The Athenian comedian Aristophanes staged about 40 comedies over the course of his career, 11 of which are preserved. Athens is always squarely at the center of Aristophanes’ comedies, with current events and political goings-on directly referenced. Athens in this period was very much dependent on the resources of its allies and tributary states; imperialism brought with it luxury and excess, in Aristophanes’ view, and in turn demagoguery prevailed within the democracy. Aristophanes’ view of Athenian decline lends his comedy a certain conservative tinge, even as it stages subversion and even chaos.
Politics and the perception of social decay are the major objects of Aristophanes’ critique and commentary, staged in absurd, fantastical scenarios. In Birds, for instance, a disgruntled average Athenian persuades birds to politically disrupt the cosmic order by building a city in the sky. Aristophanes’ comedies also targeted men of great power, most notably the politician Cleon who was ruthlessly satirized in a production of 426 BCE. In retaliation, Cleon apparently dragged the comedian before the Athenian council and accused him of slander. Nevertheless, Aristophanes continued to criticize Cleon in subsequent comedies: one play, Knights, is entirely a full-scale assault on the supremely powerful politician, whom the comedian accused of demagoguery. The theatrical struggles between Aristophanes and Cleon persisted even as both men rose in popularity.
Indeed, it seems that no one in Athens was out of the range of Aristophanes’ satirical eye. Great thinkers, musicians and poets all found themselves targets of his comedic attacks. Frogs (405 BCE), for instance, features virtuosic parodies of the great tragedians Aeschylus and Euripides, made to compete against each other even after death. Even gods might find themselves parodied by Aristophanes. Dionysus is also lampooned in Frogs, as is the hero Heracles, while in Birds gods are forced to come to terms with human wiles. At the same time, the comedies stage the foibles and follies of average, middle age, rather unimpressive persons. See, for example, Clouds of 423 BCE, which is full of such characters.
Aristophanes produced his comedies at major, state-financed theater festivals in honor of the god Dionysus. Several thousand men (audiences were most likely entirely or almost entirely male) gathered for the annual Great Dionysia, organized for Athenians and their allies and subjects. The staging of dramas was only one part of the festivals, which also featured music, rituals and processions. Tragedies were also staged at the Great Dionysia – both Aeschylus and Sophocles produced their tragedies at the festival, at which prizes were awarded for the best tragedies and comedies. Aristophanes is known to have won first prize, but Clouds placed third in the competition of 423 BCE – much to the comedian’s chagrin as he himself considered it his greatest work to date. Aristophanes subsequently revised the play to express his resentment of the loss.
Written by Kate Brassel, Core Instructor, Classics, Columbia University
M. Revermann, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Greek Comedy. Cambridge (2014)
A.A. Long. “Socrates in Hellenistic Philosophy,” Classical Quarterly 38 (1988) pp. 150-171