BMCR 1996.04.10

1996.4.10, MacDowell, Aristophanes and Athens (another review)

, Aristophanes and Athens : an introduction to the plays. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. xiii, 362 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198721595 $65.00.

The objective of MacDowell is, to quote the publisher’s blurb, to provide “an accessible introduction to each of Aristophanes’ plays, focusing particularly on their relationship to Athenian politics and life”. The work begins with a chapter on “Intention and Interpretation” (1-6), wherein M. sets out his objective in the work, “to ascertain some of Aristophanes’ purposes and intentions in writing his plays” (3). It is M.’s contention that in several passages Aristophanes sets aside comedy for comedy’s sake, and instead gives advice to his fellow-citizens. To this I shall return at the end of this review.

M. follows this chapter with one on “The Audience and its Expectations” (7-26), a pretty good survey of how the Attic dramatic festivals worked, and how and it what contexts comedy was presented at them. Then comes a chapter on “Early Plays” (27-45). This raises the expectation that M. might deal briefly with the majority of lost plays, but this expectation is not fulfilled, and in fact lost plays hardly get a look-in through the rest of the work; the only examples in which M. has any interest are Banqueters and Babylonians, and even then primarily as a way of explaining aspects of Acharnians.

The rest of the work is devoted to discussions of the eleven surviving plays, presented in chronological order, with each chapter broken up into thematic sections arranged, more or less, in the order in which those themes occur in the play. The whole is rounded off with a summary chapter, “Aristophanes and Athens” (350-356), which, in the way of summary chapters, repeats the many of the salient points of what has gone before. (Repetition is in fact, a bit of a problem in this work—there are a few too many instances where M. repeats himself in cases where the same theme is dealt with in two different plays, e.g. 277 on Frogs, repeating what he has already said about Birds at 220-221.)

On the whole the treatment of the plays is thorough, dealing particularly with those themes of the plays that depend most on Athenian context and least on slapstick or other more easily communicable forms of humour. There is much of value contained herein, especially from the point of view of the collection of issues. But M. is often quite traditional in his approach, and sometimes misses things or puts an odd spin on them. Whilst I cannot detail all my quibbles, the following are some points at which I feel M.’s argumentation is at least questionable.

M. argues (24-25) that Kleonymos, regularly lambasted by Aristophanes for dropping his shield in battle, is unlikely actually to have done so, since that was an indictable offence for which the penalty was disenfranchisement, and Kleonymos was never disenfranchised. But the O.J. Simpson trial shows that someone can be acquitted in a court of law, yet still be thought of by a substantial section of the population as being guilty of that crime. And so it is with Kleonymos. M.’s search for possible explanations, such as Kleonymos dropping his shield in a procession, or in order to carry a comrade to safety, is unnecessary; Kleonymos was thought of by many Athenians as guilty of cowardice and to have got away with it, whether or not he was ever prosecuted, or indeed whether or not he was guilty.

M. touches only very briefly on the suggested identification of Dikaiopolis in Acharnians with Aristophanes’ rival Eupolis (42 n. 30). There is more to be said here; anyone in Aristophanes’ audience who did not think of Eupolis when hearing Dikaiopolis’ name must have been either deaf or asleep, and the name is surely deliberately chosen.

When discussing the parody of Telephos in Acharnians (58), M. suggests that for the audience to get the points of parody, there must have been performances of Telephos more recent than its first production in 438, thirteen years before Acharnians. One wonders why this must be so; I still have clear memories of television programmes I saw thirteen years or more ago and have not seen since, and one would suspect that in an age where there would be rather fewer performances to remember an Athenian would soon realise that Telephos was being parodied even if he had not seen it in over a decade (especially if the parody extended to the visual presentation). Similarly on time-scales, I can see no reason why the trial of Laches parodied in Wasps must be a very recent trial rather than the famous trial of a couple of years earlier, which was probably a cause célèbre; M.’s speculation that Kleon might have been simply criticizing Laches in 424/423 for his conduct in Sicily, and possibly of trying him on some other, unnamed charge (168) seems entirely unnecessary.

At 62-66 M. discusses Dikaiopolis’ speech which lists the causes of the Peloponnesian War. M. takes seriously the role given by Dikaiopolis to the “abductions” of Simaitha from Megara and of Aspasia’s prostitutes from Athens, and treats them as historical facts, even to the point of equating the abduction of Aspasia’s prostitutes with the Megarians’ receiving runaway Athenian slaves mentioned by Thucydides. Can one accept this? It seems far more likely that Aristophanes is employing a literary topos here. It may be true, as M. argues, that Aristophanes’ audience would not be familiar enough with Herodotos for this to be a deliberate parody of his opening passages; but they would have known Homer, where the whole of the Greek world went to war over the abduction of a woman. The joke in Aristophanes is that these days it is not the daughters of princes who inspire war, but common prostitutes.

Very oddly, at 80 M. rejects “Cavalry” as a translation of Hippes, on the grounds that “cavalry now generally use motor vehicles”. But one would have thought that to almost anyone the first thought that comes into their heads when cavalry are mentioned are horses.

M. has certainly missed a trick over the gang of young leather-sellers, honey-sellers and cheese-sellers that Paphlagon is supposed to have under his control. He concludes (110) that this force was “probably just a comic invention by Aristophanes, based on the fact that those trades were carried on in the same area in or near the Agora”. Maybe so, but surely the Athenian audience were expected at this point to think of the bodyguard that was characteristic of a tyrant, in particular that used by the Peisistratids, who balked large in Athenian folklore. (When later discussing the abuse of Bdelykleon as a tyrant in Wasps [159] M. gives too much weight to the fact that it has been nearly a century since there was any challenge to the Athenian democracy and not enough to the fact that fear of tyranny was an important factor in the Athenian mind-set, erupting in spectacular fashion a few years later in the affair of the Hermokopidai.)

In discussing the end of the Clouds (149), M. asks “if the Clouds are opponents of Socrates, why did Socrates himself invoke them?” Yet he has just quoted a passage which seems to give the answer. At lines 1458-1461 the Clouds say (M.’s translation):

We regularly do that to a man
We see in love with wicked practices,
Till finally we cast him into trouble
Just so that he may learn to fear the gods.

This is their response to Strepsiades’ complaint that they have led him on, but there is no reason why they should not have the same attitude towards Socrates.

Unusually for M. he misses what in my opinion is the right comic line regarding the cheese-grater in Wasps (166 n. 24). Of the alternatives, that an actor dressed as the cheese-grater or that an actual cheese-grater was carried on stage, M. seems to prefer the first, saying of the second only that it “cannot be excluded”. The first, however, would be merely silly (how do you dress a man up as a cheese-grater?), but the second, with Bdelykleon taking the inaudible evidence of an inanimate object and relating it to the audience—only to have it rubbished by Philokleon, who hasn’t heard the cheese-grater either—would, in the hands of a skilled mime, be extremely funny; one is reminded of a trial scene in Black Adder where the chief witness is a horse.

At 173 M. says that, if the Phrynichos mentioned at Wasps 1301-1302 and that involved in the 411 revolution are the same, one should not necessarily assume that Phrynichos and his friends held oligarchic views at the time of Wasps. Part of his argument for doing so is that Thucydides reports Phrynichos as opposing oligarchy in 412/411; but it is more complicated than that, for Phrynichos’ opposition is primarily not to oligarchy per se, but to the timing of that particular coup, and especially to the involvement of Alkibiades.

At 194 M. identifies Hierokles of Peace with that recorded on the Chalkis decree, dates the decree to 446/445, and therefore concludes that Hierokles had been a recognized authority on oracles for twenty-four years. But since this is one of the notorious three-barred sigma decrees, the date of which is highly controversial and may well properly be in the 420s, it is misleading of M. to pass over this matter without even a footnote acknowledging to controversy.

At 279 M. makes the surprising statement that “the Athenians’ willingness … to trust slaves to fight alongside them, and to make them citizens, must mean that they were gradually coming to accept that slaves could be as good as free men”. Not only is it unwise to read so much into a measure forced upon the Athenians by dire need, it misrepresents the Greek conception of the difference between free and slave. Greeks were naturally free, and it was only circumstance that made them slaves—Greek slaves were not inherently inferior.

Sometimes, M. is over-logical in his analysis. The appearance of Blepyros in his wife’s clothes in Women at the Assembly prompts some speculation (310) about why Blepyros has only one cloak; but M.’s point that an average Athenian would see no need to own more than one cloak is as off-target as those who see this as a point about Athenian poverty—the logic of comedy demands that, as Praxagora has gone off with her husband’s clothes, he must appear in hers, and needs no more comment than that.

Finally, there is M.’s central thesis; that Aristophanes had an agenda in these plays, and that, to a degree, it is possible to reconstruct what this agenda was. But can this be so confidently asserted? Does Saturday Night Live have a particular agenda, or Spitting Image ? Political satire tends to attack the pretensions and hypocrisies of those in power; it does not necessarily have a programme of its own to replace the status quo. Aristophanes appears to give advice, but is he being ironic, as Heath has argued? Do we know enough to say? Nor can one necessarily infer that a satirical attack implies disapproval of the target satirized; the late Peter Cook early in his career produced a scathing parody of the then British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, yet by his own admission was a Macmillan fan. With Aristophanes we have the satire, but in many case we do not have any more information about what is being satirized; try reading Doonesbury without knowing anything about American politics.

I do not wish to put anyone off acquiring this book; there is much that is solid scholarship, and I can find nothing to disagree with in, for instance, the treatment of Birds. Certainly, if one requires a single introduction to all the surviving plays of Aristophanes, longer than a brief pamphlet, but less detailed than a full commentary, this is as good as any, and better than most. But it should, as said, be read with caution, and M.’s conclusions should always be questioned. In the end, we have to admit that we do not know as much about Attic Old Comedy as we thought we did.