Becoming Aristophanes

[Edited June 10 2021]

Aristophanes, the greatest comic dramatist of ancient Greece, was born in the Athenian deme of Kydathenaion sometime in the 440’s BCE. Below is a map of Attica, with Kydathenaion circled:

The deme was the smallest, most local administrative unit in the Athenian government; it was the place one called home. There were three kinds of demes: urban demes (indicated by circles in the map above), which lay within the city’s walls; rural demes (indicated by triangles), occupying inland areas outside the walls; and coastal demes (squares).

This ecological categorization of demes as as urban, rural, or coastal reflected a deeply rooted eco-political division of Athenian society along the same lines. A general fact about living organisms, and about humans in particular, is that groups of individuals of the same species that dwell in different types of habitats tend to evolve different survival strategies. A mosquito who lives in a rain forest will make their living differently from one who lives in a desert; a human who lives on the coast will make their living differently from one who farms a plot of land deep inland. In Athens, long before Aristophanes was born, this phenomenon had led humans dwelling in urban, rural, and coastal areas, respectively, to come together (we are social animals, after all) to support different policies and leaders. The constitution of Kleisthenes, which in 508 BCE had laid the foundation of the Athenian democracy that would endure for a legendary century and a half, created this tripartite deme structure in order to ensure that each of the ten tribes (phylae), which functioned as political groups (in that, for example, each tribe would take turns running the Council), represented a mixture of diverse biospheres.

Kydathenaion was an urban deme, but not just any urban deme: it was the deme that contained the Acropolis, which during Aristophanes’ childhood and adolescence Pericles, along with his many allies and supporters, had adorned with the majestic Parthenon, the glorious Temple of Victory, and the awe-inspiring Propylaea (the marble gateway to the summit).

The Acropolis, seen from the north (the Propylaea is on the right).

The photo above (which I took in 2018 shortly before embarking on a cruise) conveys the splendor of Kydathenaion but conceals its greatest attraction for lovers of theater: the Theater of Dionysus, which lay on the south slope of the Acropolis. This was the Broadway of Athens, and Aristophanes was born on the middle of it, in its greatest century.

The Theater of Dionysus

The most prominent roles in the world of Athenian drama were those of the poiētēs (“poet”), the didaskalos (“director”, literally “teacher”), and the chorēgos (producer or financier, a wealthy private individual chosen by the state). Aristophanes directed many but not all of his own plays; even when he was not officially credited as the director, he probably offered some directorial guidance. When he was just beginning his career, Aristophanes concealed his identity as the author of Banqueters (427 BCE) and Babylonians (426 BCE) from the general public for a period of time. To find out why, keep reading.

When he was rehearsing a new comedy for one of Athens’ gigantic dramatic festivals, the Lenaia (which took place in January) and the City Dionysia (which took place in early April), Aristophanes must have lived a glamorous urban life of orgiastic late-night symposia followed by grueling daytime rehearsals. Judging from the plays he wrote and the surviving testimonies about him, it seems clear that Aristophanes enjoyed partying. But partying was also a professional obligation: for the elite of ancient Athens, as for today’s Instagram influencers, partying was a way of being seen and heard and building a “personal brand”. It was also a chance to get feedback from fellow tastemakers: Aristophanes doubtless tested out many bits of comic material at parties before including them in his plays.

The theatrical rehearsal and performance season in Attica lasted from December/January through early April (see Hughes, Performing Greek Comedy, ch. 1). For the remainder of the year, the period during which he probably conceived and drafted new comedies, Aristophanes will have been free to travel, if circumstances permitted (which, during a lifetime that included the Peloponnesian War, several revolutions, plague, and many other difficulties, they did not always). I would imagine that Aristophanes would have wanted during the summer to get away from the exciting but exhausting drama of the city center and get away from it all, like Peisetairos and Euelpides in Birds.

Aristophanes’ youth: life in a changing city

We don’t know anything about Aristophanes’ family except that his father was named Philippos. Given the young age at which he embarked on his dramatic career, it seems likely that his family was well connected among the city’s intellectual and creative elite, and that they were wealthy.

Aristophanes’ education must have been similar to that of other wealthy Athenian boys in the fifth century. He will have started school at the age of six or seven, accompanied by a paidagōgos (the root of our word “pedagogy”), a slave who acted as a kind of tutor, chauffeur, and chaperone. His teachers will have included a grammatistēs, who taught language, literature, basic mathematics, and ethics; a kitharistēs, who taught lyric poetry, music theory and its relation to ethics and cosmology, and the technique of playing musical instruments such as the lyre and the kithara; and a paidotribēs, who taught proper care and maintenance of the body. Elite Athenian education may look oddly impractical to modern students. But it was training for a career of social networking in a society that put tremendous value on speaking well–a skill that required knowledge of literature and music as well as physical fitness to perform excellently.

All of Aristophanes’ teachers and fellow students were male; whatever education some girls received happened well away from boys. One can only imagine the kind of toxic masculinity and misogyny that pervaded Athenian schools. Hesiod, one of the venerable old authors schoolboys had to learn by heart, explains the origin of hardship, scarcity, disease, and all other ills that afflict human life as the result of the Olympian gods’ creation of the first human woman, Pandora. Homer, the other author schoolboys had to learn by heart, tells tales of a great war started by the jealousy of a goddess (Hera) who lost a beauty contest. Sappho was one of the great lyric poets, but she was the exception that proved the rule: the value of women lay mainly in their usefulness as cooks, overseers of the household slaves, producers of children, and sex objects.

It is likely that Athenian schools were full of what we would call sexual harassment and assault. Athenian law criminalized rape but did not specify a minimum age of consent or forbid sexual relationships between teachers and their students. A wealthy family could find many ways to punish a teacher who upset or, in their view, dishonored one of their sons through sexual harassment or assault, but the level of punishment will have varied depending on the perceived offense. Abusive teachers who managed to keep the families of abused students in the dark will in most cases have got away with it.

Teachers in ancient Greece had a reputation for being barely closeted pedophiles. Eumolpus, a teacher who appears in Petronius’ Satyricon, proudly tells a story about seducing a student he was tutoring privately by offering gifts (sections 85-87). First he offered a pair of doves and a pair of fighting roosters, for which price the boy allowed himself to be kissed and fondled. He then offered a racehorse, a Macedonian thoroughbred, in exchange for being allowed to do to the boy all that he might wish (what this is Petronius does not specify). When he failed to produce the horse, the boy was angry and threatened to tell his father, but by this time he quite enjoyed being sexually abused by Eumolpus and did not act on this threat. In fact, the story’s punchline is that the boy became so horny that Eumolpus, unable to keep up, had to threaten to tell his father to get him to calm down!

The Satyricon is a work of satirical erotic fiction, so one should not think of Eumolpus as the typical teacher. However, Aristophanes provides some evidence about the sexual proclivities of Greek teachers. His play Clouds (424 BCE) contains a debate between two figures called, respectively, Just Argument (Dikaios Logos) and Unjust Argument (Adikos Logos). These two figures represent differing perspectives on pedagogy, and the purpose of their debate is to enable a young man, Pheidippides, to decide what kind of education is best for him. Unjust Argument promises to teach the student a means of justifying anything he might wish to do; his attitude towards gender and sexuality is nicely summed up in the line, “A woman likes nothing so much as rough treatment.” Just Argument supposedly represents the old, traditional idea of what constitutes a good education. Yet his description of the modesty of students in the good old days suggests more attention to students’ genitalia than modern codes of conduct would recommend:

No boy in those days ever rubbed with oil the parts beneath his navel;

They let their genitals glisten with down, all dewy, just like that on quinces.

Aristophanes, Clouds

We do not know whether Aristophanes was ever sexually harassed or assaulted by one of his teachers or anyone else, but it seems likely that at some point he was.

Growing up in Athens during the 430’s, Aristophanes will have been conscious of living in a place where unexceptional men’s opinions carried exceptional weight. The democratic system of government was not yet a century old, but it had acquired a legendary reputation for efficacy when Athens repulsed invasions by great Persian empire in 490 and 480 BCE. Since 480 Athens had grown enormously in wealth, power, and prestige through its leadership of the Delian League, an alliance of Greek city-states with the stated aim of opposing any future Persian aggression. Most member states in the Delian League contributed money to the common effort rather than soldiers or military hardware. Because the League secured their defense against the Persians, member states had little reason to maintain their own armies and navies. This was a situation ripe for Athens to exploit, and it did.

By the mid-450’s Athens had become the richest and most powerful city-state in the Greek world, its supremacy checked only by the might of the army of Sparta and its allies. Under Athens’ leadership, the Delian League had become less an alliance and more a branding tool to make Athens’ empire look consensual. In 454 Athens moved the League treasury from Delos to Athens, all but acknowledging that it regarded League property as its own.

During this period Athens was led by Pericles, a man whom the young Aristophanes may well have met at some point and undoubtedly heard much talk about. Pericles was an aristocrat with enormous wealth but also an avid supporter of the democratic system. Because no office in the Athenian state carried very much executive power, wealthy people with extensive social connections were able to influence magistrates and voters and thereby lead the state informally. Whereas aristocrats typically supported policies that shifted power towards the wealthy, Pericles won huge popularity by championing policies that benefited poorer Athenians. In foreign affairs Pericles took the domestically popular line of “Athens first!”: it was he who made the case for using Delian League funds to finance public building projects in Athens. Work on the Parthenon began in 447, and work on the Propylaea began in 437, when Aristophanes was around 7 years old.

A photo I took of the Parthenon in 2010

Pericles’ Athens was a city on the move, rich and getting richer, powerful and getting more powerful. Exciting things were also happening in the realms of ideas and art, which brings us back to the theme of education. An Athenian boy’s basic education ended when he was between 14 and 16 years old. After that, one of the options for continuing his education was for him to study with a Sophist. “Sophists” were men who offered for-profit educational services, particularly in the practice of rhetoric but also in philosophy, politics, literature, and other matters. The Greek word sophistēs has given us the English words “sophistry” (smart-sounding bullshit) and “sophistic”, both pejorative; sophistēs, too, was sometimes used pejoratively, for the Sophists were nothing if not controversial.

Most likely there were lots of low-key Sophists in Athens who taught rhetoric and didn’t challenge traditional beliefs or customs ostentatiously and lived out their lives without leaving a trace in the historical record. The Sophists we hear about are those who reputedly said or did provocative things. Protagoras of Abdera (a city in Thrace) frequently visited Athens and was a friend of Pericles; he became notorious for his agnosticism, expressed in the following famous quote:

Concerning the gods, I have no means of knowing whether they exist or not, nor of what sort they may be, because of the obscurity of the subject, and the brevity of human life.

Protagoras of Abdera

Gorgias of Leontini (a city in Sicily) visited Athens in 427 BCE (the same year that Aristophanes’ first play, Banqueters, was produced); he was notorious for arguing that Helen bore no responsibility for the Trojan War, regardless of her actions or motivations, and that nothing exists.

One of the things that Sophists seem to have emphasized is that they taught skills, not values. Today this idea sounds as tame as the Debate Club: yes, learning to argue means learning to argue opposing positions on the same issue persuasively. But we accept that education is more about the transfer of skills than of values; it’s about learning what you need to be a good lawyer or real estate broker or investment banker first, and learning what you need to be a good person second (or third…). Athenians in the fifth century did not accept this, for the most part; they thought that education should instill positive values as well as skills. The Sophists’ claim to teach skills and not values must have enabled them to remain neutral on many divisive questions (such as which form of government is best), thereby expanding their pool of potential students. But it also opened them to the charge of cynical profiteering, of teaching people how to accomplish whatever vile purposes they might have in mind. The fact that many prominent Sophists, such as Protagoras, openly challenged traditional beliefs in religion and other areas, contributed to this negative reputation.

While their main concerns were rhetoric and politics, many Sophists participated or took an interest in the Greek tradition of speculating about how nature works. No doubt some Sophists were genuinely interested in nature and science, and no doubt a theory of nature made a fancy-sounding basis for a theory of rhetoric. Regarding the world as a set of interlinked physical systems that operate according to the same rules (like modern materialists), the Sophists could illustrate their theories of how power works in human societies using analogies with natural phenomena. In Clouds Pheidippides uses such an argument to justify beating his father:

But consider the case of roosting cocks and the rest of the animal kingdom,
The way they fight against their fathers—yet why should there be any difference
Between the animal world and us, except that they don’t make decrees?

Aristophanes, Clouds

Aristophanes’ plays accuse the Sophists of adhering to the belief that “might makes right”. This is also Plato’s main charge against them (see, for example, his Gorgias). We know from Thucydides that the “might makes right” attitude gained steam in Athens during the Peloponnesian War. In Thucydides’ Melian dialog, for example, which describes events that took place in 415 BCE, the Athenian ambassadors ruthlessly hold the line that Melos cannot remain neutral simply because Athens is strong enough to compel its submission. Yet we can hardly blame the Sophists for Athens’ increasingly brutal use of its power, or for the degradation of respect for elders (if such a general degradation did in fact occur); they were symptoms of these trends, not causes.

In the realm of creative art, the Athens of Aristophanes’ childhood was the most exciting place in the Greek world. Phidias sculpted the Parthenon’s cult statue of Athena and other marvels. Famous musicians performed in Athens regularly. Athens invested more resources than any other Greek city into its theater and achieved as a result a level of theatrical excellence that has remained legendary ever since. Tragedies by Sophocles, Euripides, and other poets were staged in the Theater of Dionysus every year, as were comedies by Cratinus, Crates, and Magnes. The greatness of these comedians may be glimpsed in a remark in the parabasis of Aristophanes Knights, in which the poet accuses the Athenians of being a fickle audience:

He remembers, too,
What happened to Magnes as soon as he sprouted
a few gray hairs;
Yet he was a poet who so often
had beaten his rivals.
He was a genius at mimicking noises: throbbings or flappings
Or even parroting a Lydian song.
He could buzz like a bee,
And stain himself as green as a frog, but this didn’t save him
When he grew old and past his heyday. In the end
He found himself hooted off the stage: he’d lost his acumen. Our poet remembered the fate of Cratinus, once so applauded: Borne along on waves of ovation sweeping him onwards Over prairie and meadow, carrying away oaks and planes As well as his rivals, torn from their roots. And he was once The soul of a party. There’d be songs like “My Lady Kickback Of Squeaky Scandals,” and “Let’s Chant a Him.” He was then in his prime, But look at him now, doddering around like an unstrung Musical instrument: warped, out of tune; and one doesn’t feel sorry. He’s just an old, dithering dotard, all washed-up.

Aristophanes, Clouds

The world of Athenian theater must have been insanely competitive; there were just a lot more folks around with good ideas for plays than resources to produce plays. In his debut as a professional playwright, Aristophanes ensured he gained the kind of notoriety that would keep him in the public eye.

Becoming famous

We do not know when Aristophanes began writing comic material, but given that cannot have been much older than 20 when his first play (Banqueters) was staged at one of Athens’ major dramatic festivals, he must have done so at a young age. It seems reasonable to guess that he did not start by writing an entire comedy from scratch but began instead with jokes, routines, and sketches. Assuming that Philippos supported his son’s dramatic and theatrical inclinations, he will have arranged for the boy’s work to be heard by influential poets and tastemakers.

The following passage from the parabasis of Wasps is interpreted by most scholars to mean that the young Aristophanes’ work was included in other poets’ plays before he began to take credit for it himself:

Secretly at first and then in the glare of day
They favored other poets; so then like Eurydes
He slipped into the voice box of others to amuse

With a flood of jokes, and then he risked the ruse

Of simply being himself and holding the reins
Not of someone else’s team of muses but those
Of his own.

Aristophanes, Wasps

No doubt there is much retroactive self-mythologization in Aristophanes’ portrayal of his young self as a sly ventriloquist stealing into the mouths of other poets; at the time, it will simply have been a flattering opportunity to see the public’s response to his material. But Aristophanes had a knack for self-mythologizing and self-branding, as we will see.

The first play Aristophanes wrote that was awarded a chorus and produced at one of Athens’ major festivals was Banqueters. It was produced in 427 BCE and directed by one Kallistratos (probably–possibly one Philonides), who went on to direct a number of Aristophanes’ other plays. The parabasis of Clouds suggests that Aristophanes first read the play for a group of men (probably family acquaintances) privately, and they were sufficiently impressed to engineer its production:

For when my play The Good Boy and the Buggered Boy
was received in this very place with undiluted joy
by men it’s a pleasure to know, I was an unmarried mother and had to expose my child, which was taken up by another, and you most generously reared it and gave it education, and ever since then I’ve counted on your dedication.

Aristophanes, Clouds

Banqueters survives only in fragments and testimonia, from which we learn that it was about a banquet in honor of Heracles thrown by a conservative old man with two sons, one called the Virtuous Boy and the other the Buggered Boy. The Virtuous Boy has followed a traditional method of education, whereas the Buggered Boy has entrusted his education to the Sophists. In the following fragment, the speaker, who must be the father, comments on what the Buggered Boy has learned:

He didn’t learn these things when I sent him to school,

but rather drinking, bad singing, Syracusan cuisine,

sybaritic feasting, “Chian from Spartan Bowls”,

drinking well and unsparingly.

Aristophanes, Banqueters fragment 225

We know little else about Banqueters. It won second prize and was sufficiently successful for Aristophanes to be awarded a chorus the next year to produce Babylonians at the City Dionysia of 426.

Things weren’t going all that well in Athens in 426. The Peloponnesian War had begun some five years earlier; two years later Pericles had died of the plague, which continued to haunt Athens. Rushing into the power vacuum created by Pericles’ death, Kleon pushed hawkish policies, aiming for a total Athenian victory. But there was little reason to think that such a victory was within reach. The young Aristophanes must have seen this as an opportunity to win notoriety for himself by attacking Kleon.

The great Aristophanes scholar S. Douglas Olson has this to say about Babylonians:

The scanty remains of Babylonians show that the play was
the story of a visit made by Dionysos to Athens (cf. fr. 75) and followed a standard pattern of Dionysiac myth (best known from Euripides’ Bacchants) in which the god arrives in a place, encounters resistance from local authorities, and defeats them.

Olson, Acharnians, xxviii

Judging from the title, the chorus must have consisted of a group of Babylonian followers of Dionysus.

Beyond this, what we know about Babylonians is mainly that it involved Athens’ allied city-states in some way, and that it made serious accusations against Kleon and various Athenian officials. It seems safe to say that Babylonians was sharply critical of Athens.

What seems most likely to me is that when Aristophanes was writing Babylonians, he knew he had earned the right to mock the city’s leadership, which he regarded as corrupt and incompetent. His first play, on a safe and reliably crowd-pleasing theme, had been a success, and he had been awarded a chorus for the next year’s biggest festival. This was his chance to stir people up, piss people off, make waves, and make a name for himself.

Given the state of our evidence, it is hard to judge the reaction to Babylonians. The audience must have liked it, because the next year Aristophanes was again awarded a chorus, this time for Acharnians. Kleon clearly did not like it and apparently tried to take legal action against Aristophanes. Whether the young poet was intimidated or just happy for the publicity we do not know. We do know that he continued to attack Kleon vehemently in his plays, only letting up reluctantly after the latter’s death in 422.

The way he began his career tells us that Aristophanes was savvy. He started with a play that was safe and conservative in outlook, establishing his ability to contribute to the genre; then in his next play, he took big risks and reaped the rewards. (This reminds me of advice given to young academics about publishing: go safe with the first book, then make the second book your dream project.) His approach shows plenty of mētis, cunning intelligence, a quality also possessed by the protagonists of his first plays that survive in full, Acharnians and Knights.

Published by drsamuelc

Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at The American University in Cairo

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