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Aristophanes, poet

Aristophanes (2)

Aristophanes, judged in antiquity to be the foremost poet of the ‘old’ Attic comedy, was the son of one Philippos, of the urban deme Kydathenaion. He was born ca. 447/6 and died probably between 386 and 380. Aside from his theatrical career little is known about his life. By his twenties his hair had thinned or receded enough that he could be called bald; early in the fourth century he served as a councillor; and he had two sons, Araros and Philippos, both of whom had careers as comic poets in the mid-fourth century. In his dialogue Symposion, Plato portrays Aristophanes as being at home among the social and intellectual elite of Athens, but the historical veracity of this portrayal is uncertain.

Aristophanes’ first comedy was produced in 427 and his last in 386 or later. At least once he produced a comedy in the theater at Eleusis. Forty-four comedies ascribed to him were known to Alexandrian scholars (four of these they thought spurious); from the Alexandrian edition(s) eleven complete comedies and some 1000 brief fragments of the lost comedies survive. In competition Aristophanes won at least six first prizes and four second prizes, and only two last-place finishes are attested. After his victory with Frogs in 405, the people voted him an honorific crown of sacred olive for the advice he had given in the parabasis and decreed that the play should have the unique honor of being performed a second time. Aristophanes’ eleven extant plays are: Acharnians (Lenaea 425), Knights (Lenaia 424), Clouds (Dionysia 423; the surviving version is an incomplete and never-staged revision dating from 419-17), Wasps (Lenaea 422), Peace (Dionysia 421), Birds (Dionysia 414), Lysistrata (Lenaea 411), Women at the Thesmophoria (Dionysia 411), Frogs (Lenaea 405), Ecclesiazusae (ca. 391), Plutus (388).

Aristophanes’ early career was enlivened by a four-year legal and political battle with his fellow-demesman, Cleon, who from ca. 428 until his death in 422 was the most influential politician in Athens. Attacked in Aristophanes’ play Babylonians (Dionysia 426), Cleon unsuccessfully denounced the poet to the council for having slandered the magistrates, councillors and the people of Athens in the presence of foreigners. In Acharnians the following year, Aristophanes both defended his critique and announced that he was preparing a new attack on Cleon in his next year's play, Knights. That play, which savagely caricatured Cleon and bitterly condemned his public career, inaugurated a novel type of political comedy, which singled out the new-style popular politicians like Cleon for portrayal as dishonest ‘demagogues’ and which has deeply influenced the verdict of posterity about this period of Athenian history. After Knights, Cleon again tried to prosecute Aristophanes (on what charge is unclear), and this time the case was settled out of court. Evidently Aristophanes promised to mitigate subsequent attacks, but the attacks continued nevertheless in both Clouds and Wasps, where the poet boasted about his failure to live up to his agreement.

Aristophanes created influential portrayals of at least two other major contemporaries as well. In Clouds, the philosopher Socrates is made to stand for everything intellectually and socially threatening about the sophistic movement in Athens; in Apology, a re-creation of Socrates’ defense-speech at his capital trial in 399, Plato has the philosopher say that Aristophanes’ portrayal created a public prejudice against him that was more dangerous than his accusers’ actual charges. In Acharnians, Women at the Thesmophoria and Frogs, Aristophanes portrayed Euripides and his tragic art as degenerate and as harmful to the polis, but at the same time he incorporated the sophisticated Euripidean spirit so thoroughly into his comic modes that his old rival, Cratinus, could coin the word ‘euripidaristophanizer’ to describe modish theatergoers. As in the case of Cleon (but not Socrates, who was lucky enough to have Plato and Xenophon to establish his good name for posterity), Aristophanes’ judgment on Euripides (especially in Frogs) has done much to establish his status among literary historians as a tragedian inferior to Aeschylus and Sophocles.

Aristophanes was a sharp observer of the social and political life of Athens, but his plays reveal no systematic or original political credos. In Acharnians and Lysistrata the sympathetic characters denounce the folly and greed of Athens’ wartime leaders and urge that more should be done to negotiate a peaceful settlement, but Birds supports vigorous prosecution of the war-effort, particularly the expedition against Sicily. In Knights and Wasps the wickedness of popular leaders like Cleon is vehemently exposed, but at the same time the people are criticized for their ignorance and gullibility in following such leaders. On the whole, Aristophanes compares contemporary Athens, which he sees as being in decline, unfavorably with the Athens that had defeated the Persians and built a great empire, while at the same time he urges his countrymen to recapture the ideals, policies and leadership that had made Athens great. To judge from the kinds of people he satirizes and does not satirize, Aristophanes thought that democracy worked best when the ordinary citizens deferred to the well-born, wealthy and educated citizens, though he never suggests the adoption of an oligarchic arrangement to accomplish that goal.

Aristophanes reacted in a similar way to contemporary morality, education and the arts. Although he was fully a part of his own generation and thoroughly versed in its latest fashions, Aristophanes was also a nostalgic student of the past and thought that Athenian culture had been sounder, grander and stronger in the old days. In Clouds he trenchantly skewers what was hidebound about the old education, and in Frogs he makes telling criticisms of Aeschylus’ tragic art, but we are meant to come away with the feeling that modern educators and artists, like their contemporaries, were not accomplishing what their counterparts in the good old days had accomplished.

As a playwright, Aristophanes was resourceful and ingenious in creating lively drama, especially in creating efficient devices (like Socrates’ Thinkery in Clouds or the House of Demos in Knights) for the expression and exploration of complex ideas. As a stylist, he is graceful, urbane, consistently witty and humorous, with a fine ear for speech (human or otherwise!) and a great gift for parody.

The best texts of Aristophanes’ plays are those being issued (with introductions and commentaries) by various authors from the Oxford University Press; A.H. Sommerstein's editions-in-progress from Aris & Phillips (with translations and notes) are also good; meanwhile, the Bude edition by V. Coulon is serviceable. For the fragments see R. Kassel and C. Austin, Poetae Comici Graeci, vol. III.2 (Berlin/N.Y. 1984).

    Arnott, P. Greek Scenic Conventions in the Fifth Century BC (Oxford 1962) Dover, K.J. Aristophanic Comedy (California 1972) Harriott, R.M. Aristophanes, Poet and Dramatist (Baltimore 1986) Hubbard, T.K. The Mask of Comedy. Aristophanes and the Intertextual Parabasis (Ithaca 1991) McLeish, K. The theater of Aristophanes (New York 1980) Pickard-Cambridge, A.W. The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, second ed. rev. by J. Gould and D.M. Lewis (Oxford 1968, 1988) Reckford, K.J. Aristophanes’ Old-And-New Comedy (Chapel Hill 1987) Sifakis, G.M. Parabasis and Animal Choruses (London 1971) Stone, L.M. Costume in Aristophanic Comedy (New York 1981) Walcot, Greek Drama in its Theatrical and Social Context (Cardiff 1976) Webster, T.B.L. Greek theater Production (London 1970) Whitman, C.H. Aristophanes and the Comic Hero (Cambridge MA 1964)
Jeffrey Henderson
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