Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.15

Marcella Farioli, Mundus alter. Utopie e distopie nella commedia greca antica.   Milano:  Vita e Pensiero, 2001.  Pp. 293.  ISBN 88-343-0720-8.  EUR 23.25 (pb).  

Reviewed by María José García Soler, Universidad del País Vasco (
Word count: 2000 words

Marcella Farioli (henceforth F.) intends to carry out in this book a study of the utopian motifs in Greek Old Comedy, a topic which she knows well since she has treated it previously in various articles dedicated to the works on which she comments here.

The book has four chapters preceded by a prologue in which she offers a brief state of the question, delimits her field of study and explains the way in which she will deal with the different chapters, according to a scheme she closely follows throughout her exposition. The first chapter, 'L'utopia comica e i suoi modelli' ('The Comic Utopia and Its Models'), is introductory in nature and it puts forward the most important questions that will be developed in the next two chapters. After pointing out the wide presence which the model of happy life, with diverse typology, has in many cultures, she addresses what the concept of utopia represents, the problems of defining it and the need to take it in a wider sense when it refers to Greece, where utopian literature does not exist in the strict sense. Next she studies the relationship between utopia and the diverse cultural elements on which it is based, like the myth, the popular tales, and serious philosophical doctrines. In the following section, she focuses on utopian motifs in Old Comedy, in which two models are reflected: the Land of Plenty and the upside down worlds which are dealt with in the next chapters. She introduces here the concept of dystopia, a parody of the ideal worlds, pointing out the difficulty, present on many occasions in this genre, in being able to separate them clearly. The last part of the chapter is dedicated to analysing diverse 'mythical archetypes' which comedy uses (the Golden Age, the life in Elysium and the Islands of the Blessed and the happy societies of idealised remote peoples), studying their presence in Greek literature from Homer and Hesiod.

Chapter II, 'Il paese de Cuccagna' ('The Land of Plenty'), has as its central axis the study of those comedies which to a greater or lesser extent reflect the model of the perfect world where concord reigns and everything which is needed is spontaneously produced. It deals with the works mentioned by Athenaeus in Book VI of Deipnosophistae as examples of 'life in ancient times', which is why F. starts commenting on the way in which this author introduces the diverse fragments in his work. Next she studies each of the works (Cratinus' Plutuses, Crates' Beasts, Teleclides' Amphictyons, Pherecrates' Miners and Persians, Aristophanes' Fryers, Nicophon's Sirens, Metagenes' Thuriopersians), not limiting herself to the fragments included in Athenaeus' aforementioned book but also studying all those which she considers meaningful in determining the presence of the utopian topic in every comedy, whether a central axis of the action or another element of comicality, an instrument of political satire or just with an evasive purpose. She also tries to set the atmosphere, identify the characters who appear and reconstruct the plot, although on several occasions she states the impossibility of achieving these goals. Even in these cases she proposes hypotheses based on the existence of parallel motifs in some of the Aristophanic comedies or in other utopian literatures of diverse times, and she also includes the proposals offered by other scholars. She gives the text of each of the fragments she studies from Kassel and Austin's edition -- admitting different readings when she considers them suitable -- followed by her own translation.

In chapter III, 'Il mondo alla rovescia' ('The Upside Down World'), F. examines the presence in comedy of the second utopian model, which she divides into three variants: gynaecocracy, zoocracy and the escape of urban life. The study of the first is based on Pherecrates' Tyrannis and Old Women and on Theopompus' Soldieresses. F. frequently refers to the works of Aristophanes which have female governments, especially Ecclesiazusae, remarking on the presence of motifs like property communism and free love. She points out the difficulty of determining whether these also appeared in the fragmentary comedies, which she considers possible. She also pays attention to some mythical models, like the Amazons or the women of Lemnos, as well as contemporaneous ethnography, which offered the playwrights examples of faraway lands. However, she considers that the comicality would be higher if this upside down world were situated near the real one. Referring to the government of animals, F. proposes Archippus' Fishes, along with works of similar titles, particularly Aristophanes' Birds. One of the aspects to which she pays most attention is what she calls 'anthropologisation', the attribution of human features to the choir of fishes which gives the comedy its name and the form of government it proposes, modelled on the Athenian, which would lead to all kinds of comical mistakes and was an effective instrument for satire. The third form of this upside down world involves running away from civilisation and looking for shelter among primitive peoples. F. studies Pherecrates' Savages and considers that the author could have used motifs like barbaric food habits and sexual customs, relying upon ethnography, which provided both the positive image of the good savage and the negative one of the uncivilised barbarian. F. points out the coincidences between this work and Aristophanes' Birds, with the escape from the city by its protagonists and the contrast between what they expect and what they really find.

The last chapter, 'Conclusioni: caratteri e finalità dell'utopia sulla scena' ('Conclusions: characteristics and utopia on the stage'), is probably the most interesting in the book. Here she sums up the most important points in her study, which are as follows:

-- the relationship that exists between the models of comic utopia and reality, establishing a difference between the examples of the Land of Plenty, with its ideal conditions of peace, equality and abundance, and the upside down worlds, where an anti-utopia seems to predominate;

-- the gastronomic topic, widely treated, to a certain extent because it is one of the interests of Athenaeus, the author who has transmitted most part of the fragments, but also because it is a typical element of utopia of any time;

-- the absence of the erotic element, particularly remarkable because it is typical of Old Comedy and, in the same way, together with the gastronomic element forms a fixed binomial in other genres and times;

-- the role of slavery, absent in the Land of Cockaigne since the spontaneous production of all the necessary things for life makes its existence unnecessary, but whose abolition never arises, as if it were inconceivable;

-- the political aspects of comic utopia, which, more or less explicitly depending on the authors, shows a deep dissatisfaction with reality, but without questioning the concept of polis as the best space of the community.

This chapter finishes with a sort of final summary dealing with the function of utopian comedy and connecting it with the so-called 'periods of licentiousness', as in the Kronia, in the Roman Saturnalia or in the mediaeval Fools' Feasts, which represented the temporary suppression of social rules. In denying them the contrary effect of reinforcing the sense of community was achieved.

The book finishes with a broad and current bibliography (which extends over 37 pages and is used throughout the book with great agility), an index of the passages dealt with and an 'Indice dei nomi e delle cose notevoli', which is not very extensive but is fairly detailed.

The impression left by reading of this book is of soundness and great clarity of ideas (which is also reflected by the style) in the delimitation of the field and in the way of proceeding. The attempt to reconstruct the plots and stories of the different works, to which a good part of the commentaries are dedicated, is quite worthwhile, although the problems of dating are in general a bit neglected. F. always acts cautiously, with few categorical statements, and supports her hypothesis with parallels generally taken from other comedies of utopian subject which are complete, as well as other genres and times. Sometimes, the insistence on searching for support for her arguments can be excessive, which exposes the origin of the book as a doctoral thesis (explicitly declared by the author in the introduction). Still, this has the positive effect of giving the whole work a strong impression of soundness.

However, I must point out some aspects which I think must be considered. Several words are translated in a perhaps unfortunate way: on p. 94 she translates κίχλαι as 'quaglie' ('quail'), while it appears correctly as 'tordi' ('thrush') on pp. 75 and 108; on p. 133, fragment 6 of Metagenes' Thuriopersians, line 10 ἄμυλοι is translated as 'focacce' ('kind of cakes'), when actually it is starch bread; on p. 164 λάβρακας appears as 'pesci persici' ('perch') and not 'spigole' or 'branzini', a strange translation because there is a general opinion that this fish should be identified with the bass and no sources indicate that it was a river animal; on p.172 it is not correct to say that κλεῖδες is 'un'altra specie di pesci', since the ancient sources (Euthydemus ap. Athenaeus, III 116c; Hesychius, ibid. VIII 315d-e) indicate that it was a type of salted tuna. On p. 134 she refers to a passage of Athenaeus (XII 521d) in which the extreme luxuries in the city of Sybaris are described, but she forgets to say that it is a quotation of a fragment of Phylarcus (FGH 85 fr. 45). On p. 109 she comments on the presence of ζωμὸς μέλας in the fragment 137 of Pherecrates' Persians relating it to the black Spartan soup, although it also appears in Attic Dinner-Party of Matro of Pitane (fr. 1, 94. Cf. the commentary of S.D. Olson and A. Sens in Matro of Pitane and the Tradition of Epic Parody in the Fourth Century BCE, Atlanta 1999, p. 129).

As I have said above, the bibliography is very extensive, though there are some studies that could have been useful for her analysis of utopia in Old Comedy, both in a general sense and in some aspects dealt with in the book as well, such as luxury in colonial life, the relationship between food and sex or slavery:

Collin-Bouffier, Sophie, 'La cuisine des grecs d'Occident, symbole d'une vie de tryphé?', Pallas 52 (2000), pp. 195-208.

Davidson, James, Courtesans and Fishcakes. The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens, London 1997.

Gómez Espelosín, F. Javier - Pérez Largacha, Antonio - Vallejo Girves, Margarita, Tierras fabulosas de la Antigüedad, Alcalá de Henares 1994.

Heberlein, F., Pluthygieia. Zur Gegenwelt bei Aristophanes, Frankfurt am Main 1980.

López Eire, Antonio, 'Comedia política y utopía', CIF 10 (1984), pp. 137-174.

Vogt, Joseph, 'Die Sklaverei im utopischen Denken der Griechen', RSA 1 (1971), pp. 19-32.

In the introduction (p. XI) F. points out that there is no translation of the fragments as a whole and in footnote 2 she mentions the Latin one of Bothe, the English one of Edmonds and the monograph of Matteo Pellegrino Utopie e immagini gastronomiche nei frammenti dell'Archaia (Bologna 2000). It is strange that she quotes (perhaps because she does not know it) neither here nor in the bibliography the bilingual edition, by Annalisa Paradiso, with Italian translation, of Book VI of Deipnosophistae, where the most important part of the gastronomic utopia is found (Ateneo. Schiavi e servi, Palermo: Sellerio Editore, 1990).

Some small errata can be found (αὐτομτως for αὐτομάτως, 'mèritent' for 'méritent', 'crezione' for 'creazione') and some mistakes in the accentuation of a few Greek words (στενωπός Ἅιδου for στενωπὸς Ἅιδου, κορακίνος for κορακῖνος, κώβιος for κωβιός), but otherwise it is evident that the book has been carefully edited.

These last comments must not tarnish the indubitable merits of the book, which is a work of huge interest, well-structured, with a remarkable expositive clarity and carried out with great accuracy, and it can be considered a very valuable source for the role of the utopian theme in the fragments of Old Comedy.

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