Category Archives: Ancient Greek Comedy

ASK BALLADEER: WHY’D YOU LEAVE SICILY OUT OF YOUR REVIEW OF ARISTOPHANES’ COMEDY THE BIRDS?

Mascot new lookHere at Balladeer’s Blog I’ve been reviewing ancient Greek comedies for years and a fair amount of people have recently asked me why I didn’t take the traditional view of Aristophanes’ comedy The Birds. That traditional view claims that The Birds was written at least partially as a commentary on the failed military expedition to Sicily. 

FOR MY EXAMINATION OF THE BIRDS CLICK HERE

ANSWER: I omitted any reference to the Sicilian Expedition from my blog post on The Birds for a variety of reasons. For starters, it’s been covered to death by others who INSIST that that is the main subject of the comedy, so there’s no lack of alternate sources who cover that particular angle.

Next, I disagree with the notion that The Birds had much – if anything – to do with the disasters suffered by the Athenian forces in Sicily. It all comes back to my overall view that too many people force interpretations into Aristophanes’ comedies just because he’s the only ancient Greek comedian whose plays have survived in something resembling complete form.  

Let’s revisit my usual spiel about the way most study of Aristophanes’ comedies takes place in a virtual vacuum of “All Aristophanes and nothing BUT Aristophanes.” Much of that is understandable since the other comedians’ works came down to us only in fragmentary form.

As I’ve made clear in my examinations of comedies by Eupolis, Cratinus and others it really opens your mind about the entirety of Attic Old Comedy to read the many, many academic works analyzing the fragments of the other comedians’ works. Too few people do this, I guess because most people aren’t as boring as I am.  Continue reading

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TAXIARCHOI (C 427-415 B.C.): ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

TaxiarchoiBalladeer’s Blog presents another examination of an ancient Greek political satire.

TAXIARCHOI (Tax Collectors) – By Eupolis. Tax Day is the most appropriate day to examine this comedy because its premise serves as a pointed reminder of the inherent ugliness in all taxation – that the power to impose and collect taxes is, ultimately, backed up by the use of force. (If you doubt me go without paying your personal property taxes. Then we’ll discuss how much you truly “own” your home or your car.)  

In Taxiarchoi the god Dionysus is depicted joining the title military unit. Those Taxiarchoi units would periodically collect the “taxes” or – in its most honest form – “tribute” from the various regions, not only of Athens proper but of the Athenian subject states. Military units were necessary for such tasks for the reasons you would expect – attempted resistance on the part of those being taxed and/or attempted robbery by bands of thieves after the taxes had been collected.    

Sometimes a particular community might try to poor-mouth their circumstances and provide the taxiarchs with less money than had been assessed against them. In such cases the officer in charge was empowered to either seize portable property to make up the difference or to ransack the town and its vicinity to determine if the citizens were simply hiding their wealth.

For Athens proper, a representative of each of the traditional Ten Regions of Athens would lead the taxiarchs collecting taxes in their region and would select the squadron leaders. I’ll discuss the breakdown of the Ten Regions and the way they factored into political representation, the law and the census in ancient Athens in the future when I examine comedies that deal with issues relevant to those regions.  

THE PLAY 

Though it would be appropriate, given the daring nature of the ancient Greek satires, if Taxiarchoi was a hard-hitting commentary on the taxation process, unfortunately it was not. It was a comedy about the god Dionysus joining a unit of taxiarchs who were about to go on a tax collecting expedition. As usual in the comedies Dionysus was depicted as a fey, bumbling figure and in this particular case the laughs come largely from how the wine god’s soft, lazy nature was incredibly ill-suited for military life. Continue reading

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LYSIPPUS: THREE ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES

ancient-greece-mapBalladeer’s Blog once again focuses on one of the 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/ 

LYSIPPUS – This writer of Attic Old Comedy redefines the expression “fragmentary” because even less is known about his life than about shadowy figures like Susarion and Epicharmus. Lysippus came in 1st place with an unknown comedy at a Dionysia around 440 BCE. Fragmentary evidence survives from just three of his comedies out of an unknown total body of work so this will be my shortest blog post on ancient Greek comedy. 

We’ll start with my favorite random quote from Lysippus’ fragments. It displays his pride in Athens and reflects the city-state’s status as the combined New York, Rome and Tokyo of its era:  “If you have never come to Athens you are a fool. If you have come to Athens and not been captivated by her charms you are  ignorant. If you have been captivated by the charms of Athens and ever left her you are but a beast.” 

I. BACCHAE – Not to be confused with the various tragedies of the same title or the comedy by Diocles. Too little survives to tell if the play presented a comedic version of the tragic events depicted in other works titled Bacchae. The parabasis included the type of segment that would later be frequently repeated in Attic Old Comedy as Lysippus took shots at his competitors. That segment featured joking insults that break the fourth wall and Continue reading

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CRATES: ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

Balladeer’s Blog takes another look at the surviving fragments of an ancient Greek comedian, in this case Crates.

CratesCRATES – Crates’ career spanned from approximately the 450s B.C. to the 430s B.C. We have fragments from nine or ten comedies from an unknown total output. From other sources we know that comedies as stage productions began sometime around 500 B.C. or earlier so Crates came fairly early to the artform.

Crates was credited with being the first Athenian comic poet (the comedies were written in verse and included songs) to introduce drunken characters, still a comic staple over 2,400 years later. Aristotle himself credited Crates as being the first to abandon the “glorified comic monologues” approach of the oldest comedies and introducing fleshed-out plots and storylines.

Be that as it may, there is still a great deal of academic arguing over whether or not Crates’ work simply reflected the influence of Epicharmus, who may well have been the TRUE innovator.

Crates was supposedly an actor before he began writing comedies (But I’m sure he really wanted to direct. – rimshot – ) and his brother was Epilycus, one of the Epic Poets. Eusebius’ Chronicles stated that Crates was a well-known comedian by 451 B.C. and Demetrius Lacon in his work On Poetry indicates that Crates may have acted in some of Aeschylus’ tragedies before switching genres. 

KNOWN WORKS 

NeighborsNEIGHBORS – We do not have even a hypothetical year for this work, unfortunately. Since titles sometimes referred to the all-important Chorus of a Greek comedy there is speculation that the chorus members were “Neighbors” of some sort (Duh!) but nothing is known about the plot.

 Athenaeus argued that Crates’ use of a drunken character in this comedy PRE-DATED Epicharmus’ use of stage drunks, so apparently even back in ancient times this was being debated.   

The closest thing to an intact joke from the fragments of Neighbors is a lecherous reference to the delectable young males and females on hand serving whatever feast was being celebrated in the comedy. For today you could insert a Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey type of joke, I guess.

The next closest thing to an intact joke is a possibly wry reference to ” playing at pessoi” which could refer both to pebbles used in a board game and pebbles used to wipe one’s bottom after defecation. Since the ancient Greek comedies are LOADED with scat jokes it’s possible that a very grotesque mix-up occurred.

Other fragments from this comedy are virtually useless: “I do not possess a lampstand.” … “You must be quiet and not make a sound.” … “And had an aroma like sweetest myrrh.” … “If you’re smart, boy” … “A pig through roses” … “You led astray” … and “Scooping out a trough.”  Continue reading

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CALLIPIDES (c 400 B.C.) – ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

Annoy your friends with your pretentiousness: refer to shows like I Love Lucy and Make Room for Daddy as "Parathespian Comedies."

Annoy your friends with your pretentiousness: refer to shows like I Love Lucy and Make Room for Daddy as “Parathespian Comedies.”

Balladeer’s Blog presents another examination of an ancient Greek comedy. Callippides was written by the comedian Strattis and falls into that comic poet’s specialized area: Parathespian Comedies.

Another fun element of our shared humanity with the ancient Athenians who flocked to attend these plays is the fact that even 2,400 years ago audiences were fascinated and entertained by the trappings of “showbiz”. “Parathespian Comedies” were just one of the many sub-genres of ancient Greek comedy but Strattis is the writer most associated with them … by me and the .000001 percent of the population who are into such things.

Yes, a few thousand years before I Love Lucy, The Dick Van Dyke Show, Seinfeld and other such sitcoms the spectators at the Theatre of Dionysus were laughing at comedies depicting what it was like to be one of the performing, writing and singing stars of the Athenian stage. The Parathespian Comedies sometimes featured fictional stars as the characters but would also depict real-life figures of the stage in stories that were either wholly fictional or based on backstage gossip of the time.  

Callippides was based on the real-life actor and megastar of ancient Greek tragedies. In this particular case Strattis presented a very unflattering comedic poke at Callippides, making jokes that depicted him as a William Shatner-esque ham instead of the accomplished thespian he was often hailed as.   Continue reading

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DEMOI (C 417 B.C.) – ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

FOR BACKGROUND INFORMATION IF YOU MISSED MY FIRST POST ON ANCIENT GREEK COMEDIES CLICK HERE: https://glitternight.com/2011/09/22/at-long-last-my-ancient-greek-comedy-posts-begin/

map of greeceAs promised this time around I’ll depart from the works of Aristophanes to examine the fragmentary remains of a work by another genius of Ancient Greek Comedy, in this case Eupolis. 

Eupolis was part of the Big Three of Ancient Greek Comedy (henceforth AGC) along with Aristophanes and Cratinus. Some people confuse Eupolis with the later Greek comedian Eubulus but manage to lead fairly normal lives just the same. (rimshot)

THE PREMISE

Demoi is considered to be Eupolis’ greatest political satire. The premise is simplicity itself. An Athenian named Pyronides, like many of his fellow citizens, is disgusted with the pettiness, corruption and incompetence of the current crop of political and military leaders in the great city-state. Thus motivated, Pyronides retrieves four of the greatest figures of Athens’ storied past from the Netherworld and brings them back with him so they may set things right.

THE PLAY

In my introductory post about AGC (see above) I illustrated the similar problems faced by the Athenians’ ancient experiment in popular rule and our own often teetering enterprise. Corruption, partisanship and a tendency to subordinate the general good in the name of personal gain  were as rampant then as now.

As all societies are prone to do, the Athenians romanticised the leaders of the past, believing them to be of a heroic stature lacking in the current crop of Athenian politicians and generals. Continue reading

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THE KNIGHTS (424 B.C.) ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

Here’s a rerun of Balladeer’s Blog’s examination of the Ancient Greek Comedy called The Knights by Aristophanes. For background info on ancient Greek comedies see my original post on the topic: https://glitternight.com/2011/09/22/at-long-last-my-ancient-greek-comedy-posts-begin/

This comedy deals with the still-relevant situation in which honest people stand no chance against vile, corrupt demagogues.

In The Knights Aristophanes pioneered a new sub-genre of Attic Old Comedy: the  Demagogue Comedy. The villain of this masterpiece of political satire was a figure called the Paphlagonian, who was patterned on Cleon, a notorious Athenian politician of the time period. I’ll have Continue reading

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