Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.10.20

Andrea Ercolani (ed.), Spoudaiogeloion. Form und Funktion der Verspottung in der aristophanischen Komödie. Drama. Beiträge zum antiken Drama und seiner Rezeption, 11.   Stuttgart/Weimar:  J.B. Metzler, 2002.  Pp. 414.  ISBN 3-476-45297-2.  EUR 29.90 (pb).  

Contributors: B. Zimmermann, E-R. Schwinge, A. Lopez Eire, G. Kloss, M. Napolitano, Ch. Mann, A. H. Sommerstein, I. Stark, A. Bierl, Th. Baier, G. Mastromarco, A. Ercolani, Ch. Brockmann, A. M. Andrisano, P. von Möllendorff, A. Bagordo, U. Auhagen, and Th. Gelzer

Reviewed by Emiliano J. Buis, Universidad de Buenos Aires (
Word count: 1827 words

The beginning of the XXI Century has seen an enormous amount of work done on Aristophanic Comedy. Not only do we have new editions of the Greek texts, especially the conclusion of Sommerstein's series with the publication of Wealth (2001) and the General Index of all eleven plays (2003), the commentary by Olson on Acharnians (Oxford, 2002) and the new Loeb Series by Henderson. We have also seen new approaches on the subject, particularly related to theatrical representation: Dobrov with his Figures of Play: Greek Drama and Metafictional Poetics [Oxford, 2001], Slater with his Spectator Politics: Metatheater and Performance in Aristophanes [Philadelphia, 2002] and Fernández in Argentina with her Plutos de Aristófanes. La Riqueza de los Sentidos [La Plata, 2002], to quote a few examples. The language of Old Comedy has also been the object of recent studies (cf. Kloss, Erscheinungsformen kömischen Sprechens bei Aristophanes [Berlin & New York, 2001]). It is in the context of this mainstream that we encounter Ercolani's effort in bringing together a number of papers providing fresh air on a traditional and long-debated matter.

This collection of essays comes from a conference on the form and function of mockery in Old Athenian Comedy, which was held in Freiburg in 2001. This meeting, organized by Prof. Dr. B. Zimmermann, was part of a research project which deals with the Construction and Deconstruction of Identity in Fifth-Century Athens. After a very short introduction by Zimmermann, in which he focuses on the importance of tracing the political intention of the comic author within the space of the city (p. 2), seventeen articles are presented, dealing with various aspects of the relationship between the comic genre and its political effect within the Athenian polis.

In the first essay, "Aristophanes und Euripides" (3-43), Ernst-Richard Schwinge (Kiel) emphasizes the importance of inscribing poetic craft within a political perspective (3). The dialectical unit of both politics and culture is crystallized in comedy, as he shows by examining tragedy in comic discourse in some specific passages (Acharnians 383 ff. [10-14], Thesmophorizusae 650 ff. [18-27] and Frogs as a whole [28-43]) in which the Aristophanic text is closely related to Euripidean dramas.

Antonio López Eire (Salamanca) focuses his paper "Recursos lingüísticos de la burla en la comedia aristofánica" (45-70) on the basic notion of mockery and the ways it is expressed through language. Mostly repeating the main ideas presented in his previous book, La lengua coloquial de la comedia aristofánica (Murcia, 1996), he examines here the use of homonyms, synonyms, word-selection techniques, diminutives, barbarisms, similes and metaphors, to conclude that it is mostly in language where Aristophanes finds a vehicle for his comic intention (69).

Less interested in lexical or syntactical aspects, Gerrit Kloss (Göttingen) focuses on the social considerations and importance of language in his article "Sprachverwendung und Gruppenzugehörigkeit als Thema der Alten Komödie" (71-88). In the democratic background, he identifies the complex interaction of individuals and groups in the staging of comedy and its private and public effects. In his final page, he includes a chart where examples of personal mockery are distinguished as attacks directed towards public or private, Athenian or foreign, figures.

The significance of public references in the text of comedy is also dealt with in "Onomastì komodeîn e strategie argomentative in Aristofane (a proposito di Ar. Ach. 703-718)" (89-103), where Michele Napolitano (Cassino) calls attention to the importance of studying the rhetorical devices when facing comic invectives by approaching a single passage in the parabasis.1 Both Christian Mann (Freiburg) in his "Aristophanes, Kleon und eine angebliche Zäsur in der Geschichte Athens" (105-124) and Alan H. Sommerstein (Nottingham) in his "Die Komödie und 'das Unsagbare' " (125-145)2 present the problem of freedom of speech in Old Comedy. However, their objectives differ: while Mann concentrates exclusively on the much-revisited relationship of Aristophanes with Kleon, both on the personal and political levels, Sommerstein presents a more general paper on the traditional discussion concerning the existence of legal restrictions (in theory or practice) on verbal attacks.3

The politician is once again studied in Isolde Stark's "Athenische Politiker und Strategen als Feiglinge, Betrüger und Klaffärsche. Die Warnung vor politischer Devianz und das Spiel mit den Namen prominenter Zeitgenossen" (147-167). After revisiting the nature and origin of the Great Dionysia, as well as the people's assembly and democratic principles related to freedom of speech, Stark (Halle) concentrates on the examination of the way in which famous strategoi or demagogues were made fun of by Aristophanes. Lamakhos, Kleon, Perikles and others are analyzed as seen in comedy, in order to study possible incongruities between the basis of mockery and reality. The detailed portrait of individual harsh censure points to the origins of Greek comedy, with a brief look at social comic personal types.

Anton Bierl (Leipzig), in "'Viel Spott, viel Ehr! -- Die Ambivalenz des onomastì komodeîn im festlichen und generischen Kontext" (169-187), draws attention once again to the importance of mockery to comedy. His primary thesis has to do with the need to understand the comic phenomenon if one is to perceive the meaning of the laughter it produces: in the context of theater production and its ritual background, the function of masks and characters' disguise is essential since Old Comedy is structured around the staging of 'identifiable' roles and dramatic illusion. Plot requires performance in Aristophanes, and the characters and chorus -- placed between the author and its public -- become the indispensable vehicle for communicating. Concerning choral interventions, in particular, Thomas Baier from Freiburg ("Zur Funktion der Chorpartien in den Fröschen ", 189-204) addresses the issue of the parabasis in Frogs and its significance in the logic of the play.

Giuseppe Mastromarco (Bari) comes back to the discussion of "Onomastì komodeîn e spoudaiogeloion" (205-223). He considers that the use of personal attacks in Aristophanes could be interpreted from a historical and political angle, since they represent an extra-theatrical dimension protected by the "carnivalized" context of comic arguments. In this sense, both Acharnians and Knights -- the first complete comedies we have preserved -- show a use of onomastì komodeîn clearly underlined by a serious poetic and political engagement.

Andrea Ercolani's (Freiburg) ideas in his "Sprechende Namen und politische Funktion der Verspottung am Beispeil der Acharner" were presented in a recent conference in Nottingham I had the chance to attend.4 After showing that nomina personarum may be formed by expanding names, by invention from scratch or by borrowing from actual onomastics, he explains how some "speaking names" such as Theoros or Lamakhos were chosen and why they were used by the author. According to him, both linguistic and real political aspects had to be taken into account when including a speaking name since humour was produced both through language and extra-dramatic references.

Christian Brockmann (Berlin) narrows his paper to the study of the protagonist in Acharnians. In "Der Friedensmann als selbstsüchtiger Hedonist? Überlegungen zur Figur des Dikaiopolis in der zweiten Hälfte der Acharner" (255-272), he considers the role of Dicaeopolis by contrasting the main character with other figures such as the Megarian or Lamakhos. This reading takes into consideration the permanent opposition of war and peacetime, which is constantly present in the new marketplace set on stage.

In "Empusa, nome parlante (Ar. Ran. 288ss.)?" (273-297), Angela Andrisano (Ferrara) addresses again the topic of speaking names. However, unlike Ercolani or Mastromarco, she reduces her search to a single example, and tries to explain philologically and etymologically the meaning of the name granted to this noisy monster-like off-scene character in Frogs.

Peter von Möllendorff (Munich) centers his work on Wasps. His paper "Die Zungenfertigkeit des Komödiendichters. Spott, Oralsex und Metapoetik in den Wespen des Aristophanes" (299-316) includes a textual analysis of the social function and political sense of verbal obscenity within the play. To the sex motifs of fellatio-cunnilingus (mostly related to the mocked Ariphrades) and the deceit of the public figure of Kleon, von Möllendorff adds the metapoetic dimension of comic muses and the subject of Aristophanic inspiration: the wordplay sustained in the verbs glottopoieîn and gelotopoieîn demonstrates how oral sex and comedy-composition become metaphorically linked. The same comedy is also discussed by Andreas Bagordo (Freiburg), "Philokles' Lieder (Ar. Vesp. 462)" (317-325), who clarifies the expression tôn melôn tôn Philokléous especially by the double entendre of the term mélos, which could be ambiguously taken either in a musical or anatomical sense.

Beyond Aristophanes, the article by Ulrike Auhagen (Frieburg), called "Frauenspott bei Aristophanes und Plautus" (327-343) expands the corpus of the previous chapters by including certain proximities between Old Comedy and Roman drama. If Thesmophoriazusae and Ekklesiazusae both deal with utopian plans in which women lead a sexual communism, Plautus too uses fantasy plots, where prostitutes become common characters. In both authors, we discover that old women are frequently flouted. Finally, Thomas Gelzer (Bern) in his "Spott auf Personen des öffentlichen Lebens mit den Mitteln der traditionellen Formen der Alten Komödie" (345-374) closes the colloquium stating that Old Comedy is a space for blaming. His careful examination of passages from Knights and Frogs is a useful tool to describe the means of censuring public figures of the city.

The seventeen papers are followed by an updated twenty-page bibliography. All quotations mentioned in notes belong to the books presented here in alphabetical order. This system of unifying all the bibliography has a clear advantage to the reader: it is possible to look at all the information sources together instead of having to trace every article when searching material on a specific topic. An index rerum notabilium (395-397) and an index locorum (399-412), placed at the end of the volume, may also be welcome to specialists or people interested in the topic: any author or keyword can be searched in the papers with no need to skim through all of them.

The collection of essays edited by Ercolani presents in a single work a wide variety of perspectives on verbal attacks and direct individual offenses in Aristophanes' comedy. Despite its value, the volume is sometimes repetitive, and not all the articles are successful in achieving their purpose. What is more, in general they tend to rely over and over on the same plays, leaving some of them (such as Clouds, Peace, Birds, or even the comic fragments of the author) out of the discussion.

All these problems, probably impossible to avoid when so many classicists are focused on the same traditional issues, are compensated by the opportunity of getting in one 414-page-long book a general glimpse of the opinions of some of the greatest comedy scholars in Europe. In this way, Spoudaiogeloion shall be considered a "must" in this flourishing period of Aristophanic studies. But it goes beyond that: for those believing that there is not much more to be said on Greek or Roman literature, this book offers an interesting answer. The collected lectures here can be read as a live example of how a number of contemporary philologists are still able to give new reflections on long-debated areas of ancient culture.


1.   I have worked on this passage identifying in the choral intervention of Acharnians certain argumentative characteristics proper to legislative proposals in Athens. This view was both presented in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in July 2002 ("La defensa de los ancianos en corte y el 'juicio justo' (Ar. Ach. 676-718): una propuesta legislativa en la comedia ateniense", paper read at the International Congress "Argumentation. Linguistics, Rhetoric, Logic, Pedagogy", organized by the Institute of Linguistics of the University of Buenos Aires) and New Haven, Connecticut, in April 2003 ("Using the Past as a Legislative Argument: Time, Age and Rhetoric in Aristophanes' Acharnians", at the Sixth Annual Yale Classics Graduate Students Colloquium, Yale University).
2.   An English version of this paper will soon appear in Cairns, D. L. (ed.) Law, Rhetoric and Comedy in Classical Athens (forthcoming).
3.   For previous work see inter multa alia, Radin, M. (1927) "Freedom of Speech in Ancient Athens", AJPh 48; 215-230; Halliwell, S. (1984) "Ancient interpretations of 'onomastí komodein' in Aristophanes", CQ 34; 83-8 and (1991) "Comic Satire and Freedom of Speech in Classical Athens", JHS CXI; 48-70; Sommerstein, A. H. (1986) "The decree of Syrakosios", CQ 36; 101-8; Spina, L. (1986) Il cittadino alla tribuna. Diritto e libertà di parola nell'Atene democratica, Napoli: Liguori Editore; Atkinson, J. E. (1992) "Curbing the Comedians: Cleon versus Aristophanes and Syracosius' Decree", CPh 42; 56-64. A new article by Sommerstein also refers to the problem: "Harassing the satirist: the alleged attempts to prosecute Aristophanes", in I. Sluiter & R.M. Rosen (edd.), Free Speech in Classical Antiquity (forthcoming, Leiden 2004).
4.   The Midlands Classical Seminar Symposium "Playing Around Aristophanes", in celebration of the completion of Aristophanes' editions by Prof. Alan Sommerstein, organized at the University of Nottingham on May 14, 2003.

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