Wednesday, June 27, 2012


Zachary P. Biles, Aristophanes and the Poetics of Competition. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 290. ISBN 9780521764070. $99.00.

Reviewed by Emmanuela Bakola, University College London / Open University of Cyprus (

Version at BMCR home site


Zachary Biles has published a series of articles which explore ways in which the competitive character of the dramatic festivals shapes the poetics of Old Comedy, including a prize-winning article on the intertextual biographies of Cratinus and Aristophanes (AJP 2002). His contribution to our understanding of this extremely important dimension of ancient comedy has been invaluable and it is particularly welcome to see the publication of his monograph Aristophanes and the Poetics of Competition, a product of a decade of dedicated research on the topic. This is an important book which, like Biles' earlier work, will probably have a lasting impact on our understanding of comedy, not least because it highlights important, but often neglected, issues. Furthermore, since it is fundamentally the first sustained study of competitive poetics of Greek poetry, it will also be useful for the study of other genres as well. Knowledgeable, bold, full of new ideas, but grounded on close study of the texts and on fair engagement with scholarship, this monograph situates itself deservedly among the sophisticated and theory- grounded studies which have taken our appreciation of comedy to a new level. Though not all readers will be convinced on every level, few would fail to find the richness of the ideas on display here fresh and thought- provoking.

In the Introduction Biles argues convincingly that the agonistic framework of the festivals profoundly informs the meaning and the overall design of the plays. One of Biles' central arguments (which he uses to expand imaginatively on an earlier thesis1) is that beyond the overtly competitive utterances (in the parabasis etc.), the broader themes of the comedies themselves should also be explored in relation to the poet's agonistic posturing. The comic poet fashions himself and his poetics through these themes in a continuous (and relentless) process of agonistic dialogue with his rivals, as well as in accordance with the dynamic relationship which he constructs with his audience. Biles concludes the discussion of his methodology and overall approach with a note on fragmentary comedy: he argues that the monograph concentrates first and foremost on surviving Aristophanic plays (the comedies of the 420s and Frogs) because, apart from the very revealing Pytine in relation to Knights and Wasps, the fragmentary plays cannot support the application of a similar approach (pp. 6-7, 11).

Biles' decision to leave the fragments aside is somewhat surprising,2 given the fact that his approach to Aristophanic poetics is best validated by the existence of non-Aristophanic comedy. More importantly, perhaps, despite Biles' cautiousness, the fragmentary comic material which suits his approach is not restricted to Pytine: for example, Eupolis' Autolykos, where the comic hero 'Eupolis' has the role of a teacher (test. iii) and which engages with competitive remarks exchanged with Aristophanes earlier (in Marikas, Wasps and Peace) fits Biles' main thesis perfectly. Indeed, Autolykos would be particularly valuable for Biles' analysis of Clouds β' (ch. 5), in which he perceptively connects the play's educational themes with Aristophanic rhetoric. The fragments of Autolykos could have shed further light on Aristophanes' own competitive stance and 'the poetics of competition' more generally, not least by raising the possibility that the rivalry of Cratinus and Aristophanes may not have been so exceptional after all.

Chapter 1 focuses on the parabasis and its role in the competitive scheme of comic poetics. It offers an exciting analysis of this structural feature of comedy, firstly by rightly situating it within competitive modes of earlier traditions of Greek poetry. Biles argues for an attractive new interpretation of the term 'parabasis': by drawing convincing links between the image of the degradation of Cratinus' poetic voice and his broken lyre (Knights 531-3) with literary treatments of Thamyris' punishment for his trangression against the Muses, he makes a strong case that the comic parabasis should be understood in relation to parabasia, i.e. transgression. He does so by offering a series of subtle but plausible connections with other examples of archaic agonism, and explains that as part of their engagement with agonistic poetics, poets had to find ways of dealing with the moral ambiguity of self- praise. Comedy situates itself in this tradition, thus inheriting the same 'archetypal dilemma'; therefore, we may understand the term 'parabasis' not just in the traditional way, as 'coming forward by way of digression to speak to the theater', but also as poetic self-assertion managed in such a way as not to 'over-step' the mark. One of the ways with which comic poets (notably Aristophanes) dealt with the 'danger' of the 'Thamyrian' parabasia was by making their self-assertion appear as an answer to personal provocation by their 'enemies' (read: rivals). But it appears that eventually poets revelled in the ambiguity of the parabasis, testing the boundaries of 'acceptable behaviour'. The chapter offers further insights into the nature of the comic parabasis by comparing it to the proagon of the tragic poets. Biles' arguments, as noted above, are bold but interesting and intelligent, and supported throughout by innovative research into the texts as well as their cultural and historical context.

The ambiguity which has sometimes been noted in the characterisation of Aristophanes' main heroes can thus be seen in a new light, as Biles subsequently turns to Acharnians, Knights, Wasps and Clouds β'. In chapter 2 he revisits the convergence between the character of Dicaeopolis and 'Aristophanes'. Much here is familiar to students of comedy, but new approaches are also constantly offered, especially as the chapter's main thesis is that the convergence between Dicaeopolis and 'Aristophanes' is coordinated around the themes of dramatic competition and victory in particular. Dicaeopolis' conflict with the Acharnians is thus read metatheatrically, as a dramatic contest, and the play as a whole is argued to be reperforming the broader implications of Babylonians and its aftermath. In other words, Acharnians reclaims the victory awarded to the previous year's comedy, and does so especially through its post-parabatic atmosphere of epinikian celebration. One finds a number of perceptive arguments and strong research on texts and contexts here (for example, there is an excellent discussion of the centrality of the Rural Dionysia to the Acharnians); however, one wonders why other important approaches to Aristophanes' competitive poetics – for example, the poet's self-definition through Euripidean tragedy in particular (cf. Silk (2000) Aristophanes and the Definition of Comedy) – were not discussed and integrated into the main argument (e.g. in 67ff.).

Chapter 2 ends by demonstrating the links between 'Cratinus' and Lamachus as opponents of 'Aristophanes'/Dicaeopolis, and paves the way for chapter 3, where the convergence of poetic and political agonism becomes central to the discussion. Chapter 3 shows that the intensely agonistic character of Knights with its dominant mode of challenge and confrontation reflects poetic concerns. Biles offers a compelling reading of the play's parabatic anapaests which demonstrates that Aristophanes presents poetic victory as central to the relationship between author and audience. His approach becomes especially interesting when he studies the rhetoric and structure of the Knights anapaests in the light of inscribed victory monuments. He argues that Aristophanes manipulates ideals associated with such monuments in order to announce the once-and-for-all defeat of Cratinus and, ultimately, his own ascendance to fame. The chapter closes with a well-executed study of the convergence between Sausage-seller and 'Aristophanes' in respect of their agonistic practices, and a discussion of the links between the Paphlagonian and 'Cratinus'. This is undoubtedly one of the best chapters. A question, however, which constantly arises is whether the literary-critical concerns which inform the poets' competitive posturing (for example in relation to iambic 'blame' poetry, which is extremely important both for 'Aristophanes' and for 'Cratinus', and to the role of poetry in society in general) have become too subdued in the course of this discussion (see nn. 39 and 74 and cf. pp. 29f., 144f.), and, indeed, throughout the whole book.

Chapter 4, published in an earlier version in AJP 2002, focuses on the intertextual rivalry between Aristophanes and Cratinus as it emerges through Knights, Pytine and Wasps. It demonstrates beautifully that the Knights parabasis distorted an earlier persona constructed by Cratinus himself and that subsequently, Pytine engaged with both the original Cratinean rhetoric and its disparagement by Aristophanes (restoring the persona to its original form). Biles is certainly right that Cratinus' persona drew on Archilochus' rhetoric on poetry and intoxication, but one may also point out that Cratinean poetics were more generally 'Dionysiac' than merely 'Archilochean'.3 The chapter then turns to the intertextuality between Pytine and Wasps, discussing thematic and structural links between the two plays. Illuminated by the earlier chapters' analysis of the continuous intertextual dialogue between the poets as an essential part of the comic competitions, and supported by the innovative focus on the judging process and on the implications of the Clouds α' failure, Biles' arguments about Wasps emerge significantly more convincing in this revised version. The bold idea that Philocleon's character shares elements with both 'Cratinus' and 'Aristophanes' is intelligently argued, whether or not the reader may agree. In any case, the conclusion that there is an implicit tension in the Aristophanic poetics certainly does justice to the texts, and one may note that it has parallels in other Aristophanic plays, notably Clouds β' and Frogs.

In its examination of Clouds β' chapter 5 offers an original approach to the topic of literary revision. By way of parallel, Biles studies Stesichorus' Palinode and the practice of submitting revisions at the Athenian dramatic festivals (as, for example, in the case of Euripides' Hippolytus plays), and argues that the competitive poetics of the surviving Clouds are geared towards re-contesting the placing of the first play. He makes a thorough examination of the Clouds parabasis and offers several fresh interpretations: notably he argues that the intensification of Aristophanes' competitive engagement in Clouds β' is reflected in the consistent use of the poetic 'I'; that Aristophanes manipulates ideas about repetition and originality by depicting his rivals themselves demonstrating (through their own 'literary peculation') that his comedies 'are worth taking up again'; and that Aristophanes' choice of literary rivals looks towards the competitions of the 410s. Biles' argument adds further support to the view that Clouds β' was not oriented towards a reading public but for a performance in a vibrant competitive context. The play's second parabasis is argued to have been composed for the revised version and serves as a 'warning to the judges'. The chapter ends by returning to the convincing idea that the comic agon engages with poetic concerns (cf. ch. 2) and specifically that the interplay between the two agons of Clouds β' essentially modifies Aristophanes' self-presentation by adding sophrosyne to his intellectualist sophia.

After Biles' discussions of the Aristophanic heroes in relation to the Aristophanic persona, his arguments about a certain tension in, and the modification of, Aristophanic poetics in Wasps and Clouds β', the concluding discussion of Dionysus in Frogs (ch. 6) is somewhat unexpected. The initiatory motifs of 'ritual death' and 'rebirth' which Dionysus' journey enacts and the hero's gradual turn from 'Euripidean /intellectualist /'artificial'' to 'Aeschylean /Dionysian /'natural'' poetics, provide strong support for the idea that an even more radical modification of the poet's persona is performed through Dionysus and his metapoetic journey across the entire play. Biles, however, associates Dionysus mainly with the Aristophanic audience and argues that the Aristophanic voice is located in the 'Aeschylus' of the agon (which thus takes the role of the 'main parabasis'). Furthermore, he discusses the outcome of the contest on the basis of the motif of political advice (found in the parabasis and in the agon's political section), rather than on both politics and Dionysian poetics. Although I believe that this argument eventually misses the opportunity of applying the book's main thesis on Frogs even more successfully, the discussion does contain valuable insights, for example about the metapoetic dimension of the play's Dionysiac themes; it also duly acknowledges the convergences between the Cratinean, the Aeschylean and the Aristophanic personas.

In spite of some contentious approaches to the subject matter, which may reflect the multiple ways in which Aristophanic plays may be read, this book is a thoroughly researched, imaginative and engaging piece of scholarship which deserves a prominent place in Aristophanic studies.


1.   Cf. mainly Bowie, A. M. (1982) 'The parabasis in Aristophanes: prolegomena, Acharnians' CQ 32: 27-40 and Hubbard, T.K. (1991) The Mask of Comedy
2.   There is a discussion of other fragmentary poets in pp. 181-7.
3.   Thus the integration of wine and water into Dionysiac 'liquid' imagery suggests 'natural' productivity. In this light, one may also understand Cratinus' preoccupation with 'Aeschylus', who had probably already been associated with Dionysus and 'natural/inspired' poetics, as opposed to poetics of a 'technical', 'artificial' kind (cf. the binary opposition in Frogs).

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