BMCR 2004.06.39

Reproducing Athens: Menander’s Comedy, Democratic Culture, and the Hellenistic City

Susan Lape, Reproducing Athens : Menander's comedy, democratic culture, and the Hellenistic city. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiii, 294 pages). ISBN 9781400825912 $39.50.

The publication during the twentieth century of substantial portions of scripts of Menander stands as one of the more important recoveries in the modern history of Classical scholarship. Menander went from being a shadowy figure lurking behind Plautus and Terence, known only by reputation and through popular quotes, to a full-bodied playwright speaking in his own voice through his characters. And yet, not a few have found Menander a disappointment. The plays reveal sharp writing and a hand deft at construction, but no more so than his successors, and at times less. The plots really are slight variations on domestic crises with ultimately comfortable resolutions. A succession of studies have demonstrated that we can learn a great deal from the plays about the cultural environment which provided their context, yet there has remained the uneasy sense that an author of Menander’s stature should somehow be saying more when we hear him. Susan Lape (L.) has produced a full-length study arguing that in fact he does say more, much more. Her Menander, using the supple tools of New Comedy, speaks boldly, specifically and critically about the tumultuous times in which he lived. While evidence does not adequately support most of her central claims about Menander’s historical and political commentary, L. does demonstrate that the playwrights of Greek New Comedy and their audiences in the theater were engaging in substantial political and cultural negotiation, and in so doing she has significantly raised the stakes for future understanding of Menander and New Comedy. The remainder of this review falls into two parts: (1) a summary of L.’s arguments by chapter and (2) an overall evaluation of these arguments.

L. begins her first chapter by exploring the endurance of democratic culture after Athens suffered defeat at Chaeronea in 338 B.C.E. Menander’s life and career fall completely in a time when, although Macedonian domination began in 322, Athenians fought to restore and preserve the democracy, at some times more successfully than at others. The democracy did not fall for the last time until 260, more than thirty years after Menander’s death, so democratic culture, and at times democratic political institutions, were alive and vital while he was creating his plays. L. maintains, here and throughout the book, that the Periclean citizenship law of 451/0, requiring both parents to be Athenian citizens in order for their offspring to be citizens, made citizen marriage and reproductive capacity central to Athenian democratic identity. From this, L. suggests that when citizen couples in New Comedy finally receive sanction to marry, then, they are enacting the renewal of democratic culture. In the context of Macedonian repression of the democracy, such performances become acts of dissent. L. extends her case: “Menandrian comedy not only depicts and champions fundamental precepts of Athenian democratic ideology but … also, in certain cases, offers reactions to and commentaries on immediate political events” (10). This commentary does not consist entirely of support for democratic culture and institutions, but rather, “comedy’s family romances are often subversive of the democratic cultural order they instantiate” (12).

The next chapter reviews the historical context for Menander’s career in more detail. L. looks at the topical references in Menander and contemporary playwrights and concludes that New Comedy in general and Menander in particular supported democratic ideology during these times. She also introduces a new assertion of importance later in the book, namely that braggart soldiers in Greek New Comedy are surrogates for Hellenistic rulers, and thus domestic crises about citizenship marriage serve as allegories for relationships among Greek city-states with Macedonian authorities.

Chapter 3 establishes a matrix of tensions which L. will use to analyze the plays. She observes that male citizens consistently develop a passion only for other citizens (even if identity or citizenship status of the object of their desire is as yet unknown to them), which can result in a rape but always in marriage. Citizen marriage under these circumstances coincides with personal desire and depicts the institution of democratic marriage as innately desirable and even predestined. Democratic citizen marriage is as natural as biology. Several foci for socio-political tension develop from this central conception of democratic citizen marriage. While the egalitarian ethos of democratic culture included the idea that men had equal opportunity for sexual gratification, including access to prostitutes, hetairai could seem anti-democratic because a man maintaining a hetaira in his house is not sufficiently committed to a citizen marriage and to reproducing the democratic population. The anxiety over legitimate offspring also propels the graphe moikheias. A moikhos, by seducing a man’s wife, commits an act analogous to political seduction or rape and threatens the institution at the core of the democratic community. Narratives in New Comedy, in response to these tensions, make seducers non-reproductive. Likewise, both relationships between citizens and hetairai and acts of passion turn out to be either non-reproductive or in fact between citizens whose true status has been concealed. L. closes with an analysis of the Aspis as an example of a play where the villain, the greedy Smikrines, represents oligarchy and pursues marriage for only material gain, not a proper reproductive marriage.

The next four chapters offer readings of individual plays to illustrate the above principles in action. Chapter 4 concentrates on the Dyskolos. L. focuses on the class tension between characters, expressed primarily in the conflict between economic status and ethical behavior. Despite the prejudices expressed by characters as the play begins, wealth is ultimately revealed to be an ephemeral, superficial trait. Wealth does not provide a guide to the ethical principles according to which a man (and the discussion is limited to masculine identity) behaves. L. finds this devaluation of economic status contrasts pointedly with the Macedonian oligarchic principle of establishing a financial requirement for political franchise.

L. turns to the Samia in Chapter 5. Here political regulation of sexual and reproductive norms comes to the fore. Both Demeas and his adopted son Moschion are “passionate but guilty protagonists” (140). Demeas, by housing a hetaira who was going to bear his child, risks legal and civic sanction for producing a bastard child. He proves his democratic credentials later in the play, however, when he is prepared to side with his son over his hetaira Chrysis. Moschion is defensive that he might appear a moikhos and so his monologues in his own defense early in the play take on a forensic tone. For L., masculine identity in the play is generally defective, which allows Menander to stage challenges to standard gender stereotypes. Chrysis is not the greedy, pernicious stereotype of a hetaira, but is in fact maternal and selfless. Moschion’s showdown in the last act of the play, where he acknowledges his allegiance to his fiancée Plangon and stands up to Demeas, “suggests that a woman’s subordination to the legal and social structure might be offset by a man’s emotional and sexual dependence on her” (170).

The problems of socializing the mercenary soldier, along with the ramifications for gender roles, democracy, and international relations, dominate the discussion in Chapter 6. In both Perikeiromene and Misoumenos, comedy opens a common ground between the civically detached mercenary and the polis-bound citizen by dramatizing the transition of their protagonists from excluded lovers to husbands. In L.’s analysis, the need to negotiate a solution to the problem of the mercenary creates room for the heroine to exert greater authority and autonomy than would normally be granted. In Perikeiromene, Glykera has the ability to reject Polemon, although Menander circumscribes her freedom with the veiled hint that her freedom would lead to taboo behavior in the form of incest. Polemon, however, once he has been instructed in the ways of civic polis behavior, pursues a more reciprocal relationship with Glykera modeled on public service ( philotimia). In Misoumenos, the soldier Thrasonides exercises notable restraint and it is Krateia who is criticized for refusing to continue a reciprocal relationship. In both plays, reciprocity is construed as a distinctly “Greek” mode of civilized behavior. Coding reciprocal relationships in nationalistic terms opens the plays to interpretation in the broader context of relationships between Greek poleis and Hellenistic rulers; specifically for L. it “invites contemporary citizens to see Hellenistic rulers and their assorted officials as civic benefactors while encouraging Hellenistic rulers and officials to accept civically scripted positions” (186).

L. saves her boldest reading yet for Chapter 7. She sets the Sikyonioi against the background of the evaporation during the early Hellenistic period of the citizen-soldier ideal of Classical Athens. Athenian citizens faced the brutal need to reconfigure their civic identity and masculinity in particular. L. finds a precursor to this redefinition in the feud between Aeschines and Demosthenes. Aeschines defines the “democratic man” (3.168-175) and introduces internal qualities such as self-restraint as markers of the truly democratic citizen. L. then matches Aeschines’ definition of the democrat to the character of the democratic mercenary Stratophanes in Sikyonioi, in direct contrast to the character, indeed the very body, of the oligarchic, subversive Moschion. Furthermore, L. would place the performance of Sikyonioi during a period of democratic restoration (especially after the ouster of Demetrius of Phaleron). In this context, Stratophanes the democrat defeats Moschion the oligarch for the hand of the virgin Philoumene in an allegory of rebirth of Athenian democracy. “The drama of the democratic mercenary’s return in the Sikyonioi seems to recall the story of the men from Phyle [who led the democratic revolt against the Thirty in 403], men whom later writers credited with redemocratizing and remasculinizing the city…” (239).

A brief concluding chapter includes an analysis of the Epitrepontes, in which L. points out that Kharisios (who raped the woman he later married but at this point does not think he is the father of the child which resulted) sympathizes with Pamphile in a common “misfortune” because they are each responsible for bringing a bastard into the world. As in so much of New Comedy, a harsh motivation lurks behind and mitigates a noble sentiment. L. makes this uncomfortable balance her final assessment of the final years of the Athenian democracy. While “comedy’s romantic narratives contributed to democratic continuity as well as to the cultural survival of the Greek polis during the transition to the Hellenistic Age” (243) and although Menander’s plays “create space for renegotiating relations between the sexes and insistently raise the possibility of remodeling democratic culture along more inclusionary and egalitarian lines” (252), democratic culture was not able to maintain and reproduce itself. Not coincidentally, perhaps, Athenian culture only hardened its segregation of women and foreigners subsequent to losing democracy permanently.

L. is a careful writer and typographical errors are rare.1 The preceding summary does not do justice to the many rich and nuanced observations throughout this volume. When it comes to the interplay of gender, civic identity and the encoding of cultural priorities, L. is an incisive reader who navigates both primary and secondary material with confidence. Anyone studying these issues in the early Hellenistic period will find this book rewarding and will need to take L.’s comments seriously. Much of Chapter 3 in general and her analyses of Samia and Epitrepontes are especially valuable.

Outside of her areas of strength, however, L. is far less careful and the results less impressive. Textual problems and the limitations of dealing with quite fragmentary texts are duly noted, but the ramifications for L.’s reading are not explored (see, e.g., the example of hubris in the Dyskolos below). She tends to read Menander as a writer rather than as a playwright. Theater is of interest for L. more as a social institution with political significance than as a genre with unique tools for transmitting ideas and conveying meaning. At times it is as if Menander were staging texts rather than plays. Consequently, L. is more comfortable with monologue than with dialogue. In her reading of the Dyskolos, for example, she struggles with the relationship between Gorgias and Sostratos (115ff.). In the first meeting of the characters in the play, Gorgias rudely charges Sostratos with hunting innocent young girls, a crime he says merits the death penalty (lines 289-293). L. wants Gorgias’ speech to emphasize democratic suspicions of the rich and even claims that Gorgias is suspecting Sostratos of rape rather than seduction, but Gorgias in fact says πείσειν, “persuade,” which points to seduction, not force. L. misses that the scene has more to do with establishing tension and distance between the characters. As so often in Menander, as in most playwrights for that matter, the real purpose of the scene evolves in the counterpoint of two or more voices on stage. This oversight leads to further difficulties several pages later (121), when L. is perplexed that Gorgias would praise Sostratos for “revealing” his character through deception, but this scene is a revised update of the earlier scene, showing that Gorgias and Sostratos are now closer to each other but equidistant from the prickly Knemon.

Other areas of weakness become detrimental to her central thesis. L. does not adequately confront Menander’s relationship to the philosophical milieu of his time. She is aware of the problem when, in her analysis of the Dyskolos, she acknowledges the conception of character employed in the play owes a substantial debt to Aristotle but insists, “the play does not promote a recognizable Aristotelian ethical doctrine,” but rather “presses an ‘Aristotelian’ conception of character into service on behalf of a democratic value system” (126). Such is the assertion but no argument follows nor any indication how we are supposed to know when character stops and ethical doctrine begins. Later, in her reading of Perikeiromene, L. is content to invoke Aristotelian ethics when she argues that Menander is mitigating Polemon’s behavior by categorizing the shearing of Glykera’s hair as an involuntary action because it is performed out of ignorance (179). Much more often, however, L. simply does not address philosophical issues, even when they are germane to the topic at hand. To return to the dialogue between Gorgias and Sostratos in the Dyskolos, L. accepts a supplement in line 298 of ὕβριν and emphasizes the importance of hubris for her democratic interpretation: “In democratic discourse, the legal action and rhetoric of hubris operated to maintain and protect the ideal of citizen equality by making virtually any assertion of a status distinction, … liable to judicial redress” (117). In part, however, scholars have proposed and accepted the supplement because it fits Aristotelian doctrine so closely. Aristotle says young, wealthy men (such as Sostratos) are especially prone to hubris ( Rhet. 1378b26) and says so in the context of anger, specifically the anger a superior feels for his inferior. This is hardly the democratic egalitarian conception of hubris L. invokes. And herein lies the problem: L. asserts that when Menander has Gorgias charge Sostratos with hubris, the term invokes democratic ideology. The term and the context can also just as easily invoke elite, decidedly non-democratic doctrine. Since there can be reasonable debate about the ideological underpinnings of this scene, L. cannot simply assert democratic connections as she does.

The blurring of political distinctions recurs throughout the book. Often “Athenian” is synonymous with “democratic,” but a significant component of the Athenian citizenry was staunchly oligarchic. There had been no oligarchic takeovers since 411 and 403, but the elite still bristled at the dominance of the demos. The prospect and later the reality of Macedonian rule divided the Athenian body politic in complex ways. As with the use of hubris in the Dyskolos, various democratic and oligarchic factions each had their own take on issues common to Athenian civic experience. Rarely when L. asserts that an issue invokes democratic culture can she make the case that it applies uniquely to democrats. Perhaps the most stunning example is her use of Aeschines, a staunchly pro-Macedonian member of the political elite. L. points to Aeschines’ definition of a democrat, in which he lists pedigree and internal qualities of restraint as reliable indicators of a true democrat. Such qualities had a long history of elite, indeed oligarchic associations.2 As L. has to confess, the speech in which Aeschines gave his definition of the democratic man faced overwhelming defeat when presented before the demos, failing to net even a fifth of the vote and forced his retirement from political life. It was, after all, an oligarch’s view of what constituted a good democratic citizen. Nevertheless, she claims that when Menander constructs characters consonant with Aeschines’ definition it would have resonated with supporters of democratic rule. If Menander’s characters talked like Macedonian sympathizers, a democrat in the audience could be forgiven for concluding that Menander was something other than an adherent to the core values of Athenian democracy.3

A slippery use of evidence further undermines L.’s core thesis in a number of other places. For example, there is little reliable external evidence about Menander’s life, but at least one testimonial has decided political implications. Diogenes Laertius reports that when Demetrius of Phaleron was expelled, Menander was caught up in a wave of prosecutions because he was linked to Demetrius. L. relegates this detail to a footnote (p. 47 n29), but it deserves full discussion in the context of her thesis. If Menander’s reputation was such that he could be prosecuted for his connection to a Macedonian ruler (who not even L. can argue was democratic), how likely is it that democrats in the theater would read coded democratic ideology into his plays? Moreover, Menander’s established knowledge and use of Peripatetic doctrine, during a time when the Lyceum was supported by and closely tied to Macedonian rulers can hardly have reassured democratic insurgents in Athens. The difficulty of L.’s position becomes more pronounced when she surveys topical references in comedy during the early Hellenistic period. She rightly points out that playwrights did respond to the changing times and even engaged in explicit political criticism, but she never acknowledges that Menander’s extant comedy is consistently tame compared to the fiery if more fragmentary remains of Timocles and Philippides.

Likewise, L. elides argument with assertion when she suddenly claims that braggart soldiers represent Hellenistic monarchs and concomitant marriage plots are allegories for international relationships. She can offer no evidence that an ancient playwright or audience of New Comedy communicated through such allegories. The only link between soldier characters and Macedonian imperialism is the occasional mention of a name of a general or venue of a battle, but such references are as brief and incidental as they could possibly be, certainly signaling that broader political issues are at play. Along the same lines, the division between “nationalistic” and “transnational” plays is unhelpful and awkwardly defined.

Other elisions in L.’s argumentation run through the book. Her tendentious references to the Periclean citizenship law of 451/0 mask a central problem with relating its marriage regulations to the controversy over citizenship status in New Comedy. As L. acknowledges, there is no evidence that Macedonian rulers canceled or modified the requirements of this law, so citizen reproduction could have continued as before. The Macedonians changed the legal and financial requirement for franchise (political representation), not for civic reproduction. In Menander, however, the anxiety over citizen identity is always over qualification for marriage and production of children, never about franchise or the financial level necessary for it. Indeed, franchise arises as an issue only when the grouch Knemon in the Dyskolos voluntarily disenfranchises himself. In another example of overreaching, she repeatedly casts Moschion in the Sikyonioi as an oligarch, but it is Smikrines who is identified as such. She rightly sees Moschion’s body and behavior as deviant, but he is deviant by both democratic and elite standards. Such smaller claims, which are unlikely and unsupported, abound.

Ultimately, L. constructs a Menander who is at his core a staunch democrat supporting egalitarianism and humane reciprocity but also sensitive to the exclusionary and oppressive institutions of the Athenians even at their most democratic. This is an attractive Menander but also one curiously like post-modern liberal evaluations of classical Athenian democracy: supportive of its egalitarian ideals but critical of its harsh social practices. Such congruence invites suspicion. Ancient Athenians have much to offer and teach us but they were like us only in a limited number of ways. Frustrating as it can be for us today, democrats of classical Athens worried far more about tyranny and military domination (and with the Macedonians, they had good reason to fear both) than about extension of political rights beyond their kin and sympathy for the disenfranchised. L. is quite sensitive to the painful intricacies of Athenian democratic culture and would be better to exploit them for what they can teach us than to gloss them as something they never were.


1. I did not systematically check for typographical errors, but I noticed the following: page 59, line 14 “went exile” should read “went into exile”; page 132 n55 line 3 “ethicize of the” should read “ethicize the”; page 179 n28 line 1 ἑκοὑσιον should read ἑκούσιον; p.46 n24 “Mikalson 2000” should read “Mikalson 1998.”

2. See now James McGlew, Citizens on Stage: Comedy and Political Culture in the Athenian Democracy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002), esp. 125-132, which appeared too late for L.

3. In the interest of disclosing my predisposition on this point, I have argued in print that Menander in fact constructs his comedies according to an ideology sympathetic with Macedonian rule, “Menander in a Macedonian World,” GRBS 38 (1997) 41-73. L. briefly rejects this argument p.17 n. 52.