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.

8. Aristophanes’ Wasps 1222–49

We are fortunate to possess in Aristophanes’ Wasps 1222–49 one of the earliest depictions of how the skolion game was actually played. [1] It involves examples 3) and 4) (given earlier) as definitions of skolion—known lyric passages or improvised poetry recited to cap a previous verse or verses. We might note at the outset that the game’s very representation within a play performed at the Lenaia in 422 should leave no doubt about its widely understood status within and without late fifth-century, élite symposia. [2] Nor should we omit that, although Aristophanes intends to parody proper behavior at symposia later in the play, a didactic function may nevertheless underlie its comedic presentation at 1222–49. Within the play, the context is that Bdelycleon is teaching his father Philocleon how to cap skolia in preparation for a dinner party. This game is one of several interests he hopes his father will develop as a substitute for his irrepressible attraction to the law-court. What has seldom been noticed, however, is that this is a ruse: Philocleon only appears not to know how to cap, while in fact we are told elsewhere that he is actually a lover of song (φιλῳδός, 270) and especially likes the lyrics of the tragedian Phrynichus (220, 268–9; cf. 1490). [3] The representation of the game here has attracted no small amount of scholarly attention, [4] although for the most part what have been elucidated are the historical allusions of the snippets of song that Bdelycleon and Philocleon recite. My aim here is not to repeat this line of inquiry, but rather to focus on the progression in the game and the points of perceived success or failure as they relate to the concealment or revelation of politically dangerous opinions.

In any case, what Bdelycleon sings of Harmodius begins with the line, οὐδεὶς πώποτ᾽ ἀνὴρ ἔγεντ᾽ ᾽Αθήναις “There was never a man in Athens—,” which is meant to eulogize the famous tyrannicide, and this agrees with the well-known tradition at Athens after Hipparchus’ assassination in 514 of singing patriotic skolia about Harmodius and Aristogeiton. [10] His meter, as shown above, is the phalaecian or hendecasyllable – – – – (familiar from Catullus). Philocleon’s retort, οὐχ οὕτω γε πανοῦργος κλέπτης “At least not so wicked a thief,” as reported in all three of the oldest medieval manuscripts that contain these lines (RVΓ), [11] is – – – – – – –, which because of a perceived metrical discrepancy has caused consternation among critics and motivated the addition of οὐδὲ by Bergk, Hirschig, and others after πανοῦργος. This addition has now achieved currency and is not even bracketed, for example, in MacDowell’s (1971) text. However, there are several reasons to believe that the transmitted text is correct. First, as already noted, although Aristophanes appears to set up this scene as if Philocleon were learning how to cap for the first time, he is actually quite accomplished at singing. He therefore only appears to get the sentiment and meter “wrong” (discussed below), and his acknowledged skill at lyric suggests that this effectively serves his (and Aristophanes’) own purposes. Interestingly, Philocleon’s “wrong” meter in the context of this game is comparable to meters that we find in the Attic skolia preserved by Athenaeus (694c–695f = 884–908 PMG). Consider, as an example, the verses in the following skolion (902 PMG):

σύν μοι πῖνε συνήβα συνέρα συστεφανηφόρει,
      – – – – – – | –
σύν μοι μαινομένωι μαίνεο, σὺν σώφρονι σωφρόνει.
      – – – – – – | –

Drink with me, be youthful with me, love with me, wreathe yourself with me,
Be mad with me when I am maddened, be temperate when I am temperate.

These lines are adapted (improvised?) from Alcaeus and need to be examined with some care. In the reconstruction of Lobel and Page, the related lines from Alcaeus (fr. 141), which were probably addressed to Pittacus, tyrant of Mytilene, read:

ὤ]νηρ οὖτ[ος ὀ μαιόμενος τὸ μέγα κρέτος
    ὀν]τρέψ[ει τάχα τὰν πόλιν· ἀ δ᾽ ἔχεται ῤόπας

This man, seeking great power,
    shall soon upset the city; it is poised for crisis.

Moreover, we expect that these lines should especially needle “Cleon” (Bdelycleon) because their content suggests a warning against tyranny and its disruption to the city. They are aimed invidiously at the fact that Cleon enjoyed a heightened reputation in Athens after the victory at Pylos in 425. Yet it is suggestive that “Cleon” gives no such negative reaction; therefore, contrary to scholarly opinion he must find these verses less objectionable than the improvised line at 1227. The verses themselves offer a complex reading. Instead of hinting directly that Cleon should be guarded against, they might be taken in a positive “democratic” sense, where “democratic” is defined as anti-tyrannical (Alcaeus attacking Pittacus). In this case, “Cleon’s” response entirely determines the meaning. [24] If he reacts negatively, then his reaction implies that he grants validity to the view that he himself is tyrannically inclined because he takes this particular meaning of the verses to be directed at him, and he resents the implication; but if he reacts positively, or what amounts to the same thing, not at all (as he does), no such imputation to his character can be made. He may thus safely appropriate the positive meaning of the verses for himself or leave it for his audience to do so. The detection of hidden motives that can underlie the skolion game has to be seen to work both ways. One opponent reveals his true sentiments through the content of the verses he caps, while another might reveal his in a reaction, or lack thereof, to those verses. Once again, though, Philocleon shows himself to be anything but a novice at the game. And his response to “Cleon᾽s” threats (1231) would be to put forth just enough verses for “Cleon” to incriminate himself.

Both of these lines, with slight differences, are preserved for us by Athenaeus (695c = 897 PMG) in his collection of Attic skolia, though it may be that they originated in Thessaly or Pherae, the kingdom of Admetus. [26] The sentiment is proverbial and the meter, the greater asclepiad, is common from other attested Attic skolia (903–5 PMG). The Admetus song or story (᾽Αδμήτου μέλος or λόγος as it was known) seems to have been popular enough in Old Comedy, despite Admetus’ relatively low mythological profile in Athens, but we have no knowledge of its content. [27] According to the same scholiast both Aristophanes (Storks, fr. 430) and Cratinus (fr. 236) made further use of it. But it is of course Philocleon’s reply to this skolion that is significant. First, in response to “Cleon’s” question, Philocleon says that he will respond lyrically (ᾠδικῶς, 1239), which should remind us once again that his response will be crafted and deft. He switches to a lyric meter, common from tragedy (– – – –), [28] and replies:

οὐκ ἔστιν ἀλωπεκίζειν,
    οὐδ᾽ ἀμφοτέροισι γίγνεσθαι φίλον.

One cannot play the fox,
    or be a friend to both sides.

This skolion is not known from elsewhere. It could be from a lost lyric or, as I rather prefer to think, another improvisation on the part of Philocleon. [
29] In any case, I follow MacDowell’s (who follows the scholiast’s, ad 1241) analysis of the intent of this skolion because I think it is right on the mark. [30] Theorus was a well-known henchman of Cleon, a κόλαξ ‘fawner’ of his and a supporter of the errant jurors (418–19) in the Wasps. [31] Elsewhere Aristophanes calls Theorus an imposter (ἀλαζών, Acharnians 135) and a perjuror (ἐπίορκος, Clouds 400). This accusation leaves no doubt that Philocleon’s barbed reply is meant to draw out the essence of Theorus’ character. Both Theorus and “Cleon” (Bdelycleon) seem at a loss for a response, again, as I think, because the lack of a response leaves it to others to judge the aptness of the attack.

Finally “Cleon” says that another of the imaginary symposiasts, Aeschines, “son of boaster,” [32] who is nevertheless a skilled (σοφός) and educated (μουσικός) man, shall present the following skolion (1245–47):

This skolion was also popular in Old Comedy (Lysistrata 1237, fr. 261, Cratinus fr. 236), and its meter is dochmiac (“drag-in” dochmiac – [
34] ), typically impassioned. The scholiast here (ad 1245) says that Cleitagora was a Thessalian poet, while in the Danaids Aristophanes himself referred to her as Spartan (fr. 261 = scholia Lysistrata ad 1237, where she is associated with the skolia of Pindar), but the reference remains uncertain. The sense of the skolion is unclear, and suspicion has especially been raised about the apparently positive valuation given to βίαν. [35] But let us not be so hasty to emend; there are several reasons to believe that the transmitted text is correct. For one, χρήματα and βίη are fitting topics for sympotic poetry, [36] as for example Theognis (345–46, 677) attests, although for him they are given a negative valuation because they refer to the men who stripped him of his goods and usurped authority in the city. However, the patriotic “democratic’’ (i.e. anti-tyrannical) skolia that survive celebrating Harmodius and Aristogeiton make explicit mention of the sword (ξίφος) by which Hipparchus was slain (893.1, 895.1 PMG), as they do of killing him (τὸν τύραννον κτανέτην “they both killed the tyrant,’’ 893.3, 896.3; ἄνδρα τύραννον Ἵππαρχον ἐκαινέτην “they both killed a tyrant, Hipparchus,” 895.4). Thus an anti-tyrannical reference to force is clearly positively valued in these skolia. In addition, the same scholiast who refers to Cleitagora as Thessalian also remarks that the Thessalians supported the Athenians in the war against tyrants. [37] This must surely be a reference to the time after the murder of Hipparchus when the Thessalians were called in by the Peisistratids (they had a treaty) to fight against an invading Spartan army under the command of Anchimolius. [38] All of this evidence suggests that the Cleitagora skolion as we have it at 1245–47 is anti-tyrannical in sentiment, and therefore the “force” in question stands in no need of emendation.

In reply to Aeschines’ skolion, Philocleon once again switches the meter and rounds out the entire episode with a final remark (1248):

πολλὰ δὴ διεκόμισας σὴ κἀγώ.
– –
You and I have conveyed many things.

Before delving into the substance of this reply, first we must deal with the textual issues. Many critics have found a problem in διεκόμισας (so R and Aldine, but V has διεκόμισα). Burges, based on his reading of the scholia (ad 1246) on this line, changed it to διεκόμπασας, because the scholia report the following: τοῦτο, φησὶν. ἐπάξω πρὸς τὸ σκολιὸν Αἰσχίνου, ἐπεὶ κομπαστὴς ἦν “This, he says, I will set against the skolion of Aeschines, since he was a boaster.” Burges’ emendation to διεκόμπασας seems ingenious both because it offers agreement with the sense of the scholion on this line, and because it changes the meter of the line to a phalaecian, which we can correlate with other known skolia (discussed earlier). Yet, although the emendation is accepted by MacDowell and other experts, [
39] it is unnecessary for several reasons. For one, the verb διακομπάζω is attested nowhere else in Greek literature. Second, the scholiast plausibly explains the sense of πολλὰ δὴ διεκόμισας [40] as a metaphor for boasting, which accords with Aeschines’ character in general in the play and may specifically derive from his singing of the Cleitagora skolion. I see no contradiction here. The meter of the line as attested (– | – –) is not fully analyzable, but the rhythm seems trochaic and can be matched (up to | above) to the first two metra of the trochaic tetrameter, characteristic of the iambographers. Consider this line from Ananius (5.1 West = Athenaeus 282a–b):

ἔαρι μὲν χρόμιος ἄριστος, ἀνθίης δὲ χειμῶνι
| – – – –
The chromius sea-fish is best in spring, the anthias sea-fish in winter.

In this verse the first two metra are identical to those in 1248.

My point, then, is that Philocleon’s attested response does make a good deal of sense as it stands. His retort, whether improvised or drawn from some unknown source, again shows off his ability to manipulate meter by resorting to a modified form of the scurrilous ἴαμβος. At the same time, what he says appears to express concord between what he and Theorus have been doing in the game. I have been arguing all along that Philocleon is more adept at the skolion game than his son realizes, and this would explain Bdelycleon’s final estimation of his father᾽s ability when he says (1249), “you understand this tolerably well (ἐπιεικῶς).” His response has somewhat perplexed commentators, such as MacDowell (1971 ad 1249) who thinks that because Philocleon has not changed his approach to skolia since 1227–28, the line is “unconvincing.” But indeed Philocleon has changed one thing significantly: his final retort is not so manifestly hostile and aimed at the hypocritical self-representation of his interlocutors. By incorporating himself into the sentiment (“you and I have conveyed [viz. boasted] many things”), he approaches what his son Bdelycleon thinks is the appropriate way to play the game. Bdelycleon, after all, was the one who warned his father against reciting lines that would openly antagonize his fellow players (1228–30). Philocleon meets him halfway by expressing a harmonizing sentiment, yet in a rhythm that was notoriously and unmistakably derisive.

To summarize my interpretation of this episode in the Wasps, the evidence we have seen for the skolion game suggests that it was an arena in which men aggressively and subtly tested one another. Contrary to what we might think always constituted a spirit of conviviality, wine drinking for Greek symposiasts could be lighthearted on the surface while underneath it was an acknowledged doorway into the hidden intentions, thoughts, and ambitions of their fiercely rival group members. The custom of skolion enjoined all guests to bandy verses back and forth, competitively measuring their knowledge of poetry, meter, melody, and education against one another—but it was also a matter of egging each other on to reveal something useful that could yield an advantage. Lines of lyric or a skolion were no longer merely that in the symposium: instead they could become vehicles of attack, as well as bulwarks of defense, through implication, innuendo, and insinuating reproach. Aristophanes shows us several modalities of the game through Philocleon, each of which is targeted at revealing (largely for the audience) the concealed character of his interlocutors: Cleon the demagogue, Theorus the sycophant, Aeschines the braggart. One by one Philocleon exposes their pretensions through verses, outperforming them and leaving it for the audience to judge, as I think, his expertise. This will be confirmed when Philocleon attends the real symposium later that evening, when his insults at one point actually draw applause from the other guests (οἱ δ᾽ ἀνεκρότησαν, 1314). Matters will get out of hand, Philocleon will drink too much, physically abuse the guests, and even abduct the flute-girl, but this should not be held to detract from what is clearly a superior performance of the skolion game at 1222–49.


[ back ] 1. An earlier one, which does not depict capping, was perhaps included in the first version of Clouds 1353–76.

[ back ] 2. For the view that the sympotic activities in Old Comedy were understood and at least partially experienced by non-élite audiences, see Fisher 2000:358–60, 367 and Bowie 1997. Cf. Bowie 1995:120–21 on the “modest level of [wine] connoisseurship” of Attic audiences presupposed by Old Comedy.

[ back ] 3. Cf. Bowie 1997:3 and n25, who similarly suggests that Philocleon’s ignorance of sympotic behavior is “more apparent than real.”

[ back ] 4. Beginning with Reitzenstein 1893:24–29, Vetta 1983:119–31.

[ back ] 5. οὐδὲ was added after this word by Bergk, Hirschig, and others, presumably on metrical grounds. My reasons for deleting it will become clear in the discussion that follows. With οὐδὲ the same meter is obtained as in the preceding line: – – – – – (phalaecian).

[ back ] 6. Aristotle, Athenian Constitution 13.4, Plutarch, Solon 29.1; cf. Herodotus 1.59.3 (ὑπεράκριοι ‘those beyond the heights’ = oἱ Διάκριοι), with MacDowell 1971 ad 1223.

[ back ] 7. Bowra 1961:378.

[ back ] 8. MacDowell 1971 ad 1223 remarks that Bowra’s suggestion is “only speculative.” Van der Valk 1974 more thoroughly criticized Bowra’s tendency to overhistoricize the Attic skolia.

[ back ] 9. Lambin 1992:263, along similar lines, argues that the Diacrians’ taste for this kind of song is sufficient to explain the reference.

[ back ] 10. There is no reason to assume, however, with Van der Valk 1974:8 and many others that this line begins a known skolion that does not survive elsewhere. It could equally well be an improvised line pertaining to the theme of Harmodius. In the same way, the term ῾Αρμοδίου μέλος and similar expressions (e.g. at fr. 430, Acharnians 980, 1093, etc.) need to be interpreted broadly as designating a small series of songs, as in the Attic skolia (PMG 893–96), rather than one in particular. So MacDowell 1971 ad 1225.

[ back ] 11. The exception is P.Oxy 1374, dated to the fifth century CE, which does not contain them. See MacDowell 1971:30–31.

[ back ] 12. West 1982:59–60.

[ back ] 13. E.g. MacDowell 1971 ad 1226.

[ back ] 14. Aristophanes similarly uses lines of four dactyls at the end of the Ecclesiazousae (1169–76) mockingly to list the ingredients of a dinner.

[ back ] 15. MacDowell 1971 ad 1226 righdy follows the scholiast (ad 1227) on this point.

[ back ] 16. Reitzenstein 1893:26–27, Aly 1927:562. Lipsius 1905–12.III:648 also mentions the law, but not in the context of Wasps.

[ back ] 17. The law is reported in Hypereides, Against Philippides 3: ἔπειθ᾽ ὅτι ἐν νόμῳ γράψας ὁ δῆμος ἀπεῖπεν μήτε λέγειν ἐξεῖναι [μηδενὶ] κακῶς ῾Αρμόδιον καὶ ᾽Αρ[ισ]τογείτονο, μήτ᾽ ᾆσα[ι ἐ]πὶ τὰ κακίονα “Next because the people wrote a prohibition in a law forbidding anyone either to slander Harmodius and Aristogeiton or to sing [them] to the worse (i.e. sing rude songs about them).” Translation follows Whitehead 2000:36 with his notes ad loc. This law is dated to 336/335, on which see Lambin 1979:549n32.

[ back ] 18. In the fifth century the payment for conviction of slander was 500 drachmas, increased from the five drachmas that Solon had imposed, of which three were to go to the victim and two to the state. See MacDowell 1978:128.

[ back ] 19. Some manuscripts, excluding R, read μαινόμενος ‘maddened’ here, which is what the scholiast ad 1234 and 1235 had before him. This adds a nice touch to the description of Cleon, but it distorts the grammar: thus Dübner 1842:460 ad 1234 writes, “… grammatici μαίεσθαι interpretari solent.”

[ back ] 20. A possibility considered by MacDowell 1971 ad 1232–35.

[ back ] 21. So thought Didymus, scholia ad Thesmophoriazusae 162.

[ back ] 22. MacDowell 1971 ad 1232–35 thinks this modification may be a mistake by Aristophanes.

[ back ] 23. The Attic skolia (on which see below) also attest mixed dialect forms, e.g. PMG 904.

[ back ] 24. Again Kochman 1983:333, and Labov 1972:150.

[ back ] 25. Aly 1927:562 notes the frequent anonymity of skolia.

[ back ] 26. Van der Valk 1974:7.

[ back ] 27. Despite Vetta’s 1983:125–27, following Bowra’s 1961:376–79, historicizing attempts to connect it with the Peisistratids. Bowra was already refuted by MacDowell 1971 ad 1238–39 and Van der Valk 1974:7n28 on the basis of the attribution of the skolion to Praxilla.

[ back ] 28. MacDowell 1971 ad 1240 gives parallels.

[ back ] 29. I agree with Vetta 1983:129 on this.

[ back ] 30. MacDowell 1971 ad 42 and 1240.

[ back ] 31. Cf. the pun on κόλαξ/κόραξ to describe Theorus at Wasps 43–5.

[ back ] 32. Αἰσχίνης ὁ Σέλλου, 1243. For the pun, see MacDowell 1971 ad 325 and 459.

[ back ] 33. Many editors accept the emendation to βίον by Tyrrwhitt, against all the manuscripts. Ι prefer to judge the sense of the passage as transmitted before emending it.

[ back ] 34. West 1982:109.

[ back ] 35. MacDowell 1971 ad 1245–7: “This [Tyrwhitt’s emendation to βίον] would certainly be a more suitable object for boasting (1248) than ‘force’.” This opinion is yet more fragile because it depends on another emendation in 1248: διεκόμπασας (Burges) for the manuscripts’ διεκόμισας (R, Aldine) and διεκόμισα (V), to be discussed below.

[ back ] 36. The praise of wealth, of course, is a sine qua non of sympotic poetry.

[ back ] 37. Scholia ad 1245: ᾽Αθηναίοις δὲ Θετταλοὶ συνεμάχησαν ἐν τῷ πρὸς τοὺς τυράννους πολέμῳ “The Thessalians were allied with the Athenians in the war against the tyrants.”

[ back ] 38. Herodotus 5.63.

[ back ] 39. E.g. Parker 1997:248. MacDowell 1971:293 ad 1248 undercuts his own attempt to account for the emendation with a circular argument: “One might add διεκόμισας would not fit the metre; however, that is doubtful, because we have no evidence except the line itself to show what the metre was supposed to be.”

[ back ] 40. Other manuscripts, except R, read πολλὰ δὲ διεκόμισας.