Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.12.08

Babette Pütz, The Symposium and Komos in Aristophanes. Beiträge zum antiken Drama und seiner Rezeption, 22.   Stuttgart/Weimar:  J.B. Metzler, 2003.  Pp. 306.  ISBN 3-476-45318-9.  EUR 39.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Timothy Power, University of Washington (
Word count: 1570 words

This revised Ph.D. thesis is the first book-length study of the role of the symposium and komos in the plays of Aristophanes. It follows some recent shorter treatments of this topic by E.L. Bowie, A.M. Bowie, I. Lada-Richards, J. Wilkins and N. Fisher.1 Pütz's book suffers from comparison to these earlier efforts; although it is longer and (quantitatively) more comprehensive, it lacks their critical sophistication and interpretive élan, with respect to both comic texts and sympotic culture. Still, The Symposium and Komos in Aristophanes is a competent, well-researched and clearly organized work, if not a notably innovative or exciting one. It will be useful to those interested in the Classical symposium and komos and, of course, the presentation of the two in Old Comedy. After a concise introduction (1-8) the book falls into two sections, a long one on the symposium in Aristophanes (9-155), a shorter one on the komos (156-91). Following the conclusion (192-97) are four long appendices devoted to selected practical aspects of the symposium (198-278). P. considers ten extant plays of Aristophanes. (Thesmophoriazusae, "entirely lacking in symposiac or komastic elements," is not discussed.) She also looks at numerous fragments of Old (and Middle) Comedy, especially in the appendices.

In the introduction P. sets out the three objectives of her book: (1) to examine how Aristophanes' references to and representations of symposia and komoi inform plot and character development; (2) to discuss the practical information about sympotic activities and paraphernalia found in the texts; (3) to assess the real-life sympotic experience of comedy's Athenian audience.

P. achieves her second goal most successfully. She has combed through the comedies with great care and throughout her book inventories and comments on the diverse sympotic and komastic elements that are both explicitly presented and subtly implicit in each one. There's a wealth of detail about sympotic practices assembled here. P. has an especially keen eye for allusions to riddling, word games, scolia and drinking pastimes. We are well reminded how extensively comedy appropriates the material culture and discourse of the symposium.

The pervasiveness of sympotica in Old Comedy prompts some relevant sociological questions. Had the post-archaic symposium become democratized to the extent that lower-status citizens attained some access to its pleasures? How else could comedy's mass audience have appreciated the many specific references to "aristocratic" sympotic entertainment? Although Aristophanes often depicts the symposium as a high-status affair, P. argues that in reality "all citizens must have had a chance to gain familiarity with it" (155). They could have witnessed luxurious symposia on public occasions and/or could have held their own parties based on these high-end models. Indeed, a number of comedies feature non-elite characters who demonstrate or acquire impressive familiarity with sympotic behaviors, e.g. Trygaeus in Peace, Sausage Seller in Knights. (An unmentioned possibility: did comedy itself contribute to a popularization of the elite symposium by repeatedly exposing this exclusive world to a mass audience?) P.'s arguments are surely on target, if somewhat too perfunctory. Those interested in comedy and sympotic demography will learn more from the fuller treatments by Fisher and Wilkins.

P.'s take on the dramatic function of symposia and komoi has two main parts. First, she claims that both are "employed in comedy to create an atmosphere of exuberance (fitting the nature of the genre)," and to mark celebrations of victory achieved by protagonists (8, cf. 148, 197). P. follows A.M. Bowie in making her second, more insightful point: in Aristophanic comedy idealized symposia tend to frame the restoration of peace and order in the world of the play, while disturbance of normal sympotic practices reflects disorder.

In section I, 'The symposium in Aristophanes', the plays are divided into three groups, "depending on which circumstances make feasting possible." ('Feasting' covers aspects of the deipnon, symposium and the komos, which, as P. points out, are not always clearly demarcated in comedy.) Acharnians, Peace and Lysistrata, all produced during the Peloponnesian War, fall under the rubric 'Feasting in peace'. They are plays in which interrupted or abnormal sympotic activity gives way to the happy, normative activity that marks the desired achievement of peace. Thus in Ach. "distorted" sympotic behavior, such as the drunken transgressions of the young cottabus-players (524ff.), is associated with the war. The separate peace achieved by Dicaeopolis is underlined by his enjoyment of tranquil "sympotic business," which stands in opposition to the "wintry business" of war pursued by the hawkish Lamachus (1141-42).

Birds, Eccl., Wealth and Frogs come under 'Feasting in changed circumstances'. They are plays in which "a change of outer circumstances in the polis or in a character's personal life provides the possibility for feasting" (57). Two examples: In Birds convivial motifs identify the protagonists as renegade symposiasts whose search for utopia is a search for the perfect party--though the party does not turn out to be so perfect in the end. A different kind of change of circumstance in Frogs: closely following Lada-Richards, P. demonstrates how increasingly normative sympotic imagery articulates Dionysus' gradual re-integration into the Athenian community.

Clouds, Wasps and Knights come under 'Feasting and age'. In these plays sympotic content is used either to underline generational conflict (Clouds) or to dramatize a coming-of-age, as in Knights. In this play the increasing sympotic competence of Sausage Seller, who is initially presented as a culturally and politically marginalized "water-drinker" (349), reflects his transformation into a leading citizen who feasts with a revitalized Demos in the prytaneum.

Section II, 'The Komos in Aristophanes', begins with an overview of komastic occasions and an account of the originary relation between the festive komos and komoidia. P. then sorts Aristophanic komoi into the tripartite typology she favors. First, celebratory komoi, usually connected with nuptials or victory, which tend to coincide with the ends of plays, e.g. Wealth 1191ff. Second, religious komoi that resemble (or parody) 'official' religious processions, e.g. the Rural Dionysia scene in Ach. 241-85. Both types signal the protagonists' enjoyment of a pleasurable, carefree life. A third type, the violent, perverse komos, creates lively spectacle and highlights the conflicting attitudes and extreme behavior of the characters involved. Philocleon's komastic hybris in Wasps, for example, belongs in this category. (No mention here, though, of the final scene of Clouds, in which Strepsiades, recouping after his disastrous symposium, enlists a band of torch-bearing slaves for an "extreme" paraclausithyron at the Phrontisterion. Is this not a kind of warped komos, yet also, from a culturally conservative point of view, one that restores order and enacts desired closure?)

Through her neat taxonomies and dutiful readings of the individual plays P. achieves her modest goal of describing how the symposium and komos work to shape plot and define character. I'm not at all sure, though, that the book's rich, socially charged subject is well served by this insulated structural-functional approach, which can yield such bland conclusions. Does any reader of Wasps, for instance, need to be told that the symposium in that play is a "vehicle to express the old man's social ineptness and his tendency towards extremes" (147)? Comedy's engagements with the symposium are complex encounters between two mutually attracted yet (structurally, ideologically) disparate sociocultural institutions. They demand, I think, a far more adventurous, expansive interpretive approach attuned to the political, cultural and generic issues raised in and by them; they also need to be brought into more productive dialogue with contemporary images of sympotic culture in satyr play, Middle and New Comedy, elegy (esp. Critias, Ion), dithyramb, Plato and iconography.

And perhaps I'm too inclined to dark readings of Aristophanes, but I was frustrated by P.'s reluctance to "take seriously" the uneasy ambivalence underlying the seemingly ideal symposia in plays such as Ach. and Eccl.. She recognizes a disturbing self-centeredness in the triumphant sympotic behavior of Dicaeopolis in Ach. yet insists that "he cannot be seriously criticised as a selfish character, even if he avoids sharing his private peace" (151). Why not? P. stresses his participation in the Choes drinking contest, but she does not, to my mind, convincingly dissociate the anti-communal atmosphere of this event from his ruthless solipsism. How, in the end, does Dicaeopolis' isolated celebration really differ from the civically irresponsible sympotic "distortions" described earlier in the play? Similarly, while P. acknowledges that Aristophanes "deliberately leaves room" for both a positive and negative interpretation of the 'sympotic communism' imagined in Eccl., she is oddly unwilling to give serious consideration to the negative: "[Aristophanes'] main point is not an evaluation of the ['communist'] system, but to compose scenes which provoke laughter" (81). I can't understand why social critique and humor should be at odds--maybe on some network sitcoms, certainly not in Old Comedy.

The book is simply written, completely free of critical jargon. P. steers clear of even the most mainstream theory. Typos are few and minor.2 The four appendices, dedicated to wine, cottabus, riddles and perfume, are fact-filled antiquarian orgies. P. has handily digested in them an impressive mass of relevant ancient testimonia, mostly the comic fragments preserved in Athenaeus. Those curious about the practical aspects of these topics will want to dive right in.

Perhaps the real virtue of this book, besides its detailed account of the sympotic/komastic realia deployed by Aristophanes, is its implicit argument for how very profitable more probing, innovative work on its topic would be, both for our understanding of Old Comedy and the Athenian symposium. P. has laid a solid foundation here; hopefully she will continue to build on it.


1.   E.L. Bowie, "Wine in Old Comedy," in O. Murray and M. Tecusan (eds.), In vino veritas (Rome 1995), 113-25; A.M. Bowie, "Thinking With Drinking: Wine and the Symposium in Aristophanes," JHS (1997), 1-21; Fisher, "Symposiasts, Fish-Eaters and Flatterers: Social Mobility and Moral Concerns in Old Comedy," in D. Harvey and J. Wilkins (eds.), The Rivals of Aristophanes: Studies in Athenian Old Comedy (London 2000), 355-96; Lada-Richards, Initiating Dionysos: Ritual and Theatre in Aristophanes' Frogs (Oxford 1999), 123-58; Wilkins, The Boastful Chef: The Discourse of Food in Ancient Greek Comedy (Oxford 2000), esp. 202-13.
2.   "Utensiles" (75); "has by no means be healed" (133); "charcter" (178). On p. 154, end of third paragraph read "son" for "father."

Read Latest
Index for 2003
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:28:59, Friday, 03 April 2009