Sunday, March 1, 2009

Author Sketch: Aristophanes (The Clouds, Lysistrata)

455 – 380 BCE

World Events during Aristophanes’ Lifetime:
- Siddhartha Gautama dies – 480 BCE
- the wall of Jerusalem was built by Nehemiah and Ezra
- Xerxes II becomes the King of Persia and is quickly succeeded by Darius II
- Indian Civilization in Mexico declines
- The Fourche Maline culture reaches its apex in North America
- The 30th dynasty becomes the final native house to rule Egypt

Very little is known about the life of Aristophanes outside of the information that may be gleaned from his eleven comedic plays still extant. An Athenian by birthright, Aristophanes enjoyed a very long life and he, like Socrates, lived during a time of dramatic political change and upheaval. It is important to keep in mind that Greek theatre was a competitive sport and, at this, Aristophanes can be seen as a great success. His first play (The Banqueters) won second prize when he was only 18 years old. Embedded within the chorus’ dialogue (usually understood to be the voice of the author) we can hear that Aristophanes himself was understandably concerned with the success of his plays. The course of Aristophanes’ lifetime ran parallel to The Peloponnesian War, two oligarchies and two democratic “restorations”. One might ask how it was that Aristophanes could have possibly lived such a long life utilizing his satiric wit in the Old Comedic tradition that involved public ridicule for many local Athenian peoples of prestige.

His life was not void of political danger, however, and most notably he was put on trial by Cleon for allegedly committing slander against the Polis who were the only people who were “off limits” in Greek Comedy. Aristophanes was cleared of all charges but made Cleon a comedic target for many years to come. Cleon’s political life, ironically, was as long as Aristophanes’ 40 year long career as a poet and playwright and neither of them seemed to suffer from their extended “war of words”. One argument that scholars have put forth is that Aristophanes’ long life can be attributed to his willingness to be censored by whatever ruling political party happened to be in power at the time. This theory may explain why only eleven of his supposed 40-60 plays are still extant today. It may also explain the typically hard line conservative voice that seems to emanate from his written works. We will never know whether these views were actually his own or merely a reflection of his audience.

The fact that Aristophanes is a transitional figure between the traditions of Old and New Comedy should not be forgotten by the reader. Old Comedy is more localized and distinctly Athenian whereas New Comedy has a broader perspective and is suggestive of an emergent and distinctly Greek worldview. I have found that these transitional authors are among the more interesting to read, mostly due to the fact that the writing is in the voice of the declining and ascendant traditions at the same time. Unfortunately, because we do not have access to the whole of Aristophanes’ works, we cannot know the degree of fluidity with which this transition was made. We do know that his last play (which is lost) was written in the tradition of New Comedy but we do not know if it was a success or even if it was any good. His sons continued their father’s legacy as playwrights in the tradition of New Comedy and achieved marked competitive success.


  1. I love this image of the Clouds. I publish a number of new translations of these, and find your blogs interesting. Ron.,

  2. Wow! What a publishing house! Link table here we come :)

    Thanks for the kind word!

  3. Really interesting! ^^