Friday, July 28, 2017


Massimiliano Ornaghi, Dare un padre alla commedia: Susarione e le tradizioni megaresi. Il carro di Tespi, 2. Alessandria: Edizioni dell'Orso, 2016. Pp. x, 524. ISBN 9788862746946. €40.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Richard P. Martin, Stanford University (

Version at BMCR home site

Only four banal iambic trimeter verses (maybe five) are attributed to Susarion; some consider even those suspect.1 At first glance, a 500-page book devoted to this shadowy figure from the 6th century BCE looks implausible. Its two divisions meticulously re-examine the evidence regarding the man who allegedly founded comedy at Athens, and then analyze the significance of Megara (Susarion's putative homeland) for dramatic history. Ornaghi's sophisticated approach acknowledges that the object is not to pronounce on the reality of origins, but to sort out the various meanings—literary, political, even philosophical—that underlie the deployment of "Susarion" in ancient discourse about key questions: who established the genre of comedy; why; when; and in what form. In this extended exercise in context-sensitive cultural and historical interpretation, Ornaghi succeeds admirably. He does not answer the questions, but offers a much-needed paradigm for the meta-analysis of source material and a welcome, critical viewpoint on Megarians playing the comedic "Other."

Two sources, centuries apart, rightly attract much attention: a notice from the Marmor Parium (mid-3rd century BCE) and a passage from John the Deacon (early or middle Byzantine period). The former is brief and controversial. In Jacoby's edition (FGrHist 239, entry A39), it runs:

ἀφ' οὗ ἐν Ἀθ[ήν]αις κωμω[ιδῶν χο]ρ[ὸς ἐτ]έθη, [στη]σάν[των πρώ]των Ἰκαριέων, εὑρόντος Σουσαρίωνος, καὶ ἆθλον ἐτέθη πρῶτον ἰσχάδω[ν] ἄρσιχο[ς] καὶ οἴνου με[τ]ρητής…

Andrea Rotstein's excellent new commentary translates: "From the time a [cho]r[os] of komo[idoi] was [esta]blished in Ath[en]s, the Icarians [se]tti[ng it up fi]rst, an invention by Susarion, and the prize consisted at first  of a baske[t] of dried fi[gs] and a me[a]sure of wine…".2 The expected year-calculation falls within a lacuna, but from the entries above and below A39, the epoch in question must occur between 582/1 and 561/0 BCE—a startling assertion, since comedy was not officially made part of the City Dionysia at Athens until 487/6 BCE, at least two generations later. Equally surprising, entry A43 places the dramatic activity of Thespis between 536 and 530 BCE: although the MP does not explicitly call him founder of tragedy, opting for the vaguer "From the time the poet Thespis first [perform]ed ([hupekrina]to),3 who produced (edidaxe)…", the relative chronology of genres is puzzling.4 A third entry (A55) pins the floruit of Epicharmus, another candidate for inventor of comedy, to 472/1 BCE.

Ornaghi helpfully focuses on what MP A39 does not say, thus allowing for more nuance in reconstructed stories of origins. The inscription neither claims that Susarion himself was from Ikarion, nor does it say he invented at the date in question a "khoros of kômos-singers" (let alone "comedy")—only that a khoros was put in place, "Susarion having discovered" (it?) at some (possibly earlier) point. Admittedly, the MP as we have it does not even clearly state that the people of Ikarion first established comic choruses: Ornaghi, more conservative than Jacoby, rejects the restoration [στη]σάν[των πρώ]των Ἰκαριέων as not fitting letter traces and lacking parallels elsewhere in the MP for two genitive absolutes in asyndeton. Yet, in the light of other testimonia and myths about that Attic deme, as well as archaeological finds confirming early theater activity there, it is hard to see how (especially within the MP's general heurematographic approach) anything else could have been meant. If the missing words did specify a foundational role for the demesmen, perhaps the gist was "some of the Ikarians introduced it (restoring a finite verb e.g. ἔθεσαν) upon Susarion's invention" or even "a certain Susarion of the Ikarians having invented it" (so that in both case Ἰκαριέων is partitive and Ornaghi's syntactical dilemma is avoided).

The author is on firmer ground when arguing that the information and dates assigned to Susarion and Thespis descend from different sources and were possibly later synchronized with an eye to traditions about the dating of Solon's career. The suggestion concludes an exhaustive 60-page analysis of the MP's diction, syntax and time-point co-ordination strategies. Again, the negative result is worth stating: it is likely that the compiler of the MP was not repeating a unitary literary-historical account in which comedy was placed prior to tragedy at Athens. Ornaghi's bracing scepticism on this last point would more readily convince me, were it not for the curiously similar relative chronology found in one of the latest (yet fullest) accounts of Susarion, a commentary by one John the Deacon on the Peri methodou deinotêtos attributed to the rhetor Hermogenes (AD 160–230). Before retailing an anecdote about Susarion's famous 4 (or 3 or 5) lines, John provides a two-sentence summary of cultural development from savage acorn-eating to farming, with its rowdy harvest-festivals. Wishing for a more cultivated entertainment, "some clever individuals" (sophoi) invented comedy as a form of "orderly playing around" (λογικῆς παιδιᾶς). Susarion, it is said, first put comedy into metrical form. But then, needing to counter-balance the new genre's total-relaxation effects (diakhusis), they invented tragedy: John cites different sources promoting Arion and Thespis as the creative prototypers. Ornaghi convincingly traces Peripatetic roots for John's sketch of human progress, but is less confident that the comedy-first model goes back that far. I would press further: given our ignorance about Aristotle's lost writing on comedy, and the recurrent references to an early super-genre trugôidia (from trux, "new wine") that supposedly birthed both Classical genres, we might easily imagine 4th-century discourses making tragedy the latecomer.

John is one of six sources preserving a version of Susarion's iambic verses, in which he demands the attention of an audience of demesmen for his wise utterance: "women are a bad thing, but you can't keep house without a bad thing" (fr. 1, IEG II2). Apparently, this was the first "metered" comic performance, but in John's account it is an unscripted response by Susarion, when he was expected to demonstrate his known talent for entertaining at the Dionysia. His wife having just died, Susarion offered these lines as his "explanation" (ἀπολογούμενον)—perhaps for failing to perform something else?—and was "well-received" (εὐδοκιμῆσαι) by the audience. One could explore further the similarities to Old Comic parabases and Archilochean rhetoric of the impromptu. Ornaghi instead focuses on paroemiographic parallels and internal variants, most important of which is the absence in half the testimonia of the key self-referential line "son of Philinos, from Tripodiskos, Megara." Making Susarion Megarian (as opposed to Ikarian) was clearly a crucial sociopoetic move at some stage, although the Attic coloration of his attested iambs would not have helped.

The rest of the first division of the volume (pp. 67–181, 217–36) uncovers other bits of unexpected lore. Ornaghi bravely hacks away at the jungle growth of scholia and the anonymous prefaces about comedy, wisely refusing to reconstruct a single master source. Susarion is tangled up with potted histories of literary evolution and attempts at etymologizing kômôidia (songs for party-processions, villages, bedtime?). A thematic organization might have made for easier reading, but the clinical dissection of testimonia per author provides the most solid basis for later discussion. Some highlights: Susarion lent his name to a meter combining four trochees and a dactylic hemiepes, which does not fit his surviving verses but leaves open the intriguing possibility that antiquity once knew more of his poetry, and it was, moreover, melic. (Here Rusten's idea that Susarion composed dithyrambs would have made a neat tie-in). Susarion was credited, in various scholia to Dionysius Thrax, with instead inventing iambos or tragedy (the latter alleging the authority of Aristotle). By the time of Libanius (Letter 355), he was a proverbial polymath, "Susarion who understands everything."

Most saliently, the character of Susarion's allegedly abusive, inelegant, casually staged and brief shows (no more than 300 lines apiece, according to the late Glossary of Ansileubus [Koster XXVII. 3.8–13]) fits with later Athenian notions about all things "Megarian"—suspiciously well. A commentator on the Nicomachean Ethics (4.6) makes a logical leap between the Poetics and Old Comedy references: in comedy "the Megarians are disparaged because they lay claim to it (ἀντιποιοῦνται) as having been found first among themselves, if indeed Susarion, who started comedy, was Megarian." Ornaghi proceeds to pry apart this and related assumptions through a series of forceful arguments, made in six stages. First, his close reading of Aristophanes (Wasps 54–66), Eupolis (fr. 261), and Ecphantides (fr. 3) in the light of non-dramatic lore, establishes that these playwrights do not allude to an actual formal genre of "Megarian comedy" but invoke a vaguer set of ethnic stereotypes, featuring Megarians as thick, crass, and uncreative. Whatever form any original Susarion comedy might have taken has become encrusted by such Athenian prejudices. Second, Aristotle refers to dual Megarian claims on comedy (Poetics 3.1448a28–b2)—by those close to Athens, who tied it to their democracy, and those in Sicily, who pointed to native-son Epicharmus—but neither, oddly, mentions Susarion. Either the version in which he was the inventor was not yet current, concludes Ornaghi, or Aristotle passed it over as not worth believing. (I suggest another possibility: he tacitly accepted a known pro-Athenian version like that in the MP, and assumed his audience did, too.) Third, the fragments of 4th-century Megarika reveal a marked " auto-legittimazione culturale" (p. 328) when it comes to traditions and local institutions, which clearly react to Athenian versions of mythistory as preserved in the Atthidographers. Ornaghi's excellent survey detects recurrent terms for verbal opposition: ἀντιποιοῦνται in Aristotle's description; ἀντιλογίας at Plut. Thes. 10.3; and most telling, ἀντιπαρῳδῆσαι (Strabo 9.10.) The lattermost describes a Megarian act of poetic counter-attack against the Athenians who, they believed, staked a claim to Salamis on some verses smuggled into the Catalogue of Ships. The Megarian lines claimed that Ajax "brought ships from Salamis, from Polichnê, from Aegeirussa, from Nisaea, and from Tripodes"—that is, from Megarian townships. It is not difficult to see a similar propaganda move inserting a similar line in Susarion's (otherwise Athenian?) iambs, to make him a citizen of Tripodiskos.

The simplest explanation, then, would be that Megarians hijacked an authentic Athenian memorate. But Ornaghi veers off in favor of complexity. His long fourth section explores how the "facts" of Megarian history may have been selectively ordered (or invented) to fit 4th-century Athenian political philosophy, particularly with regard to an alleged "democracy" following the ouster of the tyrant Theagenes (620 BC?). Such synchronization would align "Susarion" with the time-frame for Athenian proto-theater. Building upon the work of Connor and Forsdyke regarding political histrionics, he raises exciting possibilities: e.g. that the subversive incident of the "wagon-rollers" (hamaxokulistai) recorded by Plutarch was a version of Dionysiac ritual. The fifth section pinpoints performance elements in Megarian cults of Demeter, Apollo, and Dionysos, again suggesting (not arguing) that native Megarian traditions could have supported their claim to some dramatic invention (perhaps later identified as "comedy"). A short final section gathers the fragments of Hellenistic poets mentioning Megarian cult or the Athenian myth of Ikarios, while the epilogue leaves us with widely varying options: Susarion might have been a jokey figment of Old Comic projection; or a real Megarian. Whatever we believe, this study deserves to be read carefully by all working on the roots of theater.


1.   Most sceptical: J. Rusten, "Who "Invented" Comedy? The Ancient Candidates for the Origins of Comedy and the Visual Evidence," AJP 127 (2006), 37–66.
2.   A. Rotstein, Literary History in the Parian Marble (Washington DC, 2016), p. 43.
3.   My translation: Rotstein has "[act]ed (?)".
4.   W. R. Connor, whose conservative text is preferred by Ornaghi, persuasively distinguished pre-and post-democratic performances: "City Dionysia and Athenian Democracy," in Aspects of Athenian Democracy, (ed. W. R. Connor et al., Copenhagen, 1990), 7–32.

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