Thursday, November 24, 2011


Jeffrey S. Rusten (ed.), The Birth of Comedy: Texts, Documents, and Art from Athenian Comic Competitions, 486-280. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011. Pp. xx, 794. ISBN 9780801894480. $110.00.

Reviewed by Antonis K. Petrides, Open University of Cyprus (

Version at BMCR home site

This is the first comprehensive English translation of the major comic fragments since the notorious attempt by J.M. Edmonds in 1957. Edmonds, as the editors themselves note, "was so speculative and idiosyncratic that [his] translation became a byword for unreliability" (p. 2). This book, 800 pages' worth of scholarly treasure, is quite the opposite: the collective work of six towering experts in need of no introductions (Jeffrey Henderson, David Konstan, Ralph Rosen, Niall W. Slater, and Jeffrey Rusten, under the editorship of the latter), The Birth of Comedy combines accuracy and wonderful gusto in the rendition of the ancient comic shreds and various related testimonies with erudite guidance for the non-specialist in the form of succinct introductions, bibliographies, chronologies, detailed glossaries, and interpretive notes. The refreshing minimalism of the latter is designed, in the editors' own words, to "let the texts speak for themselves" (p. 3) without the disfigurations of wild conjecture—what eventually ruined Edmonds' endeavour—or the manipulation of scholarly reconstructions. The Birth of Comedy was more than twenty years in the making. It was all worth it: this book is a landmark, which has come to stay.

The Birth of Comedy is naturally walking on the tracks of the Poetae Comici Graeci (PCG). However:

(a) Instead of including everything and everyone, it only comprises playwrights, plays, and fragments of major significance and interest, always according to the editor's judgement— but this judgement is highly trustworthy. This amounts to roughly 30% of the material in the PCG.

(b) The arrangement is chronological for the authors (some speculation is allowed here) and alphabetical for the plays of each author; the order of the plays is based on the translated English title.

(c) The book includes references to the most important testimonia to Attic Comedy, material which will be included in volume IX of the PCG, should it eventually come out, as well as to the visual data collected in T.B.L. Webster's Monuments Illustrating series (continued and enhanced by J.R. Green and A. Seeberg). Forty-three such images are reproduced in black and white, and many others are described in detail. Thus The Birth of Comedy is a worthy companion not only of one but of two epoch-making compilations of comedy-related sources.

The introduction begins with an exposition of the value and significance of studying comic fragments ("Why read fragments of Comedy", 1-2). Its slightly apologetic tone is justified by the nature of the book's intended readership. It continues with explanations on the nature of the book and guidelines for its proper use (2-5), a list of translators by chapter (5-6), and a catalogue of the most important comic fragments translated (6-7). Especially valuable lessons are there to be drawn in the section "Sources of Comic Fragments" (7-16), which (a) provides an accounting of the most frequent sources for each major author (percentages of fragments per source, a most useful tool for specialists and non-specialists alike); and (b) describes and evaluates these sources (papyri, inscriptions, archaeological findings, lexicographers, philosophers, scholiasts, grammarians, anthologists, Church Fathers, other writers) one by one in alphabetical order (from "Aelian" to "Zenobius"). The introduction concludes with a "Short History of Athenian Comedy" (16-38) and a chronology of the Athenian comic repertory (pp. 38-41) from the beginnings to 284 BC.

In a gesture of captatio benevolentiae, the editor calls this introduction "highly opinionated" (p. 3), but it is far from it: it is a sober and lucid exposition of the status quaestionis absorbing a tremendous amount of modern scholarship for the benefit of the general reader.

The introduction starts by expounding the three ancient theories on the 'invention' of Comedy, namely that it came from songs at the phallic processions; that it originated in Dorian, and specifically Megarian, comic performances; or that we owe it to Sousarion, its πρῶτος εὑρετής. It concludes, sanely, that a genre "as rebellious and diverse as comedy" could not have sprung from a single pattern of growth (p. 17), especially since the earliest Athenian comedies were also under the influence of literary forms of comic drama, most importantly Epicharmus.

Athenian comedy proper is examined in pp. 19-38. Periodization is always a tricky enterprise, and such valued terms as "Golden Age" or "minor Old Comedy" used here might be contentious (especially since the latter period includes such Aristophanic works as the Frogs), but still the picture drawn is by and large the communis opinio on the evolution of the genre. The traditional division of Athenian comedy into three phases—Old, Middle and New Comedy—is accepted. Old Comedy is internally periodized as follows: (a) the first decades (486-445 BC), the era of mainly Magnes and Chionides, in which comedy became 'official' and appropriated a plethora of pre-existing forms of 'comic' performance; (b) comedy after the ascendancy of Pericles (446-429 BC): the age of Cratinus, Teleclides, Crates, Hermippus and Pherecrates, as well as of the introduction of Comedy to the Lenaea; (c) "the Golden Age of Old Comedy" (429-411 BC), heyday of Aristophanes and Eupolis, with Pherecrates and most importantly Cratinus still in the picture (the latter till 422), and with some other voices playing a significant role, such as Ameipsias, Callias, Theopompus, Aristomenes, Phrynichus and Plato; and (d) "Minor Old Comedy" (410-390), a period with no new stellar names, which saw a shift to less overtly political themes, paratragedy and mythological burlesque, as well as a gradual side-lining of the chorus.

No attempt is made to periodize Middle and New Comedy in such detail—prudently, as Middle Comedy is probably misrepresented by the evidence at hand, and New Comedy seems to have been relatively stable and to have known little intra-generic variation. The constituitive elements of Middle Comedy, at least those which the sources (especially Athenaeus) allow us to discern, as well as the fundamentals of New Comedy, are encapsulated in bullet- point lists, three per phase: for Middle Comedy the lists comprise topics related to banqueting, the topics of the opinionated moralising that the plays indulge in so often, and the period's other major themes; for New Comedy we are given the recurring plot elements, the most important dilemmas faced by the characters, and the most frequent mechanisms of resolution. All this is wonderfully concise and precise: this book, after all, is nothing if not a delight for teachers and students in need of fast-served, reliable information.

The introduction concludes with a section on "the afterlife of comic performance", meaning the period after the death of Menander.

There is only one point in this introductory account that might raise scholarly objections. Modern scholarship, especially of the last decade, tends to see New Comedy as something more than "a little world," which "shrinks to a group of 'prosperous philistines' [Wilamowitz's term] and those who depend on them" (p. 34). Such works as Rosanna Omitowoju's Rape and the Politics of Consent in Classical Athens (2002), Susan Lape's Reproducing Athens (2004), Ariana Traill's Women and the Comic Plot in Menander (2008), and others have shown that this seemingly private, confined world of New Comedy and its outwardly mundane urban plot tackles issues of major ideological and indeed political import. For further discussion see the introduction and chapters 2, 3 and 5 in A.K. Petrides & S. Papaioannou (eds), New Perspectives on Postclassical Comedy (Newcastle Upon Tyne 2010).

The structure of the introduction reflects the arrangement of the translated material into five parts and twenty-three chapters. Each chapter opens with a short introduction with bibliography.

Part I ("Beginnings", chs. 1-2) includes all the substantial testimonies for the precursors of comedy in the sixth- century BC ("proto-comedy"), as well as the most important fragments of Epicharmus.

Part II ("Athenian Old Comedy, chs. 3-11) starts with an introduction with references to the form (that is, its structure, including the parabasis and metre), the history and the poets of Old Comedy, as well as on the various laws which supposedly attempted to curtail comic licence in the fifth century. Part II continues with a chapter on festivals, competitions and victory lists, and then presents the fragments of the most important Old Comedy playwrights in six chapters (4-9). Part II concludes with a chapter on theatre, audience, actors, chorus and costume in Old and Middle Comedy, and one on scenes from Old or Middle Comedy on fourth-century South Italian vases.

Part III (chs. 12-16) belongs to Middle Comedy and dedicates one chapter to Anaxandrides, Eubulus and Ephippus (ch. 12), one to Timocles and Nicostratus (ch. 14), and one each to Antiphanes (ch. 13), Alexis (ch. 15), and the others (ch. 16).

New Comedy (Part IV, chs. 17-21) begins with a chapter on artistic representations of masks, actors, staging, and scenes from the comedy of this period (comprising some of the most striking visual testimonia of ancient Greek comedy), preceded by testimonies outlining the differences between Old Comedy and New. Philemon, Menander and Diphilus, the great triad, get one chapter each. Another chapter is dedicated to the less celebrated playwrights, such as Apollodorus of Carystus, Philippides, and Posidippus.

The last part of the book is an Epilogue with two chapters. Chapter 22 charts the survival of comedy in Hellenistic Greece (after 280 BC) and in Republican and Imperial Rome (it comprises among other things material on the Artisans of Dionysus and epigraphic evidence on the major festivals of this period, such as in Delos, Delphi, Samos, etc.). Chapter 23 brings together ancient theories of comedy and laughter and a catalogue of ancient writers on comedy with the fragments associated with them.

The book has been edited and printed with meticulous care, and the price is very reasonable for a volume of such worth. The occasional typo, especially in some references to ancient sources,1 can be corrected in the reprints that are bound to be demanded.


1.   Here is a random sample: From Chapter 18 (Philemon): Philemon test. 4 is from Diodorus Bibl. Hist. 23 fr. 6 (not 22); Stobaeus 3.36.18 is Philemon fr. 99 K.-A. (not 98); fr. 119 is from Stob. 3.38.1 (not 3.38.2); fr. 151 is from Stob. 3(not 33).20.5; fr. 163 is from Stob. 3.18.8 (not 3.1.8); fr. 174 is from Stob. 3 (not 23).29.29. From Chapter 19 (Menander): Menander test. 1 comes from Suda mu 589 (not 580); test. 7 is from Str. 14.1.18 p. 638 (not 683); test. 142 is from Choricius of Gaza Apol. Mim. 145 (not 140); fr. 96 is reported by Priscian, Inst. Gramm. 18.247 (not 47); fr. 191 is from Imbrians (not Iambrians).


  1. FIVE towering experts, not six, surely, unless Rusten is counted twice, being the editor also.

  2. To the first sentence: please check the new loeb edition by STOREY, IAN C., Fragments of Old Comedy, 3 Bde. (Cambridge Mass.; London 2011).

  3. Five, indeed! Rusten (and all the others) count not only for two, but for many times plus two, but still... it's a good thing I never became a mathematician! Thanks for the reference, as well.


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