Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.05.09

Elizabeth Ivory Tylawsky, Saturio's Inheritance: The Greek Ancestry of the Roman Comic Parasite. Artists & Issues in the Theatre, vol. 9.   New York:  Peter Lang, 2002.  Pp. 192.  ISBN 0-8204-4128-7.  $53.95.  

Reviewed by Robert Brophy, African-American Drama (Syracuse University)
Word count: 1113 words

This work examines a particular motif in Greco-Roman comedy to shed light on the history of Ancient Comedy. Tylawsky (hereafter T.) does a fine job of studying the origins (her "Greek Ancestry") "of the Roman Comic Parasite," a peculiarly Plautine figure. Her title figure is Saturio, parasite of Plautus Persa; at 53-60 he boasts of his ancestry, using the proud Roman maiorem meum. Cleverly, T. uses the idea of theatrical or stage "ancestry" to explain the stage conventions and performance practices that attached to the Parasite as a stock figure of Greek Old, Middle and New Comedy, and then Roman, Comedy.

For social history and social commentary, too, T. points out that the Parasite represented "the lowest rung" and "most marginal member of society" (pp. 2, 77), from the Odyssey's beggar Irus to the last surviving Roman comedies. T. considers the figure of the Parasite or Flatterer, Kolax in various ages of Greek literature; she shows mastery of many lost or fragmentary works, in punning Chapter heads. Chap. 1, "Ragged Opportunism," pp. 7-16, discusses Odysseus disguised as beggar and bard: performer who is both outsider and social critic; and, in the fragmentary 7th-6th century elegy by Asius of Samos, the knisokolax or "gnawing, nibbling flatterer (p. 13)," who offers his betters, his hosts, song and praise--and himself up to ridicule or abuse. This is much what the stage Parasite or Kolax will do later; T. adds Epicharmus' Wealth (or Hope?), an early Sicilian comedy. Chap. 2, "Beggarly Interlopers," pp. 17-27, discusses the Athenian politicians as "Parasites," as it were, on the Demos in Aristophanes' Acharnians, Knights, Wasps, along with Eupolis' lost Kolakes or Flatterers of 421 BC. Cleon, Cleonymus and Theorus are all ridiculed as Parasites on the Body Politic, in our metaphor, Flatterers of the Demos, the Athenian democracy. In Knights, Paphlagon = Creon with "his infinitely able and flexible tongue ... charmed his host just as Odysseus had," disguised as the beggar, "begged, and ... flattered, ... and won access to the kitchen (102-4)" (p.20). Eupolis, Aristophanes and other Old Comedians ridiculed these demagogues, very effectively, as literal "slaves" to their ambition, clever slaves or servi callidi in the Roman formulation. Their "absolute willingness to suffer abuse or ridicule (provided that the ultimate goal remained within grasp) was a hallmark of the successful hanger-on," the key trait of the Parasite all through Greco-Roman literature (p.20). Chap. 3, "Fashionable Philosophizing," pp. 29-41 discusses Clouds, and the Sophists and Socrates, and their students, as Parasites on wealthy would-be or pseudo-intellectuals like Callias and Cephalus, Plato's brother. Chap. 4, "Forging of a Stereotype ," pp. 43-57 discusses a speech in "Eupolis' Flatterers" wherein its target, the wealthy spendthrift Callias, is "the host of the first stage flatterers" (p. 66).

Ch. 5, "Athenaeus, the Flatterer, and Middle Comedy," pp. 59-77, discusses that important but less-known period in Greek drama and society, "an extremely productive and inventive period for comedy" (p.80). T. uses Athenaeus to show that the Kolax or Flatterer "became a stock figure in Middle Comedy," a genre whose "broad characteristics ... included parody of myth and ... tragedy ..., and a taste for low characters" (p.59). Athenaeus 6.234c-262 is devoted to comic parasites, quoting speeches in 11 plays by nine playwrights, Antiphanes and Aristophanes twice. Alexis Pilot first applied the name Parasite to the comic gluttonous Flatterer; T. p. 61 cites W.G. Arnott's 1968 GRBS article (V. 9, 161-68) "that Alexis drew the name "from the functionaries ... who victualled the god and thereby themselves. The sacred office of parasitos, attested" in mid-5th c. Attica, "was that of a minor temple acolyte who ate together with the god. Athenaeus confirmed that ... after Araros ... in comedy parasitos largely supplanted kolax." After discussing the historical and stage flatterers Chaerephon and Philoxenus, mocked in Old and Middle Comedy, and a topos or stock type in New Comedy, T. concludes: "The flatterer was the stage representative of the most marginal member of society whose only asset, and only pleasure, was in his tongue" (p. 77).

Ch. 6, "Flatterer and Contemporary Themes," pp. 79-91, notes that "later comedy, whether designated Middle or New," concentrated on "[f]ashionable young men who fell in love with girls in brothels, who frequented subscription dinners, who liked to philosophize, and who enjoyed nighttime brawls remained persistent stars of. And right behind ... their hopeful hangers-on" (p. 79). T. discusses Antiphanes, who "excelled Aristophanes ... in total output [and] number of his victories ... and far exceeded Araros" (p.80), creating and employing parasites to "ridicule and mock ... society and individuals" (p.81), including those named in Demosthenes' speeches (pp.84-88), esp. Conon and his sons, who beat up and stripped Antiphon.

Ch. 7, "Flatterers and New Comedy," pp. 93-106, notes that from comedy moved "toward a more universalized form of drama," with character "types or ... stereotypes as a sort of comic shorthand" (p. 93), starting with Menander's Dyskolos (pp. 94-96) and his Kolax (pp. 96-99). T. uses the many recent papyrus finds of fragmentary plays, as well as Athenaeus, to good effect to illustrate her points; T. concludes: "Perhaps the most important difference between Middle and New Comedy was the topicality of references," with New Comedy using a generic or "proverbial hanger-on," (p.101). T. says Diphilus and his brother Diodorus created the boastful, "exuberant professional ... career hangers-on of Roman comedy," (p. 106), esp. Plautus. Ch. 8, "Saturio's Inheritance," pp. 107-124, denotes the physical paraphernalia of the good parasite, from Aristophanes Banqueters to Plautus and Terence, esp. the lekythos, oil-flask for anointing athletes who are male beauties, found as diminutive in the tag-line of Aristophanes Frogs and as autolekythos in Demosthenes Against Conon (pp. 110-17). T. returns to her title Plautine character: "like his Greek ancestors, Saturio announced his techne ... a parasitus by profession, not a kolax. ... The 'professional phrase' which truly designated a parasite as a professional was the descriptive term ridiculus" (pp. 119-20), and Saturio and his ancestry, the Duricapitones or Hard Heads, fittest to take any blows, verbal or literal, survive and prosper (pp. 120-21). Surprising examples of the perfect parasite are also found in Plautus Captivi and Amphitryon as well as Curculio and Stichus, pp. 120-22. T. concludes: once "Eupolis brought a kolax on stage in 421, ... that idea was embodied in a fantastic figure ... in threadbare and brazen beggary: ... alazoneia in his blood," plus "more specific ... attributes from contemporary comic caricatures of historical individuals ... [to] become the fixed insignia of the stereotype flatterer through Middle and New Comedy right to the Roman palliata" (p. 123).

T. ends with an excellent bibliography, very full, precise notes, and Index of Passages (pp. 125-92).

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