BMCR 1991.02.12

Die attische mittlere Komoedie

, Die attische mittlere Komödie: Ihre Stellung in der antiken Literaturkritik und Literaturgeschichte. Untersuchungen zur antiken Literatur und Geschichte; Bd. 36. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990. x, 395 pages. ISBN 9783110888997

The last adequate collection of all the fragments of Greek comedy, by August Meineke, was inaugurated with a volume entitled Historia critica comicorum graecorum (Berlin 1838), an attempt among other things to give some account of the developments which lay behind the fragmentary texts he was going to present. The masterful new edition of the comic fragments by Rudolf Kassel and Colin Austin ( Poetae Comici Graeci), which began to appear in 1983 and is proceeding much more quickly to its conclusion than we would have expected from other similar projects, is putting the study of ancient Greek comedy on a much sounder basis today. The many splendors of PCG—the number of new papyrus fragments, incredible accuracy and critical acumen, exhaustive annotation at the highest level of scholarship—have been universally acclaimed, and yet (especially since the authors are arranged there alphabetically rather than chronologically) its grateful readers will feel ever more urgently the need for a historical survey such as Meineke attempted: how did comedy’s relation to its society change and develop, what are the steps leading from Cratinus to Menander?

There can be little doubt about the period for which such a guide is most needed. While we all understand the difference between Old and New Comedy, “Middle Comedy” makes us uncomfortable, and we usually race past it as quickly as possible, or dismiss the controversy over its very existence as a pointless quibble. That is a mistake, as this new book points out. If the writings which defined the genre go back to Alexandrian critics (or even Peripatetics) with access to many more plays than we now have, we can use their conclusions to widen our knowledge of Greek comedy in an age of political changes. If on the other hand this threefold division is a product of rhetoricians of the empire, then we can indeed dismiss it with a good conscience.

In this thorough, densely argued book (reading it through from beginning to end is a major undertaking), Heinz-Günther Nesselrath 1 offers what will surely become the definitive study of the history of comedy during the transitional years ca. 380-320 BC, and probably also of ancient writings on comedy of all kinds. 2

After an introduction surveying previous work (the tripartition of comedy has been ascribed to nearly every possible source, from Aristotle to grammarians of the second century AD), N. begins with the most difficult and, as it turns out, least valuable evidence, the amorphous collection of “Prolegomena” on comedy edited by Koster. N. wisely organizes these not by their presumed date or sources, but by their theoretical tendencies—one might call their approach either “political” or “festive.” The first group (Proleg. IV, Schol. Dionys. Thrax, Platonius, Euanthius, Tzetzes) consistently ascribes changes in comic form to the pressure of historical events like the end of Athenian democracy or the overlordship of Macedon (sometimes absurdly, as in the strangely persistent story that Eupolis was drowned by Alcibiades). The second group (Proleg. III and V, Diomedes) treats comedy primarily as entertainment and literature rather than political agitation; yet it uses most of the same evidence to make its case. N’s detailed discussion shows that their tendentiousness is really all these prolegomena (and Horace, Ars Poetica 281-4 as well) have to offer us. They evince virtually no familiarity at all with comic authors from the crucial transitional period 380-320 BC. 3

If the prolegomena were all the evidence we had, “Middle Comedy” would be a dubious proposition indeed. When N. turns to the earlier evidence, he finds the story very different. At the end of the second century AD Athenaeus (VIII.336d) could make a character claim to have read more than 800 plays of Middle Comedy alone, and the roughly contemporary Onomastikon of Julius Pollux cites words from that period. An influential study by W. Fielitz argued that the term “Middle Comedy” was invented in precisely this period, but N. shows with an exhaustive examination that Athenaeus (probably) and Pollux (certainly) derive their citations of comedy from earlier sources. The tripartition must therefore be older also.

N. then turns his attention from the latest available evidence to the earliest: could it be that the division of comedy into three periods goes back to Aristotle himself? That would be the case if the sketch (literally so—a series of diagrams in a tenth-century manuscript now in Paris) of tripartite comedy called the Tractatus Coislinianus is derived solely from lost sections of the Poetics, as has been forcefully argued by R. Janko. N. argues at length against this claim, suggesting that most of the similarities with Aristotle are the result of intentional (and superficial) mimicry; other concepts found in the Tractatus ( emphasis, symmetria, the generic classification of literature) are known only from later critics. We must not assume that, for Aristotle, comedy and tragedy were precisely parallel phenomena (as does the Tractatus): the Poetics never claims that comedy, like tragedy, has yet reached its telos. 4

N. next looks at the study of comedy in Alexandria by Callimachus, Eratosthenes and Aristophanes of Byzantium, and in the last of these he finds his own candidate for the popularizer of the concept of “middle” comedy: peripatetics seem to have thought of “new” comedy generally as anything following the “old,” whereas Aristophanes of Byzantium was the first scholar with a decided preference for Menander, and his studies of comic lexicography, as well as On masks and On prostitutes, included Menandrian material. He would have felt the need to make preceding classifications more precise, and distinguish his favorite from any period of transition. 5

In the second part of this book, N. also finds support for the existence of an intermediate stage of comedy (ca. 380-320) in the fragments of the plays themselves, especially from Anaxandrides (active from the early 380’s to the 340’s), Euboulos (active ca. 375-330), Ephippos (active ca. 375-340), Antiphanes (active from the 380’s to the end of the century) and Alexis (certainly active 350-330, but doubtless much earlier and later as well). He focuses on a series of comic techniques found to some extent throughout all comedy, but especially concentrated in this period:
1. It has often been noted that mythological plots seem more frequent now, but in their use it seems there is also a tendency a) to rationalize tragic myths into the mundane (in Anaxandrides, Tereus and his wife never became birds—he was merely “henpecked”; in Ephippos, Geryones was a petty foreign tyrant; in an adespoton on papyrus [fr. 215 Austin], Kronos “eats up” his children by Rhea in the sense that he sells them to raise money for food); b) to domesticate mythical characters to the status of everyday Athenians (in Antiphanes, Laomedon is a choleric father; in Euboulos, the magical hunting dog of Prokris and Kephalos becomes the pampered pet of a wealthy childless couple; Kronos and Rhea in the papyrus just mentioned might be mistaken for the Bundys of Married … with Children); and c) to mix in contemporary political allusions without ever allowing them to become central to the plot.
2. The popularity of the dithyrambic poets Philoxenos of Cythera and Timotheos in the 390’s left its mark as well, not in comic music (as it had in Aristophanes’ parodies of dithyrambic influence on Agathon and Euripides), but in language: the well-known emotional “dithyrambic” style (compound adjectives, wild metaphors, mysterious periphrases for everyday objects, sentences lengthened with descriptive participles, relative clauses, or appositives in asyndeton) is frequently transposed (especially by Euboulos and Antiphanes) to dialogue verses, and made all the more ridiculous when it is employed by pretentious cooks and slaves.
3. In addition to iambic trimeter and trochaic tetrameter, Middle Comedy extended the anapaestic dimeter beyond anything found in Old Comedy by using it for long speeches, especially to describe food (e.g., Antiphanes fr. 132-3 Kock, PCG Mnesimachus fr. 4): A speech of more than 50 anapaestic metra (Anaxandrides fr. 41 Kock)—without catalexis and so probably delivered in one breath—must have been a pnigos indeed, a crowd-pleaser comparable to a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song. Here too slaves and cooks seem to have been the preferred speakers.

N. ends by asking to what degree the standard roles of New Comedy might have been an inheritance from this middle-age of the comic theater. For slaveparts he finds evidence (especially from Antiphanes) of three kinds: hapless recipients of orders (usually endless shopping lists), smart-alec malcontents, and (only toward the end of this period) somewhat higher-level slaves who can function as their masters’ confidants or advisers. The cooks’ star turns (arguments with their employers, bravuras about their skill) seem to have been developed only after mid-century, especially by Alexis. The parasites too, with their heroic appetite and pride in paying for nothing themselves, become characters in their own right in plays by Alexis and Antiphanes, once again presumably after midcentury. The roles of hetairai (good and bad), pimps and bragging foreign soldiers—outsiders who pose a threat to the New Comedy “family”—are more difficult to trace, but it seems likely that Middle Comedy created or expanded all three, although from different sources (perhaps prompted by notorious real-life prostitutes in the first case, and the rise of foreign mercenaries ca. 350 in the last). Despite much uncertainty in detail, it seems clear in general that the generation just before Menander (an archaeologist might call it “Middle Comedy II”) was almost solely responsible for the formulaic characters of a Greek or Roman New Comedy as we know them today.

N’s book is a rich and reliable guide, all the more so because he never shrinks from the most fearsome problem (the sources of Athenaeus and Pollux!) and, despite his caution in treating controversial questions, never declines to add his own informed speculations as well. He does well to remind us that stage-history was in antiquity an avocation of philosophers (Theophrastus), literary historians (Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium), historical commentators (Didymus) and even kings (Juba II of Mauretania). We think of the reconstruction of the ancient stage as work for archaeologists/art historians, modern commentators on the extant plays or even contemporary directors; yet much information on the ancient theatre has been lying ignored in the pages of fragment collections, waiting for a book like this to bring it to light.

Even those without the dedication to read it straight through will benefit from the full treatment of individual fragments, which are accessible through the index. But N.’s argument as a whole gives us a number of useful guides through the forest of ancient comedy, among them: 1) most of the texts in Koster’s Prolegomena are scarcely worth reading; 2) the Tractatus Coislinianus is an extremely important (if idiosyncratic) remnant of comic theory, if not going back to Aristotle, at least to his immediate successors in Athens or Alexandria; 3) “Middle Comedy” is not merely an intellectual construct, but a period of great creativity on the Attic stage, more than a few traces of which we still possess in the fragments of Anaxandrides, Euboulos, Ephippos, Antiphanes, Alexis and others. It ends only when, as some of these conventions and characters are beginning to grow stale, Menander, the Mozart of the ancient theater, overwhelms them all with his effortless mastery, even parody, of what the preceding gene ration accomplished.

  • [1] His previous major works have been on the development of the parasite with a detailed commentary on Lucian, On the Art of the Parasite ( Lukians Parasitendialog, Berlin 1985) and the imposing index verborum (it comprises more than a third of the volume) of Lloyd-Jones and Parsons, Supplementum Hellenisticum (Berlin 1983). [2] The book is dedicated to Rudolf Kassel, and it acknowledges a great debt to his advice; in turn, it will repay that debt by being an invaluable guide to the first volume of Kassel-Austin PCG (containing the prolegomena and testimonia on comedy in general) when it appears, as well as to the forthcoming second volume which the accidents of the alphabet happen to have loaded with Middle Comedians: Alexis, Anaxandrides and Antiphanes. [3] The matter is complicated by the existence of several tripartitions of comedy in antiquity: besides the one examined here, there is one which states that comedy began with Susarion, the age of Aristophanes being “middle,” and all subsequent authors “new.” Another (found in the Tractatus Coislinianus, on which see below) makes “middle” the ideal mean between two extremes, and is likely to have a peripatetic source. Neither seems to have any value for literary history. [4] Who, then, is the source of the Tractatus? There are some striking parallels with Theophrastus, but N. suggests (p. 144) that “it seems that the attempt to trace this text back to a single author must be abandoned” and adds the suggestion that “this excerpt is based on a treatise which collected peripatetic doctrines on comedy.” If that is so, much of Janko’s work still stands, although not his insistence on Aristotle as sole source. [5] In an appendix, N. compares the tripartition of the Academy and speculates that Aristophanes of Byzantium may have had something to do with this as well.