Monday, August 29, 2016


Mario Telò, Aristophanes and the Cloak of Comedy: Affect, Aesthetics, and the Canon. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2016. Pp. xiii, 237. ISBN 9780226309699. $55.00.

Reviewed by Alan H. Sommerstein, University of Nottingham (

Version at BMCR home site


The thesis of this book is that Aristophanes' response, in Wasps and in the surviving version of Clouds, to the defeat of Clouds in its original form at the City Dionysia of 423 BCE, exercised an important influence on the ancient critics whose judgement that Aristophanes was the best of the three leading Old Comic dramatists determined, in turn, that eleven of his plays became the only Old Comedies to survive antiquity intact. The book consists mainly of a detailed analysis of that response (though with Wasps getting the lion's share of attention), covering not only the parabases (in which reference to the first Clouds, and other earlier plays, is explicit) but many other parts of the two comedies. Aristophanes, it is argued, presents himself as a son seeking to cure his audience (imaged as a father) from maladies brought on by the comedies of his rivals (mainly Cratinus in Wasps; mainly Eupolis in Clouds II) by means of his brand of comedy, imaged as a warm, soft cloak (χλαῖνα) in contrast with the rough, threadbare garment (τρίβων) offered by inferior poets.

One would have thought that a study with this aim would have much to say about problems concerning the revision of Clouds, which is known never to have been completed,1 and would also examine closely the statements of ancient critics about Aristophanes, Cratinus and Eupolis and compare them with the content and language of Wasps and Clouds II. Telò does nothing of the sort. On the revision of Clouds, he declares that he regards the surviving script as "the product of a thorough and systematic process of re-creation . . . [and], beyond the portions clearly established as new, [does] not attempt to determine what the revised version preserves or alters" (126–7). None of the ten surviving quotations from Clouds I is ever mentioned, and when Telò (p. 150) discusses Clouds 1415 (= Euripides, Alcestis 691) he refers to the quotation of the same Euripidean line in Thesmophoriazusae 194 (200 n. 102) and thinks it "may be worth noting" that the names of the speakers in Alcestis and Clouds (Pheres and Pheidippides) begin and end with the same pairs of letters (200 n. 104), but apparently does not think it worth noting that a phrase from the same argument by Pheidippides (1417 δὶς παῖδες οἱ γέροντες) is cited by a scholiast on pseudo-Plato (on Axiochus 367b) as from Clouds I.

As to the response of ancient critics, there is, so far as I can tell, just one passage in the book where any attempt is made to show that any ancient critic's judgement that Aristophanes was the superior of Cratinus and Eupolis was influenced by anything in Wasps or Clouds II. This is on pp. 53–4 where Telò claims to find "remarkable convergences" between Wasps 1450–73 and the first paragraph of the ancient Life of Aristophanes (Aristophanes test. 1.2–5 Kassel–Austin). This paragraph contains a comparison between Aristophanes on the one hand, and Cratinus and Eupolis on the other—but the comparison and the Wasps passage have exactly one word, σεμνότερος (Wasps 1472), in common. It is true that the next sentence of the Life contains the word τρόπος (cf. Wasps 1452), and Telò writes that "according to the Life, Aristophanes profoundly transformed the archaic tropoi characteristic of Cratinus and Eupolis", just as Bdelycleon attempted to transform the τρόποι of Philocleon; but unfortunately the sentence containing τρόπος has nothing to do with Cratinus or Eupolis—it is about Aristophanes' supposed pioneering of the τρόπος of New Comedy in the 380s, long after they were dead. And that is all. Telò has not produced the slightest actual evidence that Aristophanes' alleged self-promotion at the expense of these two rivals exercised a significant, much less a determinative, influence on ancient critical assessments of their relative merits—or even that they so much as noticed an implicit disparagement of Cratinus in Wasps (in which Cratinus is never mentioned).2

What of the actual arguments by which Telò attempts to establish the existence of the themes of the "healing son", the "cloak of comedy", and the pervasive polemic against Cratinus and Eupolis? In chapter 2, section 2 (pp. 31–42), the argument begins from Wasps 1037–42, in the parabasis, which refers to an occasion "last year" (i.e. in 423) when Aristophanes confronted the "shivers and fevers that by night choked fathers and strangled grandfathers". In the scene following the parabasis (1122–56), Bdelycleon gives his father a warm cloak, and according to some Hippocratic texts this is "the final stage . . . in a therapeutic strategy for fighting various kinds of fevers" (p. 37). This demonstrates an intratextual link between the two passages, and hence between the cloak scene and the comedy of "last year", namely Clouds.

One hardly knows where to begin in deconstructing this argument. The persons who in Wasps 1037–42 are metaphorically described as "shivers and fevers" are said (1041) to have "glued together affidavits, summonses, and depositions"; in other words, they are prosecutors—or, as their opponents would call them, sykophants. And sykophancy is not a topic of Clouds, not even a secondary one, and it is hard to see how it ever can have been (Telò might, of course, attempt to show otherwise, but, as already noted, he disclaims all interest in the actual content of Clouds I). The passage is therefore likely to refer to another play produced in 423, presumably at the Lenaea.3 Nothing is said about fevers in the cloak scene, nor is Philocleon described as currently suffering from one, though the chorus once wrongly speculates (284) that he might be; he is, to be sure, liable to fevers from time to time (cf. 813), but the therapy prescribed in the Hippocratic treatises is curative, not prophylactic, and the patient is first to be bathed and anointed, which is not done to Philocleon. The connection between the cloak scene and 1037–42 is said to be "signaled" (p. 35), inter alia, by the appearance of the verb ἀποπνίγειν in both passages (1039, 1134); but if this is to be taken as a signal, it is a remarkably muddled one, since in 1039 it is the "shivers and fevers" that are said to exert a suffocating force, whereas in 1134 it is the allegedly antipyretic cloak.

Philocleon, when offered the warm cloak, says he would prefer to keep his old τρίβων, and Telò claims (p. 41) that the latter "functions as a material representation of Cratinean comedy". This equation is established (pp. 42–3) with the help of a passage from Lysistrata (278–80) associating the τρίβων with bodily dirtiness; this although not one passage is cited that describes Cratinus as dirty or unwashed, while the Lysistrata passage refers to a Spartan, and dirtiness was part of the Athenians' stereotype image of a Spartan (Birds 1281–2). Just previously, we had been told (p. 42) that "the bodily freedom and exposure to the external elements caused by the tribōn could be thought to entail a regression to an unmediated relationship with nature in its most primitive and unsettling manifestations, as embodied by Polyphemus" (no evidence is offered, except that the Cynics, some generations later, both wore the τρίβων and sometimes claimed a spiritual kinship with the Cyclops), and that Cratinus in Odyssês "suggested an assimilation of his comic persona to the Cyclops". This last remarkable claim is backed only by references to two earlier articles by Telò4; consulting these, we find that the "evidence" for this assimilation consists in the facts that (a) the chorus of Cratinus' Archilochoi (not Odyssês) refer to fish sauce and the barking of dogs (Cratinus fr. 6), and the Cyclops also refers to fish sauce (fr. 150) and is allegedly equated with Scylla, whom Homer describes as barking, and (b) that Cratinus casts himself as an Archilochean satirist, so that a chorus of "Archilochoi" can be taken to speak for him. With such evidence, and such methods of argument—which recur throughout the book—one could "prove" just about anything.

As to the style and intelligibility of the book, the following passage (p. 40) is unfortunately far from unique:

What makes [the cloak] an emblem of Aristophanes' comic fashion is not the dramatic product per se, its refined manufacture, as it were, but its relational vitality, which its materiality and sensory force bring about. Bdelycleon's chlaina is, in fact, meant to recapture the original affective energy of an archived performance, paradoxically fixing such ephemeral energy in a durable object.

This from an author who in his preface (p. xi) reserves his highest praise for the person who "taught me how to write in English, reinforcing for me the value of clear prose, free from flowery embellishments and jargon"!

My overall verdict on this book will now, I trust, be sufficiently apparent.


1.   K. J. Dover, Aristophanes: Clouds (Oxford, 1968) lxxx–cxviii. Issues regarding the revision have subsequently been further discussed by, for example, A.H. Sommerstein in M. Menu and P. Thiercy (eds.), Aristophane: la langue, la scène, la cité (Bari, 1997) 269–82; A. Casanova, Prometheus 26 (2000) 19–34; and M. Sonnino, SemRom 8 (2005) 205–32 (none of these articles appears in Telò's 25-page bibliography).
2.   By contrast, as the scholia show, they did perceive (rightly or wrongly) an implicit disparagement of Eupolis in Wasps 1023–5 (and Peace 762–3) where the chorus claim that Aristophanes did not exploit his fame and popularity by cruising the wrestling-schools trying to pick up boys.
3.   See now Z. P. Biles and S. D. Olson, Aristophanes: Wasps (Oxford, 2015) 390–2. The play is usually identified as Holkades, but the evidence for this is inconclusive.
4.   In Ramus 43 (2014) 25–44 and Arethusa 47 (2014) 303–20.

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