April 14, 2015, by Oliver Thomas

Comedy 2500

Alan Sommerstein commemorates a very special anniversary.

It is exactly 2500 years ago this month that Athens saw its first official production of comic drama, at the Dionysia festival in the month of Elaphebolion (March/April), in the year that they called “the archonship of Telesinus” and we call 486 BC. (That’s 2500 years ago, not 2501 – remember, there is no year “zero” between 1 BC and AD 1.)

This election time, it may be appropriate to recall that the introduction of comedy may well have been a political ploy, designed to damage the aristocratic elite by creating a privileged platform for ridiculing prominent individuals. Two other developments, at almost exactly the same time, seem to have had similar aims: first, the activation of the procedure of “ostracism”, never put into use before 487, which in the next six years sent five leading Athenians into a ten-year exile; secondly, the devaluing of what till then had been the most important Athenian magistracies, the nine archonships, by having their holders chosen by lottery instead of by voting. It is a reasonable suspicion that the driving force behind these moves was Themistocles, the most radical democrat in the Athens of his day, who in these years was always able to ensure that whoever might be ostracized, it wasn’t him, and so preserved himself to be Athens’ leader in her greatest crisis, the Persian invasion of 480/79.

That first comic competition was won by a certain Chionides. We really know nothing about his dramas: the few alleged quotations from him that survive are probably all later concoctions. But we do know from Aristophanes’ Knights (lines 520-5) that one of his immediate successors, Magnes, who won eleven first prizes (a record never broken), was chiefly remembered for his sound effects and his exotic choruses (barbarians and animals, including frogs and probably flies). Probably no authentic comic texts were preserved for later generations until the 450s or 440s.

cakeTwo and a half millennia on, an attempt is being made to bring together what we know about Greek comedy in an encyclopedia, to be published in print and online by Wiley-Blackwell, of which I am editor. Its 1300-odd articles cover every topic from accumulation verbale (“a technique … consisting in creating long sequences of parallel words and phrases – sometimes more than twenty of them – to emphasize the importance, range, variety, etc., of whatever is being described”) to Ulrich Zwingli (the sixteenth-century Swiss Protestant leader – and composer of the music for a Zurich production of Aristophanes’ Wealth in 1531). They are being written by a team of nearly 200 scholars in more than twenty countries; sixteen of these scholars are or have been members of the Nottingham Classics department while three more have paid extended visits to it.


Image: a vase-painting from 375-350 BC, once Berlin Staatliche Museen F3046 but now lost (probably a war casualty), apparently depicting (not very well) the opening scene of Aristophanes’ Frogs. The master, dressed as Heracles (the artist has failed to make it clear that he is actually Dionysus), knocks on a door (which will presently be answered by the real Heracles), while his servant waits behind, mounted on a donkey, but carrying a heavy load of luggage on his own back instead of the donkey’s. The image is originally from Bieber’s Die Denkmäler zum Theaterwesen im Altertum (Berlin 1920), pl.80.

Posted in AnniversariesGreek dramaResearch