Monday, July 28, 2014


Wilfred E. Major, The Court of Comedy: Aristophanes, Rhetoric, and Democracy in Fifth-Century Athens. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2013. Pp. viii, 232. ISBN 9780814212240. $57.95.

Reviewed by Rob Tordoff, York University (

Version at BMCR home site

Wilfred E. Major's The Court of Comedy: Aristophanes, Rhetoric, and Democracy in Fifth-Century Athens is an ambitious but somewhat idiosyncratic study of the representation of rhetoric in comic drama under the Athenian democracy from the mid to late fifth century. Despite the title's emphasis on Aristophanes, Major is equally concerned with the fragments of Old Comedy, and his chronological and geographical range is larger than the library catalogue browser might expect: in the earlier chapters Major looks at Epicharmus and the reception of Sicilian comedy in Athens among Aristophanes' older contemporaries; in the Epilogue he casts an eye over Aristophanes' late plays and comedy of the early fourth century. Major's knowledge of scholarship is wide and very current, and his book offers a model of how to enrich the study of Aristophanes with the fascinating but difficult fragmentary remains of Old Comedy. There are a number of extended passages of high quality argument and the appendix is truffled with some delicious observations on the language of comedy. For a book that is very generous in quoting Greek mistakes are relatively few, but it is difficult to avoid concluding that more could have been done at the copyediting and proofreading stage to iron out a few rather obvious wrinkles.1

The project of The Court of Comedy is helpfully set out in the Introduction (pp. 18-19). Two of the book's aims are fairly conventional. They amount to a reading of Aristophanes' political commitments. Major seeks to show that Aristophanes saw 'proto-rhetorical' speech (for the terminology, see below) as a spanner in the works of the democratic process, and that the attitudes Aristophanes expresses in his plays toward 'proto-rhetorical' language in the council, assembly, and the courts belong to a fundamentally democratic mode of self-criticism. It is likely that many readers will welcome these arguments, which tessellate well with influential views of the quintessentially democratic nature of theatre production in fifth-century Athens.

The other major aim is polemical. By interrogating passages involving rhetorical speech and references to such speech in Aristophanes and the fragments of Old Comedy, Major seeks to show that the evidence of fifth-century comedy supports the revisionist history of rhetoric advanced by Schiappa, Cole, and others: that is, that the discipline of 'rhetoric' as we hear about it from Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates and the later handbook tradition, with its canonical vocabulary and theoretical precepts, was an invention of fourth-century Athens, not of fifth-century Sicily.2 Thus Major argues that while there is plenty of evidence in Old Comedy for intellectual interest in language and persuasion, there is no evidence for the technical vocabulary of rhetoric known from the later handbooks. To illustrate with the cardinal example, the word rhetorikê is not found in the remains of Old Comedy (the concept only seems to appear with Plato's early dialogues: perhaps, therefore, from around the 380s BCE).

The Court of Comedy opens with an Introduction offering a synopsis of the book's contents preceded by an overview of the recent developments in classical scholarship on the evolution of rhetoric, Aristophanes' politics, and the socio-political functions of drama, especially comic drama, in the classical Athenian polis. This is one of the most lucid and impressive sections of the book and it lays a solid foundation for the following chapters, which are organized chronologically.

Chapter 1, 'Sicilian Pioneers of Comedy and Rhetoric and their Transmission to Athens' deals with Sicilian Comedy and its reception in Athens. Chapter 2, 'Old Comedy and Proto-Rhetoric in Athens' looks at rhetorical language in Aristophanes' older contemporaries. Chapter 3, 'The young Comic Playwrights Attack, 425-421 B.C.E.', is by some way the longest in the book and focuses on Aristophanes' early plays. In the discussion Major argues that Aristophanes habitually dramatizes democratic processes failing to function in their customary civic locations because of pernicious eloquence but working successfully when they "translocate" to somewhere else; that Aristophanes' vocabulary is innocent of the canonical technical language of rhetorical theory known from later sources; and that the rhetorical speeches in these plays do not conform to the canonical structures and their formulaic organization known from rhetorical handbooks. These points are reiterated in subsequent chapters.

The fourth chapter, 'The Years of Confidence, 421-414 B.C.E.', mostly concerns Eupolis and Aristophanes' Birds. Chapter 5, 'Crawling from the Wreckage, 411 B.C.E.' reads Lysistrata and Thesmophoriazusae as plays confronting the spectre of oligarchy, which seeks to obstruct the deliberative processes and the collective judgement of the demos. Major argues that the only change to the democratic constitution that Aristophanes' plays (implicitly) underwrite is expansion of the number of people participating in deliberation: 'Aristophanes consistently dramatizes a faith in the core processes of the Athenian democracy, even as he sharply attacks its institutions when they fail to function properly' (p. 131).

Chapter 6, 'Tongues, Frogs, and the Last Stand', offers the most sustained and detailed analysis in the book, exploring why Aristophanes' attitude to Euripides in Frogs seems less favourable than his earlier treatments of the tragedian. Tracing the ups and downs of the Athenian reception of Euripides from 415, Major argues that 'the harsh view of Euripides [in Frogs] results from a perception that Euripides turned traitor against the democracy subsequent to the season of 409' (p. 171): the unflattering portrayal of mob decision-making in Orestes and the writing of Archelaus for the king of Macedon had lowered Euripides' stock with the Athenian demos by the time Aristophanes wrote Frogs. The chapter certainly provokes the reader to think afresh about Frogs 949-54 and the character Euripides' claim there that his tragedy had a special and commendable democratic quality.

In the Epilogue, Major suggests that Assembly Women's far-reaching reforms to democratic institutions 'bespeak a cynicism or lack of faith in current institutions not found in the fifth-century plays' (p. 180). He characterizes Aristophanes' vision as 'if anything, more radically inclusive, egalitarian, and democratic' (p. 181), both in this play and in Wealth, where he favours readings that find sympathy for the poor and make the case for the utopian importance of comic desire. It is a pity that Major does not extend his reading of democratic rhetoric in comedy to the late plays. If they do indeed round out the portrayal of Aristophanes as a committed democrat, detailed treatment of them would have made the political analysis comprehensive. If there is no evidence in them for rhetorical terminology or speech-structuring, surely this would be significant, given that they were produced not long before we find the earliest occurrences of the term rhetorike. As it is, this aspect of The Court of Comedy feels somewhat incomplete.

There is then an Appendix in which Major catalogues the terminology of 'proto-rhetoric' as it appears in fifth-century comedy, as well as providing a prosopography of rhetoricians found in comedy and a catalogue of fifth-century comic engagement with the Athenian institutions of the assembly, council, and law-courts, where rhetorical language was at issue. This last section is very useful: its impressive catalogue of the terms Old Comedy uses to talk about 'proto- rhetoric' helps to sweeten the occasionally bitter draft of an extensive and sometimes repetitious negative argument in the body of the book.

To the present reviewer there seem to be some problems of coherence and methodology. In places I felt that the project of incorporating very different arguments about Aristophanes' political commitments and the history of rhetorical theory into the overarching chronological scheme was carried through at too great a cost to the cohesion of individual chapters (though Major does explain what he is trying to do: pp. 36-7). For example, discussion of Pericles in comedy is split between the second and fourth chapters, and in chapter three Peace is treated only with some very thin description by comparison with Aristophanes' earlier plays. Much of the difficulty lies in the sheer scale and ambition of Major's project: 184 pages is not a great deal of space to sift all the evidence of Old Comedy for the early history of rhetorical theory and to reconstruct Aristophanes' political ideals with a close reading of the plays and fragments belonging to the years 427 to 405. That The Court of Comedy manages this at all is quite an achievement.

Methodologically, I was troubled by the unexplored assumption that if there had been a technical jargon of rhetoric in the fifth century, we should expect to find it in Old Comedy. In certain cases, it has been shown that comic evidence for the use of technical jargon in classical Athens is seriously incomplete. There was certainly a developed medical terminology in the fifth century (Thuc. 2.49.3) and Crates (fr. 46) already knows the stereotype of a doctor with a Doric bedside manner. Nevertheless, as Andreas Willi has shown, extant Aristophanes makes no comic capital whatsoever out of technical medical language strictly defined.3 The numbers of Athenians who fell ill, or were injured, or talked to doctors on behalf of others during the Peloponnesian War must have been enormously higher than those who received sophistic training. Competence in medical language must have been far more widespread than competence in the terminology of rhetorical instruction, yet technical medical language seems to have been too obscure for the Old Comic stage. Is it reasonable to assume that if rhetorical language existed, it would have made it on to the comic stage? And if it did exist, should we expect to see the terminology exactly reproduced? Technical language in ancient Greek was not usually based on foreign words and so potentially funny on its own in the way that much technical language is in English. Terms like diegesis, pisteis, or epilogos will have been basically comprehensible to untrained Athenians even if they could not use them correctly in their technical senses. When Aristophanes makes fun of the kinds of speakers who probably used technical language, he does it with repetition and morphological marking, as in the case of the pseudo-nosological philo- compounds in Wasps 71-88. Therefore, rather than expecting Old Comedy to reflect the precise terminology of a not-yet-widely-recognized technical language, ought we not to anticipate an invented pseudo-technical speak (marked as non-standard by features like bizarre portmanteau compounding, diminutive forms, or –ikos suffixes)? This is perhaps what we find at Eq. 1378 in perantikos, but because the precise lexeme peras is not present Major may dismiss the passage as evidence of rhetorical terminology, remarking (correctly) that the –ikos suffix is 'typical of comedy's method for dealing with unorthodox language' (81). In summary, Major is as diligent and persistent as anyone could be in combing the evidence of comedy for rhetorical language, but is the project well conceived? Major's results are certainly philologically suggestive, but I am not convinced that they are as suggestive as he hopes. It is also not clear to me why we should expect Old Comedy to reproduce rhetorically structured speeches if rhetorical theory had been around; it seems far more likely it would burlesque rhetorical conventions.

Putting such reservations aside, Major's survey of Aristophanes and his fragmentary contemporaries is impressive for its intellectual range and critics who focus narrowly on Aristophanes should be inspired by his book to incorporate the rich evidence of the comic fragments into their studies.


1.   Inevitably errors in printing ancient Greek will slip through, but in a book about rhetorical theory it is particularly unfortunate that the Greek term for 'narrative' (διήγησις) is printed διήγεσις not just once but passim, in total five times (pp. 59 twice, p. 106 three times). The proofing of English is very good, but where mistakes have crept in, they are very regrettable. On p. 47 E. Bakola, author of Cratinus and the Art of Comedy, is referred to as 'he'. Presumably this is a 'typo' or a hypercorrection at the copyediting stage; whatever the case, it is unfortunate that it made it into the published text.
2.   E. Schiappa (1991) Protagoras and Logos: a Study in Greek Philosophy and Rhetoric (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press). T. Cole (1991) The Origins of Rhetoric in Ancient Greece (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
3.   A. Willi (2003) The Languages of Aristophanes: Aspects of Linguistic Variation in Classical Attic Greek (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 79-87.

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