1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aristophanes
ARISTOPHANES (c. 448–385 B.C.), the great comic dramatist and poet of Athens. His birth-year is uncertain. He is known to have been about the same age as Eupolis, and is said to have been “almost a boy” when his first comedy (The Banqueters) was brought out in 427 B.C. His father Philippus was a landowner in Aegina. Aristophanes was an Athenian citizen of the tribe Pandionis, and the deme Cydathene. The stories which made him a native of Camirus in Rhodes, or of the Egyptian Naucratis, had probably no other foundation than an indictment for usurpation of civic rights (ξενίας γραφή) which appears to have been more than once laid against him by Cleon. His three sons— Philippus, Araros and Nicostratus—were all comic poets. Philippus, the eldest, was a rival of Eubulus, who began to exhibit in 376 B.C. Araros brought out two of his father’s latest comedies—the Cocalus and the Aeolosicon, and in 375 began to exhibit works of his own. Nicostratus, the youngest, is assigned by Athenaeus to the Middle Comedy, but belongs, as is shown by some of the names and characters of his pieces, to the New Comedy also.
Although tragedy and comedy had their common origin in the festivals of Dionysus, the regular establishment of tragedy at Athens preceded by half a century that of comedy. The Old Comedy may be said to have lasted about eighty years (470–390 B.C.), and to have flourished about fifty-six (460–404 B.C.). Of the forty poets who are named as having illustrated it the chief were Cratinus, Eupolis and Aristophanes. The Middle Comedy covers a period of about seventy years (390–320 B.C.), its chief poets being Antiphanes, Alexis, Theopompus and Strattis. The New Comedy was in vigour for about seventy years (320–250 B.C.), having for its foremost representatives Menander, Philemon and Diphilus. The Old Comedy was possible only for a thorough democracy. Its essence was a satirical censorship, unsparing in personalities, of public and of private life—of morality, of statesmanship, of education, of literature, of social usage—in a word, of everything which had an interest for the city or which could amuse the citizens. Preserving all the freedom of banter and of riotous fun to which its origin gave it an historical right, it aimed at associating with this a strong practical purpose—the expression of a democratic public opinion in such a form that no misconduct or folly could altogether disregard it. That licentiousness, that grossness of allusion which too often disfigures it, was, it should be remembered, exacted by the sentiment of the Dionysiac festivals, as much as a decorous cheerfulness is expected at the holiday times of other worships. This was the popular element. Without this the entertainment would have been found flat and unseasonable. But for a comic poet of the higher calibre the consciousness of a recognized power which he could exert, and the desire to use this power for the good of the city, must always have been the uppermost feelings. At Athens the poet of the Old Comedy had an influence analogous, perhaps, rather to that of the journalist than to that of the modern dramatist. But the established type of Dionysiac comedy gave him an instrument such as no public satirist has ever wielded. When Molière wished to brand hypocrisy he could only make his Tartuffe the central figure of a regular drama, developed by a regular process to a just catastrophe. He had no choice between touching too lightly and using sustained force to make a profound impression. The Athenian dramatist of the Old Comedy worked under no such limitations of form. The wildest flights of extravagance were permitted to him. Nothing bound him to a dangerous emphasis or a wearisome insistence. He could deal the keenest thrust, or make the most earnest appeal, and at the next moment—if his instinct told him that it was time to change the subject—vary the serious strain by burlesque. He had, in short, an incomparable scope for trenchant satire directed by sure tact.
Aristophanes is for us the representative of the Old Comedy. But his genius, while it includes, also transcends the genius of the Old Comedy. He can denounce the frauds of a Cleon, he can vindicate the duty of Athens to herself and to her allies, with a stinging scorn and a force of patriotic indignation which makes the poet almost forgotten in the citizen. He can banter Euripides with an ingenuity of light mockery which makes it seem for the time as if the leading Aristophanic trait was the art of seeing all things from their prosaic side. Yet it is neither in the denunciation nor in the mockery that he is most individual. His truest and highest faculty is revealed by those wonderful bits of lyric writing in which he soars above everything that can move laughter or tears, and makes the clear air thrill with the notes of a song as free, as musical and as wild as that of the nightingale invoked by his own chorus in the Birds. The speech of Dikaios Logos in the Clouds, the praises of country life in the Peace, the serenade in the Ecclesiazusae, the songs of the Spartan and Athenian maidens in the Lysistrata, above all, perhaps, the chorus in the Frogs, the beautiful chant of the Initiated,—these passages, and such as these, are the true glories of Aristophanes. They are the strains, not of an artist, but of one who warbles for pure gladness of heart in some place made bright by the presence of a god. Nothing else in Greek poetry has quite this wild sweetness of the woods. Of modern poets Shakespeare alone, perhaps, has it in combination with a like richness and fertility of fancy.
Fifty-four comedies were ascribed to Aristophanes. Forty-three of these are allowed as genuine by Bergk. Eleven only are extant. These eleven form a running commentary on the outer and the inner life of Athens during thirty-six years. They may be ranged under three periods. The first, extending to 420 B.C., includes those plays in which Aristophanes uses an absolutely unrestrained freedom of political satire. The second ends with the year 405. Its productions are distinguished from those of the earlier time by a certain degree of reticence and caution. The third period, down to 388 B.C., comprises two plays in which the transition to the character of the Middle Comedy is well marked, not merely by disuse of the parabasis, but by general self-restraint.
I. First Period, (1) 425 B.C. The Acharnians.—Since the defeat in Boeotia the peace party at Athens had gained ground, and in this play Aristophanes seeks to strengthen their hands. Dicaeopolis, an honest countryman, is determined to make peace with Sparta on his own account, not deterred by the angry men of Acharnae, who crave vengeance for the devastation of their vineyards. He sends to Sparta for samples of peace; and he is so much pleased with the flavour of the Thirty Years’ sample that he at once concludes a treaty for himself and his family. All the blessings of life descend on him; while Lamachus, the leader of the war party, is smarting from cold, snow and wounds.
(2) 424 B.C. The Knights.—Three years before, in his Babylonians, Aristophanes had assailed Cleon as the typical demagogue. In this play he continues the attack. The Demos, or State, is represented by an old man who has put himself and his household into the hands of a rascally Paphlagonian steward. Nicias and Demosthenes, slaves of Demos, contrive that the Paphlagonian shall be supplanted in their master’s favour by a sausage-seller. No sooner has Demos been thus rescued than his youthfulness and his good sense return together.
(3) 423 B.C. The Clouds (the first edition; a second edition was brought out in 422 B.C.).—This play would be correctly described as an attack on the new spirit of intellectual inquiry and culture rather than on a school or class. Two classes of thinkers or teachers are, however, specially satirized under the general name of “Sophist” (v. 331)—1. The Physical Philosophers—indicated by allusions to the doctrines of Anaxagoras, Heraclitus and Diogenes of Apollonia. 2. The professed teachers of rhetoric, belles lettres, &c., such as Protagoras and Prodicus. Socrates is taken as the type of the entire tendency. A youth named Pheidippides—obviously meant for Alcibiades—is sent by his father to Socrates to be cured of his dissolute propensities. Under the discipline of Socrates the youth becomes accomplished in dishonesty and impiety. The conclusion of the play shows the indignant father preparing to burn up the philosopher and his hall of contemplation.
(4) 422 B.C. The Wasps.—This comedy, which suggested Les Plaideurs to Racine, is a satire on the Athenian love of litigation. The strength of demagogy, while it lay chiefly in the ecclesia, lay partly also in the paid dicasteries. From this point of view the Wasps may be regarded as supplementing the Knights. Philocleon (admirer of Cleon), an old man, has a passion for lawsuits—a passion which his son, Bdelycleon (detester of Cleon) fails to check, until he hits upon the device of turning the house into a law-court, and paying his father for absence from the public suits. The house-dog steals a Sicilian cheese; the old man is enabled to gratify his taste by trying the case, and, by an oversight, acquits the defendant. In the second half of the play a change comes over the dream of Philocleon; from litigation he turns to literature and music, and is congratulated by the chorus on his happy conversion.
(5) 421 B.C. The Peace.—In its advocacy of peace with Sparta, this play, acted at the Great Dionysia shortly before the conclusion of the treaty, continues the purpose of the Acharnians. Trygaeus, a distressed Athenian, soars to the sky on a beetle’s back. There he finds the gods engaged in pounding the Greek states in a mortar. In order to stop this, he frees the goddess Peace from a well in which she is imprisoned. The pestle and mortar are laid aside by the gods, and Trygaeus marries one of the handmaids of Peace.
II. Second Period. (6) 414 B.C. The Birds.—Peisthetaerus, an enterprising Athenian, and his friend Euelpides persuade the birds to build a city—“Cloud-Cuckoo-borough”—in mid-air, so as to cut off the gods from men. The plan succeeds; the gods send envoys to treat with the birds; and Peisthetaerus marries Basileia, daughter of Zeus. Some have found in the Birds a complete historical allegory of the Sicilian expedition; others, a general satire on the prevalence at Athens of headstrong caprice over law and order; others, merely an aspiration towards a new and purified Athens—a dream to which the poet had turned from his hope for a revival of the Athens of the past. In another view, the piece is mainly a protest against the religious fanaticism which the incident of the Hermae had called forth.
(7) 411 B.C. The Lysistrata.—This play was brought out during the earlier stages of those intrigues which led to the revolution of the Four Hundred. It appeared shortly before Peisander had arrived in Athens from the camp at Samos for the purpose of organizing the oligarchic policy. The Lysistrata expresses the popular desire for peace at any cost. As the men can do nothing, the women take the question into their own hands, occupy the citadel, and bring the citizens to surrender.
(8) 411 B.C. The Thesmophoriazusae (Priestesses of Demeter).— This came out three months later than the Lysistrata, during the reign of terror established by the oligarchic conspirators, but before their blow had been struck. The political meaning of the play lies in the absence of political allusion. Fear silences even comedy. Only women and Euripides are satirized. Euripides is accused and condemned at the female festival of the Thesmophoria.
(9) 405 B.C. The Frogs.—This piece was brought out just when Athens had made her last effort in the Peloponnesian War, eight months before the battle of Aegospotami, and about fifteen months before the taking of Athens by Lysander. It may be considered as an attempt to distract men’s minds from public affairs. It is a literary criticism. Aeschylus and Euripides were both lately dead. Athens is beggared of poets; and Dionysus goes down to Hades to bring back a poet. Aeschylus and Euripides contend in the under-world for the throne of tragedy; and the victory is at last awarded to Aeschylus.
III. Third Period. (10) 393 B.C. The Ecclesiazusae (women in parliament).—The women, disguised as men, steal into the ecclesia, and succeed in decreeing a new constitution. At this time the demagogue Agyrrhius led the assembly; and the play is, in fact, a satire on the general demoralization of public life.
(11) 388 B.C. The Plutus (Wealth).—The first edition of the play had appeared in 408 B.C., being a symbolical representation of the fact that the victories won by Alcibiades in the Hellespont had brought back the god of wealth to the treasure-chamber of the Parthenon. In its extant form the Plutus is simply a moral allegory. Chremylus, a worthy but poor man, falls in with a blind and aged wanderer, who proves to be the god of wealth. Asclepius restores eyesight to Plutus; whereupon all the just are made rich and all the unjust are reduced to poverty.
1. The Banqueters Δαιταλεῖς, 427 B.C.—A satire on young Athens. A father has two sons; one is brought up in the good old school, another in the tricky subtleties of the new; and the contrast of results is the chief theme.
2. The Babylonians, 426 B.C.—Under this name the subject-allies of Athens are represented as “Babylonians”—barbarian slaves, employed to grind in the mill. The oppression of the allies by the demagogues—a topic often touched elsewhere—was, then, the main subject of the piece, in which Aristophanes is said to have attacked especially the system of appointing to offices by lot. The comedy is memorable as opening that Aristophanic war upon Cleon which was continued in the Knights and the Wasps.
The Merchantmen, The Farmers, The Preliminary Contest (Proagon), and possibly the Old Age (Geras), belonged to the First Period. The Geras is assigned by Süvern to 422 B.C., and is supposed to have been a picture of dotage similar to that in the Knights. A comedy called The Islands is conjectured to have dealt with the sufferings imposed by the war on the insular tributaries. The Triphales was probably a satire on Alcibiades; the Storks, on the tragic poet Patrocles.In the Aeolosicon—produced by his son Araros in 387 B.C.—Aristophanes probably parodied the Aeolus of Euripides. The Cocalus is thought to have been a parody of the legend, according to which a Sicilian king of that name slew Minos.
A sympathetic reader of Aristophanes can hardly fail to perceive that, while his political and intellectual tendencies are well marked, his opinions, in so far as they colour his comedies, are too indefinite to reward, or indeed to tolerate, analysis. Aristophanes was a natural conservative. His ideal was the Athens of the Persian wars. He disapproved the policy which had made Athenian empire irksome to the allies and formidable to Greece; he detested the vulgarity and the violence of mob-rule; he clave to the old worship of the gods; he regarded the new ideas of education as a tissue of imposture and impiety. How far he was from clearness or precision of view in regard to the intellectual revolution which was going forward, appears from the Clouds, in which thinkers and literary workers who had absolutely nothing in common are treated with sweeping ridicule as prophets of a common heresy. Aristophanes is one of the men for whom opinion is mainly a matter of feeling, not of reason. His imaginative susceptibility gave him a warm and loyal love for the traditional glories of Athens, however dim the past to which they belonged; a horror of what was ugly or ignoble in the present; a keen perception of what was offensive or absurd in pretension. The broad preferences and dislikes thus generated were enough not only to point the moral of comedy, but to make him, in many cases, a really useful censor for the city. The service which he could render in this way was, however, only negative. He could hardly be, in any positive sense, a political or a moral teacher for Athens. His rooted antipathy to intellectual progress, while it affords easy and wide scope for his wit, must after all, lower his intellectual rank. The great minds are not the enemies of ideas. But as a mocker—to use the word which seems most closely to describe him on this side—he is incomparable for the union of subtlety with riot of the comic imagination. As a poet, he is immortal. And, among Athenian poets, he has it for his distinctive characteristic that he is inspired less by that Greek genius which never allows fancy to escape from the control of defining, though spiritualizing, reason, than by such ethereal rapture of the unfettered fancy as lifts Shakespeare or Shelley above it,—
“Pouring his full heart
In profuse strains of unpremeditated art.”
- [The dates in the text, as given by Jebb, are retained. According to R. G. Kent, Classical Review (April 1905, April 1906), Aristophanes was born in 455, and died in 375 B.C.]
- [Or “fourty-four” (reading μδ´ for νδ´ in Suidas).]
- See E. Curtius, Hist. of Greece, iii (Eng. trans. p. 275).
- [The date is uncertain; others give 392 and 389.]