Category Archives: Ancient Greek Comedy

MERCHANT SHIPS (424-421 B.C.) BY ARISTOPHANES

With Boycott-mania sweeping the country what better time for this look at the fragmentary remains of this ancient Greek Comedy by Aristophanes?

Ancient Greek Merchant Ship

Ancient Greek Merchant Ship

Balladeer’s Blog presents another examination of an ancient Greek political satire. In this case it is one of those works of Aristophanes which have survived only in very fragmentary condition.

MERCHANT SHIPS  

Merchant Ships was written and publicly staged in approximately 424 B.C. to 421 B.C. according to the available data. It was another of Aristophanes’ comedies protesting the pointlessness of the Greek city-states warring among themselves instead of uniting against the encroachments of the Persian Empire.

I can’t help but view this particular comedy in light of my own country’s current plight of having the rival criminal gangs called the Democratic and Republican Parties pointlessly rob the country blind and run it into the ground while virtually ignoring external threats.

In this comedy the captains of two separate merchant ships – one from Athens and one from their foe Sparta – have grown weary of the pointless conflict and make a separate peace with each other. They and their crew members get to spend the play enjoying the food and drink from their cargoes and living out a metaphorical return to the prosperous days before the Peloponnesian War when peace reigned among the various Greek city-states.  

Franchises aka Merchant Ships

Franchises aka Merchant Ships

For a modern-day adaptation (as opposed to a straight translation) the situation could be depicted by having a Chick Fil-A restaurant right next to a Starbucks coffee shop. The managers and employees of these stereotypically Republican (Chick Fil-A) and stereotypically Democratic (Starbucks) establishments could grow tired of the political feuding, especially since both political parties often call for boycotts of the opposing business.   Continue reading

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THE BIRDS (c 414/6 BC): ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY BY ARISTOPHANES

Birds by Aristophanes 1Balladeer’s Blog presents another examination of an ancient Greek political satire. This comedy by Aristophanes was one that I was planning on covering very soon when I started posting my reviews of Attic Old Comedy years ago. For various reasons it kept falling by the wayside.

Where am I going with this? For Aristophanes’ line “In Cloud-Cuckooland things become what they are called rather than being called what they are” make it “In Ivory Towerland things become what they are called rather than being called what they are.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Birds is Aristophanes’ lengthiest surviving comedy and also the most analyzed (some would say over-analyzed). So much has already been written about this particular work that I’ve decided to forego my usual intensive examination of every scene. Instead I’ll go with a brief synopsis followed by a way I feel The Birds could be adapted (as opposed to translated) for the present day. To close things out I’ll add a few comments on how The Birds compares with other Utopian Comedies of the era.

SYNOPSIS

Birds by Aristophanes 2More than 2,300 years before George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984, Aristophanes was dealing with some of the same political themes. 

Pisthetaerus and Euelpides, Athenians feeling alienated by the increasingly restrictive laws and lawsuits 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 liberals who became just as oppressive as they claimed previous generations 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 with “the birds” at the center to justify their own rule. Continue reading

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ANTEIA: ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

Hetaera 3Anteia was written by the comic poet Philyllius. This comic poet’s career seems to have spanned approximately from the 410s BCE to 390 BCE. One of his comedies won 1st prize at a Lenaea festival in the 390s and he won 1st prize at an unknown Dionysia. His fellow comedian Strattis credited him with being the first Attic Old Comic to use real torches on stage.

My favorite random line from Philyllius’ fragments: “The most important element of health is to breathe clean and unsullied air.”

THE PLAY  

ANTEIA – This comedy was an example of the sub-genre of Attic Old Comedy called Hetaera Plays. The term hetaera is often lazily translated as “prostitute” but the reality was a bit more complex. I’ve always felt that “kept woman” would be a better way to capture the concept. Hetaerae (plural) did NOT walk the streets and were not just for quickies like the lower-level prostitutes. They had their own luxurious digs with the expenses being footed by whichever wealthy man was enjoying bedroom privileges at the moment.

Hetaera 2A hetaera could move from man to man or keep one man for extended periods. What they were was openly known but the hetaerae occupied the top rung in the open “sex for pay” business in ancient Greece. Political figures could be publicly known as a hetaera’s steady man and it was not a career ender, but the man would be in for a lot of ribbing in the comedies of the time, usually as the butt of jokes pointing out how such an “ugly” man could ONLY get such a beautiful sex partner by paying her. Continue reading

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DEMOS-TYNDAREUS (410BC): ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

classical greeceDEMOS-TYNDAREUS (410 BC) – Written by Polyzelus (see below for biographical details).

The Tyndareus part of this political comedy’s title refers to the mythical figure who came back from the dead like Lazarus in Christian beliefs. The Demos part is the embodiment of “the people” and comes from the same root word that “democracy” does. In this satire Demos represents the Athenian people just like he did in Aristophanes’ The Knights and in other comedies. Think of a figure like Uncle Sam representing Americans or John Bull representing the British or a person on their knees with their hands raised in surrender representing the French (rimshot). 

The title is referring to the resurrected democracy of Athens following the fall of the government imposed by the oligarchic coup of 411 BC – 410 BC. This restoration would later be followed by ANOTHER oligarchic coup six years later and another restoration of democracy, but of course none of this was known when Demos- Tyndareus was first performed. The scattered fragments reveal that the comedy dealt with an unknown figure orienting the resurrected Demos to the political climate of the newly- restored democracy. Continue reading

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YES, THE FILM CHI-RAQ IS BASED ON LYSISTRATA

AristophanesMany of you have been kind enough to let me know that the new movie Chi-Raq, about black-on- black violence in Chicago, can be added to the long list of adaptations of Lysistrata by Aristophanes.

For new readers here is my examination of Lysistrata:

Lysistrata was written by the Big A himself, Aristophanes, and this comedy always makes a perfect introductory play for newcomers to Ancient Greek Comedy (henceforth AGC). Part of its accessibility to modern audiences obviously comes from the risque premise of the play, of course.

For me the notion that we can understand and laugh at the same simplistic but brilliant story that Athenian audiences from 2,427 years ago laughed at and appreciated embodies the value of these ancient works. 

THE PREMISE

Lysistrata1By 411 BCE the Peloponnesian War between Athens (and its allied city-states) and Sparta (and its allied city-states) had been raging for roughly 20 years. The war provides the backdrop for many of Aristophanes’ surviving comedies and is especially apt where Lysistrata is concerned.   

Weary of the long, drawn-out conflict the women of Athens, led by the title character Lysistrata (supposedly based on Lysimache, the Priestess of Athena in Athens at the time), join forces with the women of Sparta and decide to withhold sex from the men until they agree to bring an end to the war.  Continue reading

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ANOTHER ANCIENT GREEK THEATER UNEARTHED

Lefkada 2Regular readers of Balladeer’s Blog are familiar with my obsession with ancient Greek comedies. A related story has hit the news – on the Ionian island of Lefkada a previously unknown ancient amphitheater was discovered recently.

The find is located on Koulmou hill and is being further excavated by the Lefkada and Aitoloakarnania Antiquities Ephorate. (On a side note, remember the Ephors of ancient Sparta?) So far digs in 13 areas have uncovered the theater’s rows of seats, the orchestra section and assorted walls. No surviving ancient sources refer to a theater in this area so ancient Greek stage geeks like me are in Dork Heaven right now!  Continue reading

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TAXIARCHOI (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.     Continue reading

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