Aristophanes and Old Comedy


Ancient Greece Timeline > Classical Age > Old Comedy and Aristophanes

Greek comedy is divided into 3 stages, Old, Middle, and New. No complete plays from the middle stage survive. Menander is the name associated with New Comedy, and for us, Aristophanes is the exemplar of Old Comedy. A 6th century poet, Susarion, from the Attic deme of Icaria, is credited with creating comedy, just as Thespius is credited with creating tragedy.

Only spurious fragments of Susarion survive. [Scullion]

According to Horace (serm. I.4.1), there were 3 recognized great writers of Old Comedy:

  1. Cratinus,
  2. Eupolus and
  3. Aristophanes.
We don't know when he was born or much else about his life, but Aristophanes, from the deme of Cydathenaeum, presented his first play in 427 at what some scholars say was a very young age. Inscriptions, according to 20th century Classical Philologist Albin Lesky, show that he held public office. Lesky says that there were 44 works of Aristophanes known to the scholars at the Library of Alexandria, of which the last dateable one was the Plutus of 388 B.C.

Aristophanes is the only writer of old comedy whose work has survived. After Old Comedy came Middle Comedy and then New Comedy, which was translated in Rome (e.g., Plautus). From Rome it was transmitted and modified during the Renaissance and continues in the modern world of television and movies.

New Comedy looks at human relations, while Old Comedy satirizes the life of the polis. For this reason Old Comedy is called political comedy and bears marked similarity to modern political cartoons. Another difference between Old Comedy and New is that the chorus is a central feature of older drama (whether tragedy or comedy).

The creatures, human, animal or otherwise, form the chorus, and provide the name for many of Aristophanes' plays, e.g., frogs.

Festivals for Dionysus

Comedies were performed at religious fertility festivals in honor of Dionysus, in the month of Elaphebolion, at the City Dionysia (or Great Dionysia) and in the month of Gamelion, at the Lenaia. Until the Peloponnesian War, 5 comedies were performed, but during the war, the number was reduced to 3. In the pre-war period, the 10th of the month of Elaphebolion (March) was, according to classical philologist Albin Lesky, reserved for comedy. Tragedies were performed on the other days of the festival: 11th-13th Elaphebolion. During the war, comedies were performed each afternoon, following the morning's tragic tetralogy (a series of 3 tragedies and a satyr play) -- probably on the 10th-13th, excluding the 12th. At the Lenaia, too, 5 poets took part until the war reduced the number to 3. Like the tragedians, writers of comedy were judged and awarded prizes. The most successful writer of Old Comedy was Magnes, with 11 victories at the City Dionysia. We know that he wrote a Wasps, Frogs, and probably a Birds. The first comedy victor was Chionides in 486, while the last competition we know of from inscriptions was in 120 B.C.

Aristophanes References:

  • The Complete Plays of Aristophanes, edited by Moses Hadas
  • A History of Greek Literature, by Albin Lesky
  • The Clouds, by K.J. Dover
  • "'Nothing to Do with Dionysus': Tragedy Misconceived as Ritual," by Scott Scullion. The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 1 (2002), pp. 102-137.

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