Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2011.10.39

Nikoletta Kanavou, Aristophanes' Comedy of Names: a Study of Speaking Names in Aristophanes. Sozomena: Studies in the Recovery of Ancient Texts 8.   Berlin/New York:  Walter de Gruyter, 2011.  Pp. xiii, 228.  ISBN 9783110247060.  $112.00.  

Reviewed by Ian C. Storey, Trent University (


In this study, developed from her Oxford doctoral thesis, Kanavou proposes to examine the instances of “speaking names” in Aristophanes, where a name in comedy is chosen for the humorous significance of its meaning. Here she includes not just the familiar and significant names of comic characters (Dikaiopolis, Lysistrata) and nicknames for real people, such as Paphlagon for Kleon and Kometamynias at Wasps 466 [“long-haired Amynias”], but also place-names (Ballene for Pallene at Acharnians 234), ethnics and demotics (both real ones chosen for their literal meaning and invented place-names), and even the names of gods and dogs and ships.

A brief introduction (1-23) gives her methodology. She starts from the reasonable premise that “the poet’s main purpose was to raise laughs and win a comic competition and his use of names was meant to serve this cause” (18), but adds that these names need to be “linguistically clarified” and “the internal and external factors” explained. In other words explain in its context a joke that is 2500 years old. This often involves determining whether a name is an actual name at Athens or a more obvious comic coinage. To this end her principal tool is Lexicon of Greek Personal Names (LGPN), convenient in that the Athenian names are contained in one volume (II) and that the other volumes allow a look at regions other than Attica. She does acknowledge (20 n. 75) the existence of Traill’s Persons of Ancient Athens (PAA – now in nineteen volumes), but her examples are cited from LGPN, a pity in that generally PAA gives more entries and certainly ones that are fuller in content. Eleven separate chapters follow with the “speaking names” in each of the extant comedies, a short concluding section (189-93), and appendices on such names in the Aristophanic fragments and on slave names.

As I read her study, I found myself concerned with the larger issues of her topic. By dealing with the material play by play, she creates essentially an anthology of loosely connected passages plus her analysis. But I kept waiting for the thematic discussion of certain types of name and certain recurring questions. In her introduction (23) she rejects such an approach by categories and sub-categories on the ground that the interplay between different types of jokes contributes best to understanding the passage as a whole. But while it is useful to consider such jokes within the context of each play, the material cries out for thematic studies: the significantly named main characters (are there places where the created name is also an actual name?); when a character is named in the play or a specific scene; the incidental names of chorus-members; the use of patronymics (Antimachos “son of spit" at Acharnians 1150, Dionysus “son of Jug” at Frogs 21-4); use of demotics, both real ones used for the comic potential of the name (Anaphlystios at Frogs 427) or false ones with a humorous point (Kompaseus at Birds 1126). Are “speaking names” consistently used throughout the eleven comedies? Here Kanavou does observe that such names are much more prevalent in Acharnians than, say, Frogs or Wealth. But on the whole what she presents is perhaps half the task.

Next there is the problem of the comic method, especially when a real name or individual is involved. Kanavou implies that the “speaking name” came first and was then applied to the person in question. For example in the opening scenes of Acharnians we meet Theoros, the Athenian envoy who has just returned from Thrace. Kanavou (34) revives an older idea that the name alludes to a theoros (“observer”), despite the required change in accent. She does admit (92-3) that elsewhere in Aristophanes Theoros can appear without any etymological suggestion based on his name. I would suggest that in a play with Kleon as a sub-text Aristophanes began with a desire to make fun of Theoros, one of Kleon’s followers. His name may have suggested a scene with an envoy, but the target came before the name. The same may be said of Amphitheos, whom IG ii2 2343 shows was a real person probably known personally to Aristophanes, of Lamachos (chosen not solely for the play on mach- but for his recent election as a general in 426/5), and of Euathlos at Acharnians 703-12, where Kanavou (41) suggests that the name was chosen in part for its etymology (“successful in contests”). It is much more likely that Euathlos, son of Kephisodemos (703-12), was the actual prosecutor of the elderly Thoukydides son of Melesias (see also Wasps 946-8) and that his name suggested the metaphor of the contest.

What happens when a “speaking name” is also a real name? For example, at Acharnians 839 in Dicaeopolis’ ideal market, “if some Ktesias or any other informer comes along, he’ll regret it!”. Kanavou prefers the interpretation that “Ktesias” is a “speaking name” from ktasthai (“to acquire”), one suitable for an extortioner. But PAA shows that is an attested Athenian name (55 examples from 500 BC – only 45 in LGPN II), in fact that of a tamias of Eleusis in the late 430s (PAA 586570). So when the spectators hear “Ktesias”, will they not think first about a contemporary Ktesias and perhaps only later, if at all, consider the etymology (“Acquirer”)? Too often Kanavou suspects that a personal name like Ktesias may have become a “generic mocking name” (41). The phrase Ktesias tis in the Greek may just mean “someone like Ktesias”, who was an informer like the two who later appear in that play. The same argument can be applied at Knights 615, where the Sausage-Seller, returning in triumph from the Council (Boule), claims that he may now be called Nikoboulos (“victor over/in the Boule”). This might just be a “speaking name”, but since PAA gives 24 examples of the name, including a tamias of the other gods in 421/0 (713750), the spectators should think first of the contemporary Athenian and then consider the meaning of his name. To be fair, Kanavou does consider this point (43) in rejecting Derketes of Phyle, who appears at Acharnians1028 with eye trouble, as a simple “speaking name” based on derkesthai (“to see”), since we actually know of a Derketes of Phyle from 407 BC (PAA 303905). When we read the novels or watch the film of Mary Poppins, is it at all significant that one of the main characters, George Banks, works in a bank in the City? Does anyone even notice? There are places where the discussion is ample and persuasive – her comments on Dikaiopolis and Lamachos (24-30), on Strepsiades in Clouds and the comic potential of words in streph- (69), on the name of the main character in Birds (105-7), where she has all but persuaded me to abandon my lifelong preference for Peithetairos for Peisetairos (but where then did the intrusive theta come from in the traditional form, Peisthetairos?). She has some sensible things to say (129-34) about Lysistrata as Lysimache and Myrrhine, allowing that there may be allusions to these attested priestesses but nothing approaching personal caricature. If these (and Kalonike?) are in fact priestesses of cults on the Acropolis, then the opening scene will be representing these temples as the ‘houses’ from which they emerge.

Her primary focus is to investigate the comic potential of “speaking names”, but she rarely takes the discussion into the realm of political satire or personal invective. This remains the fundamental challenge for Aristophanic scholars: to what degree are his plays and his comments intended to be serious, or is he just making a joke for the sake of a laugh? I would have liked to have seen Kanavou investigate the extent to which these names facilitate a serious purpose for his comedy. At Wasps 592 the name of Kleonymos is altered to “Kolakonymos” (“Sponger-onymos”) and given Aristophanes’ apparent antipathy to such creatures in politics, this should be a serious insult. But then Eupolis can write an entire comedy with a chorus of kolakes – F 172 is a sixteen-line epirrhema advancing the theme that a sponger’s “life is not a happy one”. Choruses in comedy should be sympathetic, so how serious is Aristophanes’ insult of individuals as “spongers”? Thus I missed from the bibliography studies of personal humour with a satiric slant: Rosen’s 1988 monograph on comedy and the iambus, Saetta Cottone on comic loidoria, the various studies by Degani on comic insult, and my own essay on personal humour.1

Some points in passing. Although Herodotos 6.105-6 clearly names the runner to Sparta in 490 as Pheidippides, Kanavou (71-4) prefers Philippides on the grounds that Aristophanes would not have given that heroic name to a comic character in Clouds. But Pheidippos is a well-attested name as early as the late sixth century (twenty instances in PAA) and the point could well be to contrast the heroic runner of the past with the young modern degenerate. When she states (129) that “Aristophanes’ plays are nearly always named after their choruses”, she is speaking only of the extant dramas; for the forty canonical plays the number is more than a dozen. For the other major Old comic poets, the figures are: Kratinos (6/25), Eupolis (3/14), Pherecrates (8/20), Platon (17/30). That Kritylla at Women at the Thesmophoria 898 has an “etymology that implies good judgement” (149) seems rather far-fetched to me. Kanavou makes a strong case that the names Agorakritos in Knights and Praxagora in Assembly-Women have as much to do with the assembly as they do with the agora – here traditional call in the assembly, tis bouletai agoreuein (“who wishes to speak?”) may be relevant. At F 205 (Banqueters) Kanavou is quite correct to see Thrasymachos as a “speaking name” for the deviant son, but I have argued that there is no allusion here to Thrasymachos the sophist, who may not have been known at Athens in 427.2

As mentioned above, this monograph is really an assorted collection of notes to comic passages based on the broad connecting theme of the “speaking name”. Those who want a recent study of a particular passage will certainly find Kanavou’s discussions useful, although the reader is often referred in the notes to the fuller commentaries of Olson or Dover or Sommerstein or Dunbar. In her brief conclusion (189-93) she admits that names are “exploited in a variety of ways and for a wide range of purposes” (189) and only here do we get any of the sort of systematic treatment of categories and sub-categories that I missed throughout the work as a whole.


1.   R. Rosen, Old Comedy and the Iambographic Tradition (Atlanta 1988); R. Saetta Cottone, Aristofane e la poetica dell’ ingiuria (Rome 2005); E. Degani, “insulto ed escrologia in Aristofane”, Dionisio 57(1987) 31-47, “Giambo e commedia”, in E. Corsini (ed.), La Polis e il suo teatro, vol. II (Padua 1988) 157-79, “Aristofane e la tradizione dell’invettiva personale in Grecia”, in Entretiens sur l’antiquité classique, vol. XXXVIII Aristophane (Geneva 1993) 1-49; I.C. Storey, “Poets, politicians and perverts: personal humour in Aristophanes”, Classics Ireland 5(1998) 85-134.
2.   I.C. Storey, “Thrasymachos at Athens”, Phoenix 42 (1988) 212-8.

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