Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.9.15

Michael Vickers, Pericles on Stage: political comedy in Aristophanes' early plays. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1997. Pp. xxxiv + 255. ISBN 0-292-78727-8.

Reviewed by Ian C. Story, Ancient History & Classics, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, K9J 7B8,

Michael Vickers has over the past decade published several articles which argue (it seems) that Alkibiades lurks beneath the surface of just about every drama in the last quarter of the 5th century. Here he turns to the earlier plays of Aristophanes (Acharnians to Birds, 425-414) which he defines as "political allegories" (p. xvi) that revolve around the figures of Perikles and Alkibiades. Vickers is in fact trying to do two things in this book; first to re-introduce a political reading of Aristophanic comedy against the critical background of the past forty years (and indeed of much of 19th-c. classical scholarship) -- this occupies his introduction where he interprets Birds, a comedy that has been held to be an apolitical fantasy, as intensely political; and second to develop his particular thesis about Perikles and Alkibiades.

Vickers asserts first that Aristophanes' comedies are highly political creations by the poet's own intention. His "own political views are irrelevant" (12); he is depending upon public opinion and gossip in an effort to create a successful and popular comedy. This is crucial here; what Aristophanes was exploiting was not so much sober historical fact but the caricature and exaggeration of popular gossip. Thus later critics, especially Plutarch, are exhaustively plundered for such derogatory comments as Vickers finds appropriate for comic depiction of Perikles and Alkibiades. Second, he maintains that the level of sophistication of the audience was much higher than is usually assumed and states bluntly, "Aristophanes was writing for an audience that included many that were urbane and politically aware. alert to any nuance, equivocation, or ambiguity; in short 'sophisticated'. He was not writing for peasants and potters" (xxiv). Third, he assumes that this political sub-text (or sub-level) concentrated on the figures of Perikles and Alkibiades, almost to the exclusion of any other target -- "the most powerful Athenian politician during much of Aristophanes' lifetime was not Cleon but Alcibiades" (xvi), and Perikles was the subject of more comedy after his death than just Aristophanes' accusations of war-mongering in Ach. and Peace and his return to life in Eupolis' Demoi. Perikles in fact underlies many of the major characters in Aristophanes' plays. His auctoritas, suggests Vickers (11), "depended upon respect generated by fear as much as upon reputation".

Vickers expands upon these conclusions by attributing to Aristophanes a variety of subtle comic techniques. First Aristophanes' method is emphasis, which leads in Vickers' eyes to a subtle "discourse on the nature of particular individuals ... especially ... those who were rich aristocratic and powerful" (xxiv). Second, many of the characters, both major and minor, in these plays will through subtle manipulation of words, allusions, and images be seen to represent Perikles and Alkibiades, e.g. Dikaiopolis = Perikles, the allantopoles = Alkibiades and Demos = Perikles, Strepsiades = Perikles and Pheidippides = Alkibiades,1 in Wasps Philokleon is Perikles and Bdelykleon Alkibiades, Trygaios = Alkibiades, so too Peithetairos. Of minor characters, Vickers sees Derketes at Ach. 1018-36 as Perikles and the paranymphos as Alkibiades, Hermes in Peace and Tereus in Birds as Perikles. In this regard he identifies what he calls "polymorphic characterization" (see 15f.), which allows different characters in the same play to represent the same person -- "it was the perfect dramatic vehicle for representing a figure as multi-faceted as Alcibiades, or one whose character was as complex as Pericles" -- examples being that the two Logoi of Clouds also represent Perikles and Alkibiades (as do Strepsiades and his son respectively) and the three ambassadors from the gods at the end of Birds each carry some feature of Alkibiades' personality and career.2 He employs also what he calls the "Hermogenes principle", that the comic poet will use "images that were diametrically opposed to what was being represented" (14); thus the elderly Trygaios can become Alkibiades since the comedian by making him an old man can play on his youthful entry into politics and make a "patriotic appeal to Alcibiades to put his youthful excesses behind him" (141).

The identifications are carried principally by two techniques of word- play. The first is the use of significant words and phrases that will remind the audience (subtly, of course) of something in the life, characters, or action of Perikles or Alkibiades. For instance Plutarch (Mor. 235a) tells us that Alkibiades was criticized for his love of bathing; thus any reference to washing or bathing will immediately suggest Alkibiades (as at Cl. 1044ff. of Wrong) -- only on the third citation (45) does the reader learn that the reference in Plutarch has to do with Sparta (i.e. c. 414) and depends on the well-known Spartan aversion to washing. Or at Plut. Per. 28.2-5 the story is told that after the capture of Samos Perikles had the Samian officers and marines tied to planks (sanides) in the Milesian agora and after a number of days had them executed with clubs (xyla) and that Elpinike reproached Perikles for losing good Athenian lives while subjugating (strephomenos) an allied Greek city. That the story is not in Thucydides, Ephoros, or Aristotle and is found only in Duris of Samos (more than a little suspect) is no real problem; this is precisely the sort of malicious anecdote that the serious historians and devotees of Perikles would ignore, but which circulated in popular lore and which comedy can exploit. Thus the mention of Hermes guarding the sanidia at Peace 202 is evidence that Hermes stands for Perikles (145), the association of Philokleon and the chorus with xylon (vv. 90, 145, 302) will make certain that Perikles underlies the older figures of Wasps (131), and the participle strephomenos contributes to realizing that Strepsiades is of course Perikles (28). These are two of an unending stream of such verbal associations.

His other technique depends on the verb traulizein, which is used at Wasps 44, 46 of Alkibiades' speech defect, i.e. lambdacism or the pronouncing of "r" as "l". What he suggests is that the actor playing whatever character covers Alkibiades will have pronounced his "r"s as "l"s in all sorts of places in the text; he cites Quintilian 1.5.32 as evidence that iotacism and lambdacism would not be noted in the text, but would depend on the pronunciation. Thus when the infant Pheidippides-Alkibiades says in baby-talk (traulizontos) "bryn" at Cl. 1381f., the actor will have lambdacised this to "plyn", an allusion to Alkibiades' fondness for baths. At Peace 192f. Trygaios' reply to Hermes [Perikles] "ta krea tauti soi pheron" ("bringing these bits of meat for you") when lambdacised becomes "ta klea," a pun on the kleos ('renown') element of Perikles' name (145). So when in the next line Trygaios calls Hermes "glischron" ("miserly"), this would allude to Perikles' "penny-pinching ways". And finally traulizein aids in the identification of the Triballian god with Alkibiades, since at Birds 1680 the Triballian "chatters like the swallows",3 the noun traulos (not the verb as Vickers xxxii maintains) is used of the twittering of swallows, and the most famous traulizon is Alkibiades.

Now Vickers does have a point with his association of comedy with popular gossip and innuendo, and one cannot say for certain that a particular "piece of dirt" is the invention of later tradition. Duris of Samos may have preserved the story of Perikles and the Samians put to death after the revolt of Samos, but Vickers, I think, errs in the opposite direction by assuming that anything in the later tradition has its origin in gossip of the late fifth century. And Vickers does have a point that modern scholarship has made certain assumptions about Old Comedy (e.g. comedy rather than satire, anarchic fun rather than serious commentary) that it is always useful to challenge. But on the whole I found little to agree with in matters both major and minor. To take Vickers on point by point would be impossible in a review restricted by space, so I shall present only the larger issues on which I disagree.

First (at the risk of revealing myself as a follower of orthodoxy), I find Old Comedy not nearly so subtle and "emphatic" as Katz (Athenaeum 1976) and Vickers maintain. Aristophanes is very much an "in your face" comedian; when he does use irony or hidden meanings, they are obvious (e.g. the ironic jokes at Agathon at Thesm. 29ff. or the leather/tanning references at Kn. 40ff. and Wasps 31ff. to make Kleon's identity clear). Vickers (xxiv n. 58) cites Goldhill (JHS 1987) that the mass audience made "complex, problematic or obscure expression" unlikely in tragedy, and applying the same assumption to comedy argues that the audience was more sophisticated than we assume, but I would conclude that such subtle allusions as Vickers imagines are just too complex, problematic, and obscure to have been intelligible to an Athenian audience. Pace Vickers Aristophanes was writing for peasants and potters.

Second, there is more to Old Comedy than a subtle political allegory based on Perikles and Alkibiades. Vickers does admit (21) that Clouds is principally about Sokrates, but his interpretation of that comedy has more to do with Perikles and Alkibiades than with sophists and sophistry. Similarly in Knights Kleon is almost invisible, although Vickers does allow (119) that "Knights remains of course an attack on Cleon", and in Wasps Kleon is significant principally as the successor to Perikles' policies; Philokleon should really be Philoperikles. The integrity of these characters as comic creations vanishes completely. On a larger scale Vickers virtually ignores the various other approaches to Old Comedy over the past fifty years, the tradition of carnival, the use of parody, the pure fantasy, the staging of metaphor etc. In fact he rejects studies of particular topics as "of limited use", preferring to explore "how Aristophanes' powerful humour moves" (3). But his political allegory is itself one unit of a larger whole, and it is this larger Aristophanes who is ignored by Vickers.

Third, I question his assumption that Alkibiades was the most important politician of the 420s and 410s at Athens. So much is based on the advantage of retrospection, from seeing the later career of Alkibiades and from reading Frogs, [Lys.] 6, [And.] 4 etc. In the 420s he is a known comic target (see Moorton GRBS 1988) but hardly the crucial figure that Vickers imagines. As far as comedy was concerned, the main political figures of the period are Kleon and Hyperbolos, the novi homines, and not Alkibiades. Sommerstein (CQ 1996) makes this point very well, that qua politicians comedy went after the demagogues, not the figures of the establishment. There may be something of Alkibiades in Pheidippides, but in my opinion he owes more to Kallias (see Eupolis fr. 156 for his miserly father, Hipponikos) who was made fun of in Kolakes (421-D) and very likely also in Autolykos (420). In the late 420s Alkibiades was one of many youthful aspirants to political leadership, distinguished by his ancestry (Thuc. 5.43), but hardly the dominant figure that Vickers imagines. We should not infer from Plutarch's comment (Nik. 9.1), "about this time [424-1] Alkibiades was insinuating himself at Athens as a demagogue" that he was already the major player that he would become after 421.4 On p. xvi Alkibiades was not "re-elected for the next five years" [419/8-415/4]; Thuc. 5.61.2 and Diod. Sik. 12.79 make it clear that he was not elected for 418/7.5

As for Perikles, comedy is notoriously topical and of short memory. Jokes can be made at men after their death (witness Ach. 530-4 and Peace 605-14 of Perikles -- the case of Kleon in Peace is not the same [Vickers 9] since his death is recent and Aristophanes is prodding the corpse a few times just to make sure), but comedy moves on to what is topical at the moment, from Perikles in the late 430s (see Schwarze here) to Kleon in the 420s, from Hyperbolos in the 410s to Kleophon in the last decade of the century. The comedians prided themselves on their originality and innovation, and I cannot accept that Aristophanes would persist with this political allegory up to fifteen years after Perikles' death. A Stratford (Ontario) production of Mikado in the early 1980s was recently re-aired, in which Pooh Bah was presented as a caricature of Pierre Trudeau; my reaction at a distance of some fifteen years was, "I suppose it was funny at the time". Similarly Perikles was good comic material in the 430s and early 420s, and when he does appear in Demoi c.417, it is as the representative of an earlier and better sort of leader and not as an on-going subject of satire.

I am bothered also by Vickers' use of sources, for any anecdote, however late or in whatever tradition, is accepted as preserving genuine material from the 5th century. On p. xvii he accepts Tzetzes' statement (12th c.) that what angered Alkibiades in Baptai was Eupolis' attack on his traulotes, but no other writer mentions this and it is clearly a product of later scholarship putting pieces together about Eupolis and Alkibiades. He cites the lively and imaginative account in Libanios fr. 50b, but this is a conscious exercise in defamation some seven hundred years after Alkibiades. His working assumption is that "if there is a prefiguration in comedy of a story preserved in the anecdotal tradition, then the two are related" (xxv), but tries far too hard to find such prefigurations. He does not allow that the later sources made up their anecdotes; the blackening of the name and reputation of Richard III under the Tudors should warn us against assuming that such defamatory anecdotes date back to the time of their victim.

Vickers' verbal allusions need to be considered on an individual basis. Words like mega (104), peithein (160), and dike (59) are just too common to carry significant allusions to Alkibiades or Perikles. If dike/dikaios encompassed any fifth-century leader, it was Aristeides (see Eupolis frr. 99.79, 106) and not Perikles. Too often Vickers' desired conclusion does not follow necessarily from the allusions he presents. Also troublesome was his use of traulizein, not just his idea that the actor playing an Alkibiadean character would pronounce his "r"s as "l"s (for which there is not the slightest evidence), but his assumption that the traulizein means "to pronounce 'r' as 'l'". The word and its cognates (traulos, traulotes) really mean "to produce an unintelligible liquid noise", such as an infant (Cl. 1381) or a swallow (LSJ s.v. traulos II). Thus it is not a technical term for lambdacism, but a general description of a certain sound. Pheidippides as a baby and Alkibiades both make a similar sound; there need be nothing more significant than this. Many of the results produced by Vickers' lambdacism do not add up to much and depend on tenuous word-associations.6 Notice that when lambdacism is intended (as at Wasps 44-6), it is clearly and elaborately spelled out -- implying that Alkibiades was not so well known (?); Vickers' explanation (125) that the character speaking (Sosias) is not an Alkibiades-character and so must define the joke is improbable and unconvincing.

In several places Vickers accepts the historicity of the notorious "decree of Syrakosios", that it existed and was intended to forestall comic attacks on "the rich, the aristocratic, and the powerful" (xviii). Thus by making fun of others, he is really making fun of the powerful, but not by their names. Again this is not convincing, and one would be better advised to reject the decree of Syrakosios as a scholiastic fiction.7 This has clear consequences for an interpretation of Birds. Finally he cites Kratinos' Dionysalexandros on a number of occasions (especially 3, 193-5) as the exemplar of his "emphatic" political comedy on the basis of the hypothesis which concludes "Perikles is very convincingly made fun of di' emphaseos for having brought the war on the Athenians". A number of his assumptions may be challenged: that the whole play was a political allegory with Dionysos-Paris = Perikles (there need only have been one major section, a parabasis or a choral interlude), that the transformation of Dionysos into a ram and Paris' life as a shepherd are meant to allude to Aspasia's marriage to Lysikles the sheep-dealer, that the comedy may thus be dated after Perikles' death, and that the business "about the creation of sons" in the hypothesis refers to the quick birth of their son, Poristes. With Mattingly (not cited by Vickers) I prefer to date Dionysalexandros early in the 430s and have the war refer to the Samian revolt.8 I have also had a long fondness for van Leeuwen's emendation of di' Aspasias for di' emphaseos -- see Plut. Per. 25 -- in which case one of the props of Vickers' thesis is emphatically removed.


1. That Pheidippides was modelled to some extent on Alkibiades has been argued by critics since Suvern (1826), most recently by O'Regan (1992).

2. Vickers' starting-point is the thesis of Katz (1976) who argued that the three gods at the end of Birds represented the figures of Nikias, Lamachos and Alkibiades, the three generals sent to Sicily in 415. On his analysis Peithetairos' pronunciation a la Alkibiades will have reinforced these identifications.

3. On the textual crux in v. 1681 see Dunbar (1995) 736f. Vickers keeps the paradosis badizei (which most have rejected as senseless) as "a witty allusion" to Alkibiades' proposal to badizein against the Syracusans, to his "walking away" from the Athenians, and to his distinctive way of walking.

4. That he was a taktes in 425 (so [And.] 4.11) is very unlikely; see HCT IV 49.

5. See D. Kagan, The Peace of Nicias and the Sicilian Expedition, (Ithaca 1981) 90f.

6. One of the most far-fetched is that on pp. 40-1 where he attempts to explain an "unpleasant metaphor" in Thuc. 6.18.4 by lambdacism; the result is hardly Greek and not very "unpleasant".

7. Vickers cites Sommerstein (CQ 1986) and Halliwell (JHS 1991) on the decree, but not Atkinson (CQ 1992); see also Sommerstein (CQ 1996) 332.

8. H.B. Mattingly, "Poets and Politicians in fifth-century Greece", in K.H. Kinzl (ed.), Greece and the eastern Mediterranean, (Berlin/New York 1977) 231-45.