POLEIS (CITIES): ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

Balladeer’s Blog resumes its examination of ancient Greek comedies. 

classical greecePOLEIS – In this post I’m looking at Poleis (Cities), written by Eupolis, one of the Big Three of Ancient Greek Comedy along with Aristophanes and Cratinus. This satirical comedy is dated from approximately 422 B.C. to 419 B.C.  Like so many other such comedies it has survived only in fragmentary form.

The title refers to the all-important Chorus in ancient Greek comedies. In this case the chorus consisted of actors costumed to represent some of the city-states which were under the influence of Athens at the time.

As for how people can be “costumed” as cities, picture how it would be done with American cities. The chorus member representing New York might be depicted as the Statue of Liberty, Saint Louis as the Arch, Pittsburgh as a steel worker, Los Angeles as a brain-dead movie star and so on.

Part of the political satire dealt with the love-hate relationship that many subject- states had with Athens. Being the combination Paris/ Tokyo/ New York City of its time, Athens had a lot to offer its allied polities, but a certain air of tension always existed because of what some of those locations felt were Athens’ high-handed ways of dealing with them.

Eupolis depicted the personified subject-states/ allied states as workers with a not altogether beloved “boss,” Athens.

Other aspects of the comedy dealt with to what degree Athenian citizens should be active in political life. Athens was, of course, an ancient forerunner of the U.S. when it came to democracy and like so many other ancient Greek comedies Poleis reflected issues that we too struggle with.

Externally, where does influence end and intimidation (or meddling) begin? Internally, where does activism end and mob tyranny (or cancel culture) begin?

Much of the humor came from wry insults flung by the subject states/ allied states against Athens and against each other as well as wry insults flung at those states by Athens.

Not enough of Poleis has survived to determine an exact beginning and ending, just like with so many other ancient Greek comedies.

Let’s take a look at some of the surviving jokes and other dialogue from the fragments:

*** Said by one of the cities to Athens: “Men who before now you wouldn’t have even trusted as bartenders you now elect as Generals (Yes, some Generalships were elected positions back then.) Oh, Athens, you are more lucky than smart.” 

*** One joke was aimed at Syracosius, a favorite target of satirical comedy at the time because of his legislation which – for a few years in the past – successfully banned the naming of politicians in the comedies. This was later overturned but the comedians never forgot who was responsible for the limits placed on their creativity for a few years.

           The actual joke: “Whenever he speaks in the Assembly Syracosius sounds like one of those little dogs women keep. He runs around yipping and howling.”

           Even the gods the Greeks worshipped were fair game for ridicule in the “anything goes” arena of the comedy performances. Syracosius brought on criticism by leading the way on the temporary ban on mocking politicians by name, as if the gods were okay to target but not high and mighty politicians. A similar public backlash was felt years earlier by Cleon when he prosecuted Aristophanes for allegedly “defaming Athens” in one of his comedies, The Babylonians.

*** Bringing out the last of the Chorus members representing cities at the play’s beginning: “Where is the last one?” answered by another speaker with “Here she is … Cyzicus” followed by an idiomatic joke that I will adapt as “What happens in Cyzicus STAYS in Cyzicus” because of that city’s reputation for all manner of debauchery and sexual excess.

*** Another joke about Cyzicus/ Las Vegas – “One time on military duty in that city I screwed a woman, a boy and an old man for one obol … I could have spent all day cleaning out that pussy.” (This joke is mild compared to some other Cyzicus references in other comedies I will examine in the future. There were supposedly even establishments in Cyzicus where a customer could have sex with animals and/or corpses. No, I’m not joking.)

*** A joke about the long-dead military and political leader Cimon: “Cimon wasn’t really a bad man, just drunken and thoughtless. Though he did love Sparta more than Athens … or even his own wife.”  (Cimon was always noted for getting along well with the Spartans – an acceptable position in the past but once the Peloponnesian War started and the Spartans were the enemy his pro-Spartan attitudes were looked on in a new light.)

*** One of the ancient comedies’ many jokes about Rhodia, the wife of the prominent Athenian Lycon, and her alleged promiscuity: “Just like all men eventually go to ruin with Lycon’s wife.”

*** A reference to an unknown figure being so good at finagling accounts that they “embezzled money from Heracleia (a well-known embezzler himself).”

*** A dirty joke from an unknown speaker: “Is she cultivated or just bare land?” As in does she shave her pubic hair.

*** An insult disguised as a compliment when introducing the Chorus member costumed as Chios: “She is Chios, a fine city! She sends Athens warships and men whenever there is a need and the rest of the time she is nicely obedient, like a horse that does not need a whip.” Remember the political dynamics I explained above regarding Athens and its allied states/ subject states.

*** A snarky intro for the Chorus member costumed as Tenos: “She is Tenos, land of scorpions and informants.”

*** A joke about the politician Theramenes: “His status as an Athenian citizen was paid for by his fatcat patron Hagnon.” Jokes about politicians secretly being illegal immigrants or false Athenian citizens were plentiful in ancient Greek comedy.

*** A joke about the politician Hyperbolus’ legendary lust for power before he had even reached manhood.

*** A putdown of the dithyrambic poet Philoxenus of Cythera as lacking masculinity. This type of joke was common in ancient Greek comedy, and survives to this day.

*** An insult to Chaerephon, a follower of Socrates, for his supposedly jaundiced complexion.

*** A generic joke: “I’m so poor I don’t even have a basin to shit in.” Or “pot to piss in” as we say today.

*** A joke about Amynias’ notoriety for living far beyond his means. The incomplete joke compares him to a hick in over his head at a perfume stall. Amynias was the Archon of Athens around 423 B.C. Archons were elected to executive duties for one year, from one summer to the next.

           Years were often referred to by the name of the Archon in office at the time, like we might say something like “Back during the Ford administration …” 

*** A gag in which some sort of indignity (or worse) was suffered by the politician Adeimantus, a schemer who was later exiled in the scandal over the Mysteries in 415 B.C. and who helped topple Athens in 405 or 404 B.C. “Is it not dreadful that I, Adeimantus, from such a prominent family, suffer things like this?”

Now let’s look at fragments of dialogue which are not explicitly jokes:

*** “Hey Philonius (brother of Cleophon), why are you staring at her? Why don’t you just piss off to one of our colonies?”

*** “So in your opinion, which seer should I go see? Amphoterus or Stilbides?”

*** First Speaker: Have you ever raised any quails?  Second Speaker: I have. Some little ones. What of it?  (Riveting stuff, isn’t it?)

*** “And is there a chest at Demus’ place, oh son of Pyrilampes?” 

*** “As I will answer all of your accusations.”

*** “They may suffer such things but I don’t ask to be sold.”

*** “Hierocles, best of soothsayers …”

*** “Hyacinthus should have been killed by an almond tree to the temple instead of a discus.”

*** “Those great men who left us Marathon as our inheritance.”

*** “What deed would be sworn as impossible for us Athenians?”

*** “He is not a busybody (or SJW), he lives and lets live.”

*** “The unambitious man is worse than the office seeker.”

*** “Gentlemen, judges of the choruses under review.” This line would have been spoken to the judges of the comedies. Many jokes in ancient Greek comedy break the Fourth Wall like this, despite some people thinking it is a Post-Modern development.   

I’ll be examining another ancient Greek comedy soon.

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

© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog, 2019. 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.

2 Comments

Filed under Ancient Greek Comedy

2 responses to “POLEIS (CITIES): ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

  1. Marcus

    You make these old comedies so interesting in a way my professors never did!

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