A prosperous fool is a grievous burden. — Aeschylus


448–388 BC
Civilization: Greek — Athens
   Field of Renown:  literature — Playwright
Era:  Golden Age

Aristophanes was the great comic dramatist and poet of Athens. His birth-year is uncertain. He is known to have been about the same age as Eupolis, and is said to have been "almost a boy" when his first comedy (The Banqueters)  was brought out in 427 B.C. His father Philippus was a landowner in Aegina. His three sons Philippus, Araros and Nicostratus, were all comic poets.

Although tragedy and comedy had their common origin in the festivals of Dionysus, the regular establishment of tragedy at Athens preceded by half a century that of comedy. The Old Comedy may be said to have lasted about eighty years (470-390 B.C.), and to have flourished about fifty-six (460-404 B.C.). Of the forty poets who are named as having illustrated it, the chief were Cratinus, Eupolis and Aristophanes.

Aristophanes is for us the representative of the Old Comedy. But his genius, while it includes, also transcends the genius of the Old Comedy. He can denounce the frauds of a Cleon, he can vindicate the duty of Athens to herself and to her allies, with a stinging scorn and a force of patriotic indignation which makes the poet almost forgotten in the citizen. He can banter Euripides with an ingenuity of light mockery which makes it seem for the time as if the leading Aristophanic trait was the art of seeing all things from their prosaic side. Yet it is neither in the denunciation nor in the mockery that he is most individual. His truest and highest faculty is revealed by those wonderful bits of lyric writing in which he soars above everything that can move laughter or tears, and makes the clear air thrill with the notes of a song as free, as musical and as wild as that of the nightingale invoked by his own chorus in the Birds. The speech of Dikaios Logos in the Clouds, the praises of country life in the Peace, the serenade in the Ecclesiazusae, the songs of the Spartan and Athenian maidens in the Lysistrata, above all, perhaps, the chorus in the Frogs, the beautiful chant of the Initiated,—these passages, and such as these, are the true glories of Aristophanes. They are the strains, not of an artist, but of one who warbles for pure gladness of heart in some place made bright by the presence of a god. Nothing else in Greek poetry has quite this wild sweetness of the woods. Of modern poets Shakespeare alone, perhaps, has it in combination with a like richness and fertility of fancy.

Fifty-four comedies were ascribed to Aristophanes. Forty-three of these are allowed as genuine, and eleven only are extant. These eleven form a running commentary on the outer and the inner life of Athens during thirty-six years. They may be ranged under three periods. The first, extending to 420 B.C., includes those plays in which Aristophanes uses an absolutely unrestrained freedom of political satire. The second ends with the year 405. Its productions are distinguished from those of the earlier time by a certain degree of reticence and caution. The third period, down to 388 B.C., comprises two plays in which the transition to the character of the Middle Comedy is well marked by general self-restraint.

Plays of Aristophanes

425 B.C. The Acharnians Since the defeat in Boeotia the peace party at Athens had gained ground, and in this play Aristophanes seeks to strengthen their hands. Dicaeopolis, an honest countryman, is determined to make peace with Sparta on his own account, not deterred by the angry men of Acharnae, who crave vengeance for the devastation of their vineyards. He sends to Sparta for samples of peace; and he is so much pleased with the flavour of the Thirty Years' sample that he at once concludes a treaty for himself and his family. All the blessings of life descend on him; while Lamachus, the leader of the war party, is smarting from cold, snow and wounds.
424 B.C. The Knights Three years before, in his Babylonians, Aristophanes had assailed Cleon as the typical demagogue. In this play he continues the attack. The Demos, or State, is represented by an old man who has put himself and his household into the hands of a rascally Paphlagonian steward. Nicias and Demosthenes, slaves of Demos, contrive that the Paphlagonian shall be supplanted in their master's favour by a sausage-seller. No sooner has Demos been thus rescued than his youthfulness and his good sense return together.
423 B.C. The Clouds This play would be correctly described as an attack on the new spirit of intellectual inquiry and culture rather than on a school or class. Two classes of thinkers or teachers are, however, specially satirized under the general name of "Sophist". 1. The Physical Philosophers—indicated by allusions to the doctrines of Anaxagoras, Heraclitus and Diogenes of Apollonia. 2. The professed teachers of rhetoric, belles lettres, &c., such as Protagoras and Prodicus. Socrates is taken as the type of the entire tendency. A youth named Pheidippides—obviously meant for Alcibiades—is sent by his father to Socrates to be cured of his dissolute propensities. Under the discipline of Socrates the youth becomes accomplished in dishonesty and impiety. The conclusion of the play shows the indignant father preparing to burn up the philosopher and his hall of contemplation.
422 B.C. The Wasps This comedy, which suggested Les Plaideurs to Racine, is a satire on the Athenian love of litigation. The strength of demagogy, while it lay chiefly in the ecclesia, lay partly also in the paid dicasteries. From this point of view the Wasps may be regarded as supplementing the Knights. Philocleon (admirer of Cleon), an old man, has a passion for lawsuits—a passion which his son, Bdelycleon (detester of Cleon) fails to check, until he hits upon the device of turning the house into a law-court, and paying his father for absence from the public suits. The house-dog steals a Sicilian cheese; the old man is enabled to gratify his taste by trying the case, and, by an oversight, acquits the defendant. In the second half of the play a change comes over the dream of Philocleon; from litigation he turns to literature and music, and is congratulated by the chorus on his happy conversion.
421 B.C. The Peace In its advocacy of peace with Sparta, this play, acted at the Great Dionysia shortly before the conclusion of the treaty, continues the purpose of the Acharnians. Trygaeus, a distressed Athenian, soars to the sky on a beetle's back. There he finds the gods engaged in pounding the Greek states in a mortar. In order to stop this, he frees the goddess Peace from a well in which she is imprisoned. The pestle and mortar are laid aside by the gods, and Trygaeus marries one of the handmaids of Peace.
414 B.C. The Birds Peisthetaerus, an enterprising Athenian, and his friend Euelpides persuade the birds to build a city—"Cloud-Cuckoo-borough"—in mid-air, so as to cut off the gods from men. The plan succeeds; the gods send envoys to treat with the birds; and Peisthetaerus marries Basileia, daughter of Zeus. Some have found in the Birds a complete historical allegory of the Sicilian expedition; others, a general satire on the prevalence at Athens of headstrong caprice over law and order; others, merely an aspiration towards a new and purified Athens—a dream to which the poet had turned from his hope for a revival of the Athens of the past. In another view, the piece is mainly a protest against the religious fanaticism which the incident of the Hermae had called forth.
411 B.C. The Lysistrata This play was brought out during the earlier stages of those intrigues which led to the revolution of the Four Hundred. It appeared shortly before Peisander had arrived in Athens from the camp at Samos for the purpose of organizing the oligarchic policy. The Lysistrata expresses the popular desire for peace at any cost. As the men can do nothing, the women take the question into their own hands, occupy the citadel, and bring the citizens to surrender.
411 B.C. The Thesmophoriazusae "The Priestesses of Demeter" came out three months later than the Lysistrata, during the reign of terror established by the oligarchic conspirators, but before their blow had been struck. The political meaning of the play lies in the absence of political allusion. Fear silences even comedy. Only women and Euripides are satirized. Euripides is accused and condemned at the female festival of the Thesmophoria.
405 B.C. The Frogs This piece was brought out just when Athens had made her last effort in the Peloponnesian War, eight months before the battle of Aegospotami, and about fifteen months before the taking of Athens by Lysander. It may be considered as an attempt to distract men's minds from public affairs. It is a literary criticism. Aeschylus and Euripides were both lately dead. Athens is beggared of poets; and Dionysus, dressed as Hercules, goes down to Hades to bring back a poet. Aeschylus and Euripides contend in the underworld for the throne of tragedy; and the victory is at last awarded to Aeschylus.
393 B.C. The Ecclesiazusae In "Women in Parliament" The women, disguised as men, steal into the ecclesia, and succeed in decreeing a new constitution. At this time the demagogue Agyrrhius led the assembly; and the play is, in fact, a satire on the general demoralization of public life.
388 B.C. The Plutus (Wealth) The first edition of the play had appeared in 408 B.C., being a symbolical representation of the fact that the victories won by Alcibiades in the Hellespont had brought back the god of wealth to the treasure chamber of the Parthenon. In its extant form the Plutus is simply a moral allegory. Chremylus, a worthy but poor man, falls in with a blind and aged wanderer, who proves to be the god of wealth. Asclepius restores eyesight to Plutus; whereupon all the just are made rich and all the unjust are reduced to poverty.

—Excerpted from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Book Links
Stories from the Greek Comedians  by  Alfred J. Church

Other Resources

Story Links
Book Links
Accusation of Socrates  in  The Story of the Greeks  by  H. A. Guerber
Great Men of Athens  in  The Story of Greece  by  Mary Macgregor
Age of Pericles  in  The Story of the Greek People  by  Eva March Tappan

Image Links

Aristophanes: From a bust found near Tusculum.
 in Pictures from Greek Life and Story

 in Famous Men of Greece

Comedians with Masks, Gerome
 in Famous Men of Greece

The Theatre of Bacchus, Athens
 in Historical Tales: Greek

Short Biography
Socrates First moral philosopher, immortalized by Plato.
Euripides Third of the great Greek Tragedians. Wrote Alcestis, Medea, Orestes, Electra and many others.
Cleon War mongering politician, opposed Sparta's peace proposals.
Plato Writer of moral philosophy. Well known for 'Dialogues'. Student of Socrates.