Monday, October 3, 2016


Stylianos Chronopoulos, Christian Orth (ed.), Fragmente einer Geschichte der griechischen Komödie / Fragmentary History of Greek Comedy. Studia Comica, 5​. Heidelberg: Verlag Antike, 2015. Pp. 336. ISBN 9783938032640. €76.90.

Reviewed by Richard P. Martin, Stanford University (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents
[Authors and titles are listed below.]

The prodigious effort to provide commentaries for all the fragments of Greek comedy has already yielded 13 of 28 projected Fragmenta Comica volumes. Bernhard Zimmermann, director of "Kommentierung der Fragmente der griechischen Komödie," an ambitious undertaking that began in 2011 with support from the Heidelberger Akademie der Wissenschaften, is also general editor of the parallel series Studia Comica, of which this is the fifth volume. Edited by a KomFrag Mitarbeiter (Orth) and his colleague (Chronopoulos), it arose from an intensive workshop in Freiburg (July 2012) that brought together KomFrag collaborators and outside experts. Ten chapters (six English, four German) accurately capture the problems and opportunities in contemporary study of Greek comedy beyond Aristophanes. Most important are the methodological questions lucidly addressed by each.

A succinct theoretical overview by Zimmermann outlines the political and personal pressures that had by the end of the 4th c. BCE already molded our familiar Old-Middle-New periodization. Inevitably, the story of the genre's development became yoked to discourses about democracy and its demise, while an outsized role was unwittingly given to the idiosyncratic caricatures of comic history written by some contentious practitioners (e.g. Aristophanes on his rivals: Knights 520-25). Zimmermann credits recent work with erasing the hard edges of this inherited schematization, allowing us to appreciate the temporal co-existence of "Old" with "Middle" traits, and the gradualness of comedic transitions over the late 5th and early 4th centuries.

Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, whose essential 1990 book Die attische Mittlere Komödie receives due praise in Zimmermann's opening survey, here traces the roots of the three-way categorization to Hellenistic scholarship. A careful unpacking of the late Imperial-era Prolegomena (especially III Koster) leads him to suggest (on mostly circumstantial grounds) that one or more of four scholars--Callimachus, Eratosthenes, Aristophanes of Byzantium or Dionysiades of Mallos—may have devised the tripartite division. Despite other signs of Peripatetic influence, both the set of Prolegomena II, IV, V and the equally late Platonius On Differences in Comedy, must have acquired their tripartite leanings from later sources, not Aristotle or his school.

S. Douglas Olson, acknowledging Dover's inspiration for the experiment, cleverly focuses on one illuminating instance of the problems inherent in citation sources--how Athenaeus treats Aristophanes—as a caution against over-interpretation.1 Relying solely on the Deipnosophistae "fragments" of plays that we happen to possess whole, for instance, we would never gather that the Clouds was about Socrates or the Wasps about juries. Such central facts simply were irrelevant to Athenaeus' localized contexts of quotation. Olson's conclusion should be a mantra for critics: in attempting to reconstruct scenes or plots from scattered fragments "what we create instead are fictional texts that recapitulate the interests and prejudices of our sources…."

Eric Csapo's wide-ranging and erudite analysis of early Athenian dramatic history is this volume's most rewarding contribution, whether or not one ultimately agrees with his conclusion that "comedy as we know it" required the conditions of a fixed audience and theater, not available until the earliest Theater of Dionysos, circa 500 BCE. Taking on, in turn, the unruly mob of contending performers, from komast dancers to leaders of the phallika, dolphin-riders and funny men on stilts to mockers on wagons and the mysterious Thespis, Csapo meticulously distinguishes "pre-comic" mobile processions (kômoi) meant to entertain with invective and various attractions, from their end-point song-and-dance performances (eventually, of circular shape), executed in one place, that somehow evolved plots to hold audience attention. Equally instructive in Csapo's reconstruction is his careful dismantling of two later interpretations: that of patriotic Athenian historiographers in the 4th century BCE, who in his view propounded an early 6th-century "comedy"; and Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood's devaluing of the komastic elements in the opening pompê at the Dionysia (the performance component crucial to Csapo's theory), due to her insistence that polis religion mainly aimed at such sober goals as the maintenance of civic identity.

Complementing Csapo's chapter (although not grouped with it in the volume) are strong contributions by Andreas Willi and Benjamin Millis, both of which are worth absorbing in detail. Where did those crucial muthoi that replaced komastic banter and captured long-term audience attention come from? Sicily, said Aristotle, specifically the plots of Epicharmus (Poetics 1449b1-9; cf. 1448a 33-4). He was most likely correct, Willi concludes after a rigorous survey of the fragments in terms of dialect, theme, and possible functions within drama. Having cleared away the complicated distraction of the Pseudepicharmeia, Willi uncovers in the remaining corpus a much more diverse and interesting comic poet, whose work cross-bred traditions of Doric farce with Ionic iambic self-representation. The resulting performances assumed two types: "plot" comedy containing mimetic dialogue, but also monologic satire or parody. If we believe that Epicharmian innovation (in either or both these forms) brought to early Attic comedy not just plots but spoken dramatic dialogue (vs. komastic choral songs), the full significance of Aristotle's assertion emerges: Crates, throwing off the "iambic idea" in favor of the Sicilian model, indeed invented logoi as well as muthoi (1449b5-9).

Willi's reconstruction pivots on the notion that early comic development "took part in a cultural discourse that reached well beyond the boundaries of Attica" (143). Millis also usefully stretches the boundaries, geographic and temporal, in his two-part study. The second portion reminds us that Menander is not an end-point but comes mid-way in comic history: fully half the names of comic poets that survive are from the period after his first victory (317/316 BCE). Nor was Athens the sole production location for "new" comedies (i.e. kainê in the inscriptions, not the generic type called nea). The epigraphic evidence records comic poetic creations (often but not always in competitions) from Isthmia to Magnesia on the Maeander, and from the late 4th century BCE up to the 2nd century CE. Admittedly, we know almost nothing of those productions apart from names of winners and of plays. But the bird's-eye view once again should undermine our confidence in that neatly schematic triad, Old-Middle-New.

The first part of Millis' instructive chapter convincingly argues that three intriguing inscriptions (IG I3 969, IG I3 970, IG II2 3091) should be taken at face value as testifying to performances at the rural Dionysia in Attic deme-theaters by major poets at their career peaks (Aristophanes, Sophocles, Euripides, Timotheus). Modern prejudice finds it hard to credit, but Anagyrous was hardly Peoria. Before comic contests began at the Lenaia (mid 440s), supplementing the annual City Dionysia, the demes would have offered even more attractive venues. This should in my view bring us back to Csapo's story, with perhaps a pinch of skepticism. To retroject: even if "comedy as we know it" did require a theater for its final development, can we be sure it needed the downtown Theater of Dionysos, rather than a structure in the demes? The lore about the deme Ikarion (modern Dioniso) —home of Thespis and his dramatic invention—together with 6th-century archaeological finds there, at Rhamnous, and at Thorikos should make us think twice. It may well be that comedy grew up first in the demes, and then (thanks to Cleisthenes?) was pulled into the center from the periphery.

The volume is rounded off by three detailed contributions of a catalogic nature, and one addressing Roman comedy. Jeffrey Henderson's compelling chart (147) makes vividly clear just how compressed was the development of Old Comedy. He draws out the implications by showing how particular themes and situations, fueled by comic rivalry, swept across certain decades (political attacks in the 430s, by Cratinus and Hermippus; "intellectual" plays in the 420s, like the Clouds and the Konnos of Ameipsias). More importantly, however, such diverse materials and handling simply cannot be squeezed into the traditional periods. Demagogue comedy of the type invented by Aristophanes was still going strong not just two decades later (Archippus taking on Rhinon), but even in the supposedly apolitical New Comedy of the late 4th century, when Archedicus and Philippides attacked populist politicians. By the same token, "domestic" plots that are usually pigeonholed as Menandrian may have hatched from the hetaera-comedy and myth-comedy types pioneered by Cratinus and Pherecrates. Love-plots flourished in plays about Zeus' paramours (see 158 fn. 24 for an impressive list) while the Cocalus of Aristophanes (produced 387) allegedly featured rape, recognition, and other Menandrian stand-bys.

Ioannis Konstantakos enumerates the features of another generic rattle-bag, this time in the era of Middle Comedy (and slightly before). His patient and precise investigation of the period circa 400-320 reveals a bewildering range of types, from mythological burlesques to "pseudohistorical travesties" like the series of plays about Sappho by Antiphanes and others, or Nicostratus' Hesiod, and from comedies of clever scheming to plays centered on obsessives (e.g. Anaxilas' Monotropos). Meanwhile, he helpfully questions the applicability of notions like "transition period," given the constant innovating one sees at play from the late 5th century onward. Apart from tracing many strains that will re-surface decades later in New Comedy, Konstantakos offers interesting fresh ideas about the strategies undergirding myth-parody ("comic euphemism" and literalism, for example) and the subversion of trusty comic tropes, such as Heracles-deprived-of-dinner (already a topos at Wasps 57ff.). He makes a compelling argument that scenes on several South Italian vases from the decades around 360 BCE are in fact variations on the latter theme, from otherwise unknown plays.

Carlo Scardino and Giada Sorrentino seek to articulate ways in which Menander may have differed from contemporaries. Problems of scale and the idiosyncrasies of Zwischenquellen complicate the picture: the 5000 or so lines we have of Menander (half of them from Dyskolos, Samia, and Epitrepontes) outnumber the total attributed to the other five most prominent comic playwrights, yet Athenaeus cites more verses from Diphilus than from Menander (while making it seem like the former was mainly interested in culinary affairs). If shared titles are any indication, Menander was in the thick of convention (13 of his plays overlap with others' in name). He, too, staged the cook-figure as comic butt (though, it seems, in a novel way). On the other hand, he does not appear to have been as attracted to parodies of philosophy or to politics (though the authors at pp.216-17 see the latter as less salient a theme in Archedicus and Philippides than Henderson had, p.154).

Michael Fontaine's chapter reworks a contribution published in English elsewhere.2 By comparing the methods of Eduard Fraenkel's famous Plautine Elements in Plautus, (original 1922) with recent scholarship that theorizes literary adaptation (e.g. the work of Linda Hutcheon), Fontaine shows that the sorts of mutations and distortions once thought to be characteristic of the Roman playwright are actually just what one would expect when transposing spoken dialogue into the semi-operatic form of the palliata, awash in cantica. A series of excellent close readings of passages from Roman plays for which we have Greek originals helps solidify the point. In tune with the meta-scholarly tone of the rest of this book, Fontaine offers a neat further sketch of the "Saturnalian" (Erich Segal) vs. "Hellenistic" (Eric Handley) approaches to Plautus, one stressing conscious Roman-ness and carnival freedom, the other (favored by Fontaine) locating the poet in what is basically a fourth and final evolutionary stage of the Greek genre (which happens to be in Latin). The process of creative translation that Fontaine describes throughout is neatly embodied in his own piece: witness on p. 269 the translator Katharina Epstein's felicitous German analogues for puns in the original English meant to illustrate para prosdokian Latin jokes based on Greek.

Authors and Titles

Christian Orth und Stylianos Chronopoulos, Vorwort
S. Douglas Olson, Athenaeus' Aristophanes, and the Problem of Reconstructing Lost Comedies
Bernhard Zimmermann, Periodisierungszwänge als Problem und Herausforderung der Literaturgeschichtsschreibung
Eric Csapo, The Earliest Phase of 'Comic' Choral Entertainments in Athens. The Dionysian Pompe and the 'Birth' of Comedy
Andreas Willi, Epicharmus, the Pseudepicharmeia, and the origins of Attic drama
Jeffrey Henderson, Types and Styles of Comedy between 450 and 420
Ioannis Konstantakos, Tendencies and Variety in Middle Comedy
Heinz-Günther Nesselrath, Zur Periodisierung der griechischen Komödie in hellenistischer (und späterer) Philologie
Carlo Scardino und Giada Sorentino, Menander und seine zeitgenössische Komödie
Benjamin Millis, Out of Athens: Greek Comedy at the Rural Dionysia and Elsewhere
Michael Fontaine, Von Athen nach Rom: Von der griechischen zur römischen Komödie


1.   K. J. Dover "Frogments," in D. Harvey and J. Wilkins (eds.), The Rivals of Aristophanes (London 2000), p. xvii-xix.
2.   "The reception of Greek comedy in Rome" in M. Revermann (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Comedy (Cambridge 2014), p. 404-423.

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