Aristophanes : biography

c. 446 BC – c. 388 BC
  • Self-mocking theatre: Frequent parodying of tragedy is an aspect of Old Comedy that modern audiences find difficult to understand. But the Lenaia and City Dionysia included performances of both comedies and tragedies, and thus references to tragedy were highly topical and immediately relevant to the original audience."Greek Drama" Peter Levi in The Oxford History of the Classical World J.Boardman, J. Griffin and O. Murray (eds), Oxford University Press 1986, page 176 The comic dramatist also poked fun at comic poets and he even ridiculed himself. It is possible, as indicated earlier, that Aristophanes mocked his own baldness. In The Clouds, the Chorus compares him to an unwed, young motherClouds lines 528-33 and in The Acharnians the Chorus mockingly depicts him as Athens’ greatest weapon in the war against Sparta.Acharnians lines 646-51
  • Political theatre: The Lenaia and City Dionysus were state-sponsored, religious festivals, and though the latter was the more prestigious of the two, both were occasions for official pomp and circumstance. The ceremonies for the Lenaia were overseen by the archon basileus and by officials of the Eleusinian mysteries. The City Dionysia was overseen by the archon eponymous and the priest of Dionysus. Opening ceremonies for the City Dionysia featured, in addition to the ceremonial arrival of the god, a parade in full armour of the sons of warriors who died fighting for the polis and, until the end of the Peloponnesian War, a presentation of annual tribute from subject states.Aristophanes:Lysistrata, The Acharnians, The Clouds A.Sommerstein, Penguin Classics 1973, pages 18-19 Religious and political issues were topics that could hardly be ignored in such a setting and the plays often treat them quite seriously. Even jokes can be serious when the topic is politics — especially in wartime. The butts of the most savage jokes are opportunists who prey on the gullibility of their fellow citizens, including oracle-mongers,e.g. Knights lines 997-1095; Birds lines 959-91 the exponents of new religious practices,e.g. Clouds lines 263-66, Frogs lines 891-94 war-profiteers and political fanatics. In The Acharnians, for example, Lamachus is represented as a crazed militarist whose preparations for war are hilariously compared to the hero’s preparations for a dinner party.Acharnians lines 1097-1142 lines Cleon emerges from numerous similes and metaphors in The Knights as a protean form of comic evil, clinging to political power by every possible means for as long as he can, yet the play also includes simple hymns invoking Poseidon and Athena,Knights lines 551-64 and 581-594 and it ends with visions of a miraculously transformed Demos (i.e. the morally reformed citizenry of Athens).Knights lines 1321-38 Imaginative visions of a return to peaceful activities resulting from peace with Sparta,e.g. Peace lines 551-97 and a plea for leniency for citizens suspected of complicity in an oligarchic revoltFrogs lines 686-705 are other examples of a serious purpose behind the plays.
  • Teasing and taunting: A festival audience presented the comic dramatist with a wide range of targets, not just political or religious ones — anyone known to the audience could be mocked for any reason, such as diseases, physical deformities, ugliness, family misfortunes, bad manners, perversions, dishonesty, cowardice in battle, and clumsiness.Aristophanes: Clouds K.J. Dover (ed), Oxford University Press 1970, pages XIII-XIV Foreigners, a conspicuous presence in imperial Athens, particularly at the City Dionysia, often appear in the plays comically mispronouncing Attic words — these include Spartans (Lysistrata), Scythians (Thesmophoriazusae), Persians, Boeotians and Megarians (The Acharnians).


The Lenaia and City Dionysia were religious festivals, but they resembled a gala rather than a church service.Aristophanes: Clouds K.J. Dover, Oxford University Press 1970, page XV