BMCR 2007.07.65

Nature, Culture, and the Origins of Greek Comedy: A Study of Animal Choruses

, Nature, culture, and the origins of Greek comedy : a study of animal choruses. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiv, 326 pages, 8 pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521860660 $80.00.

Table of Contents

Kenneth Rothwell’s (hereafter R.) Nature, Culture, and the Origins of Greek Comedy: A Study of Animal Choruses (hereafter Origins) assembles and interprets an impressive array evidence for human representations of animals—vase-painting, non-dramatic literary sources, comic fragments, and complete plays of Aristophanes—in order “to reconstruct different volumes of the ‘cultural encyclopedia of the viewer'” (p. 4). Such a reconstruction of how ancient Greeks perceived both animals and, more generally, the relationship between nature and culture expands our “local knowledge” of the dramatic functions of animal choruses in the comedies in which they feature. If the subtitle of R.’s book, “A Study of Animal Choruses,” suggests a highly selective, experts-only audience, this is misleading. Origins addresses a number of broader questions, most notably the historical and cultural origins of ancient drama—not just of the animal-chorus variety—and the role of performance in Greek antiquity. This is a handsome volume, with nineteen illustrations, eight of which are color plates, and two utilitarian appendices, one collecting testimonia and fragments (with Greek texts and translations) of lost comedies that R. treats in his Chapter 4, another documenting representations of animals that are noteworthy, if not relevant to comic choruses per se. The first three chapters of Origins address contexts for choral performance, depictions of animal choruses in vase-painting, and attitudes toward animals and satyrs in Classical Greece. These chapters set forth the leading ideas for R.’s study of animal choruses in specific works of comic drama in Chapters 4 and 5.

Chapters 1 and 2 weigh the evidence for “the possible ritual origins of animal choruses” (p. 3). In Chapter 1, ” Komos, Symposium, and Performance,” R. analyzes sixth-century depictions of non-animal performances (the depiction of performances by animal choruses is the topic of Chapter 2). The chapter has two main sections. The first section convincingly argues that the komos, “a ritualistic, drunken procession” (p. 7), was not exclusive to any particular context, such as Dionysiac cult or the symposium. However, in light of the fact that the symposium was a domain of aristocratic social practices, the link between symposium and komos, which could include humans performing in costumes, indicates that social class must be accounted among the sources for animal choruses. Claims for the ritual origins of comic animal choruses are even contradicted by the fact that there is no evidence that the animals conventionally associated with cults of Dionysus and Artemis—for Dionysus, panthers, lions, and fawns; for Artemis, bears and stags—were used in comedies or choral performances.1 The second main section of Chapter 1 evaluates the evidence for pre-dramatic performances in archaic Greece, including dancers wearing grotesque padded garments, phallika“phallic songs,” satyrs, and a group that R. labels “costumed non-phallic dancers”: “men wearing ears, walking on stilts, swathed in cloaks, and standing on their heads” (p. 28). This battery of documentation supports R.’s claim that comic animal choruses had a wide variety of sources.

Chapter 2, “Animal Choruses: The Evidence of Vase-Painting,” corroborates Chapter 1’s study of non-animal choruses: performances involving animal costumes emerged in the context of symposia, not religious practices associated with agriculture or fertility. This is not to say that ritual origins for animal choruses are to be ruled out. For example, R. interprets some visual documents of animal choruses as representations of “coming-of-age transitions,” which have a ritual context, albeit not one defined by agriculture or fertility. R. processes a wide array of animal depictions in vase-painting: “knights,” boys or young men who straddle the shoulders of men in horse costume; bull-headed dancers; bird choruses; dolphin-riders; and ostrich-riders. Consistent with his goal of building a cultural “encyclopedia of the viewer,” R. prefaces his interpretation of the iconography of vase-paintings with a description of local attitudes toward each animal.

Greeks of the fifth century began to perceive animals in new ways. Chapter 3, “Animals and Satyrs in Classical Greece: An Excursus,” isolates four topoi in attitudes toward animals: the savagery of animals; civilization as a rejection of animal savagery; affinities between humans and animals; and the anthropomorphic attribution of social order to animals. For each of these topoi, R. tracks changes in attitudes toward animals that emerged in the classical period: tragedy, epic, and historiography viewed animals as hostile to humans, while comedy, which took shape in the fifth century, perceived animals as unthreatening. A crucial motivation for this change in perception of animals—and an important theme in Chapters 4 and 5 of Origins —is the corresponding change in the intellectual tide from an archaic “conception of history as a degenerative process,” best exemplified by Hesiod’s account of the five ages in his Works and Days, to a “Theory of Progress,” according to which human history is a process of moving from a state of no social organization to highly organized communities (pp. 85-88). Chapter 3’s survey of ancient Greek attitudes toward animals finally demonstrates that “there was no such thing as a neutral representation of animals,” so that comic artists entered a wide-open field of cultural and attitudinal resonances with any selection of animal chorus, image, or reference (p. 91). The chapter then examines how satyr plays exhibit imagery thematically associated with civilization (fire, hunting, metal-working, wine, athletics, plastic arts, spelling, music, paidotrophia child-rearing) and the possession of a wide range of skills (e.g. music and medicine). After looking at each of these themes, R. turns to an analysis of Euripides’ Cyclops and concludes the chapter by stressing that “[t]he animal choruses [of comedies] belonged to a particular historical moment” (p. 101).

With this understanding that animal choruses belong to a particular ideological context firmly in place, Chapters 4 and 5 turn to the works of Aristophanes and comic fragments that include animal choruses. Since R. sees Aristophanes’ Birds as the premier example of a comic use of an animal chorus, he dedicates an entire chapter to that play, including the other examples of comic animal choruses in Chapter 4 “The Literary Fragments and Aristophanes’ Knights, Wasps, and Frogs.” Due to changes in ways of viewing the relationship between nature and culture described in Chapter 3, depictions of animals in comic choruses at the end of the fifth century differed from their representations in archaic vase-painting. There was a greater tendency to anthropomorphize animals in the classical period, for one thing. Still, it is possible to detect strains of continuity between archaic and late-fifth-century representations of animals: first, in some comic choruses, animals represent fertility and potency, thus reflecting perceptions of nature that were less contested prior to the changes in intellectual climate of the fifth century; second, between comic animal choruses and the use of animal costumes in symposia and komoi. R. highlights the story of animal choruses from the late archaic to classical periods that archaeological and literary evidence tells: around 510-480 BCE animal choruses were popular; apart from the possible exception of Magnes’ comedies, which cannot be dated securely, animal choruses disappear through the middle of the fifth century; then, there was a revival of animal choruses around 440-410 BCE; at the beginning of the fourth century, animal choruses disappear. R. considers: what accounts for the revival of animal choruses toward the end of the fifth century?; and what would these choruses have meant to their audience? R. organizes his discussion of comedies according to species: insects, edible animals, frogs, and horses. The section that treats comic choruses of edible animals, in which R. explores the implications of his Chapter 3 discussion of nature and culture. provides an illustration of how this chapter works. In light of both the classical-period view of nature as a reflection of culture and the tendency to anthropomorphize animals, tensions arise when animals are humanized: it makes it harder to eat them; yet eating animals is a human social practice. For each of the comedies that have choruses of edible animals—Crates’ Beasts, Archippus’ Fishes, the Comoedia Dukiana (a papyrus with fifty lines of Greek comic dialogue), Eupolis’ Nanny-Goats, Magnes’ Birds, Crates II’s Birds, Aristophanes’ Storks, and Cantharus’ Nightingales —R. discusses, first, the condition of their textual remains and, second, the ways in which these works reflect aspects of the “cultural encyclopedia of the viewer” that he has reconstructed in Chapters 1, 2, and 3.

In Chapter 5, “Aristophanes’ Birds and the Rise of Civilization,” R. makes a case for interpreting Aristophanes’ most sophisticated use of an animal chorus as “a parody of the theories that traced the rise of civilization from savagery” (p. 151). In particular, R. explores how Aristophanes’ story about the founding of Nephelococcygia parallels Thucydides’ account of the rise of Hellenic civilization in the “Archaeology,” which is a premier example of ancient Greek reconstructions of human history based upon the “Theory of Progress.” The “Theory of Progress” and Aristophanes’ Birds have parallel storylines: the vulnerability of unsettled life in nature is attended by primitive conditions; mythology explains the origins of the polis by attributing such features of social organization as agriculture to a divine source; military organization emerges as a form of “pre-civic solidarity”; leadership of a prominent figure (Peisetaerus in the Birds, Minos in Thucydides’ “Archaeology”) further shapes the social conditions necessary for the polis; Prometheus enters the storyline as a benefactor to human civilization (in the Birds the god legitimates Peisetaerus’ ambitions); and finally, the story culminates with the appearance of more refined features of polis culture such as building projects, language, fire, agriculture, cooking, religion, science, commerce, and social norms. For each of the motifs in this storyline, R. offers a definition, documents literary sources, brings in evidence and arguments from earlier chapters, and, in light of this set-up material, interprets passages from Aristophanes’ Birds. On the basis of R.’s comparative analysis, it is possible to interpret Peisetaerus’ polis as parody of Greek anthropologists who document the “Theory of Progress.” We also see that in his Birds Aristophanes synthesizes the attitudes toward nature and toward the relationship between nature and culture that R. describes in Chapter 3: “The resulting pastiche offers a special vision of nature and society in which nomos and physis are contrived to be largely consistent with one another” (p. 170).

In his Conclusion R. tightly summarizes the main ideas in Origins, ending his book with a concise statement of his overall argument: “The animals of these [comic] choruses were presented as creatures that, like Dionysus, abolished the difference that separates men [ sic ] from animals, yet unlike Dionysus they do not shatter the social order in so doing; instead, they confirm it” (p. 185).

To conclude this review, I offer one broad criticism: although it may be unproblematic for many readers, those who hope to find in R.’s Origins an intense engagement with contemporary anthropological methods will be disappointed.2 Despite the ubiquitous concern with performance, ritual, communal perceptions of nature, and ancient Greek views of social history, along with the references to culture, society, civilization, or context on virtually every page of the book, R. does not deliver a statement of his theoretical or methodological stance vis-à-vis these salient anthropological issues. To illustrate a consequence of this, performance understood as an anthropological method of describing and interpreting works of verbal art urges rigorous attention to, among other things, genre. So, how do the differences between Thucydides’ audience (a constitutive feature of genre) and Aristophanes’ inflect R.’s interpretation of how both works speak to the “Theory of Progress”? Is the “Theory of Progress” itself a conventionally recognized genre among ancient Greeks?3 Again, such questions may not concern every reader, but an explicitly stated methodology would be appropriate to Origins : a reconstruction of the “cultural encyclopedia of the viewer” seems especially to want a definitive statement of what mode of perceiving methodologically informs such a reconstruction. This is not to say that R. offers no justification for using, for example, the “Theory of Progress” as a basis of comparison between Aristophanes’ Birds and Thucydides. Indeed, what mitigates my criticism are the facts that R.’s selection of evidence errs, if at all, on the side of being highly inclusive and that his arguments hold together nicely at the particular and global levels. Clearly, R.’s is a work of classical scholarship, a field of discourse that has its own rules for participation, and Origins proceeds accordingly—and is generally successful. R. is tenacious when it comes to demonstrating that the origins of animal choruses are various, not exclusively derived from fertility or agricultural rituals, and this is a needed contribution to the study of ancient drama, given that “[t]he theory of the ritual origin of theatre has become a cultural commonplace.”4 Origins challenges that commonplace, as well as demonstrating that the commonly opposed terms nomos and physis can be synthesized in a complex—and entertaining—perspective of the relationship between culture and nature.


1. R. also discusses a second century BCE sculptural fragment that appears to depict the use of animal costumes in connection with Demeter (pp. 17-18).

2. R. does refer to ethnographic studies (e.g. p. 42 and p. 74), but the function of these references is effectively rhetorical, not methodologically comparative.

3. Instead of the “Theory of Progress,” would it be more productive to interpret Aristophanes’ Birds as a dramatic representation, possibly parody, of colonial narrative, a discursive genre of ancient Greece thoroughly described in Carol Dougherty’s The Poetics of Colonization: From City to Text in Archaic Greece (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993)?

4. Eli Rozik, “The Ritual Origin of Theatre—A Scientific Theory or Theatrical Ideology?” The Journal of Religion and Theatre, Vol. 2, No. 1, 2003, p. 105.