The First Poets of Old Comedy
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines what we know of Old Comedy between two key dates, the traditional date of 486 for its formal introduction at the City Dionysia in Athens and the debut of Aristophanes in 427, the only poet of Old Comedy for whom we have complete plays. We know little about the first writers of Old Comedy or the sort of drama they wrote. Only Magnes is more than a name. But we are better informed about the next generation, principally Cratinus (debut 454), who seems to have blended burlesque of myth with political themes and personally directed humor and created a more sophisticated form of drama. Other poets considered from this period are Crates, Hermippus, Callias, Teleclides, and Pherecrates.
The Early Phase of Old Comedy
Whether it developed from prancing men costumed as animals or satyrs, from reveling padded dancers, or from the riotous exchange of insults at public festivals, Old Comedy became part of the dramatic competitions at the Dionysia early in the fifth century bce. Two names are attached to the first years of Old Comedy: Susarion and Chionides. The one fragment attributed to Susarion is accompanied by stories about the personal circumstances behind his denunciation of women and attributed to a “performance” at the Dionysia. Some sources call him a Megarian, but this may just be an attempt to justify the claim by the mainland Megarians to be the originators of comedy (Aristotle Poetics 1448a30–32). There was certainly an early form of comedy known as “Megarian,” dismissed by the Athenians as something crude and rustic (Wasps 57, Eupolis K-A fr. 261, Ecphantides K-A fr. 3), but whether it predated or had any influence upon Old Athenian Comedy is doubtful.
The Suda (χ 318), however, names Chionides as “the first competitor of Old Comedy,” which implies that Chionides was the first name found on the victory-lists at the Dionysia. The Suda adds that “he produced eight years before the Persian Wars,” and it is this statement that yields the traditional date of 487/6 for the debut of Old Comedy. Olson (2007: 382–388) has shown the evidence from the victory-lists could support a date as early as the late 490s and as late as the early 470s. The traditional date of 486 thus falls comfortably within these two termini. Susarion was perhaps a creator of “comedy” before its formal adoption or an early comic poet who never won the prize. For Chionides we have three titles and seven fragments, one of which (K-A fr. 4–Beggars) suspiciously mentions Gnesippus, a comic target of the 430s.
Edwards (1993) proposed that since a date for the introduction of comedy in the early 480s coincides with the first use of ostracism against the friends of the tyrants, comedy (p. 96) began as the voice of the new democracy, insulting and thus attacking the traditional rich who were seen as hostile to the democracy that had just survived the first Persian invasion. Then some decades later this essentially democratic art form was “hijacked” by the Right and made into a weapon against radical democracy (Seeberg 1995). But I find it unlikely that comedy possessed such a radical political element from its very beginning. The evidence for early comedy may be scant, but there is almost nothing to suggest a serious aspect at this stage. I prefer to regard the political and personally humorous element as entering Old Comedy in the 440s and 430s; the crucial figure here, I would argue, is Cratinus, acting in the tradition of iambic poetry and responding to the contentious political atmosphere of the 440s and 430s.
The first comic poet about whom we can say anything with confidence is Magnes. The anonymous writer On Comedy (Koster III.7) credits him with eleven victories,1 the most of any Old Comic poet, and the sixth entry on the victors’ list at the Dionysia (IG ii2 2325.44) gives a partial name,.....] s, with eleven victories. This must be Magnes. IG ii2 2318.8 gives him a victory at the Dionysia of 472, perhaps another at the Dionysia of 471. Did these victories come early or late in his career? The former would suggest career dates in the 480s and 470s, the latter a career from the late 470s into the 450s or later. Aristophanes (Knights 520–525) calls the spectators in 424 to remember the failure of Magnes in his old age. This is presumably an event of reasonably recent memory, more likely in the 430s than in the 460s; the other two comedians mentioned, Cratinus and Crates, belong to the 430s and 420s.
Much of what we know about Magnes comes from this passage from Aristophanes (Knights 520–525) and the accompanying scholia:
The scholiast gives actual play-titles for Magnes—Lyre-Players [Barbitistai], Birds, Lydians, Gall-Flies [Psenes, or Fruit Flies], and Frogs—but only Lydians is attested elsewhere, and the scholiast may just be creating titles from Aristophanes’s descriptions. Aristophanes alleges that Magnes’s “rejection” in his old age was due to his failure in skoptein. Now while skommata and skoptein can just mean jokes and joking generally, the terms can also mean what we would call personal jokes (to onomasti komoidein), (p. 97) and I would suggest that Magnes, after an unmatched string of successes in his early career (say, 475–460), essayed a comeback in the 440s or early 430s at the time when Cratinus was pioneering personal and political comedy, and that his more primitive comedy paled spectacularly in comparison with the rougher stuff that audiences were now expecting.
Because I recognized long ago how changeable your nature is, how you betray the poets of the past when they reached old age, and because I was well aware of what happened to Magnes, when he grew old and grey. He had put up the most victory-trophies over his rivals, making every sort of sound for you, strumming the lyre, flapping his wings, playing the Lydian, buzzing like a fly, dyed green like a frog, but it wasn’t enough, and in the end, in his old age, never when he was young, he was rejected because he failed in making jokes [skoptein].
According to Diomedes (Ars Grammatica 488.23 = Koster XXIV.46–51), Magnes created a sort of comedy that was “less polished and charming,” while the Glossary of Ansileubus (Koster XXVII.8–13) asserts that Magnes’s plays were “rather silly” and did not exceed 300 lines in length. When we add the evidence from Knights, we may see in the comedy of Magnes, and perhaps of the first generation of Attic comedy, a primitive sort of drama, based on slapstick, mummery, rude sounds and physical humor, and men dressed as animals. Nothing in the earliest testimony and fragments suggests anything like the personal humor of the last part of the century, apart from Chionides K-A fr. 4, which as I have mentioned suspiciously attacks a target from the 430s. Magnes’s K-A fr. 1 (“and these are just the side-dishes to my problems”) and K-A fr. 6 (“so tell me, just now you swore this hadn’t happened, and now you say it did?”) do suggest a linear plot with some complications and deceptions.
The anonymous writer (Koster III.18–19) records that “none of his works has survived, but nine plays are attributed to him.” With a record of eleven victories, his original oeuvre must have been considerably greater. Two late sources (Hesychius λ 1352, Suda λ 784) describe Lydians as a “revised comedy.” We do know that later comic poets reworked their plays (Aristophanes’s unfinished Clouds, Eupolis’s Autolycus), and if it was Magnes himself who revised Lydians for production in the 430s, this may be the comedy that was rejected by the fickle audience of the day.
The other poets of the earliest phase of Old Comedy are, with one exception, mere names: Myllus, Euetes, Euxenides, Alcimenes (victor in the 460s, if his is the fragmentary name at IG ii2 2325.46), and Euphronius (victor at the Dionysia of 458). We do know something about Ecphantides, whose name with four victories appears on the victors’ list at the Dionysia after Euphronius (458) and before Cratinus, whose debut is traditionally put in 454/3. We have two titles (Experiments [Peirai], Satyrs) and six fragments. With Ecphantides we get the first hints of the combative relations between comic poets, since other comedians gave him the nickname “Smoky” either because that term was applied to wine that had gone bad or because “he had never written anything brilliant” (Σ Wasps 151b). Cratinus (K-A fr. 502) combines the names of a comic and older tragic poet into a bizarre compound “Choerilecphantides,” suggesting perhaps that the resulting product was less than thrilling.
The Second Phase of Old Comedy
We can say considerably more about the next phase of Old Comedy. Two things affected comedy between 453 (the traditional date for the debut of Cratinus) and the (p. 98) early 420s, when Eupolis, Aristophanes, Phrynichus, and Plato burst upon the scene. First, a second venue for the performance of drama was introduced, the Lenaea festival of Dionysus, held in the Athenian month of Gamelion (late January). Literary and epigraphic evidence attests that both tragedy and comedy competed at the Lenaea, but there is a suggestion that this was a lesser competition than that at the Dionysia. One inscription from the 410s (IG ii2 2319.70–84) records tragic poets presenting only two tragedies (without satyr-dramas?), while inscriptions from the 430s show five competitors for comedy. POxy. 2737 implies that for comedy a poor finish at the Dionysia in one year meant “relegation” to the Lenaea for the next, but this is by no means a secure interpretation of the text.
The second development is the rise of political themes and personal humor. Aristotle (Poetics 1449a1–6) sees comedy as the dramatic equivalent of iambus or “blame poetry,” and ancient critics are almost unanimous in regarding personal humor as the quintessence of Old Comedy, finding in it the social value that redeemed this otherwise aggressive and shameful form of drama. Its relationship with the law is frequently the object of speculation, and its demise is often explained by a formal political act, e.g., Horace, Art of Poetry 283–285. Athenian festivals, such as the Lenaea and the Eleusinian Mysteries, featured as part of a procession personal insults either from or at those participating, and some have sought to find the origins of personal humor in comedy in such rituals. But a more plausible ancestor lies in the literary tradition of the iambic poems of Archilochus (early seventh century) and Hipponax (mid-sixth), and comedy has much in common with the iambus, not just in the poet abusing his personal targets, but in the crudity and imagination of its language. Platonius (Koster II.1–2) describes Cratinus as “an emulator of Archilochus,” and his comedy, entitled Archilochuses, perhaps had a double chorus of contrasting poets and an agon involving poetic genres and styles. The poets of Old Comedy, not just Cratinus, do display a knowledge of, quotations from, and parody of Archilochus in their works.
It is one thing to make a one-off joke in the public atmosphere of a festival, but another to create sophisticated and repeated caricatures in a formal dramatic production. By the 420s, Old Comedy had become “political” in the modern sense of the word, engaging with personalities and issues of the Athenian state. Acharnians (425) and Lysistrata (411) both concern the matter of peace versus war, Knights and the other demagogue comedies the personality of the popular leaders of the late fifth century, and even before the arrival of Aristophanes Cratinus and Hermippus were making personal and political capital out of Pericles. Platonius (Koster I) rightly stressed the link between Old Comedy and the freedoms of the Athenian democracy—“so then in the time of the comedy of Aristophanes and Cratinus and Eupolis the poets were an irresistible force against wrong-doers.” Politics were a contentious business in democratic Athens, and it was inevitable that comedy would reflect the controversial people and issues of the day. The crucial figure here is Cratinus, who in the 440s and 430s brought together the literary tradition of the poet attacking his favorite targets and the political themes of imperial Athens. I would, however, reserve full-blown political comedy for the 420s, especially (p. 99) in the plays of Aristophanes, who appears to have pioneered the demagogue-comedy in 424 with his prize-winning Knights, directed against Cleon.
Cratinus was considered as one of the canonical three playwrights of Old Comedy. A late source cites 454/3 for Cratinus and Plato being “well known.” This may be thirty years too early for Plato, but it fits well with Cratinus’s position on the list of victors at the Dionysia (IG ii2 2325.50), where he comes two places after Euphronius, whose sole victory we can date to 458. The anonymous (Koster III.20) says that “he won after the 85th Olympiad” (440/439–437/436). This was emended by Meineke to “81st” Olympiad (456/5–453/2), but it is more likely that the anonymous is recording Cratinus’s first victory at the Lenaea. On that victors’ list, his name comes fourth (IG ii2 2325.121), indicating a victory in the early 430s.
At the lower end of his career, we know of productions at the Lenaea of 425 (Tempest-Tossed [Cheimazomenoi]), at the Lenaea of 424 (Satyrs), and then his brilliant victory with Wine-Flask [Pytine] at the Dionysia of 423. At Peace 700–703 (Dionysia of 421), Hermes, speaking for Peace, asks whether “the great Cratinus is still alive” and receives the answer that “he died, when the Spartans invaded...he just passed out, couldn’t stand to see a full jar of wine smashed.” As the Spartans had not invaded since 425, and since Cratinus was alive and producing Wine-Flask in 423, this is chronologically impossible. The simplest explanation is that Cratinus had in fact died by the Dionysia of 421, and that Aristophanes has made up this comic account of his death. When the anonymous writer (Koster III.23) cites Peace 700–703, he adds the phrase “<when the Spartans invaded> for the first time,” thus dating Cratinus’s death to 431, an even more improbable date.
The Suda (κ 2344) gives the number of his comedies at twenty-one and of his victories at nine. The latter figure is confirmed by the entries for Cratinus on the list of victors (IG ii2 2325.50, 121), six victories at the Dionysia and three at the Lenaea. We could have as many as twenty-nine titles, although the existence of some is doubtful. We have fragments assigned for twenty-two plays, plus two titles known only from the hypotheses to two comedies by Aristophanes. We can work with a total of twenty-four comedies in a career that lasted about thirty years.
The testimonia reveal Cratinus as the grand old man of Old Comedy. Several sources regard him as a brilliant and creative poet, the anonymous (Koster III.26) describing him as “composing in the style of Aeschylus,” but others, while admitting his success, still see him as rough and uneven in his composition: “harsh,” “lacking in charis,” “inconsistent in the development of his plots” (Platonius 2 = Koster II.1–8), “old-fashioned and lacking in order” (Koster V). Cratinus was especially associated with personal jokes against his targets. Platonius 2 speaks of his “emulation of Archilochus,” while the anonymous (Koster V.19) describes him as using comedy “as a sort of public whip.” According to the (p. 100) Life of Aristophanes (Koster XXVIII.4–5), both he and Eupolis “were saying bad things more than was necessary.”
Of the twenty-four titles, at least one-third seem to have been burlesques of myth. These can take two forms in Old Comedy: a comic spoof of the myth in its original setting, or the intrusion of a mythical figure into a modern context. Cratinus appears to have written comedies of both kinds. The best-known example of the former is his Dionysalexander, of which we have a few fragments but most of the hypothesis (plot summary), published in 1904 as POxy. 663 and as K-A test. i:
Cratinus takes the familiar story of the Judgment of Paris and substitutes Dionysus for Paris in both the Judgment and its consequences, including both Helen and the angry Greeks. The appearance of Paris later in the comedy allows the story of the Trojan War to continue in its traditional form. The chorus is composed of satyrs, the familiar attendants upon Dionysus more usually found in satyr-drama but not unknown in comedy. Dionysus appears in his familiar comic role as “anti-hero,” the object of the satyrs’ laughter, running for cover at the first sign of the Greeks and finally handed over to the Greeks for punishment.2
...seek...all (?) ...judgment Hermes (5) leaves, while they say some things to the spectators about the poets. These joke and make fun of Dionysus when he appears (10). When <the goddesses and Hermes arrive> and <make promises> to him: from Hera unshaken tyranny, from Athena (15) success in war, and Aphrodite to make him as beautiful and attractive as possible, he judges her [Aphrodite] to be the winner. After this he sails off (20) to Sparta, takes Helen away, and returns to Ida. But he hears a little while later that the Greeks are ravaging the countryside (25) <and looking for> Alexander. He hides Helen very quickly in a basket (30), and changing himself into a ram awaits developments. Alexander appears and detects each of them (35), and orders them to be taken to the ships, meaning to give them back to the Greeks. When Helen refuses, he takes pity on her and retains possession of her, to keep her as his wife. Dionysus he sends off to be handed over (40). The satyrs go along with him, encouraging him and insisting that they will not betray him. In the play Pericles (45) is very skillfully and suggestively made fun of for having brought the war on the Athenians.
The hypothesis has raised a number of problems. First, after the departure of Hermes, presumably to fetch the goddesses, “they [the chorus] say some things to the spectators about the making of sons” (6–9). That is the traditional text, expanded from the papyrus π(ερὶ) ὑῶν ποί(σεως), but Körte’s emendation π(ερὶ) τῶν ποιη(τῶν) (“about the poets”) has often been accepted—see K-A test. i. Whatever the reading in line 8, the chorus is breaking the dramatic illusion by addressing the spectators directly on a matter outside the drama. In Aristophanes this usually happens in the parabasis, coming anywhere between lines 500 and 1000. For that reason, critics have concluded that this part of the (p. 101) hypothesis (6–9) marks the parabasis and that a great deal of earlier action is thus missing from the summary. But it is equally possible that not much occurred before the summary becomes intelligible; moreover, since the dramatic break at line 19 is where the parabasis should naturally occur, the words, “they say some things to the spectators” (6–9) may have been spoken in the parodos, the entry song of the chorus. Aristophanes seems not to have broken the dramatic illusion in the parodos (apart perhaps from Frogs 364–371), but we can find a number of occasions in the fragments where Cratinus and Eupolis appear to have done so.
The identity of the main chorus has been debated. In lines 6–12, “these (unidentified) say some things to the spectators and then make fun of Dionysus when he appears,” while at lines 42–44 “the satyrs go along with him, encouraging him and insisting that they will not betray him.” The natural inference is that the satyrs are the “these” of line 6. Some object that the satyrs, Dionysus’s traditional companions, would not be presented as making fun of him, and postulate a principal chorus of local shepherds on Mount Ida, but Dionysus can be impatient with the satyrs, as at Aeschylus TrGF fr. 78 (Isthmian Athletes), where they have abandoned him for the competition of the games, and the simplest course is to identify them as the main chorus. Satyrs more properly form the chorus for satyr-drama, but at least five comedies of the late fifth century had satyr choruses, one of which was Callias’s Satyrs of 437. Marshall (2000) has cleverly suggested that this was comedy’s response to the satyrs missing from Euripides’s Alcestis of 438. On the assumption of an earlier date for Dionysalexander (see below), these satyrs could also be part of a comic conversation with satyr-drama.
The final sentence of the hypothesis (44–48) unexpectedly reveals that the comedy was not solely a burlesque of myth: “in the drama Pericles is very convincingly made fun of by insinuation for bringing the war on the Athenians.” Scholars, assuming that “the war” is the Peloponnesian War, which broke out in 431 and that the comedy must have been produced before Pericles died in 429, have widely accepted a date of 430 or 429.3 The latter assumption is weakened by the fact that Aristophanes can blame Pericles for his responsibility for the War in Acharnians (425) and again in Peace (421). Against the former is that an equally possible candidate for “the war” is the conflict with Samos (440/39). This war was taken seriously by the Athenians (Thucydides 1.115–117) and we know that Pericles was blamed for it because of his Milesian mistress, Aspasia (Plutarch, Pericles 25)—the war started when Athens sided against the Samians in a territorial dispute with Miletus. Thus in the public mind both the Trojan War and the Samian War could be viewed as wars “fought because of a woman.”
This last sentence has also suggested to many that the comedy was a thoroughgoing political allegory in which Dionysus stood for Pericles throughout the play. For (p. 102) instance, the Greeks ravaging the countryside (lines 24–30) while Dionysus just hides away alludes to Pericles’s policy of sitzkrieg in 431/0 (see Thucydides 2.21, Hermippus K-A fr. 47). But the last sentence may just mean that at some point in the comedy there was a skillful allusion to Pericles and the war. In view of the play’s title, should we not be looking at Alexander (Paris) for the source of this comment? By keeping Helen, he brings the Trojan War on his people. The play is probably first and foremost a burlesque of myth, exploring the comic possibilities of Dionysus in yet another tight situation.
One final problem is a capital eta (Η) in line 27 of the hypothesis, between the title Dionys[alexandros and the author Krat[einou. There appears to be a line over the eta, thus making it a numeric, “eighth.” On either date for Dionysalexander (437 or 430/29), “eighth” seems chronologically unlikely, given Cratinus’s debut in 453, while alphabetically Dionysalexander is the fifth or sixth of the titles we have. Edmonds proposed that the eta was not a numeric but stood for ἢ (“or”) and that Dionysalexander had an alternative title,4 for which Luppe (1966) proposed Idaioi (“Men of Ida”), arguing that these local shepherds formed the main chorus of the play. Bakola (2010) accepts Idaioi as an alternative title, but in the sense of “Satyrs from Ida,” thus keeping the satyrs as the principal chorus. The obvious alternative title for Dionysalexander would be Satyrs, Cratinus’s comedy at the Lenaea of 424, but that would entail abandoning both the traditional date of 430/29 and my preferred date of 437.
Other mythological burlesques of the first sort would include Runaways (Drapetides, or Fugitive Women), where in K-A fr. 53 Theseus speaks about his encounter with Cercyon and in K-A fr. 61 is addressed as “son of Pandion”; Men of Seriphus (Seriphioi), where in K-A fr. 222–3 Perseus receives directions for an aerial journey; and Nemesis, a burlesque of the myth by which Helen is born of an egg resulting from the union of Zeus and Nemesis and incubated by Leda. At K-A fr. 114, someone gives Zeus instructions “to become a big bird,” at K-A fr. 116 a male figure (almost certainly Zeus) exclaims how much he is enjoying a diet of “rosebuds and apples and parsley and mint,” and at K-A fr. 115 Hermes (?) assigns Leda her task to incubate this egg and “hatch for us a beautiful and wonderful chick.”
Of considerable interest is Cratinus’s burlesque of the encounter between Odysseus and the Cyclops in Odyssey 9, called Odysseus and Company (Odysses). Some of Homer’s details are preserved: the marvelous wine (K-A fr. 145–146), the name of Odysseus (K-A fr. 145), the fleeing comrades (K-A fr. 148), the cheese and milk (K-A fr. 149), and the threatening Cyclops (K-A fr. 150) with one eye (K-A fr. 156). Platonius [Koster I.29–31, 51–52] writes that this comedy belonged to the “type of Middle Comedy,” since it lacked “choral (p. 103) parts and parabases” and also personal insult, the humor being directed at the Homeric original. But K-A fr. 151 shows that there was indeed a chorus, the comrades of Odysseus. The meter there is anapaestic dimeter, and it has been argued that what the play lacked was not a chorus per se, but choral songs and parabaseis in complicated lyric meters. See, however, K-A fr. 153, which K-A restore in glyconics. Platonius is not known for his accuracy in matters of detail—for example, he seems to think that Odysseus and Company, Eupolis’s Dyers (Baptai), and Aristophanes’s Aeolosicon all belong to the same period, whereas they are about fifty years apart. None of the fragments, however, has any personal jokes, and perhaps Platonius was correct on that point, but not about the chorus. This lack of personal humor has led many to the attractive conclusion that the plays belong to the years 439–436, when such jokes were subject to a legal ban (see Σ Acharnians 67).
For mythical intrusions into the present, we may cite Chirons, where K-A fr. 246 is spoken by the ghost of Solon and K-A fr. 251 refers to the court of the nautodikai at Athens, where trials for xenia were held. K-A fr. 258–259 are part of a song attacking Pericles and Aspasia, while K-A fr. 256–257 pick up the theme of the better life in the past. At K-A fr. 253, the chorus of Chirons (centaurs) explain that they have come (to Athens, presumably) for some purpose involving hypothekai (precepts or mortgages?). But more important is Wealth-Gods (Ploutoi), whose K-A fr. 171 contains the one major papyrus fragment that we have of Cratinus. From the book fragments we knew that the Golden Age theme was part of the play (K-A fr. 172, 176), but the papyrus has revealed that the chorus was made up of Titans released from their captivity, and “now that the rule of tyranny is over and the people rule” (K-A fr.171.22–3), they have come to Athens to seek out an old and decrepit relative (Prometheus?) and also to punish those who have acquired their wealth unjustly. Some have seen in the reference to the end of tyranny and the rule of the people an allusion to Pericles’s removal from office in late 430 and thus dated the play to 429, but the point of the joke may just be that events on Olympus have followed the example at Athens, tyranny followed by democracy. Athenaeus (267e–270a) cites a number of comedies with the theme of the ideal society in chronological order, beginning with Wealth-Gods. As one of the later plays is the Beasts of Crates, a poet whose career belongs to the 440s and 430s, a date in the early 430s for Wealth-Gods seems preferable.
Of Cratinus’s other plays we may mention Archilochuses, which may have had a double chorus of two sorts of poets and perhaps a contest over the proper type of poetry to follow; Thracian Women (the nature of the chorus is uncertain), which contains a famous joke against Pericles:
and Poofters [Malthakoi], where the chorus of soft-living and effeminate males list the various flowers with which they deck their hair (K-A fr. 105)—one wonders how sympathetic a chorus these gender-challenged men would make before an audience that was largely male.
Here comes Pericles, the onion-headed Zeus, with the Odeion on his head, now that ostracism has gone away.
(K-A fr. 73)
(p. 104) But perhaps Cratinus’s greatest success lay with his Wine-Flask, which defeated Aristophanes’s Clouds at the Dionysia of 423.5 The previous year Aristophanes had included Cratinus among his former stars of comedy at Knights 526–536:
The plot of the comedy is given by the scholiast to Knights 400. Cratinus makes himself the main character in his own play, married to Comedy, whom Cratinus has abandoned for drunkenness (some would capitalize Drunkenness and make her a rival personification and character in the play). Friends of Cratinus, very likely the chorus, arrive and learn that Comedy wishes to leave him and charge him formally with abuse (kakosis). Bakola (2010) points out that an heiress could bring a suit of kakosis for neglect by her husband, and finds other instances of artistic creation expressed in sexual terms (Knights 515–517, Frogs 92–97, and especially Pherecrates K-A fr. 155).
Then with Cratinus in mind, who used to flow on a wave of praise, coursing through the open plains, sweeping headlong from their roots oaks and plane trees and enemies. Singing at a party had to include “Goddess of bribes with fig-wood shoes” and “Makers of clever hymns.” He was great then. But now you look on and have no pity for him in his dotage—his frets have fallen out, his strings have lost their tuning, and his harmonies are full of holes. An old man, he stumbles about like Connas, “with withered crown and dying of thirst,” when because of his previous victories he should be having a lifetime of free drinks in the Council House, and instead of spouting nonsense he should be sitting splendidly beside Dionysus.
Thereafter we can only guess at the plotline. Was Cratinus “cured” of his addiction and did he return to his true wife, a sober man, and on what terms would Comedy agree to take him back? Or did he prevail by showing that drink is necessary to the creative process (K-A fr. 203)? Here we should compare the end of Wasps (422), where an irascible and uncontrollable old man resists the well-meaning attempts of a family member to change his behavior and ends the play triumphant and suffering the effects of strong drink. Biles (2002) and Sidwell (1995) argue that Philocleon in that comedy owes more than a little to Cratinus’s self-parody in Wine-Flask eight months earlier. The drunken Philocleon leading in a flute girl may recall a scene where Cratinus enters with Drunkenness.
A trial or a contest requires an antagonist, and while Comedy or the chorus might well fulfil such a role (note the plural in K-A fr. 206), I wonder if Cratinus brought not only himself into his own play but also a rival poet, and who better than Aristophanes? A rival would be the ideal person to threaten his drinking paraphernalia (K-A fr. 199) and perhaps speak (K-A fr. 198) the reaction to something Cratinus has just said:
(p. 105) It would be quite appropriate for a comic Aristophanes to repeat the river metaphor that he exploited in Knights 526–536. K-A fr. 208–209 suggest that there was a scene in which Cratinus is sketching out a comedy.
Lord Apollo, the flood of his words, springs splashing, twelve spouts to his mouth, an Ilissus in his throat. What can I say? If somebody doesn’t put a plug in his mouth, he will inundate everything here with his poetry.
What of the “wine flask,” which was important enough to give the comedy its name? K-A fr. 201 tells us that a pytine was a wicker wine container (often made by prisoners) and sealed with pitch. In some fashion it must have been the symbol of the action of the play. Was it the indestructible nature of the container—compare the threat to smash all his drinking vessels at K-A fr. 199? Or did it represent the level to which Cratinus would descend, reduced to drinking from a pytine? Was a mute actor brought on stage dressed like a wine flask, like Peace in that comedy or Diallage in Lysistrata or the kitchen utensils in Wasps?
But however we reconstruct the comedy, it is clear that Cratinus purposely presents himself in a negative light, as an unfaithful husband, an aging drunk and philanderer, and a poet who has abandoned his art. What Cratinus has done is to take the comic picture Aristophanes used in Knights and, rather than oppose it, reinforce it by agreeing to the points of caricature and recasting himself as the lovable drunk for whom alcohol is his comic inspiration. Biles makes the good point that we should not be ransacking Clouds seeking reasons why it finished third; rather we should be recognizing in Wine-Flask a brilliant comedy that simply outclassed Aristophanes.
We find also in Cratinus an intertextual engagement with other comic poets and with tragedy. His coinage “Choerilecphantides” (K-A fr. 502), combining the comedian Ecphantides with the early tragedian Choerilus, has already been mentioned. More famous is the astute juxtaposition of Euripides and Aristophanes (K-A fr. 342):
Since Aristophanes’s debut belongs in 427, this comes from a late play by Cratinus, most probably Wine-Flask (Dionysia 423). Bakola (2010) has made a strong case for Cratinus’s engagement with tragedy, particularly that of Aeschylus—the anonymous (Koster III) describes him as “writing in the style of Aeschylus.” In particular, she sees in Runaways a scene with Theseus welcoming the effeminate “runaways” as influenced by the arrival of the fugitive daughters of Danaus in Aeschylus’s Suppliants or perhaps that of Adrastus in Aeschylus’s Men of Eleusis. More probable is a link between the lost Loosing of Prometheus attributed to Aeschylus and Wealth-Gods, as both plays had a chorus of Titans released from their captivity coming in search of a lost relative. But we do not find Aristophanes’s comic preoccupation (obsession?) with tragedy, to the point of creating a new word for comedy, trygoidia, a term meant to pair comedy off with tragedy.
“Who are you?” some clever spectator might ask, a quibbler of words, a maker of maxims, a Euripidaristophanizer.
Hermippus was dismissed by Norwood (1931: 22) as “unimportant as a playwright,” but his status was considerably rehabilitated by Gilula (2000). Firm dates are a victory at the Dionysia of 435 (IG ii2 2318) and his Bakery-Women (Artopolides) in 420 or 419, and K-A (p. 106) fr. 47, which refers to Pericles’s conduct of the war, must belong to 430 or 429. Similarly if K-A fr. 63 belongs to Basket-Bearers (Phormophoroi, or Stevedores), then that comedy belongs between 431 and 425, since Sitalces, mentioned in line 7, was dead by 424. On the Dionysia victors’ list (IG ii2 2325.57) his name appears after that of Pherecrates and before Aristophanes, while on the Lenaea list he is found with four victories after Cratinus and before Phrynichus (debut 429). A conservative dating of his career would be 435–415. The Suda (ε 3044) records a total of forty comedies, but as we have only ten secure titles, I suspect that the Suda’s figure is in error rather than that we have lost any record of three-quarters of the output of an important comic poet.
Several play titles suggest comic burlesques of myth. His Birth of Athena anticipates by several decades the vogue of divine birth comedies in the early fourth century, and we know of his Agamemnon, Europa, and Cercopes, and quite likely Fates. K-A fr. 77 we know to have been put in the mouth of Dionysus. But a strong political theme can be detected as well. K-A fr. 47, plausibly assigned to Fates for its metrical and thematic similarities to K-A fr. 48, attacks Pericles for his lack of enthusiasm in prosecuting the war and records a political threat from the demagogue Cleon. Aristophanes complains at Clouds 557 that Hermippus followed Eupolis in launching a dramatic attack on Hyperbolus, for which the scholiast informs us that this comedy was Bakery-Wives but also that the play was not an attack on Hyperbolus from start to finish, in the manner that Knights attacked Cleon and Eupolis’s Marikas caricatured Hyperbolus. Hermippus does make jokes at political figures, but he may not have written full-scale political comedy.
Plutarch (Pericles 32.1) makes the intriguing statement that “Aspasia was the defendant in a court case for impiety, launched by Hermippus the comic poet, in which he alleged that she entertained free women in a certain place for Pericles.” While several critics accept the historicity of this prosecution, comparing similar actions in the 430s against Phidias and Anaxagoras, the whole thing sounds more like something from a comedy that Plutarch or his sources has interpreted as “fact.” Plutarch (Pericles 13.14) mentions comic allegations against Pericles seducing the wife of a friend and against Pyrilampes for using his collection of peacocks to entice women for Pericles (see also K-A adespota fr. 702). The attack on Pericles in K-A fr. 47 belongs to 430 or 429; the late 430s would be a likely date for a comic attack on Aspasia.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about Hermippus is his activity in other poetic genres. He is explicitly credited with iambic poems (West fr. 1–8) and with the writing of “parodies.” Both have clear links with comedy: iambus for the crude and violent language aimed at a target, and parody for the burlesque of a more serious poetic form, in this case epic. Thus K-A fr. 63 and 77, both in the epic hexameter (rare for comedy), may be from either a comedy or a parody.
Teleclides was a comic poet of the 430s and perhaps 420s. K-A fr. 44 mentions Nicias, who does not come to prominence until the early 420s; this fragment may refer to his (p. 107) resigning the generalship in favor of Cleon in 425. Charicles, another target of K-A fr. 44, is a known politician of the 410s, which would push his career down into that decade. One ancient source (Koster VIII) assigns Teleclides seven plays. Athenaeus (ap. Suda τ 488) knows only of three titles (Amphictyons, Magistrates [Prytaneis], Rigid Ones [Sterroi]); we have fragments of these and also of Truth-Tellers (Apseudeis) and Hesiods, and the Roman inscription (IG UrbRom 215) adds two further partial titles. But on the list of victors he is credited with eight victories at the Lenaea and Dionysia. Clearly we have lost a great deal about and by this comic poet.
The most significant fragment (K-A fr. 1) comes from his Amphictyons, where an unidentified figure (Cronus?) describes “the way of life that I used to provide for mortals...men were fat then, the stuff of giants.” The seventy-three fragments show us a poet much in the style of Aristophanes, titles implying significantly involved choruses and frequent personal and political jokes (K-A fr. 45 and 47 against Pericles). Of particular interest is Teleclides’s engagement with poets and literary themes: the play-title Hesiods (e.g., poets like Hesiod?); K-A fr. 15, where a female speaker (Tragedy or a Muse?) disparages the tragic poet Philocles; the insults at Gnesippus (K-A fr. 36) and Nothippus (K-A fr. 17) and perhaps Aristophanes (K-A fr. 46); the link between Euripides and Socrates (K-A fr. 41–42); and perhaps another joke aimed at Euripides and his mother (K-A fr. 40).
Crates represents an entirely different strand of Old Comedy. On the list of victors at the Dionysia (IG ii2 2325.52), he appears with three victories between Cratinus (debut in the mid-450s) and Callias (victory in 446). The anonymous (Koster III.26–8) places him between Cratinus and Pherecrates, Aristophanes at Knights 537–40 after Magnes and Cratinus. His career thus belongs to the 440s and 430s, and the reference to the “displeasure and angry insults that Crates had to put up with” at the hands of the spectators (Knights 537) suggests that this was a recent experience (late 430s) and that Crates is no longer on the scene by 424. The Suda (κ 2339) records seven plays and gives six titles. We have multiple fragments from six comedies.
We know about his comedy from three ancient sources: (1) Aristotle’s well-known statement (Poetics 1449b5) that “of the Athenians Crates was the first to abandon the iambic mode and to write whole stories and plots”; (2) the anonymous writer (Koster III.27–8) who records that Crates was “very funny and entertaining, the first to bring drunken characters on stage” and that Pherecrates “followed the example of Crates and likewise refrained from personal insult” (III.29–30); and (3) Aristophanes’s comments about this earlier poet (Knights 537–540):
(p. 108) We do need to remember that compliments in comedy are often double-edged and condescending, and Aristophanes, while conceding some positive attributes to Crates, is also denigrating him and his comedy. In his K-A fr. 347 Aristophanes alludes to “the ivory salt-fish” of Crates (K-A fr. 32) as an instance of earlier “marvelous comic fare,” but even here his jokes were just “giggled at.”
And the angry reception and the insults that Crates had to put up with. He used to send you home, serving a nice lunch on a small budget, kneading some witty concepts from his delicate palate. However, he did all right, sometimes crashing, sometimes not.
The fragments bear out these judgments. No play title suggests a political theme, nor are there any personal jokes in the sixty fragments. The most significant remains are those from Beasts (Theria, K-A fr. 16–17), where the comic utopian theme (cf. Teleclides K-A fr. 1, Cratinus Wealth-Gods) is being debated by two speakers. Here it is not a past Golden Age being described but one proposed for the future, and the debate seems not to be over the desirability of the utopia but what its characteristics will be (food on demand or personal conveniences). The meters of the two fragments differ (iambic tetrameter catalectic and the more “prosaic” iambic trimeter), and Athenaeus (267e) may be misleading us when he claims that K-A fr. 17 comes “right after” K-A fr. 16. Was the “angry reception” to a late comedy by Crates, which perhaps paled before the newer and more political sort pioneered by Cratinus and Teleclides?
Finally there is Pherecrates, an important figure who enjoyed a career of several decades and who, like Crates, produced a different sort of Old Comedy. The anonymous (Koster III.29–31) connects him with Crates as his mentor and model in the avoidance of personal humor and then goes on to say that “his success lay in new themes and in inventing plots.” Since on the list of victors at the Dionysia (IG ii2 2325.56) his name comes before Hermippus, the latest date for whose first victory is 435, Pherecrates’s debut at that festival must belong at the latest to the early 430s or even the late 440s. On the list of victors at the Lenaea (IG ii2 2325.122) he comes fifth, immediately after Cratinus. His Wild-Men (Agrioi) is securely dated to the Lenaea of 420, while the reference in K-A fr. 64 to the house of Poulytion suggests a date in the 410s. If Chiron is in fact by Pherecrates (see below), the mention of Timotheus (K-A fr. 155.19–28) would date that comedy to the last years of the century. A safe span of dates would be 440–415, although his career may well have continued to the end of the century. He is credited with seventeen or eighteen comedies; we have nineteen titles, and if Metics is really by Plato and the two titles Heracles the Mortal and False-Heracles refer to the same comedy, that nineteen is nicely reduced to seventeen. There was some controversy in antiquity over the authorship of Miners, Persians, and Chiron—unfortunately so, since these are the best represented among the remains of Pherecrates.
The fragments do not tell us much about his plots. But as for personal humor, of the three hundred or so fragments of Pherecrates perhaps ten make jokes at people outside the drama, and apart from a shot at the gender confusion of Alcibiades (K-A fr. 164), none is aimed at a political figure. Most of the komoidoumenoi in Pherecrates are (p. 109) poets or musicians. Norwood (1931) may overstate the case by postulating “the school of Crates,” but it is clear that Pherecrates wrote a different sort of comedy from the stereotypical topical and political comedy of Aristophanes.
Domestic comedy was a mainstay of Pherecrates. His comedy Corianno had a woman in the title role, perhaps a hetaira—Athenaeus (567c) tells us that several comedies were named after celebrated hetairai. K-A fr. 73–76 show a drinking scene involving several women that would not be out of place in later comedy of types and manners. K-A fr. 77–79 of the same comedy mention an old man in love (inappropriately, given his age, it seems). Titles such as Old Women, Thalassa, Petale, and Pannychis very probably bear the names of hetairai, and perhaps the anonymous writer on comedy means by “new plots” something like the romantic comedy of errors that would become the staple of New and Roman comedy.
There was some debate about the authorship of Miners and Persians, but both seem to have turned on the familiar theme of the Golden Age and the “automatic” utopian life. K-A fr. 113 (Miners) consists of a dialogue of thirty-three lines in which a woman details the ideal life that awaits one in the underworld, while K-A fr. 114 describes meadows and flowers that, if also part of the underworld, remind one of the home of the dead initiates in Frogs 323–459. This is a utopia to be found “out there” (or rather “down there”), while the speaker of the ideal society described in Persians (a people presented in art and literature as stereotypically wealthy and fortunate) asks:
This appears to be a utopia realized in the future, although it could be the result of relocating elsewhere, e.g., Persia—compare Metagenes K-A fr. 6 [Thurio-Persians], where life in Thurii is described as a utopian ideal.
What need have we now of your [sing.] plows or your yoke-makers, of your sickle-makers or coppersmiths, of seed and stakes? For on their own [automatoi] through the crossroads shall flow rivers of black broth with shiny speckle cakes and Achilles-buns.
Pherecrates did write some burlesques of myth, notably Ant-Men (Myrmekanthropoi), which had as characters Deucalion and Pyrrha surviving the Flood. Whatever the correct title of the comedy about Heracles (Heracles the Mortal or Heracles the Deserter), it was likely an example of a mythical character intruding into modern reality (cf. Dionysus in Eupolis’s Officers [Taxiarchoi]). The longest extant fragment of Pherecrates is K-A fr. 155 (Chiron), quoted by [Plutarch] 1141c, who records that “Pherecrates the comic poet brought Music on stage as a woman, her whole body mistreated, and had Justice ask the cause of her condition.” Music is being presented as a high-class hetaira who takes one lover at a time, and the result is an extended series of double entendres that mix musical terms with suggestions of sexual and physical assault. For Chiron we have to recreate a play with scenes where Justice complains to Music (Poetry?) about her mistreatment by the new musicians (Melanippides, Cinesias, Phrynis, Timotheus), an old man reminisces about a carefree past (K-A fr. 156), Achilles seems to appear in a parody of Iliad 9 (K-A fr. 159), and Hesiod is parodied in dactylic hexameters (K-A fr. (p. 110) 162). Add the Chiron Vase (Taplin 1993: plate 12.6), which could well be illustrating this play, and we have some intriguing, if confusing, hints about this lost comedy.6
Two other comedies of Pherecrates deserve a mention. Wild-Men (Lenaea 420) is one of several comedies of the 410s which turn on the theme of civilization and the wild life—see also Birds (414) and Phrynichus’s Hermit (Monotropos, 414). Plato (Protagoras 327cd) informs us that the chorus was made up of terrifying misanthropoi, “who have no system of education, no courts or laws, and no necessity to care about virtue at all.” The comedy seems to have had one or two men (from Athens?) who go to the wilds seeking a better way of life, but we cannot determine whether their encounter with the agrioi of the title caused them to repent of their mission or whether, as in Birds, they were able to co-opt the inhabitants for their own advantage. Finally, there is Tiddlers (Krapataloi), named for an imaginary unit of coinage invented by Pherecrates and used in the underworld (see K-A fr. 86, where krapataloi are sub-divided into psothia). Krapataloi can mean also “small fish” (hence my translated title) or “worthless things,” and perhaps this term was applied to the chorus, either by others or by themselves. K-A fr. 87 is spoken by a “toothless old man” in some distress, probably the familiar “hero” of Old Comedy. We are told K-A fr. 100 (“I who constructed and handed on to them a great craft”) was spoken by Aeschylus, and K-A fr. 96 has by many been put in the mouth of Jocasta. K-A fr. 85 seems to be an instruction on how to die and thus get to the underworld (compare Frogs 117–164). This play, like Frogs, seems to have had a literary theme and been set in the underworld, and Pherecrates’s comedy is almost certainly the earlier.
Pherecrates, then, was creating a different sort of comedy from what we usually understand by Old Comedy. His plays have less to do with politics and personal humor and more to do with social themes and domestic characters, and even in the occasional burlesque of myth. In Ant-Men Pyrrha complains to Deucalion (K-A fr. 125), “never serve me fish again, even if I ask for some.” As many as five plays may bear the names of women, and we can see in Corianno and in Music (in Chiron) the figure of the high-class courtesan, who will become a familiar feature of later comedy. The fragments we have give us a glimpse of a poet whom we are sorry to have lost, who deserves a higher place of recognition in the study of comedy. A more representative triad for Old Comedy would perhaps have been Cratinus (myth + politics), Pherecrates (myth + domestic comedy), and Aristophanes (politics + tragedy).
Old Comedy began, I suspect, as something primitive and basic, an animal chorus, slapstick with crude and obvious jokes, and an emphasis on song and dance. Here we should compare tragedy, where Phrynichus, the earliest poet we know anything about, was remembered especially for his sweet songs and exciting dances (Wasps 219, 1490). But by the 440s and 430s we begin to detect sustained mythical burlesques, where comedy shares common ground with satyr-drama. We find also the repeated theme of the ideal society, comic utopias being sought in the past (paradise lost), in the future (p. 111) (paradise regained), and somewhere out there (paradise found). Play-length plots of intrigue are attested for this period, perhaps taking place within the domestic world. But the most striking theme, for which Old Comedy would be best remembered, is the combination of political comedy and personal humor, as comedy responded to the flourishing and vigorous Athenian democracy. Here comedy was seen as having a redeeming social value, and Cratinus celebrated for wielding his “public whip.”
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(1) Koster (1975) collects the various testimonia to Old Comedy, many of these being anonymous writers of late antiquity, while others, although named (e.g., Platonius), provide no indication of their date. Of the writers cited in this essay, only Diomedes is known as a grammarian of the fourth century ce.
(3) Geissler (1969: 24–25) argues for a date in 430; see also K-A test. i for other scholars who accept the traditional date. In favor of “the war” being the Samian War and thus of an earlier date are Mattingly (1977) and Storey (2006), Storey (2011 I.285).
(4) Alternative titles for Old Comedy are by no means rare, but they seem to have been the creation of ancient scholarship rather than the deliberate choice of the comic writers. We know from Clouds 554 and Eupolis K-A fr. 89 that Aristophanes’s Knights (424) was known by that title in the early 410s, and we may conclude that the ancient poets did give their plays a title. But the double (or occasionally triple) titles may in part be the later scholars’ attempt to distinguish two plays with the same title (e.g., Aristophanes’s Dramas or Centaur and Dramas or Niobus) or (as in the case of Dionysalexander?) based on the assumption that plays should be named after their chorus. Σ Lysistrata 389 rejects the attempts of earlier scholars to give Lysistrata the alternative title of Adoniazousai (“Women celebrating the feast of Adonis”).