BMCR 2001.12.23

Poetae Comici Graeci Vol I: Comoedia Dorica, Mimi, Phlyaces

, , Poetae comici Graeci (PCG). Berlin: W. de Gruyter, 1983-2001. volumes 1-2; 3, part 2; 4-5, 7 ; 25 cm. ISBN 3110024055 DM 396.

The subjects of these books can be traced to two statements in Aristotle’s Poetics :

“The Megarians claim comedy, those here for the time when they had democracy, those in Sicily because the poet Epicharmus, who was much older than Chionides and Magnes, came from there.” (Aristotle, Poetics 1448a)

“The composition of μῦθοι originally came from Sicily; at Athens, it was Crates who began to depart from the form of the lampoon and compose stories and μῦθοι in general.” ( Poetics 1449a, on the development of comedy)

Despite Aristotle’s information, and the more than forty attested titles and hundreds of fragments, Epicharmus is difficult to characterize. He is ”much older” ( Poetics) than even the shadowy Athenian Chionides (whom the Suda credits with a production in 486 B. C.), yet his firmest dates match with Hieron and the 470’s. Aristotle implies he is the pioneer of comic plots, but the preserved fragments, with their food-catalogues, flattering guests and travesties of myth, look more like Middle Comedy. Finally, much of the material under his name is certainly spurious (Athenaeus gives us the word ”Pseudepicharmea”), yet experts have disagreed on how much.

Epicharmus had to wait to be included in Kassel-Austin’s new edition of the comic fragments because Doric comedy was the one part of Kaibel’s incomplete edition that actually appeared (1899) and thus was much better handled than the Attic authors in Kock’s edition (1880-1888). But even here K-A have more than doubled the testimonia (39 instead of 15); despite papyri unknown to Kaibel, K-A’s total of fragments has shrunk from 302 to 300 through reassignment and combination, and there is scarcely a single fragment that is not improved in some important way. Even though Poetae Comici Graecae has often in the past cited with approval the notes of Kaibel’s unfinished work, this volume shows how far an advance the whole edition is on anything Kaibel might have done.1

Beyond Epicharmus, the volume includes other accounts of Doric comedy, fragments of minor authors from Sicily and Southern Italy, Sophron’s mimes, Doric adespota and a collection of dialect glosses for Sicily and Southern Italy. All of these were also in Kaibel but are now updated (the major papyrus fr. 4 of Sophron was not yet known to Kaibel).

In one respect Kassel and Austin have altered their plan: volume I had been announced as including all the prolegomena on comedy also (as Kaibel’s had done, later re-edited by Koster); but they decided to keep the general testimonia and indices separate for the Doric material. The preface promises that the rest of the prolegomena will be included in the index volume (“in maiore de comoedia universa testimoniorum elencho quem in volumen nonum reservamus praevalebunt Attica”).

Their principle of annotation remains the “subsidia interpretationis,” first applied in their individual volumes in the series Kleine Texte, giving the reader who is diligent (and who has access to a good research library) excellent guidance in artfully concise Latin. But these notes are abbreviated, and there is still plenty of room for detailed commentaries. In the present case there appears simultaneously a monograph that amounts to a commentary on much of the volume. Kerkhof was closely involved in the preparation of PCG vol. I (he compiled its indices); he in turn acknowledges in the introduction much assistance especially from Rudolf Kassel, who directed his work. When it comes to Epicharmus, therefore, Kerkhof’s discussions offer the arguments that lie behind the decisions made in this part of PCG I.2

In dealing with Epicharmus, Kerkhof’s tasks are to 1) demarcate clearly the pseudepigraphic works and explain how they came into existence; 2) extract from the genuine fragments some idea of Epicharmus’ comic style and techniques, and 3) assess his influence on fifth-century Athenian drama. His results for the first are extremely successful, on the second he does very well with the frustrating evidence, and on the third he produces a result that is quite surprising.


The treatment of the Pseudepicharmea marks a significant advance since Kaibel. The major achievement (pp. 79-108) is to demolish Wilamowitz’ theory that Ennius’ Epicharmus translated a gnomic-philosophical poem on nature that was already falsely attributed to Epicharmus in the late fifth century BC, and is quoted by Euripides and Xenophon. After a careful review of the alleged parallels, Kerkhof puts together the complex evidence in a much more plausible reconstruction. He argues convincingly that:

1) A separate collection of Epicharmus’ γνῶμαι (all in trochaic tetrameter, in contrast to the trimeters of the Menandrian γνῶμαι) had begun to be collected by the fourth century B. C., including some genuine (fr. 214, 218, 230) and some not (fr. 248-271). Its forger was claimed to be a certain Axiopistos (“Mr. Trustworthy”) by Philochorus and Apollodorus of Athens ( PCG I Pseudepicharmeia test. I p. 138).

2) P Hibeh 1 (3rd century B. C. = fr. 244) is probably, as many have suggested, the introduction to these γνῶμαι.

3) fr. 280, while very similar in style and language to fr. 244, nevertheless contains a different programmatic statement by the author; it is likely to be the κανών, which according to Apollodorus and Philochorus was by the same author as the γνῶμαι; it is probably the work that the prologue of γνῶμαι (fr. 280) claims had gained him a reputation for wordiness.3

But two difficult questions remain: Where to seek the source of Ennius’ Epicharmus ? And where to place the interesting philosophical dialogues quoted from a certain Alcimus by Diogenes Laertius (fr. 275-279)? The most economical solution, he argues, is to say that they all came from the Canon, which would then have been a collection of master-student dialogues in trimeters (but not very dramatic), in the accomplished Doric of frs. 244 and 280, and centered on the natural philosophy that is basic to the Alcimus-fragments and the fragments of Ennius poem.

This proposal is more in the nature of a plausible speculation: the closest affinity between Ennius and the Alcimus-fragments is from the Annals (verses 10-12 Vahlen), and the dialogue-form and interest in nature-philosophy assumed for the Canon are not directly attested for it. But it is a logical approach to the preserved evidence, and shows that Wilamowitz’s extra carmen physicum is not a necessary or desirable hypothesis.


Kerkhof discusses conscientiously and carefully individual plays and fragments in an attempt to extract what is typically Epicharmean, although they add up to few big conclusions.

One of them is an initial, great difference between Epicharmus and Attic drama: the apparent lack of a chorus. Of course, an Epicharmean chorus has had its advocates, who point to his plural titles (even one called Χορεύοντες), occasional mentions of music (fr. 14, 92, 104, 108, 125), anapests in fr. 100 and 108, and the mention of a χορηγεῖον according to Hephaestion (fr. 13 = fr. 103). But for Kerkhof the lack of any positive evidence is important: there are only seven verses (the four anapests and three Homer-style hexameters) among the fragments that are not trochaic tetrameters, and this includes P. Oxy. 2427, which contains at least small scraps of more than 500 verses! (I would add that putting together a chorus greatly increased the work of production; and it is worth remembering that civic dramatic competitions, which in Athens did so much to publicize and popularize theater [and to cover its expenses] are not attested for Sicilian comedy.)

Another characteristic is that myths were prominent. Of around 41 known titles (35 or 40 or 52 were counted according to ancient sources), 24 seem to be mythical, and 7 relate to legends of Heracles (a big eater, fr. 18), 6 to stories of Odysseus. Two of the non-mythical plays had titles that suggest an agon of abstractions like that of Clouds: Land and Sea, and λόγος καὶ λογ (“He says, She says”?). Attacks on contemporaries seem to have been largely absent (conceivable only in fr. 9 and 96).

When it comes to individual fragments, Athenaeus provides us with plenty of food (shellfish in Hebe’s Wedding, revised in Muses, descriptions of banquets fr. 76, 122); there are philosophical maxims (fr. 214, 211) and insults (fr. 79, 184, 212). Some of the fragments bear comparison with the best of Athenian comedy. My own candidates are fr. 32 (the professional dinner guest asks for sympathy), fr. 146 (The perils of the symposium), 147 (a joke on tripods and the riddle of the Sphinx), and (in a prose summary) fr. 136 (two pre-Strepsiadean scoundrels use philosophical doctrine to escape debts and lawsuits).


Here Kerkhof’s analysis produces a paradox: that Epicharmus’ most demonstrable influence is not on comic writers (as Aristotle in Poetics would lead us to think), but on tragic ones, particularly Aeschylus, who visited Sicily when Epicharmus must have been near the end of a long and distinguished career. The tragedians wrote satyr plays, and the overlaps with Epicharmus are too many to dismiss as coincidence. For Aeschylus there is the Diktyoulkoi and Epicharmus’ Diktyes; the Theoroi or Isthmiastai and Epicharmus’ play of the same name (although about Delphi); both also have a Sphinx. Among Euripides’ satyr-plays there is a shared title in Cyclops (note Euripides’ is set in Sicily) Bousiris and Skiron; Sophocles’ Amykos probably followed Epicharmus (fr. 7) in letting the villain live, and one of these two may in turn have influenced Theocritus 22. In the case of Aeschylus, influence could have gone partly the other way as well: Epicharmus is known to have mocked Aeschylus’ fondness for ταμαλφεῖν (fr. 221). Did he begin the parody of tragedy so long before Aristophanes? Some of the other titles they have in common are suggestive— Persians (Aeschylus’ was produced in Syracuse, T56a Radt), Bacchai, Atalantai, Philoktetes. And then of course there is the vexed question of the connection between Aeschylus’ Prometheus plays and Epicharmus’ Prometheus or Pyrrha —on this point one can hardly expect consensus, but a relation between them would certainly fit the pattern.

The influence of Epicharmus on fifth century comedy is less obvious. By the time we get to the preserved plays of Aristophanes, any direct influence must have been long past. Kerkhof details how ancient scholars looked hard for parallels (Epicharmus fr. 65 and 123 on Peace, Crates fr. 1 on drunks on stage) and modern ones have tried too, all with little to show for it, as he notes. In fact, most of the things Epicharmus is claimed to have contributed to Attic comedy (parasites, cooks, milites gloriosi, philosophic charlatans) either are not really found in his work, or, if they were, are not found in Old Comedy but first in Middle.4

The one place in Old Comedy where some similarities seem to exist is with Cratinus: he wrote a Bousiris and a Dionysoi, his Seriphians doubles Diktyes, he treats the Cyclops in Odysseis, parodies epic hexameter (cf. Epicharmus fr. 121), and relies far more on mythology than most modern scholars are willing to admit.5 He also continues Epicharmus’ practice of proper names in the plural ( Atalantai, Diktyes, Dionysoi, compared with Archilochoi, Ploutoi, Odysseis). If Epicharmus didn’t have a chorus, perhaps Cratinus’ plural titles don’t necessarily refer to a chorus either, as Wilamowitz also thought (Kerkhof p. 154 n. 1).


So then why does Aristotle (in the second sentence quoted at the start of this review, Poetics 1449a) skip over Cratinus, who is closer to Epicharmus in date and style, and link Epicharmus with the younger Crates?6 This is the question with which Kerkhof concludes his discussion of Epicharmus, and he expresses conscientious perplexity (p. 177): Aristotle must have had his reasons, he thinks, but they are no longer clear—indeed to us it looks like Crates, noted by Aristotle as a pioneer of non-mythical plots, is in fact (apart from the drunks in Geitones) quite different from Epicharmus. But does Aristotle really say that Epicharmus influenced Crates? It is certain from his earlier comments that in the first part of this sentence “from Sicily” refers to Epicharmus; and certainly in the second part he suggests that Crates was an innovator in Athens (as Prolegomena III = Crates test. 2a also suggests). But the word μῦθοι which occurs in both parts might in connection with Epicharmus mean not only “plot” but also “stories” or even “myths”. When it is applied to Crates, μῦθοι is differentiated by the addition of λόγοι and further qualified by καθόλου, “universal”. Thus Aristotle may be saying that the first comic stories of any kind (including myths) came from Sicily (to Athens) and that in Athens Crates took an additional step by composing generalized stories.7

Perhaps Aristotle omits comic developments from Chionides to Cratinus because he is looking forward to an ideal comic plot that was neither mythical nor “iambic” (satirical)—like a proto-Menander? Those of us who admire old comedy would prefer at this point not to jump ahead to Crates but linger on Cratinus, who learned the ways of Epicharmus—burlesque of myths set in contemporary life—and also took the decisive step of adding or at least increasing (sometimes deeply hidden in ἔμφασις) contemporary satire. The forger of the prologue of the Epicharmean γνῶμαι makes clear what he thought his version of Epicharmus would bring (fr. 234 lines 1-5):

Here there is much diversity, which you might use
On a friend, on an enemy, speaking in court, in assembly,
Against a scoundrel, against a gentleman, against a foreigner,
against an irascible man, against a drunk, against a boor, or if anyone
Has any other fault at all, the sting for that too is in here.

Cratinus too, as later Aristophanes and Eupolis, seem to have realized that a “sting” was what Epicharmean comedy was missing, and they too were at pains to supply it.

Kerkhof’s study is full of good sense and clear exposition, a worthy companion to PCG I. Both books deserve greatest praise for bringing Epicharmus back to our attention.


1. One of the biggest changes on Epicharmus is that PCG I now classes all the fragments from Diogenes Laertius (including those taken from a certain Alcimus) among the Pseudepigrapha. The arguments are set forth by Kerkhof pp. 65-78.

2. Considerations of space limit me to Epicharmus here, but both PCG I and Kerkhof contain much else of interest. Kerkhof in particular begins with a valuable account of Doric farce (pp. 1-24) and Sousarion (38-41), on which I offer just a few observations: 1) Kerkhof’s descriptions of past scholarly theories (often wildly at odds with each other) are extremely clear and informative; 2) he shows persuasively that the extreme skepticism concerning the very existence of Dorian farce and Sousarion voiced by L. Breitholz, Die dorische Farce im griechischen Mutterland (Stockholm 1960) is unjustified; 3) he is also persuasive (to me at least) that Sousarion is not an iambographer (so West) and that claims about his home (Megara or Icaria) are tendentious. 4) That said, it seems to me he concludes too soon and includes too little evidence, especially visual. I believe it might be possible to discern three distinct ancient theories of proto-comedy: φαλλικά, Megarian κῶμοι, and Sousarion’s Icarian choruses of κωμωιδοί (before 561 B.C. according to the Parian marble). That each of these theories had a basis in reality in the sixth century B.C. is confirmed in a rough but datable way by vase-painting (phallic processions, Corinthian komos vases, Attic pipers with choruses of men on stilts/riding dolphins/horses and others—for an accessible introduction with illustrations and further references see E. Csapo and W. Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama, Ann Arbor 1995 pp. 91-7). I hope to discuss this topic in more detail elsewhere.

3. Kerkhof notes that this “Axiopistos” must have been an accomplished forger: he could write passable Doric, he was familiar with and could develop Epicharmus’ ideas (like the αὐξανόμενος λόγος in fr. 136) into dialogues like fr. 276 and even keep some actual verses (in the γνῶμαι); some seem to have been Doric revisions of Euripides (fr. 247, 260, 272). Ancient authors (Clement of Alexandria, Diogenes Laertius) could accuse Euripides and Plato of stealing from Epicharmus, but in fact it was Axiopistos who had stolen from Euripides and Plato. Later, however, this collection was added to, Doric dialect was forgotten, and it became a dumping-ground for maxims in trochaic tetrameter just as the monostichoi of Menander became for trimeters.

4. One aspect of Epicharmus’ influence that Kerkhof might have discussed at more length is food, but for this we now have John Wilkins, “The role of food in the plays of Epicharmus” pp. 320-331 (and elsewhere, with translations) in The Boastful Chef (Oxford 2000).

5. Even Nemesis and Dionysalexandros seem at least on the surface to have included only characters from the myths. Despite his reputation for satire, the only time Cratinus demonstrably ever brought a contemporary on stage was himself, in Pytine.

6. That Crates was definitely seen as later than Cratinus is shown not only by his place in the prolegomena (Crates test. 2-3) and in the victory lists (test. 9), but also by his placement in Knights 537-540 (test. 6), and in the chronological list of utopias in Athenaeus (fr. 16).

7. That this is the meaning of καθόλου is suggested by Poetics 1451b; by the time of Antiphanes, Poesis fr. 189, the totally invented nature of comic plots is taken for granted.