Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry

  Collins, Derek. 2004. Master of the Game: Competition and Performance in Greek Poetry. Hellenic Studies Series 7. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

3. Stichomythia and σκώμματα: Euripides’ Cyclops, Aristophanes’ Wealth, and Plato’s Euthydemus

One of the most interesting adaptations of stichomythia in satyr play and late Old Comedy is that its structure is deliberately made to incorporate ridicule and abuse. Something of the structural formalism of tragic stichomythia remains, but the main point is clearly for one member in the exchange to ridicule the other. The ridicule is enhanced because of the limitations imposed by the stichomythic form, which either places the respondent at the receiving end of the ridiculer’s questions, or allows the ridiculer to control the respondent’s meaning by subverting or suggestively insinuating beyond each reply. In each of the sequences to be examined below, the stichomythic capping, not unlike the ληκύθιον ἀπώλεσεν game in the Frogs, is intentionally played at the expense of the respondent although the effects achieved vary with the dramatic situation. Whether we are dealing with satyr play, late Old Comedy, or as we shall see, Platonic dialogue, in all cases the comic possibilities of the stichomythic form are now centrally on display.

The first sequence to be examined is from Euripides’ Cyclops, which on several grounds is reasonably dated toward the end of Euripides’ career. After the Cyclops has eaten Odysseus’ men, Odysseus gives him draughts of the Maron wine to debilitate him (409–24), except that now the Cyclops would like to leave his cave to share the wine with his brothers (445–46). Odysseus, in preparation for blinding the Cyclops, engages the Cyclops before the chorus of satyrs and Silenus in an exchange ultimately aimed at dissuading him from leaving his cave (521–31):

Κυ.      ὁ Βάκχιος δὲ τίς; θεὸς νομίζεται;
          Who is Bacchus? Is he worshipped as a god?

Οδ.    μέγιστος ἀνθρώποισιν ἐς τέρψιν βίου.
          The greatest pleasure in life for men.

Κυ.    ἐρυγγάνω γοῦν αὐτὸν ἡδέως ἐγώ.
          Then I belch him out with pleasure.

Οδ.    τοιόσδ’ ὁ δαίμων· οὐδένα βλάπτει βροτῶν.
          Such is this god. He harms no mortal.

Κυ.    θεὸς δ’ ἐν ἀσκῶι πῶς γέγηθ’ οἴκους ἔχων;
          How does a god rejoice in having his home in a wineskin?

Οδ.    ὅπου τιθῆι τις, ἐνθάδ’ ἐστὶν εὐπετής.
          Wherever you put him, there he is at ease.

Κυ.    οὐ τοὺς θεοὺς χρὴ σῶμ’ ἔχειν ἐν δέρμασιν.
          The gods ought not to clothe their bodies in animal skins.

Οδ.    τί δ’, εἴ σε τέρπει γ’; ἢ τὸ δέρμα σοι πικρόν;
          Why, if it pleases you at least? Do you dislike the skin?

Κυ.    μισῶ τὸν ἀσκόν· τὸ δὲ ποτὸν φιλῶ τόδε.
          I hate the wineskin, but I love this drink.

Οδ.    μένων νυν αὐτοῦ πῖνε κεὐθυμει, Κύκλωψ.
          Stay here then, drink and enjoy, Cyclops.

Κυ.    οὐ χρή μ’ ἀδελφοῖς τοῦδε προσδοῦναι ποτοῦ;
          Shouldn’t I share some of this drink with my brothers?

Because this is the key issue that Odysseus is aiming to control, the following repartee becomes more pointed and the responsion more strict (532–33):

Οδ.    ἔχων γὰρ αὐτὸς τιμιώτερος φανῆι.
          Keeping it yourself you will appear more honored.

Κυ.    διδοὺς δὲ τοῖς φίλοισι χρησιμώτερος.
          But by giving it I’ll appear more useful to my near and dear.

This reply seems to appeal to the Cyclops’ sense of irony. Why should fighting be of concern to him, given his size and his recent devouring of Odysseus men? But a different irony lurks in his own reply and alludes to the most famous Homeric joke of Οὖτις between Odysseus and the Cyclops (535):

Kυ.    μεθύω μέν, ἔμπας δ᾽ οὔτις ἂν ψαύσειέ μου.
          I may get drunk, but nevertheless nobody could touch me.

The point-counterpoint of ἠλίθιος ~ σοφός is nicely brought out in the word order. It may be that we are to take Odysseus’ reply as decisive, at least for the moment, because at this point the Cyclops addresses Silenus for a second opinion about whether to stay home. When given, Silenus’ answer will seal the Cyclops’ decision (539–40):

Κυ.    τί δρῶμεν, ὦ Σιληνέ; σοὶ μένειν δοκεῖ;
          What are we to do, Silenus? Do you think we should stay?

Σι.    δοκεῖ· τί γὰρ δεῖ συμποτῶν ἄλλων, Κύκλωψ;
          We should. What need is there of other symposiasts, Cyclops?

The capping of δοκεῖ ~ δοκεῖ between the Cyclops and Silenus again can be compared with close responsion in tragic and comic stichomythia; although Silenus is in collusion with Odysseus, here the repetition signals agreement rather than ironic distance. There is much more to this scene than need concern us here, but we can highlight several important points. Like many tragic stichomythiai, the exchange is unevenly balanced because the uneducated Cyclops is no match for the clever Odysseus. Thus we expect the lighthearted, aloof responses of Odysseus to the Cyclops’ questions about the wine, as we also expect that by the end of the exchange Odysseus will win. Yet the Cyclops is not entirely ineffective in his responses even though he admits to being drunk at 535. More significant for our purposes is that the talk of Maron wine leads directly to sympotic themes. Not only is the threat of fighting and λοίδορος ἔρις ‘abusive strife’ (534) suitable as a topic of sympotic conversation, as we shall explore in detail in Part II, the stichomythic framework itself of this discussion suggests sympotic strife. Competitive elements of tragedy, comedy, and the symposium merge in this scene.

After Odysseus manages to bore out the Cyclops’ eye, another stichomythic scene occurs between the Cyclops and the chorus of satyrs. It is a paratragic scene of anagnorisis that takes place in ἀντιλαβαί, which in tragedy commonly enough follow full-verse stichomythiai, with verse divisions at both the penthemimeral and hepthemimeral caesurae. [3] Here the ἀντιλαβή is fully exploited for its comic possibilities, with the chorus deliberately echoing the Cyclops in mockery (669–75):

Xο.     τί χρῆμ’ ἀυτεῖς,
          ὦ Κύκλωψ:
          Why are you shouting,

Xο.     αἰσχρός γε φαίνηι.
          You do look ugly.

Kυ.     ἀπωλόμην.

          I am ruined.

Kυ.     κἀπὶ τοῖσδέ γ’ ἄθλιος.
          And what’s more, wretched.

    Xο.    μεθύων κατέπεσες ἐς μέσους τοὺς ἄνθρακας;
              Did you fall into the midst of the coals while drunk?

Kυ.     Οὖτίς μ’ ἀπώλεσ’.
          Nobody destroyed me.

Kυ.     Οὖτίς με τυφλοῖ βλέφαρον.
          Nobody blinds my eye.

Kυ.     ✝ ὣς δὴ σὴ ✝.


Kυ.     σκώπτεις. ὁ δ᾽ Οὖτις
          ποῦ ’στιν;
          You’re mocking. Nobody,
          where is he?

Xο.     οὐκ ἄρ᾽ οὐδείς <σ’> ἠδίκει.
          So nobody then wronged

Σο.     οὐκ ἄρ’ εἶ τυφλός.
          So you are not blind.

Xo.     καὶ πῶς σ’ οὔτις ἂν θείη

          And how could nobody
          blind you?

Xo.     οὐδαμοῦ, Κύκλωψ.

          Nowhere, Cyclops,

This scene is reminiscent of a tragic anagnorisis, except that the Cyclops recognition is blocked at every turn by the satyr chorus’s deliberate misconstrual of his words. The Cyclops notes the mockery at 675 (σκώπτεις), yet it still continues until 676 (not above) when the Cyclops specifically clarifies himself by mentioning the ξένος ‘stranger’, namely Odysseus.

As we have seen, Aristophanes’ plays furnish us with many potential examples of comical strife exhibited through stichomythic capping, such as in the Frogs between Aeschylus and Euripides (see above) or in the Knights between Paphlagon and the Sausage-seller (esp. 284–98). But there are two stichomythic sequences in Wealth, his last play produced under his own name, that come close to the riddling that we observed in the Cyclops. What remains central is that the meaning of one speaker is controlled by the respondent through capping. The first example occurs between Chremylus and the old woman, who has shown up to complain that her gigolo is no longer interested in her since Wealth regained his sight. Early on, Chremylus is distrustful of the old woman’s claims and his snide responses have already suggested to her that he is mocking her (σκώπτεις, 973). Certainly he is, and at the same time Chremylus attacks the motives of both the old woman and the gigolo (1018–22):

Γρ.   καὶ τάς γε χεῖρας παγκάλας ἔχειν μ’ ἔφη.
          And he said that I had very lovely hands.

Χρ.   ὁπότε προτείνοιέν γε δραχμὰς εἴκοσιν.
          When they held out twenty drachmas, at least.

Γρ.    ὄζειν τε τῆς χρόας ἔφασκεν ἥδύ μου.
          And he said that my skin smelled sweet.

Χρ.   εἰ Θάσιον ἐνέχεις, εἰκότως γε νὴ Δία.
          If you were pouring Thasian wine, naturally, by Zeus.

Γρ.   τὸ βλέμμα θ’ ὡς ἔχοιμι μαλακὸν καὶ καλόν.
          And that I had soft and lovely eyes.

Χρ.   οὐ σκαιὸς ἦν ἄνθρωπος, ἀλλ’ ἠπίστατο
          γραὸς καπρώσης τἀφόδια κατεσθίειν.
          No fool was he; he knew how to eat up
          the provisions of a lecherous woman!

In each of Chremylus’ replies, he both doubts the sincerity of the old woman, whom he already distrusts, and her young man. By controlling the implications of her statements, Chremylus’ responses insinuate a deeper and more sinister intent on the part of both of them. A few lines later before the young man appears on the scene, the exchange between Chremylus and the old woman becomes more vicious. She asks Chremylus whether she is not entitled to any benefit from the young man at all, to which he replies (1031–37):

Here Chremylus continues to alter the meaning of the old woman, but in this sequence he deliberately echoes and puns on words in each of her statements. The pun with the perfect forms κατατέτηκα ‘I am melting away and κατασέσηπας ‘You are rotting away’ shows how carefully matched Chremylus’ responses are to those of the old woman. And of course the pun on the size of the ring (δακτύλιος) through which the old woman could be dragged completes the exchange, since following Chremylus’ retort the young man appears on the scene. Point for point the old woman is given no chance by Chremylus to be sincere, as her own words are cleverly undercut and her meanings are spun in unpredicted directions.

The scene that interests us involves a dialectical exchange between Socrates, Euthydemus, and Ctesippus over whether words, such as ἀδελφιδοῦς ‘nephew’ or πατήρ ‘father’, mean what they mean absolutely or whether their meanings are only true in some partial sense. The exchange proceeds by question and answer, reminiscent of stichomythia, but the deliberately subversive line of questioning by Ctesippus takes its cue directly from Old Comedy. In order to avoid the paradox of a “father” being so only at some times but not at others, Euthydemus asserts that Socrates’ father, Sophroniscus, must be a “father” to all (298c). Ctesippus then presses Euthydemus further (298c–d):

Plato need not have had a given passage of tragic or comic stichomythia in mind when he composed this scene in the Euthydemus. Rather, what draws our attention is that for Plato, dialectic and dialogue share similarities with comedic stichomythia as well as with other performance techniques, like those of rhapsodes. The similarities with rhapsodic performance are noticeable in Plato’s choice of verbs in the Euthydemus to describe how one speaker takes over from another. We find, for example, the frequent usage of ὑπολαμβάνω ‘take up/reply’ and ἐκδέχομαι ‘receive’, [10] forms that unmistakably reference rhapsodic exchange (see Part III). More strikingly, near the beginning of the dialogue after Socrates has grown tired of Euthydemus’ and Dionysodorus’ rhetorical tricks, which are confusing the youth Cleinias, Socrates offers to ‘improvise away’ (ἀπαυτοσχεδιάζω, 278d7) in their presence—upon which follows his masterful προτρεπτικὸς λόγος ‘hortatory speech’ illustrating the importance of wisdom as the proper aim of education for the youth (278e–282e). And finally I note that the setting of the conversation in the Euthydemus is the Lyceum (271a1), which is where Isocrates [11] reports that rhapsodes can be found performing Homer and Hesiod. All told, this evidence supports the view that Plato felt a kinship between dialectic, dialogue, and other competitive performance genres like rhapsodic exchange and stichomythia that involve live, extemporaneous speaking. Like dramatic stichomythia, Plato’s dialogue only represents extemporaneous conversation, a point to which I will return later. For Plato, rhetorical performance and oratorical debate are intimately connected to competitive poetic performance, although it will take us too far afield to venture into the debt that certain forms of classical rhetoric owe to poetic competition.


[ back ] 1. For more on sympotic themes in the Cyclops, see Rossi 1971.

[ back ] 2. Thus I disagree with Seaford 1984 ad 535, who thinks it “over-subtle” to see an allusion here to the Οὖτις joke. In the context of stichomythia we expect such subtleties.

[ back ] 3. With the exception of 674, which has textual problems; see Seaford 1984 ad 674.

[ back ] 4. The ancient attributions of τηλία are confused. I accept, with LSJ s.v., the scholiast’s (ad 1037) gloss κοσκίνου κύκλος ‘ring of a sieve’.

[ back ] 5. E.g. between Cario and Hermes 1125–35, where Hermes’ self-interested motives are exposed by Cario’s mocking responses; cf. also 1147–59, where the stichomythia shifts to ἀντιλαβαί.

[ back ] 6. On Plato and stichomythia generally, see Hancock 1917:50–60. On the Euthydemus specifically, see Erler 1986:81–87.

[ back ] 7. Nagy 2000b, esp. 58–9 on Plato’s Critias 106b–c. Cf. the critique of Nagy by Pelliccia 2003.

[ back ] 8. Forms of συνάπτω ‘join together’ are often used in the context of conversation, on which see LSJ s.v. I. But despite its proverbial usage here, we might more immediately compare it with προσάπτω ‘to attach’ in the context of the ληκύθιον ἀπώλεσεν game in Aristophanes’ Frogs (1216, 1231).

[ back ] 9. Hancock 1917:56.

[ back ] 10. ὑπολαβών: 283d4, 287b2, 289c9, 294b11, 297b2, 298b1, 298e6; ἐκδεξάμενος: 276c2, and especially 277b4 where Dionysodorus is described as “receiving the speech like a ball (σφαῖρα) [from Euthydemus] he aimed it back at the youth.”

[ back ] 11. Panathenaicus 18 and 33.