Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2008.07.05

Babette Pütz, The Symposium and Komos in Aristophanes.   Warminster:  Aris & Phillips, 2007.  Pp. 244.  ISBN 0-85668-772-3.  $48.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Simone Beta, Università di Siena (
Word count: 1672 words

The book under review is the final result of a series of editorial phases. First, there was a Ph.D. thesis written between 1997 and 2000 at the University of St. Andrews under the supervision of Stephen Halliwell; the thesis was then revised and published in 2003 by Metzler in the series Drama: Beiträge zum antiken Drama und seiner Rezeption (reviewed by Timothy Power at BMCR 2003.12.08). In 2007 that book underwent another revision and gave birth to this second edition. The main differences between the 2003 and 2007 editions are summarized in the Preface; the discussion of new scholarship has been added in the footnotes; all Greek texts have been translated or paraphrased to make the book more accessible for students of Aristophanes who do not read Greek.

The purpose of the book is made clear in the Introduction. Pütz has looked at the symposium and komos in Greek comedy (mainly Aristophanes, but also a good number of relevant comic fragments have been taken into exam) from two viewpoints: she has considered the use of these forms of celebration either to help shape the plot of a play or to depict some characters, and has discussed the information found in comedy on some practical sympotic matters.

As to the two moments taken into consideration by the author, the first was the formal drinking-party which usually took place after a deipnon; the second was the procession of revellers which usually took place after a symposium. Although it is usually quite difficult to define and divide these moments, Pütz gives them two different and separate treatments.

The first chapter (The Symposium in Aristophanes) is dedicated to the feasting-scenes in Aristophanes's extant plays and divided into three parts, depending on which circumstances provided the occasion for feasting. Such circumstances are the following: peace (since wine drinking was considered an important aspect of feasting, it is no wonder that the symposium was frequently associated with a life of peace); other outer circumstances (such as the personal success of a character or of a group); the aging of a character and the effects of this maturation. The analysis is structured according to these groups: the first one (1.1 Feasting in Peace) quite obviously deals with Acharnians, Peace, and Lysistrata, all performed during the Peloponnesian War; the second (1.2 Feasting in Changed Circumstances) focuses on Birds, Ecclesiazusae, Wealth, and Frogs; the third (1.3 Feasting and Age) with Clouds, Wasps (the imagined symposium of 1122 ff. and the real one at 1292ff.), and Knights, comedies which have to do with a sort of generational conflict regarding sympotic matters and depict the process of the growing up of a character through symposium-imagery. Pütz rightly warns that, since there are many overlaps between these groups, the three categories should not be regarded as distinctive compartments; they are rather employed in order to give a basic structure to the analysis of the plays. This chapter ends with a summary of the analysis of the ten comedies (1.4 The Symposium in Aristophanes: Conclusion).

The second chapter (The Komos in Aristophanes) is dedicated to an aspect of Greek comedy that recently, according to Pütz, has not received so much attention as the symposium. After having dealt with the problematic connection between komos and komoidia, Pütz analyzes the three kinds of komoi present in Aristophanes's plays. The most frequent one is the cheerful celebration that ends most of the plays: it can be either a victory-komos, as in Acharnians (Dicaeopolis' victory over Lamachus) and Wasps (Philocleon's victory over his son Bdelycleon), or a wedding-komos, such as that of Trygaeus' marriage to Opora in Peace and Peisetaerus' marriage to Basileia in Birds. Other similar festive komoi can be seen in Clouds (a parody of a victory-song, 1204ff.), Lysistrata (the reunion-scene, 1273ff.), Frogs (the procession which takes place in honour of Aeschylus' victory, 1524ff.), and Ecclesiazusae (the success of the women's regime, 1112ff.). Then Pütz discusses the two other kinds of komoi: the religious and the violent ones. Since in Aristophanes's plays there are several parodies and partial representations of official religious processions, Pütz focuses on various aspects of such komoi, witnessed in Frogs (217ff.), Ecclesiazusae (732ff.), and Acharnians (the phallic procession, 242ff.). The violent komoi appear in Wasps (Philocleon's hybristic behaviour, 1299ff.) and Lysistrata (Athenian men's aggressiveness, 370ff. and 1216ff.).

Pütz ends the chapter by quoting a series of examples of komastic mockery, drawing specific attention to the two drunk young men who, in Ecclesiazusae 947ff. and Wealth 1040ff., make fun of two old ladies.

The short third chapter is dedicated to a few general conclusions. Pütz says that symposium and komos predominantly express lively happiness, feelings of community, and victoriousness; moreover, she observes that they share a close association with a certain amount of wealth and luxury in comedies. Such celebrations are possible only when peace and a certain degree of order exist in the community, which has usually been achieved by the protagonists of the plays themselves. Pütz also says that the appearance of different types of symposia and the sympotic knowledge which is to be presupposed by the audience suggest that the symposium was not only an aristocratic event, but, in one form or another, it was accessible to citizens of lower social status as well.

The book, however, does not end with these final remarks. Before the eleven pages of bibliography and a few black and white illustrations, the reader finds a series of appendices concerned with practical aspects of symposia and komoi: wine, kottabos, riddles, and perfume. Wine, the condicio sine qua non of a Greek symposium, was particularly employed as symbolizing a life full of pleasures in peace. After having dealt briefly with some technical questions (taste, names, origins, qualities, the different mixtures), Pütz presents details about the after-effects of wine-drinking of the revellers (drunkenness and hangovers). Kottabos and riddles were the most common party-games. Pütz gives a thorough account of the different variants of both pastimes (the kottaboi played with a stand or with a pot and saucers; the riddles by paraphrases and by paradox), describes prizes and penalties, underlines the erotic component of kottabos and the linguistic elements of riddles. Finally, since perfume was very popular, above all in aristocratic symposia, the last appendix investigates its various kinds and uses, in particular as they can be seen not only in the comic fragments, but also in more recent Greek and Latin sources such as Theophrastus, Pliny, and Athenaeus' Deipnosophists.

The importance of the fragments of Old, Middle, and New Comedy is attested by the index of comic fragments, where, besides Aristophanes and his contemporaries (Cratinus, Pherecrates, and Eupolis), other fourth century poets such as Eubulus, Alexis, and Antiphanes cover a significant space.

The above-mentioned index, consisting of 4 pages, is the only one of the book. Here, in my opinion, lies the main weakness of Pütz' study: the book is well written, full of interesting material, updated, correct, but difficult to use--in other words, difficult to consult and to exploit. If it had two more indexes, a full Index locorum (or, at least, one of especially discussed passages) and a general Index (or, at least, one of Realien), it would be easier to look at something particular interesting in it. I can easily figure out one objection to this remark: the particular structure of the book (the analysis of Aristophanes's comedies in the first chapter and the four appendices) is built with the purpose of filling the gap caused by the two missing Indexes. This objection is partly sound -- but not always. More or less significant passages of some comedies are also discussed in other parts of the book not specifically dedicated to those particular comedies and therefore can be tracked down only with difficulty. For instance, Thesmophoriazusae is not included in the list of the comedies analyzed in the first chapter because it is almost entirely lacking in sympotic elements, due to the fact that the play depicted a festival without symposia -- and, moreover, a festival from which men were excluded. Well, this does not mean that the comedy is totally absent in that chapter: passages taken from Thesmophoriazusae are quoted at pp. 33, 45, 65 etc. Likewise, the analysis of wine is not confined to the related appendix, but (quite obviously) many interesting references to the significance of wine are scattered everywhere in the other chapters, and are not easy to be found.

The material discussed in the appendices is very generous and mostly complete. However, I have found some missing references (but they are a quite insignificant part if compared to the whole) in the wine appendix: in the section on mixtures (pp. 164-5), Ar., Pl. 1132 and Cratin. fr. 299.2 are not quoted among the examples of 1:1; in the section on bibulous women (p. 166), there is no mention of passages such as Alex. fr. 225 and 255, Antiph. fr. 163, Eub. fr. 122, Pher. fr. 207, Xenarch. fr. 5; a fuller attention should have been given to the subject of the creativeness of 'wine-drinkers' compared to the dullness of 'water-drinkers' (there is just a quick mention of Cratin. fr. *203 at p. 157 but no reference to Amphis fr. 41, Epich. fr. 131, Eub. fr. 133, Ophelion fr. 4).

The bibliography is rich, and might be even richer if some names quoted in an abbreviated form in the footnotes had been included into the list (such as Tarán mentioned at p. 146, n. 94, who is very likely S.L. Tarán, The Art of Variation in the Hellenistic Epigram, Leiden 1979).1

The former BMCR reviewer had praised the detailed account of the sympotic/komastic realia present in Greek comedy and underlined how profitable other essays on the same topic would be for our understanding of Athenian symposium; the many works published between 2003 and 2007 (all included in Pütz's bibliography) and the ones that will be surely published in the next years (wine is now one of the most beloved topics in classical philology) are the best answer to those remarks.


1.   Other reviewers have underlined some omissions, though. Anton Bierl, The Classical Review, vol. 55, no. 2, 422-4, misses "a generic framing of symposium and komos in the typical world-upside-down and a connection with the characteristic themes such as utopia, Golden Age, as well as the ritual occasion where both komos and symposium play an equally decisive role"; he rightly criticizes the absence of books such as P. Ghiron-Bistagne, Recherches sur les acteurs dans la Grèce antique (Paris 1976, 207-97), P. Schmitt Pantel, La cité au banquet. Histoire des repas publiques dans les cités grecques (Roma 1992, 222-31), and A. Bierl, Der Chor in der Alten Komödie. Ritual und Performativität (München 2001), whose second chapter is entirely dedicated to the komos and provides a new cultural and performative approach on that particular issue.

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