ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY: AUTOLYCUS circa 420 B.C.

Jesse Ventura: Wrestler turned governor of Minnesota

Jesse Ventura: Wrestler turned governor of Minnesota

With the ongoing domestic violence situation with the NFL’s Ray Rice, the fake “drowning rescue” at USC plus the usual number of other scandals plaguing high-profile athletes at the moment this seemed a good time to examine the ancient Greek comedy Autolycus. This play was written by Eupolis who, along with Aristophanes and Cratinus constituted the Big Three of Attic Old Comedy. As with so many comedies of the time period Autolycus has survived only in fragmentary form, unfortunately.

THE PLAY

The title character of Eupolis’ comedy Autolycus was an Athenian athlete who earned a high degree of fame for his performance at the Great Panathenaia in 422 B.C. To simplify the concept the Great Panathenaia was a “local” version of the Olympic games and did not have participants from all over the known Western World.

Like so many figures from ancient Athens Autolycus had both male lovers and female lovers. The plot of this comedy dealt with the way in which Autolycus’ male lover Kallias – a wealthy heir – had begun grooming Autolycus for a run at political office. The play depicted Autolycus (son of Lykon) as being all muscles and no brains, prompting Kallias to insist his lover be “coached up” on politics by one of Lykon’s servants – an erudite man who suffered financial losses and was reduced to the lackey class in Athens.  

Once again we have an ancient Greek comedy with a theme we can still relate to today. On one level we can picture unlikely figures like Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Jesse Ventura successfully winning gubernatorial races despite their public reputations as “jocks” instead of statesmen. On a deeper level the theme of the comedy can also be applied to ANY figures who are deemed politically viable because of their accomplishments in a field COMPLETELY unrelated to the skills necessary to the art of governing.  

Let’s use examples from both the political left and the political right. Think of Ronald Reagan – an actor … think of Al Franken – a comedy writer … think of Craig James – a football player/ sportscaster … think of Barack Obama – a “community organizer”. It’s easy to apply Autolycus‘ theme of “celebrity as a vehicle for a political career” to plenty of modern-day situations, including the use of “handlers” whose job it is to make the celebrity candidate seem less shallow and clueless and more erudite and deep-thinking.    

Another way in which Autolycus is still relevant is the way in which it addressed the “athlete as jerk” concept. There was a tradition in Greek comedy in the 400’s B.C. to puncture the “Hellenic Ideal” – the notion that physical beauty and intellectual capacity should go hand-in hand. To modern audiences that is like the way in which the public image of athletes is often at odds with the ugly reality underneath (Lance Armstrong, O.J. Simpson, Ray Rice and many others). Sarcastically ridiculing the “Hellenic Ideal” in this way was a bit controversial, with detractors of the practice comparing it to what we would call a “nerds vs jocks” mentality on the part of the comedians.     

Unfortunately the rest of the comedy has not survived so it is not known if Autolycus was depicted as a successful candidate or if he proved hopelessly immune to having his image rehabilitated. Regardless of the outcome of this comedy, in real life Autolycus earned powerful political enemies. During the 404 B.C. coup by the oligarchic cabal called The Thirty Autolycus was one of the figures the coup leaders had put to death.   

COMMENTS AND SPECIFIC JOKES

*** I use the term “lackey” or “servant” class for the Athenian slave class. I don’t do this out of any hypersensitivity or desire to be politically correct, I do this simply because the plight of a member of the slave class in ancient Greece was not as nightmarish as the slavery experience of Africans at the hands of Europeans and the hands of the Muslim colonialists. An Athenian who suffered financial catastrophe and was reduced to the slave class – like Autolycus’ “tutor” in this comedy – could eventually buy or earn their own freedom more easily than African slaves were able to. In fact, it is possible the tutor was offered his freedom if he succeeded in getting Autolycus elected.

*** Some analysts argue that Eupolis presented HIMSELF as the “slave” assigned to prepare and educate Autolycus. This would be similar to how the comedian Cratinus used himself as a character in his comedy Pytine. There is a lot of speculation (but facts are scarce) that Eupolis himself had at one time fallen on hard times and had been reduced to slavery, inspiring this depiction. It is also argued that Eupolis meant it all tongue-in- cheekly simply because he had to have Autolycus produced through Demostratus, indicating a lack of personal means at the time it was staged.  (I’ll spare the reader a presentation of the ongoing academic arguments regarding the exact roles of Producers, Writers and Directors in Attic Old Comedy. You’re welcome.)   

*** The “pankration” competition that Autolycus earned fame from was a combination of wrestling and boxing, sort of like our modern-day MMA and UFC. 

*** There are indications from Xenophon and other contemporary sources that Autolycus was ridiculed in some circles for his performance in the pankration competition, with some catty suggestions he didn’t really deserve to win. We have no way of knowing if that is true but there are indications that Eupolis made jokes in this comedy about Autolycus “stealing” his victory by comparing him to his namesake – the mythic Autolycus who was a noted thief (that mythic Autolycus – supposedly the grandfather of Odysseus – was portrayed by Bruce Campbell on the Hercules and Xena television shows).  

*** Autolycus’ father was Lykon, a familar figure to fans of ancient Greek comedies. Lykon’s wife Rhodia was even more famous for her supposedly shameless and promiscuous behavior. Both figures were the butt of jokes in the comedy Autolycus.

*** Another way modern readers could picture the relationship between the tutor and Autolycus in this comedy would be to think of the relationship between Blackadder and the Prince Regent in Blackadder the Third.  

*** A joke in this comedy refers to Autolycus being “as easily penetrated as Eutresis” (a city in Arcadia), a dig about how easy it was for men to seduce Autolycus. Today we might instead say “He gives it up even quicker than the French army does.”

*** Two other characters in the comedy were Leogoras and his female lover Myrrhine: the former a political figure, the latter a Hetara (kept woman or high-class prostitute) Leogoras was always blowing money on.

*** A similar joke in this comedy had Kallias complain to Autolycus about how much money he was spending on him. You could compare it to this (probably apocryphal) exchange between the Prince and Lily Langtry – PRINCE BERTIE: I’ve spent enough money on you to build a battleship.  LILY: And you’ve spent enough IN me to float one.  

*** A joke was made regarding what Eupolis saw as the military ineptitude of the Athenian General Aristarchus.

*** Either Autolycus or Rhodia (or both) get sarcastically described as lying in bed “with their legs and buttocks arched in the air.”

*** There is a scene where Lykon gets revenge on his wife Rhodia for her latest affair by pissing in a bottle of the expensive perfume she was always splashing all over herself.

*** The conman’s game of building a political image is compared to “smoke and shadows” the way we would today say “smoke and mirrors.”

*** There are fragments of jokes about someone accidentally drinking from a chamber pot and pissing in their wash-basin. Whether out of stupidity or drunkenness is not clear.

*** A play on words compared Leogoras paying for sex with Myrrhine to “paying the harbor tax before you can dock your ship.”

*** Typical of the meta-theatrical humor of Attic Old Comedy Eupolis wrote jokes taking public pot-shots at his rival comedians. In Autolycus he depicted Aristophanes as Ephialtes, a fellow slave of the tutor. The tutor had to stop Ephialtes from stealing his ideas, the joke being the usual way the comedians accused each other of stealing each other’s jokes. (It was done so frequently it is impossible to tell who really may have imitated whom or even to tell if these accusations were serious or made purely in jest.)

*** Another shot Eupolis took at Aristophanes was that he supposedly followed in his (Eupolis’) wake, imitating him after he blazed new comedic trails. The specific joke he used was that he “got to all the best-looking women first while Aristophanes would come afterward for sloppy seconds.”

*** Yet another joke Eupolis made was that Aristophanes supposedly hung around gymnasiums to pick up well-built young athletes. It is not known for sure how many ancient Greek figures did this (a lot of them DID) but this joke was a routine insult thrown at politicians and at rival comedians. It wasn’t even that unusual a proclivity by the standards of the time, it was just something to tweak a public figure about – whether it was true of that particular person or not. (Think of all the gay jokes thrown back and forth during MTV Celebrity Roasts for a comparison.) 

*** There is some evidence of the tutor/Eupolis character having a dog. Some analysts argue that this specifically ties in to Eupolis’ real-life dog Augeas. The dog was a gift from Eupolis’ friend Augeas, whom he named the dog after. A legend surrounding the master and his pet goes that when Eupolis’ dead body was brought back after his death in war the dog laid on his master’s grave and starved himself to death. Because of this tale the alleged location of Eupolis’ grave is called “Dog’s Lament” to this very day.

*** Also regarding the supposed role of Augeas the dog in Autolycus: Some argue that Augeas stopped Ephialtes/ Aristophanes from stealing from the tutor/ Eupolis by tripping him up when Ephialtes tried to make off with whatever he was attempting to steal. This supposition breaks down into two separate schools of thought – (1) This scene was based on a real-life burglary that Augeas accidentally thwarted  – and (2) There never was a real-life burglary that Augeas thwarted and the alleged incident was instead based on this scene from the comedy Autolycus.  

*** In more humor that broke the Fourth Wall Eupolis needled Aristophanes about Peace, his award-winning play of the previous year. By coincidence Aristophanes’ comedy, which depicted a peaceful end to the Peloponnesian War, was followed up almost immediately by the signing of “The Peace of Nicias”. That peace treaty was originally hailed as bringing an end to the Peloponnesian War, but that was purely wishful thinking and the conflict soon resumed.

As for what Eupolis was needling Aristophanes about: the close proximity to Aristophanes’ comedy Peace and the actual signing of the Peace of Nicias was at first regarded almost supernaturally. Peace had depicted an Athenian’s personal plea to the gods on Mount Olympus to end the war, so, as religious- minded people always do, the Greeks of the day read too much into a mere coincidence and assumed that the gods had specifically answered Aristophanes’ comedic plea to grant peace.  

There is no indication that Aristophanes himself ever took such thoughts seriously but the accompanying boost in fame from the incident would likely add fuel to the rivalry the various competing comedians engaged in. The centerpiece of the closing scenes in Peace involved the unveiling of a massive statue of a female representing the concept of Peace. In Autolycus Eupolis made jokes about that statue crumbling and collapsing as easily as the real-life Peace of Nicias had. (As Johnny Carson might have observed “Y’know, Ed, that was a long way to go for such a little joke.”)

*** Euripides the tragedian wrote a Satyr Play titled Autolycus. That play seems to have involved the mythic master-thief, not the public figure Eupolis wrote about.   

*** The wealthy heir Kallias had a much larger role in Eupolis’ earlier comedy Kolakes (The Moochers or The Spongers).

*** For my fellow hard-core geeks for Attic Old Comedy Autolycus is often pointed to as Exhibit A for the supposed use of a Three-Skene Stage layout much earlier than is generally presumed. 

FOR MORE ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES CLICK HERE:https://glitternight.com/ancient-greek-comedies/

© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

31 Comments

Filed under Ancient Greek Comedy

31 responses to “ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY: AUTOLYCUS circa 420 B.C.

  1. Such gross jokes they did back then!

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  3. That story with the dog is so sweet.

  4. I enjoy these greek comedies! You should do them more often!

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