BMCR 2015.09.08

Κωμικός Στέφανος

, Κωμικός Στέφανος: νέες τάσεις στην έρευνα της αρχαίας ελληνικής κωμωδίας. Rethymnon: Editions of the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Crete, 2014. Pp. 179. ISBN 9789609430104 (pb).

The volume comprises eight papers on ancient Greek comedy, some of which were presented at a one-day conference held by the Philology Department of the University of Crete in 2011. As the editor Melina Tamiolaki states in the Introduction (pp. 9–13), the papers cover all three periods of comedy (Old, Middle and New), some address issues of reception, and “each expresses a new method or approach, which can feed the speculation of the researchers and consequently function as a research tool” (9).

Emmanuela Bakola, in her paper entitled “Cratinus reads Aeschylus: The Erinyes and the Wealth of the Earth” (pp. 17–43), a more extensive version of which has already been published in English,1 argues that Cratinus’ Ploutoi forms “one of the earliest known cases of reception of the Oresteia ” (17). Bakola bases her argument mainly on the (supposedly) chthonic nature of the Chorus of Ploutoi in Cratinus and of Erinyes in the Oresteia, and also more generally on the supposed emphasis that Cratinus places on the concepts of wealth, earth and the chthonic element. I find this interpretation not very convincing: starting from a hypothesis, it misconstrues the overall character of the Erinyes, too easily accepts a specific interpretation of the so-called “carpet scene” in Agamemnon (“hybris towards the wealth of the earth”, p. 33) as self-evidently correct (although there is an extensive and serious discussion of the issue), and generally interprets the sources wilfully. This problematic interpretation of the texts can be illustrated by the three passages from Frogs that supposedly uphold the view that Aristophanes “constructs ‘Aeschylus’ as a tremendous natural/chthonic power” (39). The facts regarding these passages are as follows: ( a) in ll. 818–25 there is a reference to Aeschylus’ “earthborn gust”, but γηγενής here is equivalent to “gigantic” (see Dover ad loc.); ( b) in ll. 847–48 the chthonic element in the intended sacrifice is not associated with Aeschylus but with the typhoon, to which the impetuous Aeschylus is compared. In mythology Typhoeus or Typhon was the youngest son of Tartarus and Gaia, while black storms were generally worshipped like the gods of the Underworld (cf. Verg. Aen. 3.120); ( c) Dionysus’ words to Aeschylus in l. 1462 (“send up your blessings from here”) recall prayers addressed to the underworld gods or to the dead. But these stereotypical words (cf. Kassel–Austin ad Cratin. fr. 172) are meant here as an indication of the great honour that is being rendered to Aeschylus (cf. Radermacher ad loc. [p. 345]).

Νikoletta Kanavou, in her paper “Political Myth in Aristophanes’ Acharnians and Birds : Another Form of Comic Satire?” (pp. 45–59), a translation of a previously published English article,2 focuses on what the author terms the “comic use of ‘political’ myth”,i.e. “the reinterpretation or the reworking of traditional mythical material so that it may bear political significance”. As examples she mentions the presentation of Amphitheus’ genealogy in Acharnians (ll. 46-52) and the emphasis on the mythical past in Birds. These cases, however, are not “another form of comic satire” (70) as she argues. They are not even satire but parody. When she writes, for example, that Aristophanes in the case of Amphitheus, who tries to raise his status through an impressive genealogy, “satirises a known habit in the use of myth” (50), she means nothing more than parody. The author’s starting-point is what she terms “intentional history”, meaning the political use of the myth linked to the past, but she does not succeed in showing what Aristophanes is doing in such cases, chiefly because she confuses the concepts of satire and parody throughout.

In his paper “‘Concerning Phaedra’: The Frogs of Aristophanes and Aristotle’s Poetics, (pp. 61–71), Michael Paschalis attempts to associate the words of ‘Euripides’ in Frogs 1052 (πότερον δ᾽οὐκ ὄντα λόγον τοῦτον περὶ τῆς Φαίδρας ξυνέθηκα;), in which he responds to criticisms of his Stheneboea and Phaedra, with Aristotle’s reference in ch. 14 of the Poetics to “traditional stories”, to the effect that a poet can introduce minor alterations to such stories so long as these do not affect their basic nucleus. According to Paschalis, Euripides’ phrase ὄντα λόγον in the excerpt mentioned above does not mean, as is usually understood, a true story but an “established mythos ” (in the Aristotelian sense), whose basic nucleus ‘Euripides’ would not be allowed to alter — which matches the handling of the plot in both versions of Hippolytus. In other words, Paschalis argues that in Frogs we find “a precursor of an important thesis of Aristotle” (64). Paschalis’s interpretation is an interesting one. However, I would like to note a parallel passage in Frogs that I believe to be particularly relevant to this issue, and which should be taken into consideration in the discussion. In Frogs 849–50 ‘Aeschylus’ addresses ‘Euripides’ thus: ὦ Κρητικὰς μὲν συλλέγων μονῳδίας, / γάμους δ᾽ ἀνοσίους εἰσφέρων εἰς τὴν τέχνην. This is probably an allusion to the tale of Canace and Macareus in Euripides’ Aeolus, but also perhaps to Phaedra and Pasiphae. If one understood exactly what is meant here (cf. also 1079-82), one would have the answer to the discussion opened by Hunter3 and enriched by Paschalis in this paper.

Ioannis Konstantakos, in his paper “From Myth to Laughter: Wondrous Motifs and Comic Strategies in Mythological Comedy” (pp. 75–102), examines the ridiculing of myths in Middle Comedy. He first demonstrates that mythological burlesque is neither connected with rationalising trends nor an indication of impiety; indeed, it is not an exclusively Greek feature, since similar comic narratives are also found in other ancient Near East cultures. Regarding the techniques used by Middle Comedy poets to ‘subdue’ the supernatural motifs, Konstantakos refers to (a) the rationalisation of myth, (b) the placement of those motifs in an urban and domestic context, (c) the bringing of the marvellous to its ultimate logical conclusions, and (d) the combination of mythical motifs with fairy tale elements. Konstantakos’s paper, very rich in ideas, becomes even more fertile when read in tandem with his excellent contribution on fourth-century comedy in The Oxford Handbook of Greek and Roman Comedy (2014).

Kostas Apostolakis focuses, as his title indicates (“In the Twilight of Political Satire: Timocles and the Orators”, pp. 103–24), on the comic poet Timocles, “the most Aristophanic poet of the 4th century BC” (105) due to his direct political satire. The author examines the major targets of Timocles’ satire (Demosthenes and Hyperides from the anti-Macedonian, and Aristomedes from the pro-Macedonian faction) and argues that the resurgence of political satire is fuelled not only by renewed interest in Aristophanes but also by the ad hominem attacks of orators such as Aeschines. The text is well written and the arguments persuasive.4

The contribution by Antonis Petrides, entitled “ Opsis and Intertextuality in the Performance of Menander” (pp. 125–35), examines intertextuality, at the level of both dramatic text and performance, as a basic characteristic, as he sees it, of New Comedy, which due to its special relationship to tragedy is termed a “hybrid” form. Particular weight is placed in this context on the use of masks as elements that permit the relationship with the personality of the characters, and also the relationship with tragedy, to shine through. The connection of masks with physiognomics in particular is certainly a very interesting and promising line of investigation. Petrides’ text has also been published elsewhere, in a more extensive version covering the same basic points.5 The present, abbreviated version is harder to digest as a result of too many theoretical terms being crammed into a short space.

Richard Hunter’s paper is eloquently entitled “Attic Comedy in the Rhetorical and Moralising Traditions” (pp. 139–53). Hunter begins by pointing out the well-known fact that New Comedy was more popular among the educated, who rejected Old Comedy for, among other things, its outspokenness and ‘vulgarity’. But Hunter also shows that in the case of certain authors, such as Lucian and Dio Chrysostom, Old Comedy exerted a considerable influence. His contribution is well written, concise and full of subtle observations. The only drawback in this case is that it is a translation of a text published in the Cambridge Companion to Greek Comedy (edited by M. Revermann in the same year as the present volume).

The final paper in the volume is that by Nikos Litinas, “Reading Aristophanes in the Sands of Egypt” (pp. 155–175). The subject is the evidence of the papyri and ostraka (and also of parchment codices) on the dissemination of Aristophanes’ comedies in Egypt from the 1st century BC to the 7th century AD. According to the useful table Litinas has drawn up (p. 170), there are 51 surviving fragments of comedies by Aristophanes from this period, on papyrus, ostraka or parchment, of which the great majority (34 fragments) date between the 4th and the 7th c. AD. Using both statistics and “microhistory”, the author has two aims: to assess Aristophanes’ popularity and to determine his reading public. I do have some reservations in reference to certain points. For instance, it is not absolutely true that “we do not know if performances were held” of works by Aristophanes after his death (p. 155), since at least the two famous vase-paintings so convincingly treated by O. Taplin in Comic Angels (1993) must be considered as serious evidence for re-performances of Thesmophoriazusae and Frogs in the 370s in Magna Graecia. Moreover, any discussion of the surviving canon of eleven plays by Aristophanes cannot ignore Wilamowitz’s fundamental treatise ( Einleitung in die griechische Tragödie, 180 ff.), which demonstrated that the canon goes back to the “maßgebende Ausgabe” made by Symmachus circa 100 AD. Finally, the statistical tables would be even handier if they contained more detail (e.g. a text written on the verso might suggest that it was intended for use in the schoolroom), and the paper might have benefited from the (old but still useful) book by C.H. Oldfather, The Greek Literary Texts from Greco-Roman Egypt: A Study in the History of Civilization (1923). However, despite these quibbles, this is an interesting and very useful article.

To sum up, the volume contains some interesting papers, although many (or most) of them do not actually propose, as stated in the title and asserted by the editor in the Introduction, “a new method or approach” (at least, no more than in any other comparable volume). The fact that the texts vary in character or style could be viewed as a positive thing, but it is difficult to see the point of publishing a volume in which only half of the papers (four out of eight) are original contributions, while the rest are Modern Greek versions of texts already published in English. The typos are unimportant (with the exception of the failure to mention, on the cover, that the name given is that of the editor and not of the author), while the typographical appearance of the book is not — to put it delicately — very attractive.


1. E. Bakola, “Crime and Punishment: Cratinus on Aeschylus, on the Metaphysics and on the Politics of Wealth”, in Ε. Bakola, L. Prauscello, M. Telo (eds), Greek Comedy and the Discourse of Genres, Cambridge 2013, 226–55.

2. N. Kanavou, “Political Myth in Aristophanes: Another Form of Comic Satire?”, GRBS 51 (2011), 382–400.

3. R. Hunter, Critical Moments in Classical Literature, Cambridge 2009, 25–29.

4. However, there is an error at the beginning of the paper that must be corrected: “for the 5th c. BC” we do not have the “eleven” comedies of Aristophanes but only nine.

5. A. Petrides, “New Performance”, in A.K. Petrides and S. Papaioannou (ed.), New Perspectives of Postclassical Comedy, Newcastle 2014, 79–124.