1998 Volume 5
University College Dublin, Ireland
Old Comedy is not the sort of comedy that we are familiar with, i.e. situation comedy, comedy of errors and manners, of misassumptions and mistaken identities, of type characters, plot and sub-plot, with a romantic interest and an emphasis on the familial and the domestic. All of this depends on Greek New Comedy, the comedy of Menander (career: 325-290 B.C.) which was adapted by the Romans (Plautus and Terence) and through Shakespeare and others became the form of Western Comedy as we know it.
I would ask you to imagine (if you can) in dramatic form a combination of: the slapstick of the Three Stooges, the song & dance of a Broadway musical, the verbal wit of a television show like Cheers or Frasier, the exuberance of Mardi Gras, the parody of a Mel Brooks movie, the outrageous sexuality of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the political satire of Doonesbury or your favourite editorial cartoonist, the fantastic imagination of J.R.R. Tolkien, all wrapped up in the format of a Monty Python movie. Such a creature might be closer to a comedy of the Aristophanic sort.
Old Comedy is fantasy or farce rather than what we might understand by "comedy"; it depends not on complicated plot or subtle interaction of characters, but on the working out of a "great idea" (the more bizarre, the better - e.g. a "private peace" with Sparta [Acharnians], the establishment of Cloudcuckooland [Birds], the "sex strike" that stops the War [Lysistrate]. Imagine a fantastic idea, bring it to pass, and watch the logical (or illogical) conclusions that follow. "Plot" is not a useful word in Aristophanic criticism; of the eleven extant comedies, only Thesmophoriazousai has anything like the linear plot of a modern comedy. The background is always topical and immediate, although we can notice in Ploutos, his last surviving comedy (388), a shift from the problems of Athens to those of all Greece.
In the very best sense of the word, then, assuming that there is a "best sense", Old Comedy is political, rooted in and centred on the polis of Athens in a particular place in time; Aristophanes (and the other comedians of this period, roughly 440-380) make their comedy from the ideas, people, events and issues of the day; his plays are full of politics and politicians, thoughts and thinkers, poets and their poetry, as well as more than the occasional 'pervert', whose private life could be twisted by comedy for humorous effect. And nowhere is this topical nature more apparent than in personal humour (a rendering of the Greek to onomasti komodein --"to make fun of by name"), jokes against real people familiar to the audience and very likely sitting in the theatre on that day. One of the great uncertainties is how the 'victim' reacted. Was one just expected to take the joke in the festival atmosphere? Was there ever a response against a comic poet (in the case of Kleon and Aristophanes, the answer appears to be "yes")? Was there even perhaps a perverse delight in being singled out, the sign that one had 'arrived' by becoming prominent enough for public mention?
In Aristophanes the verb komodein is used in three different ways (1) "to make fun, fool around" (as at Plout. 557), (2) "to include something in a comedy" (as at Ach. 655), and (3) "to make fun of (the most common usage, see Ach. 631, Peace 751, Frogs 368); a useful related term will be komodoumenoi ("those made fun of in comedy"). Both words occur as technical terms in the scholiastic tradition; ancient writers wrote books of komodoumenoi in the various comedians (see Galen de lib. propr. 17). If the "Old Oligarch" (= [Xen.] Ath. Pol.) is in fact a fifth-century text, it is interesting to note that both komodein and komodoumenoi are used in their technical senses as early as the time of the comedians (II.18).
In the extant eleven plays and the several hundreds of fragments of Aristophanes, there are at least 300 such komodoumenoi; these we can be reasonably sure are real people, and not just names thrown in by the poet with no intended reference. Add such mere names (e.g. the members of the chorus in Acharnians or Wasps or Ekkl.) and we reach perhaps 400 in all. The fragments of the other comic poets might raise this to about 500 -- in most cases the fragments of other poets yield komodoumenoi already familiar to us, as the scholiast (or whoever) cites Eupolis et al. for another reference to a man mentioned by Aristophanes (an example cited below will be Syrakosios at S Birds 1297). The komodoumenoi range from such well-known figures as Sokrates, Perikles, Kleon, and Euripides through instances where more than one identification with a known Athenian is possible (e.g., Antiphon, Lysistratos, Phrynichos at Wasps 1299ff.) to allusions to utterly known persons (e.g., Orsilochos at Lysist. 725 or Myrmex at Frogs 1506). I am currently at work on the preparation of a data-base covering the komodoumenoi in Aristophanes; formally titled, "A Critical Prospography to Aristophanes", but informally "Poets, Politicians, and Perverts".
(II) Examples and types of joke
(i) By far the most common sort of personal joke in Aristophanes is the one-liner, the quick jab that hardly disturbs the flow of the action -- I try to avoid the word "plot" in dealing with Aristophanic comedy. Three examples will illustrate this:
(1) Lysist. 283:
"these women whom god and Euripides hate"
(2) Clouds 399f. [explaining the nature of thunder]:
STR. Isn't the thunderbolt Zeus striking down the wicked?
SOKR. You fool, if he's striking down the wicked, how come he hasn't hit Simon yet, or Kleonymos or Theoros?
(3) Ach. 136-40with reference to Theognis, nicknamed the "frigid" (psychros), a tragedian whose plays really "left one cold" - the scene is a mission returning from the North, the speaker its leader Theoros:
TH. We wouldn't have spent so much time in Thrace... DIK. (...if you hadn't been drawing full pay)
TH. ... if it hadn't been for a snow-storm that covered all of Thrace and froze the rivers solid.
DIK. That must have been around the time of the Dionysia, when Theognis was putting on his plays.
(ii) What I call variations on a malicious theme -- a series of brief jokes at various people, but with a connecting theme. Once the theme is established and as the lists goes on, audience expectation is assured. A good modern parallel is David Letterman's "Top Ten ...", where an expanding sequence on a common theme engages the audience's interest. Again I cite three examples:
(1) In the prologue of Wasps, the slaves have three dreams, each about politicians (demagogues in fact), set in a public place and involved with public matters, each having a transformation of a politician into an animal form, and depending for the punch on a bad Aristophanic pun. In its own right, the sequence is highly imaginative, but also sets the political mood for what will be a very political comedy.
(2) At Clouds 347-55, the chorus of Clouds enters, dressed as women. The ensuing conversation explains their guise, since the Clouds appear in imitation of whomever they see:
SOKR. The clouds become whomever they want. If they see one of those long-haired sex-fiends, like the son of Xenophantos, to mock him they turn into centaurs. STR. Suppose they catch sight of Simon, who's been robbing the public treasury, what do they do?
SOKR. To show his nature, they turn into wolves.
STR. So seeing Kleonymos yesterday, the man who threw his shield away, they became deer.
SOKR. So that's why they're women, they've just seen Kleisthenes.
This is a classic instance of the sequence with each appropriate element building to the final punch-line, the joke at Kleisthenes, the man most made fun of as a woman in Old Comedy, also the only man allowed into the council of the women in Thesmophoriazousai
(3) At Birds 1290ff. Athenians have become so bird-crazy that they have turned into whatever bird is appropriate for each (if X were a bird, what bird would he be?). This is quite a long list, sometimes with the human first, sometimes the bird. Again the audience would wait in anticipation, especially if the speech were punctuated with appropriate and pregnant pauses, even suggestions from the audience.
(iii) Sometimes an entire song, usually in a break between episodes or in the parabasis, is devoted to a developed attack upon one person (or a related group); one could quote several; here are two. In the first the birds describe their sights they have seen (Birds 1470-91, tr. Arrowsmith):
Many the marvels I've seen/the wonders on land and sea
But the oddest thing I ever saw/was the strange Kleonymos-tree.
It grows in faraway places,/its lumber looks quite stout,
But the wood is good for nothing/as its heart is rotten out.
In spring this tree grows law-shoots/of sycophantic green,
And bitter buds of slander/on every bough are seen.
But when like war cold winter comes,/the strange Kleonymos yields
Instead of leaves, like other trees,/a crop of coward's shields.
Knights is devoted to a major developed attack on the politician Kleon (a demagogue whom Aristophanes loathed, and about whom more later). In the play he is usually called "Paphlagon", a name that combines foreign extraction (Paphlagon = "from Paphalgonia", and would denote a slave from that region, cf. "Thratta" ["Thracian woman"]) with his distinctive manner of speaking (from the verb paphalzein ["to splutter']), but once (and only once) is his real name used in a bright little song that begins (vv. 973-6):
The brightest sunrise it will be
for Athenians now living
and for those to come,
when Kleon is destroyed.
We know that songs from drama entered the public domain on their own as separate "hits" (see Kn. 529-30); I agree with Rogers that here Aristophanes is creating his own song that (he hopes) will leave the play and be on everyone's lips, especially with the elections only weeks away.
(iv) The final sort of personal joke employs a rather different technique; instead of attacking from the stage persons in the community outside, the poet can bring on real people as characters in his plays, actors who would represent real Athenians of the day. The best and most notorious example is of course Sokrates in Clouds (I shall deal with later the caricature of this revered thinker and the problems which it has raised). But other major examples are Euripides (in Thesm., Frogs), Kleon in Knights thinly disguised as "Paphlagon", and perhaps also Lysistrate whom Lewis argued was based on Lysimache (priestess of Athene), the best-known woman in Athens possibly and one known for what she was, not as anyone's mother, wife, daughter or sister. But there are also minor "cameo"-scenes with real persons appearing for a short scene, e.g. the appearance of Euripides in Acharnians , the trial of the dogs in Wasps. (where the dogs Labes ["Snatcher"] and Kyon ["Dog"] are in fact the rival politicians, Laches and Kleon), and the presence of Kinesias (a new-age poet) and Meton (a city-planner) among those seeking entry to the city of the Birds. Each comedy from Acharnians to Frogs has at least one; Acharnians in fact has five or even six.
(III) Later views of Old Comedy:
The ancient critics (especially the Romans) regarded Old Comedy with a mixture of fascination and horror, in particular where the freedom to attack real people was concerned. For later critics personal humour become the heart and soul of Old Comedy. To explain the origin of Old Comedy, one explained where personal jokes came from, i.e. as Aristotle does in Poetics 3-5, from the iambic tradition; to explain the change of Old Comedy, a law on comic freedom is postulated or an alteration in the political situation. This means that often all the other features that strike us so forcibly and with such pleasure, the fantasy, the parody, the social values, the language, the style were ignored in favour of the notion that Old Comedy was a sort of personal satire.
I have selected a number of passages from later authors; much of the serious study will have begun with the Alexandrian critics of 3rd c., but the Romans are the first we have in any detail.
(1) Horace Ars Poetica 281-4:
Then there came Old Comedy, not without a considerable reputation. But its freedom degenerated into licence, and into a violence that had to be curbed by law. A law was passed and the chorus became quiet, having lost its right of shameful abuse.
I would note the association of comedy with freedom that became licence, the need for a law to curtail the "shameful abuse", and the grudging admission "not without a considerable reputation". This was popular, Horace admits; it still retains a reputation, but...
(2) Horace Satires I.4.1-7:
Eupolis and Cratinus and Aristophanes and the other poets of Old Comedy, if there was anyone deserving of being pointed out as a wicked man or a thief or an adulterer or murderer or as notorious in any way, would single him out with great freedom.
Here for the first time are set out the "Big Three" of Old Comedy, the triad of Eupolis (career: 429-411) and Kratinos and Aristophanes (an Alexandrian attempt to match the famous tragic triad of Aeschylus, Sophokles, and Euripides?). Two points stand out here. First, comedy is being viewed by Horace as the literary ancestor of satire and thus provides authority for Horace's own poems; second we can find "redeeming moral value" for comedy in selecting deserving targets. Here we encounter what will become a frequent assumption in both ancient and modern criticism that the victims deserved their ridicule at the hands of the comedians.
(3) Cicero de Re Publica 4.11:
Among the Greeks comedy was allowed by law to say whatever it wanted about whomever it wanted ... and whom did it not attack, rather persecute? It may be that it savaged wicked demagogues who fomented rebellion in the state, Kleon and Kleophon and Hyperbolos, and we might allow that, even though citizens of that sort are better singled out by a censor rather than by a poet. But that it assaulted Perikles, who had been the leader of his state for so many years at home and in the field with the greatest authority, that it assaulted him on stage is no more fitting than if Plautus or Naevius had wanted to slander Scipio or Caecilius Marcus Cato.
Cicero's Roman ethos shows through clearly here. You will have noticed the "law" again, but here a formal licence in Athenian law, with the undertone of "only in Athens ...". Cicero fastens only on the political jokes, seeing men such as Hyperbolos and Kleon as populares who would harm their state if not checked; note the very Roman reference to the censor as well. Finally the possibility that great men such as Perikles could be attacked is an affront to dignitas.
(4) Platonios I.3-12 (a Greek author of two short treatises on comedy, date unknown):
In the time of Aristophanes and Kratinos and Eupolis, the democracy was in power at Athens and the people had supreme authority, being lord and master of political affairs. Since all had freedom of speech, the writers of comedy had no fear about joking at generals, at jurors who gave bad judgements, and at those citizens who were greedy for money or who lived outrageously. For the people, as I said, removed any fear from the comic poets, as they liked to hear them attack such men -- as we know, the people are fundamentally hostile to the rich and enjoy their discomfiture.
This almost Marxist view of comedy sees it as the weapon of the poor against the rich. For him comedy was an expression of the vigorous democracy at Athens in the late 5th c., and Platonios is totally right here. One of the casualties of the less substantial 4th c. will be Old Comedy. Notice the reference to "fear", for Platonios will go on to say that once the oligarchy came, fear descended upon the poets and the choregoi with the resulting change of comedy. It is interesting to note that this class-based view of comedy can be found also in the "Old Oligarch" (II.18) where the people enjoy the attacks on the rich and powerful or on anyone who gets above himself. This view is found also in Henderson's recent  model of comedy as the average man's revenge upon anyone who would be deemed "elite".
(5) Quintilian 10.1.65:
Not only is Old Comedy almost the only form of poetry to preserve the true grace of Attic speech, but it also possesses a most eloquent freedom in attacking vice for which it is especially famous. However, it has a great deal of power in other areas; it is eloquent, grand and delightful ...
Quintilian is rare among ancient writers in that he sees more than just the attack of vice which he does mention; for him Old Comedy is true Attic -- the 2nd c. A.D. would devote itself to what we call "the Attic revival" with its insistence on finding and using the "correct" modes of classical Attic -- and in his words it is "eloquent, grand, and delightful". One is reminded here of Platonios' emphasis on grace (charis) in assessing the comedians (Platonios II) but also the epigram attributed to Plato (Epigr. 14P):
The Graces were searching for a sanctuary that would never fall;
they looked and found the soul of Aristophanes.
(6) My final extract is from an anonymous tract on comedy, explaining the origins of the genre:
Once upon a time, there were certain men from the villages who had been wronged by men living in the city of Athens, and wishing to inform on them they went down to the city at night when everyone was asleep. Going through the streets they would proclaim the grievances which they had suffered at the hands of the city-folk, saying as follows: "Here lives so-and-so who has done such-and-such to one of the farmers". In the morning the neighbours who had heard all this were telling one another what they had heard that night. In fact some of the wrong-doers were so ashamed of their crimes that they actually made restitution because of this. So the city thought that this endeavour by the country-folk was a good idea, and after seeking them out made them do this in the theatre as well. But they were afraid to do this openly and so painted their faces with wine-lees before they went on stage. Since the city derived great benefit from this, they allowed the poets to make fun of whomever they wanted without interference. (= Koster XIb)
This is one of the "creation myths" about comedy. The author is clearly working from Aristotle's derivation of comedy from "village song" (kome = village), and stresses the essential rustic origin of the genre. The business about the wine-lees is partly to reinforce the motive of "fear and power" that we have seen working elsewhere, and partly to explain the alternative name for comedy (trygodia - Aristophanes Ach. 499f. = "wine-lees song"). Note also the emphasis on the public benefit derived and the guilty (i.e. deserving) nature of the victims. That there already exists a theatre casts even more shadow on this bald and unconvincing narrative.
(b) tend to explain rise and fall of the genre in terms of the existence or absence of personal jokes,
(c) assume the necessity of a moral justification - [Plutarch] makes a revealing comment: "Aristophanes seems to have written his slanderous and bitter passages for the envious and malicious",
(d) explore the possibility of a formal connection between comedy and the law.
(IV) Comedy and the Law:
A play by Aristophanes or any other Old comedian today would keep a law-firm busy for a year with slander suits, especially in the litigious atmosphere of the 1990s and the public willingness to seek legal redress for any slight. We ask: what was the relationship between Old Comedy and the law, specifically a law on slander? The evidence for this law (the dike kakegorias) is found in Lysias 10 (his kata Theomnestou, a speech of 385/4), about 20 years after the heyday of Aristophanes, but from what Lysias says, the law seems to have been in effect for some time. We may assume then that the provisions of the dike kakegorias were in effect during the late 5th c.
The law specified three "forbidden things" (aporrheta) that one may not say of another: that one had "killed one's father" -- this is the provision being invoked in Lysias 10 -- that one had "beaten one's parents", and that one "had thrown one's shield away" in battle. Aristophanes does seem to have avoided using the first two of any komodoumenos, but what about Kleonymos, one of Aristophanes' favourite and repeated targets, "the tree that sheds shields", made fun of at least a dozen times in 7 plays over more than ten years and specifically called a rhipsaspis at Cl. 354? We seem to have a possible area of confrontation: the law forbade this, but Aristophanes does it, repeatedly.
We could offer a number of solutions to the problem:
(1) Aristophanes is in fact telling the truth; Kleonymos did throw his shield away, and in the dike kakegorias truth was a legitimate defence . BUT rhipsaspia was a serious offence in Athenian law and carried atimia (loss of citizen rights). We know Kleonymos to have been a political figure of some prominence for nearly 20 years - how would he have escaped prosecution and conviction if he had in fact been so openly guilty of cowardice? As we shall see, we should be wary of taking comedy too literally on any point.
(2) We might argue that comedy had an official exemption from the law on slander. Cicero does say that personal humour was "allowed by law". Perhaps comedy's official exemption from the law on slander was the origin of Cicero's comment. BUT Kleonymos is the only person so made fun of; if there were an exemption, we would expect lots of such jokes and against more people. Aristophanes seems to be the only one to attack Kleonymos (or anyone else) for this; I get the hint also that the comedian knows that he is treading on dangerous ground.
(3) Radin suggested that the part of the law on slander prohibiting the mention of rhipsaspia was added later than 414 (the last joke at Kleonymos). Thus there is no problem, since this clause belongs to the period 414-384. BUT again we would expect many such jokes and many targets, and then a falling-off and this is what we do not get.
(4) A further possibility is that comedy was subject to the law but Kleonymos declined to prosecute. Both Lysias (10.2) and Demosthenes (18.123) insist that one should take a joke rather than resort to the law on slander, except in serious cases (which theirs of course are). This is a good possibility and one worth considering. As stated earlier, we have no good contemporary evidence for the victims' reactions to comic humour.
(5) But what is probably the best answer and one that has been much taken up in recent assessments of the comedian's larger intentions is to suppose that comedy was by its nature part of the spirit of carnival, where normal restraints did not apply, where one stepped outside the normal limits of the polis, that it was comedy after all and not paid much serious political attention. There is evidence for the abusive "jokes from the wagon" at the Lenaia or the ritual insulting of the initiates in the Mysteries; comedy is just part of the festival, outside the normal routine which included the law. Look at Frogs 367-8 where a certain politician has proposed (surely for reasons of financial exigency in the economic crisis of 405) a reduction in the poets' subsidy:
or the politician who nibbles away at the poets' pay
because he was made fun of in the ancestral rites of Dionysos
We notice two key words: rites (Gk. teletai) used of religious ritual and laden with strong overtones, and ancestral (Gk. patrios), an equally loaded adjective in view of such current political catch-phrases as the "ancestral laws", "ancestral constitution" (patrios politeia). Personal humour, says Aristophanes, enjoys the double sanction of religion and tradition.
Two much later passages confirm this view. The first is from Plutarch describing the conduct of Sokrates and addressing one of the frequent questions "why did the comic poets attack Sokrates?"
When Aristophanes produced his Clouds, heaping all sorts of abuse on him, one of the audience said to Sokrates, "Aren't you angry, Sokrates, that he made fun of you in that way?" "Oh no", replied Sokrates, "for in the theatre I am made fun of as if I were among friends at a great party." [Plutarch, Peri Paidon Agoges, 10c-d]
The other is from Lucian (one of the few ancient writers spiritually akin to Aristophanes and one who made great use of Old Comic themes in his own works). Lucian has Philosophy speak as follows:
Is that all you're worried about? A few rude remarks? You know the way that Comedy treats me at the Dionysia, but we're still the best of friends. I've never taken her to court or even complained privately to her. I just let her enjoy the fun that's all part and parcel of the festival. For I know that no harm can come from a joke. [Lucian Halieus 14]
These passages are unusual among the ancient descriptions of Aristophanes and Sokrates in that they do not take the comedian to task for his jokes against the revered Sokrates, and they sum up well the view that I would take of comedy and the law.
Still there are three places where Old Comedy and the Athenian legal system do seem to cross paths:
(1) According to the scholiast to Ach. 67 in 440/39 (the archonship of Morychides) a decree was passed me komodein; since we know that comedies were still presented in the subsequent years, critics usually take this to mean "no personal humour", rather than "not to put on comedies". The obvious question is why? The Samian revolt of 441/40 is usually trotted out as an explanation; it was a serious situation, requiring the presence of all ten generals (Thuc. 1.116.1). But why a law on personal humour? Some think that only specific persons were forbidden, but which ones and again why? The most important thing about this law was that it was repealed in 437/6; the Athenians seem to have liked their comedy unregulated. The example of Paphlagon=Kleon shows how one could get round such a law.
(2) In 415 there may have been a decree passed by one Syrakosios. The entire matter depends on a scholion to Birds 1297 which runs as follows:
Syrakosios: he seems also to have passed a decree against making fun of anyone by name, as Phrynichos says in his Monotropos [a comic poet, career: 429-405; the comedy Monotropos, "the Hermit", belongs with Birds to the Dionysia of 414] "Syrakosios has the mange; I hope he gets a good and obvious case of it, since he has taken away those whom I wanted to make fun of" That's why they attack him so bitterly. [S Birds 1297 = fr. 27 of Phrynichos]
One of the many problems of interpretation is the possibility that the words "since he has taken away those whom I wanted to make fun of" could also be the scholiast's words, "since he has taken away those whom they wanted to make fun of". Thus the whole of Phrynichos' curse at Syrakosios might be "Syrakosios has the mange; I hope he gets it really good". The problem is then how the scholiast extrapolated a decree on comedy from only that bit. Thus we probably do want to keep the words "since he has ..." as part of the comic source for the scholiast. Radin thought that Syrakosios had passed the part of the law on slander against calling someone a "shield-thrower", Sommerstein (1986) that he had passed a law forbidding the comic poets to mention anyone involved in the scandals of 415, in essence to make them "non-persons", Atkinson that Syrakosios had passed a law that forbade the comedians to make fun of anyone that was unfairly involved in the scandals, but like Halliwell, I think the whole thing a scholiastic fiction, a false deduction from the text of Phrynichos (whatever it really means). I remain sceptical of trusting any scholiast who begins an entry with "seems" (dokei).
(3) At the Dionysia of 426 Aristophanes put on a play (now lost) called Babylonians, that had something to do with the allies and Athens. Kleon, a leading demagogue of the day, lodged some sort of official complaint about Aristophanes before the boule (Council) -- there is good evidence that Kleon was a member of that body in 427/6 -- on some charge like "insulting the city" especially in the presence of the foreigners. We do not know the actual nature or wording of the charge or the result (probably not proven), but in his next play (Acharnians) witness these comments by the poet (Ach. 377-81, 502-3, 514-8, 630-1):
And I know myself what I suffered at Kleon's hands last year, when he dragged me into the council-chamber and started accusing me, telling all sorts of outrageous lies against me, roaring at me like a river in flood, just about drowning me
Kleon will not be able to accuse of insulting the city with foreigners present ... for why do we blame the Spartans, since some of our people (I don't mean the city; remember that, I don't mean the city), worthless counterfeit foreign trash ...
being accused by his enemies that he makes fun of our city and injures the people ...
This attack by Kleon was repeated in 424 or 423, with Aristophanes appearing to concede to Kleon's demands (see Wasps 1284-91) to ease off on him. But in Wasps Aristophanes responds with his most brilliant comic caricature, declaring at the end that he had deceived Kleon thoroughly.
One thing is clear: there was no formal law against personal humour that brought Old Comedy to an end in the 4th c.; Horace's lex est accepta is a fiction, and we must seek to explain the change in comedy by other means. This I shall tackle in the last section of this discussion.