Balladeer’s Blog’s latest look at ancient Greek comedies deals with another work by Cratinus who, along with Aristophanes and Eupolis, constituted the Big 3 of Attic Old Comedy.
This time around I’ll examine the comedy Plutoi, aka Wealth Gods and the way in which it dealt with issues that are still relevant to us over 2,400 years later.
For more background information on the subject of ancient Greek comedies click here: https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
This comedy opens as the audience is told Zeus has been overthrown and the Titans have been freed from the Netherworld. Plutoi derives its premise from those myths in which the Titans were viewed as the deities who reigned over the long-past Golden Age, when prosperity was enjoyed by everyone and no one was richer or poorer than their fellow citizens.
The Wealth Gods arrive at the huge rock where their fellow Titan Prometheus has been bound by Zeus for untold years as punishment for stealing fire from the Olympian gods and giving it to humans. They free him and resume their task of reordering the world now that “the tyranny of Zeus” has ended. That reordering involves prosecuting those tycoons who have amassed their wealth through supposedly dishonest means.
Like so many other Attic Old Comedies Plutoi has come down to us only in fragmentary form and the only figure positively identified as being put on trial by the Wealth Gods for unjust acquisition of wealth is Hagnon, a prominent Athenian who founded the Athenian colony Amphipolis and made a fortune from the island city’s advantageous position along the trade routes between the Hellespont and mainland Greece.
The next fragment picks up at the end of the comedy with the Wealth Gods having stripped away all dishonest wealth and redistributed it so that general prosperity is again enjoyed by all and there is no more poverty or toil.
No matter how much Cratinus poked fun at rival comedian Aristophanes for “Euripidaristophanizing” or in other words, devoting so much time in his comedies to parodying scenes from the tragedies of Euripides, the truth is Cratinus himself devoted a great deal of time in his own comedies to parodying and otherwise engaging with the tragedies of Aeschylus. Plutoi in particular parodies and borrows its general structure – or at least what can be gleaned of that structure through the fragments – from Aeschylus’ trilogy of Prometheus tragedies.
The overthrow of “tyrannical” Zeus in the comedy is a political metaphor for the downfall or death of Pericles, the most influential figure in Athenian politics for a generation. Some scholars date the comedy to either Pericles being voted out of his position as Strategos (Commander in Chief) or to his later death during the plague that swept through Athens in the early years of the Peloponnesian War. Pericles would be considered more fondly as time went on, but for a period after his death he was still deeply resented for embroiling Athens in the war with Sparta, for his poor strategy in conducting that war and for various financial scandals from “the Age of Pericles”.
Certainly no explanation is needed for why I feel that this comedy still resonates over 2,400 years later. And as usual I think it offers points of interest for both liberals and conservatives.
While the fundamental premise may sound solidly left-wing a familiarity with the social attitudes of Athens in the 5th Century BCE muddies the waters a bit. Cratinus depicts Hagnon as something akin to a wealthy American “Robber Baron” from the 1800’s but that does not offer definitive proof that his fortune was unjustly obtained as the Wealth Gods charge. People who made money through trade as Hagnon did were looked down on as “Nouveau Riche”, to use a much later term.
“Respectable” wealth was thought to come from working in the arts (reminiscent of much modern day Liberal snobbery) or through belonging to a landed, “old money” family which had been wealthy for countless generations (reminiscent of much modern day Conservative snobbery). Such families mostly came from the old aristocracy that had been overthrown to make way for the Athenian democracy. So while it may be tempting to feel that the sentiment of Plutoi sprang from some ancient “Occupy the Agora” movement that just isn’t the case.
Instead that sentiment sprang from something that I feel hits even closer to home and demonstrates the hypocrisy of both Liberals and Conservatives on this issue. Cratinus and his political allies feel that their own wealth (to whatever degree) has been “justly” obtained, but the wealth of their political foes like Hagnon has been “unjustly” obtained and should be taken from them and redistributed.
This perfectly matches the Occupy Movement’s blatantly political motives. ONLY their wealthy political foes are targeted. George Soros, who is as much a bloated rich pig as any Conservative tycoon, is exempted, and the Occupy Zombies even marched PAST one of Soros’ mansions on their way to protest outside more politically acceptable targets. And that’s just one example, of course, but that’s why I paraphrased the silly Occupy Zombies’ sophomoric chants as “THEIR billionaires are evil! OUR billionaires are wonderful!”
Nancy Pelosi and many other Democrats are also bloated rich pigs and should not be permitted to co-opt legitimate outrage at the mammoth abuses perpetrated by the wealthy in America. The same goes for multi-millionaire Hollywood celebrities (to use a Liberal example) and for multi-millionaire country western singers (to use a Conservative example) who feign concern over “the plight of the poor and needy” while acquiring more money than countless thousands of people would need over the course of their entire lifetimes.
When Michael Moore, the man who put the “pig” in bloated rich pig, was hanging out with the Occupy Zombies you’ll notice they didn’t ask him why he doesn’t divest himself of all but a million dollars or so of his own money and give the rest to the 99 percent that he pretends to care about. And when the Occupiers indignantly refused to share with homeless people near their protest site the food they (the Occupy Zombies) had collectively bought it was a hypocritical display worthy of satirical scenes from Attic Old Comedy. That was when I first realized Plutoi would be a perfect way of examining this topic.
Liberals who would maintain that it’s Hollywood millionaires’ own business what they do with their money are guilty of the same attitude that Conservatives display when they defend the excessive wealth of their own political allies. Liberals think it’s wrong to hold their political allies to the same standard they hold their political enemies to, which was the same hypocrisy Cratinus was guilty of in Plutoi.
And how about the obscene amounts of money that professional athletes make? Should a 21st Century council of Plutoi confiscate that “unjust” wealth and decide where it might be better spent? How far does one go with the whole concept of “just” and “unjust” wealth?
So much for the part that applies to Liberals. To see how this comedy applies to Conservatives with their detestable and overwrought concern for the “plight” of the obscenely wealthy, we need to examine some of the other, smaller fragments of Plutoi and how they bear on ancient Athenian attitudes toward wealth and civic responsibility.
Hagnon aside, other parties presented as being guilty of unjustly acquiring wealth were depicted doing so by evading their responsibilities to the community and hoarding their money for themselves. There was no direct income tax system in ancient Athens. When a citizen had amassed a fortune of two talents or more ( one talent being equivalent to millions of dollars today) they were liable for liturgies, or a civic obligation to pay for public improvements and other needs.
Some tycoons would try to evade their responsibilities by concealing or lying about their wealth (ancient Republicans, no doubt) but the Athenians had a masterful way of dealing with such slackers. Namely by calling their bluff. I jokingly call it the “if you’re so poor would you trade incomes with somebody else” gambit. Any wealthmonger crying poormouth could be openly challenged to a comparison of assets with another Athenian of presumably lower means.
If the tycoon pretending he wasn’t rich enough to have to pay liturgical responsibilities went through with the challenge and they were proven to be lying about their assets their fortune would be transferred to the other, poorer party and they would get the poorer party’s estate.
Underlying all this was societal contempt for the blind amassing of wealth just for the sake of amassing it. Well-off people who accepted their responsibilities and paid their liturgies were smiled upon and they could take a certain pride in paying as much as they did. Can you imagine a modern American Conservative taking pride in paying a huge amount in taxes? Certainly not. Especially if they felt other human beings might actually benefit a little from that tax money.
The ancient Athenians also frowned upon ostentatious displays of spending, no matter how wealthy someone was. I’d love to see Americans begin to display that attitude to multi-millionaires of all stripes (even -gasp – movie stars, athletes and singers) who pointlessly have multiple homes they seldom stay in or who buy things like the Elephant Man’s bones or any number of other hubristic displays.
I’d also love to know how the ancient Athenians would have dealt with Conservative misers who moan and groan and act like the entire free enterprise system will collapse if people who have money to burn actually have to pay higher taxes instead of people who are struggling to get by. And I can only imagine how a comic poet of their time would have savagely satirized the Conservative contention that showing them preferential tax treatment will somehow “create jobs”.
FOR MORE ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
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