Category Archives: Ancient Greek Comedy

BAPTAE (Circa 415-413 B.C.): ANCIENT GREEK COMEDY

Dr Frank N FurterFor Balladeer’s Blog’s latest post on Ancient Greek Comedy I will examine another fragmentary work by Eupolis, who, along with Aristophanes and Cratinus was one of the Big Three of Attic Old Comedy.

BAPTAE was a comedy satirizing the latest faddish belief system to hit Athens: the cult of the Dorian and Thracian goddess Cotyto. Just like Kabala or transcendental meditation and other systems have enjoyed a brief vogue with entertainers and even some movers and shakers various foreign deities would periodically develop a following in ancient Athens. Eupolis was lampooning the fashionable appeal of one such cult and also ridiculed other elements of Cotyto worship as we will see.

The title Baptae came from the fact that the worshippers of Cotyto would immerse or “baptize” their garments in blue, green or purple dye, an expensive and very ostentatious indulgence for the time period. And yes, Baptae and baptizing are from the same root word, since it originally referred to immersion in any liquid, not just water.

The main element of the Athenian version of the cult of Cotyto was the fact that her devotees were exclusively male and all of them DRESSED AS THE GODDESS as part of their rites of worship. Even today we can Continue reading

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PYTINE aka THE WINE FLASK (423 B.C.)

CRATINUS

Cratinus

Welcome to another Balladeer’s Blog post on ancient Greek comedies. If Pytine was an episode of Friends it would be titled The One Where Cratinus Fires Back At Aristophanes. This play is also known under English language titles like Wine Flask, Flagon, The Bottle, and others along those lines.

Cratinus, seen at left posing for the Attic Old Disco soundtrack album for Saturday Night Fever (Travolta stole all his moves from Cratinus, by the way) and galvanized by the tongue-in- cheek caricature that Aristophanes presented of a drunken, washed- up Cratinus in his previous year’s comedy The Knights, turned that caricature into the premise of his final comedy.

THE PLAY

From the fragments of Pytine that remain it seems Cratinus had an actor portraying himself (Cratinus) as the booze-soaked Grand Old Man of Attic comedy at the time. I always picture the character as a cross between Dudley Moore in Arthur and Tom Conti in Reuben, Reuben. Anyway, in the play Cratinus is  married either to Thalia, the Muse of Comedy or to simply a female personification of Comedy.  

Comedy complains to Cratinus’ friends, who make up the chorus, that she wants to take her husband to court for abandonment. She states that he is neglecting their marital bed because he has been spending too much time sleeping around with Methe, in this comedy a personification of  Drunkenness.

Academic opinion varies on whether or not Methe is supposed to be a hot young woman or a hot young man, and since this is an ancient Greek comedy it definitely could go either way. Not enough of the comedy survives to make it clear so Methe’s gender will remain a controversy.

Cratinus’ friends plot to save their buddy’s marriage by stopping him from drinking. They enact their “intervention” by smashing every last one of his containers of wine, and some of the comedy came from how many different types of vessels Cratinus had been hiding his booze in.

Cratinus counters the destruction of all his drinking vessels by purchasing a pytine, a very durable wine flask reinforced with wicker. The pytine is so strong it will withstand all the friends’ attempts to destroy it, thus foiling their plan to save Cratinus’ marriage to Comedy or the muse Thalia. 

Cratinus defends his drinking by saying wine is the source of all his poetic inspiration (the comedies were all in verse). This line of reasoning sets up the most famous line from Pytine when Cratinus says “You’ll never write great poetry if all you drink is water.”   Continue reading

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TAXIARCHOI (427-415 B.C.) FOR TAX DAY

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. Continue reading

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ORE MINERS (C 420s B.C.)

For fans of ancient Greek comedies here is my brief take on the VERY fragmentary remains of Pherecrates’ comedy Ore Miners AKA Metalles.

THE PLAY

A group of ore miners accidentally dig so deep underground that they stumble upon the Netherworld. While there they observe the automatist Utopia that Pherecrates depicts the souls of the dead as dwelling in.

Rivers flowed with porridge and soup instead of water and on the Continue reading

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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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