The satirical comedies written and performed during the glory years of the ancient Athenian Democracy still pack a punch after more than 2,400 years. Athens faced many of the same issues and dilemmas we Americans face. Part of the reason for that is the fact that our founding fathers were great students of ancient Greek democracy and modeled some of our own institutions on the Athenian model.

The comedies are also much more sophisticated than modern audiences expect, featuring political views, sexual material and metatheatrical humor that seem several centuries ahead of their time. Breaking the fourth wall is not a postmodern concept like some people have convinced themselves – it was a convention established in these ancient works of comedy.

Irreverence toward any and all subjects – including the gods they worshipped – was permitted by the Athenians in the “anything goes” arena of the Theatre of Dionysus, where the comedies competed with each other at festivals, chiefly the Dionysia and the Lenaea.

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plutoiWEALTH GODS (PLUTOI) – By Cratinus. In this satirical comedy the Titans are depicted overthrowing Zeus in a metaphor for the fall of the political leader Pericles. This was a reference either to his actual death or to the loss of his position as Strategos  (Commander in Chief) depending on which year you go with for the comedy.

With Zeus/Pericles out of the way, Cratinus depicted the Titans returning Earth to the Golden Age when they ruled and all wealth was shared equally. The comedy presented various Athenian tycoons being put on trial by the Titans, who would confiscate  wealth acquired in an “unjust” way and give it to others. But just WHO gets to decide what qualifies as an “unjust” way of acquiring wealth?

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DEMOS-TYNDAREUS – By Polyzelus. After the fall of a short-lived oligarchy which had briefly overthrown the Athenian Democracy the Athenians were courageous enough to stay true to the principle of free speech despite the still-unsettled state of affairs in the city-state.

In this comedy Polyzelus satirized what he saw as the excessive zeal with which some of the freshly-elected leaders of the restored democracy were pursuing and prosecuting anyone suspected of having a hand in, or loyalties to, the late oligarchy.

I’ve always admired this quality of the Athenians. After just having lost their freedom to an ugly band who exploited free speech to overthrow the Democracy they STILL cherished it enough to allow criticism of the leaders who had restored freedom in Athens.

It’s like how America tolerates free speech even from those who seek its destruction.

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PYTINE (WINE-FLASK) – By Cratinus. Cratinus was known for being a big-time drinker and some of his fellow comedians often took shots at his fondness for alcohol. The Big C turned the tables on his fellow comedians and took first prize with this comedy featuring himself.

His marriage to “Comedy” was endangered by his affair with  “Drunkenness”, prompting his friends and family to try to force Cratinus to stop drinking. Cratinus contended that wine enhanced his creativity and enabled him to write the brilliant comedies he was known for.  “You’ll never write great poetry if all you drink is water” is the line that aptly captures the way we continue to romanticize the connections between substance abuse and creativity to this very day.

The trope of the loveable, charming drunk can be found even in this ancient comedy.

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THE KNIGHTS – By Aristophanes. This comedy was used by Aristophanes to attack his main political enemy, the demagogue Cleon. Other comedians of the time would imitate this work but Cleon’s notoriety and his past attempt to prosecute Aristophanes for one of his daring comedies add zest to this play.

The Knights proceeds from an assumption that we can still relate to today – the notion that honest candidates have no way of surviving the dishonesty and demagoguery of political campaigns, meaning that only liars and crooks wind up holding high office.

A lowly sausage-seller outdoes even Cleon at lies and campaign promises that are impossible to keep, enabling him to win an election. The Sausage Seller then reveals he is really an honest man who just posed as a demagogue to gain office, but now that he is elected he will be honest and clean up Athens.

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LYSISTRATA – By Aristophanes. This risque comedy continues to be the most widely known and frequently adapted of Aristophanes’ works. Most of his comedies were written and performed during the Peloponnesian War that pitted the Athenian Alliance against the Spartan Alliance. That war had been raging for roughly 20 years by this point, prompting the title character to organize the women of Athens and Sparta into a “sex strike”.

They plan to withhold sex from the men until they bring the war to an end. You can easily picture the nature of many of the jokes in this still-daring play. For obvious reasons this comedy has been staged and adapted to fit all manner of conflicts including the Cold War and South African Apartheid.

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DEMOI (COMMUNITIES) – By Eupolis. Along with Aristophanes and Cratinus, Eupolis was one of the Big Three of Ancient Greek Comedy. This comedy was considered his masterpiece. In Demoi Eupolis depicted four of the greatest statesmen of Athens’ storied past being brought back from the land of the dead to overcome the corruption, pettiness and incompetence of the current crop of Athenian political and military leaders.

We can still relate to this premise today because long-dead leaders retain a certain mystique that makes citizens reflect that “if only we had someone like Franklin Roosevelt (for the political left) or Ronald Reagan (for the political right) the country wouldn’t be in this sorry state.” That sentiment seems to apply no matter what the time period and wonderfully reinforces the link of our shared humanity with the ancient Athenians. 

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THE BIRDS – By Aristophanes. More than 2,300 years before George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Aristophanes was dealing with some of the same political themes. 

Athenians feeling alienated by the increasingly restrictive laws and lawsuits (seriously) of their home city have left Athens behind to start over with a new society. Part of the comedy centers around the ages-old theme of how those who seek to overthrow oppression often wind up becoming the new oppressors themselves. (Think of the 1960s generation of American leftists who became at least as oppressive as their parents’ generation had been) 

Another Orwellian theme finds Aristophanes satirizing the way in which the ruling class in any society uses and corrupts language to strengthen the subjugation of the populace. The Birds even features the importance of religious and historical myths in any culture as the leaders of the new civilization conjure up an all-new cosmology and “history” to justify their own rule.

The brave new world turned old-fashioned dictatorship is called Cloud-Cuckooland, and is so notorious it was even referred to in the musical Evita.


For more ancient Greek comedies click here:

© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog 2013. 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, opinion


  1. Wow this is a throwback! There was a time I had a huge interest in greek comedies having a chance to revisit while taking a humanities class some years back. Thanks for the post, I’ve been looking for new entertainment/hobbies to get into.

  2. Jacob Marion

    Brilliant takes on the Birds and the Knights!

  3. Renee Dailey

    Only you could get me interested in ancient comedy.

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