BMCR 1999.10.37

Response: Meineck on Romm on Meineck

Response to 1999.03.17

James Romm’s most glaring error in his brief and highly subjective review of Aristophanes 1: Clouds, Wasps, Birds (Peter Meineck, Hackett 1998) is his bald assertion that Strepsiades is “an old Marathon fighter.” On the basis of this claim, which would absurdly make Strepsiades at least 87 years old and finds no support in the text, he argues against the characterization of Strepsiades as presented in this translation of Clouds, and even asserts that Strepsiades “would not be caught dead aping effeminate mannerisms” at line 690. The latter assertion is out of step with all that is known of the performance of Old Comedy, where comedic cross-dressing, sexual jokes, and personal intimate details of contemporary characters are evident throughout. One has the distinct impression from Romm’s review that he has never experienced any facet of military life, seen a good drag act, or noticed the gender-bending portrayals common in many elements of traditional folk comedy. (British pantomime with its ugly sisters played by men and principal boys performed by women immediately comes to mind.) I have personally seen staged shows by Royal Marine Commandos that would put Ru Paul to shame, but that’s another story, one that Aristophanes and his audience might have appreciated. Romm goes on to assert that as a consequence of this translation’s characterization of Strepsiades, the “consistency” of Strepsiades’ character “flies out the window.” Given the brevity of Romm’s review, one can only wonder what this elliptical remark means. He seems to have an image of Strepsiades as a simple-witted, hard-fighting peasant full of “lovable naiveté.” To be sure there are elements of Strepsiades’ character that are lovable and sometimes very naive. Yet his wicked responses to Socrates are, more often that not, on target and still capable of eliciting riotous laughter from any audience member who has ever had the experience of being bamboozled by a pompous and overblown teacher. In this sense Strepsiades is a true Athenian comic hero, faults and all. But Romm has failed to consider that Strepsiades attempts to use deception to avoid paying his debts, readily abandons his former religious beliefs for the sake of expediency, threatens to disinherit his own son, and finally burns down Socrates’ Pondertorium (my translation). Strepsiades’ character is clearly much more complex than Romm is prepared to admit.

That Aristophanes has suffered from attempts to purge his texts of sexual references goes without saying, but one would have hoped that after Henderson’s pioneering “Maculate Muse” and related studies this important celebratory and farcical aspect of Aristophanic Comedy was now widely accepted. That Romm’s views on this subject are outdated and incorrect is only reinforced when one examines the archaeological evidence for the kind of costume that Strepsiades would have worn in Clouds: a bulbous, grotesque mask, body padding emphasizing belly and buttocks, and of course a phallus. Does Romm really believe that Aristophanes would have had Strepsiades shy away from any kind of sexual humor dressed in such a fashion? It might be added that even Arrowsmith, who “refused on principle to bowdlerize Aristophanes,” conceded that “Aristophanes is visibly obscene, farcical and colloquial.”1

Romm also accuses these translations of lacking “crackle”. This vague term is applied to one particular line ( Clouds 223) during the entrance of Socrates. Here Romm revives an old misconceived view that Socrates enters in a basket. The text strongly suggests that he is in fact on a drying rack, which ties in nicely with his accompanying explanation of his aerial situation, and is probably allusion to the theories of moisture of Diogenes of Apollonia. In all, Romm quotes only two short lines from this 417 page volume, affording Bryn Mawr readers no opportunity to make a direct comparison with any other translation, or even allowing them to sample some of the translation in question. According to Romm, a comparison between ‘Well, creature of a day?’ (Arrowsmith) and “Why do you call me, ephemeral creature?” (Meineck) offers readers an adequate understanding of the relative “crackle” factor to be found in each respective work. One might have hoped for more evidence.

Romm moreover confuses the translation under review with his own attempts at Aristophanic comedy. It should be noted that the lines “You see? You’re calling a woman” and “Why not, since the ‘lady’ never went on a campaign” are both Romm’s own, and are not found in this translation. Nor do these lines accurately reflect the Greek. The scene so scantily examined by Romm ( Clouds 681-93) is reproduced below.

Socrates: Yes. Well then, we must still educate you on proper names. You need to know which are masculine and which are feminine.

Strepsiades: I know which are feminine all right.

Socrates: Go on then.

[Strepsiades lustfully imagines a group of well known Athenian beauties]

Strepsiades: Lysilla (Wow wee!), Philinna (Oh yeah!), Cleitagora (Hubba, hubba) and Demetria (Ow!).

Socrates: And the masculine names?

[He imagines a collection of effeminate young men]

Strepsiades: There’s plenty: Philoxenus (Luvvie!) Melesias (Big Boy!), Amynias (Hello sailor!) …

Socrates: Those are hardly masculine!

Strepsiades: You don’t think they’re masculine?

Socrates: Absolutely not. If you saw Amynias, just how would you call out to him?

Strepsiades: Like this. “Coo-ee! Coo-ee! Amynia luvvie! Amynia darling!”

Socrates: I rest my case. You are clearly calling out to her like a woman, and what’s more ‘Amynia’ is feminine.

Strepsiades: That’s what the old poof gets for dodging the draft. But everyone knows Amynias is an old woman, I don’t need to be taught that.

Romm ignores the evidence from the scholia and other Aristophanic works (cited in the footnotes of this volume) that indicate that the list of women given by Strepsiades may have been well-known prostitutes and that the men named were parodied by Aristophanes as effeminate, freeloading good-for-nothings. In suggesting that what is at stake here is merely an “obscure linguistic joke,” Romm overlooks important data conveyed in this exchange regarding emerging divisions in Athenian society between young and old, rich and poor, town and country, educated and uneducated. It is through just such seemingly benign little gags that Aristophanes builds up a detailed comic portrait of Athenian society, the social backdrop against which his farces are played out.

Finally, Romm’s greatest criticism of these translations is that the names “Peithetairos” and “Euelpides” in Birds have been translated to “Makemedo” and “Goodhope” respectively. He states that “Any teacher who would assign this version of Birds had better get used to saying ‘Makemedo’ instead of ‘Peithetairos’ in lectures.” Although this change is wholly unacceptable to Romm, one might hope that any inspiring teacher of Greek drama might at the very least use such an example to elicit a classroom discussion about translation, and that students might understand the vitally important word play found at Birds 164. Here the Hoopoe (rather than “Epops,” as found in the Greek), responding to the notion that he could be persuaded to follow an astounding idea, says “Make me do what?” This translational motif is repeated at several key points in the play, and is an important datum for understanding the persuasive powers of Makemedo himself. One might add that this is by no means the first translation of Aristophanes to attempt to translate Greek names for the purpose of comic clarity. A brief survey of available translations of the names of the protagonists in Wasps turns up “Bdelycleon” and “Philocleon” (Sommerstein), “Anticleon” and “Procleon” (Barrett) and “Phobokleon” and “Philokleon” (Parker). Yet Romm neglects even to mention Wasps in his three paragraph review. Although he rightly calls Ian Storey’s introduction “excellent” and the footnotes and endnotes “quite useful and accessible,” he fails to suggest any of the important information contained there that might benefit students of these plays. Nor, oddly enough, does he mention one of the most distinctive and obviously valuable characteristics of these translations — that they are line-for-line with the Greek.


1. William Arrowsmith. “Introduction to Aristophanes: Three Comedies” Ann Arbor 1969.