BMCR 2005.10.05

Il linguaggio nelle commedie di Aristofane. Parola positiva e parola negativa nella commedia antica. Suppl. n. 21/22 al Bollettino dei Classici

, Il linguaggio nelle commedie di Aristofane : parola positiva e parola negativa nella commedia antica. Supplemento n. 21/22 al "Bollettino dei classici". Roma: Accademia nazionale dei Lincei, 2004. 350 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 8821809137. €60.00 (pb).

Paraphrasing L. Feuerbach (“Man is what he eats”) Simone Beta (hereafter B.) means to show that in ancient Greek comedy man is what he says (p. 19). True to this statement, B.’s study aims at highlighting the distinctive manners of expressing oneself that specific categories of comic characters constantly adopt: the eloquence of a personage is able both to symbolize his nature and to epitomize the way in which the poet, the other fictional characters and the audience look at that personage (pp. 5-6; 21). Being aware of the important role that rhetoric plays in the public life of 5th cent. Athens, Aristophanes pays deep attention to carefully choosing terms related to eloquence, which range from the simple action of opening the mouth to that of producing peculiar sounds up to that of uttering articulated speeches. The use and abuse of the power of the word is the fil rouge that connects any comic character under Aristophanes’ attack through his career (pp. 19-21; 289-92).

In B.’s opinion, Aristophanes identifies a dichotomous system of words and ways of speaking: the negative word (“la parola negativa”) and the positive word (“la parola positiva”) (pp. 5; 30-1). The first one is the standard system, typical of the way in which the usual targets of Aristophanes’ attack either express themselves or are described and perceived (politicians, sophists, contemporary comic playwrights, Euripides etc.). The second one, “la parola positiva”, appears quite rarely, and characterizes the eloquence both of Aristophanes himself within the parabasis or metatheatrically speaking through his hero (i.e. Dicaeopolis), and of a limited number of other characters, like Pisthetaerus in Birds and Better Speech in Clouds (pp. 280-8).

The significantly uneven distribution of the two kinds of word is mirrored by the structure of this book, where five of its six chapters are devoted to the negative word: Introduzione (pp. 7-31), La voce umana (Ch. 1, pp. 32-111), La potenza della parola (Ch. 2, pp. 112-47), La parola vuota (Ch. 3, pp. 148-74), La parola menzognera (Ch. 4, pp. 175-258), La parola negativa: un quadro complessivo (Ch., 5, pp. 259-77), Aristofane e la parola positiva (Ch. 6, pp. 278-88), Conclusioni (pp. 289-93). The book ends with a Bibliografia (pp. 294-9) and a highly valuable series of indices: Indice dei termini Greci (pp. 300-9), Indice dei passi citati (pp. 310-38), Indice dei nomi (including names of ancient authors, of fictional and historical personages, and of modern scholars: pp. 339-48). Each chapter is enriched by a large quantity of footnotes where B. acknowledges other scholars’ contributions and cites other ancient texts supporting the main discussion concerning specific terms. In each chapter, the lexical analysis is very accurate and usually ranges from the first occurrences of the word, before Aristophanes, up to its late usage, beyond Aristophanes. Indeed, of appreciable interest are the frequent and detailed references to the fragmentary comedic production, through which B. provides the reader with a complete picture of the way archaic comedy deals as a whole with the topic.

B.’s 1st chapter ( La voce umana) proves to be preliminary to the whole essay. In order to analyze how Aristophanes attacks and mocks his personages by focusing on their way of expressing themselves, B. finds it necessary to examine the technical features of the language, from terms describing the voice and the action of speaking (e.g. φωνή, φθέγμα, ὄψ) λέγω, ἀγορεύω, etc. pp. 32-45) to anatomical terms indicating the physical organs involved in the act of speaking (e.g. στόμα, γλώττα, λάρυγξ, φάρυγξ, αὐχήν, pp. 45-61); from terms related to the varied colors and volumes of sound of the characters’ voice — which mostly tend to be loud (pp. 62-73), offensive (pp. 73-6), babbling (pp. 78-82), similar to the cry of animals (pp. 82-95) — to terms describing the opposite phenomenon, i.e. silence (pp. 105-11). Through a meticulous analysis, B. shows how some specific aspects characterizing the voice and the act of speaking are constantly associated with distinct categories of personages, namely politicians, sophists and poets, and he also emphasizes how Aristophanes, exactly through that association, directs the audience’s opinion towards these personages, who are mostly viewed in a negative light. Moreover, beginning from this chapter, distinctive groups of persons in comedy appear as characterized by shared traits of eloquence.

The identification of precise groups of persons along with the analysis of their way of speaking is a valuable fil rouge of B.’s wide-ranging study, and finds an appropriate recapitulation in chapter 5, La parola negativa: un quadro complessivo. Of certain interest is the space devoted to a category of characters quite often neglected, women. Considering that, as B. more than once reminds us, women did not have right to participate in public life or to speak publicly,1 B.’s contribution is also to be welcomed within the context of gender studies. Among other notable subjects discussed in the first chapter, it is worth mentioning the detailed section regarding the distortion of the human voice up to the point where it becomes similar to the cry of animals. Aristophanes’ extensive use of animals as metaphors for precise types is a well known feature, and B.’s study gives this field some new contributions by focusing specifically on the linguistic dimension of the animal world in comedic production. Impressive also is the variety of animals’ voices B. has been able to identify.

In the 2nd chapter ( La potenza della parola), B. discusses the rhetorical traits of the ars loquendi in light of the contemporary Sophistic trend. Starting from an important Sophistic concept, persuasion, a great deal of analysis is devoted to the verb πείθω with particular emphasis on passages from Knights, Wasps and Clouds (pp. 112-8). Notable is the detailed discussion of terms describing the Sophists themselves and their followers (from σοφιστής to σοφός, σοφίζομαι, and the synonymous δεξιός pp. 118-23), typical tools of sophisticated speeches ( ἀντιλογία and propensity to coin new words, pp. 124-8), diminutives (pp. 132-5), linguistic subtlety (e.g. λεπτότης, pp. 135-41),2 and the quest for extremely refined elegance ( κομψότης, pp. 142-7). Each analysis is supported by quotation and discussion of passages not only from Aristophanes and other comic playwrights but also from those philosophers who speculated on language and rhetoric, especially Plato and Aristotle. Of interest is the new interpretation B. provides regarding two words that describe the characteristic skills taught by the Sophists, i.e. κροῦσις and κατάληψις (pp. 129-31). In addition to the traditional interpretation, according to which the first means ‘assault / start of fighting’, the second ‘reply / response’, on the basis of the related verbs’ meaning — respectively κρούω‘to deceive’, and καταλαμβάνω‘to bind/immobilize’ —, B. argues that the two words might represent the ability of deceiving and that of defying the antagonist by metaphorically immobilizing him, i.e. impeding his reply,3 abilities which are consistent with the teachings of the Sophists. The chapter ends with a brief discussion about cookery as a metaphor for the ars loquendi, a metaphor which is theorized by Plato, Gorgias 465d, but, as B. emphasizes, already identifiable in Aristophanes’ comedy.4

The quest for refined elegance of language leads, in Aristophanes’ eyes, to depriving words of their meaning by transforming speech into a container that is beautiful and bright on the outside but empty inside. This consideration at the end of the second chapter forms a transition to the topic of the following chapter, La parola vuota. This section consists of an accurate analysis of those terms describing the airy dimension of the Sophists’ speech and that of their followers, from the well-known λαλιά and λαλέω to ἀδολέσχης and ἀδολεσχέω, from στωμύλλω to ληρέω (pp. 158-71). Within the analysis of λαλιά and λαλέω, interesting and somewhat new is the discussion concerning the gender, so to speak, of verbs of speaking: while λέγειν is par excellence the verb that describes male eloquence, λαλεῖν is par excellence the one that describes typical female eloquence, i.e. chat and loquacity. To illustrate the striking contrast in gender expressed through these different ways of referring to male and female eloquence, B. discusses some passages from Lysistrata (ll. 356, 442, 626-8, 638-9: pp. 157-8) and The Women in Parliament (ll. 116-9, 130, 229-32: pp. 159-61), where the choice between λέγειν and λαλεῖν is clearly crucial. As a matter of fact, when Lysistrata and Praxagora refer to their intention to speak in the assembly, which is the place where men display their rhetorical skills, they use either the verb λέγειν or the term λόγος, since they have learned the ars loquendi from men (see Lysistrata 1126-7, The Women in Parliament 244), and thus they have appropriated male rhetorical skills.5 In discussing the empty eloquence described by the verb λαλεῖν, the identification of new categories of characters is also notable: not only politicians, poets and women but also slaves and old men (pp. 161-6).

A very long chapter (pp. 175-258) is then devoted to another kind of “parola negativa”, the one that seems to predominate, in terms of both quantity and variety, in Aristophanes’ lexicon characterizing his targets. This is “la parola menzognera”, i.e. the lie. The most noteworthy trait of this chapter is the identification and classification of the extremely rich semantic differentiation Aristophanes uses for words that connote lying, from the common ψεῦδος and ψεύδομαι (pp. 175-80) to softer lies like κολακεία and θωπεία (pp. 183-87), from the usual term describing the effect and purpose of lie ( ἀπάτη pp. 203-18) to that indicating the concrete instrument by which to deceive ( δόλος pp. 225-32). B. also weighs other terms that imply lying and deceit, among which are some that deal with this concept quite unexpectedly, such as the word τέρας (pp. 181-83), while others appear properly associated with specific spheres, like the words διαβολή (pp. 187-94) and συκοφάντης (pp. 196-99) in politics, or μηχανή in poetry (pp. 232-34). The words’ analysis is again very detailed.6 B. often sketches a meticulous history of the word’s usage, starting from the Homeric evidence up to Menander. The chapter ends with a series of paragraphs devoted to specific deceitful types, such as the well-known ἀλαζών (pp. 237-49),7 and the less-known βωμολόχος and κόβαλος (pp. 249-58).

In Chapter 5 B. recapitulates his topics by classifying, the specific groups of persons that constantly adopt the different kinds of “parola negativa” described in the previous chapters: “I politici”, “I sofisti”, “Avvocati e giudici, indovini e maghi”, “Le donne”, “Gli schiavi”, “I vecchi”, “I poeti”.

The last chapter, “Aristofane e la parola positiva”, describes the opposite kind of eloquence, the positive one, which consists of λέγειν τὰ δίκαια, or εὖ , ἀληθῶς λέγειν (p. 278), and characterizes the eloquence of Aristophanes himself (pp. 284-88) and of some of his positive heroes (pp. 278-83).

There is very little to complain about in this excellent study. In the first chapter, in the discussion of both γλῶττα (pp. 51-60) and λοιδορία (pp.73-6) one might expect some mention of Knights 1274-1289 and Wasps 1275-1283. Both passages attack the performances of Ariphrades’ tongue, which refers not simply to his perverted behavior but also to the sophistic use of γλῶττα. It might not be accidental that Ariphrades is described as θυμοσοφικώτατος ( Wasps 1280), and thus, along with the Sophists, belongs to those who would adopt “la parola negativa”.8 Also, with regard to B.’s interesting interpretation of scatological words like βδεῖν, βδελυρός, πέρδεσθαι etc. (pp. 101-5) as a mark of degenerate eloquence (“oratoria degenerata”, p. 104), especially of politicians, it might be appropriate to support the connection between scatology and politics by mentioning other evidence, such as the association of Cleon with both the fairy, farting Lamia ( Wasps 1031-5, Peace 754-8) and, more generally, excrement ( Peace 47-8). Speaking of Lamia, I wonder whether Praxagora’s reference to Lamia’s pedens stick ( The Women in Parliament, 76-8) might be of some importance to the topic, given that the women disguise themselves as men in order to obtain the right to deliver speeches in the assembly: could this be an indirect, witty remark on male degenerate oratory in public debate?9 Finally, considering that this kind of degenerate eloquence is the typical way in which characters in contemporary rival playwrights’ comedy express themselves (see, e.g., Clouds 293-297, Frogs 1-22), a mention of this category might be expected as well. As a matter of fact, poets both comic and tragic are among those who, according to B., adopt “la parola negativa”.

In the fourth chapter B’s good discussion of bomolochia could be amplified by noting that Euripides’ deception of his audience is not simply a flattering “soft lie” but a form of deception that turns them into bomolochoi.10 Finally, in the chapter concerning “la parola positiva”, other useful passages supporting B.’s interpretation include Knights 510, Frogs 686-7, 1008-10, 1054-6,1420-1.

Despite these few reservations, I think B. succeeds in demonstrating that in comedy, and more generally in 5th cent. Athens, the word is not ἔργου σκιή (Democritus, 68 B145 δ p. 293), but a factual thing able to connote persons and convey a precise opinion about them. Throughout the whole study, B. shows an undoubted mastery of both Aristophanes’ comedy and the other comic playwrights’ fragmentary production. Moreover, the balance between accurate exposition and production of new knowledge, as well as the harmonious combination of an enjoyable and lively style with a scholarly one, are among the several traits that make B.’s book a valuable contribution and a welcome new entry to Aristophanic scholarship, which is even more estimable if one considers that, while several studies devoted to specific aspects of Aristophanes’ language have been produced, a complex essay involving a broad range of linguistic dimensions, from sound to content, from lack of content to meaningful words, was needed. Last but not least, the plentiful indices gives any reader, from undergraduate students to expert scholars, the chance to easily manage the book and to quickly single out what each might need.


1. It might not be accidental that the paragraph devoted to “la negazione della voce: il silenzio” (pp. 105-11) mostly concerns women in comedy.

2. As for linguistic subtlety, beside the more commonly known terms, like λεπτός, λεπτολόγος, worth noting is the analysis of less frequent, yet significant, words like τρῖμμα, κρόταλον, παιπάλη (pp. 136-9)

3. Impeding the antagonist from replying, on the other hand, is consistent with a kind of negative word earlier identified by B., i.e. forcing the other to shut up (p. 105 ff.)

4. With regard to this topic in Knights, B. misses quoting G. Zanetto, Aristofane e il lessico della politica, in F. Conca, ed., Ricordando Raffaele Cantarella. Miscellanea di studi. Milano, 1999, 257-70 (esp. 269-270 and n. 32).

5. As to the exception of Praxagora’s words (ll. 229-32), in which she uses, just once, the verb typical of female eloquence, i.e. λαλεῖν, B. persuasively explains that this might reflect an indirect, subtle revenge of women over men by ironically alluding to their airy discussions in the assembly (p. 161).

6. Regarding διαβολή it might also be appropriate to mention the meticulous analysis by O. Imperio, Parabasi di Aristofane, Bari 2004 pp. 122-3, which provides other bibliographical references on the topic.

7. As to ἀπάτη and ἀλαζών in Aristophanes, a valuable analysis has also been provided by S. Sciarrotta, “Aristofane e l’APATH”, in G. Arrighetti (ed), Poesia Greca. Ricerche di filologia classica, IV, Pisa 1995, pp. 213-30.

8. As for the association of Ariphrades with the Sophists, namely Anaxagoras, and the related abuse by Aristophanes, see E. Degani, Arifrade l’anassagoreo, in Maia XII (1960), 190-217, and P. Totaro, Le seconde parabasi di Aristofane (Drama: Beiträge zum antiken Drama und seiner Rezeption, Bd.9), Stuttgart 2000 2, pp. 41-5.

9. This would be in accordance with B.’s explanation of Praxagora’s isolated usage of λαλεῖν (p. 161): see above n. 5. As to the possible, allusive association of Lamia mentioned in Women at Parliament 76-8 with the well-known petens Lamia mentioned elsewhere, see M. Bonanno, Studi su Cratete, Padova 1972, pp. 39-40, 103-5.

10. I discussed this topic in βωμολόχος, βωμολόχευμα, βωμολοχεύεσθαι : alcune considerazioni sul lessico aristofaneo, Sileno 2005 [forthcoming].