BMCR 2001.05.17

The Rivals of Aristophanes. Studies in Athenian Old Comedy

, , , The rivals of Aristophanes : studies in Athenian old comedy. London: Duckworth and the Classical Press of Wales, 2000. xx, 556 pages : illustrations, facsimile ; 24 cm. ISBN 0715630458 £58.00.

This collection of essays, inspired by the ongoing publication of the magisterial Poetae Comici Graeci, originated in a conference held in 1996 with a two-fold theme: “to present an assessment of many of the rival poets [sc. of Aristophanes] and to compare them with the plays of Aristophanes, in order to understand better his comic achievement” (p. xv). This volume apparently aims to function in many ways as a companion to the fragments of Old Comedy contained in Poetae Comici Graeci and to that end the editors commissioned additional contributions to fill in perceived gaps in the coverage provided by the papers delivered at the conference. In addition, the bibliographies tend to be very up to date (i.e. often including items published after 1996), and there is some welcome interplay, although not always to the extent that one might desire, between the various contributions. Space can not be given here to discussion of every contribution; all will be listed in accordance with the divisions used in the volume, and only particular shortcomings or highlights will be dealt with at length.

The volume begins with a brief forward by K. Dover (“Frogments” [sic]) outlining the limitations of the evidence and the problems inherent in attempting to make sense of a play which survives only in a handful of fragments; equally important, although perhaps less commonly acknowledged, is a salutary warning of the effects on our understanding of Greek history which can arise from deduction based upon the shaky foundations of the comic fragments. A biographical appendix followed by a general bibliography of work since 1970 closes the book. The former provides short biographies of each poet (generally reprinted from the third edition of The Oxford Classical Dictionary; provided by Harvey for poets not included in that work), combined with the relevant K-A reference and a list of known plays (in Greek and English translation). Somewhat more useful is the bibliography, although providing references to the discussions in RE and Der Neue Pauly seems unnecessary. The bibliography (on both the rivals of Aristophanes and the lost plays of Aristophanes) is very full and up to date and is helpfully provided with a subject index. A few random missing items include: J. Henderson, “Older Women in Attic Comedy,” TAPA 117 (1987) 105-29 (although included in the bibliography to Henderson’s contribution); C. Kugelmeier, Reflexe früher und zeitgenössischer Lyrik in der alten Attischen Komödie (Stuttgart/Leipzig 1996); A. Ropero Gutierrez, Estratis fragmentos (Madrid 1986). Two quibbles in the list of texts: worth including is F. Bothe, Poetarum Comicorum Graecorum Fragmenta (Paris 1855), which is often neglected but contains much of value; in the list of Poetae Comici Graeci volumes, vol. VI.1 is forthcoming and VI.2 was published in 1998 (not the reverse).

I. Manuscripts: 1. Arnott, “On editing fragments from literary and lexicographic sources.”

Arnott’s discussion is based primarily on his work on the poet Alexis (cf. the introduction to Arnott’s edition of Alexis for much the same information); although Alexis is approximately a century younger than the figures discussed in this volume, the major sources (Athenaeus, Pollux, Photius, the Antiatticist) which preserve fragments are much the same. Arnott offers a very useful synopsis of the textual tradition of each of these four authors and an assessment of the standard editions as well as the types of errors and problems often present in fragments quoted by later authors. Two points regarding Athenaeus call for comment. The description of how alpha is written in the Marcianus (p. 6) is irrelevant in regard to whatever errors of transcription the scribe of the Marcianus may have made. Second, the relationship between the Marcianus and the manuscripts of the epitome is somewhat more controversial than Arnott suggests. A more economical explanation of the facts is perhaps the assumption that the epitome is descended from a relative of the Marcianus rather than from a contaminated tradition of the Marcianus itself and other sources hypothesized to explain divergences. A few minor slips (e.g. Kaibel did not use only ms. C in conjunction with the Marcianus (p. 7); rather he used only C for books 4-10 and only E for books 11-15) do not seriously detract from the overall usefulness of this article.

A major omission from this section of the book is the absence of any account of the contribution of papyri to reconstructing the text of Old Comedy or comedy generally. One often receives the impression from off-hand statements that a new papyrus find could provide us with texts of previously lost comic poets. While this may be true, the finds to date strongly suggest the unlikelihood of this possibility. Perusal of the volumes of Poetae Comici Graecae, for example, indicates that the vast majority of papyri of identifiable comedies belong to the plays of Aristophanes, Eupolis, Cratinus, or Menander. This fact suggests first that adespota currently known from papyri are more likely than not to belong to one of these authors and second that, barring some fortuitous find, future finds are in general likely to continue this trend.

II. Poets: 2. W. Luppe, “The rivalry between Aristophanes and Kratinos”; 3. R. Rosen, “Cratinus’ Pytine and the construction of the comic self”; 4. J. Davidson, ” Gnesippus paigniagraphos : the comic poets and the erotic mime”; 5. D. Olson, “We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: the case of Karkinos”; 6. D. Gilula, “Hermippus and his catalogue of goods (fr. 63)”; 7. D. Harvey, “Phrynichos and his Muses”; 8. J. Henderson, “Pherekrates and the women of Old Comedy”; 9. D. Braund, “Strattis’ Kallipides : the pompous actor from Scythia”; 10. G. Kavvadias, “A portrait of Eupolis: preliminary report”; 11. W. Luppe and I. Storey, ” POxy 4301: a new fragment of Eupolis?”; 12. I. Storey, “Some problems in Eupolis’ Demoi“; 13. T. Braun, “The choice of dead politicians in Eupolis’ Demoi : Themistocles’ exile, hero-cult and delayed rehabilitation; Pericles and the origins of the Peloponnesian War.”

The articles in this section offer a wide variety of focus, ranging from treatments of an author generally to a particular play to single fragments. Particularly noteworthy is Harvey’s contribution on Phrynichus, which is considerably more far-ranging than the title suggests. For example, the existence of a possible portrait of Phrynichus elicits discussion of what is known about the physical features of other comic poets and the degree to which this information can be trusted. In a similar vein, a scholion on Aristophanes’ Frogs leads to a prosopographical inquiry and possible political allegiances of Phrynichus’ family and segues into brief discussion of the komoidoumenoi found in his fragments, while reassessment of his reputation in antiquity includes among other things a convincing refutation of LSJ’s understanding of the word ἐπιδεύτερος. Nevertheless, the article is marred by occasional inattention to detail: e.g. concerning the possible portrait, Phrynichus’ mouth is not open, his teeth are not visible, the four singers do not all wear decorated himatia over plain tunics, etc (pp. 91-2).

Also of interest: Rosen, through a useful review of some problems associated with the interpretation of Cratinus’ Pytine, offers welcome comments on comic self-presentation. Olson’s contribution, largely an expansion of a 1997 article in Classical Philology (no. 161 in the general bibliography), makes two noteworthy suggestions: poetic rivalry may be between genres at least as much as between poets of the same genre (p. 71) and Melanthius, Carcinus and Sophocles may all have staged tragedies at the Dionysia of 421 (p. 73 n. 17). Kavvadias’ report of a Roman portrait-herm of Eupolis discovered during excavations near the Parliament Building in Athens provides information about an important find in advance of official publication. Finally, Braun presents a first-rate examination of the posthumous reputations of several Athenian politicians, although the subject’s connection to the theme of this volume is at times tenuous; it would be a pity if this study were undeservedly overlooked because it appears in what may seem an out of the way place to those most interested.

Unfortunately, there are examples of questionable methodology. Hermippus fr. 63 is a catalogue in 23 lines of goods imported to Athens. The fragment is quoted in full by Athenaeus and in part by Eustathius, neither of whom provides the name of the play; attribution to Phormophoroi is assured by Hesychius, who quotes line 20 and attributes it to this play ( φορμόροις cod., corr. Salmasius). Gilula, discussing Hermippus as a writer of parodies, admits on this basis that “it may very well be that line 20 appeared in that work. But that does not preclude its being repeated elsewhere, and to attribute all 23 lines of our fragment to Phormophoroi on the basis of the quotation of one line is a rather hazardous procedure… It is arguable, then, that our fragment does not come from a comedy but belongs to the parodic genre.” It is far more hazardous, however, to disregard what meager ancient evidence we do have for no reason other than that it does not coincide with one’s unprovable theories. Furthermore, epic parody is well attested within the bounds of comedy, and it is clearly unnecessary to dissociate this fragment from comedy in order to understand it as such. Finally, such catalogues are very much at home in comedy, as Gilula herself acknowledges, and accordingly there is no reason to attempt to place the fragment in a distinct genre.

Henderson’s article offers a reasonable enough assessment of the roles of women in Old Comedy and a useful catalogue of plays in which women plausibly had speaking parts. Less reasonable is his assumption, based on (unstated) arguments from silence, that “when Pherecrates began his career [early 430’s?], female characters had not yet appeared in Attic comedy.” Our knowledge of comedy of this period is very scanty, yet women do appear occasionally; as the quantity of evidence increases, so do the number of roles of women. More importantly, when women do appear in comedy, there is nothing to suggest that their appearance is in any way out of the ordinary. Pherecrates may have invented hetaira-comedy (accepted by Henderson, p. 138), but that too is speculative and, even if true, is still a far cry from first introducing women onto the stage. A final, more minor criticism is the misleading overtranslation of the phrase from testimonium 2 γενόμενος δὲ ὑποκριτὴς ἐζήλωσε κράτητα as “was an actor in Krates’ plays and emulated him” (a fault shared with Gilbert Norwood).

III. Old Comedy to Middle Comedy: 14. H.-G. Nesselrath, “Eupolis and the periodization of Athenian comedy”; 15. K. Sidwell, “From Old to Middle to New? Aristotle’s Poetics and the history of Athenian comedy.”

Nesselrath presents a compelling case for the overarching importance of Eupolis, not only relative to other comic poets or to comedy generally but to a significant faction of ancient scholarship and its conception of the development and divisions of comedy. To these scholars, identified by Nesselrath as “Peripatetic” as opposed to Alexandrian, Eupolis was the defining poet of Old Comedy, and his death signaled the end of this comedic form. Aside from the article’s usefulness for its discussion of Eupolis, it offers a valuable case-study of the process of text-selection and the development of the canon of authors. Importantly, Nesselrath provides an understandable context for this process by viewing it in terms of scholarly debate and differing positions and conceptions of literary development; further, the suggestion arises that the works we possess may in fact have been selected in part to illustrate a particular, but not universally accepted, view of comedy’s development.

Sidwell presents three interrelated arguments: first, Middle Comedy exists only as a later invention; second, the distinction between two sorts of comedy, labeled “Old” and “New”, was present already by the end of the fifth century; third, these two types of comedy are based upon the ἰαμβικὴ ἰδέα and Sicilian comedy respectively. Sidwell’s views as a whole will, I believe, find few adherents. Nevertheless, he offers a welcome reminder that comedy at all periods is considerably more varied than is often acknowledged and that it should not be seen as a monolithic entity; that is, features often understood as defining characteristics of one type of comedy appear across the chronological spectrum.

IV. Literary Themes: 16. N. Lowe, “Comic plots and the invention of fiction”; 17. B. Zimmermann, “Lyric in the fragments of Old Comedy”; 18. S. Colvin, “The language of non-Athenians in Old Comedy”; 19. M. Silk, “Aristophanes versus the rest: comic poetry in Old Comedy.”

V. Social Themes: 20. A. Bowie, “Myth and ritual in the rivals of Aristophanes”; 21. J. Wilkins, “Edible Choruses”; 22. N. Fisher, “Symposiasts, fish-eaters and flatterers: social mobility and moral concerns”; 23. A. Dalby, ” Topikos Oinos : the named wines of Old Comedy”; 24. E. Hall, “Female figures and metapoetry in Old Comedy”; 25. C. Carey, “Old Comedy and the sophists”; 26. A. Sommerstein, “Platon, Eupolis and the ‘demagogue-comedy'”; 27. P. Ceccarelli, “Life among the savages and escape from the city in Old Comedy”; 28. I. Ruffel, “The World Turned Upside Down: utopia and utopianism in the fragments of Old Comedy.”

These two sections are naturally not mutually exclusive and there is much overlap between them. Most contributions in these sections take one of two approaches: either fragments relevant to a particular theme are collected and discussed or an aspect of Aristophanes’ extant plays is identified and then an attempt made to determine whether or not the same feature can be found in the fragments of other comic poets. The former approach tends to result more often in what to my mind are more satisfying and useful conclusions, while the latter is frequently forced to rely upon negative evidence. The contributors do generally acknowledge the problems implicit in comparing the extant plays of Aristophanes to the comic fragments but vary widely in the degree to which they accept the fragments as presenting a more or less accurate picture. A more compelling approach would be to move from the extant plays of Aristophanes to his fragments and from there to the fragments of other poets. Although this volume is not necessarily the place for extended treatment of Aristophanes’ fragments, the shortcomings exposed by neglecting them highlight the need for work in this area.

The volume as a whole is well-produced and for the most part contains few typos. Errors in the bibliographical references, however, are irritatingly frequent. Often either the wrong year is given (e.g. Dover 1958 for Dover 1965) or reference is made (only by author and year) to an item which does not appear in the individual article’s bibliography (sometimes, but not always, the item can be found in the general bibliography). Texts of the fragments usually follow Poetae Comici Graeci, although the punctuation not infrequently differs, and it is not always clear whether the difference is intentional. That said, this volume clearly demonstrates the wide range of work which can be done on the comic fragments and makes an important step toward filling in some of the outstanding gaps. For a number of important poets and topics relevant to the fragments of Old Comedy this work will undoubtedly be a basic tool for discussion and bibliography. Despite its occasional flaws, I have certainly used the book with profit and expect others will do the same.