makes a close connection between Old Comedy and democracy: invective is the people’s weapon against its enemies. Platonius Platon. Diff. com. I follows suit (see Hunter 2009: 104-6; Olson 2010: 37-45). According to Aristophanes’ rhetoric, frank and free speech—the hallmark of Athenian democracy—is the comic poet’s duty, even when this means putting one’s head on the block, like Dicaeopolis in the Acharnians Ar. Ach. 626-64. It is worth considering how such passages may have resonated when transposed to a Hellenistic context. The Life twice confronts Aristophanes with monarchy. Dicaeopolis claims that the king of Persia asked whether Athens or Sparta had received more abuse from Aristophanes, since such wise instruction was sure to tip the scales favourably in the Peloponnesian War. Scholars have noted with horror that the Life (6) Anon. Vit. Ar. 6 reports this joke as biographical ‘fact’. To repeat the story, however, is also (as Borges’ Pierre Menard might suggest) to re-stage the confrontation between Greek democracy and Eastern tyranny in a way that leaves the dignity of both sides intact and underlines the social benefits of comedy’s teaching. The same may be said of the anecdote (Life 6 Anon. Vit. Ar. 6) that Plato sent Aristophanes’ plays to Dionysius, the Sicilian tyrant whom, in the Seventh Letter, he cultivates as a potential philosopher-king. The Life says that the plays were intended to provide instruction about the Athenian constitution—i.e. democracy, which Plato ranks second-worst in the Republic (see Scott 2000). It does not seem fanciful to suppose that the Life re-enacts this education of monarchs, with its message reversed.

Aristophanes’ Socrates and Plato’s Aristophanes

The Life’s deafening silence on the subject of Socrates is in keeping with its pro-democratic and pro-Aristophanic positioning. In Plato’s Apology Pl. Ap. 18b-d, 19b-c, reputational damage caused by Clouds is a determining factor in Socrates’ indictment—a view which some questioned Schol. Ar. Nub. 96d and others embellished Hyp. (A2) Ar. Nub.. Aristophanes caricatures Socrates as a natural philosopher, sophist, and guru of newfangled mysteries: the relationship between this portrait and the historical Socrates is anything but straightforward (see Bowie 1993: 112-24; Rashed 2009: 107-36; Konstan 2011: 75-90; Laks/Saetta Cottone 2013). Aelian Ael. VH 2.13, who intensifies the Apology’s critical stance, says that when foreigners wondered whom the masked likeness represented, Socrates stood up in the audience and remained standing throughout the play—a paradoxical reminder of Plato’s view that poetry imitates the illusions of the sensible world rather than the absolute truth of the forms. Olympiodorus Olymp. Vit. Pl. p. 3, 65 West, by contrast, makes Plato an admirer of Aristophanes. Certainly his portrait in the Symposium Pl. Symp. 176b, 177e, 185c-d, 223c-d could not be more gracious (see Hunter 2004: 60-71). A bout of hiccups prevents Aristophanes, ‘who thinks of nothing but Dionysos and Aphrodite’ (177e), from taking his allotted place in the sequence of encomia to love. His fable about human origins, which parodies a mystical tale about the soul’s imprisonment in the body (see Burges Watson 2014), makes love a literal quest for one’s ‘other half’—our ancestors were bisected by the gods in punishment for hybris (189a-193d). Invective is notably absent; the speech displays only the comic poet’s charm and imaginative genius—and Plato’s mastery thereof. Diotima’s metaphysical revelations, however, subsequently demonstrate Aristophanes’ lack of understanding.

Old Comedy versus New

Plato’s critique of Aristophanes is echoed in Plutarch’s elitist and immensely hostile Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander Plut. Comp. Ar. et Men. Epit. 853a-b, 853c-d, 854a, 854c-d, which, like much Hellenistic writing, is also influenced by Aristotle’s censorship of Old Comedy’s malicious humour (see Hunter 2009: 78-89). The developmental narrative in Life 1 Anon. Vit. Ar. 1 carefully exempts Aristophanes from this charge: he softened his predecessors’ invective with charm, giving the genre its solemnity and utility. Invective, however, remains an essential—and positive—generic characteristic. When curbed by legal restrictions (for which evidence is lacking—see Halliwell 1991), Old Comedy becomes New; Aristophanes’ Cocalus paves the way.


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