BMCR 1998.09.05

Sociedad, Política y Literatura: Comedia Griega Antigua

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This volume represents the proceedings of an international conference titled Sociedad, Política y Literatura: Comedia Griega Antigua, held at the University of Salamanca, Spain, on November 26-30, 1996. Inevitably, the individual pieces vary widely in quality, but the collection as a whole merits some special attention, a point to which I will return at the end of the review.

The book contains twenty-seven contributions related to the conference. The articles are divided, without elaboration, into thirteen ponencias and fourteen comunicaciones. Each section contains contributions arranged alphabetically by authors’ names. Contributions are mostly in Spanish, but Degani’s, Mastromarco’s and Zangrando’s are in Italian, Menu’s and Thiercy’s in French, Silva’s in Portuguese, and Sommerstein’s piece, in English originally, has been translated into Spanish by Ilundain.

Eire, as editor, offers a preface (6-12) with some brief, general comments about the interdependence of philology and other approaches for understanding and appreciating Aristophanes and the society in which Greek comedy flourished. He also touches quickly on each of the contributions to the volume, without an attempt to link them all to the nominal theme of the gathering. The range of topics does render imposing even a broad theme hopeless, although it should be noted that, de facto, Ancient Greek Comedy means Old Comedy in the individual essays, since Middle and New Comedy are not represented.

Enzo Degani leads off the ponencias with “Due note aristofanee” (15-19). He first discusses the attribution of speakers at Th. 638, where a woman and Cleisthenes are about to expose the imposter “Mnesilochus.” Editors since Brunck have given this line, a command to undo the imposter’s girdle, to Cleisthenes. Degani argues that the woman commands Cleisthenes to do the loosening. In the second note, Degani discusses the aphrodisiac βολβοί mentioned at Ecc. 1092. In support of a 1902 article by Luigi Valmagi, he argues that these βολβοί should not be grouped with the truffle ( ὕδνον), onion ( κρόμμυον), garlic ( σκόροδον), or leek ( πράσον), as a scholiast says, but identified only with the Muscari comosum.

Luis Gil follows with “Uso y función de los teónimos en la comedia aristofánica” (21-29), He catalogs the appearance of the names of divinities in the eleven extant plays of Aristophanes. His analyses focus on syntactical function, purpose (oath, etc.), and metrical placement. Gil finds little pattern, beyond the expected preponderance of Zeus and of divinities connected with drama or sex. Indeed, the variety is astonishing. Gil provides useful summaries and charts. It would have been nice to know whether divine names in the comic fragments show any marked difference from the information here, although with such material generalizing would be quite hazardous.

Juan Miguel Labiano Ilundain performs a different kind of linguistic operation in “Interjecciones y Lengua Conversacional en las Comedias de Aristófanes” (31-44). Ilundain spends very little time on the texts of Greek comedy. Mostly he calls for a more sophisticated look at the function of interjections in comprehensive speech (i.e., speech including more than just the formal referential language, but also the non-verbal components of direct personal communication). He even points to work suggesting pronouns can be productively understood as deictic interjections. Given the prominence of conversational language in drama generally and comedy in particular, Ilundain is right to emphasize that understanding Aristophanes requires far more than reading the informational language. This article is worthwhile for anyone committed to reading Aristophanes’ plays as full dramatic performances.

Eire’s own contribution, “Lengua y Politica en la Comedia aristofánica” (45-80), turns on several often debated scholarly topics. Eire begins with the premise that in ancient Greek thought, character and manner of speech both determine and reveal each other. His essay is devoted primarily to discussing the mechanics of this premise as it operates in Greek comedy, especially in Aristophanes’ portrayal of Cleon. Eire documents how demagoguery, sexual deviance, and sophistic oratory go hand in hand to present Cleon as barbaric. While this thesis may not seem surprising, current scholarship will benefit from it being clearly stated and argued, as it is here. It would have helped for Eire to engage more relevant secondary material, however.1

Juan Antonio López Férez, with “La educación en Aristófanes” (81-101), submits comments on words used in Aristophanes related to education. Férez lists a number of passages and appends comments, mostly lexical but some textual or literary. A table compares the occurrence of words with – διδ – or – παιδ – bases in Aristophanes and other authors. The complete lack of analysis and the limited scope of words analyzed (words with base – μαθ -, for example, are not included) restrict the value of this article.

Next, Giuseppe Mastromarco steps up with “La Lisistrata de Aristofane: emancipazione femminile, società fallocratica e utopia comica” (103-116). He begins by rejecting Eva Keuls’ suggestions that women committed the notorious mutilation of the Herms in 415 BCE and that Aristophanes’ plays of 411 assume knowledge of this.2 Mastromarco says that instead of being a “feminist” play, Lysistrata ultimately expresses the women’s victory, both in the sex strike and the capture of the Acropolis, in masculine terms, negating a truly feminist reading of the play. He also concludes that the carnivalesque atmosphere of Greek comedy nullifies any repercussions of the plot beyond the theater.

In “Mito y Política en la comedia de Cratino” (117-31), Antonio Melero Bellido turns to the development of comedy prior to Aristophanes. He argues that Cratinus played a distinctive and significant role in the use of mythology, politics and history on the Greek comic stage. He offers strong readings of a number of fragments to show that Cratinus aggressively melded mythological burlesque with political satire along with historical rationalism. Bellido credits Cratinus with establishing these techniques as they appear in Aristophanes’ extant plays. While any claim about the development of early Greek comedy must be speculative given the slight remains, and Bellido probably reaches too far to find rationalizing criticism of genre and mythology in Cratinus, this is still a welcome addition to the small body of scholarship attempting to forge a literary identity for Cratinus on his own terms.

Michel Menu, “Le motif de l’âge dans le tours proverbiaux de la Comédie Grecque” (133-50), submits one of the highlights of the collection. Menu makes some initial comments on the motif of age in Greek comedy, including the interesting observation that proverbs about old age and elderly characters predominate in Old Comedy while youth comparably dominates in New Comedy. A catalog follows, which presents a thorough array of proverbs and commonplaces about age, old and young, as relate to extant comedy. Menu provides additional citations, translations, and informative commentary for each of the 45 entries. It is a valuable collection and an interesting read in its own right.

Ignacio Rodríguez Alfageme exposes a “surprising triangle” in “Retórica, comedia y medicina: sobre Ar. Ran. 940-47” (151-72). He first reviews the fluid relationship between medicine and rhetoric in fifth century Greece. While in modern times we distinguish readily between the two fields, they overlapped comfortably among both older sophists and the early Hippocratics. The sophists and presocratic philosophers explored medical regimens while doctors employed rhetoric for effective bedside manner. This overlap operates in the passage of Frogs wherein Euripides claims to have drained and dried Tragedy of the excesses of Aeschylus (940-47). Euripides thus uses rhetoric as a regimen to treat the afflicted Tragedy. Alfageme documents his intriguing thesis with parallels from philosophy, medical writings, and other comic references.

In “O sério e o risível em Mulheres na Assembleia” (173-81), Maria Fátima Silva attempts to grapple with the peculiar qualities of Ecclesiazusae. In a somewhat discursive few pages, Silva finds it a play produced by a veteran dramatist who had already seen his peaks and valleys. Now Aristophanes experiments on stage with very old and quite new components of comedy in the same play. She would perhaps have benefitted from starting with some recent successful readings of this play, such as that by Ken Rothwell, which bring cohesion to this unusual yet forceful comedy.3

The venerable Alan H. Sommerstein provides a new survey of demagogues in 5th century comedy with “Platón, Éupolis y la ‘comedia de demagogo'” (183-95). He proposes that Aristophanes’ Knights was actually ground breaking in its portrayal of Cleon as human rather than as a god (e.g., as Cratinus had done in satirizing Pericles as Dionysus). Sommerstein makes a circumstantial case for dating Plato Comicus’ Peisandros to the late 420’s and having it be in the older mold (i.e., Peisandros would have been satirized as a mythological character), while Eupolis’ Marikas would have been similar to Aristophanes’ play. Sommerstein provides fresh reconstructions of the plots of each of these plays and speculates on the political ramifications of the spate of demagogue comedies at the very end of the Peloponnesian War. As always, Sommerstein is well informed and provocative.

Emilio Suárez de la Torre, “Las Ranas de Aristófanes y la religión de los atenienses” (197-217), makes a claim for large scale religious expression in Frogs. He first contrasts Aristophanes’ Dionysus with Euripides’ Dionysus in Bacchae, and then proceeds to argue that Frogs capitalizes on religious expression rooted in the mystery religion aspect of Dionysiac ritual. He finds this expression both in the overall plot and in scattered particulars throughout the play.

In “L’amour à la cuisine, ou la sexualité quotidienne chez Aristophane” (219-29), Pascal Thiercy makes the valid observation that the two dominant concerns of Aristophanic comedy, food and sex, often converge in the language of the plays. Thiercy provides numerous examples (to which more could be added) of scenes where food and cooking are transparent metaphors for sexual activity and desire.

In the first of the comunicaciones, Cratinus gets another look in Ma Teresa Amado Rodríguez’s “Crítica y elogio en los fragmentos de Cratino: algunos aspectos” (233-42). Her analysis of praise and blame yields the unsurprising conclusion that Cratinus criticized individuals in the public sphere in accordance with his perception of their beneficence to the polis, even as he attacks private qualities such as their sexuality.

Jesús Ángel y Espinós, “Ar. Nu. 1154ss.: ?parodia de un texto de Sófocles o de Eurípides?” (243-48) focuses on Strepsiades’ victory ode in Clouds. Scholia disagree whether lines 1154-55 come from the Peleus of Sophocles or Euripides. Wilamowitz preferred the authority of the scholia to V over that of R and assigned the lines to Sophocles’ play (fr. 491 Radt). Ángel y Espinós counters that the style of the lines and comparable Euripidean citations favor a Euripidean original (fr. 623 N2).

Mercedes Díaz de Cerio Díez turns in a statistical linguistic study with “Modalidad y estructura del adjetivo verbel en – τεος en Aristófanes” (249-63). She presents a breakdown of uses of verbal adjectives according to whether they express obligation, assertion, have attendant grammatical constructions, etc. In most cases, Aristophanes provides considerable variation that defies helpful categorization. Perhaps taking into consideration metrical constraints and the desire for variety (several examples appear near instances of χρῆ and δεῖ) would better explain Aristophanes’ method for selecting this construction.

A few brief notes and a list of operas based on Aristophanes make up “Triple eco de Aristófanes en la literatura operística” (265-69) by Ma Ángeles Ferrer Forés and Juan Francisco de Dios Hernández. The “triple echo” is not explained.

Fernando García Romero turns in an entertaining contribution with “Sobre ἐκαγωνίζειν (Eccl. 259) y εἰς γόνατα κῦβδ’ ἱστάναι (Pax 897)” (271-77). He makes a convincing case that ἐκαγωνίζειν at Ecc. 259, where Praxagora is explaining how she will defend herself if men attempt to attack her when she takes the Pnyx, refers to grabbing the opponent’s waist, rather than to a defensive posture of holding out the elbows, as it has often been taken. He also defends Peace 897 by elucidating the wrestling term εἰς γόνατα κῦβδ’ ἱστάναι as an attack position. In both cases, he also felicitously maintains the erotic connotations of the lines.

Another survey, this time of fish, appears with “El pescado en la comedia griega” (279-85) by María José García Soler. She quickly touches on the different types of fish and their comic functions in Greek comedy, mostly from fragments.

Manuel Guillén de la Nava finds more than geometry in Meton’s city-planning in “Aves 1004: La polémica cientifica como ingrediente cómico” (287-94). When “Meton” appears in Cloudcuckooland to sell his city-planning tactics, in addition to squaring a circle, he likens the layout of streets to rays of light from a star. Guillén de la Nava argues that this plays on a current controversy in optics about the physical properties of light, namely whether it naturally tended in a straight line or a circle. His overview of the controversy shows that, while Aristophanes was not being terribly specific in his parody, he was throwing in a “hot” topic of the time.

José Luis de Miguel Jover provides another reading of Lysistrata (cf. Mastromarco’s contribution above) in “Lysistrata, o la República del οἶκος” (295-306). He emphasizes the political dimension of the women’s plot, reading the play as somewhat analogous to the tense political situation at the time of the play, on the eve of the oligarchic coup of the Four Hundred.

Rarely does Meton garner two essays together, but he makes a second appearance in this volume in Amelia Pereiro Pardo’s “Metón y la comedia antigua” (307-12). Pereiro Pardo argues that the references to Meton in Birds and in Phrynichus’ Monotropos indicate indicate a public knowledge, even preoccupation, with the timing devices Meton set up in the Pnyx in Athens.

Jordi Redondo turns in an intriguing linguistic study in “Sociolecto y sintaxis en la comedia aristofánica” (313-28). While many studies analyze dialects and other registers of language by means of diction, Redondo here pursues the different social registers of Attic Greek found in Aristophanes according to distinctive syntactic features. He briefly notes syntax peculiar to languages of related literary genres (and parodies of them), “official” civic language, professional language, daily speech, foreigners, higher and lower classes, slaves, the young and old, and women.

The orientation of Plato Comicus with respect to Old and Middle Comedy as well as the comic portrayal of Socrates continue to vex scholars, as demonstrated here by Jorge L. Sanchis Llopis, “Platón el cómico y la evolución de la comedia griega” (329-37) and Fernando Souto Delibes, “La figura de Sócrates en la comedia ateniese” (339-45). Unfortunately, neither has anything new to say and both fail capitalize on recent scholarship.4

Perplexing is the inclusion in this volume of José B. Torres Guerra, “Actualidad trágica. Tres observaciones sobre la tragedia de argumento histórico en Grecia” (347-52), since it barely mentions comedy. He gives a handy list of known tragedies with historical themes and observes that the (early) fifth century tends toward quite recent historical events for subjects. He speculates that this preference results either from Themistocles’ political maneuvering or simply as a mode of historiography before the emergence of the likes of Herodotus.

Finally, Valentina Zangrando closes the collection with “Lingua d’uso ed evoluzione linguistica: alcune considerazioni sul diminutivo nella commedia aristofanea” (353-60). Zangrando makes some brief comments on diminutives in Aristophanes with respect to semantic drift and dramatic context, appending a table of diminutives in Frogs.

Published proceedings such as this collection have proliferated in recent years and criticism has grown correspondingly.5 This particular example does display some of the faults associated with such projects: uneven quality of submissions and a lack of meaningful theme. Yet the collection has qualities to recommend it. The individual submissions are documented, footnoted (though chances for cross-references are missed and there are no indices) and mostly free of the trappings of oral presentation. Typographical errors seem rare and overall the book offers attractively produced texts, charts, and drawings.6 More importantly, this volume provides a rare, accessible forum for the growing Spanish scholarship on Greek drama. Particularly for classicists in the United States, therefore, it can have added appeal. The current president-elect of the American Philological Association has called for an increased network with Hispanic programs and students.7 Thus the availability of current scholarship in Spanish can be useful for building connections and attracting students. Compared to many scholarly volumes, this one is also competitively priced at 5.000 Spanish pesetas, which currently translates to less than 40 U.S. dollars, a bargain for a sturdily hardbound book of this size. In any case, many scholars of Greek Old Comedy will find material of merit and interest here.


1. Most surprising is the omission of Maria de Fátima de Sousa e Silva, “Critica á retórica na comédia Aristófanes” (Humanitas 39/40 [1987/88] 43-104), since she also contributed to this collection herself. The bibliography on Aristophanes’ politics and characterization is enormous but only touched on by Eire.

2. Eva Keuls, The Reign of the Phallus: Sexual Politics in Ancient Athens 2 (Berkeley: U. of California, 1993) 387ff.

3. Kenneth S. Rothwell, Jr. Politics and Persuasion in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae Mnemosyne Supp. 101 (Leiden: Brill, 1990).

4. Sanchis Llopis seems completely unaware of Ralph M. Rosen, “Plato Comicus and the Evolution of Greek Comedy,” in Gregory W. Dobrov, ed., Beyond Aristophanes: Transition and Diversity in Greek Comedy (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1995) 119-37 and makes only passing reference to Heinz-Günther Nesselrath , Die attische Mittlere Komödie: Ihre Stellung in der antiken Literaturkritik und Literaturgeschichte, UaLG 36 (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1990), whose thorough look at the periodization of ancient Greek comedy should have informed his study. Souto Delibes offers no evidence of acquaintance with the debate about Socrates after Dover’s 1968 introduction to his Clarendon commentary on Clouds.

5. For a recent defense of such publications in this journal, see Michael Meckler’s comments in 98.7.4.

6. Since these were all secondary languages for me, I did not scan thoroughly for typographical errors. However, a line or more has dropped out at the bottom of page 93, a bad justification error occurs in line 5 of page 114, and on page 138 line 18, for “peudo-” read “pseudo-.”

7. See APA Election Materials p. 6 in the June APA Newsletter, although he refers to Latin America in particular.