BMCR 2008.01.52

Broken Laughter: Select Fragments of Greek Comedy

, Broken laughter : select fragments of Greek comedy. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007. 1 online resource (xviii, 476 pages). ISBN 9781429491853 $135.00.

In his preface to Broken Laughter, S. Douglas Olson admits that there might have been an easier way to construct this book. He could have worked through the thousands of scraps of fragmentary Greek comedies, targeted a few hundred of the more interesting bits, slapped them together in some obvious chronological or alphabetical arrangement, and provided a serviceable commentary. A quick glance at this attractively produced and cleverly titled book will show, however, that O. preferred to do something quite different. The result is a magnificent and easy-to-use gateway into the world of Greek comedy beyond the complete plays of Aristophanes and Menander. And unlike some who have preceded O. in this vein, his project resists the urge to highlight certain better-preserved authors and instead seeks to flaunt the breadth of comic poetry in one fell swoop.1 More than just a text and commentary, Broken Laughter provides convenient one-stop shopping for scholarship, graduate seminars, and even undergraduate teaching.

Caveat lector: be sure not to skip the Preface, for it is here that O. explains his strategies and scope. Most importantly, he conceives of this book as a more accessible alternative to the “seeming tracklessness” (vii) of the huge corpus of comic fragments. With the TLG and PCG,2 we can now quickly access such texts, but O. offers to lead us through these dark woods with the promise that we will come out on the other side having learned something about the wider world of Greek comedy. Here we also find that O. has regretfully chosen not to address the massive and important question of the relationship between Roman comedies and their Greek models, has cautiously decided against overmuch speculation about the plots and speakers of isolated fragments, and, with a bit of reluctance, has accommodated his publishers by including an English translation of all the fragments (found in the back of the book as Appendix IV). It would be enlightening to hear more from O. about the first of these matters, though any serious treatment of it might well have rendered the book unbalanced or excessively long. The second issue O. leaves as a challenge to his audience to ferret out what details we can about the wider theatrical contexts. And the third move is, despite O’s apparent hesitation, very successful. It is, in fact, the presence of the English translations that will make this book a valuable resource for undergraduate teaching as well as more scholarly endeavors.

With this plan in mind, O. eschews any slap-dash approach that might have produced a useful “pocket PCG” for specialists; instead, he has crafted a book for those of us who have not (and don’t plan to) read every word in the valuable but compendious volumes of the PCG. To that end, he has grouped the fragments into the following ten lettered categories: A. Doric Comedy; B. Attic ‘Old Comedy’; C. ‘Middle’ and ‘New’ Comedy; D. The Reception of Other Poetry; E. Politics and Politicians; F. Philosophy and Philosophers; G. Food and Dining; H. Wine and Symposia; I. Women; J. Aspects of Daily Life. The whole thing starts off with the briefest of metrical overviews and a short introduction, and concludes with four important appendices, and both a Greek and a general index.

The introduction (pp. 1-32) is dense but rewarding, and it facilitates thinking beyond our Athenian and Aristophanic comfort zones. Our tour swiftly takes us into the shadowy beginnings of Greek comedy when familiar comic features, such as the chorus and the parabasis, cannot be assumed. O. presents a reasonable and balanced view of this hodge-podge of evidence for the earliest period and avoids getting bogged down with the question of origins with this eclectic conclusion: “Syracusan comedy and literary mime, Attic comedy, and most likely Megarian comedy as well are independent expressions of a single, non-choral, late archaic performance tradition, which in Attica was uniquely combined with a separate, probably indigenous choral form perhaps already influenced by Corinthian ‘padded dancers'” (12). The discussion juggles themes of West and East, old and new, mythical and topical plots, and it eventually finds its way to the better-attested world of Aristophanes and Menander. But without privileging these familiar figures as any sort of telos, we are soon off again into the murkier topics of transmission, preservation and reception. Not surprisingly for someone who has recently undertaken the task of producing new Loeb editions of Athenaeus, O. shows great care and sensitivity to those post-classical authors whose citations (often at second or third hand and without any suggestion of context) comprise the majority of our fragments of Greek comedy.

The ten sections that make up the bulk of O’s book follow a straightforward pattern. Each fragment is referenced with a letter and number according to O’s system and with its PCG number; the title and date of the play, whenever known, are listed; and a minimal apparatus follows. Here O’s decision to group fragments thematically pays off with, for example, the clustering of four texts that all deal with various comic utopias in which rivers flow with wine, trees shed calamari and sausage instead of leaves, fish roast themselves, and the crockery washes up on its own after a dinner (B32-5).3 A similar effect emerges from the series of fragments that deal with the major Athenian political figures Pericles (E10-14), Phormio (E15), Cleon (E16-19), Nicias (E20-22), Hyperbolus (E23-25), and Alcibiades (E26-27).4 By collecting such material rather than distributing it throughout the book O. makes the minor sacrifice of losing the feel for an individual author that would come from simply putting together all the fragments from one poet, but this is more than compensated for, since it affords us the opportunity to see more easily the ways in which various authors treated specific themes or subjects.

O almost always follows the PCG in his texts, though he occasionally diverges from Kassel-Austin, as in the first fragment he prints from Cratinus’ Wineflask (fr. 193), where O. accepts three emendations proposed by Bentley but not accepted in the PCG. The text is in bad shape, but O’s second emendation in particular improves the reading significantly. The speaker seems to be describing the character “Cratinus” and his recent extramarital dalliances. O’s translation of the passage is: “Previously, when he was paying attention to another woman, he behaved badly to another.” At question is the Greek behind the phrase “he behaved badly.” The PCG follows the manuscript in printing κακὰς εἴποι which implies that while “Cratinus” lusts after one woman, he says to a second woman that other women are base. This seems needlessly cumbersome and makes awkward sense. O. follows Bentley and Kaibel in printing κακώς ἐποίει which limits the passage to describing how “Cratinus” behaves toward one woman when he has a crush on another.

As with all collections of this sort, one could question some of O’s choices to include or exclude certain texts. We might have expected to find Cratinus’ Archilochoi (frr. 1-16), for example, under “The Reception of Other Poetry,” and some texts, such as the one delightful fragment of Philetaerus’ Philaulos (fr. 17), could not find an obvious home in O’s categories. The flexibility of these groupings also means that some passages inevitably cross O’s categories, as with the fragments of Menander’s Necklace which appear under “‘Middle’ and ‘New’ Comedy” (C16-17 = frr. 296-297) but which could easily have been assigned to “Women” (Section ἰ, though O. mentions these instances of categorical cross-over in his commentary. All such quibbling, however, will likely derive primarily from the quirks of one’s own particular research interests. O’s instincts and discrimination have led him to set forth an ample and varied buffet for the majority of us about which few will complain. Anyone whose nose is out of joint about the selections offered here likely owns a few well-thumbed volumes of the PCG already and therefore falls outside O’s target audience.

After each group of fragments there follows a generous (though by O’s own admission not exhaustive) commentary, and those who are familiar with O’s fine editions of Aristophanes will not be disappointed with Broken Laughter on this score. The highlight of these pages is, to my mind, the thorough job that O. does in contextualizing each fragment not so much within its own play or plot (something that he does do when possible) but, more importantly, within the world of Greek comedy more generally. Take, for example, the book’s first fragment, which comes from Epicharmus’ Bousiris (fr. 18). In addition to comments about the Bousiris myth and Bousiris in better-known Greek literature, such as Isocrates’ text by that name, we also learn about other comedies (and a satyr play) entitled Bousiris and other comic fragments that reference Egypt or Heracles. Such information serves to ensconce a fragment, which, on its own, might not seem to be remarkable, within the broader themes, tropes, images, and rhetoric of comedy.

In rare instances I felt that O’s categories might be unnecessarily limiting his commentary. For example, under the heading of “Politics and Politicians” we find Antiphanes fr. 194 from his play Sappho (E7). The text records a game in which Sappho asks a riddle of an unnamed character. She is thinking of something feminine, that protects its children who, though mute, can be heard far and near by some people but not others. The interlocutor suggests a political interpretation, which turns out to be wrong, and Sappho then says that she was speaking of a wax writing tablet whose children are inscribed words. O’s comments and cross-references on the incorrect political interpretation are more thorough and helpful than on the proper solution to the riddle. Although the idea of a motherly writing tablet falls outside the purview of his political categorization of this fragment, it would not have been out of place to mention a few other cases of strange textual progeny, such as the parabasis to Aristophanes’ Clouds where the chorus leader speaks of the playwright as an unwed girl who exposed her child/play (presumably Banqueters) for others to raise (i.e. produce) or Plato’s Phaedrus where texts are described as orphans who can’t adequately account for themselves in the absence of their parent/author.

Appendix I, “Epigraphic Evidence for the Chronology of Attic Comedy,” offers a concise preview of work to come from O, whose forthcoming collaboration with Benjamin Millis will provide us with an updated text and a thorough discussion of the so-called “Fasti” (IG II2 2318) and “Didascaliae” (IG II2 2319-25). O. does an admirable job of presenting terribly intricate arguments in a clear and readable fashion. The intersection of detailed epigraphic work with a host of cross-references allows O. to tighten our focus on many important questions of dating, such as Eupolis’ first victory at the City Dionysia, which O. places no earlier than 426, several years later than Wilhelm had suggested.5 Appendix II, “Conspectus Numerorum,” conveniently provides separate chronological and alphabetical lists of the poets whose fragments appear in the book, with each fragment tagged to the numbering of both the present volume and the PCG. Appendix III, “The Poets,” sets out a sketch of each playwright. Unavoidably, these bios tend to be chocked full of little more than lists of titles and information about the number and dates of victories won and plays composed. Yet even this dry rhetoric has a point — the fact that we have the titles for 27 plays by, for example, the easily forgettable Timocles once again reminds us of the rich and flourishing world of comedy that remains almost totally hidden from our view. Appendix IV presents O’s own flowing translations of the fragments. While these pages allow serious students quick and easy access to the material covered in this book, I would hope that these translations might also serve as fodder for undergraduate courses on Greek culture, since they contain a great wealth of fascinating stories that could be brought in to classes dealing with gender, sympotic culture, ancient medicine, the presentation of public intellectuals, etc.

Broken Laughter is just the latest example of the robust state of scholarship on Greek comedy. O. is a major player in that world, and this book makes a welcome contribution. In addition to its obvious scholarly value, I can easily imagine it being used in graduate seminars on comedy or classical Greek culture (or even, in departments that regularly teach comedy at that level, as the centerpiece for a seminar exclusively on comic fragments) and as a valuable tool for undergraduate teaching. Together with the PCG and volumes such as The Rivals of Aristophanes and Beyond Aristophanes,6 Broken Laughter will help break new ground in rendering more accessible the world of Greek comedy beyond Aristophanes and Menander. I would not be at all surprised if this volume contributes, as O. hopes it will, to a burgeoning of interest in these rich but orphaned fragments.


1. As compared with the narrower focus of, e.g., A.M. Belardinelli et al., eds., Tessere. Frammenti della commedia greca: studi e commenti (Studi e Commenti 12: Bari, 1998).

2. R. Kassel and C. Austin, Poetae Comici Graeci (1983- ).

3. Crates fr. 16 PCG, Teleclides fr. 1, Pherecrates fr. 137, and Aristophanes fr. 581.

4. Pericles: Eupolis fr. 102, Teleclides fr. 45, Cratinus fr. 258, Cratinus fr. 259, Hermippus fr. 47; Phormio: Adespota comica fr. 957; Cleon: Adespota comica fr. 461, Eupolis fr. 331, Eupolis fr. 316, Plato Comicus fr. 115; Nicias: Aristophanes fr. 102, Phrynichus Comicus fr. 62, Teleclides fr. 44; Hyperbolus: Eupolis fr. 193, Plato Comicus fr. 183, Plato Comicus fr. 203; Alcibiades: Pherecrates fr. 164, Adespota comica fr. 123.

5. A. Wilhelm, Urkunden dramatischer Aufführungen in Athen (Sonderschriften des Oesterreichischen archäologischen Institutes in Wien VI: Vienna, 1906; reprint Amsterdam, 1965).

6. D. Harvey and J. Wilkins, eds., The Rivals of Aristophanes (London, 2000). G.W. Dobrov, ed., Beyond Aristophanes (American Classical Studies 38: Atlanta 1995).