Dictionary of Greek and Roman Biography and Mythology/Aristophanes 1.
ARISTO′PHANES (Ἀριστοφάνης), the only writer of the old comedy of whom any entire works are left. His later extant plays approximate rather to the middle comedy, and in the Cocalus, his last production, he so nearly approached the new, that Philemon brought it out a second time with very little alteration.
Aristophanes was the son of Philippus, as is stated by all the authorities for his life, and proved by the fact of his son also having that name, although a bust exists with the inscription Ἀριστοφάνης Φιλιππίδου, which is, however, now generally allowed to be spurious. He was an Athenian of the tribe Pandionis, and the Cydathenaean Demus, and is said to have been the pupil of Prodicus, though this is improbable, since he speaks of him rather with contempt. (Nub. 360, Av. 692, Tagenist. Fragm. xviii. Bekk.) We are told (Schol. ad Ran. 502), that he first engaged in the comic contests when he was σχέδον μειράκισκος, and we know that the date of his first comedy was B. C. 427: we are therefore warranted in assigning about B. C. 444 as the date of his birth, and his death was probably not later than B. C. 380. His three sons, Philippus, Araros, and Nicostratus, were all poets of the middle comedy. Of his private history we know nothing but that he was a lover of pleasure (Plat. Symp. particularly p. 223), and one who spent whole nights in drinking and witty conversation. Accusations (his anonymous biographer says, more than one) were brought against him by Cleon, with a view to deprive him of his civic rights (ξενίας γραφαί), but without success, as indeed they were merely the fruit of revenge for his attacks on that demagogue. They have, however, given rise to a number of traditions of his being a Rhodian, an Egyptian, an Aeginetan, a native of Camirus or of Naucratis.
The comedies of Aristophanes are of the highest historical interest, containing as they do an admirable series of caricatures on the leading men of the day, and a contemporary commentary on the evils existing at Athens. Indeed, the caricature is the only feature in modern social life which at all resembles them. Aristophanes was a bold and often a wise patriot. He had the strongest affection for Athens, and longed to see her restored to the state in which she was flourishing in the previous generation, and almost in his own childhood, before Pericles became the head of the government, and when the age of Miltiades and Aristeides had but just passed away. The first great evil of his own time against which he inveighs, is the Peloponnesian war, which he regards as the work of Pericles, and even attributes it (Pax, 606) to his fear of punishment for having connived at a robbery said to have been committed by Phidias on the statue of Athene in the Parthenon, and to the influence of Aspasia. (Ach. 500.)To this fatal war, among a host of evils, he ascribes the influence of vulgar demagogues like Cleon at Athens, of which also the example was set by the more refined demagogism of Pericles. Another great object of his indignation was the recently adopted system of education which had been introduced by the Sophists, acting on the speculative and inquiring turn given to the Athenian mind by the Ionian and Eleatic philosophers, and the extraordinary intellectual development of the age following the Persian war. The new theories introduced by the Sophists threatened to overthrow the foundations of morality, by making persuasion and not truth the object of man in his intercourse with his fellows, and to substitute a universal scepticism for the religious creed of the people. The worst effects of such a system were seen in Alcibiades, who, caring for nothing but his own ambition, valuing eloquence only for its worldly advantages, and possessed of great talents which he utterly misapplied, combined all the elements which Aristophanes most disliked, heading the war party in politics, and protecting the sophistical school in philosophy and also in literature. Of this latter school—the literary and poetical Sophists—Euripides was the chief, whose works are full of that μετεωροσοφία which contrasts so offensively with the moral dignity of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and for which Aristophanes introduces him as soaring in the air to write his tragedies (Ach. 374), caricaturing thereby his own account of himself. (Alc. 971.) Another feature of the times was the excessive love for litigation at Athens, the consequent importance of the dicasts, and disgraceful abuse of their power; all of which enormities are made by Aristophanes objects of continual attack. But though he saw what were the evils of his time, he had not wisdom to find a remedy for them, except the hopeless and undesirable one of a movement backwards; and therefore, though we allow him to have been honest and bold, we must deny him the epithet of great. We subjoin a catalogue of the comedies of Aristophanes on which we possess information, and a short account of the most remarkable. Those marked † are extant.
B. C. 427. Δαιταλεῖς, Banquetters. Second prize. The play was produced under the name of Philonides, as Aristophanes was below the legal age for competing for a prize. Fifth year of the war.
426. Babylonians (ἐν ἄστει).
425. † Acharnians. (Lenaea.) Produced in the name of Callistratus. First prize.
424. † Ἱππεῖς, Knights or Horsemen. (Lenaea.) The first play produced in the name of Aristophanes himself. First prize; second Cratinus.
423. † Clouds (ἐν ἄστει). First prize, Cratinus; second Ameipsias.
422. † Wasps. (Lenaea.) Second prize.
Γηρᾶς (?) (ἐν ἄστει), according to the probable conjecture of Süvern. (Essay on the Γηρᾶς, translated by Mr, Hamilton.)
Clouds (second edition), failed in obtaining a prize. But Ranke places this B. C. 411, and the whole subject is very uncertain.
419. † Peace (ἐν ἄστει). Second prize; Eupolis first.
414. Amphiaraus. (Lenaea.) Second prize.
† Birds (ἐν ἄστει), second prize; Ameipsias first; Phrynichus third. Second campaign in Sicily.
Γεωργοί (?), Exhibited in the time of Nicias. (Plut. Nic. c. 8.)
411. † Lysistrata.
† Thesmophoriazusae. During the Oligarchy.
408. † First Plutus.
405. † Frogs. (Lenaea.) First prize; Phrynicus second; Plato third. Death of Sophocles.
392. † Ecclesiazusae. Corinthian war.
388. Second edition of the Plutus.
The last two comedies of Aristophanes were the Aeolosicon and Cocalus, produced about B. C. 387 (date of the peace of Antalcidas) by Araros, one of his sons. The first was a parody on the Aeolus of Euripides, the name being compounded of Aeolus and Sicon, a famous cook. (Rheinisches Museum, 1828, p. 50.) The second was probably a similar parody of a poem on the death of Minos, said to have been killed by Cocalus, king of Sicily. Of the Aeolosicon there were two editions.
In the Δαιταλεῖς the object of Aristophanes was to censure generally the abandonment of those ancient manners and feelings which it was the labour of his life to restore. He attacked the modern schemes of education by introducing a father with two sons, one of whom had been educated according to the old system, the other in the sophistries of later days. The chorus consisted of a party who had been feasting in the temple of Hercules; and Bp. Thirlwall supposes, that as the play was written when the plague was at its height (Schol. ad Ran. 502), the poet recommended a return to the gymnastic exercises of which that god was the patron (comp. Eq. 1379), and to the old system of education, as the means most likely to prevent its continuance.
In the Babylonians we are told, that he "attacked the system of appointing to offices by lot." (Vit. Aristoph. Bekk. p. xiii.) The chorus consisted of barbarian slaves employed in a mill, which Ranke has conjectured was represented as belonging to the demagogue Eucrates (Eq. 129, &c.), who united the trade of a miller with that of a vender of tow. Cleon also must have been a main object of the poet's satire, and probably the public functionaries of the day in general, since an action was brought by Cleon against Callistratus, in whose name it was produced, accusing him of ridiculing the government in the presence of the allies. But the attack appears to have failed.
In the Acharnians, Aristophanes exhorts his countrymen to peace. An Athenian named Dicaeopolis makes a separate treaty with Sparta for himself and his family, and is exhibited in the full enjoyment of its blessings, whilst Lamachus, as the representative of the war party, is introduced in the want of common necessaries, and suffering from cold, and snow, and wounds. The Knights was directed against Cleon, whose power at this time was so great, that no one was bold enough to make a mask to represent his features; so that Aristophanes performed the character himself, with his face smeared with wine-lees. Cleon is the confidential steward of Demus, the impersonation of the Athenian people, who is represented as almost in his dotage, but at the same time cunning, suspicious, ungovernable, and tyrannical. His slaves, Nicias and Demosthenes, determine to rid themselves of the insolence of Cleon by raising up a rival in the person of a sausage-seller, by which the poet ridicules the mean occupation of the demagogues. This man completely triumphs over Cleon in his own arts of lying, stealing, fawning, and blustering. Having thus gained the day, he suddenly becomes a model of ancient Athenian excellence, and by boiling Demus in a magic cauldron, restores him to a condition worthy of the companionship of Aristeides and Miltiades. (Eq. 1322.)
In the Clouds, Aristophanes attacks the sophistical principles at their source, and selects as their representative Socrates, whom he depicts in the most odious light. The selection of Socrates for this purpose is doubtless to be accounted for by the supposition, that Aristophanes observed the great philosopher from a distance only, while his own unphilosophical turn of mind prevented him from entering into Socrates' merits both as a teacher and a practiser of morality; and by the fact, that Socrates was an innovator, the friend of Euripides, the tutor of Alcibiades, and pupil of Archelaus; and that there was much in his appearance and habits in the highest degree ludicrous. The philosopher, who wore no under garments, and the same upper robe in winter and summer,—who generally went barefoot, and appears to have possessed one pair of dress-shoes which lasted him for life (Böckh, Economy of Athens, i. p. 150), who used to stand for hours in a public place in a fit of abstraction—to say nothing of his snub nose, and extraordinary face and figure—could hardly expect to escape the license of the old comedy. The invariably speculative turn which he gave to the conversation, his bare acquiescence in the stories of Greek mythology, which Aristophanes would think it dangerous even to subject to inquiry (see Plat. Phaedrus, p. 299), had certainly produced an unfavourable opinion of Socrates in the minds of many, and explain his being set down by Aristophanes as an archsophist, and represented even as a thief. In the Clouds, he is described as corrupting a young man named Pheidippides, who is wasting his father's money by an insane passion for horses, and is sent to the subtlety-shop (φροντιστήριον) of Socrates and Chaerephon to be still further set free from moral restraint, and particularly to acquire the needful accomplishment of cheating his creditors. In this spendthrift youth it is scarcely possible not to recognise Alcibiades, not only from his general character and connexion with the Sophists, but also from more particular traits, as allusions to his τραυλισμός, or inability to articulate certain letters (Nub. 1381; Plut. Alc. p. l92),and to his fancy for horse-breeding and driving. (Satyrus, ap. Athen. xii. p. 534.) Aristophanes would be prevented from introducing him by name either here or in the Birds, from fear of the violent measures which Alcibiades took against the comic poets. The instructions of Socrates teach Pheidippides not only to defraud his creditors, but also to beat his father, and disown the authority of the gods; and the play ends by the father's preparations to burn the philosopher and his whole establishment. The hint given towards the end, of the propriety of prosecuting him, was acted on twenty years afterwards, and Aristophanes was believed to have contributed to the death of Socrates, as the charges brought against him before the court of justice express the substance of those contained in the Clouds. (Plat. Apol. Soc. p. 18, &c.) The Clouds, though perhaps its author's masterpiece, met with a complete failure in the contest for prizes, probably owing to the intrigues of Alcibiades; nor was it more successful when altered for a second representation, if indeed the alterations were ever completed, which Süvern denies. The play, as we have it, contains the parabasis of the second edition.
The Wasps is the pendant to the Knights. As in the one the poet had attacked the sovereign assembly, so here he aims his battery at the courts of justice, the other stronghold of party violence and the power of demagogues. This play furnished Racine with the idea of Les Plaideurs. The Peace is a return to the subject of the Acharnians, and points out forcibly the miseries of the Peloponnesian war, in order to stop which Trygaeus, the hero of the play, ascends to heaven on a dung-beetle's back, where he finds the god of war pounding the Greek states in a mortar. With the assistance of a large party of friends equally desirous to check this proceeding, he succeeds in dragging up Peace herself from a well in which she is imprisoned, and finally marries one of her attendant nymphs. The play is full of humour, but neither it nor the Wasps is among the poet's greater works.
Six years now elapse during which no plays are preserved to us. The object of the Amphiaraus and the Birds, which appeared after this interval, was to discourage the disastrous Sicilian expedition. The former was called after one of the seven chiefs against Thebes, remarkable for prophesying ill-luck to the expedition, and therein corresponding to Nicias. The object of the Birds has been a matter of much dispute; many persons, as for instance Schlegel, consider it a mere fanciful piece of buffoonery—a supposition hardly credible, when we remember that every one of the plays of Aristophanes has a distinct purpose connected with the history of the time. The question seems to have been set at rest by Süvern, whose theory, to say the least, is supported by the very strongest circumstantial evidence. The Birds—the Athenian people—are persuaded to build a city in the clouds by Peisthetaerus (a character combining traits of Alcibiades and Gorgias, mixed perhaps with some from other Sophists), and who is attended by a sort of Sancho Panza, one Euelpides, designed to represent the credulous young Athenians (εὐελπίδης, Thuc. vi. 24). The city, to be called Νεφελοκοκκυγία (Cloudcuckootown), is to occupy the whole horizon, and to cut off the gods from all connexion with mankind, and even from the power of receiving sacrifices, so as to force them ultimately to surrender at discretion to the birds. All this scheme, and the details which fill it up, coincide admirably with the Sicilian expedition, which was designed not only to take possession of Sicily, but afterwards to conquer Carthage and Libya, and so, from the supremacy of the Mediterranean, to acquire that of the Peloponnesus, and reduce the Spartans, the gods of the play. (Thuc. vi. 15, &c.; Plut. Nic. 12, Alc. 17.) The plan succeeds; the gods send ambassadors to demand terms, and finally Peisthetaerus espouses Basileia, the daughter of Zeus. In no play does Aristophanes more indulge in the exuberance of wit and fancy than in this; and though we believe Süvern's account to be in the main correct, yet we must not suppose that the poet limits himself to this object: he keeps only generally to his allegory, often touching on other points, and sometimes indulging in pure humour; so that the play is not unlike the scheme of Gulliver's Travels.
The Lysistrata returns to the old subject of the Peloponnesian war, and here we find miseries described as existing which in the Acharnians and Peace had only been predicted. A treaty is finally represented as brought about in consequence of a civil war between the sexes. The Thesmophoriazusae is the first of the two great attacks on Euripides, and contains some inimitable parodies on his plays, especially the Andromeda, which had just appeared. It is almost wholly free from political allusions; the few which are found in it shew the attachment of the poet to the old democracy, and that, though a strong conservative, he was not an oligarchist. Both the Plutus and the Ecclesiazusae are designed to divert the prevailing mania for Dorian manners, the latter ridiculing the political theories of Plato, which were based on Spartan institutions. Between these two plays appeared the Frogs, in which Bacchus descends to Hades in search of a tragic poet,—those then alive being worthless,—and Aeschylus and Euripides contend for the prize of resuscitation. Euripides is at last dismissed by a parody on his own famous line ἡ γλῶσσ᾽ ὁμώμοχ᾽, ἡ δὲ φρὲν ἀνώμοτος (Hipp. 608), and Aeschylus accompanies Bacchus to Earth, the tragic throne in Hades being given to Sophocles during his absence. Among the lost plays, the Νῆσοι and Γεωργοί were apparently on the subject of the much desired Peace, the former setting forth the evils which the islands and subject states, the latter those which the freemen of Attica, endured from the war. The Triphales seems to have been an attack on Alcibiades, in reference probably to his mutilation of the Hermes Busts (Süvern, On the Clouds, p. 85. transl.); and in the Γηρυτάδης certain poets, pale, haggard votaries of the Sophists,—Sannyrion as the representative of comedy, Melitus of tragedy, and Cinesias of the cyclic writers, visit their brethren in Hades. The Γῆρας appears from the analysis of its fragments by Süvern, to have been named from a chorus of old men, who are supposed to have cast off their old age as serpents do their skin, and therefore probably to have been a representation of vicious dotage similar to that in the Knights. From a fragment in Bekker's Anecdota (p. 430) it is probable that it was the 9th of the Aristophanic comedies.
Suidas tells us, that Aristophanes was the author, in all, of 54 plays. We have hitherto considered him only in his historical and political character, nor can his merits as a poet and humorist be understood without an actual study of his works. We have no means of comparing him with his rivals Eupolis and Cratinus (Hor. Sat. i. 4. 1), though he is said to have tempered their bitterness, and given to comedy additional grace, but to have been surpassed by Eupolis in the conduct of his plots. (Platonius, περὶ διαφ. χαρ. cited in Bekker's Aristoph.) Plato called the soul of Aristophanes a temple for the Graces, and has introduced him into his Symposium. His works contain snatches of lyric poetry which are quite noble, and some of his chorusses, particularly one in the Knights, in which the horses are represented as rowing triremes in an expedition against Corinth, are written with a spirit and humour unrivalled in Greek, and are not very dissimilar to English ballads. He was a complete master of the Attic dialect, and in his hands the perfection of that glorious instrument of thought is wonderfully shewn. No flights are too bold for the range of his fancy: animals of every kind are pressed into his service; frogs chaunt chorusses, a dog is tried for stealing a cheese, and an iambic verse is composed of the grunts of a pig. Words are invented of a length which must have made the speaker breathless,—the Ecclesiazusae closes with one of 170 letters. The gods are introduced in the most ludicrous positions, and it is certainly incomprehensible how a writer who represents them in such a light, could feel so great indignation against those who were suspected of a design to shake the popular faith in them. To say that his plays are defiled by coarseness and indecency, is only to state that they were comedies, and written by a Greek who was not superior to the universal feeling of his age.
The first edition of Aristophanes was that of Aldus, Venice, 1498, which was published without the Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae. That of Bekker, 5 vols. 8vo., London, 1829, contains a text founded on the collation of two MSS. from Ravenna and Venice, unknown to former editors. It also has the valuable Scholia, a Latin version, and a large collection of notes. There are editions by Bothe, Kuster, and Dindorf: of the Acharnians, Knights, Wasps, Clouds, and Frogs, by Mitchell, with English notes (who has also translated the first three into English verse), and of the Birds and Plutus by Cookesley, also with English notes. There are many translations of single plays into English, and of all into German by Voss (Brunswick, 1821), and Droysen (Berlin, 1835—1838). Wieland also translated the Acharnians, Knights, Clouds, and Birds; and Welcker the Clouds and Frogs.