Welcome to Balladeer’s Blog’s latest look at ancient Greek comedy. In previous posts I examined 8 individual comedies from classical Athens. Since so many of the Attic Old Comedies survive in very fragmentary form I will periodically be dealing with the plays too fragmentary for full-length reviews in the manner laid out in this blog post.
Instead of examining individual comedies in these posts, I will focus on those ancient Greek comedians whose entire corpus is very, very fragmentary, touching briefly on all of their known works. For background info on ancient Greek comedy plus my previous reviews click here: https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/
PHILYLLIUS – This comic poet’s career seems to have spanned approximately from the 410’s BCE to 390 BCE. One of his comedies won 1st prize at a Lenaea festival in the 390’s and he won 1st prize at an unknown Dionysia. His fellow comedian Strattis credited him with being the first Attic Old Comic to use real torches on stage.
My favorite random line from his fragments: “The most important element of health is to breathe clean and unsullied air.”
I. HERAKLES – This comedy combined mythological burlesque with a comical look at the institution of phratries in ancient Greece. Phratries were the forerunner of and partial inspiration for college fraternities and sororities as well as some lodges. That’s one of the reasons why fraternities and sororities are known by Greek letters.
Phratries were Greek social organizations in which the members swore a bond and vowed to look out for each other’s interests and perform professional or personal favors for each other throughout their lives, similar to the alleged bonds between fraternity brothers and sorority sisters. These “club ties” were very beneficial in the life of the Greeks and it was typical for a young man to join the same phratry his father belonged to.
In Philyllius’ comedy Herakles the demigod comes down from Mt Olympus intent on finding out what he missed by never getting inducted into his father’s phratry. Only legitimate sons could join a phratry so since Herakles was one of the countless bastard children of Zeus by mortal women he was left out.
The prologue of the comedy was spoken by Dorpia, a personification of the start of the Apaturia festival. This autumn festival was a 3-day event in which all the phratries assembled for feasts and the induction of new members. One of the few surviving fragments of the comedy jokes about the protenthai, a guild of food- tasters who would sample food before all the other celebrants during Apaturia. Other jokes centered around Herakles’ famously gluttonous hunger and poor table manners but far too little survives of the comedy to piece together anything more.
II. CITIES – Not to be confused with Eupolis’ comedy of the same name. Virtually nothing of this comedy can be gleaned except that it featured a character from Dorica whose heavy accent was a source of humor. It also contained the joke “Whenever the cook does something wrong the aulos player gets beaten.” ( Quality cooks were prized professionals – especially to the epicurean Athenians – so it was better to use the more easily replaced musician playing the aulos as a whipping boy rather than punish the cook)
The longest fragment is from the kind of bit that I jokingly refer to in other Greek comedy reviews as “food porn.” The comic poets regularly went for “cheap applause” from the audience by having characters recite virtual monologues featuring long, loving descriptions of food for a meal to be eaten in the comedy. Even today we still make “yummy noises”when someone artfully describes a tasty dish to us so applause from the Athenian audiences isn’t so hard to understand.
III. ANTEIA – This comedy was an example of the sub-genre of Attic Old Comedy called Hetaera Plays. The term hetaera is often lazily translated as “prostitute” but the reality was a bit more complex. I’ve always felt that “kept woman” would be a better way to capture the concept. Hetaerae (plural) did NOT walk the streets and were not just for quickies like the lower-level prostitutes. They had their own luxurious digs with the expenses being footed by whichever wealthy man was enjoying bedroom privileges at the moment.
A hetaera could move from man to man or keep one man for extended periods. What they were was openly known but the hetaerae occupied the top rung in the open “sex for pay” business in ancient Greece. Political figures could be publicly known as a hetaera’s steady man and it was not a career ender, but the man would be in for a lot of ribbing in the comedies of the time, usually as the butt of jokes pointing out how such an “ugly” man could ONLY get such a beautiful sex partner by paying her.
Beyond the title and the fact that it was a Hetaera Play little else is known about this work of Phylillius but I’ll have more detailed looks at other examples of this sub-genre in the future.
IV. NAUSICAA AND THE WASHERWOMEN – A comical depiction of the sleeping, naked Odysseus being discovered by Nausicaa and other laundry girls of Ithaca after he at last arrives home from his 10 year journey. One of the surviving jokes is a poke at the VERY litigious nature of Athenian politician Laispodias, formerly a general. Nothing else can be pieced together from the fragmentary remains.
V. AUGE – Auge was the daughter of Aleos from Arcadia. The comedy involved her fling with Herakles when he was completing his Labor involving the Arcadian Stag. She had to conceal both the affair and the birth of Telephus, the offspring of the illicit union. Think Three’s Company Goes To Ancient Greece.
VI. DODEKATE – This comedy was set during the title festival, a day-long drinking contest on the 12th day of the ancient Greek month of Anthesterion.
VII. AEGEUS – Aegeus was the father of Theseus and the figure that the Aegean Sea was named for. Too little survives to know what this comedy was about.
VIII. THE WELL DIGGER – Only the title has survived.