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The Core Curriculum

Aristophanes

446 BCE – 386 BCE
Dates are approximate

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Aristophanes: Location and Image: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stiftung Preussischer KulturbesitzAristophanes: Location and Image: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz
Aristophanes, author of the only works of Old Attic Comedy that survive complete, was the son of Philippus and the father of Araros. It has been inferred (wrongly, perhaps) that he lived, or owned property, on Aegina. Since he considered himself too young in 427 BCE to produce a play himself, he is unlikely to have been born earlier than 460 and may have been born as late as 450. He died in or shortly before 386. Eleven of his plays survive; we have in addition 32 titles (some of them alternative titles, and some certainly attributed to other authors) and nearly a thousand fragments and citations.

Historical Contexts

Lysistrata

“Nothing certain is known about the date of Aristophanes’ birth beyond the oblique claim at Clouds (Nephelai) 528 – 531 that he was surprisingly and inconveniently young when his first play, Banqueters (Daitales), was produced in 428/7. His father's name was Philippus (literally “Horse-lover”), which sounds aristocratic but proves nothing about the family's actual social status...  [Aristophanes] was obviously well educated in the old-fashioned Athenian sense, through immersion in traditional and contemporary poetry of all kinds—he appears to have been intimately familiar with Euripidean tragedy in particular—and was highly literate.

“Aristophanes had three sons, named Philippus (after his grandfather), Araros, and either Philetaerus or Nicostratus. In a fashion typical of Athenian theatrical families of all sorts, all three became comic poets in their own right. Inscriptional evidence suggests that Aristophanes served at some point as a member of the city's boule (council)... ; because the office was allotted rather than elective, this proves only that he was a citizen in good standing, as we knew in any case. That he was prematurely bald (e.g., Peace 771 – 774 ) is an amusing detail but nothing more. The date of Aristophanes’ death can only be inferred from that of his final play, Wealth, which belongs to the early 380s.”

from S. Douglas Olson. "Aristophanes." The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford University Press. Oxford Reference Online.

The Structure of Old Comedy and the Critique of Society

“...Comedies were first included in the Lenaea festival shortly before 440 BC. Before and after the Peloponnesian War (431–404) five comedies were performed at each festival; there is evidence that the number was reduced to three during the war, but this question is controversial... No complete plays of any poet of the Old Comedy except Aristophanes survive, and he belongs to the last stage of the genre....

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Greek Comic Mask of a Slave. Athens. 2nd c. BCE: National Archaeological Museum of Greece. Athens, Greece. ArtStor: Columbia University Image BankGreek Comic Mask of a Slave. Athens. 2nd c. BCE: National Archaeological Museum of Greece. Athens, Greece. ArtStor: Columbia University Image Bank
“The plots of Old Comedy are usually fantastic. In their indifference to the passage of time, the ease with which a change of scene may be assumed without any complete break in the action (places which in reality would be far apart can be treated as adjacent), and the frequency of their references to the audience, the theatre, and the occasion of performance, they resemble a complex of related charades or variety ‘turns’....

“...Men prominent in contemporary society are vilified, ridiculed, and parodied in Old Comedy. Sometimes they are major characters, either under their own names (e.g. ‘Socrates’ in Clouds and ‘Euripides’ in Thesmophoriazusae) or under a very thin disguise (e.g. the ‘Paphlagonian slave’ in Knights, who is the politician Cleon (d. 422)).... The spirit in which this treatment was taken by its victims and by the audience raises (and is likely always to raise) the most difficult question in the study of Old Comedy.

“Mythology and theology are treated with extreme irreverence in Old Comedy; some plays were burlesque versions of myths, and gods (especially Dionysus) were made to appear... foolish, cowardly, and dishonest. Yet the reality of the gods' power and the validity of the community's worship of them are consistently assumed and on occasion affirmed, while words and actions of ill-omen for the community are avoided.... The essential spirit of Old Comedy is the ordinary man's protest—using his inalienable weapons, humour and fantasy—against all who are in some way stronger or better than he: gods, politicians, generals, artists, and intellectuals.

“The actors wore grotesque masks, and their costume included artificial exaggeration (e.g. of belly and phallus or erect penis) for comic effect; the phallus may have been invariable for male roles until the 4th cent. No limit seems to have been set, in speech or action, to the humorous exploitation of sex (normal and unorthodox) and excretion, and the vocabulary used in these types of humour eschews the euphemism characteristic of prose literature.”

from Kenneth Dover. "comedy (Greek), Old." The Oxford Companion to Classical Civilization. Oxford University Press, 1998. Oxford Reference Online.