BMCR 2016.08.26

Athenian Comedy in the Roman Empire

, , Athenian Comedy in the Roman Empire. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. vi, 295. ISBN 9781472588838. $39.95 (pb).


Although many texts that mention comedy or comedians have long been used principally as a mining source for evidence about fragmentary plays or for biographical information about comedians, the reception of Athenian comedy has been a booming area of study over the last decade (the edited volume of Olson 2014 is a good example of the breadth of the field),1 and this volume will no doubt be itself mined for the numerous and varied insights of its contributors. Even if at times this is a slightly eclectic collection, the sheer range of authors and contexts where the influence of Athenian comedy can be felt is testament to comedy’s enduring value.

The introduction (“Ignorance and the Reception of Comedy in Antiquity”) makes the volume accessible to those not well versed in the latest trends of comic scholarship by providing a chronological overview of Athenian comedy and laying out some of the key methodological problems we face when approaching the material. Key to these problems is the muse of the book itself, the goddess Agnoia, ignorance or misapprehension (depicted on the cover). Most comic plays survive only in fragments; we often do not know what plays were available to later authors; the picture of imperial comic performances is at best partial. The chapter, then, provides a welcome orientation to both the material and the approaches in the book.

Mathias Hanses begins the more detailed studies with a focus on the reception of Greek New Comedy in Juvenalian satire (“Juvenal and the Revival of Greek New Comedy at Rome”). Juvenal laments the increasing presence and popularity of Greek comic actors in Rome, at one moment reducing the whole of Greece to a comedy ( natio comoeda est, 3.100), as well as its influence on the Roman populace, as the fictional world of comedy breaks the fourth wall and is found spread throughout the city. Hanses sees the satirist’s response, creating poetry that breathes new life into the Roman tradition of comoedia togata, as a deliberately hypocritical strategy that plays into Juvenal’s satiric persona.

Julia Nelson Hawkins’ chapter (” Parrhēsia and Pudenda : Speaking Genitals and Satiric Speech”) asks what we should make of the image of Villius arguing with his own penis at Horace Sat. 1.2.68–72). By putting this passage in the context of other examples of speaking or otherwise autonomous genitalia in Aristophanes (e.g. Ar. Ach. 777–82 and Thesm. 289–91) and by drawing on Žižek’s model of the ‘organ without a body’, she suggests that the image of speaking genitalia is linked to poetics and parrhēsia, so that phallic masculinity can be viewed as one of the many masks donned by the satirist.

Tom Hawkins’ contribution (“Dio Chrysostom and the Naked Parabasis”) examines two speeches of Dio Chrysostom ( Or. 32 and 33) in which Dio offers criticism that is designed to improve the communities he is addressing. This position, Hawkins demonstrates, updates the traditional function of the parabasis, understood not simply in formal terms but also as a ‘locus of creative transgression’ (71, drawing on Biles 2011).2 While this might perhaps be a surprising position for an author who is elsewhere disparaging of comic poetry, Hawkins demonstrates that Dio in these speeches draws upon a range of old comic poets.

Ryan Samuels (“Favorinus and the Comic Adultery Plot”) focuses on how Favorinus of Arles deployed the image of the eunuch adulterer as part of an ongoing rhetorical rivalry. Samuels begins by demonstrating Menander’s introduction of this device into the comic adultery plot as well as his significance as a template for later adaptations, before moving on to survey the scientific and pseudo-scientific sources concerning the sexuality of eunuchs. This lays the groundwork for a discussion of the figure of the eunuch in the literature of the Second Sophistic and more specifically Favorinus’ self-construction as the Gaul turned Hellene who actively promoted the adultery charge levied against him.This ambiguous identity, between potent adulterer and impotent eunuch, poses challenges for conceptions of masculinity that Favorinus manipulates and confounds.

Fritz Graf’s chapter provides an important counterpoint to the more literary discussions by focusing principally on the epigraphic material to re-evaluate the question of the performance of comedy. Focusing on the Demosthenia festival at Oenoanda, Graf’s account demonstrates that comedy continued to flourish in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Not only were classical comedies re-performed, but the production of contemporary plays was sufficiently well regarded that poets could be honoured by particular cities (as in the case of the tragic playwright C. Iulius Longianus) and the ability to draw the best performers to produce plays that had proved popular elsewhere was highly valued. Additionally, Graf reviews evidence for travelling performers, actors, and musicians, who, through their association with the Guild of Dionysiac Artists, provided links between Rome and provincial cities.

C. W. Marshall contributes two chapters to the volume, both of which provide valuable lessons in the complex methodology of the reception of comedy in the Roman world. In the first (“Plutarch, Epitomes, and Athenian Comedy”), Marshall suggests that Plutarch wrote the text known to us as the Comparison of Aristophanes and Menander with much less focus on Aristophanes, but rather with a much wider scope. This chapter adduces a number of reasons why this Comparison is not as straightforward as is commonly assumed and ends with an important reminder: ‘the example is important since it reminds us of the degree to which the way we frame discussions of the reception of comedy in antiquity is often shaped through the accidents of survival’ (p. 137). The second chapter (“Aelian and Comedy: Four Studies”) examines four case studies from Aelian: Socrates’ trip to the theatre to watch the Clouds, Aelian’s direct and indirect knowledge of comedies in the Historical Miscellany more generally, four letters in the Rustic Letters between Callippides and Cnemon (characters in Menander’s Dyscolus), and Eupolis’ Molossian puppy. From these different examples emerges the importance of examining our assumptions about what authors or their audiences actually knew about comedy.

Ralph Rosen provides the first of two chapters on Lucian’s reception of comedy (“Lucian’s Aristophanes: On Understanding Old Comedy in the Roman Imperial Period”). For Rosen, Lucian is virtually unique among his contemporaries for the sophistication of his reading of Old Comedy. The notion of “sophistication” here is exemplified by the Uneducated Book-Collector, whose eponymous figure is satirized for reading but not really understanding Aristophanes and Eupolis (specifically the Baptai). Focusing on Dead come to Life, or the Fisherman and Double Indictment, Rosen argues that Lucian incorporates Old Comic strategies and plots as part of a (sometimes ambiguous or contradictory) defence of his satiric programme.

Ian Storey, meanwhile, takes a wider view of Lucian’s engagement with comedy, which included everyone from Aristophanes to Epicharmus to Menander (“Exposing Frauds: Lucian and Comedy”). By contrast with Rosen, who is principally interested in how Lucian reads comedy, Storey places more focus on what comedies Lucian knew. One important consideration Storey emphasizes is that ‘We cannot use Lucian to say with confidence what was in a lost comedy’ (p. 178, cf. 170) since adaptation, variation, and expansion are key to Lucian’s intertextual strategy. Sometimes, however, Lucian is the best evidence available, and accordingly Storey carefully analyses cases where we might detect influence from comedy. While not every reader will find all of his suggestions convincing, they are always stimulating and his discussion is careful and balanced.

Anna Peterson (“Revoking Comic License: Aristides’ Or. 29 and the Performance of Comedy”) takes the puzzling call for a ban on comic performances at the Dionysia of Smyrna as a locus for revisiting the question of whether comedies were performed in the imperial period, and if so what kind of comedies. On the basis of the Lysimacheia, likely established in AD 181, and a 1st cent. AD inscription from Cos, she suggests that there is a small amount of evidence for the performance and composition of Old Comedy (ἀρχαία κωμῳδία) in the Imperial period. In this context, Aristides’ complaints against the slanderous humour of comedies being performed in Smyrna are re-examined in the context of his wider interest in combining oratory with proper religious practice.

The final two chapters turn to fictional letters. Alciphron takes centre stage in Melissa Funke’s chapter (“The Menandrian World of Alciphron’s Letters“), which argues that Alciphron ‘reorients and recreates the world of Menander’s plays by presenting it from the perspectives of his secondary characters’ (p. 224). Rather than young men or boastful soldiers, the world of Alciphron’s Letters is dominated by hetairai and parasites. In particular, the Letters of Courtesans, Funke argues, is central to Alciphron’s interest in recreating and drawing his audience into a Menandrian Athens with many more references to contemporary events and people. Perspective and temporality are, then, key to Funke’s reading of Alciphron’s collection.

Finally, Emilia Barbiero’s contribution (“Two Clouded Marriages: Aristaenetos’ Allusions to Aristophanes’ Clouds in Letters 2.3 and 2.12″) focuses on the much later collection of letters that goes under the name of Aristaenetus. As a complement to previous scholarship that has found parallels between people and situations in Aristaenetus and Menander, Barbiero produces a nuanced reading that finds cross-epistolary connections between two pairs of letters from books 1 and 2 (1.5 and 22, and 2.3 and 12).

While it is not possible to engage with all of these arguments in detail here, it is worth considering briefly the wider implications these essays collectively bring out. Clearly, the influence of comedy was felt far and wide: satire, oratory, and letter-writing being only a few notable examples, to say nothing of comedy’s continued performance history. At points, however, the volume hints at a more complicated picture that would view comedy in the wider context of the reception of classical literature or humorous texts in general, or both. For example, when Lucian’s personification of Dialogue in the Double Indictment claims that Lucian ‘shut me up in one place with Jest, Iambos, Cynicism, Aristophanes and Eupolis’ (33), comedy’s value as a source of literary inspiration is closely associated with a range of other forms and ideas. We might therefore justifiably ask: how closely related is comedy to these other forms in the Imperial period? What precisely marks comedy out from them? As our understanding of the reception of comedy develops, how comedy fits within the broader matrix of Imperial literature and its reception of classical literature will likely become an important question to address.

Overall, this volume is an important contribution to the field that does much to dispel some of the agnoia with which it begins. A volume such as this one cannot but leave one wanting more, in the most positive sense. There is still much much work to be done on the reception of comedy, and the contributions contained herein will no doubt play a vital role in shaping the direction to come.


1. Olson, S.D., ed., Ancient Comedy and Reception: Essays in Honor of Jeffrey Henderson (Berlin and Boston, 2014).

2. Biles, Z., Aristophanes and the Poetics of Competition (Cambridge, 2011)