The Ruins of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens.

The Ruins of the Theater of Dionysus in Athens.

Balladeer’s Blog takes another look at an ancient Greek comedy. This time around I’m examining Cothurnus by Philonides, a comic poet who may also have acted and produced for the Athenian stage as well. It cannot be definitively determined if the “Philonides” referred to in those capacities are all one and the same or separate figures.


Like most ancient Greek comedies Cothurnus has survived only in fragmentary form and with very few fragments at that. The title refers to a type of footwear of the time period. A cothurnus could be worn on either the left foot or the right foot because of its softness and looseness. Because of this the word “cothurnus” also became a sarcastic term for a politician who tried to position themselves on both sides of an issue, claiming victory no matter which way the political winds blew.

This is certainly another element of Old Comedy that we can still relate to 2,400 years later. Philonides was specifically using this term and this comedy to target Theramenes.

To give a comprehensive look at Theramenes’ political juggling act would take too much time, suffice it to say he would flip-flop not just on specific issues but would retroactively claim to have supported whichever side won, would change political affiliations again and again and even set up other public figures to take the fall for his own failures (like arranging for six generals to be blamed and executed for his own part in the Arginusae travesty).

Cothurnus satirized Theramenes’ convoluted political maneuvering in the recent temporary overthrow of the Athenian democracy, the subsequent overthrow of the oligarchs who had seized control of Athens and then the punishment of the conspirators who had participated in the coup. Though Theramenes had helped in the coup, he had a falling out with the coup leaders and helped overthrow THEM, yet came through all that – even the resulting political witch hunt for anyone suspected of oligarchic sympathies – with his skin intact.


Among the fragments are the the following jokes and remarks:

A reference to the way sleazy politicians will side with whoever feeds them better. (Today we would say “they know which side of their bread is buttered”.

Descriptions of politics as a career involving distracting the voters with what we would today call “showbiz razzle dazzle”.

A reference to the way in which politicians and the wealthy get the main meal while the voters only get to sniff the frying pan used to cook their feast.

A joke comparing Theramenes’ duplicity to a double-wicked lamp. (Today we might use a “have his cake and eat it too” type of remark.)

An unknown figure who says they have a score to settle with the Athenian people and threatens to make them pay.

A joke using “Theramenes” as a verb, the way Aristophanes’ comedy The Knights used the politician Cleon as a verb (“He out-Cleoned Cleon himself!”).

A line (possibly not from this particular comedy of Philonides) that says “The oaths of adulterers are written on ashes.”

A description of a politician as “loving villainy”.  

For a modern-day example of politicians “Theramenes-ing” think of how then-Senator Barack Obama and then-Senator Joe Biden voted FOR the so-called “Defense of Marriage Act” (an anti-gay marriage item) and then-President Bill Clinton SIGNED the Defense of Marriage Act. Then, recently when the Supreme Court struck it down (an action I liked since I’ve supported gay marriage for years) all three of them hypocritically praised the Court for striking it down, all while acting like they had nothing to do with passing it into law in the first place.

If we had a vigorous Free Press some reporters would have asked them questions like “So are you saying you think the DOMA that you VOTED FOR and/or SIGNED INTO LAW was a repulsive and reprehensible piece of legislation?” Or even “So you’re GLAD the Supreme Court struck down something you voted for and/or signed into law?”

Unfortunately all news outlets in this country are just house organs for either the Democratic or Republican Parties, so Obama, Biden and Clinton got a mostly free pass on their role in DOMA. 


© 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.



Filed under Ancient Greek Comedy

8 responses to “ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY: COTHURNUS (circa 405 B.C.)

  1. Nemic

    Really awesome but there’s too little to work with on a lot of these old comedies.

  2. Pingback: BEST OF AUGUST 2019 | Balladeer's Blog

  3. Cara

    That was an amazing read.

    I don’t think I’ll remember the pronunciation of cornathus, but it is an excellent concept in its political meaning.

    And such a shoe would be so helpful for children. My son doesn’t get why shoes are either for the left or right foot.

    I think the Theramenes kind of person is sort of almost a memory now as most politicians no longer have that much mojo and independent decision making, they’re all just tentacles of bigger many-faced monsters now.

    But I remember a politician from 3 generations ago who recently died, who got away with all kinds of things.

    That thing about how Obama and Clinton signed those things that were anti-gay-marriage and then pretended to be all for gay marriage later… That’s so telling, that the press didn’t cover the hypocrisy.

    • I agree, the press giving them free passes on that hypocrisy says it all. Your son has a point about shoes! I hope you’re right about the Theramenes types. You usually are, so that’s good.

  4. Just like modern politicians.

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