BMCR 2021.04.36

Aristophanes and politics: new studies

, , Aristophanes and politics: new studies. Columbia studies in the classical tradition, volume 45. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2020. Pp. x, 286. ISBN 9789004424456 €112,00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The innocuous conjunction in the title hints at options, as if the comedian could choose to confront organized Athenian life or escape being a supercharged conductor of social relations in the polis. Thankfully, these dozen essays transcend the tired questions (from the late 18th-century onward) of “Aristophanes’ politics” that subjected the playwright to the historical equivalent of Gallup polling.[1] Provocative and nuanced, most of them succeed in showing, by contrast, how the dramatist embodies and enacts a public role: Aristophanes is politics.

The book’s genesis in a Columbia conference a month preceding the 2016 presidential election (surely looming in the background) goes mysteriously unmentioned in the brief introduction; only in a footnote (p.42) does one catch wind. Ten of the fourteen talks delivered there are here. The result is balanced in terms of gender, although less in terms of career stage (eight authors are quite senior). At times, one seems to be intruding on conversation at a club whose members share a long acquaintance. Thematic subgrouping of essays is not attempted, although several schemes could apply—by play and era, for instance (three deal with the early comedies Acharnians, Knights, Babylonians, two with Birds). The reader is therefore advised to skip around.

Best to start with the analytical overview in Ruffell’s chapter on populist debate. Brexit and Trump are adduced as phenomena that transgress (hardly “transcend”) the Left vs. Right binary, an analogy for the volatile mix of emotion-fueled decision-making by Athenian assembly and courts. Consistent policy was not a strong point of the fickle dêmos, as Knights and Wasps accurately reflect. Despite what Thucydides might want us to think, however, the Cleon-type who could surf and work this fluidity was not an outlier, but rather a typical product as much as cause of the underlying tumult. Nor was Aristophanes required to be consistent. Comedy’s fantastic dramatic metaphors matched the non-logical manipulations of populist politics; playwrights thus resembled the demagogues they denounced. “Broad oppositionalism” (76) predominated. It is a refreshing, albeit ominous, view.

Next read Rosen, who aptly applies the inherent dynamic of satire—its disorienting blend of serious critique and comic hyperbole—to show that pinpointing Aristophanic “views” is chimerical. A detailed analysis of Jon Stewart’s modus operandi (articulated in a 2011 Fox News interview) explains how the “unreliable if not duplicitous authorial voice” entices audiences ancient and modern by its very indeterminacy. Being “informed by ideology” but not an ideologue seems a slender distinction, but it spells the difference between comedian and political commentator. If this was Aristophanes’ approach (as it was Stewart’s), we should be wary of even “personal” revelations dished out by the parabases of the Acharnians and Frogs. Rosen pointedly asks (echoing Gomme): if we could know the poet’s politics, what would it get us? [2]

Then, Henderson is good for fleshing out a complementary view. He takes seriously the story of Aristophanes’ prosecution by Cleon, and the various decrees targeting onomasti kômôidein, as well as the Old Oligarch’s assertion (Ath.Pol. 2.18) that ridicule of the dêmos was not allowed. Thus, Old Comedy did pose some level of political threat, but found ways to avoid risking outright abuse. Among the “salient patterns of restraint” he reckons avoidance of actionable slander and nervous hedging about people like Alcibiades (and even Cleon). A useful survey of possible “political” plays from Nemesis by Cratinus (431, about Pericles) to Rhinon by Archippus (c.402), reveals a spike in the early war years; but “engaged” comedy was not typical of the genre, “any more than (say) Fox and Friends or Breitbart News are typical of broadcast news” (52). There is, of course, the evidentiary gap: eleven full productions survive, all but two of which were first produced in the 5th century, which saw a grand total of around 650 comedies staged.  From titles and fragments, myth-comedy looks like the default, easing the way via allegory into the shorter-lived demagogue comedies and flooding back in the late 5th century. Henderson detects, in another gap, an “elite bias” (55) suppressing attacks on kaloi kagathoi (i.e. the poets’ own class). Was this the hidden politics of the genre?

Three other contributions on specific aspects can be read in any order. The only chapter that fully reimagines and expands the scope of “politics,” Halliwell’s satisfyingly complex analysis, turns to the microscale of “the street” instead of legal and institutional parts of the politeia. His focus is “areas of paradox within democracy’s social ideology” (117), his key passages being Clouds 1171-1214), Wasps 1415-71, and Ecclesiazusae 746-73. The first, Strepsiades’ encounter with a creditor, illustrates among other things the importance of intra-deme relations; the second, Philokleon’s abuse of his accusers, inverts democratic values (but perhaps feeds an audience’s impulse to follow suit); the third, in Halliwell’s view, captures the most frankly real political argument between citizens. All told, such exchanges provide “civically imaginable possibilities” in tension with institutions. The method merits extension to a range of encounters involving citizens and others (women, slaves, foreigners) at the edges of the polis, necessitating a monograph. This is a great start.

Imperio rightly locates Aristophanes within the doubly competitive matrix of contemporary rivals and influential predecessors, reminding us of the distortions produced by the loss of plays like Marikas (421) by Eupolis, Plato Comicus’ explicit attacks on Hyperbolus, Cleophon and Peisander, and (most regretted) Dionysalexandros by Cratinus (429, a satire on Pericles, whom, in thrall to Thucydides, moderns refuse to classify as a demagogue). Similarly, we innocently believe Aristophanes’ claim that it was he who invented demagogue-bashing (Clouds 547-59)—to our peril, given the revised stretch of trash-talk in which it is embedded. Her splendidly detailed analysis of the careers of demagogues and their comedic critics puts this braggadocio in a new light. She, too, zeroes in on the playwright’s apparent failures to attack: why not an all-out takedown of Alcibiades or Hyperbolus? Imperio’s answer is that Aristophanes knew which way the wind was blowing and tacked to avoid crashing out of the scene (even if Eupolis was not really drowned for his Baptai). Her study complements Henderson’s, with both drawing meaning from what did not get staged.

DeKlerk adapts recent ways to calibrate speaker-identity and air-time in TV shows and movies in order to explore who speaks most on the Aristophanic stage. Foregrounding slaves and women, she counts their words, producing few surprises: 56.8% of the 82.3% of words that are spoken by males come from free males; total counts include 12% free females, 9.8% male slaves, 0.2% female slaves. If we trust this measurement of diversity, tragedy boasts much more gender equity. But the basis for comparison seems shaky at best. Picking three plays each from the three major tragedians—but the earliest plays of each, which include Suppliants, Medea and Antigone—surely sets up skewed numbers. As for Aristophanes, what if we had Lemniai or Poiesis to toss into the tally? Her quantifications lead to larger musings on myth-based tragedy vs real-life comedy and supposedly related political structures (autocracies, based on an oikos, vs. democracies, based on a polis). Unsurprisingly, tragic households feature important women speaking more lines. DeKlerk acknowledges that further categories—age, class, occupation, and so forth—are called for. The method clearly needs a comprehensive data-set to work, but even then it is not clear what we learn.

Of the five chapters centered on single plays—best read after the above-mentioned broader pieces—the two on Birds are richest and most provocative. Telò applies Jacques Rancière’s notion of dissensus to Cloudcuckooland, which he sees rapidly evolve from refuge for Athenian dissidents into tightly policed community that brooks no interlopers—a paradoxical reflex of any democratic regime. Being called lovers of the “community” (xunousia, line 324) in the realm of Tereus has its darker side, suggesting as it does the backstory rape of Philomela. Enlisting Zita Nunes’ Cannibal Democracy for his close reading of metaphor and diction, Telò uncovers “quasi-cannibalistic incorporation” (222) of the hidden Procne’s song by Tereus as well as examples of “phonemic ingestion” (e.g. by itô) as one language devours another. Whimsical aperçus aside, the crucial big points—that democracy “swallows its constituents,” the Sicilian expedition fatally lacked dissenters (Thuc.6.18.24) and societies need “conflicted consensus”—are major gains from Telò’s sophisticated deployment of contemporary thinkers.

Hall grounds the birds’ territory in political space, specifically Thrace, showing that the long tradition of utopian-fantasy readings, or those focused solely on the comedy’s relation to Sicily, miss vital features relevant to wealthy Athenians who exploited their lawless colonial northland. These Thraikophoitai (Aristophanes’ neologism, from Gerytades) are the true satiric targets, and beneath the comic mask present a more menacing face: less Dr. Dolittle (as Hall quips), more Mr. Kurtz. The argument is original, powerful, and bracing. Through dozens of precise topographic, paratragic and thematic details, Hall constructs a convincing case, with a surprise coda: “Peisetairos” (whatever its echoes of Peisander and Peisistratus) resembles in name a back-country Thracian trading town called Pistiros, founded around the era of Birds.

Papathanasopoulou discovers in Acharnians a concern with the political importance of the oikos that anticipates in its robust appreciation the Oikonomikos by Xenophon (the dramatic date of which postdates the play by only a few years). In foregrounding the house and family of Dikaiopolis, the comedy provides an implicit rebuke to the Periclean military policy of uprooting people from outlying demes and confining them within the walls. Hers is a systematically optimistic interpretation, in which the hero’s personal agora offers a point-by-point alternative to the dysfunctional Pnyx; the Rural Dionysia, really taking place back at his deme (rather than, as I would argue, in his grubby temporary digs), is presented as a normative public ritual; and the drunken Choes has at least some family-friendly aspects. Other scholars, stressing the protagonist’s emergent Cyclopean autarky, have reacted more cynically. But this reading has the advantage of uniting disparate dramatic scenes into an organic whole.

Steiner takes a cue from the polugrammatos chorus of Babylonians (71 K.-A.) to range over further associations of graphology, choreia, and political force. Although much is unclear (whether the choral crew, if they are rowers, was branded by Persians or new Athenian owners; are state or private property; or each represented a different Ionic letter), broader thematic connections, tying coercion and manipulation to the “documentary habit,” can be fruitfully entertained. From annoying psêphismata (Birds 1035f.) to the aesthetics of letter-shapes in relation to sex and dance (Eccles. 918), Steiner investigates a fascinating and full collection of ludic dramatic alphabet usage (including, inevitably, the much-discussed Grammatikê Tragôidia by Callias) She ends up with the relationship of vase dipinti to what appear to be choral events (e.g the Oltos dolphin-rider psykter in New York), providing a neat circular return to the dynamic of free-born chorusmen who may represent slaves.

Osborne sides with Christopher Pelling in seeing as unimportant whether or not Cleon dragged the playwright to court for his Babylonians (40) or even whether Paphlagon in Knights is unmistakably the demagogue: what counts is that comedy confronts incongruous and uncomfortable problems and themes, rather than named politicians.[3] It is difficult to find any advance here beyond the scepticism of Gomme. Much is made of Paphlagon never being unmasked on stage, which Osborne thinks allows for “unlimited semiosis.” Knights more generally alludes to larger patterns in the polis, the “monstruous aspects of demagogic politics.” (Did Cleon miss that memo?). Seeking contemporary analogies for this kind of fuzzier attitudinal critique, Osborne fastens on a jokey ballad by a BBC entertainer from the 1980s whom the British apparently found hilarious (only confirming the adage: all comedy is local).

Paul Cartledge, with a more persuasive position than that put forth by his sometime Cambridge colleague, finishes off the volume with a six-page afterword (aligned with his 1989 book) that re-asserts the real political impact of Aristophanes.[4]

Authors and titles

Introduction / Helene P. Foley and Ralph M. Rosen
Ralph M. Rosen, “Prolegomena: accessing and understanding Aristophanic politics.”
Robin Osborne, “Politics and laughter: the case of Aristophanes’ Knights.”
Jeffrey Henderson, “Patterns of avoidance and indirection in Athenian political satire.”
I. A. Ruffell, “Conservative and radical: Aristophanic comedy and populist debate in democratic Athens.”
Olimpia Imperio, “Aristophanes’ political comedies and (bad?) imitations.”
Stephen Halliwell, “Politics in the street: some citizen encounters in Aristophanes.”
Carina de Klerk, “The politics of diversity: a quantitative analysis of Aristophanes.”
Nina Papathanasopoulou, “Strong household, strong city: space and politics in Aristophanes’ Acharnians.”
Edith Hall, “Aristophanes’ Birds as satire on Athenian opportunists in Thrace.”
Mario Telò, “The politics of dissensus in Aristophanes’ Birds.”
Deborah Steiner, “Inscribing Athenians: the alphabetic chorus in Aristophanes’ Babylonians and the politics and aesthetics of inscription and conscription in fifth-century Athens.”
Paul Cartledge, “Afterword: the Boy from Cydathenaeum: some concluding reflections.”


[1] See the invaluable survey by Philip Walsh, “A study in reception: the British debates over Aristophanes’ politics and influence,” Classical Receptions Journal 1 (2009) 55–72.

[2] A. W. Gomme, “Aristophanes and Politics,” CR 52 (1938) 97-109. His agnosticism is the starting-point of modern debate, as many of these chapters illustrate.

[3] Pelling, C. Literary Texts and the Greek Historian. London: Routledge, 2000 (p. 148).

[4] Aristophanes and His Theatre of the Absurd. London: Duckworth, 1989.